Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved. I recommend that you see Iron Man 3 before seeing this movie. There’s a major cameo, more of a supporting role really, that the audience got audibly excited upon reveal. It was lost on me due to my incomplete Marvel viewing history. But now that the Avengers: Endgame wrapped the latest creative phase within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s a need for new heroes, so here we go.

This is the first Marvel Asian superhero, and a wonderful casting opportunity for Asian actors. We’re starting to see lots of crossover among fan favorites like Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and Henry Golding and were certain Golding was in this film, but apparently we are suffering from movie trailer confusion. I was convinced that Benedict Wong from Dr. Strange was among the cast members in Shang-Chi but it was actually Alfred K. Chow. Can you see how I got confused? That’s Wong on the right.  Speaking of Dr. Strange, I’m not a fan of “superheroes” who spend a lifetime mastering mystical arts. The spinning circle of sparks from Strange is used heavily here. It has been argued that Tony Stark is not a legitimate superhero, but he’s so super-intelligent, witty and able to create ad hoc enhancements to his Iron Man suit that I let it slide. 

 

This is a dysfunctional family get together, if you can call ninja attacks to steal family jewels an invitation to Daddy’s house. Daddy is Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung,) who happens to be one thousand years old, a brutal Warlord tamed by his love for Xialing, who is played by Meng‘er Zhang. They leave their combative ways behind to raise Shaun (Simu Liu) and Li (Fala Chen), but following Xialing’s death, both kids undergo assassin training to do Daddy’s bidding. Many years later they have gone their separate ways, but reunite to battle dragons and prevent soul-sucking demons from empowering a world-ending “Dweller in Darkness.”

 

I’m not giving much away here. The legends are so complicated that the on-screen action has to stop while things are explained, allegedly for the characters, but mostly for the audience. I guess this is preferable to an eight-hour film that follows the writing adage, “show, don’t tell,” but a more sophisticated script should be able to accomplish this without disrupting the story.

 

I’m also not a fan of dragons, especially the ones that let you ride them. I know, I know…Pandora, Harry Potter, Pete, I’m in the minority here. So let’s talk about Awkwafina instead. She’s great for comic relief, but she crosses the line in Shang-Chi as a suddenly brilliant archer on the battlefield.

 

I’m being way too negative about this movie. The opening martial arts battle on board an articulated bus would be great even if not running without brakes through the streets and hills of San Francisco. Other fights are amazingly choreographed scenes of unarmed weaponry-based Kung Fu. Simu Liu trains extensively in martial arts and stunt work, and it shows.

 

 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) runs 2 hours, 12 minutes and is rated PG-13.



Candyman

The multi-talented Jordan Peele is back with another great horror film, a sequel to the 1992 film of the same name. Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project is the setting for both films, though the area has gentrified following the tear down of the failed low-income housing experiment in 2011. Now we find loft-dwelling affluent residents who are unaware of the legend that grew out of racist violence in the past.

Those of us who grew up in Chicago will appreciate the locations used in Candyman. And in the 1970s,  if you ever wandered the wrong direction from Butch McGuire’s tavern, you quickly found you had left one of the nicest areas in the city and arrived in one of the worst.

 

Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an emerging artist living with his socially savvy and successful girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Anthony’s quest for a new artistic direction takes him down a rabbit hole of local legend, where he inadvertently summons forth a mirror-dwelling monster and, in a conversation with his mother, discovers the truth about his own past. Of note is that Vanessa Williams plays Anne-Marie McCoy in both films.

 

Jordan Peele has mastered the horror/suspense genre, breaking out of his predominantly TV niche, as actor, director and writer, with his award winning Get Out in 2017, and the much anticipated Us in 2019. Candymanemploys the same dark cinematography that feels throughout like something is about to happen. The musical score is intense, but not disruptive. Throw in the effective plot device in Candyman – will they say his name five times? – and the edge of your seat finds you to be a frequent visitor.

 

Peele attempted a reboot of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone series that I found somewhat disappointing. Serling’s shoes are impossible to fill, especially as the narrator. The new stories lacked the impact of the originals back when audiences were more easily shocked and surprised. But Peele’s film work is where he’s hit his stride.

 

Paper shadow puppets are used in Candyman to convey some back story elements, including the history of grad student Helen Lyle, whose role in the first film bridges into the subsequent tale. This is a graphic and bloody ninety minutes worth seeing if you can’t get enough of that. I’m feeling the need for a more uplifting movie, though the Halloween season is directly ahead, and it appears Michael Myers is back with Jamie Lee Curtis once again.

 

Candyman (2021) runs 1 hour, 31 minutes and is rated R.

The Protege

My first question when we saw this movie was, “Is Samuel L. Jackson in every movie coming out of Hollywood?” It seems that way, and a quick check shows that he’s been in no less than twenty films in the last five years, with more in production. He’s one busy actor!

Here he stars as “Moody,” alongside Maggie Q as Anna and Michael Keaton as “Rembrandt,” in a film about, well, I’m not really sure how to describe it without spoiling it, but there sure is a lot of shooting, fighting and killing. The characters are all bad guys, going after other bad guys, a few of whom report to a generic off-screen Mr. Big who pulls their strings and of whom everyone is afraid. There are several plot lines. One is Anna’s origin story, with flashbacks to Viet Nam. Another evolves as the movie gets underway, probing the relationship between her and Moody. But the main story has to do with the mysterious identity of Mr. Vohl (Mr. Big.)

 

I’ve struggled with Michael Keaton as an actor ever since he turned from Mr. Mom into Batman. Comedians often make great actors. The comic persona that masks their inner turmoil can also be tapped into for great acting inspiration. In this role, Keaton is a mild-mannered, skilled psychopath who spends time laying out his opponent’s options and chances for success. And as hard as they try to ignite some on-screen chemistry between him and Q (so what’s her name, anyway? It’s Quigley,) it’s just not convincing. Really, you’re interested in this 70-year-old who’s trying to kill you and who just spoke the dumbest line in the movie? (I won’t give it away.) There was lots of body double work for Keaton's part.


One note, the stunt that involves the main character plunging several stories down into the atrium of a building using a firehose as a bungie cord has been overdone.

 

The unsmiling Anna is a bit hard to accept as the world’s greatest assassin. She’s sort of scrawny and lacks the physicality of Charlize Theron or Lucy Liu. But she’s something of a superstar in Asia, and here broadens the stable of available Asian actors as Hollywood diversifies. 

 

The Protégé held my attention, despite some really curious camera work at times, low steady-cam shots that were dizzying and served no purpose. 

 

Director Martin Campbell has a lengthy portfolio of occasionally successful films, including Vertical Limit, Goldeneye and Casino Royale. I don’t think this one will earn him any honors.

 

The Protégé (2021) runs 1 hour, 49 minutes and is rated R.

Free Guy

It was a long week that needed to end with some light entertainment. We watched in Florida and discovered our daughter and son-in-law were watching at the same time over a thousand miles away, despite the time zone difference. We all agreed that Free Guy was surprisingly better than expected.

Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, who comes to be known as blue shirt guy, a bank teller living in a video game with his pet goldfish. The action toggles between real world players and the avatars they choose to represent them in a complex virtual setting. There’s lots of nerd humor when unexpected interruptions in actual reality distract from the game play.

 

Throughout the film I was drawing parallels with The Truman Show. Ryan Reynolds’ childlike sense of wonder and acceptance of his Groundhog Day existence in a video game is in fact a role into which Jim Carrey could easily have been substituted. But Reynolds has built a reputation for rapid fire comedic punchlines in the Deadpool franchise, and the cleaned-up version in this movie works equally well. I couldn't help but imagine the song Stayin' Alive being played while Guy strolls down a street filled with explosions and general chaos.

 

The graphics in Free Guy are astounding, nonstop, and exquisitely familiar to gamers, with lots of small effects and references they’ll appreciate. For the uneducated, at least look up the video game version of “tea bagging” in the Urban Dictionary for a good laugh. Also understand that NPC is an acronym for Non-Player Character. A series of nods to Marvel and Star Wars, and help from a few of Reynolds’s acting friends is no accident. Production company 20th Century Studios is a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company. There’s even a nice cameo by a favorite celeb who passed away after filming.

 

There are far too many ways to spoil the fun, so I’ll just say that the action is continuous and beautifully staged, Reynolds and Co-star Jody Comer (Killing Eve’s Villanelle) work well together, and ultimately this is a love story, a buddy story and a message movie. You really can do anything you want, even if you don’t wear sunglasses. Guy’s best friend, Buddy, is played by Lil Rel Howery. You’ll recognize him from Get Out in a similarly loyal, supporting and amusing role.

 

So, substitute Free City for Oasis, Antwan for Christof, toss in some music by Mariah Carey, mix them all together and ask if you’re “Ready, player one?,” and get ready to enjoy the ride.

 

Free Guy (2021) runs 1 hour, 55 minutes and is rated PG-13. 

Jungle Cruise

If Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt were along for the ride on my own Jungle Cruise in 1966, they would have been just two more enthusiastic passengers. Here, the pairing of these two popular and busy actors enhances the experience nicely, along the lines of Johnson and Karen Gillan in the most recent Jumanji movies. In fact Gillan could have easily played the role of Dr. Lily Houghton in Jungle Cruise, but it might have unnecessarily confused the two films. They have a quite similar feel, one that works well with Johnson’s ability to be funny and massively muscular simultaneously.

Skipper Frank Wolff (Johnson) is the victim of his own successes and failures as an Amazon River pilot in 1916, abused by Paul Giamatti as Nilo, a corrupt and competing boat tour operator in a jungle river port that looks like something straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a setting in which everyone is running intersecting scams, and the launching point for a voyage up-river to retrieve the petals of a magic tree. Myths and legends are explained in cumbersome detail when Houghton, her much less courageous brother and Frank eventually reach the source of their quest.

 

In Jungle Cruise, Blunt gets to speak in her natural British accent instead of that of the American Evelyn Abbott from The Quiet Place. But you do expect her to issue her patented breathy “Run!” while being chased by stereotypical jungle savages. No need, The Rock will head them off and save the clearly capable pants-wearing damsel. Really?

 

Criticism of the fifty-year-old Disney theme park attraction led to an update that eliminated racial stereotypes and animal cruelty. That seems to be somewhat ignored in the film, but casting the mysteriously ethnic Johnson helps balance the equation. Is there nothing this man can’t do? And if his squeaky clean (granted self-promoted) reputation can be believed, he has somehow transitioned from WWF superstar to one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, all while being kind, exposing his inner child (he loves Disneyland) and clearly having a ton of fun along the way. Johnson is Executive Producer for an excellent “Behind the Attractions” series on the Disney Plus streaming service that examines in fascinating detail the history and evolution of rides like Jungle Cruise.

 

Casting the always creepy Jesse Plemons as the psychotic German prince and evil protagonist works perfectly. Plemons has made his sinister mark in Fargo, The Irishman, Game Night, and a memorable Black Mirror episode called “USS Callister.” You’ll hate him here too. He is a blonde haired, blue eyed devil.

 

This is a very fun ride, the latest in Disney’s efforts to turn favorite theme park attractions into feature films. A remake of 2003’s The Haunted Mansion is in the works. What next? Careful Disney, remember The Black Hole? They have acquired Marvel and Star Wars. No need to dig so deep.

 

A warning to concerned parents, or perhaps grandparents. For a PG-13 rated film, this movie has fairly graphic violence, intensity, attacks by frightening mythical and real creatures, un-dead conquistadors and all of the expected action of a WWF body slamming skipper. But if the kiddies can handle Pirates of the Caribbean, they have been desensitized appropriately to handle this.

 

Jungle Cruise (2021) runs 2 hours, 7 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Don’t Breathe 2

We did our homework last night, renting Don’t Breathe, a 2016 horror film about an elderly, blind war veteran who is seriously disturbed and quite skilled. The movie rests on the notion that in the absence of sight his heightened senses give him the edge, especially in the dark. Thus, don’t breathe! He’ll hear you.

In the first film, his home in a deteriorated neighborhood near Detroit is the target for a trio of no-good teens. After a series of profitable home invasion scores, they meet their match in the reclusive homeowner. The teens are unaware that the accidental death of his daughter led him down a Godless path to kidnapping, murder and rape. “The Blind Man” is a monster played by Stephen Lang, a respected actor with screen and stage credits going back to 1981.

 

Lang is back in Don’t Breathe 2 as Norman Nordstrom. Same guy, same neighborhood, different house. He has a name now, and we discover that he was once a Navy Seal. Other than a brief flashback to the previous film, this story is all new, and as is the case with many gore-filled sequels, taken to the next level of graphic violence. At least the victimization of women is no longer the backbone of the film. Or is it? The “woman” in this incarnation is eight-year-old Phoenix, played by twelve-year old newcomer Madelyn Grace. Nordstrom trains her to escape and outwit potential assailants, a sort of survival boot camp that keeps her isolated but not entirely imprisoned. Good thing, since a group of dishonorably discharged psychopaths are on the prowl and trafficking human organs.

 

If that sounds ridiculous, it is, but somehow it works and that’s a credit to the direction of Rodo Sayagues, returning here and building on what he learned with Evil Dead in 2013 and the first Breathe movie in 2016. He clearly relishes what I refer to as the pornographic gore and violence (PGV) genre. His signature cracked glass ceiling is back in this movie, probably because it’s such an effective audio and visual tension builder. Get-crack-off-crack-the-crack-glass-crack-before-crack-you-crack-fall. Oops, too late. 

 

Overhead shots are another favorite, also functional framing devices likely created with the use of drones. Much of both films is shot in the dark, or simulated dark using filters and nicely lit sets. This immerses the audience in the blind protagonist’s world and is used to level the playing field when the power is cut or switched off. Smoke and fog lend additional eerie opportunities and a chance for silent pursuit to result in Norman emerging from the fog in well-lit over-shoulder shots.

 

But this film, like the eight films in the Saw franchise are not for everyone. Officially known as the “Splatter” genre, not to be confused with the “Slasher” genre more typically popular around Halloween, this is not for kids. So, imagine our dual horror, one because of what we were watching on screen, and the other due to the small children in the next row some loving parents decided to bring along on date night. The kiddies were plugged into tablet gaming systems so loud we could hear them through their headphones. And it is well known that kids never look up when told not to, so tonight’s outing should keep a therapist busy in a few years. Justice would have the parents reliving Don’t Breathe 2 nightly for a few weeks when the kids can’t sleep.

 

Don’t Breathe 2 (2021) runs 1 hour, 38 minutes, ten minutes longer than its predecessor and is also rated R.

Old

Let’s start by mentioning that there’s a character in this movie named “Mid-Sized Sedan.” He’s a rapper with dreamy eyes whose most frequent line is: “Damn.” Note, he doesn’t even say it with an exclamation mark. I laughed out loud more than once at his delivery. He doesn’t get upset, even when his naked girlfriend goes for a swim, washes up dead and then decomposes to dust and bones in a few hours.

Most of what you need to know about this movie is presented in the trailer. To reveal more would spoil the actually clever ideas and the patented surprise ending. There’s nothing like knowing there’s going to be a major plot twist at the end of two hours to ruin the hundred minutes leading up to that point.

 

Maybe the problem with M. Night Shyamalan’s films, ever since his very successful The Sixth Sense, is that he tackles writer, director and producer roles simultaneously, in this case a screenplay based on a graphic novel called Sandcastle. Perhaps the jump from graphic novel to horror film was too large. The dialogue in this film is atrocious. The characters are ridiculous, perhaps intentionally. They all suffer from secret disorders, either medical or psychological. But they’ve all been enticed to visit an exclusive tropical vacation destination that has a “secret” beach at the end of a one-way bus ride. Oh, look, the driver is M. Night Shyamalan! Appearing in your own movie is just grotesque, unless done subtly, a la Alfred Hitchcock, or if you’re Clint Eastwood. More on that later.

 

Signs, Unbreakable, Split, and The Sixth Sense are M. Night’s best efforts. Of those, only Split broke out of the 1999-2000 stride that he hit with his suspenseful, signature twisted ending formula, and that was largely due to the acting by James McAvoy. Every other film can be considered just another attempt to recreate the success of the first.

 

There were numerous tight shots in Old, so much so that characters fell out of frame. Deliberate? Unknown, but another overused technique was the over-the-shoulder shot from behind an aging character in order to surprise us with a radical change in appearance. That’s just clumsy. Walk out from behind a rock, pop up from a crashing wave, don’t just stand facing away from the camera.

 

From the trailer you’re already aware that the cast of characters on a beautiful, magical beach is aging at a rapid rate. As a result, any cut or scrape heals almost instantly. Why then is Mid-Size Sedan getting nose bleeds that won’t stop? This is never explained. And have you noticed that the Hollywood nose bleed has become the hallmark of something far more serious going wrong, as if your nose is the barometer of unseen maladies?

 

I’ll chalk this disaster up to the negative effects of a one-year pandemic lockdown for M. Night. But I think he’s suffering from something far worse – his own notion that he’s amazing. Don’t box office receipts eventually take care of that? Maybe one decent film every four attempts can keep you bankrolled in Hollywood, especially if it’s your money and you’re the Producer.

 

One casting note: most stars are relatively unknown, but if you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood’s daughter Francesca, she has a small role. Her roles will likely remain small.

 

We are eventually left with two aged survivors, one a six-year-old who looks fifty, talking about how surprised his Aunt will be when she sees him. Even more surprising is that his intellect and education level aged with him without benefit of schooling. So, give us a magic beach and solve the mounting college debt problem. But start this movie with an awkward conversation between aged child and Aunt, then flash back. If M. Night put the plot twist at the beginning of his film it might be a welcome change. Welcome to Fantasy Island!

 

 

Old (2021) runs 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated PG-13.

The Green Knight

Are you a fan of the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table? This period piece immerses you in the fog and frightful existence of Middle Ages England. While Arthur and Guinevere are referred to in the credits simply as King and Queen, the unmistakable Round Table sets the stage for their mostly silent oversight of the damp and dark court where some of the action takes place. 

This is Camelot as you’ve never imagined it. Enter the Green Knight, a green-skinned, green-haired Groot type who rides a green horse right up to the Round Table and challenges any taker to a deadly game on Christmas Day. One caveat: any injury delivered to the Green Knight in hand-to-hand combat will be returned in kind exactly one year later. Most Knights take one step back at this point and leave it to a newbie, the king’s nephew. Without delving too far into legend, Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister is mostly off screen as some sort of evil enchantress, acting on behalf of her son as he begins his quest to become the knight, Sir Gawain.

 

The pace of the film is slow, the costuming reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but utterly lacking humor. The Chaucerian feel of the journey, or perhaps more rooted in poetry like Homer’s Odyssey, leaves you wanting to shower by the end of the film. They were very dirty times, and Director/Writer David Lowery brought them to life nicely, with ghosts, giants, thieves and witches lurking in the woods and hills along Gawain’s (Dev Patel) quest. As with other Knights, honor is tested along with valor, and the quest eventually is complete, but at what cost?

 

This is Patel’s first film since The Personal History of David Copperfield. His performance is solid, but more serious in this outing. Alicia Vikander, known for Ex Machina, is Gawain’s girlfriend and temptress, a dual role that has her playing both Essel and The Lady. Sean Harris, known for his roles as a recurring antagonist in the Mission Impossible franchise is an aging Arthur, somewhat lost in the fog, and struggling to remain larger than life. His soft-spoken honor shines through and provides a vector for the story line.

 

This movie has an art house feel, but leaves you with lingering thoughts back to the characters and the quest. It also makes you want to learn more.

 

 

The Green Night (2021) runs 2 hours, 10 minutes and is rated R.

 

Black Widow

I went into this film determined to count the number of hero falls. You know, like the one in this promo shot, where the actor lands from an impossibly long fall in a crouched position, as if absorbing the shock with one knee and one arm. This is the point at which my orthopedic surgeon would be reconstructing knees, ankles, an elbow, hips and one wrist, assuming I ever got out of traction for the multiple ruptured discs in my neck and back. But I’m no super hero. No, I’m not. 

And neither is the Black Widow. She’s just an extremely skilled assassin, Natasha Romanoff, trained in Russia and a member of the Avengers following defection. Scarlett Johansson has played the Black Widow in nine Marvel films beginning with 2010’s Iron Man 2, and is finally getting her own feature.

 

I feel this almost could have been called The Black Widow’s Little Sister. Yelena Belova plays a role almost equal to that of the title character. This was a generous decision on the part of Executive Producer Johansson. Natasha’s Mom and Dad are along for the ride too, or at least people who pretended to be Mom and Dad. 

 

It all begins in Ohio in 1995 when the sisters are six and eleven. The action starts almost immediately and pauses only occasionally throughout the film to give the audience a chance to catch their breath, and for some tender dialogue to play out on screen.

 

One of the first surprises in the movie was the screenwriter's recognition that hero falls have been over used. They are a running gag, the source of some inter-character banter in a few classic Marvel moments of humor. The sparingly used jokes always lend some fun to these very numerous movies. And the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) catalog is so extensive that some might be reluctant to dive into yet another origin story about a beloved character, but don’t hesitate.

 

The movie stands on its own and many backstory elements are explained. General Dreykov has a large mostly off-screen role in Black Widow. He is the creator of the “Red Room” where “Widows” are trained to be a human-trafficked global army of female assassins, mind-controlled from a floating fortress. His indestructible secret weapon, called Taskmaster, appears throughout the film and has a secret to reveal. It kind of feels like a James Bond plot at this point.

 

David Harbour plays Alexei, the Red Guardian, a Russian super-soldier answer to Captain America, and Rachel Weisz has a role as Melina, his wife. Florence Pugh is little sister Yelena Belova. Yelena, Milena, Belova, Romanov, the names get a bit confusing, but don’t become a distraction. 

 

Believe it or not, Don McLean’s song American Pie has a place in Black Widow. Those of us who lived through the overplaying of this song in 1971 still cringe when we hear it, but the lyrics, “That’ll be the day that I die,” factor into a key scene, so we’ll let it go.

 

Marvel fans will find much to love about this film. The action is non-stop with lots of explosions, amazing car chases, intricately choreographed fight scenes and locations including Morocco, Budapest, Rome and Georgia. The film feels much shorter than 133 minutes. Of course, stay beyond the credits.

 

 

Black Widow runs 2 hours, 13 minutes and is rated PG-13

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Take the leading actors from 2017’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson), add Salma Hayek, Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas, and what have you got? Much less than you’d hope.

Hayek and Banderas have co-stared multiple times since Desperado in 1995, including voiceovers in 2011’s Puss ‘N BootsOnce Upon a Time in Mexico in 2003 and Oscar Nominated Pain and Glory in 2019. This film was a waste of their on-screen chemistry.

 

Ryan Reynolds has secured himself a one-man genre as a one-liner spewing action star, much like his character in the Deadpool franchise. He brings much of the humor to this film. Samuel L. Jackson is his usual F-bombing self, and Salma Hayek co-stars once again with her breasts. They are literally in a supporting role, commented on, fondled and used as weapons to lure bad guys. At age fifty-five she either has great genetics or they spent a fortune in makeup and post-production making her look much younger. It seemed she was competing with Jackson for most F-words, and I’d have to call it a draw.

 

There’s a ton of gunfire, explosions, car chases and fight scenes woven around a pretty ridiculous story with several subplots that add little to the whole. The reluctant trio set out to foil an angry Greek billionaire’s plot to destroy the EU’s power grid with a giant diamond encrusted Dremel tool and a USB drive full of viral computer code. By mid-film there are so many flavors of bad guys, mostly cliches, that it’s hard to recall how they all fit into the plot. This has all been done before, only better.

 

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard runs 1 hour, 40 minutes and is rated R.

Cruella

The first thing to be aware of is that this is not a remake of any version of 101 Dalmatians. That was done in the 1996 live-action version with Glenn Close in the title role. A screenplay by John Hughes merits a second look at that incarnation of the 1961 children’s book of the same name. An attempt at a very unnecessary sequel resulted in 102 Dalmatians, also starring Close, a domestic box office money-loser and the reason there was no 103 Dalmatians. Close is behind the scenes in this latest Disney feature as an executive producer.

This is a prequel, the Cruella Deville origin story. We get to meet her as Estella, a troublesome young girl genius with very strange hair and an innate gift for design. We find out where the name of her evil alter ego originates and are introduced to several dalmatians that either have a very long lifespan or are easily replaceable. They return later in the film.

 

Two Emmas later (Stone and Thompson) we enter the world of high-fashion design dominated by The Baroness, a truly heartless character reminiscent of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.Once we flash forward to the adult Estella, the movie begins to feel a lot like the Prada story line, and according to my movie-watching wife Jeanne, there are tons of really cool dresses to be seen.

 

I was more focused on the “Baduns” from 1961, still named Horace and Jasper, and here reluctantly evolving from Estella’s crooked cohorts to Cruella’s henchmen. They are bumbling thieves, but far more likeable than their cartoon version. Their little dog Wink almost steals the show. He is a Chihuahua with an eye patch and a big attitude. Buddy, Estella’s dog is cute too, aging from an adorable pup to a scruffy sidekick, always in key shots paying attention to humans and scampering through crowds at parties.


Another character that caught my attention was the Panther De Ville, a classic luxury vehicle that was used as Cruella’s car in all three live action films. It is reminiscent of the Excalibur, produced in the 1970s, and it made me flinch to see it used in high-speed chases through the streets of London. I assume the resulting damage was CGI.

 

There are secrets revealed throughout the somewhat lengthy two plus hours film. The childhood segment went on a bit long, as did Estella’s transformation during the emergence of her wicked inner persona. A hint of kindness surfaces occasionally, which puts The Baroness in the true role as this movie’s ultimate villainess. Does Cruella have a heart after all? 

 

Both Stone and Thompson do a fine job. This was a fun movie, and there’s nothing to prevent taking the kiddies, though you might find yourself explaining that when good doesn’t triumph over evil, sometimes less evil triumphs over more evil. It’s a Disney movie, after all.

 

The setup for a sequel is firmly cemented during the final scene. Stay through the credits!

 

Cruella runs 2 hour, 14 minutes and is rated PG-13

 

 

A Quiet Place II

We were welcomed into the theater with promotional videos featuring Salma Hayek and John Krasinski, thanking theater goers for returning to the big screen to see their respective films. That felt both very welcoming and somewhat sad, as if we’re all castaways being slowly reintroduced to society. Adding to the out-of-a-coma feeling were trailers that advertised, “Coming in October of 2020,” or other long overdue dates. These reminders of our emergence were poignant and somehow personal. This is the second re-opening of Regal Theaters, and we can only hope that it’s for real this time.

But we are returning on Day 474, and in that respect, the one year break we endured waiting for the sequel to A Quiet Place felt oddly appropriate. We share so much with the Abbott family, having been isolated and pursued by a mostly invisible and menacing horror. Things have improved for us, but not for them, not at all. 

 

Krasinski reprises his role as Lee Abbott, but only for the duration of a flashback to “Day One.” Emily Blunt and the kids are all back, enjoying a tranquil summer afternoon when all Hell breaks loose. We get to see how the alien invasion begins, and how suddenly things turn south. Just as suddenly we join the family in their current attempt to survive, tip-toeing through fallen leaves that crunch dangerously and into the arms of “people not worth saving.” This is a modern-day War of the Worlds.

 

I’m not going to spoil anything by saying that the alien and human monsters in the film all have four limbs and a penchant for destroying human life that defies understanding. Of course, the small family does the expected worst thing possible, they split up, allowing scene-shifting directorial fun for Krasinski and his editors, and audio engineering pluses that alternate between the silence of Regan Abbott, the deaf daughter, to the super-sensitive hearing of the sound-seeking monsters. We get a good look at the monsters in this outing.

 

Each character in the film struggles with an inner psychological conflict if not an outward, physical one, the overcoming of which carries individual plot lines through the film. Sets are post-apocalyptic, the remnants of humanity reverting to barbaric genetic memory or leading tranquil lives in hippie-like communes. Somehow, the lights have remained on for over a year, despite T-Rex/Raptor/Alien creatures running amok with the strength to shred train cars and buildings.

 

I counted at least three scenes that caused me to jump in my seat. The silence contributes heavily to the setup for these Hitchcock-like moments. This is a great sequel, worth seeing, but if you haven’t seen the original, by all means get it done before seeing number two.

 

 

A Quiet Place II (2020) runs 1 hour, 37 minutes and is rated PG-13

Wrath of Man

For my first time venturing into a post-pandemic theater I chose a film that wouldn’t require my full attention. That attention was compromised by the angst of sitting with a group of unmasked strangers, in some cases one behind the other, perhaps two feet apart. This was despite Regal Theaters’ best efforts to assign seating when purchasing tickets online. People just can’t do this simplest of things, like sitting in the seat they selected. Ah, well, at least the theaters may survive. We’re all itching to do something normal like go to the movies.

If you’re a fan of Jason Statham, this will satiate your blood lust and desire for revenge porn. The photo I chose for this review is of his biggest smile during the two-hour feature produced by Guy Ritchie. More on Ritchie in my reviews of The Gentlemen and Aladdin. He has proven himself to be a successful screenwriter and producer for an untrained high school dropout. He has a penchant for violence and appears to favor tight closeups, as if considering eventual viewing on a TV screen. He has a long history with Jason Statham, having launched his acting career in his late 90s release of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

 

Statham’s version of the unstoppable, almost super-heroic action star has him sauntering through scene after scene killing bad guys with ease and precision. He is clearly unhappy, and in Wrath of Man, that’s the motivating force behind his plot for revenge. He is a virtual Houdini, a zip-tied can of whoop-ass that keeps you on the edge of your seat because you’ve already seen him take out crews of inept armored car bandits and survive multiple gunshot wounds. He seemingly dusts off bullets like dandruff.

 

The script for Wrath of Man is initially quite weak, at least in the opening sequences when Statham, nicknamed “H,” applies and tests for a job as a driver at “The Depot,” the hub where Fortico Security’s armored cars return at the end of their pickups. It looks like home base from the TV show Taxi, and is populated by fellow drivers who all behave more like they’re in a prison yard than at work. New guys get viciously razzed, but H quickly applies his unsmiling, cold steel persona and has the boys wondering if he’s a dark horse. It’s a bit suspicious that he passes his entrance evaluation with exactly the seventy per cent required. He’s that in control, holding back and saving the good stuff for his first job. And that first job instantly lofts him to hero status at work.

 

Fellow drivers are also assigned goofy nicknames. “Bullet,” “Boy Sweat” and “Hollow Bob” are examples. The dialogue is juvenile and the banter is so over the top as to be ridiculous. But it does offer a couple of opportunities for mild laughs. There should have been more of those.

 

A missed opportunity is the presence of Dana, the lone badass girl driver played by Naimh Algar. She plays a relatively inconsequential role as H’s only love interest, a one-night stand solely for the purpose of interrogating her in the middle of the night at gunpoint. The role offered the possibility of a female costar with secret skills like those of Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. But I guess there’s no sharing the lead with Statham. But wait, who’s that handsome young bad guy, the baddest bad guy, following a convoluted layered onion of bad guys throughout the movie? Why, it’s Clint Eastwood’s son Scott, who made his screen debut in Daddy’s Flags of our Fathers in 2006. He’s not Clint, but he has a future on the big screen.

 

Wrath of Man is worth seeing if you like the Ritchie/Statham formula for violence and male dominated plots. It seemed a bit long at two hours, but that was in part due to the droning, ominous musical score that never abates and becomes sort of corny and distracting. All things considered, two better “Wraths” come to mind, like The Wrath of Khan or The Grapes of Wrath. Smile, Jason, smile. It will make you seem even more sinister. You’re fast, you’re furious. We get it.

 

 

Wrath of Man runs 1 hour, 59 minutes and is rated R.

Koko di Koko da

Warning: this movie is not for relaxed or more nightmare prone viewers. And to think we paid to see this thing.

I guess the film did its job within the horror genre. It was intriguing, but so relentlessly perverse and horrifying I worried about sleeping through the night without night terrors or bizarre dreams of my own. Ok, now I have your interest.

 

If you liked 2019’s Midsommar, you’ll love Koko di Koko da, so named because of a melodic and seemingly simple fairy tale with a haunting tune and creatures that literally haunt the two main characters in the film. Think It’s a Small World After All with attack dogs and psychopaths. After those two films I’m just thinking Sweden is kind of a weird place. Some characters in this movie are puppets, others are just deranged incarnations we initially see on a music box that plays the title song. That gift, given to a young girl on her eight birthday becomes the nexus around which the parents’ try to work through their grief and repair their marriage following an allergic seafood reaction that kills the girl and almost finishes off the mom. It’s kind of a combination of The Blair Witch Project and Groundhog Day, seasoned with Cabin in the Woods.

 

The film definitely leaves its viewers on edge, trying to figure it all out, and a bit tired from reading some rather rapid subtitles. Yeah, it’s in Swedish. Oh, and there’s a white cat.

 

The movie is directed by Johannes Nyholm and stars Leif Edlund and Yiva Galon, but who cares. We don’t know them and probably won’t see them again, though they all seem pretty busy in the Swedish film industry. 

 

If you’re still curious you can find this movie on Amazon for $4.99.

 

Koko-Di, Koko-Da (2019) runs 1 hour, 29 minutes and is unrated.

The Sound of Metal

We might not have noticed this Amazon Original without a recommendation from viewers in Germany (Dankeschön!) In fact, the opening segment might have been off-putting, a documentary-like heavy metal musical segment from a band called Blackgammon playing an earsplitting track with a screaming vocal, incendiary guitar and intense percussion. I’m not sure if their sound qualifies as “screamo,” lacking perhaps the right punk influence, but the volume is way up there, and contributes to the story line.

But hang in there. Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a drummer who’s rapidly losing his hearing. A drug addict four years clean on the power of his relationship with Lu, played by Olivia Cooke, they tour with their band in a custom RV, supporting each other with healthy smoothies, exercise, dance and affection. This is after all, a love story, despite the tattoo on Ruben’s chest that reads, “Someone Kill Me.”

 

Ahmed is a British Pakistani actor, rapper and activist you might recognize from Four LionsJason Bourne and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He was listed as one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2017 on the strength of a nomination by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

 

Cooke starred in 2018’s Life Itself and TV work including Bates Motel and Vanity Fair.

 

The audio engineering in The Sound of Metal immerses you in the experience of losing your hearing. Unlike so many films that have a character repeat out loud the sign language being used, the viewer is as initially helpless as Ruben, and you feel his depression and frustration, especially as a musician. 

 

Following a recent ear infection I experienced a similar series of events shown when Ruben struggles to clear his ears and eventually sees an audiologist. But despite the time he spends benefiting from and contributing to a sequestered deaf community, the cochlear implant he chooses to fund with all of his worldly possessions is a brutal little procedure that he hopes will “fix” the problem that the deaf community doesn’t feel needs fixing. Embrace the stillness.

 

The Sound of Metal is thoughtful, well-acted and doesn’t resort to gratuitous sex, violence or cheap gimmickry. 

 

Written and directed by Darius Marder, this project may be an important addition to his small portfolio.

 

 

The Sound of Metal (2019) runs exactly 2 hours and is rated R.

 

 

Kajillionaire

Richard Jenkins is one of those familiar character actors you just can’t place. Most recently he had a lead role in The Last Shift, a mostly overlooked pandemic casualty from 2020. He has an eclectic film resume that includes The Shape of Water, Step Brothers, The Cabin in the Woods, White House Down and many others. In Kajillionaire he is Robert, father to the strangely named Old Dolio played by Evan Rachel Wood, and husband of Theresa, played by the almost unrecognizable Debra Winger. We know Wood most recently from her lead role in the series reboot of Westworld

 

These three are an essentially homeless family who wander through the streets of California looking for loose change, stealing mail and surviving day to day as career scammers. They rent office space attached to a business called Bubbles that oozes pink suds three times daily. They diligently scoop the foam from the adjoining wall in order to prevent damage and mold. Perhaps that value contributes to the owner’s tolerance of chronically late rent and unending promises of payment. Meanwhile, they live in superstitious fear of “the big one” and the electric power of frequent earthquakes.

 

Old Dolio has been raised more as a tool than a daughter. The family precisely splits the proceeds of scams three ways in a loveless business relationship. The parents only acknowledge 18 of their daughter’s 26 years, keeping her just short of adulthood, entirely dependent and constantly seeking emotional approval. Her husky-voiced, deadpan persona is that of a shell-shocked dumpster diver experiencing the world with a sense of forbidden wonder. Enter Miranda, an enthused random accessory encountered mid-heist on a turbulent airplane ride, and a possible casualty of her own parents’ dysfunctional relationship. Here the story takes on a new dimension as a love story that gives purpose and eventual resolution to the film.

 

This is a quirky low budget movie with an Indie feel, directed by Miranda July and with an Executive Producer credit by Brad Pitt. It showed up on a “best of 2020” list when searching for a movie to watch during our continuing theater blackout. It was $5.99 on Amazon, held our interest throughout and might gain traction once discovered.

 

 

Kajillionaire (2020) runs 1 hour 44 minutes and is rated R.

 

 

 

Infidel

If “inspired by true events” is meant to suggest that you’re about to watch a true story, then labeling a food as “light” will help you lose weight.

So, no, Infidel is not a true story. And that’s good, because if the two main characters were truly as reckless as portrayed in this film a more appropriate title would have been “Imbecile.”

Doug Rawlins, a famous evangelical Christian blogger is invited by a friend to travel to Cairo to be a guest on a popular talk show. His wife Liz who works at the State Department warns him not to make the trip, double dog dares him not to evangelize while there, and then equips him with her seemingly CIA-like skills so he can send her a secret encoded message if necessary.

Doug is played by Jim Caviezel, the tall, dark and deadly Mr Reese, from the successful television show Person of Interest. He has also had his share of religious themed roles, as the apostle Paul and as Jesus himself in Mel Gibson’s brutal 2004 telling of The Passion of the Christ. In Infidel, his appearance on the Egyptian talk show goes smoothly until he turns to the camera and states, “Jesus IS god.” Until that point the audience was happily applauding Jesus as a teacher and prophet. At this point he initiates an international incident and his own kidnapping by Hamas terrorists. Fortunately, Rawlins is able to use his magic USB drive to get a message to Liz, but first he drops the drive within sight of his captors, and then a hacker on the Internet intercepts, decodes and posts the message. Out comes the power drill and Doug agrees to anything they want.

Not to be outdone, Liz Rawlins, played by Australian Claudia Karvan, throws on her hijab and travels to the Middle East to rescue her captive husband. She is alternately helped and harassed, stumbling through a series of chance encounters, eventually gaining the attention of Israeli agents from Mossad who need her help to liberate their own captives. A hint for married couples reuniting during a raging gun battle. Don’t stop for a loving embrace while hand grenades are rolling toward your feet. And if you’re going to pick up a live grenade and throw it at the bad guy, don’t think about it for a few seconds.

Some unbelievable sequences make for decent action and suspense, assuming you can suspend your disbelief. The film examines the very real topics of kidnapping and honor killing, which is Director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s intent. His own father was detained and arrested on a trip to Iran in 2013. Plenty of coverage on the evening news has focused on tragic events like the kidnapping and death of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson. Nowrasteh’s only other directorial credit during the last ten years is for a film called The Young Messiah, about Jesus from age seven as he grew into his religious identity. The film lost over ten million dollars worldwide.

Infidel (2019) runs 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated R.

 

 

The New Mutants

When a movie starts with the graphic flipping pages of a Marvel comic book I’ve come to assume it will be a top-notch film and an enjoyable couple of hours. So much for that theory.

This is an origin story of a handful of young “new mutants” who have been sequestered for their own protection by Doctor Cecilia Reyes, played by Alice Braga. The secret facility allows monitoring and guided development of superpower skills that put the mutants on a path to someday becoming X-men. This is obviously a world in which X-men are known and mutants are still feared and marginalized.

Problem one: they’re troubled teenagers. Problem two: the newest recruit (or prisoner) is Danielle Moonstar played by Blu Hunt. I think Blu Hunt is a better name than Danielle Moonstar but, oh well. She has the ability to materialize everyone’s worst fears. She is Native American and believes that inside every person dwells two bears, one good and one evil. The evil bear makes an appearance late in the film.

Charlie Heaton, recognizable from his work in Stranger Things, plays the Kentucky coalminer Sam Guthrie, whose powers cause a mine collapse that kills his father and leaves him with survivor’s guilt.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Magik, an armor-plated, sword wielding bully with a bad attitude and a personal history with monstrous “Smiley Men.” Her strangely wide-set eyes feature as prominently here as in her recent portrayal of Emma in the movie of the same name.

The film spends far too much time on character development. The Mutants are discovering the limits of their powers, a convenient means of educating the audience as well. It seems we also need lots of convincing that Dr. Reyes is not a sweet, softspoken caretaker after all. Dani and her new buddy Rahne head off on a young lesbian love tangent, and the Smiley Men add a bit of Guillermo DelToro style monster horror. It should be horrifying enough that real life Marilyn Manson voices over one Smiley Man.

Eventually it is determined that Dani is too powerful to be controlled. Dr. Reyes receives some sinister instructions from an offscreen superior and the Mutants bond against a common enemy.

Originally intended to be the first part of a trilogy, multiple delays interfered with this film's promotion and release. It is now considered the thirteenth and final chapter of the X-men series even though the ending screams “sequel.”

 

The New Mutants (2020) runs 1 hour, 34 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Tenet

A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same backward as forward. “Tenet” is a palindrome. There are entire scenes within this movie that are palindrome-ish. The movie is utterly confusing and exhausting to decipher for the entirety of its two and a half hours. It is also brilliantly written, if complexity gets credit, and the editor(s) of this beast should win an Oscar.

I could tell you the entire plot and key scenes of this film without spoiling it. I love good time travel movies, but they are simple by comparison to this looping, parallel timeline action film in which John David Washington, known as “The Protagonist” and his strangely familiar partner Neil, played by Robert Pattinson, set out to save the world from something they don’t understand. Washington recently starred in BlacKkKlansman, which was a walk in the park compared to this very physical role as a CIA type who has been tested for inclusion in a secret organization that operates outside of time and national interests. Michael Caine makes a brief appearance as Crosby, an elite conduit to forged art and the world of uber-wealthy arms dealers.

If you’re familiar with the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during the 1940s, lead scientist Robert Oppenheimer has an analogous team leader hundreds of years in the future. That female scientist is working on a project so dangerous to the existence of everything that she hides nine components back in time and kills herself to prevent her knowledge from being known. The project is called Tenet and it has fallen into the hands of Andrei Sator, a crazed Russian oligarch suffering from a terminal illness. He plans the annihilation of the entire history of the human species rather than die and leave the world to continue in his absence. As with his estranged wife, if he can’t have her no one can.

“What’s happened has happened” is repeated frequently throughout the film. People and things are “inverted” through time turnstyles, machines that act as portals to a backward running parallel dimension. This results in fights, battles and chases being run simultaneously in positive and negative time, bullets being caught by guns and characters coming dangerously close to their alter-selves, sometimes without even being aware. The climactic James Bond-like battle scene is filmed with red and blue teams of soldiers running against ten-minute countdown and count-up clocks toward the same zero point. One’s knowledge of the other’s actions contributes to confusing reversals within the action and results in unexplainable paradoxes that defy logic and physics. Buildings are simultaneously blown up and reconstructed as timelines cross. The sometimes overly ominous musical score has snippets of backward sounds, and some dialogue is played both forward and reversed.

It’s no surprise that Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this mind bender. He is also responsible for MementoInception and Interstellar, all cerebral and non-linear productions, but not to this level.

I recommend being well rested before seeing this movie. It’s worth seeing, perhaps more than once if you really want to understand what’s happening. But that might require using the turnstyle to run a temporal pincer operation in order to give future information to your past self. Yeah, it’s that complicated.

Tenet (2020) runs 2 hours, 30 minutes and is rated PG-13

 

The Broken Hearts Gallery

On our latest outing to the “new normal” intensive care unit known as going to the movies in the year 2020 I wanted to see Tenet but it wasn’t my turn to choose. That’s ok, since a steady diet of Netflix eventually grows tiresome and just isn’t the cure for cabin fever or whatever we now call being trapped by an invisible enemy. We needed to get out of the house.

Something light hearted actually sounded appealing, and a Rom Com is about the lightest level movies can attain, short of Blazing Saddles or Superbad. But be clear, this is a chick flick, fulfilling all criteria of that species – catering to a youthful, female demographic on topics of love and romance. But this is not The Big Sick or When Harry Met Sally. It’s cute, but not even close.

The only familiar actor in this film is 72 year old Bernadette Peters who is not only still living but has retained that pinched, cute little face and voice that plays well in drama or comedy. She is an insanely talented singer who branched off into comic roles thanks to Mel Brooks and alongside one time partner Steve Martin. She even appeared on Carol Burnett and with The Muppets where she fit right in.

A diverse and heavily female cast of twenty-somethings over shares just within the bounds of the PG-13 rating, threatening each other with vibrators and talking obsessively about penises and vaginas. Lucy, played by an energized but frequently depressed Geraldine Viswanathan is a collector of memorabilia. She is clearly a hoarder living in an apartment-sized museum of reminders, the most recent of which is a tie from the artist she just broke up with. That tie becomes the inspiration, hung from a nail on a wall, for a gallery of memorabilia. The idea is a surprisingly huge hit among fellow New Yorkers who share a similarly unhealthy tendency to wallow in past relationship souvenirs. Nick, played by Dacre Montgomery, Lucy’s eventual love interest is rehabbing a building that becomes the Broken Hearts Gallery. He plays the part with sweet and sincere detached strength and vulnerability. You know, kind of a Rom Com Everyman. Prior to this he appeared in Stranger Things and as Jason, the red Power Ranger.

The dialogue in Broken Hearts Gallery often becomes that machine gun spray of impossibly cohesive and funny lines that perhaps only Robin Williams was actually capable of delivering. But there are quite a few laughs and if you can look past the unrealistic delivery, the lines are quite good. Director Natalie Krinsky also wrote the screenplay which may explain this stuffing of large words into small spaces.


The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020) runs 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved.  I recommend that you see  Iron Man 3  before see...