King Richard

I couldn’t help but compare this story to that of Rocky Balboa, knowing full well that the iconic boxer was fictional, and Venus Williams is not. And that’s what makes this biopic so incredible. Yet, the title character would (and did) have a problem with the use of that term. What’s incredible about a young tennis prodigy taking her first strides toward greatness at the age of fourteen? That she’s black and “straight outta Compton?” Well, yeah, there’s no getting around it. The odds were stacked against her, and that’s where Richard Williams gets credit for creating a bootcamp-like environment for all five of his daughters.

The Williams girls, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) grew up in the 80s and 90s, when Compton, California was at its worst, the gangsta rap crucible that produced the likes of Dr. Dre, rap group N.W.A. whose album “Straight Outta Compton” inspired the 2015 movie of the same name about life in “the hood” and on streets controlled by the Bloods and Crips gangs. This was the era when Rodney King was mercilessly beaten by police, secretly recorded, and the catalyst for riots in Los Angeles.

 

Will Smith is Oscar-worthy for his portrayal of Williams, a self-taught tennis coach who claimed to have written a 78-page life plan for daughters Serena and Venus before they were born. His relentless pursuit of an improbable dream is fully supported by his wife Oracene, played by Aunjanue Ellis. She also taught herself the game, but focused primarily on providing a superlative educational and spiritual environment for her five daughters, three from a previous marriage. 

 

As wife to a man so obsessed as to be nearly deranged or self-sabotaging at times, she is the check valve and mirror in the relationship, refocusing on the needs of the girls, not just the dreams of the man. And while she is an ardent feminist, both parents endure and struggle against the racism, gang violence and judgement of peers, neighbors and a tennis community that is about as pearly white and privileged as any sport ever has been.

 

The results speak for themselves. Like Rocky, Venus goes the distance, and both girls become the “Michael Jordans” of the game. A fictional script that proposed this plot line would be hard to believe, but we’ve all been along for the ride as witnesses to the ascension of two sports legends, and sisters to boot.

 

The acting is great, the tennis is exciting even if you’re not a fan, and the rather long film seems much shorter. Messages of privilege and racism are a bit heavy handed at times, but they need to be. Like other period pieces, the look back at a time not that long ago can often be cringe-worthy. To emerge, humble superstars from an environment in which tantrum-throwing infants like McEnroe and Connors dominated the sport, and cheating was “just part of the game,” is a testament to the success of the Willams’ parents tough love.

 

 

King Richard (2021) runs 2 hours, 24 minutes and is rated PG-13.

 

 

Clifford the Big Red Dog

If you spent much time reading books to your kids (I hope you did), you likely included a few about Clifford, the Big Red Dog. First published in 1963, over 75 titles sold more than 129 million copies in 13 languages. The character also spawned a PBS series with the late John Ritter voicing Clifford.

In a nod to the late beloved author, Norman Bridwell, a main character in this movie is named Mr. Bridwell, proprietor of a somewhat mysterious animal exhibit in a tent that’s “larger on the inside” much like Dr Who’s Tardus. That’s where Bridwell, played by 82-year-old John Cleese, pairs Emily Elizabeth with an adorably animated little red puppy.

 

The animation of Clifford is amazing. Only occasional moments look unnatural, but the eyes, fur and most movements are those of a playful puppy, very reminiscent of my daughter’s English cream golden retriever, George, who is now a big white dog. Throughout the film I had to remind myself that the actors were interacting with something that wasn’t actually there.

 

So, the movie is cute and corny. As a PG film for kids, how could it be otherwise? But the action is almost non-stop, the topic of bullying is tackled head on, and the positive underlying message that it’s ok to be different strikes a much-needed chord of inclusion in these divisive times.

 

Darby Camp plays Emily. She’s been acting since she was a toddler and already has an impressive little portfolio, mostly in TV appearances. Isaac Wang, as Owen, has a secret crush on Emily and plays a cute as a button rich kid with some serious computer skills. His own resume is only two years old.

 

Jack Whitehall plays the scatterbrained uncle, Casey, left to babysit Emily just as Clifford arrives on the scene. The two of them try to hide, then contain, Clifford to no avail. And of course, a villainous corporate type wants to capture and study the giant dog to jump start his failing superfood company.

 

This is a deliberately silly movie, perfect after a steady diet of murder and mayhem that seems to permeate most current offerings. There were lots of kids in the audience, along with parents who explained much of what was happening, but clearly enjoying the chance to share in the fictional adventure on screen.

 

If you need some mind-candy, a break from the evening news, and a chance to step back a couple of decades and visit a big old red friend, this works nicely. The only way it could have been improved would be as a Christmas movie. Timing as a holiday release was already on their side.

 

 

Clifford the Big Red Dog (2021) runs 1 hour, 36 minutes and is rated PG.

 

Eternals

How ironic that a movie called Eternals should feel eternally long. The decision makers at Marvel felt that fans are willing to invest almost three hours getting acquainted with the new cast of characters they hope will carry their superheroes into countless individual and team mega-hits, a new franchise within a franchise. I’m not feeling it.

Before seeing this movie, you should know a few things. It takes a while to explain the comic universe created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. It would take a college course to trace their history as collaborators and their creations. Maybe this will help you with this latest film.

 

Beings known as Celestials, who pre-date the Big Bang, are led by Arishem. They brought light to the cosmos, created the stars and planets, and spread life throughout the universe. In order to create more of their kind, they seeded planets upon which a critical mass of sentient life is required to initiate the “Emergence” of a new Celestial from its embryonic state. To ensure that no apex predators suppressed the sentient population, they created Deviants, so named because they betrayed their creator and began killing everything. That’s bad for an emergence, so the Eternals were created to battle the Deviants. 

 

But wait, aren’t the Eternals then helping the Celestials destroy worlds and all beings who live there? Yup, and several of the Eternals have taken a liking to Earth. Not only that, but in a previous Marvel story line, Thanos destroyed half of all life on Earth (The Snap) and then they came back (The Blip) at the end of Avengers Endgame. Bringing back half the human population after an absence of five years left survivors reeling, along with the global economy and geopolitics. It also restored the sentient critical mass necessary to birth a Celestial.  Therein lie the conflicts and the reason for a whole bunch of battles throughout this film. No good deed goes unpunished.

 

If I have any of this wrong, Marvel fans, forgive me. Yours is a deep and complicated obsession with superheroes, superpowers, good and evil. Now, on to the problems I had with this film.

 

The Eternals showed up on Earth in a Lego, a chunk of green granite countertop shaped like a piece of pizza. They arrived in Mesopotamia during 5000 BC. They buried their ship (the Domo) under the sands of what later became Iraq and embedded themselves in a variety of human cultures. I guess that explains why they all have different accents, but are essentially mythic gods from the past. Angelina Jolie does a lot of standing around looking cheeky and blonde in an outfit that both accentuates and hides her now almost fifty-year-old body. She plays Thena (“Drop the A," she says.) In fact, all of the Eternals are sporting form fitting gear of different colors and designs, and they do a lot of standing side by side in a row to impress upon us that they are…The Eternals.

 

The movie flips between current day and various points in history to explain how The Eternals protected and advanced human cultures. A character named Phastos spends much of his time inventing game changing technology for the humans to embrace. At one point he shows off his new steam engine and is forced instead to only introduce the plow. The humans aren’t ready for steam power. But the pride with which he shows off his steam engine leaves you wondering how he arrived on a flying granite pizza. A steam engine?

 

A redeeming character is Kingo, played by the always funny Kamail Nanjiani. The producers allowed his humor to be a highlight of the show. Most of the other characters were rather lackluster. Gemma Chan as Sersi seems to invoke her robotic Mia character from the show Humans. And why did Salma Hayek take the role of Ajak? Her appearance was mercifully short.

 

Deviants are the usual dragon/dinosaur sinewy, snarling, hungry monsters. Nothing new there.

 

And if all of that wasn’t enough, we find out that Harry Styles will be playing Eros in a future film. Having turned down the role of Prince Eric in the live action Little Mermaid, I guess he had his heart set on being a superhero.

 

Some effects in Eternals are spectacular. Others are rather clumsy. Early battle scenes between a Deviant and Thena look cartoon-like. And Arishem is big, red, scary and has a voice like Barry White, but really comes across kind of flat.

 

Possibly the most intriguing thing in Eternals came during the closing credits. A series of images, artifacts from a variety of cultures, beautifully photographed and highlighted in gold light strands, suggest a connection between the “gods” in the Marvel universe and the subjects within human artwork through the ages. They were obvious inspirations.

 

There were several references to the Avengers and a couple to Thanos. That was the extent of the continuity between series. This movie is all new. I miss Ironman.

 

 

Eternals (2021) runs 2 hours, 36 minutes and is rated PG-13

Dune

If you haven’t read the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert or watched the 1984 movie by Director David Lynch, you might be expecting a Star Wars style SciFi film when you go to see the updated Dune. The fact that George Lucas was inspired by Dune is readily apparent but doesn’t change things – this is nothing like Star Wars. It is serious and cerebral, great science fiction.

Herbert was a master world-builder, a refined skill among successful Fantasy and Science Fiction authors, including Isaac Asimov, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, J. K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin and Terry Pratchitt. The inspiration for much of Dune comes from Islam. So this movie, which is very true to the book, is sociologically complex, richly detailed and believable, despite being set in the year 10,191 in a universe populated by warring factions of humans.

 

The story follows young Paul Atreides, of the House of Atreides, as he chooses one of three paths into his future. His mother Jessica, a Bene Gesserit witch, played by Rebecca Ferguson, and his father, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), each have their own ideas. A third path begins to emerge in Paul’s dreams, enhanced by the rare and valuable “Spice,” mined on the desert planet Arrakis. Control of the Spice trade has the attention of the Emperor, ruler of the Imperium and the known universe. A big job, and a mysterious, unseen presence thus far in the Dune saga. As with the half dozen Dune books, this tale cannot be told in a single film, so the 155 minutes devoted to this introduction is only chapter one.

 

Spacecraft, battles, sets and costuming are all spectacularly realized in this version of the Herbert classic. We are even introduced to “The Voice,” an obvious inspiration for The Force.

And then there are the sand worms. These ubiquitous monsters travel below the surface of the sand as if it was water, emerging to swallow giant machinery or whatever else attracts their attention, in giant whale-like gulps. They are reminiscent of the creatures in the film Tremors.

 

But the native inhabitants of Arrakis, the Fremen, have not only mastered life on a waterless world, they worship the worms, and we get a brief clue that they have learned to ride them.

 

This is a very slow, dark film that may not appeal to those who aren’t already fans. But the cinematography and special effects will have you tasting sand and running to concessions to quench your thirst, because, well, that’s better than recycled sweat.

 

Dune (2021) runs 2 hours, 37 minutes and is rated PG-13.

Halloween Kills

Spoiler alert, in case you don’t know what to expect from this movie. After all, we’ve been on this bloody journey since Michael Myers first started butchering people in 1978. That year a cute new star by the name of Jamie Lee Curtis became famous overnight as Laurie Strode and has been battling the same monster for 43 years. Now it’s difficult to tell whose face is more frightening, the much older Curtis or the William Shatner mask worn by Myers. 

The Jamie of 2021 reprises her 2018 role as grandmother to Allyson, played by Andi Matichak and is clearly having a bad hair day. It is noteworthy that Matichak wasn’t born yet when this film franchise established the Slasher genre and spawned eleven sequels. The last film left Michael trapped in the basement of Laurie's burning house while she is rushed to the hospital with a terrible knife wound to the stomach. End of story, right? Not a chance. John Carpenter and Curtis teamed up as producers on yet another story, one that apparently never ends. In Laurie Strode’s final soliloquy, she paints a future in which there will always be a Michael Myers, a monstrous metaphor for fear and evil:

 

 “I always thought Michael Myers was flesh and blood, just like you and me, but a mortal man could not have survived what he's lived through. The more he kills, the more he transcends into something else impossible to defeat. Fear. People are afraid. That is the true curse of Michael.

It is the essence of evil. The anchor that divides us. It is the terror that grows stronger when we try to hide. If they don't stop him tonight, maybe we'll find him tomorrow. Or next Halloween, when the sun sets and someone is alone. You can't close your eyes and pretend he isn't there. Because he is.”

 

Several of the original stars are back in this film. Nancy Stephens as Marion, Kyle Richards as Lindsey and Charles Cyphers as Leigh Brackett. Also in a lead role is Anthony Michael Hall, member of the John Hughes 1980's Brat Pack. His film career in Sixteen CandlesThe Breakfast ClubNational Lampoon’s Vacation and Weird Science eventually led to multiple appearances on Warehouse 13 and The Goldbergs. This, as he aged and became only vaguely recognizable as himself. Here, he plays Tommy Doyle, the baseball bat leader of a pitchfork-and-torch wielding vigilante mob that goes completely out of control in fictional Haddonfield, Illinois. The line “Evil dies tonight,” is chanted repeatedly, a hospital is overtaken by pursuers of Michael Myers, and Laurie Strode rips out her IVs and injects herself with a giant dose of painkiller from a carelessly discarded syringe and vial. She has just come out of surgery to repair her gaping knife wound, and if this film wasn’t a B-movie parody up until this point, it quickly becomes one.

 

Along the way, a gay couple who call each other “Big John” and “Little John” terrify trick-or-treaters on the porch of Michael’s childhood home. The entire town is aware of this house’s history, so living there is really an issue of poor judgment. Michael is leaving a bloody trail of bodies on a path leading directly back to this house, and the “Johns” are appropriately and horribly dispatched. The hapless town sheriff loses control, sits in stunned silence, and some confusing flashbacks reveal that Michael massacred the entire fire department the night he was left to burn in a basement.

 

Halloween Kills is an extremely gory, gratuitously violent outing. In other words, exactly what we’ve come to expect. If you find this appealing, this film’s for you.

 

Halloween Kills (2021) runs 1 hour 45 minutes and is rated R.

 

 

 

  

No Time to Die



We saw the long-awaited James Bond film recently. And not surprisingly, I began this review with the wrong title, not that it matters. The films are formulaic and could easily be titled “James Bond 1, James Bond 2,” in the style of the Fast and Furious enterprise.

 

So, to recap, we now have: Die Another Day, Live and Let Die, No Time to Die and Tomorrow Never Dies

 

and the related: License to Kill and A View to a Kill.

 

Sheesh, has anyone considered making a parody called, “Die, Already?” Well, hold onto that thought. I’ll try hard not to spoil anything.

 

But the title is not the only thing that makes these films memorable. Think back to the music that begins each journey into Bond’s world - shaken, not stirred. Music, after all, rivets Bond films into the soundtrack of their time, with only the hottest current pop stars invited to attend.

 

I believe Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” is the ultimate score. In Paul’s typically schmaltzy, Uncle Albert melodic style, augmented by Sir George Martin’s orchestral genius, it lures you in for a close look at the coming explosion of sound, a wall of pounding chaos best accompanied on stage by fireworks.

 

Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” comes to mind, and Adele’s Oscar winning “Skyfall,” but Madonna is pretty much forgotten for “Die Another Day.”

 

In No Time to Die we have Billy Eilish and brother Finneas co-authoring the title song, performed in her about-to-fall-asleep style, but actually using her pipes in a couple of places and singing more like Carly Simon did in “Nobody Does it Better.” Time will tell whether Billy will be remembered or fade quickly from her minutes of fame in our social media pandemic reality.

 

This is a very long film at almost three hours. In fact, it is the longest Bond film, and it feels like it, but it has enough action, chases, sub plots and betrayals to keep it interesting.

 

Ralph Fiennes is back again in the roll of “M,” casually referred to here by Bond as Mallory. He played Gareth Mallory when Judi Dench was M in Skyfall. Also returning is Ben Whishaw as “Q” (for Quartermaster by the way), with the usual array of gadgets that always seem about to explode when first examined. Q has a secret (to the audience) that is delicately revealed in this appearance. He played an amazing rendition of Uriah Heep in 2019’s The Personal History of David Copperfield.

 

One of the greatest arch-villains in the history of Bond films returns from his last appearance, incarcerated in Silence of the Lambs style, caged and shackled within an ultra-super-max security setting. Ernst Stavro Blofeld has been around for almost sixty years as the head of the evil organization SPECTRE, played by such notables as Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas. But Christoph Waltz brings his sinister best to this role with his taunting, German accent-laced mind games.

 

For Bond fans who relish seemingly inhuman villains, like “Jaws” in Moonraker, here we have Cyclops. Use your imagination, but his character is the source of the inevitable Bond puns we’ve come to love, but not really expect all that much from Daniel Craig.

 

Locations are stunning, from Italy to Norway, Jamaica to Cuba (faked sets). There are so many bad guys it’s hard to keep track, but ultimately Rami Malek as Lyutsifer Safin takes top honors as a self-proclaimed God who, despite his vast wealth and trendy technology, can’t make it to the dermatologist for a much-needed dermabrasion.

 

There are several strong female co-stars in No Time to Die along with the ever-present Moneypenny. One, an agent (Lashana Lynch as Nomi) under the direction of M, another seemingly ditsy newbie (Ana de Armas as Paloma) with surprisingly refined skills and a dress held in place by superglue, and ultimately a love interest (Lea Seydoux as Madeleine), since at the end of the day this is a love story, as are all Bond films.

 

 

No Time to Die (2021) runs 2 hours, 43 minutes and is rated PG-13.

 

Cry Macho

Last night we saw Clint Eastwood’s final film. Again. I guess if you’re a lifelong Eastwood fan, you’re so enamored of him that you’re willing to overlook much to share a fictional adventure with your favorite guy. I get it. I’d follow 90-year-old William Shatner anywhere in the universe, and some think that’s pretty sad. But if there’s one takeaway from Cry Macho, it’s the wise soliloquy Eastwood delivers to his traveling companion about the pointless nature of being “macho.” This, from one of the most macho guys ever to “make his day” on the silver screen. Cry Macho is not a coming-of-age film, it’s a clash of ages, within the leading man and between costars. Where do you go to see what your future holds?

So, let’s save both of us some time and click here to read my review of 2018’s The Mule. Not much has changed, except Clint’s age. He is now 91, but to his credit, he’s still producing and directing feature films. This is another script written by Nick Schenk, based on a 1975 novel by Richard Nash. Schenk authored The Mule as well, proving that sometimes success is comprised of who you know, not what you know, since he clearly can’t write.

 

Clint is a legendary rodeo star, derailed in his career by a broken back in 1979. His friend and rodeo manager Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakum) props him up through his years of subsequent struggles, until the time comes to call in a favor. He needs Clint to retrieve his now thirteen-year-old son from his Mexican mother’s clutches. The boy has become a pawn in a power struggle between the divorced couple over control of financial assets.

 

It immediately gets confusing, because the film is set in 1979, then fast forwards only one year. Is Clint supposed to be his younger self? He sure doesn’t look it. There are lots of stunt doubles employed in the making of this film. Clint on horseback is approximated at one point by a ground level camera, looking longingly at his shoulder-up profile against the background of a clear blue western sky, bouncing up and down. If I were to guess, they shot this outside a Walmart on a coin-operated pony ride. What? Another quarter? Come on Clint, sit up straight in the saddle!

 

The son, Rafo, played by Eduardo Minett, whose only other acting credits are from two Mexican TV series, tries hard but fails to deliver, carrying around a pet rooster named Macho throughout the film. The cock-fighting little beast eventually becomes Clint’s pet after the bird attacks and disables an incompetent thug who’s been pursuing the boy and old man as they attempt to reach the US border. That’s right, a rooster defeats the bad guys, not Clint. At first glance, Minett appears to be attempting a Spanish accent with lines like, “I hate jooo,” but he seems to be the real deal based on his acting career.

 

Dwight Yoakum, plays Rafo’s estranged father, long divorced from the boy’s lush of a mother, Leta, played by forty-year-old Chilean actress Fernanda Urrejola, the female equivalent of the cliché Mexican drug cartel kingpin character from The Mule. Yoakum wears a ten-gallon hat to cover up his weird, long gray hair, and a bulging duster to cover up his bulky body. Yoakum has quite a musical career, and numerous film credits, but he’s lost his luster. Maybe he and Clint are buddies. Or maybe Yoakum’s appearance here provides additional support for the movie’s theme of what it means to be an aging man.

 

Clint appears to have a thing for Mexican women. He visited Latina prostitutes while south of the border in his last film. This time, the ancient Gringo clearly “still has it,” at least in this script, attracting the attention of Marta, played by Natalia Travern, whose age is guessed to be mid-forties. She is famously protective of that information. But the 45-50-year age gap between Eastwood and his leading ladies is both expected and comical. In a final scene, he and Marta dance closely in her darkening roadside diner, and it looks like she’s holding his skeleton upright. As is usually the case, Clint “gets the girl,” though in reality, he’s now getting the grandmas. At least he keeps his shirt on in this film.

 

As we walked out of the theater, having taken two brief naps, I felt both refreshed and strangely like I had inhabited the mind of a 91-year-old. The plodding pace of the film was a long, slow ride into the sunset by one of the icons of yesteryear. Eastwood never had a lot of range as an actor, he was just reliably Clint for decades. We don’t always get to witness our favorite stars in their later years, they just fade away. To be productive and engaged in a career that he loved up until the bitter end is both a tribute to himself and a gift to his fans. This is where you go to see what your future holds.

 

Cry Macho (2021) runs 1 hour, 44 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 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 explained but adds little to the story. 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. Perhaps a magic beach can 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.

Nope

If you enjoyed Jordan Peele’s 2017 sleeper,   Get Out , you might expect a lot from his latest effort as writer/director. But a career based...