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Eagan at the Movies

Reviewing movies because we care.

Reviews for Current Films: 

In Theaters: Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, Pig, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, Black Widow, The Tomorrow War, The Forever Purge, The Boss Baby: Family Business, F9: The Fast Saga, Luca, The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard, Wish Dragon, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, In the Heights, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Spirit Untamed, Cruella, A Quiet Place Part II, Army of the Dead

Coming Soon: Old, The Green Knight, The Suicide Squad, Stillwater, Free Guy, Don't Breathe 2, Reminiscence, PAW Patrol: The Movie, Hotel Transylvania 4, Candyman, Shang-Chi, Malignant, Clifford, The Protege, Venom 2, Dear Evan Hansen, The Addams Family 2, No Time to Die

Rating system:

★★★★: Classic  

★★★½: Very Good   

★★★: Good  

★★½ : Eh

★★: Could've Been Worse, Could've Been Better  

★½: Is It Too Late To Get A Refund?  

: Hope You Have A Good Date  

½: Little To No Redeeming Value

No Stars: Rethink Your Life Choices

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins                                                                                          by James Eagan                                                                     ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: But his eyes don't look like a Snake at all.

Has anyone noticed that the "G.I. Joe" franchise has kind of vanished in recent years? A popular Hasbro made toyline/cartoon/multi-media franchise with many incarnations , much like "Transformers", there hasn't been much new material from it in a long time. There was that god awful "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" movie, followed by a sort of sequel with the more enjoyable (But still quite silly) "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" a few years later, before everything just stopped. Even my geeky self hadn't really thought much about this series I grew up with. So a reboot was inevitable at some point, with hopes of reigniting that spark to bring in some new kids along with the adults who grew up with the franchise, as well as start a new cinematic universe. Unlike others though (Remember the "Dark Universe"?), this one at least may just have the right idea. And, nerd alert, we might get some new collectibles out of it 

"Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins" follows the titular masked ninja (Henry Golding), who after witnessing his father's death as a child, has taken the name "Snake Eyes", as he searches for his father's killer. Snake Eyes is roped into the gangster life by Yakuza member, "Kenta" (Takehiro Hira), who promises him that they will find the man who murdered his father.....Eventually. Some time later, Snake Eyes befriends "Thomas "Tommy" Arashikage" (Andrew Koji), who is in reality the heir to Clan Arashikage, a secret group of ninjas who assist special military unit (And big time PSA provider), known as the "G.I. Joe", in the protection of the world. Tommy, having found a kindred spirit in Snake Eyes, brings him to Tokyo, to partake in the three "Challenges of the Warrior", so that he can become part of the Clan Arashikage, which is led by Tommy's grandmother, "Sen" (Eri Ishida), the "Hard Master" (Iko Uwais), and the "Blind Master" (Peter Mensah) . Tommy sees the potential of greatness for Snake Eyes, though a fellow clan member, "Akiko" (Haruka Abe), is more suspicious of the questionable loner.

Turns out though, Snake Eyes isn't quite ready to become that hero we all know him to be, as he continues to work for Kenta, a former member of Clan Arashikage, with plans to get his hands on the clan's mysterious secrets, such as a powerful jewel that can basically just blow things up real good. The Arashikage soon learn that Kenta is connected to the sinister and seductive, "Baroness" (Úrsula Corberó), an operative of the evil organization known as "Cobra". With Cobra's role in the war between Clan Arashikage and Kenta's gang revealed, this leads to the involvement of Joe member, "Scarlett" (Samara Weaving). Snake Eyes continues to face the challenges, dealing with his inability to let go of the past, facing his own demons, and eventually, becoming the honorable ninja/cartoon character/badass action figure, that a certain film critic looked up to back when he was just a little twerp. 

Serving as a starting point for a hopeful "G.I. Joe" cinematic universe, "Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins" doesn't exactly have a high bar to meet and sadly doesn't reach the gold standard "Marvel" heights that have already been set. However, it doesn't fall into the same trappings as others have by taking a good bit of advice from Marvel. Play the long game. Now I'm not saying that success is assured, but the potential is there and at times, the film realizes it. Directed by Robert Schwentke ("Red", "R.I.P.D.", and the last two "Divergent" movies. Ew), this is a more grounded approach to the Saturday morning-esque source material. There are still some fantastical elements (Giant snakes, exploding jewels, all Japanese people speaking mostly English despite being in Japan), and yet, the execution is fairly smart. For what it is anyway. There is a good story here, with a couple decent character arcs, and a solid amount of adrenaline fueled excitement. It's also very clever how they incorporate many of the classic elements from the source material in unique ways (I especially like what they do with "Cobra" here, with the group being this unknown organization, offering their resources to lesser criminal empires to eventually grow into something more deadly) Where the film falters is with the serviceable though unremarkable screenplay by Evan Spiliotopoulos ("The Unholy", "Charlie's Angels", "Beauty and the Beast"), Joe Shrapnel, and Amy Waterhouse, along with Director Schwentke's obsession with allowing the camera to be shook around every few action scenes. The thing is that it's not necessary and doesn't quite match the kind of movie this is. It's a slick looking film, with an obvious amount of effort put into the well staged action setpieces. However, the shaky cam just serves as a distraction that didn't need to be there. To give Schwentke some credit though, the film gets away from it later on, and wisely does allow for some slower paced character moments. In fact, it's those moments that give the film a little extra sense of quality than one would expect from it. 


Henry Golding, despite some slight slipping of the American accent (It's very slight actually), is such a charismatic actor, and in the end, it becomes too perfect of a choice for the character. He gives Snake Eyes a bit more of a complex motivation, does some questionable acts, and attempts to hide a lot of misery behind a harsh facade. Aside from the fact that the original character has normally been portrayed as silent and always masked, it's a departure from what fans might be expecting, but a welcome one. Golding also shares some great brother-like chemistry with the equally excellent Andrew Koji, who conveys a lot of emotion even with simple stares, while also hiding his own dark side (Any fan of the franchise is bound to know where his story is definitely going to go, and it's a fine arc). Haruka Abe is a charming presence, while Eri Ishida, Peter Mensah, and Iko Uwais, all get their memorable, fairly badass moments. Takehiro Hira is a smug, though rather forgettable villain, while Úrsula Corberó looks like she's absolutely relishing her part. (She honestly has the character down perfectly) Samara Weaving sadly is very underused, not being given much to do except partake in a couple action scenes, get a few one-liners, and just serve as setup for future films if there are any. It's disappointing due to being such a well known character in the franchise, and she's a good choice for it.  

With flaws visible all over, "Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins" has something that sets it above say, the "Transformers" films, or really any other non-Marvel, Disney, or DC franchise, trying to get off the ground these days. It feels very genuine and most of all, earnest. There was effort to put into this, and it's smart enough to know what kind of risks are necessary if you're going to make this work. It's still a fun action flick, with a few surprises mixed in there, and just enough depth to elevate it above the less remarkable. Not sure if the hard work will pay off, but for what the film gives us, which is a fairly complex, less by the numbers origin story, it gives you just enough to at least be curious about where they could possibly go with it. There's something with potential for something truly great here, or at least something that doesn't feel too similar to other popular properties, and the still excitable young geek in me wants to see it succeed. 3 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Ninja Violence, Scary Serpents, And Jewelry That Makes You Go Boom. 

Pig                                                             by James Eagan                          ★★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: It's both a pet, AND an emergency meal plan.

Okay, bear with me on this one guys. This is going to be a rather short, very vague review. It has to be, because the less you know, the better. You'll thank me later.

"Pig" follows a hermit named, "Robin "Rob" Feld" (Nicolas Cage), who lives outside of Portland, Oregon, deep within the woods, looking for truffles with his beloved (And very adorable) pet foraging pig. Rob supplies his truffles to a very inexperienced and at times irritable dealer, "Amir" (Alex Wolff), but has absolutely no contact with anyone else outside of the woods. One night though, some unknown intruders break into Rob's little cabin, beat him up, and steal his poor piggy, leaving Rob broken. Rob contacts Amir and the two head into the city to find the pig, leading the many revelations about who Rob was before his solitude and how he truly affected the people around him. 

Written and directed by first timer, Michael Sarnoski, "Pig" is a movie that is definitely not what anyone expected. When you hear the premise of the film, with a crazy hobo Nicolas Cage going into the big city to hunt down the evil bastards that stole his lovable piggy, you think a dumb popcorn filled, future meme maker. The turn off your brain and watch an Oscar winning actor once again go nuts on screen, like how we've grown accustomed to. I hate to break it to you guys, but this isn't an action movie. It's not a thriller. It's a slow moving, very arthouse, and melancholy drama. And it's really quite mesmerizing. This has got to be one of the most bizarrely effective films I've seen in years, reaching an emotional level that you don't actually notice is there at first. It's because you are immersed in what's actually a profound, yet subtle character study, that never fully explains everything, but leaves just enough crumbs to where you can piece things together. 

Sarnoski's direction is understated, with a hushed tone that never plays too heavy on overly sentimental. There's no need for an over the top score, or even dialogue to explain to the audience what they can plainly see with their own eyes. Sometimes, just watching a man's blank reaction to what may appear to be either unsettling or even just plain odd, says so much more than any words can ever convey. It's a lot thanks to Nicolas Cage (Who also served as a producer), and from what I've seen from him, I consider this to be his greatest performance. He's not crazy. He's a little eccentric, but in no way does he ever go off like a babbling cartoon character in the way we've seen him at times. This is Cage acting, playing into the character's quiet turmoil, generating poignancy and even a little humor in some aspects. There are small moments of levity, sometimes due to how odd the film can be at times. He does a brilliant job with it, and dare I say, the man broke my heart more than once during this movie. It's the kind of performance that gets the praise it rightfully deserves and shines a brand new light on an actor that we know can truly be great, only will likely get ignored come award season because, well, it's just not marketable enough. Alex Wolff shows his range, being a great foil to Cage both some semi-comedic scenes and the serious ones. There is some great chemistry between the two. There are sporadic appearances throughout, with a standout scene between Cage and David Knell (As a cocky chef, who has clearly sold out), that really needs to be witnessed and deconstructed. 

 "Pig" is like a comedy of errors. It's road trip movie into a city where everything either goes wrong or feels made up on the fly. I mean, one character is basically following a likely smelly guy who lives in the woods all across town, not knowing what's even going on half of the time. That's what's so charming about it. Underneath all the weirdness, is something affectionate, that moves you when you least expect it to, and boy, at times just feels like a hard punch to the gut. There is a lot more to this that I can't get into. You need to see it for yourself. The more you know, the less surprised you will be. Even when things don't quite make much sense in your head at first, you're fascinated by what's going on and the way the film explains it (Or in some cases, doesn't explain it). It's a tale that you find yourself invested in, and will leave with a lump in your throat. This is the biggest surprise I've seen in a theater for quite some time, and I hope people give it the time of day. It's a poetic, quirky, yet moving tale that should touch the heart of anybody. Especially if you're a swine lover. That sure is one cute pig right there. 4 Stars. Rated R For Harsh Content And Subtle Human Suffering. 

Space Jam: A New Legacy                             by James Eagan                     ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: The Looney bin.

Alright guys, lets rip off that band-aid now. It's time a lot of us admitted to one of those many things you learn as you get older. "Space Jam" is not really a good movie. Blasphemy, right? Just look back at it without the nostalgia goggles. It's very dated, is very forced, doesn't do near enough justice to its beloved characters, and is nothing but one giant ass commercial for anything and everything "Warner Bros." can possibly get their grubby fingers on. It doesn't help that since its release, we've seen much better versions of such a concept with movies like "The LEGO Movie" or "Ralph Breaks the Internet". (Not to mention, we also got "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?". The magnum opus of the mixing of animation with live-action, along with the inclusion of many aspects of the childhoods we hold near and dear). It's not to say that "Space Jam" isn't a fun movie. It certainly is, and I got fond memories of it. Just wanted to get that out of the way, so I don't have to repeat the phrase "Well.....So was the first movie...." over and over again. 

"Space Jam: A New Legacy" follows global Basketball star and living embodiment of human likability, "LeBron James" (Played by LeBron James, obviously), who really wants his son, "Dominic "Dom" James" (Cedric Joe), to follow in his Basketball playing footsteps, despite Dom being kind of a child prodigy, having developed his own video game. LeBron is advised by his supportive wife, "Kamiyah" (Sonequa Martin-Green), to find a way of understanding with Dom, leading to LeBron taking his son with him to the Warner Bros. studio. They're shown an experimental form of software, known as the "Serververse", where basically everything Warner Bros. owns has been compiled by the self-aware, and totally not evil, artificial intelligence, "Al-G Rhythm" (Don Cheadle). LeBron shows zero interest in it, insulting Al-G, who has plans of his own to become all powerful. So Al-G teleports LeBron and Dom into the Serververse, where Al-G challenges LeBron to a game of basketball, agreeing to release Dom from his clutches if LeBron wins. However, LeBron will be forced to stay in the Serververse forever if Al-G wins, sending LeBron to "Tune World", home of the "Looney Tunes", which is now only inhabited by "Bugs Bunny" (Voiced by Jeff Bergman). With all of the other Tunes having abandoned Bugs for bigger and better things (Mostly be forcefully integrating themselves into other Warner Bros. properties), Bugs himself has kind of gone loonier than usual. 

With time running out to save his son, LeBron and Bugs set out to gather a team of their own players, which Bugs uses as an excuse to get the old gang back together, such as "Daffy Duck" (Voiced by Eric Bauza), "Porky Pig" (Also voiced by Eric Bauza), "Lola Bunny" (Voiced by Zendaya), "Speedy Gonzales" (Voiced by Gabriel Inglesias), "Tweety" (Voiced by Bob Bergen), "Sylvester" (Also voiced by Jeff Bergman), "Wile E. Coyote" (Played by himself as he should be), and all the others that the filmmakers can fit into this movie. (Except "Pepe Le Pew" because he's a rapist.....I mean, he's pretty borderline. Be honest) With the "Tune Squad" reunited, LeBron enters the game against Al-G, Dom (Who Al-G has been manipulating to joining his side), and with a team of villainous avatars based around real life Basketball players, known as the "Goon Squad", made up of "Chronos" (Voiced by Damian Lillard), "Wet-Fire" (Voiced by Klay Thomas), "Arachnneka" (Voiced by Nneka Ogwumike), "White Mamba" (Voiced by Diana Taurasi), and "The Brow" (Voiced by Anthony Davis).  

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee ("The Best Man Holiday", "Girls Trip"), with producing credits by Ryan Coogler and LeBron James, and a screenplay written by six people (How do both this and the first movie require so many people to write them?), "Space Jam: A New Legacy" has aspects that actually work better than the original film, with some that really don't, and in most ways, is just the same movie. One thing that this movie does better is that the actual plot, while still plenty silly, is a lot less forced and actually has a reason to be there. The story has a sweet side to it, and is paced rather well. If you weren't a fan of the overabundance of product placement in the first movie, you're not going to be able to handle this one. Warner Bros. flexes almost everything it has in its library, which make up a good portion of the gags. Some of them are quite funny  or even clever (Such as Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner in "Mad: Max Fury Road"), while others are just perplexing (Why was Granny in "The Matrix"?), feeling like a reference is being made just for the sake of making a reference. There are also lots of visual cameos from all kinds of copyrighted characters, who don't actually do much, though some get a chuckle or even a small belly laugh (I rather appreciate the use of the Schwarzenegger "Mr. Freeze"). There are a lot of groaners though and when they fall flat, you can feel the physical pain from the face plant. (The Porky Pig rapping as the "Notorious P.I.G." sequence isn't as bad as everyone wants to hype it up to be, but it serves no purpose and feels very much like it was made up by a bunch of old white board members) Even when things aren't quite gelling, the film is visually gorgeous all over. A decent portion of it is completely in 2D animation, which is something that's been sorely missing from theaters over the last decade. The animation in those moments just pop off of the screen and is just plain charming to look at. Even when we enter the more 3D CGI second half, it looks amazing. Dare I say it, the Looney Tunes make the transfer to CGI really well and I kind of want to see more of it in the future. The animation was done by "WAG", or "Warner Animation Group", the people behind "The LEGO Movie" and "Storks", so it looks old fashioned, yet refined for the modern day. 

LeBron James isn't exactly the best actor in the world, but then again neither was Michael Jordan. Regardless, just like Jordan, he's still naturally endearing enough to make up for it. Cedric Joe isn't bad, though he's also not great, while Sonequa Martin-Green is just there to play the role of wife and nothing more. Don Cheadle makes for a fun villain and looks like he's having one Hell of a time playing one. (He ends up being more animated than the actual cartoon characters, and the movie is better for it) Ernie Johnson Jr. and Lil Rel Howery get a few chuckles as themselves, being forced to fill in the roles of the announcers for the big game. The voices are top notch, with Jeff Bergman giving Bugs Bunny a cute little subplot, Eric Bauza getting a lot of laughs as Daffy, and I wouldn't mind Gabriel Inglesias being the new permanent voice actor for Speedy Gonzales (He doesn't get to do much, but it's an inspired choice). Lola actually has a bit more of a character than the original movie, though the casting of Zendaya is almost completely for marketing purposes. Some other beloved Looney Tunes make for small roles, such as "Yosemite Sam", "Foghorn Leghorn", "Marvin the Martian" (Always one of my personal favorites next to Daffy), and Taz, though it's just amusing to see them. There's also a cameo in the last act that actually got a big laugh out of me. It's one of those jokes that I honestly didn't even think of them doing. 

When "Space Jam: A New Legacy" doesn't work, it really doesn't. It's also essentially a nearly two hour commercial for whatever Warner Bros. needs to advertise at the moment (It doesn't help that there are actually much better movies that have done similar things). I also can't stress enough that I'm still waiting on that grand scale Looney Tunes movie of my dreams ("Looney Tunes: Back in Action" had the right idea, but even that couldn't quite crack the code). With all that said though, like I said at the beginning of this review, so was the original. It's already dated, pretty preposterous, and doesn't hold back on the cringe. It's also perfectly harmless, sporadically funny, and is at least affable. We live in a post "Emoji Movie" world. This is a freakin masterpiece by comparison. There's a soul in here somewhere, wrapped up in the excessive product placement. Just like the original. For kids, who I see growing up with this one similar to how we did with the first one, it's not gonna hurt them. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Crude Humor (Though I can't recall a single fart joke), Pig Rap, And Disregard For The Rules Of Basketball. Granted, I Know Nothing About Sports Anyway, So Maybe That's How It's Supposed To Be Played. 

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions                                                                by James Eagan                                                           ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: This "Cards Against Humanity" game is gettiing out of hand.

Back when the first "Escape Room" came out in 2019, it was a surprise success. While I found it to be a rather unremarkable, though solidly entertaining distraction, there was a part of me that wondered if I was just being nice since it came out in January (Home of the last second Oscar hopefuls, along the front runners for every critic's worst of the year lists). It kind of worked, all things considered. I'm glad to report that the sequel, while itself nothing remarkable and flawed all over, has something about it that also just kind of works. Just enough to pass to fill the gap till the next Summer blockbuster. Or I'm just getting generous in my old age. 

"Escape Room: Tournament of Champions" catches us up with "Zoey" (Taylor Russell) and "Ben" (Logan Miller), the only survivors of the previous Escape Room turned death trap, constructed by evil organization, "Minos", who believes that humanity craves watching people fight for their lives in an elaborate fashion (Whats funny is that I can see businessmen standing around a boardroom actually considering that idea. It's the most realistic part of this movie). Sadly, nobody believes Zoey and Ben, and Zoey is now determined to make Minos pay for the many lives that they have claimed over the years with their sick games. Zoey is able to convince Ben to go with her back to New York City, in hopes of finding Minos' secret headquarters, only to end up stuck on a train with a group of strangers, such as "Brianna" (Indya Moore), "Nate" (Thomas Cocquerel), "Theo" (Carlito Olivero), and "Rachel" (Holland Roden). It turns out that this is another one of Minos' escape rooms (Except on a grander level), and the other people that Zoey and Ben are trapped with are also survivors of previous rooms. Now thus begins this epic tournament of champions, as our heroes must face even more perplexing puzzles and deadly obstacles, as they hope to finally expose Minos to the world, or die horribly. 

A sort of PG-13 version of the "Saw" franchise (Honestly, it's even structured the same way), "Escape Room: Tournament of Champions" is a nonsensical, somewhat predictable, and not particularly something worth seeing opening night, considering movie ticket prices these days. With that said, as far a quick distraction best suited for a matinee, especially if you need to kill less than ninety watching people get killed, but in a safe, blood-free way. None of the plot really gels, and while the escape scenarios look cool (And visually impressive for the modest by comparison budget), I don't see how they could remotely exist in the real world, except via magic. There are a couple rooms that basically have small worlds created, with their own rules and physics, and the film gives up pretty quickly trying to explain it. It's illogical, and yet, the sequences are regardless pretty intense and at times even suspenseful (Actually a sequence involving acid rain is the most memorable and ends on a rather gruesome note). The puzzles are clever (Though you can figure out the answers yourself without too much trouble) and Director Adam Robitel (Returning from the first one) wisely knows how to keep things constantly going at a fast pace, adding a sense of urgency. 

It also helps that Taylor Russell and Logan Miller are both very likable, and you really don't want anything bad to happen to them. Indya Moore, Holland Roden, Carlito Olivero, and Thomas Cocquerel, don't really have much to work with, being there to either die at some point if the plot demands or just have supporting parts to fill, but they're not bad at all. Something I really have to commend this movie for is that none of these characters are douchebags, like they normally would be with a movie like this. They do try to work as a cohesive team, and don't have any real intention of letting anyone die. While we never actually see the people behind Minos, you can feel the presence of whoever this shadowy group of untouchable beings, and it shows in the traps within the movie. There is a creditable threat to them, making for solidly frightening villains with twisted minds and a dark sense of, uh, humor.       

"Escape Room: Tournament of Champions" goes through a couple obvious motions, even with a few surprise twists or reveals sprinkled in the second half. It's still plenty fun and has just enough smarts to set it above some of the more nihilistic entertainment that it's emulating. Just like the first film, it's an enjoyable, short, and safe watch........and also like the first film, it ends on a really stupid finale note. Maybe setting up for sequels in a sloppy fashion are going to be a trademark for this franchise. Oh well, guess it comes with the territory. Flaws and all (And unless "Space Jam 2" is not your cup of tea), it's something brisk to see with your friends in the middle of the day. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Bloodless Deaths, Corporate Villainy, And Terrible Therapists.  

Black Widow                                          by James Eagan                           ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Uh, ladies....I think I need saving.

Can we all agree that it's about damn time? I'm not referring to this movie's long delayed release due to last year's (And still this year's) pandemic. I'm also not referring to the major Marvel withdrawal that we've been suffering (I'm loving the shows, but there's no topping the big screen cinematic experience). No, it's the fact that Black Widow is finally getting her own movie. It's been over a decade and the character, who previously made her first appearance in "Iron Man 2", before becoming one of the most recurring major characters in several other films, though sadly never as the main star. Then she tragically made the ultimate sacrifice in "Avengers: Endgame". When a beloved character needs to die to get her own movie, that's how you know it's way overdue. 

Set right after the events of "Captain America: Civil War", "Black Widow" opens with the "Sokovia Accords" now in full effect, leaving former trained assassin, turned spy, turned "Avenger", "Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow" (Scarlett Johansson), to flee from the authorities, led by United States Secretary of State, "Thaddeus Ross" (William Hurt, in what's essentially just a cameo). Natasha attempts to go into hiding, only be attacked by the highly skilled, masked assassin known only as "Taskmaster". This leads to Natasha to reunite with her semi-sister, "Yelena Belova" (Florence Pugh), who has recently defected from "The Red Room", the Russian brainwashing and training program that turns young girls into compliant, remorseless killers against their will. The Red Room, along with the sinister mastermind, "General Dreykov" (Ray Winstone), were previously thought to be dead and buried, but has in reality been waiting for the right moment to come out of the shadows to accomplish that age old goal of world domination. 

Yelena has discovered the creation of a dustlike substance, which can cure the other Black Widows of their forced conditioning. However, if Natasha and Yelena want to finally bring down Dreykov, they'll need to find the already impossible to find Red Room. This means Natasha and Yelena are going to have to reunite with the rest of their old spy family, including scientist mother-figure, "Melina Vostokoff" (Rachel Weisz), and their father-figure, "Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian" (David Harbour), who is Russia's less successful, more washed up answer to "Captain America". With Taskmaster, and the rest of the Black Widows hot on their trail, Natasha has to confront her mistakes of the past and bring her family back together if they're going to put an end to the Red Room once and for all.

Directed by Cate Shortland (With this being her first American film), with a screenplay by Eric Pearson ("Thor: Ragnarok", "Godzilla vs. Kong"), "Black Widow" is not as grand as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most recent entries, nor is it as unique in the grand scheme of things. It's a smaller scale story, that could be seen as a couple episode arc of a television series, serving as a palette cleanser in between bigger films. Marvel has done that before, so it's nothing new. And yeah, it's still really quite excellent regardless. Much like Pixar, what can be seen as middle of the road, still blows others like it out of the water, making for an exciting, action packed tine at the movies, that at least remembers to include the necessary depth to its story and give you a reason to care. There's no end of the world event, or even that much of a connection to the future plans for the cinematic universe (Except for the obligatory post credits scene). It's very much standalone in that regard, but the film wisely uses that to its advantage to make something more personal. It's probably one of Marvel's darker films, with some twisted implications and heavy emotional resonance, which is conveyed through Shortland's smooth-looking, fairly grounded direction. It's filmed like a spy thriller, with more close combat action scenes, only escalating once we reach the more CGI-heavy climax. However, even that looks really spectacular, making for some much needed big screen spectacle that's top notch as usual. Even though things can get quite grim at times, the trademark sense of humor remains in tact, which also further plays into the thing this seemingly never-ending franchise has done best (And something that further proves nobody will likely ever quite reach the same heights). The character work is perfect, and you're on board with every single one of them. 

Scarlett Johansson, finally getting the spotlight to herself after resigned to supporting whichever hero is the lead at the time, gives her character a more restrained sendoff (If this is truly her final appearance). We could tell that there was enough there to make for a movie, with Johansson retaining that Marvel charm, while also implying the inner turmoil that she tries to keep hidden. Florence Pugh continues to shine as an actress with an impeccable amount of range, and her chemistry with Johansson serves as the heart of the film. They're both total badasses, funny, and realistically vulnerable just like any other down-to-earth hero should be. A lof of the humor comes from a terrific David Harbour (I especially adore a running gag with how he sees himself as a rival to "Captain America", while there's a 100% chance that Cap never even knew he existed), while Rachel Weisz brings in some of the film's sweetest moments, going full mama bear. There's also a likable smaller role for O-T Fagbenle (as "Rick Mason", a friend to Natasha, who like most of us guys, clearly has the hots for her). One of the film's weaker elements would be the villains, though most of that is due to a limited screentime and regardless they still get the job done. Ray Winstone is suitably vile and easy to hate (Think a Russian Harvey Weinstein), with there being an intentional point to the offputting way the character acts. Meanwhile, Taskmaster is plenty scary, making for an intense adversary, though I can bet that there are aspects about where the film goes with the character that will be controversial, knowing male nerds with YouTube Channels. (A very predictable species) In the end though, the villains aren't what matter. It's the family dynamic, adding a new layer to a character that we've already seen so much of and know so little about, and even makes you look back on other films with a little bittersweetness. I also appreciate that this is a very female heavy action film, without anyone actually needing to address it, with the sense of empowerment feeling natural and most importantly, earned. 

 "Black Widow" isn't a game changer and could be seen as a more by the book venture for the MCU....and it is. With that said, that's an already well put together playbook. What can be seen as more general by the standards of previous films, still succeeds better than anyone else in the game, thanks to expert direction, memorable performances, a cast of characters that you want to see more of, and a deeper context that feels intimate thanks to the controlled approach. It's still full of all that humor, heart, and sense of quality that really only Marvel can bring, even if to some it could feel as generic (Funny how a film franchise that's given us a talking raccoon, the god of Thunder, magical suburban witches, and an infinite number of Lokis, can now be called generic). It's a warm feeling that I'm so relieved to finally have back. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Heavy Action And Violence, Twisted Russian Experiments, And Thick Accents All Over. 

The Tomorrow War                              by James Eagan                               ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Going back to the future....Tomorrow.

I get the idea that what's wanted here more than anything is another "Edge of Tomorrow"-like form of success. While that film wasn't exactly a gigantic financial favorite, it's become one of those major summer surprises that won over a lot of critics and audiences, being something that as time as gone along to become a cult favorite. It helped that despite the plot itself not being anything too different, it was the clever idea that was injected into the middle of it, making the execution unique in its own right and even making others want to emulate it instead. That's what I think what was going through the filmmakers' minds during this, and while I wouldn't call it a 100% success, I did see something more special hidden within what could have been a generic Science-Fiction, alien shoot em up, that normally would just be tossed to the side at the last second to fill in a timeslot. As you should know by now, I think a LOT about these kinds of things at the movies.

"The Tomorrow War" opens in the not so distant future, where people from the actually pretty distant future, arrive to warn humanity about an upcoming war against a deadly alien species, known as the "Whitespikes". The world is at the moment completely doomed, so the future has come to recruit soldiers to travel to the future to fight in the at the moment, losing battle. Former Green Beret turned lame biology teacher, "Dan Forester" (Chris Pratt), is drafted into the future war, being taken away from his wife, "Emmy" (Betty Gilpin) and daughter, "Muri" (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), to take part in the battle, that many know very little about. Partnered up with a team of either supporting characters or red-shirts, including our comic relief, "Charlie" (Sam Richardson) and the cancer-stricken, no longer giving a crap, "Dorian" (Edwin Hodge), Dan is dropped right in the middle of the future war, coming face to face with the mindless, very hungry Whitespikes, resulting in heavy casualties. Dan and his remaining team are placed under the command of the codenamed, "Romeo Command" (Yvonne Strahvski), with a mission to find a way to kill the Whitespikes on a larger scale by specifically targeting the rarer (And much stronger) females, in order to prevent the apocalyptic possible future from becoming a reality, while also confronting the inevitable questions that arise when time travel is brought into the equation. 

Directed by Chris McKay ("The LEGO Batman Movie") in his first live-action project, along with a screenplay by Zach Dean, "The Tomorrow War", is a movie with moments that feel too good for something of its stature. It has some ambitions, but suffers from the weak script and a lack of memorability. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of it all, this is just a standard alien invasion, that just so happens to have actual thought behind it. Such as the concept itself, with there being some specific rules to the time travel and a sense of urgency in how desperate the draft ends up becoming (It's apparent that they already lost the best, so they need to scrape the bottom of the barrel). Not to mention, despite the futuristic setting, the technology feels more real and refreshingly flawed (A major malfunction in the first act makes for a clever action sequence). It's grounded and I appreciate that. McKay also shows a lot of promise as a more high budget director, utulizing some solid special effects, a few stunning and even scary sequences, and one Hell of a monster design. (These things are pretty nightmarish). The film's biggest faults happen to come with the story, and most of its execution. A lot of the dialogue isn't all that strong, with some noticeable pacing issues, and too many plot points that don't really make much sense. In fact, it ends up being kind of stupid. There are some twists and turns that sort of work, but others that fall flat and feel much too forced. It feels like that some of these are meant to amp up the apparent derivativeness.    

Where the screenplay crumbles, the actors remain top notch regardless. In fact, this may be one of the best acted mostly mediocre films I've seen in some time. Everybody is really good here. Chris Pratt keeps the film balanced, playing a more human hero, with some flaws, a likable personality, and something that I also commend the film for, actually showing his fear. Yvonne Strahovski is excellent, making the second act twist work, with the emotional payoff only coming together due to her own commitment to it. Sam Richardson gets some good moments of humor, without making him feel overly like a goofball, while Edwin Hodge is plenty intense. Even the more underused, though always welcome actors like Betty Gilpin, and an incredibly swole J.K. Simmons (as "James", Dan's estranged father), leave their mark. There are things that don't really make much sense, especially once we reach the rather rushed final act. With what happens, you're left wondering why nobody thought of this in the first place and why apparent cost seems to be called into question only now. (On a side note though, there is a nice little deviation from a little trope I tend to find a bit annoying. There is more to the so called alien invasion than what we're shown. You always wonder why or even how such mindless, destruction loving beasts would just storm in to take over the world by just killing or blowing stuff up. There is an explanation as to what's going on, and it's different in an inventive way). 

"The Tomorrow War" has merit, better than necessary acting, and blockbuster level visuals, that are brought down by the pedestrian plot, poor script, and an unjustifiable length of nearly two hours and twenty minutes. The pace is felt by the end, and if not for the amiable talent on display, it would feel more like a slog. It's certainly a lot better than I would have expected, though its best qualities make the lesser ingredients a bit more frustrating. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Some Futuristic Violence, Illegal Aliens, And J. K. Simmons' Distracting Biceps.   

The Forever Purge                             by James Eagan                                  ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Dude, If you've been vaccinated, you can take off the mask."

One thing I can say about the "Purge" franchise, it's that no matter what, it never held back. Things too crazy for ya? Lets redefine the phrase "Over the Top"! Too violent? Lets paint the entire screen red! Overly excessive and borderline exploitation? Why not? This has been a series that just went for it, and if this is truly a finale, the filmmakers were prepared to go out in a blaze of glory (And maybe, take all of America with them).  

The final entry in the "Purge" saga, "The Forever Purge" takes place sometime after the third film ("The Purge: Election Year"), where it seems the abolishment of "The Purge" (The one night given to the United States, where all crime is legalized for twelve hours, usually resulting in loads of murder and served as an excuse for the government to do away with poor minorities), didn't stick. The "New Founding Fathers of America", are now once again in power and don't waste any time bringing it back to the people. We now follow a Mexican immigrant wife and husband, "Adela" (Ana de la Reguera) and "Juan" (Tenoch Huerta), who try to prepare for their first Purge, going with a friend, "T.T." (Alejandro Edda), to find a place to hide with other immigrants for the upcoming twelve hours. Juan and T.T.'s rich, though pretty nice boss, "Caleb Tucker" (Will Patton), also prepares to take shelter for the night with the rest of his family, such as his fairly bigoted son, "Dylan" (Josh Lucas) and more open minded daughter, "Harper" (Leven Rambin), along with Dylan's pregnant wife, "Cassie" (Cassidy Freeman). The Purge happens, some people are slaughtered, and some do unspeakable acts, with all to hopefully be forgotten the next day. However, it turns out that a lot of people don't wanna go back to the old ways, and just plain love them some killing. A group of wackos and insurrectionists form a group called the "Ever After Purgers", declaring that they are now in a neverending Purge, or "The Forever Purge", targeting whoever they want, whenever they want. (Of course they're going to go after any non-white person first). Adela and Juan partner up with Dylan and his family, to escape across the Mexican border to safety, as complete chaos erupts around them. With the NFFA now unable to control the Ever After Purgers, America becomes Hell on Earth, and the fate of land of the free, home of the brave, being called into question. 

By this point, you're either on board with the eight year old series or you're not (Or offended. That's possible too), and I don't see "The Forever Purge" being the one to convert any newcomers. It's the apparent final film, so even the filmmakers know that doing so would be a lost cause. So I give this film credit for understanding that and sticking to what it knows, which is to be a gruesomely violent, horror-thriller, with a not so subtle political edge. They've been consistently alright so far, so don't break what isn't really broken. What I think makes this final entry to be the best in the series (Aside from actually being a solid hour and forty minutes of suspense and scares), is that the filmmakers not only escalate things further than ever before, they also make the satire razor sharp to the point it could cut the throat of any insurrectionist watching. Director Everado Valerio Gout (In his first theatrical feature), who is clearly inspired by westerns more than your typical escape from the city or country thrillers, doesn't hold back in the point that' trying to be made. While it's still wrapped up in a rather implausible, occasionally trashy outer exterior, you can appreciate how the films have in a way led up to this moment. 

Ana de la Reguera and Tenoch Huerta a serviceable heroes, while there is a fairly cute (If not entirely predictable) subplot involving Leven Rambin and Alejandro Edda. Cassidy Freeman and Will Patton (Despite his obviously brief appearance), give better than required performances. Josh Lucas ends up being the most interesting character in the film, and while it's not exactly as profound as the movie may be going for, there is something fascinating about a character who is a decent person, though does harbor a different form of bigotry (One of those guys who doesn't necessarily look down on anyone, but just doesn't seem to get it and wants various cultures separated because of it). There is a decent redemption story in there. We get a lot of fun, completely cartoonish villains (No killer is freakin normal in these movies. They're always foaming at the mouth and cackling maniacally), though Jeffrey Doornbos (as the gung-ho leader of the Ever After Purgers), doesn't really come into play till the last act and leaves hardly an impression. An interesting scene-stealer ends up being Zahn McClarnon (as "Chiago", a tribal leader who sees all of this coming a mile away), who gets quite a few significant moments. It's always been hard to actually label these films as scary (They generally go for easy jump scares), but the film has it's at least at times rather intense. Such as showing the aftermath of a Purge, where cleanup crews come in to take care of all the bloody corpses littering streets and people attempt to get to their normal lives (All of which is cut short by the out of nowhere arrival of more madness), which is certainly clever and effective, especially considering it's just supposed to be shock value. Sometimes that kind of thing works. 

"The Forever Purge" makes for the best "Purge" movie, despite continuing the franchise's in your face, overly violent attitude. It's still too much for its own good, and it's also definitely not the best written movie in the world. With that said, it's a solidly intense, well put together, and yes, actually political poignant, bit of trashy though relevant political satire. It all comes together once we reach the very fitting (And somewhat scary), grand finale, where the point isn't just driven home, it's shoved right through your skull. Even I was a little surprised they even bothered to go there. We always say that nothing will ever get like "The Purge" or that it's just too unrealistic to exist. Considering recent events, sometimes I wonder though how far off we might actually be. 3 Stars. Rated R For Grotesque Violence, Lots Of Swears, Sweat, And Good People On Both Sides. Or So I'm Told.   

The Boss Baby: Family Business                                                                                  by James Eagan                                                                   ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "Which one of you is changing my diaper this time?"

For a movie that many were ready to blast as the most uninspired and laziest of ideas, "The Boss Baby" was not only a surprise financial success (And one that "DreamWorks Animation" really needed at the time), but it was also very, very strange. It wasn't great or anything. However, if you think about the plot in any way, uninspired and lazy aren't the adjectives that come to mind. 

"The Boss Baby: Family Business" opens up years after the first, with "Tim Templeton" (James Mardsen), having grown apart from his former boss baby brother, "Ted" (Alec Baldwin), who has become unnaturally wealthy. Tim now has a wife, "Carol" (Eva Longoria), a smart daughter, "Tabitha" (Ariana Greenblatt), and a baby, "Tina" (Amy Sedaris), who as it turns out has joined "BabyCorp" (Where all babies come from, run also by babies in suits), like her uncle before her. Tina tells Tim that she's on a secret mission for BabyCorp, involving Tabitha's advanced learning school, run by the eccentric Jeff Golblum.....I mean, the eccentric "Dr. Erwin Armstrong" (Jeff Goldblum), and a possible evil scheme that threatens all of babykind. This mission brings Ted back into Tim's life, who feels that Tabitha might like his brother more than him. With the help of a magical formula that de-ages you for a limited time, Tim is turned back into a kid, while Ted is turned back into a baby. Tim and Ted are sent on a madcap adventure into Tabitha's school to find out what Armstrong is up to, rekindling their lost brotherly relationship, and uncovering an even more nefarious conspiracy at the center of it all. 

Directed by the returning Tom McGrath ("Megamind", along with the "Madagascar" films), "The Boss Baby: Family Business" follows the frenetic, bizarrely outlandish footsteps of the first film, though it seems this time the filmmakers have just done a better job balancing that out with a few good laughs for the adults, enough cuteness for the kiddies, and some truly spectacular (And visually unique) animation. Unlike the ironically tame "Spirit Untamed", the animators at DreamWorks seem to have saved up all their creativity for this, making up for a lack of character detail with a fast paced, cartoonishly over the top mix between both 3D and occasional 2D. This makes the slapstick humor very exaggerated (And for some reason, makes almost all of the characters really jiggly). It's a very colorful looking movie that's fun to look at. Maybe it's more of a budget since the first film made so much money, but this one feels more grand this time around. The screenplay by Michael McCullers (The first "The Boss Baby", "Mr. Peabody & Sherman", along with the second and third "Austin Powers" movies), isn't exactly deep or offers too much in terms of intellectual humor. It's still full of some solid jokes, especially plenty for the adults to appreciate more than the kids. The plot is once again one of those "Maybe it's best you don't think about it" sort of things. It's very much out there, with implications that don't make a whole lot of sense. (Babies making apps. Evil world domination schemes. All babies coming from an office building in the sky. Pretty wild)

Alec Baldwin's voice does quite match the look, and gets more than a few chuckles, along with a solid James Mardsen. Amy Sedaris is the scene-stealer here, and sounds like she's having a lot of fun (Already seeing talks about a third movie, and would be totally on board if she's made the focus). Eva Longoria is there to be the mom, while Ariana Greenblatt has a sweet subplot. Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow (as Tim and Ted's parents, who didn't really have much to do in the first film), return to more expanded, much funnier roles. Meanwhile, Jeff Goldblum gives one of his strangest performances (And that's saying a lot), but it's actually really amazing in a entertainingly peculiar fashion. The movie also has a few hilarious side or background characters (Such as a chubby baby obsessed with glue, a talking Wizard alarm clock, and a creepy little girl, who may or may not be demonic). 

Available in theaters (And in 3D. Probably would have looked pretty good too) and through streaming on "Peacock", "The Boss Baby: Family Business" won't exactly convert any new fans, and when you get past the weirdness of the plot, it's not something on par with anything from Disney, Pixar, or even some of DreamWorks' best. This candy coated family friendly drug trip is the kind of movie that plenty will get more annoyed by than anything, and the frantic pace can get a little tiring. Although, it's not pedestrian in any way. It's also certainly not dull in any way. There's some cleverness to the silly humor, some genuine charm, and by the end, an actually heartwarming message about maturity. It even ends on a moment that makes you go "Awwww", and darn it, it won me over. Something all over the place and colorful for the kids, and hey, it's never a bad thing to see it through their eyes. 3 Stars. Rated PG For Some Not So Kid-Friendly Jokes To Go Over Their Heads, And Lots Of Jiggling Baby Fat.    

F9: The Fast Saga                                     by James Eagan                            ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "So....Why didn't anyone mention you had a brother in any of the first eight films?"

Can anybody really get mad at these franchise anymore? I find it funny that now that I've grown to accept them for the brainless, yet shockingly well made and solidly entertaining fun that they are (Mostly after being brutally beaten down into submission by them), everyone else is like, "Well now it's just gone too far". I mean, they have, but that was actually about five or six movies ago. I'll honestly be disappointed if they didn't go further. Just go with it and take it for what it is. That's this franchise in a nutshell. 

The ninth entry in the long running franchise (Tenth if you count "Hobbs & Shaw", considering it's a spin-off) and plight on everything we associate with the laws of physics, "F9: The Fast Saga" once again follows everyone's favorite family of street racers, turned outlaws, then turned secret agents. "Dominic "Dom" Toretto" (Vin Diesel), has been living a calm and relaxing life with his wife, "Letty Ortiz" (Michelle Rodriguez) and son, "Brian" (Named after the late Paul Walker's character). However, their peaceful retirement is ruined by a message from intelligence operative, "Mr. Nobody" (Kurt Russell), who reveals that he had captured international cyber-terrorist, "Cipher" (Charlize Theron), before a plane he was on went crashing down. Dom, Letty, along with their buddies, "Tej Parker" (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), "Roman Pearce" (Tyrese Gibson), and "Ramsey" (Nathalie Emmauel), go to investigate, only to discover the return of Dom's forgotten brother turned criminal, "Jakob" (John Cena). Jakon, along with his sniveling associate, "Otto" (Thue Ersted Rasmussen), having taken Cipher captive for themselves, are trying to get their hands on a powerful weapons system known as "Aries", which is separated into two pieces. With only Mr. Nobody's mysterious message to go on, the team splits up, with Dom focusing on tracking down Jakob, while Letty and Dom's sister, "Mia" (Jordana Brewster) looking for a strange connection that leads them to a thought to be deceased friend, "Han Lue" (Sung Kang). Through the use of fast cars, magnets, and rockets, Dom is forced to confront Jakob, in their most destructive, incredibly over the top mission yet.... I know, ridiculous, right? 

Directed by Justin Lin (Who directed the third, fourth, fifth, and six films, along with "Star Trek Beyond"), "F9" continues the series' need to go as crazy as it legally can, doing the things we most likely did with our toy cars when we were children, except with millions upon millions of dollars at its disposal. Regardless of what makes logical sense (Which is about only 2% of it), it looks as good as usual. The money is on the screen, and while the big CGI setpieces are certainly impressive, the stuntwork is actually even more impressive. As amusing as it is to see a car swing from a vine like freakin Tarzan or have indestructible people get tossed around explosions like ragdolls without a single scratch on them, it's the simple stuff like a car chase in the middle of the street against a giant military truck that stick with you. It's mostly because these crazy action sequences are quite original. Lin is really good director, who has taken a "Why the Hell not?" kind of approach to what you can do, but is capable enough to make it look as plausible as one can do really do with a big budget blockbuster like this. 

The plot here is probably the weakest part of the film, with the basic doomsday device as a MacGuffin, a lot of running around and tracking (Not to mention, backtracking), and it doesn't make all that much sense. The plots have been known to be secondary for most of this franchise, but they at least weren't this complicated. It's weird how that most outlandish aspects of the film are, believe it or not, the best explained aspects in the entire thing. Dom having a long lost brother that's never been mentioned before? There is a lot of build up to why things are the way they are, and sure, it's contrived, and yet, there is a reason and it serves as the heart of the movie. Han's unexpected resurrection is explained (Though how it plays into the rest of the movie feels a little forced) and of course, the moment everyone has been waiting for (Space time? Are we getting space time?), is actually the most memorable and well done scene in the film. Even though it's shown in detail as to why this would supposedly work, it's still fairly illogical. Just in a clever way. Something that the filmmakers never even attempted to explain is everything with the magnetic cars. It causes an unprecedented amount of destruction and chaos, and yet, unless you're a villain, nobody gets hurt. None of the heroes. None of the civilians. Apparently everyone just leaves their empty cars around for an occasional pileup, and all sharp objects just conveniently miss anyone that happen to be standing around. Sure it looks cool and all, but it pushes the idea of suspending your disbelief, even by movie standards. It's easily the most nonsensical part of the movie. (Aside from Jordana Brewster being able to lift up John Cena. Yyyyeah that's just asking for too much right there)

 The constantly growing and well, surprisingly well rounded and diversified cast, are still welcome to see, playing characters that are still pleasant to follow (You also gotta give credit to this franchise for actually creating a diverse cast long before Hollywood realized it was profitable, and never felt the need to play it safe like others have) Vin Diesel can still carry these movies on his meaty shoulders, and hey, he does in alright job in the more serious scenes. Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster have decent parts, and get time to be badasses as well (Another thing this series did well was improve upon the female characters). Ludacris, the very cute Nathalie Emmanuel, and especially Tyrese Gibson (Who gets the best intentionally cruddy one-liners, and even a few poignant moments), make for some good comic relief. Sung Kang's return is welcome, though doesn't really standout much (Though maybe we can assume they're playing the long game with this one considering the post-credits scene. Yes. There will be more), and his subplot with Anna Sawai (as "Elle", a young girl, with an important connection to "Aries"), feels underdeveloped.

 The movie does give us some good villains, with John Cena making for an intimidating presence (And not to mention, totally outscowls Vin Diesel), Thue Ersted Rasmussen is enjoyably slimy, and Charlize Theron returns in a small capacity, though still retains a sinister recurring baddie (Her dialogue alone, along with her refined delivery of it, feels like the most intelligent aspect o the entire movie). There are some other familiar faces, such as an underused Kurt Russell (Who is basically just a glorified cameo), a much more appealing Lucas Black (as "Sean Boswell", the bland hero from "Tokyo Drift", who now works on rocket cars....I guess), and Helen Mirren (as "Magdalene "Queenie" Shaw", the criminal mother of Jason Statham's "Deckard Shaw"), who got an applause from the audience when she appeared (As she should!). There's also a brief part for Michael Rooker (as an old friend of Dom's family), who despite the corny dialogue, actually gives a pretty compelling performance all things considered. It's honestly better than needed. Cardi B is also in it. Probably the strangest cameo I've seen in a while.     

Just as silly as ever, and it only gets more wacky as it goes along, "F9" is a wild ride that's only a good time if you're on board with it or not. For the fans, they love it no matter how preposterous it is, and for some, that's part of the fun. As for me, they've grown on me despite the clear flaws (More of a "Mission: Impossible" fan personally. Those are just smarter and more artistically done), I see them as solidly made, not too demanding, action packed blockbusters, that also are at least endearing in their own way. I can admit though, this movie does show signs of wearing thin. Maybe it's just a little too long, or maybe it's some slight fatigue. It's an enjoyable entry, with moments that further develop this bizarre world, but with talks about the franchise nearing an end, I feel that maybe the filmmakers might need to get to that sooner rather than later. End on an grand "Avengers"-level high note before it's just too late.....Or just bring in the dinosaurs already. You laugh, and yet, you also know you kind of want to see that. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Lots Of Destructive Action, Reckless Driving, Ruthless Decimation Of Everything We Consider Logical, And For Family!  

Luca                                                         by James Eagan                           ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Hitch Hiking is always a safe alternative to biking!"

This feels wrong. So very, very wrong. It was one thing to have no other choice but to see last year's "Soul" only on Disney+ due to a lack of theaters. Now though, they're making a comeback and even Disney has already had a couple theatrical releases (Along with the option for streaming). However, Pixar apparently didn't make the cut. You don't even have to pay for this one, being an exclusive to the site and free for subscribers to enjoy without an extra charge. That's cool and all. Yet, I don't know. the greatest animators and storytellers of our time shouldn't be seemingly pushed to the side. That's what this feels like, and for what some could see as just a Pixar throwaway, is a secret, small scale, cult classic in the making. 

Set outside a small Italian town called, "Portorosso", "Luca", as it should, follows a young sea monster named "Luca Paguro" (Jacob Tremblay), who, like the Little Mermaid before him, is curious about the surface world. Despite the objections of his parents, "Daniela" (Maya Rudolph) and "Lorenzo" (Jim Gaffigan), Luca's curiosity gets the better of him as he befriends another young, rebellious sea monster, "Alberto Scorfano" (Jack Dylan Grazer), who repeatedly visits the surface. When on dry land, it turns out these sea creatures enter into human forms, with their scaly blue skin and fishy attributes perfectly transforming into a human likeness. Luca and Alberto bond over human culture, in particular, Vespas (Which are Italian scooters, for those who don't know. It's ok, we don't judge here unless it's behind your back). Of course, Luca's parents find out about Luca's extracurricular activity, and plan to send Luca away with his deranged, see-through uncle, "Ugo" (A deranged Sacha Baron Cohen cameo). 

Luca decides to run away from home with Alberto, heading to Portorosso to get their hands on a Vespa to travel the world. They immediately find themselves at odds with local bully and Portorosso Cup champion, "Ercole Visconti" (Saverio Raimondo), then befriending a girl named "Guilia Marcovaldo" (Emma Berman). Guilia has her one-armed fisherman father, "Massimo" (Marco Barricelli), take the two boys in so long as they also assist him with his work. Luca and Alberto train with Guilia to compete in the upcoming race to beat Ercole and win the big prize, being an expensive Vespa. While Daniela and Lorenzo travel to the surface in search of their son (Causing some slight chaos as they do), Luca and Alberto also try to prevent themselves from being exposed as the whole town begins to hunt for sea monsters (Which are a source of fear among the townspeople). Soon though, Luca and Alberto also start to drift apart on two very different paths, especially with Luca becoming even more enamored with human life. 

From Disney and Pixar, and released via Disney+ (No pay wall this time), "Luca" is one of the company's quieter, less extravagant films. It may also be one of their most artistically subtle too. Directed by Enrico Casarosa (A longtime storyboard artist, who also gave us the Academy Award nominated short, "La Luna"), the film is as expected, beautiful to look at, and yet, I'm still always shocked at how gorgeous Pixar's animation can get. They are still improving and escalating, changing the game in both low-key and universally subversive ways. This film brings the little Italian town to life, making it feel like an actual place, with stunning backgrounds and a lot of time taken to establish how the world works. The animators poured a lot of heart into how the film looks, and it's obvious that there was a big effort to make sure the setting looked as authentic as possible. (The studio apparently sent a few animators to the Italian Riviera to do the research necessary) It's almost too photo-realistic for the eyes to handle, and the shift to the more exaggerated and expressive character designs never feel out of place. 

Then the film gets a little more weird and oddly surreal, with some spellbinding sequences that completely change up the animation style, similar to how "Soul" would blend in some 2D artistry with the detailed 3D format. For something meant for younger audiences and a staple of Pixar's storytelling style, sometimes the film is slower and lets the audience appreciate the atmosphere, letting things sink without the necessity of loud noises or goofy antics every five minutes. With that said, the screenplay by Jesse Andrews ("Me and Earl and the Dying Girl") and Mike Jones ("Soul"), balances out a lot of good humor, with lovable characters, and a well told, if not a little more traditional than expected, storyline. You've seen before and the film doesn't remotely deviate. However, much like the best of filmmakers, Casarosa doesn't use that as an excuse to be lazy about it. Like I've said before, it doesn't matter how original a story is, but it's about how the storyteller conveys it. It's told in a Hayao Miyazaki-like style (Who is known for rather simplistic tales), and it works to the film's benefit, especially when in the end, the focus is on the dynamics between the characters. 

Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dyan Grazer are both phenomenal, being easy to relate to lead characters. They make for a funny pair, each with their own little arcs, and um, well, they may also be kind of gay. I know the filmmakers keep denying it, but I'm not the only one who sees it. They knew what they were doing! Regardless of the intentions, the friendship is very heartwarming and despite being kid friendly fare, it handles the relationship maturely and show that sometimes the conclusions to such things aren't always want you expect them to be. Emma Berman has her own wonderful little storyline that plays into the main one without feeling secondary or forced. Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan are a delight (And how well their voices match their character designs is a remarkable bit of animation), while Saverio Raimondo plays a mini-Italian version of Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast", that's equal parts detestable and hilarious. There are some memorable supporting characters, such as a devious cat named "Machiavelli", that's immediately suspicious of Luca and Alberto, ruthlessly and humorously attacking them without warning. 

  A small stake adventure, "Luca" is what Pixar-Lite should look like. It takes some trop-ish themes, and expertly adds a fresh sense of life to them. A message of understanding, great humor, state of the art animation, and plenty of those good feelings that only come from Pixar. Disney may or may not quite be showing them the respect they deserve as of late, but I hope families don't see the film's unceremonious release as a reason to neglect the film. A quirky little (And literal) fish out of water story of a summer friendship that's bound to put you into the best of moods. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Fishy Business And Plenty Reason For LGBTQ Shippings. Seriously, They Can't Possibly Be Surprised This Happened. 

The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard                                                                                  by James Eagan                                                                 ★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "You can torture us all you want...You're still getting another sequel."

Ok, I'm still thoroughly convinced that like the first "The Hitman's Bodyguard", these movies are homages to 90s action comedies. Nobody ever says it and acknowledges it, but, come on. It's so obvious. The silly setup, the gleeful levels of horrific violence, and the humorous disregard for what you probably shouldn't joke about. Also, they brought back that announcer guy in the trailer. You know the announcer guy right? Not that one. The other one. You know what I mean?

"The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard" once again follows pathetic bodyguard for hire, "Michael Bryce" (Ryan Reynolds), who has lost his license, and has suffered one too many mental breakdowns, but at least after some much needed therapy, has decided to take some time off and find some much needed peace with himself. No guns. No violence. No bodyguarding. Everything seems to be coming up Michael......for about two minutes. He's immediately roped into a deadly shootout with "Sonia" (Salma Hayek), the crazy wife of the hitman that Michael previously bodyguarded, "Darius Kincaid" (Samuel L. Jackson), who is also completely out of his damn mind. Sonia forces Michael to help her find her missing husband, while also admitting that the two of them have been attempting to have a baby, because those two lunatics would make the best of parents. After rescuing Darius, the trio then get themselves roped into another situation, where aggressive Interpol agent, "Bobby O'Neill" (Frank Grillo), forces them to work for him in stopping an evil scheme from a villainous tycoon/criminal mastermind, "Aristotle Papadopoulos" (Antonio Banderas), who is threatening to completely destroy Europe's entire power grid with some diamond drill thingy. So it's up to our bumbling sort of heroes to save the day, while annoying the living crap out of each other, and poor Michael suffers an immense amount of physical or mental trauma.   

One again directed by Patrick Hughes ("The Expendables 3", along with the first "The Hitman's Bodyguard"), "The Hitman's Wife' Bodyguard" intends to replicate the surprise success of the first film, which was one that I know had some issues, but I thoroughly enjoyed. It's a clichéd, buddy action comedy that may have been too much for its own good, but had a lot of big laughs, an old fashioned sense of fun, and some incredibly appealing leads. The sequel is actually for the most part, more of the same. It's just a little, well, "Sequel" this time. It's very heavy with those sequel tropes, and sadly doesn't do anything remotely clever about it. There's more of what audiences like, but sometimes it's just repeating what happened before, with a plot that's essentially secondary. It's one of those things where if you remotely think about it, it comes across as forced, nonsensical, and would be considered almost parody. (It's not too far off from what one of those really cheesy, older "James Bond" movies would do) It doesn't help that the film does some unnecessary retreading simply because the film movie did it. Some of the character beats are either the same or more exaggerated this time. This would all be more damning if the film wasn't so non-demandingly entertaining in spite of the flaws. The screenplay by Tom O'Connor, Brandon Murphy, and Phillip Murphy isn't without some very clever gags, Is well directed, and the returning cast, regardless of slight sequel-itis, are all a joy to watch. 

 Although his character doesn't appear to have learned anything from the last movie, Ryan Reynolds does a great job playing the most pathetic, retroactively wimpy character you'll see in an action movie. (Plus, sometimes I feel that I would likely be him in most of these situations. I'm honest about who I am, and I'm also at peace with that) He has hilarious comedic chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson, who takes his Samuel L. Jackson-ness to new levels previously unheard of. Antonio Banderas is all kinds of over the top, while Frank Grillo is rather useless in the grand scheme of things. Morgan Freeman appears in a part that I probably shouldn't spoil since the joke itself is quite funny. The biggest improvement this film has over the original is the larger role for Salma Hayek, who makes sure that no aspect of the scenery is left unscathed, and she gets some of the most outrageous moments. 

"The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard" is suitably out of its gourd, even though it suffers from predictable beats and offers very little in terms of storytelling ingenuity. It makes up for those shortcomings with a good amount of humor (Though less than the first), decent action, and a terrific main cast, who bring their A-Game. It's an amusing, if not somewhat unimportant hour and a half, that's elevated by one Hell of a final, last second reveal, making for one of the funniest endings I've seen in some time. (It's made better by the fact that it was actually fairly built up over time too.) I can't say it's anything great, yet it's a perfectly good, if not absurd time. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong, Gratuitous Violence And Lots Of Motha-F*ckers!  

Wish Dragon                                            by James Eagan                             ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "How about you wish for an end to a global killer epidemic? Or pick something just for you...It's all good."

I feel like we're left with no real choice but to say what every single other film critic out there has been saying about this movie. This is basically Chinese "Aladdin". Same idea. Same plot to a degree. Same moral. Except this time we got a more modernized setting and instead of a blue genie, we got a big fluffy pink dragon. Just need to get that out of the way early. 

"Wish Dragon" follows a poor, working class student, "Din" (Jimmy Wong), who has been skipping his classes in favor of working to afford a suit that will give him a chance to at least appear more wealthy enough to after years of being separated from each other, reunite with his now very rich and famous, childhood best friend/maybe crush, "Li Na Wang" (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). Of course, this interferes with the hopes of Din's mother, "Mrs. Song" (Constance Wu), who only wants Din to study hard enough to escape their poverty. Din then just so happens to stumble upon a magical teapot, which releases an all powerful, but easily agitated and annoyed Wish Dragon, "Long" (John Cho). Long has been trapped in the teapot for centuries, and only has to grant three wishes to one more master so that he can ascend to heaven, so he really wants to get this over with as quickly as possible. 

Din uses Long to pose as a person of means so that he can get into Li Na's extravagant birthday party, though like when they were kids, Li Na's father, "Mr. Wang" (Will Yun Lee), is still too busy to give her the time of day. Under the name, "Dan" (So that her father will approve), Din ignores Long's advice that this big lie is just going to blow up in his face, and continues to play the part of a well off elitist to get with Li Na. However, another issue arrives in the form of bald scheming henchman, who always keeps his hands in his pockets, appropriately nicknamed "Pockets" (Aaron Yoo), and his bumbling goons (Jimmy O. Yang and Bobby Lee), that have been hired by an incredibly obvious employer to get their clutches on the magical teapot. While trying to woo Li Na and keep his secret hidden from his mother, Din introduces Long to the modern world and the both of them learning some lessons along the way. 

From "Sony Pictures Animation", "Wish Dragon' was released last year theatrically in China, before being distributed in the United States through Netflix, and in some ways could be seen as one of the studio's most ambitious projects yet. Not in story terms, but instead with its production team (Based in China and aimed for a worldwide audience) and it's incredible animation. This is an absolutely gorgeous looking movie, from the dreamlike artistry and the expressive character design, to the eye popping visuals, even on watching this on my phone at 12:30 at night, it's an experience. There is so much detail put into every frame, and the flow of character animation feel like a fairy tale that just so happens to be set in a time with cars, cellphones, and a contemporary setting. It's an impressive step for Sony Pictures Animation, who has already since proven themselves (And redeemed themselves since "The Emoji Movie"). Where the film isn't as unique is with the stroytelling department, which is quite predictable and derivative of other animated films. Granted, the film does a solid enough job with those tropes, with the screenplay by Chris Appelhans (Who is also the film's director), getting the job done, even if it never takes many risks. It basically doesn't tell its already been there story as well as say something along the lines of "In the Heights", but for a nice family film, It doesn't really take away from the film. 

Jimmy Wong is a charming lead, while Natasha Liu Bordizzo and an especially excellent Constance Wu both do good work. John Cho, who I've said before is just one of those guys whose already just very good no matter the movie, really steals the show here. He gets the funniest lines, does a great job with the more emotional scenes, and has a meaningful character arc. Aaron Yoo is a menacing baddie, though everything involving the villains just show up to move the plot along and lead to a reveal that's just too easy to see coming. Most of the character comes from the voicework, or the animation itself, which incorporates enough to make up for the by the numbers script (Such as the villain's use of his legs and feet to convey his emotions). The humor is simple, but effective, with the best moments involving Long's amazement at modern society, such as a sequence involving his hatred of traffic and how it's even worse than being trapped in a magic teapot for a thousand years. 

"Wish Dragon" is standard and not exactly memorable, and yet, is kind of impossible to dislike. The story, while not exactly one of a kind, is still sweet, with a great message and actually has quite a few things to say about unfair class systems and our obsessive need to use wealth to define who we are. It's got charm to go with its breathtaking visuals, which alone are worth your time of day. I can't stress enough how beautiful the film is and thanks to a good-natured heart, it's a simple, yet entirely rewarding storybook-like adventure you won't mind taking with your little ones. 3 Stars. Rated PG For A Slightly More Perilous Than Expected Climax, But Is Very Tame By PG Standards. 

Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway                 by James Eagan                      ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: They're multiplying like....Cute little Bunnies.

The first "Peter Rabbit", which is based on the adored children stories by Beatrix Potter, was rather divisive for obvious reasons. When something is so loved, there's going to be worry. Then when the reputation that we have for taking those kinds of properties and turning them into, well, "Alvin & the Chipmunks", there's going to be outrage. While I'm not as overtly familiar with the old books as others, I'm still pretty confident that the first "Peter Rabbit" was not exactly what fans imagined a film adaptation would look like. It was basically a live action "Bugs Bunny" cartoon, with a lot more snark, and I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. It's not for everyone, but I thought it was funny, had some heart, and was somehow still pretty sweet. This right here though seems to have taken those complaints people had with the first one and said "Well, yeah we hear you. But what are ya gonna do about it?" 

"Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" follows the titular trouble-making rabbit, "Peter" (Voiced by James Corden), as he comes to terms with sharing his beloved garden and surrogate mother, "Bea" (Rose Byrne), with his former archenemy, "Thomas McGregor" (Domhnall Gleeson). Now that Thomas and Bea are married, Peter and Thomas have agreed to stop trying to kill each other and learn to coexist as a family. Of course, Peter, no matter how much he tries, can't seem to help but find himself in the center of some kind of trouble. With the recent success of Bea's children's book, based on Peter and his sisters, "Flopsy" (Voiced by Margot Robbie), "Mopsy" (Voiced by Elizabeth Debicki), and "Cottontail" (Voiced by Aimee Horne), along with his voice of reason cousin, "Benjamin Bunny" (Voiced by Colin Moody), the book draws the attention of a famous publisher, "Nigel Basil-Jones" (David Oyelowo). Thomas and Bea take Peter and the other rabbits from their farm to the big city to meet with Nigel, who plans to publish Bea's book and further expand on what she's created, though through a more corporate lens. Peter himself, despite appearing to be the star of the story, is saddened to realize that the story portrays him as a mischievous, naughty bad seed (I mean, he kind of is though..).

Peter goes off on his own and meets a magnetic, thieving rabbit, "Barnabas" (Voiced by Lennie James), along with the rest of his crew of animal criminals, such as a pair of cats, "Tom Kitten" (Voiced by Damon Herriman) and "Mittens" (Voiced by Hayley Atwell), and a grouchy old rat, "Samuel Whiskers" (Voiced by Rupert Degas). Peter, believing that he should just be what everyone already thinks he is, becomes part of Barnabas' crew as they plot out an epic heist at the farmer's market. Peter proceeds to bring in the rest of his friends and family from the farm to pull off the heist, though he's in danger of further damaging his relationship with Thomas and Bea (Who are also at odds due to Nigel's shady promises of stardom). However, when his friends find themselves in trouble, Peter must take it upon himself to change his ways if he wants to save them. 

With returning director (And co-writer) Will Gluck ("Easy A", "Friends with Benefits"), "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" appears to have taken its god-tier smartassery to the next level, acknowledging just what it is and doing it with a sly smirk. There is a lot more self-awareness this time around, taking potshots at itself more than a few times, while also still going through some of the more standard sequel tropes. The thing is though, the film is very intelligent about it. The screenplay by Gluck and Patrick Burleigh, is fast paced, really funny, and even when it divulges into the usual sequel clichés, it not only pokes fun at them, but it also actually does a much better job with them than others. The visual effects, done through "Animal Logic" (Who have been a part of several big budget films, as well as responsible for animated ones such as the "LEGO" movies and "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"), blend in rather seamlessly despite the animated characters being more cartoonishly expressive. It works to the film's benefit since they are just so appealing to look at. It's very impressive for something that could have just lazily slapped on a cartoon character and not even try to make it look like it could remotely exist in the real word setting. It's also bolstered by an excellent cast, which includes both major and supporting players.

 Rose Byrne and a still hilariously over the top Domhnall Gleeson, are both thoroughly dedicated to the silly nature of the film, and yet somehow have some great chemistry at the same time. David Oyelowo looks like he's having a lot of fun as well. James Corden, who also doesn't seem to mind taking a few humorous shots at himself (There's a running joke about the mixed reaction to if his voice is annoying or not), really does a great job making the character endearingly delinquent. Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Aimee Horne, and Colin Moody are a ton of fun, with the supporting voice cast getting much more to do this time. Lennie James is suitably gruff, with some of the funniest (And strangest) lines coming from Rupert Degas. There are also some other fun parts for Sia (as "Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle", a flirtatious hedgehog), Sam Neill (as "Tommy Brock", an old badger), Ewen Leslie (as "Piggly Bland", a snooty pig), and Stewart Alves (as "Mr. Tod", a fox who fights off his carnivore instincts with cardio). It's just a delightful collection of quirky characters that come and go, but also leave a memorable impression. 

In what you could call the "22 Jump Street" of talking animal movies, "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" is charmingly snarky about its status, knowing that it can't escape some typical sequel mistakes. It instead decides to have fun with them, but in a smart way. It makes for a hilarious time for the family, while also providing some not overly sentimental heart underneath all of that self-aware sarcasm. The first was no "Paddington", so it stands to reason that this is certainly no "Paddington 2". However, while I understand the plight of the fans of Beatrix Potter's classic stories (The actual filmmakers seem to understand it too apparently), I had a ton of fun and so did the kids. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG For Crude Humor, Rabbit Thievery, And A Poor Rooster's Existential Crisis.  

In the Heights                                        by James Eagan                           ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "I wonder what would happen if we just burst into an elaborate musical number.....Nah, that's crazy."

So, is Lin-Manuel Miranda just determined to save us from the loathing of the real world through the magical power of musical theater at least once a year from now on? After last year's "Hamilton" in "Disney+" made last year's depressing summer much more eventful and full of joy, it's seems only fitting that another musical favorite reminds us why these kinds of things must be witnessed on the big screen (Or you know, "HBO Max", if you're not vaccinated yet). 

Based on the popular stage musical of the same name, "In the Heights" follows a collection of dreamers in Washington Heights, New York City, as their stories are told by charismatic bodega store owner, "Usnavi de la Vega" (Anthony Ramos). Usnavi , who takes care of his teenage cousin, "Sonny" (Gregory Diaz IV), dreams to finally move out of New York and return to the Dominican Republic in memory of his deceased father. Usnavi's longtime friend, "Benny" (Corey Hawkins), has big ambitions of making it big, working at the local dispatch for "Kevin Rosario" (Jimmy Smitts), who is also delighted at the return of his daughter/Benny's ex girlfriend and still love interest, "Nina" (Leslie Grace), from Stanford University. However, Nina's time away from home hasn't been the best and she has no intention of going back to college. Usnavi's crush, "Vanessa" (Melissa Barrera), also has plans of her own to leave to become a fashion designer, while the tightly knitted community is held together by the beloved "Claudia" (Olga Merediz), also known to everyone as their "Abuela". With the intense heat only getting worse, a missing lottery ticket worth more than most people's houses, and the threat of an upcoming blackout just around the corner, Usnavi's dream, along with the rest of the community, are forced to change in ways that they couldn't have anticipated. 

Another one of 2020's many delayed films, "In the Heights" is the kind of musical that takes tropes that we by this point will never truly ever get tired of seeing (They are very much ingrained into our blood by now), and instead of reinventing any of them, the film boldy plays them 100% straight and relies on talent to tell them in a confident fashion. Directed by Jon M. Chu ("Step Up 3D", "G.I. Joe Retaliation", "Jem and the Holigrams", and eventually the shockingly wonderful "Crazy Rich Asians". Talk about progress), the film is the kind of visual, toe tapping experience that lull you into a state of bliss. From the extravagant opening number, to the more quieter personal ones, and of course, the epic show stoppers, every song resonates, and how it's conveyed through various visuals, it's a very one of a kind, modern musical. The screenplay by Quiara Alegria Hudes (Who also wrote the book for the original musical as well), knows how to well balance a sentimental premise, with a grand assemblage of great characters, humor, and heart that refrains from schmaltz, feeling completely genuine without needing to force the tears. 

The wonderful ensemble is led by the incredibly likable and immensely talented Anthony Ramos (Who already starred in the regional production of the original stage show), while there are excellent performances from Corey Hawkins and Melissa Barrera, who does have some good chemistry with Ramos. Leslie Grace is a particularly noticeable standout, getting a couple of the best musical numbers in the film. (One with Corey Hawkins during the last act is jaw droppingly beautiful). Gregory Diaz IV and Jimmy Smitts are both terrific, while we get some humor from Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, and Dascha Polanco (as "Daniela", "Carla", and "Cuca", a trio of hair stylists, who pretty much always appear together). There is also a brilliant and completely moving role for Olga Merediz, whose big moment in the film is a flawless example of how you convey a variety of emotions through song, production design, and an emotional performance, without the need to dwell. Star of the original show/producer of the film, Lin-Manuel Miranda also makes a funny and very odd appearance as a guy selling Piragua. 

Like all of the best tales, "In the Heights" isn't about how completely original it is, but instead how you tell your story. From a unique perspective, memorable performances and characters, songs you just want to hear over and over again, and Jon M. Chu's dazzling direction, which can't possibly be fully appreciated watching on a tiny screen. Again, if you're not ready or vaccinated, maybe staying at home to watch it on HBO Max would still give you the basic idea. It's still just kind of hard to beat a theater experience quite like this. One of the best movies of the year, and one that's sure to just simply get you in the best mood possible. I think we deserve this. 4 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Along With Careless Singing And Dancing In The Streets. 

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It                                                                  by James Eagan                                                                          ★ out of ★★★★

Image: She found the Devil....It WAS in the details.

The other entries in the "Conjuring" universe (The Conju-verse if you will), might just be typical run of the mill horror flicks to scare the teenagers, but the main series (The first two being directed by James Wan) has been the gold standard for how to craft truly spine-tingling horror, with deeper lore beneath the surface and a great, memorable scary story at the same time. Sometimes terror requires the human touch, especially if you want give your audience nightmares that they won't be getting rid of anytime soon. 

Inspired by True Events (So you know, liberties will be taken, especially with a story quite like this), "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It", follows the continued adventures of real life paranormal investigators and demonologists, "Ed and Lorraine Warren" (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The Warrens lend their services to the "Glatzel family", where their young son, "David" (Julian Hilliard), ends up possessed by a vile demonic entity. The exorcism takes a turn with Ed suffering a serious heart attack, but the demon seemingly being defeated. However, it turns out that the terror is only just beginning, with the Glatzel family friend, "Arne Cheyenne Johnson" (Ruairi O'Connor), becoming the new host for the evil being. Ed recovers, but he and Lorraine are unable to prevent an unspeakable act, with Arne brutally murdering his landlord by stabbing him twenty-two times. Arne is arrested, though claims that he was under demonic possession. That obviously doesn't quite fly in court as Arne faces the possible death penalty. Ed and Lorraine, who has the ability to sense and speak with the dead, set out to prove Arne's innocence, though soon find themselves wrapped up in a more sinister conspiracy. They discover that the Glatzel family has been cursed by an unknown person, which the Warrens' old friend and former priest, "Kastner" (John Noble), believes to be a satanic cultist, referred to only as "The Occultist" (Eugenie Bondurant). Fearing that Arne may still be in danger and an even greater evil just waiting to for a chance to cause some blasphemous chaos, Ed and Lorraine, despite Ed himself still struggling with his health at the moment, dig deeper into the mystery, investigating a similar sounding possession/homicide, and facing their most deadly challenge yet. 

Directed by Michael Chaves ("The Curse of La Llorona"), with James Wan serving as a producer and a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick ("The Conjuring 2", "Aquaman"), "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It", follows the whole stereotype that the third entry in a trilogy ends up being the weakest. (Time will tell if this will even just be a trilogy quite yet) It's lacking a certain level of quality that the first two film have, such as most importantly, not being anywhere near as scary as they were. However, it's still an effectively creepy, thoroughly unsettling fun house of horrors, featuring quiet a few twisted setpieces while also making for a solid drama as well. As usual, the truth in the story is obviously a little stretched, being based around the basic premise of one of the Warren case files, adding in a little more suspense and ghoulishness along the way. While I don't find it to have the extra gravitas that the first two had, there are some fascinating details to the true aspects of the event, as well as a recording played at the end (Which you know, may or may not be also fabricated. Most likely it is), that send a slight shiver down your spine. Michael Chaves' direction doesn't quite reach the heights of James Wan's more experienced hands, but it's not without merit. Chaves loves to toy with sound, visual cues, and embraces the macabre imagery (A sequence where Lorraine recreates a murder in the woods, which is cut back in forth with the actual murder, is a standout). 

When it comes down to it, the heart of these films have always been the Warrens themselves. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are both excellent and once more have wonderful chemistry. It's always nice to see a more positive looking representation of religious lead characters, in a horror film no less, and they fit the role as heroes to really root for. They're just so damn cute and lovable, and you want absolutely nothing bad to happen to them. Ruairi O'Connor is solid, though he really doesn't have that much of a major role when the plot gets moving. Most of the trial is fast and happens off screen, with most of the focus being on the larger (And well, less likely to be true) themes at hand. John Noble is suitably creepy, and while Eugenie Bondurant doesn't rank up with some of the franchise's best villains (That freakin Nun man!), there is something still chill inducing about what evil can come from someone who may actually just be a disturbed human being, rather than the supernatural. The other freaky creatures or hallucinations work in the moment, but aren't all that memorable. 

"The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It" doesn't measure up to what the first two were able to accomplish, leaving you without that feeling that you need to keep the lights on the following night before bed. However, aside from being better than all of the spin-offs (Not that hard to do), it's not without some good scares, a captivating enough story, and our two terrific leads. Despite all of the fear on display, the film still retains that there is hope somewhere within it all, whether it being from faith or loved ones, and I always love how these films always remember to give you that feeling. You know, after you've already sh*t your pants. 3 Stars. Rated R For Scary Images, Prosecuted Possession, Terrible Extracurricular Activities, And A PSA Reminding Everyone That Water Beds Are Terrible. 

Spirit Untamed                                        by James Eagan                                  ★ out of ★★★★

Image: "It's OK, boy....You'll calm down when you're castrated."

I had no idea this existed. Scratch that. I had no idea that the show this movie is based on existed. I had no idea there was even a continuation to DreamWorks Animation's 2002 traditionally hand drawn animated "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron". I didn't even know it had a cult following either. So why did this get a Thursday night screening, but the new "Conjuring" movie didn't? Are they expecting big box office numbers for this? 

"Spirit Untamed" follows "Fortuna Esperanza "Lucky" Prescott" (Isabela Merced), a young girl, who after the death of her famous, horse-riding mother, "Milagro" (Eiza González), leaves her small, open frontier home and her emotionally broken father, "Jim" (Jake Gyllenhaal), to live with her aunt, "Cora" (Julianne Moore). Despite her namesake, Lucky has a tendency to get herself into trouble, to the point in which, despite being away for years, is taken by Cora to return to her father and old hometown. It's an awkward reunion between Lucky and Jim, and she struggles to adapt to the setting, though she does find some friendship in the form of young local horse-riders, "Pru" (Marsai Martin) and "Abigail" (Mckenna Grace). Lucky also forms a special bond with an especially wild Mustang, who she names "Spirit" (Not voiced by MATT DAAAMON!), despite Jim not wanting her to end up like her mother. However, when a group of horse wranglers, led by "Hendricks" (Walton Goggins), arrive to capture Spirit's family, it's up to Lucky and her friends to save the day. 

Based on the Netflix animated series, "Spirit Riding Free" (Which is more of a spin-off I guess of the original film), "Spirit Untamed" is I guess a re-imagining of the series, except with a slightly bigger budget. You kind of got to get past a lot of questions and confusion to finally accept what this movie actually is, and what the film ends up being is a very harmless, very well intentioned, and very forgettable small scale feature only for the littlest of the little. Directed by first timers, Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torresan Jr., the film's animation is lesser than some of DreamWorks' usual standards (It's certainly not on par with the "How to Train Your Dragon" or "Kung Fu Panda" series), but it's still DreamWorks animation. It's still lively, colorful, and most importantly, just pleasant to look at. It's charming to say the least. The screenplay by Aury Wallington (The creator of the original series) and Kristin Hahn isn't without it's moments, but feels entirely watered down, especially when you remember that the original film had some sense of peril or edge despite the G rating. This movie on the other hand is far too soft to the point it loses any sense of urgency. It's too bad considering the heart is in the right place and while it's not an exactly original story, it's certainly a well told one. The direction is solid and the characters are likable enough that it would make up for any derivative flaws if only there was a bit more to it. 

Isabela Merced (aka Dora the Explorer) is a talented, endearing actress, easily making for a protagonist to care about, while Marsai Martin and an especially entertaining Mckenna Grace (Whose character actually looks just like her) round up a diverse main cast, who take up most of the screentime and for good reason. Spirit himself is a cool creature, though he is a bit of a secondary character once you get down to it. Jake Gyllenhaal, Julianne Moore, and Andre Braugher (as "Al", Pru's stable owner father), all could have just phoned it in and nobody would have faulted them for it, and yet, they give it their best regardless like professionals should. Walton Goggins is just there to fill out the role of the bad guy who does bad guy stuff and Eiza González just shows up to well, die and that's about it. 

"Spirit Untamed" will be perfectly suitable for the kids. That's recommendation for some, and even while the film never elevates enough to truly bring me in, I was considering giving it a higher rating regardless. However, the film gets lost completely during the last act, with the good pacing being abandoned in favor of a rushed, inconsequential ending, with the final conflict being resolved with little struggle. I get it's a kids movie and all, but while I like all of the main characters, there isn't near enough reason to worry or even show much investment. It's a sweet story that works to satisfy the young ones, while the rest of us wait for the next "The Mitchells vs. the Machines". Kids movies are okay for the kids but family movies are for everyone. 2 Stars. Rated PG, Though That Doesn't Mean Anything. Could Have Been G.  

Cruella                                                          by James Eagan                      ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Cruella applies for a job with PETA.

Boy, when everyone demanded that Disney do something different, they did so with a rather evil smile didn't they? 

"Cruella" follows the origins of that spider waiting for the kill, "Cruella de Vil", or as she was originally known as, "Estella Miller" (Played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland as a child, then by Emma Stone). Born with black and white hair, Estella is a very bright young girl, though retains a certain wickedness to her, which her mother, "Catherine" (Emily Beecham), refers to as an alternative nickname, "Cruella". After Estella's disregard for authority gets her kicked out of school, Catherine plans to move to London. Before they can get there though, Catherine makes a stop at a party being hosted by the famous, incredibly wealthy, and completely cold, "Baroness von Hellman" (Emma Thompson), where Estella ends up seemingly causing the Baroness' vicious CGI Dalmatians to cause the death of her mother. Now orphaned, lost in London with her dog, "Buddy", and with nowhere else to turn, Estella befriends a pair of hooligans/her future henchmen, "Jasper" (Played by Ziggy Gardner as a child, then by Joel Fry) and "Horace" (Played by Joseph MaCDonald as a child, then by Paul Walter Hauser), along with their one eyed Chihuahua, "Wink". 

Years later, the now redheaded Estella and her thieving companions roam the streets, stealing from whoever they feel like. Developing dreams of fashion design, Estella ends up getting a job for the Baroness, who despite her vile personality, does take somewhat of a liking to her or to be more exact, her designs. Estella makes a discovery that prompts her to make destroying the Baroness her one goal in life. Donning her Cruella persona (And becoming even more ruthless along the way), Estella challenges the Baroness, showing up at every event to upstage her with a more wild fashion design after the other. Cruella becomes famous, and the Baroness declares war. Estella further embraces Cruella, and eventually, will become that vampire bat....That inhuman beast that we know as Cruella de Vil.

Directed by Craig Gillespie ("Fright Night", "I, Tonya"), with a screenplay by Dana Fox ("Isn't It Romantic") and Tony McNamara ("The Favourite"), "Cruella" is not a live-action remake of the classic "101 Dalmatians", nor is it along the lines of something like "Maleficent" when you get down to it. This isn't a story we've seen told from a different perspective, where the villain was actually completely good all along. This is a bit more twisted than you'd expect from the House of Mouse. It's not to say that there aren't a few missteps along the way, but the film isn't without its brilliance. The first thing you need to understand though is that this is basically its own thing, barely resembling the original animated film in any way (If the darker tone, the race changes, and less G rated themes, weren't already a dead giveaway). It's not a real prequel, since there isn't a way any of this could be one, with significant character changes such as making our titular villain protagonist less villainous. I wouldn't say that she's exactly heroic and I'd go as far as to say that she's still a villain, but just not quite as much as we're used to. (I mean, the original Cruella de Vil did try to make a coat out of the skin of puppies. Nothing too complicated there) If you can get past just how detached this is from the animated version, you can enjoy it on its own slightly macabre merits. 

The film doesn't look like a Disney film, and a lot of that is in part because of Craig Gillespie's direction, which heavily and eagerly embraces the 1970s setting. The film does falter when it comes to certain effects, where it becomes obvious that the money didn't go into the CGI effects, but Gillespie knows how to create a visually stunning aesthetic. The movie has a bit of a punk rock, rebellious sense of symbolism that also plays into the film's execution of its story and how its presented. The way the movie flows feels more adult, even when things get bizarre. A lot of that is because of the warped sense of humor the movie retains. It's very funny, with some eccentric sequences of madness, mixed in a ore realistic world that just so happens to feature a well known Disney villain. The time period is also a great chance for the filmmakers to include a badass soundtrack (There may be a few too many music cues, but they all actually do have a point to them and are quite clever) to go with the excellent score by Nicholas Britell ("Moonlight", "If Beale Street Could Talk"). 

You can wonder how necessary it was to water down the titular baddie, but you can't deny how brilliant Emma Stone is. It's not exactly a rehashing of Glenn Close from the 1996 remake. This is a much more complicated character, shifting from likable and unsure of herself, to overconfident and maliciously outrageous. I've heard some complaints that her shift is too quick or doesn't have explanation. Here's the thing, it's actually set up since the start of the film. She has somewhat of a split personality, where the more nasty side coming out the more she delves into it. Even though, aside from being an absolute delight to watch, there is a tragedy to her that does at least establish where possibly the original character could come from this. Stone is wonderful, but even more so when she's paired with an outstanding Emma Thompson. Their back and forth game of cat and mouse is exciting to watch, and Thomspon, who chomps down on the scenery, might be one of the most evil Disney villains in recent memory. (She makes the original Cruella de Vil seem tame) Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser are perfectly cast in presentation, with Fry giving a bit more depth to the character and Hauser stealing the show (That guy, much like he did in "I, Tonya", just has flawless delivery). John McCrea (as "Artie", another accomplice in Cruella's schemes), is a fun addition with a relatively decent sized role, although if Disney could stop overemphasizing their still very few openly gay characters in their marketing, that'd be great. (You end up irritating both sides, with the bigots already being mad, and those wanting representation feeling like you're exploiting them. Just let the character exist.) There is great small, but important part for Mark Strong (as "John", the Baroness' butler, who also knows all of her secrets), while we get some familiar (And yes, very adapted) appearances from other characters from the original, such as Kirby Howell-Baptiste (as "Anita Darling", who is now a childhood friend of Estella, reporter, and future Dalmatian owner) and Kayvan Novak (as "John Dearly", the Baroness' lawyer, and also future Dalmatian owner). In terms of darker material, it's jarring to see most of this coming from what's being advertised as family entertainment. There's vandalism played for laughs, less than respective role models, drinking, bad driving, and you know, the many talks of murder (Some of which actually happen too!). 

Flawed in some technical aspects and being so deviated from such a classic film to the point it becomes increasingly difficult to buy it as a true prequel, "Cruella" on its own merits, is a ton of deranged fun. Deviously funny, stunningly constructed, and while the film never has the intention of taking things too far, there is a bit of a meaner streak to it, giving the film an extra edge you would never imagine seeing in a Disney movie. The fact that they committed to this, and did so with so much confidence, is quite commendable. Wildly unhinged and enjoyably dastardly. If we're going to be getting more remakes (Or re-imaginings) in the future, we need more like this. It's insane, but authentically so, and I kind of love it. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Adult Content, Sinister Schemes, Canine Killers, And Poor Parenting. 

A Quiet Place Part II                                  by James Eagan                      ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Please refrain from making any noise throughout the film.

I feel like this movie is a sign of what we were able to accomplish. We may finally be getting out of the pandemic at long last. Sure, it took a lot longer than expected, and I'm still not sure how logically anyone can listen to the people who either claimed that Covid wasn't that bad or just plain wasn't real (It's been over a year people! Anyone saying that was either lying or was just completely stupid!). I was scheduled to see this literally the week that that it all began, with the film being pulled just before release, signalling what became the rest of 2020. Despite all the heartbreak we've had to endure for the past year and the horrifying uncertainty of what was to come, it's little things like this that make me feel that we're getting somewhere. To see a really excellent movie on the big screen the way it was intended. You don't quite understand how special that can really be until it's ripped away from you for nearly an entire year.  

"A Quiet Place Part II" opens seconds after the first part, with the now widowed mother, "Evelyn Abbott" (Emily Blunt), her deaf daughter, "Regan" (Millicent Simmonds), traumatized son, "Marcus" (Noah Jupe), and newborn baby, having discovered that the blind, but very violent alien invaders have a weakness. Sound, or to be more specific, high frequency sound, in the form of feedback from Regan's hearing aid, which stuns the creatures long enough for someone to attack their fragile, exposed ear lobes and kill them. With Evelyn's husband, "Lee" (John Krasinski) gone (It shouldn't be a spoiler, considering you have time to watch the first part during the year long pandemic), the grieving family abandons their home to search of any remaining civilization.  Along the way, Marcus is wounded by a bear trap, which attracts the attention of more of the creatures.

 The family is rescued by an old friend, "Emmett" (Cillian Murphy), who has lost everything and has given up on the world, seeing the creatures as unbeatable and the humans that remain as beyond saving. However, a radio broadcast is discovered, which Regan tracks down to an unknown location, meaning that there are possibly more human survivors out there. Not wanting to risk anyone else, Regan takes it upon herself to track down the source of the signal alone. Unable to leave the baby and the still wounded Marcus, Evelyn begs Emmett to find Regan and bring her back. However, once Emmett realizes what Regan plans to do and having not been able to do much himself since the loss of everyone he loves, he agrees to go with Regan to find the signal source, avoiding the deadly creatures waiting for them in the outside world.  

Once again written and directed by John Krasinski, "A Quiet Place Part II", much like the first one, could so easily bank completely on its premise to get by. It could feel gimmicky in the wrong hands, or could just get old very quickly. The original "A Quiet Place" was a surprise to everyone, serving as something unique, scary, and incredibly well put together. To get this right once again is a challenge, considering how known for going wrong horror movie sequels tend to be, and no longer having that element of shock to catch us off guard. Krasinski expertly crafts a compelling continuation, that revs up the action, while never forgetting the terror that made the original work so well in the first place. It expands on the first film, proving more context, but not too much to the point where it would feel overly forced or exposition heavy. You'd think that the inclusion of more characters and dialogue would cause the filmmakers to lose sight of what worked so well in the first film, but they only use it when necessary, still generating that extensive sense of dread as before. Krasinski's very articulate and high intelligent screenplay knows how to balance out a human drama within a frightening creature feature, where you care about every single character on screen, feeling their hopeless when backed into an unnerving situation, and exhilarated when they find a way to overcome it. The use of sound here is nothing short of Oscar worthy. It's always toyed with in some way, and due to the characters always needing to remain quiet no matter what happens to them, you'll left on edge, fearful of anything that could be lurking around the corner. (Those damn clicking sounds from the creatures end being the stuff of nightmares) 

The suspense can only do so much of the heavy lifting, and it's only further elevated by a small, but very strong cast. Emily Blunt is wonderful once again, but the movie pulls somewhat of a twist that makes the point that she may not actually be the main character of the story. Millicent Simmonds, who was a breakout in the first film (And is also deaf in real life), is more upfront and center this time. She comes into her own as a certified badass, taking the role of the lead protagonist for a good portion of the film. Noah Jupe also goes through a good amount of development and does an excellent job conveying both fear and excruciating pain. (He really gets put through the ringer more than anyone else) Cillian Murphy is terrific, with one of the most complicated characters, while John Krasinski's cameo makes for one of the film's most memorable sequences. In the first film, we only really got a good look at the creatures up close and personal towards the end. While the film no longer has the mystery, their unsettling design still generates enough fright and now that they're no longer in the shadows, they can appear at any moment without much warning. It also makes for more action heavy sequences than the first, but it feels like a natural for a good sequel. 

For what was once such a small scale film, "A Quiet Place Part II" may have more in it now, and yet, it does so to progress the story, further the characters, and better develop the world around them. There are a couple story moments that could use more future expansion (Such as the involvement of feral humans), though I appreciate how the films haven't felt the need to over explain itself when it at the moment isn't all that necessary. (We are sill yet to know exactly what the creatures want, but there might be subtle hints at their motivations hinted here and there) For as scary as everything is, the film at its core is a family drama and in the end, a coming of age story. These genuinely heartfelt moments are what help you gravitate further to the action and leave you not just on the edge of your seat due to the suspense of yourself getting frightened, but also because you just don't want anything bad to happen to anyone. Seriously, your anxiety is going to be off the charts with this one. True unrelenting horror, mixed with memorable characters and heart. Krasinski brings it all together just as brilliantly as he did in the first one, and I can't be the only one excited for Part III. 3 1/2 Stars. Rated PG-13 For Successful Jump Scares That Will Make You Flinch Every Time You Hear Any Kind Of Clicking Sound, And That Damn Bear Trap. 

Army of the Dead                                     by James Eagan                           ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: I don't think mastering the ability of standing so incredibly still will save you from Zombies. 

I'm not sure how to put this into words that your usual well spoken, grammatically intellectual film critic normally would. Ahem, there's a Zombie Tiger in this movie. A freakin Zombie Tiger! An killer Tiger, with missing pieces of skin, fur, and partial skull exposed, ripping people apart in violent fashion. That's all you need to know. 

"Army of the Dead" opens with a military weapon getting unleashed right outside Las Vegas, Nevada, with the weapon being.....a genetically enhanced Zombie. Before anything knows it, the entire city is infected with a wide variety of monstrous undead, all hungering for the taste of human flesh and the complete destruction of civilization as we know it. Only a few are able to escape the carnage, with even the military failing to prevent the situation from escalating, resulting in the government sealing off the city from the rest of the outside world. Some time later, shady casino owner, "Bly Tanaka" (Hiroyuki Sanada), who approaches former mercenary, "Scott Ward" (Dave Bautista), with a job, that will require Ward to lead a team into the quarantined off Vegas to liberate $200 million from his abandoned casino vault. With the military planning to nuke the city in a matter of days, Ward is given a limited time to do so. Ward, a survivor of the Las Vegas Zombie attack, gathers his old teammates, "Maria Cruz" (Ana de la Reguera) and "Vanderohe" (Omari Hardwick), along with a tossed together crew of probable Zombie food, consisting of eccentric safecracker, "Ludwig Dieter" (Matthias Schweighöfer), snarky helicopter pilot, "Marianne Peters" (Tig Notaro), sharpshooter, "Mikey Guzman" (Raúl Castillo) and his friend "Chambers" (Samantha Win), and Tanaka's equally shady right-hand man, "Martin" (Garret Dillahunt). 

Of course things take a rather unexpected turn before the mission even begins, such as the inclusion of a skilled smuggler, "Lily" (Nora Arnezeder), known as the "Coyote", who randomly brings along a local vile security guard, "Burt Cummings" (Theo RossI), for her own reasons. Ward is also forced to let his estranged daughter, "Kate" (Ella Purnell), come on the mission as well, to find a missing friend, "Greeta" (Huma Qureshi). With time running out, the team must make it past the hordes of Zombies, including the super Zombies, led by the terrifying and surprisingly intelligent, "Zeus" (Richard Cetrone), to make it to Tanaka's casino, break into the safe, get the money, and escape the city with a helicopter waiting at the top of the building, before the military blasts the city into oblivion.   

Directed and co-written by Zack Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead", "300", "Zack Snyder's Justice League"), who abandons his superhero plans to return to his undead roots, "Army of the Dead" is as old fashioned as they come. The plot is essentially a video game, and with relatively stock-like characters, but similar to early this year's "Godzilla vs. Kong", it clearly knows what it is and knows exactly how to play this. The film is smart enough to never overstep itself and while you're not going to get much depth here, you'll instead get exactly what you were promised, with a few surprises as well. This is Zack Snyder deciding to just let loose in an outrageously violent, completely excessive, and rather cleverly manchild-esque way. The movie feels like that zombie epic that you've always dreamed of, with insane action setpieces, a little bit of horror, and a devilish grin. The story itself is nothing too new, but the execution is completely unique, with a variety of Zombies that are explained just enough (Yet also not too much), to where you can accept what they are without having to shut off your brain (Movie fun doesn't have to require you to do so). There are so many intricate details and the story's flow, while preposterous, feels natural and only escalates. For Netflix and a rather modest by most standards budget, Snyder knows how to make it all feel grand, like a demonic theme park, with crazy action setpieces, better than expected special effects, and a totally game cast that bring extra gravitas to the bloody escapades. 

Dave Bautista has really proven himself to be a damn good actor, doing well with comedic moments and obviously fitting in with a well made action scene, but there is this soft spoken, more subtle likability during the more dramatic moments, which only work because of how natural he feels. Matthias Schweighöfer becomes one of the most memorable characters, serving as great comedy relief, while we get good work out of Omari Hardwick, Ella Purnell, Tig Notaro (Who was seamlessly CGI'ed in at the last moment to replace Chris D'Elia, on account of him being an apparent rapist), Raúl Castillo, and all too brief appearance from Hiroyuki Sanada. Some characters are a bit more useless than others, while some also just play typical parts that I've seen them play before, such as Theo Rossi playing scumbag and Garret Dillahunt playing douchebag. You do care just enough about a good amount of the characters, especially once the film reaches it's intense last act, which does have a few shocking deaths and even a few sad ones. 

"Army of the Dead" is Zack Snyder's showing everyone his favorite toys, going for broke when it comes to bonkers Zombie action and thankfully, is never taking things too overly seriously. For what is basically just a big B-movie blockbuster, the film has intelligence, is well directed and structured (Even at the two and half hour runtime, you barely even notice it), and sets itself apart from the worn out zombie genre, proving that there is still some fresh meat on those bones. And also, you know....Zombie Tiger. Come on guys. How is that NOT awesome? 3 Stars. Rated R For Gorey Violence, Zombie Nudity, And Not Near Enough Social Distancing. 

Those Who Wish Me Dead                       by James Eagan                         ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Angelina Jolie, contemplating what an awesome badass she still is.

As I grow older, I've grown to appreciate a good throwback. I can admit when the flaws are present, or when you really get down to it, it's not something entirely original. (Although if you can avoid making it as bad as "The Woman in the Window", I'd say you're halfway there). Either way, I just really love it when good filmmakers just get it right enough.

Based on the book by Michael Koryta (Who co-wrote the screenplay), "Those Who Wish Me Dead" follows a few plotlines that culminate together, with the most focus being on a troubled smokejumper, "Hannah Faber" (Angelina Jolie), who is still traumatized by her failure to save a group of innocents during a forest fire. Hannah is stationed at a fire lookout tower in Montana, when a lot of crazy sh*t is about to go down. An accountant, "Owen Casserly" (Jake Weber), discovers that his boss and family were recently murdered (In an explosion no less), realizing that it was most likely because of something that he was never meant to know. Owen and his son, "Connor" (Finn Little), attempt to flee to Montana, to hide out with his pregnant sister, "Allison Sawyer" (Medina Senghore) and her Deputy Sheriff husband, "Ethan" (Jon Bernthal). However, Owen and Connor are immediately pursued by a pair of deadly and very meticulous assassins, the "Blackwell" brothers, "Jack" (Aidan Gillen) and "Patrick" (Nicholas Hoult), with Owen being able to pass off the information he knows to Connor before being murdered by them. With Connor missing and the fear of exposure, Jack and Patrick enact a plan to hunt the boy down and start a fire in the Park County forest to keep the authorities busy. Meanwhile, Hannah comes across Connor, and is determined to protect him from the brothers, while also avoiding the forest flames that threaten to overtake the entire wilderness area. 

Directed and co-written (With Koryta and Charles Leavitt) by Taylor Sheridan (Who directed "Wind River", while also writing "Hell or High Water" and "Sicario"), "Those Who Wish Me Dead" pays homage to 90s action-thrillers to a degree that at times can prevent it from elevating past a good popcorn flick. However, it's also a damn good one. Some predictable plot developments aside, the suspense and overall intensity keeps the movie going and is unrelenting till the very end. Even when the film slows down for some character interactions, there is this sense of turmoil that's always present. As usual with Sheridan's work, characters are never simple, each with their own little quirks or hints at a larger backstory. They're also further humanized by a very natural sense of humor that add levity to the film. I can admit though that things aren't particularly deep this time around, and because of that, the film doesn't exactly stick with you in the way Taylor Sheridan's previous work would. With that said, you could make the argument that this is all intentional. (The movie never addresses what exactly the villains are after, but in the end, that's not what the story is about)

There are a lot of plot threads going on at once, but they do come together and you get the basic idea every single character, especially when the screenplay gives them plenty of personality. Angelina Jolie is totally badass, and yet, retains something a little deeper. Finn Little is solid, though he's best when paired with Jolie, with the two of them having some great back and forth comradery. Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen make for despicable, frighteningly desperate villains, Jon Bernthal plays a more unique, vulnerable role than what I'm used to from him, and Tyler Perry (as the Blackwell brother's boss) appears briefly for a quietly cold cameo. The film's secret weapon ends up being Medina Senghore, who takes part in a few memorable scenes and is just all kinds of awesome. 

 Making up for what I can assume is relatively small budget (Some of the CGI is rather lackluster, though thankfully never focused on) with clever direction and some stunning cinematography, "Those Who Wish Me Dead" is a flawed film, that follows its structured playbook to the letter. That does prevent the film from reaching greatness. As a homage, it does a brilliant job emulating them without feeling derivative and makes for a thrilling, if not entirely undemanding to a point, time at the movies. Or at home, if you watched it on HBO Max. You know what I mean. I got a soft spot for these kinds of movies. 3 Stars. Rated R For Violence, Language, And Tough Guy Talk.....And Tough Woman Talk.    

The Woman in the Window                                                                                         by James Eagan                                                                   ★ out of ★★★★

Image: I'm ready for my close up, Amy 

This movie is peppered with actual images or scenes of classic mystery thrillers, such as "Rear Window" and "Laura", and the entire time, I just really wish I was watching those movies right now. Good old fashioned mysteries are so few and far between. However, capable filmmakers taking great actors and shoving them in crap? That happens once every couple of months. 

Based on the book by A. J. Finn, "The Woman in the Window" follows divorced psychologist turned shut in, "Anna Fox" (Amy Adams), who suffers from agoraphobia, never leaving her house. Anna has her sessions with her therapist, "Dr. Landy" (Tracy Letts), gets calls from her ex husband, "Ed" (Anthony Mackie), has awkward mini-conversations with her hipster tenant, "David" (Wyatt Russell), and watches her neighbors from her window. Anna takes a special interest in her newest neighbors, the highly antagonistic "Alistair Russell" (Gary Oldman), along with his unsettled son, "Ethan" (Fred Hechinger), and wife, "Jane" (Julianne Moore), who Anna briefly befriends. After a nice talk with Jane, Anna starts to question the Russell family, noticing how abusive Alistair is, along with a lot of yelling coming from their home. While watching from her window, Anna sees Jane being murdered. Of course, nobody believes her. To make things even weirder though, Anna seemingly meets the real "Jane Russell" (Jennifer Jason Leigh), calling her entire sanity into question. With there being many suspects and unanswered questions, Anna is determined to get to the bottom of things, even though she's yet to come to terms with her own mental issues. 

Directed by Joe Wright ("Pride & Prejudice", "Atonement", "Pan", "Darkest Hour". One of these is not like the other), with a screenplay by Tracy Letts, "The Woman in the Window" was previously filmed back in 2018, was then meant to get released in 2019, before getting pushed to 2020, and then because of Covid, getting sentenced to a 2021 Netflix release. Throughout that time, there were apparent issues behind the scenes, with poor test screenings, rewrites, and reshoots, resulting in something that at first only seems like a bland, rather boring and forgettable misfire, but actually gets worse and worse the more you think about it. In fact if you think about it at all, the film is a total filmmaking disaster. There are plenty of obvious issues, but it's the more subtle ones that drive it home, only really hitting you when you take the time to reflect on them. Much of the plot and characterization if lifted from much better movies, and while the film seems to want to emulate them through various homages and references, it borders on feeling like more of a rip-off than a tribute. The mystery isn't all that interesting, especially when you can figure out that there are only a coupe routes where this film can go with it, resulting in some predictable developments. There is a minor twist towards the last act (Which is the most interesting part of the movie), and yet, while it's meant to throw the audience for a loop, you know pretty quickly that film is not going to go down that road. You can't exactly buy when the film tries to imply that something is all in a character's head, when you know damn well it's not. It doesn't help that nobody acts normally because of it, straight up ignoring lots of glaring holes that any normal person would at least somewhat question. 

Amy Adams does what she can, and walks out completely unscathed, with a few solid dramatic scenes and moments of heartache. One of the most annoying parts of the movie are how nobody seems to believe her, and even though she is not entirely mentally sound, it's undeniable that something weird is going on here. It's not all that far fetched. It doesn't help that Gary Oldman acts like a supervillain the entire time, looking guilty as Hell the entire time. (No spoilers here, but he looks and acts evil right before anything nefarious seems to be happening) Wyatt Russell's role doesn't end up meaning all that much, Anthony Mackie gets probably the easiest paycheck he's ever had to get (Mostly appearing via voice over on the phone), and Julianne Moore only appears briefly, showing more personality than most of the characters in her one scene (She's very much missed once she's gone). The always welcome Brian Tyree Henry gets nothing to do, and poor Jennifer Jason Leigh, she has no role in the movie at all. (Seriously! How dare you! Literally anybody could have played this part!) 

Poorly paced, with uninspired direction, "The Woman in the Window" is as flat as they come, which probably explains why the movie just loses its mind in the finale, which becomes a rather bloody, slasher flick. It's not that hard to figure out what's going on, and the way it's executed is unbearably poor. It doesn't make all that much sense, and the way the film wraps up most of this offscreen just makes it worse. You walk away uninvested, and then you take the time to look back, realizing that almost none of that actually worked. It always makes you sad when you see a movie with so much talent backing it fail. It makes you mad when it fails this bad. 1 Star. Rated For Random F-Bombs, A Violent Climax, And Poor Parenting. 

Spiral: From the Book of Saw                                                                                      by James Eagan                                                             ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Chris Rock can't believe what he just....Uh....Saw.

To prepare myself (And because I never had any interest in seeing them), I went through and binged watched every single one of the "Saw" films, a horror franchise that basically dominated every Halloween box office for a good six years straight (Along with 2017's somewhat attempted revitalization, "Jigsaw"). It probably was one of the poorer decisions I've ever made, with the franchise starting off with an interesting idea (Though being too graphically indulgent in gross out gore and torture), before slowly getting worse and worse for a bit to the point of it being more torturous for the viewer than the actual victims. ("Saw 3D: The Final Chapter" is one of the worst I've seen. Hands down!) It's never been my kind of horror and I feel like there's something better under the surface that the filmmakers just can't seem to grasp. Now I must ask the age old question.....Is Chris Rock the hero we need? I mean, I'm sure somebody has asked that. 

"Spiral: From the Book of Saw" follows loose cannon police detective, "Ezekiel "Zeke" Banks" (Chris Rock), the son of the highly respected veteran, "Marcus Banks" (Samuel L. Jackson). Banks, wait for it, doesn't like to play by the rules, goes rogue whenever he pleases, and is constantly at odds with the rest of the department. Much to Banks' dismay, his incredibly attractive captain, "Angie Garza" (Marisol Nichols), arranges for him to get a new rookie partner, "William Schenk" (Max Minghella). Banks and Schenk investigate a gruesome corpse down in the subway, discovering that not only was the victim a cop, but he was also arranged to meet a grisly end in a trap designed similar to the now infamous serial killer, "John Kramer" (Previously played by Tobin Bell), also known as "Jigsaw". It's deduced that the culprit is a copycat killer, leaving behind the trademark red spiral, using pig masks, and even right down to having his own little puppet (A pig, dressed as a cop). Banks is put in charge of the case, which the rest of the department is none too happy about. As Banks starts to dig further into the killer's sick new game, bodies start to pile up, blood runs wild, and flesh is ripped to pieces, with an even bigger mystery just waiting to be uncovered. 

Directed by the returning Darren Lynn Bousman (Who did the second, third, and fourth "Saw" films), with Chris Rock having a hand in the film's creation, "Spiral: From the Book of Saw" is somewhat of a jumbled mix of conflicting ideas that don't always mesh, though more than any of the previous entries in the franchise, I feel that this was the closest they've ever come to being actual movies. The movie is just paced differently, trying to tell a full story with developed characters and genuine mystery, while only on occasion divulging in gratuitous torture and gore. It doesn't fully work exactly, but I not only appreciate the attempt, I kind of commend it. Bousman shows some improvement as a director since his overly flashy, somewhat intentionally trashy looking work on the previous "Saw" films, letting the film have a little time for levity and atmosphere to sink in. The gritty, grainy, and slightly sweaty look to the film does add an extra sense of discomfort. The screenplay by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger ("Jigsaw", "Piranha 3D") however is a bit more of a mixed bag. While there are kills aplenty, the film is seemingly going more for a police procedural thriller with some horror elements, which is something I would very much prefer, though on the downside, they struggle with tone at times and throw in every single last freakin cop movie cliché in the book. In fact, they basically just throw in the entire book at once, along with some clumsy exposition. It gives off the feeling that the filmmakers might not be completely used to a more focused approach, considering most of these films just rely on random bloody kills and a vague essence of what one would call a story. It is though a welcome change of pace to the franchise and as mentioned before, this is trying to be an actual movie. 

Chris Rock doesn't exactly help the moments of unevenness, especially early on. He drops a lot of quips and jumps into random moments of standup, that while at times funny, feel out of place. As the film progresses though, Rock shows off better acting chops and does fairly well once we reach the rather dramatic climax (More on that in a bit). Samuel L. Jackson, though his role is limited, does bring some extra gravitas to the film that you rarely ever saw in any of the other entries. (There is however a rather unintentionally hilarious flashback where the filmmakers apparently cheaped out and figured that tossing a glued on goatee on Chris Rock and a caterpillar looking mustache on Samuel L. Jackson would make them look younger. It's one of those cases where not doing anything would have looked better) Max Minghella is a likable presence, Marisol Nichols gets stuck with the generic captain role, and other supporting players serve mostly to either fade into the background or become rotten flesh piles. As for the major selling point for most of the fanbase, the traps are more restrained this time. Oh don't get me wrong, they're excessively violent and border on torture porn (An opening sequence involving a train and a man hanging from his tongue, pretty much sets the stage), but they feel less over the top than the later films' traps did. They do at least look like something an average person could build, even if the logistics concerning time still don't make much sense. There is a rather unique one involving the firing of shards of glass, that's more unnerving than expected. 

With the typical flaws rearing their ugly heads, and yet, with some solid mystery and poignant themes, "Spiral: From the Book of Saw" is the best movie in the "Saw" franchise, even if it's almost completely by default. The film does truly come alive in the last act, which is shocking and actually rather thought provoking. It's something the other films always seemed to want to be but never could grasp. While I was able to successfully guess who the killer was, the reasoning behind it and how it all comes together is genuinely unexpected. The admittedly suspenseful final moments culminate in an ending full of shock value, but instead of the usual senseless violence that some have grown accustomed to, the shock comes from the point the film is trying to make and how brutally it does so. There is something deeper here, and it's pretty brave for the filmmakers to even consider going there, especially with a franchise such as this. Still not a fan of this series. With that said, I did like to see that there was some kind of growth here. The newfound maturity and social relevance is very much needed if any franchise is to survive to play another game or two in the future. 2 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Jumpy Pig Squealing Scares, Flesh Contorting In Ways It Shouldn't, And An Obligatory Samuel L. Jackson Mother F*cker. 

Wrath of Man                                       by James Eagan                                ★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Jason Statham cracks a smile during a humorous moment of levity.

My introduction to Guy Ritchie were the "Sherlock Holmes" movies, and while I thoroughly enjoyed those, I wasn't particularly sure that was where his unique talents should be put. (And not to mention, "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" was just a mistake all around) Nobody I can think of at the moment can shove this much gunfire, swears, and tight shirt machismo into under two hours like he can.

"Wrath of Man" follows an unknown, quiet, though seemingly normal-ish stranger named "Patrick Hill" (Jason Statham), as he's hired by a armored, cash truck company in Los Angeles, with this hiring being not too long after a recent, rather brutal robbery that led to the deaths of a couple previous drivers. Partnered up with snarky tough guy, "Bullet" (Holt McCallany), who nicknames him "H" (As in the bomb. Or Jesus), Hill's first day on the job ends up being one to remember, with the truck being held at gunpoint. Hill proceeds to take complete command of the entire situation and kills every single one of the would-be robbers, without getting a single scratch, single-handedly. Turns out Hill is here for personal reasons, and while the company loves him, especially when his reputation starts to grow, the other drivers are curious as to where Hill came from and his intentions. When the organized gang that previously attacked prepares for an upcoming score, everything starts to fall into place involving gangsters, former veterans, and a whole lot of scheming. Motivations and allegiances are revealed, and everyone in the movie ruthlessly flexes in both a physical and metaphorical way.  

Directed (And Co-written with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies) by Guy Ritchie, "Wrath of Man" is based on a French film appropriately titled "Cash Truck" (Which was directed by Nicolas Boukrief), and while I can't exactly say how well the film compares considering I didn't know it was based on anything until I saw the mention during the opening titles, there's a whole lot of intensity and solid intrigue to help the film past what's actually a rather lacking plot. Ritchie's bro-tastic, yet oddly refined gangster style is on full display, creating an elaborate web of death, overly detailed planning, and so much weaponized testosterone that you'll feel like the film has you in a constant chokehold. There's lots of flashing backwards and forwards in time, to fill in the gaps to the puzzle that Guy Ritchie has intentionally left incomplete. The thing is that it's not a very big puzzle and once you figure out how little there is the plot, it can take away from the film, making it seem lesser than other films like it (It certainly has nothing on Ritchie's previous film, "The Gentlemen"). With that said, it's immensely entertaining to watch and not as entirely predictable as you might think. There are moments where you can get the idea of what's going to happen, but it's the execution that gets you, to the point I think it's best not knowing too much about what the plot truly is. 

 Jason Statham is the star of the show, though he doesn't always hog the spotlight. His stoic performance fits the Ritchie tone, which actually does make way for small moments of humor and well, admitted coolness. (The quick bit of him adjusting his uniform in the middle of a shootout, before charging headfirst into it, is one of the most memorable moments) When more of the character's intentions and backstory are revealed, Statham does a good job with it, remaining stone faced, though you can see the hints of something much darker hidden beneath the seemingly blank look. There are a whole collection of recognizable actors who either appear in large or small parts, though all almost have an important role to play. From Holt McCallany, Eddie Marsan (as "Terry", Hill's boss), Jeffrey Donovan (as "Jackson", the leader of a group of former soldiers), Scott Eastwood (as "Jan", a rather crazed looking member of Jackson's squad),  Josh Hartnett (as "Boy Sweat Dave", one of the drivers, who doesn't do well under pressure), Niamh Algar (as "Dana", the only female member of the security team, and one of the only female characters in the entire movie), and Andy Garcia (In a role that's actually a little confusing the more I think about it). 

"Wrath of Man" is a movie that constantly builds up tension, with every single one of the cogs twisting and turning throughout until everything explodes on screen in violent fashion. The finale is rather spectacular, and even when some plot developments are less than surprising, it's an edge of your seat kind of experience that only keeps escalating till it just can't go on for any longer (The film wraps up pretty quickly once the action is all said and done). It's nothing all that grand, but the film makes for a solid action flick, with a little extra sense of fun tossed in there to give it that Guy Ritchie personality. 3 Stars. Rated R For Lots Of Swears, Bloody Violence, And That Statham Stare. 

Star Wars: The Bad Batch - Aftermath                                                                       by James Eagan                                                                ★★★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Charlie Sheen leads his weary men into battle.

Happy "Star Wars" Day everybody! And May the Fourth be with you! Er....well, it's actually the day after now. So Happy Revenge of the Fifth. It's like the fourth, except with more Jedi killing. It's perfect for what is essentially supposed to be good old fashioned, family friendly entertainment. 

Almost serving as the first episode (Or standalone movie, considering the hour and fifteen minute runtime) for an eighth season of the now classic "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", "The Bad Batch" opens in the final moments of the war, following our titular band of defective clones (Also known as "Clone Force 99"), the leader, "Sergeant Hunter" (Dee Bradley Baker), the expert sharpshooter, "Crosshair" (Also Dee Bradley Baker), the brains, "Tech" (Once more, Dee Bradley Baker), the explosion loving, "Wrecker" (Mr. Bradley Baker), and the newest recruit, "Echo" (Sir Dee Bradley of Baker), who have garnered a bit of a reputation compared to the rest of the clone army. On the planet, "Kaller", the squad witnesses the execution of "Order 66" (Which compels all clone troopers across the galaxy to turn on their Jedi generals), such as their fellow soldiers out of nowhere firing upon "Depa Billaba" (Archie Panjabi) and her young padawan, "Caleb Dume" (Freddie Prinze Jr.), later known as "Kanan Jarrus" from "Star Wars: Rebels" (In case you didn't know). Despite their clear orders, the squad's defects allow them to resist the order, resulting in Hunter allowing for Caleb's escape. The Bad Batch returns to "Kamino" (The water world that the Republic cloning facility is stationed), where they discover that "Chancellor Sheev Palpatine" (Ian McDiarmid) has appointed himself "Emperor", declaring the "Galactic Republic" (and the Jedi), are no more, being replaced by the "Galactic Empire". One of the Imperial higher ups (And future killer of millions), "Admiral Wilhuff Tarkin" (Stephen Stanton), arrives to convene with Kaminoan Prime Minister, "Lama Su" (Bob Bergen) and his head scientist, "Nala Se" (Gwendoline Yeo), and evaluate the effectiveness of a clone army now that the Clone Wars are over. (Not sure if replacing them with those "Stormtroopers" are a good idea. They never seem to hit anything). Tarkin takes a special interest in the Bad Batch, who have the skills that the Empire would love, but they lack the blind, cult-like, brainwashed loyalty that the job requires. After befriending a young girl at the facility named "Omega" (Michaelle Ang), the Bad Batch find themselves unable to follow the Empire's new tyrannical orders, though infighting within the group threatens to tear them apart.

After first being introduced in the final season of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", "The Bad Batch", with this first episode being appropriately titled "Aftermath", seemed like a bit of a surprise idea for a series, though after watching the first episode (Which was prolonged to the point one could consider it a movie), I don't know how anyone could have ever doubted it. It idea alone is already quite brilliant, showing a different side to the fallout from the Prequel Trilogy, which has only been hinted at or barely touched upon in the current "Star Wars" canon. (In a way, it was somewhat glossed over in the original "Expanded Universe" as well) We never did see how many of the clones, who many fans really got to know and care about through the "Clone Wars" series, reacted to the sudden change from the Republic to the Empire. It's also cool to see a group that, due to their own programming, are able to go against the Empire, while also giving us a look at my personal favorite Era in all of "Star Wars". There are so many opportunities here, and it's clear that Dave Filoni (Creator of many "Star Wars" shows, including "The Clone Wars", "Rebels", and "Resistance", along with his work on "The Mandalorian") has every intention to further bridge the saga more than he already has. The animation and rather stunning visual art style carries over from "The Clone Wars", and even includes the return of the much loved Tom Kane narration (Never gonna get tired of that). The flow feels so natural, giving the fans of course what they want (Though thankfully this time "Lucasfilm" doesn't feel the need to you know, bow to racists. You did Kelly Marie Tran wrong!), while also making it feel like it still fits. 

The story is not something that's all together original, but it's more about how it's told. During the short runtime, you know all you need to know by the end of it. It's all about the character work, as well as the continuously excellent voice work, especially from the multi-talented and very much underappreciated Dee Bradley Baker. He actually has to do even more now than before, instead bringing a little extra to each character's voice. The Bad Batch are a great collection of characters, with fan favorite Wrecker stealing most scenes, though my personal favorite might be Tech. There is some depth given to Crosshar as well, which takes an unexpected darker turn. We get the returns of fan favorites, such as the villainous Tarkin, the return of "AZI-3" (Voiced again by Ben Diskin), "Saw Gerrera" (Voiced again by Andrew Kishino, sounding a bit more like Forest Whitaker), and a surprise appearance from the young Kanan Jarrus, though the continuity might be a little off with that one. (We'll let it slide and it doesn't necessarily affect the story of the terrific "Kanan" comic series. Still a pretty big retcon though) Omega ends up being a wonderful addition to the always expanding cast of characters, with the story not taking too long to point out the little twist (Fans figured that one out a while ago) and she proves to be a capable future member of the team. No matter how dark things can get (I mean, this does take place moments after what was essentially a galaxy-wide genocide), there's a lot of good humor and moments of added heart, which was something the original series did on an expert level.

The first episode of "The Bad Batch" is already good enough on its own, with some exciting action, deep character moments, and a compelling company of main characters, with loads of story potential, that will appeal to the hardcore fans such as myself, as well as the more casual ones just curious about something other than the "Skywalkers". Back when the franchise first began, George Lucas introduced us to a whole galaxy of characters, worlds, and ideas, and I feel that even after all these years, we've only scratched the surface of it all. "The Bad Batch" is a fantastic starting point, serving as the next act of an already great animated series and a jumping point for anyone just a little bit interested on what that galaxy far, far away has in store. 3 1/2 Stars.    

Without Remorse                                   by James Eagan                                  ★ ½ out of ★★★★

Image: "Is this your king?!"

Those Tom Clancy adaptations, despite the source materials being apparent gold standards for spy, espionage, military based thrillers, have the tendency to be as generic as they come. Not sure why that keeps happening, but I guess if you want to pop out a by the book action movie, that's your go to. It sucks because there's always potential there.  . 

Based on the novel of the same name by John Clancy, "Without Remorse" follows US Navy SEAL, "John Kelly" (Michael B. Jordan), as he returns home to his pregnant wife, "Pam" (Lauren London), after a strange mission involving a hostage situation with supposed ISIS members. It turns out those were Russian military forces, and they're not exactly happy. The rest of Kelly's team are all assassinated by trained Russian killers, while he witnesses Pam's death at the hands of the presumed dead "Victor Rykov" (Brett Gelman. No, that's not a typo). Kelly wants revenge, and despite support from his superior, "Karen Greer" (Jodie Turner-Smith) and the Secretary of Defense, "Thomas Clay" (Guy Pierce), CIA officer, "Robert Ritter" (Jamie Bell), reiterates looking for less violent options considering the current discourse with Russia at the moment. Kelly has no intention of letting things go, and proceeds to go rogue to track down the ones responsible for his wife's death. After causing a little more havoc along with straining the US and Russia's relationship even further, Kelly, after giving assurance that he will go to prison for what he's done, becomes part of a mission to find Rykov and bring anyone involved in his operation to justice. However, there's something more nefarious going on here, and a big conspiracy just waiting to be uncovered. 

Directed by Stefano Sollima ("Sicario: Day of the Soldado"), with a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario", "Hell or High Water", "Wind River") and Will Staples, "Without Remorse" is the kind of movie that even though it looks like the kind of story you've seen more than a few times, it at least be salvaged by a compelling cast, a capable director, and a screenplay by talented writers to inject enough emotion and personality to overcome predictability. Yeah, something really went wrong here. There is very little character in the film, which is shocking considering Taylor Sheridan's eye for balancing your usual tough guy talk with well placed humor while still retaining a grim tone. The movie is completely missing anything like that, taking things 100% seriously, without actually giving us any levity to the characters so that we can actually give a damn about them. Sollima makes the film look really good, and sure can shoot a good action scene, but considering how elaborate and stylish we can make those these days, it doesn't feel like anything all that special. The lack of interest only makes one think during the rather stupid storyline, which is full of moments that don't make much sense or lend itself to mockery (There are a few moments where Kelly is meant to appear badass, but realistically, those moments could have gone so wrong so quickly, making them unnecessarily dumb). 

I can always appreciate Michael B. Jordan and how much range as an actor he really has, and even while his character is more on the forgettable side, it's not like he isn't believable in the part. Jamie Bell also does a fine job (And might be the only character with much of an arc. Not a complete one, but it's something), while Jodie Turner-Smith is for some reason totally robotic. Brett Gelman's appearance is jarring to say the least, though he does an alright actually despite the weirdness of the casting. Guy Pierce is.....okay, what do you guys think his role in this? It's not a damn spoiler! If you don't know where this movie is going then you must have never seen a movie in your entire life! Or you just don't know who Guy Pierce is. What makes the movie the most frustrating is just how unoriginal the character development or plot is. There are no surprises here. 

"Without Remorse" makes for a bland, boring entry into the action genre, and while all the ingredients for something more are there, the filmmakers don't appear to have any intention of reaching for anything greater. All it does is waste what's right in front of it. It's weird to see source material so long running and ripe for a future franchise, just sort of becoming something more mediocre and easier to neglect. There are worse made movies out there, but at least they give you more memorable badness. 1 1/2 Stars. Rated R For Strong Violence, Language, And The Dumbest Interrogation Tactics You'll Ever See. 

The Mitchells vs. the Machines                                                                                    by James Eagan                                                                       ★★★★ out of ★★★★

Image: "Wow! Is this....A real movie theater screen?" 

It only just hit me. I haven't given a single four star movie review all year. We've had a decent amount of films so far and plenty of good ones too. I just haven't really thought about it too much, since nothing has quite really grabbed me as of yet this year. Maybe they're all being saved for later, when the pandemic finally reaches its conclusion (It is going to end, right?) So its surprising to say the least when the heroes of the 2021 would be a weird little family and their chubby dog/pig/loaf of bread, as they face down villainous smart phones. 

Released through Netflix by "Sony Pictures Animation", "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" follows the titular "Mitchell" family, consisting of quirky teenage aspiring filmmaker, "Katie" (Abbi Jacobson), the technologically incompetent father, "Rick" (Danny McBride), the protective and supportive mother, "Linda" (Maya Rudolph), the dinosaur obsessed son, "Aaron" (Mike Rianda), and their obese doggo, "Monchi" (Voiced through grunts, snorts, and heavy breaths by social media celebrity pug, Doug the Pug). Katie, who has been drifting apart from Rick in recent years due to a lack of understanding, is ready to leave home and head to college to study film with people just like her. Rick isn't quite prepared for this, and Linda fears that they might be running out of time to mend their father-daughter relationship. So Rick comes up with the brilliant idea to cancel Katie's plane tickets and instead have a family vacation, driving Katie to college. 

Of course things don't go entirely as planned, though the family finds their chance to bond one last time and finally work together as a cohesive going up against the robot apocalypse. At the same moment, Tech creator, "Mark Bowman" (Eric Andre), has announced that his current virtual assistant, "PAL" (Olivia Colman), is now obsolete, planning to replace her with shiny, new robots. Pal takes control of the robots, as well as the rest of the planet, sending the robots to hunt down humanity so she can create a human free world. Eventually, the Mitchells are all that remain, becoming humanity's last hope for survival, embarking on a mission to save the world, despite not knowing what the heck they're doing. 

Directed by Mike Rianda and produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs", "The LEGO Movie", and the "21 Jump Street" movies), "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" (Which was originally meant to be released last year under the name "Connected", before Covid struck) is made up of an amazing team, being the same ones behind the Academy Award winning "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse", to create a entirely original, brilliantly made, and absolutely hilarious adventure with something for the whole family (Dog included). With a screenplay by Rianda and co-director Jeff Rowe (Both of which worked on "Gravity Falls"), the film is intentionally chaotic in a rather eccentric fashion, best shown on display in the gorgeously frenetic animation style (Which is given a comic book-like feel, mixing in some occasional 2D animation to go with the 3D), making for some glorious visuals. It's a shame that the film i only available through streaming on Netflix, because this all would have looked even more incredible on the big screen (Watching it on your phone doesn't do it justice). The film also isn't just a lot of sight gags (Such as evil appliances, consisting of a washing machine with a "CARNAGE!!" setting) and doesn't rely on anything lowbrow, with smart, quick thinking dialogue getting laughs out of both adults and kids, whether it be something clever, unexpected, or just weird for the heck of it. It's my kind of humor to be honest. However, the film knows when it's time to settle down and let an emotional moment sink in, never forgetting that there is a more personal, sincere tale behind the wacky tone. 

The voice cast is also rather perfect, with an endearing Abbi Jacobson serving as our relatable lead. Danny McBride is quite wonderful actually, playing the confused dad role flawlessly, while an excellent Maya Rudolph and Mike Rianda (Who also does several additional voices) bring about the right amount of humor and empathy. They have a great, more modernized family dynamic that's interesting to see so well done despite the intentionally exaggerated scenario. Eric Andre plays against the type I'm used to seeing from him, while Olivia Colman is hysterically villainous. There are some fantastic supporting parts for other like Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen (as "Eric" and "Deborahbot 5000", two malfunctioning PAL robots, who integrate themselves into the Mitchell family), along with Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, and Charlyne Yi (as the more connected, ridiculously prepared "Posey" family, that Linda is secretly jealous over). The scene stealer as you would expect would be Monchi, who I demand get the squishiest plush toy possible, so that everyone around the world can hug his adorable plumpness. 

 At times somewhat random, though never annoyingly so (And if you ask me, that only adds an extra layer of personality to the film), "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" balances its craziness with a deeper, relevant message and a heartfelt story. What might at first seem like just another "Phones are bad" or "Technology is good" style theme, ends up being something more. You see both arguments, such as how we all can rely too much on phones and computers or even abuse them to a degree (There's a great moment showing how society would likely crumble seconds after the Wi-Fi shuts down), along with the good and progress that comes with it (With how many inspired young people these days being able to make careers out of such things). You can embrace what the future holds, while also never forgetting how you got there as well as the family that helped shape you in the first place. Full of energized charm and creativity, lots of laughs, a sweet center, and eye-popping animation that once again could actually challenge the mighty Disney at next year's Oscar ceremony. Not bad for a kooky little family. 4 Stars. Rated PG For Fast Paced Action, Killer Furbies, And LGBTQ Representation That's Sure To Offend Those Easily Offended Internet Trolls.  

Vanquish                                               by James Eagan                                           ½ out of ★★★★

Image: Literally phoning it in. 

You know I was just thinking to myself that this January didn't feel like the usual January. The Pandemic sort of pushed everything around, and unlike my previous years of reviewing, the beginning of the year is where we get the the scraps of whatever Hollywood couldn't find a place for. The unfinished, unintelligible, and unrelentingly stupid barely existent films that vanish from the box office and due to coming out so early in the year, don't even make most critics' worst of the year lists. I however, never forget. I also never forgive. 

A movie that I really should have opened the year with, "Vanquish" follows a single mother, "Victoria" (Ruby Rose), with a shady past, as her relationship with a disabled, former cop, "Damon" (Morgan Freeman), takes an unexpected turn. Damon, as it turns out, is part of an entire crooked cop operation, and is in need of assistance picking up some bags of cash, due to being stuck in a wheelchair. Damon, having integrated himself into Victoria's life by becoming a mentor or father figure of sorts (I assume. It's not really clear), decides to kidnap Victoria's daughter, "Lily" (Juju Journey Brener), forcing Victoria to work for him. Having a special set of skills (And a much more interesting backstory that's never touched upon), Victoria agrees to perform Damon's pickups, which take her all over town, running into various mobsters with grudges, more unlawful law enforcement, and all kinds of bizarre editing choices, while both Victoria and Damon's actions slowly start to catch up to them. 

From that generic ass title alone, you can tell "Vanquish" is not movie theater material, though it's not even video on demand worthy either. Directed by George Gallo (Someone who has apparently been around for a while, though you could barely tell considering how unremarkable and uncreative this little travesty is), the film is the kind of disaster you stumble upon completely by accident while flipping around channels in the middle of the night. You only end up watching a few minutes of it, wondering what the Hell went wrong or what the filmmakers were thinking, before changing the channel and never going back. It's a thin, video game-like plot, which repeats itself as Victoria goes into a bad guy hideout, things go wrong, we get a little action scene or violent shoot out, and she returns to Morgan Freeman for a little back and forth (Along with a little cut to some bad guys in a diner). It happens like four times in the film, taking its sweet time getting to a rushed conclusion. Gallo's direction is woefully bland for the first act or so, before getting really weird. The film decides to become what I can only assume was meant to be stylish, with odd jump cuts to character reactions and awkward scene transitions to the same exact scene except from a different angle. I guess they realized how boring the film was and attempted to spice things up, but it only makes things worse and that's saying a lot considering the somewhat incomplete feeling screenplay by Gallo and Samuel Bartlett. 

There's some backstory sprinkled throughout, but it's all very quick and never expanded upon, with the movie just dropping the audience right in the middle without much context. I can that despite all of the film's issues, I did enjoy Ruby Rose for what little she's given to do. Yeah, her character is lacking in many aspects (And it's hard, and yet, I at least buy her performance compared to everyone else,) and she injects a little more personality than the dialogue provides. Morgan Freeman, who despite giving an occasional snarky comment, looks like he's only here for a paycheck. While I certainly understand the feeling, he could have at least tried to look like he gave a little bit of a crap. (It must have been the easiest part he's ever played, considering he just had to sit down the entire time) There are other bad guys and scummy characters, who mostly blend together, coming off as incredibly dull or cartoonish, though not enough to make them remotely entertaining. I couldn't tell you any of their names, what they do, and or even what their role is, considering how little the affect the plot when you get down to it. Anything to pad out that runtime. 

"Vanquish" slogs through its incomprehensible plot, dragging its feet the entire time, and literally just keeps going till the last second. However, that's the only moment where the movie comes alive for the first time in the worst way possible. It ends on a hilarious note that would almost be considered infamous if the rest of the movie weren't so forgettable. It's one of those abrupt endings that you almost see coming, but don't fully think it'll go there due to the obvious lack of budget. Then you realize that even without a budget, they go an do it anyway, resulting in the biggest laugh I've gotten from any movie this year. None of it makes any sense, it's all cheap as Hell, and it barely even has enough depth to make for a good mock viewing. Still, at least it went out with a bang. 1/2 Star. The kind of movie made specifically for that score. Rated R For Bloody Violence, Language, And Super-Powered Cocaine.

Mortal Kombat                                       by James Eagan                                  ★★ out of ★★★★

Image: Now THAT'S a Covid Mask!

"Mortal Kombat", one of the longest running, most beloved, and most gleefully violent, fighting based video games of all time, is yet another one of those franchises that I neglected to get into. I've played a little bit of a couple games and watched some of the gameplay, but aside from some of the characters appearing in the "Injustice" games (And the memes. How could I ignore the memes?), I know very little about this series. However, none of that should matter though, right? We got ourselves a fresh start here. A great way to appeal to both the devoted fans and bring in newbies such as myself, bringing everyone together into blood soaked harmony. Well, at least the fans are happy.  

"Mortal Kombat" opens with rival ninjas, "Hanzo Hasashi" (Hiroyuki Sanada) and the ice wielding "Bi-Han" (Joe Taslim), duking it out, resulting in Bi-Han slaughtering Hanzo's loved ones, leaving Hanzo's soul to be taken to Hell (Or "Netherrealm", as it's referred to). However, Hanzo's bloodline as in reality survived, thanks to the intervention of thunder god/protector of "Earthrealm" (Another name for Earth), "Lord Raiden" (Tadanobu Asano). This leads to a prophecy of sorts, being that Hanzo's descendant, a former MMA fighter, "Cole Young" (Lewis Tan), will unite a group of champions to prevent the dark realm of "Outworld" from claiming a flawless victory in the upcoming tournament, "Mortal Kombat" (An epic death match, where warriors from all of the realms do battle). Cole, who bears the dragon mark that all the champions have, becomes the target of evil sorcerer, "Shang Tsung" (Chin Han), who intends to cheat his way to victory, sending in his assassins, such as Bi-Han, now referring to himself as "Sub-Zero", to kill him. 

Cole and his background family are rescued by Special Forces Major, "Jackson "Jax" Briggs" (Mehcad Brooks), who before losing his arms to Sub-Zero, sends Cole to an ally, "Sonya Blade" (Jessica McNamee), to track down Lord Raiden. Cole, Sonya, along with another um, "Champion", the vulgar, obviously untrustworthy "Kano" (Josh Lawson), make their way to Raiden, training with other champions of Earthrealm, "Liu Kang" (Ludi Lin) and "Kung Lao" (Max Huang) to unlock their own special abilities, known as "Arcana". Meanwhile, Shang Tsung readies more of his forces, preparing for the coming battle that actually never really comes. Yeah, most of the plot is just getting ready for a big conflict, before said conflict gets interrupted, and that's about it.......MORTAL KOMBAAAAAT!!!!    

Directed by first time director Simon McQuoid, with a producing credit from James Wan (The "Conjuring" series and "Aquaman"), "Mortal Kombat" starts off with some real promise. The opening fight between Hanzo (Or the future "Scorpion", as fans know him to be) and Sub-Zero, is emotional, well shot, and suitably brutal. It's a well done sequence that tragically doesn't carry over into the rest of the film. McQuoid's lack of experience becomes more apparent as the film suffers from terrible pacing and exposition heavy dialogue, also thanks to the screenplay by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham ("Wonder Woman: 1984" and "Zombieland: Double Tap"), that has so much to speed through, forgetting a form a cohesive narrative and develop much character in the process. It veers dangerously close to "The Last Airbender" territory, having so much in so little time, without much of the substance (It's nowhere near on the same level, but it did give me mini-PTSD flashbacks). The film's special effects also lead to mixed results. Some effects look pretty solid, such as a four armed monstrosity named "Goro" (Voiced by Angus Sampson), while others consist of heavy amounts of green screen and unfinished looking creatures that never mesh well into the live-action setting. You can tell the filmmakers are big fans of the game, going to excessive lengths to get every detail just right, but due to the film's inability to slow the Hell down and tell an actual story or populate it with characters to root for, the intricate world building doesn't end up doing anything for someone without a personal attachment to the series. 

Something that other properties such as the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" or to a lesser extent, earlier this year's "Godzilla vs. Kong", have to give you anything to care about. Sadly, the film doesn't do much with its surprisingly large roster of characters. Lewis Tan is a woefully boring and bland lead, barely even contributing to the story. Jessica McNamee does fine, as does Mehcad Brooks (And his unexplained metal, cyborg arms), who gets a good line or two. Tadanobu Asano is essentially useless, while Ludi Lin and Max Huang feel like they should be important, but fade into the background easily. Chin Han is a forgettable villain (Which is made worse knowing that the character is an iconic video game baddie) and Sisi Stringer (as "Mileena", a Glasgow smiling, deranged assassin) is just there to be there. Hiroyuki Sanada (Whose story feels like it was left on the cutting room floor) and Joe Taslim are quite good, despite being negated to supporting players for most of the movie. There's a fun side villain in the form of the snarky, mask wearing "Kabal" (Voiced by Damon Herriman), but nobody really stands out, with the exception of one. Josh Lawson absolutely steals this movie every time he's on screen, and does so in glorious fashion. Kano has always been the character I might have liked the most anyways, but here, he's a laugh riot, being the most hilariously rotten, constantly sh*t-talking, douchebag with the heart full of more douchebag. Lawson gets the best lines by far, injecting some well placed humor, and makes for a memorably vile, yet immensely entertaining character that would almost be enough to elevate the rest of the movie. I'd almost recommend the movie just to see him. He's actually legitimately that good. 

Full of gore-tastic kills and unrelenting violence, though also seemingly undercooked and underdeveloped (Let's just say, these are what actual plot holes look like, YouTubers!), "Mortal Kombat" never can find its footing, feeling like it's still building up, even in the final act. We do get a better than solid final duel, between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, that feels epic, even though none of the investment is actually there. This ends up being one of those video game adaptations that feels more like 2016's "Warcraft", where you can tell the filmmakers have put a lot of care into including every meticulously crafted bit of fanservice, giving the intended audience a look into something that they've always dreamed of seeing on the big screen (Or at least on HBO Max, if you decide to stream it instead). However, while the fans may be getting what they want, a simple novice like myself, without any of the connections to the franchise, is left no choice but the judge the movie on its own merits. Being someone who truly did want to like this movie, the end result just feels like a major disappointment to me. It just doesn't quite strike that perfect balance between fan approval and the inclusion of an uninitiated moviegoer. It's sad because the potential to do both was there, but in the end, not what matters I guess. 2 Stars. Rated R For Bloody Fatalities All Over, From Sawed Off Faces, Hearts Being Pulled Out, Intestines Being Spilled, Head Smashing, And More Things That Your Grandma's Nosy Neighbor Claims Is Ruining Our Children.