Take 2

Review: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

Review: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

Rebecca’s Take

Thirteen years after Tony Stark first said, “I am Iron Man,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded its reach to introduce dozens of superheroes and discover new worlds. The comic-book film franchise gleefully barreled into space in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) and embraced the mystical realm in “Doctor Strange” (2016). The box-office juggernaut broke barriers by celebrating Black culture in the masterpiece “Black Panther” (2018) and charted a new course by launching the multiverse in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (2019).

As the MCU embarks on Phase 4, be prepared to be blown away. The jaw-dropping “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” shows the MCU still has plenty of stories to tell and trails to blaze. The 25th film in the ever-growing franchise is unlike anything Marvel has done before. The MCU’s first Asian-led superhero film perfectly blends martial arts, awe-inspiring fantasy and family drama in one of Marvel’s best origin stories yet.

Franchise newcomer Simu Liu shines as Kung Fu master Shang-Chi, a reluctant hero living the quiet life in San Francisco. For the last 10 years, the unambitious Shang-Chi – who goes by the name Shaun – has been working as a valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But his past catches up with him when he is attacked by goons sent by his father Wenwu (Tony Leung), the holder of the legendary Ten Rings and leader of the crime syndicate of the same name.

Drawn back into the life he hoped to escape from, Shang-Chi reunites with his father and estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). But the family reunion is cut short when Wenwu asks his children to join him on a mission that jeopardizes the fate of the world. With innocent lives at stake, Shang-Chi must confront his destiny and decide who he ultimately is.

With its predominantly Asian cast, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” explores Asian culture and marks an important milestone for Asian-American representation onscreen. Under the reins of Asian director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi” explores family ties and heritage, weaving in Asian traditions, mythology and lore. Starring Marvel’s first lead Asian superhero, the mainstream comic book film does for Asian audiences what “Black Panther” did for Black viewers. Finally, part of the audience who has helped the MCU’s films earn billions of dollars around the world can see a hero who looks like them. As the titular character, Liu is likable and relatable as the conflicted Shang-Chi struggles to find his identity. The character isn’t fully formed by the time the film ends, which should allow for more development in future films.

If you’ve been waiting for a full-length martial arts movie from Marvel, this is it. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” showcases the best fighting in the franchise, which until now belonged to 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” The intricately choreographed sequences feature mesmerizing kung fu and hand-to-hand combat, with Liu, Zhang and martial arts veterans Leung and Michelle Yeoh performing their own stunts. Liu’s impressive mastery of the martial arts makes Shang-Chi a believable kung fu master, lending authenticity to his performance. A knock-out, drag-down fight between Shang-Chi and Wenwu’s henchmen on a bus establishes Liu’s credentials early on, setting the pace for the rest of the film.

The fantasy spectacle juggles a lot of plates impressively. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” allows its escalating family drama and stirring fights to play out against gorgeous backdrops and special effects, which really stand out in 3D. The story not only serves as a journey of self-discovery, but as a tale of grief. Shang-Chi, Xialing and their father are still mourning the loss of the siblings’ mother, Li (Fala Chen), years earlier. Instead of bringing the family together, their grief has driven them apart. In one beautiful sequence, Leung and Chen go toe-to-toe in a fight that alternates between martial arts and a romantic dance. The film also introduces the mystical land of Ta Lo, full of magical creatures inspired by Asian folklore, including an exquisitely rendered dragon. The layers of storytelling add emotional stakes to the intense finale, which pits son against father – and legendary creature against creature.

Liu leads an excellent cast. Like Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa in “Black Panther,” Liu’s Shang-Chi is surrounded by formidable females. As Katy, Awkwafina provides the perfect conduit for audiences into this fantastical world. The actress mixes well-timed humor with a flair for action as she seeks to understand what’s happening. Forced to fend for herself, Xialing emerges from her father’s shadow to make her own way in the world. In her film debut, Zhang taps into Xialing’s anger at her brother and father, as well as her fearless determination to succeed on her own. In flashbacks, Chen provides a soothing and encouraging presence as the brave Li. Yeoh lends gravitas and support as a Ta Lo resident with a connection to Shang-Chi’s family.

The MCU crafts one of its best villains yet in Wenwu. The wielder of the Ten Rings is more than just an enemy – he’s a grief-stricken husband and father whose motivations for his actions make sense. Leung is both fearsome and sympathetic in the role. The film even addresses one of the most polarizing moves in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by having Ben Kingsley return as Trevor Slattery from 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” The revelation the character wasn’t the Mandarin from the comics upset a lot of fans, even though I personally loved it. Still, bringing back Trevor allows Marvel to address the controversy in a way that should appease fans and acknowledges the weightier issue of cultural appropriation. Trevor isn’t the only familiar face who returns, so Marvel fans should keep their eyes open.

As enjoyable as it is impactful, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” pushes the MCU into brave new territory. The fantasy epic marks a new high for Asian representation in comic book films, catapulting Liu’s kung fu master into the mainstream. With its impeccable fights, compelling family dynamics and vivid landscapes, the film introduces yet another corner of Marvel Comics for audiences to explore. Like the Avengers before him, Shang-Chi is now part of a larger universe – and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

4.5 out of 5 stars

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Awkwafina and Simu Liu in a scene from “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” (Marvel Studios via AP)

Joe’s Take

After two years without a film that moved the Marvel Cinematic Universe forward, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” gave fans a taste of what is to come in the franchise’s fourth phase. “Black Widow” kicked off Phase 4, but was more of an origin story/prequel. Disney Plus released three shows (“WandaVision,” “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki”) that move the MCU plot forward, but “Shang-Chi” is the first film that finally takes the audience past 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” If films like this are the future of the MCU, fans will be excited.

The action stands out the most, as actors actually trained in martial arts helmed every fight sequence. It brought back shades of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee. It also reminded me of scenes from “The Raid” franchise, the gold standard of hand-to-hand combat in film. As a result, “Shang-Chi” gives audiences the best action sequences in the MCU. When actors can actually handle the physicality and choreography of fight sequences, it makes the director’s job that much easier. Destin Daniel Cretton was able to give the film longer takes and fewer cuts, helping the audience see what’s actually happening in action sequences.

The difference between a “Raid” movie and a big-budget Marvel movie is Cretton had to blend raw hand-to-hand combat with CGI and he helmed it beautifully. There’s one great sequence where one fighter uses strength and power, while the other fighter brings grace and nature into the battle like an airbender (Don’t be afraid, it’s nothing like “The Last Airbender”). It’s a gorgeous sequence that perfectly blends raw talent with beautiful CGI. The movie also creates thrilling sequences in a bus and on a skyscraper’s scaffolding. The music that played during these sequences also fit perfectly. A piece beautifully complements the emotion of a few sequences.

The acting is excellent as most of the actors have to capture the physicality of their roles, along with emotion and comedic timing. Veterans Michelle Yeoh (Shang-Chi’s aunt Ying Nan) and Tony Leung (Shang-Chi’s father Xu Wenwu) give strong supporting performances. In a small role, Fala Chen (Shang-Chi’s mother Li) brings heart to the film. Simu Liu (Shang-Chi) is solid in the lead role and Meng’er Zhang (Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing) brings strength and emotion to a character that will be interesting to see grow in the franchise. The most important performance came from Awkwafina (Shang-Chi’s best friend Katy). The film needed the personality that she brings to everything she’s involved with. In turn, she helps bring a personality out of Liu. Without her, the film wouldn’t have as much life. While she’s only a supporting character, her energy fueled the movie and the actors around her. “Shang-Chi” also brings back a random character from “Iron Man 3” who proves a strong addition to the movie.

The script is strong as it proves smart, funny and emotional. The themes are excellent as Shang-Chi struggles to find himself. It really hit me as he learns from his parents and tries to embrace the best parts of them to make himself a better person, something every child can relate to. I also always appreciate a villain who has understandable motives, and this film delivers on that, too. While the script succeeds in creating powerful moments and developing some characters, it oddly underdevelops Shang-Chi. While we see some of his training growing up and get some of his backstory, Shang-Chi spends the movie finding himself. As a result, we don’t really know who he is. There was also a random character with a mask that the movie never reveals the importance behind, although it made the character seem important.

The final battle focuses more on CGI than the martial arts sequences showcased earlier in the film. It’s a little disappointing as it’s not as engaging as the earlier hand-to-hand combat, but the powerful and emotional finish still works. Some characters also learn fighting techniques and archery in a day. The movie is a little over two hours, but I would have liked to have seen more development, which would have given us more time with the great Yeoh and added more to Shang-Chi’s character.

“Shang-Chi” is a unique film that brings diversity into the MCU. I’ve waited for the franchise to tackle a martial arts film and it didn’t disappoint. It perfectly blends a raw fighting style with gorgeous CGI. It also brings a different culture into the fold. While it doesn’t have the impact of a “Black Panther,” “Shang-Chi” follows admirably in its footsteps.

4 out of 5 stars


Review: “Candyman”

Review: “Candyman”

Rebecca’s Take

In the last few years, I’ve become a big horror movie fan, which has meant playing catchup with films that I was too scared to watch until recently. Add 1992’s “Candyman” to that list.

The horror classic starring Tony Todd’s vengeful boogeyman with a hook for a hand who kills people after his name is said five times surprised me. It wasn’t your typical slasher flick. Instead, the thoughtful and unsettling film effectively blended urban legend frights with social commentary on systemic racism.

Nearly 30 years later amid a national reckoning of racial injustice, the time is ripe for a new take on the horror icon. Enter “Candyman,” a direct sequel and semi-reboot of the original that disregards later entries in the series. Director and co-screenwriter Nia DaCosta helms a chilling and visually arresting follow-up that dives headfirst into the generational trauma of racial violence. But where “Candyman” excels in crafting stunning imagery, memorable scares and socially conscious themes, the new film falls behind the original in storytelling and characterization.

The sequel follows Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an artist living in Chicago whose creativity has stalled. When Anthony is introduced to the legend of Candyman, he finds inspiration for his upcoming show at an art gallery where his girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), works. However, his artwork unleashes an unintended consequence – resurrecting the Candyman, whose murderous spree racks up a high body count. As Anthony gives in to his growing obsession with the Candyman, he discovers he’s more connected to the legendary phantom than he realized.

Full of eye-popping imagery, “Candyman” looks gorgeous, showcasing DaCosta’s talent for visual artistry. The film is stylistically more interesting than its predecessor. It uses shadow puppets when recounting the urban legends, an effective tool that highlights Anthony’s profession as a visual artist. Under DaCosta’s creative eye, Candyman’s kills have more flair, adding to the terror. The techniques make the new film scarier than the original.

DaCosta knows when to ramp up the tension before the ghoulish killer turns up, backed by a heart-pumping score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. The director shows moviegoers just enough of the slayings to whet their appetite for gore before cutting away, leaving more of the horror to the viewer’s imagination. The film elegantly uses Candyman’s ability to materialize in mirrors to unnerving effect, revealing its villain in an art exhibit, a dropped compact and the walls of an elevator as he commits his dastardly deeds while appearing invisible to onlookers. Todd’s return is welcome as the titular Candyman, though his screen time is little.

“Candyman” expands upon its fabled phantom’s origins, elevating his relevance for our turbulent times. The sequel was produced and co-written by Jordan Peele, who has taken social horror to new heights with films like 2017’s masterful “Get Out.” The original identified Candyman as the son of a slave who became a sought-after artist, but who was tortured and killed by an angry white mob after he fell in love with a white woman and got her pregnant. The new film alters Candyman’s backstory to explain that he is the amalgamation of various black men who have died unjustly from racially inflamed violence. It’s a vicious cycle that continues to this day, with George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer stirring protests last summer across the country – the same year “Candyman” was supposed to debut in theaters before being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. “Say His Name,” the film’s tagline and the theme of Anthony’s exhibit, calls on moviegoers to remember the victims of racial violence and strikes at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The change in backstory provides more sense for the murderous boogeyman’s motivations for killing. During the original film, I had a hard time understanding why Candyman killed the Black inhabitants of the crime-infested Cabrini-Green housing projects, the victims of the same institutional racism that robbed Candyman of his life. By allowing Candyman to personify the Black rage that has built up after generations of killings, the horror icon has a new purpose: to avenge centuries of racial injustice. This transforms Candyman from a supernatural slasher seeking retribution to one fighting for justice.

While the original film’s social commentary was subtle, the new “Candyman” is anything but. This affects the movie’s storytelling as some scenes are weighed down by exposition. The original film’s storytelling flows better from scene to scene, with smoother transitions and an almost literary quality. In the sequel, the messaging can seem heavy-handed as the characters talk often about gentrification. It’s a message the movie needs to make clear for its viewers, but the film can feel like it’s hitting you over the head.

With its emphasis on artistry, “Candyman” sacrifices character development and a bit of mystery. The first film follows graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) as she seeks to uncover the legend of the Candyman for her thesis. As the film progresses, Helen evolves from a curious outsider at the Cabrini-Green projects to an involved insider who may or may not have turned into a killer herself. In the sequel, there’s no mystery as the film tells you what’s happening as it goes along.

As Anthony, Abdul-Mateen, a standout in the “Watchmen” TV series and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” is engaging as the struggling artist sets out to learn more about Candyman, plunging into madness. The actor sells his terrifying physical transformation after a bee sting infects his body. But apart from his profession and obsession, we know little about the character. A pivotal scene involving Vanessa Williams, who returns from the 1992 film, helps bulk up Anthony’s personal story. Abdul-Mateen also shares a great camaraderie with the velvet-voiced Colman Domingo, who plays Cabrini-Green old-timer and Candyman expert William Burke.

However, the more intriguing character may be Brianna. Parris, who will reunite with DaCosta for the Marvel Cinematic Universe film “The Marvels,” does a tremendous job of acting as a supportive shoulder for Anthony while dealing with her own tragic past. But the film only shows us glimpses of her backstory, failing to fill in the gaps. The film should have fleshed out her character more, and it feels like some scenes may have been cut. This brings us to a problem with the film’s runtime. At a lean 90 minutes, “Candyman” should have been longer. The movie rushes through its final act, skimping on some hastily introduced plot points. A film as ambitious as this one deserves more time to breathe.

The timing couldn’t be better for the return of “Candyman.” Like the original, DaCosta surprised me with her unique vision. Unnerving in its horror and social commentary, the worthy sequel improves upon its iconic predecessor in some ways, but not in others. Its spectacular visuals and resonant themes will hook you in, but the film doesn’t execute its full potential. Despite its flaws, the compelling entry achieves its larger goals of furthering the conversation about racial injustice.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Teyonah Parris stars in “Candyman,” directed by Nia DaCosta. (Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures via AP)

Joe’s Take

In 2017, Jordan Peele not only changed the game for the horror genre, he also revolutionized film. “Get Out” is one of the best movies of the last decade, and while it was not the first movie to incorporate social commentary into its story, it may be the most effective at it. My appreciation for “Get Out” grows with each viewing as the subtleties make it incredibly re-watchable. I pick up something new every time I see it.

Two years later, Peele wrote and directed “Us,” another strong film that couldn’t live up to the impossible heights of “Get Out.” There wasn’t as much subtlety, but still proved effective. I haven’t returned to it, because I didn’t think there was much more to understand from it. Also, frankly, the effective imagery creeped me out as horror movies are not really my thing.

Originally set to release in the summer of 2020, “Candyman” finally hit theaters Friday. While Peele produced and helped write the sequel in the horror franchise, Nia DaCosta took a seat in the director’s chair and is also a writer on the film. While I never saw the original “Candyman (1992),” I have experience with Peele’s work and, as a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, was happy to get a look at DaCosta’s talent before next year’s “The Marvels.” Let’s take a look at how she handled a film that is a descendent of Peele’s best work and a franchise almost 30 years old.

I thought about “Candyman” for a few days after seeing it, and I really struggled with the film’s execution. While I didn’t enjoy the lack of subtlety, I truly appreciated the imagery. The film makes it very clear what it’s about. Though pegged as a mystery, there is no mystery. The shame of it is, a lot of the time it tells the audience what’s happening. Characters openly discuss gentrification and racial injustice instead of showing the viewers. In a film where the main character is an artist, that surprised me. The thing is, that didn’t entirely take away from the film’s effectiveness, and this is where Marvel fans can get a little excited.

DaCosta has a great feel for the film as the imagery captures the tone. Also, the movie looks great. As Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) descends into his obsession with the Candyman, the room where he paints becomes more grimy and the lighting becomes darker with a dirty yellow as the base color, which contrasts with the bright white paint of his apartment. His rich lifestyle also contrasts with the Cabrini-Green projects, where that dirty yellow (the color of Candyman’s coat) also exists, while he’s a part of an art show with the walls looking freshly painted white.

DaCosta also handles Candyman masterfully. She takes her time and builds dread, as the audience can see Candyman in reflections of any kind. At times, he’s faded into the background of a window or a mirror. Other times he’s front and center. No matter what he’s doing, it all transitions beautifully. There are some great shots where the audience can see him in the mirror, but is invisible on the other side of the mirror. Also, while we’ve seen the effect of everything turned upside down or backward (see the inferior “Devil”), DaCosta uses it properly to build tension and create some great shots of Chicago, looking into the sky as fog consumes the skyscrapers. McCoy’s gruesome paintings and horrifying transformation of his body also prove effective. I also enjoyed the shadow puppet animation as a way to helm flashbacks. That storytelling stretches into the credits. Words were not needed, just Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s phenomenal score. That’s what made me a little frustrated with the film leaning into its lack of subtlety. I feel like it could have accomplished a lot more with more powerful imagery and effective music.

Abdul-Mateen continues to impress, this time in his first notable lead role. Teyonah Parris (Brianna Cartwright) does a great job as her character evolves. I wish the film went deeper into that character. It seemed like some scenes were missing. It really could have added to the film and Parris would have been more than up to the task. As I’ve mentioned before, Colman Domingo (William Burke) has an awesome voice and is an awesome actor. The film uses him to give the audience exposition, but again he has a great voice. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Troy Cartwright) provides some necessary comic relief. Also, it was a very small role, but Vanessa Williams (Anne-Marie McCoy) has one scene and she crushes it. She captures the perfect level of emotion in a pivotal scene. It was very impressive.

The social commentary in the film proved timely and unfortunately timeless. The film was originally scheduled to come out a month after the murder of George Floyd. The mythology of Candyman in this film dates back to centuries of racial injustice. Black men killed unjustly. The violence over the years breeds vengeance in the form of Candyman. The film also mirrors the “Say Her Name” movement, which was refueled after the killing of Breonna Taylor. On the movie poster and in the film itself, “Say His Name” is a prominent part. Again, the film wasn’t very subtle about that, but the imagery and power prove effective. It captures the time period, and it captures hundreds of years of injustice. There was no intention of letting that message fly over the audience’s head.

While I wish from a filmmaking perspective “Candyman” was more subtle in its approach, I can’t deny the results. The horror film/social commentary proves powerful and effective behind the strength of the imagery and cast. DaCosta creates a visually stunning film with strong performances. I can’t wait to see how she handles an MCU film, because she went into the world of the great writer/director Peele and achieved a respectable result.

4 out of 5 stars






Review: “Reminiscence”

Review: “Reminiscence”

Rebecca’s Take

It’s a bad sign when a film called “Reminiscence” reminds you of other – and better – movies.

The sci-fi noir hybrid, available in theaters and on HBO Max, features an intriguing concept about the power of memory in a dystopian future that sees the oceans rising and overtaking the Gulf Coast. But the promising film drowns in its lofty ambitions, playing like a watered-down “Inception.”

The story follows Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), a war veteran who operates a Reminiscence machine in Miami with his business partner, Emily “Watts” Sanders (Thandiwe Newton). The machine allows people to relive their favorite memories. As the rising waters portend the end of the world, the popular technology allows people to seek comfort in the past to escape the dire present.

Nick’s world changes when sultry lounge singer Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) walks in, asking for help in finding her missing keys. Nick is immediately enamored with the songstress, and the two embark on a romance. But when Mae mysteriously disappears, Nick becomes obsessed with tracking her down. The veteran uses his own technology to search his memories and those of others to find his lost love, uncovering a web of lies and deceit that makes him question the woman he thought he knew.

Embracing its apocalyptic setting, “Reminiscence” starts off strong. Making her feature film debut, writer-director Lisa Joy builds a visually striking world that recalls the atmosphere of her successful HBO series, “Westworld,” which she co-created with her husband, Jonathan Nolan (Christopher Nolan’s brother). The impressive production design sees water fill the streets of Miami, mimicking Venice as the city’s denizens turn to gondolas to get around. People live nocturnally as the oppressive heat makes it difficult to move about during the day. But as interesting as the concept of a water-logged world is, the film does little with it.

Instead, “Reminiscence” abandons its more original aspects to travel down avenues paved by other films. The movie takes the “Inception” route, which was helmed by Joy’s brother-in-law. While “Inception” focused on dreams as a means to an end, “Reminiscence” relies on memories. Nick coaxes the machine’s customers using a key phrase, much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb does in “Inception.” Both men are haunted by a beautiful but tortured femme fatale. And both are challenged by a teammate or partner who acts as a voice of reason.

“Reminiscence” also includes echoes of “Laura,” the classic film noir that sees a dogged detective fall in love with the victim of the murder he’s investigating. There’s also breadcrumbs of “Blade Runner,” as Nick’s path of obsession recalls that of Harrison Ford’s iconic gumshoe Rick Deckard.

But the predictable “Reminiscence” lacks the complexity of all these films, especially the multi-layered storytelling of “Inception.” Though convoluted, Joy’s interweaving mystery is not as sophisticated as the movie seems to think it is. Its puzzle is rather straightforward, and I figured out a lot of it before the pieces were laid out (except for a third-act twist that I enjoyed). The film struggles to connect its various dots, which causes the film to feel boring for most of its two-hour runtime. Perhaps the filmmakers were aware of this, because “Reminiscence” throws in two random action sequences to liven up the proceedings. One highlights Newton’s action prowess, which she has honed to perfection as my favorite character on “Westworld.” But the other only adds some cool imagery, which isn’t enough to justify its inclusion.

One aspect where “Reminiscence” doesn’t falter is its cast. The film reunites Jackman and Ferguson from “The Greatest Showman,” and their chemistry sizzles onscreen. However, the movie only gives us a few scenes with Nick and Mae before she disappears. This isn’t enough time for viewers to become invested in their relationship before Nick makes it his mission to find her.

The real reason the audience roots for Nick is because of Jackman. The soulful actor brings more to the grizzled veteran than what’s on the page, tapping into Nick’s despair and longing as he faces one obstacle after another. The excellent Ferguson channels the femme fatales of the ’40s, switching from icy to vulnerable as the enigmatic singer harbors a slew of secrets. Unlike “The Greatest Showman,” she gets to sing for real, and her voice is enchanting. Newton completes the terrific trio as the no-nonsense veteran with a heart of gold. The fantastic actress grounds the story as Nick’s down-to-earth, ever-loyal partner who’s running from her own issues.

Ultimately, “Reminiscence” is more forgettable than memorable. Joy’s feature film debut unearths interesting ideas and solid visuals. But its soggy story recalls too many other influential films to be able to stand upright on its own. The mediocre movie may hold appeal for “Westworld” and Jackman fans. Otherwise, skip the trip to the theater and catch it on HBO Max.

2 out of 5 stars

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from “Reminiscence.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Joe’s Take

I’ve said it before. We’ve seen it before. We’ll see it again. A movie’s search for an identity sometimes dooms the outcome. It’s a problem that happens often, especially with movies of today. The frustration is there’s always a good movie within these films that never quite sees the light of day. We get flashes, but it doesn’t come together. Add “Reminiscence” to that list of films. The question is could a strong cast and a strong finish make the film worth the watch?

The selling points to “Reminiscence” were Hugh Jackman (Nick Bannister) and Rebecca Ferguson (Mae), two versatile actors who have the ability to carry any film. They didn’t disappoint. Jackman played this role in the past. His character is very similar to his part in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige.” Obsessed in his search for knowledge, nothing will stop either character from getting what they want in their respective movies. So Jackman obviously played the role in “Reminiscence” very well. He has the perfect look and physicality to handle the part. He shows his emotions through body language. He also tacks on his frustrated and angry voice that never goes too over the top.

Ferguson takes on a mysterious role with ease. The nuanced performance works perfectly for the film. She has to seem innocent, charming and deceitful simultaneously. The same shots reveal a different side to her, much like some scenes in the brilliant “The Usual Suspects.” She also has a beautiful voice.

The great performance that boosted this film came from Thandiwe Newton (Emily “Watts” Sanders). She gave this film a “Big 3” instead of just a dynamic duo. The film needed a strong presence to go toe-to-toe with Jackman and Newton is more than up to the task. She has a believable strength, both physically and emotionally, while portraying a vulnerable side.

The film’s finish also proves a strength as all the pieces come together nicely. That writing brings the film to another level, but the web the movie weaves is intricate. It takes an incredible amount of time to create the pieces to the puzzle, which makes the majority of the film dull.

It also pulls a lot from better films. As my dad mentioned when I watched it with him, “Reminiscence” sets up a lot like “The Prestige.” Besides a similar character played by the same actor in Jackman, the construction of the films mirror each other to a certain extent. “The Prestige” has a lot to establish and takes the audience to a lot of places. However, where it’s better than this film is that thrilling and engaging scenes happen along the way. There aren’t too many to be had in “Reminiscence” before we get to the reveal. Then they throw everything at the audience at once. That’s why it feels it needs to throw in two random action sequences. One lingers on and on to the point where it becomes tiring, not that it was ever thrilling. The other is absurd with laughable slow motion and “Tainted Love” randomly playing on the jukebox in the background. It was a huge tonal shift that for some reason tried to play for comedy. Also, how filmmakers built toward the reveal in “The Prestige” is how “Reminiscence” constructs its film into the third act.

“Reminiscence” also has shades of “Inception” and definitely “Blade Runner.” The scene in Miami looks similar to the setting of the classic sci-fi flick. “Reminiscence” also utilizes the narrative noir style. I will give the film credit for the world building. I enjoyed the contrast between the Miami nightlife in a city that’s mostly underwater and the beauty of the sunny clear skies above ground. It was one of the film’s strong pieces, but they couldn’t quite put it together to form a cohesive whole.

“Reminiscence” boasts a strong cast and an admirable third act, but it tries to pull too many things from better films in an attempt to make this one great. It also struggles to keep the right tone, and takes too long to get to the point. By the time the reveal arrives, you may not care anymore. Is it worth a rent or a free viewing on HBO Max? Yes. Is it as memorable as the great films it tries to mimic? Not even close.

2.5 out of 5 stars




Review: “Free Guy”

Review: “Free Guy”

Rebecca’s Take

As a movie fan, I enjoy several genres of film. I’m always up for a pulse-pounding action flick with breathless set pieces and top-notch special effects. I like good-natured comedies that make me belly laugh. I’m a sucker for a breezy rom-com with likable leads who I can root for. And I have a soft spot for films where a character embarks on a journey of self-discovery, growing and maturing along the way.

I found all of this in “Free Guy,” one of the best movies of the summer. Pushed back over a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the charming video-game flick takes the genre to a new level, unlocking a crowd-pleasing blockbuster with a heart. It’s insightful, exciting, hilarious and heartfelt, and I loved every minute of it.

“Free Guy” is about a fictional video game, but you don’t have to be a gamer to understand the story. The film follows Guy (Ryan Reynolds), an NPC (non-player character) in a multiplayer game called “Free City.” While sunglass-wearing players wreak havoc across the city, Guy gets up every day, puts on his blue shirt and heads to work at the bank with his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). The twist is that Guy doesn’t know he’s a character in a video game.

Guy starts questioning his humdrum existence after he sees Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a player on a mission. The edgy Molotov Girl is the avatar of Millie Rusk, who believes the code for “Free City” was stolen from a game that she and her former partner, Keys (Joe Keery), designed. The two are on the outs as Keys now works for Soonami, the developer of “Free City.”

As Millie searches for proof inside the game, Guy breaks away from his programming and becomes a hero, leveling up by saving people. But as Guy finds his confidence and attraction to Millie growing, his world is in danger. Gaining viral fame as “Blue Shirt Guy,” Guy must save Free City before the game’s sequel, “Free City 2,” erases the previous game – and all its characters – from existence.

Fun and fast-paced, “Free Guy” has something for everyone. It’s an action film and a comedy, a romance and a philosophical look at life, and it juggles its many plates beautifully. Maybe the film works as a video game movie because it’s not based on one. Usually, films based on video games have a thin plot, relying on cool action sequences to bulk up the movie. “Free Guy” has plenty of spectacular set pieces, but it’s so much more.

With its eye-popping visuals and clever script, “Free Guy” fleshes out its world and characters in rich, vivid detail. Director Shawn Levy, known for the heartwarming “Night at the Museum” films (which I adore), brings the same sense of wonder to “Free Guy.” When Guy steals a pair of sunglasses and puts them on, he can now see the extra layer to his world that the players can see. There’s dollar signs here and extra lives there, with bonuses for the taking as Guy rescues other NPCs. The computer-generated special effects are extraordinary, helping to distinguish the video-game world from the real one. The climactic battle delivers one jaw-dropping fight and obstacle after another. The screenplay is co-written by Zak Penn, who wrote the similarly themed “Ready Player One.” While the ambitious 2018 film was just OK, “Free Guy” checks off all the boxes that “Ready Player One” tried but couldn’t quite fill in.

As the face of “Free Guy,” Reynolds brings his trademark humor and charisma in spades, delivering one of his best performances yet. With his off-the-cuff quips and knack for slapstick, the film showcases Reynolds doing what he does best. The actor excels at the physicality the role requires. But the comedian also taps into Guy’s optimism and naivete, which endear him to viewers. As Guy searches for a bigger purpose, the audience is on his side. Reynolds can also turn surprisingly emotional when the scene calls for it, adding the right amount of dramatic heft.

But the standout may be Comer. The “Killing Eve” actress, known for playing the delightfully deranged assassin Villanelle, shines in a dual role here. Comer is the connecting thread between the video-game world and the real world. The talented actress is fearless and fearful, determined but worried as she’s caught in between both worlds. As Molotov Girl, the actress shares a palpable chemistry with Reynolds, first challenging Guy and then helping him. But as Millie, Comer also shares a lovely chemistry with Keery as the two work together to find the evidence they need. The trio form a believable love triangle as Millie finds herself falling for Guy while reconnecting with Keery.

The rest of the cast is stellar in their roles. Keery, from “Stranger Things,” shows he has the potential to become a leading man in film. The young actor’s role grows throughout “Free Guy,” from a standoffish programmer to a caring, take-charge ally. After his breakout performance in “Get Out,” Howery excels at playing Guy’s loyal best friend. The film celebrates friendship and the important role it plays in our lives. Playing against type, Taika Waititi hams it up as a bad guy as Antoine, the Soonami owner with questionable business ethics. The film also features the best cameo I’ve seen, maybe ever. Get ready to pick your jaw off the floor afterward.

As fun as “Free Guy” is, it’s not afraid to ask the big life questions. Is there more to life? Does what we do matter? It’s refreshing to see a video game movie delve so deep into the daily grind. Like Guy, “Free Guy” wants us to ask ourselves the same questions to make sure we’re fulfilling our potential. “Free Guy” also touches upon some social commentary, asking why society relishes the violence in video games when there’s so much of it in the real world. The film doesn’t hit viewers over the head with its observations. However, “Free Guy” makes the point that we’re stronger together after a divisive last few years.

There’s little to dislike about “Free Guy.” There are some gaps in logic as the characters should have picked up on a few key clues earlier in the story. However, this didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film.

“Free Guy” may be the summer’s biggest surprise. The blockbuster exceeded my expectations, giving me much more than a typical video-game flick. I laughed and I cried. The enormously enjoyable film combines thrilling action, laugh-out-loud comedy, sweet romance and introspective musings. Reynolds cements his superstar status, and Comer and Keery prove they are destined for bigger things. With a sequel now greenlit, hopefully moviegoers will be able to plug into this fascinating world again.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Jodie Comer, left, and Joe Keery star in “Free Guy.” (Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios via AP)

Joe’s Take

After a summer without blockbusters because of the coronavirus pandemic, quality fun is back at theaters. In back-to-back-to-back weeks, “Jungle Cruise,” “The Suicide Squad” and now “Free Guy” hit the big screen. While each is fun in its own way, the starting point for their success proves similar — build a great cast and go from there.

Let’s start with the duos. “Jungle Cruise” had Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt, “The Suicide Squad” starred Idris Elba and Margot Robbie and “Free Guy” brought in Ryan Reynolds (Guy) and Jodie Comer (Millie/Molotov Girl).

Reynolds is an established superstar who is still riding the high of the “Deadpool” franchise he brought to life. He fits the film perfectly with his charisma, humor and action experience. He’s a likable actor and a likable person viewers generally want to root for.

This is the first movie I saw Comer play a big role (she also portrays Rey’s mother in “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.” She’s extraordinary in “Killing Eve,” earning two nominations and one win at the Emmys. Comer didn’t disappoint here either. She has a lot more to do than Reynolds as she needs a lot of range to play her role. Because her persona in the game, “Free City,” is different from her real-world self, she switches between a British and an American accent. She is also essentially an action hero in the game, while in the real world she mostly sits at a computer. It’s a role that requires a lot of range that she effortlessly nails.

Joe Keery (Keys) of “Stranger Things” fame also sneaks in this film after not being a part of the advertising and plays a big part. He shines alongside Comer as her former partner. Lil Rel Howery (Buddy) is back in the 2021 summer movie season and plays a much more important role than I thought. He brings the comedy, as he does in most projects he’s in, but he also proves essential to the film’s heart. His relationship with Reynolds’ character makes us laugh and brings out emotion. I was shocked at how powerful a moment between the two was at an important time in the film. Howery perfectly captures the tone.

Acclaimed writer/director Taika Waititi (Antoine) knows how to act, too. He’s the villain of the film and he’s having a blast. He’s hamming it up beautifully as the jerk antagonist.

While the cast is perfect, the cameos add even more to the fun. Always game for a cameo, Channing Tatum (Avatar) embraces his few minutes in the film and brings some laughs. The others I don’t want to ruin, but make sure to listen to some of the voices. I didn’t realize some of the stars who worked on the film until I looked at IMDB afterward. There are also some fun Easter eggs, and Disney definitely reminded us it bought 20th Century Fox.

On top of fun, this movie is smart. One thing I noticed was Reynolds’ character tells a few awful and inappropriate jokes. However, he says them because the users in the game talk like that. It also foreshadows what is to come. Little things like that make the movie better.

The visual effects looked great. The color and the gaming world really popped. It also has a great pace.

The film’s biggest surprise was its heart. “Free guy” made me laugh, and it almost made me cry. The relationships work beautifully and add to the emotion. The writing makes the film’s heart that much better. There are high stakes that keep the audience engaged, parallels to real-world issues and a group of people trying to better themselves and strive to be unique. I expected the fun, but keeping the audience emotionally engaged makes movies better.

One thing that bothered me was that there were threads of a relationship that the audience knows exactly where it’s going. It just seemed too obvious to me. Also, I don’t know if I can knock the film for this, but the plot is oddly similar to “The Lego Movie.” Guy is very much like Emmet and his character introduction is pretty much the same. It was still funny and it still worked though, so I guess that was more of an observation.

“Free Guy” proves a great time at the theater. A stellar cast boosts a solid script and crisp direction. The movie definitely brings the fun, but it also respects its audience with smart humor and relevant themes to go with a big heart. One of my biggest takeaways of the 2021 movie season will be the summer of fun with “Free Guy” at its core.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: “The Suicide Squad”

Review: “The Suicide Squad”

Rebecca’s Take

It’s rare for a movie to get a redo. But this year, two films in the DC Comics’ extended universe have gotten just that.

First, Zack Snyder retooled 2017’s maligned “Justice League” to bring us his original vision in the dazzling opus “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” Now, James Gunn puts his unique stamp on “The Suicide Squad,” a new and improved take on 2016’s messy “Suicide Squad.”

Like “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” “The Suicide Squad” is the film we should have gotten in the first place. Though not quite a remake, the loosely connected sequel, playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, greatly improves upon its mixed bag of a predecessor. Gunn’s gleefully fun and ultraviolent supervillain teamup delivers on the concept the original film promised but failed to fully execute.

The comic book flick follows the adventures of a motley crew of convicts assembled by ruthless project head Amanda Waller (the returning Viola Davis) to perform classified life-or-death missions for the government. This time, the group – made up of new and familiar faces – is sent to infiltrate an island to destroy a Nazi laboratory that contains a secret experiment. But the group gets more than they bargained for when they come face-to-face with Starro the Conquerer, a giant alien starfish (you read that right) – and their loyalties are put to the test.

I’m one of the few people who thought the 2016 “Suicide Squad” was well, OK. David Ayer’s film was fun enough, with standout performances by Will Smith as charismatic assassin Deadshot and Margot Robbie as the deranged but lovable Harley Quinn. But the action was poorly shot and the storyline muddled, with an atrocious turn by Jared Leto as the Joker. Ayer blamed Warner Bros.’ studio interference for the underwhelming result, although the film became a worldwide hit.

If “Suicide Squad” was a rough draft, then “The Suicide Squad” is the polished final version. With a new writer-director, the high-stakes film features a cohesive story, well-shot action, stunning special effects and better developed characters. Unlike Ayer, Gunn was given free rein to run wild with his R-rated vision, and the film is better for it. The mastermind of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s quirky and heartfelt “Guardians of the Galaxy” films is the perfect choice to helm the irreverent blockbuster about another ragtag group of misfits.

“The Suicide Squad” takes its title literally. While the 2016 film was leery to kill off its core crew, the new film establishes in its opening minutes that no one is safe. The shocking start sets the mood for the high-octane thrill ride. The film leans hard into bloody, cartoon-style violence, putting the “Deadpool” films to shame. People are literally ripped apart, faces are shot off and limbs fly. Though the graphic imagery works for the film, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The film ups the ante for its action sequences. While the original film’s action was murky, the set pieces here are bright and clear. The camera glides across a village takedown and a breath-taking building collapse to the candy-colored, no-holds-barred finale that looks like it came right out of the pages of a comic book. As the larger-than-life CGI starfish, the imposing Starro looks marvelous onscreen, making a great villain for our antiheroes to unite against. The spectacular special effects warrant consideration for next year’s Oscars category.

The gifted Gunn balances the intense thrills of “The Suicide Squad” with quiet moments that allow the audience to sympathize with and root for these characters. When Harley Quinn said in the original film, “We’re bad guys – it’s what we do,” the follow-up upholds her motto as its characters use their distinctive powers to work with and against each other, keeping viewers guessing.

The new members of the cast gel together better than in the first film. With Smith unable to return, Idris Elba steps up as Bloodsport, an assassin who reluctantly joins the group. Though the character is strikingly similar to Deadshot, Elba makes a great leader for the crew. The actor plays the character as tough but with a moral center. Bloodsport shares a lovely connection with Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), a hopeful young woman whose ability is to control rats. The fantastic Melchior is compelling as the sweet and soulful member of the crew who carries around her friendly rat, Sebastian.

The other standouts include John Cena, who gets to showcase his humor and action resume as Peacemaker. The twisted version of Captain America competes with Bloodsport to be the group’s alpha male. I also liked the awkward David Dastmalchian as Polka-Dot Man, whose strange ability of throwing polka dots comes with a tragic backstory. As the voice of King Shark, Sylvester Stallone’s Groot-like character may become a new fan favorite. Michael Rooker makes an impression as Savant as we see the group’s mission through his point of view.

On the returning side is Joel Kinnaman, who impressed me as loyal soldier Rick Flag in the first film. The game Kinnaman gets more to do here as the colonel must deal with a new group of recruits. The phenomenal Davis inspires fear as the merciless Waller grows more unhinged.

In her third time playing the irrepressible Harley Quinn, Robbie is magnificent, owning every scene she’s in. The wildly popular character continues to evolve from Joker’s devoted girlfriend in “Suicide Squad” and the independent anarchist in last year’s “Birds of Prey.” In a perfect meshing of actress and character, Robbie zeros in on new aspects of the still-deranged antihero to play. My favorite scenes in the film involve Harley, including a monologue regarding relationship “red flags” and a colorful action sequence that sees flowers fly out from her.

While “The Suicide Squad” knew bringing back Harley was a necessity, the film doesn’t always know how to integrate her into the story. The character is largely absent from the film’s first hour, and she spends most of the second act on a side quest that separates her from the main group. The odd choice causes the film to feel disjointed.

At 2 hours and 12 minutes long, the film’s pacing is uneven. For as action-packed as the film is, the story grinds to a halt whenever Peter Capaldi’s villainous scientist, the Thinker, comes on the scene to deliver exposition. Yet at other times, the intensity is cranked up so high that I needed to stop the film just to catch my breath. A little bit of trimming could have tightened up the film.

After “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” DC and Warner Bros. are two for two with reimaginings of past comic book films. In Gunn’s hands, “The Suicide Squad” accomplishes its mission: to deliver a fun and over-the-top comic book flick, with a group of miscreants ready to worm their way into our hearts. The new film supersedes the original in almost every way, with better characters, plot, action and special effects. It may have taken five years, but we finally got “The Suicide Squad” that we were promised.

4 out of 5 stars

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Margot Robbie in a scene from “The Suicide Squad.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Joe’s Take

After mixed reception of 2013’s “Man of Steel” and 2016’s underwhelming “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” The DC Extended Universe needed a shot in the arm. Looking to capture the quality and the love fans had for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DCEU released “Suicide Squad” later in 2016. But not before some reshoots to make it more fun and more like 2014’s MCU film “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Instead of righting the ship, the DCEU hit rock bottom. “Suicide Squad” was the worst movie I saw in 2016. The atrocious editing, horrible villain, worst Joker on record, tonal issues and visual nightmare had me calling for the end of the DCEU. How could the franchise recover when its film slated to save the project actually made it worse? The answer came in 2017’s “Wonder Woman.” The moment Gal Gadot as Diana Prince stepped onto No Man’s Land, the DCEU found a spark. Found an identity. Separate from that of the rival MCU.

While levels of quality varied as the films went on, the DCEU undoubtedly improved. “Aquaman,” “Shazam!” and “Birds of Prey” in 2018-2020 turned the DCEU into an exciting franchise. Even “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” in March retroactively improved the team-up film. There was no better time to eliminate the existence of “Suicide Squad” by adding an article.

“The Suicide Squad” is the movie the DCEU needed five years ago. Interestingly enough, the studio brought in the guy it tried to copy a half a decade earlier. James Gunn, the writer and director of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” brought his mind to a property that needed a jolt. While I haven’t explored a ton of Gunn’s work, he has an uncanny ability to find humor in scenarios that shouldn’t be funny. It’s exactly what the film needed. He transitions from a more family-friendly property in “Guardians of the Galaxy” to a hard R-rated film in “The Suicide Squad.” He has worked with fellow DCEU writer and director Snyder on 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” and wrote 2016’s violent “The Belko Experiment.” He brings his diversity to “The Suicide Squad.”

The imagination of every action sequence stands out as no two are the same. Whether we’re watching part of a fight in the reflection of a helmet, or seeing flowers bloom in place of blood or enjoying characters trying to one-up each other in the midst of a battle, the audience is having a blast. Fun and funny are the key words that make this film work. With all the violence and death, I shouldn’t have laughed as much as I did. But, that’s the brilliance of Gunn. Finding humor where there is none.
Gunn also keeps the pace rapid. “The Suicide Squad” never takes its foot off the gas, telling its story through action and visual storytelling, instead of the drolling exposition of its awful predeccessor. When characters needed to talk, Gunn always created movement within the scene. Characters would be running, fighting or riding in a van with a quick tracking shot among the characters conversing.

No disrespect to Will Smith, but Idris Elba is a better lead for this franchise. Although Smith played Deadshot in 2016 and Elba portrays Bloodsport, it’s essentially the same role. While Smith’s charisma is unmatched, he usually plays the good guy in every film. Elba has more of an edge as an actor and more of an imposing presence. When he’s spewing expletives, it feels more natural than the former clean rapper. Elba is perfect for the role, mastering the physicality, edge and heart necessary to lead a film with a stacked cast.

I don’t know what more there is to say about Margot Robbie, but she owns the role of Harley Quinn. I think at this point it has to be known as an iconic superhero movie role. To be the best part of the horrible 2016 “Suicide Squad” and then work to make the character 10 times better in the next two films is iconic. She’s downright hilarious with her verbal and physical comedy and once again proves an action star. With blockbuster credibility and two Oscar nominations at age 31, we’re going to see Robbie’s greatness for decades.

John Cena (Peacemaker) brings the charisma that I expected from him in “Fast 9.” He plays off Elba perfectly as the characters’ similarities lead them to show off in front of each other. Daniela Melchior (Ratcatcher 2) shines as the heart of the film. Not a performance I expected a lot from, but in the end “The Suicide Squad” needed it and she came through. Joel Kinnaman (Colonel Rick Flag) was much better in this iteration than the predecessor. Amazing what actors can do with good material. Sylvester Stallone plays King Shark who is literally a big shark with legs. This is supposed to be the Groot character from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and I’m a bit mixed on him. There are times when King Shark is great and adorable and there are times he slows the film down. I’ll call it a wash. Viola Davis (Amanda Waller) is once again overqualified for the position and she does her part. There’s really nothing special about the performance. If I were nominated for an Oscar every few years, I wouldn’t be concerned with the strength of my characters in blockbuster films.

While Gunn captures the right tone 97% of the time in this film, there are some sequences that feel a little out of place. Also, the plot is a little wacky, even for this film. The ultimate being in the final showdown seems way too powerful for a team of mostly humans without superpowers. It was a problem in the 2016 version as well. However, for what the film needed to accomplish to rid itself of the stink of its predecessor, the cast and crew could not have done a better job.

People rarely admit to mistakes and then try to better themselves. However, Warner Bros. recognized its error and climbed out of a hole. If you told me five years ago the DCEU will have righted the ship by 2021 with a “Suicide Squad” film that lives up to expectations, I would have laughed you out of the building. That’s exactly what happened. “The Suicide Squad” is everything the 2016 version should have been. It proved an absolute blast combined with the quality filmmaking we’ve come to expect from Gunn.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Review: “Jungle Cruise”

Review: “Jungle Cruise”

Rebecca’s Take

Remember when, not too long ago, the summer movie season was filled with epic blockbusters? The larger-than-life spectacles provided a welcome escape from the doldrums of our daily lives as we happily munched on our popcorn and stared up at the movie screen.

Last summer, the coronavirus pandemic took that respite away from us, pushing back several high-profile films until this year. One of those films was “Jungle Cruise,” Disney’s swashbuckling blockbuster based on its popular theme park ride. As I sat in the theater surrounded by eager families, “Jungle Cruise” reminded me of how much fun it is to watch these mighty films on the big screen.

The rollicking, family-friendly adventure, available in theaters and for a premium fee on Disney Plus, charts an utterly delightful journey from start to finish. With its lush visuals, dynamic leads and good humor, “Jungle Cruise” rises above its derivative story to give adults and children a grand old time at the movies.

The film is set in the early 20th century during World War I. Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is convinced the Tears of the Moon, a legendary tree whose petals can heal any sickness, is real. Desperate to find it and use it to help others, the determined Lily and her devoted brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), seek a tour guide to take them along the Amazon River. Enter the gruff Frank Wolff (Johnson), a boat guide who gives jungle tours to travelers. The unlikely trio must face the jungle’s dangerous creatures, deadly natives and nefarious rival in Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who is also seeking the mythological tree.

The fast-paced “Jungle Cruise” moves at a mile a minute. The adventure delivers steady action from the get-go, starting with a stealthy robbery that showcases Blunt’s action pedigree. The film unleashes daring chases, wild river shenanigans, and an exciting third act that features water, a cave and swords, set to James Newton Howard’s rousing score. The stunning visuals highlight the colorful jungle and real-looking CGI animals. There’s enough here to keep adults and kids entertained during its two-hour-and-7-minute runtime.

The blockbuster stars Johnson and Blunt, two of the biggest actors working today. Both know what kind of movie they’re in and readily commit to the over-the-top story. Johnson is as magnetic as ever as Frank rattles off one hilarious pun after the other, repeatedly saves tourists and commands the boat amid churning waters. But the role also allows Johnson to unveil his vulnerable side. The no-nonsense Blunt is fiercely independent as Lily, a trail-blazing scientist who strives to break into the male-dominated scientific community. But Lily is also as caring as she is courageous. As Frank and Lily get to know one another, their walls come down and opposites attract. Johnson and Blunt share a great chemistry as the two grow to trust each other.

“Jungle Cruise” blends the feel of a classic swashbuckler with a modern sensibility. When Frank calls the trousers-wearing Lily “Pants” and Lily calls the grumpy Frank “Skippy,” their clashing interactions are straight out of the screwball comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Era. The two engage in some humorous slapstick, another throwback to the genre. The humor is simple and in good fun. Plemons’ mustache-twirling German is an homage to villains past, and the actor is having a blast hamming it up. Yet “Jungle Cruise” turns its eye to the present day with a message of acceptance. On the heels of an LGBTQ character in “Cruella,” the film reveals MacGregor is gay, abandoned by most of his family except for Lily. Whitehall elicits sympathy during a moving scene that promotes inclusivity and understanding.

Taking cues from successful films in its genre, “Jungle Cruise” mashes elements of “The Mummy” with “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The familiar story makes “Jungle Cruise” feel less original, but no less fun. The dynamic between Blunt’s brave scientist, Johnson’s rakish adventurer and MacGregor’s milquetoast brother echoes that between Rachel Weisz, Brendan Frasier and John Hannah in “The Mummy.” Because the film is based on an amusement park ride, “Jungle Cruise” wouldn’t have enough meat for its story if it didn’t pull from another blockbuster. The film taps into the plot of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which was also based on a Disney theme park ride. “Jungle Cruise” owes a lot to these movies.

In a perplexing move, “Jungle Cruise” casts Edgar Ramirez in a nearly wordless role as a Spanish conquistador. The supporting part reminded me of Johnson’s film debut as the Scorpion King in “The Mummy Returns,” before we knew what the WWE wrestler was capable of. But the opposite is true for the established Ramirez. The actor is more than qualified for the role, but he is given little to do here. I would have liked to see Ramirez take on a bigger part in the narrative.

The enjoyable “Jungle Cruise” brings back the glorious feeling of watching a blockbuster on the silver screen. I had so much fun during this, and I’m glad I got to see it with a bag of popcorn at the theater. Even though it feels familiar, Disney’s latest big-budget effort reinvigorates the swashbuckler for modern viewers of all ages, buoyed by its game cast. Whether you decide to watch the blockbuster at home or at the cinema, “Jungle Cruise” is worth the price of admission.

4 out of 5 stars

From right, Jack Whitehall, Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson in a scene from “Jungle Cruise.” (Disney via AP)

Joe’s Take

I’m at the point where I’ll see any movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The same goes for Emily Blunt. Put them in the same film? Take my money.

The moment I saw the casting, I needed to see “Jungle Cruise.” I knew nothing about it, except that The Rock and Blunt were in it. I paid $30 to watch it on Disney Plus, and it didn’t disappoint on the backs of its charismatic leads.

The Rock, who plays Frank Wolff in “Jungle Cruise,” continues to grow as an actor. He understands what he does well on screen and proves completely comfortable in this film. He brings immense charisma and energy, and he understands the film he’s in. If you’ve followed his career, or his Instagram, you know he works hard, too. It shows in his recent films. He doesn’t phone it in, even when he has to sing in “Moana.” In “Jungle Cruise,” he also has the perfect co-star to play off.

While The Rock needs the right roles to succeed, Blunt (who plays Lily Houghton) can adapt to any role. She’s a star who plays action heroes and dramatic and comedic roles. Blunt also matches The Rock’s charisma. The dynamic duo’s immediate chemistry makes the film worth watching. Their on-screen relationship takes comedic and dramatic turns with plenty of action sequences sprinkled in. They jell beautifully to create a realistic pair.

Jack Whitehall (Lily’s brother MacGregor) is also a welcome addition, as well as Jesse Plemons (Prince Joachim). Whitehall is the opposite of Blunt’s character. Lily is a courageous, strong-willed adventurer, while MacGregor just wants to live a lavish lifestyle. It would be easy for a character like that to get annoying, but Whitehall plays it perfectly, blending his high-maintenance lifestyle with devotion to the people around him.

Plemons is a perfect villain. While in more serious films or shows he effortlessly creates uneasiness and discomfort, Plemons hams it up to match the film’s energy. While he’s enjoyable to watch on screen, he still proves menacing when needed.

I commend the cast for understanding what kind of movie this was, a Disney family film, because without them bringing the right energy to their roles, “Jungle Cruise” might have suffered. There’s not a lot that stands out about this movie besides its cast. The actors had to elevate the script, as the story is there for the sake of making a movie about a Disney ride. For what it’s worth, after watching the “Jungle Cruise” ride through an eight-minute YouTube video and talking to my esteemed colleague Tyler Piccotti, the movie is faithful to the ride. However, it makes sense the writers didn’t have much to build from. So, they dipped into another Disney property from another movie based on a Disney ride. Some characters are introduced later in the film who look like they sailed on the Black Pearl in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but aren’t as well designed. The visual effects don’t lack, but there’s nothing special about them.

While all of those problems matter in most films, they don’t in “Jungle Cruise.” Besides its strong characters and actors, the film keeps a great pace that makes the two-hour, seven-minute run time feel like nothing. The action-packed, non-stop movie also nails its physical comedy and action sequences. It even leans into its puns so hard that you can’t help but laugh.

“Jungle Cruise” is a flawed movie with charismatic leads who lift the film from mediocre to good. It strengthens my stance of seeing every movie starring these two. If they could turn a bland script into a fun film, why not believe in them? Watch it with the family at the theater or stay home and pay $30. Despite its issues, you and your kids will have smiles on your faces throughout.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: “Old”

Review: “Old”

Joe’s Take

M. Night Shyamalan has produced one of the strangest writer/director careers in cinema history.

In 1999, he found immediate acclaim and popularity with “The Sixth Sense,” earning Oscar nominations for best picture, best director and best original screenplay. He followed that up with my favorite of his work, “Unbreakable,” in 2000. Then in 2002 the wheels started to fall off. Well, some think “Signs” is a great movie, but I’m not one of them. It was also around this time when “Newsweek” put Shyamalan on the cover of its magazine, calling him “The Next Spielberg.”

That hype faded quickly after 2004’s “The Village,” 2006’s “Lady in the Water,” 2008’s “The Happening,” 2010’s “The Last Airbender” and 2013’s “After Earth.” In about 10 years, Shyamalan went from “The Next Spielberg” to a joke. Finally in 2015, he returned to form with “The Visit” and tacked on the surprise sequel to “Unbreakable,” “Split” in 2016. I loved “Split” and was excited to see how he would complete the trilogy with “Glass” in 2019. Once again, he underwhelmed. Shyamalan is the Hollywood version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He’ll give audiences an awesome film or a bad film. And not much in between. The polarizing writer/director used his talents to create another bad film with “Old.”

Based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters, “Old” is a Shyamalized version of a good concept. I don’t think I need to get into the concept because you’ve been seeing the trailer for this movie every day for the past three months on TV, social media and YouTube. However, a group of people are stuck on a beach and aging rapidly. They have to try to figure out how to stop the aging and how to get off the beach. That’s a perfect setup for a film. Great simplicity. Intimate setting. High intensity.

Enter M. Night Shyamalan.

When Shyamalan’s films go awry, they fail the same way. “Old” is no different. Here are three signs you’re in the midst of a bad Shyamalan film.

1. Bad dialogue

In the first 30 seconds, I knew the movie was in trouble. The dialogue proved atrocious, which affected the actors. I know half the actors and have seen them perform well in other movies. Vicky Krieps in “Phantom Thread,” Rufus Sewell in “A Knight’s Tale,” Alex Wolff in “Hereditary” and Thomasin McKenzie in “Jojo Rabbit.” These are good actors in acclaimed films. They did their best, but they were awful. It’s not their fault. The dialogue is just that bad. How many times have we seen Shyamalan turn the most charismatic actors wooden. See Will Smith in “After Earth” or Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in “The Happening.” Krieps is lifeless. Ken Leung, a good character actor, gives the worst performance of his career. Again, not their fault. Shyamalan dialogue does that all the time. Audiences can’t escape into the film when characters act so unnaturally. The only person who seems to know how to act in the film is Shyamalan, who once again inserted himself into the film in a cameo role.

2. Weird camerawork

Often in his bad films, Shyamalan tries to make artsy shots for the sake of artsy shots. They don’t serve a purpose. These often include unnecessary close-ups that prove uncomfortable, scenes where objects get in the way of the action and tracking shots that exist to show he can do them. In “Old,” there’s a scene where the camera is on the edge of the water by the shore and the waves keep pushing the water over the camera so all the audience can see is the water. So a few seconds pass and the audience sees the action. Then a few seconds pass and water washes over the camera. Then the action, then the water. It doesn’t have any purpose. He just wants to show he can do it. He also has one-take shots that are completely illogical. He spreads the characters out on the beach just so he can set up the shots. He also creates tracking shots with 360-degree pans to show everything that’s happening around the beach, but the characters aren’t doing anything interesting. In the meantime, the action is happening outside of the shot just so Shyamalan can show us how talented he is. He over-directs and it makes it difficult to focus on the film.

3. Dull twist

Almost all of his movies build to a plot twist, which puts a lot of pressure on his films. I’ll give him credit that he continues to create movies with twists. Facing an audience that knows something is coming at the end of the film is like playing a basketball team that knows your plays and still trying to defeat it. Every now and then he succeeds, which is an incredible feat. In “Old,” the twist is actually as interesting as the film’s concept. However, the film’s rushed ending botches the execution. The movie spends too much time on the beach and not enough time to shore up the ending.

Those three Shyamalanisms weren’t this film’s only issues. The characters age at different rates. Two of the child characters age and turn into different actors. They are siblings and the sister is older than the brother. Midway through the film, the brother turns into an actor who is older than the actress the sister transforms into. Furthermore, the characters are unrealistically gullible and their occupations prove perfectly useful. There are also a few unanswerable questions that have stuck with me that I can’t discuss here without spoilers.

Shyamalan also didn’t respect the audience, feeling the need to explain a lot. There’s one scene that sticks out. It was so strange because the film sets up the sequence nicely and then the character starts screaming what we already know. I was confused, and I felt patronized in my theater recliner.

In Shyamalan’s attempt to get the audience to notice his work in the director’s chair, he does put a few good sequences together with solid visual storytelling. Also, I do appreciate that this horror film had no fake jump scares. However, there weren’t many other positives in this poorly executed project.

At this point Shyamalan is no longer frustrating, he’s just accepted. We know we’re going to get one of two things with each of his films. He’ll use his talent to create greatness or underwhelm. He was Mr. Hyde when he made “Old.” Maybe next time we see him, he’ll have transformed back to Dr. Jekyll.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Thomasin McKenzie, left, and Alex Wolff star in “Old.” (Universal Pictures via AP)

Rebecca’s Take

Ever since 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” put M. Night Shyamalan on the map, I’ve been a fan of the polarizing filmmaker. With his penchant for building suspense and unease, Shyamalan is the closest director we have today to Alfred Hitchcock, my all-time favorite. Ever the risk-taker, Shyamalan perfected the plot twist that modern audiences have come to expect.

In the hierarchy of Shyamalan’s films, my favorite is “Unbreakable,” the visionary precursor to the current crop of comic book movies. “Signs” is a close second, the writer-director’s most Hitchcockian work with its themes of spiritual and family distress amid an alien invasion. I adore “The Village,” an underrated work of art and testament to Shyamalan’s craftsmanship.

Between 2006 and 2013, it was hard being a Shyamalanite when the misses started to outnumber the hits. “Lady in the Water” and the laughable “The Happening” tarnished the filmmaker’s “master of suspense” title, and his big-budget failures, “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” seemed to doom his future in blockbusters. Thankfully, the back-to-basics 2015 gem “The Visit” marked a return to form, and 2016’s intense “Split” solidified Shyamalan’s upswing before 2019’s “Glass” further divided audiences.

This brings us to “Old,” Shyamalan’s latest foray into horror that was pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. The unnerving film about a group of people trapped on a beach where they age quickly showcases the best and worst of the writer-director.

“Old” is mid-pack Shyamalan. With its intriguing concept, the film steadily sows suspense, a solid display of Shyamalan’s filmmaking talent. But its uneven execution prevents “Old” from being as great as it could have been.

The real star of Shyamalan’s movies is Shyamalan himself. However divisive his films are, the one aspect that’s never in question is the director’s mastery of the craft. Bathed in soft blues and sandy browns, “Old” is gorgeous to look at, with stunning cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, who also lensed “Split” and “Glass.” The film was shot in the Dominican Republic, Shyamalan’s first movie filmed outside his beloved Philadelphia. With an eye for the unsettling, the director manages to make the beach – a dream vacation for a pandemic-starved public – both inviting and threatening. Even the palm trees in the opening scene seem to wave ominously.

The director uses 360-degree dolly shots to great effect, circling the cast of characters as they struggle to understand their situation. Shyamalan chooses to keep the negative space between the actors in frame, highlighting the beach’s isolated setting. Closeups of the characters’ faces convey their confusion and then horror. Shyamalan works in some creative shots that heighten the suspense. The children’s faces are hidden from our view until the parents see them, revealing the rapid progression at which they are aging. But like Hitchcock, Shyamalan cuts away from the nastiness of certain scenes, adhering to the adage that what the mind can imagine is more frightening than what can be shown onscreen.

The stakes in “Old” increase with every terrifying event on the beach, ramping up the tension and the sense of urgency. Each instance builds to the next, helping the characters realize that time is working against them. I was riveted as the group worked together to tackle one hurdle after the next. In one sequence, a character must undergo a crude surgery to remove a fast-growing tumor. In another, a character is revealed to be pregnant and about to give birth before the full ramifications of the situation can set in. It all leads to an edge-of-your seat climax.

“Old” reinforces the notion that time is precious. As the cast comes face-to-face with death, one of the children remarks how they won’t get to experience life’s key milestones, including prom and graduation. The line really hits home after the last year, representing the experience of teens who missed these events due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, most of the dialogue in “Old” is nowhere near as eloquent as this. Shyamalan may be clever at devising twists, but he doesn’t have the same panache for writing dialogue, and it affects the cast’s performance. There’s a dividing line between which actors can overcome the bad dialogue and which can’t.

The kids fare the best. Thomasin McKenzie, who shined in “Jojo Rabbit,” brings a maturity beyond her years to the role of Maddox, who starts the film at the tender age of 11. Alex Wolff (Trent), who’s busy building a horror resume after 2018’s chilling “Hereditary,” and Eliza Scanlon (Kara), who looks unrecognizable after turns in “Little Women” and “The Devil All the Time,” deftly balance the naivete of their 6-year-old selves with the growing awareness of their teenage bodies. The adults are iffier. The standout is Rufus Sewell (Charles), whose moody doctor becomes more menacing with each scene. I also really liked Aaron Pierre as level-headed rapper Mid-Sized Sedan. As Maddox and Trent’s parents, Gael García Bernal (Guy) and Vicky Krieps (Prisca) have their moments, but both struggle with the stilted language. Ken Leung (Jarin) gets the worst dialogue, resulting in a cringeworthy performance.

The film also suffers from overexplaining itself. There’s so much exposition inserted into the characters’ dialogue that it feels forced, providing a buzzkill during some suspenseful scenes. In case you forget which character has seizures, you’ll be reminded before seeing another seizure. Yet for as much as the film explains itself, there’s still plot holes. For instance, the beach seems to allow characters to instantly heal – until it suddenly doesn’t.

As for the twist itself, “Old” delivers a good one that makes sense for the story. However, the film doesn’t spend enough time with it. The last 15 minutes after the twist is revealed feel disconnected from the rest of the movie. But the ending is ultimately satisfying, which isn’t always the case with Shyamalan’s films.

Depending on where you fall on Shyamalan, the real twist in “Old” may be that it’s good. Channeling Hitchcock once again, the director weaves a tension-filled tale that makes us appreciate the time we have, as well as Shyamalan’s sheer talent behind the camera. But the thought-provoking effort falls short of his best films, plagued by bad dialogue, over-explanations and a semi-successful twist. You may be almost two hours older after watching “Old,” but for Shyamalan fans, it’s mostly time well spent.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: “Space Jam: A New Legacy”

Review: “Space Jam: A New Legacy”

Joe’s Take

I was 6 years old when the original “Space Jam” hit theaters in 1996. I loved it. At the time, my favorite players in the NBA were Shaquille O’Neal and His Airness, Michael Jordan. I also loved the Looney Tunes. It was a match made in heaven. Every sick day, I’d pop in “Space Jam;” every sleepover, I’d pop in “Space Jam;” every reason I could find, I’d pop in “Space Jam.” I was excited to see Warner Bros. make endless sequels as new NBA stars rose to prominence. I thought Shaq would star in a “Space Jam 2;” I thought Kobe Bryant would star in a “Space Jam 3;” I thought LeBron James would star in a “Space Jam 4.” Perhaps Kevin Durant for a fifth installment? It never happened. Shaq did star in 1996’s “Kazaam” and 1997’s superhero flick “Steel.” Kobe won an Oscar for his animated short “Dear Basketball” in 2018. LeBron played a great supporting role in 2015’s “Trainwreck.” Oddly, Durant starred in 2012’s “Thunderstruck” with a very similar premise to “Space Jam.” However, no sequel.

In the meantime, I became an adult, but “Space Jam” aged perfectly. In many ways, it’s funnier now than it was the first time I watched it. I will still watch it to this day every time it’s on TV. I’ve seen various comments on social media of people watching “Space Jam” for the first time recently and wondering what all the fuss was about. I will concede “Space Jam” is not a good movie … it’s a brilliant movie. Yes, on the surface, the Looney Tunes asking for Michael Jordan’s help in a basketball game against aliens who stole the talent from NBA players is a poor plot. However, if you don’t enjoy Bill Murray, one of the greatest movie soundtracks ever, the hospital montage with Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, Patrick Ewing and Shawn Bradley and Jordan playing alongside the Looney Tunes in a basketball game, I really don’t know what to tell you except I’m sorry you hate fun.

The good news is they were watching the movie for the first time to prepare for the sequel. Twenty-five years later, the star of my hypothetical fourth “Space Jam” film was the lead in “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” The ageless wonder LeBron James joined my Los Angeles Lakers and resurrected one of my favorite film properties. What a guy. Although he had no chance to lead a film better than the 1996 classic, LeBron has the acting chops to create a worthy sequel. But did “Space Jam: A New Legacy” recapture the magic of its predecessor? Not to the extent I would have liked, but I had a good time.

Much like “Space Jam,” the sequel leads off with LeBron as a child before cutting to the opening credits with highlights of his NBA career. That’s when the sequel fell behind its predecessor. “Space Jam” opens to Jordan highlights with Quad City DJ’s “Space Jam” theme complementing the opening credits. It’s the perfect song in that moment. “See Me Fly” by Chance The Rapper, John Legend and Symba just doesn’t have the same pop. That issue continued throughout the film. The soundtrack is just not as good. It’s not bad, but the songs of the original complement the film so perfectly.

It takes a while for “Space Jam: A New Legacy” to get moving as it establishes its conflict. LeBron and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) are at odds because LeBron wants his son to focus on basketball, while Dom wants to build video games. While LeBron works to be a better father, he takes Dom to Warner Bros. where Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), who is indeed an algorithm, wants to pitch him an idea for a project. LeBron declines, and Al G. Rhythm responds by kidnapping his son in the Warner Bros. server. He also challenges “King James” to a basketball game in order to get his son back and leaves LeBron to recruit his team of Warner Bros. properties. The first character he comes across is Bugs Bunny.

While the sequel has the disadvantage of following up a beloved film, it’s difficult not to notice what’s missing. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” doesn’t spend time with the athletes that become the Goon Squad. I’m shocked the film didn’t try to recreate some scenes from the first film where NBA players lost their talent. They made for some hilarious sequences. It doesn’t have a supporting character even close to how funny Bill Murray was in the original. Bugs Bunny’s voice sounds weird. I understand it’s been 25 years since the original and Billy West (who voiced Bugs in “Space Jam”) is pushing 70, but Jeff Bergman’s voice work seemed a little off for Bugs. And honestly Bugs doesn’t act like he does in the cartoons and in the first “Space Jam.” He’s just different all around and it takes away from the movie a bit.

However, the sequel does get Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya) right. A vast improvement over the sexualized version in “Space Jam,” Lola is the well-respected running mate of LeBron on the court. It’s cool to see her represented as the best basketball player the Tune Squad has and as a strong and caring individual. If there’s one thing this movie got right, it’s that.

A lot of the wit and humor in the sequel is based on Warner Bros. properties and LeBron’s career. The wit and humor in the original comes much more naturally. That being said, there is a sequence where LeBron and Bugs have to enter different Warner Bros. worlds to recruit team members that proves clever and pretty funny. There are also good nods to the previous films and some cool references to Looney Tunes. It also had some strange references to films and TV that only adults would understand. There’s a quick reference to “Chappelle’s Show” that doesn’t work, but a “Training Day” nod that lands perfectly.

The visual effects look great and the transitions among the different animations of the Warner Bros. worlds prove stellar.

LeBron can act. He proved this in “Trainwreck.” However, the writing doesn’t allow him to dip into his charisma until midway through the film. When he establishes the conflict with his son to start the film, he’s actually a little wooden. That’s not his fault. The writing failed him. However, when he meets up with Bugs, he starts to dip into that charisma. His acting improves as the film progresses. He establishes a believable relationship with the Tunes and his son. I also appreciate that LeBron allows the film to make fun of him, much like Jordan allowed the original to poke fun at him. It made for some humorous lines.

Cheadle is having a blast in this movie and hamming it up in the best way possible. He shines as the film’s villain, because he knows what film he’s in and his role. He plays it to perfection. Also, adding sportscaster Ernie Johnson and Lil Rel Howery as the game’s announcers worked beautifully.

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” doesn’t come close to the brilliance of its predecessor, as it lacks a lot of what made the original great. However, once it gets past the first 20 minutes, it kicks into gear and becomes something kids and adults can enjoy. The film banks on its audience understanding the references to Warner Bros. properties, LeBron’s career and nods to Looney Tunes and the first film. I found enjoyment in it because I know the material. However, the simple charm and magic the first film embraced doesn’t exist in the long-awaited sequel. Luckily, there’s a spark that still makes the audience smile.

3 out of 5 stars


This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows LeBron James in a scene from “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” (Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

Rebecca’s Take

I don’t have the devotion to “Space Jam” that a lot of people in my age bracket do. I watched the 1996 film for the first time last year as part of my pandemic viewing, and I recently watched it again to prepare for “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” Over the last year, I’ve become a basketball fan, which helped me better appreciate “Space Jam” the second time around.

I will concede “Space Jam” isn’t a great movie … but it sure is fun. The original has a simple but effective concept: Michael Jordan, the GOAT of basketball, helps Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes defeat the nefarious Monstars in an epic game of hoops, helping the NBA’s best players get their talent back. It’s goofy and charming, with a then-innovative mix of the live-action Jordan in the Looney Tunes’ animated world.

Twenty-five years later, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” aspires to be more than its predecessor, with visually spectacular animation, a capable lead in “King” LeBron James and a family-centric theme. However, the enjoyable sequel misses some of its shots. The long-awaited follow-up is better than its predecessor in some ways, but it falls short of a slam dunk.

Bursting with bright hues, the dazzling “A New Legacy” blends an array of animation styles, surpassing the look of the original film. The film highlights blues, purples, red and oranges, the colors which make up the Tune Squad’s new uniforms. The sequel integrates live action, 2-D animation and 3-D computer-generated animation to stunning effect. The film modernizes the “Space Jam” concept by adding a video game aesthetic.

The follow-up injects more humanity into the first film’s initial concept, raising the emotional stakes. The climactic basketball game isn’t just about a basketball legend helping the Looney Tunes defeat an evil team. In “A New Legacy,” the game turns into a father-son battle. LeBron’s relationship with his onscreen son, Dom (Cedric Joe), forms the heart of the film.

LeBron – the best player in the NBA – wants his son to follow in his footsteps and focus on basketball. However, Dom likes building video games. Their relationship is put to the test when Dom is sucked into the Warner Bros.’ “serververse” by Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), the algorithm behind the studio’s offerings. With Dom kidnapped, LeBron teams up with Bugs Bunny to reunite the Tune Squad and rescue his son. As LeBron bonds with the Tunes, he begins to understand Dom better. The experience challenges LeBron to question his parenting skills as Dom seeks acceptance from his father to become his own person.

In his breakout role in “Trainwreck,” LeBron showed he had the chops to act. In “A New Legacy,” the NBA superstar appears wooden as he makes his way through the stilted writing in its early scenes. But as the film moves along, LeBron finds his footing. The script requires more of him emotionally than the original asked of Jordan. And as he does during the big moments of his games, LeBron delivers. The Los Angeles Lakers giant handles the heavy lifting in some key scenes with his son later in the film.

The rest of the cast features some nice surprises. As Dom, Joe earns sympathy as the intelligent young man yearns to be understood. Cheadle makes a fabulous villain, chewing the scenery up at every turn. As the best player – besides LeBron – on the Tune Squad, Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya) gets her redemption. The sequel scraps the cringeworthy references in the original to her being “hot.” Instead, the female bunny – who’s as caring as she is talented – has her team’s utmost respect, as well as a more practical uniform.

While “Space Jam” made efficient use of its slim 90-minute runtime, “A New Legacy” runs with the ball for too long. At an hour and 55 minutes, the film feels its length. Where the hoops finale lasted about a half-hour in the original film, the on-court battle is dragged out for nearly 45 (!) minutes here. A few times I thought the game was going to end, only for a new wrench to be thrown into it.

In an odd move, “A New Legacy” prizes Warner Bros.’ vast array of intellectual properties over the very game at the heart of these films: basketball. Taking advantage of its serververse setting, the sequel vomits one pop culture reference after the other. Do you like “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Matrix”? I hope you do because the film recreates whole scenes from these properties. The gimmick works perfectly when LeBron and Bugs Bunny travel from IP to IP to recruit the members of the Tune Squad. I loved seeing the characters walk into a classic like “Casablanca,” and I laughed at a DC Comics sequence involving Bugs and LeBron as Batman and Robin.

But later on, the film uses dozens of characters in the crowd during the fate-deciding game, most of whom look like casual cosplayers. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t believe that the basketball itself would be enough to draw in moviegoers. The distracting choice takes away from the game’s action. My eyes kept landing on Pennywise from “It,” Agent Smith from “The Matrix” and the White Walkers from “Game of Thrones.” I’ll defend “Game of Thrones” to anyone (even after the final season), but I can’t defend these random White Walkers being in the film.

The sequel also doesn’t give enough time to the Goon Squad, the film’s villainous basketball team. The original “Space Jam” featured several scenes with the Monstars stealing the talent of Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and other basketball players, and showed them dealing with the fallout. In “A New Legacy,” we get just one scene where we see the NBA and WNBA players in the Goon Squad – including my favorite player, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers – mixing it up outside of the final game. This is another warning sign the film is not as concerned with basketball as it is in doling out pop culture references.

A step down from its endearing predecessor, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” dribbles a delightful time down the court. The sequel boasts amazing animation, surprising heart and a game lead in LeBron James. But the overlong film commits a foul by prioritizing Warner Bros.’ other properties over the game of basketball. It’s a weird choice for a franchise built around the love of the game. As I become a bigger basketball fan, maybe I’m more attached to the original than I thought. Still, there’s enough fun in “A New Legacy” to keep viewers entertained at courtside.

3 out of 5 stars
Review: “Black Widow”

Review: “Black Widow”

Rebecca’s Take

With its release pushed back a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, “Black Widow” has been a long time in the making. I’ve been waiting for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first standalone movie starring Scarlett Johansson’s savvy superspy and Avenger since Natasha Romanoff made her electrifying debut in 2010’s “Iron Man 2.” What has been a one-year wait for most people has been more like 11 years for me.

And the wait was worth it. In Marvel’s first new movie in two years, Johansson’s fan-favorite superhero gets the spotlight she deserves. “Black Widow,” available in theaters and on Disney Plus, is unlike any other Marvel movie. The gritty, action-heavy spy film features a female-empowered story at its core.

The 24th film in the MCU catches up with Natasha in between 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” After the events of “Civil War,” Black Widow is on the run as a fugitive in Europe. As she tries to lay low, the spy is brought back from the cold when she is forced to confront her past traumas and a mysterious masked villain, the Taskmaster. Natasha must reunite with her original family – sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a fellow spy; father Alexei (David Harbour), Russia’s only super soldier, the Red Guardian; and mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) – in a bid to atone for some of the red in her ledger.

“Black Widow” succeeds as both a backstory for Natasha and a solo adventure for the character without the other Avengers. With the character dying in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” “Black Widow” fills in several gaps in the spy’s origins and development. It starts out focusing on Natasha’s childhood, which is the earliest we’ve seen of her life apart from flashbacks in 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

The harrowing images of Natasha’s early training during the opening titles, set to a haunting, slowed-down cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Malia J, are some of the darkest we’ve seen in the MCU. Longtime fans will finally learn what happened in the oft-mentioned Budapest mission. But the film capably straddles the line between its heavy themes and the trademark humor that dots Marvel’s films. Natasha may have been born from a dark place, but she doesn’t have to stay there.

In her eighth time playing the ever-resourceful Avenger, Johansson finds new avenues to explore. In Black Widow’s previous appearances, the hardened but good-hearted Natasha developed gradually as a supporting character. Now, “Black Widow” gives its lead character the tools to face the traumatic events that shaped her during a particularly vulnerable time in the spy’s life.

Always in control, Johansson has come out on top in her action scenes throughout the MCU, starting with her stunning hallway fight in “Iron Man 2,” her stealthy command of the opening interrogation in 2012’s “The Avengers” and her impersonation of a government official in 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” But “Black Widow” sees the fugitive stricken repeatedly and knocked down in one fight after another. Seeing Natasha endure the hits reminds us that unlike Thor, the Hulk and Captain America, Black Widow is a human superhero, not one powered by a god’s invincibility or a super serum. Unlike Tony Stark or Hawkeye, she doesn’t have a metal suit of armor or a bow and arrow to protect her. This makes Natasha more relatable to viewers and adds to her character development. As the serious but truth-seeking spy, Johansson does a marvelous job of tackling her character’s inner demons. She’s the steady center that keeps the film together.

Besides being a comic book film, “Black Widow” marks Marvel’s foray into the spy genre. The film winks at the audience when Natasha mouths along to the lines of a James Bond film. But the movie cleverly subverts the largely male-dominated genre. Led by the MCU’s first female superhero, “Black Widow” is a story about the liberation of women from a system that has been suppressing them for decades. The film doesn’t hit viewers over the head with its feminist message, but it’s there, wrapped up in a tension-filled, adrenaline-fueled espionage flick.

As the first woman to solely direct an MCU film, director Cate Shortland impresses in helming the female-fronted story. “Black Widow” features several eye-popping action scenes that feature women fighting women or women fighting alongside women. Johansson and Pugh, a newcomer to the action scene, engage in breathless hand-by-hand combat, piloting various crafts and dodging explosions. Shortland shows Johansson and Pugh’s faces in close-up throughout their fight sequences, tracing the progression of the pair’s fractured relationship. Shortland’s involvement highlights how important it is for women’s stories to be told by women.

Though “Black Widow” features plenty of heart-pumping action sequences, the set pieces aren’t as memorable as the MCU’s greatest action masterpiece, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” In one of its most creative sequences, “Black Widow” showcases a prison escape that involves a jaw-dropping avalanche. The climactic battle brings together plenty of one-on-one fights and big blasts in an exciting finale. But some of the battles are oddly filmed. There’s one between Harbour’s Red Guardian and the Taskmaster where the camera keeps cutting away, lessening my investment in the skirmish. There’s also some distracting shaky cam and quick cuts.

Having “Black Widow” come out after Natasha’s death in “Endgame” proves problematic because the film must set up a possible successor. This means “Black Widow” isn’t just Johansson’s show, but also Pugh’s. The “Midsommar” and “Little Women” actress is fantastic as the bitter, sarcastic and funny spy Yelena. Revealing her action and comedic sides, Pugh makes a worthy counterpart to Johansson, showing she’s capable of taking over Black Widow’s mantle. But her standout performance threatens to steal the movie from its titular star.

Harbour adds to the fun as the hilarious Red Guardian, longing to revisit his glory days. The actor is a welcome addition to the MCU. It’s fun to see Weisz in a more action-oriented role, harkening to her days in “The Mummy” movies. However, her character is underwritten and inconsistent.

After being delayed by the pandemic, “Black Widow” marks the MCU’s glorious return to the movie theater. Taking over a decade to become reality, the film spins an excellent showcase around Johansson’s enigmatic superhero, finally getting her time to shine. The suspenseful and gripping spy flick delivers solid action with a feminist message. If this is Johansson’s last hurrah in the role, it’s a powerful way to go out. And if this is just the beginning for Pugh, then here’s a warm welcome to the MCU.

4 out of 5 stars

This image released by Marvel Studios shows Scarlett Johansson, left, and Florence Pugh in a scene from “Black Widow.” (Marvel Studios-Disney via AP)

Joe’s Take

Believe it or not, it’s been two years since the last Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Marvel gave fans three Disney Plus shows (“WandaVision,” “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki”) in the meantime. However, after giving audiences three films a year in 2017, 2018, 2019, the studio’s last film, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” was released July 2, 2019. The coronavirus pandemic put the juggernaut franchise on hold. Finally, 11 years after her character’s introduction, the studio released “Black Widow.”

The film opens with a young Natasha Romanoff, played by Ever Anderson (daughter of Milla Jovovich and Paul W.S. Anderson), and a young Yelena Belova (Violet McGraw) living a normal life with their mother Melinda (Rachel Weisz) and father Alexei (David Harbour). Their world is turned upside down when Alexei reveals he’s a Russian operative and they have to leave the country immediately. The thrilling scene combined with the chilling opening credits complemented by a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” prove a perfect start. Anderson is excellent as a young Natasha, showing seeds of the character audiences came to know and love. It looks like she learned from her mother, an action star best known for the “Resident Evil” franchise.

The film then fast-forwards to the present day of the movie, which on the MCU timeline is after “Captain America: Civil War” and before “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Natasha/Black Widow (now Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from Secretary Ross (William Hurt) because she is in violation of the Sokovia Accords. However, she runs into more chaos that brings her back to her sister Yelena (now Florence Pugh), her parents and her past. The family must reunite to stop leader of the Red Room Dreykov (Ray Winstone) from kidnapping young girls and chemically brainwashing them to become superassassins and do his bidding under his control.

Marvel adds to its history of phenomenal casting with the addition of Pugh. The actress put herself on the map in 2019 with her roles in “Midsommar” and “Little Women,” where she earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting role. In “Black Widow,” Pugh proved she can star in an action franchise. She’s able to handle the physicality, humor and emotion of the role. Expect to see a lot of her over the next 20 years.

The character Black Widow gets better and better with every movie and Johansson once again thrives in the role. This is a character the writers had to work at, because in 2010’s “Iron Man 2” Johansson didn’t have much to work with. As the movies progressed, the writing gave Johansson the opportunity to use her full range of talents. She already has been a star for years, and is somehow one of the most underrated actresses of the past decade. She just proved again why she belongs among the best action stars in cinema history. The only disappointment about her in the film is that we won’t see her anymore … allegedly. I’d be perfectly OK if they brought her back from her death in “Avengers: Endgame.”

Harbour and Weisz are great actors as well. Harbour plays his role perfectly and blends the humor very well. Weisz shows her range, as her character changes from the beginning of the film.

The story is solid and doesn’t beat the audience over the head with a message. Female superhero movies are finally coming to the forefront. 2017’s “Wonder Woman” proved a female can lead a superhero franchise with the empowering No Man’s Land scene. After the underwhelming “Captain Marvel,” “Black Widow” normalizes female leads in prominent superhero franchises. That’s a huge step for women in film. Even though the plot is about liberating women from a disgusting man, the film never felt like it was trying to prove anything because we already know women belong in these roles.

It doesn’t pull punches either … literally. One thing the best action movies or series have is they show their main characters’ vulnerability, humanity and ability to get back up when they’ve been absolutely beaten up in a fight. The “Daredevil” Netflix series handles this the best as the title character always takes punches, showing his vulnerability and humanity, but also his will to win. Black Widow is brutally punched, and I’ll admit it’s jarring and uncomfortable to watch because we don’t usually see her take that much punishment and we don’t usually see women take that much punishment. However, it showed her strength, courage and ability to overcome brutal body blows. That adds so much to the character, and makes her more relatable. 2017’s “Atomic Blonde” does the same thing effectively, especially during a one-take stairwell sequence where star Charlize Theron is a force, but she takes a lot of punishment. It keeps the audience on the edge of its seat as her life is believably at stake. Films should never pull punches because showing the brutality adds to the reality of the movie.

Eric Pearson, one of the writers for “Thor: Ragnarok,” does a nice job balancing the emotion with humor. Cate Shortland is also strong in the director’s chair. The action sequences are solid for the most part. Some scenes have too many cuts and other MCU movies have better action. What I appreciated most about the action was it did a nice job showing the force behind everyone’s kicks, punches and headbutts. You can feel it in the audience.

The film could have shown more about what happens to the girls after they are kidnapped by Red Room and turned into Widows. The film is 2 hours and 14 minutes, so it didn’t have a ton of wiggle room to add things, but the movie was good enough to bump it to two and a half hours. Also, some in the film make unrealistically quick character turns. Furthermore, while Winstone does his job as the villain, there’s not really much to the character. He’s just pure evil.

My biggest problem with the film is not the film itself. It’s the studio taking 11 years to get this film released. Marvel was a pioneer for superhero films, making them some of the most successful movies of all-time when audiences thought comic book franchises couldn’t possibly be sustained. The studio had an awesome female character and failed to center a film on her for 11 years, waiting for the DCEU to prove women can lead successful franchises. That’s when Marvel finally gave “Captain Marvel” a green light and that’s when it kicked the tires on “Black Widow.” It’ll always baffle me why it didn’t want to be the pioneer in that as well.

“Black Widow” gives audiences the long-overdue film that should have at least been made five years ago. The MCU movie didn’t pull its punches, added more great characters and actors and gave Johansson the proper sendoff. Like all good MCU films, it nicely blends action, humor and heart. Here’s to many more years of the greatest franchise ever created.

4 out of 5 stars


Review: “The Forever Purge”

Review: “The Forever Purge”

Joe’s Take

In 2013, “The Purge” hit theaters with an interesting concept. All crime in the United States, including murder, is legal for 12 hours. I was curious to see what the film could do with that as the main plot. Turned out not much. “The Purge” is more of a home invasion movie so the audience sees a very small part of The Purge. However, when your film costs $3 million and grosses $89 million at the box office (according to Box Office Mojo), you have a franchise regardless of the quality.

To the franchise’s credit, it rallied in 2014 with the best film in the series, “The Purge: Anarchy.” Led by the underappreciated Frank Grillo, “Anarchy” takes to the streets where the audience gets to see The Purge in full force. It also gives Grillo’s character a strong backstory. The flaw with “Anarchy” is it tries to sum up its social commentary in the last five minutes, clearly setting up a sequel. That left the movie a little incomplete. Still, it was a big improvement over the first film and made more money. “Anarchy” grossed $111 million against a $9 million production budget.

“The Purge: Election Year” and “The First Purge” didn’t entirely work. At least “Election Year” brought back Grillo and had a decent idea of a politician running on a platform against The Purge. “The First Purge” should have been the first movie. It would have made more sense when the concept was new instead of four films in. Despite the fact that they both made money (“Election Year” brought in $118 million off a $10 million budget, while “The First Purge” collected $137 million off a $13 million budget), I thought the franchise was dead. It had four movies to make the most of its concept and failed.

Enter “The Forever Purge.”

Somehow one of the strangest movie franchises and weirdest Fourth of July cinema traditions got one right.

The New Founding Fathers of America are back in power and reinstate The Purge after President Charlie Roan eliminated it at the end of “The Purge: Election Year.” In the past, The Purge showed a division between the classes of the U.S. It was used as a way to get rid of the poor and the homeless. In “The Forever Purge,” those who participate target immigrants and people of color. Although the film is on the nose of the present tension in the U.S., the story works. There’s nothing subtle about this film, but the franchise finally took its social commentary head on.

The movie starts with Mexicans crossing the border to Texas and then establishes their places in society. Adela (Ana de la Reguera) earns a prominent role at her job, while her husband Juan (Tenoch Huerta) and friend T.T. (Alejandro Edda) work on the Tucker family’s ranch. Most of the family, including Caleb Tucker (Will Patton), who runs the ranch, Harper Tucker (Leven Rambin), who has a romantic interest in T.T., and Cassidy Tucker (Cassidy Freeman) like Juan and T.T. However, a tension exists between Cassidy’s husband, Dylan Tucker (Josh Lucas), and Juan.

The main players survive The Purge, but quickly learn the usual 12-hour event isn’t over. Many started a movement on social media, with the Purge Purification Force at its center, to continue The Purge forever, or at least until those involved in the movement feel they have gotten rid of the people they deem as non-Americans. The NFFA’s Purge has backfired and the government must send in the military to regain control of the country. Maybe this social media movement wouldn’t have seemed so feasible if this movie was released a few years ago. However, U.S. civilians attacked the Capitol building six months ago, which wasn’t within the realm of possibility until Jan. 6.

The Tuckers, Juan, Adela and T.T. must work together to survive, while Dylan and Juan have to set aside their differences.

The writing and dialogue is better in this film than the others, which is strange because James DeMonaco wrote every film in the franchise. DeMonaco directed the first three, but stepped out of the chair for the last two. It proved a great move here as director Everardo Gout oversees the best filmed movie in the franchise. It even includes a sharp tracking shot through a war zone in El Paso that seamlessly transitions from one character to another. It’s one of many solid action sequences.

“The Forever Purge” also has the best actors since Grillo (because we’re just going to forget Marisa Tomei’s absurd appearance in “The First Purge”). De la Reguera, Lucas and Huerta create strong characters to follow throughout the film. They also fit their backgrounds. De la Reguera and Huerta’s characters are military trained and they look it, while Lucas looks more weapons trained, but not to the extent of military training. Small detail, but this has never been a franchise of small details.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is uneven like “Purge” movies before it. It tries to be a horror movie and an action movie simultaneously. The number of fake jump scares are absurd and outnumber the real jump scares. This is a dumb horror movie trope, which takes the audience out of the movie. The film loses more of the effect with every fake scare.

I also would have liked a little more development of Adela, Juan and T.T. They appear to have fled Mexico because of a drug cartel, but the film doesn’t address it much. Adela is a clear weapons expert and the film makes a big deal of it. She’s asked multiple times how she became so good at handling weapons. Of course, the buildup leads to a 20-second scene where she just tells the audience. The movie has to go one of two routes. Don’t make a big deal out of the fact that she’s military trained or show us why she is such a weapons expert. Don’t just tell the viewer.

That being said, “The Forever Purge” is now the gold standard for the franchise, proving sometimes the fifth time’s the charm? It has an on-the-nose, but clear social commentary that is very relevant today. It finally feels like a complete film with solid direction, writing and acting. I don’t know if this franchise will continue, but “The Forever Purge” made the case for why it can. Although it will be far from one of the best movies of the year, it may be one of the biggest pleasant surprises at 2021’s end.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tenoch Huerta stars in “The Forever Purge.”

Rebecca’s Take

“The Purge” horror franchise confuses me. The films about a future America in which all crime is legal for 12 hours, including murder, have been hit-or-miss, starting with its mediocre debut, 2013’s “The Purge.”

However, the first film racked up $89 million in box-office receipts on a meager $3 million budget, becoming a certified hit and launching a money-making franchise. Each of the next three installments grossed more than the preceding one, ensuring the series could go on … well, forever.

This brings us to “The Forever Purge.” Against the odds of diminishing returns, the actioned-packed, socially conscious fifth film is the best entry in the franchise. It’s really good. The suspenseful installment is well-made and well-shot, finding the right balance of quality filmmaking, chilling horror and social commentary. Though it’s taken five films to get here, “The Forever Purge” finally gets the execution of its intriguing concept right.

The film acts as a direct sequel to 2016’s “The Purge: Election Year.” After that film effectively ended the Purge, “The Forever Purge” reinstates it with the reelection of the New Founding Fathers of America, the political party that started the annual blood-letting ritual.

Set in Texas near the southern border, the film follows the Tuckers, a family of ranchers led by patriarch Caleb (Will Patton) and his son, Dylan (Josh Lucas). The ranch employs Mexican migrants, whom Dylan looks down upon. Their farmhands include Juan (Tenoch Huerta), who crossed over to the United States with his wife, Adela (Ana de la Reguera), to seek a better life.

When the Purge commences, Dylan and his family, including his pregnant wife Cassidy (Cassidy Freeman) and sister Harper (Leven Rambin), stay locked up in their ranch for the night, while Juan and Adela find refuge with other migrants. But the morning after, a bloodthirsty group of marauders decide to keep the Purge going. With the “Ever After Purge” underway, Dylan and his family must join with Juan and Adela as they fight to survive a new world order.

My confusion with “The Purge” films lies with how uneven the installments are. Mostly a snoozer, “The Purge” barely scratched the surface of the class-based annihilation that targets the impoverished. The much-improved sequel “The Purge: Anarchy” (2014) – previously the franchise’s best – amped up the chaotic action and addressed the economic inequality while introducing a likable protagonist in Frank Grillo. The next film, 2016’s “The Purge: Election Year,” is a semi-satisfying follow-up that boxed in the franchise by ending the event at its core, forcing 2018’s underwhelming prequel “The First Purge” to feel out of place in the series.

Now, “The Forever Purge” brings together all the franchise’s key elements by flipping the formula. Instead of the atrocities occurring during the Purge, the real terror doesn’t begin until afterward, catching the protagonists off guard. Making his Hollywood film debut, director Everardo Gout skillfully commands the action. The tension-filled sequences make the most of the Texas landscape, from car chases on the windy roads lined with terrifying Purgers to hand-to-hand combat among the mountainous passages to the Mexican border. Gout even deploys 360-degree camera shots, making this the best-looking of the Purge films.

The sequel thrives as a Western-meets-horror hybrid. The Western setting calls back to the genre’s legendary showdowns between cowboys and outlaw gangs, often with a newcomer at the forefront. As the dissatisfied Purgers seek to claim the Tuckers’ ranch for themselves, newcomers Juan and Adela team up with the Tuckers, the established townsfolk, to fight back. On the horror side, the Purgers retain the creepy masks associated with the franchise, as well as their cruel methods. There’s plenty of gunfights, knife-play and an execution-style rampage that meet the quota of violence expected from the series.

In a franchise that can afford to delve more into social horror, “The Forever Purge” excels at exploring real-world issues. The sequel tackles the ongoing issue of immigration on the Mexican border head-on. The film points out the reelection of the NFFA stirred white supremacy, which our country saw grow in the last four years under President Donald Trump. Dylan’s resentment toward Juan and the other migrants reflects this attitude, and a “Purge Purification” truck hauntingly travels the streets. But the film also shows how someone like Dylan can change as circumstances force him and Juan on the same side. The film even explores reverse-immigration as Mexico opens its borders up to Americans seeking to flee the Purge as a refuge.

A solid cast boosts the film, giving us a group of heroes to root for. As Juan and Adela, Huerta and de la Reguera emerge as a power couple whose mysterious background primes them to fight back against the Purge. The charismatic Huerto evolves from an insightful ranch hand to a lethal cowboy. The fierce De la Reguera, who shined as a zombie-fighting warrior in “Army of the Dead,” masterfully works a gun right alongside her husband, pumping up her action resume. Lucas also makes a solid action lead here as Josh takes up arms to protect his family. Rambin shows grit as Harper, and Patton adds another strong character role under his belt.

“The Forever Purge” focuses more on action than on scares, which may deter some hard-core franchise fans. The kills and killers aren’t as over-the-top as past entries.

While the sequel does a good job of conveying its social commentary, it can be a bit on the nose with its messaging. Although the main group of characters is likable, the film doesn’t flesh them out as much as other films in the franchise have done.

I went into “The Forever Purge” not knowing what to expect, and I came out pleasantly surprised. The fifth time appears to be the charm in the franchise, with the latest sequel finally fulfilling the promise of the franchise’s concept. The Western-horror flick strikes the right blend of terror and social commentary with welcome panache under Gout’s vision.

Once again, I find myself confused because the film is being touted as the final one in the franchise. However, “The Forever Purge” opens several avenues for future installments. Now that the films have found their footing, I hope this isn’t the last we see of the Purge.

3.5 out of 5 stars