Despite many isolated moments of grandeur, the overlong 25th James Bond movie and purported final installment of Daniel Craig’s tenure in the role, peaks early and struggles in patches to find its pace. There are several “first act” action sequences so effective in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time To Die (B) that a viewer may wonder if the film will be able to maintain its momentum (the answer is not quite). Front-loaded highlights include an eerie origin story involving a villain and love interest and a spectacular 360 vehicular ballet to buttress against baddies in an Italian piazza. There’s also tremendous possibility in a plot involving a bioweapon full of lethal nanobots coded to an individual’s specific DNA. Plus, a trio of intriguing female characters including Lashana Lynch, Ana de Armas and Léa Seydoux play well opposite Craig’s anguished protagonist. So it’s a bit of a missed opportunity amidst gorgeously photographed and well staged episodes that the enterprise doesn’t pop even more. Partly to blame is a half-baked villain in Rami Malek who, with clipped speech cadence and vague dastardly plans to turn personal trauma into global vengeance, fails to deliver on his creepy promise. And mid-way, there’s a series of bloated plot points which seem perfunctory at best. There’s also scant subtext under the posh proceedings, even though the action generally packs a wallop. For series stalwarts, though, the film pays fan service to nearly all beloved tropes from island lairs to inventive spy-jinks; and in many ways it’s as Bondian as a Bond film can be. Fukunaga leaves a stylish and singular directorial stamp on the franchise just as Craig has made the brooding hero’s role indelibly his own. Overall it’s a sturdy entry into the series and a fitting tribute to the actor who has shaken and stirred the series for the past decade and a half.
Tunefully tackling mental health, cancel culture and the nature of truth in the Internet age – and none of these topics with much dexterity – Stephen Chbosky’s mixed bag musical movie of Dear Evan Hansen (B-) nonetheless provides an absorbing showcase for an ensemble of female actress/singers who wave into a window of emotions more authentic than that of the film’s male lead. Call it Medicated High School Musical, and call it like it is that Ben Platt’s character translates awkwardly from the Great White Way to the silver screen. Platt is mostly crooning to the mezzanine balconies while Chbosky lenses the actor’s histrionics in awkward close-ups which reveal he is powdered in age-reducing prosthetics to reprise the lauded teenage performance he created nearly a decade ago on stage. The cinema canvas also surfaces flaws in the Broadway source material, namely that the audience is meant to sympathize with a character whose mounting lies prove to undermine his perceived good intentions. The characters breaking out into song isn’t really explained or consistent and can be confusing when one of them actually plays guitar as a plot device; and since emotion is already heightened, there’s often not much higher to go in some pedestrian presentational soliloquies. Were the YouTube fans meant to like the speech or the song? One must suspend a good bit of disbelief. However, let’s get to the good stuff, because there are many highlights in this overlong but often moving enterprise. First, the music is flawless, including two solid new songs to add to favorites such as “You Will Be Found.” The film is chock full of stunning female talent: Amandla Stenberg as an activist classmate whose tune “The Anonymous Ones” is a highlight, Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever as a mother and daughter recoiling from tragedy in earnest songs such as “Requiem” and “Only Us,” and Julianne Moore whose final reel “So Big/So Small” is a heartbreaker. Platt does indeed shine in many of his scenes of comedy and intense singing, even though the director should have reigned him in and clarified many aspects of the character. And Colton Ryan as a troubled classmate is so captivating in his two major sequences that it’s surprising he didn’t nab the lead role. Still, the parts of this story that work and surprise have the capacity to genuinely touch hearts and minds about the tug of war of man versus his worst instincts in a quest to belong. The film and its protagonist are often a tangled mess, but musical fans will likely grant Chbosky, Platt and company a full pardon for some of their missteps in bringing such an emotional wallop to the screen.
This head-scratcher of a horror movie is announcing its intentions as a new realm in terror, but its terrain of dreamscapes and damaged souls feeds on lots of tropes which have already been around for a while. A woman’s premonitions about a deranged killer’s next murders are just the beginning of the story in James Wan’s twisty thriller Malignant (B-), a slow burn of a tale that gets pretty unhinged in its final reel. In the protagonist role, Annabelle Wallis is effective as a troubled woman who may just have a connection to the gilded dagger wielding villain, but amidst many underwritten parts and plot threads, the sometimes hokey film often feels like the work of a first-time filmmaker rather than one who has been making Hollywood horror for some time. The psychobabble that bubbles up fairly far into the movie’s running time is evocative of early Brian de Palma films even though the camerawork and choreography rarely deliver much of a creative spark. It’s all more eerie than scary, and the film often seems enchanted with special effects and stunts that don’t add much to the storyline. Still, it casts a peculiar spell and keeps bringing in ways to keep things exciting, and the promised plot twists do indeed ratchet the proceedings up to a whole new level.
This movie crouches with creativity until it starts draggin’. For its first two acts, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (B) grabs the brash brass with a swagger worthy of a first-ever Marvel movie; but by the end of the final reel, the labored adventure limps like the 25th Marvel film installment that it is. The film successfully grounds its characters in intriguing emotional arcs, even if some veteran actors are better suited at the drama than the newcomers. Acclaimed Hong Kong movie star Tony Leung skillfully portrays the patriarch of a dysfunctional family and is the catalyst for a story that transports viewers from San Francisco to Macau in a quest for generational redemption and supernatural accessories. Simu Liu is a stunner of a physical actor in the title role, but his emoting in dramatic sequences is hit or miss, as is that of Meng’er Zhang who plays his stoic sister. Faring much better are Awkwafina in true command of her comic relief love interest sidekick role (leading man Liu is far more natural in moments of levity opposite her) and Michelle Yeoh who ups her “aunty” with dramatic and martial arts choreography skills. The film is an origin story in reverse, and the opening U.S. sequences with casual comedy and an outstanding extended fight aboard a runaway bus eclipse some otherwise deft world building to come in the Asian environment of underground fight clubs, shape-shifting bamboo mazes and enchanted villages with a menagerie of CGI beasts. Other than a glorious battle aboard skyscraper scaffolding, the events abroad do not measure up to the story and tone captured stateside. The film is chock full of interesting ideas but ultimately overstuffed in its endless parade of finales. It’s mostly highly entertaining even if the front is more of a kick than the remaining thrust.
More of a bonbon for cinephiles than a slasher contraption for the masses, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (B+) builds on producer Jordan Peele’s recent masterworks to expose horrors of the American race and class struggle. Her uncanny Chicago-set narrative about appropriation and gentrification focuses primarily on razor-focused actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen, who plays an artist obsessed with a new subject based on the urban legend of a hook-armed killer bearing sweets who once haunted the city’s projects. The talented Teyonah Parris provides a formidable foil as his partner, an art gallery executive trying to remain above the fray of mysterious mounting events. The ubiquitous Colman Domingo is also effective in a small role. The cinematography, music and menace are straight out of a Hitchcock or Kubrick composition, providing the typical tenets of the horror genre with a considerable upscale upgrade. The labyrinthine honeycomb of this only slightly supernatural take on the Windy City, filled with swirling bees, fun house mirrors, eerie incantations and blood dripping like honey through nooks and hallways, becomes an apt metaphor for twists to come. There are few extended sequences of gore or fan favorite jump scares; instead there is a gradual unveiling of themes and origin stories to stimulate the mind and provide a deeper sense of unsettling. Watch the color palette for clues, and enjoy creative montages including shadow puppets for clever insights into the backstory. DaCosta is all sting as she goes in for both the message and the kill, and if there were one constructive criticism to offer an already pensive film, it would be that it needed even more character development and nuance so that personal transformations could fire with additional intensity. DaCosta’s film is strong and beguiling, and it could become one of those unsuspecting art films to mysteriously rule the box office.
You might find yourself with resting glitch face after all the stimulation of Shawn Levy’s video game comedy fantasy Free Guy (B), a film that actually gets better and richer as it progresses and reveals superpowers in some of the most supporting players in society. A bit of a riff or revival of The Truman Show set in an open-world video game, this film places Ryan Reynolds at the center as a “non-player character” who learns he can start making his own choices. There’s interplay among the denizens of the game, plus a plot about a diabolical dudebro executive (a hilarious Taika Waititi) trying to manipulate the gameplay to line his pockets and a duo of developers (Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, both earnest) helping steer the situation to a better resolution. The passiveness of the main character is a problem for the first half of the movie, despite Reynolds’ considerable charms and penchant for physical comedy. But the film gains a bit of soulfulness at the half-way point and proceeds to surprise and delight. If you can bear the clang and clamor, you’ll find Levy and company have something to say about community, about taming toxic masculinity and about choosing your own adventure. It’s a bit better than expected, with funny asides, clever effects and a timely lesson about the power of world building.
This film is speaking my love language. As the teenage daughter of deaf parents with her only sibling deaf as well, Ruby, played with sublime grace by Emilia Jones, seeks to be a standout in the field of choral music, which no one else in her rural New England family can actually hear, in the formulaic but feel-good dramedy of the summer, Sian Heder’s CODA (A-). Heder writes and directs the film with an admirable lack of sentiment and grounds the central family in a highly relatable milieu. The protagonist’s quest to pursue her art while also pulled into the mounting demands of the family fishing business (she’s their sole interpreter) provides ample material for conflict, but most everything comes back to love in an overall work that can best be described as heartwarming. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur are outstanding as the parents, Daniel Durant charming as the brother and Eugenio Derbez is a delight as the music teacher. Ruby and her family feel real in their every interaction, and even when the story unfolds in pretty much the way a viewer would expect it to, it still does so in surprising ways because of the composition and cunning of this unconventional family. Viewers will be won over by the sweet-natured strengths of the ensemble, the unexpected representation and inclusion of the casting and the writer/director’s skills at quiet observation. Additionally the music sequences are wonderful. Far from a chore or a bore, this film is uplift from beginning to end.
Hot off a series of horror movies and Liam Neeson-led thrillers, director Jaume Collet-Serra is an unlikely choice to helm an old-fashioned Disney adventure based on a classic theme park ride but acquits himself nicely in the pleasant summer escapism fare of Jungle Cruise (B-). Similarly, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, best known for muscular action films, gets to flex his unexpectedly assured comedic timing to successful avail as a South American skipper of a small riverboat who takes a group of travelers including siblings played by Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall through a jungle in search of the Tree of Life. Johnson and Blunt are winning comic and would-be romantic partners with verbal and physical pratfalls aplenty, as he wields dad jokes and swagger in equal doses to her acerbic and acrobatic spunkiness. Faring less on the likability scale are characters played by Jesse Plemmons, Paul Giamatti and a coterie of cursed conquistadors in cartoonish or CGI villainous roles which add very little menace opposite the explorers. The film works best in rip-roaring action sequences and when Blunt and Whitehall provide some droll fish-out-of-water entanglements. As for the plot, we’ve been down this river many times in much better films. The first hour is fairly breezy fun; then as the protagonists get closer to their goal, the sogginess sets into sluggishness for a good while. Still, it’s competently made family friendly fun, and most of the kids haven’t seen the movies this riffs on, so it may all be new to them. Like its Adventureland origin attraction, you get to sit down in the shade and take a breezy ride for a while with a smile on your face for much of its duration, and that may be all we need this summer.
An inventive free-for-all based on a frenzied series of real-life eyewitness tweets about the misadventures of two women on an extraordinary road trip, Janicza Bravo’s Zola (B+) brims with mirthful dark comedy and unexpected detours. Breakthrough star Taylour Paige is a delight as the wry title character “@zola,” a part-time exotic dancer lured into a Florida getaway by Riley Keough’s outrageous “@stefani.” They make a madcap duo, and Keough is a riot with a manipulative medicine show of emotions in her arsenal. Carmen Domingo manages to steal a few scenes from these brash co-stars as the ominous “X,” teetering on a line between charming and sinister. With surprises aplenty and shocks around every bend, Bravo marshals her ensemble with grit and grace. The tropical color palette and snappy editing plus droll throwaway one-liners provide the film with myriad memorable moments. The fact that it’s all a bit of a lark doesn’t take away from the creativity and the committed acting on display. This is a breezy joyride of an indie destined to coast into cult status.
Betting on the scrappiness of a bunch of bros who become woke in a history-bending take on the founding of the country, Matt Thompson’s America: The Motion Picture (B-) is an irreverent and often quite funny animated film aimed at the adults of the household. The movie’s tipsy time bandits traversing a stew of history involving George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Geronimo, a female Thomas Edison and many others throw out a lot of vulgar gags and end up with a winning comedy in the tradition of the South Park movie, Team America: World Police or even the live action This is the End. Channing Tatum, Jason Mantzoukas, Olivia Munn, Killer Mike and Andy Samberg are among the spry voice cast ensemble in this veritable Mad or National Lampoon magazine come to life. The animation is accomplished and the profane and prophetic jokes abundant enough to keep surprising even the most academic viewers. It’s anachronistic, anarchic and lots of mindless fun and ultimately pulses with a patriotic heart.
It’s the family friendly horror film franchise that’s just as much fun with the mute button on, and its sonic release in theatres after a year of pandemic may be the ultimate gimmick that amps up the tension even more. Director John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place Part II (B+) expands on the suspenseful milieu of its predecessor and pulls back the lens from one small town family on its homestead farm to a bit more about their actions’ implications on a struggling post-apocalyptic society around them. In this dystopian future world inhabited by blind monsters with an acute sense of hearing, Emily Blunt’s character tries to stealthily hold her family – including a newborn – together despite a splintering side quest led by her feisty daughter, played with aplomb by Millicent Simmonds. A mysterious new character played by a winning Cillian Murphy plus expressive teen Noah Jupe both stoke the kindling of several plot paths along the journey, and Krasinski consistently builds both mounting anxiety and the pulses of familial emotion. The novelty of the original film is dialed down this time around in lieu of world building, and regrettably Blunt’s character is a bit defanged but there’s enough fresh material to keep audiences on the edges of their seat. Overall it’s an effective thriller broadening its exciting universe with deeply relatable characters. Sure there are jump scares, but the biggest surprise is just how well crafted this sequel is and how much it justifies its existence.
Fast becoming the king of the Neo-Western, Taylor Sheridan, who wrote high-minded screenplays ranging from Sicario to Hell or High Water, makes his directorial debut with a rather routine but entertaining thriller elevated by the work of its leading lady and a pair of actors playing ruthless villains. Sheridan’s wilderness adventure Those Who Wish Me Dead (B-) introduces two converging storylines, the redemption arch of a brassy Montana smokejumper played by Angelina Jolie recovering from a tragedy and the crime thriller chase film featuring a child (Finn Little) who observes his father’s murder and is stalked Witness-style by two assassins, cunningly played by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen. The film is a throwback to ’90s action films with its propulsive parade of set pieces and showdowns, even amidst some lackluster forest fire special effects and a plot that doesn’t tread all that much new ground. Jolie is effective as she bonds with the boy and brandishes her acumen and adrenaline in some knockout moments, but it’s Hoult and Gillen who milk the most out of their sequences as the veritable renegade Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of an ensemble that also includes an effective Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore. It’s a rollicking ride with taut action aplenty.