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Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

Finale of DC Animated Films a bit Overhyped
DC's line of one-shot animated features are the exact opposite of their live action feature film line: mostly well-written and fun adventures that pay respect to their source material. Justice League: Dark, is said to be the finale in the line of DC Animated releases that have been consistently getting released for almost the past 10 years. I haven't stayed consistent with the continuity of all of the releases, but I think post-Flashpoint Paradox (which was great), they've been on a timeline inspired by the events of the New 52, which was represented by Justice League: War, which came out a few years ago. I'd heard a lot of hype going in about how good this was, and watched the first "Dark" to get in the groove for it, and that installment was much tighter, had a better script, and even better action scenes that made use of the darker, magical-leaning characters in the DCAU more effectively. Despite the "Dark" label, this is a mash-up of the standard Justice League, the Dark squad, and the Suicide Squad, with cameos from members of the Bat and Superman-family, as well as Teen Titans. It could've used a different title to make it clear this was going to be a universe-wide event. Some of this was set up in last year's Death and Return of Superman, which was effective and well told.

Apokolips War clearly should've been more than one movie. The story itself takes beats from the competition's latest live-action entry of Avengers: Endgame, so they might as well have taken the tactic of splitting the story up into 2 full-length animated features. This is the end of a universe we're talking about here, and an epic struggle that leads to an entire reality being reset. 90 minutes just doesn't feel fitting.

The movie begins with a foolhardy, undercooked plan from the Justice League to simply storm Apokolips after finding out that Darkseid intends on attacking Earth, with no strategy or planning, and no thought towards the idea that maybe, just maybe Cyborg, who's built with tech more Apokolips, might be a liability. To set up for the very bleak end scenario, the start of the movie has to make a lot of contrived writing decisions. Batman would be smart enough to look into Cyborg's circuitry, Wonder Woman would've come up with a better strategy than taking the entire league to Darkseid's front door and leaving Earth unguarded while they launch a full-frontal assault. Constantine wouldn't just wimp out with no motivation while the love of his life gets shredded to pieces. And I also don't buy that characters like The Flash and any member of the Green Lanterns would get beaten so easily, even if Darkseid did have Parademons that had some Doomsday DNA in them (there's so many that the stock would get diluted eventually, right? Think the actual Jango/Boba Feet versus a basic Clone trooper).

In other words, a lot of what happened feels like the writers knew where they wanted the story to end up, but took shortcuts that were never addressed to get there. Zatanna never so much as slightly chews out Constantine for letting her die once he sees her in the afterlife, there's so many moments that feel skipped over or less focused-on because they had to speed along to an epic conclusion.

I notice that the DC animated films do better when they scale down and work with a single group of characters. The Bat-family related installments are clearly the strongest, with something like Death and Return of Superman featuring other League members but staying mostly focused on Superman. The original "Dark" was Constantine and other similarly darker, magic-focused characters, and didn't spread out too far. It falters when they try to bring everyone together.

Altogether, Apokolips War isn't garbage by any means. The animation and voice-acting is for the most part high-quality. The only gripe about the voice acting is that there seems to be odd, long-pauses in between the character's dialouge sometimes, like the pace is off with too much space from line to the next, and Rebecca Romijin as Lois Lane is not a solid casting choice. She was the most flat performance in Death and Return, and doesn't up her game here, sounding too cold and impersonal to be the tough, strong-willed yet compassionate woman Superman loves. She'd be better cast as a villain, like she was in the X-Men films. For anyone used to the great Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, it's also hard to get used to Dwight from The Office as Lex Luthor, who has his moments, but sometimes still sounds a little too weasly and timid to be the cruel industrialist.

The fight scenes are also, as always with nearly any DC animated feature, on a high level, with plenty of creative power uses, solid counters, and a great pace to them. DC animated nails the action if nothing else, even in the lesser installments.

The storyline of heroes and villains of Earth uniting to fight off Darkseid was explored much more effectively in the conclusion of the Bruce Timm animated Justice League Unlimited show, especially Superman getting to let loose against Darkseid and give his "world of cardboard" monolouge. Apokolips War doesn't come close to any moments on that scale.

Overall it's worth watching if you've enjoyed the other entries in the New 52 line of animated films, but isn't quite the explosive conclusion it should be. It'll be interesting to see what projects DC's division has in store for the future now that this continuity has been reset, like DC does with their print line every 3 to 5 years, or seemingly whenever the writers get bored.


Underrated: Not a Gangster Biopic, Not What People Expected
The biopic is a safe Hollywood bet that studios, producers, and filmmakers love. Take a historical figure and/or someone well known, cast a well-liked dramatic actor and fill the script with the typical beats of rising up from mediocrity or poverty, show their struggle and talent, their triumphs, the moments where they become who we know them to be, and then their downfall or their age.

This is a tried and true formula that the movie industry loves, and every year, there's at least one of these, usually about music artists, but also sometimes about athletes or other outstanding pop culture figures, and in some cases, criminals. "Capone" with Tom Hardy directed by Josh Trank follows none of these familiar beats and doesn't play to any of these well-worn expectations.

I think one of the reasons this movie has so many low ratings is due to viewers who love The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas, and the long line of classics in the gangster subgenre having their expectations subverted when they encountered a slower paced, methodical, sad, strangely comedic, offbeat portrayal of a feared member of America's criminal underworld at his lowest point: desperately trying to hang on to the man he used to be while suffering from the ravages of Syphilis.

A lot of people love to see gangsters get away with crime, rise to power, and to see a film that glamorizes a life of crime, and that's not what you get here. Maybe this was misadvertised, but I saw a performance from Tom Hardy that captured the pain and frustration of being trapped in a body that's betraying you, all the while surrounded by people you're not sure you can trust, with the memories of the past turning from pleasant to nightmarish in the space of a second.

The film is for the most part beautifully shot with sometimes an almost horror-movie level of suspense, and the idea of what is and isn't real is played with, bringing you into Capone's mindset in his last few months. It's not a perfect film, and is slow moving at points, but Hardy's performance always reels everything back in. The make-up on him is incredible, and you can't tell me that you see Hardy here. So often anymore, we see moviestars, but not an actor disappearing into a part.

One of the main flaws of the film for me was that it does expect the viewer to have a firm grasp on who Capone was, what he did, and how he rose to power, because none of that content that you'd see in a typical gangster film is there. It might have been nice to have more scenes of Hardy as Capone in his prime, but the idea that it only gives you a few memories brings you into the headspace he's in: he wants desperately to be that man again but can't.

Al Capone was a violent man and unforgiving to many, but this movie does a great job of painting him as sympathetic, that showing that even the worst people have family that can be agonized from watching someone they love deteriorate right in front of their eyes.

There could've been more of the other perspective explored, how the FBI or perhaps the families of his rivals and victims viewed him, to balance the perspective we see in the film, and a few questions the film poses, such as whether or not his dementia was an act the whole time or not could've been explored more deeply, but I feel that everything in this was made as an effort to defy the formula and try a different approach.

Go into this expecting to see some outstanding character-acting from Hardy, and not expecting a gangster movie. It's not a tribute to that, it's not a glorification, there's plenty of other movies that fetishize outlaws for that. I give this points for trying something new in exploring a dark chapter in the life an American public figure. This approach might not have been perfect, but I hope that it encourages more creativity and more of a boldness to move away from formula in the future.

Yip Man 4

If The Third Time's the Charm, Then the Fourth Is...?
Director Wilson Yip has teamed with worldwide martial arts movie legend Donnie Yen yet again to finish up the series about the first teacher of none other than Bruce Lee in a conclusion choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, who's also given us some of the greatest fight scenes ever put to film. Ip Man 4 is about acclaimed Wing Chun Kung-Fu master Ip Man travelling to the United States after being invited to visit by his number one student who has opened up schools on the West Coast and is thriving as an up-and-coming martial arts phenomenon. While abroad, Ip Man gets the idea to enroll his troubled son in a high-level American private school, but faces challenges adjusting from skeptical local martial arts masters in San Francisco's Chinatown, bigots, and even the military.

The Wing Chun style is all about cutting down on excess movement and getting straight to the point, so let me do the same: the fight scenes in Ip Man 4 are fantastic, some of the series' finest, with many intricate applications of Wing Chun on display. Donnie Yen's Ip Man uses the style in fresh and complex ways to counter techniques he hasn't encountered before in other matches in the franchise. The film also scales back the content of the fight scenes a little bit from 3, where Ip Man was shown to take on entire gangs and crowded markets full of bad guys, as well as fighting Mike "Punch-Out" Tyson, and brings the fight scenes back to the quick, decisive duels that made the first film stand out. None of Donnie Yen's 57 years of age are present during any of the fight scenes. He looks faster, smoother, and more in-control than many untrained actors more than half his age.

It's not just martial arts mastery that Donnie Yen excels at in Ip Man 4. With much of the screentime of the supporting cast from the other films cut down, or not available due to their characters passing away out of the story, Donnie Yen gives the best performance of the movie, with strong commendations also going to Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan who plays does a sharp, energetic job playing Bruce Lee (attention Mike Moh from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Tarrantino too: this is how you pay tribute to an Asian-American icon and a martial arts legend). The only thing is that Ip Man 4 misses the opportunity to put Bruce and Ip Man together in more of the movie, which feels like a let-down, because on some level, the entire series has been building up to this point to a degree.

The first thing that stood out to me about the trailer for Ip Man was how glaringly over-the-top and historically inaccurate the content of the movie seemed. Every single Ip Man installment has stretched the truth and bent the record on what's historically accurate, but one of the largest flaws of Ip Man 4 is how far they take this content in the series conclusion. If you know anything about the real Ip Man, or even just peruse his Wikipedia page before seeing the movie, the amount that they romanticize the truth starts to get distracting. Ip Man never set foot in the USA, and yet this film features him facing off against an extremely racist Gunnery Sergeant played by another martial arts screen legend: Scott Adkins.

Much of the plot points from Ip Man 2 are repeated: Ip Man moves to a new community where he was to prove himself to a council of Chinese Kung Fu elders that are skeptical of him, the leader of which becomes his close friend after a challenge match, and the villain of the film is a larger, racist, loudmouthed fighter from a foreign country that thinks that Asians, particularly Chinese people, are weak, and uses a strength-based fighting style in contrast to Ip Man's precise, speed-based that makes use of superior angles and leverage. In both films, the bully character either kills or severely hurts Ip Man's rival-turned-friend in a challenge match, and in both films Ip Man avenges his friend's loss by winning a hard-fought battle in front of a crowd of onlookers.

It's satisfying to watch a humble, kind, intelligent guy like Ip Man who just wants to mind his own business beat a loudmouthed, offensive bully to a pulp on one hand, but on the other, we've seen the series do this exact same story and structure before. After a certain point, you had to wonder why Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen didn't just choose to create an original character inspired by Ip Man, but change the name and some of the events so that it doesn't ignore real history so much. I wonder about people watching this very popular film series and getting the completely wrong impression about who Ip Man really was and what happened in his life. If you're going to go the historical-fantasy route, then really embrace it, and have a huge fight scene where Ip Man and Bruce Lee take on a huge gang of Triad thugs in Chinatown, because why not at that point? Either choose to be more realistic or completely embrace fiction, because when you stay in the middle, you get the feeling that the finale could've been more, which is exactly how Ip Man 4 will leave you feeling.

Crying Freeman

"Crying Freeman" won't make you applaud, but won't make you tearful either.
I'll start by saying this: Mark Dacascos is one of the most under-rated martial arts performers ever, usually playing someone's antagonist or sidekick. But speaking of kicking, the man is unbelievably talented as an on-screen martial artist, and has great screen presence as well. "Crying Freeman" based off the long-running famous Japanese manga/anime by Kazuo Koike is an odd 90's bit of shlock that attempted to make a star out of Dacascos, along with other 90s entries "Only the Strong" and "Drive" (spoiler alert: both are better movies than this).

The premise of Crying Freeman has potential, but is filled with quirkiness, and I can see why this movie never had a mainstream US release (aside from ordering a region-free DVD from specialty distributors, the movie has only been released in the US legally in 2018 on Amazon Prime Video, which is how I saw it). The ideas in it are a mixture of complex and rehashed, but based in manga motifs that only work questionably in a major film release. We have a story of a deadly hitman who used to be an award-winning...pottery artist (sure, okay), who witnessed a murder by the Chinese mafia and was then brainwashed (through acupuncture of all things!) into being an expendable murderer for the gang's next hit, but upon seeing his efficiency and skill, the mafia decides to keep him on-board and train him into being their number one assassin, supposedly able to be subconsciously commanded to kill at will, without hesitation due to his brainwashing. His true conscience and personality attempts to fight back and manifest despite his conditioning, and every time he takes a life or finishes a mission, Freeman uncontrollably sheds tears (hence the "crying" in the name, the "freeman" being an ironic, taunting nickname given to him by the gang, as he's anything but what that name implies).

There's interesting stuff there, and when a beautiful artist (named Emu? Is her mother "Ostritch? This is a name that should've been adjusted to "Emmy" or "Emma" in the live-action release, especially since they didn't use an Asian actress to play the role) who's the daughter of a government official witnesses one of his kills, he falls in love with her and starts to question his allegiance and fight back against his conditioning, resulting in him having to make a stand against his masters and deal with the effects of his rebellion throughout the crime world.

It all sounds decent on paper, but a mix of poor writing and odd production choices (probably due to budget constraints to give them the benefit of the doubt) keep Crying Freeman from achieving its potential. Director Christophe Gans clearly knows how to work a camera and has skill at making a shot: there's some legitimately good-looking shots and scenes in this movie, with quality locations at times. His other collaboration with Dacascos, the fun, genre-blending "Brotherhood of the Wolf" from the early 00s, demonstrates Gans' talents much more effectively. One of the major problems with Crying Freeman is an addiction to slooooow-mooootion, bringing every fight or action scene to a crawl. A lot of the worst hallmarks of 90s action are on display in Freeman: not just the slow motion, but also a protagonist who never needs to reload his weapons, uses unnecessary and energy-wasting gymnastics in the middle of fight scenes, can blind fire into groups of well-armed goons and effortlessly hit every single one of them lethally, and rarely ever taking cover in a firefight, despite bullets flying everywhere. There's several shots where it's established that an enemy has a clear line of fire at Freeman, and somehow, despite shooting, doesn't hit him.

Modern series like "John Wick" (that Dacascos would ironically go on to star in much later in his career, also as a Katana-wielding assassin) have made going back in time to watch action like this hard. Even back then, there were better-choreographed gun battles as seen in many Hong Kong-made John Woo films around and even before that time period, but the gun battles here haven't aged well. The tactics and strategies Freeman uses, who we're told time and again is a masterful assassin through dialog, are either basic or almost totally non-existent. Clearly, choreographing complex action wasn't a top priority.

It struck me as such an odd choice to have a world-class martial arts star cast in something that would have plenty of opportunity for fighting to happen, and then have so few moments where you have that star showcase his skills. Without surprise, the final where Emu (bawk, emus go 'bawk'?) and Freeman make their stand against hordes of Yakuza is the best part of the movie, allowing Mark Dacascos to really tear into the goons, even if it's too brief. Something else odd about this flick is how voice-dubbing is used. Tcheky Karyo, who played a wonderfully over-the-top, corrupt police commissioner in Kiss of the Dragon, bizzarely has his voice dubbed over by none other than "Hellboy" great Ron Perlman. Why not just cast Ron Perlman if you didn't like Karyo's accent? Or have Karyo's character be a French-national who's immigrated, explaining his accent? Apparently, Julie Condra who plays Emu was also dubbed over, and that makes sense since her whispery, almost softcore porn-style narration starts to grate on you about midway through the movie.

Between the cast, director, and concept, there was potential here. Speaking of the cast, the great, also underappreciated Bryon Mann shines in his supporting role as the cold, ruthless Koh, Freeman's main point of contact and handler for his missions. You also have a cameo from screen-legend Mako, made famous from Conan the Barbarian and the cartoon series Samurai Jack, so clearly the production was able to pull in some top-class talent. Crying Freeman was still enjoyable to me due to sometimes decent cinematography, a solid ambient soundtrack, my nostalgia for 90's cheese-fests, my love of anime and manga as a medium, and my fandom behind some of the cast, but that's me. Unless you're a Dacascos fan, a fan of the source material, or can find the fun in unintentionally funny action romps from this era, I would say that Crying Freeman is something that you can let slip by, but if you do end up seeing it, you won't be shedding tears, either. I give this time-capsule curiosity a 6 out 10. With some writing tweaks, a good cast, a solid choreographer, and a cameo for a now middle-aged Dacascos, a remake of Crying Freeman could do really well.

Creed II

Creed 2 is a solid follow up, but not quite a K.O.
"Creed" is a brilliant way to continue the long-running and often parodied "Rocky" saga. Creed 2 sees Apollo's son continue on in his journey to find his own path and establish his own legacy in the ring, and how that fits in with what his father did before him. Creed 2 has some solid developments in Adonis Creed and Rocky's story, and is filled with continuity and references to the entire Rocky series that longtime fans will appreciate, but the nostalgia-factor also hurts it to a degree as well.

If you've seen the other Rocky films, then you'll be able to tell right off the bat what's going to happen. To be fair, in the boxing genre, there's only so many things that can happen in the storyline that can make it interesting. After all, for the actual sport itself, there's only 3 outcomes: -win, -lose, -draw. The main draw of the Rocky/Creed franchise has always been *how* the main character gets to where he is, and what circumstances surround his life at the time of the fight, not whether or not he wins.

Creed 2 borrows the idea of the lead getting too comfortable and too soft from success, and having to deal with a physically larger, intimidating new challenger from Rocky 3, and it borrows the Drago characters, the protagonist's shift towards a new, more grueling training method, and cultural differences/tensions (although to a lesser degree) from Rocky 4. It's like a remix of them both with Creed in the lead, instead. I will say that if you're new to the franchise and don't realize that the series is referencing itself (Star Wars: Force Awakens, anyone?), you might get more out of the storyline than someone like me who's seen every entry in the series.

The cast carries Creed 2 along, and every single one of them delivers and knows what fans want from these beloved characters. The last Creed saw the dynamic of Rocky having to fight cancer, which contrasted with Creed building himself as a fighter, but this time there isn't quite as interesting of a driving conflict to push things along. It's interesting to see how Drago ended up, and there's a good attempt to show that Drago's son isn't as malicious or intentionally mean as his father, but because of that, the over-the-top rage and drama of Part 4 isn't there, but the more subdued drama of other entries of the series doesn't quite fill that void as well. There's talk of Creed needing to change his boxing style, but stylistically, we don't see him learning that many actually new techniques or new strategy in detail, like Rocky does in the other films when he adapts to new opponents. The training sequence in the desert is good, but as a boxing fan, I would've liked to see them break down his training more and show the audience Creed truly changing as a fighter. (Side note: while still in incredible shape and doing a great job overall, it might just be me, but it seemed like Michael B. Jordan's hands were faster in the first Creed, just my opinion.)

What's missing from Creed 2 is the touch of director Ryan Coogler. As seen from Black Panther, Coogler works really well with Michael B. Jordan, and the difference in feeling between both 1 and 2 is visible and tangible. It's a shame that Stallone himself couldn't direct Creed in Coogler's absence, since Stallone is the one who created these characters after all, and would presumably know them better than anyone else. The cast and their commitment to their parts, as well as the overall context within the Rocky story propel it further than being just average for me, but I would say that boxing-drama/Rocky fans will get the most out of this sequel, and that the more casual viewer could stick with the first Creed. The next Creed should make a plan to hit a little harder when it steps into the ring.

Robin Hood

2018 Robin Hood Misses the Mark
Ever since Christopher Nolan made a huge mark with Batman Begins in 2005, revitalizing a franchise that desperately needed a new, more serious direction for a serious character, Hollywood has been obsessed with "darker, grittier" re-imaginings of classic characters, especially since The Dark Knight made even more of a splash (and tons of money) a few years later, prompting Hollywood to go into a frenzy of reboots with a supposedly edgier, darker, more serious tone. Sure, that tone works for Batman, because of the nature of what kind of character Batman is, but does it work for every franchise?

Robin Hood ('18) suffers from a textbook case of Nolan-syndrome, where they're trying to make Robin Hood something he's not, trying to bring an intensity level that shouldn't be there, and not succeeding at any of it.

The start is extremely clunky, and I'm no expert in Robin Hood literature and lore, but I don't think he ever fought in the crusades. This angle and everything that comes with it is uneasy and not carried-out well, and it takes the film way too long for him to really feel like Robin Hood in earnest.

The action sequences are alright, there's some good moments in them here and there, and some of the supporting cast is pretty good, but one of the biggest issues with the movie is that it didn't convince me of the time period. From the language (Robin Hood actually says "redistribution of wealth". Did anybody talk that way in this time period?), to the clothes, to the shaky/non-existent accents of some of the actors, it just feels like a filmed version of an Universal Studios Orlando stunt-show, and not quite the spectacle and swashbuckling nature something like Robin Hood should inspire.

Robin Hood shouldn't be dark, overly serious, and murderous, and if you're going to make him that way, do it an interesting fashion, not like this. It's a total waste of the very charismatic Taron Edgerton's talents. He would've excelled as a more rougish and fun Robin Hood, and only has a few moments with which to do so in this version.

I saw this on a rainy day with nothing better to do and spent less than 5 dollars on it. That's about the only way this should be digested, and I have no plans on ever seeing it again. It's watchable if there's nothing else and you want to see some decent archery-action, but otherwise, I would say even the 70's Disney animated version is more true to the concept than this. Definitely not a bullseye.

What We Do in the Shadows

It's Impossible to Kill the Comedy At Stake in This Vampire Romp
The mid-00s saw the rise of reality-TV style comedies, chiefly with the popularity of the British and American versions of "The Office", which involved humor based around awkward situations, misunderstandings, and petty social drama rather than the more plot-driven style of a traditional sitcom. "What We Do in The Shadows" by New Zealand-based director Taika Waititi answers the absurd question of what if that dynamic and style was applied to vampires and the world of the supernatural?

Full disclosure: I'm not the biggest fan of horror in general (with some exceptions), and certainly not a fan of vampires. The vampire concept, its romanticization, and how seriously the vampire sub-genre takes itself has always made it a ripe target for satire and comedy, with Leslie Nielsen and Mel Brooks doing a great job of mocking it in "Dracula: Dead and Loving It". Waititi's project takes that same satirical spirit and plants it in the modern aesthetic, with plenty of hand-held camerawork and confessional cam scenes that you've seen on your favorite garbage reality shows.

It's expertly executed, and after close to a decade of vomit-inducing Twilight sequels and vampire fetishizing, sorely needed. "What We Do.." shows vampires from what's arguably the most realistic viewpoint ever seen on film, with daily (nightly?) routines filled with their own unique mundane frustrations and challenges, as well as social complications like who to convert to a vampire, and who to simply prey upon. You can tell watching it that the crew improvised a great deal, and the whole production has an organic, natural energy to it filled with fun. "What We Do" doesn't completely stilt itself on gags, goofiness, and satire though. It has surprisingly well-done special effects and gore scenes, and also draws effective portraits of all the characters, and develops them in their own silly, petty, and sometimes surprisingly endearing ways.

I think Taiki Waititi struck gold with this concept and applying such a pedestrian mood to what's supposed to be terrifying. It's not perfect, and towards the end of the second act of the film, at least on my first viewing, it began to drag and stretch a little, with the concept starting to wear thin in places. Luckily, there's enough of a story arc to bring you back in, and it wraps up neatly before it feels stale. Overall, even if you don't have the contempt and fatigue from vampires I do, even if you love them in fact, I would recommend "What We Do.." Because copies, homages, inspiration, and blatant rip-offs are so common in the film industry, one of the only things I'm worried about is other filmmakers, especially Hollywood-types, borrowing the concept from this production and trying to pass it off as clever and original, since no major Hollywood stars feature in "What We Do..." and it might not have as high of a profile. Or even worse, a remake. Now the thought of that is truly terrifying.


Wi-D'oh! ...Or Maybe Wi-don't!
Widows was marketed as an all-female slam-bang action/heist thriller, with some top-notch actresses in the cast (seasoned and newcomer alike), rounded out by other capable Hollywood regulars.

What you get is a 2 and half hour end product that feels like 3 and half, with completely meaningless plot twists and reveals, flashbacks within flashbacks (always such a welcome film device. We love needing a roadmap to keep track of where in the timeline of the story we are), and a seemingly endless parade of storylines, motivations, and subplots to keep track of. And is all of it worth it?

I didn't realize until coming on IMDB that Widows was a BBC miniseries, and that makes a lot more sense considering the amount of material and content the movie tries shoving into its runtime. Steve McQueen needs to take a cue from a health-conscious butcher and realize that leaner is better, and if you need a ton of content to tell your story, either choose a different medium than film, or spread out the ideas over more than one film.

There's moments of a good film in Widows. I won't go through the huge ensemble cast name by name, but it's filled with extremely talented performers who all have some legitimately good moments, but the focus of the storyline is so scattered and the rising action of the story so slow, with so little payoff, that it dulls a lot of what could have been some really stirring moments. In fact, the only reason I gave this title a 6 instead of an average-level 5 is because some of the movie's good scenes and the competent way (most of) the shots are set up earns it something.

It's always ambitious when movies try to tackle serious, socially important subject matter, and some of the greatest films of all time do that, so of course there's a place for it. But the priority of a filmmaker should always be to first make something watchable, smooth, coherent, and entertaining. Widows has a mostly heavy-handed approach to it's themes, with some of the commentary being distracting and out-of-place at times. As well-intentioned as the underlying content of Widows is, that doesn't mean it's delivered in a high quality way, and doesn't make up for its shortcomings.

At some points the drama and seriousness of Widows made me laugh (unintentionally), as well as how hard it attempts beating you over the head with who's right and who's wrong. But the highest prize of that order goes to Collin Farrell, who chews up the scenery with his sometimes-there attempt at..a Chicago accent? You can have fun spotting when he's trying it and when he's not, with the cream of the crop being when he barks: "I waaant dat munney" at another character. Solidly entertaining.

There were good ideas and great people involved, but Widows needs to consider re-marrying a sense of brevity. 6 out of 10.


Divisive Nic Cage Revenge Flick is Gorey Fun
I notice there's already a lot of reviews for Panos Cosmatos' "Mandy" on here already, and this is definitely a movie that's going to get a response from the audience, whatever that may be. If you look, many of the reviews are either 1/10 or 10/10, and not a lot of middle ground in between. The reason for this is because Mandy unashamedly commits to it's bizarre images, intense gore and violence, and it's own level of absurdity. I got the feeling the director and everyone involved knew what kind of movie they were making, and if that concept isn't clear to the person watching it, they're either going to enjoy it ironically or hate it outrightly, and I understand both responses to this movie. I can say one thing about this director: he really knows how to craft a memorable image. With psychedelic freakouts, Epilepsy-inducing flash-cuts, and even animation, Mandy has visuals that stick with you, but of course it's all hanging off a very thin skeleton of a plot, and barely any dialouge from one of the greatest scenery chewers in Hollywood history (although Cage fans will get their due more in his expressions, close-ups, and some other key moments.). It's as simple as a revenge plot can be, and it doesn't waste a lot of time with explaining things like how did Cage's characters find the occultist's, what are the villain's goals and motivations, or seemingly why any of this is happening. It's just not that kind of movie. This is a great warm up to Halloween, and clearly the director had a series of shocking, over-the-top scenes in mind, and strung them together as loosely and quickly as possible, while tossing in plenty of Grindhouse-style cheeze. I absolutely don't recommend this to families or anyone squeamish about violence or sex.

The Equalizer

Makes John Wick Look Realistic
"The Equalizer" is based off of an 80's TV show about an ex-spy/mercenary that helps people with problems that need to be solved outside the law, and while the movie ultimately sets this aspect up, most of the film just leads up to that point, and I have to assume isn't really connected that strongly to the show. Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua have worked together before in the memorable and very well-crafted "Training Day", but Equalizer shows that the people involved are only as good as the script, and that's where the weaknesses of this come into play, as well as some silly editing and scene-transitions. Middle-Aged Men action films are something of a sub-genre now after Taken, with multiple franchises and installments based around the concept, including the very popular John Wick series. You always use a jury of your peers, so John Wick is the peer to something like Equalizer, and is better because Wick established a stylized alternate world to our own and had well-practiced choreography without jump-cuts, edits, and slow-motion. Wick also got beaten up and ran out of ammo several times in the movie, and had to be saved by friends more than once; in short he was skilled but still human. Denzel's Robert McCall almost never expends a shred of effort, with planning skills that would make Batman look like a sloppy procrastinator. It's still fun for what it is, and Chloe Moretz, Martin Csokas, and the rest of the cast do a great job in their roles, but the movie gets more and more absurd as it goes in terms of how resourceful and skilled McCall is, to the point that he singlehandedly takes down a wing of the Russian Mafia, disrupting their entire operation in Boston, and then travelling to Russia and killing the kingpin, all without much effort (even though he does sustain a gunshot wound to the shoulder, which isn't a big deal to him). I love seeing heroes take on the bad guys, it's a great, timeless fantasy that can be very rewarding and inspiring if done well, but The Equalizer takes any suspense and drama out of the equation, and there's very little struggle on the part of the hero. Wick got outclassed in a hand-to-hand fight and James Bond routinely gets knocked around in his outings, but it's hard for me to root for a hero who at some point doesn't get taxed or pushed, no matter how resourceful they are. It's saved by Denzel's solid-as-always performance and the rest of the cast, but The Equalizer has material that has been way better by much better productions.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

ANT-tagonizing Crime, One Movie at a Time
Ant Man was a pleasant surprise for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, presenting a hero with a unique power in a film that was self-aware and knew its limits, being a fun, family-oriented blockbuster with genuine laughs and very creative action. Ant-Man and Wasp is exactly the same, just a lesser version of that, like the Diet Coke to regular, calorie-loaded but tastier Coke. The cast in this movie is what holds it together, every performance is solid, with especially high marks going to the overdue performance of Evangeline Lily as Wasp. Don't get me wrong, Paul Rudd is great as Ant-Man, but you can see the commitment flow off of Lily in her portrayal of one of Marvel's most classic heroines. She kicks butt with the enthusiasm of someone who's been waiting too long to do it. The supporting cast is hilarious, with Michael Pena, T.I. and Randall Park providing some firm laughs, and some great visuals in the subatomic world. Where it's really weak is in the story's main conflict and lack of a truly threatening villain. The newcomer Ghost has interesting and challenging powers, but her character is almost overly sympathetic, and Walton Goggins, while a good sleazy side-villain, doesn't really push the heroes either. The movie really needed someone to truly threaten the Pym/Lang families and come across as more dangerous. Perhaps a true villain who was manipulating Ghost could've added to it. The comedy is great, but there needed to be more action and fight scenes, especially with Ant-Man and Wasp using their powers together. There's glimpses of this, but after the mindblowing action seen in Infinity War, there needed to be more on display here. It does however open up some major potential storylines and elements with a few subtle scenes and the post-credit scenes, so don't miss this if you're strongly devoted to the MCU storyline. Otherwise, if you're not a MCU-devout or an especially big Ant-Man fan, you can wait to see this one.


Clever Bio-Tech Thriller with A Great Ending
Upgrade is the second movie about technology merging with the human body I've watched this year, and it does a great job of showing a plausible future of self-driving cars, bio-integrated weapons, and AI systems that aid the human body, like the main character has. What I thought was going to be a simple revenge-action flick with a sci-fi twist turned out to be one of the boldest sci-fi movies I've seen in a long time, complete with the great fight scenes and gorey action I expected. What makes the movie is the ending twist and the reveal, and the non-Hollywood course the film takes at the end, that I highly recommend. It's a well-constructed twist that doesn't stretch too far, it adds up when you go back and watch the movie again. Upgrade leaves the viewer wanting more from this cold look into the future, and I'm hoping they do continue the adventure with another installment.


Unsettling and Fascinating Look at the Future in Sci-Fi Murder Mystery
Anon features a world similar to ours, where personal information has become commodified, and everyone has an internet lens in their eyes, as well as processors in their mind, like the anime Ghost in the Shell. As technology becomes more and more advanced, it's hard not to believe that at some point tech won't merge with the human body in some way that seems scary to those of us who grew up before the internet. Anon features a great concept of hackers being able to manipulate people's personal tech, again, much like Ghost in the Shell, and commit various crimes by making themselves blind from the views of others. The way the technology and world is presented is very skillful, without tons of exposition, just allowing you the viewer to learn about the world shown in the way a movie should educate the viewer: by showing and not telling. Thankfully, there's no scene where some technician explains how the eye-lens and brain-tech works. Nobody in that world would look that up, how often do you look up how your microwave works? Do you even really know how it does, to an intimate level? Most sci-fi makes the mistake of having the characters explain things too much for the benefit of the audience in un-natural conversations. Anon's actual mystery component isn't stunning or extremely astounding, but it's worth a watch for the great performances, and how the future-tech intelligently figures into the story, and how it's presented. A solid watch.

The Outsider

Stick with a Real Yakuza Movie
White-Man-in-Japan is practically its own sub-genre of movies (James Coburn's Shogun, Black Rain, The Last Samurai, 47 Ronin, The Wolverine), and all of those movies I mentioned are better movies than The Outsider, which follows the same basic pattern as those movies, but with less interesting acting, set-scenes, characters, and motifs. If you've never seen a Yakuza movie before, or know nothing about them, this might be a decent introduction, but even then, you might as well stick with the works of "Beat" Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike, who have a better understanding of the culture and the ideas within. Political correctness aside, The Last Samurai is just a more well-made movie that embodies this concept with better action and a story that makes more sense, whether or not the white-visitor who masters-everything storyline is tired out or not. If you're going to do that concept, do a good job with it. This movie has an underwritten story with a main character that has no backstory, interesting traits, or motive, and is somehow not investigated or extradited back to the US despite being an AWOL soldier in post-WW2 Japan. They dangle a possibly interesting plot-thread with a former member of his unit wondering if he's in Japan to escape a court-martial, and do nothing with it, just like how nothing is done with the good actors, sets, and costumes, which are all fine. I tried giving The Outsider a chance, but there's better WMiJ movies out there, better Yakuza films, and better Jared Leto and Tadanobu Asano performances out there.

Avengers: Infinity War

Latest MCU Flick a Gem in Marvel's Gauntlet
It's a general rule that if you invest more time into something, the more you'll get out of it. This could apply to studying, cooking, maybe a good solid nap, or a good video game. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is no exception. Anyone who knows me even in a casual sense can tell you I'm pretty into Marvel Comics. I can still remember all the way back to the early 90's (all the way back, because, I guess it was a long time ago now) when it was a combination of friend's comics, a few select arcade games, and those awesome trading cards that had character stats on them that first infected me with the Marvel bug. I remember seeing that art and the style, and what the characters represented, and what really blew my mind as a youngling was when I realized that not only were these characters incredible, amazing, and mighty in their own right, but that they knew each other! These guys are a part of a whole universe!! I think that realization was maybe my first time that I experienced a story with an over-arcing lore. Stuff that was read to me by my parents as a kid, The Little Engine that Could, or Peter Cottontail, didn't feature outlandish team ups where everything was on the line (not that I'd necessarily be opposed to Clifford the Big Red Dog and The Berenstein Bears teaming up to knock the stuffing out of evil aliens). I think one of the rewarding parts of a whole universe like Marvel, and their contemporaries, is the sense of reward that the fans feel when they see characters that have their own self-contained franchise and world meet each other and work together. To someone outside of the know, it just looks like a band of superheroes, big deal, right? But to fans, you're seeing characters that have their own harrowed origins, unique powers and motivations, supporting casts, and mythology interact with other characters who are their equals, their peers, and have all of those same elements as well. When you center that kind of team-up around very, very high stakes, like the fate of an entire city, or maybe the world, or possibly, even further, all of the universe and known reality, the excitement and scale of the fictional world that these characters inhabit takes on a whole other level of importance and depth. But how do you communicate something like that in a movie, where you have a limited amount of screen time, actors with restrictive schedules, and budgets to balance? I'm sure that for most of film history, something like the Marvel Universe, in its scale and entirety, was considered something strictly for printed, comic book material. You can see in past comic book films that studios that owned the rights to a whole universe of characters never had them meet, never thought of their headliner superheroes meeting each other, and how that would operate. In the past 10 years, Marvel Studios, in conjunction with a few other distributors until they could finance, film, and distribute movies on their own, has become a giant in the entertainment industry, and it's all because of that same idea and concept that drew me to this world when I was in kintergarden. The right minds at Marvel Studios realized that bigger picture, the overall story, was what mattered, and that if it could be communicated properly, would be something that would change superhero storytelling on screen forever. We thought that everything had changed back when Avengers first came out in 2012, after about 5 and 1/2 years of build up, and that with the follow ups, things had changed even more, but I can definitively tell you that after Infinity War, there's truly no going back. There's often a lot of talk that the superhero genre is going to burst like a bubble at some point, like Westerns and the macho-action films of the 80's and 90's, which is still possible, but fans of the genre and characters should be grateful that Infinity War has been released before that point. After the great reception and revitalization that the well received Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther movies generated, Marvel couldn't have timed this latest entry any better. With this being the 19th overall entry into the series, Infinity War keeps the energy alive in the saga by addressing some of the criticisms that often gets levelled at the MCU by impatient critics and people who might not be as familiar with the overall story: that the stakes aren't high enough, the villains aren't threatening and compelling enough, and that there aren't any consequences for the main characters, that they're insulated and protected to keep the franchise going. One of my main concerns about the MCU since the first Avengers, is that since there's so many moving parts in the saga, how would Thanos be handled and introduced? In the 6 years since he first appeared post-credits, we haven't seen a whole lot of action and development from him as a character. He's a looming background presence, and despite being teased and established in a very basic, general way, we haven't really seen much from him, despite having the opportunity. I'm relieved to be able to say that any worry I had about his authenticity is gone. Thanos is one of the most dynamic, ruthless, yet also fascinating villains in the series and for all of comic book movies yet. Josh Brolin's matter-of-fact and stoic delivery, occasionally dipping into a few surprisingly heartfelt moments, really ties the movie together. The CGI on Thanos captured his expressions, overwhelming power, and menace very well, he blended right in with the cast for me. One could almost say that Infinity War was really about the journey and development of Thanos as a character, and that The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Wakandan tribe are really just obstacles for him that he needs to get past, to accomplish a goal that while sounding insane and vicious, has justification from his point of view. The movie does a great job of taking a character who could so easily be a cardboard cut-out of a villain, evil and cruel just for the sake and fun of it, and makes him into a guy that, yes, while definitely all of that, has a reason for doing what he's doing. It doesn't have to make rational sense, but that his motivations are present and well-illustrated in a few scenes makes him dynamic. Despite how flawed and disgusting they are, even the worst despots from their point of view have some kind of reason for doing what they do, and delivering on that aspect was crucial, and makes Thanos a very engaging villain for us to watch. I now understand that the early movies set the stage for who you thought was going to be a madman of great strength but little character, and then surprised you with a bit more depth once he finally made his anticipated entrance. I can see why the Russo Brothers were chosen to direct this entry, Joss Whedon brought the team together skillfully in the first installment, but I think his peppy dialouge and lingering on petty conflicts, while perfect for the very first time the team has to work as one, wouldn't have worked for a conflict and story on this scale. The Russo Brothers balanced those inter-personal relationships with a huge, multi-faceted story in Civil War, and were brought back to do the same on a level 10 times bigger than before. (Side note: way to rep for Ohio, boys!!!)I won't talk a whole lot about what I thought of each individual character and actor's performance of them, or the action scenes, the powerful emotional moments, or affects, which are all more or less completely spectacular. Infinity War is long, and this only part 1, and there's just too much to address in this review about all of those topics, this would become a long, long essay. Just know that the huge multitude of relationships are handled well as long as you the viewer know these characters, understand how they fit together, and are able to keep track of what their importance to the overall plot is. I'd be interested in the take of a first-time viewer, who watched the end result of a decade of cinematic storytelling, and wonder if they thought it was worthwhile or not. I can certainly tell you that this experience is mainly for those who've invested the same time and energy into this saga that the creators themselves have, and are arriving at this journey after all this time. It's tough for me to view Infinity War as a stand-alone movie, to judge it completely on its own merits, because in my opinion I think that's wrong. I think that's unfair to the design of the story itself, and while I know that there are critics and people out there that will do this (which they're completely valid in doing), it's tough for me to, but I'll try. I do think that it bounces around a lot and the pace can be fast sometimes, but shouldn't it get a pass for this? It has to cram so much into its nearly 3 hour runtime, and even that was split from it being 6 hours with the second part (if anyone from the studio is watching, I would gladly, gladly watch a cinematic re-release of the full cut with intermissions peppered in like they did back in the day). The fast pace and character juggling in a standalone movie without context would be terrible if this were our first time getting to know these characters, but it's not, this movie is a collection of multiple threads that have been established for years, with its own over-arcing narrative thrown in as well. So while I'll take just a few points off for some scenes that I think could've breathed more, or times where I think it brushed past something a bit quickly, again, take that with a grain of salt, because those criticisms come from trying to look at I.F. as its own movie, when really it's a summary of what came before, and I would posit that looking at the movie that way would be the viewer simply digesting the material wrong. I give everyone at Marvel Studios a huge hand for making something for the fans.

Black Panther

Marvel's Trip to Wakanda is an Outstanding Ride
Clocking in as the 18th Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to date, Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman might make some moviegoers wonder that in a series this widespread and ongoing, how could the magic still be there? I feel that the key to Marvel's success is in offering what you expect in a superhero movie: amazing visuals, great characters, thrilling action and storylines, but also something unexpected.

Each of Marvel's huge successes takes the standard superhero story and merges it with another genre or style: Captain America was a World War 2 superhero film, its sequel was a spy/espionage-flavored hero flick, Spider-Man: Homecoming was a teen coming-of-age story with superheroics, Ant Man was a goofy heist comedy with heroics, Thor and Dr.Strange are fantasy mixed with the superhero mantle, etc. It gives each of the characters their own vibe, flavor, and niche they represent, and this even extends to the Netflix material. You never feel like you're watching more of the same even though the MCU and related material now spans hundreds of hours of content.

Black Panther carries on the this tradition by merging the superhero genre with a royalty-themed drama. Michael B. Jordan who plays the film's main villain, called it "Marvel's Game of Thrones" in an interview, and you can see why after watching. Black Panther also has themes of how to balance power on a worldwide scale, and how national superpowers can interact with other countries, if they should at all. If that all sounds like maybe it's not quite what you expected, or maybe a bit too political and not action packed enough, do a 180 and think again: Black Panther has all that great content packed up with absolutely beautiful visuals and kick ass action that bring the fictional nation of Wakanda to life.

Unlike something like Spider-Man or Daredevil, most of Black Panther's stories don't take place in anything close to modern American/first world life, so on top of introducing characters, crafting a story, and bringing it to a balanced and satisfying conclusion, the movie also had to introduce non-comic reading (the majority) audiences with what kind of nation Wakanda is, its history and culture, and what makes it so powerful. The movie manages to give you all this information on how Wakanda figures into the rest of the MCU and why we're only just now hearing about them in the story (although there were little hints at it earlier, aside from Age of Ultron, watch Iron Man 2 again!), and make that not just background information about the movie's setting, but an important part of the plot. T'Challa has to decide whether to keep Wakanda and it's technological marvels hidden from the rest of the world, or use his power and influence to help other countries in need, even if it risks invasion.

Marvel fans saw accomplished stage and film actor Chadwick Boseman play Prince T'Challa before in the excellent Civil War, so we already knew going in even from that performance that he'd deliver bigtime, and you get more of the same measured, wise, skilled, but occasionally fun-loving character we already saw. Helping him out is a great supporting cast including Danai Gurira (popular from The Walking Dead) as General Okoye, Forest Whitaker as royal advisor Zuri, a hilarious, smart mouthed and trolling-heavy performance from Letitia Wright as Shuri, T'Challa's sister, and Golem performer Andy Serkis as the villainous arms dealer Klaw, and Michael B. Jordan as the villainous Erik "Killmonger" Stevens, amongst other great cast members that contribute to a story that brings the classic Black Panther stories written by Jack Kirby, Christopher Priest, and others to life. You could tell all of the cast and crew had passion for the project and wanted to deliver something memorable.

Speaking of the cast and story, it's the story of the villain, Killmonger, that really made this stand out for me. I was already excited and aboard the hype-train for sure, but was prepared for reality in case the movie let me down. Marvel has been criticized for its villains before, and how they don't measure up to other great film villains, but in several past installments, we've had villains with strong motivations, and between Vulture and Killmonger, we've seen some of this decade's best villains in comic book movies yet. Some critics are even going so far to say that Killmonger is on the level of Heath Ledger's Joker, and I have to say, his character nearly steals the movie with his well constructed backstory and well-developed motivations. Before he does something particularly heinous, you might even find yourself almost rooting for him after you find out why he's doing what he's doing.

The soundtrack to the film also has its own identity, with typical orchestral instruments being swapped out for African influenced instruments that were studied and recorded in their home environment by Ludwig Goranson, the composer. Royal trumpets and pounding drums accompany T'Challa when he starts laying down the might of the Panther on fools, a sharp female-led chant backs up General Okoye when she starts flinging her spear, and whenever Killmonger shows up, due to his American upbringing, you get a threatening, pounding orchestral hip-hop beat that is in my opinion good enough to be sampled by a major artist (speaking of major artists, Kendrick Lamar's original tracks he contributes to the soundtrack also help jazz up a few sequences and the end credits). Along the same line, the costumes and design of Wakanda transport you to a world as rich as any fantasy movie, or any of the other incredible locations in the now wide Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With stunning visuals, fantastic action, and an ending that really makes you understand what T'Challa is about and what sets him and Wakanda apart from other superhero material, I think Black Panther is towards the top of MCU films. The one major criticism I can give it is going to be a spoiler, so please, if you haven't seen it yet, consider the review done, and go enjoy the movie. If not, scroll lower, and read my comments.

The one change I would've made to Black Panther would be to save both of its main villains for future installments, much in the same way Loki from the Thor films has crossed over into other properties and hung around for a while now in the MCU, or how Wilson Fisk is still a factor in the Netflix shows. Marvel has to acknowledge its good villain problem, and they did too good of a job crafting Killmonger, and to a lesser extent Klaw, who was still funny and interesting as well, to just kill them both off in their first outing. Killmonger uses Klaw's body as a token to enter Wakanda, but what if he faked his death and then revived Klaw, forcing Panther to fight them both in the end? That might've been interesting, and then have them both jailed to see justice for their crimes, so that they can be used in the series again. Both of them, but especially Killmonger, are such rich characters that it almost felt like a shame to cut them out of the franchise so soon. But that's how it goes, and as is, their deaths serve the story and are memorable.

Proud Mary

Decent Saturday Afternoon Light-Action Flick
I saw Proud Mary on a friend's dime on a lazy, rainy Saturday afternoon in February when I had nothing else going on. It's exactly that kind of movie, not the type of thing you want to make an event out of and spend top dollar to see. I had previously seen one teaser for it months ago, and all I knew about it was that it starred Taraji P. Henson and had her kicking butt, and that was really all I needed to get interested in it. I would personally recommend waiting until it comes out on streaming, DVD rental, or TV, it's not worth bigtime theatre money.

I say this because although Taraji is excellent in every scene she's in, carrying the movie, the whole movie seems to have been constructed around the climactic shootout set to the classic Tina Turner song the movie is named after. It's like the filmmaker or writer had that idea, and then worked in reverse, making a story around it. It borrows shades from Leon the Professional with Jean Reno and Natalie Portman, but with the genders reversed: Mary is a hitwoman taking care of an at-risk boy in a bad situation, and has to go through hell to take care of him. The young actor playing him, Jahi Winston, definitely has a future in show business if he wants it, he's quick witted, snappy and fun to watch, and the movie cuts Mary and his interactions way too short, they start to hint at them getting along and developing their dynamic, but then the movie speeds along past it.

One of the reasons Leon carried out its concept so well is that Matilda wasn't just "a kid", she had very specific interests and hobbies like an actual little kid, we get a peek into what she likes and doesn't like, and an idea of what kind of kid she is. In Proud Mary, we know that Winston's character Danny has had a tough life, and gone through a lot, but we don't see or learn much about him as a kid. He has good one-liners, but what does he like? What does he want to do? Leon also developed, well, Leon. He loved taking care of plants, he had a specific philosophy and approach towards carrying out hits and assassinations, we learn a little about Mary, but the movie doesn't make enough use of Taraji P. Henson's great abilities as an actress. The fact she's so watchable with a character that isn't that fleshed out is a testament to her talents.

The final thing Leon had that this flick doesn't: capable, threatening, and memorable villains. Gary Oldman was odd and menacing as a drugged out corrupt cop, and had a whole squad of wacked-out goons with their own signature quirks and appearances. The crime family that Mary works for is fairly generic, without a specific goal or type of service/product mentioned they supply, we know they're involved with "drugs", but that's about all we learn about their business. Danny Glover is not bringing his A-game as the family head, and has one fairly decent scene, which even then doesn't quite have the impact it should considering the stakes.

Overall, it's an entertaining weekend afternoon flick if you want to pass some time, but not worth a big investment in, which is a shame, because it's a huge missed opportunity. The movie is filled with missed opportunities, starting with a slick, stylish 70's inspired intro, but not a return to that style afterwards. They set up a great conflict with her gang rival and ex-lover Tom, but then it gets resolved far too easily. If any character in the movie should've been a formidable opponent for her it was him, as ex-lovers, they had a lot of issues and baggage that could've lead to a great end battle where maybe the kid could've help save her. The only thing that keeps from rating Proud Mary as completely average is the final action sequence and Taraji's performance. Here's hoping that if they make a sequel, it's more intense, or perhaps she'll get cast in another action-oriented role.


Early Entry from The Wachowskis Has Its Moments, But Doesn't Age Well
Assassins is one of the numerous 90's action films featuring a very important disc with highly sensitive information that sets off a string of action, lots of shootouts, and technology and computer scenes that viewed now are quite amusing.

I would give it a 5.5 if I was able, as the Stallone/Banderas thriller has it's moments, and the promise of what was to come from The Wachowskis a few short years later is visible, but apparently the script was meddled with by a third writer and studio influence, and maybe that explains some of the odd character choices and plot holes.

The idea of rival assassins has potential, and the movie does predict things like the use of texting (even if it's done over laptop) and wiring money over the internet. Where it goes wrong is in the details of what exactly the disc that Julianne Moore's character even has on it, and maybe I didn't pay enough attention, but the movie should've done a better job of making me care and presenting the idea more clearly. However I don't really think I was supposed to think about that when I watched it.

Stallone is fine as the hit-man Robert Rath, but the character would've worked better with an older, less musclebound actor. Stallone now, even would be fine, but the character is written like a tired old vet, and Stallone is clearly still in excellent shape here. Banderas is way over-the-top, chewing scenery, and even though the point is that he's supposed to be less patient, it's hard to buy someone this reckless would be the number 2 assassin in the world. Julianne Moore is an amazing actress, yet they cast her in a part that plays like a female anime character (considering The Wachowskis, maybe this was on purpose). If she were played by a younger actress, her character would make sense, or if they had changed her character to cater to Julianne Moore's talent, and to be less of a voyeuristic weirdo who literally spray paints people (in one of the heavy handed political moments in the movie, there are a few). I don't even totally disagree with the views presented, but these scenes have literally nothing to do with the story and take away from your engagement.

Overall, with better, more sensible characters and some clean-up work on the writing, Assassins could've been an action classic, there's still some decent shootouts and set-moments, but as it stands, it's just decent. Again, there's better work, concepts, and ideas from every single person in this production.

Bad Santa 2

Fun Companion Piece for Fans of The Original
2003's Bad Santa is the ultimate irreverent Christmas movie. If you're burnt out on sappy, overly sweet joy around the holiday season, the dark, raunchy, unashamedly politically incorrect content of the first is the perfect antidote to that. The original also had great performances and a story with some actual heart to it in the end.

The sequel, strangely made over a decade later, is more of the same, just not quite as fresh, without as much meaning and heart in it, but still entertaining, especially if like me, you're a fan of the original.

The story, following down-on-his luck deadbeat safecracker Willie Soke, kind of tarnishes the happy ending of the original, and in a way undoes a lot of the character development that Willie went through. It's kind of a back-to-square one opening that resets the story to the place of the original, which is more or less what this installment is.

I knew that going in and enjoyed some of the foul lines and funny situations, but the original had the support of (unfortunately deceased) gifted performers such as Bernie Mac and John Ritter, both very skilled comedians for Billie Bob to play off of, even Ajay Naidu from Office Space making a cameo.

The sequel features Oscar Winners Octavia Spencer and Kathy Bates, as well as Mad Men alumni Christina Hendricks, as well as returning cast members Tony Cox and a grown Brett Kelly, who looks more or less the same just slightly taller. Bates does well as Soke's mother, but the addition of her character to the story sort of feels like the concept getting stretched, which is what this entire movie is.

Although still funny, a segment in the film that features a heist of a high-priced estate feels forced and tacked on into the plot, seemingly an excuse to repeat the scene from the original with the kids sitting on Santa's Lap, with Willie confused and disgusted by what they ask for.

A lot of the movie is like this, and it suffers from not having the indie-film feel that Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff brought to the original. It feels a bit more stripped down and an imitation of that style, and like I mentioned earlier, it just doesn't have the same heart.

I would more or less only recommend this if you've seen the first multiple times and like it, and really want to see more of Willie and his messed up friends, like I did. If you've never seen either, see the original, and if you only thought it was fun for that one time watching it, you should probably leave it at that.

I definitely hope that in another 13 years, we don't get yet another Bad Santa. I can't really figure out why they decided to wait so long after the feeling and interest of the original died down to do this, but the concept and idea is officially stretched as far as it can go. The talent on display and some of the genuinely funny laugh lines in this keep this from being firmly average.

Yip Man 3

Ip Man 3 is Perfect for Donnie Yen or Martial Arts Fans, Offers Little To Casual Viewers
Martial arts movie superstar Donnie Yen has returned for the third entry in the now famous "Ip Man" film series, loosely based off the life of the titular historical Wing Chun Gung Fu master.

I consider the first "Ip Man" to be one of the finest martial arts films ever made, with Yen partnering with the direction of Wilson Yip (who has also directed Yen in numerous other excellent movies) and a great cast to make a genuinely well crafted story that compliments effective, intricate, and brutal fight scenes.

Flashing forward 7 years after the original, the third film has all of those aspects in the fight scenes, but lacks the heart and storytelling of the first. The second Ip Man film was held back by some very exaggerated wire-work (which was refreshingly largely absent in the first) and a much more over-the-top story, but was still overall coherent.

It's not to say that Ip Man 3 doesn't have some good aspects. The sets and locations of the late 50's Hong Kong it's set in look fantastic, giving some great set pieces to stage the fights around. Again, the choreography is outstanding, with some truly memorable fights, including one scene where Ip Man defeats an attacker all the way from the top to ground floor of a building before the elevator holding his wife lets out. This is just one of many fantastic fight sequences in the movie.

The movie falters in it's confusing storyline, which at times feels like 2 or 3 movies spliced together, with one of the main villains (played awkwardly by an out of place looking face-tattooed Mike Tyson, who speaks bizarre broken Chinese) never getting real consequences for his actions, and with the conclusion of the movie being extremely rushed, the story arc with his sick wife not being given nearly enough time to breathe. The conflicts in the first Ip Man, especially when he takes on the 10 men in the Japanese compound, are much more easily understood, and time was spent on making them matter. This is what the third movie doesn't get. The fighting needs to be surrounded by a well crafted and focused story.

Another huge missed opportunity is the lack of screen time dedicated to Ip Man's most famous disciple: Bruce Lee. Young Bruce Lee appears very briefly in two cameo scenes, and despite being teased with their interaction for two movies (The first Ip Man was marketed as being about "Bruce Lee's teacher" and the second featured Bruce as a very young child at the end), they have virtually no substantial content with Bruce in the movie, not even as a background character. What perplexed me is that they have a student character learning from Ip Man, following him the whole movie, who could've easily been written as Bruce Lee instead. Why would they not capitalize on one of the most interesting parts of Ip Man's legacy? Bruce Lee is arguably still the most well known martial artist of all time, and being featured as a significant character would've risen the profile of the movie, as well as allowed for some fun interactions with his master.

Donnie Yen is once again shines as Ip Man however, and his performance is even more controlled than ever, with even his movements showing the degree of mastery that he has over his art and himself. You truly believe and buy him as the essential martial arts master. Lynn Hung as his wife returns in her tragic role, great as usual, with comedic actor Kent Cheng again doing well as Sargent Po. Newcomer to the Ip Man films Jin Zhang really stands out with brutal and intense fight scenes, unfortunately being overshadowed by the messy plot.

Overall, if you're not a martial arts fan or a Donnie Yen fan, there's very little about Ip Man 3 that will grab you, with the first film being the most accessible and high quality to all audiences, as it is a genuinely well made film, regardless of the martial arts in it or not.

For having little substance outside of it's excellent fight scenes, Ip Man 3 gets a 6 out of 10.

Batman: The Killing Joke

DC Animated's Killing Joke Absolutely Not For Fans of Novel
(Warning: This review contains spoilers about the story, especially for those who haven't read the source material.)

DC Animated productions, mostly headed up by the fantastic Bruce Timm, have had a series of hits, with great animated films such as Batman: Under The Red Hood, Batman: Year One, Flashpoint, Justice League: Crisis on Infinite Earths, and more. Even some of their generally lesser efforts are entertaining and still enjoyable.

Timm also worked on the great Justice League animated series, Batman: Beyond, and of course the original Batman: The Animated Series, which helped pave the way for all of DC's animated productions.

It goes without saying that Bruce Timm knows the Batman character and what drives him, and what Batman stories need to be told, so that's why this recent adaptation of Alan Moore's classic 80's graphic novel: The Killing Joke, is such a disappointment.

If you haven't read the Killing Joke, do yourself a favor, and go ahead and do that now, if you're in any way a fan of the Batman character. It's not the most comfortable read, but gives insight to how dark the world of Batman is meant to be.

The Killing Joke features a great misunderstanding of the themes of the story, and a lackluster and dull set of production values to go along with that thematic miss.

The animation is the first thing that turned me off to this piece. Unlike the fluid fight scenes and lush colors of The Dark Knight Returns, or the sharp, defined shapes of Under the Red Hood, The Killing Joke has awful character designs and flat, bland colors, with vehicles rendered in a 3D that looks like bad Playstation 1 graphics. None of the fight scenes, which are often a crowning achievement for DC animated, have any intensity or true kinetic action to them. Whenever the characters are still, you can truly see the lack of detail in the designs, which makes the characters look very plain.

As far as the story, the movie takes the worst possible turn you could by adding a whole 30 minutes of story and background centered around Batgirl that is plodding, dull, and feels like a totally different story and style than when they arrive at the Alan Moore material over halfway into the movie. They use direct dialouge from the Alan Moore material, some of which felt awkward and strange-sounding spoken aloud, especially contrasting with the much different sounding dialouge of the first act of the movie. One of the spoilers I'll mention here is this clunky first act ending in Batgirl having a totally out of place sex scene with Batman. I gave up hope on enjoying this animated film at that moment, since I knew they had totally departed from the comic book's vision of the story, already muddling the story with irrelevant events, and then making it worse by confusing the relationship of two of the characters.

Batman and Batgirl have a parental relationship, like between him and Robin, where he mentors, trains, and sometimes keeps her in check, as Batman is an uncompromising character who always does things his way. This scene served no purpose in the story, and makes it seem as if he's going after the Joker because Barbara is his lover, not because of the tragic events that happen.

On top of all of this, I didn't feel that the original novel's ambiguous ending translated to an animated format. They didn't build the tension of anything that happened in the movie, it all just kind of came and went.

Even the fantastic voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill don't really have the same usual enthusiasm here. They still have a great sound for the characters, but the intense feeling you get from hearing those portrayals at their best, in past material, just wasn't here. I have to say that especially Kevin Conroy felt like he was phoning it in, which pains me to say as he is the definitive Batman voice in my opinion. The rest of the voice cast is forgettable, with some especially stilted lines from the actor playing Gordon, who's supposed to go through some very serious, harrowing events here. It's a shame that Bryan Cranston wasn't available again for the role.

Overall, the poor animation, terrible and blundering writing, and the mediocre voices contribute to a very dull and flat telling of what should be a dark, disturbing, and uncompromising Batman story. What we're left with in return is a product that makes me think this story really should be left in the comics.

Batman: The Killing Joke gets a 4 out of 10, only for the continued commitment of Conroy and Hamill. Let's hope that this isn't their final work together in these parts.

John Wick

Simple, Yet Effective; If Well Shot Action is What You Like, John Wick Delivers
John Wick is a simple action story with elements that we've all seen before, and nothing about it is groundbreaking or particularly intriguing in terms of the story or performances, so if you cannot value an action film for its set pieces, choreography, and stunt work, then this film isn't for you.

For action fans, I would definitely recommend it, the camera work is still yet dynamic, and allows us to see a great view of the action while not obscuring anything that happens. All of the action scenes are quick, to the point, brutal, and have consequences for all characters involved. John Wick isn't presented as invincible, just highly skilled and lucky. His character has been out of the assassination game for over 5 years, and that makes Keanu Reeves playing the part a bit more of an easier pill to swallow. Although I might want to bite my own tongue here, because for a man nearing 50, he carried out every scene to the letter and in my opinion was more tough and convincing than he ever was in any of The Matrix films here.

I saw influence from another great 00's action flick, The Man from Nowhere, which if you haven't seen but enjoyed this, I would highly recommend.

John Wick has a lot of style, the locations are spectacular, I often found myself asking "Where did they find this place?" Gorgeous Victorian and old school architecture to high tech modernized homes, you really feel that you've covered a lot of ground watching this. Another element of the style is the world it takes place in. It's a very stylized, slick graphic novel type alternate reality, where coded language, an honor code amongst assassins, and even secret resources and hotels for them is all the norm.

The film doesn't treat any of this as strange and takes you along into this bizarre world, revealing more and more at a time, while including things such as John Wick running out of ammo multiple times to keep it refreshingly grounded.

Again, in terms of writing, story, or acting, this isn't a critic's dream. I saw this with a friend on a lazy Saturday morning after having some Waffle House, I feel that is exactly how this movie is meant to be enjoyed.

As an added note, as a martial artist myself, I appreciated the use of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu on film, most movie fight scenes are 90% striking based and are afraid to show ground and grapple work. Good on them for not being shy of it.

John Wick gets a 7 out of 10 for slick, well choreographed action and a quirky, dark humour sheen, complete with a high body count.

Gap tung kei hap

Iceman Is Lukewarm At Best
Donnie Yen is in my opinion the best martial arts movie-star out there right now, especially since Jackie Chan and Jet Li have slowed down and Tony Jaa is only just now getting off to a shaky start with the poorly reviewed Tom Yum Goong 2.

That being said, it's a major disappointment that Donnie Yen's latest, "Iceman", is a miss for the now middle aged (not that you can tell) martial arts master.

Iceman is directionless, confusing, poorly paced, and makes very poor use of Donnie Yen's truly impressive and astonishing martial arts skills. The script is a fish out of water/man out of his time type story, that we've seen before, with nothing new to offer. Some other reviewers have drawn comparisons between this and the Marvel Comics character Captain America, and I can assure the only similarity is that both are frozen men who wake up in different time periods. Rip Van Winkle is the same story but is that also similar?

No, Iceman is in a league of it's own poor storytelling, a remake of a previous film with the same premise from the 80's, this rehash has totally juvenile humour that always misses it's mark, a contrived love story, and a main character capable of ridiculous things with little to no explanation. Captain America is at least explained to have a DNA altering serum in his body, learning Kung Fu doesn't make you superhuman.

They don't even make good use of the fish-out-of-water story and Yen's character adjusts to modern times with ridiculous ease and little incident. Granted, some of the humor may have been lost in translation for me, however I'll say that other foreign comedies, like those of the great Stephen Chow, are always great for a laugh in my book.

Absolutely don't go into this thinking you'll see Donnie Yen kick any kind of butt in major degree, the few fight scenes this movie does have are poorly constructed, filled with bad CGI, and nothing new or close to his potential.

Iceman is like the ice-age altogether, worth avoiding.

Force of Execution

Seagal Does His Usual, Shows Off Bren Foster but Hurts His Career
Pretty much the only good thing about this movie is rising star Bren Foster, real life Tae Kwon Do champion with experience in numerous other martial arts. Foster had previously starred alongside Seagal and Stone Cold Steve Austin in the hokey Maximum Conviction, but in that film, Foster only did literally one kick I believe, and in this film, we get to see more impressive work from him.

They obviously wanted to make him the main character, but skirted embracing that fully, and focus too much on Seagal and Rhames, muddling up the focus of the movie and making Foster feel like more of a side-character than the hero he should be.

That's only the tip of the iceberg with the problems of the film, as it is filled with totally absurd plot holes and goof nonsense. The editing, cuts, transitions, and even the lighting in many scenes is totally off.

Seagal puts on a ridiculous husky Southern accent that fades in and out, and the actions of his character don't really make much sense. For his top hit-man making one mistake in 15 years, he near cripples him, disabling his fingers for most of the movie, leading to one of the most absurd parts of the film, Danny Trejo's short order cook character using ancient South American sorcery involving scorpions to rehabilitate Foster's character. Later on in the film, despite having earlier condemned him to a great deal of pain, Foster and Seagal's character have no bad blood between them, and instantly are friends again.

Ridiculous moments like these are just a small example of how the character interactions in Force of Execution don't make sense. Ving Rhames actually does some good monologues and has a decently threatening presence as a gangster, confined by the movie's awful script. While I'm happy Bren Foster is appearing in more movies and getting more fight scenes, he needs to get out of Seagal's films, he'll be straight-to-DVD material before he can even break out. Jenny Gabrielle is also good as waitress who gets pulled into the fiasco that is the movie's plot, but doesn't get much time to do a whole lot.

This could've been a standard action film focused on Bren Foster's character, Jenny Gabirelle, and Danny Trejo as the charming cook, with just Ving Rhames as the villain, but Seagal and the horrible writing and filmmaking choices bring it down well below average. All that's left is the fight scenes with Foster, a few throw away tough guy lines, and some hilarious so-bad-it's good moments.

I wouldn't recommend unless you're able to appreciate schlocky cinema, or enjoy watching how much more silly Seagals' career can get, like I do.

√Čvocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie

Bizarre Animation Filled Documentary Tells Story of Bizarre Argument Filled Show
I had never heard of Morton Downey Jr. before this documentary, having been in diapers when it was on the air, and from the impression this documentary gave, I'm glad I was. Downey's show pre-dated the Jerry Springer madhouse-style talkshows that are fairly ubiquitous now and were absolutely huge in the mid-90's. Morton Downey's show only lasted a few years and was before the cusp of that type of T.V. becoming popular, it was well ahead of it's time.

One of the interviewees in the movie mentions, I think accurately, that it was America's first taste of the blatant rudeness and confrontation that reality TV shows like The Real Housewives of ( ) have on them.

The documentary itself has a bizarre, strange tone to it, critical of Downey, who was a polarizing figure, but not entirely hateful or against him. At points, it's view is like I mentioned, critical, but at others it's almost pitying, sympathetic, with interesting animated segments scattered throughout. I suppose the pity sensation was the one I felt the most after the piece ended, he was a man who struggled with many parts of himself but also did make something, whether that something was bad or good, of himself.

So if you can manage to be entertained by watching train/car wreck style stories (even though this is far from the worst of that type I've ever seen) and you're interested in the history and progenitors of a section of our current media culture, I would say that Evocateur is worth your time, but not quite a must see.

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