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‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ review

Phase Four of the MCU may not be the best, but so far it is the most consistent.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is the 25th entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and stars Simu Liu in the titular role as a young man who is forced to face his past and confront his father, a terrorist who has lived for a thousand years. The cast also includes Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, and Tony Leung, while Destin Daniel Cretton directs and co-writes.

After a year without any Marvel products, 2021 has given us more than our fair share with three TV shows and two solo movies, as well as two more films to come (until they inevitably get delayed again). “Black Widow” was a solid entry into the sprawling cinematic universe and while “Shang-Chi” isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, there is enough style and attention to detail to make it stand out.

Simu Liu is a decent leading man, and dropped into the Marvel formula he isn’t asked to do too much. He gives Shang-Chi a nice blend of masculinity and vulnerability, and while at times his delivery can be a bit stoic he does have some nice comedic timing and chemistry with Awkwafina, who is equally charming in her own right (albeit at this point in her career, is playing herself).

I’ve seen some lauding Tony Leung’s performance as Wenu, Shang-Chi’s father and the film’s main antagonist. I thought he was serviceable, certainly not bad, but as with most Marvel baddies I just wasn’t overly interested or threatened by him. Killmonger has better motivations and the Vulture has a cooler design; I can’t imagine many people citing him atop the MCU’s villain list once the dust settles.

The fight sequences in the film are expertly staged, and after this and “Black Widow” it is nice to see the MCU allowing their films to get a bit more violent (we get a little bit of blood and a man gets run over by his own motorcycle). Some of the combat play out more like dances than fights, with the use of gentle motions and soft music, compared to quick cuts and loud orchestras. It’s a nice touch by director Destin Daniel Cretton, and what I came away with thinking about instead of the CGI noise finale that all superhero movies have.

Aside from the visually messy finale, the film also does sag in the middle once they start getting characters into position for the climax. The first 45 minutes of the film are really great, and I appreciated how it felt more like a genuine romcom than a superhero movie. I like Marvel as much as the next guy, but sometimes their quieter, more intimate movies like “Spider-Man: Homecoming” are them at their best. Also, the film attempts to retcon the events of “Iron Man 3” and explain away how Ben Kinglsey’s Mandarin was a fraud and it’s to mixed results; I liked part of what they were going for but then the more I sat on it the more annoyed I got.

“Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings” is a solid entry into the MCU and a pretty fun time at the movies overall. Before my screening started an audience member stood up and said, “attention everyone, I just wanted to let you know there are two post-credits scenes so be sure you stick around for them!” and it just reminded me why I love going to the theater.

Critics Rating: 7/10

‘Candyman’ Review

Another day, another “updated sequel to a classic horror film that ignores the events of previous sequels.”

“Candyman” is a sequel to the 1992 semi-cult classic of the same name, and like 2018’s “Halloween” omits the events of the other (less well-received) sequels. The film stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as an artist who becomes obsessed with the urban legend of the Candyman, a ghost who kills anyone who says his name into a mirror five time. Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, and Colman Domingo also star while Nia DaCosta directs a script she co-wrote with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld.

I recently saw the original “Candyman” film and enjoyed it. I think it is a nice semi-detective story with good performances by Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd, even if the rules and powers surrounding the titular boogeyman are a bit unclear. The 2021 film puts a new coat of paint on the franchise, with some good sound design and camerawork elevating the familiar story.

Jordan Peele is arguably one of the most synonymous names with horror films right now alongside James Wan and M. Night Shyamalan, and while he doesn’t direct here this certainly feels like a spiritual relative to his “Get Out” and “Us.” From the unnerving atmosphere to the social and racial commentary, Peele’s influences on Nia DaCosta’s film are clear. The film has a clean look to it (sometimes a detractor in the genre) but DaCosta uses that almost to trick the audience, similar to how the characters discuss how the gentrification of ghettos is a plot against the poor. Cinematographer John Guleserian implements several clever and amusing camera tricks to give us chills or increase the intrigue of a kill, though DaCosta and her crew do not turn things into torture porn like the “Saw” films.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s stock has skyrocketed in recent years, from starring in “Aquaman” to being a darkhorse Oscar contender in last year’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” He isn’t given too-too much heavy work to do here, but how he conveys his character’s growing disconnect with the real world and those around him, as his mind and body literally fall apart due to the Candyman legend, is effectively done. Colman Domingo, who was very fun in this year’s “Zola,” is creepy but charming in his few scenes, too.

The film’s biggest problems are really those of the original, and that lies with the writing. Side characters aren’t fleshed out too much outside the bare-minimum the narrative requires them to be, and the rules surrounding the Candyman are as jumbled as they were in 1992. Why does he kill some instantly and others over time as the plot needs? Unclear. While the first film’s mystery and confusion about his grab-bag of powers were somewhat bonkers and enjoyable, here I found it somewhat distracting from the enjoyment of the finale.

“Candyman” works well as a long-delayed sequel as well a soft reboot, honoring its source material while also introducing the legend to a new generation of moviegoers. This should play well in packed 8pm showings, and acts as a nice calling card for DaCosta and Abdul-Mateen to be players in the genre moving forward. We have been spoiled by the mini horror renaissance in recent years and I think that while this isn’t a game-changer itself, it is still a scary movie with more on its mind than blood and guts, which is always a welcome treat.

Critics Rating: 7/10

‘Pig’ Review

When you make a half-dozen movies every year, eventually one of them has to be good!

“Pig” stars Nicolas Cage as a recluse truffle hunter in the Oregon wilderness that sets out on a mission to recover his prized pig after it is stolen. Alex Wolff and Adam Arkin also star while Michael Sarnoski makes his directorial debut.

There once was a time where Nic Cage’s name meant something, and I don’t just mean because his actual surname is Coppola. He was starring in blockbusters like “The Rock” and “National Treasure” while also getting critical praise in dramas like “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Adaptation.” In recent years, however, Cage has become an internet meme and found himself down a similar path as Bruce Willis and John Travolta, 90s stars who opt to take a quick paycheck in a non-theatrical release no matter the quality. While “Pig” is a low-budget film, it gives Cage a seemingly rare opportunity to remind us how talented he can be, and that he doesn’t need to overact or yell to get his points across.

Overall I am a fan of Nic Cage, I think his vintage days of “The Rock” and “Matchstick Men” had him giving the exact blend of seriousness and tongue-in-cheek needed for his roles. Here, Cage plays a hermit who is perfectly content with his humble shack in the forest. We peel back the layers of Cage’s past as the film progresses so I won’t go into much detail here, but it’s clear that no one forced him into this simpler life, scoffing at cell phones and Bugattis; he chose to not live by society’s standards of “normal.”

The film has an odd, at times hypnotic sense about it, and the pacing is deliberate. Running just 92 minutes the film is certainly at times slow but it’s never boring. It knows what it has to do and who we have to meet, and rookie writer/director Michael Sarnoski doesn’t waste any of our time. 

I went into this film completely cold save for the most basic of of plot summaries and suggest you should too, but if you need the elevator pitch then this is “First Cow” meets “John Wick” (and my friend said it also features a touch of “Ratatouille” thrown in). It’s the kind of film that just gets more bizarre as it goes but you are so entranced by it you don’t mind. Once you reach the final destination, you’re left pondering topics such as loss, regret, and self-worth, certainly more than any film featuring Nicolas Cage as a man searching for a lost pig has any right to make you feel. 

“Pig” is a weird film and I can imagine won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. At times it introduces aspects of this truffle hunting world that get no full explanation or wrap-up, and for some that may be bothersome. But if you like your Cage calm and your stories entrancing, this one brings home the bacon.

Critics Rating: 7/10

‘Black Widow’ Review

You know what they say, better late than never!

“Black Widow” is the long-awaited (and oft-delayed) solo film for the titular superhero played by Scarlett Johansson, and follows a mission that ends up reuniting her with her family (Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Rachel Weisz). O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, and Ray Winstone also star while Cate Shortland directs.

For years fans were asking for a Black Widow solo film, but it took the success of 2017’s “Wonder Woman” and the explosion in MCU popularity to finally have the project greenlit. It marks the final starring role for Scarlett Johansson as the character, who like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans is leaving the franchise after a decade of wearing tights, and is a fittingly smaller-scale Marvel movie that does everything it needs to while still offering some fun new surprises.

Scarlett Johansson has been one of the best parts of the Marvel Universe since her debut as Black Widow (aka Natasha Romanoff) in 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” and it’s nice to finally get to see her run the show instead of being a sidekick or part of an ensemble. Here we get a little more intimate look at her as a person instead of an Avenger, with little moments like her quietly driving along while listening to the pop song “Cheap Thrills” by Sia. She continues to be a badass when it counts, but part of what has made Natasha one of the MCU’s most loved characters is her personality, and Johansson keeps that dry wit and warmth.

The star, however, is Florence Pugh, whose star power only continues to grow after having a 1994 Jim Carrey-type year in 2019, coming onto the (mainstream) scene with “Fighting with My Family,” “Midsommar,” and then “Little Women,” the last of which landed her an Academy Award nomination. Here Pugh plays Yelena Belova, Natasha’s younger sister, herself a member of the same assassin-training course, and steals the show. Pugh carries all the emotional scenes of the film, trying to come to terms with the fact her youth was a charade and her life has not been her own, but also has some laugh-out-loud moments (“this would be a cool way to die” she says to herself as an avalanche is approaching). Pugh is set to appear in the Disney+ show “Hawkeye” and will surely be one of the main focuses of the MCU moving forward and I couldn’t be more excited.

Overall, the action in the film is some of the best that we’ve seen in the MCU. Outside maybe the “Captain America” films (namely “Winter Soldier”), this is the most brutal hand-to-hand combat we’ve gotten. You hear bones crunch and the impact of knives slashing, and it really is one of the most enjoyable Marvel films action-wise that we’ve gotten in a long while. The special effects can be a bit wonky (there are several explosions that look right out of a PlayStation 3 cutscene), but they never take you out of the film.

The writing is hit and miss, with the banter between Natasha and Yelena being the amusing Marvel quipping but the dialogue-driven scenes between multiple characters being a tad bit slow. The MCU has also always had a problem with its bad guys and this may be the weakest example yet, with Taskmaster looking cool and being a physical threat, but the motivations and development of the villain organization being a bit lacking.

“Black Widow” is one of the better MCU solo outings, and just like how “Luca” is “lesser” Pixar doesn’t mean the lower-stakes make it bad. This is a very good Marvel film that does everything it needs to do and offers some closure to the Black Widow character while showing the impact she made on the future of the franchise. Johansson and Pugh are great and the fight scenes are incredibly entertaining, and it is just nice to see a feature-length Marvel movie for the first time in two years; it’s almost a microcosm for us all finally getting back to normal.

Critics Rating: 7/10

‘Birds of Prey’ Review

When your film franchise continues to be “that one good one and everything else,” maybe it’s time to call it quits while you’re behind.

“Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” (the only time I will be typing that entire title) is the eighth installment of the DCEU and a spin-off to 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” Focusing on the titular Harley Quinn (played again by Margot Robbie), the film follows her as she goes on the run from a crime boss (Ewan McGregor) in search of a diamond stolen by a young pick-pocketer (Ella Jay Basco). Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina and Ali Wong also star as Cathy Yan directs.

I have had a lukewarm-at-best reaction to the DC Extended Universe. I will defend “Batman v Superman” and think 90% of “Wonder Woman” is fantastic, but that’s about it. “Man of Steel” is a slog and “Aquaman,” “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League” are all ugly messes (“Shazam!” is fine, but the fact its climax lasts two hours is too much to bear). When “Birds of Prey” was announced I was mildly intrigued, mostly because it would be rated R and I am big fan of Black Mask, the villain that McGregor plays. I should have known this would just be another DCEU mess, and one that doesn’t even have big special effects or well-known heroes to distract us.

Margot Robbie’s rise to stardom was solidified in 2016 with her portrayal of Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad,” and even those who did not much enjoy the film praised her performance. So naturally, just like with Rebel Wilson in the first “Pitch Perfect” or the Minions in “Despicable Me,” the studio saw a little side character that audiences enjoyed and thought it would be smart to give them their own two-hour movie. Robbie is so annoying and dumb in this film that it hurts. Her character is a former psychiatrist (meaning she went to school and has an MD) but she just speaks and makes decisions like trailer trash. I know that the character of Harley Quinn is that she became deranged and is unpredictable because the Joker brainwashed her, but you don’t lose IQ points when you give into your inhibitions (the script even has her ramble off a sentence full of big words at one point to demonstrate that she is in-fact still smart in an attempt to have its cake and eat it, too). Her voice is also very grating at points, mixing Robbie’s Bronx-ish accent with a high-pitched cartoon twist, so the fact she narrates the entire film gets old quick.

The rest of the cast is, fine, although I don’t think any of them have any sort of characteristics outside the one trait the film needs from them. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Deadpan Assassin, Jurnee Smollett-Bell is Singing Fighter, Rosie Perez is a Cliché Cop; we get it. Ewan McGregor starts out fine as Black Mask, injecting some flamboyant life into his scenes, but then something switches and he becomes almost a completely different character from a separate film. He, too, really only has one characteristic (he’s the bad guy so he’s evil!) and has no real motivation. People knock the MCU for having cookie-cutter villains, but they also gave us Killmonger and Thanos, two bad guys who have plans the audience can relate to and see why they are doing what they do. Here, Black Mask (who wears his mask in just one scene, because god-forbid we cover the McGregor face for the trailers) wants a diamond to get rich and wants to kill Harley because… reasons.

The actions scenes are passable, there is one set piece in a police station where Harley rampages with a non-lethal grenade launcher that had me chuckle a few times. But the ending is just quick edits of punching masked disposable bad guys, and the stakes feel so low you just want to go home.

Also, and this is a personal complaint but I had the same issue with Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy: Gotham City has no distinctive (or consistent) feel. This film was shot around Los Angeles, while “Suicide Squad” was filmed in Canada and “Batman v. Superman” in Detroit (and, for what it’s worth, “Joker” in New York City). The color palette is bright and sunny, but the whole city feels like it’s just several blocks; the entire film essentially takes place in three locations.

I’ll quickly touch on the script, and if you haven’t guessed, I was not a fan. On top of thin characters and contradictory logic, the screenplay is just lazy. The film is rated-R but that is barely for the violence; it’s more because this is one of those movies that acts like a 13 year old who just discovered the f-word and awkwardly shoves it into every sentence it can (a grown man and professional business owner shouting “what the f*ckety-f*ck?!” is amusing maybe once, but then just looks foolish). Also, every single male character in the film is either a jerk, a rapist or an idiot, and pretty much every woman is a saint (despite Harley self-proclaiming herself as “a pretty terrible person”). This isn’t even me being a triggered straight white male, as I’m sure Twitter will label anyone who doesn’t like this film. We criticize Michael Bay for having exclusively one-dimensional female characters in his films, or Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan for having them only serve the plot, so I’m calling out the sheer laziness and one-sided nature of this film.

“Birds of Prey” is not a female-empowerment film like “Wonder Woman” or even simply a fun female-led one like “Captain Marvel.” It is an ugly-looking, thinly-written and overly-acted mess that offers only the occasional chuckle or moment of intrigue. Margot Robbie tries, and this was surely a passion project for her, but it is just nowhere near good enough. I continue to think the DCEU peaked in 2017 with “Wonder Woman” (let’s hope that sequel lives up to the hype) and Warner Bros. needs to go back to the drawing board. Say what you want about Zack Snyder’s Superman quasi-trilogy, at least those films had ambition and weight, and tried to be something different in the superhero genre. Here, we are left with a wannabe “Deadpool” dressed in “Suicide Squad” clothing, and it fails to clear even the basement-level bar set by its predecessors.

Critics Rating: 3/10

‘Knives Out’ Review

Put “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you” on my gravestone and let me die a happy man.

“Knives Out” is a whodunit mystery that follows a dysfunctional family that comes together following the suicide, or possible murder, of their rich patriarchal father. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the film features an ensemble cast, including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Christopher Plummer.

If you don’t know Rian Johnson’s name you surely are familiar with his work as the man who made Bruce Willis fight a younger version of himself (in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in “Looper” annnnnnd the guy who split the Star Wars fanbase in half with “The Last Jedi.” Some looked forward to his saga follow-up with great anticipation, others like myself with mostly indifference, which is par-for-the-course for Johnson, who has openly admitted he sets out to have his films cherished by half the audience and loathed by the other (a feat he certainly accomplished with “The Last Jedi”). Somehow, I don’t think “Knives Out” will have a rapturous divide among those who see it, as it is an overall enjoyable ride with enough quirky characters and humorous moments to offset some suspect writing.

When you get a cast this big, it is inevitable that some of them will be nothing more than extended cameos, but each actor gets a moment to shine. Daniel Craig talks like Colonel Sanders; Toni Callette is a tanning bed Barbie doll straight out of Buzzfeed; Katherine Langford vapes; Chris Evans wears incredible sweaters; each has a distinct moment that makes their characters feel real, if not at least entertaining.

Rian Johnson’s strengths lie mostly with his direction and not his writing (more on that in a second). From a director standpoint, this is a very solid job by Johnson, as he not only keeps the pace moving for most of the film (although at 130 minutes it could’ve used a final fat trimming) and gets fine performances out of his actors. The way Johnson plays with camera angles and moves it around puts us into the frame of minds of the characters, and with Bob Ducsay’s quick editing some scenes truly crackle.

However where Johnson sometimes stumbles are his scripts. Whether it is entirely unnecessary subplots or so many characters that motivations get muddled (problems that are prevalent here and in his previous works), Johnson seems to think his writing is smarter than it actually is. Having any word he types cut out would be a sin, and as we’ve seen with the likes of Quintin Tarantino and Judd Apatow, this can be killer for writer-director’s films.

The film features a few fun twists but I couldn’t help but feel the actual big reveal lost some of its impact because of events that had transpired earlier. I won’t go into spoilers, but I think the film took so many twists and turns that eventually they stopped being twists and had just turned back to a familiar direction.

“Knives Out” is the type of movie that “they just don’t make anymore” (whatever that old and clichéd expression means to you) and for most of the runtime I was really enjoying myself. Toni Callette delivers a handful of wonderfully stupid lines and Chris Evans begins his post-Marvel career with a [bleep]-eating grin, and although the landing could have been stronger, I think this is a mystery worth investigating.

Critics Rating: 8/10

‘Charlie’s Angels’ Review

And so the “sequel that acts as a soft reboot” trend continues.

“Charlie’s Angels” is the latest installment in the titular spy franchise which began with the 1970s TV series followed by the two films in the early 2000s. This rendition stars Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska as the three new Angels, alongside Elizabeth Banks, Djimon Hounson, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo and Patrick Stewart. Banks also directs and wrote the screenplay.

This is one of those films, one of those reviews, where it is just a light watch and there’s nothing wrong with that. The three main Angels, Stewart, Scott and Balinska, all have a nice energy about them, and Stewart, returning to studio tentpoles after a stint in the indie world, continues to show that she is capable of succeeding in any genre. Not all of her jokes land, and sometimes Banks’ script has her make these bad quips at the wrong time or on the wrong beat, but Stewart seems to be having a ball and manages to produce a few solid chuckles with her animated movement.

The action sequences are a bit of a mixed bag, as some of them are fun and seem like they were choreographed well, however the editing is so quick (like a cut a second) and the camera is held so close to the actors that it is hard to tell what is going on. I don’t get why movies do this, like why rehearse a fight scene if it’s just going to come across as random chaos, but that’s been a problem for a while so can’t expect this to be the last time we see it.

The plot is, serviceable. It is your classic “we have to find out who is trying to buy this new weapon before it’s too late” storyline, and the few twists that do come into play are pretty predictable. As I touched on with Stewart, Elizabeth Banks’ script (and she also produced, so all flaws on this project truly fall on her shoulders) feels lazy at times, many of the jokes are obvious or dialogue full of exposition (at one point a character explains a plot point we just learned to another, just to ensure the audience caught it).

“Charlie’s Angels” is perfectly sufficient entertainment, although the action is scattershot and the humor only lands every now and again. Based on the reactions from my audience I’m guessing there are Easter eggs sprinkled in for fans of the previous installments, and if you thought the trailers looked fun then I’m sure you’ll get exactly what you want out of this.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘Us’ is a Mind-Bending Thrill Ride

Well Jordan Peele was able to beat the mediocre freshman directorial debut cliché, so if anyone can stump the sophomore slump it’s him.

“Us” is the second feature from writer-director Jordan Peele, following his Oscar-winning start with “Get Out” in 2017. It follows a family (Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) as they are targeted by a group of doppelgänger assailants. Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker also star.

When I first saw “Get Out” I found it to be a good-not-great horror film that maybe bit off more than it could chew. Upon six (!) rewatches, however, I have come to realize Peele had just created a multi-layered screenplay with hidden codes and verbal keys and one watch just wasn’t enough to see the actual brilliance. And I’m not saying “Us” is another award-worthy turn from Peele, but I already know I need another viewing to see if my hindsight theories are correct and for what it’s worth, I like it about as much as my first round of “Get Out.”

What people will surely praise here are the performances of Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, who play not only their real human parents but also the doppelgängers. Nyong’o is often quiet and timid as a result of a past trauma but has moments of shouting when pushed to her limits, and as her double conveys suppressed pain. Duke has lots of chances to flex his charisma and almost dry humor, as well as some physical displays as the doppelgänger.

Peele’s script isn’t meant to hold a mirror to society about race like “Get Out” but instead hold a mirror to ourselves and see that our demons are our own worst enemy. The trailer for the film does give away a few early twists but overall Peele is able to keep the falling dominos coming. Much like “Get Out” (not to keep comparing the two) the ending of this film creates a lot of questions and requires more viewings. What time will have to tell is are there plot holes or just another layered craft.

This film is both more “jokey” and scarier than “Get Out,” and sometimes the humor comes at the expense of a tense sequence. A few of the jokes land and act as levity, but more than one scary scene was compromised by a dad joke at the wrong time. There is also one scene with distractingly bad effects; since Nyong’o can’t be in two places at once they seemingly green screened her in and the outline on her figure and the flat background draw the viewer’s attention away.

The more “Us” sits with me in the two hours since the credits rolled, the more I think I like it. It certainly is an original horror film yet again by Peele, who hopefully doesn’t get typecast as “the horror guy” (he spoke how he feared repeating himself in comedy), and I think that while it may be a tad divisive towards audiences it will age better than most horror films. I look forward to seeing it again and hope that Peele’s third film continues his streak of defeating tropes and clichés.

Critic’s Rating: 7/10

Universal Picture

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ is Creative and Colorful

Unrelated fact: Tobey Maguire is the best Spider-Man we’ve ever had and the Sam Raimi trilogy is the best superhero saga ever put to film. Ok. On with the review.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an animated telling of the titular character (the ninth in many a year). It features Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, a Hispanic/African American teen in Brooklyn who is bitten by a freaky spider and soon discovers his universe has merged with others, resulting in multiple different Spider-Men. Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Jake Johnson, Liev Schreiber, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Vélez and Lily Tomlin also star, while Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman direct.

The film is animated like nothing I’ve really seen before; basically, it looks like a comic book. To achieve this look, the filmmakers took rendered 3D character models and placed them over 2D backgrounds, and added dot pigments to the frame. Most of the time the film comes off colorful and alive and their goal is realized, but there are a few instances where the shot is straight-up out of focus, as if you’re watching a 3D movie but the kid at the counter forgot to hand you the glasses.

As Miles Morales, Shameik Moore (great in his breakout role in 2015’s “Dope”) conveys the mixture of anxious, confused and scared as he begins to discover his powers, and cracks a few one-liners, too. Jake Johnson takes on this universe’s version of Peter Parker, playing the “grumpy old hero who no longer believes in what their image stands for” that we’ve seen from Bruce Wayne in “Batman v Superman,” Luke Skywalker in “The Last Jedi” and Logan in…well, “Logan.”

The rest of the cast is perfectly assembled, from John Mulaney voicing Spider-Ham, a Porky Pig-type Spider-Man, to Hailee Steinfeld as Gwenn Stacy (who here is her own Spider-Man and isn’t getting her neck broken) and the perfect Nic Cage depicting a noir Spidey. There are also a few fun surprise cast members, and you’ll play everyone’s favorite animated game “dammit I know that voice” until you see their names in the credit.

Where the film falters is that while these are characters and an animation style we’ve never seen before, the plot is been there-done that. There’s nothing new about seeing a young teen struggle to figure out his new spider-like powers or him yelling at his mentor that he is ready to take on the big bad guy even though he isn’t. The film throws some quips in there and a few fun Easter eggs for fans, this is co-written and produced by the guys behind “The Lego Movie” after all, but they’re mere momentary distractions from a rinse-and-repeat plot.

Also, the climax goes on for a little too long and by the end is essentially nonsensical, full of colors slamming into each other without much rhyme or reason.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is basically like a cover album of all of the highlights from the previous eight takes on the character, packaged in a pretty box with a stylish bow. The soundtrack is at times infectious and the voice performances inspired, which are at times enough to keep you entertained when the plot is not. There have been better Spider-Men films before and there will be after (especially if some of these characters get their own spin-offs) but as far as December entertainment goes, you can do a lot worse than this.

Critic’s Rating: 7/10

‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ Takes Itself a Little Too Seriously, But it’s Impressive Nonetheless

I think it is often overlooked just how impressive the “Mission: Impossible” film series is. Not just the stunt and action work, but the fact that they have made six films over 22 years without a reboot or recasting and have (mostly) put out consistently good products.

“Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is the sixth installment of the Tom Cruise spy franchise and features Cruise reprising his role as special agent Ethan Hunt. When stolen plutonium goes missing, Hunt and his team (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson) are tasked with tracking it down while being monitored by a CIA agent (Henry Cavill). Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett and Vanessa Kirby also star while Christopher McQuarrie writes and directs, becoming the first person to helm multiple films in the franchise.

I actually rather enjoy the “Mission: Impossible” films. While the third film is more remembered for featuring the late-great Philip Seymour Hoffman in a blockbuster film, I liked 2015’s “Rogue Nation” and actually loved 2011’s “Ghost Protocol.” “Fallout” was never high on my radar for 2018’s must-see cinema, mostly because at this point we know what to expect from a film like this in a series like this, but Cruise and McQuarrie are to be commended; they have not taken their foot off the gas one bit.

Say what you want about Tom Cruise and his perceived large ego (especially around the time of the second film of this series in 2000) but it is impossible (aye) to knock this man’s hustle. If you ever watch interviews with him it is clear he has a true passion for cinema and he of course famously does his own stunts, something that cost him while making this film. Midway through production, Cruise broke his leg which halted filming for seven weeks, resulting in an $80 million insurance claim by the studio. Cruise also filmed a dozen halo jumps (skydiving out of an airplane) and flew/nearly crashed his own helicopter, so it is clear “Fallout” is a labor of his 56-year-old love. His stunt work and choreograph moves feel real and all-too-often you sit in awe that anyone is crazy enough to do the things he does, much less a Hollywood movie star.

Trying to hold his own alongside Cruise is Superman himself, Henry Cavill, and he does a pretty admirable job. Queen Angela Bassett (who plays the head of the CIA) has a line in the film that while Cruise’s agency “uses a scalpel, she prefers a hammer” and that title suits Cavill well. Clearly a physical presence, Cavill is able to crack a joke or give a facial expression here or there too that makes you hope he gets more roles that play to his (both literal and figurative) strengths. The film does do something with his character that I think could have been handled better, but at the end of the day it doesn’t bother me as much in hindsight as much as it did in the moment.

As with Cruise’s stunts, the action is all visceral and cleanly shot. The infamous bathroom fight sequence where Cavill reloads his fists (YouTube it if you somehow don’t know to what I refer) is so brutal and perfectly staged that I would almost argue the film tops itself there, but there are plenty of foot chases, motorcycle escapes and helicopter battles left to enjoy, too.

The biggest problem with “Fallout” is what I think plagues all the “Mission: Impossible” films and that is that its opening is so grand and it has so much going on in the first act that it eventually runs out of steam but still has 50 minutes of movie left. This film’s climax has some great shots and moments but the plot is never as do-or-die as the characters make it out to me; for me, at least.

“Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is about as good as “Rogue Nation” but I would argue has better action sequences. All too often we toss out the “leave your brain at the door and you’ll have a good time” line for blockbuster films but I would argue that this is a thinking man’s action film. Not that it has multiple layers or is a complex character study (because it’s not) but the action and stunts here aren’t just mindless Michael Bay explosions; they’re meticulously crafted punches and crashes that earn your enjoyment and respect.

Critic’s Grade: B

Paramount Pictures