The new Disney adventure, Strange World, gave me vibes of those animated adventure films from the early 2000s that nobody remembers like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet or Titan A.E. It has a strong visual look with some intentionally retro Sci-Fi designs, but the story itself is a chore to follow due to how overly complicated it is, and the characters simply aren't enough to carry us through. Despite its title, and the almost abstract looking aliens that fill many of its scenes, this is a depressingly ordinary family film about fathers and sons.
Specifically, we get two sets of sons and fathers. First, we have famed explorer and adventurer Jaeger Clade (voice by Dennis Quaid) and his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). While on an expedition to find a path through some mountains, Jaeger goes missing. Searcher becomes a local hero to his town of Avalonia when he discovers a strange plant life that can power the entire town, and turn it into a tech utopia. 25 years later, Searcher runs a farm that harvests the mysterious plants, and lives happily with his ace pilot wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and a three-legged dog. This is the first mixed-race family we've seen in a Disney animated feature, and while this is great, it seems like a tossed-in element here, as does the fact that young Ethan happens to be gay, which is casually brought up early on, then never really elaborated on. I don't know if the three-legged dog is supposed to be another effort to include equality in the script, but I'm sure any dogs who pay to watch this will appreciate the representation.
The plot kicks off when the President of Avalonia (Lucy Liu) shows up at his farm in a massive airship, and tells him that the plant he discovered is slowly dying, thereby throwing their way of life into jeopardy. They must journey to the far reaches of the world to discover why the plant life is dying, which leads to unexplored worlds filled with creatures that range from abstract designs, glow in the dark pteranodons, and a little blue slime creature named Splat, who is supposed to be the character the kids fall in love with, and ask for toys for Christmas. (When one character lays eyes on it, he flat out says, "I want to merchandise it...") This should be a fun, old fashioned adventure story, but it lacks emotional impact, the characters at the middle of it all never stand out like they should, and the answer to the mystery is more mystifying than satisfying.
Strange World has a vibrant look that borrows deliberately from the history of Science Fiction, with references that would probably take forever to list them all. Still, the mixing of different elements and ideas was enough to hold my attention for a while until I realized I didn't care what was happening in the story itself. None of the Clade Family members stood out as anyone memorable, and the President and her crew are forgotten about for long periods of time to the point that they could be written out of the movie with little consequence. The movie also has an odd habit of never wanting to put its characters in dangerous situations. Whether they're being chased by strange blobs or trapped in a closet by a briefly traitorous crew member, the problem is solved in under a minute, so we never get that sense of suspense that a cliff hanger like this needs.
Another thing I noticed as the film went on is that it's afraid to truly draw us into it. Every time we get a scene that is supposed to be wondrous, it's ruined by an unfunny joke or sight gag, and every time the movie starts to get emotional, it does the same thing. It's almost as if the filmmakers are afraid to let us feel anything watching this movie. The best animated films in recent years have thrived on emotion, so I don't know what they were thinking here. The movie also feels very rushed, as if it's afraid to slow down and truly admire the details. We get tantalizing glimpses at its fantasy worlds, but the movie keeps on drawing the curtain on us, and forcing us to focus on the lame writing.
All of this makes Strange World a sadly forgettable film that will likely join the ones I listed at the opening as movies that no one really talks about beyond their opening weekend. The title and the retro style of the technology brings for memories of grand pulp adventures, but the screenplay is strictly grounded in mediocrity.
2007's Enchanted is mainly remembered today for helping Amy Adams launch her career out of independent films and into the mainstream, but it really was a bold little movie for Disney. It dared to examine and poke fun at many of the Princess cliches that the studio had invested so much time in, and had a lot of fun nods, including live action cameos from many of the women who had voiced the characters in the past. It was a tribute with satirical bite, and quite a lot of fun.
All of this makes the 15-year-later follow up that just hit streaming, Disenchanted, all the more perplexing, as it doesn't seem to want to push any buttons or make any commentary. It's simply an overly energized film that seems to be trying too hard to win over audiences, both with nostalgia and with some high concept ideas that it can't be bothered to fully explore. It's the kind of corporate cash grab that has a lot of bright colors and spirited songs that leave your head the second they're done, all the while forgetting that the original had something on its mind to go along with the colors and songs. Enchanted could be enjoyed by just about anyone. This sequel is likely to be enjoyed the most by the youngest audience members, or those who grew up on the first, and are desperate to see these characters again.
Here once again is Giselle (Amy Adams), the cartoon Princess who found her way into the real world, and eventually fell in love with the divorce lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and his young daughter Morgan (Gabriella Baldacchino, stepping in for Rachel Covey from the original), who is now a teenager, and in typical fashion, is moody and sullen and embarrassed when her stepmother breaks into random Princess show tunes on a whim. Giselle and Robert have added a baby to their family (twins Mila and Lara Jackson), and feel that life in New York City is not the ideal place to raise children. So, they head to a suburb known as Monrovia, against Morgan's wishes, and move into a "fixer upper" home that needs a lot of work, leading to a lot of "house falling apart" gags that are borrowed from the 1986 Tom Hanks comedy, The Money Pit.
No one is happy with their new life, however. Morgan doesn't fit in with the other kids, Robert has to get used to commuting to work on a train, and Giselle quickly finds herself running afoul of a trio of overly perfect moms who come across as a PG-rated take on the villains from Bad Moms. So, when the royal couple of Edward (James Marsden) and Nancy (Idina Menzel) pay a visit from Giselle's magical fantasy world, and gift her a magic wand as a housewarming gift, Giselle decides to use its power to turn Monrovia into a fairy tale like kingdom similar to her home. This causes the local "Mean Mom" Malvina (Maya Rudolph) to be transformed into an Evil Queen who rules over the kingdom with an iron fist. Not only that, but the wish effects Giselle's own family. Morgan slowly turns into a downtrodden Cinderella, while Giselle herself begins to show evil tendencies against her control, and is slowly becoming a stereotypical evil stepmother.
Making Adams' cheerfully perky character have to confront a hidden evil side that is slowly starting to come out is a great idea, but Disenchanted doesn't know how to handle this idea successfully, and instead gives us two underwritten roles for Adams to try to make due with. She's more than up to the challenge, obviously, but because the script never truly takes advantage of the idea, it sells all of her efforts short. Most of the returning cast are given little to do here, save for a few moments, such as when Menzel gets the film's best song titled "Love Power", or when Rudolph is in total "Evil Queen" mode, and seems to be having the most fun of all the actors here. Other characters that could have been useful, such as Marsden's goofy prince, are too often pushed aside when the movie could have needed their energy.
There's just a curious disconnect between the first film and this, and many of the problems I think stem from the fact that despite many of the original cast coming back, many of the creative talent except for the songwriters are new here. They're clearly trying to make a more traditional fairy tale comedy here, while the first was much more of a satirical tribute that gleefully poked fun at the cliches that it was acknowledging. This one revels in those cliches, and seems much more disappointing because of it. The energy is there, and though it appears in smaller doses than before, the fun is still present. But it's just not as smart or as witty. This movie wants to strike its own path, and while I usually admire it, the path it takes just doesn't seem as ambitious or charming.
Disenchanted winds up living up to its title in a way that was not intended by emphasizing spectacle over brains. This sequel was apparently hard to crack, and there were various script attempts over the past decade or so. The end result proves they maybe needed another few years or so, or perhaps a different direction.
Much like Bombshell from a few years ago, She Said tells the story of a powerful mogul who seemed too big to fail, and the eventual circumstances that brought them down. In that 2019 film, we got the story of Roger Ailes, and how he was ousted from his position at Fox News by women who came forward with his sexual misconduct at the network. Maria Schrader's new film tells a similar story, only centered on film producer Harvey Weinstein.
In many ways, Weinstein was more powerful than Ailes. His habit of inviting women into his hotel room, and the lewd actions that usually occurred within was one of the worst kept secrets in Hollywood. And yet, it was ignored with hush payments and NDAs. Behind his massive film success, with numerous millions made at the box office and Best Picture awards, he was a sexual predator that nobody really wanted to talk about publicly. That was until an article appeared in The New York Times on October 5th, 2017. Reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor made the story public for the first time, and helped usher in the "Me Too" era. They wrote a best selling book about their investigation, and now here is the film, with Carey Mulligan as Megan and Zoe Kazan as Jodi.
The film follows in the footsteps of All the President's Men and Spotlight in that it is interested in the journey to get to the truth. Like in those films, the truth had been silenced for a long time, and if it weren't for the investigation, it might not have come forward at all. Also, there are a lot of people under powerful influence who are afraid to come forward. While the film's focus is centrally on Harvey and the investigation into him, you get the sense that the film is speaking for all women who feel intimidated by powerful men who go unchecked. Many of the women that Twohey and Kantor go to talk to don't even think that their words will matter much. They have tried to speak out in the past, but either had their stories buried by the media, or were attacked publicly for trying to speak out.
So strong was Harvey's power in the film industry that he could destroy anyone's career who even tried to speak against him. Of course, this brings up a difficult question to the viewer. Since this is a major Hollywood film talking about the abuse that one man put countless people through, and how those in the industry largely ignored it, how is that aspect going to be portrayed? Luckily, the film is mainly focused on the investigation itself. It does not come across as a self-congratulatory piece about Hollywood trying to change its tactics once the truth came out. She Said is a skillfully constructed drama that mixes the professional and personal lives of both of its lead women. Both have children and husbands, and have inner battles to fight. Twohy is dealing with postpartum depression, while Kantor is stunned to learn that her young daughter (who seems to be about eight) knows about rape, and hears other kids talk about it in casual conversation.
The movie knows how to take this complex and sensitive subject, and make it palatable with strong performances and a straightforward storytelling style that is compelling. It does not vilify men in general, as the two reporters get plenty of support from their husband, and the men at the Times. The film has no interest in being a hit piece, and in another form of credibility, uses real celebrity names and people who were involved in the investigation. Most of all, this is about what goes on in real journalism, where many are not willing to talk, and the persistence and patience that these women needed to get the story. I admired the little details, such as the lawyer for Weinstein who is friendly with rather than antagonizes the women, and the accurate locations around New York (mainly restaurants) where the interviews occur.
She Said is powerful filmmaking, but it feels like just a small part of a much larger story. More information is bound to come out about other "Harveys" all over the world and in various fields of business. And while they may not have the money and influence that he had, they will still get away with it. Watching the film, I felt that despite the big city setting and the Hollywood celebrity backdrop, this story could take place anywhere, and probably does.
Mark Mylod's The Menu is one of the darkest movies I've seen in a while. A vicious and cutting satire of the wealthy, those who serve them, and celebrity chefs who value theatricality over genuine dining experiences, this is an enjoyably savage movie in which nobody is spared. It's a darkly comic thriller with perhaps a twinge of horror, though honestly, I think the audience is supposed to be siding with the homicidal chef at the center of it all, played to perfection by Ralph Fiennes.
Aside from Fiennes, we have an electric cast, with Anya Taylor-Joy getting to go toe-to-toe with the actor in many scenes that become highlights. We also have Nicholas Hoult as her shallow and insufferable dinner date, John Leguizamo as a faded actor who still thinks he's hot stuff, and a cast made up of classic character actors who play a variety of people that the audience is supposed to hate in various ways. The movie is being billed somewhat as a horror film, but it really doesn't play as one, and those walking in expecting it might be disappointed. This is one of those movies where I will have to be careful to guard its secrets, as it's best experienced fresh and with little advance knowledge as possible.
Head Chef Slowik (Fiennes) is the kind of celebrity chef that is viewed as a god among men by the elite in society. The meals that he serves are experiences, meant to tell a story. His restaurant sits on a private island, where guests willingly pay over $1,000 a plate to savor his latest culinary masterpiece. He has an army of chefs at his command who not only follow him, but form some sort of cult-like mentality to his every whim. Tonight's dinner is to be special, not just for the 12 guests who have paid to experience it, but for Slowik himself, as it presents what he feels will be the ultimate culmination of his entire career, if not his life up to this point.
The guests are introduced to us on the ship that brings them to the island, and include wealthy regulars Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light), a famed food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Edelstein), youthful tech billionaire trio Soren (Arturo Castro), Bryce (Rob Yang), and Dave (Mar St. Cyr), a faded actor (Leguizamo) and his assistant on the verge of leaving him for a better future (Aimee Carrero), Slowik's own mother, who seems barely able to hold a fork (Rebecca Koon), and the previously mentioned Taylor-Joy and Hoult as young couple Margot and Tyler. Tyler, an obsessive fan of the chef, has brought Margot under circumstances that are kept a mystery for most of the film. She's not Slowik's usual client, and she's not afraid to tell him this.
The Menu is satirical, but it does not waste much time with a message, or with trying to make a political statement. Like the dinner itself, the movie is an experience, and that experience is built around the shocks that build out of the mounting situation that these unsuspecting people find themselves in, and the different ways that they handle it. The movie is clearly absurd, yet never allows itself to go so far off the rails that we don't see the humor or the truth in what it is saying. It also can be wickedly funny, is wildly energetic, and features some wonderful turns by its ensemble cast, all of whom get their own moment to stand out. While the movie mainly belongs to Fiennes and Taylor-Joy, there are a lot of sharp moments to look out for when it comes to the supporting players.
Most of all, the movie just wants to be a wicked good time, and that's what I liked most about it. We know that a lot of these people deserve what they're going to get, and the fun is in watching it happen. This is a simple revenge fantasy that has been dressed up in social satire, and with winning performances. No, it's not for everyone, but a lot of movies aren't. After all, we need films that create debate. With so many movies content to follow the mold, here is a film that is bold enough to tap into the darkest reaches of our mind, and make us laugh at it.
If Black Panther: Wakanda Forever comes across as an odd hybrid of an emotional tear jerker and a bombastic Marvel spectacle, you can't really blame co-writer and director Ryan Coogler. After the tragic loss of his original star, Chadwick Boseman, to colon cancer two years ago, he was forced to rewrite the film as a moving tribute, as well as for a way for the character's legacy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself to carry on.
The end result can be a bit messy at times, but tremendously engaging, and probably the most heartfelt film to come out of the Marvel Studio. Boseman is still very much a presence, and the grief over losing both the actor and the character he played drives the plot. This is evident in how many of the returning characters from the 2018 film handle the passing of King T'Challa. His sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) is angry over not being able to save him from illness, despite the technology at her command, and takes refuge in her work, hiding herself away in her lab. Her mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), is clearly at a loss, but must appear strong before her people, and turns to traditions and her spiritual faith.
This is the most engaging aspect of the film, and Coogler handles it with the sort of maturity we seldom see in blockbuster entertainment. The loss of its star has forced the film to focus on the supporting cast, and give them various and sometimes conflicting ways to honor the memory of T'Challa. In particular, in stepping up into a lead role, Letitia Wright gives her character tremendous depth and emotional range. The result of seeing these characters and how they have changed from the last time we saw them four years ago feels natural, and has been drawn with plenty of character growth, and opportunity for the returning cast to bring new levels to their performances that perhaps were not there previously. In particular, Angela Bassett brings heartbreaking power as a woman who has lost her son, yet must appear strong in the public eye.
Naturally, a new threat has to rise as well, in the form of a race of aquatic beings who hail from the undersea kingdom of Talokan. Led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), they are pitted against Wakanda in a war that may eventually involve the entire surface world should things continue to escalate. The introduction of this new society is intriguing, and certainly handled with more dignity than in the Aquaman film. (No bongo-playing octopus here.) The script makes Namor into an intriguing antagonist, as we can sense a kind of truth behind his beliefs, and the events that shaped him when we learn of his past. Marvel is obviously laying into place his position in the grand overall Universe, and the magnetic performance Huerta gives here makes me want to see more sooner rather than later.
With its world-shattering stakes, intimate personal moments, and standard elements designed to move the entire Cinematic World forward, Wakanda Forever can seem a bit frantic, especially during an extremely busy final act that is ambitious, but a bit jumbled in terms of special effects. However, I found a lot more to praise here. The production design is first rate, especially the design of the underwater world, and we have been given richer characters than before. Despite the passing of Boseman, his presence and his influence is felt throughout, creating probably one of the more emotionally resonant entries I can think of in all the Marvel films.
It's common for a franchise to pay tribute to one of its lead influences, but it's seldom that we get such an overpowering sense of emotion, love, and clarity that this film provides. I have no doubt that not just this series, but the Marvel Timeline in general, will continue to honor him, and that the contributions of Boseman and his character will continue to be felt. That is the rare and undeniable power of this movie.
"He is who is tired of Weird Al is tired of life" - Homer Simpson
Ask any kid in the Summer of 89 what their favorite movie was, and you would likely hear Tim Burton's original Batman as the answer. If you were to ask 12-year-old me, I would have told you Weird Al's cinematic starring debut, UHF. I have fond memories of my best friend at the time and I sitting in a vacant theater on opening night (the film was a bomb back in the day) laughing hysterically as my favorite musical comedy artist hit the big screen, and what I was certain would be a long and illustrious film career for the singer. (Okay, so I was terrible at predictions. I was 12.)
33 years later comes Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, which spoofs the musical biopic in a way that hasn't been attempted since 2007's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Co-written by Al, and produced by the team at Funny or Die, the movie morphs his story into your standard biopic structure of fame leading to substance abuse, the troubled homelife with the disapproving parents, and the scandalous celebrity relationship that nearly upended everything he worked for, as well as the road back to the top. But Al and his team don't stop there. There's also a blood feud with Pablo Escobar worked into the story, and a climax at the 1985 Grammy Awards that I will let you discover for yourself.
Like a lot of biopics, the movie opens with the artist at his lowest point. Here, a bloodied Weird Al (played here by Daniel Radcliffe, with Al himself providing the singing vocals) is at death's door while a desperate surgeon (Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of many cameos to be found) struggles to save his life. We flash back to his early years, where a young Al (David Bloom) lives with his fretful mother (Julianne Nicholson) and verbally abusive one-handed father (Toby Huss) who works at a mysterious factory where nobody knows what they actually make (though they have a lot of accidents), and who chastises the boy for his love of the accordion and making up funny lyrics to popular songs. After he is arrested by the police for attending a "Polka Party" with his friends, Al decides to set out on his own and make a name for himself.
He is taken under the wing of comedy radio personality Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), and quickly establishes himself as the most successful recording artist in history. However, a scandal-fueled love affair with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood) and having Michael Jackson parody one of Al's songs (he changes the lyrics of "Eat It" to "Beat It") sends Al spiraling down to the bottom, and leads to a surprisingly higher body count than one might expect. All of this is told with manic energy, and some truly laugh out loud moments. The movie captures the same kind of cinematic anarchy of the classic Zucker Brothers comedies (Airplane!, Top Secret, The Naked Gun), and while not all the jokes hit, I often found myself smiling at the attempt they were making.
At the center of it all is Radcliffe's lead performance, who not only manages to recreate Al's stage performances successfully, but brings a certain warped warmth to his performance amongst the chaos around him. The key to the role in a movie like this is to pretend that these absurd things are supposed to be dramatic, and he pulls it off beautifully. He plays all the expected moments in a biopic (the descent into drugs and alcohol, turning against his bandmates) to the right insane hilt of parody, but then the movie goes even further, and Radcliffe is game for every far flung thing the script throws. It's one of the better comedy performances I've seen this year, and continues to prove the actor has being willing to take chances with just about every role he plays.
Weird is simply a great time, and as someone who has followed the singer's career since Christmas when I was 8, I couldn't be happier with this pitch perfect send up of the modern day musical biopic. I was expecting a merciless satire of the "filmed Wikipedia" approach that so many biopics employ these days, and wound up getting so much more.
I am a rabid movie fan since 1984 who calls them as he sees them. Sometimes harsh, but always honest, I offer my 'reel opinions' on today's films. I don't get money for my reviews, and I have to pay to get into every movie I see (even the really awful ones), so what you will see here is the true reaction of a man who is passionate about film. - Ryan Cullen