All posts by Brent Leuthold

A Quiet Place Part II

After a 14-month delay, the follow-up to 2018’s surprise hit A Quiet Place is finally being released in a place that has been all too quiet the past year: our movie theaters. A Quiet Place Part II is another potent creature feature from writer/director John Krasinski, whose presence on-screen may be reduced this time around but his creative control behind the camera is on full display. Horror sequels have a bad habit of over-explaining the origins of their monsters or expanding their cinematic world too quickly; Krasinski wisely avoids both of those pitfalls while matching (if not exceeding) the tension produced by his predecessor. It obviously would help to have seen A Quiet Place first before picking up with this chapter but even audience members who go in blind shouldn’t have much trouble getting wrapped up in the film’s scares.

A Quiet Place begins on “Day 89” after Earth is overrun by terrifying creatures who hunt anything that makes noise; Part II goes back to show us the events of “Day 1” when the monsters first attack. After that extended prologue, we join Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) with her newborn baby along with daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and son Marcus (Noah Jupe), right after the events of the first film. With their home now destroyed, the family ventures out beyond the sand path and happens upon a seemingly abandoned steel factory. There they find Emmett (Cillian Murphy), a former family friend doing his best to survive after the loss of his children and more recent loss of his wife. Together, they work together to stave off the horrifying creatures and find a way to finish them off for good.

Restraint is a rare quality among horror movies, and especially ones as highly anticipated as A Quiet Place Part II, but Krasinski has again struck a fine balance between tension and release that permeates the film’s scariest moments. He explores and makes terrific use of new spaces, venturing past the cornfields of the original to a larger world that includes Emmett’s grimy bunker and a set of abandoned train cars. Complimenting some top-notch sound design, composer Marco Beltrami returns with a spine-tingling music score that is used sparingly but effectively. There are plenty of nail-biting scenes in this lean and mean sequel but the climax, beautifully edited by Michael P. Shawver, seamlessly weaves together three separate stories in a sequence that will leave audiences breathless.

If Krasinski’s script is light on nuance and character development, his performers make up the difference with heartfelt and beautifully lived-in performances. Blunt capably takes over the spotlight from both her real-life and fictional husband as a fierce matriarch saddled with a precious newborn but blessed with two children nearly as resourceful as she is. Simmonds is again terrific in a commanding and cunning role that properly empowers the deaf community without pandering to them. Though Murphy has appeared in plenty of Christopher Nolan’s movies, it seems like it’s been a while since he’s had a lead film role and he’s an outstanding addition to this eminently talented cast.

Like the best post-apocalyptic features, the pair of these films asks us to consider how much can be lost so quickly and to cherish the things in our lives that we may take for granted. The COVID-19 pandemic seemed destined to deal the final blow to movie theaters but through patience and resiliency, we gather together once again. Besides someone shouting “that’s Jim!” when Krasinski first appeared on screen, the audience at my IMAX screening was exceedingly respectful and properly enraptured by the presence of a screen alit once more. The movies allow us to sit as silent strangers in the dark but become acquainted and united with each other through light and magic. May A Quiet Place Part II be the first of many more movies to brighten our faces amid the darkness.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and playing on HBO Max is The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, a horror movie starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga that continues the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they take on another terrifying case.
Playing only in theaters is Spirit Untamed, an animated adventure starring Isabela Merced and Jake Gyllenhaal about a young girl who moves from the city to a small frontier town and befriends a wild mustang named Spirit.
Available to rent on demand is Undine, a myth-based romantic fantasy starring Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski about a mermaid posing as a German historian who must kill her cheating boyfriend and return to the water.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


When it comes to franchise building and marketing, Warner Bros has been emulating Disney for so long, it was only a matter of time before the House of Mouse reciprocated in kind. After the first trailer for Cruella was released a few months ago, many commented on how similar it looked to the promotions for Joker, from its gleefully unhinged tone to the gothic style of its title cards. Would this be Disney’s version of a darker, grittier origin story for one of its most notorious villains? After an all-too-common covid-related delay, the film now arrives in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access with most of the Joker inspiration being held for the final act, preceded by a mostly enjoyable mélange of The Devil Wears Prada and The Favourite.

We meet Estella de Vil (Emma Stone) shortly before her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) dies tragically in a cliffside accident, leaving her to fend for herself on the crowded streets of London. She makes fast friends with grifting brothers Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), creating disguises for their homespun con jobs. Thanks to some sneaky maneuvering by Jasper, Estella lands an entry-level position at an extravagant fashion house headed up by the chilly Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). After toiling under her rule as a ruthless and cutting (quite literally, in one scene) designer, Estella concocts an alter ego called Cruella, an iconoclastic firebrand aiming to take the fashion world by storm and take Hellman out in the process.

Director Craig Gillespie, who painted a sympathetic portrait of another villainous female figure in the cheeky biopic I, Tonya, crams truckloads of exposition into Cruella‘s opening act. This kind of table-setting has been commonplace for Disney’s live-action spinoffs like Maleficent and its sequel, reorienting how we see previously animated antagonists before they turn to their wicked ways. This passage is the most tedious section of the film, setting up an ambitious and potentially interesting character in the most bland and paint-by-numbers way possible. Perhaps it’s not the movie’s fault that I’m completely underwhelmed by origin stories at this stage in the game but it doesn’t help that Stone narrates in voiceover with tired quips like “there’s many more bad things coming, I promise!”

But a funny thing happens around a third of the way through: the movie actually starts to click. Unsurprisingly, this is around the time Emma Thompson’s character, a dead ringer for Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly character in Prada, comes into focus as Estella’s opposing force. Stone and Thompson are electrifying as they go at each others’ throats, in more subtle ways when Estella is working under the Baroness but more bombastically once Cruella is unleashed. Part of Cruella’s plan is to show up the Baroness at her own events wearing outfits that are increasingly head-turning and headline-inspiring. It’s a devilishly decadent game of oneup(wo)manship guaranteed to score Best Costume Design nominations around awards season.

A third act twist elevates the stakes of the revenge even higher and makes good on the Joker similarities forecast in the teaser trailer, specifically in a mansion-set scene where Nicholas Britell’s music score does some heavy lifting. Up to that point, Gillespie flexes Disney’s music licensing budget by compiling an enjoyable but ultimately exhausting barrage of 1970s tunes from bands like The Clash and Blondie. If his influence from Scorsese wasn’t apparent enough in his previous film, he ends this movie with a one-two punch of a character breaking the fourth wall and a Rolling Stones cut that may or may not tie in with the title character’s last name. At a stout 134 minutes, Cruella isn’t the most brisk walk down the runway but it struts with a confidence that’s intermittently infectious.

Score – 3/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is A Quiet Place Part II, a horror film starring Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy about a family continuing to survive in a world overrun by terrifying creatures that hunt by sound.
Streaming on Hulu is Plan B, a teen comedy starring Gus Birney and Mason Cook about a pair of high school students on the search for a Plan B pill after a regrettable first intimate encounter.
Premering on HBO Max is Oslo, a historical drama starring Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott about the development of the pivotal 1990s Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Though the last 10 years have been quite eventful for movie star and mother of 6 Angelina Jolie, very little of her life has taken place on-screen. She was the title character in a pair of Maleficent films and voiced a character in the Kung Fu Panda franchise but besides those roles, she’s understandably focused instead on her laudable humanitarian work and working on passion projects behind the camera. Her latest thriller, Those Who Wish Me Dead, marks the first time she’s led a big-budget action movie since 2010’s Salt and it’s a reminder of how much her unique energy and screen presence has been sorely missed the past decade. In fact, the film’s main fault is that it gets distracted from her character too often and gets bogged down in lurid but comparatively empty genre obligations.

Jolie plays Hannah, a gutsy smokejumper reeling from the trauma of the three lives lost in a forest fire that she and her team stopped too late. A failed psych evaluation after the incident gets her reassigned to a fire lookout tower deep in the forest, where she spots young runaway Connor (Finn Little) in a clearing one day. His father Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant, attempts to find safekeeping at his policeman brother-in-law Ethan’s (Jon Bernthal) home after discovering evidence against some dangerous men. Two ruthless hitmen (Aidan Gillen & Nicholas Hoult) catch up with Owen and Connor on the road, murdering the father while losing the son to the dense woods. Hannah and Connor must evade the assassins while also dealing with all the dangers that Mother Nature throws their way.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is the third film from writer/director Taylor Sheridan, whose pulpy neo-Westerns Hell or High Water and Wind River found conflicted protagonists fighting against the brutal and uncaring forces of nature. Instead of the arid plains of Texas or the frozen tundras of Wyoming, Sheridan sets his story this time amid the vast wilderness of Montana, where finding cell phone service is as unlikely as finding someone who doesn’t have intermediate survival skills. He and cinematographer Ben Richardson capture the lush landscape with fertile greens and fiery reds that find themselves at odds with each other. While the computer-generated lightning effects are wholly unconvincing, the combination of practical and digital fire in the film’s ablaze climax is first-rate.

The events that get the players to that thrilling third act are compelling enough but more fiddly than a story like this really requires. Hannah is set up as a female firebrand amid an order of fraternal firefighters, willing to throw around salty language to fit into the boys club, but her characterization is largely abandoned to make room for the convoluted crime plot. At one point, Tyler Perry pops up as a mob boss who stares at the middle distance while delivering a tough guy monologue to a henchman, only to disappear for the rest of the movie. Sheridan, whose screenwriting credits also include Sicario and its sequel, has penned a screenplay that too often loses sight of its characters amid the smokescreen of action-filled setups and payoffs.

Thankfully, the sturdy performances see this thriller through. Jolie brings the same kind of unpredictability and vulnerability that made her a star around the turn of the century in films like Gone in 60 Seconds and Girl, Interrupted. Newcomer Medina Senghore makes the most of her limited screen time as Ethan’s six months-pregnant wife, emerging from her compromised position as a credible threat for the pair of trained triggermen. Gillen is especially menacing as a determined killer who doesn’t let getting run over by a car and getting half of his face burned stop him from achieving his mission. Despite suffering from a totally unmemorable title (From The Ashes, for one, would’ve worked better), Those Who Wish Me Dead is another no-nonsense frontier story from a filmmaker who puts the “stern” in neo-Western.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Army of the Dead, a Zack Snyder-directed horror action film starring Dave Bautista and Ella Purnell about a group of mercenaries who plot a heist on a Las Vegas casino during a zombie outbreak.
Available to rent on demand is Four Good Days, a family drama starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis about a mother helping her daughter work through four crucial days of recovery from substance abuse.
Opening in theaters is Dream Horse, a sports movie based on a true story starring Toni Collette and Damian Lewis about a small-town bartender who begins training a racehorse with the help of her friends and family.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Originally titled Connected and due to arrive in theaters last fall, the superb new animated comedy The Mitchells vs. the Machines is now available on Netflix for families everywhere to binge over and over again. Fortunately, it’s a movie packed with so many laughs and warm moments that rewatches will actually feel warranted and reward viewers with bits they may have missed the first or second time around. It comes courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation and Lord/Miller Productions, the same collaboration that yielded amazing results with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse a few years ago. Like that film, Mitchells starts off with concepts and characters that feel very familiar but demonstrates a willingness early on to dig deeper with some exceptionally sharp writing and direction.

The titular family is, by their own admission, a bit of an odd bunch. There’s Katie (Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring film student who makes goofy but inspired movies starring her younger brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) and their derpy pug Monchi (“voiced” by celebrity pet Doug the Pug). Her mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) is supportive of their endeavors but her techno-resistant father Rick (Danny McBride) finds himself growing distant from his smartphone-addicted daughter, made worse after he accidentally totals her laptop. In a well-intentioned but blatantly impulsive act of repentance, he cancels Katie’s California-bound flight and packs up the family for one last cross-country road trip over orientation week. As bad luck would have it, their trek coincides with a robot uprising brought on by out-of-control virtual assistant PAL (Olivia Colman).

Rianda, who also serves as director and co-writer with Jeff Rowe, tackles well-worn subjects like reliance on glowing devices and “quirky” dysfunctional families through a completely fresh lens. Cross-generational attitudes about the prevalence of technology are often portrayed one-dimensionally in the media but The Mitchells vs. the Machines doesn’t settle for an easy conversation about it. Sure, Katie’s preference to live her life through a screen bothers her dad and Rick’s helplessness in navigating the internet embarrasses his daughter but the film seeks to bridge the gap with empathy between the two camps. The virtues and pitfalls of the natural world and the AI-driven technoscape are explored with a welcome amount of even-handedness and intelligence.

Of course, humor also helps solidify these bonds and this movie has enough gags to keep viewers of all ages laughing throughout. What family can’t relate to Rick’s plea that everyone put their phones down for 10 seconds of uninterrupted eye contact with one another, only to find that it’s more awkward and unnatural than it sounds? With references to works that range from the more recognizable The Dukes of Hazzard and Kill Bill to more niche picks like Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and They Live, there’s an unquestionable amount of inspiration behind the innumerable jokes. This is also one of the first films I’ve seen that manages to keep up the breakneck pace of Gen Z comedy, implementing TikTok rhythm and meme culture in a way that doesn’t feel condescending or contrived.

The stacked voice cast ties everything together, with Jacobson and McBride effortlessly selling the heartfelt father-daughter dynamic while scoring huge laughs along the way. SNL alum Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett are downright hilarious as a pair of defective robots who unwittingly guide the Mitchells, while Eric Andre finds himself in a rare straight man role as a foil to Colman’s exceedingly witty PAL. Chrissy Teigen and John Legend naturally play the picture-perfect Posey family next door, whose seemingly obvious fate is subverted in a nicely choreographed punchline. Set to a raucous and upbeat soundtrack that perfectly matches its idiosyncratic verve, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is wise and weird in all the best ways.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Spiral: From The Book of Saw, the ninth installment in the Saw horror series starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson about a new crew of detectives tasked with tracking down the Jigsaw Killer.
Also opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max is Those Who Wish Me Dead, a neo-Western starring Angelina Jolie and Nicholas Hoult about a teenage murder witness who finds himself pursued by twin assassins in the Montana wilderness.
Premiering on Netflix is The Woman in the Window, a psychological thriller starring Amy Adams and Gary Oldman about an agoraphobic psychologist who suspects foul play when her across-the-street neighbor suddenly disappears.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Without Remorse

Without Remorse (technically Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse) is the sixth movie based on a Clancy novel but the first to make Clancy’s other famous spy character, John Clark, its primary player. The prolific espionage writer is known for creating Jack Ryan, played previously by heavyweights like Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin on the big screen and currently being portrayed by John Krasinski on the Amazon Prime series Jack Ryan. In the books, Clark is written as a more intimidating physical presence and more inclined to take retaliatory action than the more measured Ryan. It turns out that Michael B. Jordan, star of the Creed franchise and villain of Black Panther, is a nice fit for a more imposing protagonist to head up a lean and mean action film like this one.

We meet Clark alongside his crew of Navy SEALs in Syria as they rescue a high-value hostage who their boss, Director Ritter (Jamie Bell), tells them is being held by potential ISIS members. It turns out the captors were Russian military and months later, members of the SEAL team are assassinated on US soil as retribution . Caught in the crossfire is Clark’s pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London), whose attackers (save one) are killed by Clark soon afterwards. Thanks to a lead from friend in the CIA Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), Clark goes on a warpath to track down the final assassin and avenge his wife’s untimely death as well as the deaths of his former teammates.

We’ve seen this plot before and we’ve probably seen it done better too but what sets Without Remorse apart from its revenge movie peers is the effortlessly breakneck pace established by director Stefano Sollima. Using land, air, and sea as settings, he elegantly strings his efficiently brutal action setpieces together with just the right amount of interpersonal drama and tense geopolitical intrigue. The pace reminded me of an action-packed video game, specifically — and perhaps not coincidentally — the stealth shooting game Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. As with the recent Mortal Kombat reboot, we’ve seen Hollywood try to make video games cinematic but more uncommon and admirable are the films that evoke the excitement of discovering a video game in real time.

Whether he’s getting into a burning car for an “advanced interrogation” or shirtlessly preparing to take on a legion of armored prison guards, Jordan oozes the command and confidence vital for this role. Though the movie doesn’t utilize the full range of his charisma, Jordan also has an understated chemistry with Turner-Smith that blurs the line between the characters’ professional friendship and potential romance. The script is a collaboration between video game developer Will Staples and Hell or High Water scribe Taylor Sheridan and while the dialogue isn’t particularly noteworthy or inspired, it gets the job done. After all, Clancy books are notoriously long and distilling one into a 100-minute movie doesn’t necessarily make for the easiest adaptation.

Like nearly everything else in the movie industry these days, this film sets up an extended universe (Clancyverse has likely already been trademarked) for future content, confirmed by the post-credit stinger. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t be opposed to Michael B. Jordan teaming up with John Krasinski for a Clark/Ryan project, whether as a movie or new Amazon series. If they do, I hope they’re able to include stories with a bit more meat on the bone and rope in talented directors like Sollima for more first-rate action sequences. As both an adrenaline-pumping franchise-starter and throwback to 1990s action fare, Without Remorse is a guilty pleasure about which you don’t have to feel too guilty.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Wrath of Man, a Guy Ritchie action thriller starring Jason Statham and Holt McCallany about a mysterious money courier who is on the hunt for the people behind his son’s murder.
Available to rent on demand is Mainstream, a dramedy starring Andrew Garfield and Maya Hawke about a young woman who finds a path to internet stardom when she starts making videos with a charismatic stranger.
Streaming on Netflix is Monster, a legal drama starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Jennifer Ehle about a teenage honor student whose world comes crashing down around him when he is charged with felony murder.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Mortal Kombat

When the first Mortal Kombat movie came out in the late summer of 1995, it was amid a string of early attempts like Double Dragon and Street Fighter to adapt fighting video games for the big screen. While all three titles feature fantastical elements, what set Kombat apart was an over-the-top brutality that relied upon a gratuitous amount of gore. New Line Cinema knew an R-rating would hurt the film’s box office viability, so it opted for a PG-13 version that may have pulled punches but brought in enough money to spawn a sequel a couple years later. Times have changed and audiences are now much more receptive to R-rated material, so Mortal Kombat has been brought back yet again but this time, it contains the exaggerated violence and bloody melee that fans pined for the first time around.

Diverting from the source material, the story this time revolves around Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a down-and-out MMA fighter whose dragon-shaped birthmark turns out to be an invitation of sorts to an otherworldly tournament called Mortal Kombat. The dark realm known as Outworld is one win away from taking over our Earthrealm, prompting the lightning god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) to recruit marked individuals like Young and brash mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) to defend their universe. Aiding in their effort are brothers Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), while Outworld baddies Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) summon all manner of bloodthirsty brawlers to hinder Earth’s chances.

With recent successes like Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, Hollywood again returns to the well of 1990s video game nostalgia but things are a bit different with this entry. Those two films were based on kids’ games and remain family-friendly PG fare but Mortal Kombat is, at last, true to the “rated M for Mature” nature of its source material. To that end, its authenticity to the experience of the video game may be enough to satiate the bloodlust of the franchise’s fans but isn’t likely to win over casual moviegoers. New characters are introduced with little fanfare and dispatched with even less regard, while the exposition-heavy dialogue does heavy lifting in between the numerous fight scenes to string together a cohesive yet painfully derivative plot.

1995’s Mortal Kombat was far from a cinematic masterpiece — and its sequel even less so — but that film at least had a knowing sense of how ridiculous the excesses of the video game were and played into them properly. The most disappointing aspect of this reboot is how fatally self-serious it is, giving into Hollywood’s penchant to “grittily reimagine” material that was intentionally corny at the outset. Besides a few well-earned bits of fan service and meta humor from the Kano character, first-time director Simon McQuoid treats this material with bone-headed gravitas intended to revitalize a franchise rather than faithfully render the tone of the video game. When Young inquires “Lord Raiden, can you send anyone anywhere?”, I howled with laughter at his stoicism while asking such a preposterous question but I doubt the movie was laughing along with me.

Fortunately, McQuoid still sees the value in the superpowers these characters possess and the bloody bedlam that they inevitably produce. The video game series is famous for its Fatalities, signature finishing moves of outlandish overkill that translate nicely to this R-rated iteration of the fighting game. My personal favorite implements the sharp-brimmed hat of good guy Kung Lao against the winged terror known as Mileena. But in between these flights of blood-soaked fancy, there is a movie that wants desperately to be taken seriously on the merits of its characters and story. It may be glib to suggest that I’ve grown past this particular franchise but would be more apt to say that we as a society have likely outgrown the need for much more Mortal Kombat kontent.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, an action thriller starring Michael B. Jordan and Jodie Turner-Smith about a Navy SEAL who goes on a path to avenge his wife’s murder, only to find himself inside of a larger conspiracy.
Streaming on Netflix is The Mitchells vs. the Machines, an animated comedy starring Abbi Jacobson and Danny McBride about a family road trip that is interrupted by the sudden worldwide takeover of evil robots.
Also debuting on Netflix is Things Heard & Seen, a horror movie starring Amanda Seyfried and James Norton about an artist who marriage begins to reveal a darkness as she and her husband relocate to a storied new house.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Matt Damon plays a brilliant astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and with the aid of a robust sense of humor and scientific intellect along with NASA assistance, he makes it back to Earth. The new sci-fi snoozer Stowaway finds four space travelers in a similar predicament, who work through a life-or-death struggle in the most rote and matter-of-fact way possible. The special effects are believable enough and the process of how the astronauts deal with their stressful situation is likely accurate but that doesn’t mean it makes for an engaging movie. Watching the film is like reading an inventory list of dehydrated food supplies or an instruction manual for how to eat them; it’s the cinematic equivalent of the saltine cracker challenge.

The film opens on the faces of three crew members during the takeoff of a space shuttle owned by Hyperion, a sort of fictional SpaceX of the near-future. The aim of their two year, Mars-bound mission is to test food production on the red planet, spearheaded by tireless research from the ship’s biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). The rest of the trio, medic Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), round out a lean crew that grows too large when the latter finds an unconscious man behind a ceiling grate. He turns out to be a concussed launch support engineer who unwittingly became an accidental stowaway on a ship that only has resources to support three people and apparently not enough to abort the mission altogether.

In his directorial debut Arctic, director Joe Penna told a similar survival story to the one found in Stowaway but with even fewer people, revolving entirely around a stranded pilot played by Mads Mikkelsen. Taking place in the oppressive tundra of the Arctic Circle, the film has a convincing and menacing sense of environment that carries over to the unforgiving outer space surroundings of Penna’s sophomore effort. Adapting from “The Cold Equations”, a sci-fi short story that has also served as the basis for a Twilight Zone episode of the same name, Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison lay out the terms of the crew’s conundrum in fittingly unfeeling terms.

A creative decision becomes apparent early-on, one that dictates the story is told only from the perspective of these four voyagers. When Barnett communicates with a head technician at Hyperion, we only hear her side of the phone call and we don’t meet any other characters besides those four. This is in contrast to a space movie like The Martian, where we bounce between Mars and Earth and are introduced to supporting players to get a more complete picture. This withholding context should make the proceedings more tense, since we’re stuck on the ship with the crew, but the isolation only makes things painfully dull. The third act features an action setpiece of sorts but everything leading up to it is essentially hand-wringing devoid of the kind of moral ambiguity that could have made things interesting.

I’m not sure there’s a group of actors who could have given this lifeless tale what it needed but it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Aside from some fleeting sparks of chemistry with her two male cohorts, the charming Anna Kendrick is sadly miscast in a role that squanders her spunky sense of humor. Daniel Dae Kim deserves a starring role with more meat on the bone than this and Toni Collette, one of the best actresses around, is forced to push her melodramatic lines to their breaking point. Shamier Anderson might come across as the best of the quartet in his titular role but even his efforts fall short. Overacted and underdirected, Stowaway is a Netflix movie that barely passes muster as a screensaver at which to occasionally glance behind your smartphone after a hard day’s work.

Score – 1.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max is Mortal Kombat, a martial arts fantasy movie starring Lewis Tan and Jessica McNamee about an MMA fighter who recruits Earth’s greatest champions for a high stakes tournament in another universe.
Also coming to theaters is Together Together, an indie comedy starring Ed Helms and Patti Harrison about an introverted young woman who becomes a gestational surrogate for a single man in his 40s.
Also in theaters is The Asset, an action thriller starring Michael Keaton and Maggie Q about a pair of premiere assassins who team up to track down the killer of their mutual mentor.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Game On: Super Mario Bros

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

By the early 1990s, Super Mario could seemingly do no wrong. The portly plumber had starred in 5 platform games from 1985-1990, culminating in Super Mario World, whose 20 million+ copies worldwide make it the best-selling SNES game of all-time. After dominating the video game market, it only made sense to spread to other media, resulting in TV shows like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, to coincide with the video game sequel of the same name. But the Mario machine simply wouldn’t stop there and in 1993, he finally had a live-action Hollywood movie to his name: Super Mario Bros.

Being the first feature-length adaptation of a video game, the film obviously wasn’t made with a template in mind or genre restrictions of what a video game movie could be. Lightmotive, the production company behind the project, went through several ideations with multiple Hollywood scribes, including a self-referential take from Harold Ramis and a script pass by Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow so similar to his Rain Man that it was dubbed Drain Man. Somehow, the project ended up in the creative control of Max Headroom creators Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. The duo would never work on another project again after the overwhelming critical and financial failure that was Super Mario Bros.

The movie stars Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Italian-American brothers Mario and Luigi, respectively. Like their video game counterparts, the pair work as plumbers but instead toil in modern-day Brooklyn as opposed to a fantasy world filled with brick blocks and shiny coins. After a meet-cute with archeology student Daisy (Samantha Mathis), Luigi goes with her to a bone site under the Brooklyn Bridge, only to find it being flooded by faulty water pipes. With Mario’s help, the plumbing pair fix the leaks but, in the process, get knocked into an interdimensional wormhole that spits them into a strange city called Dinohattan.

It turns out the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years actually split the universe into two dimensions, creating a world where the ancient creatures spawned their own civilization. Somehow, Dinohattan is even more congested and overpopulated than its Earthly analog, being run by the ruthlessly tyrannical President Koopa (Dennis Hopper). We find the portal was opened because Daisy, who was kidnapped and also transported to Dinohattan, wears a necklace with a fragment of the meteorite that will allow Koopa to reassemble it and merge the two worlds together. It’s up to the Mario brothers to navigate the strange parallel city and avoid Koopa’s Goomba henchmen to stop Earth from going down the tubes.

Though Super Mario Bros. is based on a hugely popular video game franchise, it’s difficult to categorize the film as a “kids movie”. While the plot lifts the broad objective from the video games — to rescue the princess from the evil overlord and save the day — the road to get there is presented in stark contrast with the bright colors of the preeminent side-scroller. Even before we get to the fungus-covered town of Dinohattan, the inescapable humidity of summertime Manhattan is captured with similar oppressiveness to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. There’s a de-evolution machine that produces nightmarish images when one’s head is placed inside it and a mafia subplot bound to go right over the heads of children.

Speaking of heads, the enemy Goomba creatures are known in the video games for their mushroom-shaped heads and little feet but in this movie, they have comically undersized dino heads atop ridiculously large frames. In the game, a stomp on the head will do them in but I wouldn’t even begin to know how to handle combat with these cinematic Goombas. The Mario brothers don’t seem to know either, which is why they trick the Goombas into swaying and dancing to polka music whenever they encounter a group of the oversized subordinates. One of the Goombas is supposed to be a de-evolved version of Toad, who sports a harmonica rack and resembles a slightly creepier version of Michael Rooker. The only kid-friendly aspect of the creature design belongs to Yoshi, an amiable dinosaur aimed to give the species a more benevolent reputation two weeks before Speilberg shut all that down with Jurassic Park.

Though the production design of Dinohattan isn’t necessarily meant to impress the younger members of the audience, it remains one of the film’s most memorable artistic statements. Head art director David Snyder, who won an Academy Award for his work on Blade Runner, brings back the rain-drenched neon and murky alleyways of that neo-noir to his conception of a parallel version of downtown New York. He references other dystopian films, from the bureaucratic congestion of Brazil to the timeline-corrupted version of 1985 from Back to the Future Part II. Like that film, Koopa rules over Dinohattan in a similar way the super-wealthy Biff presides over Hill Valley. Both characters play as veiled facsimiles of then-millionaire Donald Trump; incidentally, Koopa’s opening line has the megalomaniac referring to his city as a “pithole”.

The movie doesn’t feature any triceratops but still remains inexplicably horny. Though Mathis isn’t particularly sexualized in an overt manner, nearly every male character besides the Mario brothers objectify Daisy even in brief exchanges with her and Koopa even unrolls his lizard tongue within a minute of meeting her. One sequence takes place in the Boom Boom Bar, a seedy nightclub where Mario retrieves the meteorite necklace with his teeth as it hangs off the buxom Big Bertha. In another scene, Koopa bathes in a tub of mud, commenting that it’s “clean and dirty at the same time” with an overly pleased look on his face.

No one exactly looks “in their element” in Super Mario Bros. but Hopper looks especially out of place in his villainous role. Not that he’s a stranger to antagonistic roles but this was the same year he delivered a world-class monologue in True Romance and a year before he directed his seventh movie. Dozens and dozens of credits to his name and yet, here he is with blonde cornrows and spiked leather. According to a 2010 interview with Conan O’Brien, Hopper confessed that he did the movie to impress his six-year-old son but that it wasn’t even worth it to fulfill that goal. Upon rewatch, I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t yell “I’ll flame anything that moves!” when yielding a flamethrower during the film’s finale.

Despite the persistent mention of “de-evolution”, Mark Mothersbaugh doesn’t serve as the film’s composer, even though he’s responsible for the theme song for the Super Mario World TV series. Instead, the task fell to industry veteran Alan Silvestri, whose wacky and zany score feels ripped from a Hulk Hogan family comedy. It doesn’t implement any of Koji Kondo’s iconic video game music, except for the original 8-bit theme that plays over the opening credits. Understandably, a cover of the Was (Not Was) funk classic “Walk the Dinosaur”, credited to The Goombas feat. George Clinton, plays twice in the film.

While the genre-spawning Super Mario Bros. had a rough go of it at the box office and in the press, the vast majority of video game movies have fallen victim to a similar fate. It wasn’t until 2019, which saw the release of Detective Pikachu, that such a film would receive a positive Rotten Tomatoes score, despite dozens of entries in the genre. Currently, Universal Pictures and Illumination are allegedly hard at work on a more faithful animated reboot of the Mario property with a tentative 2022 release. Like a frustrated gamer, Hollywood seems bent on finding a measure of success, even if it means playing the same game over and over again.


Making an unceremonious journey to theaters this weekend, the new sci-fi thriller Voyagers opens with an ominous title card about how the Earth is finally uninhabitable and we must go forth into the cosmos to find a new home. The year is 2063; the good news is that we’ve found a planet that can play host to humanity but the bad news is that the trip will take 86 years. So begins an unconventional mission, in which middle-aged scientist Richard Alling (Colin Farrell) boards a spaceship with 30 lab-bred boys and girls whose grandchildren will eventually reach the final destination. Naturally, Alling won’t be able to carry out the entire mission due to its length but his directive is to instead act as a paternal figure to the children as they grow up in their abnormal surroundings.

Part of this parenting task is keeping everyone calm and safe in their everyday life, made easier by a blue substance filled with emotional suppressants that the young cadets are made to ingest daily. The kids are none the wiser until they hit their late teens, when friends Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) figure out there’s something in the water and stop drinking, while encouraging others like the chief medical officer Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) to do the same. It turns out chemical is no match for pent-up teenage hormones and when Alling dies from a freak accident, the ship descends into chaos as the young astronauts scramble to preserve the remnants of order that remain within their confined society.

Though it lifts heavily from both the forever prescient Lord of the Flies and George Lucas’ debut THX 1138, Voyagers introduces a promising premise and even touches on the thought-provoking allegorical themes from its chief influences. The nature vs. nurture debate is naturally front-and-center in a story primarily populated by characters whose entire existence was curated from its very inception. Man’s impulse towards destruction amid civilization comes into focus in the film’s second half, along with the interplay of the emotional impulses and rational thinking that dwell within us all. The film invokes these concepts in a capable manner but mainly in a frustratingly superficial manner and doesn’t draw many novel conclusions from these conundrums either.

Sadly, the actors don’t seem terribly game for such heady material and seemed pitched more towards a Hunger Games or Divergent type of young adult franchise. I’ve given Tye Sheridan a fair amount of chances at this point, between the rare Speilberg dud Ready Player One to his Cyclops role in the newer X-Men films, to say that I just don’t find him a compelling front man on-screen. Whitehead is another rising talent that strikes a bit more of a chord here as a feverishly menacing antagonist but isn’t above a totally unconvincing line reading or two either. Depp (yes, daughter to Johnny) is the biggest bore of the three, possessing neither the goofball charisma nor hard-earned pathos that made her dad an international star before personal issues stalled his career.

Director Neil Burger makes up for some of the flat acting with visual flourishes that personify the repressed emotions of these teenagers all coming back in a rush. Along with cinematographer Enrique Chediak, he composes a nice motif of the camera running up and down the futuristic corridors, mirroring the excitement and infinite possibilities of youth. Composer Trevor Gureckis compliments these images with a properly pensive score that also knows when to amp up the excitement during the movie’s more action-packed sequences. Engaging if not totally fulfilling, Voyagers has the components of contemplative sci-fi fare that is all too rare these days but ultimately stumbles due to its lack of conviction both in performances and storytelling.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters is In the Earth, a horror film starring Joel Fry and Reece Shearsmith about a scientist and a park scout venturing into a nearby forest to find the cure for a disastrous virus.
Available to rent on demand is Monday, a romantic drama starring Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough about two strangers who come together one hot summer night in Athens, Greece.
Also available to digitally rent is Jakob’s Wife, a horror movie starring Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden about a small-town minister and his wife, the latter of whom discovers vampiric powers.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup