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Movie Reviews
How It Ends
(NR / 1hrs 22min / Mister Lister Films)

Overview: In this feel good apocalyptic comedy, freewheeling Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) scores an invite to one last wild party before the world ends.

But making it there won’t be easy, after her car is stolen, and the clock is ticking on her plan to tie up loose ends with friends and family.

Accompanied by her younger self (Cailee Spaeny), Liza embarks on a hilarious journey across Los Angeles, running into an eclectic cast of characters.

Verdict: New indie comedy How It Ends prides itself on the fact that it was filmed during the pandemic-plagued summer of 2020, an act of desperation that basically begs audiences to forgive its slapdash execution.

The husband-wife filmmaking duo of Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones, here serving as co-directors and co-writers, were obviously influenced by the world events around them, crafting a tale that details one woman’s journey of self-acceptance on humanity’s last day on Earth, soon to be obliterated by an apocalyptic meteor.

The woman in question, Liza (Lister-Jones), hoofs her way across sunny Los Angeles, desperate to bring closure to a number of fractured relationships from her past.

In tow is the metaphysical version of Liza’s younger self (Cailee Spaeny), who can now be seen by everyone as a result of some heightened emotional frequency caused by the upcoming cataclysmic event.

Much like everything else in this film, there is absolutely no pay-off to this plot development, its implementation feeling like a half-assed eccentricity, at best.

The film’s episodic structure allows Liza and Liza Jr. to encounter numerous individuals on their trek across L.A., with Lister-Jones and Wein clearly calling in a lot of favors from friends to cameo for a series of one-off scenes that feel highly improvised and rarely amusing.

It’s quite an achievement to gather the likes of Fred Armisen, Olivia Wilde, Bradley Whitford, Helen Hunt, Glenn Howerton, Lamorne Morris, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Charlie Day, Colin Hanks, and — God help me — Pauly Shore, and give them exactly nothing of interest to do or say.

It’s also quite obvious that, aside from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the production had Covid protocols in place, with everyone on screen maintaining a bubble of at least six feet.

While this is admirable — to the extent that adhering to life-saving protocols and communal responsibility has become praise-worthy rather than expected — it unfortunately results in exceedingly ugly shots that only serve to highlight the filmmakers’ (required) awkward blocking and improper use of screen space.

But what’s most frustrating is that this hindrance actually could have been used in the film’s favor, a visual metaphor to reinforce the distance Liza has created between herself and others in order to shield herself from pain and heartache.

This is, after all, the story of one woman finally learning to love herself — literally. Yet it becomes just another example of a production that showed little thought in conception and execution other than, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we got our friends together and made a movie?”

As How It Ends makes painstakingly clear, the answer is a resounding no.

Snake Eyes
(PG-13 / 2hrs 1min / MGM)

Overview: Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins stars Henry Golding as Snake Eyes, a tenacious loner who is welcomed into an ancient Japanese clan called the Arashikage after saving the life of their heir apparent.

Upon arrival in Japan, the Arashikage teach Snake Eyes the ways of the ninja warrior while also providing something he’s been longing for: a home. But, when secrets from his past are revealed, Snake Eyes’ honor and allegiance will be tested - even if that means losing the trust of those closest to him.

Verdict: Snake Eyes, while slightly better than the unrelenting vomit that was The Rise of Cobra and Retaliation, advances a storyline that need not be advanced, because everybody desperately wants it to go away.

Making matters worse, our main character is kind of an ass. He betrays friends at every step of his journey, causes untold damage and often hurts his own cause in the process.

At the beginning of director Robert Schwentke’s humorless origin story, Snake is a little boy whose father is killed unexpectedly while hiding out in a safe house.

The slimeball who offs him hands Dad a pair of dice and says, If you win, you live. If you lose, you die. He does not specify exactly what you have to roll to win, but Dad rolls snake eyes. That’s how his son gets his moniker.

As an adult, Snake is making money as a cage fighter and gets recruited by another shadowy criminal who claims he can help him find Pop’s murderer in exchange for smuggling work. But after a massive fight in the weapons sales ring, the loner is then offered the chance to become a member of a Japanese spy’s (Andrew Koji) clan.

The secretive group protects a magic stone called the Jewel of the Sun, which allows its holder to instantly incinerate anybody or anything in their path. That seems a bit quaint considering the existence of nonmagical — but effective — bombs, guns and flamethrowers, but that’s what we’ve got to work with.

Long story short, Snake has to complete three deadly tasks to gain membership in a clan that offers very few personal benefits for him. And it takes a very long time for these challenges to happen.

All of this is building toward Snake Eyes becoming a Joe, but the martial arts film’s connection to the main story feels frail, as if Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ended with Michelle Yeoh becoming an Avenger.

The fights, taken on their own, are occasionally OK, but not enough to lift this joke- and fun-free slog.

(PG-13 / 1 hr 49m / Universal Studios)

Summary: Four sets of vacationing families find themselves trapped on a beach in which they begin to inexplicably age rapidly. Every action then becomes a race against time to make it out alive.

Verdict: Man’s eternal battle against the ebb and flow of passing time is at the heart of Old, the newest psychological thriller by writer-director M. Night Shyamalan.

Adapted from the graphic novel Sandcastle by Frederic Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy, Old tells the story of eleven people trapped in paradise on a beach at which time moves at an alarming rate.

Shyamalan assembles an impressive international cast to tell this tale. Leading the way are Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle, Y Tu Mamá También) and Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) as Guy and Priska a married couple on holiday with their six-year-old son, Trent (Nolan River) and eleven-year-old daughter, Maddox (Alexa Swinton).

Joining their family on their bonkers beachfront day trip are cardiac surgeon Charles (played flawlessly by Rufus Sewell), his trophy wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their six-year-old daughter, Kara (aged up to be played by Eliza Scanlen) as well as a nurse named Jarin and his psychologist wife, Patricia (Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird).

The party is rounded out by Charles’ elderly mother (Kathleen Chafant) and rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre).

The pacing of the film feels a bit like a rollercoaster, with the first twenty or so minutes attempting to set various elements up - Guy and Priska are on the verge of separating, Charles has been under a lot of stress at work - but never stopping on any of it for long enough, steadily escalating until the steep, steep drop and the unrelenting thrill ride truly begins.

And that drop occurs when a dead body washes into the lagoon and the party discovers that any attempt to leave the area results in blackouts. And if that’s not enough, age is starting to creep in.

The rapid cellular aging taking place on this beach is, at first, only noticeable in the children, when Kara, Trent, and Maddox are suddenly in the bodies of teenagers. And it is here that Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie take over as the Cappa children, basically carrying the film’s entire second act themselves, with occasional help from García and Sewell.

But one by one, the adults begin to see and feel the effects of the Creepy Time Beach themselves. Subtle visual effects are brilliantly employed to demonstrate the loss of hearing, eyesight, and even one’s physical attractiveness as the minutes tick away.

Tight shots convey well the obvious tension as fear and realization dawn on these people that they need to find a way out - and fast.

But for every moment the camera comes to rest on the most attractive member of the cast, there is another moment in which it sweeps across the landscape or rotates around the crowd of people, somewhat reminiscent of a pendulum or the motion of the hands of a clock to serve as a reminder that time is a precious and rare commodity in this place.

Unfortunately, a seemingly-inescapable beach isn’t the only problematic element at work here. The film’s dialogue often comes across as stilted, strangely timed, or out of place altogether, like Charles’ inability to recall the title of a film starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando at inopportune times, like during an emergency surgery.

And while you could argue that this repeated question clues the viewer in on the fact that Charles maybe isn’t quite playing with a full deck, it can easily be argued that his actions to the same thing without making it weird.

Oddly, dialogue also seems to lack at times when there should probably be so much more of it. Gael García is the victim here, as his character is put multiple times into situations in which he can and probably should speak words of love or comfort to his wife and children, but says nothing - likely because there were never any words for him to speak.

This does a massive disservice to the impressive emotional range García has as an actor. But for all of the dialogue that is unintentionally hilarious, there are flashes of beauty and brilliance, including and especially one line delivered by Thomasin McKenzie’s Maddox: “My thoughts have more color in them now,” she says of her sudden growth spurt mindset shift. What a lovely way to articulate the onslaught of puberty.

Clunky writing doesn’t do too much to hinder performances, with most of the cast taking turns at being exceptional, but Alex Wolff walks away the MVP, flawlessly capturing a child’s last vestiges of innocence as the world around him - and even his own body - betray that innocence. Thomasin McKenzie is only slightly behind him in this regard.

García brings a mild-mannered softness that balances out the roughness of Rufus Sewell, particularly in the third act.

The mothers of the group can’t go unnoticed as Krieps goes full Mama Bear at just the right time while Abbey Lee really sells Chrystal as a woman from whom time takes the ability not only to be the sort of mother she knows she can and should be, but also her identity as one of the Beautiful People.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an M. Night Shyamalan flick without a twist, and Old goes in for two, the second of which sort of makes the rollercoaster ride you’ve been on for the last ninety minutes feel like it has all but ground to a halt.

And not in a satisfying way, either. But if you take Old for the morality tale it could be about savoring every moment you’re given, it works, and works well.

At one point, as the group tries to figure out what the hell is going on and why, someone quips, “we were chosen for a reason.” I agree.

On the cusp of turning thirty, the irony is in no way lost on me that I’ve twice reached - and will likely continue to reach - for this Twilight Zone-esque tale about the inherent horrors of getting older.

Time is, after all, precious. And while it doesn’t come close to something like The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s latest effort is a good way to spend it.

Review by: Ashley J. Cicotte

(PG-13 / 2hr 25m / Universal Pictures)

Overview: Vin Diesels Dom Toretto is leading a quiet life off the grid with Letty and his son, little Brian, but they know that danger always lurks just over their peaceful horizon.

This time, that threat will force Dom to confront the sins of his past if he is going to save those he loves most.

His crew joins together to stop a world-shattering plot led by the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they have ever encountered: a man who also happens to be Doms forsaken brother, Jakob (John Cena, the upcoming The Suicide Squad).

Verdict: Welcome back, Justin Lin! The director of four consecutive Fast and Furious films — from 2006s underrated The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift to 2013s expectations-meeting Fast & Furious 6 — was not around for 2015s sometimes-excellent Furious 7, helmed by James Wan, and F. Gary Grays hugely frustrating 2017 entry, The Fate of the Furious.

Although Wan came close a couple of times, no one does Fast action — and delivers guilty-pleasure cinematic thrills — quite like Lin, and he proves it again with F9.

The big, long-delayed movie finally is dropping at a time when the country is easing back into going to the theater for some of its movie consumption. It really should put butts in seats.

Even though they are expected at this point — the $5 billion franchise is celebrating its 20th birthday this week — there are a few jaw-dropping moments dreamed up by Lin, his co-writers and his filmmaking team.

And, sure, F9 all but grinds to a screeching halt when some of its paper-thin characters are allowed to talk for too long, but that is the cost of doing Fast business. There is still so much bang for the buck here in a flick that generally flies by even though it runs for nearly two and a half hours.

The script by Lin and Daniel Casey (2018s Kin) — with a story credit also going to Alfredo Botello — mines new territory in the backstory of series central figure, Vin Diesels Dominic Toretto, by unearthing a never-before-mentioned estranged brother, Jakob (John Cena).

We meet younger versions of both Dom (Vinnie Bennett) and Jakob (Finn Cole) on the day their father, Jack (J.D. Pardo), died in a fiery crash on a racetrack.

Of course, Jakob is, like Dom, a master behind the wheel. He also happens to be a skilled assassin and aims to acquire the two halves of a device that would have world-shaking implications.

Although Dom does not initially know his brother is involved, the plot leads to Dom and his pals — they are basically a ragtag military strike team at this point — traversing the globe in an attempt to save the planets computer systems from being hijacked.

The brother-against-brother dynamic gives the filmmakers an excuse to bring back Jordana Brewster as Toretto sibling Mia. As you may recall, Mia and partner Brian — portrayed by the late Paul Walker in six Fast films — left the high-stakes life to raise their children.

Unfortunately, Mias inclusion does not add much to the affair, and it is not as though F9 would be character-starved without her. We also have series mainstays Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Doms tough-as-nails wife; the comically fearful Roman (Tyrese Gibson); and tech guy Tej (Chris Ludacris Bridges).

Also along for the ride are newer-to-the-group hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and old favorite Han (Sung Kang). The return of Han — thought to be dead — has been much publicized in the advanced footage and is nice to see.

Beyond that, F9 is stuffed — arguably overstuffed — with cameos ranging from Fast alums Queenie Shae (Helen Mirren), Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), Cipher (Charlize Theron) and Twinkie (Shad Bow Wow Moss) to a certain pop music star.

F9 puts its back into trying to give the Dom-Jakob dynamic serious emotional weight, but Jakob is too bland a villain for it to hit home. And Cena, a professional wrestler whose many movie credits include the enjoyable 2018 comedy Blockers, does not have the charisma to make the character into something memorable.

Ultimately, F9 is at its best when it is having a good time, and it has a bunch of good times. As they usually are, Roman — who begins to suspect he is magically invisible after he somehow does not perish while driving a giant armored vehicle through a landmine-filled jungle — and Tej — who is more than happy to roast his pal for this theory — again are a blast together.

And given the franchises disinterest in the laws of physics, it is absolutely delightful to listen to Tej explain to Roman why a stunt they are about to pull will work: As long as we obey the laws of physics, we will be fine, he says. It is all math and science.

The insane stunts continue to the real star of this series, and F9 uses powerful electromagnetism as a way to differentiate this films climactic sequence from those that have come before it.

This leads to lots of flying cars and shattered glass and is just a literal and figurative blast. There is another component to the movies stretch run that makes good on a far-out idea fans have wanted to see for a while, but we will not say more than that here!

F9 is the first entry since 2003s Diesel-less 2 Fast 2 Furious to be penned by someone other than Chris Morgan, who has moved over to the Hobbs & Shaw spinoff series.

Even with the missteps of The Fate of the Furious, we were not looking to see him go, but F9 strongly suggests Lin — last seen directing 2016s underwhelming Star Trek Beyond — is the more important person when it comes to making a quality Fast.

He is signed on to direct and co-write a 10th and supposedly final entry in the flagship series. Theoretically, that gives him only one more shot to top his 2011 entry, Fast Five, which continues to stand as the franchises best.

Welcome back, Justin Lin. We believe in you! [MM]

Black Widow
(PG-13 / 2hr 13m / Marvel Studios)

Overview: Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises.

Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy, and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.

Verdict: Scarlett Johanssons ass-kicking Avenger gets a stand-alone movie at last in Black Widow.

No longer just a sidekick to Iron Man or Captain America, Johansson gives a cracking performance as Natasha Romanoff, a whip-smart, Russian-trained killing machine.

Now she is on the side of the American Avengers, and begins a mission to destroy the Russians Red Room program, which trains and brainwashes young girls, including herself, to become Black Widow killers and spies.

Natasha is joined — and almost immediately upstaged — by her little sister Yelena, played by British actress Florence Pugh with oomph, wit and often hilarious, childlike enthusiasm.

Yelena was also trained in the Black Widow program, and the two catsuit-clad female assassins rival the best of the supermen in Marvel Cinematic Universe with the balletic brutality of their fight sequences.

Their enemy is hardman Ray Winstone playing Russian supervillain Dreykov, the genius behind the Black Widow assassin program. He hams it up as he tries to make his East End accent sound more Eastern Bloc.

Compared to the clunking, overblown efforts in some previous Avengers films, Black Widow has shape, coherence and emotional heft, thanks to Australian director Cate Shortland. Every character has depth, which lifts this above its cartoonish origins.

The story goes back to Natasha and Yelenas childhood in suburban Ohio in 1995, a happy family shot in nostalgic Kodachrome. Rachel Weisz is the mother Melina, but their father Alexei turns out to be super-soldier Red Guardian (David Harbour). The family is not what it seems. Dysfunctional does not even come close to covering it!

The film cuts to 21 years later, when Natashas Black Widow is a grown woman, one of the few Avengers who relies on intelligence and athleticism, rather than superpowers.

Yelena takes the mickey: I do not think the god-from-space had to take an Ibuprofen after a fight, she laughs.

The action matches the wit, with spectacular daredevil stunts on clapped-out helicopters, and traditional motorbike-to-car chases which end untraditionally.

The finale has all guns and space-stations blazing. Johanssons combination of vulnerability and power gives her a magnetic screen presence, and Black Widow, cancelled twice because of Covid, has been worth the wait.

In Another Round, Mads Mikkelsen has the face of an ancient Norse god, emotions crossing it like dangerous storms.

Who better to play a teacher who stays slightly sloshed, every day, in search of a better life? In a delightfully daft premise, Mikkelsen plays Martin, one of four secondary teachers suffering from midlife malaise who decide to test a psychiatrists theory that human beings have a blood alcohol level that is just 0.05 per cent too low!

Basically, we need that first-glass-of-wine feeling all the time. The history, gym, psychology and music teachers soon find that being tipsy invigorates their classrooms and their stultifying home lives.

Instead of schoolchildren hiding booze in the toilets, teachers are sneaking around hiding vodka in coffee cups.

When the men go out on the lash, their silly behavior is hilarious — and more like that of their late-teen pupils.

The four believe in releasing creativity with alcohol, pointing out that Sir Winston Churchill said I never drink before breakfast, but fueled his war on champagne, cognac and cigars.

There is also a montage of squiffy-looking politicians, from Boris Yeltsin to Boris Johnson.

Made by Hollywood, this would have been a comedy. But in the hands of brilliant Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, it is a more subtle tragedy and revelation.

Mikkelsen is perhaps best known as a Bond villain, televisions Hannibal Lecter, and in a new role as Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts series. But Another Round is a performance on another level.

Unspoken agony hovers beneath the surface. Tears well up instead of joy during a caviar and champagne dinner, and the silence of his long marriage to Anika (Maria Bonnevie) feels like a shroud. Alcohol liberates — and also detonates.

The uncanny power of the scenes made sense afterwards, when I read that Vinterbergs daughter Ida, who was due to play a small part, had died in a road accident.

The crew returned, shaken, a few months later, and completed shooting. The film is dedicated to Ida, and ends with Mikkelsen dancing: wildly alive, and alive to loss.

I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Conmigo)
(R / 1hr 51m / Black Bear Pictures - Loki Films - The Population)

Overview: In a fictionalized true story that spans the distance between Mexico and New York City, Ivan and Gerardo find love in each other while navigating life on either side of the United States southern border.

Verdict: The social media hype around Heidi Ewings first Spanish language feature film from the critics and creatives on social media was immense by the time I finally sat in my seat in the Maple Theaters auditorium Number Two to see it, the week after its select theatrical release. And it lived up to every single bit of it.

The film opens on Ivan (Armando Espitia), a cook, describing a recurring dream he has about being back in his native Mexico. A flashback immediately takes the viewer back to Puebla, Mexico in 1994.

Ivan works to support his young son, Ricky, always with the possibility in the back of his mind that there is a better life in the United States. When he accompanies a friend to a gay bar, Ivan finds himself flirting with a handsome fellow named Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), whose name we unfortunately do not even find out until what feels like an eternity later.

But Gerardos initial anonymity does not take away from the cute couple the guys make right from the start, flirting with a laser pointer and sharing a tender first kiss at sunset overlooking the city. And while Ivan is the better straight passing of the two of them, even he must be cagey when it comes to this part of himself.

Non-linear story telling is the name of the game as time jumps to and fro from the nineties, in which the bulk of the story takes place to both Ivan and Gerardos childhoods, highlighting the the stark contrast in the way their parents react to the homosexual tendencies their respective sons possess.

Ivans father is disappointed, but somewhat resigned to it, whereas Gerardos father displayed deep and disturbing homophobia. But the complicated family dynamic does not stop Gerardo from inviting Ivan home, where they are brushed off as being best friends.

This dialogue feels very much like a trope, but it works mostly because it needs to work. And because Espitia and Vazquez make it work. Gerardo and Ivan take the opportunity of a walk around the grounds to make out like sneaky teenagers, and this presents the biggest and most consistent problem the film has – the camera work.

There is nary a wide shot. The viewer is smushed inside every kiss and embrace, and it feels like any movement is over someones shoulder. But even this does not dampen the chemistry between the two.

When Ivan voices the desire to go to New York City, Gerardo objects, saying that they are hated over there. This is one of the most important and evocative moments in the film, especially when taken amongst the social issues of present day: What group of people are hated: Gays, or Mexicans? Or both?

Despite Gerardos pleas, Ivan begins the journey to New York with the promise of giving it one year, and with admissions of love by each.

Ivans dangerous journey across the border with his childhood friend Sandra feels reminiscent of other films with similar plots (particularly Jonas Cuarons Desierto), but the two eventually make it to the United States. From here, time flashes forward to present day New York, where Ivan expresses regret for leaving his young son behind all those years ago, saying that the American dream happens in slow motion.

Once again, the dialogue is achingly topical for the current discussion happening around migration. Back in time, during one calling card phone conversation, Gerardo informs Ivan that their year agreement has come and gone and that he has resolved to join his lover in New York.

Ivan tries to dissuade him, as does his family, but Gerardo is driven solely by love. And the emotional climax of the movie arrives when Ivan comes home from work to find Gerardo waiting on his doorstep. It is a truly wonderful moment.

Time passes as Ivan and Gerardo adjust to being together once again, including learning English together using homemade flashcards. While incredibly endearing, this once again highlights the real struggle faced by immigrants to break the language barrier.

After a while, Ivan gets to use the culinary skills he honed back home and gets his big break as a cook. He and Gerardo have a conversation about the necessity of living in hiding, and the question is asked, Can we just live?

And they do live – and live well – over a video montage used to indicate the further passing of years. Additional present-day footage has a distinct documentary feel to it, and rightfully so.

Viewers are watching the real Ivan Garcia and Gerardo Zabaleta as Ivan makes a name for himself as a chef and while they attempt to find a pathway to citizenship, which continues to be a rocky road to traverse.

Ivan expresses the worry that he is losing the connection he has to his home country, including having to see his dying father over video chat.

At this point, the film transcends narrative fiction or even documentary. You simply cannot write the emotion that saturates the final act, as the fundamental question of what we leave behind and what we take with us across our lives is put on full display. And the answer is not always cut and dry.

When the credits finally began to roll, the entire theater sat in silence for at least a minute. No one got up, no one said a word. I wonder if everyone else, like me, was in a state of contemplation. This is the impact of not only the story, but the title.

Te llevo conmigo.

I carry you with me.

Not only did Ivan and Gerardo carry their love for each other across time and distance, but they carry a love for their beloved Mexico and for their family.

They carry loss, pain, and uncertainty. And so do we carry with us a small piece of all who cross our path, especially the ones whom we love the most, and all the places and circumstances that help to shape us.

And among the things I will carry with me for a while to come is this stunning work of cinematic art.

Review by: Ashley J. Cicotte

(PG / 1h 36m / Walt Disney Studios/Pixar Animation Studios)

Overview: When Luca, a young sea monster defies his parents wishes and gets a taste of life on land, his new friends Alberto and Giulia teach him valuable lessons about loyalty, sacrifice, and confidence when the three of them team up to win a triathlon in the seaside Italian town of Portorosso.

Verdict: When Luca, an adorable if not inquisitive sea monster gets a lecture from his mother about how he must never, ever go near the surface and then immediately goes behind her back to check out lost items from lost fishing boats, this newest offering from Disney-Pixar seems to run too parallel to The Little Mermaid.

But fortunately, this does not last long. Unlike Ariel, Lucas land adventure comes at comparatively little cost, save his parents threatening to send him to live in the deep sea with his uncle if he does it again and the inherent difficulty of hiding his true fishy form from the predictably suspicious townsfolk.

On the second trip, Luca meets Alberto who completely bucks the first-new-friend trend in one specific way: He is a sea monster, too. Since these two are pretty much the greatest bromance to ever exist, it’s really refreshing to not have them have to hide from each other.

Alberto and Lucas singular mission is to get a Vespa scooter and see the world together. The challenge of having to win a race to get the prize money for their dingy little dream is twofold – having to adapt to human technology like bicycles and forks and having to beat the obnoxious bully and wannabe villain, Ercole.

His appearance in the film is one of the weaker elements, as it mostly consists of jeering at Luca, Alberto, and their friend Giulia, with whom they team up.

And even when Ercole appears threatening and made a big deal about wanting to collect the sea monster bounty, this also feels ineffective since Luca and Albertos true selves could be discovered by literally anyone in the town.

Giulia, too, is necessary but nothing special, the stereotypical misunderstood kid in town who finds herself in her friendship with these other two misunderstood kids.

Her biggest claim to fame here is to set up the real conflict of the film helping Luca find his way in the world and strain the nonetheless loving I-know-what-is-best hold that Alberto holds over Luca.

The sequence in which this reaches its tipping point is my favorite moment in the film and may even require a tissue or two. In the end, though, the bond between these two boys is cemented through an extraordinary act of pure love.

Taking a page from forerunner Coco, Luca as a film makes much about being set in another country. This aspect could be emphasized far more than it is, but the incidental use of Italian is cool, even if it is mostly relegated to names of cheese as euphemisms for what would otherwise be Giulias frequent, exasperated swearing.

Among the things that make Luca a bit of an outlier in the Disney-Pixar film canon is the notion that the characters do not sing any songs. This may seem odd coming from a studio that has won the Best Original Song Oscar in the past, but having Italian surf rock songs play over montages is a gamble that ends up working.

While the dynamic between Luca and Alberto is to die for, many of the films best characters are supporting ones. Lucas Mom and Dad – played by Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan – are a sort of understated comedic brilliance as they stop at nothing to find their wayward son.

It must run in the family, though, as Sacha Baron Cohens Uncle Ugo may be my favorite Pixar character ever and needed far more screen time than the two minutes he got.

The wordless accusations of Giulias cat are also good for a laugh, while her own father presents a first for Pixar – he has a stated disability. And not only is he not at all ashamed of having only one arm, he does not allow it to hold him back.

So much of what is wonderful about Luca is what is subtle about it – the way that Luca and Alberto look at one another, the way that Giulia talks about her friends, and the themes it presents about trust, courage, determination, and acceptance. All these elements and more make Luca the perfect splash hit of the summer.

Review by: Ashley J. Cicotte

In The Heights
(PG 13 / 2h 23m / Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Overview: Infused with a hip hop sound and Latin flair, this musical spectacle transports its viewers through four sweltering summer days on a block in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

When a winning lottery ticket worth 96,000 dollars is sold at Usnavis bodega, he and his friends dream about what their lives would be like if the money were theirs, balancing aspiration with the sharp realities of issues like neighborhood gentrification, naturalization, and a power blackout.

Through it all, the neighborhood learns a series of lessons about identity and the importance of home.

Verdict: In the Heights took Broadway by storm in the mid-2000s, earning composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (of recent Hamilton fame) a Pultizer Prize nomination and a few Tony Awards. Here, he re-teams with original librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes and director Jon M. Chu to deliver a summer film experience unlike any other.

To theorize what it is that makes In the Heights so worth the viewers time, I found myself drawn to the mental image of a delicious sandwich, perhaps one purchased from your local bodega.

The meat of the thing is its story. At its core, In the Heights tells a tale of dreaming. Each character has their own suenito (little dream, in Spanish) that they are chasing.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) wants to reclaim his fathers legacy back in their homeland of the Dominican Republic, but also wants to get with his crush, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera).

For her part, Vanessa dreams of leaving her job at the local salon to move Downtown and become a fashion designer. Local success story turned reluctant college dropout Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) arrives back home wondering if the dream of academic success she’s been pursuing is even hers.

Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), matriarch of the block, has undoubtedly inherited the suenitos of not only her Cuban immigrant mother, but also the neighborhood she cares for.

And when Usnavis bodega sells a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000 dollars, the whole of the Heights dreams a dream all their own about how they would spend the money.

Certain characters circumstances are relatable across the board - haven’t we all, like Vanessa, dreamed of getting that ideal job in maybe a better place than where we are at currently?

And who among us hasn’t played the What-if game about suddenly coming into a large sum of money? But other aspects of this story speak directly to the immigrant experience and the tension that exists therein, reckoning with the obligation to ones identity - both as an individual, and as part of your Community.

Practically speaking, the story hits a home run in this regard by juxtaposing the notion of dreams and aspirations with the concept of being a Dreamer - that is, a DACA recipient - as a small subplot involves Sonny (Gregory Diaz) and his struggle to obtain a pathway to citizenship.

The proverbial condiments on top of such a multi-faceted story are of the audio and visual variety. Jon M. Chus direction, particularly during the films most emotional moments - like Ninas tense discussion with her Dad about attending Stanford - really helps to drive the impact home.

Similarly, the cinematography of Alice Brooks adds a beautiful richness to many of the large group numbers, capturing all of the action with wide and vibrant shots, particularly during 96,000 and The Club/Blackout. And Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score is very well interpreted.

But the real secret sauce of In the Heights are the performances themselves. Anthony Ramos as Usnavi is almost instantly likable, in a way softer and more sympathetic than Mirandas Broadway interpretation.

While there was not a single slouch in the cast, standout performances include Daphne Rubin-Vega as the gossipy, yet takes-no-bull**** salon owner, Daniela.

Leslie Grace played Nina perfectly as a girl torn between her family’s expectations and what she feels is her responsibility. The real shining star of In the Heights is Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, a role which she originated on Broadway.

She moved and spoke with all the nurturing spirit of a grandmother, making me miss mine tremendously. Abuela Claudias catchphrase is Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith), and in the song of the same name, Merediz encapsulates the heart of the immigrant experience.

If you have an ounce of sensitivity, it is her performance over which you will shed the most tears. Fun bonus cameos include Puerto Rican superstar Marc Anthony, and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself as Piragua Guy.

Finally, we reach the element of the film that holds all this goodness together: Latinidad. This film was made by Latinos in celebration of Latinos.

From the predominately Hispanic setting of Washington Heights to the Latin rhythms in many of the musical numbers, and the frequent use of Spanish - both spoken and sung - it is impossible to separate the essence of what In the Heights is from the people it was not only written about; but written for.

And it is nearly impossible not to get hype during Carnaval del Barrio when the neighborhood residents shout Alza la bandera! (Raise the flag) and wave the flags of places like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba.

The joy and pride in this moment are palpable and go a long way toward crushing the myth that all Latino people are the same. And if the language barrier here presents a problem for you, the problem is really that your lens is too small.

And it is at this point that I will freely admit and acknowledge that as a Caucasian of Eastern European descent, I cannot speak definitively in any way to the Latino or immigrant experience as the film portrays it.

But I will also say that Latino representation in film matters and that, while admittedly imperfect in its way, Lin-Mirandas magnum opus made me glad and grateful to see people who looked like my Mexican friends or Costa Rican coworkers on the big screen.

There are a few aspects of In the Heights I would change, the biggest of which is the truncation of the love story between Nina and dispatch worker Benny (Corey Hawkins).

It also would not be asking too much for a bit more narrative near the emotional climax of the film to help slow the pacing down, but the fact remains - if In the Heights is comparable in any way to a well-made bodega sandwich, it will keep you going back for seconds.

Review by: Ashley J. Cicotte

Hitmans Wifes Bodyguard
(R / 1h 39m / Millennium Media)

Overview: The worlds most lethal odd couple -- bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) and hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) -- are back on another life-threatening mission.

Still unlicensed and under scrutiny, Bryce is forced into action by Dariuss even more volatile wife, the infamous international con artist Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek).

As Bryce is driven over the edge by his two most dangerous protectees, the trio get in over their heads in a global plot and soon find that they are all that stand between Europe and a vengeful and powerful madman (Antonio Banderas).

Verdict: Sometimes, there is nothing wrong with a movie being perfectly acceptable and no more. Not every film needs to aim for awards season glory, critical acclaim or billions of box office dollars while trying to reinvent the wheel, and Hitmans Wifes Bodyguard is one of those titles that is just ... there.

It is not great, but it is not terrible, either. It exists while you are watching it and once the credits roll, it may well never cross your mind ever again.

Dropping the The from the title does not make it any less clunky, but Hitmans Wifes Bodyguard isn’t particularly interested in being anything other than a vapid star vehicle, though on the plus side, those stars are certainly having fun.

The plot picks up with Ryan Reynolds Michael Bryce in therapy having been disavowed as a AAA bodyguard, which becomes a running gag for the second film in a row, despite the fact that it is never once been funny.

His therapist suggests he go on vacation to put his career in the rearview for a little while, only for Salma Hayeks Sonia Kincaid to show up just as he gets comfortable, shooting her way through a crowd of henchmen.

This leads to another one of Hitmans Wifes Bodyguards nauseating recurring jokes about Bryce being on sabbatical, and you will not be shocked to find out that none of the repeated attempts at humor really land, and there are a ton of them.

That being said, when you throw Reynolds, Hayek and Samuel L. Jackson into a three-handed road trip buddy action comedy, the very least you would expect is some decent interplay and a couple of big laughs, which the movie just about manages; although you get the distinct impression that it is more to do with improvisation between the leads rather than the script, which is pretty much useless!

Antonio Banderas plays Mafia kingpin Aristotle Papadopolous, who wants to use a diamond-tipped drill to compromise a central data hub and unleash a computer virus across the continent that will wreak havoc on the entire European Union, so he can restore Greece to its former glories as the peak of Western civilization, or something like that.

It is never really explained in great detail, because in the grand scheme of things it does not matter in the slightest.

This is all about actors you like doing the things you like to see them do, and that is the one area where Hitmans Wifes Bodyguard really manages to deliver. Reynolds is the neurotic, sarcastic and wise-cracking foil to the over-the-top duo of Jackson and Hayek.

The former essentially plays himself and offers a string of variations on the word motherf*cker as you would expect him to do, while for the first half of the movie Hayek literally does almost nothing but run around shouting obscenities and shooting people in the face. Like the majority of the character beats, it is funny the first couple of times, but then it starts to get old.

Richard E. Grant also shows up for about ten seconds and for no reason but still gets his name in the opening credits, Morgan Freeman delivers exposition in those syrupy tones of his in a role that is probably best kept a secret until you see the movie for yourself, while Frank Grillo is wasted as the standard government suit.

Grillo is a proven action star that could have been a huge asset to Hitmans Wifes Bodyguard in another capacity, but instead he is saddled with a one-note gig as Interpol’s Bobby ONeill.

The entirety of the agents arc is that he wants to go back home to Boston, and Grillo at least attempts the accent for a couple of scenes before dropping it, but he is quite clearly a man born and raised in the Bronx.

He also gets a female Scottish translator who he immediately calls an asshole, then labels as William Wallace and Sean Connery in quick succession, but from that point on, the would-be running gag never gets mentioned again.

In fact, there are countless bits that get set up for multiple uses only to fall flat every time, which include but are in no way limited to: Jacksons testicles, Hayeks boobs, the couples inability to start a family, Bryces daddy issues, bodyguard rivalries and more!

It is the sort of hollow studio-produced effort that occupies a strange space, in that it is evidently a paycheck gig for a lot of the talent but they clearly had a great time jetting off to glamorous locales to shoot it, and the performances of the central trio just about paper over some of the more notable cracks.

Patrick Hughes direction is functional at best without coming close to being exciting, dynamic, inventive or remotely original, which sums up the film in a nutshell.

Everything about Hitmans Wifes Bodyguard is just okay, from the fight choreography and car chases to the gunplay and visual effects, which is probably a compliment. It could have turned out a lot worse, but it also would not have taken much effort on the part of the key creative players to make something a whole lot better with the exact same premise. It is loud, foul-mouthed, violent and bloody, which often feels ill-at-ease with the overall tone, which is more like an R-rated comedy with action elements than the other way around. It is not high art, and it is not going to go down as the worst movie of the year, either, but you could argue it is better to take a swing and a miss than settle for mediocrity!

Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It
(R / 1h 52m / New Line)

Overview: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It reveals a chilling story of terror, murder and unknown evil that shocked even experienced real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

One of the most sensational cases from their files, it starts with a fight for the soul of a young boy, then takes them beyond anything they had ever seen before, to mark the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.

Verdict: Although its title says otherwise, the latest Conjuring film is not the work of Satan. That would imply some deliciously evil malevolence – a truly unholy force that would be impressive in its unparalleled wickedness.

Instead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is merely the product of lazy, entirely mortal filmmakers who, having found themselves with an impressively lucrative no-frills franchise, recited a Hail Mary of dubious intent.

Technically the third film in the Conjuring series following real-life husband-and-wife demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren – but really the eighth film in an ever-expanding Conjuring-verse that features prequels and side-quels and spinoffs – The Devil Made Me Do It is a resolutely pedestrian kind of horror.

If you want nothing more than a few CRANK THE VOLUME jump-scares and some impressive occult-y set design, then this is your kind of Hell. For more discerning cinematic sinners – including those who were impressed by the moody first Conjuring and the kicky kitsch of its spinoff Annabelle Comes Home – here lies been-there-exorcised-that darkness.

Taking place a few years after the events of The Conjuring 2, in which Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) investigated a British poltergeist – with a quick stopover in Amityville – this new adventure finds the couple battling Satanists in 1980s Connecticut.

Based on an infamous murder trial in which the accused, a young man named Arne Johnson (Ruairi OConnor), claimed demonic possession as a defense, the film tracks the Warrens efforts to both prove the impossible and stop it from happening again.

By centering their story around a sensational legal case, director Michael Chaves (who made his debut with the drippy 2019 Conjuring-verse entry The Curse of la Llorona) and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick had the opportunity to tweak a genre that is so far been impermeable to horrors influences. But reinvention is not something that the filmmakers – nor franchise mastermind James Wan – are interested in.

Rather, The Conjuring 3 is another semi-spooky ghost hunt, complete with walking corpses, creepy priests, and so many allusions to past horror movies that you begin to wonder whether Chaves intended to tip his hat to, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4s waterbed scene or simply ripped it off unconsciously.

Fortunately, Wilson and Farmiga have now transcended slumming it to elevating it, and give much-needed fresh life to characters, and predicaments, that feel as ancient as the evil which Ed and Lorraine battle over and over.

And good on actor John Noble, too, for popping up and making the line, “A master Satanist is not an adversary to be taken lightly, sound like something that someone, somewhere, at some time, might actually say with a degree of seriousness.

Ultimately, there is no resisting the Conjuring-verses supernaturally profitable reign of terror. With two more spinoffs currently in development, it is clear that the producers prayers have been answered. But me, I am still agnostic!