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Review: ‘The Boss Baby: Family Business,’ Teachers and Students

Designed and built strictly for family audiences, The Boss Baby: Family Business pumps out a steady stream of jokes, wisecracks, and cultural references in a boldly frank endeavor to appeal to both parents and their pre-teen children (but no real-life babies). 

The sequel to The Boss Baby (2017) requires absolutely no knowledge of the first film, since the premise remains the same: babies are far more intelligent that their parents will ever know. The sequel reheats the same tropes as before, while obeying a surefire rule for all subsequent installments of films that earn a multiple returns on the studio’s investment: add even more characters, doing the same kind of thing. 

The titular baby was introduced originally as the younger, infant, suit-wearing brother of putative hero Tim. Subsequently it was revealed that he had an adult mind, thanks to a secret formula that enabled him to serve as a secret agent for a mysterious company. 

Tweaking the premise a bit, the sequel finds Tim (James Marsden) and Ted (Alec Baldwin) all grown up and living separate and very different lives. Tim is married to Carol (Eva Longoria) and a stay-at-home dad to two daughters, Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) and her baby sister Tina (Amy Sedaris), while Ted is a fabulously successful single businessman. 

An inciting incident brings Ted home to help out Tim, where they both discover that Tina is actually the new Boss Baby with a fresh new mission to go undercover and investigate a suspicious school started by Dr. Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum). That’s also where Tabitha already attends, and so Tim is eager to help out, hoping that he can learn why Tabitha has been drawing away from him recently, even after Tina explains that he will need to drink a new secret formulate that de-ages him into childhood. 

Returning screenwriter Michael McCullers wrote the first film, adapted from a book by Marla Frazee, and his style of witticisms is clever and rapid-fire, as he demonstrated in his past. He is a Saturday Night Live veteran from the late 90s and has been writing live-action comedies like the Austin Powers movies and animated films starting with The Boss Baby. His script meshes well with the visual style developed by director Tom McGrath over the years in films such as Madagascar and Megamind and their sequels. 

From its opening frames,  The Boss Baby: Family Business never pretends to flesh out anything resembling real life. That’s not its intention. Instead, it wants to teach good solid family lessons, stretching that here to encompass good reminders for adults. 

With its plethora of jokes and snappy pace, the film avoids the “sag” that is common to sequels, even though it spends a considerable amount of time on elaborate action sequences that don’t necessarily add to the story at all. It doesn’t present anything new or unexpected, but it does supplies a thirsty audience with a few cups of water on a parched day. That’s not bad at all. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 2. It will also be available to stream on Peacock. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ Warm Hearts, Cool Adventures

Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina lead the voice cast in Disney’s magnificent, heart-warming animated adventure. 

Refreshing in its approach to story, drawn from Southeast Asian folklore, and, perhaps even more importantly, in its depiction of the traditional “Disney princess” (compare with the company’s own descriptions and marketing of such), Raya and the Last Dragon is an encouraging step into a world first broached in Moana (2016), depicting a culture that is not drawn from broad European archetypes. 

Instead, it’s an original work, based on a story credited to a slew of writers; the screenplay is credited to Malaysian-born writer Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen, who both have past experience in writing for television and films, while American Don Hall and Mexican-American Carlos Lopez Estrada served as directors. That so many people were involved in writing and directing the project is no surprise, since sprawling animated adventures take far more time than live-action narratives, yet the involvement of people from a number of diverse backgrounds is notable, and suggests why the film is markedly different from past Disney animated films. 

On one hand, Raya and the Last Dragon loosely follows a typical modern Disney pattern: young female lead sets off on an adventure in which she meets a motley collection of supporting characters who teach her about life and empower her to achieve goals that empower others. On the other hand, the film’s narrative undercurrents stress the need for humility and self-sacrifice for the greater good, rather than self-fulfillment, or striving after personal or family goals. 

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) has spent years in search of a legendary figure, Sisu, who disappeared at the same time as Raya’s father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). Poor Benja transformed into stone, along with throngs of other people, when the malignant forces known as the Druun came to power. If Raya can find Sisu and convince her world “last dragon” to help her, perhaps she can reunite her long-divided land and bring her father (and every other transformed soul) back to life. 

Naturally, Raya is bold, courageous, and headstrong, just like past Disney princesses, though the title she holds is self-effacing. She also displays a delightful capacity for fun and games, but she ain’t got time for that now; she is living during wartime, as it were, since the divided nations that sprang up in the wake of the devastating ‘stone war’ remain continually hostile, suspicious of each other’s motives. 

In time, Raya teams up with Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), who proves to a most unexpected dragon, and collects a mixed team of collaborators (including a gruff giant warrior voiced by Benedict Wong), who all assist in her ultimate battle against her longtime rival, Namaari (Gemma Chan). 

It’s a good story with good characters and good selection of twists and turns, some of which fit broadly into Western narrative tradition, but even more that do not, which flow together to help make the entire film a memorable, sweeping tale that resolves in a very satisfying manner. And, again, the path to the resolution is not entirely expected, which is always a welcome sign as Disney Animation charts a path for the future. 

The film opens theatrically in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on February 5, and will also be available to watch on the same date, as a premium Video On Demand title, at DisneyPlus.com.

Review: ‘You Should Have Left’ Unsettles to a Diabolical Degree

Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried star in the psychological thriller, directed by David Koepp. 

All they wanted was a pleasant, relaxing family vacation. They got something else, instead. 

By all outward appearances, Theo Conroy (Kevin Bacon) should be a happy man. Rich and retired, Theo is married to successful actress Susanna (Amanda Seyfried). They are very much in love and are happily raising their daughter, Ella (Avery Essex), 6 years of age and full of energy. Something from his past continues to gnaw at Theo, however, giving him traumatic nightmares, so ahead of Susanna’s next job in London, they decide to spend some private time together as a family.

They rent a large, modern house in Wales, a short drive from a sparsely-populated village, and settle in for a restful retreat. Large and comfortable as it is, though, the house contains some puzzling design elements, and before long, both Theo and Susanna realize that something is not quite right about their vacation home, which is turning into a horrifying nightmare of its own. 

Based on a novella by German-language writer Daniel Kehlman, first published in 2017, You Should Have Left has been written for the screen and directed by David Koepp, who previously adapted Richard Matheson’s Stir of Echoes (1999) — with Kevin Bacon in the lead — and Stephen King’s Secret Window (2004) into clever, unsettling tales of filmed horror. 

Known for his contributions to screenplays that allowed directors to put their own distinctive stamps upon the films, starting back in the 1990s with Toy Soldiers, Death Becomes Her, Jurassic Park, and Carlito’s Way, in his own films as a director, Koepp has consistently served up personal, audience-pleasing films that defy easy expectations, such as The Trigger Effect (1996) and Premium Rush (2012). 

After the manifold disappointments of Mortdecai (2015), then, it’s a pleasure to watch You Should Have Left and observe how he deftly introduces familiar tropes, such as traumatic memories, an impossibly huge house, and a child in peril, only to pull the rug out from the expected route to a satisfying resolution. It’s not that the tropes simply vanish, or that Koepp is able to completely elide genre expectations, but it’s more a matter of his elegance in dealing with what the audience might anticipate, like a rollicking rollercoaster that appears to be headed off a cliff. 

Koepp presents the film with a delicious balance of visual cues and flourishes, complemented by a well-honed script that mostly avoids the obvious pitfalls. Impressively, for the most part, there are no more than three actors on screen at any one time, and all three are capable of holding the attention of the audience, especially Kevin Bacon, who dives into the idea that his character is, in fact, getting older, and sufficiently weathered that his wife and daughter both merrily mention it frequently. Amanda Seyfried brings full-bodied vitality to a relatively thankless role as The Wife, while newcomer Avery Essex makes a believable and spirited child. 

Really, the only constant reminder that You Should Have Left is meant to be a horror movie is the spooky musical score composed by Geoff Zanelli, but that feels more like an after-thought by director David Koepp, as if anyone in the audience might forget what kind of movie they are watching. 

That won’t happen. The film is a sturdy, sure-footed thriller that keeps things nicely off balance until its very last moment. 

The film opens everywhere on Thursday, June 18, 2020 , via various On Demand providers. For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘The Vast of Night’

dfn_TheVastOfNight_300Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night begins inside a bit of a gimmick. Slowly maneuvering towards a television set located in the center of an impeccably decorated 50’s style living room, the film about to unfurl before us is introduced as part of “The Paradox Theatre” . . . an obvious nod to “The Twilight Zone,” with its block lettering and baritone narrator. The camera seeps into the splotchy, black and white images themselves, overtaking them and morphing into the film we’ll watch for the next 90 minutes.

This piece of artifice is quickly forgotten, however. The Vast of Night really doesn’t need itself anchored to anything nostalgic or self-reflexive. In the hands of first-time director Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig Sanger, the film is a blast of creative joy and technical composure that’s alternatively humorous, thrilling and assured.  Long sweeping tracking shots and aesthetics aside, the film is also brilliantly acted by its two leads, played by Jake Horowitz and Nancy Drew-like novice Sierra McCormick.

Taking place in virtual real time in a small New Mexico town (with the actual location being the small Texas town of Whitney), we first meet fast-talking, chain-smoking Everett (Horowitz) as he tries to fix an electronic mishap before the big basketball game in town, which is sure to draw everyone for miles around. After wandering around with teenage Fay (McCormick), helping her play with a fancy new tape recorder, the two split up and retire to their respective nighttime destinations — his as a local disc jockey and she to her post as a switchboard operator. Yes, we’re certainly in the 1950s here.

Their dull nocturnal routines are quickly upended when a strange sound begins to wreck havoc on Fay’s switchboard and reports of strange objects in the sky begin to filter in. Enlisting Everett to help, he plays a portion of the sound across his airwaves, which not only elicits several interesting (perhaps crackpot?) caller explanations, but a heart-pumping jaunt around town as the duo try and piece together the weird events happening around them.

Blending together Cold War paranoia (at one point Everett is sure the sound is that of a Soviet invasion) and true B-movie theatrics, The Vast of Night is so good because it not only dilutes all the hallmarks of 50s cinema, but creates its own warm center through Horowitz and McCormick’s wide-eyed performances. They’re totally believable in their roles, asked to banter rapidly in dialogue often found in film noir one minute, and then settle into their scene as the camera just holds on their action and reaction, such as a ten- minute, unbroken sequence that observes Fay pushing and pulling wires from her switchboard in a feeble attempt to piece together the frantic calls. The way she listens and the pitch-perfect rise and fall of tension marks it as one of the great scenes of the year.

The Vast of Night is also compelling for the way it understands the nuance of storytelling. Two different people (one only heard and another glimpsed in half-light like a ghost remembering her past) share their experiences with the sound Everett plays over the radio. While the film is too smart to give credence or denial to either tall tale, these longueurs feel like something forgotten in recent cinema, which is that no amount of CGI or explosions can replace the powerful imagination behind listening to a damn good story. And The Vast of Night packages all this together for maximum impact and signifies, not only a handful of new talents, but that minimalist, low-fi science-fiction can still be done with verve.

The film will open at the Galaxy Drive-In located in Ennis, Texas on Friday May 15. Amazon Studios will begin streaming The Vast of Night on its service beginning May 29. 



Review: ‘Bloodshot,’ Give Me a Double Shot of My Baby’s Love

Vin Diesel, Eiza Gonzalez, Lamorne Morris and Guy Pearce star in the action vehicle, directed by David S.F. Wilson. 

A confusing, and often bewildering, mishmash of narrative ideas, Bloodshot is filled with a near-constant barrage of senseless violence, a near-total absence of heroic behavior, and an overabundance of villainous characters. 

It’s no surprise that the movie is adapted from a comic book series. Created by Kevin VanHook, Don Perlin and Bob Layton, and published by Valiant Comics, the titular character made his first appearance in 1992. In the film, Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) is a U.S. Marine who has been killed in action and then sold to a secretive bio-technology company, whose mission is to create the ultimate super-soldier.  

Before that happens, we see the Marine in action, leading a successful mission and then spending the night in the comfort of his beloved wife, Gina (Tallulah Riley). In the morning, however, Ray wakes up to an abduction and is promptly whisked away to an underground bunker for torture at the hands of the odious Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell), who dances to Talking Heads “Psycho Killer” and laughs manically before shooting Gina dead. And then he shoots Ray dead, whereupon the screen cuts to black, the credits roll, and I wonder why I spent my own money to rent a movie that is so hateful and nasty. 

Unfortunately, the credits do not roll at this point. Instead, for reasons that never overturned the sick feelings in my stomach that the torture scene generated, the film continues. 

Scientific genius Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce) heads the bio-technology company mentioned previously, and patiently explains everything to the disbelieving Marine, telling him that he is the first soldier brought back to life and empowered with the new technology. Neither Ray nor myself believe that, really, and so, again, it’s no surprise when Ray soon takes vengeance into his own two, well-muscled hands, and seeks REVENGE!!!

Attributed to Jeff Wadlow and Eric Heisserer, the screenplay is very difficult to follow, which makes me wonder how it got that way. Certainly, there is some indication that the plot is intended as a mystery, with narrative traps aplenty waiting to be sprung in order to shine more light on an international conspiracy of some sort. Perhaps the underlying intention was to tease out periodic surprises, revealing the true motivations that drive different characters? 

I don’t know. The drama is dire and the action sequences are difficult to follow, even at home, where it is theoretically possible to rewind a scene to see what happened and to whom. By the time Lamorne Morris appears, emitting a lighter comic tone that might have been welcome much earlier in the film, it’s too late to do more than hang on and try to pay attention to how everything plays out. 

As an optimistic person at heart, I’d like to believe that something entertaining might have resulted from all the honest, hard work undertaken by hundreds of people behind the scenes. Alas … not really. 

On the positive side, I enjoyed the performances by Lamorne Morris and Eiza Gonzalez, who both put forth considerable dramatic effort to suggest that their respective characters have something more complex brewing within their souls than might be initially apparent. On the very positive side, I very much enjoyed Guy Pearce, who brings his full range of talents to the screen, bringing the most complex character in the film to believable life. 

What went wrong? Just like the plot of this movie, we may never know. 

The film opened theatrically in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, March 20, 2020. It is now available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms. Screened for review via FandangoNOW on Saturday, June 20, 2020. 

For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘Underwater,’ Kristen Stewart Gets Wet

Kristen Stewart, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr. and Vincent Cassel star, directed by William Eubank. 

By plunging the audience directly into a crisis, Underwater immediately sets itself apart from standard-issue thrillers. 

It’s a welcome, yet risky move. Rather than waste its first act establishing a stock set of relatable characters, most of whom will be disposable anyway, the film races to show that the situation itself deserves immediate empathy. After all, imagine if it were you or your friends who were stuck at the bottom of an ocean in an underground science station that suddenly went ka-boom! 

You’d be freaking out, too, no matter if you were Kristen Stewart or not. 

The actress portrays Norah, a scientist who is quick on her feet and even faster with her  thinking ability. She survives the initial disaster, which strands her and a few other lucky (?!)  survivors in an untenable position. Most of the crew has already evacuated the station, leaving Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) straining to rescue the few newbies who were stuck further away from possible escape, and didn’t act quickly enough to get away. 

Their only remaining option, he explains with great urgency, is to walk across the floor of the ocean to another submerged station, where they can radio for help. That sounds daunting enough, but then they all become aware of even more dangers in the deep dark depths.

Directed by William Eubank (Love, The Signal) from a screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, Underwater is a terse and tight thriller that benefits from actors who are willing to show their sheer fright at the situation, which goes a long way toward enhancing the feelings of claustrophobia that predominate. Kristen Stewart, who once upon a time portrayed a trapped, yet steely-nerved young woman in David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002), here plays a trapped, yet steely-nerved woman who is determined to do everything within her power to survive. 

She is aided and abetted by costars, including Vincent Cassel as a courageous leader, John Gallagher Jr. as a knowledgeable sort of klutz, Jessica Henwick as a resilient woman who is scared out of her mind, and Mamodou Athie as a brave and determined scientist. T.J. Miller is also present, perhaps intended as comic relief, which he can supply only on an occasional, sporadic basis. 

Mostly, Underwater just flows in a madly-dancing current of charged electricity and constantly firing live wires that work constantly to shred nerves. 

The film opened in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on January 10, 2020. It is now available to watch via a variety of VOD platforms, including FandangoNow. For more information, visit the official site.