Movie Review: The Newest ‘Shaft’ is Not the Baddest Mother. Shut Your Eyes.

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube

Starring: Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Titus Welliver, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Luna Lauren Vélez

Director: Tim Story

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Shameless Ladies Man Behavior and a Fair Amount of Gunfire

Release Date: June 14, 2019

Private investigator John Shaft has been the epitome of cinematic cool ever since his debut nearly fifty years ago. In the 2000 reboot, Samuel L. Jackson was an obvious choice to continue Richard Roundtree’s legacy as John II, the original Shaft’s nephew. But in the latest iteration, Jessie T. Usher is about as far from badass as he can possibly be as John II’s estranged son JJ. That is meant as both objective fact and damning criticism. He’s supposed to be out of step with the men in his family. He’s working for The Man as an FBI data analyst, and while he’s got some sweet chemistry with a longtime friend (Alexandra Shipp), he’s hardly a sex machine to all the chicks. The idea is that when JJ teams up with his dad to solve a case of wide-ranging corruption, he’ll finally be able to live up to the Shaft legacy, but the concept of cool on display here is too outrageous and unchill to actually be cool.

If you’re expecting a blaxploitation throwback, you’ll need to recalibrate right quickly. This is much more of a culture clash buddy comedy, solidly in the vein of director Tim Story’s work in the Ride Along series. The central conflict is between Sam Jackson Shaft pushing a toxic form of big dog masculinity and Jessie Usher Shaft being a reasonable human being. It’s nice that JJ pushes back against his dad’s bullheaded ideas of how to be a man, but it doesn’t help that every Jackson delivery of emotional immaturity and gay panic is meant to be a laugh line. Overall, this Shaft is confused and vastly out of touch, as exemplified by a stunning moment of gun fetishization in which JJ shows off his firearms skills to the tune of a classic Phil Spector Wall of Sound needle drop and then immediately afterward reiterates his distaste of guns. Adding to the confusion is John Sr. and John II acting like they’re now father and son instead of uncle and nephew. Perhaps that’s an effort to distance the original from a potentially legacy-killing sequel, which is an understandable decision.

Shaft is Recommended If You Like: Stomping all over the classics

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Trench Coats

Movie Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ Plays It Way Too Safe by Both X-Men and General Movie Standards

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Scott Shepherd, Ato Essandoh

Director: Simon Kinberg

Running Time: 114 Minute

Rating: PG-13 for Getting Suddenly Violently Tossed About by Telekinesis

Release Date: June 7, 2019

I love the X-Men. They’re my favorite superhero team, and still, through it all, my favorite superhero movie franchise. They’ve delivered some dizzying cinematic heights but also some flicks that have driven me batty. So it pains me to say that Dark Phoenix did not make me feel much in the way of any strong emotions.

Some say that the X-Men series is burdened by tangled, contradictory continuity. I say it’s bolstered by it. Whereas other cinematic universes are careful to keep every little thread in line for the health of a sturdy timeline, the Merry Mutants traverse decades willy-nilly, tossing off whatever plotlines just aren’t working and cruising along with whatever’s exciting and vibrant, paradoxes be damned! Dark Phoenix doesn’t reject that approach, but it doesn’t embrace it either. It’s mostly content to tell a straightforward story, while occasionally throwing out some half-baked ideas. It’s a movie unstuck in time, instead of proudly giving the middle finger to any temporal concepts.

Dark Phoenix is clearly a labor of love. It’s the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, who’s been with the franchise for over a decade, and it’s based on one of the most beloved comics storylines, in which telepathic telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) bonds with a super-hot cosmic force to become the most powerful creature on the planet, perhaps the whole universe. It’s a huge climactic big screen culmination that’s been promised to us for quite some time, but after seeing how it’s turned out, I mainly want to say: we would have been okay without this movie. Or maybe now just wasn’t the right time for it. It’s arriving hot on the heels of an X-Men movie whose title literally referred to the end of the world and another that said a fitting goodbye to a pair of iconic X-characters.

But it shouldn’t have been impossible for Dark Phoenix to be another rousing, revolutionary statement so soon after those conclusive paradigm changes. In fact, it would have totally been in keeping with this franchise’s always-moving-forward ethos. But that’s not going to happen when a climactic battle scene takes place in some random New York hotel or when Professor X and Magneto run through the same old rigamarole of bickering and then making a temporary peace. When the stakes are this high, you have to go for broke.

Dark Phoenix is Recommended If You Like: X-Men completism, if you gotta

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Firebirds

This Is a Movie Review: A Dog’s Way Home

1 Comment

CREDIT: James Dittiger/Sony Pictures

A Dog Way’s Home is about a mutt who would probably make it home a lot faster if she would just slow down and let someone help her. In fairness, not everyone Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) encounters is particularly helpful, but she has a stubborn streak that ensures she is going to finish her journey on her own terms. But when she causes multiple accidents and gets herself hurt while trotting across six lanes of highway traffic, and then just walks off without anyone chasing after her (or is somehow able to outrun everybody), it starts to strain a little credulity. When movies like this slightly anthropomorphize dogs by giving them a human narrator, they come off as a mix of highly capable but also pitiable that feels somewhat uncanny valley-ish. That can be offset by leaning into goofiness, but A Dog’s Way Home is so earnest that it leaves me in a weird and unsettled emotional state, as opposed to a preferable combo of relieved and heartwarmed.

I give A Dog’s Way Home 2.5 Missing Dog Tags out of 5 Questionable Pit Bull Classifications.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Tragedy Girls’ is Pleasantly Gory But Hampered by a Muddled Social Message

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Gunpowder & Sky

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Alexandra Shipp, Brianna Hildebrand, Jack Quaid, Kevin Durand, Nicky Whelan, Craig Robinson

Director: Tyler MacIntyre

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: R for Sanguine Hacking and Squirting

Release Date: October 20, 2017 (Limited)

Is it possible to be so addicted to social media status that it drives you to serial killing? Tragedy Girls sure seems to think so. But the way it presents this scenario is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation. When we meet high school besties McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand), they are already both rising Instagram stars AND in the midst of a killing spree. Their attention for fame does not fuel their bloodlust so much as the former provides a channel to express the latter. Any satirical point about how social media obsessions can be deadly is blunted by how much their murderousness is just a part of their nature.

But maybe Tragedy Girls isn’t really meant to be a takedown of what the kids are up to these days. Maybe it is more just the latest profile of banal evil that lurks in supposedly picture-perfect suburbia. Shipp and Hildebrand are certainly committed enough to pull that off, their delightedly and delightfully psychotic performances the highlight of the film. They seem to be operating in a bit of a Zodiac vibe, where part of the thrill is acting as amateur journalists of their own spree.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t much matter when everything else around them is a bit too scattershot. Famous faces like Josh Hutcherson and Craig Robinson pop up, only to be quickly dispatched. In the case of the latter, his presence makes sense, since he is also a producer. But Hutch is clearly there as a favor to someone so that there is a big name to be splashy with promotional materials, but in the actual product, he is a distraction from what could have been an unassuming, low-budget charmer.

Tragedy Girls is worth recommending somewhat for the fun of its murderous set pieces. The gore is smeared with squishy goodness and fully imbued with glee. McKayla and Sadie are practically magical in how clean and precise their slicing and dicing (and cleanup!) skills are. It’s enough to remind us the joy of feeding our taste for violence on screen and the safety of eschewing it in real life.

Tragedy Girls is Recommended If You Like: Final Destination at its most cartoonish, the Child’s Play series, Jennifer’s Body

Grade: 2 out of 5 Haters Ruining Prom