[REVIEW] ‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’

If you have been following this blog for any amount of time you know I am a tough critic when it comes to the Disney live action remakes. A few I like (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella) but most are bland at best. However, there’s a special level of hatred in my heart for 2014’s supposed reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty called Maleficent. I hated pretty much every decision that film made, so you can imagine my hesitancy when they announced a sequel for this year, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. But I pride myself on keeping an open mind for EVERY film. So, I went to see it today, and left with surprisingly mixed feelings.

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First, let’s talk about the positives. Maleficent: The Mistress of Evil is not a cash grab. It is obvious the creators tried their best to improve upon the original film in almost every way. To begin with, the production design is far better. The original felt like a bland CGI world I’ve seen a million times. In contrast, this film has beautiful cinematography and world building, which felt fresh and original. I particularly loved a long sequence in a nest where everything was monochromatic: filled with beautiful grays and whites woven as background for the bat-like Maleficent. Also, all of the costumes and make-up were stunning. Some of the best I’ve seen all year.

For the first act of the movie I was actually digging the film. It starts out as a fantasy version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was weird and different. As opposed to the original, which felt like an apology and bastardization of Sleeping Beauty (especially the fairies! How dare they!), this film felt alive with its own lore and story. The acting was also much better especially from Michelle Pfeiffer and Elle Fanning who is actually given something to do as Aurora.

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Unfortunately this is where my positives stop. Once we have our basic setup of Maleficent vs Pfeiffer the movie begins to falter. Where the dinner scene was surreal and strange, most of the remaining second half is a bland fantasy war movie. It reminded me of the war scene in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I hate, except it went on much longer. Despite being pretty, the story dragged, and Maleficent becomes a character who is acted upon more than she acts. Most of the time she is moping around waiting for other people to do things, so she can either sulk or acquiesce to their ideas.

I also was puzzled by the tone and audience Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (the title is so dumb by the way) is going for? The battle gets intense including a scene that is gas chamber-like for our heroes. I don’t think kids will find this entertaining nor are adults invested enough in the lore to be engrossed. I never watched Game of Thrones, but I know enough about it to spot the many times Hollywood has tried to capture the themes and aesthetics of that series, and this is definitely one of those films (there is even a long sequence with a dragon…)

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It’s a real bummer because if they had kept the strange tone of the early scenes I could have had a surprise hit. I don’t even see why the war plotline is necessary? Why not have a movie about Aurora trying to plan a wedding with Maleficent and Pfeiffer bickering the whole time? That would have been amazing. As it is, we got a impressive looking war movie that loses its guts midway through.

I wanted to go fresh because I do appreciate the obvious attempt to improve upon the ‘Maleficent turning into the victim of a man’ nonsense of the original film, but that second half was too dull and derivative for me to recommend. Maybe give it a rental if curious? Otherwise, I’d say pass on this fairy story.

Frown Worthy

4.5 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Lucy in the Sky’

Anyone who reads my reviews knows I am not a strict literalist when it comes to cinematic adaptations of true stories. I am on record of enjoying both Green Book and The Greatest Showman. However, both of those films offered entertainment that made up for some problematic elements. Unfortunately, in the case of the new film, Lucy in the Sky, this is not the case. Despite a good lead performance by Natalie Portman, this new film loosely based on the experiences of astronaut Lisa Nowak is a big case of wasted potential.

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In Lucy in the Sky, Lisa is turned into Lucy Cola, a recently returned astronaut who struggles to come to grip with life on Earth after being in space. Everything that gave her joy in the past like her marriage to her husband Drew (Dan Stevens) now feels bland and empty. In an attempt to regain the sense of adrenaline of space she becomes increasingly reckless. She participates in risky training exercises like holding her breath for over 2 minutes under water, she gets drunk, she steals a gun from her Grandmother and finally she starts an affair with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm).

Natalie Portman does a good job playing Lucy and the film captures the spiraling feeling of a panic attack but it doesn’t help us to understand Lucy’s choices very well. When it does try to get inside her head it does so by using gimmicks like changing the aspect ratio of the screen or showing on-the-nose metaphors like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon…

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It was also painfully obvious the script was written by 3 men as the film simplified Lucy’s mental health crisis and then proceeded to judge her and her choices. In contrast, the Jon Hamm character is practically given a high five for being the rational womanizer who mistakenly let this crazy person into his life. What about it takes two to tango? Dan Stevens is better but we hardly get to know him so that doesn’t help much.

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What’s especially odd is the team decided to remove the more sensational aspects of the case- like her wearing an adult diaper in her quest to follow Mark, and yet it remains so shallow. One can only assume they made this choice to give it more gravitas, but I honestly wish they had embraced the madness. Why not make something funny and nuts like Raising Arizona or if you wanted a true story use BlackkKlansman as your guide?

I didn’t hate Lucy in the Sky. Portman puts in too strong an effort to totally dismiss, but I do think it is a big case of missed potential, which is frustrating. They could have done something cool and interesting and instead they made a movie I will forget soon after I post this review. Too bad. Oh well!

3.5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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‘Hustlers’ REVIEW

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When I was preparing for the Fall Movie Preview podcast I do with David Healy I kept getting the new film Hustlers confused with the recent film The Kitchen. The connection is understandable with both movies being about groups of women who turn the system on its head and commit crimes together. Frankly I wish both movies were stronger, but I definitely prefer Hustlers of the two. It at least has a consistent tone and characters with some depth to them.

Hustlers tells the true story of a group of exotic dancers who band together to steal from the Wall Street clients who frequent their establishment. Obviously this film has a lot of very sexy dancing so it will not be for everyone. However, most of the R rated content is confined to the club scenes and it is kept rather clinical in feel rather than erotic (because it is being told from the women’s perspective and it is not an erotic activity for them, just a job).

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Anyway, the first half of the movie sets up our characters particularly Constance Wu as Destiny and Jennifer Lopez as Ramona. At first things are going great with everyone helping everyone else to make a lot of money. Unfortunately the stock market crash happens in 2008 and the dancers become more desperate as the stock brokers have less money.

The first half of Hustlers looked impressive with some good performances from Wu and Lopez but it was very repetitive with not enough story. We didn’t need to see scene after scene of the way things were before 2008. I wish they had done more to flesh out the characters of both Ramona and Destiny away from the club. They both end up having daughters, but we hardly get to know anything about them as mothers or how they balance work with raising their children. Just anything other than party, dance, rinse, repeat.

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However, in the second half the plot to drug and swindle the Wall Street men starts and it can be quite compelling and funny. It’s the kind of movie that feels like it should have been a 44 minute television show instead of a feature film. Unfortunately, even in the more compelling sections it is very repetitive. Girl meets man in bar, take man to club, steal from him and then move on. There’s a Christmas scene, which is the best part of the movie, where we get to see their personalities and what actual joy means to them but so often the script is very repetitive.

While I don’t know about Oscar-worthy, Wu and Lopez are good in their roles (the Academy loves giving Oscars to actors who play strippers/prostitutes for some reason). They have a nice chemistry together and feel like a natural fit for their characters (with the exception of Wu’s terrible wig!). Some of the other characters are perhaps made to look more significant in the trailer than they actually are. Cardi B and Lizzo, for example, are really just glorified cameos. Still Destiny and Ramona are flawed interesting characters and there are some really great moments with the two of them.

A movie like Hustlers is where the rottentomatoes dichotomy fails me as a critic. It was ok. The performances are good and it looks nice. The story is interesting, but I wasn’t crazy about the narrative device of Julia Stiles’ interviewing Wu, and the script is very repetitive. It’s a real mixed bag, but I certainly didn’t hate it. If you are someone who thinks capitalism is evil than you will probably enjoy it as a revenge piece more than I did. But even so, I want more than just seeing Wall Street men getting drugged. I want more of these women’s story!!

Still I’d say it is worth seeing for the good performances but manage your expectations. It’s no disaster like The Kitchen but no masterpiece of female empowerment either.

5.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy (barely)

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‘Ad Astra’ REVIEW

Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra”.

If you are a regular reader of this site you know I can be a bit of a tough sell when it comes to the scifi genre. Still, I try to have an open mind when I go to see any film. Thus, was my attitude going into to seeing the latest space epic Ad Astra. This film is directed by the always ambitious James Gray and stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut of the future trying to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones) in space.

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The first thing I have to say about Ad Astra is it is beautiful. Cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema has done a stunning job creating both the vistas of space and the futuristic imagery of the space stations on various planets. The way he uses color is quite mesmerizing. I was particularly awestruck by a sequence at the planet Mercury where the blue was so bright it could have been made out of candy. It really feels like you are in space while watching the film and that they actually went to Mercury during filming. Amazing.

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The story for Ad Astra I’d say is serviceable while you are watching it. I was curious the entire time to find out what was going to happen and how Brad Pitt’s character was going to deal with all of the challenges along the way. There are also some surprising elements that I won’t spoil for you but they brought in some fun unexpected action.

Unfortunately much of the enticing questions of the plot were not answered in a very clear or satisfying way. Perhaps I need to see it again but there’s a lot of nonsensical randomness in Ad Astra. Scenes looked cool but what their purpose in the story was felt unclear. The movie also uses women very poorly. Both Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler are there only to be objects of hope for Brad Pitt’s character. Like literally they have no other character than to stare profoundly at Pitt and fill him with regret/hope.

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Also, I feel like any good scifi films should have something to say: a metaphor for what the world is coming to if we don’t shape up. For example, Blade Runner is all about what gives a human their humanity. Wrath of Khan has themes of death, vengeance, and friendship. I have no idea what Ad Astra is trying to say. There are illusions of mental health and forgiveness but it’s unclear.

In the end, I feel very mixed on Ad Astra. I did enjoy watching it but left frustrated. It has so many good pieces that it easily could have been a masterpiece but it falls short. Still, if you like space movies and the visuals look appealing I can recommend it. It’s not perfect but I’d say the good outweighs the bad. It’s so pretty!

6 out of 10

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Current Mini Reviews

Hi friends! I have a very busy couple of weeks before me with D23 coming up but I thought before I leave you with another round of my mini reviews for new films out at the theaters or to stream. Here goes!

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As someone who considered myself a bit of a champion for the original 47 Meters Down, this sequel in name only was a disappointment. The girls in the first were a little stupid but the shark action and the deep under water tension made for a fun ride. In this one the girls are still dumb but the cage has been replaced with tunnels and the sharks with ridiculous looking blind zombie sharks. The kills are on a Sharknado level making it all feel silly rather than tense. I was honestly bored watching it and its only 85 minutes.

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Angel Has Fallen

I must admit I went to see Angel Has Fallen having not seen either of the previous films in the franchise. It seemed like I’d heard mostly bad things so I hadn’t gotten around to seeing them. That said, I had no problem understanding the plot of Angel Has Fallen. It reminded me a lot of a moderately entertaining episode of 24. Just like Jack Bauer, Gerard Butler is framed in a conspiracy to kill the president (Morgan Freeman). On the run he has to put all the pieces together, fight the bad guys and discover who the mole is feeding secrets to the bad guys. If that sounds like fun to you than you’ll probably enjoy it. If not than I would skip it. I like this kind of 90s-style action movie so I had fun watching it.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery

Anyone who knows me knows I am not a fan of most Adam Sandler movies. My friends like to joke that he is my movie nemesis and as bad as his feature films often were, his Netflix offerings have been even worse. The Do-Over and The Ridiculous 6 are 2 of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life. His new film Murder Mystery is nowhere near that level of awfulness. That said I certainly can’t recommend it.  Sandler and Jennifer Aniston star as a couple who while visiting Europe end up mixed in with a real life murder mystery situation. The problem with this movie is it’s just not funny. I don’t know if I even laughed one time. It wasn’t outright offensive like some of Sandler’s movies but instead it was bland and dull. Like many of his movies it seemed like another opportunity for him and his friends to take a fancy vacation under the disguise of making a movie with no creativity, wit or charm. It’s not the worst but definitely not worthy of your time.

3 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Another recent entry from Netflix is the ’empty-nester Mom’ comedy Otherhood, which despite its terrific cast may be just as bad as Murder Mystery. In this slog of a comedy Angela Bassett, Felicity Huffman and Patricia Arquette play Moms who can’t let their grown sons lead their own lives. They are upset they are forgotten on Mother’s Day so they barge into their children’s lives. I feel like you always see middle-aged women portrayed like this in the movies, but I don’t know any Mothers who hover over their grown children like this. Sure they might press them to get married or something like that but this does not feel authentic or emotional. Sometimes the actresses can elevate the material but most of the time they all feel like caricatures not characters. Also the costume designer must hate Patricia Arquette. She looked so frumpy! It was bad, very bad.

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Where’d You Go Bernadette

I’m a huge fan of writer/director Richard Linklater. I’ve loved most of his movies including Boyhood, Dazed and Confused, the Before Trilogy etc. When he’s at his best his natural way of writing and filming dialogue in long uninterrupted cuts is magical. His characters feel real and earnest which helps bond me to their journey even if it is different than anything I have experienced. I’m not sure why Linklater ended up adapting the novel Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple but the results are not great.

I must own I have read the novel, and I hated it. I found every character to be selfish and insufferable. It took me many months to finish reading it because I could only stand the characters for short stretches. The movie is a little better than the book because of Linklater’s snappy dialogue and Cate Blanchett’s  performance, but I still hated ALL the characters. The little girl is ok I guess but I didn’t even root for her. I know we are supposed to care for Bernadette and her stifled artistry but I just didn’t. She was simply too irrational and self-centered to win any sympathy from me, which made the movie tough to get through.

However, if you liked the book, you’ll probably enjoy this movie as it is very accurate. It’s just not for me!

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

Who would have thought out of these movies the one I’d recommend is Angel Has Fallen? LOL. Just shows how the movies can surprise us all! If you saw any of these I’d love your thoughts in the comments.

‘The Kitchen’ REVIEW

Since I became a critic on rottentomatoes I have been trying to diversify the films I review. I know if I want to work full-time at this someday I need to be a well-rounded critic that covers more than just family films. In general, pushing myself outside my comfort zone has been a good thing and produced many great experiences. However, occasionally I hit a dud I know was not made for me and then I have to wonder ‘was it made for anyone?’ Such is the case with the new crime drama The Kitchen.

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There are positive aspects to The Kitchen but unfortunately they are not put together in an effective way.  It honestly felt like a more brutally violent version of a Lifetime mafia movie (like the recent profile they did of Victoria Gotti called Victoria Gotti: My Father’s Daughter) rather than a gritty organized crime profile. I know I am supposed to champion this film because it stars and is made by women but it is way too problematic for me to do so.

First of all, the film cannot decide on a tone. Of course, 2 of the leads, Tiffany Haddish and Melissa McCarthy are known for their comedy, which they try to work into these more serious roles but to no avail. They and Elizabeth Moss play 3 women in the 1970’s running the Irish mafia in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. Oddly, Moss’ character tries to be the funniest, which completely misses the mark coming across as bizarre instead of the intended dark humor. For example, a scene where we are instructed how to dispose of a dead body in the Hudson River is played for laughs while we see her severing limbs and her hands covered in blood. What on earth?

Domhnall Gleeson plays Moss’ boyfriend and is the only thing that seems remotely Irish about this supposed Irish mafia syndicate. Not a single character has an accent and our 3 leading ladies sometimes talk like they are from New York and sometimes use their normal voices, which made the whole thing feel very cheap. The Italian characters are equally lame. Cops in the 70s New York sure wished the mafia was like it was portrayed in this ridiculous movie. So instead of being immersed in a time and place we are waiting for the next brutal murder while the ladies do power walks down the street collecting money. This isn’t good storytelling! (If Don Corleone hit as many people as these women there’d be nobody left to collect the money! Give me a break).

Also the portrayal of Haddish’s character felt like something out of a blaxploitation picture like Shaft instead of a real character. Perhaps that’s what they were going for (which could be fine) but then the movie tries to be real and gritty; thereby, creating a muddled mess. For example, there’s almost no attempt to show any kind of racism against Haddish’s character, outside of her husband, which is the same domestic violence the other 2 women face with their husbands. The same is true for Common as a detective (is he always a cop these days in movies?). The Jewish characters are equally shallow and stupid. The longer the picture went on the more it felt like it had to be violent in order for it to feel relevant and edgy instead of actually having a story that is relevant and edgy.

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The sad part is the production design is nice and all 3 of the women are trying to give good performances. Unfortunately, it is in a failing enterprise with a mess of a tone and an uncompelling story. They all feel miscast, and they don’t have chemistry together, so I wasn’t rooting for any of them. I didn’t care if they got revenge or were kick-butt women in the mafia because they weren’t interesting, funny or compelling in any way. Instead, I was left sitting waiting for the next brutal murder to be over, so that I could be done with it and go home.

I guess you can confidently say this one was not for me, and I do not recommend it to anyone!

3 out of 10

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‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ REVIEW

The Art of Racing in the Rain finishes off the trilogy of dog movies we’ve gotten this year (4 if you consider The Secret Life of Pets 2 as an entry). What a funny little trend! I wonder why man’s best friend was particularly on Hollywood’s mind in 2019? Fortunately, they are ending well as Racing is the best of the lot and a sweet little movie about family and never giving up on your dreams.

racing1Based on the novel by Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain tells the story of Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), a race car driver who adopts a little golden retriever puppy named Enzo at the beginning of the film. Enzo becomes our narrator through the film and is voiced by Kevin Costner. Some of the observations may seem a little simplistic but we have to remember they are coming from a dog, and an adorable dog to boot.

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We then get to see Denny’s life play out as he meets a teacher named Eve (Amanda Seyfriend), and they have a daughter named Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). As his family grows Denny’s dedication to racing is tested, forcing him to make choices between his career and family dreams. Seyfriend and Ventimiglia have nice chemistry and I bought their dynamic as a caring couple trying to make things work.

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A little bit harder to buy is a subplot involving Eve’s parents played by Kathy Baker (who I swear is always playing a stick in the mud in these types of movies) and Martin Donovan. It is funny that Enzo calls them ‘the twins’ but their actions seemed inconsistent with loving, caring parents and grandparents.

There’s also some interesting scenes involving fantasies Enzo has involving a toy zebra that were very strange and often came at inappropriate times. I have a feeling those segments work better in the book because in the movie it felt like Enzo was all of the sudden tripping on acid out of nowhere!

Other than that, The Art of Racing in the Rain is a sweet movie that pulls at the heartstrings with powerful messages of family, dreams and the importance of our canine friends.

7 out of 10

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‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ REVIEW

I’ve mentioned before on this site but over the last 2 years an interesting trend in film has been the frequent portrayal of platonic male friendship, usually an unlikely friendship. We saw it with Green Book winning best picture and then films like To Dust, Papi Chulo, Missing Link and even Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now we can add another entry to this list with the indie film The Peanut Butter Falcon.

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This film is directed and written by the team of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz and tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen) a young man with down syndrome who while stuck in a nursing home by the state dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. One day he escapes and meets a man named Tyler played by Shia LaBeouf who is on the run and a bit of a vagabond. His case worker Eleanor played by Dakota Johnson wants what’s best for him but doesn’t understand his need to be a free person outside the nursing home. We even get a fun cameo from Bruce Dern as a resident of the nursing home who helps Zak break free.

I don’t know how anyone walks away from this movie unmoved. It’s such a sweet story and the performances are from the heart. I particularly liked the chemistry between LaBeouf and Gottsagen. This is one of the first movies to hire someone with down syndrome in a lead and Gottsagen holds his own. It’s not a movie like I am Sam where the special needs characters are patronized to and treated like they have special magical powers. No, this treats Zak like anyone else to the point where he gets taken seriously as a competitor in the wrestling matches, and I got a little nervous for his safety.

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The only part that felt a little unrealistic is some of the choices Johnson’s character makes. I don’t know if she would go along with Tyler and Zak’s plan even with how it is presented to her in the narrative. I also didn’t feel much chemistry between her and LaBeouf or buy their romance. Still, the main thrust of the movie is the relationship between Tyler and Zak and that really worked.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon is also beautifully made with wonderful cinematography from Nigel Bluck. The coast between Georgia and Florida looks stunning and adds to the sense of freedom Zak must be feeling on the open sea. It’s one of those movies that captures a sense of time and place very well and we enjoy spending time with these characters.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is rated PG-13 for some wrestling action, fighting, language and Zak in his underwear for stretches but it feels like a family film. It has a lovely message with big-hearted performances from all involved. You will leave watching it wanting to be a better person and friend, which are the best kind of movies in my book. I definitely recommend hunting it down if you can.

8.5 out of 10

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‘Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw’ [REVIEW]

The Fast & Furious franchise has always been hit and miss for me. They seem to vacillate between an overly serious police drama to insane stunts with people leap-frogging from one building to another in a car. I much prefer the latter.

The most recent entry Fate of the Furious was a disappointment with far too little fun and too many boring scenes of people staring at screens (my greatest action movie gripe!). Now we are getting the franchise’s first spin-off film with the unwieldy title Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. This is no doubt meant to perpetuate the franchise into new avenues but also allow feuding cast-members to make their movies in peace. So what’s the result of this new Jason Statham/The Rock vehicle? I’d say it is as unwieldy as its title but mostly a good silly time at the theater.

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I’ll spare you much of a plot summary. Basically there’s a convoluted reason that Luke Hobbs (The Rock) and Deckard Shaw (Statham) have to work together to fight a mutanized Idris Elba and help Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) clear her name and save her life. Along the way we go to London, Moscow, and Samoa with over-the-top action and lots of witty banter between the charming cast. I was particularly impressed with Kirby who holds her own in both departments.

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The film does a great job surprising the audience in ways that really paid off and had me smiling (no spoilers from me!). I also liked there wasn’t much standing around staring at screens, which is very boring. For the most part it moved effortlessly from one action set piece to the next and that kept it fun.

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Unfortunately on the downside the movie is way too long at 136 minutes and especially the extended portion in Samoa wares out its welcome. There are some major exposition dumps and the attempts to become sentimental didn’t work. Even though I know appeals to family are part of this franchise the Samoan warrior scenes came off as patronizing rather than heart-warming.

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There’s some impressive sequences in Hobbs & Shaw but also some I have seen before in other movies and the special effects were hit and miss. Sometimes within the same action scene there would be edits that looked like a tv budget and then the next edit would be really impressive. For example, there were definite moments within a fighting sequence I could tell The Rock wasn’t in Samoa but in front of a green screen. It’s harder to have fun when these type of distractions take me out of the movie.

However, I still walked away from Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw with a smile on my face, having had a good time. It’s not going to change your life but if you are looking for a silly, over-the-top entertainment with very likable leads than there is more than enough to enjoy here.

6.5 out of 10

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