Movie Review ~ Raya and the Last Dragon

The Facts:

Synopsis: An ancient evil has returned to the fantasy world of Kumandra and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.

Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler

Director: Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It really is fascinating to see how far animation has come, specifically Disney animated features, over the last three decades.  As hand-drawn animation was being phased out in favor of the faster speed of computer rendered movies that could produce stunning life-like characters, Disney managed to have their cake and eat it too when they brought Pixar into the fold while maintaining their own feature animation department.  For a while, it was Pixar that ruled the roost and turned out motion pictures of high caliber that recalled that Disney renaissance of the late 80s/early 90s that all but saved the studio.  The hand-drawn side had measured success with strong films but it wasn’t until the one-two punch releases of Frozen in 2013 and Moana in 2016 that made it clear there was still life left in the format.

Evolving from simply bringing classic fairy tales to life, the studio has listened to their audiences around the globe and continued to create work that represents people from all walks of life from shore to shore.  Now, instead of asking “What bedtime story are they bringing to the screen” we ask “what country/culture are they using as an influence this time around?” and I think that aside from it being a necessary business move it shows a company changing with the times and leading the way, not struggling to catch up with their competitors.

That’s not to say each film is easy.  Take Raya and the Last Dragon for example.  This new feature went through some interesting press as it made its way to a release since first being announced back in 2018 thanks to a small bit of business regarding the voice casting of its lead female.  Though she had originally auditioned back in 2019, Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) was not cast as Raya, a young warrior princess on a quest to restore order to a divided land.  The original actress that was cast wound up not bringing the kind of maturity the filmmakers had wanted so they returned to Tran a year later and Tran re-recorded the role.  It’s not the first time Disney has done this (2015’s The Good Dinosaur was almost entirely scrapped after it was completed and redone from the beginning) but it was interesting that they could have had Tran all along but opted in another direction first.

Inspired by the culture and communities found in the Southeast Asian islands, Raya and the Last Dragon is an original story from your usual full table of writers that contributed bits and pieces and rewrites over the course of production, but it is surprisingly full in its mythology and storytelling.  Hold on tight because the opening narration from Raya swiftly relays via flashback the history of the land of Kumandra and how it became split into five separate tribes after evil spirts named the Druun ripped through the bountiful landscape.  This was a time of dragons that drew on their own magic to protect the people of Kumandra from being turned to stone by the Druun that continued to terrorize the land.  In doing so, they fell victim to the grasp of the evil entity and the magic was transferred to a single dragon that finally unleashed the might of the power and restored balance.  The people were saved but divided and the dragons were no more.  Only the power source of their magic remained, housed in a glowing orb held in a sacred temple by one tribe.

Continuing in flashback, we see how Raya’s father (a mother is never mentioned), the leader of the tribe and tasked with protecting the orb, only wishes to unite the five tribes again but his efforts fall on ears that won’t hear, bringing out the worst in the visiting leaders.  During this visit, young Raya bonds with Namaari, the daughter of another tribe leader but the friendly interaction turns unexpectedly sour.  True intentions are revealed and in doing so sets into motion a tidal wave of events that have long lasting repercussions for everyone, sending Raya on a quest to the ends of the mighty rivers in search of answers from a source only spoken about in legend.  By the time she’s found the right river’s end, she meets the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) that holds a key to uniting the tribes…but a familiar foe from her past has also been seeking the mythical creature and will stop at nothing to get what they want.

To summarize any fraction of the remaining plot of Raya and the Last Dragon would be impossible in the space I’ve allotted for myself here and would reveal too much of the unique characters of the real and imagined kind the Disney animators and directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall have in store for viewers.  It’s a more complicated plot than most and younger viewers may find it harder to follow from a story perspective, though I can imagine older adults will find the addition of a narrative that involves more political maneuvering and topical contemplations on community agreement that are strikingly reflective of our own current woes quite intriguing.  It also finds time to have the typical Disney humor and the laughs are welcome among some of the darker subject matter.

As expected, the animation work is stunning and not only is the amount of detail that can now be displayed totally mind-blowing, but some scenes look like an actual live-action film and I still am on the fence if it really wasn’t.  Was it?  With the story taking up our attention and the visuals leaning toward the overwhelming, it’s the voice work that tends to be a little lacking in this one.  That’s not faulting the actors in any way, but the focus just isn’t there as much as it has been in other films.  Tran has the right balance of passionate fight within her and sensitive care that she shares outwardly; clearly the filmmakers made the right choice to use her.   In smaller roles, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians), Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy), Sandra Oh (Tammy), and Benedict Wong (The Martian) are pleasant but, again, never ‘pop’ like I’m used to voice talent doing in the past.  Only Awkwafina drums up some energy with her line readings and you can’t help but hear a little bit of Aladdin’s Genie in the performance…which is fine…but it’s definitely there.

Lacking the kind of big moment that were defining pieces of Frozen and Moana, I’m not sure where Raya and the Last Dragon will wind up within the Disney Animation roster when the rankings are reshuffled.  It has the prestige of a well-honed plot and is one of the classier screenplays Disney has produced in some time, but in other ways the film has a flatness to it that it can’t quite rise above.  It achieves a beautiful moment of harmony right at the end…but by that time we’ve waited nearly two hours for that tug at our hearts and for Disney, that may be too long of a wait.

 

If you catch Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters, you’ll also see Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first animated short in five years, Us Again.  For those watching the movie at home, Us Again will be available on Disney+ in June!  Check out my review of Us Again here.

Movie Review ~ Pixie


The Facts
:

Synopsis: To avenge her mother’s death, Pixie masterminds a heist but must flee across Ireland from gangsters, take on the patriarchy, and choose her own destiny.

Stars: Olivia Cooke, Ben Hardy, Daryl McCormack, Colm Meaney, Alec Baldwin, Dylan Moran, Rory Fleck Byrne, Fra Fee, Pat Shortt, Frankie McCafferty

Director: Barnaby Thompson

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: There are times when you can think of movies like food.  Some are hearty main courses that fill your belly with their ambition and dogged charm like 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark while a comfort meal of a film such as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion will always be one you know you can return to time and time again.  Singin’ in the Rain is like a delectable desert that is almost at times too perfect to get to the bottom of and Tootsie is a fizzy refreshment that seems to fit whatever table you find yourself at.  Some films are more like appetizers than anything else, quickly consumed and enjoyed but no match for the more savory dishes that are yet to come.

The Irish crime comedy Pixie is a quirky little amuse-bouche that you won’t turn your nose up at but won’t come back for seconds on, either.  It packs a nice little punch and while it has a number of pleasingly salty double crosses and tart one-liners, the plot feels a tad crunchy.  Promising to be more of a raucous romp than it winds up being, there’s still a lot to like about director Barnaby Thompson’s cheeky film based on a screenplay written by his son, Preston.  While it plays a great deal like a TarantinO’Shea production that allows it to start off on the right foot, Pixie doesn’t have quite the stamina to maintain an overall tone to be as bold in its choices or twists.  So it can’t hope to leave an impression that lasts, despite a solid cast, some lovely location shooting, and inventive work by cameraman John de Borman (Quartet) throughout.

In a small church not too far outside Belfast, Ireland, two masked men interrupt a group of priests that turn out to be less holy men and more holy rollers armed with shotguns to protect a sizable suitcase full of drugs.  The robbery goes right…until it goes wrong for reasons of a more personal nature.  You see, the men were acting on the advice of Pixie O’Brien (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a sneaky little thing that hopes to bypass her gangster stepdad (Colm Meaney, Tolkien) and violently oafish stepbrother (Turlough Convery, Saint Maud) and use the drugs to pay for her passage to America.  Both men were involved with Pixie and had a different understanding of who was the more important one to her.  It doesn’t end well.

By happy (and highly convoluted) coincidence, Pixie’s classmates Frank (Ben Hardy, Bohemian Rhapsody) and Harland (Daryl McCormack) come into possession of the stolen drugs Pixie was hoping to snag for herself.  After getting wind that her original fellas mucked it up and the drugs are in play somewhere else, it doesn’t take her long to find out who they might have been transferred to.  When she finds them, she tells the men where the drugs came from and paints a vivid picture of what happens to those who steal from the crime families in their town.  Fearing for their lives but mostly falling under her charms, both men agree to travel across the country with their unpredictable new friend who has vowed to help them sell the drugs and attempt to salvage their reputation back home.  However, Pixie hasn’t counted on several factions getting wind of the theft (including a smug Alec Baldwin, Aloha) and when they all start to converge on the same village, she’ll have to think fast if she wants to get out alive and consider if she trusts her new mates enough to bring them along with her.

While I appreciated that Barnaby Thompson keeps the film moving at a healthy clip, it can’t quite hide the obvious shortcomings in the script from his son.  The whole set-up at the heart of Pixie has been done before and feels recycled from a draft of an earlier film.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to learn this was a script that had been bouncing around for more than a decade before it got made.  The filmmakers should have just set Pixie in the early 1990s because it has a sensibility and gait that doesn’t remotely resemble the world we live in now.  The violence is bloody (yet highly digitized) and the language chirped through with such rapidity, everyone sounds like they are being kept from using the bathroom until the scene is in the can (pardon the pun).

Why the film has the energy it does, and what makes it fall on the slightly recommended side are the performances from our lead trio of young stars.  Cooke, Hardy, and McCormack make for a fine triumvirate of players and work well off of another either as a group or one-on-one.  Cooke continues to change things up with each successive film she makes.  The sprite character with a fatal edge in Pixie is light years away from the punk rock singer that turns her life around in 2020’s Sound of Metal.  I wish the material had risen up to meet her instead of her having to lean down to match its height but, no matter, she elevates the screenplay immeasurably with her natural charm.

What becomes pretty clear in the final third of Pixie is that the script only was thinking about how to get to a certain point (an eyebrow raising shootout between mobsters disguised as priests and nuns) and then it doesn’t have much more up its sleeve.  Once it assembles all the players where it imagined them to be it doesn’t quite know what to do with them or how to get at a resolution that falls into step with the askew tune the rest of the film had been singing up until that point.  This is why Tarantino, love him or hate him, remains an ace at the three-act structure.  He’s always thinking about that end goal and when the movie is over you can look back and see how well appointed it was in service to all the plot details throughout.  Pixie wants to have those same attributes but isn’t sophisticated enough to play on that same level.

All that being said, there’s far worse ways to spend an hour and a half (Barnaby Thompson produced Fisherman’s Friends last year and that was dreck compared to this) and Pixie at least has some pep in its step thanks to Cooke so you’re never apt to be bored for long.  It may not entirely steal your heart, but you won’t feel robbed of your time once you’ve tooled around the countryside with Pixie.

Movie Review ~ Us Again


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in a vibrant city pulsating with rhythm and movement, an elderly man and his young-at-heart wife rekindle their youthful passion for life and each other on one magical night.

Director: Zach Parrish

Rated: G

Running Length: 7 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Now that we watch so many movies from home, I’ve been missing not just the previews (yes, I still occasionally do watch the previews) but the short cartoons that would often play before the feature length animated movies.  Actually, calling them cartoons suggests they are pitched strictly toward younger children when over the past two decades they’ve evolved into mini masterpieces that speak, somehow, to all ages.  Pixar is the crown jewel for making these and have multiple Oscars for Best Animated Short to prove it but Walt Disney Animation is no slouch either.  There’s a wide array of these, along with their SparkShorts series available on Disney+ but it’s been over five years since Walt Disney Animation premiered one of their own shorts in front of one of their films.

The release of Raya and the Last Dragon brings about the debut of Us Again, a colorful dialogue-free tale that spends the majority of its time coasting by on warm smiles from the audience.  It’s only in the last minute or so that it pulls out the heart that we’ve been waiting for and, by and large, it’s worth it.  The story is paper thin: old man prefers to stay indoors while his wife wants to get out and embrace every day with joy.  Obviously at an impasse and wondering how to find the magic they once had, a rain shower transforms them into their younger selves while under its droplets.  Through this transfigurative gift, they dance throughout the groovy city and remember how music and movement united them.  It can’t rain forever though, so what happens after?  It may meander a tad but it winds up with a poignant message we can all learn something from.  Plus, the animation is glorious and director Zach Parrish (moving up the ranks after serving as an animator for Frozen II and Big Hero 6) doesn’t overstuff the tiny tale with excess business so the storytelling doesn’t need words to convey the emotion.

Us Again is playing before Raya and the Last Dragon now if you see it in theaters but not through the Premier Access on Disney+ if you’re paying to watch Raya at home.  If you can wait until June, it will be available for free on Disney+

Movie Review ~ Son (2021)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a young boy contracts a mysterious illness, his mother must decide how far she will go to protect him from terrifying forces in her past.

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Andi Matichak, Luke David Blumm, Kristine Nielsen, Rocco Sisto, Erin Bradley Dangar, Cranston Johnson

Director: Ivan Kavanaugh

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When it comes to writing reviews, I find that I’m not one of those people that is good with the ‘instant reactions’ that like to be gathered up the moment the lights pop on and we’re left wincing like newborn moles.  I need some time to think over the film I just saw and while my opinion might not shift too far in either direction there are a number of times when the longer I sit with a movie I’m middling on, the more I’ll find myself thinking of reasons why I liked it.  It’s the films I know are turkeys you don’t want me to stew over; that will only lead to me getting more creative with my takedowns.

The new horror film Son is a solid example of one that moved up a couple of notches in my book in the weeks after I saw it.  Originally, when it finished, my first reaction was that I found it to be a little too perfunctory and not where I wanted it to have settled itself.  Though I had enjoyed most of what writer/director Ivan Kavanaugh had presented over the preceding 90-ish minutes, I wasn’t sure the ending provided me with the wrap-up that made the most sense.  Then, since I rarely book it to the computer and do my write-up, I had a good three weeks to give the movie more consideration and it led to a greater appreciation as an above average effort.  Though it still has some weak spots that no amount of time were going to patch, it juggles competing narratives well and manages to keep the audience in the dark concerning what exactly is happening longer than expected.

It’s best that you keep yourself free from distractions during Son because there’s a lot of clues dropped throughout by Kavanaugh that may help you solve the mystery of why a young pregnant girl is fleeing in the middle of the night from shadowy figures that are pursing her.  Eventually giving birth in the back of a car as she makes her way to freedom, the timeline jumps ahead several years after Laura (Andi Matichak, Halloween) has moved on from her past and made a life for herself and her young son David (Luke David Blumm, The King of Staten Island) within the tranquility of a quiet town.  As the young schoolteacher grades papers one evening while David sleeps, she thinks she hears a noise and goes to investigate, her body naturally on high alert thinking someone from long ago has returned for her.  She’s mistaken though.  It’s not an intruder.  It’s many.

It’s a great scene to propel the film into its second act, giving Laura reason to fear for David’s safety after he is stricken with a terrible disease that puts his life in jeopardy.  As she cares for her son and gets closer to a detective assigned to her case (Emile Hirsch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), we still never can quite figure out where she came from or why the target on her back might have shifted over to her son.   Determined to protect her child against an evil she can’t see outright, Laura eventually takes matters into her own hands, drawing on her dark past and the horrors that come with it.  The further Laura and David run, the more bodies pile up in their wake until the police and Laura’s love interest begin to question if they are chasing a vicious killer or being sent on a wild good chase.

For a film that hinges on a twist that is revealed early on, I was a bit surprised at how Kavanagh manages to keep us questioning the solution almost until the very end.  He’s gone ahead and very nearly told us what’s going on but then continues to shuffle his puzzle pieces around, forcing us to second guess ourselves.  That makes for a fun experience and likely why the ho-hum ending felt so flat in comparison. It felt like we traveled a long road with these characters only to run out of gas five miles outside of town.  So it mostly falls to Matichak to round off some of these rough edges and she’s excellent (though a tad young) as the harried mother trying to do right.  Hirsch seems too young as well but he’s the kind of pro that can sell an age disparity to us with ease.  I must admit it was tough to warm up to Blumm at first and it takes a while to see what Laura sees in David, but it’s in the latter half of the film when the action takes a brutally bloody turn that the young actor earns his stripes quite assuredly.

What keeps me coming back to movies like Son are the promise of a new idea in the horror genre or scary storytelling that I haven’t seen before.  Or, maybe not even as restrictive as that.  Let’s say a variation to an existing way to frighten that has bothered to take the time to really think about the kind of work that’s out there and actively tries to take a different approach.  Even if it isn’t 100% successful, critics (and fans of this variety of film) often applaud that reach and eventually want to see more from those involved. Son isn’t a perfect film, but it’s closer to hitting the mark than you might originally think after sitting with it for a time.  Thanks to some spine-tingly imagery and committed performances that add to the realistic tone Kavanaugh achieves, it’s a laudable effort that’s well worth your time to check out.

Movie Review ~ Chaos Walking


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two unlikely companions embark on a perilous adventure through the badlands of an unexplored planet as they try to escape a dangerous and disorienting reality, where all inner thoughts are seen and heard by everyone.

Stars: Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Kurt Sutter, Ray McKinnon

Director: Doug Liman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know, folks, there may be some trouble keeping Tom Holland on the A-List if these past few weeks at the movies have been any indication.  It’s no wonder the hype machine on the third Spider-Man movie (titled Spider-Man: No Way Home, due later this year) surprisingly kicked into high gear right around the time the blistering review for Holland’s Apple TV+ film Cherry started popping up.  Just two weeks later, Holland has a new project coming out and another reason for his team to be sweating.  I can only imagine what bit of Spider-Man news will come out this weekend to direct attention away from the news that Chaos Walking is another dud from Holland, though this time it’s not entirely his fault.

This long in the works adaptation of the first book in a trilogy of YA novels by Patrick Ness published in 2008, it’s not shocking in the least why Chaos Walking struggled to get off the ground over the years.  Arriving on the scene in the midst of a number of other popular series for teens being adapted into movies with more of an adult slant, a fair share of high-profile writers tried their hand at the script before it finally wound up back with Ness who gave it a final polish.  At one point, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis was circling the project and while that might have been an interesting route to take, I actually think the director Lionsgate wound up with, Doug Liman, is a solid choice.  Responsible for admirable work like The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, Liman is no stranger to complex narrative or impressive visuals so he wouldn’t have struggled with bringing to life a world that has unique characteristics while not getting too deep in the fantasy of it all.

Two hundred years in the future on another planet called, of course, New World, is the small settlement of Prentisstown, named after the malevolent mayor (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) who presides over the entirely male population.  All of the females of the group were killed by the Spackle, native inhabitants to the planet that descended on the group one day not long after the settlers arrived on the planet, around the same time both genders discovered the planet gave them the ability to hear and sometimes even see the thoughts of other men.  The women’s thoughts, however, were hidden. These thoughts on display came to be called “Noise”.  While the book has the luxury of explaining this phenomenon in detail, the movie skirts the subject fairly quickly so we’re left with a “that’s that, move on” sort of attitude, not that we can ever hear the “Noise” that clearly thanks to the sound design being so muffled throughout.

Too young at the time of her death, Todd Hewitt (Holland, The Impossible) never knew his mother but is aware she trusted Ben (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter, writer of Southpaw & creator of Sons of Anarchy) to care for him as his adoptive parents after she was taken.  So he spends his days trying to suppress his Noise while helping on Ben and Cillian’s humble farm.  He’s returning from the field one day when he sees something he’s never encountered before but only heard about…a girl.  Crash landing on the planet as part of the Second Wave, Viola (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) is the only survivor from her crew and needs Todd’s help to find a communication device to contact her ship so they know she made it and won’t abandon their mission.  However, Viola’s arrival uncovers a deadly secret from the history of Prentisstown that a number of people, including the town’s holy man (David Oyelowo, The Midnight Sky) would just as soon stay buried.  Pursued by those he formerly trusted, Todd and his dog Manchee accompany Viola to the far ends of New World where they’ll discover more truths about Noise, New World, and each other.

To his credit, Ness has laid a groundwork for a series that has potential.  So why is Chaos Walking so decidedly unexciting in its action and unmoving at its core?  Much of that comes down to what I think are simple logistics; nothing in the movie ever works in harmony so you have, essentially, chaos throughout.  The acting doesn’t seem to gel with the script, finding some of the cast exceling by tuning in their performances and taking the material for what it is and nothing more (like Ridley who got good at that working on the Star Wars films) while others take it too far in the other direction, working so hard to uncover what’s not there that they wind up totally blank themselves (sorry, Mr. Holland).  The simplistic, truncated script doesn’t seem to work with the style of movie Liman wants to make, either.  Liman’s action sequences are the best parts of the movie without question but they’re few and far between and never turn the dial up far enough so that you feel like any stakes are raised.

Chaos Walking also has a very bad habit of letting the focus fall on the wrong people for too long and forgetting (sometimes entirely) about characters that were introduced as important.  I won’t say who, but there’s one character played by an Oscar-nominated performer who never gets a final scene, so we have no idea what happened to them.  The last time we saw them, they may have been in danger but Liman and Ness never make it clear which way the teeter was tottering. It’s unfair to leave people hanging like that.  Also, the movie commits a cardinal sin that you simply do not do if you want a compassionate audience to remain even the slightest bit on your side.  Again, I don’t give out spoilers but if you’re paying attention to who goes with Viola on her journey you might be able to guess what said sin is.  And it’s not pretty.  It’s a cheap movie device that screenwriters should find a way out of using because it’s expected and, when it happens, only serves to show the inherent weakness in creative thought for how to motivate your hero/heroine.

Before I forget, we have to circle back to Ridley and Holland again.  Though Ridley manages to come out slightly unscathed here, there’s still a bit of a wonder why she’s back in this neo-sci-fi work so close to the end of her tenure in Star Wars.  If I were her agent, I’d be steering her away from these types of roles in favor of work that is completely different, so she isn’t pigeonholed.  Ridley is a solid actress but there isn’t much for her to work with, but at least she’s able to fashion it into something not totally goofy.  The same can’t be said for Holland who is reduced to muttering most of his lines (turn the subtitles on, you’ll thank me), many of which are descriptions rather than actual sentences, so he comes off like he’s just verbally pointing out things. “Yellow Hair” “Girl” “Pretty” “Bug” “Girl” “Pretty”.  Could another actor have fixed this?  Maybe not, but Holland seems more confused with what to do than anything… all the way up to flashing his bare bottom while fishing for his dinner.  The scene feels there to wake up anyone that might have been about to doze off.

Though this is based on the first book in a trilogy I’d be amazed if Chaos Walking performs well enough to warrant a sequel and it seems as if the filmmakers knew that too.  Thankfully, while the door is clearly open for a continuation, the ending can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on how you’re approaching the film.  As a fan of the novels, I’m sure you’ll see the possibilities of what’s to come.  If you are new to the series and were entertained, could be that now you are invested and are crossing your fingers they can get Ridley and Holland back together again to finish the story.  However, my camp is the one that gets to the end and is ready to walk on past any more installments.  It doesn’t walk, nor run, nor jump, nor fly…Chaos Walking merely limps along, disappointingly so.

Movie Review ~ Boss Level


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A retired special forces officer is trapped in a never-ending time loop on the day of his death.

Stars: Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Sheaun McKinney, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Meadow Williams, Mathilde Ollivier, Rob Gronkowski

Director: Joe Carnahan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Quick!  Tell me the last time you were able to watch a Mel Gibson movie (any Mel Gibson movie) and not think about all the crazy way his career took a bizarre twist around 2006.  Clearly under the influence, Gibson was caught on tape ranting about all sorts of unfortunate things, not the least of which were anti-Semitic comments that cast the once sure-fire hit actor as an unhinged looney toon-a-tic.  For a while, it looked as if Gibson’s career was going to be another one undone by an actor’s inability to reconcile with their own internal demons.  Relegated to low-profile cameos in films by his friends or throwing himself into passion projects, Gibson’s been largely out of the public eye for almost fifteen years and only lately has started to turn up in higher profile endeavors where he’s not bearing the weight of the entire production on his shoulders.

That’s good news for Frank Grillo, star of the new Hulu action film Boss Level because had this film been made at the height of Gibson’s stardom, not only would Gibson’s villain role been moved to more of a central figure but it’s likely Gibson himself might have taken on Grillo’s leading man role himself.  It’s especially good news for us because both actors are perfectly cast where they are in a movie that looks like it would be just a hyperactive, bloodier version of the streaming service’s own small wonder hit Palm Springs but is actually just as creative and breathlessly fun and funny as that late summer romp.  More than anything, it’s exciting to see Grillo, who has paid his dues for years in Hollywood as a second or third banana in major studio fare or as the heavy in indie productions that aren’t at his level, finally get a significant chance to move up a pay grade.

Roy Pulver (Grillo, Homefront) has been having a bad morning for a few hundred days by the time we meet him.  Rudely woken up by a machete-wielding assassin, Roy has only moments to dispatch of him, dress and get out of the way of the helicopter hovering outside his windows with a gunman hanging off ready to take aim.  The first killers of the day seem like small potatoes compared to the deadly female sharpshooters, backwoods bumpkin with a crossbow, little person with a big bomb, self-name-checking swordswoman, and doppelgänger slayer (among others) that have been sent to off Roy in a variety of ways before he can make it to lunchtime.  Yet each time he gets shot, run over, blown up, decapitated, sliced and diced, or eviscerated he wakes up to the same machete-wielding assassin and has to go through it all again.

Why is this happening to Roy, a former special forces guy that can take a beating and keep on going in the best of circumstances but is getting tired of dying day in and day out?  Does it have anything to do with the visit he paid yesterday to his former flame Jemma (Naomi Watts, Luce) who has been working on a top-secret project for a mysterious industrial company run by Colonel Clive Ventor (Gibson, Mad Max).  Various clues in a prolonged flashback sequence point to yes but screenwriters Chris Borey, Eddie Borey, & Joe Carnahan (who also directed) don’t let all the secrets out too early on and that’s wise because Boss Level wouldn’t work as well as it does in keeping us engaged if we saw where things were headed.

Instead, Carnahan (The Grey) keeps giving us information the same time Roy gets it and that acts as definite amplifiers of energy right about the time the movie seems to be losing some steam.  The first jolt happens right about when Ken Jeong (Scoob!) appears and threatens to derail the zip of the opening with his staler than stale comedy but then Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) enters as a champion sword fighter and suddenly we’re back on track.  The bursts of energy continue from there and you may even think the movie is coming to a close and ending on a somber note, but check your watch because there’s more than enough time for Carnahan, Grillo, and co. to stage a satisfying finale.  With ample amounts of wink-wink comedy and a willingness to go a little broad (Selina Lo’s deadly Guan Yin never misses a chance to drop her catchphrase as a magically appearing wind blows through her hair), Boss Level parallels Palm Springs not just in the time loop set-up but in the sneaky way that it burrows into our good graces.

Grillo’s been working his way through the film industry for some time and always manages to acquit himself in even the dreariest of releases (see the droopy Body Brokers, released just a few weeks ago for proof) so it’s nice Boss Level has come his way.  He deserves a flashy movie like this that I think will be well received with good replay value.  If we’re being honest, Gibson’s role feels like a favor from Carnahan because he’s not required to do much, and I’d wager the actor completed his work in no more than three or four days.  A star’s a star though and Gibson, for all his troubles, can play both the hero and the villain.  It’s nice to see Watts in her second role in as many months where she’s not taking herself so seriously.  While Penguin Bloom for Netflix was a real-life drama about a woman learning to live as a paraplegic and befriending a magpie, it was a rare opportunity for Watts to be a little looser in her acting and a fresher performance emerged because of it.  Same goes for her work in Boss Level.  She’s tasked with some inane scientific dialogue around time travel that might sound totally implausible with another actress, but she’s got just enough gravitas to make it not sound totally beyond reason.  If there’s one person I would have urged Carnahan to rethink (aside from Jeong who really is long past his sell-by date), it’s not any of the diverse group of assassins but Will Sasso (Irresistible) as Gibson’s right-hand goon.  Either the writers completely lost interest in this character early in the writing process or Sasso didn’t sell it right but it’s such a bland role that could have been a lot more energized with some sort of gimmick that made it memorable.

The film is far too digitized to be called handsomely rendered yet the action sequences do have a gentle thrill to them.  I would have taken less of the showier large scale set pieces that were completely computer generated in favor of more one on one interactions.  It’s these scenes between Roy/Grillo and the other assassins/actors that are arguably more entertaining to watch, even from a visual standpoint.  Boss Level moves so fast and furious, though, that you hardly have time to catch your breath before you’re shot like a cannon into the next foe (or starting again from the beginning) so things are in constant motion.  I keep saying I’m over these time loop movies but if they keep getting done as well as Palm Springs and Boss Level, why stop now?

Movie Review ~ Dreamcatcher (2021)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A masked killer terrorizes a disc jockey and a group of friends at a drug-fueled underground music festival.

Stars: Niki Koss, Zachary Gordon, Travis Burns, Blaine Kern III, Olivia Sui, Emrhys Cooper, Elizabeth Posey, Nazanin Mandi, Adrienne Wilkinson, Lou Ferrigno Jr.

Director: Jacob Johnston

Rated: NR

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: You can’t even blame Scream at this point for any masked killer movie that has a cast of young know-it-alls that fall prey to a knife-wielding psycho.  After that blockbuster 1996 film arrived, giving the teen slashers a nice jolt of electricity, countless other copycats attempted to emulate screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s finely tuned dialogue and clever skewering of (aside from unfortunate victims) the tenets of the horror genre.  Few came close and over time the competition began to cannibalize itself so that each film started to become its own parody.  Now that we’re past the small peak of remakes and reboots, it appears the slasher film is on the rise again and aside from a few recent winners such as Hunter Hunter and The Stylist most have been decidedly thumbs down.

You can add the dank and dreary Dreamcatcher to the rubbish bin of also-ran Scream wannabes, an unfortunate fate to be sure in light of a director that comes armed with an impressive resume as a visual artist and at least three performances that hint at the kind of fun I think everyone was going for.  Alas, everyone is let down by writer/director Jacob Johnston’s confounding screenplay that changes the rules at whim and has so much eye-rolling dialogue you should watch the film with your head titled back just in case yours fall out unexpectedly.

While it kicks off with a nasty bit of prologue business, dispatching a character you’ll wish stuck around longer when you see who else winds up making it until the end, things are torpedoed quickly in the very next scene between friends Jake (Zachary Gordon, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) and Pierce (Niki Kloss, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) as they enjoy a movie night in.  Long-time pals that moved into the friend zone quicker than Jake would have liked, their discussion sounds like the malarky written to make people sound like they have a point of view, though not like anything a human being actually says.  It’s phony baloney and it instantly takes you out of the scene, making you think about the actors going through the motions rather than establishing their characters.

Soon joined by Pierce’s sister Ivy (Elizabeth Posey) and her friend Brecken (Emrhys Cooper), both in town for a visit and looking for a night out, the four wind up at an exclusive party where DJ Dremcatcher (Travis Burns) is appearing.  Now, I guess it’s still a big deal to hear what tunes a DJ is playing because let me tell you, Pierce flips her lid when she hears DJ Dreamcatcher is going to be there.  This all sets up how she winds up going backstage before his show where something, um, unfortunate happens, setting into motion 24 hours of mayhem for Pierce and her friends.  As they struggle to keep a secret they shouldn’t remotely be holding back from telling in the first place, they become the target for a omnipresent figure in a creepy mask that manages to turn up at the most inopportune times to, y’know, kill them and stuff.  If only they’d kill them before they had a chance to get through more of Johnston’s crushingly terrible dialogue.

Sensing a straightforward killer film isn’t enough to satisfy experienced genre fans, Johnston resorts to a late breaking twist surrounding the final reveal that’s so dopey you’ll wish he had kept going with the stale take he’d been running with up until then.   This is all assuming you’re even paying attention by that point after all the yapping throughout the overlong run time.  Dragging itself through 108 very long minutes, the movie only finds a pulse when Adrienne Wilkinson is onscreen as Josephine, DJ Dreamcatcher’s scheming agent.  Finding the right balance in delivering Johnston’s campy one-liner takedowns of Pierce and her friends or any number of guests at a launch party, Wilkinson could have taken the part up five more notches and pushed the acting over the top, but she wisely keeps it low-key and makes the role much more memorable.  It’s always better to play the villain when there’s someone else worse running amok and Wilkinson pretty much walks away with the movie.  There’s also some good energy to be found from Olivia Sui as, you guessed it, another female that enjoys making life difficult for those around her.  I’m not sure what this says about the movie, Johnston, or myself but the best acting in the movie and the most appealing performers just happen to be those that have some snap to them.

The rest of the cast, including a specially credited Lou Ferrigno Jr. who after watching the movie I still couldn’t pick out in a line-up if you paid me, are mostly forgettable and likely will want you to forget they were in this too.  I mean, would you want to be Posey in a few years when she’s the star on some streaming show having Jimmy Fallon playing the clip where she’s somberly reciting Shakespeare and then recounting the time she played Lady Macbeth while her sister played one of the witches…all in the middle of an evening when her friends are dying around her?  She’s trying not to burst out crying while we’re stifling a laugh.  It’s just one example of several moments in Johnston’s screenplay where things are played so deadly serious it comes off as comedy instead.

With a huge list of credits on the visual design side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’d have thought Johnston’s film would at least have some flair to it but it’s not even interesting to look at.  There aren’t any unique camera tricks or impressively rendered sequences, even a Marvel movie that is largely using worlds created by CGI has some sense of its surroundings.  Dreamcatcher doesn’t even bother to establish time or place.  It’s a jumbled mess of a movie.

Movie Review ~ Coming 2 America


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Prince Akeem Joffer is set to become King of Zamunda when he discovers he has a son he never knew about in America – a street savvy Queens native named Lavelle.

Stars: Eddie Murphy, James Earl Jones, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Shari Headley, Teyana Taylor, Michael Blackson, Louie Anderson, Paul Bates, Wesley Snipes, Leslie Jones, KiKi Layne, Rick Ross, John Amos, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Tracy Morgan, Garcelle Beauvais

Director: Craig Brewer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There are good ways and bad ways to do a sequel and Eddie Murphy has seen them both.  The careless cash grab follow-up to a surprise hit never goes the way anyone wants it to (see 2000’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and Doctor Doolittle 2 from 2001) and is ultimately stymied by a studio that wants to capitalize on the popularity of a proven money-maker without worrying about silly things like creativity or furthering the character we liked.  Then there are the ‘make ‘em wait’ sequels that Murphy has had notable wins with, like 1990’s Another 48 Hrs., a more than worthy follow-up to his breakout 1982 feature film and, to a somewhat lesser extent, his two sequels to 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop.

The biggest wait of them all was the 32-year gap between 1988’s Coming to America and Coming 2 America, its long in the works sequel which is premiering on Amazon Prime after the health crisis led to its theatrical release being bypassed.  It’s a shame the film didn’t get a chance to play in theaters because this is one of those rare successes that make you wish you had a packed audience to enjoy it right alongside you.  One of Murphy’s longest lasting hits (I watched it again recently and marveled at how well it holds up, even the more problematic jokes weren’t as wince-able as I thought they’d be), it’s a sequel fans had been requesting but Murphy had resisted making because he didn’t feel the script/story were quite right.  Remember…this is from a man that made The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Norbit.  Anyway…

Now that Murphy had been experiencing a nice little renaissance over the past several years with a carefully thought-out comeback of sorts, the time was evidently right for a return to Zamunda and for fans of the original film, this is exactly the movie you’ve been asking for.  Though one could argue Murphy and a small army of writers that contributed to the screenplay simply worked back through a laundry list of favorite moments from the first movie, I’d counter and say Coming 2 America goes beyond mere fan service and moves into rewarding devotees not just of the three decades old film it follows but of Murphy’s career in general.  You’ve stuck with him all this time and here is 110 minutes of well-oiled comedy (and yes, a few creaky bits) as your prize.

Thirty years after finding his bride in Queens, NY, Price Akeem Joffer (Murphy) is a father of three strong girls and loves his life with Princess Lisa (Shari Headley, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween).  While his father (James Earl Jones, The Lion King) is in declining health, he still rules Zamunda with authority so Akeem doesn’t have to worry about the dictator from next door (literally from Nextdooria) trying to overthrow the throne…yet.  There is a problem though and with each passing day it grows more worrisome to the King.  Without a male heir to the throne, the Prince will have to find a proper husband for his eldest daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk) and she’s none too thrilled about being betrothed instead of finding her own match.  If anything, she’d rather her father just change the way things are done and let her be first in the line of succession. This is the 21st century, after all.

Through the magic of filmmaking and a slight tweaking to the original film, we eventually find out that during his 1988 trip to New York, Akeem had a one-night stand with Mary (Leslie Jones, Ghostbusters) and nine months later, when he was back in Zamunda, she gave birth to their son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler, The Opening Act).  With a viable heir to Zamunda, Akeem’s problems seem to be solved.  Now he can get General Izzi (Wesley Snipes, Chi-Raq) of Nextdooria off his back and perhaps broker further peace between them by having Lavelle marry Izzi’s temptress daughter.  Yet, like his father, Lavelle isn’t about to do what is expected of him and his arrival begins to cause more rifts within the royal house as all adjust to this new factor of the family equation.  As Lavelle is put through the trials the prove he is ready to become the crown prince while Meeka watches on and coaches her half-brother from the sidelines, Akeem learns a lesson from those around him about trusting your own self in making the decisions that will affect your future and not relying on age-old traditions.

Joined again by Arsenio Hall as Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi, Murphy easily slips back into the character and doesn’t waste much time in giving viewers what they’re looking for: Murphy and Hall under a wide array of impressive make-up designs as a half-dozen (or more) other characters that drop in along the way.  Returning favorites will show up as well as a few new ones, so keep your eyes peeled.  You’ll also be treated to a number of characters from the original and even minor one-liner players cross the screen – just for those super fans out there.  Surprising musical celebrity cameos also feature heavily in a handful of numbers, all decked out in Oscar-winning designer Ruth. E. Carter’s (Black Panther) truly eye-popping and mind-blowing costumes.  Carter always does thoughtful, beautiful work that’s pleasing to look at but in Coming 2 America she outdoes herself…and then some.

The energy and investment start at the top with Murphy and manages to have a pleasant trickle-down effect throughout the appealing cast.  It may seem at first like Hall isn’t as present as he was in the first film but he’s playing so many other secondary roles he’s plenty busy yukking it up reprising his fast-talking barber or bible thumping preacher.  I wasn’t sure at first how Fowler would fare when standing toe to toe with a number of imposing comedic figures, but he makes for a nice next generation star, as does Layne’s who is absolutely an exciting actress to keep your eye on.  SNL alums Morgan and Jones take big bites out of any project they’re a part of so are often best absorbed in small doses and director Craig Brewer nicely doles them out in a perfect amount.

Simply put, it’s a nice treat to find a sequel that feels like it went the extra mile to make it up to loyalists that have waited for it over the years.  Its plot isn’t anything super deep but it isn’t a strict rehash of the original, either.  There’s some depth to Coming 2 America with an always worthy message of charting your own path and the performances are up to par with, and often exceeding, what made the first film such a delight in the first place.  It’s entertaining as all get out and always wants you to be in on the fun.  Can’t ask for more than that.

Movie Review ~ Boogie


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While his parents pressure him to focus on earning a scholarship to an elite college, Alfred “Boogie” Chin, a basketball phenom living in Queens, N.Y., must find a way to navigate a new girlfriend, high school, on-court rivals and the burden of expectation.

Stars: Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Paige, Pamelyn Chee, Perry Yung, Mike Moh, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson, Alexa Mareka, Dave East, Domenick Lombardozzi, Eddie Huang

Director: Eddie Huang

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It’s been said (and written about by Christopher Booker) that there are only seven basic plots and every movie, tv show, or book can fit into one of these categories.  Aside from these seven, there is what is known as the meta-plot and I think that’s where a film like coming-of-age dramas such as Boogie fit in. The meta-plot proposes that although the work may have a wealth of characters that revolve around the central figure, the plot is only ever truly concerned with that main protagonist, the “hero”.  All of the other characters become important because of how they connect with that “hero” and that’s why everyone, eventually, becomes important to us.  That winds up making a lot of sense to me when you apply that to classics like Stand by Me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Clueless, Sing Street, Lady Bird, or even an off the wall choice like Carrie.  If only Boogie were more in line with the caliber of those films, it could be a title we’d still be talking about one or two decades in the future.  Alas, it’s a frustratingly lifeless tale with little in the way of surprise over 89 minutes, demonstrating a dismal sense of creativity in how writer/director Eddie Huang chooses to take his shot on his debut feature.

A fortune teller predicts the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Chin will be rocky but their child has a good chance at success, which is prosperous news for the couple hoping for a better life in Queens, N.Y.  Years later, Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi) is a hot-headed basketball player entering a new high school chosen for it’s marching bad…just kindding.  Of course Boogie’s parents have chosen it for its basketball team, though it’s not exactly the kind of group to get hyped about.  The hope is that his presence on the team will turn their luck around and that by doing so and taking the credit he will earn a full ride scholarship to a college, paving the way to a professional career.  At least that’s the long-term plan according to his always hustling mother (Pamelyn Chee), much to the continued chagrin of his less strict father (Perry Yung) who cares more that his son is happy experiencing freedom in his fast-moving life than anything.

His thoughts always on the game, a pleasant distraction shows up with the feisty Eleanor (Taylour Paige, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) a girl in his class who doesn’t give him any kind of pass because of his skills on the court.  Eleanor challenges Boogie to think about more than just basketball and outside of his own personal goals, which increases the growing rift between him and his mother.  As an important game draws near with a rival team lead by the imperious Monk (Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson, who tragically was killed in 2020 before the movie could be released) and with a family acquaintance acting as his unofficial agent on the authority of his mother, Boogie finds himself at a crossroads and having to choose between his family and his future, realizing too late they might overlap more than he thinks.

The problem from the outset of Boogie is that there’s nothing overtly new or interesting being relayed to us so watching the film feels as if we’re seeing a repeat of an old episode, albeit one we can’t quite remember the exact ending of, though we definitely know how it ends.  In films like the documentary Hoop Dreams, or dramas such as Above the Rim or, heck, even White Men Can’t Jump, we get a look at the perils of the urban basketball scene and how a home court advantage might only protect you within a small city block, but you can’t stay near the net forever.  So that means all of the fuss that Boogie takes on in its final thirty minutes feels quite a lot like warmed over leftovers from better films.  All we have to do is sit back and wait for the final full court press and reconciliation on an empty court after the crowd has dispersed.

It pains me to say it, but the performances also don’t serve the story either, starting with Takahashi’s bland showing as the title character.  Charmless with little in the way of a leading man’s charisma that would have gone a long way in improving our engagement with the film, Takahashi manages to turn us away from Boogie the more the movie goes on instead of trying to win us over.  It’s odd the way he alienates himself so soundly by the end.  Same for Chee as his mother, though in her slight defense she’s playing someone who’s behavior we’re supposed to be agog at.  Even so, there’s some of her line delivery that you can tell she has no confidence in.  And either she looks as young as her son or Takahashi comes off as old as she is but their relationship felt more like sibling than like a parent and a child.  On the good side of things, Paige is a standout as Eleanor, and she acts circles around her onscreen love interest as does Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Bumblebee) playing Boogie’s best friend and confidant.  I wish Paige and Lendeborg Jr. were in a stronger movie that represents them better.

Another thing I found strange about the film is how poorly the basketball scenes were shot.  Boogie is supposed to be this phenom of an athlete, yet cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz (Ready or Not) makes it appear as if Takahashi’s and his teammates not only learned to dribble a basketball a few weeks before the shoot but also mastered walking and talking around the same time.  I sometimes dread “The Big Game” in sports movies but this was resoundingly bad because there is just no energy or excitement in the final match. This is also partly to do with the editor not cutting it correctly, but the coverage had to be there to begin with so…the blame could go plenty of places.  Instead of Huang instilling some stakes for Boogie to hang his future on, that final meeting between him and Monk with everyone looking on seems like just another day at the office.  They aren’t taking it seriously so why would we?

I’m not quite sure who Boogie was made for.  It’s overly foul language and tendency to go for a crude joke (Boogie’s first line to Eleanor as she’s working out is one for the ‘no thank you’ record books) makes it too adult and adults will be put off by the juvenile antics of Boogie and his friends.  As the original creator of Fresh Off the Boat on ABC, Huang clearly has a voice and point of view that needs to be heard and represented, Boogie just doesn’t cut it as the kind of entertainment that can convincingly win a crowd over.

Movie Review ~ Moxie


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Inspired by her mom’s rebellious past and a confident new friend, a shy 16-year-old publishes an anonymous zine calling out sexism at her school.

Stars: Hadley Robinson, Amy Poehler, Alycia Pascual-Peña, Lauren Tsai, Josephine Langford, Ike Barinholtz, Marcia Gay Harden, Sydney Park, Clark Gregg, Patrick Schwarzenegger

Director: Amy Poehler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Nostalgia is funny thing when it comes to the high school experience.  I wonder how many youths that have graduated within the last decade during the biggest boom of social media will look back on their time during what everyone knows is the most awkward period of growing up.  Those freshman through senior years can be quite influential for the person you will become, at least for the next few years into whatever comes after high school.  It’s entirely why movies and television shows about this age group have been so appealing over the years, changing through the decades to reflect the current state of what life is like for those living it.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would not have flourished in the environment that exists for teenagers nowadays.  Not only is there added pressure in the realm of academia but thinking about the extra layer of technology allowing for anonymous cyber bullying and the sharing of personal information among classmates is enough to keep you up past your bedtime on a school night.  Then there are the social, racial, and gender norms which are going through an upheaval with the advent of politics becoming more radicalized, finding the next generation of leaders suffering the consequences for a system that doesn’t support their choices.  Sexism and misogyny run rampant and without anyone to call it out, it will continue unchallenged.

In Jennifer Mathieu 2017’s YA novel, Moxie, the author posits what would happen if an unassuming high school junior suddenly took it upon herself to push back against the imbalance in the way women and other marginalized groups are treated by other students, teachers, and school administrators.  An early fan of the book was comedian Amy Poehler (Sisters) and after directing the easy breezy gal pal comedy Wine Country for Netflix in 2019, she signed on to film an adaptation of Moxie for the streaming service and take a small supporting role as well.  Taking cues from a screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, Poehler wisely avoids making Moxie into a simple girl power tale that winds around expected corners on its way to a syrupy ending.  Working with a talented cast of up and comers, Poehler instills a strong message without going overboard in dramatic histrionics to make her point.

The start of a new school year means Vivian (Hadley Robinson, Little Women) and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are one year closer to graduation and then off to the smarty pants college they plan to go to together.  They’ve gotten used to their place in the school hierarchy and Vivian especially has resigned herself to remain unnoticed, though long-time platonic friend Seth (Nico Hiraga, Booksmart) has had a definitive growth spurt over the summer.  Is it her imagination or does he seem awfully talkative with her in their morning class together?  While Vivian musters  about the courage to check in with Seth, she notices that high school quarterback Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Daniel Isn’t Real) is already giving new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) a chilly welcome after she doesn’t respond to his phony charm act that others have fallen for.

At first, Vivian turns a blind eye to Mitchell and encourages Lucy to do the same, but as the taunting gets worse and more behavior goes unchecked, she impulsively puts together a crude manifesto of sorts after uncovering a suitcase filled with her mom’s old paraphernalia from her days as a rabble-rouser in her high school.  Distributed anonymously around the school and credited to “Moxie”, the ‘zine’ becomes a tool of empowerment for a number of students at the school and a hot button issue for everyone else.  Rules are broken, voices are raised, and the usual way of doing things is challenged by a growing number of students that find they have a voice and there is strength in numbers.  As the identity of Moxie is sought, Vivian struggles with keeping her secret from a new group of friends while maintaining her old relationship with Claudia and being honest with her single mother (Poehler) who doesn’t understand why her daughter is suddenly shutting her out.

I’m going to say something a little controversial for all you Wine Country fans out there.  While I found that film to be a lot of fun for a Friday night, it had some uneven spots that left me feeling it was missing something overall.  Perhaps it was just a case of having too many good people to choose from – the cast was an abundance of riches and I never felt like I got a healthy sampling of any one of them.  With Moxie, I feel as if Poehler worked out some of those directing kinks because it’s a far superior film where pacing is concerned and since it’s been cast with a number of fresh faces it doesn’t come with a lot of expectation attached to it.  Instead, Poehler has thought about who should play the adults and filled those roles with the likes of Marcia Gay Harden (Grandma) as the school principal who doesn’t make life easy for Vivian and her friends, Clark Gregg (Live by Night) in a minor role playing a co-worker of Poehler’s, and Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad) as a hapless teacher that never can quite be on the right side of an argument.

Where Moxie shines the most is its strong cast playing the high school students aching to be valued for more than what they look like on the outside.  As Vivian, Robinson is an inspired, naturalistic presence that convincingly goes from a shy not-quite wallflower into a more confident dance like no one’s watching activist in her own right.  With Tsai holding the more cautious side as her longtime best friend and Pascual-Peña the bolder new kid on the block, both actresses’ lived-in performances offer Vivian opportunities to lead or become a better leader.  As other Moxie girls that get into the act, Sabrina Haskett, Sydney Park (Wish Upon), Anjelika Washington all have nice moments along the way, with Haskett especially going through a nice moment in standing up for herself in front of others.  It’s no fun playing the bad guy and Schwarzenegger seems to be enjoying himself at least, so there’s that.  Get ready to swoon over Hiraga playing the kind of compassionate boy every mom (or dad) would want their daughter (or son) to date.

You could nitpick at a few things along the way, sure, like the way the film either introduces threads of ideas and then completely abandons them (two characters kiss and then their relationship is never mentioned again, a trans character auditions for a musical which is supposedly a big deal but there’s no follow-up) or it drops in something out of left field.  Yet in some way, the script resembles the mind of a teenager in that way.  Everything is important in that very moment and sometimes it remains at the forefront and maybe it goes away quickly…or that incident they were mad about years ago they’re going to bring up now just because they need to be angry about something…anything.  That could also be me rationalizing some gaps in the writing or editing.

Netflix has done well by their teen audiences over the past few years and Moxie is another sign they know their audience, as well as another vote of confidence on Poehler’s evolution as an artist.  Her role in the film is just enough to satisfy your fix for her onscreen (not that I would have begrudged a scene or two more) but it’s clear she wanted to focus to be on a new crop of talent, giving voice to a different kind of conversation. Keep being a part of these forward-moving films, Netflix.