The Great Movie Review Bonanza: Black Widow, Free Guy, Raya and the Last Dragon, Jungle Cruise and So Much More!

I've been digging deep into some client work and working on a manuscript that I hope to pitch around in the fall. So, the site hasn't quite been rocking off socks like I hoped, and that is all on me and I apologize. Apparently even without kids, my body still needs sleep, and I can't just go all T-1000 where I push until mission accomplished.  

I do have several article ideas planned and work has been done on the fictional series, but I want to be a little deep into it before I start posting.

And movie reviews are just going to be raining from dark clouds as if it is a storm that The Weather Network site is claiming isn't happening.

I have several 2021 movies that haven't been given formal non-ghostwritten reviews. Some of those movies will be rewatched and given long-form reviews at some point. But for now, here are some mini reviews of all the major 2021 movies that I've seen in the last month.

Black Widow ***: I will definitely revisit this one as I make way through all the MCU movies again, but based off the events of Avenger: Endgame, it is hard to not shake the feeling that we should have got this movie five years ago. In a movie series that has been about each one building towards the next, something gets lost when you know much of what happens here can't have too much of a great impact going forward. There also is bit of feeling that the theme of women can be powerful and overcome the oppression of toxic males in leadership is just following the path that was set by Patty Jenkin's 2017 Wonder Woman.

Scarlett Johansson is great in the action lead as a hero that is being chased by her past and needs to resolve haunting relationships. Florence Pugh has been one of the most exciting actors of the past few years and she is great here as Yelena, the not-really-sister of Natasha. Pugh is believable as the tough-as-nails assassin type, but also provides a lot of dry wit and humour to her character. She plays off great with David Harbour's Red Guardian. There were some tender moments about forgiveness and an exploration into what really makes a family. It is also great to see Rachel Weisz being given a nuanced role with the complicated Melina.

The premise is interesting where Natasha learns that the evil organization that she thought she took down still exists and is using a chemical to turn orphaned women into mind-controlled assassins. It is obviously exploring how some men try to control woman and is about women standing up to some patriarchal oppression. But the message gets smothered by routine MCU CGI action with a finale that seems to exist just because this is how most MCU movies end. I am a fan of Ray Winstone, but he is one of the all-time weak MCU villains, which is too bad since the movie is trying to convince us this is an epic showdown that has been building for all of Natasha's life. It is anti-climactic. 

But the performances are great and there is a fun energy throughout the picture. It is mid-level MCU, but they are the masters of big event pictures, so it is still worth checking out.

Yes, there is a stinger that hints at some future event in upcoming MCU projects.

Boss Level *: I dub this one 'Mountain Dew action' where it spends most of its run time screaming at me about how extreme and hip it is. This follows the Groundhog Day premise of where the hero keeps reliving the same day but this time, he is always killed by one of the slew of assassins going after him.  It tries to frame the loop as more like a video game where he is trying to go through a slew of bad guys while getting to the end boss (thus the name). Except most modern video games have save points and he wouldn't need to start right from the beginning each time. Plus, the whole idea of it being like a video game gets abandoned pretty quickly and instead, just follows the generic bad-ass action formula with a hero that is supposedly just dripping with cool and toughness.

Except he is an asshole that I enjoyed seeing get killed and didn't want to spend anymore time with in this picture. There are few colourful assassins like one who wields a sword and declares her name after making her kill. It doesn't really do anything interesting with any of the characters and none of the action captures the over-the-time spectacle of a good video game. 

Every character is pretty grumpy and talks like jerks to each other. This mean the scenes that are supposed to be the more endearing and emotional are hollow since you're conditioned to not believe that is who they have been.

It also uses bad guys shorthand by casting Mel Gibson. but he isn't particularly fun or interesting in this. They could have cast anyone in the role and probably should have. Frank Grillo is an action star that I have enjoyed in other movies, but his character is tiresome and repellent Joe Carnahan has established himself as a solid filmmaker for action movies with The Grey and The A-Team, but this is a huge misstep and one of my least enjoyable movie-watching experiences of the year. Though I confess this may be my own issue, as it scored relatively well on Rotten Tomatoes, so many had much more fun than me.

Free Guy (**½): I love the idea of a non-player character (NPC) discovering he is in a video game, and director Shawn Levy and credited screenwriters Matt Lierberman and Zak Penn do enough to distinguish it from similar pictures like Wreck-It Ralph, but I was left disappointed that it allowed formula and safe story decisions to stop it from being the really good movie that it should have been.

One of the big issues is that this picture is so loud and just an endless stream of CGI explosions and action. That works when we are in the video game world since Free City seems heavily based off Grand Theft Auto, but it loses focus when that over-the-top and in your face style of direction remains when we are supposed to be in the real world. 

The story about the two programmers trying to discover if the boss of the game company stole their code from a previous game that they developed doesn't feel grounded in reality and even their plan to uncover this, feels forced and odd. Taika Waititi plays the company's head like a cartoon and all his decisions are ridiculous and unbelievable to the point you wait for it to be revealed he doesn't actually run the company but doing some candid camera charade. 

Most of the real world characters are about as believable as the video game characters, and it really has nothing interesting to say about game design or the gaming industry. It also lacks authentic relationship as there is one reveal late in the movie that I was confused about, because I just had assumed the character would have been able to figure this out years ago based off the everything that happened in the movie.

But there is sill lots to like.

Jodie Comer is a stand-out as she plays both the confident video game avatar Molotov Girl and the video game programmer playing her, Millie. They not only affectively look like different people, but Comer projects a different energy with the avatar who projects a boldness and brashness while Millie is meeker and less sure. Both characters have a heart and compassion that connects them, and Comer proves she has the skills to be a star in comedy, drama and action. She has a solid chemistry with Ryan Reynolds, which is a crucial part to drive the story, because it is Comer's character that is supposed to be what triggers Reynolds' Guy to realize what he is really is.

Reynolds has the usual fourth wall breaking wit and sarcasm that is expected in his characters, but this time he is much gentler, kinder and compassionate. It was intriguing seeing Reynold play what is a more optimistic and friendly version of his Deadpool character. Reynolds does a lot in making this movie feel more positive and joyous, and it has a heart that encourages us to not only believe in ourselves but aim to make the world a better place. It seems to trust that we are capable of doing it.

Reynolds helps make the themes of hope and optimism flow through the entire narrative rather than just something slapped on the end like most comedies that are cynical until the happy ending.

I've been a big fan of Lil Rel Howery since his unforgettable performance in Get Out, and he is great here as Reynolds' best friend. The character doesn't have much to do, but he has a great chemistry with Reynold that makes you love them together. Their relationship is another huge part in making the film feel more optimistic and kindhearted.

I like where the movies heart is at. I think the concept is great, and there are many funny moments especially how it playfully depicts gamers and their culture. There needed to be a stronger divide from the video game realm and the real world, and really explore its ideas rather than feeling like a retread of similar pictures like the The Truman Show, Matrix, and Wreck-It Ralph. There is a lot of fun to be had here, but I can't go with a full-on recommendation with this one.

Jungle Cruise (***): It is based off a famous Disney Ride, which is why the title is kind of silly for what is a sweeping fantasy action adventure, because I guess, no one would go see this if they discovered it wasn't based off something they already knew. Of course, this is chasing the Pirates of the Caribbean success, which was also based off a ride, and you find several elements here that were borrowed from that hit series. While we're at it, it also is pretty heavily influenced by hits like The Mummy and even Raiders of the Lost Ark where it combines treasure hunting adventure with the supernatural. There isn't a lot here that feels original from a story perspective, yet it still fights it way to being a fun family adventure picture.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has a history of creating well-paced fun actioners that build to big moments like The Shallows, Non-Stop and The Commuter. Now, he proves he can bring that formula to a big budget sweeping adventure, as his team crafts a gorgeous and vibrant fantasy world. Most of the animals must be CGI, but they move realistic and look like they live in this world, and the jungle is full of life and energy. I love the fictional and fantasy-like take of 1916. Like the Pirates movies, this isn't trying to be grounded in reality, but rather use history to build upon it fantasy aesthetic.

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt play great off each other, and even if the story doesn't build up the romance in a believable way (she hates him right before they start falling in love for some reason), you still like them paired up and can feel the chemistry. They both have as easy-going charm where you can tell they are having fun, and they never take the material too seriously, but at the same time they bring enough emotion to their characters that we care about them and that build the stakes. It is all goofy and silly, but you like being on this ride with these two.

I have long praised Jesse Plemons, and so it is a little disappointing he is generic German bad guy. The supernatural bad guys have some backstory to give them layers, but the movie doesn't do much with it, and they turn out into typical big bads. 

The movie knows what made stuff like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pirates of the Caribbean work. It is the sense of adventure and having characters that fare un. Emily Blunt gets to play a strong and capable female lead. It isn't a movie that I'm going to think about much and it definitely follows much of the modern action formula beats, but it has an energy and spirit that made it one of the really fun times this summer.


Nomadland ***: I want to revisit this Best Picture winner, because it didn't connect with me the same way as most other critics and movie fans. Director Chloe Zhao does a great job of making the movie feel like a window into the life of a specific group and in this case, vandwellers travelling around the United States picking up odd jobs to survive. It works as an interesting exploration into a lesser known group of people and it has a great empathy for them. It is intimate and grounded. Zhao did this in her past picture, The Rider, where she looks at the life of an injured rodeo rider. She does a great job of creating an authentic and almost documentary-like look at a way of life.

France McDormand is terrific, as she always is, in the lead role as Fern, who is a tough and stubborn woman who feels that society has passed her by and is trying to find a place to fit in. The picture doesn't really have a strict narrative, but Fern does grow and shift as the movie progresses. McDormand is great at conveying both inner-strength and vulnerability.

In the end, it lacked an emotional connection and much like Fern, the picture just feels like it is drifting along. I never had something I could attach to in the story or felt like it had something distinct to say. There are some great moments like when Fern meets up with her sister, and the friendship she makes with Dave. I was left feeling it would have been stronger as a documentary, as I never had those big emotional moments and there are moments that lack some real energy.

It shows a group that is often ignore in a compassionate and empathetic way, and for that, it is definitely worth tracking down. A movie that I admit that I may like much more when I give it a second chance.

Old (**): I have been thrilled over M. Night Shyamalan's resurgence in the last few years and I've recommended each of his picture since The Visit in 2015. He is an important filmmaker because studios seem to allow him to have almost complete creative control, and with a few exceptions, he mostly crafts original stories.

I dig the concept of Old where vacationing families are trapped on a beach where various strange things are happening including the kids getting physically older (that one is spoiled in the trailers, but there is more to that). But some of Shyamalan's worst instincts take over including painful expository dialogue, people doing things for the sake to push along the plot, a focus on twists rather than character development and 'shocking' moments so over the top it is comical. The lack of one believable or engaging character makes the whole experience feel like a dragged out episode of the Twilight Zone.

There is one character that at the beginning seems to only exist as a red herring to make us believe he is the threat but as the movie progresses, it makes his original behaviour make less and less sense, since he no longer acts that way when the plot doesn't require it anymore. Unfortunately, this movie constantly sacrifices believable characters, so they can create moments.

There are a few stand-out performances that along with the intriguing premise is what at least kept me rooting for the movie to work. Thomasin Mckenzie continues to prove to be one of the most engaging and captivating young actors as she was incredible in great moves like Jojo Rabbit and Leave No Trace, and she elevates this picture by giving it some soul and emotion. Thomasin draws in our sympathy and we are concerned for her even if the dialogue and some of the other subpar acting threatens to drag us out. 

Alex Wolf playing her younger brother does have a good chemistry with her and does well playing a young child in an older body. Rufus Sewell plays a character that could have gone over-the-top like some of the others, and maybe it does a bit, but he created one of the most intriguing characters and adds to the dark and foreboding atmosphere.

There are moments to cherish, but unfortunately, it is undone by being a campy movie that tries to take itself too seriously and has a finale that really falls flat and causes eye rolls.

Raya and the Last Dragon ****: I saw this one when I was alone with the kids for a few days, and since I've really allowed myself to get psyched out by written reviews, I kept talking myself out of writing about this because it was already a few days removed from when I'd seen it. Now, it is weeks ago since I experienced it with the kids. But this one deserves a proper review, because not only is it one of the best movies of the year but it can be held up as a Disney animation classic. 

Directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada along with credited screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim do masterful world-building creating an imaginative and complex land that seems rich in history and mythology. The animation is eye-popping and gorgeous, and gives each region its own unique feel and follows the lead of George Miller by making a beautiful dystopia. There is a great slew of fascinating characters and creatures that make the world feel alive.

Kelly Marie Tran does a great job lending her voice and providing personality to Raya who is a tough warrior looking to save her world, but also has a great amount of empathy and kindness. She is a flawed character who sometimes allows her emotions and anger to drive rash decisions, which is refreshing and deep for what is being aimed as family entertainment. Her journey is not only a sweeping adventure, but like many of the classic works, it allows her to grow, mature and learn to become a better person. A classic sense of the hero's journey where there is self-discovery.

It has better action sequences than most major blockbusters and has a nice mix of fantasy and martial arts action. It is a big-scale epic where she is trying to save the world, but at its core, it is about being open-minded, forgiving, empathetic and kind. All traits that modern times could use a reminder are a key to making a better world.

Awkwafina needs to be mentioned as Sisu, who is the last dragon and Raya's hope to saving her land. She is a nice mix of being a moral centre and mentor, but also provide some fun comic relief to help lighten the mood. Along the way they also pick up many fun side characters, and each of them help push Raya towards learning about acceptance and the importance of understanding those different than us in order to find peace and prosperity.

Even though I am making this sound deep, at the surface level it is a very fun family adventure, and my kids were hooting and hollering the whole way through. I am a huge fan of most Disney animated features, but this is right up there with Moana as one of the modern classics.

Space Jam A New Legacy **: I am going be honest, this probably got two stars, because I took my kids and they had a blast with it, so I fed off their joy and energy. Though Everett did whisper to me early on that he should have watched the original to better understand that was going on, and I had to inform him that wouldn't have really helped as this was barely a sequel other than some occasional references and winks to the original.

Rather than just remake the original movie where Bugs Bunny and pals need to win a big basketball game against invading aliens, it is decided to go in a totally new direction that seems to be rooted in studios' obsessions with IP. Don Cheadle plays an algorithm who wants Lebron James to be inserted into every Warner Brothers property, and the basketball star rightfully rejects the stupid idea, so the algorithm naturally kidnaps James' son and challenges James to a basketball game that I guess takes place on the Warner Brothers server where every character from the studio exists. I am sure you had to read that eight time to try to figure out what was going on, but yes, the algorithm is a character, welcome to 2021.

This means we get what looks like every person's drunk uncle try to cobble together a Halloween costume of Warner Brothers' owned characters and then play act that character without ever having seen them in a movie or show as the audience members for the big game. The first question is who thought little kids were demanding Pennywise, Austin Powers or the Droogs (infamous rapists from the very R-Rated A Clockwork Orange) to be in their movies? But then who thought they should make them look really cheap and be unbelievably distracting as they waved their limbs and looked like they were having a seizure in the background?

So, why am I giving this two stars? Because it has moments of being a fun kind of wacky. It is stupid but the type of stupid that has a few moments of charm and made me smile. It was likely driven by the fact that my kids were having a blast and I have a soft spot for Looney Tunes.

Stillwater (***): I understand that studios are finding it really hard to draw the casual movie goer out to the theatre, which is why there has been such an obsession with IPs. Even with adult geared pictures, they try to have something that is recognizable that may appeal to older audiences. I am sure that is the reason why in the marketing they have kept saying this fictional story is inspired by the Amanda Knox case where she was wrongfully accused of murdering her roommate in Italy.

The issue is that is very misleading, and Amanda Knox has been vocal about how it is unfair. This movie has very little to do with that infamous case other than it is about an American student who has been arrested on murder charges while living in another country. It has nothing to do with how police bungled the case or how media sensationalized things about her, and it isn't even about the girl who has been convicted. It is a story about her father who takes things into his own hands and seeks to prove his daughter is innocent.

Matt Damon plays a southern man who has fallen on hard times and is taking any work he can find. He has a damaged relationship with his daughter and a reputation for screwing things up. I like that the movie throws us in after it has already been several years since his daughter's conviction. Damon's performance is one of his best ever, and is very nuanced as a man who is haunted by the mistakes of his past but desperately needs to redeem himself and prove he is a loving father. 

I love how when the movie starts, he refuses to really speak any French, despite being in France, but over time he starts warming up to the culture and you see him develop and grow as a person. It is subtle and not something the movie pounds away at you.

The best stuff in the movie is when Damon meets a French woman (Camille Cottin) and her daughter. The woman at first is used to help Damon as he needs a translator to find the person who he believes committed the murder and possibly framed his daughter. They eventually grow to have a deep friendship that realistically grows into a romance. It feels very authentic and adult, and you're not sure if under normal circumstances that they would have had anything in common but the tragedy of the situation drives them both together. My favourite moments are Damon bonding with the woman's daughter, Maya (in a great and charming performance by Lilou Siauvaud. It is a combination of a true connection between them but also Damon's character is taking this as a second chance to be a good father.

Abigail Breslin is the convicted daughter and she has a few great moments with Damon. There is a great scene where she is allowed a day out of prison and spends it with her father and his new family. There is a real sweetness but also sadness as you can see the love she has for her father, but she still believed he is destined to screw up.

The investigation stuff is the weakest part of the movies. You have this grounded drama that is taken down by some thriller elements that feel far-fetched. It never really explains how Damon can find out or solve the things that he does, and there is lot of coincidence thrown about. Then the movie falls off the cliff at the end with characters making some very movie moments like decisions, and a few twists that exist more for shock rather than to develop the characters.

I was engaged and drawn in for most of the movie because the performances are great, and I cared about the characters for most of the run time. There is lot of good stuff here and worth checking out.

Wrath of Man (***): It has been a long time since I've enjoyed a Guy Ritchie directed movie or a Jason Statham starring picture, and so I didn't have much hope with them reuniting. This crime caper mixed with revenge actioner really works well as a mystery to be solves blended with big action set-pieces. Now, most of the mystery part is secondary and revealed by the middle of the movie, but helps makes this feel a bit fresher and intriguing compared to other revenge thrillers. 

Statham play a mysterious fellow who gets hired on as a security truck driver who transports large amounts of cash. You know right away that he is more than first appears, and there is an aura that follows him around that even gets his fellow workers on edge. The trailer actually spoils his intentions, but part of the fun is how it unravels, so I won't do that since I don't think this has been a big hit or that everyone knows about it (other than my action movie buff readers). Statham brings his usual dry wit and badassery to the role. and while not deep, you do connect with him on his journey.

The villains aren't really fleshed out but they are still delightfully despicable. You want a few to get their comeuppance while some others have echoes of humanity. Statham's character has a bit of nuance and isn't your straight hero. there are a few twists and revelations that I didn't expect, which makes it a bit deeper than most of these type of movies.

Ritchie likes tough guys. The biggest flaw is some of the over macho dialogue and scenes that take you out of it due to them feeling contrived or little bit too much tough guy posturing. There are moments when it tries to delve into drama that drag because the characters aren't developed enough and the dialogue clunks along.

It has some really fun and unique action set-pieces. It is different enough take on the genre that I'd say this was one of the bigger delightful surprises of the year so far.

Good gosh, that took much longer than expected. It ended up being slightly smaller versions of full reviews all jammed into one big article rather than the quick collection of thoughts that I had intended. Like I said, some of these movies I do plan to revisit, but for some, this is likely the best review that they will get.

I did leave out one movie in Suicide Squad. The plan is to give it a bit longer of a review, and then going forward, it will be full reviews for every movie. Though length could be anywhere between 250 to 1000 plus words depending on the movie and my time. I am going to keep working at making this site more active.

It has been a lot of fun being back at the theatre. While there have been a few blow away movies this year, I am hoping the quality picks up this fall. I'm definitely very excited for stuff like Dune, The Many Saints of Newark, Last Night in Soho, Nightmare Alley and Soggy Bottom. Not confident all those will make it to Brantford.

As always, I am so appreciative you took the time to read this. If you like it, then the best thing you can do is recommend my writing to other people who may like it as well. Thank you so much for the support. You all rock.