The Midnight Sky

★★★

I like George Clooney. Always have. Always will. He seems like a cool dude. He’s politically-minded and puts his money and influence behind worthwhile causes. The worst I can say about the guy is that he was a crummy Batman in my least favorite film of all-time – a movie he himself mocks incessantly.  

As a director Clooney’s a bit of a mixed bag – I have real love for “Good Night, and Good Luck.” and “The Ides of March,” I enjoy to varying degrees “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “The Monuments Men” and “Suburbicon” despite their shortcomings and I outright disliked “Leatherheads.”

Clooney’s latest as director and star is “The Midnight Sky” (now available on Netflix), an adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book “Good Morning, Midnight” scripted by Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant,” “Overlord”). Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a dying scientist who opts to stay at his base in the Arctic when his colleagues flee following a cataclysmic event (Possibly nuclear? Possibly environmental?) that’s wiped out much of humanity. He discovers a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) who’s been left behind at the base. She’s largely silent. He deduces that her name is Iris due to a drawing she does of said flower.

The movie frequently shifts its focus and is ultimately three stories in one. We see Younger Augustine (Ethan Peck, Gregory’s grandson) romance Jean (Sophie Rundle of “Peaky Blinders”) and their relationship eventually crumble under the weight of his workaholism and emotional unavailability. Older Augustine stayed behind so could get in contact with Aether, the only active space mission. The ship is crewed by pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones), her partner Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), pilot Tom Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), Sanchez (Demian Bichir) and flight engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone). They’re unaware of what’s occurred back home and Augustine encourages them to change course from Earth to K-23, a habitable moon he discovered earlier in his career.

Clooney seems to have a thing for space between “Solaris” (2002), “Gravity” and this. His enthusiasm is drowned out by the dour nature of the material however. Focusing on the positive, kudos must go out to Clooney and his production designer Jim Bissell (who’s worked on every Clooney-directed picture aside from “The Ides of March”) for matching the pattern on the stock of Augustine’s rifle with the interior walls of the Aether. I don’t know what this was supposed to mean, but it was cool and registered with me. Speaking of cool, I saw something here I’d never seen before – blood droplets floating in the anti-gravity of space. Appropriately enough, they kinda looked like Gushers.

It’s sort of damning that my attention was drawn to gun butts and fruit snacks. This is probably the result of “The Midnight Sky” being both scattershot and slow. (A late movie twist did pay emotional dividends however.) It’s safe to say that Clooney’s latest falls firmly into the category of enjoyable despite its shortcomings much like the majority of his directorial oeuvre. To y’all I say, “Good night.” To Clooney I say, “Good luck” … in recapturing whatever it was that gave earlier efforts verve and personality like the man himself.

We Can Be Heroes

★1/2

There were a handful of filmmakers that I was obsessed with as a teenager in the mid ‘90s – Sam Raimi, John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Kevin Williamson and Robert Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who made “El Mariachi” for $7,000, gave me hope that I too could make a movie that’d launch me to Sundance and beyond. (I didn’t.) He followed this up with the one-two punch of “Desperado” (a $7 million reimagining/sequel of “El Mariachi”) and the Tarantino-scribed “From Dusk Till Dawn.” These two flicks blew my mind when I saw them theatrically at the ages of 13 and 14 respectively. I was young enough that I probably shouldn’t have been seeing these movies and yet they were perfectly suited to my early adolescent sensibilities. A few years later Rodriguez collaborated with Williamson on “The Faculty,” a movie that not only made Josh Hartnett and his self-inflicted haircut seem cool but extolled the virtues of drugs to such an extent that they saved the world.

Rodriguez would soon move away from making movies for man-children and turn to making movies for actual children. I dug “Spy Kids” and “Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams,” detested “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over” and didn’t bother with “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D,” “Shorts” or “Spy Kids 4-D: All the Time in the World.” This brings us to Rodriguez’s most recent kiddie flick “We Can Be Heroes” (now available on Netflix), which is a pseudo-sequel to “Sharkboy and Lavagirl.”

“We Can Be Heroes” concerns a superhero team called the Heroics comprised of Marcus Moreno (Pedro Pascal), Miracle Guy (Boyd Holbrook), Tech-No (Christian Slater), Blinding Fast (Sung Kang), Ms. Vox (Haley Reinhart), Crimson Legend (J. Quinton Johnson), Red Lightning Fury (Brittany Perry Russell) and the aforementioned Sharkboy and Lavagirl (stuntman JJ Dashnaw replacing Taylor Lautner, Taylor Dooley) as well as their children – Missy Moreno (YaYa Gosselin), Wheels (Andy Walken), Wild Card (Nathan Blair), Slo-Mo (Dylan Henry Lau), A Capella (Lotus Blossom), Rewind (Isaiah Russell-Bailey), Fast Forward (Akira Akbar – pretty much the coolest name ever!) and Guppy (Vivien Blair).

Marcus made a promise to Missy that he’d limit his crime fighting to the Heroics headquarters. He has to break this promise when the team is abducted by an onslaught of purple, tentacled aliens. Missy joins the super-powered progeny in protective custody at headquarters under the watchful eye of Ms. Granada (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, wasted). Missy’s an outlier among the group as she has no discernible abilities and attends public school. It’ll soon be up to these kids to discover and/or use their powers in order to rescue their parents from the aliens’ clutches.

I wanted to like “We Can Be Heroes” better than I did as I’m a fan of Rodriguez’s. The audience for this flick is particularly niche – it’s pretty much made for kids between the ages of 5 and 10. I’m a 39-year-old man who wanted to see actors I dig (namely Pascal, Holbrook, Slater and Kang) strut their stuff, but they’re barely in the thing. I get why these guys would sign up for the project. By all accounts Rodriguez is a cool dude. He works fast and often gets his people home in time for dinner. He might make you one – or many if you’re Benicio del Toro – of those pizzas featured on Jon Favreau’s “The Chef Show.” You’re working in Austin, Texas (one of my favorite American cities), home of Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios.

“We Can Be Heroes” is strictly the domain of kids – so much so that Rodriguez’s son Rebel scored the picture, which is pretty cool. (You may remember Rebel as Tony in “Grindhouse”/“Planet Terror” – “I’m going to eat your brains and gain your knowledge.”) Some of these youngsters are charming (Blair’s Guppy mugs real good, I enjoyed the presentation of Slo-Mo’s powers and Andrew Diaz’s Facemaker elicited a coupla chuckles outta me), but far more of them are complete voids.

When Blossom’s A Capella breaks into an excruciating Kidz Bop-esque rendition of the David Bowie song from which the movie derives its title I went from indifference to indignation and wanted to jam a knitting need inside my ear canal. Cool concepts such as Christopher McDonald AKA Shooter McGavin playing the Donald Trump caricature/condemnation President Neil Anami (which translates to, “I’m an alien,” backwards) are undercut by a twist that serves to further elevate these tykes. I’m all for uplifting children on screen and off – I just prefer the presentation to be packaged better than something that approximates The Asylum aping the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those of you complaining about “Wonder Woman 1984” best check yourselves. This is undoubtedly the worst Pascal-starring superhero flick to release on Christmas Day.

Soul

★★★★★

Probably the biggest question one could answer is: “What is the meaning of life?”

It’s a riddle that all forms of artwork have attempted to solve. The novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” joked that the answer is 42, as if it were like solving a math problem.

But should we be surprised that Pixar, the animation giant behind “Up,” “Inside Out, “Toy Story” and “WALL-E,” is the movie studio that actually comes closest to answering this question?

Disney/Pixar’s “Soul” was released on Disney+ on Christmas Day after being delayed from its summer release due to COVID-19.

In that time during the delay, hundreds of thousands of people have died. Many have lost their jobs or their businesses and have spent the past few months contemplating what their purpose is on this Earth. And the movie came out on a day — Christmas — in which people would usually gather with dozens of relatives to exchange gifts. This year, many didn’t travel to see their families at all.

It seems fitting that “Soul” was not just released on Christmas, but this Christmas, the year of this horrible pandemic. It’s a movie that not only deals with death and the afterlife (similar to “Coco”) but it also deals with what makes us who we are (similar to “Inside out.”)

The end result might be Pixar’s boldest, most experimental and most artistic output. It might be the best movie released in 2020. It certainly was the one we needed and it left me and my wife in tears for reasons I’ll get into in a minute.

First off, this movie tells the story of Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, an aspiring jazz pianist who is stuck (at least in his mind) as a middle school band teacher. He wishes he could be touring and playing in night clubs and doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that he can help mold the minds of students. He’s singularly focused on what his purpose is in life and he’s convinced it is music.

He’s finally landed his career-changing gig when he quickly falls into a manhole and ends up as a pastel blob floating above an escalator to The Great Beyond. He’s fearful of death, not because he’s worried about Heaven or Hell, but because he isn’t satisfied with the life he left behind. He feels he never truly achieved his life’s goal and he has to go back. He has unfinished business.

The metaphysical animation depicting the escalator to the afterlife is dark and abstract with sharp white lines all shooting out of the sky. It’s the most daring piece of animation that Pixar has created and it’s scored by the Oscar-winning duo of Trent Rezner and Atticus Ross. The former NIN frontman has impressed with film scores in the past, mostly with David Fincher, such as “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gone Girl,” and “Mank.” Instead of relying on his past collaborator in Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, co-director Pete Docter went the industrial route but still has emphasized the importance of a good soundtrack. The jazz music on Earth is composed by Jon Batiste, the band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Batiste scores a stunning piano finale.

Joe Gardner finds himself in The Great Before, a land where souls are created before they are sent into newly born bodies. The multi-ethnic, accented leaders-in-charge are two-dimensional Picasso-like drawings that all call themselves Jerry. It’s very trippy and looks like it could have been conceived by Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick or Charlie Kaufman.

Gardner is teamed up with an unborn soul, simply named 22, voiced by Tina Fey, who has yet to find her spark despite the guidance from hundreds of famous mentors including Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Carl Jung and more. Soul 22 worries that she might not actually be great at any one thing in life.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot, but the adventure eventually moves to Earth and the story moves quickly and with conviction. The movie never feels like it’s wandering or spinning its wheels. Pete Docter, the chief creative officer at Pixar, is at the helm and he knows what he’s doing (having previously directed “Monsters Inc,” “Up” and “Inside Out.”)

You can tell the team behind this movie has read a lot of books on philosophy and apparently the story had numerous drafts before they landed on this tale. It was originally a heist film set entirely in the metaphysical realm, but I think Pixar made the right decision to set some scenes on Earth to show that life is worth living.

Joining Docter for co-director and co-writer duties is Kemp Powers, an exciting new voice in cinema. This is actually only the second movie that Powers has worked on, the other being a 2020 Oscar contender with “One Night in Miami,” the drama he wrote based on his own play. That movie is only out in select cities, but it’s very good as well. Powers, a graduate of Howard University, is the first African American director of a Pixar movie and this movie that has Pixar’s first African American lead character. While this is historic, it never feels like forced diversity or pandering. They never hit you over the head with it and the producers brought in experts to make sure the African American experience is told authentically.

Powers is 48 years old but he’s a relative newcomer to Hollywood. He wrote a short film in 2012 and wrote a few episodes of the TV series “Star Trek Discovery,” but his IMDB profile is very slim. He’ll be a household name soon with at least one Oscar under his belt come 2021 (he will likely get nominated in both Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories and “Soul” is a lock to win Best Animated Feature and might get strong consideration for Best Picture too).

I think what I love most about “Soul” is the questions it asks and the unconventional viewpoints it takes. Most movies, especially those aimed at children, talk about finding your destiny or your purpose in life. They talk about if you really love something and have a dream that you should never give that dream up and pursue it to the bitter end. “Follow your dreams” is repeated over and over again. But what if you don’t actually achieve the dream you had as a child? Does that mean you had a failed life? What if you finally get to do your dream and it doesn’t make you happy? What if you don’t have any dreams? What if there’s not one big thing that you’re passionate about?

Just like Docter taught children in “Inside Out” that it was OK to feel sad at times, he’s teaching adults in “Soul” that it’s OK to feel lost at times, wondering what your purpose is in life.

In the end, the movie preaches appreciating the simple things in life, like eating a slice of pizza or looking up at the sky.

Pixar did something really risky with “Soul.” They aimed it more at adults than children.

There likely won’t be many action figures or merchandise from this movie. It won’t be the cash cow such as “Cars” or “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo” or “The Incredibles.” There won’t be kids’ sleeping bags depicting Joe Gardner playing in a jazz club.

This movie isn’t a babysitter for your kids for two hours. They might get bored. Many certainly won’t understand it. It’s not as funny or lighthearted as Pixar’s other offerings.

But if you were moved to tears by the opening scene in “Up.” If you marveled at the artistic silence that was the first half of “WALL-E.” If you appreciated the deeper themes in “Inside Out” and “Coco,” then this movie is for you.

I’ve always been frustrated that Pixar was afraid to embrace the true artistry in their movies. “Up” is a genius movie at first. It makes you cry and tells a real story about loss and regret because embarking on a colorful adventure with balloons in the sky. But for me, the movie loses its appeal when it turns into a story about talking dogs and giant birds. The same for “WALL-E.” I loved the quiet storytelling between WALL-E and Eve, but when Jeff Garlin is running around the spaceship, I lose interest.

I get it. These are kids movies.

But maybe we’re underestimating children.

My daughter is only two. She was already asleep when we put on “Soul,” but I don’t think she’ll understand what is going on. She mostly watches Peppa Pig. But for older children — I’d say seven years old and up — this movie could speak to them.

Fred Rogers said that children’s entertainment shouldn’t be just meant to babysit your kid. It should teach and inspire. Movies can say something in a way that you and I might not be able to. It can teach children lessons.

I once met an addiction counselor who was an alcoholic herself. She was telling me that she grew up in an abusive household and was in and out of the foster care system and never truly felt loved or accepted. When she was a young girl, she watched the Christmas special “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and saw the Island of Misfit Toys. She looked up at the TV screen and said, “Finally, there’s a place for me!” It broke my heart to imagine this young girl who felt so lost. But it spoke to me about the power that a cartoon can have to inspire a child.

“Soul” is a movie that might inspire a lost soul, someone who works 60 hours a week at a job they hate, someone who is so obsessed with their passion that they lose sight of the world around them, someone who doesn’t know what they’re good at. We just have to take the time to look around and enjoy a slice of pizza. Is there really anything more you need in life?

Usually, you need a few tissues handy when you watch a Pixar movie. This time, grab the whole box.

My wife and I hugged each other after watching this movie. We both had a tough year during this pandemic. We looked over at our daughter, slumped over asleep, and we knew that it doesn’t matter what we do for a job or if we make our mark on history.

On Christmas Eve, after I just spent a very long day working at the restaurant I co-own with my parents, I came home to watch a movie with my wife and daughter before bed. As we were struggling to put our daughter to sleep, the most gorgeous snow began to fall on the ground. My daughter stood up and went to the glass sliding door and pressed her hands up and looked outside at our dim backyard with white flakes catching the light as they fell. It was beautiful and it might be one of my favorite memories from this Christmas.

It doesn’t matter what we buy or what we do. It’s moments like snow falling on a beautiful night. That’s what life is about.

Review Twofer – Skylines/Monster Hunter

★★1/2

I caught a coupla creature features last week, so I figured I’d pair ‘em together for this dual review. Here’s what I peeped.

Skylines:

The “Skyline” franchise got off to an inauspicious start back in 2010. Directed by visual effects artists The Brothers Strause (Colin and Greg), “Skyline” is the only entry to have ever received a wide theatrical release. As directors The Brothers Strause are very talented FX artists. The picture was followed up seven years later with “Beyond Skyline.” The original film’s co-screenwriter Liam O’Donnell was promoted to sole scribe and director this time out. O’Donnell had a game cast featuring my man crush Frank Grillo and “The Raid” veterans Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian – these folks transformed the enterprise from sci-fi to sci-fu. This brings us to “Skylines” (or “Skylin3s” for promotional purposes), which is now available on VOD.

I’ll state this right from the jump: if you haven’t seen “BS,” I wouldn’t bother watching “Skylines.” I’ve seen and enjoyed “BS,” but it’d been a few years and even with the, “Previously on ‘Skyline’ …” segment that opens the picture I was a tad confused. Characters from the previous installment have rapidly grown from children into adults or had their brains transplanted from human bodies to alien ones.

Rose (Lindsey Morgan, co-star of the CW’s upcoming “Walker”) and her brother Trent (James Fitzgerald) must team with an elite unit of mercenaries (played by Daniel Bernhardt, Jonathan Howard, Ieva Andrejevaite,  Giedre Mockeliunaite and Cha-Lee Yoon) led by General Radford (Alexander Siddig) in order to thwart a virus that’s turning friendly, Earth-dwelling human-alien hybrids against humanity. Their adventures lead them to a planet called Cobalt 1. The action cuts between Cobalt 1 and Earth as we see Dr. Mal (Rhona Mitra), Grant (James Cosmo, the Scottish actor who frequently goes Medieval on everyone’s asses), Elaine (Samantha Jean) and Huana (Ruhian) fight for survival.

Honestly, the plot’s a bunch of gobbledygook and the movie’s probably half an hour too long, but I’ll be damned if it ain’t entertaining. O’Donnell – like his predecessors – is also an FX artist, but I’d argue he’s a better filmmaker. These movies generally cost somewhere between $10 and 20 million, look more like 80 to 100 million and it’s all in service of martial artists fighting dudes in alien suits or blowing shit up. Speaking of scrapping, Bernhardt (who you may remember as the guy Bill Hader fights through the better part of a “Barry” episode) and Yoon have a baller brawl and Ruhian performs a throat rip on an alien that’d make Dalton from “Road House” and MacGruber beam with pride. It’s hard to begrudge a movie that has a Jackie Chan-esque blooper reel. It’s even harder to begrudge a director who culminates said reel with his credit accompanied by footage of his leading lady exclaiming, “Fuck you, Liam! What’s the fuck?!!!”

I don’t know why, but suddenly I’m hungry for Cincinnati chili.

3/5

Monster Hunter

I’m no Paul W.S. Anderson hater. I don’t like him as well as Paul Thomas Anderson (Who does?), but he’s made some fun albeit dumb flicks. “Mortal Kombat” isn’t good, but it had a bumpin’ soundtrack and a coupla decent fights (most of which revolved around Scorpion and Sub-Zero). I initially thought his “Resident Evil” movies sucked, but they’ve grown into guilty pleasures over time … especially as he embraced 3D along the way. Anderson’s latest video game adaptation “Monster Hunter” is now playing in theaters.

The picture stars Anderson’s frequent collaborator, muse and wife Milla Jovovich as Lt. Artemis. She and her Army Ranger squadron (made up of rappers T.I. and MC Jin, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta and Josh Helman (Young Stryker from recent “X-Men” outings!)) are sucked through a portal to another world. Upon arrival they’re attacked by a series of different monsters. Luckily for them they encounter The Hunter (Tony Jaa), a sand pirate who’s been living and fighting in isolation.

A decent amount of “Monster Hunter” works; far more of it doesn’t. I actually preferred the militaristic fetishization sponsored by Oakley and calling to mind Michael Bay to the picture’s more fantastical elements, i.e. Ron Perlman in the world’s worst wig and an anthropomorphized pirate cat. I enjoyed the interplay between the soldiers and wish there were more of it. These actors would’ve benefitted from further character development as opposed to almost instantaneously being served up as a colossus’ snack. That said it ain’t really that sort of flick, the monsters are admittedly pretty cool (Toho did co-produce after all!) and one of the deaths is especially gnarly for a PG-13 joint.

Much of “Monster Hunter” is a two-hander between Jovovich and Jaa and it kinda feels akin to something like “Hell in the Pacific” or “Enemy Mine” in that there are language and cultural barriers between the two resulting in strife. This strife does lead to an admittedly entertaining hand-to-hand combat sequence. Jovovich and Jaa are fine, but they and the picture as a whole would’ve benefited from having other cast members around to help break the proceedings up. Don’t get me wrong, I dig training montages as much as the next person, but they grow stale after a bit. “Monster Hunter” is 99 minutes and feels more like 129. This ain’t a T.I. tune – I can’t have whatever I want.

2/5

Hunter Hunter

★★★★

Slow-burn movies tend to work in one of two ways. They’re either A.) All build up with little to no payoff (No thank you!) or B.) Lots of build up with an explosive conclusion that rewards patient viewers (Yes please!). “Hunter Hunter” (now available on VOD) fits firmly in column B and it’s not about the president elect’s son’s laptop –in fact it’s much scarier than any conservative witch hunt.

Joseph Mersault (former Bop cover boy Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan) and their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) are living a hard life off the grid. They’re fur trappers living off the land and in a cabin passed through three generations of Joseph’s family. They fear a rogue wolf is hunting them when trappings are being absconded from their traps. Joseph leaves Anne and Renee behind to track, hunt and kill the wolf. During Joseph’s absence Anne finds the injured Lou (Nick Stahl) in the woods and invites him into their home in order to nurse him back to health.

I don’t want to say much else about the plot as it’s pretty simple and takes some wild turns in the third act. I expected this to be a Sawa vehicle as he’s arguably the biggest name of the bunch and appeared prominently in much of the marketing materials, but it’s really not. This is inarguably Sullivan’s show and she’s mesmerizing in it. She plays much of her role quietly with steely reserve, but when she’s called upon to emote she really goes there. Sullivan is a Canadian actress and this is a Canadian production, but she hadn’t registered with me prior to now. I’ll certainly remember her from here on out.

Sawa does an admirable job with what he’s given. Worlds away from his Tiger Beat days, he cuts a tough, terse, chain-smoking figure here. It’s also good to see Stahl again. I’ve been a fan of this dude’s since his childhood work in Mel Gibson’s directorial debut “The Man Without a Face,” through playing the titular role in Larry Clark’s “Bully” and all the way up to more mainstream efforts such as his unfairly maligned portrayal of John Connor in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and as the dastardly Yellow Bastard in “Sin City.” Stahl doesn’t look great here (he’s gone missing in Los Angeles’ skid row before and has a history of substance abuse), but his appearance suits the role and he plays it well. I genuinely hope this is a comeback of sorts for the talented actor.

“Hunter Hunter” is written and directed by Shawn Linden, features cinematography by first-time feature lenser Greg Nicod and is edited by John Gurdebecke and Chad Tremblay. These craftsmen have collaborated to make a movie I won’t soon shake. The way Nicod shoots something as simple as Anne making a supply run is incredibly visually dynamic. Gurdebecke and Tremblay’s editing of the conclusion ratchets tension to almost intolerable levels. I’d encourage the squeamish, most vegetarians and those who hate to see harm come to animals to skip “Hunter Hunter.” In spite of and perhaps because of this – it’s one of the best and most effecting horror films of 2020.

Wolfwalkers

★★★★★

Irish animator Tomm Moore has already been nominated for an Academy Award two other times for his two other movies 2009’s “The Secret of Kells” and 2014’s “The Song of the Sea.” His newest effort, “Wolfwalkers,” which you can stream for free with an Apple+ subscription, will earn his third nomination.

While I anticipate Pixar’s “Soul” to be quite good, my guess is that the breathtakingly beautiful “Wolfwalkers” will end up being my favorite animated feature in 2020 and likely would end up in the top 10 for all movies made.

This truly is a gorgeous looking movie.

It tells the story of a young girl named Robyn from England who moves with her father, a hunter, to Kilkenny, Ireland. His job is to provide the village, set in 1650, from the wolves that lurk in the forest.

Robyn soon discovers that one of the wolves with green eyes is actually a little girl with a wild bush of red hair. She is a wolfwalker named Mebh, which is kind of like a werewolf, but somewhat different. When she falls asleep at night, her soul leaves her body and turns into a wolf that roams the forest. Her human body remain asleep until the wolf disappears into her body in the morning.

Mebh’s mother is comatose, forever asleep, due to her wolf form being captured in a cave by an evil ruler of the village who plans on burning down the forest to kill all the wolves.

The Celtic music is subtle but moving and the animation is top notch. The characters look like hand drawn ink sketches and the backgrounds look like oil paintings. There are stills from this movie you’d want to frame and put on your wall. It looks that good.

There’s a killer song, “Running with the Wolves” by Norwegian singer Aurora, that should get nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars.

If you enjoyed Moore’s other works, this new film is no exception. Kids will be entertained and so will the parents. Highly recommended.

Songbird

★★★

I initially thought the concept of “Songbird” (now available on VOD) seemed tasteless – a movie about a pandemic that was conceived, written, shot, edited and released during a pandemic – but it was handled with a sensitivity I didn’t see coming (especially with Michael Bay serving as producer). The fact that we’re all going through something similar to the characters made me empathize with them to a greater degree.

“Songbird” takes place a few years in the future. Humanity is grappling with another pandemic – this time it’s COVID-23 (God, no! We don’t need sequels to this shit!). We’re in Los Angeles and it’s on permanent lockdown. Daily health screenings are mandatory with the sick being shipped away to the foreboding Q-Zone by armed sanitation workers in hazmat suits. Word has it if you go to the Q-Zone, you ain’t coming back.

The movie concerns itself primarily with a bicycle courier named Nico (K.J. Apa, this is the second Nico he’s played this year after the dreadful “Dead Reckoning”) who works for Lester (Craig Robinson) under the watchful eye of a drone operated by Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser, excelling playing another lovable weirdo). Nico is immune to the virus. He’s what folks call a “munie.” There aren’t many munies out in the world – another one is Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare), the knife-wielding Director of Sanitation who made his way up the ladder when all of his colleagues died. (You know Emmett’s a paradigm of virtue and goodwill because he’s played by Stormare and smokes cigarettes while saying, “It’s good to know something can still kill you.”) Munies are marked by scannable yellow wristbands that provide their information.

Nico has a girlfriend whom he’s never met face-to-face named Sara (Sofia Carson). They constantly communicate via video chat and Nico often delivers her trinkets. Sara lives with her grandmother Lita (as in la abuelita) played by Elpidia Carrillo – the lady from “Predator”!!! Nico’s working day and night in order to earn money for counterfeit wristbands so he, Sara and Lita can escape to Santa Cruz, Cal. – a safe haven from the virus.

Conveniently enough many of Nico’s deliveries take him to palatial home of sleazy record producer William Griffin (Bradley Whitford, smarming it up with great aplomb) and his wife Piper (Demi Moore – I’ve never been the biggest fan of hers, but it’s nice to see her again after a prolonged absence. She also does good work playing the neutral gray of this flick.), who are now producing the bogus bands (the ones for your wrists; not your ears) in order to maintain their opulent lifestyle and assure medical treatment for their autoimmune compromised daughter Emma (Lia McHugh). William has a wristband of his own and will escape the house for dalliances with May (Alexandra Daddario), a young musician he has holed up in a seedy motel. May is our titular songbird and will perform songs via webcast where she connects with Dozer.

Sure, it was probably opportunistic and somewhat insensitive for writer/director Adam Mason, co-writer Simon Boyes, Bay and the other filmmakers to make this movie, but at its heart “Songbird” is a story about the lengths people will go to for love and in that regard it works. Much of this is because of Apa, who looks and acts great here. I took a crap-a on Apa last month with my review of “Dead Reckoning,” but the dude’s charismatic as hell in this outing. I think the kid’s got a bright future.

The conditions under which the filmmakers made the movie are readily apparent. Many actors perform their scenes by themselves. Much of Apa’s material was filmed outdoors. Thematically the restrictions occasionally pay dividends – William and Piper’s marriage is on the fritz so having Whitford and Moore act out their scenes with one another at a distance makes complete sense.

You likely already know if “Songbird” is for you or not. If your dander is already up because of the pandemic, this may only serve to amplify your anxiety. Mason has made a movie that apes Bay’s style to some extent, but is much less frenetic as a whole. This is a pandemic rendition of the Bay-produced “The Purge” with a dash of Paul Haggis’ “Crash” thrown in for good measure as everyone’s seemingly connected. It’s better than its 10% Rotten Tomatoes score would indicate. It also provides an idea at how Phil Spector might behave in a pandemic via Whitford’s performance and gives viewers a glimpse of Daddario in a more revealing version of Leeloo’s outfit from “The Fifth Element.” I leave you with this: If you’re gonna watch one 2020 movie where K.J. Apa plays a kid named Nico make it “Songbird” and not “Dead Reckoning.”

The Prom

★★★

Lovers of live theater hated 2020.

In New York City, Broadway has been closed since March 12 and the more than 97,000 workers were affected. It’s projected that more than a billion dollars in ticket revenue has been lost (More than $1.8 billion was sold during 2018-2019 season).

And that’s just in New York. Theaters have been closed around the country and besides some streaming options there have been very few opportunities to watch live musicals or plays.

Ryan Murphy, the powerhouse TV producer behind “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” and many, many more, has provided a joyful streaming distraction for hardcore fans of musical theater. His new feature length movie “The Prom” dropped on Netflix on Friday Dec. 11.

It’ll be a crowd pleaser for those that miss the theater. For those that are only so-so on musicals? You won’t be converted by this one.

“The Prom” is a big, bold, glitzy — at times, cheesy — musical. It doesn’t have the crossover appeal of “Hamilton.” You have to like show tunes to digest this one.

Hoosiers might be interested in this movie because of the Indiana connections. Murphy grew up in Indianapolis and attended Warren Central. His mother still lives in the Fishers/Geist area. The movie itself, based on a 2018 Broadway musical, tells the story of a Hoosier high school girl who wants to attend prom with her girlfriend but is opposed by a school board that doesn’t agree with LGBT life styles. It’s very loosely based on a true story that took place in Alabama, but this fictional version takes place in the made-up town of Edgewater, Ind. and there are quite a few shots taken at our state. In the first 20 minutes, there are multiple songs that portray Indiana as a redneck state devoid of culture. The protagonist, played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman, sings, “Not to self: don’t be gay in Indiana” in our introduction to her character.

Struggling Broadway actors (played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Andrew Rannells and Nicole Kidman) decide to descend upon the small town after seeing the girl’s story on Twitter. They plan to help out this lesbian teen in order to get some positive publicity and help their careers. The four of them sing (in one of the first songs) about, “Those fist-pumping, Bible-thumping, Spam-eating, cousin-loving, cow-tipping, shoulder-slumping, finger-wagging, Hoosier-humping losers and their homely wives. They’ll learn compassion, and better fashion, once we at last start changing lives.”

Broadway composer Matthew Sklar said he was not only inspired by the true prom incident in Alabama, but by then-Gov. Mike Pence’s RFRA fiasco in Indiana. Hence, the Hoosier setting.

The message is this movie is about as subtle as a piano falling on someone. It’s clearly preaching acceptance and denouncing homophobia but the movie itself seems to think a big song and dance number can melt hearts, transform minds and change the world. Issues that have existed forever are solved rather quickly. Characters who are cartoonish, hardline bigots are suddenly converted to full acceptance in a matter of minutes.

Far more entertaining is the message about arrogant celebrities who think what they say or do will actually change anyone’s mind. There’s some biting commentary about celebrities wading into the political pool. Personally I feel making fun of celebrities is too easy of a target, like trying to throw a water balloon at a house from five feet away. But it does garner some laughs in this broad comedy.

Much of what I’m criticizing about “The Prom” can been blamed on the original Broadway show rather than Murphy’s adaptation and his direction. Murphy does fill your TV screen with colorful dance sequences and joyful energy. At times it seems to border on excess, similar to later seasons of “Glee,” but it’s hard to hate something so insanely positive.

The one thing I might truly fault Murphy for is the casting. Meryl Streep is one of the world’s greatest actresses, but I’m getting Streep fatigue with this one. She’s great as always but that’s to be expected and she’s raised the bar so hight that I’m not sure she reaches it. She plays an aging Broadway star who has a romantic relationship with the school’s principal played by Keegan-Michael Key. The age difference is a minor issue and the chemistry between these two is really off. I didn’t really believe the romance between the two.

James Corden is definitely acting for the back row of the theater in this one. His effeminately gay Broadway actor is so over the top that you’ll see his performance in “Cats” as subtle. He does garner a few laughs with clever lines but your enjoyment of “The Prom” will rely heavily on how much you can stand Corden. If you find him to be unbearable, then you will cringe every time they put him into yet another scene in this two-hour film.

Nicole Kidman is actually decent but she’s given one of the most lazily written musical numbers with “Give Them Some Zazz,” an cheer-up song in the style of “Chicago” with lots of jazz hands.

Andrew Rannells, the Broadway powerhouse who originated the role of Elder Price in the 2011 Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” is given the least to do in this movie. In one musical number, he convinces popular teenagers to not be homophobic by delivering a not-subtle song about The Bible called “Love thy Neighbor.” It means well, but I rolled my eyes a little. It’s the kind of take that you’ve heard again and again in Internet memes. I guess we can’t hear enough a message of acceptance and love but I was kind of hoping for something more insightful.

While the big name celebrities fall a little flat, the lesser known actors really excel in “The Prom.” Pellman is excellent, as is Ariana DeBose, who will appear in Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of “West Side Story.” Not only are both talented singers but the composers give them more modern pop music to sing as opposed to the traditional Broadway show tunes of the four celebrities.

Kerry Washington is also pretty good as the villainous school board president.

All of the songs are well sung. There’s nobody in this movie like Ryan Gosling in “La La Land” or Russell Crowe in “Les Misérables.” Although at times the songs sound a little over produced like “The Greatest Showman” or “Glee.” More than a touch of auto-tune.

Now I know it sounds like I’m dumping all over this movie. It’s true that “The Prom” might not be my personal cup of tea but I think it succeeds in what it set out to accomplish. The movie is what it is and if you love watching Broadway musicals then you’ll have a great time watching this one.

I was one of the movie critics that didn’t really enjoy “The Greatest Showman.” If you loved that movie (or 2007’s “Hairspray” film), you’ll love this one.

“The Prom” is much better than both of those movies, but it’s an enjoyable distraction rather than an all-time great movie.

The clever and funny lyrics really hold this one together and, in the end, “The Prom” isn’t trying to be more than it is.

Archenemy

★★★

I really didn’t care for writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s last feature 2019’s “Daniel Isn’t Real” (review here), but saw in him potential for something better. It’s just one year later and improvement is already here in the form of “Archenemy” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Fri. Dec. 11).

Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) is an intergalactic superhero who’s fallen through time and space to Earth where he’s powerless and spends his days going on a continuous bender. Nobody believes Max’s story save for the teenaged Hamster (Skylan Brooks), an aspiring street journalist. Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) peddles drugs for The Manager (Glenn Howerton of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) to keep a roof over their heads. A collection Indigo is supposed to make on The Manager’s behalf from Krieg (Paul Scheer) goes sideways placing her and Hamster in the crosshairs. Max teams with the teens to protect them and dismantle The Manager’s crime syndicate. Max’s home planet nemesis Cleo (Amy Seimetz) also factors into the action.

The best reasons to see “Archenemy” – aside from Mortimer’s progression as an artist (Seriously, his blend of live action and animation works worlds better here than in “Daniel” given the comic book-inspired content.) – are Manganiello and Howerton. Manganiello despite being a beefcake appears to be a nerd at heart – going so far as to host a star-studded Dungeons & Dragons game in his basement. After getting a taste of the superhero glut as Deathstroke during the closing credits of “Justice League,” Manganiello doubles down as Max Fist. Max is an interesting hero – or more specifically antihero – who’s as likely to discuss quantum physics as he is to barf up a bottle of bourbon. Manganiello convincingly plays both sides of this dichotomy. Howerton undergoes a physical transformation in his portrayal of The Manager adopting bleached blonde hair, sideburns, mustache and earring. The character is kinda like Dennis Reynolds only far more depraved. If Dennis’ moral compass is damaged – The Manager’s is decimated. He feels like an ‘80s action movie villain. Once “It’s Always Sunny” comes to a conclusion or while on breaks from the show, I’d love to see Howerton essay another heel role opposite somebody say like Jason Statham. He does it well enough here that I think he could hang as a heavy elsewhere.

“Archenemy” has a lot on its mind. It longs to show the plights of people on society’s fringes. Manganiello’s Max is a clear-cut metaphor for our soldiers and first responders who often seek solace in the bottle or with drugs following the things they’ve seen and done. His intentions while often altruistic aren’t always heroic and often border on psychotic. Mortimer also addresses racial and class inequality by having Howerton’s The Manager (who exploits a black youth before ultimately trying to snuff her out) don country club tennis whites for the finale. Speaking of the conclusion, it hints at a sequel for what could be a much more interesting movie. For the time being however this edgier incarnation of Peter Berg’s “Hancock” with a splash of James Gunn’s “Super” will suffice.  

Wander Darkly

★★★

As I reviewed “Wander” last week, I felt it was my civic duty to review “Wander Darkly” (available on VOD beginning on Fri. Dec. 11) as well. You know, to see both sides of the spectrum.

Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are a young couple who are on the cusp of being on the outs despite having had a baby daughter six months earlier. They go to a party one fateful evening attended by Adrienne’s colleague Liam (Tory Kittles), whom she has a flirtatious relationship with. Adrienne’s also jealous of Matteo’s connection to Shea (Aimee Carrero), a woman he worked with on a construction project. While returning home Adrienne and Matteo get into an argument, which distracts him from driving as an oncoming car swerves into their lane and crashes head-on into their vehicle. The accident is devastating.

The remainder of the movie poses all sorts of questions. Are one or both of them dead? Did their daughter die? Was she in the car at all? Adrienne and Matteo relive key moments of their relationship hoping to gain a greater perspective on one another and what exactly their current circumstances are. The proceedings feel like a hodgepodge of “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but not as horrific as the former nor as romantic as the latter.

This is clearly a very personal project for writer/director Tara Miele, who herself was in a traumatic car accident a few years back – one which she and her husband thankfully survived. There’s a lot to admire and recommend in “Wander Darkly.” Luna and especially Miller give really solid performances. They also share a surprisingly frank, graphic and funny sex scene set to The War on Drugs’ “Suffering” (great band; great song). Kudos to these two big names for having the courage to shoot this sequence as it lends the picture a sense intimacy and honesty it might otherwise lack. I also enjoyed having character actress Beth Grant on hand as Adrienne’s mother. Whether she’s being forced under the wheels of a bus as she was in “Speed,” being told to insert an index card into her anus à la “Donnie Darko” or nagging Luna’s character as she does here, this lady’s always watchable and memorable. Lastly, the editing employed to transition the audience from one scenario to another is especially effective – props to editors Tamara Meem and Alex O’Flinn (he previously edited Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider”) for their masterful work.

Now for the bad: Kittles is an awesome actor who’s essentially wasted here. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen this cat’s excellent work in last year’s “Dragged Across Concrete” and you’re not squeamish you really should.) “Saturday Night Live” veteran Vanessa Bayer and commercial actor Dan Gill (he’s a cute dude with curly hair and a mustache) play Adrienne and Matteo’s friends Maggie and Dane. Neither one of them are bad in their roles and may very well have been cast as comedic relief in what’s otherwise a serious work, but their presence is somewhat distracting. I kept waiting for the picture to transform into a sketch or a State Farm ad whenever they appeared. Lastly, Miele has a history of directing Lifetime movies (2014’s “Starving in Suburbia” and 2015’s “Lost Boy”) and some of that cheesy energy seeps into what’s otherwise an engaging and emotional dramatic thriller.