Fear Street Part 1: 1994

★★★★

As a tween and in my early teens I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Scholastic Book Clubs’ flyer from school each month. I’d rifle through it and order such highfalutin things as the novelization of the Macaulay Culkin vehicle “The Good Son” or a Lamborghini poster.

What really got me amped however was R.L. Stine’s series of “Fear Street” books. (I especially dug “Fear Street Cheerleaders.”) “Goosebumps” was too childish for a lad of my “sophisticated” tastes. Conversely “Fear Street” felt dangerous and had explicit, R-rated levels of violence that my demented young mind thrived on despite them being written for children.

I was especially stoked when I heard that co-writer/director Leigh Janiak (“Honeymoon”) had signed on to make a trilogy of films inspired by “Fear Street.” The first of these – “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” – will be available to stream on Netflix beginning Friday, July 2 with subsequent entries arriving at a clip of one per week the following two weeks – “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” (Friday, July 9) and “Fear Street Part Three: 1666 (Friday, July 16).

“1994” focuses on two towns – the depressed Shadyside and the prosperous Sunnyvale. (Think Springfield and Shelbyville à la “The Simpsons.”) Shadyside is periodically struck by shocking bouts of violence perpetrated by seemingly normal citizens who turn on a dime and are thrown into murderous fits of rage.

There are two types of teens in Shadyside – those who escape (Olivia Scott Welch’s Samantha Fraser) and those yearning to do so (Kiana Madeira’s Deena). Samantha moves from Shadyside to Sunnyvale when her parents divorce prompting a breakup between she and Deena.

Deena, smarting from the dissolution of her relationship, seeks solace in the company of her nerdy younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr. of Netflix’s “Rim of the World”) and her drug-pushing pals, the driven Kate (Julia Rehwald) and goofy grocery store employee Simon (Fred Hechinger from Netflix’s recent “The Woman in the Window”).

Adding insult to injury is Samantha’s newfound embrace of heteronormative culture by becoming a cheerleader and dating ass-squeezing Sunnyvale jock Peter (Jeremy Ford). Tensions escalate as a result, driving a deeper wedge between the two young women. Further complications and a mounting body count bring them back together.

Janiak, wife of “Stranger Things” co-creator Ross Duffer, has done one helluva job kicking off her trilogy with “1994.” She was born Feb. 1, 1980 and it shows. This is straight-up nostalgia porn for anyone who was a teenager in the early to mid ‘90s. The devil is in the details and Janiak and her collaborators did their due diligence.

The opening sequence takes place in a mall boasting stores such as Software Etc., B. Dalton Bookseller, Musicland and Gadzooks. TV shows such as “My So-Called Life” and “Unsolved Mysteries” are referenced. A character is shown sipping a Jolt Cola. I can’t even begin to fathom how astronomical the music licensing budget for the flick must’ve been with needle drops from Nine Inch Nails, Bush, Portishead, Cypress Hill, Radiohead, White Zombie, The Prodigy and the Pixies. The only anachronism I caught was the inclusion of Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains,” which released in ’95 as opposed to ’94.

This attention to detail wouldn’t mean a thing if “1994” didn’t connect emotionally and viscerally … thankfully it does. Janiak and her co-writer Phil Graziadei have provided her promising young cast with roles that make you care about their characters’ fates and the actors do an admirable job endearing themselves to the audience. It genuinely stings when these kids get got.

Speaking of murders, they’re surprisingly graphic and frightening here. Props to Special Makeup FX Designer/Department Head Christopher Allen Nelson (also known for playing The Groom in “Kill Bill” and Officer Francis in “Halloween” (2018)) and his crew for giving us glorious gore and grue. There’s a kill late in the picture involving a meat slicer that’s a real doozy and might just make ya woozy.

“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” will likely appeal to everyone from today’s teens to ‘90s teens now approaching middle age to teens at heart. Folks who’ve protested Stine’s work in the past or had issues with their kids listening to heavy metal and rap needn’t apply as they’ll likely be offended by the violence and sexual agency on display. (The fact that the film’s central romance is a queer one could also ruffle some feathers.) The movie calls to mind ‘90s horror offerings such as “Scream” and “The Craft.” The highest compliments I can pay the picture are that it made me wanna backtrack to catch Janiak’s directorial debut (the aforementioned “Honeymoon” starring “Game of Thrones” vet Rose Leslie), I’ll be on pins and needles anticipating the second and third installments (Luckily, I won’t have to wait long!) and that it would’ve made my 13-year-old R.L. Stine-loving self very happy.

Take Back

★★★

I’m not gonna lie. I went into “Take Back” (now available in select theaters – including Studio Movie Grill (3535 W 86th St, Indianapolis, Ind.) – and on VOD) with fairly low expectations. The movie is a starring vehicle for Michael Jai White’s wife Gillian White. Despite being a big ol’ fan of MJW (seriously, if you haven’t seen “Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing” or “Black Dynamite” you owe it to yourself to do so), I feared this might be the latest instance of Hollywood nepotism – think every time Adam Sandler (another dude I actually dig) throws his talentless wife Jackie (sorry!) into one of his flicks. Turns out my fears were unfounded, White can not only act – she can also kick a metric shit-ton of ass.

Zara (White) is a successful lawyer living in Coachella, Calif. She’s married to Brian (MJW), a high school history teacher and martial arts instructor, and has a positive relationship with her stepdaughter Audrey (Priscilla Walker). Their lives are turned upside down when Zara comes to the rescue of a barista (Lucia Romero) who’s being violently accosted by her ex (Jay Giannone). Zara disarms and kicks the crap outta the creep. The confrontation is captured on the coffee shop’s security camera. Despite the presence of good police Detectives Schmidt (James Russo, best known for Westerns “Open Range” and “Django Unchained”) and Perez (Jay Montalvo), some cop leaks the footage to the press, which gives Zara unwanted media attention.

Turns out Zara is a sex trafficking survivor, which happened at the hands of dog-loving Patrick (Mickey Rourke) a few decades prior. She was only able to escape/survive by pumping a coupla rounds into Patrick’s torso. Unfortunately, Patrick survived his gunshot wounds, is currently an avid news watcher and sees Zara’s segment. He sends his goons (played by Jessica Uberuaga and Paul Sloan) to Zara’s office and home to harass she and her family. They ultimately wind up kidnapping Audrey and it’s up to Zara, Brian and Schmidt to get her back.

“Take Back” as directed by Christian Sesma (best known for making movies starring Luke Goss of Bros such as “Lost Time,” “AWOL-72,” “The Night Crew” and “Paydirt”) and written by first-time screenwriter Zach Zerries isn’t a good flick, but it’s undeniably an entertaining one.

White has a real presence and I must commend MJW for taking a backseat to his wife allowing her to shine. Rourke almost doesn’t look human here – he sorta resembles a wax figurine of himself melting or Leatherface wearing his visage as a mask. In spite of this, the cat still registers. He’s got a great voice. He plays with his dogs on camera. He makes his monster somewhat vulnerable. I also really enjoyed Chris Browning (Gogo on “Sons of Anarchy”) as Jerry Walker, Zara’s cowboy friend and business associate.

I’ll be honest with y’all, “Take Back” is probably more of a 2.5 star movie that I’m awarding 3 stars, but White’s Zara slits a dude’s throat with a pizza cutter – if ingenuity such as this ain’t worth half a star I don’t know what is!?!

Fatherhood

★★★

I’m not the world’s biggest Kevin Hart fan by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve never watched any of his stand-up specials. I’ve never seen either of the “Ride Along” movies. I know him best as a member of the recent “Jumanji” franchise’s ensemble (the dude did some truly inspired work impersonating Danny Glover in the second installment) and as a supporting player in Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen’s output from the mid-to-late aughts and early 2010s (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Drillbit Taylor,” “The Five-Year Engagement,” “This Is the End”).

I may actually be the world’s biggest fan of director Paul Weitz. His 1999 directorial debut “American Pie” is a nostalgic favorite of mine. I’ve probably seen it no less than 25 times. (I realize the picture is problematic in certain regards and couldn’t be made today the way it was then, but that doesn’t diminish my love for it.) A few years later Weitz dropped the awesome one-two punch of 2002’s Nick Hornby adaptation “About a Boy” and 2004’s “In Good Company” (a truly underrated movie featuring awesome performances from Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace). I kinda lost track of Weitz after 2006’s dismal “American Dreamz” having never watched his follow-ups “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” “Little Fockers,” “Being Flynn,” “Admission,” “Grandma” and “Bel Canto.”

Hart and Weitz have now teamed on an adaptation of Matt Logelin’s “Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love” entitled “Fatherhood,” which will be available to stream on Netflix beginning Friday, June 18. The dramedy (heavy on the drama) seems a more natural fit for Weitz’s wheelhouse as opposed to Hart’s.

Hart stars as Matt, an expectant father who alongside his loving wife Liz (Deborah Ayorinde) is preparing for the arrival of their first child. Their daughter Maddy is born prematurely but healthily via caesarean section. Tragically, Liz dies suddenly and unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism the following afternoon.

Matt is completely lost. His in-laws Marian (the wonderful Alfre Woodard) and Mike (Frankie Faison of “The Wire” and “Banshee”) want Matt to leave Boston and return to Minneapolis where he and Liz grew up. Matt doesn’t want to do this. His work is in Boston (Paul Reiser plays Matt’s understanding but sometimes exasperated boss). His friends (Lil Rel Howery and Anthony Carrigan AKA NoHo Hank from HBO’s “Barry”) are in Boston. Matt and Liz’s lives were in Boston. Matt wants to prove the naysayers wrong by successfully being a single father to Maddy.

We flash-forward a few years, Maddy (Melody Hurd of the “Jurassic Park” short “Battle at Big Rock” and recent, underappreciated slasher flick “Trick”) is now a kindergartener at the Catholic school Liz wanted her to attend. Matt begins making inroads at dating with Swan (DeWanda Wise, the lead on Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” series), which further complicates matters.

“Fatherhood” is executive produced by “Magic Mike” filmmakers Channing Tatum (who was originally supposed to star) and Reid Carolin. The project feels like a mea culpa for the homophobia that got Hart ousted from hosting the 2019 Oscars. (Hart’s Matt defends Maddy wearing jeans to school against a nun who asks, “What if a boy wore a skirt to school?” To which Matt responds, “It’s the 21st century! Who cares?!!!” Hart also sports a skirt in a mid-credits scene.) Hart isn’t especially funny in “Fatherhood” (what few laughs there are come from Howery and Carrigan), but he’s likable and does decent dramatic work. Hart’s casting is ultimately more interesting than Tatum’s would’ve been as it’s an all-too-rare positive representation of black fatherhood in popular culture.

The final product isn’t as slick as Weitz’s films from the early aughts. The script co-written by Weitz and Dana Stevens (scribe of such dreck as “City of Angels,” “For Love of the Game,” “Life or Something Like It” and “Safe Haven”) does the picture no favors. “Fatherhood” did elicit tears out of me on more than one occasion, which seemed to be its primary goal aside from rehabbing Hart’s image – on both fronts I suppose it’s a success.   

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

★★1/2

I should’ve been in the bag for “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” (now playing in theaters). I’m a fan of action-comedies as a subgenre, the first installment from 2017, returning Australian director Patrick Hughes, his primary cast (Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas, Morgan Freeman and Frank Grillo) and production shingle Millennium Media (they’re the modern day Cannon Films!). In spite of all of this, the picture landed with a bit of a thud for me.

Reynolds returns as formerly AAA-rated bodyguard Michael Bryce, who’s still smarting from having lost a prized client at the hands of Jackson’s Darius Kincaid. At the insistence of his therapist (Rebecca Front), Bryce takes a vacation to Capri, Italy (“like the pants!”). Just as Bryce is relaxing and cheekily cracking a copy of “The Secret,” he’s interrupted by Darius’ wife Sonia (Hayek) and a hail of gunfire. Turns out Darius has been kidnapped and Sonia’s in need of Bryce’s assistance in order to rescue him.

Upon freeing Darius, the trio is forcefully enlisted by Interpol agent Bobby O’Neill (Grillo) to put a stop to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Papadopoulos (Antonio Banderas), who has intentions of dismantling the European power grid as revenge for EU restrictions over his country and company. Freeman’s Senior is also roped into the action as the parent of one of our protagonists.

“The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” is pretty much what you’d expect it to be … only less. Reynolds mugs his way through the proceedings, Jackson drops his requisite number of “fuck’s” and Hayek makes cracks about her boobs and “pussy pipe.” I can’t decide whether Hayek’s great or grating here, but I did admittedly enjoy Sonia’s strange motherly gestures towards Bryce.

In the best bit of casting since Sean Connery played a Spaniard in “Highlander” or Emma Stone went Asian in “Aloha” is Spaniard Banderas as the Greek Papadopoulos. I must admit I laughed every time Papadopoulos’ name was uttered. Much like Gary Oldman as the baddie in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” Banderas pretty much phones it in. Speaking of phoning it in, Freeman seems confused and near death’s door in yet another Millennium Media production (perhaps it’s time for the rightfully beloved 84-year-old actor to retire?) and Grillo unsuccessfully attempts to transform his New York accent into a Boston one in an exposition dump of a role.

“The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” is to “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” what “The Whole Ten Yards” is to “The Whole Nine Yards,” “Red 2” is to “Red” or “Beverly Hills Cop III” is to the first two “Beverly Hills Cop” pictures. (The only action-comedy franchise that seems to have cracked the code is “Bad Boys.”) The action isn’t as thrilling (the best bit is brief and involves water hoverboards). The laughs aren’t as present (original scripter Tom O’Connor is joined by brothers Brandon and Phillip Murphy, who up the jokiness – most of ‘em miss). The franchise takes a step down and backward. Here’s hoping it’s put out of its misery and we’re not “treated” to “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard’s Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, Son, Daughter, Aunt, Uncle, Cousin, etc.”

Luca

★★★1/2

Pixar has a track record of drawing inspiration from other movies.

“Cars” has the same plot as “Doc Hollywood.”

“A Bug’s Life” is heavily influenced by “Seven Samurai.”

Their newest offering, “Luca,” doesn’t completely rip off one movie in particular but viewers will see plenty of homages in director Enrico Casarosa’s feature length debut.

The story has similar elements of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and, strangely enough, “Call Me By Your Name.” The works of famed Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini are also strongly felt throughout the 96 minutes.

The look of the animation differs from other Pixar films and instead closely resembles the work of Aardman Animation, the studio responsible for characters such as Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit.

And Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (a favorite of the Pixar team) seems to be a muse as well, even referenced in the movie’s setting, a seaside Italian village named Portorosso, which sounds an awful lot like the film “Porco Rosso.”

And that’s the biggest fault with this otherwise lovable streaming offering.

“Luca” is a perfectly fine movie that I quite enjoyed during its short run time. My two-year-old daughter was glued to the screen too. But “Luca” lacks the originality of the very best Pixar films.

The animation studio has set a really high bar with all-time great movies like “Up,” “Inside Out” and the “Toy Story” movies. “Luca” doesn’t come anywhere close to those movies and frankly it doesn’t even cracks Pixar’s top 10.

It’s not anywhere near the bottom of Pixar’s output, which is where I put “The Good Dinosaur” and any sequel that isn’t “Toy Story.”

Middle ground is where this belongs. But Pixar’s middle is still very good.

Director Enrico Casarosa is best known for his animated short “La Luna” which premiered before the Pixar film “Brave” in 2012.

His debut tells the story of Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay, of “Room”) a 13-year-old sea creature who is bored with ocean life and is curious about the humans above.

His overbearing parents (voiced masterfully by comedians Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) object to him going anywhere near the surface.

Sounds a lot like “The Little Mermaid,” right? Well, it resembles that classic even more when Luca transforms into a human and has trouble adapting to human customs.

Luca runs away from home and spends the summer with his newfound friend Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer of the “It” movies). Alberto is also a sea monster, but this slightly older/wiser free spirit prefers to live on land and embrace human culture. He begins to teach Luca and they grow to share an obsession with Vespa scooters, making it their life’s mission to ride through Italy. In their minds, they’d be truly free.

Adding a fun visual element to the film is the fact that these two sea monsters look exactly like normal humans whenever they venture out on land. But anytime they get wet, even from a splash of water, their skin immediately changes to bright blue green, revealing their sea monster identities. Once they’ve dried, their human forms quickly return.

It’s a fun gimmick that leads to some clever sight gags as they twist and hide to avoid being detected as brightly colored marine life.

The duo encounters an arrogant bully named Ercole who rides around on a Vespa, styles his hair into a pompadour and pushes around his two dim-witted lackeys. He fits all of the antagonist cliches. He’s got the vanity of Gaston and the weaselly features of Chef Skinner from “Ratatouille.”

Luca and Alberto also befriend a fiery red-headed Italian girl named Giulia and team up with her to win a triathlon to use the prize money to buy a Vespa. The sea monsters decline the swimming portion of the race to avoid detection (despite their strong swimming skills) and instead fumble through bicycle riding and shoveling spaghetti in their mouths.

What we end up seeing is a fish out of water story — literally!

(Yes, I hate myself for making that joke and I’m sure it’s already been done.)

What sets Pixar apart from other animated features is that it deals with deep messages. “Inside Out” helped young people deal with their emotions and “Coco” addresses the issues of death and grief.

“Luca” doesn’t dive as deep as those two, but it’s a strong story about friendship during that awkward time of puberty. The kinds of friendships that help you grow and shape who you are, even if you are unsure exactly what that is at the moment.

The scenes where Luca and Alberto hide away in Alberto’s treehouse and examine their prized artifacts of human life, trying to figure out what each thing does, is something anyone who grew up before the Internet can relate to. Some older kid at your middle school might have a Victoria’s Secret catalogue and he might incorrectly explain the “bird and the bees” to you. This movie captures that youthful innocence.

Casarosa said he based it on a real life summer friendship of his and his inspiration was even at the movie premiere.

There are also some obvious LGBT themes on display in this animated kids movie. However this is in a metaphoric and not literal sense. I do not think Luca and Alberto are romantically in love, at least not overtly. Their relationship is platonic, despite the fact that Alberto appears to be jealous when Luca begins to become closer friends with Giulia.

Yet it is a story about a slightly older boy helping his new friend on a journey of self discovery. It’s about hiding who you really are and being afraid to be caught by others for fear of discrimination. Even the setting is reminiscent of “Call Me By Your Name,” the Oscar-nominated LGBT movie helmed by a director named Luca (coincidence?).

Perhaps June (Pride Month) was the right time to release this movie.

Maybe the fact that “Luca” draws inspiration from so many other movies isn’t such a negative. I can point to several Best Picture winning movies that were heavily inspired by previous works. Where do you draw the line from paying homage and ripping off? It’s hard to say.

In the end, Pixar is a victim of its past successes and “Luca” is a very good movie, just like “Onward” was last year.

But after they’ve raised the bar so many times it feels like a disappointment when their latest offering is merely “very good” instead of “amazing” or an “all-time classic.”

“Luca” will not be available in theaters and is only available to stream on Disney+. It’s disappointing that people won’t have a chance to see this on a big screen. Watching teenagers enjoy the things in life that we take for granted, such as eating a gelato or riding on a bike, is a nice reminder of the joys of youth.

“Luca” might not be a masterpiece but it certainly will crack a smile.

“Luca” is available on Disney+ for no extra charge beginning Friday June 18

Infinite

★★

Director Antoine Fuqua is a consistent filmmaker – never great, but consistently good. He feels like the diet soda or light beer version of Tony Scott.

Much like Scott, Fuqua consistently works with the same actors – four movies with Denzel Washington (another Scott connection!), four movies with Ethan Hawke (including the upcoming “The Guilty”), one movie with Jake Gyllenhaal with another on the way (the aforementioned “The Guilty”), one movie and an impending Amazon Prime television series “The Terminal List” with Chris Pratt.

Also like Scott, Fuqua consistently works with the same crew – composer Harry Gregson-Williams (four movies), cinematographer Mauro Fiore (six movies) and editor Conrad Buff (six movies). Humorously enough, Gregson-Williams also scored seven Scott movies.

“Infinite” (now streaming on Paramount+) is the second pairing between Fuqua and Mark Wahlberg 14 years after shooting “Shooter.” Rumor has it the duo was peeved when the flick was jettisoned to the fledgling streamer as opposed to getting a theatrical release. They should probably be thankful. The movie adds inconsistency to Fuqua’s consistent filmography. It’s among the worst things he’s made alongside the likes of “King Arthur,” “The Replacement Killers” and “Tears of the Sun” (the absolute nadir of Fuqua’s career).

Wahlberg stars as Evan McCauley, a supposedly schizophrenic man with a sordid past. Quizzically, he can forge samurai swords like he’s Hattori Hanzō (who’s actually namechecked here), which he barters to drug dealer O-Dog (Nabil Elouahabi) for pills so as to keep doctors out of the mix. As it turns out, Evan’s the latest incarnation of a soul that’s been around for centuries.

The soul’s previous vessel was Heinrich Treadway (Dylan O’Brien), who opens the picture driving a cherry red Ferrari through a Mexico City-set car chase (a highlight of the movie despite the presence of a cheesily-rendered phantom brick that finds its way through not one but two police cruiser windshields). Heinrich and by extension Evan are Infinites, i.e. people who have the ability to remember their past lives. Heinrich fully realized his abilities; Evan has yet to. The Infinites are broken into two factions: Believers (folks looking to use their accumulated knowledge to better humanity) and Nihilists (folks who are sick of being reincarnated and wish to end humanity as a result). Every time the Nihilists are namechecked I kept thinking, “We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing …”

The Believers are led by Porter (Toby Jones); the Nihilists by Bathurst (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Bathurst brandishes a “Dethroner gun,” which indefinitely uploads an Infinite’s memories to a wall of hard drives. If Bathurst is so damned miserable why doesn’t he just up and murder-suicide himself and his whole damned squad? Alas Bathurst is no Chris Benoit, so he opts instead to procure a world-ending, egg-shaped artifact. An Egg McGuffin is apropos for this fast food filmmaking.

Believers Nora (Sophie Cookson of the “Kingsman” franchise) and guyliner-sporting party animal Artisan (ace comedic character actor Jason Mantzoukas) aid Evan in unlocking his powers and keeping The Egg (not a big green one) outta Bathurst’s clutches.

“Infinite” is a mishmash of other, better movies (“Highlander,” “The Matrix,” “The Old Guard” – the last of which also co-starred Ejiofor). The first half of it is hella boring aside from the Mexico City car chase. (I actually fell asleep for 15 minutes at the 45-minute mark and had to rewind.) The picture picks up its pace in the back half, but it’s still dumber than dumb. The script by Ian Shorr (based on D. Erik Maikranz’s 2009 self-published novel “The Reincartionist Papers”) is nonsensical. The material might’ve been elevated if Wahlberg weren’t miscast and Ejiofor weren’t so obnoxiously over-the-top. O’Brien, Cookson (who actually gets the best action beat) and Mantzoukas come across better, but should’ve been given more to do.

Chris Evans was initially cast as Evan and would’ve been a better fit for the role IMHO, though the film itself likely wouldn’t have been good for his career. Wahlberg’s incessant narration makes Harrison Ford’s voiceover in “Blade Runner” seem like the height of oration. It sounds a good deal like the interviews Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler gave in the documentary-within-a-movie in “Boogie Nights.” I buy Wahlberg as a 1970s porn star, a dim soldier (“Three Kings”), a foul-mouthed Boston cop (“The Departed”) or a hardscrabble boxer (“The Fighter”). I don’t buy him as Evan McCauley – even if Wahlberg’s decent with the action despite looking absolutely ridiculous sporting a samurai sword. The only time I believed Wahlberg as Evan was when he exclaimed, “I don’t even know what that means!” Having Wahlberg and O’Brien switch roles might’ve also worked – it could’ve been an action hero passing of the torch of sorts.

There’s a moment where Jones’ Porter – strangely spewing honey from the mouth – asserts, “Blah, blah, blah … faith!” That’s “Infinite” in a nutshell – very little rah rah and plenty of blah blah. Audiences would be better served by watching/revisiting “Shooter” or “The Old Guard.” I have faith in Fuqua and Wahlberg. I don’t have faith in “Infinite” as it’s inconsistent.

In The Heights

★★★★★

I’m going to make two bold statements about “In The Heights,” the new movie adapted from 2005 stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

First: This is the best musical-movie since the Best Picture-winner “Chicago” in 2002. In fact, I personally like “In The Heights” better and it might go down as one of the best musical-movies ever made.

Second: This is the movie we needed in the summer of 2021. It’s a beautifully shot film full of joy and community celebration. After a year of being isolated in our homes, to see people on the screen who are singing, dancing and connecting to one in another — in the streets — is what we needed. It’s a cathartic release after all we’ve all been through.

Director Jon M. Chu, who previously helmed “Crazy Rich Asians,” has called this new movie, “a vaccine for the soul.” He’s not wrong.

Life is back. It’s time to dance.

In this new movie, you can see the seeds of “Hamilton,” the acclaimed Broadway musical that Miranda wrote and starred in while waiting for the movie version of “In The Heights” to finally get made (the rights were purchased in 2008 but Universal Pictures said they couldn’t find a “bankable latino star” to warrant the production budget).

And yes, “In The Heights” is less sophisticated than “Hamilton” in both story structure and songwriting, but it has a lot of heart. It’s not trying to tell a sweeping story of the founding of our nation, but rather a smaller, more familiar tale of young people finding their place in the world. People celebrating their culture and fighting against prejudice. A neighborhood being washed away by gentrification. And, overall, a story about everyone chasing their sueñito, i.e., their “little dream.”

The movie starts off with Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) rapping about every day life in Washington Heights, the mostly Hispanic neighborhood on the upper west side of Manhattan, far from where tourists frequent. With a megawatt smile on his face, Usnavi introduces us to the familiar faces who regularly pop into his bodega for a café con leche and a lottery ticket, hoping for a brighter future if the right numbers are called.

There’s Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits, who seems to never age) who owns the taxi-cab/car service and pins all of his hopes and dreams on his daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), a freshman at Stanford. There’s Usnavi’s best friend Benny (Corey Hawkins), an African American who works at Rosario’s shop and pines after the boss’s daughter. There’s Abuela (Olga Merediz, from the original Broadway cast) who acts as a surrogate grandmother to every parentless young person on the block. And there’s Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the flirtatious artist who dreams of getting an apartment in downtown Manhattan.

Usnavi, the narrator of this story, dreams of returning to his homeland of the Dominican Republic and rebuilding the beachside bar that his father owned. There’s only one problem: that means bailing on the budding romance between himself and Vanessa, just as their relationship moves from smiles and glances into an actual official date.

There are small cameos from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson, who both starred in the original Broadway cast of both “In The Heights” and “Hamilton.” Both have aged out of their respective roles as Usnavi and Benny but it’s nice to see them anyway.

Daphne Rubin-Vega, from the original Broadway cast of “Rent,” has a small role as salon owner, backed up by Stephanie Beatriz of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and Dascha Polanco of “Orange is the New Black.”

Marc Anthony plays a tatted-up alcoholic father in a one-scene role. His character doesn’t sing but Anthony is featured in an original new song that plays over the credits.

Movie-goers can feel the heat from the screen as the summer temperatures keep rising, reminiscent of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.” It all culminates in a neighborhood power blackout that shows how “powerless” our protagonists feel in their lives.

I know it’s cliche to say that “the setting is like another character” but it’s quite true in this movie. In one scene, Nina, who longs to stay in her neighborhood and not return to college, closes her eyes and just “listens to her street.” Kids splashing in an opened fire hydrant. Bicycle bells ringing. Cars honking. The sounds of summer days.

So many of us might live in neighborhoods where we don’t know our neighbors’ names. We wave to them as we get the mail but that’s about it. This movie shows us how powerful it is to be connected to where you live.

Usnavi begins the movie by saying the “streets were made of music” and the movie fulfills that promise. Shot on location in the actual Washington Heights, Chu is able bring to life what audiences had to imagine with 2D backgrounds in the Broadway production.

Probably the most elaborate set piece in the entire two-hour-plus movie comes during the song “96,000.” Each character raps or sings about what they would do if they won the lottery and the location moves to the Highbridge Pool, one of the oldest pools in New York City built along the Harlem River in 1936. More than 500 extras are used for a candy-colored, high-energy dance number that is a true show stopper. (If you’re watching on HBO MAX, you’ll want to hit rewind and watch that scene again immediately!)

Chu is also able to slow things down and make the big city feel intimate, especially during a romantic duet between Benny and Nina called “When the Sun Goes Down.” Hawkins croons in his smooth voice as they walk along skyscrapers like they were Spider-Man. It’s an inventive use of special effects that’s every bit as impressive as any of the scenes in “La La Land.”

Chu got his start directing music videos and broke into feature films with the “Step Up” sequels. He’s able to draw from the best of his music video past while still injecting heart and humanity into the characters, the costumes and the backdrops.

Where the movie starts to falter might be in his paper-thin story line. Some characters are developed better than others. Even at more than two hours, lyrics and songs had to be cut from the original Broadway show. A side plot about Dreamers and DACA was added for the film version to make it more contemporary and it works quite well. Instances of looting during the blackout are removed to sidestep that political debate (probably a good idea). And a storyline about Nina’s father being hesitant about her dating a black man is omitted. I understand why you wouldn’t want to add that storyline in if you were just going to rush it but it’s removal left Benny and Nina with an underdeveloped relationship without much drama.

While I understand these changes, the end result is a story without much conflict. Maybe that’s by design though. Miranda said when he was workshopping the original musical in 2005 that people told him that he needed to add an unexpected pregnancy or a conflict with gangs. He said the idea of finding out who you are is drama enough and if he couldn’t make that resonate with people then he didn’t do his job.

I’ll admit that not every song packs the same voltage and unlike “Hamilton” I wasn’t entranced from beginning to end. But just when I started to get antsy and check my watch, the movie kicked back into gear and ends with a bang. You’ll walk out of the movie theater with a gigantic smile on your face feeling like you can conquer the world.

I wavered between giving this movie 4.5 stars and 5 because the film isn’t perfect. But I ended up with the higher score because when this movie succeeds, it soars. Some of my favorite movies ever made aren’t flawless. And most of the few problems with this movie can be pinned on the original source material, not the cast or director.

When I say that is the movie we need right now, it’s not just because it’s an incredibly positive movie. It’s also because it tells an important story of community belonging and taking pride in your heritage.

Hispanic immigrants who have come to this country don’t always feel the open arms of everyone. Prejudice still exists, as shown in a tearful speech by Nina who recounts getting falsely accused of stealing her college roommate’s necklace.

But while the movie admits that racism and economic struggle exist, it never uses it as an excuse to give up. These characters — strengthened by their community bonds — keep on dancing and keep on fighting.

The Amusement Park

★★★★

My paternal grandmother always told me, “Growing old isn’t for sissies.” Late, great horror filmmaker George A. Romero’s unearthed 1973 film “The Amusement Park” (now streaming on Shudder) is a 53-minute reaffirmation of her assertion.

Romero was contracted to make this public service announcement by the Lutheran Society, who scrapped the project altogether when they realized just how disturbing the resulting product was. (Had the Lutherans not already seen Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”?) A beat-up 16mm print was discovered in 2017 and was screened as part of a Romero retrospective at the Torino Film Festival in Turin, Italy. When word of “The Amusement Park” spread, it was given a 4K restoration by New York film preservation organization IndieCollect that was overseen by the George A. Romero Foundation.

The major thrust of “The Amusement Park” depicts a disheveled unnamed elderly man (Lincoln Maazel, who also appeared in Romero’s “Martin” and ironically enough lived to a very advanced 106 years upon his passing in 2009) seated in a white room wearing a white suit. The man is sweaty – his face bloody and bandaged. The man’s pristine doppelganger enters the room. He chipperly greets his double and optimistically wants to exit the room to enter the titular amusement park despite the man’s warnings to the contrary.

The doppelganger departs and is immediately abused alongside many other aged individuals. The elderly sell their precious belongings for pennies on the dollar to a pawnbroker in exchange for tickets that give them access to attractions within the park. Admission to certain rides is denied due to patrons’ physical condition. A senior citizen couple must have an eye exam before boarding the bumper cars. They get into a fender-bender with a younger, brasher park-goer (Romero himself) and are held accountable for the accident despite it not being their fault. A young man (Romero’s longtime cinematographer and “Creepshow 2” director Michael Gornick) barrels the doppelganger over after a fortune teller gives him a glimpse at his “golden years.” The funhouse winds up being a ward in a geriatric care facility – I half expected Ben Stiller’s Hal L. from “Happy Gilmore” to show up.

There’s an absurdity and obviousness to the proceedings that marks much of Romero’s oeuvre, but these qualities don’t make the picture any less disconcerting. Issues plaguing America often find their way into Romero’s works – racism (“Night of the Living Dead”), consumerism (“Dawn of the Dead”) and militarism (“Day of the Dead,” “Land of the Dead”). With “The Amusement Park” Romero directly addresses elder abuse.

“The Amusement Park” is the best PSA I’ve ever seen and one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in a hot minute. (It’d make one helluva back end to a double bill with either Michael Haneke’s “Amour” or this year’s “The Father.”) As disturbed as the picture made me, it ultimately made me want to call my maternal grandmother (my only living grandparent) and parents, help an old lady load her groceries into her car, etc. Roger Ebert was once quoted as saying, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Mission accomplished, George.

Spare Parts

★★★

“Spare Parts” (now available on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray) isn’t a good movie, but it’s sure as shit a fun one.

Ms. 45 (a cool nod to Abel Ferrara’s 1981 sleazefest) is an all-female punk band currently on tour. The group is comprised of sisters Amy (Michelle Argyris) and Emma (Emily Alatalo) and lovers Cassy (Kiriana Stanton) and Jill (Chelsea Muirhead). On one fateful night during a gig at a biker bar the gals of Ms. 45 get into an all-out brawl with a handsy patron (Kevan Kase) when he crashes the stage. On hand to witness the band’s brutality is Sam (Jason Rouse, bringing BIG Nick Cassavetes in “Face/Off” energy to the proceedings).

Sam takes a particular shine to Emma – so much so that he tails Ms. 45’s tour van in his muscle car, runs them off the road and kidnaps them with the assistance of the Sheriff (Lewis Hodgson) and tow truck driver Daniel (Bruce McFee). The men take the women to a scrap yard belonging to Sam’s Dad, The Emperor (Julian Richings). Upon their arrival each of the women has one of their hands amputated and replaced with a latch to which they can attach weapons such as axes and chainsaws.

Ms. 45 is soon under the tutelage of Driller (Ryan Allen), a former gladiator who will train them in the art of junkyard combat. The women have no choice other than to fight should they want to survive let alone gain their freedom.

“Spare Parts” is a scummy, low-budget affair. Each of the picture’s primary creatives wears multiple hats – Andrew Thomas Hunt (a founding partner of Canadian genre label Raven Banner Entertainment, who also had a hand in this year’s inspired “Psycho Goreman”) directs, executive produces and edits, co-writer Svet Rouskov (alongside David Murdoch) also executive produced and Pasha Patriki served as cinematographer and producer.

The tight-knit nature of this filmmaking collective resulted in a consistent vision. It isn’t polished, but it’s entertaining. The acting isn’t especially good (it needn’t be). The script is tasteless (an abortion is depicted as a throwaway gag) and nonsensical (that seems on brand). Pivotally, the one Ms. 45 song we’re treated to is catchy as all get-out and the gore is plentiful and capably realized … at the end of the day and with this sorta flick that’s what really matters. You likely already know if you’re the audience for “Spare Parts” or not.

The Vault

★★★1/2

Heist movies are generally fun when they’re well-done, i.e. Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” trilogy. (There’s also certain elements of the subgenre at play in all of the “Mission: Impossible” flicks.) They can be kind of a drag when they miss the mark despite prodigious talent behind and in front of the camera – Frank Oz’s “The Score” starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett and Marlon Brando (in his final role) and David Mamet’s “Heist” featuring Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo, Sam Rockwell, Danny DeVito and Ricky Jay spring to mind. This brings us to “REC” director Jaume Balagueró’s contribution to the subgenre “The Vault” (now available on Blu-ray and DVD) – a picture that does a whole lot more right than it does wrong.

Freddie Highmore is Thom, a University of Cambridge engineering student who’s being courted by an onslaught of oil executives at the insistence of his father (James Giblin) – a fixture in the industry. Thom has zero interest in following in his father’s footsteps – he’d rather his talents be employed aiding others or at the very least be engaged in an adventurous endeavor.

Adventure comes to Thom in the form of Walter (Liam Cunningham, Davos from “Game of Thrones”), a marine archaeologist who extracted a box containing three priceless coins from a sunken ship. As soon as Walter and his cohort James (Sam Riley of “Control” and “On the Road”) secure the treasure, Spanish authorities swoop in on them, abscond with the coins and lock ‘em inside an impenetrable safe in Madrid’s Bank of Spain.

Walter, James and the rest of their crew – arts and antiquities expert/pickpocket Lorraine (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, best known for playing mermaids and mages in fantasy fare such as “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”) and underworld quartermaster Simon (Luis Tosar, 2006’s “Miami Vice”) – need Thom’s expertise in order to gain access to the titular vault. The thieves plot to strike during 2010’s World Cup Final in which Spain played the Netherlands to serve as a distraction, but they’ll also have to get through Bank of Spain’s dogged Head of Security Gustavo (Jose Coronado) in order to succeed.

“The Vault” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s handsomely made and well-acted. I especially enjoyed Cunningham (always a welcome presence) and Riley, whose look, vibe and voice resonate here. I didn’t dig Highmore as a child actor, but he’s grown into a likable albeit still boyish presence. There’s a sequence in which the safe is submerged underwater that’s cool, but it doesn’t hold a candle to a similar scenario in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” Then again, that movie’s catering likely cost as much as this movie’s entire budget.

Soccer fans should enjoy the story’s World Cup backdrop. (I have to imagine this was a lure for Spaniard Balagueró.) This music fan enjoyed cool needle drops by AC/DC and the Clash. Five screenwriters (Rafa Martínez, Andrés M. Koppel, Borja Glez. Santaolalla, Michel Gaztambide and Rowan Athale) collaborated on the script (often a kiss of death as there are too many cooks in the kitchen), but this particular project is no worse for wear as a result.

The DVD has no special features, but the film itself brings enough to the table to warrant a rental or purchase for those who enjoy artistry being applied to the art of the steal.