Review by Cole Groth
Contrary to popular opinion, Hollywood is still an incredibly original industry pumping out dozens of completely original films each year. Take 2022’s Mindcage, for example. It’s a brilliant story about a serial killer who helps an in-over-her-head police officer find another police officer. If this premise reminds you of Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award-winning 1991 psychological horror The Silence of the Lambs, that’s because it’s a complete knockoff. Without any passion for filmmaking, Mindcage is a bastardization of an excellent film with no real merit.
The story follows Mary (Melissa Roxburgh), a police officer with a slightly complicated backstory. She’s never as heroic nor emotionally involved as Jodie Foster’s Clarice and feels somewhat robotic as she tries to solve a series of brutal murders. Each murder is paired with a short torture scene, which is uncomfortable to watch, but horror enthusiasts won’t bat an eye. No victim is interesting enough to make the audience care about them, and Mary’s detective partner Jake (Martin Lawrence), seems to care even less. To get help solving the case, Jake and Mary consult the Artist, an incarcerated serial killer who’s always two steps ahead of the detectives. He offers his service to Mary at a price and slowly unravels her as the two detectives try to solve the murder.
As a new film critic, I find it hard to criticize smaller productions like this because there’s usually a lot of misguided passion involved. That would surprise me if anybody truly cared about making this a good movie. I’m not entirely sure whom this production is directed toward. Fans of Martin Lawrence and Melissa Roxburgh know them from comedic films and dramatic television, respectively. Neither actor has performed in a serious movie, and it’s clear. Roxburgh tries as hard as she can, but Manifest does not prepare her for the daunting task of film acting. John Malkovich is here as the villain, and it’s clear that, at this point, he’ll take any role that offers him money. Malkovich is an extraordinarily talented actor, and it’s a shame to see him waste his skills on a production like this.
Mindcage rarely tries to be an original film. The script, written by Reggie Keyohara III from a story by director Mauro Borrelli is absolute garbage. At best, the dialogue is generic, and at worst, it feels like you’re watching a parody horror film that’d play in a comedic TV series. When Borrelli offers a rare twist from Demme’s film, it’s entertaining. It might’ve been a decent watch if he wrote an original script and the ~90-minute runtime was the same. However, since each beat is a copy of some other film, this has to be held to a higher standard. On a technical level, nothing stands out. The cinematography isn’t notably terrible, but audiences seldom find an exciting shot for anything besides the gore. The score from Leo Z sounds unfinished and rushed. There’s not enough music, and that’s an important misfire in a mystery/thriller like this.
There’s something so sinister about a lousy film that steals from a much better film. I can’t fathom that Mauro Borrelli is passionate about this project because people aren’t passionate about knock-offs. Lionsgate will seemingly finance anything, and it’s disappointing to see the studio fund projects like this. Mindcage is never scary enough to appeal to horror fans, and general audiences would be wise to spend their money on something with care put behind it. The Black List, a survey of the most-liked feature-length screenplays from film executives, released its annual list on Monday. This list contains some of the most brilliant and original writing from passionate writers. Next time Hollywood producers want to greenlight a project like this, I hope they’ll look at this list instead and select one of their scripts. They’ll make a dud at worst, but at least they won’t have made Mindcage.
Mindcage releases in theaters and VOD on December 16th.
Review by Sean Boelman
The National Treasure movies were lightning in a bottle in the mid-2000s. An absolutely game Nicolas Cage stealing the Declaration of Independence as part of a larger-than-life treasure hunt through American history? Sign me up! Disney+ hopes to revitalize the franchise with the new series National Treasure: Edge of History, and while it’s not quite as strong as one would hope, it still shows plenty of potential.
The film follows a 20-year-old DREAMer who dreams of becoming an FBI agent and adventurer as she sets out on the treasure hunt of a lifetime, which may have an unexpected connection to her family’s past. So far, it’s following very similar beats to the first two films — just taking its time to do so over an entire season.
Ultimately, the biggest issue with this show is that it doesn’t seem to have the substance it would take to sustain a ten-episode arc. In the first two episodes, our heroes embark on their treasure hunt and find their first two clues. The rate at which they find their clues is really going to need to speed up — or else the show will lose its audience’s interest pretty quickly.
As a welcome development, the series does feature a diverse cast. At times, it does feel like tokenism — as if they just wanted to make the character a Latina to appeal to a more international audience — but at other points, they integrate it much more naturally. Hopefully future episodes will go more in-depth on the Latin American origins of the treasure.
That being said, while it is nice to see the series being led by a more diverse hero(ine), the character is nowhere near as compelling as Nicolas Cage’s Ben Gates. Granted, there’s a lot more time for her arc to be expanded, but it’s a little frustrating to have a rehash of the character’s arc being coping with their family’s mysterious and potentially dark past.
There’s also the issue of the sidekicks, who aren’t particularly interesting or charming. It’s clear that some of them, like a sneakerhead/influencer, are designed to appeal to a younger Gen Z audience, although this comes at the expense of the older Gen Z/Millennial audience who grew up with the original films.
The technical value of the series is about as one would expect of a made-for-streaming reboot of a franchise that was popular a decade ago, and that’s to say it isn’t anything special. There aren’t any particularly memorable set pieces in the first two episodes — the most glaring omission keeping this reaching the heights of the films — but there is plenty of time left to remedy that.
National Treasure: Edge of History is a fun time, even if it does struggle to match the shadow of its schlocky fun predecessors. Still, after two episodes, it’s intriguing enough to be excited about where this world may expand in further episodes and future installments.
National Treasure: Edge of History streams on Disney+ beginning December 14. Two out of ten episodes reviewed.
Reviewed by Adam Donato
Sonic has been experiencing quite the Renaissance during the 2020’s. Paramount produces a live action/animated feature film called Sonic the Hedgehog. The movie stars a CGI Sonic voiced by Jean Ralphio from Parks and Rec because you need a celebrity to voice a character that has had an iconic voice for decades or else the movie will not succeed at the box office. That’s not enough assurance, though, so Jim Carey stars as Dr. Eggman and James Marsden plays the audience insert character. You can’t tell a story about Sonic in Greenhills. It’s too different and expensive. There’s no way a narrative can be produced about Sonic that closely resembles the video game.
Sonic Prime is a television show made for Netflix. The show stars *throws up* professional voice actors. The plot follows Sonic and his friends in their never ending battle to thwart Dr. Eggman. Somehow, Sonic finds himself trapped in another dimension not too dissimilar to his own. He has to rally his friends from multiple dimensions to come together to prevent a world where Dr. Eggman reigns supreme. The entire show is 3D animated and will run for 24 episodes.
It’s funny that the Sonic movie franchise is heralded as this big success from a quality standpoint. After watching this show, it’s beyond annoying that they didn’t go this route. James Marsden is really cute and funny, but there’s no need for him in a Sonic movie. For all the heat that the Super Mario Bros. movie has been catching, at least it’s set in a Mushroom Kingdom and not Iowa. Sonic Prime has everything you’d want from a Sonic narrative series. All the characters and situations feel authentic to the source material. The humor is intended for children, but has the capacity to play for adults who are fans of the games. The relationships between the characters seems to be a focal point during the first eight episodes. There’s a lot of heart here. The story takes us through a wide variety of set pieces. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s everything a Sonic television show for Netflix should be.
It’s hard to say if Sonic Prime should be recommended for adults without children. Kids will love this show, but it’s hard to see regular adults becoming avid fans of this show like they do with Star Wars and Marvel shows. Nevertheless, it’s a fun and high octane adventure with all your friends. Check it out on Netflix.
Sonic Prime streams on Netflix beginning December 15.
Review by Adam Donato
Disney is taking over in more ways than one. The acquisition of 20th Century Fox brought with it a plethora of usable brands to capitalize on. What do they do with an Ice Age franchise that has run way past its course? They produce a cheaply animated sequel of sorts starring the side characters. Night of the Museum seems to be taking a similar route as an animated movie coming straight to Disney+, where the son of Larry Daley takes over the mantle as night guard of the museum. Does anybody still care about Night of the Museum? Doesn’t matter. If there’s juice that’s able to be squeezed out of this fruit, Disney will exploit it. Despite the uphill battle, is Night of the Museum: Kahmunrah Rises Again good enough to be noticed on this endless crop of mediocrity that is Disney+ original content?
No, it’s bad. The biggest change to note in this installment of the franchise is the switch to animation. This decision makes sense as gathering all these stars would be overly expensive considering the level of quality this feature was expected to be. Not to mention, recasting Teddy Roosevelt is not an easily digestible task. The quality of animation in this movie is the first indication that this movie is meant for babies. Having a run time of 77 minutes also doesn’t help. There’s clear effort in the recast of these memorable characters. The stand out (if there is one) would be Thomas Lennon, who remains one of the most underrated comedic side character actors. Only one scene is worth remembering, where “the camera” flies around the room as each member of the team tries to take down the undead army. That’s really grasping at straws though.
(L-R): Attila (voiced by Alexander Salamat), Joan of Arc (voiced by Alice Isaaz), Sacagawea (voiced by Kieran Sequoia), Teddy (voiced by Thomas Lennon), Easter Island Head (voiced by Kelemete Misipeka), Nick Daley (voiced by Joshua Bassett) and Laaa (voiced by Zachary Levi) in 20th Century Studios' NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: KAHMUNRAH RISES AGAIN, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
If anyone cares about the canon of the franchise, then this continuation is certainly of interest. Passing the torch to the son of Ben Stiller’s character is a logical and easy choice — especially if this story is animated and it doesn’t matter who stars in it because it’s made for babies. It becomes clear that the highest ambition for this franchise is to have this movie spinoff into its own show as we follow the new adventures led by Nick Daley. This story is written by a marketing team and the test screenings probably consisted of babies exclusively. There’s little to no good reason for Larry Daley to leave the fold as he has to take some job overseas. It feels like such a passionless, borderline bastardization of what was a solid fantasy, family comedy franchise.
This half-assed attempt to continue the Night of the Museum franchise should be properly ignored. There is nothing of value or substance. The comedy doesn’t work. The sense of wonder is non-existent. It’s a shell of the type of movie the franchise had been clearly. To be honest, it was never good enough in the first place to demand more stories be told in this universe. Please, go gently into that goodnight.
Night at the Museum: Kahmunrah Rises Again is now streaming on Disney+.
Review by Sean Boelman
Christmas horror has been done dozens of times before, and while some films try to put a new spin on the genre, others stick with the formula and deliver some old-school thrills. Joe Begos’s Christmas Bloody Christmas does the latter, with plenty of festive kills to satisfy your horror cravings this holiday season.
In the movie, a town is terrorized on Christmas Eve by a robotic Santa Clause toy that goes haywire and sets off on a brutal, vicious killing spree. It’s not the first time there has been a movie about a killer Santa, but Begos manages to make his stand out with a retro vibe and a commitment to shocking the audience.
The film clocks in at a lean, mean eighty minutes, meaning that we get a bit of an introduction before being thrown straight into the mayhem and carnage. The last hour is an absolute bloodbath that doesn’t let up, but those who are familiar with Begos’s past work would expect nothing less.
Of course, this is the type of movie that lives and dies by its kills, and while there’s nothing particularly unique about any of the situations, they are more than well-executed enough to get a guttural reaction out of the audience. The practical effects are pretty awesome, and the score does an excellent job of setting the tone.
There is also a bit of a sense of humor found in the film that cinephiles are sure to appreciate, thanks to a wealth of movie references in the first act. That said, the movie takes itself just seriously enough — with plenty of moments that are precisely f*cked up enough to be both disturbing and make you laugh uncomfortably
Admittedly, there isn’t a ton of character development in the film, but there doesn’t need to be much for it to work. In the vein of many of the campy slasher movies to which this pays homage, it’s more about the killer than the victims. Fans are coming to this wanting to see a killer robot Santa, and that is precisely what they will get.
That being said, there are still some fun turns in the cast. Jeff Daniel Phillips, who is best known for his roles in several of Rob Zombie’s movies, plays the town sheriff, and does so in a way that is enjoyably exaggerated. Sam Delich is also surprisingly charming in a role that easily could have felt overly douchey.
Christmas Bloody Christmas is just as much fun as one would expect from a movie with this premise. There’s a reason that Joe Begos has amassed such a cult following in the horror community, and this might be his most fun flick yet.
Christmas Bloody Christmas hits theaters, VOD, and Shudder on December 9.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
People who want to get things done in this country face some tremendous obstacles. However, young people are starting to realize that change has to happen, and it has to happen now. Rachel Lears's documentary To the End focuses on four women fighting for their mission despite the obstacles.
The film focuses on Varshini Prakash, an environmentalist with the Sunrise Movement, Alexandra Rojas, a CNN consultant, Rhiana Gunn Wright, an executive writer in the Green New Deal, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a state Representative in New York. These women, with the help of many others, hope to get the Green New Deal passed into legislation shortly, but it may be a ten-year plan. Will their strategy work?
This documentary has many talking heads either on the side of the Green New Deal or against it, including Chuck Schumer, Van Johnson, Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, and Native American leader Bear Runner. These men and women are known as Justice Democrats. They are trying to get this deal passed, but it's not easy because they have to work with people they don't want to work with. They have to get their hands dirty.
Various events like the youth climate summit are ways these people can get their message out there. Progressive movements like this aren't easy, but something has to be done to save underdeveloped communities and stop fossil fuels from ruining our environment. Getting new young, energetic politicians into office can help get this deal passed. Going all over the country and getting involved in local elections are crucial.
Bernie Sanders is the candidate that these people who want change latch onto to try to get this deal passed. Flipping these seats isn't easy. Some of these elections are going how they needed to in order to get some of these changes moving forward. It's hard to get people to change. These types of defeats only hope to fuel this movement as we advance. And people are mad about these results. The film shows the various events that can help fuel these people.
Many people show that this little movement doesn't matter, and young people don't have a voice. That's wrong because young people in their 20s represent a huge population in this country. Getting the people at the top to care about the people at the bottom is the key to getting things done in this country. Not giving up is another critical aspect of this movement.
The Sunrise Movement can get something done if people keep fighting for this change. The climate task force will try to get Joe Biden to see the opportunity for what this can do for the future of this country. The Green New Deal is real and in the hands of the current president. The film goes all in on every aspect of this system. It follows these people into political chambers, courtyards, and little offices to get this deal done. There is a chance for these young people to finally get something done with policy and progress.
To The End will ask viewers to get behind words like bipartisanism and compromise. Rachel Lears, the director, points the finger at people like Joe Manchin, a Democratic Senator from West Virginia, and Big Oil and says they have to change to save the future of our country. Both sides of the aisle and the fossil fuels industry must work together for that change. This movie is an eye-opening look at how hard it is for people to implement the change we need.
To the End opens in theaters on December 9.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Roald Dahl is one of the most influential writers of children’s literature in modern history, and his legacy can be seen in one of the myriads of adaptations of his work. His book, Matilda, was adapted into a movie in 1996 and a stage musical in 2011. Now, we are receiving the film adaptation of the stage musical, Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. From director Matthew Warchus, this musical is overall an enjoyable experience even if it can sometimes fail to catch the source material’s infectious charm.
Matilda is a unique and special girl. She’s imaginative and unfathomably well-read and intelligent for someone her age. She is in a family that doesn’t appreciate her gifts, and she finds herself in a new school, one run by a cruel headmistress who aims to break the spirits of children. With her special abilities and a sharp mind, Matilda aims to take a stand against oppression and change the trajectory of her life.
Written by Dennis Kelly, who also wrote the stage musical, the writing is quite whimsical as intended. The dialogue isn’t the most fluid, but it mostly captures the imaginative and playful spirit of its source material. There are a few moments and jokes that obviously don’t land perfectly, but as far as writing goes, it achieves what it sets out to do.
A musical requires an ensemble that can act, sing, and dance, and this cast delivers on all fronts. Alisha Weir leads the film in a charming turn as the titular character. For a child, she is very talented especially with the energy she delivers to bring the character to life. Emma Thompson gives a transformative performance as Miss Trunchbull which is outlandish and works very well within the context of the movie. The rest of the cast consists of actors like Lashana Lynch, Andrea Riseborough, and many young actors who are all apt in their respective roles.
The most important part of a musical is its musical numbers obviously. This movie has a handful of sequences that are fantastic thanks to its impressive choreography and blocking. Sadly, most of the numbers are just really solid and fail to capture the eccentric energy of its story. In addition to this, a lot of its visual effects leave much to be desired. Half of this can work due to the imaginative and silly nature of the movie, but the rest unfortunately sticks out like a sore thumb.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical will be suitable viewing for families and audiences of all ages will find something to enjoy. It does a decent job of adapting the classic story for a new generation, and it has a talented cast to help bring it to life. The songs are catchy, and the story is as enjoyable as it needs to be. Not a must-see film, but it’s certainly a harmless time for anyone looking for a movie this holiday season.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical is in theaters December 9 and on Netflix December 25.
Review by Sean Boelman
For independent filmmakers, one of the best things that can boost your film’s profile is a little bit of healthy controversy. Steven LaMorte’s unauthorized Grinch parody The Mean One set the internet ablaze when it was announced, and while the final project isn’t terribly notable, it’s just about as fun as one would expect.
The movie tells the story of a young woman who, years after the murder of her mother at the hands of a Santa suit-clad monster, returns to her hometown where she hunts down the Christmas-hating monster. The latest in a line of horror movies “bastardizing” beloved children’s properties, it’s a gimmicky film, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
Obviously, there is an inherent humor to the premise of a slasher movie that is essentially sacrilegious to the eponymous Christmas classic, and the movie makes for a pretty joyeux Noel when it goes completely unhinged. Unfortunately, those off-the-walls sequences only make up a small part of the film’s overall runtime.
One of the biggest issues with the movie is that it struggles to find a consistent tone. There are certainly some points in which the film’s tongue is firmly in its cheek, and then others at which it wants to be a serious slasher flick. It either needed to be more over-the-top or less campy for it to be fully effective.
Another distractingly bad choice made in the movie is going with largely CGI blood rather than practical effects. Obviously, it’s an independent film, and the filmmakers did the best they can do, but the lack of practical effects will prevent it from becoming a cult classic a la (the obvious comparison) Terrifier. Even a bit of corn syrup with red dye would have been preferable to this.
There is also the matter of the sound effects and score, which feel like stock music and sounds. Again, a lot of this can probably be chalked up to budgetary restrictions, but it’s in that weird, distracting middle ground between being too bad to be taken seriously and not bad enough to be funny.
That said, where this film succeeds that a lot of other modern low-budget horror movies don’t is giving us characters to legitimately care about. Perhaps it’s leftover goodwill from Cindy Lou Who or maybe it’s the romance subplot that is meant to parody Hallmark movies, but there’s something unexpectedly and undeniably charming about our heroine, Cindy.
The Mean One isn’t a particularly good movie, even by the standards of low-budget horror. Yet, at the same time, the film accomplishes exactly everything it sets out to do. It’s not the iconic movie it should have been, but it’s an enjoyable enough ride.
The Mean One hits theaters on December 9.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Sam Mendes has had an interesting career, consisting most recently of two James Bond movies and the breathtaking war movie 1917. His first movie in three years, Empire of Light, is far more quiet and meditative than his last few movies, but that doesn’t make it any less affecting. Even though it has some glaring flaws, one can’t deny the emotion and great performances that are on display from the captivating set of actors on screen.
It is the early 1980’s in a small English coastal town, and there is a theater that serves as an escape for its clientele. At this theater works a unique group of employees, each with their own personalities. This movie mostly follows the daily happenings of Hilary, an older woman with a complicated past and complicated relationships as she grows closer with Stephen, the young man who has just started working at the theater.
Mendes’ script is quiet yet ambitious at times, and it makes for an interesting combination even if it doesn’t always work. He has a unique way of brining the audience into this setting with great and natural interactions that highlight the power of human connection in times of relative turmoil. However, by its end, it becomes obvious that the movie bites off more than it can chew which leads to some disjointed and odd moments in the film’s writing.
The acting will likely be the most talked about part of this movie and for good reason. This is undoubtedly another showcase of the massively talented Olivia Colman, and she does not disappoint. She exhibits some great range throughout the movie, and she even manages to shine when the rest of the film fails to do so. Another great surprise from the cast is Michael Ward who gets plenty of chances to shine and holds up his own with a master like Colman.
The movie tries to market itself off as an ode to cinema, and while there are elements of that, it doesn’t really deliver on that front. It’s better viewed as a portrait of human interaction with dashes of social commentary. As mentioned before, it doesn’t always juggle these many ambitions well, and a lot of the elements of race aren’t handled particularly well. It does a lot without saying much substantial, and it comes off as slightly hollow. Regardless, one can’t deny the presence of genuine emotion in its writing, execution, and truly affecting performances.
Empire of Light may have limited mileage for some audiences, but it’s a heartfelt movie that explores unique human relationships among a backdrop of social issues of the time. It’s a great showcase for Colman and Ward, and it’s the most meditative we have ever seen Sam Mendes as a director.
Empire of Light is in theaters December 9.
Review by Sean Boelman
The BBC/HBO series His Dark Materials has gained a fair share of fans over the course of its past two seasons, and this third and final season comes after a bit of a wait. Well, the wait was more than worth it, as it is exactly the epic, emotional conclusion that any fan of the series would hope it would be.
The season picks up soon after the last one left off, with Miss Coulter having taken Lyra hostage and Will searching for her. An adaptation of the final book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, this season has a lot of story to wrap up in eight episodes, and yet it does so in a way that is satisfying and fulfilling.
Perhaps the best thing about this season of the show is how it explores the constantly shifting alliances. Rather than the clear battle between good and evil that we saw in the first two seasons, what we see here is more of a war of moral ambiguity, which aligns much more with the sense of Pullman’s writing.
This season is also even more unabashed with its anti-religion themes. Pullman’s books have always been controversial because of their themes, and the film adaptation was relatively neutered in this regard. Now that the first two seasons gave fans enough time to acclimate themselves in the world, it can pull out the punches.
However, this does not come at the expense of expanding the mythology even further. Whereas the second season dove a bit more into the fantasy elements, the third goes back into the sci-fi realm. We also get to spend more time with some of the characters, such as Lord Asriel, than ever before, adding a welcome emotional connection.
The action is also even higher-stakes. There are some full-on battle sequences that are some of the most epic you will see in any series or film this year. They spared no expense with this season, ensuring that it is the epic conclusion to the trilogy, while still emphasizing the emotion and sensitivity of the story.
The visuals are also second-to-none. The CGI in this season is better than ever before, from the creatures to the settings. Viewers will feel completely immersed in the many worlds in which this series takes place, especially the world of the dead, which is perhaps one of the most striking depictions of the afterlife in any media.
Season 3 of His Dark Materials is a wonderful conclusion to the show. It feels nice to finally see this part of the story adapted to the big screen, and in a way that is both so entertaining and so profound. Fans will be satisfied with the way this show ends.
His Dark Materials premieres on HBO on December 5 at 9pm ET/PT, with new episodes airing subsequent Mondays at the same time. All eight episodes reviewed.