Review: ‘Spirit Untamed,’ starring the voices of Isabela Merced, Marsai Martin, Mckenna Grace, Walton Goggins, Julianne Moore and Jake Gyllenhaal

June 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Abigail Stone (voiced by Mckenna Grace), Lucky Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced) and Pru Granger (voiced by Marsai Martin) in “Spirit Untamed” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Spirit Untamed”

Directed by Elaine Bogan; Co-directed by Ennio Torresan

Culture Representation: Taking place sometime in the early 1800s or mid-1800s in an unnamed Southwestern part of the United States, the animated film “Spirit Untamed” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing frontier people living in the Wild West.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old girl defies her father’s orders to ride a horse, and she teams up with two other girls to fight bandits who have stolen a team of horses led by an intelligent mustang stallion named Spirit.

Culture Audience: “Spirit Untamed” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Netflix animated series “Spirit Riding Free,” on which this movie is based, but many viewers might be unimpressed with the bland storyline, unremarkable animation and an origin story that isn’t very original.

Lucky Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced), Aunt Cora (voiced by Julianne Moore) and Jim Prescott (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) in “Spirit Untamed” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

In this lukewarm origin story for Netflix’s “Spirit Riding Free” animated series, the animated feature film “Spirit Untamed” does a watered-down and unimaginative Disney Princess version of “Spirit Riding Free.” All of the elements of a Disney Princess story are there: The 12-year-old female protoganist has an absentee or dead mother. She has “daddy issues” with a father or father figure who’s usually overprotective. And she fights gender biases that expect girls to not be as adventurous as boys.

However, “Spirit Untamed” is not a Disney film. It’s from DreamWorks Animation, which has been trying for years to play catch-up to Disney’s dominance of the animated movie business. Unfortunately, “Spirit Untamed” is not an example of a highly creative or visually stunning animated film. It’s so mediocre and formulaic that it doesn’t even look like a movie that needs to be seen in a movie theater.

And it’s disappointing that the movie isn’t better, because “Spirit Untamed” is a rare animated film released in cinemas that has a female-majority team of directors, writers and producers. The movie is the feature-film debut of Elaine Boga, who has previously directed episodes of DreamWorks Animation series such as “3Below: Tales of Arcadia,” “Trollhunters: Arcadia,” “Dragons: Race to the Edge” and “DreamWorks Dragons.” Ennio Torresan co-directed “Spirit Untamed,” which was written by Kristin Hahn, Katherine Nolfi and Aury Wallington.

When a TV series has a feature-film spinoff that’s released in cinemas, it should deliver a story that’s epic, so that people will feel like the story was worth seeing on a theater big screen. “Spirit Untamed” just looks like a story from some leftover script ideas that didn’t make it into the show’s pilot episode, but with different (bigger-named) actors voicing the main characters in the movie. Just because the movie had a bigger budget and more famous actors than the TV series doesn’t mean that the quality is any better than the TV series.

“Spirit Riding Free” is based on the 2002 DreamWorks Animation Film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” which hardly has anything in common with the TV series and “Spirit Untamed,” except for the mustang stallion character Spirit, an intelligent horse that refuses to be tamed and held captive. “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” is told from the horse’s point of view (with Matt Damon providing the narration as the voice of Spirit) and it’s a very male-centric movie.

In “Spirit Riding Free,” the main protaganist is 12-year-old Fortuna Esperanza Navarro Prescott, nicknamed Lucky. She’s a slightly rebellious, very adventuresome girl who has moved from a big city to a small frontier town called Miradero in an unnamed part of the Southwestern United States. The story is set in the early 1800s or mid-1800s, and where Lucky is living is considered a Wild West territory that has not yet been become an official state in the United States.

In the TV series, Lucky (who is an only child) lives with her widowed father Jim Prescott Jr. and her aunt Cora Prescott. She befriends a mustang stallion named Spirit, who heads a team of other wild horses. In the first episode of “Spirit Riding Free,” Lucky rescued Spirit from a group of horse wranglers. The “Spirit Untamed” movie is essentially the same story, except there’s more background information about how the death of Lucky’s mother has affected the family.

“Spirit Untamed” also has the same sidekicks for Lucky: two girls who are about the same age as she is: Prudence “Pru” Granger and Abigail Stone. Pru has a horse named Chica Linda, while Abigail has a horse named Boomerang. Spirit doesn’t want to be owned by anyone, but Lucky is one of the few people who can ride Spirit without Spirit trying to knock them to the ground. In “Spirit Riding Free,” Lucky goes to school. In “Spirit Untamed,” the closest reference to school is near the beginning, when a homeschooled Lucky is still living in the city and she’s reluctant to do homework that was assigned to her by her math tutor.

Viewers will have to suspend disbelief or get used to how this “Spirit” world isn’t historically authentic in many ways. The “Spirit” world is supposed to be set in the early 1800s or mid-1800s, before cars and electricity existed, but many of the characters in the movie dress, talk and use a few things to make it look like this story takes place in the 20th century. For example, in “Spirit Untamed,” Abigail blows and pops some bubble gum, which wasn’t invented until 1928.

The movie’s characters (especially the women and girls) also wear their hair and clothes that look more like they’re in a TV ad for Levi’s jeans, not living in an era before electricity was invented. Yes, many people watching this movie will be children who are too young to know better. But a lot of viewers will be people who are old enough to know that these characters are too modern for the 1800s. And these observant viewers won’t like how this movie was made as if the filmmakers think that people are too stupid to notice.

The historical inaccuracy in “Spirit Untamed” is the least of this movie’s problems. Because “Spirit Untamed” is just a longer retread of the first episode of “Spirit Riding Free,” it comes across as quite lazy that the screenwriters couldn’t come up with a more original story for this movie. “Spirit Untamed” opens with the death of Lucky’s mother Milagro Navarro (voiced by Eiza González), who died when she was thrown off of the horse that she was riding in a rodeo. Lucky’s father Jim Prescott Jr. (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) witnessed this death, which happened when Lucky was a baby.

Jim was apparently so grief-stricken that he didn’t think he could raise Lucky as a single father. And so, Lucky (voiced by Isabela Merced) was raised in the city by Jim’s sister Cora (voiced by Julianne Moore), while Jim stayed in Miradero. It’s shown near the beginning of the movie that Jim’s father James Prescott Sr. (voiced by Joe Hart) is running for governor. The Prescotts seem to be a well-to-do family because they can afford a private tutor for Lucky.

However, Jim and his father are no longer on speaking terms because James Prescott Sr. is not impressed with what he thinks is Jim’s lack of amibition and small-town life. And it’s implied, but not really said out loud, that Jim lost respect from his father because Jim handed off the responsbility of raising Lucky to Cora. And there are hints that the death of Lucky’s mother hasn’t been discussed enough in the family, so the emotional wounds still cut deep.

These are family issues that could be too heavy for an animated film that’s made for children as a large part of the movie’s target audience, but these issues could have been explored better in “Spirit Untamed.” It can be done: Pixar Animation Studios (owned by Disney) has built its brand on making animated films about heavy life issues while still being entertaining to people of all ages. Instead, “Spirit Untamed” just glosses over these issues in a shallow way.

Lucky is shown sulking on a window ledge because she wants to go to a party that her grandfather is having for his political campaign. However, Cora explains that Lucky is not allowed to go to the party because Lucky has to study and work on her math lessons. There’s a squirrel named Tom that Lucky has befriended. And somehow, this squirrel ends up at the party, lands on James Prescott Sr.’s face, and a newspaper photographer caught the amusing spectacle on camera. (This party is never shown in the movie.)

A photo of the squirrel on James Prescott Sr.’s face ends up on the front page of the newspaper. And apparently, he was so humiliated and angry about this squirrel, that he blamed Lucky and sent her away to visit his estranged son Jim (Lucky’s father) in Miradero for a few months. It’s a clumsy way to explain why Lucky and Cora have to go to Miradero, but there it is in this movie.

While riding by train to Miradero, Lucky looks outside a window and sees Spirit for the first time, when he’s running with his team of horses in a nearby field. She’s immediately drawn to this horse and can’t take her eyes off of him. The horse makes eye contact with her, so even if viewers know nothing about the “Spirit” franchise before seeing this movie, it’s obvious that Spirit and Lucky will end up becoming friends.

At one point in the journey, Lucky is at the back of the train and leaning over a rail to get a better view of the scenery. She almost falls over, but she’s caught in time by a rough-looking man named Hendricks (voiced by Walton Goggins), who is traveling with four other men on the train. (Hendricks’ unnamed companions are voiced by Jerry Clarke, Gino Montesinos, Lew Temple and Gary Anthony Williams.) Cora and Lucky thank Hendricks for preventing Lucky from having a dangerous fall. Hendricks seems polite, but it’s soon clear that he’s going to be the story’s chief villain.

Shortly after arriving in Miradero, where people immediately tell Lucky how much she looks like her mother, Lucky has an awkward reunion with her father Jim, who lives in a cluttered house that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in a while. Jim doesn’t endear himself to Lucky right away when he sheepishly admits that he forgot the date that Lucky and Cora were arriving, so he wasn’t fully prepared when they showed up at his door.

Most of the house is a jumbled mess, but Jim has thoughtfully redecorated a bedroom where Lucky will be staying. It’s the only neat and clean room in the house, but Jim has gone overboard in decorating the room with strawberry art. The wallpaper even has strawberries on it. He explains to Lucky that she used to love strawberries as a baby, so that’s why the room has a strawberry theme.

Lucky doesn’t think the room suits her taste, but there’s nothing she can do about it. And besides, the plan is that she and Cora will only be visiting for a few months. Behind her bedroom, Lucky finds a secret room with mementos and other personal items that belonged to her late mother Milagro. It’s here that Lucky discovers how much her mother was a well-regarded rodeo horseback rider.

Meanwhile, because of the way that Milagro died, Jim is strict in forbidding Lucky to ride any horses. And, of course, everyone watching this movie knows she’s going to break that rule. Cora takes Lucky to a rodeo, where she meets Pru (voiced by Marsai Martin), who’s a skilled horseback rider. Pru’s father Al Granger (voiced by Andre Braugher) is there too.

Later, Lucky meets a hyper kid, who’s about 7 or 8 years old, named Snips Stone (voiced by Lucian Perez). And it’s because of Snips that Lucky meets his older sister Abigail Stone (voiced by McKenna Grace). Abigail thinks that Snips is a brat, so there are a few bizarre and unnecessary scenes where Abigail has him tied up, because she doesn’t want him pestering her.

The capitivity abuse of Snips is supposed to be funny, but it comes across as cruel. Imagine the outrage if a boy had his sister tied up or hanging by ropes, even in an animated film. Snips and Abigail’s parents are never seen in “Spirit Untamed.” It’s another glaring omission from the film that doesn’t explain why Abigail and Snips don’t seem to have any adult supervision.

Abigail is actually more annoying than Snips in this movie. She brings a banjo with her and starts singing at inopportune moments. Abigail, who also tends to talk too much, has it stuck in her head that she, Pru and Lucky should be in a band. Lucky and even Jim have a few moments where they break out into song too. The movie’s original songs—including “Better With You” (peformed by Merced) and “Fearless” (performed by Merced and González)—are mediocre and forgettable.

Pru has the same deadpan sarcasm that’s in the “Spirit Riding Free” TV series. Lucky and Pru are smarter than Abigail, while Lucky is the biggest risk-taker, the most persistent and the most optimistic of the three friends. Just like in the TV series, Pru, Abigail and Lucky see that the first letters of their first names can be spelled as PAL. And they have friendship bracelets with the world PAL engraved on it.

Hendricks and his gang of horse wranglers are in Miradero because they’ve been hired to break/train some wild horses that were found by Pru’s father Al. Spirit is one of these wild horses, and that’s how Lucky sees Spirit and his team again and gets to know the horses better. Every time Lucky sees Spirit, she can’t resist letting him loose from the ropes that bind him to the corral.

Al is married to Pru’s mother, but Pru’s mother is never seen in “Spirit Untamed.” In fact, Cora is the only “mother figure” or adult female character with a significant speaking role in this movie. The lack of adult female characters with major roles in this story somewhat undermines the feminist intentions of the movie, which basically makes Lucky, Pru and Abigail look like the adolescent Wild West version of Charlie’s Angels when they decide to chase down the bad guys.

That’s because Hendricks and his cronies are really there to steal Spirit and the rest of the wild horses, so that these thieves can auction off the horses into a life of captivity and strenuous labor. And it’s up to Lucky, Pru and Abigail to save these horses. Spirit manages to escape, so Pru rides him on this mission to hunt down the thieves. Everything that follows is entirely predictable, with nothing that hasn’t been seen already in a “Spirit Riding Free” episode.

There are the seemingly impossible horse leaps from one cliff to the next. There are moments when it looks like the villains are winning because they outnumber the heroes. There are the scenes where horses get lassoed and try to break away and seem to be in pain. We all know how this movie is going to end anyway, so there’s no suspense, but the filmmakers should have at least come up with better obstacles for the heroes than the same old scenarios.

All of the voice actors do serviceable jobs in the roles, but no one is going to win any animation awards for “Spirit Untamed.” Toward the end, the movie gets a bit too slapstick for its own good. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t know if the movie should be more of an action drama or more of an action comedy.

Coming from a major animation studio like DreamWorks, “Spirit Untamed” should’ve had outstanding visuals, but the movie looks incredibly generic. The screenplay should have offered more suspense and a less superficial look at the Prescott family dynamics to give more emotional depth to Lucky’s backstory. Now that Lucky’s origin story has been established in a feature film, if there’s another “Spirit” movie based on the “Spirit Riding Free” series, let’s hope that the end results look like money well-spent instead of a cheap knockoff of better-quality animated films.

DreamWorks Animation released “Spirit Untamed” in U.S. cinemas on June 4, 2021.

Review: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Julian Dennison and Demián Bichir

March 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Godzilla and King Kong in “Godzilla vs. Kong” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

“Godzilla vs. Kong”

Directed by Adam Wingard

Culture Representation: Taking place in various other parts of the world, the action flick “Godzilla vs. Kong” features a racially diverse cast (white people, African Americans, Asians and Latinos) who are part of the scientific community, corporate business or are underage students.

Culture Clash: Gigantic monster enemies Godzilla and King Kong cross paths, while some greedy corporate people want to exploit the monsters’ power sources in order to make deadly weapons.

Culture Audience: “Godzilla vs. Kong” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “Godzilla” and “King Kong” movies and don’t care if the story is badly written, sloppily directed and populated with hollow human characters.

Alexander Skarsgård, Rebecca Hall and Kaylee Hottle in “Godzilla vs. Kong” (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

The tedious and atrociously made train wreck that is “Godzilla vs. Kong” probably will please people who have extremely low standards for action flicks. But considering that several superhero movies have proven that action movies can be entertaining spectacles with distinct and memorable characters, there’s really no excuse for why “Godzilla vs. Kong” stinks more than any toxic excrement that can be expelled from these fictional monsters’ bodies. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is the epitome of a “cash grab” film that lazily exploits the nostalgic brand names of beloved creature feature films. In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the filmmakers do almost nothing to create intriguing characters that can exist in a cinematic art form.

Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein, “Godzilla vs. Kong” takes an annoying amount of time building up to the inevitable fight scenes described in the movie’s title. The filmmakers inexplicably overstuffed the movie with a lot of characters that barely do anything except act egotistical (if they’re the villains) or look anxious (if they’re the heroes). The human characters who are involved in the most action and decision making in the movie are reduced to spouting idiotic dialogue that makes the monsters in the movie look more intelligent.

Yes, it’s another movie about a creature that threatens to destroy the world, while humans think they can stop the destruction in time, and the greedy ones think they can get rich off of this crisis. That’s pretty much the plot of every movie about Godzilla, King Kong or other giant monster. Pitting two supersized titan monsters against each other should raise the stakes even higher, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” fails in delivering an enjoyable story and has an ending that falls very flat. The movie’s visual effects from Luma Pictures are adequate but not outstanding.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” begins with King Kong living in a biodome on Skull Island, where he is being observed by scientists for research. Leading the team of scientists is Dr. Ilene Andrews (played by Rebecca Hall), who is a single mother to an adopted deaf/mute daughter named Jia (played by Kaylee Hottle), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Apparently, Ilene cares more about her research than the safety of her underage daughter. Jia is allowed to be in many completely dangerous situations that would be more than enough for child protective services to get involved.

But dumb movies like “Godzilla vs. Kong” pander to the lowest common denominator by showcasing people with horrific parenting skills and acting as if nothing is wrong with it. And if that means making it look like kids should be allowed to be in the line of fire and actively fighting these monstrous and deadly creatures, then so be it. Kaylee and some of the other underage characters in “Godzilla vs. Kong” are portrayed as having uncanny knowledge and skills that the adults don’t possess. It’s just more pandering to a kiddie audience or people with a child’s mentality.

The movie (which was filmed in Hawaii and Australia) jumps all over the place in a haphazard manner, but here are the main locations in the film:

  • Skull Island, where King Kong lives until he’s brought out of hiding for reasons explained in the movie. It’s also where Ilene and her daughter Jia live until they decide to travel to wherever Kong will be relocated.
  • Apex Cybernetics, a high-tech corporation in Pensacola, Florida, is involved in cybertechnology related to military defense weapons. The CEO of Apex is a typical money-hungry villain named Walter Simmons (played by Demián Bichir), who has a conniving daughter named Maya Simmons (played by Eiza González), who wants to take over the business someday. Walter’s loyal right-hand henchman is Apex chief technology officer Ren Serizawa (played by Shun Oguri). Apex also has an engineer named Bernie Hayes (played by Brian Tyree Henry), who ends up becoming a whistleblower.
  • Monarch Relief Camp, also in Pensacola, is the temporary home of refugees who were displaced by the destruction caused in the 2019 movie “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” It’s where divorced dad Mark Russell (played by Kyle Chandler), a former Monarch animal behavior and communication specialist, works to help refugees. Mark has a headstrong and independent teenage daughter named Madison (played by Millie Bobby Brown), who wants to follow in his footsteps as scientist who studies animals.
  • Denham University of Theoretical Science is a think tank in Philadelphia where the workaholic and underappreciated Dr. Nathan Lind (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is working on a top-secret theory/experiment. Aren’t they all in movies like this one?
  • Hong Kong, where some of the characters in the story take a rocket, because apparently it’s not enough just to have transportation by planes, ships, trains or automobiles.
  • Tokyo, because you shouldn’t have a Godzilla movie without Godzilla fighting in Tokyo.
  • Hollow Earth, a place somewhere below the earth’s surface that was discovered in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” This location also plays a major role in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” King Kong somehow got access to a javelin (it’s never explained how), and like an Olympic champ, he throws it at the sky while he’s on Skull Island. The javelin pierces the biodome ceiling, so that’s how King Kong finds out that the world he’s been living in has been hermetically sealed.

You know what that means. King Kong becomes restless because he knows he belongs somewhere else. It isn’t long before Ilene and the rest of the scientists find out that King Kong has literally cracked their carefully constructed façade.

Ilene comments about King Kong to a co-worker named Ben (played by Chris Chalk): “The habitat is not going to hold him much longer.” Ben replies, “We need to think about off-site solutions.” Ilene then says, “The island is the one thing that’s kept him isolated. If he leaves, Godzilla will come for him. There can’t be two alpha titans.” Oh yes, there can, or else this movie wouldn’t exist.

The decision is made to move Kong out of Skull Island. King Kong is tranquilized and strapped to a cargo ship. And you just know that tranquilizer is going to eventually wear off. Somehow, Kong’s energy is sensed by Godzilla, who comes out of hibernation from deep in the ocean. Godzilla goes on a rampage in trying to find Kong. It’s all just filler until these two creatures face off against one another.

What does this have to do with Apex? The company has discovered a subterranean ecosystem that’s as “fast as any ocean light.” It has an energy life force that Apex wants to find in order to make a weapon that will defeat Godzilla.

Nathan, a former Monarch employee, says that he tried and failed to find the mysterious Hollow Earth entry. He believes in genetic memory, a theory that says all titans share a common impulse to return to their evolutionary source. Nathan wants to tag along with Ilene and her crew to find the power source that’s in Hollow Earth.

But since “Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t interested in keeping things simple with only essential characters, there are more people who want to get to Hollow Earth too. There are the Apex villains, of course. And then there’s a motley trio that’s meant to be the movie’s comic relief but they end up saying a lot of corny lines and getting into stereotypical slapstick predicaments.

This trio consists of Apex engineer Bernie, who’s decided he’s going to expose Apex’s dastardly plans; teenage Madison, who apparently skips school so she can save the world in “Godzilla” movies; and her schoolmate Josh Valentine (played by Julian Dennison), who’s the type of character that Dennison is known to play in movies: a sarcastic brat. Josh is also the clownish “klutz” of the group who’s prone to be more terrified than the others. Meanwhile, Bernie sometimes acts like he’s uttering lines that were rejected from a bad stand-up comedy act.

How did Bernie get mixed up with these kids? Bernie is the host of a podcast called the Titan Trade Podcast, where he spouts “insider” conspiracy theories about Apex but doesn’t reveal his true identity. Even though Bernie’s voice and his irritating motormouth personality would be recognizable to his Apex co-workers on this podcast (Bernie makes no effort to disguise his voice), the movie wants people to believe that Bernie’s been able to keep his podcast identity a secret while he’s spilling confidential company information to the world.

“Something bad is going in here,” Bernie warns in one of his podcast episodes. He says that he’s going to download evidence of a “vast” corporate conspiracy. “It’s more than a leak. It’s a flood,” he adds. “And this flood is going to wash away all of Apex’s lies.” And with that announcement, Bernie essentially tells the world that he’s a company whistleblower, without thinking that the company could possibly catch on to his exposé plan before he actually does it. So dumb.

Madison listens to the podcast and essentially drags a reluctant Josh along when they meet Bernie. Madison uses Josh because he has a car and she doesn’t. As if to put an emphasis on how Bernie is the “out of touch” adult in this trio, he has a very outdated flip phone that he uses a lot in the movie. It might be some type of weird irony that a guy who works as an engineer at a highly advanced tech company doesn’t even have a smartphone, but it just makes Bernie look even more dimwitted, considering all the benefits of a smartphone that he would need on this mission.

Because “Godzilla vs. Kong” is meant to be a family-friendly film, there are the obligatory sappy moments to make it look like this isn’t just a movie with fights and explosions. Jia has an emotional bond with King Kong that’s intended to tug at people’s heartstrings, because somehow she’s taught him sign language without her mother knowing. Ilene eventually finds out, but you have to wonder how much of neglectful parent Ilene must be if she let her daughter spend enough time alone with King Kong that Ilene didn’t know that Jia has now become King Kong’s personal American Sign Language tutor. Kids these days.

And while this awful movie whips around from place to place like a flea in search of a mangy dog, somehow the filmmakers forgot to have any meaningful story arc for Madison’s father Mark (who was a protagonist in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”), who is completely sidelined in “Godzilla vs. Kong.” The parents in this movie are insultingly portrayed as incapable of making truly effective decisions unless the kids show them the right way.

There’s nothing wrong with precocious kid characters, but not at the expense of making the adults with years of scientific knowledge look clueless next to kids who haven’t even graduated from high school yet. The movie completely undervalues and dismisses the life experiences of adults whenever the kid characters are in the same scene. It’s why “Godzilla vs. Kong” has the mentality of video game or a cartoon instead of a live-action movie.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” doesn’t even bother giving the villains anything memorable about their personalities, which is what all worthwhile “good vs. evil” stories are supposed to do. Heroes often have bland, interchangeable personalities, but villains are the ones who are supposed to get the biggest audience reactions in these stories. And audiences like to see some of the clever ways that villains make mischief. None of that happens in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

There could have been so much improvement to the movie’s lackluster human interactions if the villains were compelling. Walter is very generic, Ren doesn’t talk much, and Maya is a completely unnecessary character. All of the actors in “Godzilla vs. Kong” give performances like they know they’re in a movie where they don’t have to show much acting talent and it’s all about the paychecks they’re getting.

As for the Godzilla vs. King Kong fight scenes that come too late in the movie, they are extremely predictable but at least better than the witless dialogue that the audience has to endure whenever the movie’s scenes focus only on the humans. In order for a monster movie to have the most impact, viewers should care not just about the fight scenes but also about the people whose lives are in danger. And in that regard, “Godzilla vs. Kong” stomps out a lot of humanity to distract viewers with CGI action that isn’t even that great in the first place.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Godzilla vs. Kong” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on March 31, 2021. The movie was released in several countries outside of the U.S. on March 25 and March 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Cut Throat City,’ starring Shameik Moore, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Kat Graham, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, Eiza Gonzalez and Ethan Hawke

September 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Demetrius Shipp Jr., Keean Johnson, Shameik Moore and Denzel Whitaker in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Cut Throat City”

Directed by The RZA

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans in 2005 and 2006, the crime drama “Cut Throat City” has a predominantly African American cast (with some white people and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A group of young men turn to a life of crime when they have problems finding jobs after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Culture Audience: “Cut Throat City” will appeal mostly to people who like typical “gangster” movies that have a lot of violence and a mediocre plot.

T.I. in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

How’s this for an unoriginal and tired idea for a movie? Poor people (who are usually people of color) become criminals because they’re desperate for money. And there’s a crime lord that they have to answer to who might or might not turn against them. “Cut Throat City,” despite its talented cast and an effort to be a somewhat stylish-looking film, still serves up this recycled and uninspired concept in a movie that doesn’t really do anything for the genre of gangster films. In fact, “Cut Throat City” (at 132 minutes long) gets a little too bloated and the plot a little too ridiculous for it to be considered a movie that will reach cult status as an undiscovered gem.

“Cut Throat City” (directed by The RZA, who’s best known as a founding member of the rap group Wu Tang Clan) could have used better editing to cut out the parts of the movie that drag before the movie’s big climactic scene. However, the screenplay by Paul “P.G.” Cuschieri is largely to blame for the most cringeworthy aspects of “Cut Throat City,” including the dumb dialogue and some of the most unrealistic aspects of the movie’s depiction of police investigations in a big American city.

New Orleans is the city where the movie takes place, in 2005 and 2006, with Hurricane Katrina as the catalyst for a lot of the angst and criminal activity in the story. “Cut Throat City” begins before Hurricane Katrina happened, when four working-class friends in their early 20s are getting ready for the wedding of one of the guys in the group. All four of them live in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which is considered one of the most financially deprived and roughest parts of the city.

The groom is James (played by Shameik Moore), who prefers to go by the nickname Blink, who is an aspiring writer/illustrator of graphic novels. Blink’s three closest friends are Miracle (played by Demetrius Shipp Jr.), who’s an impulsive hothead; Junior (played by Keean Johnson), who often gets teased because he’s a white guy who tries to be more like his African American friends; and mild-mannered and quiet Andre (played by Denzel Whitaker), who’s Blink’s best man and an aspiring jazz musician. (He plays the trumpet.)

Blink is getting married to his girlfriend Demyra (played by Kat Graham), who is the mother of their son, who’s about 3 or 4 years old. At the wedding, Demyra’s mother (played by Stacie Davis) gives Demyra some marriage advice: “It’s not about happiness. It’s about meaning. Find the meaning and happiness will come later.” That’s this movie’s idea of a “pep talk,” which is supposed to indicate to viewers that many of the people in this movie have a pessimistic view on life.

Demyra and Blink are actually happy together, and the wedding goes smoothly. The honeymoon is another story, because Hurricane Katrina hits within a few days after the wedding. Even before the hurricane, the main problem in Blink and Demyra’s relationship is that Blink is having a hard time finding work as a graphic novelist. And now that he’s a married man, he’s really expected to contribute income to help pay the bills. Even though Blink has an associate’s degree from college and he attended Tulane University, his college education won’t help him get his dream job as a graphic novelist.

Blink has been working on a concept for a graphic novel called “Cut Throat City.” He gets a meeting with a condescending publishing executive named Peter Felton (played by Joel David Moore), who starts off by looking at Blink’s work and calling it mostly “derivative.” Peter does see one illustration that he likes, so he asks Blink who his influences are. Blink replies by listing Charles Schulz, Gary Larson and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Peter then says in an exasperated tone that by “influences” he meant who are the influences in Blink’s life.

Peter also asks Blink what kind of audience he wants for “Cut Throat City.” Blink says he “never really thought about it.” Peter responds, “The first thing you think about is your audience.” Blink then says, “If we only focus on our markets, then a cartoon wouldn’t be anything more than a cheap, dim commodity that will never change.”

When Peter says he doesn’t know where Blink could’ve gotten that idea, Blink responds that it was Peter who actually said it at an anime expo in 1990. “I got a transcript from the library,” Blink adds. “Fair enough,” replies Peter, who’s obviously done with Blink at point. He then coldly dismisses Blink from his office and tells an assistant to bring in the next person.

It’s one of many rejections that Blink gets as an aspiring graphic novelist. Andre tries to make money as a street musician, but it’s barely enough to be considered pocket change. Miracle and Junior are also unemployed. For whatever reason, the movie doesn’t show them looking for any jobs they can get. Hurricane Katrina has devastated New Orleans, so the job market has dried up in many ways, but these four friends just seem like they’ve given up trying to find work.

To make matters worse, Blink is too proud to accept financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As several weeks go by and things get more financially desperate for Blink and Demyra, she’s had enough of Blink refusing money from FEMA, and she tells Blink that they have to apply for FEMA aid. When they get to the FEMA office, their application is denied since they don’t need housing, and they’re told that homeless people are getting priority for the financial aid. And to add insult to injury, Blink and Demyra also aren’t eligible because they live in the Ninth Ward.

This FEMA rejection is a reason for Blink to feel angry at “the system,” which is why he eventually goes along with Miracle’s idea to start working for Blink’s relative Lorenzo “Cousin” Bass (played by Tip “T.I.” Harris), who’s a local gangster. (T.I., who’s also known as a hitmaking rapper in real life, is wearing makeup in the movie that makes Cousin look like he has a skin condition like vitiligo.) Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre start dealing drugs for Cousin. But since they’re new to drug dealing, they mess things up and end up owing money to Cousin.

To show how vicious and unforgiving he is, Cousin makes the four guys watch as an unlucky man who has angered Cousin is tortured by having a wild raccoon attack the guy’s genitals. It’s not explicitly shown in the film, but it’s implied that this happened. The man is shown in the aftermath almost doubled over in pain with blood on the crotch area of his pants when he’s thrown out by Cousin and his henchmen.

Cousin and his group of thugs also force wild raccoons to fight each other in cages. And one of the main characters has a beloved dog, which predictably gets shot and killed by a vengeful Cousin during a fight scene. For anyone who hates seeing animal cruelty depicted on screen, it might be best to avoid this movie or close your eyes during these scenes.

Knowing that Cousin could also make their lives hell if they don’t come up with the money they owe him, the four friends decide to rob a local casino. And then one casino robbery turns into more, as they blow their money on strip clubs and gambling. All of these robbery scenes are completely ludicrous because the guys walk into the casino together wearing matching dark hoodies (automatically calling attention themselves) and they make little effort to disguise their faces, unless you consider wearing see-through nylon stockings on your face a “disguise.”

The casinos are also very crowded and there are surveillance cameras everywhere. And yet, the movie wants viewers to believe that these wannabe gangsters are clever enough not to get caught. After one robbery, which resulted in a big shootout with police and the theives’ getaway van being riddled with bullet holes, the four guys just trade in the van for a Dodge car in good condition. What used car dealer in their right mind would trade a car that’s in good shape for a bullet-damaged piece of junk?

“Cut Throat City” also makes the same stupid mistake that’s in a lot of badly written crime movies that take place in a big city: Only one cop is investigating the case. For a series of casino robberies in a city as big as New Orleans, it’s completely unrealistic to have only one investigator. And this cop also happens to look like a model/actress. Her name is Lucinda Valencia (played by Eiza Gonzalez), who has the thankless job of going into dangerous and sketchy areas by herself numerous times during the investigation, with no sign of a cop partner or backup anywhere.

There are also some other supporting players in this muddled and messy saga: Recently elected city councilman Jackson Sims (played by Ethan Hawke), who’s a former police officer and a very corrupt politician; Courtney (played by Rob Morgan), a sleazy barber who’s a confidential informant; and The Saint (played by Terrence Howard), a smooth-talking, bow-tie-wearing gangster who has criminal authority over Cousin.

Also part of the story, in a small role, is Rev. Sinclair Stewart (played by Isaiah Washington), who takes bribes to conduct funeral services for people who died under suspicious circumstances and don’t have a medical exam or death certificate. The bribes he takes include payment for forged death certificates. And somewhere in this jumbled story, Blink reunites with his estranged father Lawrence (played by Wesley Snipes), who abandoned Blink when Blink was a child.

“Cut Throat City” also has some bizarre references to “The Wizard of Oz.” When Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre first go to meet with Cousin about working for him, Cousin says that his headquarters is like Oz. He compares Junior to the Tin Man, Andre to the Cowardly Lion, Miracle to the Scarecrow and Blink to Dorothy. Later in the movie, The Saint covers the young robbers’ heads in ski masks and tells them, “There’s no place like home.”

Speaking of the lines in this movie, people will be rolling their eyes at how corny some of the dialogue is. In one scene, Courtney tells Lucinda that local thugs “will shoot you in a crack cocaine heartbeat.” In another scene, Cousin says about the man who is left sobbing after the raccoon torture: “Two things I can’t stand: a lying-ass woman and a crying-ass man.” If this is Gangster Poetry 101, no thank you.

And in another scene, Cousin and The Saint have a meeting, where Cousin says to him in a semi-monologue that sounds like it was written by someone who thinks this is how black gangsters are supposed to talk: “We’re too much alike: greedy-ass motherfuckers. That’s why they can take all the opportunity away from us. They can flood us, jail us, try to kill us, but they can never kill our greed. That’s why we’ll pimp, rap, sling dope, cheat or steal, even it’s from each other.”

“Cut Throat City” has a twist at the end that’s meant to make the movie look like more artistic than it really is. There’s an end-credits scene that doesn’t really add much to the conclusion of this very predictable and substandard story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technical aspects of how the movie was filmed, and the movie is well-cast with good actors, but the director needed to make better choices in editing. Ultimately, it’s the weak and trite screenplay that makes “Cut Throat City” a movie a disappointment that doesn’t offer anything exciting or innovative.

Well Go USA released “Cut Throat City” in select U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.

Review: ‘Bloodshot’ (2020), starring Vin Diesel

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot” (Photo by Graham Bartholomew/Columbia Pictures)

“Bloodshot” (2020)

Directed by David S. F. Wilson

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities around the world, the sci-fi/action flick “Bloodshot” has a racially diverse cast (white, black, Asian and Latino) and a story that revolves around a U.S. military soldier who’s brought back from the dead, as well as the current and former members of a secret high-tech organization that’s experimenting on him to make him into an easily manipulated killing machine.

Culture Clash: Certain characters in the story have ethical dilemmas about using technology to train assassins.

Culture Audience: “Bloodshot” will appeal primarily to fans of star Vin Diesel and the comic-book series on which the movie is based, but the movie’s formulaic tropes will have little interest to people who aren’t die-hard fans of action movies.

Guy Pearce and Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot” (Photo by Graham Bartholomew/Columbia Pictures)

Vin Diesel is best known for starring in the wildly successful car-racing “Fast and Furious” franchise since 2001, when the first “The Fast and the Furious” movie made him famous. Ever since then, he’s starred in multiple action movies that were clearly made with the hopes that they too would become blockbuster franchises with a series of several movies, but none outside of “The Fast and the Furious” and “XXX” (pronounced “triple X”) has panned out to be that way.

The sci-fi/action flick “Bloodshot” (based on the Valiant Comics series) is another attempt by Diesel (who’s one of the movie’s producers) to try and create a movie-franchise vehicle for himself, and this attempt will also fail. Although “Bloodshot” is a passably enjoyable film, the movie doesn’t have the charisma to make it the type of film where audiences will demand any sequels. This personality deficit in the movie has largely do with the fact that Diesel is a very robotic actor, which is no surprise to anyone who’s seen most of his films.

“Bloodshot” begins with a montage of Diesel’s Ray Garrison character on active duty as a U.S. Marines soldier. He saves a man from a hostage situation and ends up at Ariano Air Force Base in Italy, where he gets praise for his rescue mission. All of this globetrotting away from home has put a strain on his marriage to his British wife Gina (played by Talulah Riley), who’s an action-flick cliché of being the hero’s modelesque love interest who (of course) gets half-naked in the movie. Gina comments to Ray about his soldier duties, “At some point, your body can’t do this forever,” in what is supposed to pass as deep, meaningful insight in her dialogue.

Sure enough, Ray does get killed. But how he gets killed might or might not have happened in the way people might think it happened, since the movie plays tricks on characters’ minds about what’s real and what isn’t. What does happen on screen is that Ray is ambushed and kidnapped by two men in his bathroom. The next thing Ray knows, he’s tied to a chair in a slaughterhouse, where he undergoes a brutal interrogation about information that he swears that he doesn’t know.

Ray’s tormenter/interrogator in this kidnapping is Martin Axe (played by Toby Kebbell), who’s clearly unhinged because he starts dancing to the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” before showing that Gina has been kidnapped and tied up too. And then Gina gets murdered in front of Ray.

As viewers soon see, the entire tragic scene was an elaborate virtual-reality manipulation that later will be used on Ray, who is dead in real life and being experimented on by a secret American high-tech organization called Rising Spirit Technologies (RST), led by the overly ambitious mad scientist Dr. Emil Harting (played by Guy Pearce). Dr. Harting wants to perfect a technology that can resurrect soldiers from the dead and train them to be assassins with superpowers. He plans to sell this technology to the highest bidder, and he expects to make billions. (This isn’t spoiler information, since this concept of reanimating Ray from the dead is in the movie’s trailer and it’s the origin story in the “Bloodshot” comics.)

Ray finds out that he’s been brought back from the dead when Dr. Harting shows Ray how Ray has undergone a blood transfusion that has replaced Ray’s blood with a plasma-like liquid filled with molecular creatures that can quickly rebuild his body in any way after getting injuries or wounds, thereby making Ray virtually indestructible. The visual effects for “Bloodshot” are actually quite good, but they won’t be winning any awards.

Ray is the first person that RST has been able to bring back to life, according to what Dr. Harting says. Dr. Harting also says that no family members claimed Ray after Ray’s death, so that’s why Ray’s body ended up at RST. Ray’s memory has been erased, so he has no way to know if Dr. Harting is telling him the truth, and he’s trapped in the facility anyway. In order to ease Ray’s fears, Dr. Harting puts a positive spin on the situation by telling Ray that Ray now has a second chance at life. What he doesn’t tell Ray is that Ray is being used by RST to see if Ray can be turned into an easily programmable killing machine.

At RST, Ray meets three people who are also part of RST’s experiments: Katie, nicknamed KT (played by Eiza González), is someone whose respiratory system has been restored into something high-tech that can be controlled by Dr. Harting. Jimmy Dalton (played by Sam Heughan) is Dr. Harting’s most loyal foot soldier (literally), since his legs have been replaced by super-speedy mechanical limbs. Jimmy has other high-tech abilities that are revealed later in the story. Tibbs (played by Alex Hernandez), the quietest of the three, has ocular prosthetics that give him a superhuman ability to see.

What viewers see but what Ray doesn’t is that RST can create virtual worlds in Ray’s mind and erase his memories to start over and implant other ideas in his mind whenever they want. And what Dr. Harting wants to do in this phase of the experiment is to see if he can get Ray to complete a series of assassinations around the world, by tricking Ray into thinking that each of the men he assassinates is the same man who murdered Gina in front of Ray.

In order to do that, RST has to erase Ray’s memories every time he completes an assassination and start over by replacing Gina’s murder re-enactment with a different image of each man as the murderer, who will then be the target of Ray’s revenge assassination. And who are these men that Ray is supposed to kill? And why does Dr. Harting want them killed? Those details are revealed in the movie.

Meanwhile, KT gets a little closer to Ray, and there are hints that she’s attracted to him and wants a better life than the one she’s trapped in at RST. There’s also a fast-talking coding whiz named Wilfred Wigans (played by Lamorne Morris), a Brit who’s the comic relief in the movie. Wigans has a self-deprecating sense of humor that shows he’s aware that he’s a nerd who gets disrespected, but he’s determined to have the last laugh. Wigans is the only character in the movie who seems to have a personality that goes beyond two dimensions.

Most people who want to see “Bloodshot” will be interested in the action sequences. And some of these scenes are thrilling, particularly the movie’s best action scene, which takes place on a skyscraper. But the assassination scenes are very formulaic, especially since there are video games that have upped the ante and people’s expectations for this type of action.

In this age of Marvel Studios’ domination of superhero flicks, movie audiences are now expecting a lot more from superhero movies than what “Bloodshot” delivers, because the movie version of “Bloodshot” is a story that’s on the same quality level as a video game. “Bloodshot” director David S. F. Wilson (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Eric Heisserer) should have kept in mind while making this film that today’s movie audiences want genuine and relatable character development in superhero movies, not just impressive visual effects. Wilson, who makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Bloodshot,” has a visual-effects background in mostly video games, including several “Star Wars” video game titles.

As the ruthless and greedy Dr. Harting, Pearce does a reasonably good job with his character, but he’s already played a memorable mad scientist in a superhero movie before—Aldrich Killian in 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” Since “Iron Man 3” was a much better movie than “Bloodshot,” the latter movie seems like an inferior retread for Pearce, and the Harting character doesn’t have the wounded emotional depth that Killian had.

And in the role of KT, González does a serviceable performance that, quite frankly, could have been played by any number of actresses. Huegan’s soulless Jimmy Dalton character is strictly a one-dimensional role where he has single-minded loyalty to RST and some jealousy toward Ray, who’s being groomed as RST’s alpha male experiment. And as the quiet Tibbs, Hernandez doesn’t have much to do with this character, who’s basically there to just follow Jimmy’s lead.

In order for a superhero movie to go from a one-picture deal to a series franchise, audiences have to want to come back for more because of the personalities of the main characters. In that respect, “Bloodshot” falls woefully short, because as the center of the story and as the titular superhero, Diesel’s acting is almost as artificially lifeless as Ray Garrison/Bloodshot.

Columbia Pictures released “Bloodshot” in U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020. 

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the digital and VOD release of “Bloodshot” to March 24, 2020.