Culture Representation: Taking place in Chennai, India, the sci-fi action film “Pichaikkaran 2” (a stand-alone sequel to 2016’s “Pichaikkaran” features an all-South-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: An evil and greedy businessman, who wants to get rid his rival brother, abducts a street beggar so that the brains of the beggar and the businessman’s brother can be switched through a secret surgery.
Culture Audience: “Pichaikkaran 2” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching an overly long and terribly made movie about greed and swapping human brains through transplants.
“Pichaikkaran 2” is a sorry excuse for a sequel. This long-winded sci-fi action flick has a terribly conceived plot about brain swapping. This time-wasting junk ironically lacks any brain-power intelligence. The only real brain damage is to the brain cells of viewers who watch this idiotic film.
Written and directed by Vijay Antony, “Pichaikkaran 2” is a sequel to the 2016 film “Pichaikkaran,” which is superior to this sequel in every single way. (The word “pichaikkaran” means “beggar” in Tamil.) The main thing that these vastly different movies have in common is that Vijay Antony has the title starring role in both movies. “Pichaikkaran” was written and directed by Sasi. Antony makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Pichaikkaran 2,” which Antony co-wrote with K Palani and Paul Antony.
In “Pichaikkaran 2” (which takes place in Chennai, India), a wealthy businessman named Vijay Gurumoorthy (played by Antony) is the heir leader to his family’s business, after the family patriarch (Vijay’s father) has died. Vijay’s evil and greedy younger brother Aravind (played by Dev Gill) convinces a reluctant Vijay to keep their father’s death a secret for about a month. Aravind tells Vijay that they need this secrecy so that the company’s stocks don’t go down and so that they have time to prepare for the transition to new leadership.
In reality, Aravind want this month to prepare for a dastardly plan to get rid of Vijay and take over the business. Aravind has heard about a revolutionary surgery that can do human brain transplants. This surgery is an outlawed medical procedure, since the worldwide medical community has issues with the ethics of human brain transplants.
A rogue surgeon named Dr. Shiva (played by Hareesh Peradi) is an advocate of this surgery and has given media interviews saying that this surgery should be legal because it could prolong people’s lives. Aravind tells M. Krishna Iyer (played by Y. G. Mahendran), the loyal secretary of this deceased business mogul, to find Dr. Shiva, who is brought to a secret meeting with Aravind and Krishna. Dr. Shiva is eager to perform this surgery, for the right price.
After Aravind is convinced that this surgery would really work, he hires Dr. Shiva and tells him to wait and see who will be the two people who will have their brains swapped. Aravind then has Vijay kidnapped. Aravind viciously beats and kicks Vijay into unconsciousness. And it just so happens there’s an impoverished beggar named Sathya (also played by Antony), who is a look-alike to Vijay. Sathya, who grew up as a poor orphan, is also kidnapped and made unconscious through violent ways.
Two look-alike people and a brain-swapping plot? You know what this means, of course. Vijay and Sathya end up in a secret operating room, where their brains are swapped. When they both wake up, the body of Vijay has the mind of Sathya, while the body of Sathya has the mind of Vijay. Sathya and Vija still have long-term memories, so they can vividly remember their past.
Avarind’s plan is to kill the body of Sathya (which has Vijay’s mind) and keep the body of Vijay (which has Sathya’s mind), to use as a decoy, so that people will think Vijay is still alive. Avarind thinks that this “fake Vijay” (who has Sathya’s mind) will be such an incompetent leader, the “fake Vijay” will be ousted from the company, giving Avarind a clear path to take over the family business. The problem with this conspiracy is that Sathya, whose mind is in now in the body of Vijay, remembers his real past and isn’t afraid to say so. Even though some people think Sathya is mentally ill for saying he’s trapped in the wrong body, Sathya (in Vijay’s body) is determined to find out why he’s now being told that he is Vijay and has to live Vjay’s life.
After this secret brain-transplant surgery takes place, Vijay’s loyal and loving girlfriend Hema (played by Kavya Thapar), who also works for the company, begins to grow suspicious about the way the “fake Vijay” has been acting, because this “fake Vijay” doesn’t remember a lot of things about their relationship. Will she discover the secret? Will Avarind get away with his moronic scheme? It should come as no surprise that Sathya (in Vijay’s body) is not as gullible and passive as Avarind thinks Sathya should be.
This bloated 148-minute film stretches out the very thin plot with a lot of phony-looking fight scenes and cringeworthy musical numbers. Everything about “Pichaikkaran 2” reeks of mindless filmmaking with a big budget. How stupid is the dialogue in “Pichaikkaran 2”? Aravind repeats the redundant phrase that Vijay is worth “millions and billions.” The acting in this movie is mostly horrendous. The film editing (by Antony) is choppy and amateurish. Antony also wrote the bombastic musical score for “Pichaikkaran 2,” which blasts the music in obnoxious volume levels.
Although “Pichaikkaran 2” tries to make Vijay look like he’s a desirable and admirable person, he’s actually quite terrible. There’s a scene early in the movie (before the brain-transplant surgery takes place), when Hema questions Vijay’s decision to keep his father’s death a secret for a month. In response, Vijay hits Hema hard in the face. It’s all just an exploitative set-up to make the mind of altruistic and compassionate Sathya the better choice for the body of Vijay. Sathya also has a side to him that is a ruthless vigilante, which is the movie’s excuse to have a lot of violent scenes of Sathya as an “action hero.
Along the way, “Pichaikkaran 2” has a lot of preaching about Anti-Bikili, a social movement that’s against greed, corruption and arrogance about money. There’s also a treacly subplot about Sathya looking for his long-lost sister Rani, who was separated from him in their childhood, when they were sent to different foster homes. “Pichaikkaran 2” is just a horribly made vanity project from Antony. The only real “begging” for “Pichaikkaran 2” is when disastisfied viewers see how bad this trash-dump movie is and beg for it to be over.
Vijay Antony Film Corporation released “Pichaikkaran 2” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on May 19, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2032, in New Mexico and in Mexico, the sci-fi comedy film “Robots” (based on the short-story collection “The Robot Who Looked Like Me”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A Lothario and a female gold digger, who each have illegal look-alike robots that do dirty deeds for them, go on a misadventure together to look for the robots after the robots “go rogue” by falling in love and running away together.
Culture Audience: “Robots” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and fans of the book on which the movie is based, but it’s a silly, boring and predictable movie that is a failure of imagination.
Robots with artificial intelligence could have come up with a better movie than the filmmakers responsible for the drab and unfunny comedy “Robots,” an embarrassing dud that fails to blend sci-fi and romance into an interesting story. It’s hard to believe that anyone who read the dreadful “Robots” screenplay actually thought that this junk was worth getting made. All of the movie’s cast members have the depth and personality of decommissioned robots in their hollow performances.
Written and directed by Casper Christensen and Art Hines, “Robots” is based on Robert Sheckley’s 1978 collection of short stories titled “The Robot Who Looked Like Me.” Viewers of “Robots” might find it hard to believe that Hines is one of the Oscar-nominated writers behind Sacha Baron Cohen’s hit movies, including 2006’s “Borat” and 2020’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” for which Hines received adapted screenplay Oscar nominations. Granted, the prankster movies of Baron Cohen are largely improvised, whereas a movie like “Robots” has a very formulaic script. The difference in the entertainment quality of a movie like “Borat” and a movie like “Robots” is like comparing a satisfying meal to stale garbage.
The opening scenes of “Robots,” which takes place mostly in New Mexico in 2032, shows the governor of New Mexico (played by Hank Rogerson) giving a speech in front of a chain-link fence that’s supposed to separate the border of the United States and Mexico. (“Robots” was filmed on location in New Mexico.) The governor has a very small but enthusiastic audience of about 25 people, mostly middled-aged and elderly, who are sitting on folding chairs. It’s a group of right-wingers who hate undocumented immigrants from Latin American countries.
In his speech, the governor (who is obviously supposed to be Donald Trump-like politician) proudly announces that under his leadership, the wall to keep the “illegals” out has been successfully built, and all the “illegals” have been deported. He also declares that industries that heavily depend on undocumented immigrants no longer need to employ these immigrants because 10 years ago, the U.S. government created robots to “do the work that illegals once did.” After this speech event, the chairs are folded up and packed away by some of these robots.
Meanwhile, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the two main characters in “Robots”—a man and a woman in their 30s—are rude and selfish humans who own illegally purchased, highly advanced robots that are clones of themselves. In this sci-fi society, legal robots have a human body structure, but their heads look like robots, they sound like robots, and they wear human-looking masks. The advanced illegal robots (which are very high-priced) look, move, and talk exactly like humans in every way, except that the illegal robots do not have real human eyes.
Charles Cameron (played by Jack Whitehall) is a narcissistic ladies’ man who only wants to date women to have sex with them. After Charles gets what he wants, he abruptly dumps the women and cuts off all contact with them. Charles (who is spoiled, lazy and over-privileged) works with his real-estate mogul father Ted Cameron (played by David Grant Wright) at Ted’s company, which is called the Cameron Group.
Charles uses his robot clone, which is called C2, to impersonate Charles at the office, do domestic work for Charles, and go on romantic dates. As shown in “Robots” trailer, Charles also makes C2 shave Charles’ pubic hair in his genital area. The only time that Charles wants to be on a date as himself (and not sending the C2 robot in his place) is when he knows he’ll be having sex on that date.
Meanwhile, Elaine (played by Shailene Woodley) is a high-maintenance gold digger who only dates men who can give her money or buy her high-priced gifts. Elaine makes enough money this way so that she doesn’t need to have a real job. Whereas Charles uses his clone robot to get women to have sex with the real Charles, what Elaine uses her robot for is for the opposite reason: She doesn’t want to be the one to have sex with the men she dates for money, so she has her robot clone (called E2) impersonate her on these dates. Woodley and Whitehall also portray the robot counterparts of Elaine and Charles.
Because these robots are illegal, and owners could get heavy fines and prison time, there are certain precautions that Charles and Elaine have taken for their respective clone robots. The biggest precaution is that Charles and Elaine have told C2 and E2 that they are not allowed to be out in public at the same time as their human counterparts. C2 and E2, who are always accommodating and friendly, know that they are robots who have to be kept secret.
For reasons that are never explained in the movie, Charles has a British accent, while his father Ted and Charles’ half-brother Ted Cameron Jr. (played by Nick Rutherford) have American accents. (Whitehall is British in real life.) It can be presumed that Ted Jr. and Charles have different mothers (these mothers are not seen or mentioned in the movie), and Charles grew up with his mother in England. The movie has a very useless subplot about Ted Jr. and Charles in a sibling rivalry, which is made more competitive because they both work for the family company.
The character of Elaine is a lot less developed than the character of Charles. The movie doesn’t reveal anything about Elaine’s family or what she wants to do with her life, other than spending money that’s given to her by men she dates. “Robots” spends the first 10 to 15 minutes showing how Charles gets women to date him: He goes to a local ice-skating rink and deliberately falls down near an attractive woman whom he thinks will help him get up.
This tactic works for a woman named Emily Denholm (played by Chelsea Edmondson), who begins dating what she thinks is Charles but is actually C2. The only time Emily interacted with the real Charles was when they first met and when Emily and Charles had sex. The movie’s way of making a joke is that the real Charles has very robotic sex that ends too quickly. Predictably, after Charles gets what he wants, he breaks up with Emily.
It’s mentioned in the movie that Charles is secretly heartbroken over a breakup he had with an ex-girlfriend named Francesca (played by Emanuela Postacchini), whom he still keeps track of on her social media. This is a very weak reason for Charles’ awful personality and misogyny, but it’s all just to lay the flimsy groundwork for the rom-com formula of an obnoxious playboy who meets his match and falls for her.
You know where this is going, of course: One day, Charles and Elaine both happen to be skating separately at the ice-skating rink that predatory Charles uses as his hunting ground. Charles deliberately falls down, and Elaine crashes into him. After this “meet cute” moment, Charles and Elaine begin dating, but C2 is the one who is sent on the romantic dates with her. C2 (as Charles) buys Elaine anything she wants.
On the day that Charles is sure that he and Elaine will have sex for the first time, he makes a 6:30 p.m. date with Elaine at her home. It will be the first time that Charles will be going to Elaine’s home. However, not long after this date is set, his father Ted tells Charles that Charles is required to attend a company board meeting at the home of an important board member named David Schulman (played by Richard Lippert), who will be meeting Charles for the first time at this meeting. Instead of rescheduling the date with Elaine for another evening, Charles breaks his biggest rule about C2, and he decides to send C2 to the board meeting instead, while Charles keeps his date with Elaine.
However, dimwitted Charles accidentally gives C2 the address of Elaine. Unbeknownst to Charles, she has ordered E2 to be on this date that Elaine knows will include sex. Charles finds out he’s at the wrong place when he shows up at the Schulman home with flowers and his genitals out as soon as he goes into a room that he thinks is Elaine’s bedroom. The room is actually a dining room, and the people inside are the people attending the board meeting, including the host and Charles’ father and brother.
Meanwhile, C2 and E2 have sex and instantly fall in love with each other. And even though this conversation is never shown in the movie, C2 and E2 find out how horribly they’ve been treated by their owners, so C2 and E2 decided to run away together to Mexico. Charles and Elaine find out because C2 and E2 left video messages for their owners. Yes, this movie really is that stupid. The rest of “Robots” is about Charles and Elaine on a frantic search to track down C2 and E2, in order to prevent the secret getting out that these two robots exist.
During this wretched and very tedious misadventure, Charles and Elaine turn to the person who sold them C2 and E2 in the first place: a nerdy inventor named Zach (played by Paul Rust), who hastily says to Charles and Elaine that C2 and E2 are starting to take on more human qualities, such as falling in love and having complete freedom of choice. There’s no logical explanation given for why these robots have suddenly taken on more human qualities. Zach says that C2 and E2 have to be destroyed because C2 and E2 could expose Zach, Charles and Elaine for being involved in these illegal robot transactions.
However, Charles and Elaine don’t like the idea of destroying C2 and E2 because Charles and Elaine have grown accustomed to using C2 and E2 to do the work that these robots were doing. Elaine wails that if E2 is destroyed, then Elaine would have to (gasp!) get a real job. Charles tells Elaine, “As much as it pains me to say it, we have to work together to track these fuckers down.”
Charles is annoyed with Elaine because she had sent E2 to have sex with Charles. Elaine is annoyed with Charles because she thinks this mishap wouldn’t have occurred if Charles had given C2 the correct address. It all just leads to a heinously idiotic slog of bickering and bad decisions. Woodley and Whitehall have no authentic-looking chemistry together. They just go through the motions and utter their lines, much like the robots that they also portray in this terrible movie.
The movie’s supporting characters are even emptier. Charles has a moronic and schlubby best friend named Ashley (played by Paul Jurewicz), a former U.S. Army chef who is currently unemployed. Ashley is a politically conservative bigot who blames immigrants and robots for his inability to get a job. Ashley serves no purpose in the movie except to show up and act like an idiot. The friendship between Charles and Ashley looks completely phony.
Worst of all, “Robots” has nothing clever or amusing to say about how robot clones would have an impact on society if these robots really had the ability to become more “human.” This sloppily made and poorly conceived film just becomes another rom-com chase movie where the would-be couple spends most of the story denying what most viewers already know is going to happen between them. Charles and Elaine want to pull the plug on their robot clones, but it’s too bad no one pulled the plug on this mindless and time-wasting movie.
Decal/Neon will release “Robots” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 19, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Austin, Texas, the sci-fi action flick “Hypnotic” features a white and Latino cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A police detective, who is searching for his missing 10-year-old daughter, encounters dangerous “hypnotics”: people with the ability to control other people’s minds through hypnotism.
Culture Audience: “Hypnotic” will appeal primarily to fans of star Ben Affleck, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and convoluted sci-movies that are weak imitations of other sci-fi movies about alternate realities.
No amount of hypnotism can convince viewers with basic quality standards that “Hypnotic” is a good movie. Ben Affleck’s robotic acting makes this dull and witless sci-fi mystery even worse. One of the most irritating things about this misfire of a movie is how it contradicts and undermines the story’s world building many times with avoidable plot holes—just for the sake of adding illogical plot twists.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez (who co-wrote the abysmal “Hypnotic” screenplay with Max Borenstein), “Hypnotic” was filmed on location in Austin, Texas. The movie begins with a scene of Austin police detective Danny Rourke (played by Affleck) in a psychological therapy session in his therapist’s office. Danny is remembering a very painful experience in his life: the day his daughter Minnie disappeared while he was with her in a park.
His unnamed therapist (played by Nikki Dixon) says to Danny: “Park? That’s what you drift to, isn’t it? That park. That day. Take me back there.” A flashback to three years earlier shows 7-year-old Minnie (played by Ionie Nieves) and Danny in the park. Minnie asks Donnie to re-braid her pigtails, which have become slightly loosened. Danny tells Minnie as he touches her hair: “This is not a braid. This is a maze only your mother can solve.” Get used to this cringeworthy dialogue, because “Hypnotic” is full of it.
The flashback shows that Danny was watching Minnie play in the park when he took his eyes off of her for only a few seconds. And then she was gone. Before she disappeared, Danny remembered seeing a suspicious-looking young man lurking nearby. This suspect is 18-year-old Lyle Terry (played by Evan Vines), who was arrested on suspicion of abduction, even though there’s no evidence to tie him to the crime. Lyle has proclaimed his innocence.
Back in the therapist’s office in the present day, the therapist asks Danny if Danny thinks he needs to take a leave of absence from his job. Danny replies that work is “the only thing keeping me sane.” And where is Minnie’s mother? That information is revealed later in the movie. Minnie is now 10 years old (played by Hala Finley) and remains missing.
After leaving the therapist’s office, Danny is given a car ride by his cop partner Randy Nicks (payed by JD Pardo), who prefers to be called Nicks. Danny finds out from Nicks that two Bank of Boston branches in Texas (one bank in the city of Houston, and the other bank in Amarillo) experienced “inside job” armed robberies. The thieves didn’t steal any cash but took just one safe deposit box from each bank. As Danny and Nicks drive in their patrol car, Nicks plays a voice mail recording of a woman calling in an anonymous tip that a bank robbery is in progress at a bank in Austin. The tipster says that robbers plan to take the bank’s safe deposit box number 23.
Danny and Nicks are next seen with some colleagues outside the bank and doing a stakeout from a surveillance van. This van apparently has the surrounding area “bugged” with recording devices, because everyone in the van can hear many people’s conversations outside. On a bench outside, a man wearing a business suit sits down next to an unnamed woman (played by Bonnie Discepolo, also known as Bonnie Kathleen Ryan), who is also in a business suit.
The man, whose name is later identified as Lev Dellrayne (played by William Fitchner), looks intensely at the woman and tells her that it’s a very hot day. The woman then gets up and walks around as if she’s in a trance. She repeats out loud that the weather is so hot. And then she takes off her jacket and blouse, all while looking dazed and wandering out in the street where there’s traffic. Her wandering causes multiple car accidents.
Meanwhile, Dellrayne has gone into the bank, because this mystery man is up to no good and is about to be involved in robbing the bank. Danny leaps into action and goes into the bank too, even though his co-workers don’t want Danny to do that because they think it will disrupt their sting operation. Inside the bank, Dellryane has used hypnotic mind control of a bank teller (played by Natalie Garcia), by telling her that it’s the bank’s closing time in the late afternoon. It should come as no surprise that this bank teller is about to be an unwitting accomplice to this bank robbery.
Danny quickly convinces an unsuspecting bank manager (played by Lawrence Varnado) that Danny wants to open a safe deposit box at this branch. While in the safe deposit room, Danny manages to pickpocket the safe deposit keys from the manager without the manager knowing. The manager leaves the room to look for the keys, giving Danny enough time to open safe deposit box number 23. Inside the box, he finds a photo of Minnie, with these words written on the front of the photo: “Find Lev Dellrayne.”
The rest of “Hypnotic” shows action scenes and plot pivots that get more ridiculous as the story drones on in a stiff and awkward manner. The movie’s visual effects are nothing special. During his investigation, Danny encounters a psychic named Diana Cruz (played by Alice Braga); a technology expert/conspiracy theorist named River (played by Dayo Okeniyi); and an acquaintance of Diana’s named Jeremiah (played by Jackie Earle Haley), whose performance in the movie is a quick cameo that gets less than five minutes of screen time. And there are two people from Danny’s past named Carl (played by Jeff Fahey) and Thelma (played by Sandy Avila), who suddenly show up in one of the movie’s poorly conceived plot twists.
Affleck’s subpar acting looks like he’s bored and disinterested for most of the movie. If the lead actor looks like he doesn’t really care about giving a good performance, why should viewers care about the movie? Braga is the only principal cast member who makes a consistent effort to show some emotional range for her “Hypnotic” character. Finley is adequate but is not in the movie long enough for viewers to get to know her Minnie character. Everyone else in the cast has a role as a hollow character with no personal backstory.
“Hypnotic” could have been a mind-blowing sci-fi thriller, but instead it looks like an inferior ripoff of filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s 2010 classic “Inception.” One of the few highlights of “Hypnotic” is the gripping musical score by Rebel Rodriguez, who is one of the sons of “Hypnotic” filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. The movie is just too enamored with its bad ideas, including a mid-credits scene that’s another contradictory plot hole. This mid-credits scene hints that the “Hypnotic” filmmakers want to make a sequel, which is unlikely to happen for this muddled and misguided flop.
Ketchup Entertainment released “Hypnotic” in U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in France, the sci-fi comedy film “Smoking Causes Coughing” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Five superheroes called the Tobacco Force, whose mission is to combat people who cause pollution from smoking, are sent on a team-building retreat while a lizard villain threatens to take over the world.
Culture Audience: “Smoking Causes Coughing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching quirky European movies that blend societal observations with bizarre comedy.
“Smoking Causes Coughing” has some amusing satirical things to say about pollution and the concept of utopias. It’s not writer/director Quentin Dupieux’s best movie, and the ending is underwhelming, but most of the movie is entertaining to watch. Unlike his other films that have a overall cohesive narrative, “Smoking Causes Coughing” is more like a series of sketches compiled for a movie. “Smoking Causes Coughing” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and later played at other film festivals in 2022, including Fantastic Fest and AFI Fest.
“Smoking Causes Coughing” (which takes place in an unspecified future in unnamed cities in France) begins by showing a road trip being taken by an unnamed mother (played by Julia Faure), an unnamed father (played by David Marsais) and their teenage son Stéphane (played by Tanguy Mercier), who are passing by a remote desert-shrub area in their car. Stéphane wants to stop the car because he has spotted five “celebrities” he wants to meet: a group of “superheroes” named the Tobacco Force, who all dress in outfits that are similar to Power Rangers outfits, but in blue, white and gold.
When Stéphane and his parents stop the car, Stéphane runs closer to see the five members in this desert-shrub area. The members of the Tobacco Force have surrounded a giant mutant turtle called Tortusse (played by Olivier Afonso), who moves like a human, and are fighting this creature. Laser-like gas comes out of the Tobacco Forces’ fists until Tortusse explodes, with the body splatter flying in all directions, including on Stéphane and his parents. (Part of this scene is already shown in the trailer for “Smoking Causes Coughing.”)
This star-struck family is unfazed by being covered in gunky remains of an animal. They want to take photos with the Tobacco Force. All of the members willingly oblige and happily pose for pictures with these strangers who have gunk on their faces and clothes. And then this family gets back in the car and is not seen again for the rest of the movie.
The Tobacco Force’s five members, whose ages range from 20s to 40s, have a mission to save the world from pollution, specifically pollution from people smoking. They are also told there is a constant threat of villains trying to destroy the world. The villian who is their biggest threat is named Lizardin (played by Benoite Chivot), who is said to be much more dangerous than Tortusse. The Tobacco Force has a small robot sidekick named Norbert 500 (voiced by Ferdinand Canaud), who does all of the cleaning up after the Tobacco Force’s inevitable messes.
All of the members of the Tobacco Force are named after ingredients found in cigarettes. The oldest member of the Tobacco Force is Benzene (played by Gilles Lellouche), who acts as if he’s the leader of the group. Nicotine (played by Anaïs Demoustier) is flirtatious and bubbly. Ammonia (played by Oulaya Amamra) is sassy and assertive. Mercury (played by Jean-Pascal Zadi) is cautious and a married father of two underage children. Methanol (played by Vincent Lacoste) is the group’s quietest and youngest member. Benzene says that Methanol reminds Benzene of how Benzene used to be when he was Methanol’s age.
The Tobacco Force has to report to a boss named Chief Didier (voiced by Alain Chabat), who is usually just called Chief. This cranky boss looks like a human-sized rat and constantly has green ooze drooling from his mouth. The costumes in “Smoking Causes Coughing” are deliberately made to look like they’re from a tacky, low-budge sci-fi B-movie. For example, Tortusse’s costume looks like it’s ready to fall apart at any moment. Chief is obviously just a cheap-looking puppet.
A running joke in the movie is that Chief (who has a personality as slimy as the green ooze the drips from his mouth) is a ladies’ man who has no shortage of women in his bed. (He is seen with a different lover in every scene.) It’s the movie’s way of commenting on how power can be an aphrodisiac and can make someone look more attractive.
And not even Nicotine and Ammonia are immune to this attraction. Another running joke in the movie is that Nicotine and Ammonia both want to be the “favorite” employee of Chief and probably date him, but Nicotine and Ammonia don’t want to admit it to each other. Still, Nicotine and Ammonia sneakily try to find out what Chief says and does when he’s alone with the other woman. Nicotine and Ammonia also pretend not to be jealous when they see Chief with any of his girlfriends.
The Tobacco Force has been having some in-fighting recently, so Chief orders this quintet to go on a team-building retreat, which is also in a desert-shrub area. The best way to describe their living situation at this retreat is it looks like a high-tech camp. The group members are supposed to be by themselves at this retreat, but it should come as no surprise that they get some unexpected visitors.
A large part of “Smoking Causes Coughing” is about people sitting around a campfire and telling their scariest or most unusual stories. Benzene tells a story about two married couples—spouses Bruno (played by Jérôme Niel) and Agathe (played by Doria Tillier) and spouses Christophe (played by Grégoire Ludig) and Céline (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) going on a camping trip together. Someone in this group of spouses gets alienated from the other three people, and choas ensues.
“Smoking Causes Coughing” has a total running time of about 80 minutes, which is a good-enough length, because this movie doesn’t have much of a plot. The performances of the cast members are mildly engaging but not particularly outstanding, People should not be fooled into thinking that the “superhero” costumes are indication that “Smoking Causes Coughing” is an adrenaline-packed action movie. This is a film that is for viewers who like seeing movies with unusual characters, eccentric comedy and the appeal of some very unexpected things happening.
Magnet Releasing released “Smoking Causes Coughing” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on March 31, 2023. The movie was released in France on November 30, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Grenoble, France, the sci-fi drama film “The Five Devils” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A swimming instructor, who used to be a gymnast, has her life upended when her 8-year-old daughter finds out family secrets after a troubled relative comes to visit.
Culture Audience: “The Five Devils” will appeal primarily to people who like watching artsy and offbeat European films that have elements of science fiction.
“The Five Devils” is a science-fiction mindbender that presents its story as pieces of a puzzle that eventually emerge to reveal the whole picture of a family that has been plagued by secrets and scandals that they don’t want to discuss. This time-travel drama is intriguing but a little repetitive and predictable. The cast members give interesting performances that strengthen the uneven script. Some viewers will be offended by how the movie glorifies a selfish and unfaithful character. However, there’s enough in the story to hold the interest of viewers who are curious to see what is revealed next.
Directed by Léa Mysius (who co-wrote “The Five Devils” screenplay with Paul Guilhaume), “The Five Devils” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. The movie is set in Grenoble, France. Like a lot of time-traveling movies, “The Five Devils” has a plot that makes people think about how life experiences could be shaped by choices versus fate.
“The Devils” begins by showing a group of horrified women in their 20s, who are dressed in sparkly leotards and standing in front of a burning building. The women are screaming in fear and horror. Most of the women have their backs to the camera, but one of these young women can clearly be seen. And she looks like she’s in complete shock.
Her name is Joanne (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos), and viewers find out that this fire happened about 10 years before, when she was part of a group of gymnastic dancers called the Five Devils. The movie circles back to this scene later in “The Five Devils,” in order to explain the circumstances under which this fire happened. Without giving away spoiler information, it’s enough to say that this fire had a profound impact on many people’s lives.
In the approximately 10 years since that fire happened, Joanne has gotten married to (ironically) a firefighter named Jimmy Soler (played by Moustapha Mbengue), who is an immigrant from Senegal. Joanne, who quit being a gymnast ever since the fire, now works as a swimming exercise instructor at a community center, where most of her students are middle-aged and elderly women.
Jimmy and Joanne have one child together: a precocious 8-year-old daughter named Vicky (played by Sally Dramé, making an impressive feature-film debut), who sometimes helps Joanne do breath-holding practices at a nearby lake. In these practice sessions, Vicky is supposed to time Joanne on how long Joanne can stay underwater. Vicky is very perceptive and has more than above-average intelligence. Vicky also has the ability to travel in the past.
Vicky doesn’t find out that she has this time-traveling ability until after her family gets a surprise visit from Jimmy’s younger sister Julia (played by Swala Emati), who works in nano-biotechnology. Julia’s presence seems to immediately disturb Joanne. Jimmy is happy to see Julia, but Joanne is standoffish and abrupt to Julia. Privately, Joanne comments to Jimmy about Julia:” I want her to leave. I can’t stand it.”
Julia meets Vicky for the first time during this visit. Vicky has an acute sense of smell, and she tells Julia that Julia smells like peat whiskey. There are other signs that Julia abuses alcohol. When Julia arrives for the visit, her left eye is bruised. Julia says she got the bruise because she accidentally fell down while drunk. It later emerges that Julia has other issues that have to do with her mental health. She has spent a certain number of years in a certain facility. The details are eventually revealed in the movie.
Vicky is a loner who likes to collect insects. Joanne knows that Vicky has an unusually strong sense of smell, but Joanne doesn’t want to tell Jimmy about it because she thinks Jimmy will want to put Vicky in therapy. Joanne doesn’t think that Vicky needs therapy. Joanne wants to be a mother who can handle everything herself.
At school, some of the students bully Vicky for having big, natural hair. These school bullies (there are about five to seven of them) taunt and attack Vicky. Because of the way Vicky’s hair looks, the school bullies call her Toilet Brush or Butt Brush. If Vicky fights back in self-defense, the bullies try to put the blame on her.
During a disturbing incident at school, the bullies surround Vicky and force soap into her mouth. But then something bizarre happens during the attack: All the kids pass out at the same time, including Vicky. School officials and parents find out, and people try to blame Vicky. However, Joanne adamantly defends Vicky and says that the kids who were bullying Vicky are to blame and should be the one to make an apology. That apology never happens, and people never find out why all of the children lost consciousness at the same time.
Meanwhile, Vicky has other episodes of passing out randomly. And every time she passes out, she goes back in the past and sees parts of Joanne’s life. In the present day, Vicky has made a liquid concoction in a jar that includes some of her own urine. (Yes, this movie is weird like that.) Vicky puts the concoction underneath the bed where Julia is sleeping.
Vicky finds out that every time she inhales this concoction, she can control when she goes into her mother Joanne’s past. Vicky is invisible to people she sees in the past, except for one person who apparently has the same psychic abilities as Vicky does. The rest of “The Five Devils” shows how Vicky finds out some family secrets that the adults in her family don’t want her to know.
The secrets involve betrayals, infidelity and lies to cover up people’s true identities. One character in particular is the catalyst for most of the chaos because this person does the most deceiving and hurting of other people. However, the movie goes out of its way to try to make this character look sympathetic, when that sympathy is not deserved in most cases. This narcissistic person, who likes to play the victim when causing problems, doesn’t like to take much responsibility for causing so much emotional damage.
Some of the movie’s supporting characters have varying degrees of knowledge or ignorance about these family secrets. Joanne’s widowed father (played Patrick Bouchitey), who doesn’t have a name in the movie, suspects one of these secrets, but he doesn’t want to really know the truth. Jimmy has a co-worker friend name Jeff (played by Hugo Dillon), who warns Jimmy that Julia’s presence is upsetting to some people in the community. Joanne has a co-worker friend named Nadine (played by Daphne Patakia), who used to be in the same gymnastics group and whose face was disfigured in the fire. Nadine has a secret that is related to the Soler family’s big secrets.
All of the cast members play their parts well, but the movie would not be as fascinating without the riveting performance of Dramé as Vicky. It is through Vicky’s eyes that viewers discover all the family secrets. Dramé is able to convey with great skill the myriad of emotions that Vicky feels, including the hurt and confusion when she finds out that a big part of the family’s life turned out to be a lie that was actively covered up by the adult in the family who causes the most emotional chaos. Vicky also finds out something that makes her question if she would have been born in the first place if certain people had made different decisions.
Vicky’s loss of childhood innocence has more emotional weight than the soap opera-ish melodrama caused by the adults in the story. “The Five Devils” loses its way a little when it leans too heavily into an over-the-top “life or death” situation toward the end of the film. And the person who was hurt by infidelity doesn’t give the type of reaction that some viewers might expect. “The Five Devils” tries to show how life can be messy, but the ending of the movie succumbs to a conventional formula that tries to ignore the big mess caused by the most toxic person in the family.
MUBI released “The Five Devils” on March 24 in New York City, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the universe, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (based on Marvel Comics characters) features a cast of characters as humans and other creatures.
Culture Clash: Superhero crimefighters Guardians of the Galaxy fight to save a seriously wounder member, as they also battle against a villain who wants to create perfect beings in a perfect society.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Marvel movie fans, “Guardians of the Galaxy” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and superhero movies that are the equivalent of having attention-deficit disorder.
People who watch Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” might need a neck brace from all the tonal whiplash and messy editing that viewers will get from this mixed bag of a superhero film. It clumsily tries to blend mean-spiritedness with sentimentality. The new characters in this saga are hollow and horribly written. Most of the returning hero characters are often smug and irritating, losing much of the charm that they had in the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies: 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” These two previous films are necessary to watch, in order to understand a lot of what’s going on in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”
No matter what anyone says, when the chief filmmaker is also working for the competition, that conflict of interest had to affect filmmaking choices that were made for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” It shows in how the movie has a “got to fulfill the contract obligations before I leave” tone to it. And that’s not just with the writing and directing. Some of the cast members look a little tired of playing these characters, because they don’t have as much spark or enthusiasm as they had in the previous “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies.
Pity anyone who hasn’t seen the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, because “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” barely gives any crucial background information to viewers who don’t know what happened in those first two movies. But that’s not the main problem of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” With the exception of one standout fight scene (shown in slow-motion), the rest of the action scenes are scatter-brained and unimpressive. They’re staged with the idea that a lot of gun shooting and explosives are enough to make an action scene.
And speaking of scenes shown in slow-motion, how many times do we need to see the “heroes” walking together in slow-motion, as if they own the universe? Apparently, once is not enough in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” because this type of cliché is used at least four times in the movie. It’s also so tiresome and unimaginative.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” also requires that people know what happened in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” because Guardians of the Galaxy leader Peter Quill/Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt), who is originally from Earth, uses it as a reason to get drunk, be obnoxious, and generally have an angry attitude problem. The fun-loving Peter from the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie is mostly gone. He’s now a bitter whiner who’s often on a rampage. (Peter does some cursing and rage-filled violent acts that might surprise some viewers expecting this movie to be more “family-friendly.”)
Peter has changed for the worse because he’s grieving over the loss of his true love/soul mate Gamora (played by Zoë Saldaña), who (mild spoiler alert) died in “Avengers: Infinity War.” But because “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is a Marvel movie, multiverses can have different versions of the same character. And so, for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” an alternate version of Gamora (also played by Saldaña) has been “found” by her adoptive sister Nebula (played by Karen Gillan), who has had a love/hate relationship with Gamora for years. In “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” this “alternate” Gamora is a Ravager (a space pirate), but she helps the Guardians of the Galaxy when they go on a mission to stop an evil villain and to save the life of a fellow Guardian.
The other members of the Guardians of the Galaxy are hulking oaf Drax (played by Dave Bautista), whose brawn power far exceeds his brain power; raccoon mutant Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a sarcastic daredevil pilot, who can move like a human; compassionate empath Mantis (played by Pom Klementieff), who has the power to control minds; and shapeshifting tree creature Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who only says these three words when he talks: “I am Groot.” In the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, the chemistry between all of these characters was believable. In “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” the chemistry between these characters is disjointed and undermined by awkward jokes.
The beginning of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” shows Peter in a drunken stupor. He’s so drunk, he’s passed out, and Nebula has to carry him. Peter snaps out of his self-pitying alcohol abuse when something terrible happens: A golden-hued stranger from outer space named Adam Warlock (played by Will Poulter) has barreled into the Guardians’ territory by literally crashing through a window into Rocket. Adam, who has the power to quickly heal from any wounds, has come to attack. The rest of the Guardians rush to Rocket’s defense.
A big fight ensues that results in Adam retreating back to his world, but Rocket is critically injured from Adam’s stab to Rocket’s chest. During the frantic attempts to save Rocket’s life, the Guardians find out that Rocket has an internal kill switch that is set to take Rocket’s life in a little more than 40 hours. It’s surprising information to Rocket’s Guardians of the Galaxy friends, because Rocket has told them very little about his past.
The best part of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is the deep dive into Rocket’s past, shown as several flashbacks in the movie. He was captured as a baby and forced to live in a cage in a dark and dingy room at a scientific lab. Rocket’s name back then was Subject 89P13, often called P13 for short. As he grew up, he became friends with three other mutant creatures who were also imprisoned in this lab: Lylla (voiced by Linda Cardellini), an intelligent otter with mechanical arms; Teefs (voiced by Asim Chaudhry), a wheelchair-using walrus; and Floor (voiced by Mikaela Hoover), a mild-mannered and somewhat goofy rabbit who wears a metal muzzle.
The chief villain in the movie is the High Evolutionary (played by Chukwudi Iwuji), a stereotypical “mad scientist,” who wants power over how the universe works. In the movie, he says he has a “simple quest: create the perfect species and the perfect society.” Of course, this quest isn’t so “simple,” because the High Evolutionary has been sending his minions across the universe to find beings to capture and use for experiments. You don’t need to have highly evolved intelligence to figure out why Adam attacked Rocket.
The Guardians are now in a race against time to save Rocket’s life. They zip around on their new ship called the Bowie and get into various battles. The High Evolutionary does a lot of sneering and smirking, but he’s not in the upper echelon of Marvel’s most fearsome villains. The High Evolutionary has two main sniveling sidekicks: Recorder Vim (played by Miriam Shor) and Recorder Theel (played by Nico Santos), who follow the High Evolutionary’s orders out of fear, even though this villain isn’t all that scary. Recorder Vim is smart and outspoken, unlike Recorder Theel who doesn’t seem capable of processing an independent thought in his head.
Many of the fight scenes are nonsensical and look too fake. For example, there’s a scene where one of the Guardians sets off a huge bomb in a room with villains and other Guardians in the same room when the bomb goes off. It looks incredibly stupid to set off a bomb when you and your allies could be maimed or killed too. Bombers who know what they’re doing always make sure they’re far away from the bomb when it’s detonated, unless they’re suicide bombers. You don’t have to be a bomber to know that. It’s just common sense.
And there are too many fight scenes where the Guardians unrealistically don’t get the types of serious injuries that would happen if these fight scenes had more authenticity. Unlike other superhero groups, the Guardians of the Galaxy don’t have any phenomenal powers except above-average strength, Mantis’ mind-control abilities, and Groot’s ability to shapeshift. In the case of Peter, the only human in the Guardians of the Galaxy, all he has are his abilities to use weapons and any fight skills using his body.
The Guardians end up on an alternative version of Earth called Counter-Earth. It’s a missed opportunity to show a very fascinating world. Instead, Counter-Earth is just another place where the Guardians do some not-very-funny slapstick comedy, many of it involving children. The people of Counter-Earth have creature heads that look like less-gruesome versions of what writer/director Gunn used to work with during the years he was affiliated with the low-budget horror studio Troma.
Adam’s presence in the movie is erratic. He’s not seen for a long stretch of the movie, and then he comes back again toward the end for a big brawl. The movie can’t make up its mind if it wants Adam to be a muscle-bound menace or a sympathetic sap who’s the victim of the High Evolutionary. Adam’s mother Ayesha is portrayed by Elizabeth Debicki, a very talented actress whose role in this movie is shamefully shallow, thereby squandering her talent and the chance for Ayesha to be a fascinating character. Viewers will have a hard time remembering any lines of dialogue that Ayesha says in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” but she sure scowls a lot.
Other characters flit in and out of the movie, like insects that buzz around and have no real purpose. Maria Bakalova is the voice of a Russian astronaut dog character named Cosmo, which is a cute but not essential character. The running gag for Cosmo is she feels misunderstood and insecure because she keeps getting told she’s a “bad dog,” when she’s really a good dog.
Sylvester Stallone is in the film for a total about five minutes in two scenes in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” as Ravager captain Stakar Ogord. It’s another non-essential role that looks like a “contract obligation” cameo. The Stakar character was much more interesting in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Sean Gunn (James Gunn’s younger brother) reprises his role as Kraglin, an ally of the Guardians. Kraglin has a big moment in the movie that looks like a decision made from pure nepotism, because any other director probably wouldn’t have given Kraglin this type of scene.
Rocket is the only Guardians of the Galaxy member who has character development in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” Everyone else just seems to be going through the motions. And don’t expect there to be any sizzling romance in this movie. A lovelorn Peter tells “alternate” Gamora that they used to be a hot couple in love, but she coldly cuts him off and says that the Gamora he was with was “an alternate, future version of me.”
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” tries to cram in a lot of sentimentality and nostalgia in the last 15 minutes of the film. A few characters who died in previous Marvel films are briefly seen as visions or flashbacks. Toward the end of the film, Peter also does something that is blatantly intended to get viewers to cry.
It all seems very manipulative and forced though, considering some of the crude and unfunny things that this 150-minute movie wasted time shoving in viewers’ faces. And some of these scenes get monotonous, especially in the middle of the film. The mid-credits scene is unremarkable, while the end-credits scene assures viewers that a “legendary” character in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” series will continue in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a major way.
One area where “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” does not disappoint is in the movie’s soundtrack song choices. Songs such as Rainbow’s “Since You Been Gone,” Radiohead’s “Creep,” Spacehog’s “In the Meantime,” Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Faith No More’s “We Care a Lot” and Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” (which is in the movie’s biggest emotion-tugging scene) are all well-placed and used to maximum effect. However, some of the action scenes resemble music videos dropped into a movie. The visual effects in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” are not going to win any major awards.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” seems to want to convince viewers that throwing in some bickering and wisecracking in between jumbled action sequences should automatically deserve praise, just because it’s a Marvel movie. All of this recycled flash might be enough for some viewers who just want a noisy and messy superhero movie. But for “Guardians of the Galaxy” fans who want a more thrilling and insightful journey with new and returning characters, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is like being presented with an attractive-looking cake, only to have that cake deliberately dumped on the floor.
Marvel Studios will release “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” in U.S. cinemas on May 5, 2023, with a sneak preview in select U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Philadelphia, the superhero action film “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, Asian, African American and Latino) portraying superheroes and regular human beings.
Culture Clash: Billy Batson, who transforms from being a teenager to an adult superhero named Shazam, leads his teenage foster siblings (who have similar superhero transformation abilities) in battling against three daughters of the god Atlas who want to retrieve the powers that the Shazam family has.
Culture Audience: “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, movies based on DC Comics, and the 2019 movie “Shazam!,” but “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” is yet another sequel that is inferior to the original movie.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” loses much of the charm of 2019’s “Shazam!,” by overloading on bad jokes, cluttered storylines and formulaic action scenes. It’s a failed attempt to be a wisecracking, high-quality superhero movie. This movie sequel’s visual effects are also unimpressive, as several scenes make it too obvious where the “green screens” were located to put the computer generated imagery (CGI) in post-production. Much of the movie’s dialogue is cringeworthy, most of the performances are trite, and the cliché-ridden story has no surprises.
The movie didn’t have to be this disappointing. “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” features many of the same team members who made “Shazam!,” including director David F. Samberg, screenwriter Henry Gayden, producer Peter Safran, film editor Michel Aller and most of the principal cast members. However, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” added a screenwriter—Chris Morgan (“Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw,” “The Fate of the Furious”)—and changed cinematographers, production designers, and visual effects supervisors. The changes did not result in a better movie.
The “Shazam!” movies are based on DC Comics characters. “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” has all the qualities of a dull and mindless sitcom, thereby making the forced comedy look very awkward in what’s supposed to be an exciting superhero movie. And for a movie with such a simple plot, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” keeps muddling the story with unnecessary subplots and pointless scenes. There are simply too many underdeveloped characters in this movie. Most of these characters don’t have memorable personalities; they have forgettable soundbites.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” (which takes place in Philadelphia) picks up three years after the events of “Shazam!” Billy Batson (played by Asher Angel) is now 17 years old. He is still living with a secret that most people don’t know: He can transform into an adult superhero named Shazam when he yells the word “Shazam!” Billy is living in a foster family with other teenagers, whom he considers to be just like siblings. As shown in “Shazam!,” these foster siblings have similar abilities to transform into adult superheroes. Billy is the leader of this group.
Billy/Shazam’s superhero pals are goofy Freddy Freeman (played by Jack Dylan Grazer), who can transform into Super Hero Freddy (played by Adam Brody); sweet-natured Darla Dudley (played by Faithe Herman), who can transform into Super Hero Darla (played by Meagan Good); intelligent Mary Broomfield (played by Grace Caroline Currey), who can transform into Super Hero Mary (also played by Currey); introverted Pedro Pena (played by Ovan Armand), who can transform into Super Hero Pedro (played by D.J. Cotrona); and earnest Eugene Choi (played by Ian Chen), who can transform into Super Hero Eugene (played by Ross Butler). These friends/foster siblings have made a pact not to perform any superhero duties without each other.
In most teenage superhero stories, these superheroes are orphans or have at least one deceased parent. The guardians of these teen superheroes usually don’t know about the teenager’s special powers, but they eventually find out. After all, there are only so many times that it can be believable that a parent or guardian does not notice that their teenager isn’t around at the same time a superhero is on live television committing an act of heroism. In “Shazam! Fury of the Gods!,” there are six teenage superheroes in the household. It stretches the bounds of credibility that their foster parents Victor Vasquez (played by Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (played by Marta Milans) would take so long to notice.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” brings some Greek mythology to the story, by having three daughters of the Greek god Atlas (the Guarder of the Tree of Life) on a revenge mission to get back the mystical powers that were stolen from them by an enigmatic sorcerer named Wizard (played by Djimon Hounsou), who is shown in a prison in the beginning of the movie. The three sisters are Hespera (played by Helen Mirren), who has the power of the elements that can affect the weather; Kalypso (played by Lucy Liu), who has the power of chaos that can affect mind control; and Anthea (played by Rachel Zegler), who has the power of axis that can affect the rotation of Earth.
Near the beginning of the movie, Hespera (who is the leader of this trio of sisters) and Kalypso are seen invading a museum, where they use their powers and steal a wooden staff that was locked in a glass case. Hespera and Kalypso then pay a hostile visit to the Wizard in his prison cell. The sisters have brought the wooden staff, which they force the Wizard to hold while he says, “Shazam!” This act is supposed to lead the sisters to the keeper of the stolen powers. And it leads them right to Shazam.
And where is Anthea? It just so happens that there’s a new student at the high school attended by Billy and his pals. Her name is Ann (also played by Zegler), who appears to be kind and compassionate. Freddy is instantly smitten, but there are repetitive scenes where Freddy (who uses an arm brace) is brutally attacked by school bullies Brett Breyer (played by Carson MacCormac) and Burke Breyer (by Evan Marsh), two brothers who also want Ann’s attention. Brett and Burke humiliate Freddy by physically assaulting him in front of Ann. The movie weirdly has Freddy accept this abuse with a smile, because Freddy says that all that matters to him is that Ann likes him.
Meanwhile, Billy/Shazam has his own crush: Wonder Woman. There’s another misguided scene where Billy is having a fantasy that he (as Shazam) is on a dinner date with Wonder Woman, who is not facing the camera. (In other words, they didn’t get “Wonder Woman” movie actress Gal Gadot for this scene.) All of sudden, when she is facing the camera, she has the face of the Wizard, who has an important message for Billy/Shazam. This scene is supposed to be amusing, but the visual effects just make everything look bizarre and misplaced.
Billy/Shazam is also going through an identity crisis. As Shazam, he is seen in the office of pediatrician Dr. Dario Bava (played by P.J. Byrne) and treating this appointment like he’s in a a psychiatric therapy session. While lying down on a couch, Shazam whines, “I feel like a fraud.” He also says that he feels rejected by his parents, rejected by the system, and rejected by the city. Shazam also has an inferiority complex because the Flash superhero (another DC Comics character who wears a red superhero suit with a lightning bolt) is more famous than Shazam. When Dr. Bava tactfully reminds Shazam that he’s a pediatrician, not a psychiatrist, Shazam keeps whining.
Not long after this not-very-funny scene, the superhero pals go to rescue people from a collapsing Benjamin Franklin Bridge. It’s a scene where Bonnie Tyler’s 1984 song “Holding Out for a Hero” is playing, and the characters joke about it in a meta way that is not very cute. Fortunately, there are no fatalities during this disaster, but the bridge has completely collapsed. The news media and the general public blame Shazam and his superhero friends for not being able to save the bridge, so the superheroes are called the Philadelphia Fiascos. It doesn’t make any sense that the superheroes would be vilified for not saving the bridge when the superheroes chose saving people’s lives as the top priority.
The Philly Fiascos label is just another excuse for the movie to make Billy/Shazam feel sorry for himself. He also thinks he’s losing the respect of the superhero group of friends. There’s a useless subplot about Freddy going out on his own to fight a crime as Super Hero Freddy. Billy/Shazam finds out about it, so there’s more pouting, whining and complaining from this character, as he lectures Freddy about team unity and not breaking their group pact.
Billy is about to turn 18 soon. Victor and Rosa will lose foster care government funding for each child that turns 18, also known as aging out of the child welfare system. These foster parents have told Billy that they can’t financially afford to have him in the house after he’s legally an adult. Billy feels even more insecure about losing his home, because Victor and Rosa have decided to let Mary stay in the household after she turned 18.
The foster parents made an exception for Mary, because the foster parents say they can afford to have only one other adult in the household. Mary just happened to have the luck of turning 18 first out of all six foster kids. And because Billy/Shazam is somewhat competitive with Mary (because he’s insecure about her being smarter than he is), you know what that means: More pouting, more whining and more complaining from Billy/Shazam.
What happened to the fun-loving Shazam from the first “Shazam!” movie? He can be seen occasionally in “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” but he’s mostly turned into a neurotic annoyance who tells so many horrible, unfunny jokes, it would embarrass even the most amateur stand-up comedian in a low-rent, obscure nightclub. There’s a very unoriginal joke about “The Fast and the Furious” movie franchise, which seems like more like a shameless plug from “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” co-writer Morgan, who’s been a screenwriter for a few movies from “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. When Billy/Shazam isn’t fretting about not being perceived as an “alpha male,” he’s fixated on the idea of dating Wonder Woman. This movie is not subtle at all about why Wonder Woman is mentioned so many times.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” also has tone-deaf, sexist jokes about women’s ages. Someone insults Hespera by saying she looks too old to be Kalypso’s sister, and questions if these two sisters are even from the same family. The dolt who makes this asinine remark apparently doesn’t know that gods and goddesses in Greek mythology can live for centuries and can therefore become parents of children with significant age gaps. There’s also a stupid crack that Billy makes about how Wonder Woman will no longer be too old for him when he turns 18.
It goes on and on with simple-minded dialogue and unimaginative action scenes in “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” A lot of it is actually quite boring, compared to the abundance of better superhero movies that exist. Viewers will learn nothing that’s new or interesting about Billy/Shazam, unless you think it’s fascinating that he sure knows how to complain a lot if people don’t treat him like a rock star. Levi and Asher are just treading in shallow waters with the Shazam and Billy characters in this movie, when the filmmakers could have given them a deeper and more adventurous dive.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” also missed several opportunities to have more character development for supporting characters Mary, Darla, Pedro and Eugene, who are all written and portrayed as generic as generic can be. Finding out that Pedro has a crush on a baseball outfielder named Marshall Wade (as briefly shown in one of the movie’s early scenes) does not count as character development, since it’s already well-known among DC Comics fans that Pedro is gay. Freddy, who is supposed to be the funniest character in the “Shazam!” movies, just kind of drifts along, while Grazer does his best to make the weak material work in “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.”
As for Mirren, Liu and Zegler, they are perfectly satisfactory in their roles as the vengeful daughters of Atlas, but they are not outstanding in the movie. Mirren looks a little bored. Liu is a little too campy in her role. Zegler just looks happy to be there, since “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” is only her second movie, after she made an impressive movie debut with a starring role in the 2021 remake of “West Side Story.” Simply put: The performances of Mirren, Liu and Zegler in “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” are not going to be considered iconic in the DC Extended Universe.
“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” has a blockbuster movie budget but all that money is wasted on a story that has the quality of a third-rate kiddie cartoon. The movie’s plot is stretched out to nearly 132 minutes when it could have easily been 90 minutes or less. “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” gives the impression that the filmmakers from 2019’s “Shazam!” were so impressed with themselves because “Shazam!” was a hit with most fans and most critics, so the filmmakers didn’t bother to make a better sequel and are just coasting on the success of a “Shazam!” movie that was made several years ago.
Movie audiences have come to expect a certain level of cinematic quality for these superhero movies, which don’t always have to be super-serious. But the superhero movies that want to be comedic should at least fulfill the basic requirement of being funny and entertaining. In that regard, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” misses the mark by a long distance.
The movie’s mid-credits scene is a reference to HBO Max’s “Peacemaker” series, while the movie’s end-credits scene features a character who was in the 2019 “Shazam!” movie. The DC Extended Universe is undergoing a massive overhaul under DC Studios’ co-chairmen/CEOs James Gunn and Peter Safran, including recasting of several major DC Comics characters. In other words, this incarnation of the “Shazam!” franchise is going out with a whimper (and a lot of whining from Shazam), because the next “Shazam!” movie is getting a much-needed revamp with a new team.
Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” in U.S. cinemas on March 17, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place 65 million years ago, mostly on Earth, the sci-fi action film “65” features a cast of white and black characters representing beings (who look human) from another planet.
Culture Clash: An interstellar pilot from another planet crashes his spaceship on Earth, where the only talking being he finds is an orphaned girl, and they are surrounded by deadly dinosaurs.
Culture Audience: “65” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Adam Driver and action movies with dinosaurs, no matter how silly those movies are.
The sci-fi movie “65” might have had a major studio budget, but it’s a minor and embarrassing footnote in Adam Driver’s career. What was he thinking to sign up for this shoddy and idiotic mess of a movie? It’s a hodgepodge of ripoffs of much better films, such as “Jurassic Park,” “A Quiet Place” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
Written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods “65” is a misfire on almost every level. Beck and Woods are co-writers of 2018’s “A Quiet Place,” and “65” is obviously aspiring to be that type of crowd-pleasing blockbuster. “65” has similarities to “A Quiet Place” in how it’s about an adult/child trek through dangerous territory plagued by giant, deadly creatures. “65” is supposed to take 65 million years ago on Earth, with Earth’s dinosaurs as the menacng beasts, whereas “A Quiet Place” has outer-space aliens doing the attacking.
There’s really not much of a plot in “65,” because the movie is just mindless scene after mindless scene of dinosaur attacks, with no character development or anything interesting to say about what Earth was like 65 million years ago. Even with the required suspension of disbelief for this train-wreck film—such as, most of the characters not only speak English, but they also speak English with an American accent, even though the English language and the United States did not exist 65 million years ago— the last 15 minutes of the movie are completely insulting to viewers’ intelligence.
In “65,” Driver portrays a interstellar pilot named Mills, who lives on an outer-space planet with advanced technology. Mills goes on a two-year mission to Earth with several passengers, whose identities are never shown in detail in the movie. The first scene of “65” shows Mills on a beach on his home planet, with his wife or partner (played by Neka King) and their adolescent daughter Nevine (played by Chloe Coleman), who are both reluctant to have him go away on this mission.
When his spaceship crashes on Earth because of a random and unexpected meteor, the spaceship is split in two and is inoperable. Keep that in mind during the last 15 minutes of the movie. At first, Mills think he’s the only survivor of this crash. He has a gun, as well as bombs shaped like billiards, that he uses as weapons. Mills is able to send a message to his planet to call for help, but will help arrive in time?
Soon after crashing in a swampy area, Mills finds another survivor of the spaceship crash: girl named Koa (played by Ariana Greenblatt), who was in a cyrogenic pod. Koa, who is about 9 years old, doesn’t speak English (she speaks an unnamed language that was fabricated dor the movie), but Mills finds ways to communicate with her. Meanwhile, Mills has holograms, videos and photos of Nevine, whose fate is revealed later in the movie. Most of “65” consists of contrived jump scares, as Mills and Koa try to dodge and defend themselves against dinosaurs and other deadly creatures around them in a forest area that resemble a jungle. (“65” was actually filmed in Oregon.)
Even though Mills goes through a lot of injuries that would leave most people incapacitated and bloodied (including a dislocated shoulder that he relocates just in time during a dinosaur attack), Mills’ shirt is barely soiled and is not torn for a great deal of the movie. As the Mills character, Driver just seems to be going through the motions in this poorly conceived movie, which can’t even come close to 1993’s “Jurassic Park,” in terms of dinosaur action and thrills. The movie “65” goes back in time, but unfortunately, people who waste time watching this dreck won’t be able to get that time back.
Columbia Pictures will release “65” in U.S. cinemas on March 10, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place on Earth and in outer space, from 2044 to 2058, the sci-fi action film “The Wandering Earth II” (a prequel to 2019’s “The Wandering Earth,” features a cast of predominantly Asian characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Scientists, engineers and other people frantically try to prevent the moon from crashing into Earth, and there are disagreements on the best way to do it.
Culture Audience: “The Wandering Earth II” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, “The Wandering Earth,” and epic sci-fi disaster movies.
In the sci-fi action movie “The Wandering Earth II,” the novelty has worn off a little bit from the movie’s predecessor, 2019’s “The Wandering Earth.” After all, how many times can there be a “Wandering Earth” movie about another planet being on a collision course toward Earth? “The Wandering Earth II,” which is a prequel to “The Wandering Earth,” repeats this concept with generally entertaining but long-winded results: “The Wandering Earth II” is nearly three hours long.
Frant Gwo, who directed “The Wandering Earth,” returns to helm “The Wandering Earth II,” which he co-wrote with Gong Ge’er. “The Wandering Earth II” is an over-the-top sci-fi spectacle that doesn’t lose sight of the human stories in this saga about trying to avert an outer-space disaster. In other words, the movie delivers exactly what viewers can expect from “The Wandering Earth” franchise.
“The Wandering Earth II,” which takes place from 2044 to 2058, is about scientists, engineers and other people trying to prevent the moon from crashing into Earth. In “The Wandering Earth,” which takes place from 2058 to 2078, is about scientists, engineers and other people trying to prevent Jupiter from crashing into Earth.
All of this is happening because the sun is expanding and could destroy Earth in the 22nd century if Earth doesn’t get out of the way and move to a safer part of the universe. However, changing Earth’s location can cause problems if could cause other planets to crash into Earth. These problems are at the crux of “The Wandering Earth” movies, which are based on Liu Cixin’s 2000 short story of the same name.
It’s not necessary to see “The Wandering Earth” before seeing “The Wandering Earth II,” since “The Wandering Earth II” is a prequel. However, since “The Wandering Earth” before seeing “The Wandering Earth II” gives better context to some of the motivations of the characters.
In “The Wandering Earth II,” the United Nations has been renamed the United Earth Government (UEG) and is backing the Moving Mountain Project, which will use gigantic ion engines to move Earth out of the current solar system into a safer part of the universe. UEG has shut down a radical opposition group called Digital Life Project (DLP), which believes that the future of human survival is by making humans into digital form and uploading everything using the advance mind technology.
In China, a former DLP computer scientist named Tu Hengyu (played by Andy Lau) agrees to work on the Moving Mountain Project, but he secretly continues his research into the digital mind upload technology that he thinks is still the better way for humans to survive any interplanetary disaster. Hengyu has a personal reason for wanting to make humans immortal in digital form: His wife and daughter died in a car crash, when his daughter Yaya was about 4 or 5 years old. Hengyu keeps looking at a digital simulation of Yaya that can only lasts two minutes at a time. Hengyu wants the technology to be developed so that people can bring back and preserved their deceased loved ones in digital form.
Meanwhile, from 2044 to 2058, UEG has developed enough ion engines to stop Earth’s rotation, a necessary first step in getting it out of the current solar system. The Moving Mountain Project has now been renamed the Wandering Earth Project. But something goes terribly wrong when Hengyu uploads the digital memories of Yaya into the 550W supercomputer that Hengyu helped invent. It leads to the moon going on a collision course toward Earth.
Several people who work for UEG are involved in this disaster prevention mission. Liu Peiqiang (played by Wu Jing) is a UEG astronaut who represents the “everyday” man in the story who finds his inner hero when he is called on to save lives. Someone who was a trainee in the astronaut program is Han Duoduo (played by Wang Zhi), who has confidence and intelligence that Peiqiang immediately finds attractive.
Much of the earlier part of “The Wandering Earth II” chronicles a shy and awkward Peiqiang trying to court Duoduo, who rebuffs his advances but the warms up to him. It’s not spoiler information (since it’s already in “The Wandering Earth”) that Peiqiang and Duoduo eventually fall in love with each other, get married, and start a family together.
Another important person in Peiqiang’s life is Zhang Peng (played by Sha Yi), a senior-level UEG fighter pilot who becomes Peiqiang’s mentor. Other supporting characters in the story are Zhou Zhezhi (played by Li Xuejian), who is China’s ambassador to UEG; Hao Xiaoxi (played by Zhu Yanmanzi), who is Zhezhi’s personal assistant; Ma Zhao (played by Ning Li), who works with Hengyu as a quantum computing researcher; and Mike (played by Andy Friend), the U.S. ambassdor to UEG; and Andre Graschnov (played by Vitalli Makarychev), a Russian senior-level UEG fighter pilot. There’s also a cute computer robot named Benben.
“The Wandering Earth” packs in a lot of action and suspense, which are expected. However, the movie also skillfully weaves together the parallel stories of Hengyu and Peiqiang. Hengyu is working outside the UEG system with his secretive, behind-the-scenes computer research. Peiqiang is working inside the UEG system and is on the front lines of the battles to save lives. Peiqiang has a mentor. Hengyu does not. Both men experience grief related to a death in the family.
Beyond the explosions and races against time, “The Wandering Earth” explores issues related to hope and faith in humanity. It’s also an emotionally moving story about what personal sacrifices can mean if they are for a cause that’s bigger than one person’s needs. No one is going to win any major acting awards for “The Wandering Earth II,” but the cast members are believable in their roles. It doesn’t matter if viewers understand all the sci-fi jargon in the movie, because the greater message of “The Wandering Earth” is about the lengths that people will go to for their survival and the survival of future generations.
China Film Group Corporation and Well Go USA released “The Wandering Earth II” in U.S. cinemas on January 22, 2023, the same date the the movie was released in China and several other countries. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on May 9, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place mostly on a ship going from the Philippines to South Korea, the sci-fi/horror/action film “Project Wolf Hunting” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: South Korean criminals, who are being transported by ship from the Philippines to South Korea, take violent control of the ship, and they find out that they have been captured for reasons other than to face criminal charges.
Culture Audience: “Project Wolf Hunting” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful horror movies and have a high tolerance for watching scenes of bloody violence.
“Project Wolf Hunting” revels in a lot of gore, but this sci-fi horror movie also has a solid story that’s packed with thrilling action. Plot twists and memorable characters make “Project Wolf Hunting” better than the average bloody horror flick. The movie starts off looking like it will be one type of story, but then it turns into something else that is far more intriguing. “Project Hunting” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
Written and directed by Kim Hong-seon, “Project Wolf Hunting” doesn’t waste time before the mayhem starts in the first 15 minutes of its 123-minute total running time. The movie begins by showing several South Korean criminals being escorted by law enforcement officers onto a ship going from the Philippines to South Korea. All of the criminals were arrested and convicted in the Philippines for their crimes, but the convicts are being deported to South Korea to serve out the rest of their prison sentences. At least, that’s what they’ve been told.
A cunning, handsome and ruthless prisoner named Park Jong-doo (played by Seo In-guk) has no intentions of going quietly on this trip. He is a leader who has concocted a plan with some of the other prisoners to take over the ship, in order to escape. The other prisoners who are part of the scheme include Lee Do-il (played by Jang Dong-yoon), a baby-faced killer who is famous; Lee Seok-woo (played by Park Ho-san), who is; and Choi Myeong-ju (played by Jang Young-nam), one of the few women on the ship. Myeong-ju has a secret connection with someone else on the ship, and this secret is eventually revealed.
Before the hostage crisis on the ship happens, several of the police officers are seen gathered in the ship’s kitchen. They express frustration and disdain that the prisoners are getting special treatment by the South Korean government. One of the cops complains, “The perps are getting better food than us.”
Elsewhere on the ship, a severely burned man, who is lying down on a gurney and breathing through a ventilator, is in a secret room that looks like a scientific lab. He has maggots coming out of his mouth. This mystery person is then given an injection. It won’t be the last time that viewers will see this charred-looking and infected person.
The criminals’ hostage plan is set into motion when a guy dressed in a mechanic’s uniform secretly takes a wrench and tampers with a safety bolt on this ship, causing a mechanical malfunction. The ship’s crew is distracted by trying to fix this problem (just as the criminals had planned), when Jong-doo and the rest of his cronies attack the crew and police officers, take weapons, and commit a brutal slaughter. How vicious is Jong-doo? He bites off an ear off of a man, chews up the ear, and then spits it out.
One of the ship’s crew members whose life is spared is Go Kun-bae (played by Ko Chang-seok), because the criminals need a few of the crew members who know the ship’s mechanics, in case anything goes wrong with the ship. Meanwhile, the ship has mysteriously gone off the radar of the South Korean government. A few other characters in the movie have pivotal roles, including a corrupt government official named Chief Pyo (played by Choi Gwi-hwa) with the code name Alpha; the ship’s captain Oh Dae-woong (played by Sung Dong-il); and a young police officer named Lee Da-yeon (played by Jung So-min), one of the other few women in this movie.
“Project Wolf Hunting” has some predictable moments, but there are some plot developments that steer clear of the usual stereotypes. It’s already shown in the movie’s trailers that what’s happening on this ship is somehow related to Japan’s 1910 to 1945 occupation of South Korea. The movie also reveals in the first 15 minutes that the massacre isn’t the only sinister thing happening on this ship.
“Project Wolf Hunting” is certainly not going to win any prestigious awards. And some of the violence is very excessive. However, Seo’s performance as the evil gang leader Jong-doo is riveting but might be too disturbing for some viewers. What makes “Project Wolf Hunting” a twist-filled story is that Jong-doo might or might not be the movie’s biggest villain. And who ends up in the final showdown cannot be easily predicted in the movie’s first 15 minutes.
“Project Wolf Hunting” has well-paced action, competent acting and some social commentary about how governments can treat prisoners and other people whom society has deemed “undesirable.” It’s not a groundbreaking film, but the plot surprises are indications that the filmmakers made an effort not to stick to the usual formulas found in similar sci-fi horror movies. Viewers who think they’ll want to watch all of “Project Wolf Hunting” just have to prepared to see many gruesome depictions of humanity at its worst.
Well Go USA released “Project Wolf Hunting” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022. The movie was released in South Korea on September 21, 2022. “Project Wolf Hunting” was released on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 14, 2023.