Review of “Eternals”

Jobs are hard. Some are physically draining, like digging ditches and building houses. Others are intellectually difficult like high level mathematics and accounting. Still others are emotionally taxing like counseling those going through tragic circumstances such as abuse. Then there are jobs you just hate doing. Back in my grocery store days, I would ask to work Sundays as it was time and a half. However, when you opened the store on Sundays, you cleaned the ashes out of the incinerator we used to dispose of empty stock boxes. It was a dirty, hot, and probably dangerous job as the fine particles of ash filled the air. The still hot ashes were dragged with a long metal tool that looked like an extended garden hoe into a large iron tray. When the tray was full, it was dragged to the loading dock where it would cool and be dumped into the dumpster by someone else. It was an awful job, but it was necessary so the incinerator could be used to dispose of more boxes later. Also, I was being paid time and a half to do it and back in the late 1970’s, that was about $4.00 an hour. I was rolling in the dough…also a great deal of cardboard box ash. I say all that to lead into my review of Marvel’s “Eternals,” a film about a group of super beings that must carry out a job they later find they don’t want to do.

The Celestial Arishem created 10 super beings called Eternals to protect humanity from a race of monsters called Deviants. Each Eternal has specific abilities: Their leader Ajak (Selma Hayek) can heal injuries and is also the conduit between the Eternals and Arishem. Ikaris (Richard Madden) can fly, has super strength, and emits cosmic energy beams from his eyes. Sersi (Gemma Chan) can change inanimate matter from one form to another. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is a mighty warrior, producing cosmic energy weapons and shields. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) fires cosmic energy blasts from his hands. Sprite (Lia McHugh) can project realistic illusions of anything. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is the group’s engineer, able to invent and construct whatever is needed, and he maintains their starship Domo. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) possesses super speed. She is also deaf, but can feel the vibrations in the air, allowing her to understand speech. Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control and manipulate minds. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) possesses immense strength he augments with cosmic energy projections around his hands. The Eternals have been on Earth 7000 years, fighting the Deviants, however, they are not allowed to interfere in the affairs of humanity. Over 500 years ago, the last Deviant was killed and Ajak sent the Eternals into the world to live their own lives as they wait for Arishem to call them back to their home world of Olympia. In current times, the Deviants have returned and gained abilities like the Eternals. It’s time to travel around the world, find all the members and fight the Deviants once again.

Eternals were first introduced in Marvel comics in 1976. Their backstory is deep and complicated with civil wars and factions living on Uranus and Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s a history that would be impossible to translate into a movie that made any sense and wasn’t 12 hours long. Director and writer Chloe Zhao, along with a writing team, tries to condense and simplify the character’s history into something manageable in “Eternals.” She almost succeeds.

This unwieldy group of characters gets parred down by a few as the story goes on, but the history and backstory just keep coming. Sometimes we go all the way back to the first time Eternals come to Earth 7000 years ago. We make visits to 1500 years ago, 500 years ago and six days ago. There is also an exposition dump that clarifies what the movie is about. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a major revelation for our heroes. One would think knowing exactly what the goal is would focus the story, however we get more flashbacks, more exposition, and more character introductions. It’s like Zhao and the writers wanted to tell us more gossip about these people, even things we didn’t need to know. I’m not sure it was necessary to show two characters having sex (I think a first for a MCU movie) for us to understand they were committed to and love each other.

Perhaps Zhao, winner of the Oscar for Best Director for her devastating “Nomadland,” wasn’t the best choice for a comic book movie. Her sensibilities are more to smaller character stories than to spectacle and wonder. “Nomadland” follows one woman’s journey, navigating the wilderness of America living alone in her camper/van and dealing with the loss of her husband. It is a poignant and beautiful movie that shows the inequity of capitalism in an age of business consolidation, leaving loyal and dedicated workers in the dust. It destroyed me in a way that didn’t come out until my wife and I were discussing it on our podcast, Comedy Tragedy Marriage. It could not be more different from a MCU movie.

Am I arguing that indie and smaller movie directors shouldn’t be given a chance to helm superhero flicks? Of course not. I am saying that Zhao might not have been the right choice for this one. While “Eternals” is competently made, looks amazing and delivers what we expect from a MCU film, it also bogs down at times in ways we don’t expect from MCU films. It sometimes feels like the film (and the audience) is swimming in molasses. There are bits of excitement scattered about, but we must first slog through the muck.

The actors do the best they can with what they’re given. Selma Hayek and Angelina Jolie are woefully underused. Gemma Chan and Richard Madden make an attractive, believable, but dull romantic pair. Kit Harrington plays a human suitor of Chan’s Sersi, but he’s only in the film’s early and late scenes. I enjoyed Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Don Lee, Barry Keoghan, Lauren Ridloff and Brian Tyree Henry in their roles. Each character is given something resembling a personality but not enough time for it to be fully on display. Ridloff plays the first hearing impaired hero and Henry is the first openly gay hero in the MCU. Each deserved more time in a film that wastes a decent amount of it on attempts at grandeur that come up short.

“Eternals” is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality. There’s the usual superhero on villain violence as every other MCU movie. The villains in this case are mostly creatures that look like dinosaurs or mutated lions. We see Sersi and Ikaris having sex. It is from the waist up and there are no naughty bits on display. Language is mild and scattered along with a middle finger.

I don’t hate “Eternals.” It might sound like it, but I don’t. With a cast this big and story this sprawling, I wish a more seasoned superhero director had been given the reigns. Zhao is a fantastic director and might have been a better fit for a solo hero introduction movie with a more manageable story. As it is, “Eternals” is too much of just about everything.

“Eternals” gets three stars out of five.

Note: There is a mid- and post-credits scene that hints at what might be next for “Eternals” and a new character. Stick around to the very end to see both.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Venom: Let There Be Carnage”

In the gooey 1970 tragic romance “Love Story,” Ali MacGraw’s doomed Jenny Cavilleri tells her doe-eyed lover Oliver Berrett IV, played by Ryan O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Having been married 35 years, I can tell you this is a load of horse biscuits. Everyone, male, female and non-binary, act like selfish children on occasion. It is a basic instinct to act in one’s own self-interest. This thing my partner wants me to do seems boring or falls outside my comfort zone or will include others I’m not a big fan of, so I choose not to do it. It takes away from “me time.” I’d rather stay home and watch the sportsball, play a video game or treat myself like an amusement park. My partner really wants me to accompany them. I resist, make excuses or say I don’t want to. Feelings are hurt, relationship dynamics are thrown into disarray, and no one walks away happy. This is the time a well-placed “I’m sorry,” could go a long way to repair the damage and allow the relationship to move forward. This is the lesson learned by one of the occupants of Eddie Brock’s body in “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.” I know, it sounds strange to me also.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is having a hard time getting journalism jobs after his Life Foundation story became a disaster. He’s also being eyed by the police as several headless corpses show up in his vicinity due to the alien symbiote Venom (voiced by Hardy). San Francisco police detective Patrick Mulligan (Stephen Graham) contacts Brock and tells him convicted serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) want to give Brock his life story exclusively. Mulligan hopes Kasady will give up the burial location of his suspected other victims. Brock visits Kasady in prison and is given a message to print. If he prints the message in the paper, aimed at Kasady’s childhood love Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), then Kasady will tell him everything. Before he leaves, Brock investigates Kasady’s former cell with scratched artwork on the wall. Venom, remembering all the details, takes over Brock’s body and recreates the drawings, figuring out where Kasady’s victims are buried. The discovery of all the bodies makes California’s governor overturn a moratorium on the death penalty and Kasady is fast tracked for execution. Kasady is furious and demands to see Brock again. During the confrontation, Brock gets too close to the cell and Kasady grabs a hand and bites him. The transfer of blood contaminated with the symbiote causes a transformation of Kasady into a variation of Venom that calls himself Carnage. Kasady/Carnage escape the prison with a plan to grab the sonic mutant Barrison, aka Shriek, and begin exacting revenge on all they see as their enemies or the loved ones of their enemies.

While many loathe 2018’s “Venom,” I gladly admit I enjoyed the introduction of a race of violent, alien, bodysnatching, brain-eating symbiotes. It wasn’t perfect. I thought Michelle Williams character of Anne Weying was woefully underwritten with not a lot of thought given to her character and her reactions to the unusual events facing her then-fiancé. The movie was also very predictable and kept to the usual superhero tropes, but I still found it entertaining and looked forward to another installment. While it was delayed a year, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” learned some lessons from the weaknesses of the first film while also repeating some mistakes from the past.

The most egregious mistake was with the character of Anne Weying. Michelle Williams is again reduced to an understanding, give-it-a-go, now-former fiancée tasked with saving Eddie and Venom from themselves. She acts as an intermediary and voice of reason when both lifeforms, alien and Eddie, are acting like children. Being the adult in the room, or the movie, is a thankless task and that goes to the only non-criminal female character in the film. Williams gives it her all, playing a role that would have gone to Katherine Hepburn in the 1940’s and 1950’s. She’s the plucky, never-say-die, fixit for the situation Eddie and Venom fall into. Of course, she’s also a damsel in distress in the film’s finale. In the comic books and briefly in both films, Weying gets to play She-Venom. I’d like to see Willliams get to be something other than Eddie’s fixer, perhaps his savior, in the next film.

Woody Harrelson seems to be having fun chewing the scenery as Cletus Kasady. The unhinged serial killer’s urge to reunite with his much-loved Frances is most of his motivation. Of course, the desire to kill and create more carnage plays a big role. Oddly, other than property damage, Kasady and the symbiote don’t kill that many people. Plenty are slung up against walls and impaled on projections from Carnage, but the symbiote and the serial killer don’t bite off that many heads or rack up many more notches on the tally sheet. Perhaps that’s due to the film’s PG-13 rating and the need to move the story along briskly. Still, I would have liked a bit more killing from the duo.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” runs a tight 97 minutes, including the credits, about 15 minutes shorter than the original. Superhero movie fans expect at least two hours in their films. We want spectacle, majesty, soaring sequences of flying and a bunch of stuff blowing up! Oh, and fights! LOTS OF FIGHTS! Except many of these CGI fights get boring after a minute of two. We mostly know the outcome (if it’s early in the film, the hero will lose and if it’s later, the hero wins), we just want to be surprised and amazed by the journey. There isn’t much wasted time in the film. Director Andy Serkis knows the story he wants to tell and doesn’t take too many deviations in telling it.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” manages to sneak in a bit of deviation from the standard superhero journey by borrowing from the rom-com playbook. I don’t want to give away a major plot point, but there is a breakup and a reuniting that is played both for laughs and as a truly personal moment between two characters. It works in a surprisingly emotional way.

Naturally, we get all the required destruction and mayhem. A former orphanage, the secret Ravenscroft facility and a cathedral are all either destroyed or severely damaged. Considering the level of surveillance of modern society, I don’t know how Eddie thinks Venom can remain a secret. Especially after his appearance at a rave where the symbiote makes a speech about acceptance and love in front of a crowd of 20-somethings all armed with smartphones. Still, Eddie and his toothy buddy are unknown to most of San Francisco, a town where you’re encouraged to let your freak flag fly. It doesn’t make any sense, much like the rest of the movie, but it is what it is.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some strong language, disturbing material and suggestive references. Venom and Carnage have a long climactic fight that shows them being impaled, set on fire, buried under debris and more. I don’t recall any suggestive references. There are at least two bodies where it is implied Venom or Carnage has bitten off the head. There are also animated murders of adults by a child shown. Foul language is mild except for one use of the F-bomb near the film’s end.

Make sure to stick around for the mid-credits scene. It implies a webby future for the symbiote, possibly caused by the events of “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” There is no post-credits scene.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” has many of the same issues as “Venom” but it flies by at such a pace you may not notice them. It is a fun, funny, daft superhero movie that’s searching for a place within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not easy to do since Spider-Man and all his associated characters’ movie rights are owned by Sony. Yes, they are working cooperatively with Disney and trying to have their cake and eat it too, but I wonder if a single creative team could do a better job of telling a story for this symbiote with a heart of gold. This effort isn’t bad but could have been better.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” get four stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “The Alpinist”

I have a fear of heights. I don’t mind being in a skyscraper or looking out the window of a plane (I prefer the window seat). I work in a building at the top of a ridge that’s at least 500 feet above the street. Some visitors that come up express terror at the height, but the building has been on top of the ridge for over 50 years and the ridge itself has been there for millions more. My fear of heights only kicks in when I’m insecure about that on which I’m standing. I worked at a grocery store in high school and college and sometimes had to change the fluorescent tube lights on the ceiling. I have no idea how high the ceiling was, but on the rickety ladder we had, it felt like a mile. My nerves would kick in and my legs would begin to shake. No one was assigned to steady the ladder, so I was up there alone, near the top step, the ladder wiggling far too much for my liking, and having to extend my arms up nearly as far as I could to remove and replace the fluorescent tubes while not dropping any and not falling to my certain death or serious injury. While the mountains climbed by young solo mountaineer Marc-Andre Leclerc, the subject of the documentary “The Alpinist,” have stood tall and strong for millennia, they can turn into monsters that eat you alive and never spit you out and you couldn’t pay me enough money to begin to train to climb one.

Marc-Andre Leclerc is a climbing savant. Tackling the most difficult mountains in the world, with as little equipment as possible, 23-year-old Marc-Andre is likely the best climber in the world no one knows about. He shuns attention, keeps to himself with his girlfriend Brette Harrington, lives with meager possessions amongst a loose knit community of other climbers in Squamish, British Columbia, Canada, in a tent in the forest, and lives to climb. People within the climbing world are only vaguely aware of Marc-Andre and his fearless climbs, often barehanded, up some of the world’s most difficult rock faces. Listening to a podcast, documentarian Peter Mortimer hears Alex Honnold, subject of the Academy Award winner documentary feature “Free Solo,” talk about Marc-Andre, and becomes interested in filming the unique climber. Marc-Andre’s aversion to attention, and his personal code for climbing, makes filming an even more difficult endeavor than just the dangers of the mountain.

Marc-Andre Leclerc is a goofy kid. In the documentary, we learn from his mother that Marc-Andre was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, or ADD, in first grade. As an adult, he seems to be calm and focused but able to cut loose and have fun with his friends. The documentary takes most of the first half of its 92 minutes to introduce Marc-Andre, his life and philosophy of climbing.

The film is both gorgeous looking and terrifying as Marc-Andre is filmed hanging from bare rock faces by only his hands and from frozen waterfalls by ice axes. He contorts himself to go from grip to grip, foothold to foothold, only stopping to look up at the path ahead and to reach behind him to get more chalk powder on his hands. Anyone with a significant fear of heights, who can’t stand even seeing someone in a film on a high perch, should avoid “The Alpinist” at all costs. On the other hand, if you are an armchair adventurer, looking for vicarious thrills, this might be the perfect choice. The documentary footage, along with scenes shot by Marc-Andre himself with small cameras, offers a glimpse of the wonders of nature from thousands of feet above the rest of the world. Dense lush forests, snowcapped peaks, wilderness from around the world is featured in “The Alpinist” and it is often breathtaking.

Peter Mortimer and his crew are also frequently seen as they need to develop a relationship with Marc-Andre. To get inside his world, they needed to become a part of it without getting in his way. Mortimer has filmed other climbers’ expeditions and knew the difficulties of shooting on the side of a mountain, but Marc-Andre added more complications. He takes the concept of “free soloing” to the next level, disappearing for a time so he can do his thing his own way. You can feel Mortimer’s frustration at his finicky subject, but that doesn’t last for long. Marc-Andre has no malice in his heart. He just likes to do things his own way.

“The Alpinist” is rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief drug content. There is discussion of Marc-Andre’s drug use, and we see a lit joint being passed around. Foul language is scattered with two uses of the F-bomb.

There’s a peace and joy radiating from Marc-Andre Leclerc that shines through the screen in “The Alpinist.” He’s a decent, sweet kid that doesn’t care about material possessions, or being a financial success, or having a house, new car and smartphone. Marc-Andre finds his fulfillment not in gadgets or cash, but in his unity with the mountain and the love of Brette. We should all be so lucky as to find a thing we completes us the same way climbing completes Marc-Andre Leclerc.

“The Alpinist” gets five snowcapped peaks out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

Families are hard. Some are harder than others. I listen to several true crime podcasts and there are numerous episodes about horrible parents and/or horrible children wreaking havoc on each other or their communities. For instance, Jennifer and Sarah Hart adopted six children and then killed the children and themselves by driving the family van off a cliff. Crime boss John Gotti brought his son into his criminal empire, which could be considered a form of abuse. Some serial killers have brought their children along to assist in their crimes, leading the child to consider the deviant behavior normal. It doesn’t take long searching podcasts to find horrific descriptions of abuse and neglect. Fortunately, the family in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” while dysfunctional, isn’t quite as depressing as that.

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), known to his friends as Shaun, parks cars for a living with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in San Francisco. Shang-Chi is the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of a worldwide terrorist group called the Ten Rings. Xu Wenwu has been alive for over a thousand years, thanks to the powers of 10 mystical rings. Despite amassing immense power and wealth, Wenwu wants something more. He thinks he’ll find it in the mystical city of Ta Lo that is supposed to house mythical creatures. Making his way through a living, moving forest, Wenwu meets Ying Li (Fala Chen) who is more than a match for his martial arts and the 10 rings. They meet more times and fall in love. Ying Li convinces Wenwu to give up his life as a criminal to raise a family, having Shang-Chi and his younger sister Xialing (Mang’er Zhang). After Ying Li dies, Wenwu resumes his criminal life and teaches his son to be an assassin, while his daughter watches and trains herself. Both Shang-Chi and Xialing run away at their first opportunity. Several years later, the Ten Rings captures both Shang-Chi and Xialing as Wenwu claims he hears the voice of Ying Li calling to him to release her from behind a gate in Ta Lo. His plan is to take his army into the village and, if they won’t release Ying Li, he will burn it to the ground. Neither sibling wants any part of destroying their late mother’s village and they try to stop their father’s quest.

There’s a great deal going on in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” I’ve only given about 10 percent of the story to avoid spoilers. It’s a plot-heavy introduction to the first Asian hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a cast comprised mostly of Asian actors. Marvel was slow to introduce heroes of any color other than white males. Black Widow didn’t get her own solo movie until this year, more than a decade after she was introduced as a side character in “Iron Man 2.” “Captain Marvel” is the first female lead character. Supporting heroes Falcon and War Machine are the first African American heroes introduced into the MCU (not counting Nick Fury as he isn’t a hero), and Falcon will be the lead in the next “Captain America” film, with the late Chadwick Boseman being the first African American to lead an MCU film as “Black Panther.” Marvel is slowly introducing more heroes representing more diverse groups, reflecting the makeup of the world. But none of these efforts to create a rainbow of heroes would matter if the movies weren’t any good. I’m happy to announce “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is very, very good.

Simu Liu effortlessly inhabits the skin of Shang-Chi. Liu has an easy-going style that makes his scenes with Awkwafina’s Katy believable and relatable. Shang-Chi is just a guy, trying to find his place in the world, when this enormous family bomb gets dropped in his lap. Shang-Chi has kept his family history a secret from everyone and is ashamed and embarrassed by his past. Liu’s scenes where he divulges Shang-Chi’s secrets is painful to watch. Not because Liu isn’t a good actor, but we empathize with his plight and pain. While none of us have likely have such deep and dark family secrets, we can relate in other less extreme ways. Liu provides an emotional depth to a superhero character we rarely see.

Awkwafina’s Katy acts as the conduit for the audience. Katy is like that person turning to you saying, “That’s crazy, right?” While Awkwafina is there to provide some laughs, her character also possesses a depth that she and the audience discover as the story plays out. Katy grows almost as much as Shang-Chi, and we enjoy her victories as much as his.

Given the martial arts aspects of the character, the fight scenes in “Shang-Chi…” are amazing. The first big battle on a bus introduces the audience to Shang-Chi’s amazing abilities developed due to years of brutal training. The confined nature of a fight between five guys on a city bus keeps the action up close and personal. The creative uses of poles and other bus architecture for Shang-Chi’s escapes and avoidance of his enemies is a marvel (pardon the expression) to behold. Liu’s years of both gymnastics and martial arts training in Canada served him well in this role.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language. There are numerous fights, some on massive scales, but very little blood. There are bat-like creatures that suck out your soul. One character has a glowing machete for a lower arm. Foul language is scattered and mild.

While the usual Marvel third act mayhem takes place, everything that comes before it in “Shang-Chi…” feels new and unique. We have an appealing hero, a goofy but nuanced sidekick, a compelling and complicated villain, and an enormous backstory of mystical creatures and magical powers to explore. It works as an intriguing and very entertaining introduction to a new character in the MCU. By the way, stick around as there is both a mid-credits and end-credits scene suggesting what’s coming up in Phase Four of the MCU. The addition of Shang-Chi and Katy makes me very excited for what’s to come.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” gets five stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Candyman”

The sweetness of candy is its biggest appeal. It offers very little in nutrition, only a sudden burst of glucose to the bloodstream that then requires an equal burst of insulin from the pancreas to allow it to be absorbed by cells to be used to power the body. If the body doesn’t need as much energy as the candy provides, the glucose is then converted to fat. Chocolate is said to generate similar chemical reactions in the brain as seeing someone we love or feeling in love. There is an entire holiday, evolved from honoring, remembering and trying to protect us from spirits of the dead, built around the collection of candy by little kids. It is a tender trap of immediate gratification and long-term consequences. I love candy, am obese and have Type II diabetes. There are genetic reasons that might be involved, but being largely sedentary and eating too many carbohydrates, some of them candy, has put me in this position. Candy can be a gift, but if abused, it becomes a curse. Much the same can be said about this week’s movie, the sequel to and reboot of, “Candyman.”

An artist, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is struggling with finding the inspiration for his next series of paintings due to be shown in an upcoming installation. His girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) is the gallery director. His work largely centers around social injustice and equality, but the gallery owner Clive Privler (Brian King) says Anthony’s work is his past and not his future. Looking for inspiration, Anthony walks around the mostly abandoned Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago where he meets William Burke (Coleman Domingo), one of the few remaining residents of the project and the owner of a laundromat. Burke tells Anthony the urban legend of Candyman, a local hook-handed character named Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove) that was accused of putting razor blades in candy he passed out to children in the neighborhood. Fields is beaten to death by cops, but the razor blades continued to show up in candy, meaning Fields was innocent. The legend goes, if you stand in front of a mirror and say “Candyman” five times, Burke will appear in your reflection and kill you. Inspired by this, Anthony begins a new series of paintings depicting violence in graphic ways. The paintings are displayed for the showing in a room behind a mirror with each patron given a handout that details the legend and instructions for summoning the violent specter of Candyman. Following the showing, violent, grizzly murders are carried out against people in Anthony’s life. Is he responsible? Is he going insane? Is he Candyman?

Horror superstar Jordan Peele co-wrote, along with director Nia DaCosta and Win Rosenfeld, the script for “Candyman.” Peele is also a producer. His involvement immediately put this film on my “must watch” list. I’d never seen the original “Candyman” from 1992 or either of its sequels, so I was curious about what kind of film I’d be getting into. With Peele being part of a larger creative team and it being based on a previous property, would “Candyman” be a rehash of 1990’s slasher/horror, or would this 21st Century take on the character introduce something new? The answer is a bit of both.

The story of “Candyman” makes good use of its brisk 91-minute run time to squeeze as much as possible out of the original story and add biting social commentary about POC displacement and gentrification. Being a white male, I squirmed in my seat more than once as the characters discuss the history of Cabrini Green and knocking down low-income housing to build condos the original residents can’t possibly afford. There are moments when it sounds like Peele and the writers are making comments about their own success and how they are separated from the financial struggles and experiences of most minorities in America. It’s one of the rare scripts with aspects of social commentary that turns the gaze back on itself and says, “I’m guilty of this too.” Overall, this take should make fans of the original film very happy as this is a direct sequel. It shares history and characters from the 1992 film with even a photo and voice cameo from Virginia Madsen, and Tony Todd makes a brief appearance. While I haven’t seen the original, I have read a plot synopsis. From that limited information, I believe this sequel should leave original “Candyman” fans pleased with this continuation of the story.
The film is frequently trying to keep you off balance. There are camera angles that cause you to lose your sense of placement in space. Are we looking up from street level or down from above the clouds? Is Anthony going insane, hallucinating, or is he carrying out these murders in a hypnotic state? Since the movie is questioning what’s reality and what’s fantasy, the audience is never quite sure. It’s a nice mixture to keep you one your toes.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is amazing in “Candyman.” You can’t help but feel sorry for him as he struggles for inspiration, then no one sees the work the way he does. His obsession with the work poisons his relationship with everyone around him, as the legend takes him over, both emotionally and physically. There appears to be a rot that travels up Anthony’s hand from where a bee stings him as he wonders around Cabrini Green. That rot is emblematic of what happens to Anthony’s mind as the movie continues. Abdul-Mateen makes Anthony a frantic victim, confused about his physical and mental changes and wondering where it will end. The audience aches for Anthony knowing he likely can’t escape a painful fate. Note: If you suffer from trypophobia, or the fear of clusters of small holes, you may want to avert your eyes from Anthony near the end of the film, or stare at him to overcome your aversion.

“Candyman” is rated R for bloody horror violence, and language including some sexual references. All the murders committed on screen are bloody as Candyman uses his hook to rip out throats or otherwise impale his victims. We see and man’s arm sawed off. There are also two murders committed by cops on black men. The actual violence is done off screen. Sexual references are a couple talking about their upcoming coitus that is interrupted, and Brianna’s gay brother making mild sexual jokes. Foul language is infrequent.

“Candyman” delivers some quality kills but comes up a bit short on the scares. The film works hard to convince us all the victims deserve to die for being mean, callous, selfish and opportunist. His first appearance in the film is likely his best, stalking his victims and only appearing in reflection but still slashing throats and other body parts in the real world. Candyman becomes an anti-hero in this iteration. I would have liked a bit more tension and visceral fear, but the artistry and style director DaCosta brings to the project raises “Candyman” hook, head and shoulders above many other slasher films.

“Candyman” gets four out of five stars.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “The Night House”

What would you be willing to sacrifice for someone you loved? Some have given up dreams of travel and exploration to be with their partner. Others have relinquished the option of various sexual partners to be monogamous with their true love. Still more have relocated across the country or in another part of the world so their partner could take advantage of an employment opportunity. Then there are those that have put their own lives in peril, stepping between a jealous former lover, a criminal or some other threat to protect the one they love. What if that threat is invisible and unstoppable? What do you do then? The answers are troubling and confounding in “The Night House.”

Beth (Rebecca Hall) is mourning the death of her husband Owen (Eric Jonigkeit). He rowed a small boat out into the middle of the lake behind their home, took off and neatly folded all his clothes, then put a handgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Beth doesn’t know why Owen took his life and his suicide note doesn’t clear up anything. It reads: There is nothing. Nothing is after you. You’re safe now. Beth is also having dream-filled and troubled sleep. She dreams of a house filled with women that look like her, but aren’t her, and Owen kissing and hugging them. The stereo in her home turns on randomly at night, playing the same song at full volume. She wakes up in other parts of the house with no memory of how she got there. Then there’s the presence. She feels as if she’s not alone. Her neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and friend and co-worker Claire (Sarah Goldberg) offer support and advice, suggesting she get out of the house and away from the memories, but Beth needs to solve the mystery surrounding her husband and his choice to end his life.

The advertising for “The Night House” has been vague to protect the plot as it is not what it seems…but still is. I’m being vague as well, as the film is a slow burn that needs to build to an exciting and revelatory finish. Knowing much more than the basic plot would ruin all the surprises.

Rebecca Hall is clearly angry as Beth. She feels abandoned and betrayed. Owen’s death is so unexpected and seemingly random, she can’t put her emotions anywhere other than towards him. It’s a feeling she’s familiar with as we learn Beth has been prone to depression in the past. Owen is the one that always pulled her back from the abyss. He’s now gone, so her energy is focused on figuring out why. Hall conveys all these emotions vividly in scenes of unexpected anger, sarcasm and self-pity. Hall easily slides from each of these feelings throughout the film, and it lives and dies with her performance. Hall’s Beth is alone in all the scenes where she makes discoveries or experiences out-of-the-ordinary things, conveying her fear, loneliness and anger often only with her face. It’s a masterful performance that rivets the viewer’s attention. We focus on Beth as if there is no one else in the room (and often there isn’t), but we soon realize Owen is always there. In her mind, her memories, her heart.

The story of “The Night House” is like an M. C. Escher painting. Impossible angles, stairways and hallways leading back on themselves but still winding up in the same places. There’s a great deal of surrealism and misdirection in the film. We are never sure if Beth is dreaming, hallucinating or going insane until the final act. The story written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski is a maze within a house of mirrors. Nothing much is what it seems until the very end. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and with a Cinemascore of C- it clearly isn’t, but it is a powerful and effective thriller unlike most of the movies within this genre.

“The Night House” is rated R for some violence/disturbing images, and language including some sexual references. I can’t give you much detail about these various factors. Beth asks a young woman if she slept with her husband but uses more graphic language. There are various brief scenes of violence against women. Beth is attacked.

“The Night House” is an engrossing thriller that may not be that thrilling to many at first. I just ask you give it a chance to progress through the story as the ending is worth it.

“The Night House” gets five stars out of five.

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Review of “Free Guy”

Many people, from quantum physicists to conspiracy theorists, believe we are living in a simulation. The reality we perceive is created in the supercomputer of a highly technologically advanced civilization. The simulation they’ve constructed is detailed, includes not just the Earth and everyone on it but the idea of a Universe with other planets, stars and galaxies that are, conveniently, too far away for us to ever visit. Our memories, our families, our knowledge of history and our hopes and dreams for the future are all merely ones and zeroes in some lines of binary code, or perhaps the random variations of an electromagnetic field inside a quantum computer. We may not be made of star stuff, as Carl Sagan one said, but subatomic electrically charged bits held inside a computer chip.

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) loves his life, his goldfish Goldy, his friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) and his job at the bank where, every day robbers walk in and steal money. Guy lives in Free City, a magical place where anything can happen, but for Guy, every day is the same. Free City is a role-playing game released by game developer Soonami, run by the egomaniacal Antwan (Taika Waititi). One of the game’s players is Millie Rusk (Jodie Comer), AKA Molotov Girl, who designed a game called Life Itself, and believes Antwan stole its code to make Free City. She is trying to sue Antwan but lacks hard proof her code is in Free City. Her former development partner on Life Itself, Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery), works for Antwan at Soonami. Millie is trying to find a hidden video file hidden within Free City to prove Antwan stole the code and she and Keys deserve royalties from the game. Millie, as her avatar Molotov Girl, is walking down the street in Free City when Guy sees her and falls in love at first sight. After some effort and being killed a couple of times, Guy manages to talk to Millie. Assuming he is a hacker in an NPC (non-playable character) skin, Millie ignores him, but Guy goes against his character programming and begins quickly levelling up in Free City, becoming a powerful fighter with a huge arsenal of guns and vehicles, all in the hopes of helping Millie and getting her to fall in love with him.

It may not be the first film where life is lived in a virtual reality, but “Free Guy” is the most fun you’ll have in that fake world. The setting, the weapons (some designed after various video games), and the frustrations of Free City feel both familiar and new as we learn more about Guy, his home and life. “Free Guy” is more about learning to live your life without restraint than it is about video games.

Ryan Reynolds is his usual charming self. As Guy begins to learn how best to survive and advance in Free City, he does it be being a good guy. He stops crimes instead of committing them. He helps people instead of hurting them. He’s not just a good guy, he’s the Great Guy. Reynolds gives Guy’s naivete a sweet and comical turn. He may kill a criminal by accident and chalk it up to the character being sleepy. Guy finds joy in the smallest things and, as he begins to expand beyond his programming, Guy influences other NPCs to do the same. Guy’s enthusiasm for learning and living in Free City is a key component of Reynold’s performance. He’s relentlessly positive and it keeps this slightly too long movie moving at a good pace.

Taika Waititi makes an easily dislikable villain. Waititi has played a child’s fantasy version of Hitler, a goofy vampire and a giant but gentle rock creature. He finds comedy in unlikely places and his self-aggrandizing, morally questionable, utterly repugnant Antwan is one of his best. Waititi’s Antwan is a whirling dervish of gobbledygook catch phrases and pop culture references. His over-the-top style hides his knowledge of what a failure he is. He knows his isn’t responsible for the success of Free City and his bravado is an effort to hide the truth. Waititi takes a horrible person and makes him comically watchable.

The rest of the cast, from Jodie Comer’s Millie to Utkarsh Ambudkar’s Mouser, a friend and co-worker of Keys’, is spot on. Comer and Reynolds have a believable chemistry in the sim world and their partnership and eventual attraction is believable, even if it’s in a virtual existence. The film is peppered with cameos. Some you will easily recognize, like the late Alex Trebek and Channing Tatum, while others are hidden behind masks or just providing voices, like Tina Fey, Dwayne Johnson and Hugh Jackman. There are even streaming gamers in the film like Ninja, Jackscepticeye and Pokimane. If you’re deep in the world of game streamers, you see several familiar faces. “Free Guy” knows what audience it’s aiming at and makes sure there’s plenty for them to recognize and love.

“Free Guy” is rated PG-13 for strong fantasy violence throughout, language and crude/suggestive references. Numerous video game characters are blown up, shot, and otherwise dispatched on screen. The crude and suggestive references are very mild and usually done for comedic effect. Foul language is mostly mild, but there is one ratings-allowed F-bomb.

Back to the discussion of if we’re in a simulation, it doesn’t matter. We will continue to live our lives unaware of the forces that are guiding us. Some believe it’s their version of God, others think it is random chance. If it’s a simulation, then we’re being guided by both a God, in the writer of the code, and the random variations that occur over time as we repeat actions, learn from our mistakes and make corrections. If this is a sim, it doesn’t matter as long as our creator keeps the power on.

“Free Guy” gets five stars.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

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Review of “The Suicide Squad”

Sometimes bad guys are bad for good reasons. They may have had horrible upbringings and know of no other way to live. They may be forced by circumstances to protect someone they love by carrying out the orders of someone threatening to hurt or kill family members. The bad they are doing may lead to a greater good only they can see. Then there are people that are just bad and what they do is bad. It may be for personal gain. It may be to exert power and control over others. It may be for the sheer joy of causing pain and suffering. Whatever the reason, people who do bad can choose to do good. Or, as in the case of “The Suicide Squad,” they are forced to do good with small bombs planted in their necks that will blow their heads off if they don’t follow orders.

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a team of supervillains to carry out a mission for the US Government. If they succeed, each member will get 10 years off their sentence. If they try to run away, a micro bomb implanted in each villains’ neck will explode, killing them instantly. The group is heading to the island nation of Corto Maltese where the ruling family has been overthrown and killed in a military junta. The new military government is antagonistic toward the US, so Waller is tasked with sending her team to destroy a Nazi Germany-built tower called Jötunheim where experiments are being carried out on a possible alien life form. Leading the team is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). With him is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), Savant (Michael Rooker) TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Weasel (Sean Gunn) and Mongal (Mayling Ng). They attack one beach location while Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher 2 (Cleo Cazo), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and Nanaue, aka King Shark (motion capture by Steve Agee, voiced by Sylvester Stallone) hit another. Eventually, the remainders of the two teams come together to face a threat like no other…from what’s in the tower and amongst themselves.

James Gunn is a unique film maker. He can produce giant blockbusters that have the look and feel of subversive underground cinema. He makes choices that go against the grain of standard moviemaking and those films frequently make money. He took a second-tier group of comic book characters and squeezed them into the overall narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films are unlike anything in the MCU with his choice of music, influx of humor and willingness to insert a dose of heart and emotion into what could have been a couple of standard outer space comic book shoot-‘em-ups. He has now crossed the street to work on DC’s “The Suicide Squad” and brought his unique touches, and a few of his favorite actors, with him. The result is a gory, violent, fun spectacle.

One of the posters says to not get too attached to any of the characters, and that proves to be correct. Early on, several members of the team die in violent and gory ways. A couple of those I was hoping to see more of and learn more about. However, my disappointment quickly faded as the story progresses and the remaining team members get down to business. This movie takes all your ideas about superhero films and chucks them into the woodchipper. It then makes you stand in front of the woodchipper and be bathed in the remains of your expectations. After that, the movie dares you to complain about the mess or cry over your situation. It would appear I’m in an abusive relationship with “The Suicide Squad,” but what other kind could there be when I’m faced with rooting for a group of villains led by a man that put Superman in the hospital after shooting him with a Kryptonite bullet and an anthropomorphic weasel that killed a couple dozen children. Despite the psychological implications of hoping this team of villains succeeds, it’s hard not to find lots to like about most of them.

The performances are amazing in “The Suicide Squad” with the stand outs being John Cena as Peacemaker and Cleo Cazo as Ratcatcher 2. Cena makes his sociopathic character almost sympathetic at times. Peacemaker has a singular, but twisted, focus on the objectives of the mission. He says anything that comes into his head, will kill anyone that gets in his way, and doesn’t mind showing off his many unique kill styles trying to impress Elba’s Bloodsport. Cena is funny. He’s more than willing to use his impressive body to get a laugh, appearing in one scene in a pair of jockey shorts and nothing else. His response to their mission, codenamed Operation Starfish, is to ask if it has anything to do with buttholes and tells Bloodsport he’d eat a beach covered in penises if it meant the successful completion of his mission. Cena is building an impressive early resume of films as he kicks off his movie career following a successful stint in pro wrestling. John Cena is following closely in the footsteps of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Cleo Cazo is the sympathetic heart of “The Suicide Squad.” Cazo’s Ratcatcher 2 comes from a difficult childhood with a drug abusing father (Taika Waititi). Her father developed the technology to control rats and taught her how to use it. After he died, she used the tech to control rodents and help her rob a bank. After she was caught, she was sent to Belle Reve penitentiary and was recruited by Waller. Ratchcatcher 2 isn’t a bad person. She’s sweet and kind, loves her rats and forms an attachment to everyone on the team, especially Bloodsport. She convinces King Shark everyone on the team is his friend, so he won’t eat them. Her decency and kindness belie a strength and fierce loyalty the group needs when they least expect it. Cazo exudes warmth and joy in the role. I hope we get to see this character again if there are future films featuring Task Force X, assuming she lives to the end of this one.

“The Suicide Squad” is rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity. There aren’t enough pixels in the world for me to list all the gory, graphic violence in this film. Arms, legs and heads are cut off, shot off and blown off. King Shark rips one guy in two, eats another whole and chomps on the head of a third. There are bloody shootings, stabbings and more. Harley uses a metal javelin as a pole vault, planting in one guy’s foot. In other words, there’s a great deal of bloody violence. There is brief nudity of men and women. Foul language is common.

I was one of the very few people that will admit to liking 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” While it was far from perfect, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the team, the humor and the constantly shifting loyalties of Harley Quinn. I would have liked to seen director David Ayer’s original edit of his film, as he has posted on Twitter, it is a much better version than what we got. It looks like that film was doomed by studio interference with the director’s vision, despite it making a huge amount of money. I don’t think James Gunn allows much BS from the studio on his films. He’s been quoted as saying, if he chose to kill off Robbie’s Harley Quinn, the bosses at WB would have let him do it. I would prefer the suits in the suites didn’t get their manicured fingers into the making of movies as most of them haven’t done it. The few that have may posses a unique knowledge of film making, but don’t have the same vision as those producing new releases. Let film makers succeed and fail on their own terms. It certainly appears Gunn has succeeded in her version of “The Suicide Squad”.

“The Suicide Squad” gets five gore- and blood-soaked stars out of five.

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Review of “The Green Knight”

The King’s nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) lives a life of excess and debauchery, spending most of his nights sleeping at the brothel with his favorite sex worker Essel (Alicia Vikander) and drinking. His mother (Sarita Choudhury) wants more for her son and hatches a plan. On Christmas Day, Gawain is enjoying the feast at the King’s celebration while his mother and three other women cast a spell to conjure a challenge to her son’s bravery. Bursting through the doors of the yuletide feast, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) rides into the hall and offers up a game: Whoever can land a blow against him will be given the Green Knight’s mighty axe to use for a year. But next Christmas, the challenger will meet him at the green chapel and receive an equal blow in return. At first there is silence, then Gawain agrees to accept the challenge. Asking for a sword, the King (Sean Harris) provides his. The Green Knight stands still, confusing Gawain. Gawain then attacks, cutting off the Green Knight’s head. Thinking that is the end of it, Gawain and all in attendance are shocked when the topless body stands and retrieves the still living head. The Green Knight reminds Gawain to meet him in one year at the green chapel and rides off laughing. Dreading his likely approaching doom, Gawain continues his aimless life until a week before he is to meet the Green Knight. He then begins a perilous journey over the countryside, encountering bandits, spirits, giants, a friendly fox, and a strange couple living in a castle in the middle of nowhere, as he prepares to face his fate at the green chapel.

I was really looking forward to “The Green Knight.” It had a terrific trailer featuring a floating crown lowering onto Dev Patel’s head, then he bursts into flame. The design of the Green Knight looked amazing. The booming baritone of Ralph Ineson is a plus in every movie. The cinematography of the barren, cold Irish landscape appeared to be as much of a character as anyone in the film. I’d been aware of the tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” since high school but remembered little of it. So, this movie had been at the top of my want to see list since the first trailer back in earlier 2020. Naturally, with COVID shutting down most film releases, the world had to wait until now to get a peak at this epic Arthurian legend on the big screen. Despite all my eagerness to see the film, I walked out wondering what I’d watched.

“The Green Knight” is a glorious looking film. The landscapes of Ireland where most of the exteriors were shot, is gorgeous. Filters were likely used to darken the surroundings, giving the film an ominous look, suggesting doom would pop up at any moment. Enormous care was taken to recreate the medieval period during which King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were supposed to live. The interiors of castles, homes, brothels and inns is appropriately dark and dank. The buildings are composed of either stone or wood with very little metal visible. No one looks especially healthy with even Gawain often appearing on the verge of collapse and the King frequently wheezing when he expends even the slightest effort. You can almost smell the B.O. from the population’s unwashed bodies as you follow Gawain walking down the damp streets or sitting down to enjoy an ale in the local pub or brothel.

The Green Knight is a glorious villain (if that’s what he really is) with a body appearing to be composed entirely of carved wood. He creaks and cracks as he walks and with the voice of Ralph Ineson, he sounds appropriately menacing. We only get two scenes featuring the Green Knight and I wanted more of him. To me he was the most interesting person in the film.

While many fascinating things happen in “The Green Knight,” they pose questions that are rarely answered. In the opening scene, we see a gate leading into a walled city. The thatch roof of a building is on fire, a woman gets on a horse and a man pulls a sword from the horse’s saddle preparing to defend against an enemy. We then pull back to see that’s the view from Gawain’s bed in the brothel and a completely different scene plays out with no explanation of what happened to the man and woman, and why that building was on fire. Did the couple start the fire? Is it a diversion so they can escape from her abusive husband and be a couple? Did they just kill rob and kill someone and set the fire to hide their crime? In the end, it doesn’t matter as we never see that couple again. While this is the most non sequitur scene in the film, it certainly isn’t the only one.

It makes me wonder if the film’s narrative is merely a parable within a parable. Gawain’s journey is the story of a man waiting to be provided with meaning and purpose for his life when he’s the one responsible for providing that meaning. Perhaps writer/director David Lowery is telling the audience we are meant to find our own meaning in the film and not depend on it being spelled out for us. Normally, I’d be on board for that interpretation, but I can’t find enough clues or enough depth to work out what I’m supposed to learn as a viewer.

“The Green Knight” is rated R for violence, some sexuality and graphic nudity. There is the beheading that starts the adventure. It is somewhat bloody. We see some animals killed in various hunts. A skeleton is shown hanging from a suspended cage. There are scenes of post-battle fields filled with dead bodies. There are some sex scenes that are brief and contain little nudity. An odd scene appears to involve sex as the evidence is shown on Gawain’s hands at the end. A group of naked giants are shown walking with brief views are bare breasts and buttocks. A scene late in the film shows a head falling off a body. A ghost’s head is shown rolling on the floor and speaking. There is a scene of vomit. A scene of a woman giving birth and that baby being taken away from the mother may cause some distress.

I wanted to love “The Green Knight,” I really did. It has a great cast, is based on a thrilling tale of knights and sorcery and romance and adventure and looks like a well-crafted fantasy. Despite all that’s going for it, I wondered what the point was as the credits rolled (and there is a brief scene late in the credits if you’re interested, but it didn’t help the film make sense) and I considered what I’d seen. While most of the real critics love the movie and it is a beautiful looking piece of work, I just don’t get it. It’s above my head. I lack the depth to fully grasp its meaning and I never have to see it again.

“The Green Knight” gets two stars out of five.

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Review of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions”

I have never been to an escape room. I’m not the best at figuring out puzzles in videogames so I doubt I’m any better in a live action setting. Things other players pick up quickly seem to evade me. When I’m told the solution, it makes sense and is obvious, but I can’t put the pieces together in the moment. In other words, I wouldn’t live long in the world of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” and I doubt anyone else would either as this world requires too much coincidence and good luck to be survivable. But for a sequel to a low-budget thriller, it’s not half bad…but just barely.

Zoey and Ben (Taylor Russell and Logan Miller) are trying to go on with their lives since surviving the Minos Corporation’s escape rooms. Zoey is seeing a therapist both to deal with her PTSD and to cure her fear of flying. The therapist doesn’t believe there is a Minos Corporation or their deadly escape rooms and tells Zoey she needs to put the past behind her. Zoey and Ben discovered the coordinates to the Minos Corporation in their logo and drive across the country to try and gather evidence that will bring them down and end the games. The location is what looks like an abandoned warehouse. The pair are accosted by a vagrant that steals Zoey’s necklace, a keepsake from her dead mother. Chasing the vagrant onto a subway train, he escapes, and the train begins to move. Planning to get off at the next stop, the subway car separates from the other and changes tracks. The other four people on the train are also survivors from Minos’ escape rooms and they all realize they were brought together for a tournament of champions. The subway car slams to a stop and is electrified. If they touch the polls, handles or doors, they’ll be shocked to death. They figure out the puzzle and escape, but one of the contestants is electrocuted. The remaining survivors must navigate out the next sets of escape rooms if they want to survive and so Zoey can continue her mission to stop Minos.

I liked 2019’s “Escape Room.” It had a winning cast, engaging characters and an interesting story. While the all-powerful, faceless corporation as the bad guy was old, everything else about the film was well done and entertaining. “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” sticks closely to the formula and delivers a decent sequel with a decent cast and a nearly identical story. There are fewer rooms, but they are more deadly with lasers, quicksand and raining acid. That and the introduction of a character thought to have died in the first film are about the only differences between the two films.

One would have thought the stakes in the sequel would have been amped up, and yet they are actually lowered. With a run time 10 minutes shorter than the original, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” feels like the group of four writers ran out of ideas and gave up on the story. Wringing everything they could out of the original concept, the writing team hit a wall and stopped. Will Honley, Maria Melnik (who wrote on the original film), Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel pull a switcheroo for the last room, making you think they have escaped when the players just found an alternate path to the next puzzle. When that plays out, the quartet decides to give the audience and Zoey a big reveal. And that leads to what appears to be a happy ending that is actually the set up for a likely third installment. Whoever writes the next film may want to consider saving the escape rooms for later in the movie and give the audience either pre-escape room flashbacks for our main characters or a time jump showing us a survivor’s post-escape room life. The ending of “…Champions” makes this unlikely, but I can dream.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is rated PG-13 for violence, terror/peril and strong language. The violence is mostly seen in flashbacks to the first film. There are moments when people are burned by lasers and acid and disappear in quicksand. One character burns her hand on a stove element but doesn’t feel it. Once character is shown being electrocuted. The subway car sequence features flashing electrical currents that may cause issues for those with light sensitive seizure disorders. Foul language is common but there is only one instance of the F-bomb.

I like “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions,” but I don’t like it as much as the first film. Catching lightning in a bottle is difficult to do a second time. The first film grossed almost $156 million worldwide on a $9 million budget. The combination of a weaker entry and a worldwide pandemic makes a similar return on the sequel’s $15 million budget seem unlikely. I also am still not a fan of the faceless conglomerate being the villain. Show us a roundtable of suits making decisions about who will be brought into the next escape rooms. Give one of them a suitable backstory to explain why this is being done. The original film’s explanation of rich people betting on the outcome is a decent start, but I think the story is helped by filling in the details of what has warped the minds that run Minos to watch young people be tortured. Since logic was one of the first losers in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (it appears all six players got on the same subway car by chance), why not give the audience some history that makes the cruelty make some sense.

Nobody asked me and they likely won’t. Of course, I could be kidnapped, locked in a room, and forced to write the next “Escape Room” installment. I would have to write myself into corners and boxes then write my way out of them, otherwise I would be burned, shocked, poisoned and more. I can guarantee I would write a very bad movie, but it would also have more intelligence and less coincidence than this sequel.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” gets three stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.