Soul (2020, Directed by Pete Docter) English Okay Film

Voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Daveed Diggs, Donnell Rawlings, Graham Norton, Questlove, Patricia Rashad, Angela Bassett

“There’s nothing like music to relieve the soul and uplift it.”

Joe Gardner (Foxx) was destined to be a jazz pianist. That’s his purpose. It’s everything he ever wanted. In the meantime, he works as a part-time music teacher at a public school and feels pressured by his imposing mother to move on from his dreams. After finally getting the opportunity of a lifetime, a spur-of-the-moment gig playing with Dorothea Williams (Bassett), Joe falls through a manhole to his death and lands in “the Great Beyond.” Desperate to return to Earth in time for the show, he accepts the role of mentor in which he’s charged with inspiring the obstinate, unborn soul known simply as 22 (Fey) who helps him plot his way back to the land of the living. Joe’s earthly life is rendered beautifully, significant as Pixar’s first foray into depicting a black protagonist. The everyday details from Joe’s local barbershop to his posture on the piano also mark a move for Pixar into an impressive layer of realism and a willingness by them to play around with different art styles. In this film alone, they use a completely different style for Joe’s life and his afterlife, but it’s the afterlife sequences that left me bored and disappointed. The afterlife being an abstract notion, Pixar had the chance to go in any number of directions with its ideas. The final result is a pretty limited, bland conception for a whale of an idea. It’s all black-and-white stick figures with funny accents, a story closely resembling Heaven Can Wait (or Here Comes Mr. Jordan), and afterlife scenes that are a drag.


Walter Tyrone Howard

You People (2023, Directed by Kenya Barris) English Okay Film

Starring Jonah Hill, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lauren London, David Duchovny, Nia Long

“Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don’t we?”

Ezra (Hill) loves Amira (London) and Amira loves Ezra. They decide to get married. But Ezra is white and Jewish and Amira is black and Muslim. Can they overcome? Once upon a time, interracial marriage was considered a taboo subject. Nowadays, though there may be some disfavor or awkwardness in an individual’s experience with it in real life, it doesn’t qualify in itself as a controversial movie subject. So, if you’re looking to push boundaries and be provocative, as the filmmakers behind You People clearly are, you’ll need to do a lot more than simply having your main couple be a white man and a black woman. You People attempts to spice up the familiar (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Guess Who) proceedings by spotlighting some of the difficulties evidently still present in modern society. Most of these difficulties stem from Amira’s militant father, played by Eddie Murphy, and Ezra’s clueless mother, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Race is discussed and joked about ad nauseam and both Ezra and Amira are subjected to a series of awkward encounters with their prospective inlaws. You People is full of funny people and, to its credit, it made me laugh. Giving us two pairs of nightmare inlaws separates it enough from the likes of Meet the Parents and Guess Who, as I’ve mentioned, and both Murphy and Louis-Dreyfus play their roles well. It’s not enough, however, to make up for the uncinematic, cookie-cutter appearance of the film, the tediousness of its more dramatic scenes, or the unlikability of the majority of the black characters which I object to. I think it would have been enough for Eddie Murphy’s character alone to be hostile toward Ezra. I find it unlikely and obnoxious, even, that every one of Amira’s friends and family is so unwelcoming.


Walter Tyrone Howard

Moonraker (1979, Directed by Lewis Gilbert) English Bad Film

Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Blanche Ravalec, Toshiro Suga, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, Bernard Lee, Walter Gotell, Corinne Cléry 

“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

I suppose it’s true that in order to survive the times, you must adapt, and inevitably, there will be growing pains. I consider Moonraker a steaming pile of Bond’s growing pains. Investigating the crash of a valuable British space shuttle, James Bond (Roger Moore’s fourth outing) meets Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), a brilliant megalomaniac who plots to wipe out Earth’s population and start over with a crop of genetically-altered perfect models. Meanwhile, Jaws (Kiel), the tireless assassin from Bond’s previous film is still after him, and Holly Goodhead (Chiles), a beautiful but mysterious rocket scientist becomes his ally. There have been 25 Bond films over the course of sixty years and the people who care, myself among them, will rarely agree on what we want from a Bond flick. The core ingredients may be etched in stone, but there’s a lot of ambiguity about what tone it should have, how much humor, how much action, how big it should go, camp versus grit, etc. Some people will defend Moonraker. I think it’s bottom five in Bond’s canon. There are some positives. Much of the film is entertaining and Chiles makes a good Bondgirl (despite being saddled with one of the franchise’s most ridiculous names, which is saying something). Hugo Drax, too, is a memorable villain with a great lair. Unfortunately, all of these elements lead to a disastrous finale aboard a space shuttle that seems clearly influenced by the emergence of Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon. James Bond is not Star Wars; or Star Trek. The climax is foolish and the scenes between Jaws and his “girlfriend” are embarrassingly bad.


Walter Tyrone Howard

Strange World (2022, Directed by Don Hall) English Okay Film

Voices of Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu, Jaboukie Young-White, Alan Tudyk, Karan Soni, Abraham Benrubi

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” 

When Dorothy Gale enters Oz through the farmhouse door, leaving behind black-and-white Kansas, it’s a magical moment. Oz is a technicolor marvel full of strange creatures, whispering trees, beautiful witches, and talking lions. The contrast between drab Kansas and wonderful Oz is important. It’s the same contrast we get in Alice in Wonderland or Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo series. Strange World, Walt Disney Animation’s 61st feature film, is another in a long line of fantasies taking its hero into what is supposed to be an exciting new world. Its big mistake is making Avalonia, the world we begin with, more interesting than the strange world we will spend most of this movie in. Here, the hero’s name is Searcher Clade (Gyllenhaal), son of the legendary Jaeger Clade (Quaid), husband to Meridian Clade (Union), and father to Ethan Clade-Disney’s first openly gay teenage character. Searcher is revered by his neighbors for discovering a plant that turns Avalonia into a prosperous community, but when that plant shows signs of dying out, he and his family are thrust into action, leading them to the subterranean strange world of title. The three generations of Clade men, Jaeger, Searcher, and Ethan must figure out how to listen to and accept one another as they search for answers to save their world. Labeled a woke failure by some and a massive bomb at the box office, Strange World will likely find its place among films like The Black Cauldron or Home on the Range in Disney’s deep catalog. I like those films and I basically liked this one, though it is certainly mediocre. The strange world isn’t strange enough. It isn’t until the film’s final reveal that it becomes a little more interesting in hindsight. The characters are likable but with little romance, mystery, and no compelling villain, Strange World is never as exciting as it should be. (1)

Walter Tyrone Howard

Werewolf By Night (2022)-Okay

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Laura Donnelly, Harriet Sansom Harris, Leonardo Nam, Kirk R. Thatcher, Daniel J. Watts

Directed by Michael Giacchino

Ulysses Bloodstone, legendary monster hunter and leader of an international band of monster hunters, has died. To determine his successor, his widow hosts a dangerous competition between 5 candidates and his estranged daughter to see who can track down and slay a mystery monster. Jack Russell (Garcia Bernal) is one of these candidates, but, as the film’s title suggests, he’s also a monster himself.

I’m not completely sure what to make of this…film? With 50 minutes of runtime, naturally, there’s not going to be much of it wasted on context or character development. Why, for example, do the monster hunters need a leader? Why is Jack Russell a part of this group in the first place? I don’t entirely see the point of Werewolf By Night being 50 minutes long. Why not just make a full-fledged film? The premise of a host of characters participating in a dangerous hunt is nothing new but still promising. This film completely undermines it immediately though by revealing that its protagonist has no interest in winning. The plot shifts gears more times than a full-length feature but never in a way that’s surprising. I would have been happier if it had just gone through the motions of a “The Most Dangerous Game” type film. As it is, the characters will likely return for better fare than this, so Werewolf By Night, it seems, is meant to be an appetizer. It plays more like a bonus feature than a fully satisfying short film. The visual style is attractive and responsible for the majority of any interest I did have. The other elements: undercooked.


The Spiral Staircase (1946)-Great

Starring Dorothy McGuire, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, George Brent, Rhonda Fleming, Elsa Lanchester, Gordon Oliver

Directed by Robert Siodmak

Helen (McGuire) is a young woman working on an estate in turn-of-the-century Vermont. Traumatized in her youth to the point of muteness, her beau proposes to take her away to Boston, where the best doctors can attend to her, and where the two of them can start a new life together. Standing in their way is another man, a crazed killer, murdering women across town, who’s stalked Helen back to the estate and who takes his time emptying the large house until he can be alone with her.

The Spiral Staircase has all the base elements of a modern slasher film. It’s well ahead of its time in that way, a fascinating mixture of later horror tropes and earlier aesthetics: a compelling final girl, a masked (figuratively) killer, an isolated setting, a bevy of supporting characters/ victims paired with gorgeous black and white photography. The mystery, after 70 years of influencing other films, can be seen as basic, or, as I see it, a film stripped down to the core of what works. Helen is an excellent heroine; extremely vulnerable but not weak, not stupid. Either she can’t call out for help or there’s no help to be found or the help can’t be trusted. The mise-en-scène and lighting are consistently impressive; one standout sequence being a late murder where the victim’s strangled in the pitch-black center while her hands flail in the lit edges of the frame. Classic suspense.


Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971, Directed by Dario Argento) English Okay Film

Starring Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Bud Spencer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Oreste Lionello, Aldo Bufi Landi

(Okay Film)

The leader of a Rock and Roll band, Roberto (Brandon), angrily confronts a stalker one night and accidentally kills the man. When a psychotic, masked witness to the scene shows up to torment him, Roberto’s sure he’s been set up but to prove it, he’ll have to discover the identity of his tormentor. Within the broad strokes of this film is some of what would later prove to be greatness in its director, Dario Argento. He’s masterful at using setting and space to set the scene. The way he moves the camera is beautiful. Logic, character motivation, and acting don’t seem to matter to him. Four Flies on Grey Velvet, one of his earlier works, fails to scare up any excitement or intrigue mainly because the lead character is so bland and the two interesting characters, played by Mimsy Farmer and Jean-Pierre Marielle, drift in and out of the picture so indiscriminately. The killer’s mask becomes the star. The final result is a weak picture with some redeeming qualities.

-Walter Tyrone Howard


Pinky (1949, Directed by Elia Kazan) English Okay Film

Starring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters, William Lundigan, Kenny Washington

(Okay Film)

Born to a poor black family in the deep south, Pinky Johnson (Crain) grows up pale enough to pass for a white woman. She moves to the North, studies, becomes a nurse, and gets engaged to a young doctor. Returning home to visit her grandmother, Dicey (Waters), Pinky’s confronted with all manners of injustice and bigotry. Knowing that she could walk away from it all-return North-at any time proves to be a crisis of identity for Pinky. Dealing with a most serious subject at a time when the majority of people were not ever going to be receptive makes Pinky something of a noble cause. Racism and the idea of “passing” is handled well, but at the center of the film is its biggest problem. Rather than cast Lena Horne or another light-skinned black actress of the time, the studio forced the director, Elia Kazan, to hire a white actress for the role. It undermines the film and blunts much of its sharpness. Crain lacks the righteous anger that the role calls for and instead looks perpetually apathetic. It’s still a compelling drama but not the heavyweight its material had the potential for.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Ghost Breakers (1940, Directed by George Marshall) English Good Film

Starring Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Willie Best, Anthony Quinn, Richard Carlson, Tom Dugan, Paul Lukas, Pedro de Cordoba, Noble Johnson

(Good Film)

Capitalizing on the success of their previous horror-comedy collaboration, The Cat and the Canary, one of my favorites, Paulette Godard and Bob Hope team up again in The Ghost Breakers. Goddard plays an heiress warned to stay away from her land in Cuba which is said to be haunted by the ghosts of slaves and voodoo zombies. Hope, in a rare turn as the shining knight, shows up with problems of his own at just the right time to help her get to the bottom of her mysterious inheritance. Equal parts horror and comedy as all great mashups should be, The Ghost Breakers is a blast as all of Bob Hope’s best films are. A little confusing at times with an abundance of misdirection, the plot becomes slightly irrelevant the deeper into the picture we get, but the stars work well together and the set pieces-chiefly the climactic journey through her inherited mansion- are fantastic. Check out the Hollywood zombie circa 1940. Not bad.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Crippled Avengers (1978, Directed by Chang Cheh) Mandarin Good Film

Starring Feng Lu, Chen Kuan-tai, Philip Kwok, Lo Mang, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Wang Lung-wei

(Good Film)

Embittered by the slaying of his wife and maiming of his young son, a local leader, Chu Twin, becomes an unjust tyrant even after killing those responsible. Four strangers to the village fall victim to his wrath and are crippled as a result. One is blinded, one loses his legs, another is made deaf, and a fourth is rendered mentally challenged. Under the tutelage of an old master, the four team up and train for their revenge. This story is not as compelling as other films by this incredible team known as the Venom Mob. Their films Five Deadly Venoms, Five Elements Ninjas, and Kid with the Golden Arm are far superior. Crippled Avengers is mostly a showcase for their spectacular athletic ability and acrobatics. As such, it’s entertaining and worthwhile if not essential. The villains aren’t despicable enough and there’s no plot intrigue as in the previously mentioned films.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-