Listen, I know there’s a lot going on right now, but if you have just a few minutes, I need to talk to you xXx: Return of Xander Cage. The xXx series stars Vin Diesel as a very powerful man named Xander Cage, which is the sum total of information I knew about them going into this, its third entry, and the first since xXx: State of The Union, which came out 12 years ago, in 2005 (that’s twelve years ago?!). Since watching, I have learned that only the first xXx movie starred Vin Diesel, as an extreme sports athlete turned covert government operative (the second starring Ice Cube), but now, it’s his return, and believe it or not, it’s about the best movie a movie with a title that ends in the xXx: Return of Xander Cage could possibly be.
If, like me, you’re not up on xXx history, don’t worry, as director D.J. Caruso’s hyperactive text cards and in-your-face intro by Samuel L Jackson will quickly get you up to speed on the top secret “triple x” program, rebellious agents who essentially watch the government’s watchmen. The text cards are reminiscent of the colorful, snarkily captioned character intros shoved into last years Suicide Squad, only unlike those, they actually work. Yeah, I was surprised too, but not as surprised as I was a few minutes before, during, believe it or not, the opening credits.
Of course Vin Diesel is in this movie, but, did you know Donnie Yen is in this movie? Or Bollywood star Deepika Padukone? Or genderfluid Orange Is The New Black fav Ruby Rose (as an elite sniper?)? Or freaking Tony Jaa? Not unlike the Fast & Furious series, this is an impressively diverse cast, and even better, they seem to be having a blast, both as heroes and villains. Evil Donnie Yen kicks off the plot by stealing “Pandora’s Box,” a device that can hack satellites and crash them into the earth as weapons, and the only person who can get it back is the retired Xander Cage, who quickly dons a ridiculous coat and heads after him, commanded by CIA official Jane Marke (a wonderfully scenery-chewing Toni Collette).
The action movie that follows is extremely silly, but it’s also surprisingly inspired, rocketing through the ridiculousness with a video gamey flare a little reminiscent of Crank. The script, by F. Scott Frazier, is especially video game-y, but the kind of video game that, like Saints Row or Bayonetta, that basks in its over the top ridiculousness. Since Vin Diesel seems to be a dorky 14-year-old boy in a giant man’s body, his goofy version of an unstoppable badass, who delivers wonderfully bad one-liners ten seconds after the action beat has ended and can’t stop smiling like it’s all a dream come true, is perfect for the ridiculous tone.
Which is: Xander Cage, in his first appearance in the movie, climbing a broadcast tower, setting up a timed device, and skiing down, not snow, but the treetops of an entire forest, and arriving just in time for the device to activate, and… give his village a pirated feed of a soccer game, which he doesn’t pay for, because he doesn’t want to further line the pockets of billionaires who own the cable companies. So yeah, if you have any interest at all in seeing xXx: The Return of Xander Cage for any reason, you, for real, will not be disappointed at all.
By David Ho. Edited for accuracy.
The introductory scenes of “Split,” the latest creeper feature from M. Night Shyamalan, are straight out of a nightmare. Imagine you, your best friend and the weird girl (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) from your class have been abducted in broad daylight. You’re being kept prisoner for reasons that aren’t initially made clear and your captor, Kevin (played by a game James McAvoy) has multiple personalities, each one more diabolical than the last. To make matters worse, Kevin boasts of a new persona, “The Beast,” who is on his way out andeady to make his “glorious” appearance.
Once again, Shyamalan is working with a small budget, a tiny cast of mostly unknowns and playing to his strengths as a stylish helmer of fright tales. His latest comeback vehicle is sturdier in cinematic craftsmanship than “The Visit” and has a “Twilight Zone”-ready premise but “Split” is sometimes creepy and discomforting for reasons that aren’t intentional.
Because the characters are thinly sketched and the logic of Kevin’s situation gradually reveals itself, there’s little suspense. We don’t know where the film is going but a crucial problem is that it seems possible the story is going nowhere. The third act finally kicks the story into high gear and things get eventfully crazy but it’s also just a variation on the typical slash n’ stalk.
Shyamalan allows for some playful filmmaking, particularly in the eerie stalker POV shot that establishes the set-up. The filmmaker especially favors extreme close-ups, making an already claustrophobic film even more intensely intimate. While Shyamalan’s previous return to audience favor, the “found footage” “The Visit,” is a more crass, far less elegant work, it’s also much scarier, pushes its premise as far as it could go and has a whopper of a twist. The logic of “Split” gets iffier with each passing minute and it leaves unanswered questions in its wake.
McAvoy has never had a role this good and he’s often impressive. His best scene is a knockout bit where all of Kevin’s personalities resurface, one after another. Yet, his performance sometimes feels like a parlor trick.
Taylor-Joy’s character has a disturbing past that we witness in unsettling flashbacks and it’s a misstep: these scenes are poorly acted and prove to be more ugly than illuminating. Rather than create a connection between a horrific childhood and her current ordeal, the screenplay exploits her experiences as a victim. Even worse, it makes Taylor-Joy another underdressed teen horror movie heroine. The movie lets the actress and her character down. It’s a definite step down for the actress, who was remarkable in last year’s “The Witch.”
Film veteran and Broadway stage legend Betty Buckley has a far better role here than she did in Shyamalan’s unfortunate “The Happening.” Playing Kevin’s psychiatrist, Buckley has the most dialog, but it’s almost entirely didactic exposition. Shyamalan makes a cameo appearance and its mercifully brief; his one scene as Buckley’s assistant is so hammy, it’s like he’s still sticking his tongue out at those “After Earth” naysayers.
Shyamalan was clearly aiming for his “Psycho” but it plays like the result of the filmmaking watching “Raising Cain” far too many times. The introductory scenes reminded me of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” though that movie had a far bolder narrative, tighter suspense and a firmer grip on its audience.
Undoubtedly, the film’s very last scene before the end credits was the one that truly surprised me and left audiences buzzing as they left the theater. It still struck as me as too-little, too-late.
I left the movie feeling disappointed and put off by what an unpleasant experience it put me through. This isn’t a creative step back for Shyamalan but it should have been better. Consider my final critique an even split.
Content by David Ho
In the fifth installment of the Underworld franchise, vampire death dealer Selene is back once again, fighting to end the war between the Lycans and the Vampire clan who betrayed her. Because Selene is now a hybrid of both breeds, that means her blood is special, and she is powerful enough to defeat nearly anyone who challenges her. However, the blood that gives her the advantage in the fight to defeat her enemies is same blood that puts a target on both her back and her daughter’s as well, making them easy prey for supes looking to steal their powers. Now, with the vampire clan hunting her down to punish her for killing two of their elders, the Lycan clan hoping to snuff her out before she renders them extinct, and the whole mess of monsters just wanting to use her for her blood, Selene literally is backed into a corner – but she’ll shoot her way out.
Think what you will of the Underworld franchise, but it’s worth noting that each movie in this hugely successful series has been able to push the plot forward in some way, shape or form, with every single one of its installments – that is, up until now.
The first film Underworld film introduces the eternal war between the Lycans and the Vampires, exposes the existence of a hybrid man named Michael, and ends by revealing that Selene’s guardian Viktor actually murdered her real parents, right before Selene takes his life in exchange for the death of her family. In the second film Underworld: Evolution, Selene becomes the new hybrid, and confirms her position as the leader of the series. The other elder Marcus wakes up and tries to kill Selene and Michael, but she kills him first. The third entry Underworld: Rise of the Lycans illustrates the background of both clans, and shows how Lucian came to be the leader of the Lycans, and ends by revealing that the reason why Viktor spared mercy on Selene when he killed her family was because she reminded him too much of his own daughter Sonja. The fourth film Underworld: Awakening takes an interesting turn when the humans find out about the existence of the supernatural beings and wages war on everyone who isn’t technically a human. They claim that they’re trying to protect humans from these creatures, but the truth is, they’re kidnapping the ones they hunt down and capturing them in an attempt to harness their power. Selene discovers the existence of two new hybrids, David and Eve, who happens to be her and Michael’s daughter. Selene sends Eve off to an undisclosed location that even she doesn’t know so that she will be safe from those who seek to claim her. Selene decides it won’t be safe for them to reunite until she truly puts an end to this ongoing war.
Each movie, whether its arguably good or bad, can at least claim that it adds on to the already existing plot in some way that is both significant and entertaining for the series as a whole. The Underworld franchise has always been pretty on point when it comes to delivering the shoot-em-up goods that people are looking for in a Hollywood blockbuster, so it’s a shame that the latest entry doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors.
Sadly, when it comes to Underworld: Blood Wars, there’s not much happening in the movie that hasn’t been done before. The war wages on, David and Selene are still in charge, Michael’s disappearance is skimmed over briefly, and it seems that Selene’s daughter is still nowhere in sight. A few twists happen here and there, but they still only mimic things that have already happened to other characters in this franchise before. Honestly, it just feels like the writers weren’t sure where to go, and perhaps have even run out of ideas.
However, despite its flaws, it’s still pretty enjoyable for those who are just looking to pass the time on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, or are in the mood to see a good cheesy action flick and eat popcorn and snack on sour gummies. Selene shoots bad guys, looks slick and fierce while she does it, and even gets a hot new hairstyle in the meantime. On a basic level, this film still manages to feel fun, it just doesn’t quite pack the same punch that the earlier entries always seemed to unleash.
he corny, but powerful, "Hidden Figures" is the far right's worst nightmare: Three strong, brilliant black women doing it for themselves by forcing a racist, sexist government agency to swallow a little Jim Crow in order to take America to the stars and back. It's a joyous tale that makes you sad to think that it took an unreasonable 56 years to finally bring their heroic stories to the screen. But then Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson aren't the sort to seek accolades. They were too busy trailblazing as integral parts of our nation's finest achievement: The space program.
Without them, John Glenn would have likely ended up a crispy critter upon reentry from his historic flight aboard Friendship 7 and Neil Armstrong would never have taken his giant leap for mankind. Yet, those men are celebrated, and the African-American women who played significant roles in putting them on those pedestals might well have been doomed to obscurity if Margot Lee Shetterly not championed their legacy with her recently published biography "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race." Had Shetterly not been the daughter of one of the women's colleagues at NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the ladies would have likely remained in anonymity. Even at that, two of the three pioneers didn't live to see the book or this terrific movie come to fruition. But now it's here, and it's something to cherish, an old-fashioned testament to drive and ingenuity fueled by superb performances by Octavia Spencer ("The Help") as computer-programmer Vaughan, Janelle Monae ("Moonlight") as budding-engineer Jackson and a never-better Taraji P. Henson ("Empire") as ace mathematician Johnson.
Even with a generous run-time of 127 minutes, you can't get enough of these three charismatic actresses, as they pour all their energy into doing justice to the brave, remarkable women they're portraying. That's especially true of Henson, whose passion for the project can be felt throughout, but particularly in the film's best scene when the usually shy and quiet Johnson erupts on her white, male colleagues after she's had enough to being forced to drink from the "colored" coffee pot and trek a half-mile to and from the colored restroom on the far side of the segregated Langley complex. You feel her anger and share it. You also cheer when Johnson repeatedly proves she's the smartest person in the room, cranking out flight trajectories like she's compiling a grocery list.
While Henson clearly scored the plum role, Spencer does the most with what little she has to work with as a financially strapped single mother who never wastes an opportunity to let her racist superior (Kirsten Dunst) know that she's doing the work of a supervisor in overseeing Langley's group of black "computers" (the term for the women hired to check the math work of the engineers) but not getting a supervisor's pay. Same for Monae, even better here than in her fine work in "Moonlight." She's assigned to work on the construct of the Mercury capsule's heat shield, but is handcuffed because she can't get an upgrade on her engineering degree because the University of Virginia doesn't allow blacks to take extension courses at Hampton High School.
Director Ted Melfi ("St. Vincent"), who also wrote the script with an assist from Allison Schroeder, does a fine job of juggling each individual's story and giving his actresses plenty of room to flesh out their characters in a deeply human way. Where he and the film fall a tad short is in the shoehorning of bits and pieces of each woman's home life: The widowed Johnson dipping her toe back in the dating pool with a handsome military officer ("Moonlight's" Mahershala Ali) and Jackson debating with her hubby ("Straight Outta Compton's" Aldis Hodge) over it being proper to let their children see the TV news and its nightly reports on Southern blacks being subjected to racial violence.
All that is good, and it's something we want to know about, but to do justice to the stories of their home lives, you really need the time and expanse of a miniseries. Besides, it's watching these women at work, regularly smashing the perceptions of what white America expects from them that gets our juices flowing. Like the cathartic high we get from Johnson repeatedly getting the upper hand on her immediate supervisor (Jim Parsons doing subtle bigotry well), indignant that a black woman is better than him at calculating trajectories. They scrap and trade passive-aggressive insults so often, you half expect them to fall in love.
It's also fun to see John Glenn (a miscast Glen Powell with a full head of hair) as Johnson's biggest cheerleader; understandable since it's her he's trusting to get him back safely from space with her "go, or no-go" calculations. Rightly, the film focuses on the lead up to his flight in February 1962, when he became the first American to orbit the Earth. But the film also keenly taps into those old fears that if we don't win the space race, we could all end up on the wrong end of a Soviet nuclear missile. It's a very real prospect that constantly eats at Al Harrison, the head of the Langley engineering department, as he implores his underlings to look at what they're doing as not just a science project, but a requirement to save all humanity. He's played by Kevin Costner, and it's simply the best work he's done in years, if not ever. He's the film's rock; its dad, who must continually step in when his "kids" aren't treating each other with the dignity and respect they deserve. He also gets to utter the film's best line when after taking a sledgehammer to the building's "whites only" restroom sign, declares: "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color." It's corny and trite, much like the movie. But it's an inarguable truth, just like its underlying meaning that great things can only be achieved when everyone is working together without regard for race, color or gender. It's what made America great then; and hopefully will someday again.
Cast includes Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst.
(PG for thematic elements and some language.)