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Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 21: Dwayne Johnson gives a strong ending to an eventful year

So…yeah, all that happened.

Perhaps no season of SNL since the season of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin has felt so relevant and so unsure of its place in the firm, huge spotlight. More thoughts are to come, but this is a season of big questions and big transitions, and a season that’ll likely go on the books as one of its most important.

How’s the Cold Open?

Though perhaps this sketch stands in one of the weirdest moments of that importance nexus.

Look, it’s not a funny sketch. It’s deliberately not set up with jokes. I don’t even know if I like the concept, this seems like a weird angle to take, the show just kind of throwing up an equal time shrug of the shoulders. But it’s designed for everyone to see.

Maybe it’s just a remembering how weird all of this was? The administration that launched SNL back into relevance taking stock of the whole moment? I mean, not that I ever need to hear anyone but Jeff Buckley do “Hallelujah” again, but maybe that’s the purpose.

This is unfocused mostly because this whole bit just confuses me. Is it a goodbye to Baldwin’s Trump? He’s been rumored to leave, which I think would be good for the show, ultimately. He’s become more of a recitation than a performance lately, a new guy might give the show a kick in the pants satirically.

I wish I had more to say but I just earnestly can’t fathom the intentions here.

Who’s Hosting?

The third person to join the Five-Timers Club, Dwayne Johnson is one of those guys who increasingly seems like a totally natural fit for SNL. A consummate performer who throws himself 100% into anything he does, he’s a natural fit for a show as big as SNL. Combine that with a gift for comedic underplaying (see: This whole show) and Johnson is exactly up my alley for an SNL host.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“World’s Most Evil Invention”

Like its most direct predecessor “Canteen Boy Goes Camping,” I kind of have to imagine this isn’t a sketch for everyone. As in, not for people who have anything resembling good comedic taste.

(Un)Luckily, I don’t. A dark central joke played masterfully by everyone here, with Johnson’s muted performance against everyone else’s exasperated shock, gets huge laughs for those who will take them. This sketch may also feature one of the darkest jokes in SNL‘s history. I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t already seen it, so know that the center of the sketch is a “child molesting robot” and just let it go from there.

“Enhancement Drug”

If Dwayne Johnson was a host made for me, then the writers knew appropriately enough to write sketches seemingly made just for me. “Enhancement Drug” is one of those sketches with an increasingly unhinged world being built and a totally deadpan explanation of that world. You know, think “Welcome to Night Vale.” Put together well and the slow-build through Johnson’s delivery and the cutting is awesome.

Hail Satan.

“WWE Promo Shoot 2”

A sequel to this work of beauty from a couple years back (and part of this show’s heavy featuring of departing Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer tonight), it’s basically the same sketch as the first time around, just new increasingly embarrassing or unnerving details revealed about his life. While nothing is quite as dark or insane as the first one, the sheer psychological terror Koko unleashes on Mutt is well-tuned for our amusement. Again, it’s the underplaying, the idea that Johnson seemingly has no idea the insanity he’s spewing, that makes it so funny.

“Rap Song”

A short, solid “Parade of Weirdoes” sketch that is almost entirely here for …

DAVID

S.

PIMPKINS

We need nothing else.

“Cartier Ad”

Vanessa Bayer’s specialty has always been digging into very specific archetypes. Not creating characters (though she can do that), but understanding types of people and blowing them up to proper comedic proportions. She digs into the trophy girlfriend of privilege here perfectly, turning her character into the center of the commercial gag here. There’s such a specific character here that it really works.

“Wingman”

Just a great little weird, quick performance piece that I like more than thing is actually good. Kinda rapid-fire with Beck Bennett’s dumb guy charisma really selling the verbal loops of the sketch.

“Scorpio”

This one just makes me giggle in a way I can’t quite explain. I think it’s his totally earnest flattery at being told how good his work is and how much they seem to honestly like it. There’s just something kind of nice about this one, and hey, that costume does actually look pretty dope.

“RKO Movie Set”

Why the fuck not? This is just so earnest and bizarre and goofy that the fact that it’s an extended fart joke fades into the background pretty quickly. I was laughing.

“Dwayne Johnson Five-Timers Monologue”

I won’t get political here, but we must radicalize Dwayne Johnson to Leftist politics for the good of this country.

What Didn’t Work?

“Gemma w/ Dwayne Johnson 2”

I’ll give this Gemma sketch props since it’s the only one since the first that gets that this sketch was written for a guy like Dwayne Johnson, and uses him. The gag still pretty much ran out the first time, so not much positive to report here.

“Senior Video”

Apparently the goodbye sketch for Moynihan and Bayer (though their Weekend Update appearances did that much more effectively), it’s a shame they got such a lame one to send them off. Kind of an abruptly ended fizzle of a sketch that built to no joke and said almost nothing.

Weekend Update!

There’s a degree to which Jost and Che just kind of have to throw their hands in the air this week. No joke is more insane than this week’s actual twelve-ring-fuckery-pile-up, no jab more cutting than things that people actually did. A few good punches (“President-for-now Trump”) were given and it appears that Update has pretty much found its line on attacking Trump, pulling above him for mockery. It works, and the groove that Jost and Che have settled into really does work.

But Update this week really wasn’t about the anchors. It was a wave good-bye to the two long-time performers.

Bayer got to do a character introduced last week, Dawn Lazarus, that reminded us how talented she is on the technical side. That barrelling through barely legible spoken-English is brilliant work and her ability to play anything with a straight face is gonna be sorely missed.

Moynihan brought back Drunk Uncle, his most famous creation. A few good malapropisms, some non-PC ranting, just like old times. It’s a reminder of the sheer commanding force Moynihan was on this show and how much he can get a laugh out of just a look.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah.

MVPs!

I’m giving Moynihan and Bayer an MVP point to wave goodbye to two of the quiet pillars of this cast over the last few years. They’d deserve it even without them saying goodbye, as both nailed their performances across a series of sketches, with Bayer killing it in the Cartier ad and Moynihan turning out great gags in the Wingman and WWE Promo Shoot ads.

Also a point for Zamata, who got shafted by this show for the whole time and then didn’t even get a chance to actually say goodbye.

Beck Bennett – 4
Cecily Strong – 3

Bobby Moynihan – 3
Kate McKinnon – 2
Mikey Day – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 2
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kyle Mooney – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Sasheer Zamata – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

At the end of the season, they’re fortunate enough to end on one I really like. Johnson’s talent blended with a lot of Bayer and Moynihan’s to produce a rippingly funny, deadpan, and goofy show. A solid note to end on for a season that’s had a long journey to take us through.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Dwayne Johnson
  7. Emma Stone
  8. Aziz Ansari
  9. Chris Pine
  10. Melissa McCarthy
  11. Scarlett Johansson
  12. Alec Baldwin
  13. Kristen Wiig
  14. Margot Robbie
  15. Casey Affleck
  16. Benedict Cumberbatch
  17. John Cena
  18. Felicity Jones
  19. Octavia Spencer
  20. Emily Blunt
  21. Jimmy Fallon

Tomorrow: A Season 42 wrap-up with the Best and Worst!

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The Fate of the Furious is a deeply enjoyable ride that reveals some risky turns ahead

The Fast and the Furious is America’s James Bond franchise.

Certainly not through a shared love of spycraft, that’s a later affectation of the Fast & the Furious franchise. And certainly not through similar modes of operations as even at its biggest and most ridiculous, James Bond is practically French art cinema compared to the blaringly loud and over-the-top Fast & Furious. And certainly not through a shared freedom from continuity, the James Bond films keep themselves disconnected while the Fast & Furious films are dependent on continuity in a way that constantly remains a surprise even to fans.

No, it’s because both franchises are fundamentally founded on an ethos. A mode of operation that kind of works with whatever chemicals mix together. A character-relationship-based narrative model with an action style that’s a mix of practical stunts and barely connected with reality insanity.

It also means that ethos is the guiding principle for the franchise, and that unlike many series, no individual film can necessarily kill it. This is true of Bond, and this is true of The Fast & The Furious. The direction matters and should be examined, but at this point, the individual films exist outside the health of the overall franchise. The more mixed reception of The Fate of the Furious has ultimately no effect, there is more to come no matter what we do.

I do this mostly to set up the lens through which I evaluate a Fast and the Furious film. How does it operate within the franchise’s ethos and how does it steer the rest of the franchise forward? There’s an acceptance at this point that we’ll have more, so what does that mean for it all?

Unlike many, I’m honestly rather fond of The Fate of the Furious‘ own individual operation. It pushes this franchise perhaps further from reality than it ever has been before, accepting the more deeply superheroic operations of this universe at this point matters. But it maintains a sense of fun that’s wholly unique to this franchise, a perhaps non-stop thrill ride that adheres to the particular action pleasure of The Fast & The Furious.

But all that comes with pause. Paul Walker’s absence is revealing a hole in the current operation of the franchise, and director F. Gary Gray hasn’t quite found how to fill it. An unsteady hand at the wheel exposes the flaws in this franchise’s latter day approach, and where the flaws in its ethos can be shown.

After the events of Furious 7, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have taken to Cuba for a honeymoon, getting away from it all. A mysterious hacker named Cipher (Charlize Theron) quickly plunges them back in as she turns Dom against his friends and family as he becomes her pawn. The team, led by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and back under the direction of Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new assistant (Scott Eastwood), must battle against Dom while trying to stop whatever nefarious ends Cipher ultimately has.

I’m pleased to report that The Fate of the Furious at least manages to keep and meet the most visceral pleasures of its predecessors. Of course in its action sequences, which continue a sort of insane and exciting escalationism as our heroes beat the living shit out folks in a prison riot, have a Mad Max-esque chase through Siberian ice, and deal with “zombies,” which is something that must be seen to be believed.

But it’s also in the sense of fun and the weird sentimentalism this series applies to the misfits at its core. Dwayne Johnson continues to show why he makes the big bucks for films like this, and the addition of a real-deal foil for him in the return of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), now working for the good guys as a sort of hard-edged variation on his character from Spy. Your mileage absolutely may vary, but Statham’s gifts come in being badass and kind of a goofy physical comedian, so this totally works for me.

At its heart, there’s still a sweetness. The Fate of the Furious takes a particular interest in looking at these relationships by pulling them apart and seeing how they feel about each other. There’s a legit pain in watching any of them turn on each other and the tone of that is well-handled, sweet and caring without ever plunging too far over the edge into treacle.

But speaking of those relationships, let’s talk about the big hole at the center. Brian and Dom (Brian, in particular) was the beating heart at the core of this franchise and his absence is felt. Dom was always most interesting in his relationship with Brian, and without him, the franchise feels lost as to what to do with his character. It gets away with it this time, separating him and examining from that direction, but the clearest thing is that without Brian this series is having an identity crisis that Scott Eastwood sure as shit can’t fill.

I spoke about this an ethos-based franchise, and that ethos is irrespective of who exactly is filling out its roles. But Brian and Dom are that central character relationship at the heart of its ethos and right now, the franchise doesn’t have a replacement. It’s possible that Shaw and Hobbs could be it, but there’s not enough there to believe that one just yet.

It also comes down to that without those core relationships, they’ve gotta have a better villain (this is why the MCU gets away with its bad villains). Charlize Theron is clearly having a ton of fun as Cipher, but the character is fairly bog-standard and one-dimensional as a villain, one of those ill-defined plans that’s more worthy of Die Another Day than anything.

Without any central core, it also means the increasing escalation of the franchise is missing its grounding. There are points where the insanity starts to ring hollow, no character core keeping that big, loud action interesting.

This is compounded by F. Gary Gray being a far less steady action hand than Justin Lin or James Wan. His sense of space and direction in his action scenes is much more amorphous, he doesn’t have the clear-eyed geography that Lin or Wan had, these action scenes feel much more sloppy in their direction, which is problematic for a franchise where these are so foundational.

The point of this is that if we aren’t going to fix the character relationships just yet, there has to be a steadier hand guiding this franchise. I’m sure we’ll have a different director for Fast 9: Dom’s Inferno, all of this needs to be kept in mind.

But flawed and worrying as it may be for The Fast and The Furious as a whole, The Fast of the Furious keeps plenty of its own pleasures, a sort of visceral, never-wipe-a-smile-off-your-face fun that is so unique to this franchise. But knowing that we’ve got more to come, there’s a few big flaws here that start to concern me in a franchise I do have such a deep soft spot for.

Grade: B

A Definitive Ranking of The Fast and The Furious Films

Has any franchise taken quite the journey that The Fast and the Furious has? Starting out as the du-jour example of early ’00s blockbuster excess, more punchline than popular, it’s now turned into basically the single largest action franchise running. A sprawling, multi-cultural and globe-trotting adventure that still features (largely) the same group of rag-tag car-based criminals that the early installments did, just older and with larger adventures to undertake.

In case I’ve never made this clear, I have a deep and abiding love of The Fast and the Furious franchise. Few series are so absolutely aware of what they are and so absolutely willing to escalate and revel in that at every step while also able to do it with total skill.

A series about family that manages to put together a group of people that have legitimate chemistry and whose relationships manage to feel real and build on each other step by step. A series that manages to escalate its action at every step without ever COMPLETELY severing its connection from reality. A series that’s big and dumb and loud and knows how to make all those things happen without ever feeling too big, too dumb, or too loud.

So, 7 films so far, the 8th comes out tomorrow. How do they rank?

7) 2 Fast 2 Furious

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2 Fast 2 Furious is these days more remembered for its bizarre titling than anything else. Director John Singleton isn’t necessarily totally incompetent here (as he is in other films), and there are a few pleasures to be found. This is the entry that introduces Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris), two franchise mainstays that have come back as total stars in the latter-day Fast and Furious films.

But the absence of Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto is deeply felt here, particularly as Brian (Paul Walker) stays the main character in this film. 2 Fast 2 Furious showed that it was the interplay between the two that kept the series’ main characters interesting, as Brian is a much blander character in 2 Fast 2 Furious. 

Beyond that, 2 Fast 2 Furious just doesn’t have much to recommend here. No particularly great or interesting racing or action sequences, with the less than sure hand of John Singleton keeping things from reaching over-the-top. It’s a markedly boring entry in a franchise where boring is the ultimate death.

6) Fast & Furious 6

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The first film after the franchise’s revitalization was almost by necessity going to be a bit of a shaky one. It has a lot of new toys to play with and it’s going to need to figure out how to use them. With all that in mind, the fact that the worst sins of Fast & Furious 6 are excessive length and a bit of logic and story breaking is a legitimate surprise.

This is when the franchise went past its crime film roots into full-bore soap opera, attempting (with various levels of success) to juggle an increasingly expanding cast and universe. Some of it works and signals the way forward, others are still great injustices towards fan favorite characters. Fast & Furious 6 can kind of be considered the yellow light for the franchise, a sign of what could happen if it doesn’t ease up.

Outside of that though, Fast & Furious 6 (I have never had to so often double check that I’m titling films right) is still sort of a delight. Evans’ Owen Shaw and his dark double Family is an idea that I’m shocked it took them until the 6th film to do. The new mode for action sequences yields one of the series’ best (HIGHWAY TANK) and there’s just clearly a whole lot of people having a whole lot of fun here.

5) Fast & Furious

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This is the franchise’s most overlooked entry, a gritty back-to-basics reboot that feels like a weirdly late reverberation of the Batman Begins effect. Focused less on either the action or the racing than the relationships between the characters and the pulpy situations they’ve put themselves into, this hardboiled entry feels weirdly out of step with the films that preceded it, tonally.

But as a shift for the franchise, this is the most underrated of the films. It lays the groundwork for the relationships and the operations to come, the rest of this franchise works largely because Justin Lin (who can be singlehandedly credited for the revitalization and redirection of this franchise) took such a basic approach in getting the relationships back on track, and making our love for the characters important.

Because of that, this film does work. I’m invested enough in Dom and Brian’s relationship, that the loose affiliation of crime story ideas turns into something compelling and makes those races all the more worth watching.

4) The Fast and the Furious

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The pace-setter and the original for the franchise is odd to go back to now. Less the predecessor for the eventual globe-trotting spy franchise this would become and more a hip-as-hell remake of Point Break, it’s surprising to see how enjoyable this thing still is.

An early evocation of this franchise’s ethos (we are what we are, and we’re going to have fun with it) with characters that are shockingly well-formed out of the gate (seriously, Dom and Brian are already pretty clearly conceived here), The Fast and the Furious is a time capsule, but one well-worth revisiting. Just a blast of fun and a blueprint for a franchise that you never could imagine spawning from this point.

3) Furious 7

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Furious 7 is ridiculous in the best of ways. A car jumps between not two, but three skyscrapers. A group of people parachute their cars out of an airplane. A man LITERALLY FLEXES HIS CAST OFF. At this point, our Family aren’t spies, they’re superheroes, capable of putting themselves through insane, almost Looney Tunes-esque stunts. It’s this franchise at its most purely enjoyable, a high-wire act.

Yet in a weird way, Furious 7 is also the film that makes you most realized how attached you’ve become to these people. The death of Paul Walker loomed heavily over this movie, and I can’t think of any franchise that so perfectly paid tribute to a fallen brother in the actual text of its film. I dare you not to cry at this film’s final tribute to him. These people have been through a lot, and we’ve been there with them.

2) The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

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Look, I’m gonna be real. Tokyo Drift would deserve to be up here simply for introducing Han (Sung Kang), the coolest dude in this whole franchise and one of the most enjoyable people to watch in any American action film, recalling the best of the Japanese Yakuza heroes.

But Tokyo Drift‘s weirdly polarized reputation is ill-deserved by the actual film. Sure, it withdraws from all the most popular characters, and Lucas Black’s weirdo Southerner isn’t exactly a replacement, but Justin Lin kind of knows that and he lets the new environment and new rules serve as our entry point. It makes for a far more dynamic entry, one that’s a blast of fun and a brilliant look at a culture that feels legitimately revitalizing for the franchise.

1) Fast Five

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This is the best entry in the franchise bar none. The uber-example of what this franchise does at its best.

The action is clear and concise and constantly daring. From the opening bus rescue to the final chase through the streets of Rio as two muscle cars drag a bank vault behind them, Fast Five is ruthlessly exciting and an absolute thrill-ride to follow along with. No franchise is more breathlessly overjoyed to be able to try out its big, dumb, stunt pyrotechnics.

Its relationships are interesting and well-defined. Its old relationships (Dom and Brian) find new wrinkles and continue to deepen and grow. Its old characters find new ways to interact, I think particularly Han and Gisele (Gal Gadot) who have the kind of heat you can’t look directly at without special eyewear. Its new characters slide in effortlessly, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is just a total badass and gives a brand new energy that these films have never had (Franchise Viagra).

Fast Five is awesome, just awesome.

Moana’s beautiful specificity wrestles with its generic instincts

Formula is not necessarily poison for a film. Look, we have to accept that studio filmmaking is its own mode and purpose, and the beats that we hit are hit for a reason. At the big-budget, the level of multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and the star-studded cast and crew, only one out of every 20 or 30 may have any interesting narrative twists or innovations.

All this is to say that yeah, Moana is hitting all of the recent Disney films’ plot points for narrative gain and for narrative loss. Accepting that means that evaluating these films becomes about the shading they bring, how they deal with and color the familiar. In that, Moana has much to admire.

Moana is the story of a young girl, Moana (Auli’i Cravallo), who is next in line to be Chieftan of Motunui Island. In her heart though, she wants to explore, the ocean calls her to sail, an instinct her father (Temeura Morrison) seeks to keep down for her own safety. But when an encroaching darkness threatens Moana’s home, she must sail out and find the boisterous demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), so that she can enlist his help to save the world.

So, from about Ratatouille to Brave, Pixar had a bit of a problem. While one of their most famous runs of quality, the films were imbalanced, frontloaded with absolutely brilliant first acts and petering out somewhere around the second to go from great to good.

The Second Disney Renaissance has been marked by a similar problem. Disney’s recent run of incredible animation (Wreck-It Ralph through now) have shown a remarkable emotional maturity and visual cleverness. But they’ve all been cursed by second act problems out the ass, with the exception of Zootopia. These films have amazing first acts and emotionally resonant thirds that follow perfectly out of their first. But the second act seems to be a thin glue intended to hold the two together, usually wandering idly through a few setpieces of whatever it takes until the actual climax needs to start.

And so it goes with Moana. The first act is a remarkable and beautiful look at a culture and a character piece about a girl who struggles with it. The third act is a touching piece of empowerment that inspires awe time and time again. The second act is a collection of moments, a few cool ideas here and there strung together by slapstick and reference.

It seems weird to throw that at a children’s film, after all you gotta keep the kids entertained. But not only has Disney/Pixar animation proven consistently better than that, we should as a whole be asking for better from children’s filmmaking. Hell, Moana itself shows the better that can be asked for.

Artists like writer Taika Waititi (along with Musker/Clements, the directorial team, and John Bush),  Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i give this a remarkable sense of specificity and detail. This feels like a film immersed in culture, immersed in an understanding of who and what the place and the people they’re showing us are. It feels like an actual piece of Polynesian culture guided onto American screens. That specificity alone makes it more interesting.

It’s also that specificity that guides the remarkable visual acuity of the film. Moana is breathtaking animation, using the water and the weather of the area to produce a series of shimmering picturesque images with lush and bright colors. Plus a few bits of remarkable motion with Moana’s control of the ocean and the Fury Road-tribute sequence.

Seriously, there’s a tribute sequence to Mad Max: Fury Road and it is dope as hell.

That specificity also guides the music. While there’s no blockbuster standout (For better or worse, Moana does not have a “Let It Go”), this is probably one of Disney’s strongest batches of songs since the First Disney Renaissance. Perhaps my own bias shows through, but you can particularly hear Miranda’s guiding hand here. His brand of vocal melody shows through all over (not just because he sings track “We Know The Way” and longtime collaborator Christopher Jackson sings on “Where You Are.”) and it has his same tight and well-controlled songwritings. Between Miranda’s work and the brief joyful lapse into Britpop/Flight of the Conchords territory with “Shiny” (sung by Jemaine Clement), this was basically made for me. Kids probably won’t ask to have any of these on loop, but everyone will enjoy them in the movie and you may actually not mind having the CD play in the car a few times.

Really, I like so much of this film. I haven’t even gotten into Moana herself, played by the surprising newcomer Auli’i Cravallo. Cravallo gives the character a lot of strength and self-assurance, she’s written with complexity and not a love interest in sight, which is rare enough even outside of the “Princess” genre.

It’s just a shame this film has a big Maui-shaped hole in its center. Look, I like Dwayne Johnson a lot, he’s one of our few great action-comedy guys who can play both sides convincingly. And he does great work here. Maui is just emblematic of the problems in the middle of this film. A few good moments don’t make up for a lot of wheel-spinning and lot of far less specific material that Maui largely embodies. He’s a bit of a stock character who exists mostly as a plot vehicle for a few too many awkward references. It feels like they tried to figure something out for Johnson and just really couldn’t ultimately find anything but his standard character.

When it’s focused on him, Moana is every other story. When it’s on Moana and her people, it’s something unique. It’s a shame there is so much of him holding back what could have been a truly phenomenal movie.

Grade: B+

Central Intelligence hits the sweet spot with some really great Johnson

Sometimes, a movie is exactly what you need. That doesn’t mean it’s great cinema, or even something objectively very good.

When you see a movie, you’re starting a relationship, one that may be an hour and a half or it may be all the life long. And like a relationship, not every film serves the same purpose. Sometimes you’re just looking for something to enjoy and get you through a small amount of time. A can of chicken soup, designed to warm you up and make you feel just a bit more content.

Central Intelligence, and more specifically Dwayne Johnson’s starring role, is just the can of chicken soup that I needed.

Continue reading Central Intelligence hits the sweet spot with some really great Johnson