Blind Vengeance

Don’t Breathe 2 is a confusing direction to take the two part horror franchise. Since it took 5 years to make a sequel, Fede Álvarez gave his co-writer Rodo Sayagues the director’s chair. Don’t Breathe made effective use of its concept in a way that was tricky to replicate. The original home invaders weren’t exactly saints, but at least they felt like victims. Don’t Breathe 2 basically turns the evil “Blind Man” into the protagonist by making the new home invaders more evil than he is.

Stephen Lang is as ruthless as he was before, but this time he’s too sympathetic. The first movie has twists that I won’t give away. So I’ll at least say that Norman Nordstrom survived and finally has the daughter he wanted. Despite their misguided attempts to redeem a murderer, the only character who comes close to being good is Nordstrom’s replacement daughter Phoenix played by capable newcomer Madelyn Grace.

Nordstrom and his Rottweiler protect her in his newly fortified Detroit home where Phoenix longs for freedom. The sequel at least replicates the tense atmosphere when the house is broken into. Even though the home invaders are mostly disposable criminals who are only around to increase the body count. The lead criminal played by Brendan Sexton III has a personal connection to Phoenix that make his true intentions more messed up. When she’s kidnapped, the once subtle film turns into a needlessly gory killing spree with a few clever tricks from “The Blind Man.” Don’t Breathe 2 is a rare horror movie with nobody to root for.

Don't Breathe 2

The blind man goes hunting

Preceded by: Don’t Breathe

Blind Ambition

Don’t Breathe is the exact opposite of Evil Dead (2013). Rather than make another blood soaked supernatural remake, director Fede Álvarez reunited with producer Sam Raimi to make a more realistic low budget original horror film. Like most modern horror movies, it was the concept that drew me in. Don’t Breathe is a reverse home invasion flick that gives the antagonist the limitation of being blind. Except that “The Blind Man” is more capable than he appears.

The naturally muscular Stephen Lang is intimidating as Norman Nordstrom, but slightly sympathetic as a blinded war veteran who ends up the target of calculating thieves. Evil Dead actress Jane Levy is final girl Rocky who wants to leave her abusive household, Goosebumps actor Dylan Minnette is the more virtuous Alex, and It Follows actor Daniel Zovatto is the obnoxious Money. Don’t Breathe is like a spiritual successor to It Follows since both take place in Detroit and make effective use of atmosphere.

The house is a terrifying labyrinth that gives Nordstrom a distinct advantage. Sequences like Rocky and Alex wandering a pitch black basement are a major highlight. Just as scary is the vicious Rottweiler that protects Nordstrom when he isn’t around. Although Don’t Breathe is only an hour and 28 minutes, it features an early twist that makes Nordstrom even more complex. I already didn’t like his nihilistic worldview, but what he plans to do to Rocky gets really disgusting. Everytime you think she got away, “The Blind Man” keeps gaining the upper hand. Don’t Breathe will leave you holding your breath.

Don't Breathe

The blind man defends himself

Followed by: Don’t Breathe 2

The Adventures of Captain Snowball

The Secret Life Pets 2 was the first non-Minion sequel from Illumination. In the time between the first movie, Despicable Me already reached its third installment. Despicable Me 2 felt like a natural progression for the franchise, but The Secret Life of Pets 2 is more like three short films loosely tied together. It’s basically the first movie all over again. Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Dana Carvey, and Ellie Kemper all return for the sequel except for the main star. I never cared for Louis C.K. in the first place, so I didn’t care that he was recast due to controversy. Patton Oswalt is a more lively replacement for Max anyway. The pets and their antics continue to be for children, but it’s still mostly amusing.

This time Max feels threatened by Katie’s son when she finds love with Chuck voiced by fellow comedian Pete Holmes. Max quickly becomes overprotective of Liam and he gets so stressed that he wears a dog cone. That seems to be the plot until the unfocused movie splits in three. One plot sees Max and Duke leave New York for a farm where Max learns to be brave. He’s taught by a gruff voiced Harrison Ford as sheepdog Rooster. Leaving the big city for a farm is pretty cliché, so you get what you expect. Another plot sees Gidget look after her crush Max’s favorite toy Busy Bee. The apartment is the only place we see Chloe, Buddy, Mel, Norman, Pops, and the rest of the pets. Gidget pretending to be a cat to enter a crazy cat lady’s apartment and rescue Busy Bee is cute, but it could’ve easily been a short film.

The final plot sees the now domesticated Snowball fantasize about being a superhero. Since Superhero movies are at an all time high, it feels a little played out to do something like this. I continue to tolerate Kevin Hart, but Tiffany Haddish is the same in everything she does. Even voicing a concerned Shih Tzu named Daisy who enlists Captain Snowball’s help to rescue a white tiger from a circus. Hu doesn’t speak, but it’s your basic animal rescue plot. Nick Kroll is the standard evil European circus owner Sergei who gets help from a psychotic monkey and villainous black wolves. The movie’s plots couldn’t be more disconnected, but they do manage to make everything relevant in the end. Ending with a more cringy scene where Snowball raps the “Panda” song. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is just a bunch of stuff that happens.

8. The Secret Life of Pets 2

Duke and Max protect Liam

Preceded by: The Secret Life of Pets

Pet Story

The Secret Life of Pets asks the question, what do pets do when their owners are away? It’s no secret that Illumination gives way more attention to the Despicable Me & Minions franchise. The Secret Life of Pets was their way of branching out, yet maintaining the marketable cuteness that they’re known for. Though you better believe they found a way to sneak Minions into it. Obviously this concept has been done before, but The Secret Life of Pets is a passable kids movie. Although I never had a pet, I am a fan of dog and cat videos on YouTube. The opening is basically a bunch of relatable antics that pets get into when their owners leave for work. The story may be average, but the computer animation, especially for New York, is pleasing to look at. Animals are well rendered with cartoony features. I couldn’t really relate to the cast, since they’re all part of stuff I don’t normally watch.

Comedian Louis C.K. is your standard loyal Jack Russell Terrier Max. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star Ellie Kemper is Max’s standard dog owner Katie. Fellow comedian Jenny Slate is an adorable Pomeranian named Gidget with a standard crush on Max. Their standard group of apartment pets include Lake Bell as lazy tabby cat Chloe, Hannibal Buress as relaxed wiener dog Buddy, Bobby Moynihan as hyper pug Mel, the director as dimwitted guinea pig Norman, and nonverbal parakeet Sweet Pea. Their material isn’t always the best, so most of them are forgettable. Most of the jokes rely on potty humor and Looney Tunes style slapstick. The Secret Life of Pets is basically Toy Story with pets. Max is the favorite until the giant Newfoundland mutt Duke enters his life. I don’t watch Modern Family, so Eric Stonestreet didn’t do much for me. Like a less clever Woody & Buzz relationship, Max & Duke are at odds with each other before ending up lost.

They’re cornered by deranged alley cats including Steve Coogan as the hairless Ozone. Then they’re rescued by a sewer dwelling group of human hating animals who call themselves the Flushed Pets. Although he’s an adorable white bunny, the group’s villainous leader Snowball is voiced by Kevin Hart. Despite his constant riffing, Hart is funny in the unlikely role. Meanwhile, the apartment pets led by a lovesick Gidget try to rescue their friends. She enlists help from hungry hawk Tiberius voiced by Albert Brooks and paralyzed Basset Hound Pops voiced by Dana Carvey doing his old man impression. Max and Duke don’t connect until they find a sausage factory followed by a very out of nowhere dancing hot dog dream sequence. The scene would be weird enough on its own, but this was the same year as Sausage Party. When they fail to find Duke’s original owner, a series of car chases lead to Snowball becoming good and helping the pets get home. The “Lovely Day” pet reunion is probably the most heartwarming part of the movie. The Secret Life of Pets should please pet owners.

7. The Secret Life of Pets

Duke and Max in Snowball’s Flushed Pets lair

Followed by: The Secret Life of Pets 2

All You Need is Love

Across the Universe brings The Beatles music to life. Much like Mamma Mia!, the movie is a jukebox musical that uses over 33 Beatles songs incorporated into the story. The difference is Across the Universe was never a stage production. Even though director Julie Taymor got her start in theater. Across the Universe would’ve honestly made more sense on Broadway, because there are so many songs jammed into a 2 hour & 13 minute movie. Across the Universe bombed hard at the box-office and I have no memory of it coming out.

Characters are loosely tied together, underdeveloped, and their story is very standard. Across the Universe takes place in the 1960’s during Vietnam with characters named after Beatles songs. Jim Sturgess plays Jude from Liverpool, Evan Rachel Wood plays Lucy from America, and Joe Anderson plays her brother Max. Jude falls for Lucy and Max tries to avoid being drafted. They’re joined by a Bohemian assortment of hippies including T.V. Carpio as closet lesbian Prudence, Dana Fuchs as sexy singer Sadie, and Martin Luther McCoy as the Hendrix-like Jo-Jo.

Plus cameos from Bono, Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, and even Salma Hayek. They’re all pretty aimless and free-loving, but they do protest the war. Everything else is centered around musical performances. Some renditions are great and others can’t compare to the original. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” works as a draft song, but “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” doesn’t work as a somber coming out song. One thing Taymor gets right are the trippy and often psychedelic visuals. Across the Universe honors the legacy of The Beatles, but it could’ve used more work.

Across the Universe

Hippies sing “Because”

In the Land of Submarines

Yellow Submarine is a groovy mix of trippy visuals and songs by The Beatles. The late 60’s were far more psychedelic and experimental. The Beatles were apprehensive about making a third film after Help!, but they still needed to honor their three picture contract that began with A Hard Day’s Night. An animated production was a fair compromise since Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr didn’t need to physically appear until a quick live-action cameo. The Fab Four are all voiced by soundalikes, but you can’t really tell the difference.

Yellow Submarine sparked my curiosity the most since it was the closest thing to adult animation at the time. It has a cult following and even a LEGO set. The only real comparison is Fantasia, both for its abstract visuals and strong emphasis on music. Yellow Submarine takes place in the magical music loving world Pepperland where the villainous Blue Meanies attack. Old Fred takes the titular Yellow Submarine to Liverpool where he recruits the Beatles to save them. The band experience the Sea of Time, the Sea of Science, the Sea of Monsters, the Sea of Nothing, and the Sea of Holes until they reach the Sea of Green.

Yellow Submarine is a weird nonsensical adventure, but it gets weirder when they make friends with intellectual creature Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D. voiced by Dick Emery. When they reach Pepperland, the Beatles fight the Blue Meanies with the power of music. The soundtrack includes way more hit songs like the titular “Yellow Submarine,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and “All You Need is Love.” Yellow Submarine is a one of a kind experience.

Yellow Submarine

The Beatles in their Yellow Submarine

I Need Somebody!

Help! helped increase the popularity of The Beatles. Director Richard Lester was given a bigger budget that included more actors, more locations, and filming in color. Although Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr all admit the follow up wasn’t the best experience. Apparently they were high on marijuana half of the time. I’ve known about Help! for years since my parents had a copy of it on VHS. Much like A Hard Day’s Night, Lennon wrote the title song after Beatles Phase II and Eight Arms to Hold You were denied.

Unlike A Hard Day’s Night, Help! sort of has a plot. This time The Beatles are targeted by a religious cult who sacrifice people to their goddess Kaili. Ringo is singled out since he’s the one wearing the sacrificial ring. Help! is like a parody of spy films since Ringo’s ring is the McGuffin that everyone wants. John, Paul, and George all attempt to help their mate. Leo McKern is the cult’s psychotic leader Clang and newcomer Eleanor Bron switches sides to help the band.

The Beatles are also targeted by a scientist who seeks to rule the world with the ring. Help! is obviously more absurd and reliant on British humor. The movie is filled with slapstick gags and comedic on-screen texts. Each song feels more like it’s own music video since the Fab Four travel from London to the Austrian Alps and the Bahamas. Such new songs include the titular “Help!” and “Ticket to Ride.” Although it doesn’t quite compare to A Hard Day’s Night, Help! needed no help being a fun adventure for the band.

Help!

The Beatles go skiing

And I’ve Been Working Like a Dog

A Hard Day’s Night capitalizes on the immense success of The Beatles. Beatlemania was at an all time high in the mid 60’s. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are all part of the most popular band that ever lived. The title was suppose to be either The Beatles or Beatlemania before Starr came up with A Hard Day’s Night. Of course I’m a Beatles fan, but I’ll admit I always assumed the movie was named after an existing song. Turns out Lennon wrote the song in one night.

A Hard Day’s Night is a very low budget black & white mockumentary directed by Richard Lester and starring the real life Fab Four. The movie is basically a day in the life of The Beatles as they deal with screaming fans and explore London leading up to an important television appearance. Paul is joined by his troublesome grandfather played by Wilfrid Brambell, Ringo leaves the band temporarily, John is a smart-aleck, and George is there too. The boys from Liverpool are natural actors who play off their chemistry with one another.

There isn’t much of a plot, but the movie was still nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Along with Best Score, since music is the true star of the movie. We hear hits like the titular “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “She Loves You.” A Hard Day’s Night was a highly influential precursor to music videos. Each song is like its own music video with jump cuts and other commercial techniques. A Hard Day’s Night is one of the greatest rock musicals ever made.

A Hard Day's Night

The Beatles run from their fans

Mini Boss

Minions: The Rise of Gru is the real prequel to Despicable Me. Minions was cute, but it was a stretch to give the title characters their own movie. They needed a good villain to follow and Scarlet Overkill wasn’t it. The Rise of Gru is proof that a young Gru should’ve been around from the start. Child Gru was previously seen in flashbacks, but this time Steve Carell voices him throughout the entire movie. Which also means the return of Julie Andrews as Gru’s mother, Russell Brand as a young Dr. Nefario, and other surprise appearances that bring the franchise full circle. Gru is an aspiring supervillain who gradually learns to accept help from the Minions. Kevin, Stuart, and Bob are still the main trio of Minions, but they’re also joined by chunky braces wearing Minion Otto.

Pierre Coffin continues to voice the Minions, but he doesn’t direct this time around. The Rise of Gru now takes place in the 1970’s with even more jokes that will go over kids heads. It’s basically an homage of cheesy Kung Fu flicks, spy films, and 70’s music. Gru aspires to join the supervillain team the Vicious 6. Taraji P. Henson voices the afro-sporting leader Belle Bottoms, Jean-Claude Van Damme voices the lobster claw wearing Jean Clawed, Lucy Lawless voices the evil nun Nunchuck, Dolph Lundgren voices the rollerblading Svengeance, and Danny Trejo voices the metal handed Stronghold. It’s an impressive cast, but they’re all pretty one note villains. The missing sixth member is Alan Arkin as Wild Knuckles, the original leader who gets betrayed and ends up kidnapping Gru.

It’s up to the Minions to save their mini boss and recover an ancient Chinese artifact called the Zodiac Stone. Otto goes after the stone on a tricycle and the trio get into more hilarious antics. Including flying a plane and learning Kung Fu from a master who could only be voiced by Michelle Yeoh. The climax is one of the more creative in the franchise since the Vicious 6 are transformed into vicious animals and the Minions are transformed into adorable animals. The Rise of Gru was supposed to come out back in 2020, but it was postponed due to the Pandemic. In that time I got tired of seeing the same trailers and LEGO sets over and over again. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the prequel/sequel, but Minions: The Rise of Gru is the best installment since Despicable Me 2.

5. Minions The Rise of Gru

Gru and the Minions at the theater

Preceded by: Minions

Oh Brother

Despicable Me 3 kept the franchise going despite Minion dominance. Minions was a billion dollar success, but Illumination tried to expand with The Secret Life of Pets and Sing in the same year. Despicable Me 3 came afterwards with all the same excessive marketing. I know because I must’ve seen the trailer a hundred times. Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig return as Gru and Lucy who are now happily married agents working for the Anti-Villain League. The latest villain is Balthazar Bratt, a former child star from the cancelled TV show Evil Bratt with the unlikely voice of South Park co-creator Trey Parker. Bratt is a throwback supervillain with a high-top, mullet, and shoulder pads since 80’s nostalgia is still a thing. The movie is filled with 80’s songs like “Bad.” Bratt uses expanding bubble gum and other 80’s toys to steal a priceless diamond.

When Gru and Lucy fail to bring Bratt in, they’re both fired from the AVL by the new director voiced by Jenny Slate. Steve Coogan briefly voices the former director, but he also voices a butler who tells Gru about his long lost twin brother Dru. Gru’s mother made 2 seperate non-speaking cameos before Julie Andrews finally had a reason to return. Although it’s convenient storytelling, The Simpsons did the exact same thing. Carrell also voices Dru who lives in the fictional country Freedonia, is a wealthy pig farmer, and has long luxurious hair. Russell Brand doesn’t return, so Dr. Nefario is stuck frozen in carbonite. This time it’s the Minions who want to quit due to Gru’s lack of villainy. After Minions, I was surprised by how much they downplayed their role in the movie. Mel is the lead Minion who takes most of the Minions to a singing competition and prison where they realize they miss Gru. Two Minions stay with Gru and his family who all have major subplots.

Lucy is mostly concerned with being a better stepmom to the girls. Miranda Cosgrove returns to voice Margo after finishing college. Margo learns to accept Lucy after she stops an accidental marriage proposal. Dana Gaier returns as Edith who mostly tags along with Agnes. Agnes is recast since Elsie Fisher was busy making Eighth Grade. Her replacement is a little distracting since she spends a lot of time searching for a unicorn. Meanwhile, Gru learns that Dru wants to be a supervillain and he uses it as an excuse to steal back Bratt’s diamond. They use fancy stealth suits to infiltrate his lair where they discover his evil plan to make Hollywood float into space. The climax sort of rehashes the original, but this time it’s Lucy who saves the girls. Gru and Dru learn to work together and the Minions return to help defeat Bratt. Despicable Me 3 isn’t very original, but it is a serviceable return.

4. Despicable Me 3

Gru bonds with his brother Dru

Preceded by: Despicable Me 2 & Followed by: Despicable Me 4