The Marsh Girl

Where the Crawdads Sing is part nature documentary, part survival story, part coming of age romance, part murder mystery. The 2018 novel by controversial conservationist Delia Owens became one of the best selling books in recent memory. I’m not a big reader, but the trailer peaked my curiosity when I learned Where the Crawdads Sing sold over 12 million copies. I decided to read the book in time to see the movie in theaters. I kept stopping and starting and the mostly negative movie reviews weren’t helping. Eventually I finished the book and saw the movie despite what the critics said. I’m glad I ignored them, because Where the Crawdads Sing is a genuinely great adaptation of an already engrossing book. I enjoy young adult stories and I didn’t care that it was technically a “Chick Flick.” Almost the entire production team is female including the director, writer, and producers. There’s even a haunting original song by Taylor Swift.

The book immerses the reader in the North Carolina marsh, but the movie is breathtaking with gorgeous cinematography that makes me appreciate swampland a lot more. Catherine “Kya” Clark is known to Barkley Cove as “The Marsh Girl.” Kya is abandoned by her entire family and forced to live with her abusive pa until he leaves her to fend for herself. She attends school once, but the townspeople reject her. The good thing about casting lesser known actors is that they fit the characters a lot better. The young Kya actress is good, but Daisy Edgar-Jones is exactly how I imagined teenage Kya. Some people took issue with how well put together the actress is, but no one said “The Marsh Girl” was uncivilized. Her fascination with the marsh is infectious and so are the relationships she does manage to form.

Though it takes place in the 50’s and 60’s, the African American Jumpin and Mabel are the closest thing Kya has to caring parents. I expected the racial undertones to be downplayed a bit. Her brother Jodie returns later on, but the focus is primarily on Kya’s romance between two very different guys. Taylor John Smith plays the protective aspiring conservationist Tate Walker who teaches Kya to read. Their relationship is magical and passionate, but it doesn’t last. Harris Dickinson plays the seemingly caring if complex Chase Andrews who feels like a jerk whether you’ve read the book or not. The murder victim is Chase, and the movie gets to his trial a lot faster than the book. A wise decision that gives Kya a reason to tell her story when she’s accused. David Strathairn is probably the biggest actor who plays Kya’s comforting lawyer. Though the movie omits key characters and important poetry, the ending is still equally tearful and chilling. Way out yonder, Where the Crawdads Sing is better than it’s given credit for.

Where the Crawdads Sing

Tate teaches Kya to read

They Still Hate You

A Soldier’s Story uses themes of race to solve a murder mystery. Director Norman Jewison tackled a similar story decades before with the Best Picture winning In the Heat of the Night. A Soldier’s Story was only nominated for Best Picture, but my mom strongly recommended I watch it. Despite his previous success, A Soldier’s Story was something of a calculated risk for being predominantly black and dealing with World War II. Of course it became just as popular as the original A Soldier’s Play that it’s based on. Most of the play’s cast reprised their roles. Including Denzel Washington in his second film role as a rebellious soldier.

Washington would later win for a similar role, but it was Adolph Caesar who got all the Oscar attention. He plays the murdered Army Sergeant of an all-black company of soldiers that spends more time playing on the Negro league than seeing combat. Through flashbacks we see Caesar’s complex performance as a cruel drill instructor with internally racist views of some of his men. There’s plenty of white on black hate, but the movie is more about black on black hate. After his role in Ragtime, Howard Rollins was cast as the black superior officer Captain Davenport who was sent to investigate the murder.

Like In the Heat of the Night, Davenport faces resistance from Colonel Nivens, but cooperation from Captain Taylor. Davenport questions the soldiers including Washington’s resentful Peterson, Art Evans’ brown-nosing Wilkie, William Allen Young’s resistant Henson, David Harris’ nervous Smalls, and David Alan Grier’s friendly Cobb. Robert Townsend is another comedian who gives the film some levity. Meanwhile, Patti LaBelle gives the film some soul. Larry Riley stands out the most as the simple good-natured country boy C.J. Memphis who plays a key role in the mystery. The perpetrator didn’t surprise me, but the nuanced way to get there makes A Soldier’s Story work.

A Soldier's Story

Sgt. Waters accuses C.J. Memphis

Truth Lies Beneath the Surface

Serenity (2019) has nothing to do with Firefly. Have you ever seen a movie with terrible reviews, yet no idea why that was the case? Serenity (2019) looked promising with an Oscar winning cast that included the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. That kind of star power was better suited for Interstellar. Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke, Diane Lane, and Jeremy Strong are also fairly respected actors given nothing good to work with. Serenity (2019) was nominated for 2 Razzies, has a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes, and bombed so hard they had to stop marketing it.

I admittedly wouldn’t have bothered seeing Serenity (2019) if not for the opportunity to review it the day after Serenity (2005). The difference is this Serenity refers to a boat, not a spaceship. At first the movie seemed like a boring sea voyage. Watching it was borderline incomprehensible with McConaughey’s trademark southern drawl and all the excessive swearing. I figured out Baker Dill was some kind of fisherman living in a small community obsessed with catching tuna.

When Hathaway comes along as a sexy blonde femme fatale, the movie suddenly feels like noir. Clarke unsurprisingly plays the abusive villain who they plan to kill. At that point my only question was why they kept cutting back to Dill’s estranged son playing a computer game. Serenity (2019) has a twist that comes completely out of nowhere. One that makes all the bad acting seem somewhat deliberate. It’s the kind of twist that thinks it’s more meaningful than it is. I’d almost recommend Serenity (2019) for just how ridiculous the twist is, but it’s not enough to endure a lousy film.

Serenity

Baker and Karen on Serenity

The Curse of the Allenbys

She-Wolf of London has nothing to do with Werewolf of London, and even less to do with The Wolf Man. It’s not explicitly part of the Universal monsters lineup, but its inclusion in the Wolf Man collection box set was good enough for me. Even though I knew nothing about the movie. She-Wolf of London deals with werewolves, but not the way you think. A young June Lockhart plays wealthy London heiress Phyllis Allenby.

She hopes to marry Barry Lanfield played by Don Porter, but everything goes wrong when a string of murders happen nearby. Scotland Yard detectives are convinced it’s a female werewolf. Phyllis lives with three other women. Her caring cousin Carol, mysterious gaslighting Aunt Martha, and observant maid Hannah. Along with a handful of dogs that bark every night. Martha convinces Phyllis that the family “curse of the Allenbys” means she’s the She-Wolf that comes out at night.

She-Wolf of London is different from other monster movies. It’s more of a mystery with an obvious outcome. I was immediately suspicious when I couldn’t find a single photo of the alleged Wolf Woman. Monster fans were no doubt disappointed to know there is no She-Wolf. The title is more false advertisement that was clearly chosen to sell the picture better. She-Wolf of London earns points for atmosphere, but it’s a deceptive waste of horror.

30. She-Wolf of London

Phyllis Allenby examines her hands

The Falcon Fury

Scoob! has no idea what its identity is. Scooby-Doo has had more animated movies than any other cartoon property. Yet Scoob! is somehow the first theatrical animated movie in the franchise. Or at least it would’ve been if the pandemic didn’t push it to streaming. Although I still haven’t committed myself to the direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movies, Scoob! felt a little more necessary. It was computer animated and seemed to be made with fans in mind. Then everything changed when the Hanna-Barbera universe was announced. Turning Scoob! into yet another desperate attempt at an MCU style cinematic crossover. Half the time it feels like Mystery, Inc. is only used for their name recognition. What 10 year old child is gonna know who Dynomutt, Captain Caveman, or Dick Dastardly is? They don’t have half the staying power of Scooby-Doo, yet every obscure Hanna-Barbera character is given a computer animated update.

What’s worse is the over reliance on cringey modern slang and references to Netflix, Ikea, or the Hemsworths. It’s like the movie has no target demographic. The all-celebrity cast is a much larger issue that continues Hollywood’s lack of faith in voice actors. Will Forte is a surprisingly unenthusiastic Shaggy. Zac Efron sounds right on paper, but his Fred is way too full of himself. Gina Rodriguez is another non-white Velma, but her brains almost make her boring. Amanda Seyfried is also off, but I felt like she was a lot closer to capturing Daphne. Frank Welker is the only returning cast member who only voices Scooby. Maybe it’s his age, but even his voice felt off. Scoob! seems to be an origin story about how a child Shaggy met a pup named Scooby-Doo. That, along with his meeting with Fred, Daphne, and Velma all feels very underwhelming. You know mysteries aren’t important when a revision of the Where Are You! opening is the only thing that feels remotely mysterious.

A very out of nowhere (and creepily rendered) Simon Cowell sereraptes Shaggy & Scooby from the gang. Leaving Fred, Daphne, and Velma to look for them when they’re abducted by the Falcon Fury. Everyone has some Scooby-Doo knowledge, but I know next to nothing about the Blue Falcon. Mark Wahlberg voices the son of Blue Falcon with a gritty new costume. Ken Jeong voices Dynomutt and Kiersey Clemons is given top-billing as the only black Hanna-Barbera character Dee Dee Skyes. Shaggy really doesn’t feel like the fanboy type, yet that’s given more attention than anything else. Jason Isaacs is trying a lot harder than he needs to as the villain Dick Dastardly. His plan involves finding his dog Muttley and opening the underworld to release Cerberus or something. Tracy Morgan eventually shows up as Captain Caveman, but it’s just as tact on as everything else. Although it tries to make friendship the heart of the movie, Scoob! is more incorporated character branding than mystery solving.

6. Scoob!

Mystery, Inc. solve mysteries

Scoobyless Doo-Doo

Daphne & Velma is not the girl power flick it desperately wants to be. The best thing about the Scooby-Doo franchise is just how well the mismatched Mystery, Inc. work together. For whatever reason, Ashley Tisdale and her sister Jennifer thought Daphne Blake and Velma Dinkley should solve a mystery on their own. So they produced the movie themselves and it went straight to DVD. Without Fred, Shaggy, or Scooby-Doo, only Daphne & Velma have a noticeable live-action casting decline.

Both actresses are named Sarah, but neither feel right in their iconic roles. The mixed race Sarah Jeffery of Descendants fame is given red hair to play Daphne. Apart from wearing purple, nothing about her screams accident prone or fashionable. Not even when they lean into those tendencies out of nowhere. Sarah Gilman’s Velma looks and feels like a Ghost World reject. Once again, it’s not enough to wear orange or say “Jinkies.”

Without the rest of the gang, I really don’t buy Velma being best friends with Daphne. Yet that’s what happens when a mystery comes around at their high school. Despite the entire franchise being horror themed, Daphne & Velma feels more like science fiction. Their school is obnoxiously high tech with borderline futuristic technology and kids becoming zombies because of their cell phones. Insert dated modern slang and that’s literally the entire movie. Complete with a less than surprising twist villain. Daphne & Velma is proof that all future mysteries require a talking dog.

5. Daphne & Velma

Daphne and Velma

Getting Incorporated

Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster is just another Scooby-Doo mystery in a live-action package. Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins had the intrigue of being a made-for-TV prequel with a new cast. Curse of the Lake Monster sounds like something that could’ve been a random direct-to-video animated movie. Not that my brother and I didn’t once again watch the premiere on Cartoon Network. The prequel-sequel follows Mystery, Inc. as they get summer jobs and attempt to become incorporated.

The entire cast obviously returns since it was only a year after the previous movie. Nick Palatas is given more attention as Shaggy, but I constantly asked “Scooby-Doo! Where are you?” I get that his CGI is expensive for a TV budget, but he’s barely relevant to the mystery. As the title suggests, the mystery is who’s behind the Lake Monster that haunts the beach. The humanoid toad monster is controlled by a witch with an obvious identity.

Honestly it’s not as memorable as the movie’s summer love subplots. Robbie Amell and Kate Melton are unsurprisingly paired up as Fred & Daphne. They even get a cute joke of them wearing their cartoon accurate outfits. More surprising is Shaggy being paired up with the brainy Velma when he literally falls for her. Hayley Kiyoko is also given more screen time as Velma that makes it obvious she’s the brainwashed villain. Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster is a mostly serviceable kids movie that probably won’t leave an impression.

4. Scooby-Doo Curse of the Lake Monster

Mystery, Inc. at a country club

Preceded by: Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins

The First Mystery

Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins isn’t that bad considering its TV budget. After the failure of Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, a third live-action movie was cancelled. It was eventually replaced by a sort of prequel that’s both contemporary and has a completely different cast. My brother and I actually watched The Mystery Begins when it first aired on Cartoon Network. Although it lacks the so bad it’s good crudity of the theatrical films, I can’t really refer to it in the same way. Most faults are understandable for a made-for-TV kids movie.

Not counting shows like A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, it is kind of fun to see how many unique personalities became lifelong friends and detectives. Nick Palatas does an admirable job with Shaggy as an awkward high school slaker. The rest of the iconic characters are off, but mostly excusable. Robbie Amell nails the dumb jock with a heart side of Fred, but he isn’t blonde. Kate Melton is a mostly plain looking Daphne with a love for theater. Hayley Kiyoko is the first non-white actress to play Velma, but her braininess and silly walk are very much in tact.

Although voiced by Frank Welker, Scooby-Doo is given rough CGI that makes him look more like a cartoon. Scooby finds a home with Shaggy and the rest of the gang become friends Breakfast Club style. The mystery itself is a very ametur Coolsville High mystery with obvious fakeouts and a more obvious villain. Meanwhile, ghosts are the usual pesky poltergeists. The Mystery Machine ends up being Daphne’s old family van and Scooby Snacks are the homemade treats Shaggy makes. Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins is barely a mystery worth discovering, but it’s a harmless addition to the franchise.

3. Scooby-Doo The Mystery Begins

Mystery, Inc. in the Mystery Machine

Followed by: Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster

The Real Monsters

Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed feels like the movie they should’ve led with. Although Raja Gosnell is still the director and James Gunn is surprisingly still the writer, Monsters Unleashed feels more like a love letter to Scooby-Doo. Albeit one that retains the immature humor of the first movie. There are still innuendos, but it’s more clear that this was always meant to be a kids movie. Although I was 8 and enjoyed the live-action Scooby-Doo, I still didn’t see the sequel in theaters. Monsters Unleashed isn’t a guilty pleasure like the first movie, but it has its moments. Scooby-Doo 2 brings back the entire cast with slightly updated hair and/or outfits. Mystery, Inc. arrives in a Mystery Machine limo to a Coolsville museum dedicated to their many cartoon accurate ghosts.

It is fun to see them acknowledge the Pterodactyl Ghost, Black Knight Ghost, Tar Monster, and Skeleton Men. At first they’re just costumes, but scientific mumbo jumbo turns them into real monsters with the usual terrible CGI. The mystery this time is who the masked figure behind everything is. Each Mystery, Inc. member is once again given equal importance. At this point Matthew Lillard fully transforms into Shaggy. He and Scooby-Doo try to prove they aren’t screw ups by doing serious detective work. With the usual fart jokes and childish antics along the way. The most memorable scene is Shaggy & Scooby taking potions that turn them into various things. Since Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar were married at this point, some attention is given to Fred & Daphne’s relationship.

Really it’s Linda Cardellini who’s given the most attention with Velma receiving a love interest. “Jinkies!” she’s even put in a sexy skintight outfit just to impress Seth Green as the museum curator. He’s one of several suspects including Peter Boyle and Tim Blake Nelson as former masked ghosts. Although the real culprit is more obviously Alicia Silverstone as a reporter trying to discredit Mystery, Inc. Other memorable moments involve the gang together. Like when they explore a spooky mansion or remember being teenagers. In the end it’s Scooby-Doo who gets his big hero moment. The villain is unmasked and an obligatory dance number plays. Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed has enough respect for the show to distract from the usual forgivable problems.

2. Scooby-Doo 2 Monsters Unleased

Mystery, Inc. at an abandoned warehouse

Preceded by: Scooby-Doo

Spooky Island

Scooby-Doo is a live-action adaptation that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Scooby-Doo is without a doubt, Hanna-Barbera’s most successful media franchise of all time. It’s impossible to ignore the dozens of animated iterations, direct-to-video movies, crossovers, etc. Something about four meddling kids and their talking dog solving mysteries together has serious staying power. So a live-action movie was inevitable. I’ve always considered myself to be more of a casual Scooby-Doo fan. I saw the first animated movie at a young age, but not much else. I didn’t see Scooby-Doo in theaters even though I was 7 at the time. It eventually became a guilty pleasure of mine that’s unlike any other live-action cartoon adaptations. Since Scooby-Doo was originally intended to be an adult oriented satire similar to The Brady Bunch Movie. Raja Gosnell is an understandable director, but I had no idea James Gunn wrote the screenplay. Shaggy being a pothead, Daphne kissing Velma, and other darker themes were eventually dropped to make it kid friendly, but Scooby-Doo is still packed with less than subtle innuendos.

The cast, soundtrack, cameos, and CGI scream early 2000’s. Regardless of what anyone says, I think Scooby-Doo himself strikes the right balance between real Great Dane and cartoon character. Matthew Lillard is like “Zoinks!” scary good at playing Shaggy Rogers. He’s so good at portraying his hunger and slacker mannerisms that Lillard continues to voice Shaggy to this day. Freddie Prinze Jr. plays into Fred Jones poor leadership skills and self-importance. Buffy herself Sarah Michelle Gellar ironically joins the original Scooby gang as Daphne Blake. This is the first time Fred & Daphne become romantic considering their co-stars were dating. Linda Cardellini is just nerdy enough to play Velma Dinkley, but Daphne & Velma are still put in increasingly revealing outfits. Really it’s the opening scene that gives Mystery, Inc. their cartoon accurate outfits. Even the Mystery Machine is spot on. The movie sort of begins arbitrarily with the Lunar Ghost kidnapping Daphne and being unmasked as Old Man Smithers.

More sudden is the entire team parting ways for over 2 years. They’re brought back due to a mystery on Spooky Island. The haunted amusement park is run by Rowan Atkinson and several other colorful characters. Fred, Daphne, and Velma are more determined to solve the mystery themselves. Fred eventually learns to be less full of himself. Daphne desperately tries to shed her damsel in distress image by learning to fight. Velma proves her intelligence to be valuable and has a sort of love interest. Shaggy & Scooby spend most of their time eating Scooby Snacks and farting for several minutes, but a girl does come between them. Shaggy falls for Mary Jane (subtle) played by before she was famous Isla Fisher. The spooky atmosphere would’ve been enough, but now there are actual monsters on the run. It’s really their CGI that’s horrendous. The mystery is complicated by soul extraction, cult rituals, and Scooby-Doo being sacrificed. Until a random twist that makes the much hated Scrappy-Doo the villain behind everything. Scooby-Doo has a strange approach to its iconic characters, but that’s what makes it so fun. “Scooby-Dooby-Doo!”

1. Scooby-Doo

Mystery, Inc. on Spooky Island

Followed by: Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed