Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Bullet Train – Review

Whenever a major action movie shakes up the formula and becomes a major hit with audiences, it will suddenly become the touchstone for a whole new generation of movies just like it.  That was certainly the case after Die Hard (1988) unexpectedly shook up the industry upon it’s release.  Suddenly, the studios were looking for the next Die Hard, and it often led to a lot of sub-par copycats.  Then in the mid-90’s, the movies of Quentin Tarantino began to shake up the action genre in their own way.  Now there were a lot of action movies where the heroes were speaking with quippy dialogue and making pop culture references.  But, through them all, most of those movies couldn’t match either Die Hard‘s perfect pacing or Tarantino’s sharp wit.  Mostly, the action genre is about peaks and valleys.  There are icons that rise up and stand strong, but they are surrounded by a lot of junk that falls flat and becomes forgotten to the ages.  And there really hasn’t been much change to that cycle.  The only thing that has really changed is that action movies more or less are now dominated by comic book adaptations and sequels.  There are original ideas making their way into action films today, but they are often either outside of the Hollywood system (mainly in the foreign market) or they are the passion project of a famous movie star or film director.  One particular action film that brought some fresh new life into the genre was John Wick (2014) starring Keanu Reeves.  John Wick brought back an emphasis on choreographed stunt work into a genre that had long been diminished by fast editing and CGI.  The John Wick series is all about in camera stunt work and long takes, stripping the genre down to it’s fundamentals and having fun with them.  Naturally, this too has led to a proliferation recently of action movies in that same Wick style, which is not all together a bad thing.  If a movie is going to inspire a bunch of copycats, at least it should inspire the kinds that are grounded in reality like it is.

One of the men behind the success of John Wick is director David Leitch.  Leitch had been a long time stunt man in Hollywood before getting behind the camera.  Among performing and coordinating stunts in films as varied as Fight Club (1999) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001), he also worked on the incredibly complex stunts involved in the Matrix trilogy.  That’s where he met and bonded with Keanu Reeves.  Leitch would continue to work with Reeve on many other films like Constantine (2005), but all the while the two were collaborating on a dream project that appealed to their collective creative tastes.  That film eventually became John Wick and it not only helped to revitalize Keanu’s film career, but it also began Leitch’s second career as a movie director and producer.  He was uncredited for his work on John Wick (Chad Stahelski had the sole credit even though it was a shared position between the two), but his follow-up really demonstrated his talent for putting his actors right in the thick of the action.  He cemented Charlize Theron as an action star with Atomic Blonde (2017), which again involved another actor performing a lot of her own stunts for authenticity.  Afterwards, David did a couple of franchise jobs, jumping aboard Deadpool 2 (2018) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019).  Now he finds himself back making another original action film, this time collaborating with another actor whom he once performed as the stunt double for: Brad Pitt.  Their new film Bullet Train takes the Leitch style of stunt heavy action and sets it within the titular high speed location.  The question that remains is, does Bullet Train live up to the standard that a filmmaker of David Leitch’s career has set for him, or does it quickly come off the rails.

In present day Tokyo, we meet a small time assassin code-named Ladybug (Brad Pitt) as he is assigned to steal a case full of ransom money from another bunch of assassins working for a rival player in the criminal underworld.  Ladybug, who is renowned for his bad luck, follows the case full of money to a bullet train bound for Kyoto.  On board, he runs into a pair of assassins known as Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who are delivering the case to their boss, a Russian criminal overlord named the White Death (Michael Shannon), along with his delinquent son (Logan Lerman).  At first, Ladybug manages to snatch the case away undetected, but he soon learns that there are many other high profile assassins on board the same train.  He first runs into The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny) a Columbian hitman who seeks revenge against Ladybug, though Ladybug barely remembers what the transgression was in the first place.  There is also a young British girl named Prince (Joey King) who also turns out to be a trained assassin while sneakily posing as an innocent bystander.  She herself has another job to perform on the train, which is to hold the man who originally brought the case on board the train, Kimura (Andrew Koji).  Kimura’s father, a crime boss known as the Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), is a rival of the White Death, and Prince’s motives involve stirring up this rivalry between the two.  In addition, another assassin named the Hornet (Zazie Beetz) is taking out additional targets on the train with her own specialty; injecting victims with the venom of a highly toxic snake.  Ladybug quickly finds himself in over his head and continually complains about his situation to his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock) over the phone.  What was suppose to be a simple snatch and go has now devolved into a full blown gang war on this high speed train.  What follows is a crazy string of events that involves the briefcase full of money itself, a venomous snake let loose on the train, as well as a bottle of water with it’s own journey to take.  The only question that remains is who will be left standing once the train reaches the end of the line.

Needless to say, the plot to Bullet Train is a complicated one.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the movie ends up being pretty divisive for critics and audiences.  One’s response to this movie will probably hinge on the viewer’s tolerance level for quirky dialogue and plot contrivances.  And for someone like me, I found that my tolerance is pretty high.  Overall, I found Bullet Train to be a generally fun ride of a movie.  Sure, it’s a bit of a mess that screams indulgence on the part of the director, but it’s never dull and left me having a good time.  I’d say where the movie may be a problem for many is that the movie has wild swings in tone.  For the most part, it does have an over the top quirkiness that works in it’s favor, but the movie also has moments that are meant to tug at the heartstrings or feel terrifying when the stakes are raised.  At some points, it doesn’t really capture those other kinds of moments as well as it does the more humorous parts.  There’s a tragic backstory given late in the film that is emotionally wrenching, but a second later it gets undercut by a quippy remark delivered by either Brad Pitt or another star.  It’s hard at times to know exactly which kind of tone David Leitch is trying to land on, and it leaves parts of the movie uneven.  But, at the same time, when the movie wants to be clever and give us an unexpected surprise, it usually generally works.  There are some really clever twists on the trope of establishing a long tragic backstory for some of the characters, and even for just an object sometimes.  In those moments, the movie does manage to turn the genre on it’s head a bit, and have some fun with what we are expecting the story to go.  And I’ll give the movie this credit, it keeps things moving along, like the titular train itself, and part of the entertainment value was in seeing how all the new complications build up to take the story into avenues that you don’t see coming.

There is a John Wick aspect to the way that the movie is filmed, with stunt work taking precedent over every other effect.  The movie offers up some pretty clever moments, like a fight between Pitt and Taylor-Johnson’s characters in the train’s snack cart station.  The way that the motion of the train is used, particularly with it’s speed is also a strong component of the action scenes, including some of the harrowing moments when the characters are on the outside of the train, which can reach speeds of over 200 mph.  There are moments though when CGI does have to be used, and thankfully they are at the points where the movie intentionally goes cartoonish.  It’s at the points where the characters must do battle in close up combat that you see the work put into the choreography of the scene.  And, like Leitch’s other films, they try to use as much of as they can with the name actors.  It helps that when the movie does try to freshen things up with the action sequences, they use the train itself and different parts of it to make each scene unique.  Another good example of this is when Brad Pitt and Brian Tyree Henry get involved in a fight in the train’s Quiet Car.  At that point, the fight is about hurting the other opponent without you or them making a sound, and this helps to make it a humorous while also brutal action sequence.  The diversity of the fight scenes help to make the 2 hour runtime not feel burdensome, because apart from them, the story itself is fairly flimsy.  It’s mainly about following each scene up with what had happened before, and not much else.  There aren’t any deep character evolving scenes, though characterizations do remain strong.  The plot is essentially just there to stitch it altogether in the end.

One thing that is impressive about this movie is the pretty solid cast that’s been brought together.  The movie is especially serviced well by a very funny and charming lead performance by Brad Pitt.  What I especially like about Pitt’s performance in this movie as Ladybug is that he creates a character who’s not exactly great at his job.  A John Wick this character ain’t, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t prove himself to be heroic by the end.  I like the fact that Ladybug is just a lower level assassin caught up in something that is far outside his level of expertise, and that part of his finding his way out of a predicament is just a result of dumb luck.  Pitt brings a nice folksy relatability to the character, and he is delightfully oblivious to the heavy drama that the other characters bring into the story.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry also bring a lot of extra humor to the movie, as well as some surprisingly sincere dramatic moments.  Their characters, Tangerine and Lemon are comically referred to as “The Twins,” despite the glaring differences in skin color and physique.  Their working class London East-ender accents are also a fun aspect of their personalities.  I also found the performance of Hiroyuki Sanada as the Elder to be very effective, especially given that he’s the only character in the story that brings about some dramatic gravitas.  He’s also pretty remarkable with a sword in the movie.  The film’s one weak spot in the cast sadly is Michael Shannon as the villainous White Death.  Shannon is great actor, and he does leave an impression in this movie, but the character shows up very late in the movie and has such little time to define his presence, perhaps robbing the character a bit of his menace during the closing of parts of this movie.  I also should give a special note of praise to Sandra Bullock for her mostly vocal performance here.  I like how her line reading perfectly balances off of Brad Pitt’s in-over-his-head novice.  In some ways she plays it as part high stakes supervisor par psychiatrists, helping Pitt’s Ladybug work through his insecurities during the job.

One of the most important characters in the movie though just happens to be the train itself.  The majority of the film takes place aboard this one train, and the movie does a great job of helping situate the viewer into understanding the geography of this one train.  Each car features it’s own defining features, which in turn give character to the different action set pieces that happen within them.  There’s the aforementioned Quiet Car, the dining car, the bar car, as well as one car that is meant for kids complete with it’s own mascot character walking around.  The plot of the movie involves the characters moving back and forth across the trains cars, often either bumping into one another or chasing each other down.  The movie does a good job of allowing each new location to be defined before letting the characters start wrecking havoc inside them.  There’s some especially wild moments that involve the mascot character getting in the way.  Even while the movie does take place in a singular location, the film crew did a fantastic job with making the viewer feel like they are aboard that same train.  cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who’s worked with David Leitch on all of his past movies, paints every scene in these vibrant colors, befitting the neon glow of modern day Japan.  It’s probably safe to say that not one scene in this movie was filmed on a real train in the vicinity of cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.  Instead, it was all film in front of blue screens in stages across Hollywood.  The fact that we the viewers still are able to imagine the train as being real and the environment outside the windows shows just how well the production and post-production teams were able to bring this setting to life.  If you’re going to name your movie after the setting where the majority of the story takes place, the filmmakers better make sure that it looks great on screen, and that indeed seems to be the case here.

It’s overall not David Leitch’s strongest work, but still, there is a lot of entertainment value to be had.  It’s one of those turn your brain off movies where you just go along for the ride.  The characters are fairly simple, but at times the actors bring out some surprising depth to the roles they are playing.  Brad Pitt is especially enjoyable in this movie, with a character exhausted from all the bad fortune that has fallen his way and yet still manages to find a way out of a predicament.  I imagine that for most involved here, the movie is just a fun bit of exercise, allowing them to make something crowd-pleasing without overextending itself in order to be profound.  It’s pure popcorn cinema, and indeed a good example of this movie being done right.  Given how so many action movies end up feeling like copycats of something else, it’s just pleasing to see a movie that wears it’s uniqueness proudly.  The script can get a little overly indulgent, but Leitch’s direction is solid and inventive.  It will be interesting to see if his career continues to centered around making movies on this scale with an original idea or gimmick around them.  Is he going to continue on as a director for hire for most of his time  in Hollywood, sticking mostly to movies guaranteed to have positive box office.  Perhaps making those corporate financed movies every now and then is what helps to finance the riskier movies that he wants to make more of.    Hopefully, the personal movies that he wants to put out into the world are worth it.  Bullet Train, like I stated before, offers up the bare minimum that summer blockbusters require but at the same time has a bit more interesting quirks to it that help to make it unique and much less of a copycat of other hit action movies  Hop aboard this train, preferably on a nice big screen, and just check your cynicism at the door and indulge yourself in a slight but still satisfying summertime action flick.

Rating: 7.5/10

Nope – Review

The Hollywood career of Jordan Peele has been an interesting one in terms of it’s evolution.  The LA based comic first made a name for himself in sketch comedy, appearing first on the late night show Mad TV and then later moving over to Comedy Central with the critically acclaimed show Key & Peele, alongside his fellow Mad TV alum Keegan-Michael Key.  Launching off the success of Key & Peele, Jordan began to look towards the big screen as his new frontier.  He co-wrote and produced the comedy Keanu (2016), which co-starred him and Key, but what Jordan was really interested in was directing.  What’s more, he wanted to direct a film in a genre that was completely outside what he had built his brand around up to this point; a horror movie.  With an investment from Universal Pictures, as well as from famed horror movie production outfit Blumhouse, Peele got his shot the following year with what would be his directorial debut, Get Out (2017).  Peele’s genre-bending thriller was a phenomenon upon release, not only winning critical acclaim for it’s expert mix of horror genre conventions and sharp racial political satire, but also becoming a huge hit at the box office.  The movie even went on to become an awards season favorite, including multiple Oscar nominations with Best Picture being one of them.  The movie eventually lost out to The Shape of Water (2017) that year, but Peele did come away an Oscar winner for his Original Screenplay; a first for a black writer.  Not too bad for a first time director.  The only question afterwards was, what would he do for an encore.  For a movie director to hit it big right out of the gate on their first film, the pressure becomes much higher for whatever they may do next.  But, Jordan Peele was not ready to rest on his laurels yet.  He already had not one, but multiple projects lined up next.

Given his passion for the horror genre, it’s no surprise that many of his follow up projects would fall within that same pedigree.  He would help relaunch the Twilight Zone series for the CBS All Access streaming platform (later rebranded Paramount+) and he even participated as the show’s host, keeping in the tradition started by Rod Serling.  He also worked as the producer on Spike Lee’s award winning BlackKklansman (2018), as well as the writer/producer on the remake of Candyman (2021), directed by Nia DiCosta.  But, of course what most people were interested in was his follow-up directorial effort, which became known simply as Us (2019).  Us shared many similarities with Get Out, particularly in how it used social commentary to underline the horror moments on screen.  For some, it didn’t quite hit as hard as Get Out did, though everyone was in awe of the lead performance given by actress Lupita N’yongo.  What Us revealed about Jordan Peele as a director was that he was a definite original voice in the film industry that was really connecting very well with an audience, but at the same time, his was a voice that was still trying to refine itself and perhaps seeking a way to be more than just a one trick pony.  He is at a point in his career where his name alone is now a major selling point for a movie, and that can be both a blessing and a curse.  Take for instance M. Night Shayamalan, whose name was at one time a signifier of something fresh and bold in Hollywood, but eventually his desire for artistic integrity began to clash more with what fans expected of his work, and in the end he lost his lofty place as a marketable director and his name became more and more synonymous with low quality films.  Now on his third film, Jordan Peele is also grappling with the fact that there are heavy expectations with regards to the movies he makes.  With his new film Nope (2022) we are now seeing Jordan Peele establish where he himself would like to take the direction of his filmography, and the question remains if it’s something that offers the same kind of freshness as his previous work, or is it a step too far that may alienate some of his most dedicated fans.

The movie finds Jordan working in another genre that feels logically extended out from horror; that being Science Fiction.   Nope is set mostly on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where the city fades away into an arid, mountainous desert.  There is found the Haywood Ranch, where a family of horse trainers have made their homestead.  The Haywood’s are said to be descended from the jockey that appeared in the famous 1878 Muybridge Horse Photos, the first known example of motion pictures and a precursor to the craft of film that we know today.  Today, the Haywoods specifically train horses for movies, and their stable of steeds has been very popular for many years on several film sets.  But, the ranch has been facing hard times after the sudden death of the patriarch, Otis Haywood (Keith David) from a freak accident.  His two children, Otis Jr., or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), and Emerald (Keke Palmer) have been trying to hustle their way towards more opportunities, but sadly their efforts have been for not and they’ve been forced to sell the livestock that has been a part of their family for generations.  One of the buyers of their horses has been an old friend of OJ’s, Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) who’s a former child sitcom actor who has since become the owner of a small Western themed tourist trap known as Jupiter’s Claim, which is situated right next to the Haywood Ranch.  One night as the Haywoods contemplate their future, OJ spots something unusual flying across the valley that their ranch is in.  Though not believing it at first, OJ and soon Emerald both realize that they are dealing with an alien form of life in the shape of a flying saucer.  They seek more help to capture the alien on film to prove their case, including an electronics store technician named Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and an old-school, low tech cinematographer from Hollywood named Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).  And though their aim is to capture the being on film, the means to do it without risking their own lives proves to be tricky.  Eventually they begin to realize that on the Haywood Ranch, it’s either going to be them or the thing in the sky that remains by the end.

One thing that I think may happen with regards to this movie is that it’s going to polarize a lot of people.  Up to now, Jordan Peele’s movies have been pretty straight forward about what they are and what they are trying to say.  With Nope, Peele is not really making any grand statement and he leaves things a bit more ambiguous by the end.  For those that have become fans of his work because of his sharp witted satirical edge, they may walk away disappointed by this movie, because it’s not about any social issue really.  There may be some subtle themes about man’s relationship to nature and how we respond to spectacle, but in the end, this is more just Peele telling a straightforward alien encounter story.  And if you go into this movie with few expectations, and knowing very little about what it’s about, you might come away feeling differently.  I made an effort to go into this movie cold, not listening to any of the speculation and fan theories beforehand, and as a result, I like this movie quite a bit.  For me, I wanted to see Jordan Peele expand beyond what we already know he is capable of making and actually use his third film to showcase that he is more than just a socially conscious horror movie director.  Here we find Jordan taking a more Spielbergian turn, where the movie is less about the scares and more about the atmosphere and tension.  The movie in fact digs deep into old school Spielberg inspirations, like a mash-up of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), with a little bit of Duel (1971) thrown in.  And much in the same way those movies worked, it’s a movie more about the experience than the destination.  We never really know what the alien is or where it came from, or why it’s choosing to haunt this specific ranch.  The mystique is very much the unknown element.  In Jaws, we never know why the shark is on a killing frenzy; the movie is about what the characters are going to do to overcome the beast and survive the day.  That’s the principle behind Nope too, and as a result, it makes the movie feel fresh in comparison to Peele’s other films.

The one drawback to Peele using tension to drive the momentum of the story is that it does make the movie lag at certain points.  It’s never to the extent that it spoils the movie, but there are moments where you definitely feel the 2 hour and 10 minute length.  I think this mainly comes from the fact that some moments feel like repeats of ones before, especially when the characters are trying to evade the alien.  Even still, Jordan Peele adds some things that really help to keep the scenes interesting and inventive.  There’s a really clever use of music halfway through the movie, and how playback speeds affect the mood in that scene.  Taking the Spielberg approach to strong effect, Peele wisely holds back in revealing what’s going on with the alien.  We only get a couple really good close-ups through the early part of the movie, with the scene really building up strong tension from the quick glimpses we see of the creature, not really knowing where it may come at us from next.  Without saying too much about what we eventually end up seeing, Peele wisely keeps us in the dark with regards to what kind of threat the alien is to our characters.  And even after we finally get our answers, it’s something that is not at all what we expect.  The movie is a departure for Peele, but it also does bear his mark quite clearly.  The movie does balance all the more intense moments with levity that harken back to his comedy days.  It also has a distinctively African-American perspective to it, from the cultural shout outs to black artists of the past as well as examining how race plays into the business of Hollywood.  Dynastic legacies of African-Americans in Hollywood is not something that is spotlighted often, and the fact that the Haywood family has only managed to be valued as horse trainers in the business despite a family connection to the very birth of cinema shows just how small their footprint has been, despite being so integral.  It’s the closest that the movie comes to a social statement, but at the same time it’s never brought to the forefront, as the collision between mankind and alien is ultimately what the movie is about.  That’s why I liked the movie as much as I did; because it left me contemplating the movie and it’s themes long after seeing it the first time.

One thing that I especially have to praise about this movie is the visuals.  This film is probably Jordan Peele’s biggest leap forward yet as a visual story-teller.  Despite taking place mostly in one location, the Haywood Ranch (plus some detours to the Jupiter’s Claim park and the now closed Fry’s Electronics store in Burbank), the movie has a very epic feel to it.  I think that one of the reasons this movie has a very grandiose feel to it is because it was shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who many know for his frequent work on the films of Christopher Nolan.  With movies like Dunkirk (2017) and Tenet (2020) on his resume, it’s natural that Hoytema’s preferred film stock of choice is 70mm IMAX, and that’s what they used on Nope.  To really appreciate the scope of this movie, it has to be experienced in IMAX, as this was the format that the movie was shot on.  Naturally, the moments that take the most advantage of the IMAX format are the ones involving the alien itself, and if you are able to see the movie on a true, full sized IMAX screen, you will be blown away by the magnitude of the experience.  But, even on a smaller screen, the film feels like a big step forward for Jordan Peele.  His other films really showed how he flexes as a writer and storyteller, but Nope shows us him flexing now as a film director.  He fills the screen with a lot of clever visual ideas, like the windsock figures that are littered across the landscape, but at the same time he never loses track of the story he’s telling.  The landscape itself is it’s own character, with the valley that the ranch sits in giving this feeling of entrapment on it’s own, for both the characters and the alien.  Hoytema does an especially good job of capturing the terrain from above and below, as well as the changing weather patterns.  This in it’s own right helps to bring more tension to the scene, because depending on whether it’s the day or nighttime, it plays into how much we see of the alien.  I also have to commend the visual effects team for crafting a representation of the alien that is definitely foreign, but at the same time feels organic and realistic.  When we see the alien in it’s true full form, it is one of the most striking visuals I’ve see in a movie in a long time.  Some might find it a bit too odd, but for me, it was very imaginative and made all the more impressive by the large format presentation.

One of the other great things about this movie is the cast.  Peele once again works with his Get Out leading man Daniel Kaluuya, himself a recent Oscar winner for Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), and they once again bring out the best in one another.  What is especially great in this movie is that Kaluuya is joined by Keke Palmer in the role of his sister, and their character dynamic is so perfectly portrayed in this film.  Kaluuya’s OJ is stoic and soft spoken while Palmer’s Emerald is bombastic and in-your-face, and their polar opposites friction throughout the movie helps to make them very engaging characters.  I especially like the different way they express themselves with regards to being in the thick of danger.  Kaluuya says so much with just a look and a simple under his breadth delivery of his lines.  He especially gets a good laugh in the movie by the way he says the titular phrase “nope” in response to seeing something scary.  Palmer’s Emerald has some hilarious lines throughout, often being the one who brings levity to the film.  The secondary characters also offer a surprising amount of character to the movie.  Steven Yeun doesn’t appear in the movie for long, but his character has a tragic backstory that really offers up an interesting perspective on his character and Yeun plays that inner turmoil perfectly, showing just how much showbiz has become a mask for his pain.   Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott also perfectly embody the types of characters they are playing, both feeling like they are being called for a higher purpose by seeking visual proof of alien life.  I especially like the aloofness of Wincott’s cinematographer, as he really is a perfect example of a Hollywood professional so deep into his own artistic senses that he’s in a different world than the rest of us.  Consistently throughout his movies, Jordan Peele has crafted strong character ensembles that contribute greatly to the stories that he’s telling; probably something that he learned to value from his sketch comedy days.  When you’re working in a very high concept genre piece like this one, it’s very dependent on the ability of the audience to care for the characters on screen, and Nope‘s colorful ensemble of personalities definitely helps to make the movie resonate with it’s audience.

I definitely see that this may be a movie that ultimately becomes polarizing for some.  I have always admired the way that Jordan Peele writes his movies, but Nope is the first time that I’ve been truly impressed with him as a director.  He has made an ambitious movie within his own unique style and has shown that he indeed can make a movie on a large scale.  Although the movie is still pretty small in budget compared to other summer fair, given it’s singular location and small cast, it has the feel of a grand blockbuster, and it makes me wonder what else Jordan is capable of behind the camera.  What would happen if he’s granted a budget on the scale of say a Marvel film.  He’s already demonstrated that he can use IMAX photography to impressive effect, so I think it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we may see something more epic from Jordan in the years ahead.  I also like the fact that he’s also trying to break out a bit from the formula he’s been building around his name since Get Out.  He doesn’t always need to be the horror movie guy that talks about racial politics in his films.  He can make any film he chooses and still leave his mark with his own distinctive voice.  He hasn’t turned his back on race and larger social issues; they’re still there if you look closely in Nope.  But what he clearly wanted to do in this movie was make a alien encounter movie unlike any we have seen before, and I believe he succeeded in that goal.  Sure, the movie is a little long in the tooth, but I was on the edge of my seat for most of the movie.  It is especially good if you know nothing going in.  Peele expertly lets the drama of these characters’ lives drive the story and then throws in the weird an unexpected to give it the freshness that it needs.  I also love the fact that it’s a love letter to the idea of capturing life on film, whether through motion or still photography.  If Peele argues for anything in this movie, it’s for the importance of physical media, which is valuable in a situation when digital equipment is rendered useless.  It’ s another movie that celebrates the process of filmmaking rather than the glamour that surrounds it, and that statement is no better said than by putting at the center of his movie two characters who train the horses that appear in the movies.  I strongly recommend seeing Nope, on the biggest screen if possible, because love or hate it for most of you, you can definitely say that it’s something thought provoking and new, and that is indeed what Jordan Peele sets out to do as a filmmaker, even if he likes to leave us with a good scare along the way.

Rating: 8.5/10

Thor: Love and Thunder – Review

Out of all the many characters that have been given the spotlight by Marvel in their expansive Cinematic Universe, I think the one who has had the most interesting arc through the many movies spread across the last decade has been the God of Thunder, Thor.  You would expect every super hero film to have the standard Joseph Campbell hero’s journey blueprint, and for where Thor started as a character in his film series, that’s exactly the model that Marvel chose to follow.  The original Thor (2011) was your standard super hero origin story, which was more noteworthy for it’s operatic visuals courtesy of director Kenneth Branagh, than for it’s cookie cutter plot.  The same is true for the even more generic sequel, Thor: The Dark World (2013), which many consider to be the worst film in the whole MCU canon.  But, over the course of Thor’s appearances in these movies, as well as his presence in the Avengers films, Marvel discovered something about the character that they didn’t expect.  It turned out that Thor became a much more interesting character when you took him a little less seriously.  A large part of finding the essence of the character came from the actor playing the role, Chris Hemsworth, who proved to be surprisingly adept at comedy in addition to looking the part of a handsome, muscular god.  This was something that began to blossom in the later half of Marvel’s initial Cinematic Universe plans, with the third film in his solo franchise fully embracing it’s silly side without remorse.  Thor: Ragnarok (2017) was in many ways a re-launch point for the character of Thor, and his trajectory as a character has been greatly influenced by the events of that film.  His character development even hit a whole new level of poignancy with the two part arc of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), where we found Thor broken and vulnerable emotionally for the first time.  It again took the character to unexpected places that has made him one of the most richly textured characters in the whole MCU.

Since Thor: Ragnarok,  the shepherd for the Thor side of the Marvel universe has been director and writer Taika Waititi.  Taika’s background in comedy has been a valuable asset for the series moving forward, because not only does his style bring out more of the lighter side of the character that audiences have increasingly been gravitating towards, but he also has been instrumental in making the Thor movies feel truer to their comic book origins.  Let’s face it, comic books are silly by nature and that has been the appeal of them ever since the early days.  The Thor comic books in particular have been where Marvel has put out their most mind-bending, psychedelic material, with their hero literally playing around in the realms of the Gods.  At the same time, Thor also has an Earthbound connection that helps him remain relatable to the audience.  His friendship with the fellow Avengers has shown that, as well as his often contentious relationship with his brother Loki (played in the movies by Tom Hiddleston).  But certainly the relationship that has mattered the most for him in the comics has been that with Jane Foster.  First introduced in the Thor comics in 1962, Foster has been the primary love interest for Marvel’s Thor, and the thing that has helped him transition most from celestial God to earthbound super hero.  She appeared in the first two Thor movies, played by Natalie Portman, and though her character was critical for the plots of those film, she surprisingly disappeared from the greater MCU story-line for quite some time.  This might have been because Natalie was uninterested in continuing on it the time consuming Marvel machine, or because Marvel’s new direction with the character of Thor didn’t have a clear place for Jane Foster to be involved in.  Regardless, Jane Foster has been absent from the MCU since Thor: The Dark World nearly 9 years ago, mentioned briefly in passing, or shown through stock footage in Avengers: Endgame.  But, despite creating a massive revamp of the Thor’s story-line, Taika Waititi did find a way to reintroduce the character of Jane in a way that fit well in his more irrelevant style.  And with the return of Thor’s love interest into his cinematic story-line, it’s fitting that that the movie itself is called Thor: Love and Thunder.

Following the events of Avengers; Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been traveling through the cosmos, having hitched a ride with The Guardians of the Galaxy.  Alongside the Guardians, as well as his close friend Korg (Taika Waititi), Thor has gotten himself back into shape and is again in top fighting form.  But, a distress call from his fellow Asgardian Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander) alerts him to a more dangerous threat in the cosmos.  A renegade assassin named Gorr, The God Butcher (Christian Bale) has been slaughtering Gods across the galaxy, empowered with a powerful weapon called the Necrosword.  Thor leaves the Guardians and returns to Earth, where the Asgardian people have set up a new colony called New Asgard, which itself has become a popular tourist attraction.  Upon his return, he finds New Asgard under attack by shadow monsters sent by Gorr.  He fights alongside his people, including the Asgardian king, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).  While in the thick of battle, Thor sees his old weapon, the mighty hammer Mjolnir, flying around.  The once shattered hammer has been re-forged and Thor believes that it has returned to him in his moment of need, but that is not the case.  Mjolnir is now being wielded by another fighter, known as the Mighty Thor to the New Asgardians.  Thor soon learns that Mighty Thor is actually Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), his ex-girlfriend who he hasn’t spoken to in years.  Unbeknownst to Thor, Jane had gained possession of Mjolnir after it called to her during her visit to New Asgard.  in addition, Jane also keeps secret the fact that before becoming the Mighty Thor, she was in the middle of battling stage 4 cancer, and while in god form she keeps the cancer at bay, once she’s not the hammer has accelerated her condition.  The Asgardians do manage to fight off the shadow monsters, but they soon realize an even more horrific reality, that Gorr has stolen their children away during all the chaos.  To bring the children back, Thor, Jane, Valkyrie, and Korg seek to find help from the other Gods.  They venture to Omnipotent City, the fortress of the Gods, to make their plea, including to the God of Lightning, Zeus (Russell Crowe).  But, are they too late as Gorr’s plans extend beyond just kidnapping children.

Going into this year, I was really looking forward to seeing Thor: Love and Thunder.  I’ve been especially high on the films that have featured Thor recently, especially the Avengers film, and I absolutely love what Chris Hemsworth has been doing with the character.  In addition, I have become increasingly a fan of the work of Taika Waititi.  His last film, Jojo Rabbit (2019), was my absolutely favorite film from that year, and it is quickly becoming one of my favorite movies in recent memory as well.  I was very eager to see what he would do as a follow-up, here returning to the director’s chair of another big Marvel project.  So, did Thor: Love and Thunder meet my lofty expectations.  On the whole, I would say that it did succeed at one major fundamental point; that it left me entertained.  But, meeting or exceeding my expectations, well that’s something that I would have to pick apart a bit later.  Fundamentally, Thor: Love and Thunder is a very entertaining romp, delivering the expected action beats that you would expect from a Marvel project, as well as the loony irreverant humor and charm of a Taika Waititi project.  But, it doesn’t go any further than that.  I did find myself laughing quite often, with Hemsworth especially delivering the goods as a comedic performer.  And the movie does have a lot of striking visuals, both showing off Taika’s creative eye as well as bringing to full life images made memorable on the page.  I do however see how this movie might be a letdown for some Marvel fans.  A lot of promise from the premise laid out in the marketing of this movie seems to be missing.  For one thing, with a character named Gorr, the God Butcher being present, there really isn’t a whole lot of butchering going on in this movie.  Greater universal implications are also kept to a minimum, as this movie does little to address the frustratingly vague Phase 4 plans that Marvel is undertaking in this post-Endgame era.  The way I see it, forget about where this movie rests in the grander scheme of things and just judge it by the singular story it’s supposed to be telling, which is one of reconnecting with the things that matter the most to you, like love.  In essence, it’s the closest that Marvel has gotten to creating a romantic comedy.

Though I do appreciate the entertainment value it gave me for it’s two hour runtime, I do recognize that it is a bit sloppy in it’s story telling.  It’s been reported that a lot of stuff was left on the cutting room floor, and this movie feels like it too.  It’s a far more scatter-shot plot than Thor: Ragnarok, which had it’s stakes very clearly defined.  One of the things that becomes frustrating is the way that the story doesn’t take the right amount of time to establish it’s important plot points.  We never see Jane Fosters transformation into the Mighty Thor.  The movie just cuts ahead and she is in full super hero mode at that point where she shows up again.  We do get a backstory montage to help fill in the gaps, which includes a little window into Thor and Jane’s years together, but I feel like the movie missed out on having a powerful moment on screen as Jane makes her first transition into Mighty Thor.  Some of the learning curve would’ve been appreciated too.  I understand that part of the pressure on Taika in telling this story was to keep the momentum going, and the movie seems to be shackled by the fact that it has to get from one place to another very quickly.  Fans of the Guardians of the Galaxy will be disappointed that their presence in the movie is pretty minimal; pretty much just limited to the first act.  But even still, better to have them there than to not have them.  Despite the film’s sloppy presentation, there is still a story with heart at it’s center.  One thing that still remains true is the character arc of Thor himself.  We do see how the years have helped to soften his character, and how this re-connection with Jane is meant to push him towards the next phase of his journey.  While the movie’s place in the greater MCU story-line doesn’t make much sense now, I have a feeling that it will carry much more weight after we’ve seen the full breadth of Thor’s part in it play out.  For one thing, resolving the dangling plot thread of what happened to Jane Foster in the years since we last saw her is definitely enough to help justify this movie existing.  And Taika certainly does know how to keep things from feeling boring or uninteresting, and at the same time, also knowing when to hold back on the the light-hearted stuff when the movie needs to have a bit more tension.

The performances throughout the movie are certainly the movie’s greatest asset, helping to smooth over some of the flaws inherent in the plot and the script.  Hemsworth of course continues to delight as Thor.  With over a decade as the character now on his resume, he effortlessly manages to find the right balance between goofy charm and manic strength.  You can also see the years of development of his character wonderfully represented in the way he shows his vulnerable side throughout the movie.  The return of Natalie Portman is also very welcome, and to her credit, even after a very long absence on screen, her role as Jane Foster never misses a beat.  The chemistry between her and Chris Hemsworth works even better now after the long absence, because they are both able to be a little looser within Taika Waititi’s direction.  Returning cast including Taika as Korg and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie are also still a lot of fun to watch here.  I especially like that they are far more direct now about Valkyrie’s sexual orientation, reflecting Thompson’s own real life queer identity, and having it be a natural part of who she is.  The film’s entire celebration of relationships of all types is especially great to see, and it fits very well within the theme of the story as a whole.  While the characters that we are all familiar with are served well by the movie, it’s the newly introduced ones that stand out even more.  One of the biggest coups for Marvel in some time was getting an actor of Christian Bale’s caliber to appear in this movie.  Sure, he’s no stranger to comic book movies (having played Batman), but he’s also an actor who picks his roles very carefully, and probably has had his fill with super heroes.  So, it’s quite surprising to see him cross over into the MCU and play the role of a villain.  While Gorr is a bit underwritten on the page, Bale does some amazing work as the character in his performance.  He is genuinely terrifying and unpredictable, and does some really interesting stuff even through the heavy make-up to deliver a truly original villain within the pantheon of Marvel heavies.  He also makes for a perfect counterpoint to Thor’s colorful personality, and their clashes in the movie are truly epic.  I should also spotlight the work of Russell Crowe as Zeus.  Though his time in the movie is brief, he makes the most of it with a delightfully hammy performance, complete with an over-the-top silly accent.  The characters, as well as the remarkable casting choices behind them, have always been Marvel’s greatest asset, and Thor: Love and Thunder proves once again that this remains true.

One other thing that Taika has excelled at with his adaptation of the Thor section of the Marvel universe is his incredible eye for visuals.  Taika particularly has a thing for 80’s pop culture, which is reflected in everything from the color scheme to the choices in needle drops within the score.  This was especially true in Thor: Ragnarok, where multiple still frames throughout that movie could make for an ideal metal rock album cover.  Love and Thunder takes things to a bit more earthbound level, but there are still nonetheless moments that pop with the same kind of flair found in Ragnarok.  One of the most striking visual moments in the movie is when Thor and his companions enter the Dark Realm where Gorr resides.  The Dark Realm is a place so bleak that even color disappears from it, which causes the scene to shift to an eerie black and white color scheme, with only small traces of color shining through.  This section of the movie has a starkness that you never see in any Marvel movie, and it is a definite stand out sequence.  There’s also some impressive visuals found in the Omnipotent City sequence as well.  I’m sure there is going to be a lot of cross-examining of that scene by die hard Marvel fans hoping to look for every possible Easter egg they can find in that sequence.  What I also like is that Taika gives the scene an impressive sense of scale, making it feel like you really are in the realm of Gods.  Even in the earthbound moments, there are also a lot of background details that many comic book fans will appreciate.  I like how New Asgard has become this busy tourist haven, and the people who live there have created a community that feels both old world and new world at the same time.  Though Ragnarok may have had more moments of grandeur and a lot more unique elements, especially with the Jack Kirby inspired world of Sakaar, Love and Thunder still gives you enough visual treats that feel at place within the Thor franchise.  The Thor movies have always been the ones that have embraced the weird and fantastic within the MCU, and it’s great to see that in this new chapter that they are still finding ways to bring the page to the screen in a spectacular way.

At this point in time, Marvel needs to be wary of super hero fatigue starting to set in with their movies.  Thor managed to successfully reinvent himself as his series progressed, but the longer the series goes, the more it can run out of fresh new things to show us.  Right now, there are grumblings among fans and critics that Marvel’s Phase 4 has been a bit aimless so far, and that the formula of quippy heroes facing the same end-of the-world threat levels in every movie is growing a little tiresome.  I myself have been a little more critical over the last year with regards to Marvel’s phase 4 films, knocking down Black Widow (2021) and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) a few points because of their adherence to formula.  Oddly enough, of the non-Spider-man Marvel movies that have launched so far in the MCU’s phase 4, the one I actually liked the most was the much maligned Eternals (2021), because it was the only one that broke from the formula.  Thor: Love and Thunder I feel is more in that same range, though I do recognize that it is a flawed movie in many ways.  The pacing is a bit of, as well as the tonal changes, and some of the characters are not used as well as they could have been, especially Gorr the God Butcher.  But, I was entertained from beginning to end.  Perhaps the movie is best viewed as a stand alone film rather than as a piece of a greater hole, because at that point it will fall far short of Marvel at it’s peak.  I still liked seeing these characters again, and the movie made me laugh out loud quite bit.  I think on repeat viewings I’ll like the movie even more, because I’ll be able to catch more of he subtler gags thrown in throughout the film.  Anyone hoping that Thor: Love and Thunder would clear up some of the confusion about where the MCU is heading may come away disappointed, as this is just a Thor movie and not much else.  For what it is, I still feel it’s worth recommending just for the entertainment value, as well as the truly stellar performance from Christian Bale as Gorr.  I think that in time we’ll see what this movie meant in the grand scheme of things within Marvel’s master plan.  But for now, it’s a charming piece of popcorn entertainment that will offer audiences a nice adventurous time with the mighty God of Thunder.

Rating: 8/10

Lightyear – Review

Well, it’s been over two years, but Pixar is back on the big screen again.  As an effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Walt Disney company had to make the tough decision to either postpone most of their upcoming movies, risk putting them out in a diminished theatrical market to little box office returns, or take them directly to their streaming platform, Disney+.  Some movies were easily handed off to streaming, but there were some that were tougher to take away from the big screen.  The big tentpole features under the Disney umbrella were held off to wait for better conditions post-pandemic, like Black Widow (2021), Jungle Cruise (2021) and Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).  But, for whatever reason, Disney didn’t seem to want to wait with their roll out of movies from the Pixar Animation studio.  Long held as the vanguard of computer animation, Pixar has been one of the strongest performers in the Disney studios.  Unfortunately, they were also burdened with bad timing during the pandemic.  Their film Onward (2020) had a very brief theatrical run that was cut short by the pandemic lockdown, forcing Disney to cut their losses quickly and take the movie and bring it almost immediately to streaming.  Pixar also had another film scheduled a few months later, the Pete Doctor directed Soul (2020), and as the days rolled along into the midst of the pandemic, it became clear that theaters would not be open in time, or for many months after.  As a result, Soul became the first ever Pixar movie to not receive a theatrical release, instead making it’s debut on Christmas Day 2020.  One hoped that this would be a one off choice based on difficult circumstances, but Disney had other plans.  Despite Raya and the Last Dragon receiving a hybrid theatrical and streaming release in Spring 2021, it was decided that the next Pixar film planned for the Summer, Luca (2021) would also go straight to Disney+, even though most theaters by that point would be open.  After that, most Pixar fans hoped that the following year would be different, but no.  Even with movie theaters more or less back to normal business in 2022, Disney decided again to release the next in line Pixar film, Turning Red (2022) exclusively on Disney+.  And this led to some justifiable grumbling in the halls of Pixar Animation.

Thankfully, this run of streaming exclusives seems to have come to an end, and the next Pixar film, the Toy Story spinoff Lightyear (2022) is premiering first in theaters.  It would make sense that Disney would feel more confident in the theatrical performance of this film, given that it centers on a well known character like Buzz Lightyear.  What is interesting however is that this is not exactly the same Buzz Lightyear that we know from the Toy Story movies.  Those films featured Buzz Lightyear the toy.  Lightyear is about the man that the toy is based on.  And to differentiate the two a bit more, Pixar also cast a new actor in the iconic role; Chris Evans of Marvel’s Captain America fame.  This sparked it’s own bit of controversy, as many fans of the original Buzz Lightyear voice actor, Tim Allen, voiced their displeasure of him being replaced.  Some even conspiratorially said that Allen was “cancelled” by Disney for his political views, without showing any evidence of that being true.  This movie was in the works with  Chris Evans attached at the same time Tim Allen was voicing toy Buzz again in Toy Story 4 (2019), so they clearly were not pushing Tim Allen aside.  Allen is even returning for a Santa Clause spinoff series on Disney+ in the near future, so you can’t say that he’s been cancelled by Disney at all.  Pixar has made it clear, this is a very different version of Buzz Lightyear, and if you were to ask Tim Allen himself, I’m sure he would give his seal of approval to the casting of Chris Evans in the part.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing that Lightyear has become a lightning rod for.  The inclusion of a supporting character in a same-sex relationship has also sparked up controversy, despite the fact that it’s an inconsequential factor in the story and is treated respectfully and appropriately for all ages.  Clearly, some people just want to complain about the whole inclusivity of it, as a means of erasure of queer people in the guise of “family values.”  I think it’s fair to say that those complaining the most about this movie are also judging something they haven’t seen, and are probably too afraid to confront the issue of queer inclusion in media as well.  It’s sad that something as innocent as a simple kiss unjustly warrants censorship in other.  But, thankfully, Lightyear is still getting the opportunity to be seen by a large audience on a big screen, which Pixar has not had the privilege of since the pandemic began.  The only question is, does Lightyear go to infinity and beyond, or does it fail to launch?

The movie introduces us to Captain Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) as he commands the travel of a space module, which he dubs the “Turnip” because of it’s shape, through it’s intergalactic journey.  After landing on a mysterious new planet, him and his crew discover that the planet has hostile lifeforms that put it in danger, and they try to make an escape.  Buzz makes a daring escape, but his recklessness also causes them to be stranded on another part of the planet.  Buzz feels like he let down the mission, but his fellow space ranger Captain Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) convinces him that he can help save the mission through helping them discover the right formula to create the fuel that allows for warp speed.  Buzz undertakes the test flight himself, and while he manages to achieve incredible speed, he falls short of warp drive.  Unfortunately, he learns that when he does the flight tests, the faster he goes he’ll experiences a phenomenon known as time dilation. As a result, what seems like a couple minutes to him will actually be 4-5 years for everyone else.  Still, he doggedly pursues his mission and conducts more test runs.  In a short amount of time for him, he sees Alisha get engaged, marry her wife, raise a family and grow old.  After he conducts yet another test run, he learns that Alisha has passed away from old age, and that her replacement, Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who was raised on this planet, is putting a halt to the remainder of the mission.  Buzz, still determined to complete the mission, and with the help of his robotic cat companion, SOX (Pete Sohn) he finally finds the right formula and achieves warp speed.   Unfortunately, another significant chunk of time has passed, and he returns to the planet to find it under siege by a robot army, commanded by a hostile robot overlord named Zurg (James Brolin).  The colony has walled itself off behind a laser shield, and only a scant group of survivors outside remain.  Among them is Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Kek Palmer), as well two recruits named Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules).  Together, they must find a way to bring the warp speed formula back home and stop the Zurg army from destroying the colony.  Of course, as Buzz soon learns, not all plans go the way the way they should, and sometime even he can be his own worst enemy.

There is a great thrill seeing that hopping lamp Pixar logo grace the big screen again, though I’ve been privileged enough to be in Los Angeles, which saw exclusive theatrical showings of Luca and Turning Red in one theater that I got to attend.  But, having this movie widely available is thankfully a return to form for Pixar Animation, and hopefully it will continue on in the future.  But, despite the welcome return, how does this movie compare with the other films from Pixar, which is a studio that has set a very high bar.  I will say that this is a movie that is better served if you hedge your expectations.  On the surface, it’s a very serviceable, well-made action based sci-fi adventure.  But the fact that this movie came from Pixar, which is supposed to be the home of movies that go, for lack of a better phrase “to infinity and beyond,” this movie may end up being a tad disappointing.  It doesn’t exactly push any boundaries, and is more or less just an exercise in seeing the different ways they can explore the Buzz Lightyear character.  At the same time, I can’t say that I disliked much about the movie either.  The only disappointing thing I can say about it is that it plays things very safe; which is ironic considering that it’s at the center of so many controversies.  For a studio that creates so many imaginative worlds in films like Inside Out (2015), Coco (2017), and Soul (2020) as well as deep emotional stories like Up (2009) and Wall-E (2008), Lightyear comes across as far more conventional than their average film.  I think that Pixar may have unfortunately set their bar a little high as well.  Before the movie begins, title cards appear stating that “in 1995, a little boy named Andy received a toy action figure based on the main character of his favorite movie,” followed by “This is that movie.”  Unless the movie rises to the standard of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings after making that statement, then you are clearly going to set yourself up for disappointment.  It becomes a little hard to swallow afterwards that this particular movie, as conventional as it is, left such a resounding impact on one child’s life, even if he is himself a fictional character.  This really comes down to a marketing mistake.  It seems like Disney and Pixar didn’t fully trust that the audience would catch onto the conceit that this is an entirely different character from the Buzz that we know and they added the disclaimer to make it clear.  Here’s an idea, don’t assume that your audience is dumb and can’t figure the difference out.  The movie might have been better served if it was allowed to define itself without having to re-establish a connection to Toy Story.

That being said, there are definitely things to like about the movie.  One of which is the character development that they do with Buzz himself.  I like the fact that they showed him to be a flawed individual, who has to grow and mature into the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command that we all know him to be.  It kind of parallels the character development that the Buzz in Toy Story went through, where he went through his own self discovery, accepting that he was a toy and that he needed to take his mind off the mission instilled in him to better function in his new reality.  The Buzz in Lightyear also has that same deluded sense of self worth that makes him  culpable in some catastrophic mistakes.  What we see is him being a hero to a fault.  His devotion to the mission causes him to become isolated, and he loses those close to him as a result.  The sequence of him experiencing time dilation, as he watches his best friend go through a full life while he’s stuck in his short amount of time (a moment that feels very similar to one found in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar) is particularly heartbreaking, and it’s especially poignant because it’s a punishment of Buzz’s own making.  Though you can feel some of the action sequences just going through the paces and having the film just spin it’s wheels, it’s others like the time dilation sequence that do carry a lot of poignancy that helps to elevate the movie beyond just the average animated film.  I also liked how this element of Buzz’s character development ties into his confrontation with the villainous Zurg, whose presence in this movie puts it’s own interesting spin on the established good vs. evil showdown between Buzz and his arch-nemesis.  In many ways, this movie explores the character of Buzz Lightyear in far more detail than you could ever do in the Toy Story movies.  Buzz’s development in those movies is more or less shaped by his contentious but ultimately mutually respectful relationship with Woody.  Without Woody present, as well as the existential realization of being a toy, what else is there to know about Buzz?  I like the fact that Pixar deconstructed the character in this film, showing that heroes are not born, but rather shaped by the choices that they make, and that sometimes the best course to becoming a better hero is to recognize your flaws and not be burdened by failure.

One of the best things about this movie is the casting of Chris Evans as Buzz.  All of you complaining about the absence of Tim Allen will be silenced almost immediately upon watching this, because Evans slips into the role effortlessly.  Like I said, this is very much a different Buzz, but Evans still brings the smooth mixture of gravitas and stoic humor that Allen has given to the character.  There’s a nice little running joke about the mission logs that Buzz records, despite being told that no one actually listens to them, which eventually just becomes Buzz’s way of thinking out loud during the course of his story.  Evans does a good job of channeling the boy scout wholesomeness that he utilized so well during his time as Captain America, but he also manages to capture the sillier side of Buzz Lightyear very well, especially when he tries to remain stoic in moments of absurdity.  There are plenty of other good performances from other members of the voice cast as well.  James Brolin brings a surprisingly menacing tone to his performance as Zurg, even if it’s not quite as terrifying as his son Josh’s villainous performance as Thanos in the Marvel movies.  Uzo Aduba and Keke Palmer are also quite good in their roles as two generations of the Hawthorne family that Buzz befriends over time.  You also get solid humorous performances from Taika Waititi and Dale Soules as their misfit recruit characters.  But, if there is a character that easily steals the show, it’s SOX, the robotic cat companion to Buzz.  Voiced by veteran Pixar director and animator Pete Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), SOX is far and away the funniest character.  The animation of the character itself is hilarious, with Sox behaving very much like a toy cat robot, but he also has some of the most dryly hilarious lines in the film.  It’s probably likely that he was a character that Disney wanted in the movie to sell toys, and I have no doubt that SOX will be a highly in demand character when tie-in merchandise hits the shelves.  But, Pixar makes him much more than a cynical cash-grab ploy, and he is a large part of the entertainment value of this movie.  All around, this is a strong collection of voice actors who really enrich the characters that they are playing, especially with Chris Evans who had some big shoes to fill.

The film also has a lot of strong visual to back up the story as a whole.  Of course it’s expected that a movie like Lightyear would be visually up to the high Pixar standard.  What really impressed me with this movie is just how good they are with the lighting of the scenes.  This movie has some of the best atmospheric lighting that I’ve ever seen in any animated film.  There’s some moments in Buzz’s apartment in the early morning where the lighting is so subtly subdued that you would think that it’s live action and not animation.  The movie also knows when to go wild with the color and lighting as well.  The sequence when Buzz finally achieves warp speed in his test flight, which I’m pretty certain was very much inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is a breathtakingly beautiful moment of animation.  I’d say that the only let down by the movie visually is the lack of diverse locations.  The entire movie takes place on this one deserted planet, which is not much unlike any other alien planet we’ve seen in countless other Sci-Fi movies.  Considering this is Pixar, which has shown boundless imagination when it comes to world building, the lack of exploration in this Sci-Fi world is a tad bit disappointing.  Sure, there are different corners of the planet they come across, but it still feels like the movie is needlessly grounded when it should be intergalactic.  This is Buzz Lightyear we are talking about.  He should be able to venture from planet to planet in a grand adventure.  This movie keeps things pretty much grounded for the most part, with the only variety coming from when they head into Zurg’s fortress like ship.  That being said, the movie is not a slouch when it comes to the animation.  What really makes Pixar stand out as a studio is the subtlety that they put into their character animation.  You see the broad range of emotions perfectly captured in the facial animation of Buzz, and it goes a long way in helping to enrich his character’s emotional journey.  At the same time, I love the stilted robotic animation that they put into a character like SOX, which in itself is part of the humor in the film.  So, in the visuals sense, you can definitely say that this rises up to the high Pixar standard, and shows that they are definitely not falling off as a standard bearer in that field.

In the end, it really comes down to expectation.  With a legacy like what the Toy Story movies have, one might feel this movie is a let down, because it doesn’t quite have the same heart as those films do.  But, it’s also not trying to be a Toy Story movie either.  I myself was able to understand the gimmick of this movie, and disassociate it from it’s previous roots to judge it as it’s own thing.  The biggest fault that it has is it plays things a bit too safe.  Pixar could take us to endless worlds of possibilities, and yet here they tell a pretty standard Sci-Fi story.  It’s not poorly told by any means, but you get the feeling like Pixar undermined their own ambitions.  I get the feeling that the concept came first before a story was even thought up, and in the end it was treated as an afterthought.  It would have been much better if an interesting story had been conceived first and then worked into the Buzz Lightyear mythos, because then you’d have something to better grab the attention of the audience beyond the name recognition of the main character.  At the same time, Pixar does find some interesting angles within this story, particularly surrounding Buzz’s own self discovery.  Thanks to a very strong vocal performance by Chris Evans, you still find a lot to like about the character of Buzz Lightyear without it ever overshadowing the work that Tim Allen put into the character for so many years.  Combine that with solid animation and an enjoyable supporting cast, especially scene-stealer SOX, and you’ve got a film that still finds plenty of ways to entertain audiences of all ages.  I know that many Pixar fans will be happy that the studio finally has a movie on the big screen again.  Honestly, this should have happened a while ago and it’s kind of unfortunate that Lightyear is the movie to break that cycle.  Pixar during the pandemic has been on a roll, with Soul, Luca, and Turning Red being among their best films in years, so the fact that they weren’t given the same privilege as Lightyear, an objectively less interesting movie, is pretty unfair.  Still, I hope Lightyear does well enough to keep Pixar on the big screen, because it’s the best way to watch the kinds of films they make.  To infinity and beyond all you magicians over there at Pixar; keep reaching for those stars.

Rating: 7.5/10

Top Gun: Maverick – Review

How do you describe the success of a movie like Top Gun (1986).  The Tony Scott directed original is objectively not a very good movie.  The characters are one dimensional; the plot is razor thin and cliché; and the movie is rightfully view as nothing more than a fluff piece of Reagan era propaganda for the Air Force.  So, why nearly 40 years later is this movie a beloved classic for so many.  Despite all of it’s many flaws, there is one thing that Top Gun has that gives it appeal to so many; character.  It is a corny movie, but in the best possible way.  There is so much personality put into the story that even if it is poorly written and constructed, it still captures the imagination of it’s audience.  And a large part of that goes to the undeniable star factor that was and is Tom Cruise.  Cruise had been around for a while before, becoming a rising star in Hollywood through films like Taps (1981) and Risky Business (1983), but Top Gun is the movie that propelled him to super stardom.   His performance in the original movie is just magnetic in every possible way, and it elevates everything else about the film.  His co-stars, including Tom Skerritt, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer also saw their careers boosted from the success of this movie, and the late 80’s wouldn’t be the same without the Hans Zimmer score and Kenny Loggins infused soundtrack that became omnipresent after the film’s premiere.  Since then, the movie has remained one of the key benchmarks of Tom Cruise’s stellar film career, and it’s a testament to his skills as an actor that he didn’t let this one movie role to overshadow everything else that he’s made.  Still, Tom Cruise is not above revisiting old roles, even after many years in the game.  The Mission: Impossible series is still going strong after over a quarter of a century, with two more set in the next couple years.  But, even more surprisingly, he’s now looking to return to the role that turned him into a star and revisit his story now, 35 years later.  After nearly half a lifetime away, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is coming back to the big screen.

The journey to get there though was not without it’s own complications.  The first trailer for the film premiered all the back in January 2020, aired during that year’s Super Bowl.  With an expected June release, Top Gun: Maverick was going to be one of the big tent-poles of the Summer season, and the marquee title of that year for Paramount Pictures.  But, like every blockbuster film of 2020, it had to be pulled off of the calendar because of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown.  The movie by that point had been too costly to push to streaming, with both a production and marketing budget well above $200 million, so Paramount had to wait a year to plan for a theatrical release that they hoped would be more favorable to them post-pandemic.  Even though theaters did eventually reopen, the following summer still did not have ideal audience numbers to warrant the film’s release just yet, so Paramount decided to let the movie sit on the shelf for yet another year, likewise also pushing back the release of the next Mission: Impossible movie with it.  Though it was a very costly measure on Paramount’s part, it still might have been the best possible move to make.  Now in 2022, while it still hasn’t recovered 100% just yet, the movie theater industry is finally on the rebound and more importantly, the audiences who have been most reluctant to return to the theaters are now starting to finally return.  And what better way to bring older audiences back to the theaters than with a fresh piece of cinematic nostalgia.  Top Gun: Maverick certainly has a lot of weight to carry on it’s shoulders.  The original is an iconic film to those who were raised up on it, and the expectations are extremely high.  Not only that, but the world has changed quite a bit since the original movie.  Would audiences today still go for old fashioned Cold War patriotism?  Can the movie overcome the cheeseball elements that have been often ridiculed over the years, through parodies like the Charlie Seen spoof Hot Shots (1991) and a queer reading rant by Quentin Tarantino?  Well, now almost 2 years after when it was supposed to originally been released, we can finally judge for ourselves just well the Top Gun jets still burn.

The movie brings it’s iconic characters up to the present day.  Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) now flies test missions for new experimental aircraft; often against the wishes of his superior, Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris), who ends up grounding him after an unauthorized speed test.  For his subordination, Maverick is reassigned to be an instructor for an elite squad tasked with undertaking a near impossible mission.  Maverick arrives at his old home base in San Diego, where he meets an old flame, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who now runs his old favorite bar.  He reports to his new commander, Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) who wonders why Maverick hasn’t risen above the rank of Captain in over 30 years.  Maverick meets with the new pilots who are now under his tutelage, including Lieutenants Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), Robert “Bob” Floyd (Lewis Pullman), Rueben “Payback” Fitch (Jay Ellis), and Mickey “Fanboy” Garcia (Danny Ramirez).  All of them are top of their class pilots, but this is a mission that requires far more off the books training, which is what Maverick is there to teach.  All of the recruits are unaware of Maverick’s history, but one in particular does carry some baggage related to Maverick’s past; Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s long departed co-pilot and best friend Lt. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw.  Maverick begins putting his students through the paces, pitting them in combat exercises that event the elites are unprepared for.  And sparks of conflict immediately start flying between Maverick and Rooster.  Rooster blames Maverick for holding his career back, as Maverick had made a promise to his mother that he would keep Rooster out of harm’s way.  Maverick is torn whether or not to hold onto his old promises, or to let the past go and allow Rooster to determine his own way in life, a choice that an old friend of Maverick’s, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) tries to convince him to do.  With the clock ticking, Maverick must have his team ready to take on a miracle of a mission, and that requires finding common ground and trust with Rooster, who he knows he’ll inevitably have to rely upon to save the world.

Regardless of the outcome of the movie in the long run, you’ve got to admire the fact that Tom Cruise is taking a chance in reviving this title at all after so many years.  The original Top Gun wasn’t something that demanded a sequel, and indeed it stood alone for 35 years.  So for Tom Cruise now to revisit it, there had to be a creative pull that demanded a revival.  Cruise is not one to lend his clout to unnecessary sequels.  The only reason why we’ve gotten so many Mission: Impossible movies is because Tom Cruise pushes the envelope with each new film, justifying each entry as an essential part of that series.  For Top Gun, the stakes are much more grounded than those of Mission: Impossible.  It’s essentially a movie about life on an Air Force base, and all the intermingling relationships found amongst crew and company.  For Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise managed to find the angle he needed to justify a sequel after so many years.  Here he asks the question, what happens when Maverick grows older and goes from hot shot to mentor.  He’s still the same Maverick, impulsive and often insubordinate, but he’s also got the baggage of his years in service to give him perspective on the right and wrong ways of using his skills in a new world order.  And in many ways, reconnecting Maverick with the demons of his past, namely the fate of Goose that still haunts him many years later, as he has to confront working with his son Rooster is a pathway into the story that I think very much appealed to Cruise.  In that sense, the movie does elevate well above the original Top Gun in terms of story, because there is actual exploration into Maverick’s character here.  He’s not just the star pilot here; he is a character that needs to go through a the arc of redemption in order to feel whole again.  I think a lot of people are going to really be moved by a lot of what Top Gun: Maverick brings to the table.  And it indeed takes a very dated piece of 80’s cheese, and makes it feel fresh and surprisingly deep in a lot of ways, improving very much on the story while at the same time not feeling too out of character.

At the same time, it does have the same faults as the original movie; just not to the same embarrassing extant.  Top Gun: Maverick is still pretty thin on story, and you can set your watch to the predictability of the plot points in the film.  At the same time, the movie does actually make up for the short-comings of the story by giving so much more weight to the action scenes themselves.  Cruise, who also works as the film’s producer alongside Jerry Bruckheimer who also returns behind the scenes here, wants to push the envelope with every movie he makes now; not just Mission: ImpossibleTop Gun: Maverick is the beneficiary of that raised bar, as this film takes things to a level that the original wouldn’t have been able to accomplish with even the best equipment at the time.  The late great Tony Scott managed to pull off the combat scenes of the original movie through well constructed editing.  He would take second unit footage of fighter planes in the air and intercut them with close-ups of his actors in the cock-pits, taken while they were all safely on the ground.  With the editing doing most of the work of creating tense, heart pounding action, you could believe that the actors were really in the air flying those planes.  In Top Gun: Maverick, there was no make-believe going on.  When you see Tom Cruise and his fellow actors in the cock-pits of these aircraft, there is no green screen trickery afoot.  His team found a way to have all the actors film their scenes aboard the planes in the actual sky.  Now that we have cameras small enough to produce IMAX quality picture in such a confined space, Cruise and his team can now put the camera POV inside real fighter planes and put the audience right in the middle of the action like never before.  Certainly, the actors didn’t actually fly the planes themselves, but the real pilots are hidden away so well that the effect of seeing the actors really up in the air helps to give this movie a level of authenticity that the original movie never had.  And that in turn helps to make the action sequences work so much more here than before.

It can be argued that the most important creative force now in Tom Cruise movies is Tom Cruise himself.  He is very much a hands-on producer and the reason he is able to take as many risks in his movies is because he has surrounded himself with a team who rise up to the challenge of matching his ambitions.  In his stable of collaborators, he’s managed to develop a good working relationship with Christopher McQuarrie, who has directed the last couple Mission: Impossible films (as well as a draft of the screenplay for this film too), as well as director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed Cruise in the movie Oblivion (2013).  Kosinski sort of directs out of his wheelhouse in Top Gun: Maverick, changing up from the often muted color palette of his past films like Oblivion and Tron Legacy (2010), in favor of the Magic Hour glow in the style of Tony Scott.  Despite the shift, Kosinski’s handling of the assignment is still commendable.  Not only does he manage to get remarkable footage out of the real airborne photography, but he also managed to cobble it all together into coherent and well edited action sequences.  Honestly, the real appeal of this movie are the combat sequences, particularly the climatic one at the end, which will probably go down as one of the greatest dog fight scenes that has ever been committed to the film.  I’m sure the likes of Howard Hughes, John Ford, and Tony Scott would look at the air battles in this movie and be blown away themselves at how immersive they are.  More than any reason to revisit the story, this is probably why Tom Cruise wanted to make this movie.  He really wanted Maverick to be in a real airborne plane, and doing the kind of daredevil flying that could only have been hinted at before.  At the same time, the movie is respectful to the work of Tony Scott, and there is even a very nice memorial note at the end of the movie in his honor.  Cruise only pushes the envelope here now because technology has finally caught up to what he envisions this movie to be like, and give audiences the full experience.  More than anything else, this is why the movie must be seen, and seen on the biggest possible screen you can find.  When you see the actors doing barrel roles and knifes edge turns in mid-air, you can almost feel the G-Forces yourself because it’s that immersive.  It’s certainly enough to make you forget all the shortcomings the movie has in story, when the action is at this high a level.

At the same time, you also can’t dismiss the sheer magnetism of Tom Cruise in this movie.  He picks up this character 35 years later and doesn’t miss a single beat.  In many ways, given the extra decades of baggage given to this character, I think that Cruise has made Maverick an even better character in this movie now than he did in the original.  Like I said before, the original Top Gun is very light on character development, and Maverick is far less a standout character on the page than he is through Cruise’s performance.  Cruise has certainly improved as an actor over the years and his performance here is proof of that too.  It’s still a character of not much depth, but Cruise does his best to give some weight to him finally.  This is especially clear in a poignant moment when Maverick reconnects with Iceman in the movie.  Knowing the history of these characters, as well as Val Kilmer’s real life battle with cancer that has robbed him of his speech, the scene that they share is far more impactful alone than anything found in the original movie, and it remarkably moving enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.  Cruise naturally delivers in that moment, and it’s great to see Kilmer not left behind as well, also rising to the challenge.  Miles Teller is also very good in this movie, bringing the right amount of intensity to the role, and doing his best to invoke the memory of Anthony Edward’s performance of Goose, without turning it into an impression.  He also does a good job sharing the screen with Cruise, and their moments together are among the best in the movie.  The other new additions to the cast are more of a mixed bag.  I do like what Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm bring to their roles, with Hamm doing his best to be the one antagonistic person in the movie while at the same time remaining likable.  The other young pilots are fine, but the fact that they are written in a cliched way is kind of a negative in this movie.  Glen Powell’s Hangman for instance should just be called Iceman 2.0, because that’s essentially what he’s meant to be here in this movie and not much else.  At the same time, none of the performances are embarrassingly bad and character development is not what this movie hinges on anyway.  Still, even if you liked the corny soap opera plot elements of the original, there is still enough in this movie to satisfy, and in many ways, it serves it’s cast of characters much better than before.

It is always hard to make a sequel to a movie so many years after the original, especially after a few decades.  It probably helps that Tom Cruise gave this project over to a director who had experience breathing new life into an old property, which Joseph Kosinski managed to do with Tron Legacy a decade ago.  Both Cruise and Kosinski managed to go above and beyond with their Top Gun sequel because this movie is very much an improvement in every way to the original movie.  The combat sequence in the film’s climax alone is worth the price of admission, and will probably be one of the greatest things that you will see on a big screen this year, without question.  It’s still not a perfect movie.  I could still predict every plot point that was going to happen because it’s a movie that still falls back on cliché likes it’s predecessor, and the same can be said about the characters in the movie as well.  But, there was certainly a lot more heart put into the making of this movie this time around.  Tony Scott did the best he could with what he had available to him back in the late 80’s, and this movie in many ways is an attempt to bring the style of Scott up to the level of filmmaking that we see today, and perhaps fully realize what he wanted to do but couldn’t.  It’s a movie that is respectful to the past, and more importantly, is respectful to the fans who have kept a special place in their heart for the original movie, as corny as it was.  Those who especially enjoyed the shirtless volleyball scene from the original will be happy to know that it too is given a homage here.  And while the Top Gun brand is certainly not my own cup of tea, I do appreciate filmmaking that pushes the envelope, and Top Gun: Maverick is really a true wonder on that front.  I can’t wait to go through the making-of documentaries that I’m sure will be on this movie’s home video release, just to see how they were able to pull off this kind of production.  It certainly makes me even more anxious to see the next Mission: Impossible movie, because every movie that Tom Cruise makes seems to be made as a challenge to outdo the last.  For now, whether Cruise revisits Maverick or not, Top Gun: Maverick is an excellent exercise in filmmaking and proof once again that Cruise is a movie star without peer.  Thanks for taking us into the “Danger Zone” once again.

Rating: 8.5/10

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – Review

When Marvel began developing all the possible adaptations of their comics for inclusion in their massive cinematic universe, I’m sure that one of the hardest sells they were going to have to make to their parent company Disney was a movie based around the character of Doctor Strange.  Strange holds a special place in the Marvel comics library.  Unlike other characters in the assemblage of earth’s mightiest heroes known as the Avengers, Doctor Strange is not someone who fights threats with super powers or state of the art gadgetry, but rather with magic.  Basing a big budget action film around a magician casting spells doesn’t immediately scream out as smashing success, but Strange did have champions in high places.  There was of course Stan Lee, one of the men who created Doctor Strange in the comics, who certainly held sway over the Marvel brain trust in much of his later years.  And then there was also Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, who has long been an outspoken fan of the Sorcerer Supreme.  One of the things that certainly helped to make Doctor Strange’s presence on the big screen possible was the fact that he was a crucial member of the Infinity War storyline that was the backbone of the first three phases of the MCU.  Being the guardian of the Time Stone, known as the Eye of Agamotto, Strange was not just an important figure in his own franchise, but also a key character in what would ultimately be the epic showdown with Thanos in the climatic Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  At the same time, Marvel took extra special consideration to not just make Doctor Strange another super hero like all the rest.  They wanted him to be a flawed but inspiring hero in his own right, with a character journey that was just as complex as any of the others.  It’s not just about the ability to master the mystical arts; it’s about overcoming the problems with oneself that defines becoming a hero in the first place.  That’s what was essential in establishing in the first Doctor Strange (2016) film, and even more so in his continuing adventures.

A lot of time has passed in between our first outing with Doctor Strange.  The Infinity Saga wrapped up with Endgame, and it was time to launch the MCU into it’s next big chapter.  So where does Marvel go in a post Infinity War universe.  To the Multiverse of course.  The Multiverse has been an especially popular tool for comic book writers both at Marvel and DC, because of the seemingly limitless possibilities it offers.  The multiverse allows storytellers to not just have one version of a character in their story, but many all at once.  And it also allows for many different variations of the same character to all be considered canon.  Before Marvel became the power house studio that they are now as part of the Disney company, they had previously been relying upon multiple studios to bring their heroes to the big screen, spreading their licenses across all of Hollywood.  Now under one tent, they’ve been establishing the MCU as a connected universe built on continuity, which excludes everything made before Iron Man (2008).  But, the multiverse concept actually gives Marvel a chance now to say that indeed, all of it is canon.  It’s exactly what they did with last winter’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), which combined all the Spider-Man franchises of the past and present into one, and legitimized every cinematic iteration of the character up to now as part of the MCU’s greater story-line.  And naturally, Doctor Strange was also along for the ride in that film.  Further development of the multiverse storyline has been built into the MCU through the limited series runs on Disney+, especially in the shows Wandavision and Loki.  Now, the Doctor Strange series itself brings the threat of what the multiverse means for the greater MCU to a head, and it helps to firmly establish where Strange’s story is about to head in this, lack of a better word, “strange” new world.  With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) we get our best look yet at the next big threat of the MCU, and the question we find is it a bold new direction for the franchise or is it too much, everywhere, all at once.

The story picks up right after the events of No Way Home.  Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is having re-occurring nightmares where he dies after trying to help a girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who is being hunted by demonic creatures.  While he has these dark dreams, he is also living out his life dealing with the aftermath of the even in the MCU known as the “Blip.”  Having been absent during the five years of the Blip, he has lost many things in the process.  He no longer has the title of Sorcerer Supreme, which has been passed on to his one time assistant Wong (Benedict Wong), with whom he now has been butting heads with.  Also, his one time romantic partner Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) had found a new love of her life in the intervening five years, and is getting married.  All of this makes Stephen begin to wonder what saving the universe cost him personally.  Yes, Thanos had been vanquished, but losing five years has also made him alone and less powerful.  Then, in the middle of Christine’s wedding, a disturbance grabs Strange’s attention.  The girl from his nightmares, America Chavez, is being chased through the streets of New York City by a horrific looking monster.  Strange and Wong together manage to save her, but they soon learn that she has been on the run from many other demons just like it, and will likely be hunted down again.  She reveals that she has the special ability to travel across the multiverse, which Strange believes might be what the one who sent the monsters is after.  America Chavez is initially hesitant to trust Doctor Strange, because other Strange’s that have helped her in the multiverse ended up betraying her.  To seek a solution, Doctor Strange decides to go to someone who might know a bit more about the limits of the multiverse than he currently does; Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who has been in self-imposed exile after the events of Wandavision.  However, Strange is unaware that Wanda has been growing her power in secret, reading from the forbidden book known as the Darkhold, which has elevated her to a higher level of power and turned her into an entity known as The Scarlet Witch.  As Strange and America Chavez venture deeper into the depths of the multiverse, they run into a Sorcerer Supreme variant of Strange’s old adversary, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is also in league with a powerful organization in charge of surveilling the multiverse; the Illuminati.  With all this madness going on around him, can Doctor Strange manage to set things right without leaving more destruction in his wake.

During the development of this movie, a lot of issues began to rise up.  First, the director of the original Doctor Strange, Scott Derrickson,  bowed out over creative differences.  This alarmed many fans because a director leaving a project is usually a sign of a movie that is falling apart and likely to be ruined.  But, fears of disaster for the franchise were alleviated once it was announced that Sam Raimi would be taking over the reigns of the production.  Raimi is a legend in the world of horror filmmaking, as well as in the genre of super hero movies, having been the guy who brought Spider-Man successfully to the big screen with Tobey Maguire in the 2002 original.  The prospect of him taking on the weird and wild world of Doctor Strange seemed like a match made in heaven, given Raimi’s knack for perfectly mixing humor and genuine terror together in movies like The Evil Dead (1981), Army of Darkness (1992) and Drag Me to Hell (2009).   But, Raimi has not been behind the camera in almost a decade, and his last film was a safe, corporate product called Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013), made for Disney.  A lot of people were wondering if Raimi would still be allowed to make a movie in his own style, or would he be hamstringed by the studio in order to work all the Marvel mandated elements into the film so that it would fit into their expanding continuity.  I can thankfully say that all those worries about what kind of Sam Raimi movie we would end up getting didn’t come true.  Even though the movie still fits well within the whole MCU continuity, Marvel still allowed Raimi to make the movie his way.  This is very much a Sam Raimi movie, with all the zaniness kept in tact.  If you love the creative camera work seen in the Evil Dead movies, it’s here too.  If you love the almost cartoon like visual flair of the Spider-Man movies, it’s here too.  There are a lot of treats here for long time Raimi fans but at the same time it doesn’t lose the focus of what it needs to be as part of the MCU storyline.  Honestly, his direction is easily the best element of this movie, because otherwise the movie might have lacked an identity apart from what he brought to it.

If the movie has a major flaw, it would be that it asks the audience to accept a lot of plot elements that otherwise won’t make much sense without prior knowledge of what has been going on in the larger MCU universe.  The movie not only includes backstory from previous MCU films, but also the Disney+ series Wandavision, so if you haven’t been following along up to this point, you might be lost.  At some points, particularly early in the movie, the film kind of loses some momentum as it attempts to catch everyone up to speed.   The movie also tends to not go deep enough on certain story elements, particularly related to America Chavez, who mostly serves the story as a human MacGuffin.  Which is why the Raimi touches are so crucial in picking up the slack of the movie.  It’s a lore heavy film, and that might turn off some viewers.  Even as someone who has watched every MCU connected title up to this point, I could feel the strain of this movie trying to make all the in universe connections service the story, and it becomes cumbersome.  As a result, the movie is best when you look at it as a Sam Raimi movie, and less as an MCU film.  I will attest that none of the shortcomings of this movie ever spoil the entertainment value of the film as a whole.  I do appreciate that it moves along very fluidly.  Those two hours go by in flash, and though I am sure some people would’ve liked a longer cut to savor all the “madness” of the multiverse, I do appreciate Sam Raimi and company showing restraint as well.  They could’ve gone crazier, but knew in the end that what mattered most was finding the core of this particular story.  That should be the goal of any stand alone MCU project; finding the reason why this particular story should be told in the midst of the larger story that it is set against.  When it doesn’t get bogged down in the larger universe implications, this is actually an interesting character study of it’s hero, as he examines what it takes to be the best version of himself, after seeing all the failures of his multiversal variants as well as the consequences that his actions have left in their wake, both good and bad.

One thing that is pleasing about this movie is the cast itself.  Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t miss a beat in his role as the no longer Sorcerer Supreme.  One thing that has been interesting in his character arc over his presence in the MCU is watching him go from an arrogant playboy doctor to a duty bound protector of the cosmos, and here in this movie, we see him become more introspective than ever before.  Like I mentioned before, this is a Doctor Strange that is coming to terms with the personal cost of doing the right thing, and how that has ripple effects of its own.  In this movie, he learns what it means to be trustworthy, as he must find a way to protect America Chavez after many other versions of himself have failed to do so, and Cumberbatch manages to play that vulnerable side to the character perfectly.  Returning stars Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams also all manage to deliver more solid performances as well.  I was actually surprised to see how well McAdams is used in this movie.  Her character was largely an afterthought in the original movie, but here she actually has a purpose to fulfill in the plot other than being the love interest.  But, if the movie has a true stand out, it’s Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda.  Now in full Scarlet Witch mode, she is a terrifying presence in this movie, and her performance is also on another level.  There are moments in this movie with Scarlet Witch that rank among the most unsettling ever put in a comic book movie, let alone from the MCU.  And her performance runs the gamut as well, going from heartbreaking in one moment to foreboding in the next.  Seeing her progress this character from her first appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), through the Infinity War storyline to her limited series Wandavision, has been one of the best things that has come out of the MCU as a whole, and we see much of the culmination of all that rich character development here in this movie.  Olsen is delivering awards caliber work here, making Wanda creepy and sinister while at the same time sympathetic and letting us know exactly where she is coming from.  If anything, it’s her story that is the element that lifts this movie up the most.  There are also some genuinely pleasing surprises in the cameos found in this movie.  Without giving anything away, these cameos will please those of you who are fans of the MCU, fans of the comic books, fans of Sam Raimi films, and fans of all the above put together.

One thing that is particularly with this movie is that despite being called the Multiverse of Madness, the movie never really goes all in on the madness part.  Sure, there are a lot of crazy elements to be sure, but the movie surprisingly shows a lot of restraint as well.  This is largely due to the fact that we never really get a full multiverse experience on the level that one might expect.  Most of the crazy extent of the multiverse is limited to an incredibly imaginative but short montage that I’m sure nerds are going to picking apart for Easter eggs for many years to come.  But, for the majority of the movie, we spend most of the story in at most three separate universes; the mainline MCU, an alternate utopian universe run by the Illuminati, and a dystopian universe that an alternate Strange is responsible for ruining.  Some fans may be disappointed that more wasn’t done with the concept of a multiverse, but I feel like this was the best route to take in service of this one story.  Doctor Strange needed to end up in these specific universes in order to make the crucial choices that he does.  Much like how Spider-Man: No Way Home  wisely held back on the amount of Spider-men that could’ve populated that movie, limiting it to just the ones we’ve seen up to now (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland).  Given where the movie ends up, I feel like it best fulfills what it needs for a multiverse story.  The Illuminati world is especially well constructed, being just slightly off from our own world without feeling too alien.  Of course, when the movie goes full Raimi it also doesn’t disappoint either.  He perfectly blends a gothic sensibility into this universe without it feeling too out of character for the MCU.  I especially like when Strange starts to mess around with spells related to the undead, which feels very much like Raimi in Army of Darkness mode.  Despite the seemingly limitless possibilities, I think it works well to this movie’s advantage that it remains grounded.  I’m sure that given Marvel’s larger MCU plans that this is far from the last we’ve seen of the Multiverse in the MCU, especially given what projects lay on the horizon for Marvel.  It’s an appetizer, but an enormously satisfying one that is especially enriched with the flavor of a filmmaker as unique as Sam Raimi.

So, overall Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t as top tier as say something groundbreaking like an Avengers level film, but as a sequel to the original Doctor Strange, it is more than adequate and I would say it even tops it’s predecessor by quite a bit.  For one thing, the whole Sam Raimi element of it all is great to watch alone.  Given that he was able to pour so much of his own voice into this movie is pleasing enough, especially given that he hasn’t been able to do that on this kind of scale in a long while.  One hopes that he’s not a one and done director for this franchise, because I think Marvel is better off with giving him more to do moving ahead in MCU.  Like other filmmakers who have managed to pour their own voice into the individual projects of the MCU, like James Gunn and Taika Waititi, Raimi has the chance of cementing his own unique corner of this massive cinematic universe if he is granted the oppurtunity moving forward with the further adventures of Doctor Strange.  But, if he choses to move on to something else, that is understandable too, given the rather shaky history he’s had in the past with studios.  As of now, it’s great to see this kind of movie in the pantheon of all of Marvel’s movies so far.  There are shortcomings with the story itself, but plenty to love when it comes to the style and the performances.  Elizabeth Olsen in particular is further cementing her presence as one of the best things to ever come out of the MCU with her amazing work here.  And Benedict Cumberbatch further reinforces why he was the best choice to play this iconic character on the big screen.  There are of course plenty of surprises throughout, but I should warn all the speculators online out there to hedge your expectations a bit.  Not every rumor that we’ve been ruminating on since this film was announced proves true, though a few did manage to become a reality, and there are even some that no one will see coming.  Overall, despite some minor misgivings, I would highly recommend seeing this on the biggest screen possible.  It’s really assuring to see Marvel taking some chances with their universe, including breaking convention and going into some truly terrifying moments.  They promised their first scary movie, and despite the PG-13 rating, it does live up to that promise.  You can imagine that a studio as monumentally successful as Marvel could easily rest on their laurels and just deliver the same old stuff over and over again.  So it’s nice to see them at this moment put so much trust in a filmmaker known for pushing boundaries and hopefully they continue to find new ways to make their remaining adventures into their expanding multiverse stay as “strange” as possible.

Rating: 8/10

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore – Review

With the success of the Harry Potter series both on the page and on the screen, you could imagine a whole wealth of new stories that could be potentially spun off from the main narrative and stand well enough on it’s own.  And that indeed is what creator and author J.K. Rowling thought as well, and actively pursued in the wake of the final Potter film.  Working with producers Hayman Productions and Warner Brothers Pictures, the team behind the Potter series, she developed a new brand that would be an all encompassing home for all the universe building projects that would be coming from her post Potter period.  This brand would be known as the Wizarding World, and it would include everything from movies, to books, to video games, and even social media; all connected to the same universe.  The Wizarding World would be an ambitious undertaking that all parties involved were hoping would prosper for well into the future; doing for the Wizarding World what George Lucas had built with Star Wars.  To launch this ambitious plan, a new series of movies were announced.  Based loosely on a encyclopedic style book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, an appendices that Ms. Rowling released separately where she went into greater detail about the magical creatures found in her stories, the new movie series would be a whole new narrative focused on new characters, but still connected with the history that we were all familiar with in the Potter series.  In addition to taking a more active role in producing the films as well, Rowling also made her debut as a screenwriter, having only been a novelist up to that point.  Leading up to it’s debut, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) was wildly anticipated by fans and also industry insiders who were interested to see how well a new Rowling film series would do without the famous boy wizard at it’s center.  But, as we would learn, best laid plans don’t always pan out.

Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them grossed a respectable, but not earth-shattering amount at the box office.  It was certainly under what the Harry Potter movies made, and though some saw it as disappointing in comparison, others thought it had a strong start for a new franchise.  However a lot of other world events began to shroud the series as it headed into production on it’s second film; Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018).  First and foremost J.K. Rowling began to publicly declare he beliefs that many people (I’d say rightly) claimed were transphobic.  This very controversial stand by Rowling alienated herself from many people who were among the millions of fans of her work, and her words against the trans community brought about a lot of condemnation, including from Harry Potter himself, actor Daniel Radcliffe.  This led to many fans being turned off by the series, not wanting to support Rowling’s empire with their own money, which they believe would just encourage her controversial opinions even more without facing any repercussions.  Secondly, Rowling’s choice to play the villainous Gellart Grindelwald, the series central antagonist, was Johnny Depp who at the time of the film’s production was in the middle of a very messy divorce from ex-wife, Amber Heard.  Surrounding the news of Depp’s divorce was also accusations from Heard that he was physically abusive.  This suddenly turned public opinion against Depp in the eyes of many and the one time A-list star suddenly became un-hirable in Hollywood.  Even Warner Brothers decided to keep their distance, and Depp was fired soon after Grindelwald’s release.  And now, with the third film in the series coming out, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022), another star of the film, Ezra Miller, has been arrested for assault and for threatening to kill a couple in Hawaii whose house he was staying at.  Suffice to say, the Fantastic Beasts franchise has taken on a lot of negative baggage along the way as it’s pressed forward.  And yet, there are still fans eager to see the third chapter in this Fantastic Beasts series.  The only question is, can The Secrets of Dumbledore able to recapture the magic of past Potter glory, or is it again succumbing to a curse from both external and internal factors.

The film picks up not long after the events of The Crimes of Grindelwald.  The dark wizard Gellart Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) is plotting something in the shadows, gaining support from many in the wizard world for his extreme views of magical superiority.  Up against his world vision is Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), a professor at the Hogawarts School of Witchcraft who is know to many to be the one and only wizard powerful enough to go up against Grindelwald.  However, neither Grindelwald nor Dumbledore can take up arms (or wands) against each other, due to a blood pact they made together when they were young lovers.  In order to stop Grindelwald’s rise in power from happening, Dumbledore enlists the help of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a former student of his and a resourceful zoologist of magical creatures.  Helping Newt along are his brother Theseus (Callum Turner),  his assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates), a premiant French wizard named Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), an American witch named Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams) and a muggle named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who has been a friend and ally of Newt’s in the past.  Together, they take part in a multi-faceted plan to undermine Grindelwald’s subversion of an upcoming election for the High Council of Wizards (sort of like the Wizarding World’s United Nations).  Meanwhile, Grindelwald is embarking on his own schemes, with the help of Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), a mind-reading witch who was once in love with muggle Jacob Kowalski, and a young wizard named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who has been discovered to be a blood relation of Dumbledore.  At the heart of the mission for both sides is a mythical creature known to the whole wizarding world for it’s ability to recognize the purest souls, something that is important in determining the future leaders of their community.  Of course Newt, with his knowledge of magical creatures, is central to the creature’s well-being, and the fate of the wizarding world depends on if he is able to keep Grindelwald from using the creature for his evil ends.

In anticipation of the release of this film, I went back and re-watched the first two Fantastic Beasts movies as a refresher.  Controversies aside, I wanted to find out how well these two movies stand up, and one bad sign already is that I remembered very little about these movies since I first saw them.  Upon re-watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I realized that it was a flawed but not at all bad of a movie.  It works pretty well as a stand alone feature that in many ways fulfills the promise of what the Wizarding World is setting out to do, showing us more of the world itself.  I liked that it showed us how the Wizarding World worked in America, with it’s own set of rules and special words and spells different from the British side that we’ve thus far.  If it lacked anything, it’s that it lacks the balance of whimsy and peril that the Harry Potter movies were so renowned for.  Unfortunately all the problems found in the first Fantastic Beasts were magnified even more in The Crimes of GrindelwaldCrimes is just an incoherent mess, devoid of any meaningful entertainment and is just a collection of plot threads that feel more like an outline than a narrative.  Considering that J.K. Rowling’s plan is to make this a five film series, Crimes of Grindelwald felt very much like filler with no meaningful momentum to justify it’s existence.  It’s a movie that clearly demonstrates why some novelist should not adapt their own work into screenplays.  Rowling works best when she can work out her plots in full chapters, and not show the strain of telling too much story in a 2 hour time frame.  So, the extensive problems of Crimes of Grindelwald made me wary of what a third film in this series might bring.  Thankfully, Secrets of Dumbledore is an improvement over it’s predecessor, but at the same time, it’s a movie that still can’t overcome the flaws of the series in general.  I have yet to get a clear reason as to why this story is a worthy successor to the Potter series.  Each Potter story to various degrees works as a harrowing stand-alone adventure with a connecting narrative sown throughout.  With Fantastic Beasts, it seems that Rowling wants to make each movie essential viewing to understand the plot of the series as a whole, and that causes each film to lack an identity separate from each other.

There is one thing that I noticed as being a major issue with the series as a whole thus far, and that’s the Newt Problem.  Newt Scamamder is the main protagonist of this franchise, and yet J.K. Rowling does very little to make him an essential part of the narrative.  In the Potter series, Harry was key to every aspect of the story, as it became a coming of age tale mixed in with this battle of good against the forces of evil.  In Fantastic Beasts, Newt is not at all important.  He certainly has a presence, but his factor in the plot is far more passive than what Harry was in his.  Newt left much more of an impression in the first Fantastic Beasts, because that movie’s plot was tailored around his expertise.  It was an easy to follow fetch quest across New York City in the 1920’s, where we saw all of Newt’s know-how come into play as he helped to tame and corral all the Fantastic Beasts loose in the city.  But it feels like starting with Crimes of Grindelwald, Rowling became less interested in her own main character and began to delve more into the secondary characters; particularly with the characters of Grindelwald and Dumbledore.  That continues on in Secrets of Dumbledore, where it almost feels like Newt is an afterthought in the story.  He even spends most of the climax of this film just standing around and watching what’s happening.  How are we supposed to care about this franchise when the main character is just a passive bystander.  Had Newt just been a one-off character and the remainder of the series was more anthology based around different main characters, it might make more sense, but as it stands, it just shows Rowling’s shortcomings as a screenwriter where she places more emphasis on plot than meaningful character development.  At least with The Secrets of Dumbledore we actually have a plot that makes more sense and is easy to follow, as opposed to the mishmash that was Crimes of Grindelwald.  I think one thing that helped here was that this film brought on a co-writer for the screenplay; that being Steven Kloves, the writer of seven of the eight Potter films.  I get the feeling that Kloves was brought in by Warner Brothers to sort of reign in Ms. Rowling and find a coherent, human thread in the middle of her larger plot ambitions.

Another major problem with the series is that even with the new characters and the period setting, it can’t escape the shadow of the Potter franchise.  What was so distinctive about the Potter franchise was the way that it evolved over time.  It began as this warm, colorful adventure that was endearing to audiences of all ages, but as the series went along, it became darker and more serious in tone, and it did so in an organic way.  I feel like one of the things that really helped that transformation along was the variety of directors that they had involved.  Chris Columbus successfully laid the foundation of this fantastic, magical world; Alfonso Cuaron gave it artistic panache; Mike Newall broadened it’s epic scope; and David Yates carried it to the end with an assured sense of importance.  Fantastic Beasts is a series that even three films in still can’t decide on the tone it wants to have.  David Yates, who directed the final half of the Potter series over it’s last 4 films, has continued on directing all the Fantastic Beasts movies so far.  And he has likewise continued to direct the movies the same way that he did with his Potter films.  Unfortunately, here, he doesn’t have the foundation of a magical world set up in previous films.  Secrets of Dumbledore just feels very dour and gloomy, with a gray-scale color scheme that lacks any visual appeal whatsoever.  If there was any movie that deserved to break the mold and start looking more imaginative, this was the one, but instead, we get probably the ugliest looking movie in the series yet.  Remember the warm color palette of the first couple Potter films.  That’s been replaced with muted tones that make the film feel like a dirge, even when it’s trying too hard to lighten up.  There’s only one scene in the entire movie that feels vaguely in line with what we remember from the Potter films, and it’s when Newt tries to help his brother escape imprisonment in a chamber full of scorpion like creatures.  In this scene, Newt manages to charm the scorpions by wiggling around in a dance similar to the way they walk.  In that moment, we see the movie finally find a balance between the perilous and the whimsical, and it is sadly all too fleeting.  That’s generally where Fantastic Beasts has faltered thus far as a series.  It’s too dark and serious for children to enjoy, and too whimsically inclined to appeal to serious adults at the same time.  That lack of a clear identity has been it’s biggest problem and Secrets of Dumbledore amplifies that problem once again.

If there is one thing can still be admired about Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, it’s that the cast is giving it their all, even when the script lets them down.  While Newt Scamander is a very lackluster protagonist overall, you still have to appreciate Eddie Redmayne’s commitment to the character and all his eccentricities.  Like the aforementioned scene with the scorpions, he tackles the sillier stuff in this movie with the same effort that he does with the more serious elements.  If he were just sleepwalking through the role, it would’ve probably made this movie nearly unwatchable, so the fact that he gives it his all is appreciated.  Also appreciated is the return of Dan Fogler as Jakob Kowalski, who has honestly been the MVP of the Fantastic Beasts movies so far.  He’s the only character that has that right balance of humor and sincerity, which would’ve made him feel at home in the Potter franchise, and he’s far and away the highlight of this movie.  Had he been the main character instead of Newt, this franchise might have had some better success with it’s balance of tone.  But, apart from him, the movie’s other highlight is Jude Law as young Dumbledore.  It’s a daunting task having to fill the shoes of a role that has been played by acting legends Richard Harris and Michael Gambon, but Jude surprisingly has managed to bring his own bit of gravitas to the role.  You see a lot of glimmer of past Dumbledore’s in his performance, but you also get the energy of a younger man in his prime still working out his own place in the world.  They also do an interesting dissection into Albus’ estranged relationship with his brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle), which has been hinted at in past Potter films, but is given more exploration here.  And one definite improvement over Crime of Grindelwald is the re-casting of Grindelwald himself.  Johnny Depp, in retrospect, was not an ideal choice for the character, as Depp only brought his oddball schtick to the character with no real menace.  Mads Mikkelsen on the other hand (who honestly should’ve been playing this character from the beginning) is far more intimidating in the role, and you really feel more of a darker presence with him in the part.  Unfortunately, Grindelwald still remains a rather underwhelming villain script wise, but with Mikkelsen finally in the role, he at least no longer comes across as a cartoonish villain, but instead a force to be reckoned with.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore rights the ship a little bit, but not nearly enough to actually salvage the series mired reputation.  It’s sad that the drama outside of the series itself, with so many scandals erupting all around it, has overshadowed the series so far.  Some of it is definitely self-inflicted wounds, with J.K. Rowling perhaps being too unaware of her own mistakes in the making of this series and resting too much on her past laurels to actually challenge herself as an artist.  Controversy about her opinions aside, which is it’s own problem, she really needs to understand that there are aspects of telling a story that are better left to other people who can bring new energy into this world she imagined.  That’s what worked for George Lucas and Star Wars.  Hell, it even worked on the Harry Potter movies, where different directors helped to make each film have it’s own unique voice.  Fantastic Beasts thus far has felt like an ego trip for J.K. Rowling, seeing just how far she can go with telling the story her own way without loosing the audience.  The Secrets of Dumbledore is going to be a test to see if the audience has reached it’s limit and have moved on from Rowling’s Wizarding World.  As of right now, Warner Brothers is putting the series on hold until they see how Secrets performs at the box office.  This could spell the premature end of the series, or it could force Warner Brothers to steal away more control of the series away from Rowling.  The fact that The Secrets of Dumbledore is only incrementally better than it’s predecessor and not a massive course correction leaves me to believe that it’s rough waters ahead.  Perhaps Rowling needs to be humbled a bit, because no one can doubt her creativity; it’s just that she’s in a way become her own worst enemy.  The Wizarding World is a valuable brand, but it’s one that’s growing increasingly stale because of the fact that it is no longer inspiring it’s audiences like it has before.  Now, only the die hard fans are sticking by it, and it’s increasingly becoming an obligation more than an event.  If Warner Brothers does move ahead with more, let’s hope Rowling reconsiders the possibilities with this franchise and allows for more diversity of input into the Fantastic Beasts series.  Like the menagerie of Beast’s living in Newt’s enchanted trunk, a more gentler touch is better at taming a beast than a iron clad grip, and what J.K. Rowling needs to do with her Wizarding World is to find a way to let it find it’s own way than force her own self interest onto it.  Great writers always lets the story speak to them and guide their way through, and my hope is that Rowling discovers that it might be better to not let her own flaws spill into so much of the things that she clearly has a love of sharing with the rest of the world.

Rating: 6.5/10

Morbius – Review

If there is anything that Marvel Studios has shown us over the last decade, it’s the best way to make a super hero movie.  Under the watchful eye of Studio head Kevin Feige, Marvel has cultivated it’s brand to perfection, helping it to become the power house that it is today.  And they did so by embracing the things that make comic books popular in the first place.  The Marvel Studios movies are not afraid to indulge in the weird and silly with their films, which has helped to give their movies a surprisingly broad appeals across all types of audiences.  Their films are colorful, eccentric, and at times very provocative with it’s themes.  There are still examples of excellent super hero movies being made by other studios, like their rival DC, but with Marvel Studios they have proven themselves able to turn out one hit film after another based on their proven formula.  This is in sharp contrast to the earlier days of Marvel comics on the big screen.  Before Kevin Feige took the reigns of what would eventually become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Marvel brand on the big screen was handled by a man named Avi Arad.  Arad’s time at the top of Marvel Productions was a bit more of a rollercoaster for the company.  During his reign, Marvel didn’t have a single benefactor to finance all their projects like they do now with Disney, so the film rights were scattered across all the studios in Hollywood.  And in order to get these movies made, Arad’s job was to sell the studios on these movies being not so much comic book entertainment, but rather on their potential as action films.  Comic books were not as valued at that time as they are now, and most super hero movies of the 2000’s tended to go out of their way to not look like they came from the comics.  There were noteworthy exceptions, like the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man movies, but otherwise more often than not super hero movies became darker and more grounded.  It’s almost like they were ashamed that these characters started on the comic page and needed to distance themselves as far as they could from the colorful spandex and silly situations.  Suffice to say, there were a lot of super heroes in the pre-MCU days that were wearing black.  Kevin Feige definitely changed that attitude and Marvel benefitted greatly from it, but there are still some outliers that still follow that original Arad formula.

It’s not surprising that most of the movies that still feel like the old Marvel movies before the MCU began are the ones that are coming from where Avi Arad now calls home: Sony Pictures.  Sony of course was one of the many studios that gained the film rights to Marvel properties over the years, but unlike the other studios, they have yet to yield over those film rights back to Marvel.  Marvel successfully managed to buy back the Avengers from Paramount, and the Hulk from Universal, and Disney’s merger with Fox led to the Fantastic Four and the X-Men returning to the Marvel fold.  But, as part of Sony’s original deal, as long as they keep making more movies with their Marvel characters, they can still hold onto the rights, and to their benefit they managed to have one of the crown jewels of Marvel in their possession; Spider-Man.  Now, an unsuccessful reboot of the Spider-Man franchise starring Andrew Garfield did cause Sony to call a truce with Marvel’s parent Disney, so that they could allow Spider-Man to appear as part of the lucrative Avengers franchise.  But, their iron grip on the rights of the character still gives them a valuable asset to work to their advantage.  One of the things that Sony has attempted with their Marvel properties is to launch their own cinematic universe centered around Spider-Man and the characters in his adjacent comic book storyline that is separate from Marvel’s MCU.  So while Spider-Man has been the bridge, Sony is concurrently launching film franchises for all the characters that have some connection, loose as they may be, to the popular webslinger.  We’ve already seen the character Venom launch into his own series of films, and on the horizon are movies of characters as random as Kraven the Hunter and Madame Web.  This week, however, marks the launch of a lesser know character within the Spider-verse; one who’s identity as a super hero is a little dubious at best.  And yet, Sony believes he’s a character worthy enough to contend in a market where even the most obscure Marvel characters have been turned into household names.  That character of course is the vampire known as Dr. Michael Morbius.

The movie Morbius introduces us to Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) as he travels to the jungles of South America to capture vampire bats for his lab experiments in hopes of finding a rare blood disorder that he himself is inflicted with.  Having revolutionized medicine already with the invention of synthetic blood, Morbius believes he’s on the edge of a breakthrough cure, and he intends to become the first human test subject.  With the assistance of his colleague Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), he conducts the test run in secret on a ship in international waters.  The experiment has unintended consequences, as Michael’s own DNA is infused with that of the vampire bats that he had been experimenting with, and he body begins to go through transformations.  In a violent, bloodthirsty rampage through the ship, Morbius heads back to his lab, leaving an unconscious Dr. Bancroft the sole survivor on the boat.  Morbius soon learns the limits of what his body can do with these changes, including super human strength, agility, as well as super sensitive hearing that acts like a bat radar.  However, there is a catch; he can only control his abilities as long as he consumes blood.  His supply of synthetic blood helps, but it’s affects are limited.  Meanwhile, Morbius’ new lease on life grabs the attention of his childhood friend Milo (Matt Smith), whose also the rich benefactor that has been funding Michael’s research, mainly because he’s afflicted with the same disorder.  Milo demands that Michael should give him the “cure” as well but Morbius refuses, because he doesn’t want anyone else to have to suffer the same consequences.  At the same time, a pair of FBI agents  (Al Madrigal and Tyrese Gibson) are following Morbius’s actions very closely, as he is their prime suspect for the murders aboard the cargo ship.  To make matters more complicated, a string of mysterious murders are happening across the city, which Morbius believes may be connected with his friend Milo, who at some point went behind Morbius’ back to give himself the “cure.”  Now Michael Morbius must do what he can to stop the monster he has unleashed on the city, while at the same time battling the monster within.

If you were to tell me that Morbius was a comic book movie made 17 years ago, I would believe you.  This is very much a movie that feels like a throwback to those pre-MCU days of comic book movies, complete with it’s somber tone, drab color palette and cheap looking CGI effects.  I would say that this has Avi Arad’s fingerprints all over it, but he’s more or less a background executive producer on the Sony Marvel output.  What it does show is that the formula that Arad began back in the 2000’s seems to not have changed at all within the Sony studio system.  This is a movie that is merely the product of a studio keeping it’s wheels turning and little else; a movie made out of a need to justify Sony’s grip on the Spider-Man properties.  You might have had a couple comic book movie fans hoping that a character like Morbius would pop up somewhere in the Spider-Man films, but no one was really demanding a whole movie dedicated to him.  The only reason we are getting this movie is because Sony seems to have delusional belief that all the characters connected to Spider-Man are capable of carrying their own movie, and that they can spin-off a universe of their own outside of Marvel’s expansive Cinematic Universe.  But, I think they severely overestimate some of the value of these characters too.  What may have convinced Sony to pursue a film devoted to a character like Morbius is because of the success they found with Venom.  However, Venom is a special case because the character does already have a strong, built in following, and those movies were bolstered by Tom Hardy’s committed and eccentric performance.  Here, we are getting a film about a Spider-Man frenemy that I swear a majority of people don’t even realize is connected with Spider-Man.  He’s not even the most popular vampire within Marvel comics: that would be the character Blade, who thankfully has his rights maintained by Marvel itself, with plans for his own reboot starring Mahershala Ali.  So, with a movie that’s born out of a corporate mandated necessity, it’s not anyone’s surprise that Morbius has turned into a passionless mess of a movie that feels well out of date with the rest of the comic book movies that are being made.  However, it could be the already low expectations that I had going into this movie, but I have honestly seen much worse when it comes to comic book movies.

The worst thing I can say about Morbius is that it is boring.  That’s it.  It’s not an insult to cinema.  It’s not offensive in any way.  It’s just a pointless movie, and that’s the extent of it.  The faintest praise I can give is that it didn’t make me angry while I was watching it, like some of the worst comic book movies I have ever seen have done in the past (Fant4stic and Dark Phoenix, for example).  If the movie were separated from it’s comic book origins, and especially from it’s connections to Spider-Man and the other Marvel properties, I would say that it was a harmless if not particularly inspired vampire movie with maybe one or two good scenes here and there.  I think the fact that it’s meant to be another cog in this misguided franchise masterplan that Sony is trying to cook up with their Marvel licenses is what works against it the most.  Thankfully, the Marvel references are kept to a minimum, which is a plus, but once the movie tries to embrace more of the comic book origins, it begins to suffer.  It goes back to that outdated formula that it’s trying to follow, where it seems almost ashamed to be a comic book movie, and tries too hard to be edgy and dark.  It’s kinda hard to make the audience buy into the edginess of the movie once Jared Leto’s face turns bat-like in a rather awkward looking visual render that borders on the ridiculous.  There are definitely many parts of this movie where you can feel like the filmmakers are trying to break away from formula, but are being held back by the studio.  It’s clear in some of the action scenes that the director wanted this movie to be a lot bloodier than what we actually get.  The lack of gushing blood is awkwardly absent in moments that should have looked like it came out of a slasher film, showing that the film was clearly neutered to give it a PG-13 rating.  It’s almost comical how tame the movie gets, especially when there’s a moment when an armed mercenary has his throat slashed by Morbius, but as the actor performs to hold together his mortal wound, you see his neck and hands are completely dry of blood.  Even MCU movies have had better action moments with bloody outcomes, including films like Avengers: Infinity War (2018) which had some pretty shocking moments of brutality.  Morbius could have found some clever ways around it’s restrictive rating, but it chose to take the wrong, more transparently lazy way.

Another big problem with the movie is that Michael Morbius himself is such a bland, uninteresting character.  One of the worst things you can do with establishing your main character is show him to be already perfect even before he becomes a superhero.  Even despite his crippling illness, we are introduced to him winning a Nobel Prize.  Honestly, where do you build from that?  Interesting characters are built around flaws.  You make your hero too perfect from the get-go, and you have a character that feels unrelatable.  And that’s what happens with Michael Morbius in this movie.  All we see him do is figure out the limitations of his new powers.  That’s it.  We don’ get a sense of his personality, his wants and needs, or the things that he must overcome to be the hero he wants to be.  The movie just treats him like a pre-formed hero that we should all embrace immediately, and that just makes him dull.  Though his character is terribly written and frustratingly opaque, I will say that I don’t fault Jared Leto too much with his performance.  In all honesty, after a string of cringey, over-the-top performances from him in Suicide Squad (2016) and House of Gucci (2021), it’s actually refreshing to see him reign it in as Michael Morbius and play him more even keel.  Sure, perhaps he goes a little too far in underacting, but as we’ve seen, he could do a whole lot worse.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is mostly wasted.  Veteran character actor Jared Harris gets barely anything to do in his father figure role in this movie, and there’s barely anything to say about Adria Arjona’s presence as the love interest.  The cast’s one saving grace is Matt Smith as the villainous Milo.  He’s the only one allowed to camp it up in the way that the movie desperately needs, and he’s easily the best part of the film.  Through his more playful role, you see glimpses of what the movie could have been if it embraced more of the MCU’s style of comic book storytelling.

What you come to learn over the course of watching Morbius is that at no point does it justify it’s reason for being.  Morbius is not inspiring as a super hero.  There’s nothing about his origin story that we haven’t already seen a hundred times before in other comic book movies.  Literally half of the movie is devoted to Morbius learning the extent of his super powers.  You know what we don’t see; Morbius actually being a super hero.  He never uses his powers to help anyone.  In fact, he ends up letting a lot of people die at the hands of Milo because he is spending most of the movie either in his lab working things out, or in a jail cell after he’s cornered by the FBI. We don’t need to see every detail of Morbius’ origin story; he’s a vampire with a heart of gold, that’s basically the character in a nutshell.  It’s only in a scant couple of scenes that we see the movie start to come to life, and it’s usually the moments where Michael and Milo are facing off.  I will say the movie hits it’s apex in an extended fight between the two in a subway station.  In that scene, we finally get to see the movie actually deliver on the promise of what can be done with this character.  It includes an incredible one-shot where Morbius and Milo fight their way down each level of the station, from street level to the platforms themselves in an exciting, kinetic moment.  If only the rest of the film had that kind of sustained energy.  The adversarial relationship between the hero and the villain is also the only part of the story that has any drive.  There’s absolutely no spark in the romantic subplot, and Morbius’ arc as I mentioned is more of a flat line.  The whole purpose of a super hero origin is seeing the character rise to the hero they are destined to be, and that sometimes means wrestling with one’s own shortcomings in the process.  It’s spoken right there in the immortal phrase “With great power, comes great responsibility.”  Morbius is an already upstanding citizen when we meet him, and he only gets stronger as the movie goes along.  There’s nothing compelling in that narrative, and by the film’s end you are just left wondering why you should even care for Morbius at all.

So, of course there are much worse super hero movies out there.  I’ll credit the movie for not making me feel like I was suffering watching it.  It basically met my low expectation, without sinking any further, and it’s own prize is that it has a good shot of missing my worst of the year list.  Jared Leto is refreshingly subdued in this film, albeit with a character that is as bland and forgettable as they come.  And there are moments where you can see a better movie trying hard to get out.  But, if Sony believes that this is going to be another step towards being able to thrive off their own universe without Marvel’s help, they should really reconsider their overall strategy.  This is a movie that recalls a less than ideal point in time with super hero movies that we’ve clearly moved away from.  Even DC movies have been moving away from those 2000’s era style of comic book movies, and have embraced the idea that these films can indeed feel more like the comic books they were based on, with the silliness in tact.  Morbius just feels like so many angst filled comic book films from days gone by, and in the process, it lacks an identity.  At least with Venom, the Tom Hardy eccentricity gives those films some personality that helps to distinguish it.  Morbius is just an exercise in studio executives playing it safe.  It certainly could’ve been worse, however, and thankfully after 5 different delays due to Covid (it was originally supposed to come out in July 2020), we can now watch it and judge for ourselves.  I for one was unmoved by the movie and found it unforgettable mostly.  It at the very least didn’t make me mad; except for the end credits scenes, which I have to say are probably the worst ones I have ever seen, and not just with comic book movies.  Seriously, if you’ve seen most of the other Sony Spider-Man movies, those end credit scenes make absolutely no sense whatsoever.  Apart from that baffling move, it’s a movie that most people are likely to forget soon after seeing it, which is a shame for a character that could have had some cinematic potential.  It remains to be seen what becomes of Dr. Morbius in the wake of this deeply flawed movie, but certainly there’s a lot to be desired from what Sony is putting out thus far in their plans for a cinematic universe of their own by way of Spider-Man, and it probably would serve them well to not adhere so stringently to past formula and instead look into making movies around characters that are more in touch with the goofier sides of comic books, even if it does make them appear a bit more Marvel-like.

Rating: 5.5. /10

The Batman – Review

Of all the super heroes that have graced the silver screen, I don’t think one has ever been portrayed in as many multiple ways as Batman.  Revived, reimagined and remade as often as Hamlet or Robin Hood on the big screen, it seems like every generation will likely see a brand new Caped Crusader pop up.  And surprisingly, we as a culture have warmed up to seeing multiple versions of this same character over time.  Batman to this day remains a potent draw at the box office, and has so since his big screen debut in Tim Burton’s gothic Batman (1989).  Even before that, the character had always been in the public eye as one of the most prolific comic book characters.  Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman was an instant hit with comic book readers all throughout the Golden Age.  In later years, he also went through many changes that help to shape him into the brooding hero that we know today.  One such revival written by Frank Miller helped to set a darker tone for the character, which then heavily influenced the movies that have followed.  The Miller aesthetic (dark tones and themes) have been the defining characteristic of most Batman movies; much more so than any other superhero.  The two Burton films can definitely be defined as fitting that definition, albeit with Burton’s trademark carnival-esque style.  The Bruckheimer films that followed added a fair amount of camp on top of what Burton has built.  And then came the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, which not only brought the dark tone back to Batman, but they also grounded the story in a realistic world.  Then we got the appearances from Batman in the Zack Snyder-verse DCEU movies, which were probably dark and brooding to a fault.  Now, yet again we are seeing another version of Batman brought to the big screen; one that rings with a familiar tone that we associate with the character.

Bringing in Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) to direct this new version, the Batman franchise seems to be adopting the grounded world-building of the Nolan trilogy, but with more of the Miller aesthetic applied.  And following in the long line of actors who have donned the cape and cowl, Robert Pattinson has taken up the mantle, playing a decidedly younger version of Batman than we’ve seen before.  As stated by Reeves in interviews, this Batman and Bruce Wayne is inspired by the grunge persona of Kurt Cobain; whose music also features in the soundtrack of the movie.  This movie specifically is taking it’s inspiration from the Batman graphic novel called Batman: Year One (1988), which was also written by Frank Miller.  That run of comic stories details the beginnings of Batman as a super hero, showing Bruce Wayne building the persona that he would take on, as well as taking on his first cases.  In a way, this is something new for the character on the silver screen, as we’ve never seen the early years of Batman portrayed before; at least the parts when he’s still a little green on the job.  The Nolan film Batman Begins (2005) did show back story for Batman, but it was really about Batman’s very start, and not the full year into the job that he had experienced on a day by day level.  That seems to be the aim of Reeves’ new Batman; showing the Batman at work and what that would be like without the larger world implications.  In addition, this is being seen as a brand new re-launch for the character after the setback of loosing the previous actor (Ben Affleck) in the role, after he stated heavy dissatisfaction following the making of the Justice League (2017).  Unfortunately, the production of this movie couldn’t have been going on at a worse time, with the Covid pandemic forcing it to shut down for months; including another set back when Pattinson himself has to quarantine after catching Covid himself.  But, nearly a year after it was supposed to hit theaters originally, The Batman (2022) is finally here.  The only remaining riddle is, can the movie stand on it’s own given the legacy behind it.

The Batman takes place in a crime ridden Gotham City that is on the eve of a hotly contested mayoral election.  The city’s present mayor is found dead in his mansion, and the Gotham Police are immediately called to investigate.  Detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) is brought onto the scene and with him, a masked vigilante that calls himself Vengeance, though everyone else dubs him the Batman (Robert Pattinson).  While investigating the crime scene, they uncover a message left behind by the suspect; a card addressed to Batman with a riddle written inside of it.  Batman returns to his hidden Batcave underneath Wayne Manor where he works with his close associate and butler Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis) to decipher the ominous message.  Alfred also warns Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) that he is drifting further away from a normal, happy life by becoming withdrawn from the public; all of whom are wondering what has happened to him since his parents tragic murder.  Some of the clues lead Batman and Jim Gordon to revelations about the mayor, including a mystery girl who works at a night club called the Iceberg Lounge.  There, Batman approaches the proprietor of the Iceberg Lounge, a well-known gangster named Os, aka the Penguin (Colin Farrell) and tries to get more information from him.  However, he finds another lead with another girl at the night club who might know who the girl is.  He soon learns that this new girl is Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a skilled cat burglar looking to shake down the Penguin’s outfit for herself.  Through information he receives from Selina, he learns of an even more secretive club where the Gotham elite are spending their nights indulging their more salacious tastes.  And as Batman soon learns, this group of elites are ending up on a hit list of the same murder suspect that he is tracking down; the Riddler (Paul Dano).  Soon The Riddler begins to stage even more dramatic acts of terror on the city’s elites which is gripping all of Gotham in a state of fear.  And all the while, Batman digs deeper into the mystery which he soon finds may involve secret revelations about his own past that challenges everything he though he knew.

It’s definitely safe to say that this is one of the most ambitious Batman movies that we’ve seen to date; which is saying a lot.  Running at a staggering 2 hours and 55 minutes, it’s by far the longest Batman movie to date and only a hair shy of the longest Comic Book movie ever (Avengers: Endgame at 3 hours and 1 minute).  And it’s surprising that Matt Reeves doesn’t waste any time either.  After very brief opening title cards, the movie starts right into the thick of the story.  One of the most pleasing aspects of the movie is that it spares us from having to re-watch Batman’s tragic origins again; Thomas and Martha Wayne’s tragic murder is thankfully just mentioned here and never shown.  We are instead placed in a story-line that feels pulled right out of the comics; with Batman already being a fixture in Gotham City, but not one that has been fully realized to his full potential yet.  There is a pleasing sense of Reeves treating his Batman as a real world figure, and finding a way to make it believable that the people of the city could put their trust in this masked vigilante.  There is a lot to like with this movie; it’s sense of purpose, the grounded but bold aesthetic, spirited performances, and some amazingly well staged action scenes.  So, why did I walk away from this movie slightly underwhelmed.  To be clear, I still liked the movie quite a bit, but I feel like it just lacked something to make it an all-time great.  For one thing, it doesn’t come close to matching the clockwork brilliance of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and I would also say the operatic nature of Burton’s 1989 original also trumps it a bit.  So, why did I end up feeling just a bit empty by the film.  I think my nit pick is that the movie is brilliant in individual scenes, but those scenes don’t completely come together to make a brilliant whole.  Matt Reeves certainly makes nearly three hours breeze by with excellent pacing, but I feel like some scenes just come off as passable in between the ones that really soar to greatness.  And that’s where I found myself in that feeling of this movie meeting it’s mark, but not much else.

One thing that does help the experience is if you’re familiar with the films of David Fincher (especially his earlier work).  The movie is especially evocative of the film Se7en (1995), and to a lesser extant Zodiac (2007).  The Batman definitely taps into the grimy aesthetic of Fincher’s criminal underworld from those movies.  Reeves’ Gotham City is certainly one where danger is lurking around every corner, and where it seems like the sun never shines.  In that regard, it probably is the closest we’ve seen yet to a movie that captures the kind of world that Frank Miller imagined for his Batman.  It’s also in line with most of the Batman comics that have been printed over the last couple of decades.  But what is pleasing about this movie in general is the way that it demystifies the Batman as an icon.  Here for the first time, we are seeing Batman as what he was from his very beginning; a detective.  This working man aspect of the character is the thing that feels the most refreshingly new about this film, and it’s honestly surprising that it took this long to actually bring that aspect of the character to the silver screen.  Here is where we see the Fincher influence really shine, as the movie definitely has many echoes of Se7en, with the Riddler coming across as a mix of John Doe and the Zodiac Killer from Zodiac.  The detective solving the case moments are definitely where the movie hits it’s high notes, along with some stand out action set pieces.  But, when the movie hits the more melodrama moments, it starts to hit a speed-bump.  There is a subplot involving Selina Kyle that didn’t quite lift up the movie like the rest did, and it’s where I feel like the movie could’ve used some trimming, or at least a bit more agency on the part of her character and how she relates to Batman’s dilemma.  You also have to deal with long patches of time when your villain (or villains if you count Penguin) don’t appear on screen.  Nothing really feels like it drags, nor undercuts the story itself.  It’s just that when put altogether like it is, the movie lacks cohesion.

But, when it hits a high note, it really lands and then some.  I can definitely say that even though the movie left me wanting in many areas, there were moments in there that had me grinning ear to ear like the Joker.  One such moment is definitely one that involves this iteration’s version of the Batmobile.  Now, the Batmobile in this film is not as flashy as ones previously found in other Batman movies; it’s basically a muscle car with a jet propulsion attached to the trunk.  But the way it’s used in the movie is absolutely breathtaking.  What I especially appreciated about that scene in the movie is that it relied primarily on real practical stunt work; much like what you would see in a John Wick movie.  That reliance on real stunts and effects helps to make the action scenes feel more dynamic and tangible.  It’s also enhanced by an incredible sound mix as well.  When the Batmobile’s engine roars in the movie, the woofer bass shook the entire theater that I was in and probably rattled a few rib cages of the audience members too.  And that help to make the scene which is your average car chase feel all the more grander.  I also want to point out the musical score by Michael Giacchino.  Here he’s following in the mighty footsteps of giants like Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, and having to find that new sound for a Batman theme that we haven’t heard before.  Not only did he rise to the challenge, but he may have come up with a score that’s equally as iconic as the ones from his predecessors.  This musical score, especially the main theme itself, takes the film to sometimes operatic heights, and really helps to underline the grandness of this film.  I also have to note the excellent visual style of the movie.  Matt Reeves brings this gritty texture to his movie, but unlike his predecessor Zack Snyder, he breaks out some bold color choices every now and then to break the grim, dark tone of the movie.  This includes some scenes set against golden sunsets, or cast in the neon glow of a trendy nightclub.  There are many visually daring choices in the movie, but Reeves thankfully keeps it all in balance and in service of the story he’s telling.

What also helps is that the cast of characters also feel authentically a part of this world as well.  This is a very lived in world, full of beaten down characters with stories of their own that could fill a whole movie.  The performances are all pretty much universally strong, though I think the movie sometimes falls short of allowing each of them to reach their full potential.  Robert Pattinson for instance is doing some interesting stuff here as Batman; creating what may be the most insular and guarded version of Batman we’ve seen to date.  It’s interesting watching a movie and see a version of Bruce Wayne that is still insecure and unsure of himself sometimes.  However, for most of the movie, the film makes Batman so reserved within a scene that he at times feels kind of stiff.  I’d say that 20% of Pattinson’s performance is just him glaring at something with a stern look on his face.  Still, while he’s in the batsuit he does look the part, and manages to hold his own compared to other Batmen.  The performance from Paul Dano as The Riddler may be a mixed bag for other people.  Some may find it brilliant while others may think it’s too over the top.  I thought it was fine and worked for the character as is.  It’s definitely a departure from previous versions of the character, and works pretty well in this kind of movie.  But, if you’re expecting something on the level of say Heath Ledger’s Joker, you might be a bit disappointed.  Zoe Kravitz brings an interesting vulnerable side to the character of Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman), making her more than just the femme fatale character we’ve seen before.  Jeffrey Wright also brings his usual strong presence into the role of Jim Gordon.  But, if I were to point out my favorite performance, it would be Colin Farrell’s Penguin.  Farrell completely disappears into this character and steals pretty much every moment he’s in, managing to be both genuinely menacing and laughably goofy at the same time.  Given that these are all characters we’ve seen before on film, it’s definitely a challenge to make them feel genuinely fresh again as characters, and The Batman manages to renew these age old characters in interesting ways.

So, even though I have my reservations about aspects of the movie, it’s still one that I recommend seeing in a theater.  It’s a big screen spectacle that should definitely not be passed up, and even with the near three hour run time, it won’t feel like a chore to get through.  i did like the movie, but the bar for me is very high with regards to Batman movies, and I feel that this one comes up just short of the best we’ve seen.  There is without a doubt a lot to admire about the movie; the fact that it finally shows us Batman doing detective work, the A-grade action sequences that certainly rank among the best that we’ve seen with the character, as well as interesting new interpretations of these iconic characters.  Robert Pattinson in particular makes a perfectly serviceable new Dark Knight, and I imagine that DC and Warner Brothers have many future franchise plans based around his version of the character.  One of my hopes is that this film leads to better things in the sequels, and it’s definitely still a strong launch pad for a franchise to be built off of.  We of course know what and who may be coming up in the series going forward, but hopefully Matt Reeves and company continue to take their opportunities to subvert expectations and do new interesting things with these familiar stories and characters.  For right now, I’d say check it out for those few scenes that must be experienced in a theater with an audience, like the aforementioned Batmobile scene.  But, also keep in mind that it may not be the kind of Batman movie you were expecting and that this could leave you feeling disappointed.  I’m honestly interested to see what the long term reception for this film will end up being like, because it definitely feels like one of those movies that may end dividing audiences; hopefully not in a way that turns toxic like other franchises have experienced.  I generally view it positively, but I can understand criticism for this movie as well as it is not perfect.  Still, it’s nice to see some interesting risks being taken with a character with this long of a legacy, and my hope is that it helps to continue the massive winning record of Batman at the box office.  Batman is back, and thankfully still stands tall in the pantheon of the greatest comic book heroes of all time.

Rating: 7.5/10

Death on the Nile – Review

The murder mystery sub genre has in surprising ways seen a bit of a resurgence in cinema as of late.  Prior to the Covid lockdown that shuttered movie theaters, the last big surprise box office hit was a revisionist take on the genre called Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson.  Johnson not only took all of the narrative conventions of the genre and turned them on it’s head, he also did so with another convention of the genre seen throughout the history of cinema; the all-star cast.  It’s been something that Hollywood has always done with these whodunit styles of mysteries.  Since each story is composed of an ensemble of colorful, and often eccentric characters, it in turn makes for an ideal place to put together a bunch of stars and see them play off of each other.  You can see this in movies dating as far back as Laura (1944) and movies more recently as Clue (1985) and of course Knives Out.  But, of course the most noteworthy examples of this sub-genre have been those from the Queen of Mystery herself: Agatha Christie.  Christie’s prolific body of work includes 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, and the longest running play ever performed on the London West End (The Mousetrap: 69 years and still going).  Of course, her work has attracted the likes of Hollywood as well, and several films have been adapted from her work.  The 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express directed by Sidney Lumet went on to be a box office hit and Oscar winner for example.  Christie’s most prolific character, Detective Hercule Poirot (who’s appeared in 33 of her 66 novels) has also been played on the silver screen by actors as noteworthy as Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, Ian Holm, Alfred Molina, and John Malkovich.  The most recent actor to take up the mustachioed mantle of Detective Poirot has been esteemed thespian and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh, who likewise managed to bring about a surprise hit with his own adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017).  With success built from Orient Express, Branagh managed to line up a follow-up with another of Christie’s famed Poirot novels, Death on the Nile.  However, much to the unfortunate luck of Mr. Branagh, a lot of turmoil happened over the course between when he filmed the movie and before it has finally made it’s way to theaters this week.  Some of it probably more dramatic than what’s actually in the film itself.

First of all, the movie became one of the projects thrown into an uncertain release schedule due to the oncoming merger between it’s production company, 20th Century Fox, and Disney.  This inevitably delayed production on the film, which was originally set for a December 2019 release.  Fortunately for all involved, the actual production shoot went on without incident and completed in little over a month.  As the film went into post-production, gearing up for it’s new October 2020 release, another hurdle was thrown the movie’s way: the Covid-19 global pandemic.  Though the movie stuck to it’s October date for quite a long time, the continuing closure of most theaters across crucial markets like North America and Europe, and the underperformance of Warner Brothers’ Tenet (2020) released in the midst of this market, made it clear that there was no chance for the movie to make up it’s nearly $100 million budget in that box office climate.  So, the movie was taken off the calendar entirely until further notice.  Unfortunately during this time, some unexpected bad news also began to crop up during the delay; this time related to the film’s cast.  One of the stars of the film, Armie Hammer, began to be swept up in a scandal when disturbing violent and sexual behavior came to light after several women came forward with their accounts of abuse from the actor.  The resulting scandal has seen Hammer lose pretty much all the jobs he had lined up after Death on the Nile, as well as the departure of nearly his entire support team of agents and publicists; pretty much an entire annihilation of his career in Hollywood.  And while Hammer’s situation was definitely the worst, there was also negative publicity surrounding another cast member, actress Letitia Wright, who has been vocally anti-vaccination during the pandemic.  With all the bad press surrounding the movie, people were beginning to wonder if the movie might ever get a release at all on the silver screen, or would Disney just end up burying it on streaming or home video.  Fortunately, the movie as finally found a way to the big screen, albeit with little fanfare, and a sadly unimportant February release date, putting it well outside awards contention that some might have hoped it would carry.  So, with all that drama surrounding the movie itself, can it stand well enough on it’s own or is it another casualty of multiple real world issues that were not it’s fault.

The movie finds Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) enjoying a bit of his celebrity status in the years after his renowned solving of the Murder on the Orient Express.  While visiting a night club in London, he witnesses a meeting between two engaged socialites, Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Jaqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), and a wealthy heiress that they hope to do business with: Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot).  Several months later, while on holiday to Egypt, Poirot stumbles upon a newlywed honeymoon party  involving Mr. Doyle and Ms. Ridgeway, who are now married to each other.  Among the fellow travelers with the newlyweds, there is Linnet’s cousin and lawyer Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal); Dr. Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand) who’s also Linnet’s former fiancée; Linnet’s godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and her nurse Mrs. Bowers (Dawn French); blues musician Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece Rosalie (Letitia Wright), whose also Salome’s manager and former schoolmate of Linnet; Linnet’s maid Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie); and finally Poirot’s old acquaintance Bouc (Tom Bateman) whom he met on the Orient Express, as well as Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Benning), whose a longtime friend of Linnet’s family.  The opulent celebration begins in luxury at a resort on the banks of the Nile River, and Poirot soon is welcomed to stay.  However, tension arises when Jaqueline de Bellefort crashes the party, making Linnet feel threatened after having stolen Jaqueline’s man away.  Linnet, knowing of Poirot’s talents as an investigator, asks for his help in learning of Bellefort’s intentions.  Poirot soon learns that Ms. Bellefort is carrying around a weapon on her, and advises that the newlyweds cut their trip short for their own safety.  Instead, the party moves out of the resort by chartering a cruise to take them on a Nile excursion, hoping to keep the party safe and private.  Poirot again accompanies them.  But, even as they make their way south on the river and away from civilization, they soon learn that even out in the wild there is no escaping danger.  Suddenly, the unthinkable happens; murder.  And of course Hercule Poirot is instinctively on the job.

It was a hard road for this version of Death on the Nile to make it to the big screen; another unfortunate exile of the pandemic ravaged 2020 calendar and a subsequent victim of the scandals of those involved with the movie.  It thankfully hasn’t affected Kenneth Branagh too much, since he’s managed to keep on working; shooting, editing, and releasing his new acclaimed Oscar-nominated film Belfast in the midst of all this turmoil.  Unfortunately, any hope of molding these Poirot films of his into a sustaining franchise seems to be dashed, as Death on the Nile arrives finally as little more than an afterthought in Hollywood.  Like I said before, the scandals that have accompanied it are drawing more attention than the movie itself.  But, is it a bad reflection on the movie, and should it be judged on that bad press alone.  The movie certainly should be judged purely on the craft itself, divorced of real world issues.  Sadly, the movie is a mixed bag overall.  It’s definitely a well crafted movie from an experienced and passionate filmmaker, and there are individually some fine moments throughout the movie.  But, it’s also kind of a dull film overall as well.  In some ways, I think the success of Knives Out may have also worked against Death on the Nile as well, because of how expertly it took the same kind of story and reinvented it.  Branagh’s approach by comparison is very by the book.  There’s nothing wrong with staying truthful to the writing of Agatha Christie: she was certainly ahead of her time and her stories still have the power to engage many years later.  But, while Knives Out felt very much like a modernization that help to rejuvenate a classic style of story, Death on the Nile feels old-fashioned, and not exactly in a good way either.  You can really feel the convention constraints weighing down this movie, as Branagh really tries to struggle to make something that shouldn’t be action packed feel much more bombastic.  We know Branagh can make exciting cinema, as evidenced by his Shakespearean work as well as his work on Marvel’s Thor (2011), but that cinematic instinct feels misplaced here.  You can feel him straining with the material, and unfortunately it makes many scenes feel silly instead of majestic.  And by the way, it’s a problem that I found with Murder on the Orient Express as well though not quite as glaringly pronounced as it is here.

The first thing that really feels off about the movie is the artificiality of it all.  It will probably surprise no one to know that not a single moment of this movie was shot on location in the real Egypt.  That shouldn’t have been a problem as most other places can just as easily be substituted as another location.  But, because of the movie’s original production delay during the Disney merger with Fox, the movie even had to scrap it’s location shoot in Morocco.  As a result, the entire movie, from the Nile side resort to the boat voyage itself was produced on soundstages in England.  That’s a big difference from how Branagh and company approached the production of Murder on the Orient Express, which did benefit from on location shooting in Israel, Turkey, and Switzerland.  That on location shooting helped to make that movie feel bigger, even though most of that movie was contained to a single location of the titular train.  Death on the Nile by contrast feels very small despite the grandiosity of it’s setting.  This is especially evident when the movie arrives at an exotic location like the Abu Simbel Temple.  It’s very clear by the pristine nature of the set, and the too perfect way that it is lit, that this is just a fabricated replica of a real place, and it takes you out of the movie as a result.  It doesn’t help that the movie also makes liberal use of CGI to expand the horizon and convince you that these characters are out in the great outdoors.  There’s just a definite sense of these actors performing against a blue screen, as the backgrounds feel flat behind the actors.  Truth be told, I have seen worse usage of CGI to hide the fact that the actors are working on a soundstage, but it really feels like it doesn’t belong in this kind of story.  Whenever Branagh leaves the sweeping panorama shots behind, the movie does look a whole lot better, and it does excel quite a bit in the staging of the interiors, but every time the movie tries to recreate the expanse of it’s exotic Egyptian location, it doesn’t feel right at all.

There are still quite a few things that do make the movie enjoyable at times.  The cast for one is enjoyable to watch, and some are even quite surprisingly adept in unconventional roles.  Shining most bright unsurprisingly is Kenneth Branagh as Poirot.  You can tell that he has a lot of fun playing this character and it’s probably what drew him to making these Agatha Christie adaptations in the first place.  Just as he did in Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh makes Poirot an engaging presence; someone who you just love to watch work and figure out the truth behind an almost unsolvable case in front of him.  I especially like the way he manages to find the humor within the character without turning him into a caricature.  There’s a funny little moment when one of the characters in the movie gets offended that Poirot is accusing her of murder, until he confesses that he accuses everyone of murder and that it’s an unfortunate habit of his.  That’s a nice, clever way of making Poirot an endearing, eccentric figure in this story.  Branagh’s choices of co-stars are interesting too, keeping true to the old Hollywood tradition of all-star casts in whodunit mysteries.  I especially like the way he’s brought on actors known more for comedy like Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Russell Brand and having them play against type here.  Brand especially is out of character her based on the celebrity persona he’s put on throughout the years, and it’s kind of refreshing to see him flex a bit more in a dramatic role for a change.  Gal Gadot also brings a nice haunted presence to the movie, again showing more range than what we’ve seen thus far from the Wonder Woman star.  The big question is, how do the actors carrying around the scandal baggage fair in this movie.  Certainly Letitia Wright fares better, as she manages to disappear into her character pretty well; even making her Southern American accent sound fairly spot on, as does her co-star and fellow brit Sophie Okenedo.  Armie Hammer unfortunately can’t make you forget about his off-screen scandals with his more hammy performance.  In some ways, it can be overlooked, because his character is a creep to begin with, but there’s just not enough goodwill built up throughout the film to make you admire his work alone in the film, and it certainly won’t work in helping him to resurrect his tarnished image.  Who knows if this may end up being the last we see of Mr. Hammer on the big screen.  If so, it’s a less than ideal exit.

Despite the artificiality of the film in it’s depiction of it’s location, I will say that the production design itself still represents some incredible work from the crew that worked on the film.  The boat that serves as the primary location for the film, known as the Karnack, almost becomes a character within the film itself.  I especially like how the details of the boat comes through; with it’s weather worn siding showing the effects of the harsh desert heat on the white-washed paint job, to the art deco inspired interiors of the parlor and dining rooms.  There’s also quite a bit of interesting staging throughout the movie involving the panoramic glass walls that encircle the action around the characters.  That’s why the scenes that take place indoors feel much more dynamic than those outdoors; because we are looking at stuff that’s actually tangible and real.  Kenneth Branagh also give the movie a nice rich texture by having it shot on 65mm film; a favorite film stock that he’s used through most of his career.  The large format film stock really helps to bring out the detail of the scenes, particularly the interior ones, and it will enhance the viewing experience if you manage to see the movie in the way that Branagh prefers: with 70mm projection.   Branagh, by all accounts, is a filmmaker with a love of cinema, and he shows a lot of care in the staging of his scenes in this movie.  There’s one neat moment in the movie where he has the camera glide through the setting, passing by all of the characters (i.e. suspects) like you’re seeing them appear from Poirot’s point of view.  It’s a shot that echoes a similar one in Murder on the Orient Express.  And what it does really well is present the idea that any one of these characters is capable of being a murderer, putting the audience in the same mindset as Poirot purely through visual language.  In less capable hands, the mystery may have been spoiled by the director very obviously pushing the narrative in an obvious direction, but Branagh manages to expertly keep his audience guessing, helping to make the final reveal feel like an earned surprise.  Despite it’s old fashioned feel, Branagh still manages to make his mystery work on screen, which manages to be especially effective if you aren’t already familiar with the original Christie story.  And it’s through that expert direct that the movie in many ways overcomes some of it’s shortcomings, even though it doesn’t entirely propel the movie any further than just being okay.

Overall, the narrative behind the making of this movie unfortunately overshadows the film itself.  It would’ve been interesting to see how this movie would’ve been accepted in a different timeline when there was no pandemic and the actors involved turned out to not have any problematic issues that reflected badly on the film.  The saddest part is that Kenneth Branagh’s larger plans to keep making more Poirot films seem to be dashed, as this film is unlikely to inspire it’s new handlers (Disney) to invest anything more into a franchise.  The fact that it managed to get a theatrical run at all in the face of everything seems like it will be the movie’s only triumph in the end; and a minor one at that.  The film, in a sense, is just an unfortunate byproduct of a Hollywood that no longer exists, and will likely see more movies like it disappear from the screen for a while as the Knives Outs of the world take over.  But, it’s thankfully not something to make Branagh feel ashamed in the long run.  It’s certainly a much better movie than his other pandemic affected film; the dismal Artemis Fowl (2020).  And like I said, he’s currently riding the accolades of his award winning Belfast (2021), a movie that certainly hits far closer to home personally for him.  The Poirot films will probably be seen as an admirable exercise in old school filmmaking for him as a director and performer.  Is the movie worth going out to see on the big screen?  Depends on if this is the kind of movie that fits your appeal.  If you like star-studded whodunit mysteries, than this might be a satisfying if not ground-breaking diversion for you to see.  If it’s available in your area to see in 70mm large format, than even better.  But, at the same time, it’s nothing particularly special either.  Just a well crafted, old-fashioned by-the-book adaptation.  My hope is that no one is going to this movie to see Armie Hammer’s reputation cleared up; the movie does little in that regard and nor should it.  That’s his mess to clean up.  Death on the Nile is a flawed but competent film that more or less treats the work of Agatha Christie with reverence and respect.  It’s just unfortunately a movie that can’t separate itself from a lot of bad fortune, and hopefully time will be a lot kinder to it in the years after it’s release.

Rating: 7/10