The Movies of Summer 2022

After a couple of years of unclear outlooks on the once mighty pillar of the cinematic calendar, the Summer movie season is finally starting to settle back into a more of what remember them being like in the past.  The summer season is once again launching in the first week of May, which of course Marvel Studios has planted their flag on.  There are also big releases planned for Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, which have also been big draws for the box office.  That isn’t to say we are 100% back to where we were pre-pandemic.  Some movies are still finding themselves being pushed back; a residual after effect of the backlogged calendar that we’ve had from the pandemic delays.  One film this summer in particular has been waiting two years to be released, which is the Tom Cruise action sequel Top Gun: Maverick; a movie that premiered it’s first trailer all the way back to Super Bowl 2020.  This all leads to a summer movie season that does look a bit better and more traditional than those during the pandemic, but is still pretty light in terms of the numbers of high profile tent-pole movies being released.  This is probably due to the fact that even though movie theaters are doing much better now, they still haven’t brought back all audiences back.  The older crowd as well as art house film fans have still been reluctant to return, as evidenced by the softer box office numbers seen for more grown up, R-Rated fare.  Thus far, the only types of movies that have managed to carry their weight at the post-pandemic box office have been the ones that cater to the key 18-45 demo: in particular, the still dominant super hero movies.  We saw just this spring Warner Brothers and DC’s The Batman (2022) have a stellar debut, and that was largely due to the genre’s resilience and it’s strong connection with the demographic it’s appealing to.  What should be encouraging to Hollywood right now is the return of healthy box office for family entertainment, as evidenced by the success of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022).  That gives hope that we’ll see continued growth at the summer box office over the next few months.

Like years past, I will be spotlighting some of the upcoming summer movies that I think will be impactful, for better and for worse.  Of course I’ll be breaking them down into the movies that I believe will be the must sees, the ones that have me worried, as well as the ones that I believe are worth skipping.  Keep in mind, these are based on my own level of interest in these movies, mainly due to the effectiveness of their advertising as well as my own pre-existing preferences, so I may not get a lot of these movies right by the end of the Summer.  But, I stand with my choices here, and my hope is that the ones I’m most excited for live up to the hype and that the one’s I’m less enthusiastic for end up being better than I expected.  So, let’s get underway and take a look at the Movies of Summer 2022.



Unequivocally the movie I am most looking forward to this Summer, and perhaps for the entire year as well.  When he took the reigns of the Thor franchise with the game-changing Thor: Ragnarok (2017), director and writer Taika Waititi managed to finally find the full potential in the character of Thor within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The Thor movies up to that point had been heavy and melodramatic, but Taika completely flipped the script and turned the “Strongest Avenger’s” narrative into a far more humorous one; and it worked brilliantly.  I feel like Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios realized midway through the creation of the MCU that Thor actor Chris Hemsworth had this natural knack for comedy, and that it was best to lean more into that for the future installments of his cinematic adventures.  That’s why they brought in a comedic genius like Taika to lend his own unique voice to their Cinematic Universe and it was a match made in heaven.  Now after the success of Ragnarok, and the subsequent Avengers films that followed it, we are getting the fourth Thor solo film, and it looks like Taika is picking up right where he left off.  What’s especially interesting here is that the movie is bringing back Natalie Portman to the franchise, reprising the role of Thor love interest Jane Foster, who was benched unceremoniously in Ragnarok.  Her return is very welcome, especially given that she’s going to follow the comic book story-line of her character here, and gain the power of Thor herself.  For one thing, it’s good that they are finally resolving that story thread and two it’s a beloved plot from the  comic books that fans are excited to see realized here.  It’s also nice to see Tessa Thompson return as Valkyrie (a fan favorite), and the inclusion of the Guardians of the Galaxy is also exciting.  But the most intriguing for me is something that the trailers haven’t shown yet and that’s the presence of the villainous Gorr, The God Butcher, whose going to be played by Oscar winner Christian Bale.  Seeing Bale, yet another Batman in the MCU is especially exciting and I cannot wait to see how his performance fits within the tone of the rest of the movie.  Also, this is Taika Waititi’s first project after winning his Oscar for writing Jojo Rabbit (2019), one of my favorite movies in recent memory.  I have high hopes for Taika and company to deliver a rollicking good time this Summer with Love and Thunder.


It’s unthinkable to think that there hasn’t been a Pixar film that has played in theaters since the pandemic began.  Onward, which had it’s box office window cut short by the lock down, was the last one and that was all the way back in March 2020.  Pixar has still been releasing movies, but they have been going straight to Disney+ as streaming exclusives.  I feel bad that movies like Soul (2020), Luca (2021) and Turning Red (2022) were not seen the way they were meant to be seen by the majority of audiences.  Thankfully, The Walt Disney Company, Pixar’s parent company, seems to have regained confidence in the Pixar brand on the big screen, as Lightyear marks the triumphant return of the cinema.  It probably helps that this is a movie that is a spin-off of sorts from the most prized series in the Pixar library (Toy Story) and this movie can benefit from name recognition to bring in audiences.  This movie follows a re-imagining of the Buzz Lightyear character.  As Disney has stated, this is not the same character from the Toy Story movies.  This is the “real life” character that the toy Buzz was based on.  It’s a roundabout way of justifying the existence for this movie, but I’m still interested.  With a different Buzz comes a different voice actor, and here he is played by none other than Captain America himself, Chris Evans.  What I’m hopeful in seeing with this movie is an adventure that uses known elements of the Buzz Lightyear lore and fully realizes them in a way that allows for this movie to stand alone apart from Toy Story.  I’m happy to see a re-imagining of Buzz Lightyear’s in universe arch nemesis Emperor Zurg making an appearance, and looking appropriately menacing.   The film does look like it’s leaning far more into the action adventure side, with of course the typical humorous bits that we all love from Pixar.  After a long absence from the big screen, it makes sense that a film like this, with it’s ambitious scale and bombastic action, would be the ideal movie to bring the studio back where it belongs.


Kicking off this summer season (less than a week from this writing in fact) we of course have the usual Marvel Studios entry.  The slot this time goes to the Sorcerer Supreme himself, Doctor Strange, once again played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Given that the MCU is now deep into it’s multi-versal phase, this movie is primed for big things after the spectacular success of Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) last December, which also touched on the multiverse, as did the Disney+ shows Wandavision and Loki.  This movie in particular has a lot of potential, because for the first time, a Marvel character is venturing across the borders of the multiverse, and there’s been a lot of speculation and excitement about what or who we may see.  The trailer has already given us one confirmation with the unmistakable voice of Patrick Stewart being heard, who of course could be no one other than Charles Xavier, making him the first X-Men character to appear in the MCU continuity.  There are so many rumors about potential cameos beyond that, most of which may not even be close to true in the end, but we already have seen Marvel bring together three generations of Spider-Man on screen together, and we’ll be getting Charles Xavier in this film, so who knows what they have up their sleeve.  One thing that has me excited is that this film is being directed by Sam Raimi, whose history with this genre is pretty monumental, having been the guy who first brought Spider-Man to the big screen with Tobey Maguire.  He’s also an iconic filmmaker when it comes to the horror genre, and this is definitely the tone that Marvel seems to be leaning more into with this sequel.  My only hope is that whatever crazy, fan service  stuff Raimi and Marvel have geared up for us, that the story-line itself isn’t sacrificed along the way.  I feel like there’s going to be some strong emotional elements throughout, especially with Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch.  And seeing each actor bringing many different types of differences to their characters across the different universes will be pretty exciting.  Let’s all hope the Doctor still manages to remain strange.


You know whenever Jordan Peele has a new movie coming out it is bound to start up a conversation.  He did so magnificently with his directorial debut, the Oscar-winning Get Out (2017), which used the horror genre as a brilliant examination of race relations in America.  He also turned the home invasion sub-genre on it’s head with his follow-up, Us (2019).  Now it looks like he’s about to bring his own unique voice to the alien invasion genre.  And where he’s going to go with it is anyone’s guess.  I get the feeling that the less we know about this movie going into it the better.  One thing that will be interesting to see is Jordan Peele re-uniting with his Get Out leading man, Daniel Kaluuya, himself now an Oscar winner for Judas and the Black Messiah (2021).  Also, a first time collaboration with Keke Palmer will be interesting to watch.  More than anything, I’m interested in seeing how Peele works his voice into this kind of movie.  Will it be yet another examination of race like his previous work, or is he going to be doing something much different with Nope.  Visually the movie looks very haunting in it’s imagery.  There’s a lot of interesting uses of silence and lighting to delivery a spooky quality in what we see in this trailer.  Also the location is an interesting choice, on the outskirts of Los Angeles within a horse ranch used for movies.  It seems like Peele is not only tapping into his inner Hitchcock with this film, but also his inner Spielberg, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind I would imagine being a heavy influence.  But, whereas Spielberg’s film was hopeful, this one seems pretty ominous.  Regardless if you are into these kinds of horror movies or not, there’s no doubt that Jordan Peele taps into some really provocative material whenever he puts a movie out, and it’s something that really helps to elevate the horror genre as a whole.  It’s rare when you see a movie a movie with a message that still appeals to a mass audience in the way that his movies do.  We don’t quite know what to expect with this movie just yet, but not knowing is honestly it’s best selling point right now, so let’s hope Jordan Peele makes the wait worth it.


One thing that you always hope for in the summer movie season is an original film not tied to any franchise that breaks out and becomes a fresh new hit.  If there was ever a movie this Summer that had the best shot at accomplishing this feat it would be Bullet Train.  The latest from director David Leitch, who has directed many recent classic action movies like John Wick (2014), Atomic Blonde (2017), and Deadpool 2 (2018), this action film brings together an impressive cast of actors to do exactly what audiences would love to see them do; beat the shit out of each other.  Given how brilliantly Leitch’s films are choreographed when it comes to the stunt pieces in his action scenes, you can expect to see some pretty inventive, adrenaline infused moments throughout this movie, especially with the new gimmick of staging them on a high speed bullet train in Japan.  But it’s not only the stunts that this movie is looking to spotlight.  The all-star cast is one of the most impressive to date in one of his movies, featuring the likes of Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, and Michael Shannon to name a few; all of whom have action movie credits, but not to the very hands on degree that Leitch has his actors involved in the stunts.  Much like what he did with Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron before, David Leitch tries to put as much of the real actor in the action scenes, only resorting to body doubles when absolutely necessary.  It’s going to be interesting to see how well this cast works with that kind of level of personal involvement.  I also like the setting of this film, set in the neon infused, sleek and colorful Japanese backdrops.  Given that Leitch’s movies have tended to skew darker in the past, this change in light and color should be an interesting exercise for him.  I’m just hoping that the movie maintains the same kind of blend of action and humor that we’ve seen in the likes of John Wick.  Given that this movie is not a franchise film and is taking on an original idea, lets hope that it does it’s best to stand out and hopefully become that original, stand-alone hit that studios really need right now.



When Universal revived their dormant Jurassic Park franchise in 2015 with Jurassic World, a lot of people were rightfully skeptic.  The two sequels to the 1993 original were panned pretty much across the board, and it became pretty clear then that nothing could really come close to topping that.  However, Jurassic World proved to be a surprising entry into the franchise.  Though still nowhere near as good as the original, it was still monumentally better than the other sequels, and it launched to record breaking box office as well.  A large part of that was due to Jurassic World’s star Chris Pratt hitting a career high-point immediately following the success of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  This of course led to a follow-up sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), which unfortunately did not carry over the same kind of success in story-telling that it’s predecessor did.  In fact, Fallen Kingdom may very well be the worst film in the entire franchise so far.  Dismantled by some of the lamest and most bafflingly bad story choices anyone’s ever seen in any of these film, a lot of people thought this might be the end of this franchise.  But, strong box office in it’s opening secured another film, and in this one, it looks like Universal Pictures is pulling out all the stops.  In addition to the Jurassic World cast being carried over, including Pratt and co-star Bryce Dallas Howard, they are also linking this movie back to the original series by bringing back the original trio of stars: Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum.  Now, I love all three of those actors, and I am excited to see them playing these iconic roles again, but I’m also worried that by having them all there in a movie that might be just as bad as Fallen Kingdom that it could end up tarnishing the legacy of the original.  I’m hoping that’s not the case and that returning director Colin Treverrow actually manages to put the franchise back on track again.  But, if Dominion doesn’t deliver, it might finally be time to let this franchise go extinct.


You never know what you’re going to get with a director like Baz Luhrmann.  He’s made a career out of making flashy, stylized movies that have often polarized audiences.  I’ve been known to both hate (Australia) and admire (The Great Gatsby) his movies, so I too am not sure what to think when I hear of a new project of his.  I will say he is choosing an interesting subject for his new film, and it’s one that actually fits within his tastes as a director.  Because his style is often akin to the kind of filmmaking that we see in music videos, it makes sense that he would want to tell the life’s story of one of the most legendary musicians that ever lived; Elvis Presley.  Given Elvis’ famously flashy style on stage, the match with Baz Luhrmann makes sense.  What I still have reservations over with this film, however, is the fact that it looks like Luhrmann is trying to fit the whole life and career of Elvis into one movie.  To me, this is always a problem with failed biographies; that they try to span such an extensive length of time and the story just becomes a bullet points presentation of a famous person’s life without ever finding the character underneath that made them the special person that they were.  The best biopics  are the ones that zero in on a specific, defining chapter in one’s life, and that helps them to stand out as the subject of the story.  My hope is that Luhrmann never loses sight of the humanity of his subject, and there are good signs to be found here.  One of them is the casting of Austin Butler, who very much looks and sounds the part of the music icon.  If anything helps to make this movie soar, it will be the strength of his performance.  I don’t know quite what to make of Tom Hanks performance as Colonel Tom Parker just yet.  Between the fat suit and the southern drawl, this could either be a colorful performance from Hanks, or an embarrassing one.  This is Tom Hanks we are talking about (who became celebrity Covid patient zero during the making of this movie) and his track record gives me hope.  This could indeed be one of the most crowd pleasing movies of the summer, or another over-stuffed mess from a very unsubtle filmmaker.  My hope is for the former and that those blue suede shoes dance to box office success.


This has been a long road to the big screen for this Tom Cruise headlined sequel.  Not only is it coming out a lengthy 36 years after the original, but it also had to endure sitting on the shelf for two extra years since it’s original release date was cancelled because of the pandemic.  Paramount clearly wanted to wait on this one until the conditions were right for it to have the best opportunity for maximum box office.  They may have been right in doing so, but there are still some lingering question marks related to this film.  One is the question of whether or not this movie needs to exist.  Like I said, the original movie was nearly 4 decades ago, and yes, Tom Cruise has held up pretty well over the years, but what ever audience this movie clicked for back in 1986 has probably aged along with it, and I don’t know of too many younger audiences clamoring to see this.  Two, the fact that the original movie isn’t exactly a masterpiece itself.  Sure it’s got a dedicated fanbase, but it’s more because they love the movie for how dated and lightweight it is.  When your most famous scene is the shirtless beach volleyball sequence, it’s probably a sign that your movie is not a particularly deep film.  That being said, this is movie sequel that seems to be more geared to who Tom Cruise is now, which means it’s a lot more focused on the on screen action.  Picking up from what he’s been doing with the Mission Impossible franchise, Cruise is upping the ante with Top Gun: Maverick as well.  Instead of cutting between grounded close-ups of his actors in the cockpits and second unit aerial coverage shot separately, Cruise is putting himself and his fellow actors in the air with real fighter planes.  These moments in the movie, shot with IMAX cameras to boot, have an air of authenticity now that the original movie didn’t, and that in itself could be the movie’s best selling point.  I just hope that the story surrounding it is an improvement as well.  There’s a lot of years in between these movies, so Cruise has a lot to improve here.  Thankfully, he’s a risk taker, and my hope is that it leads to this being an adrenaline rush of a movie that stands up to his increasingly higher standards.


When translating comic book stories to animation, there could be many bad ways to go, but also plenty of great opportunities.  One of the best examples is Sony Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018), which was not only a great comic book animated movie, but probably one of the greatest animated movies of all time.  Surprisingly, DC has not really delved into animation very much with their extensive catalogue of characters to chose from.  They also belong to Warner Brothers which once upon a time had one of the most storied animation departments in all of Hollywood.  Now we finally have an animated movie from DC Comics and the subject they chose was the Justice League’s pets.  Honestly, not really the most exciting choice, as it seems that this movie is gearing itself more towards the family audience rather than the typical super hero genre fans.  That’s not to say that it could end up being bad.  It’s just that I don’t think there is too much enthusiasm for a movie based on Superman and Batman’s pet dogs.  That being said, the animation is colorful if a tad bit on the generic looking side.  And the movie has an impressive voice cast behind it, led by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart as Krypto and Ace, the pet dogs of Superman and Batman respectively.  The heroes themselves are also being voiced by John Krasinski and Keanu Reeves, and the prospect of Reeves voicing Batman is enough to get me in the theater.  We’ll have to see if this movie is too cute for it’s own good or if it does justice to it’s comic book origins.  Hopefully there are more creative bits in this movie that help it stand-out, because when Into the Spiderverse has raised the bar as high as it is, you can’t just pander to the general audiences tastes, you’ve got to make something that truly is “super.”



Speaking of lackluster animated movies that fall well under the bar, I have to confess that I have never really cared for the Despicable Me franchise at all.  Even more so, I find the minions characters to be obnoxious and pointless.  I know I’m not the target audience for these movies, and that little kids really love the minion characters.  It’s honestly been the thing that has propelled the franchise to billion dollar success at the box office.  Even still, why do we need to keep rehashing this franchise over and over again.  It’s just a cash grab at this point, as the minions franchise really has no other artistic value.  While the Pixars, Disneys, Laikas, and Dreamworks of the world diversify their libraries with new and fresh ideas i between all their sequels, Illumination has just done two things for most of their time in existence; Dr. Suess adaptations and Minions movies.  There are Secret Life of Pets and Sing as well, but that’s only four franchise in the span of 15 years for Illumination.  Pixar had nearly 10 distinctively original movies made in that same time frame.  I’m just expecting more of the same from this Despicable Me spin-off.  Illumination certainly knows how to target their demographic, but they do so in sacrificing any real diverse growth in their output.  Between Lightyear and Super-Pets, there will be much better choices to take your kids to this summer.


We seem to be in a period of time where Hollywood wants to revisit the catalogue of titles from the mind of Stephen King and update them to modern day.  Some have turned out better than the original, like the two adaptations of IT, but there have been some that turned out pretty forgettable (Pet Cemetery) or downright terrible (The Stand mini-series).  My worry is that this will be one of the latter.  The one good thing is that Blumhouse is making this one; a first for them with regards to Stephen King adaptations, though I may be wrong.  At the very least you know that it won’t be too over done with visual effects or pandering jump scares.  At the same time, they are adapting one of the lesser King novels, which was also the basis for a rather not-scary adaptation from 1984 starring a very young Drew Barrymore.  And it looks like time still hasn’t helped the story out.  It still feels pretty ridiculous and not at all scary.  One hopes that Blumhouse, which has a pretty solid track record of updating old horror titles in interesting new ways, but this I think might be one fire that doesn’t ignite for them.


What has me worried about this movie is more than just the lackluster looking animation.  It’s the fact that this seemingly innocuous, low budget animated movie for kids is a loose adaptation of one of the greatest comedies ever made; Blazing Saddles (1974).  You heard that right.  Apparently done with the blessing of Mel Brooks (who also lends his voice to the movie), this movie takes the same premise and transposes it to feudal Japan with a cast of animal characters.  What I don’t understand is why the movie is not called Blazing Samurai like it is in other parts of the world.  It probably has to do with the fact that it’s merely taking the story of it’s famous comedy origin, but is not including any of it’s hard edged humor.  How could it?  Blazing Saddles is beloved for it’s irreverent and raunchy comedy, which does not fit well in a family film.  The only thing I think crossed over is the famous farting scene, which I guess is ageless.  But, while Blazing Saddles was sharp witted in it’s commentary on racism in the old west, I get the feeling that Paws of Fury is going to play it safe and not touch upon the harder edges that gave it’s predecessor the perfect level of raucous laughter.  And given the need for that film’s original message in today’s age, it’s not a good thing to see an animated movie water it down to appeal to all audiences.

So, there you have my outlook on the movies of the upcoming Summer movie season.  There are of course the usual suspects arriving, like more from Marvel, as well as big franchises like Jurassic World.  It’s also going to be nice to see a Pixar movie available in wide release in theaters again.  But, there is also room for an unexpected hit out there as well.  One hopes that movies like Elvis and Bullet Train are able to defy expectations and prove that a non franchise movie can stand out even amongst the bigger names.  Still, compared with previous years before the pandemic, the Summer 2022 calendar is a bit lighter than where it was before.  There’s still a bit more rebuilding to do to get the movie theater industry back up to it’s pre-pandemic levels, and we are certainly closer now than we were since this time last year.  The delays seem to have died off and the competition from streaming isn’t quite as tough as it was before.  With the recent troubles facing Netflix, it seems like the theater industry may possibly be back in competition with pulling in audiences in their direction.  More people want to venture out now and feel more confident in their safety now that the worst of the pandemic is over.  It’s being reflected in the growing box office totals that we’ve seen so far this year.  In 2021, we didn’t have a single movie gross over $100 million until after Memorial Day weekend with A Quiet Place Part II (2021).  So far this year, we already have three, and there are plenty more to come just in the next month, with Multiverse of Madness and Top Gun: Maverick just around the corner.  What I imagine happening over the course of the next few months is a big return by audiences to the movie theaters, delivering the kinds of numbers we have seen in years before, and that will hopefully spill over into the Fall, as well as into the following year.  So, I hope my preview has been helpful and that everyone has a good and entertaining Summer at the movies.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2022 – Film Exhibition Report

One of the sad things that was lost almost immediately in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was the annual Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival.  Usually set in the month of April, the planned 2020 Fest was well in the planning stages and advance passes were already being purchased.  But, as it became clear that the spread of Covid across the country was imminent and that movie theaters were going to be forced to go dark to help stop the spread, the team at TCM had to make the terrible but unavoidable choice to cancel the imminent festivities.  Passes were refunded of course, and as I’m sure was the case with everyone worrying about the future, fans of the festival were worried about what the state of the festival would be in the future.  TCM tried to make up for the disappointment by holding a “virtual” festival across their media platforms.  It was not the same, but it’s all that TCM could do in the era of social-distancing.  As the pandemic stretched into a second year, and movie theaters were still in the early days of re-opening, TCM decided to also put on hold plans for returning in 2021, and they again took their festival virtual last year, adding the HBO Max app as an extra platform to share their programs on.  But now, with the worst of the pandemic hopefully behind us, TCM is finally returning to the heart of Hollywood with an actual in-person festival, another thankful sign of life returning to normal; at least for us LA based movie theater fans.  And, as it appears, TCM is picking up right where it left off, not making any drastic adjustments to their festival format and instead giving us fans exactly what what we’ve loved from them in the past.

There are, however, some things that the pandemic has unfortunately changed about the festival.  Most prominent of them is the loss of two of the festivals most beloved venues.  Both the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. and the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Blvd. have not reopened since closing for the pandemic lock down two years ago.  Now, the Egyptian is planned for a future reopening after it’s current renovation is compete in celebration of it’s 100th anniversary and it’s new ownership under Netflix.  Unfortunately, the Cinerama Dome doesn’t have as hopeful of a future as the Egyptian does, as it’s previous owners (Pacific Theaters) effectively went bankrupt.  There are hopes of a possible return of the legendary venue in the future, but there has been little news to go on to say when or how it will happen.  As a result, both of this beloved theaters are not a part of this year’s festival.  For many people, the Egyptian was an especially popular place to screen a movie, because of it’s exclusively film based projection.  The prospect of getting to see a movie in a rare nitrate print presentation has been in recent years one of the festival’s most interesting attractions.  That, unfortunately will not be a part of this year’s festival, and that is a shame.  Thankfully, all the other venues of the past in this festival are open and welcoming guests this weekend.  Among them, the crown jewel of the TCL Chinese Theater, the adjoining Chinese Multiplex Theaters, and the American Legion Post Theater, which made it’s Festival debut in 2019.  In addition, the legendary Roosevelt Hotel (host of the first Oscars) is ground central for all Festival activities, as well as the host of Poolside screenings at it’s rooftop swimming pool.  Being a long time fan of this festival, I’m of course taking this opportunity to once again attend and revive my long dormant report to all of you.  My goal is to take in as much as I can across all four days of the festival.  So, without further ado, here’s my report of the TCM Classic Film Festival 2022.


Given that I have a 9-5 job during the weekdays, my first two days of the festival are going to be truncated in comparison with the weekend.  Thankfully, the Festival doesn’t begin until the afternoon on the first day, so I’m not missing much.  Like most festivals in the past, the opening night begins with two major events held in the Chinese Theater that is only available for those with only the highest level event passes.  One of those events is the presentation of the Robert Osbourne Award, which is sort of their lifetime achievement honor given to a particular noteworthy individual within the film community.  It can be a filmmaker, or a film historian, or technician of note.  This year, the recipient is famed film critic and historian Leonard Maltin; a frequently seen face at these annual festivals and an absolute deserving choice for the Osbourne Award.  What I’m sure is also a great honor for Mr. Maltin is that he’s getting the honor on opening night from none other than actor and director Warren Beatty.  In addition to the Robert Osbourne presentation, the Opening Night of the festival is also being marked by a 40th anniversary screening of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982). Held in the massive Chinese Theater, this is a marquee event, almost like a film premiere, and just like most film premieres, the festival also rolled out the red carpet just for this event.  The reason this screening in particular is so exclusive is that in addition to having it played on the big screen, it will also be preceded with an exclusive Q and A with director Steven Spielberg and select members of the cast and crew.  Joining Spielberg are producer Kathleen Kennedy (now head of Lucasfilm), and actors Dee Wallace, Robert Macnaughton and Drew Barrymore.  Unfortunately for me, the price level for passes into this event are still way out of my price range, as I am once again using the standby option.  So, my best look at this year’s opening night event was from across the street, behind the barricades.  Still, it’s nice to see the Festival once again kicked into high gear, even from that vantage point.

I arrived a little after 5:30pm to the Roosevelt Hotel to check in at the vaccine validation desk.  This year’s festival is taking no precautions for granted and is only allowing in guests who have proof of Covid vaccinations and are requiring everyone wear a mask inside the venues.  Thankfully, once you show your proof of vaccine at the table, you receive an armband that can be worn through the rest of the fest.  So, I got my armband and immediately made my way to my first film.  Unfortunately, my first choice was at the American Legion Post Theater, which was a half mile walk up the hill from the rest of the festival.  It’s not a terrible walk, but a hassle if you’re in a hurry.  I thankfully had enough time to spare and got there a good hour before show time.  Because I wanted to focus on movies I haven’t seen yet, I chose this venue first, because it was playing an Oscar winning movie that I have missed until now.  That film was Tender Mercies (1983) which is noteworthy for being the movie that Robert Duvall finally won his Oscar for.  It was a nice, easygoing movie to start out the festival with, and it made it especially special that it’s one of the movies screened at the festival with one of the stars in attendance.  Duvall’s love interest in the movie was played by actress Tess Harper, and she was at this screening, interviewed by TCM host Eddie Mueller.  She was a delightful interviewee, discussing how this movie was her big breakthrough as a movie actor, what it was like working with Robert Duvall and director Bruce Beresford, and what it was like shooting on a small budget in rural Texas.  She had some really funny stories, like how she bit into her screenplay when she first got it just so she could make sure it was real.  She also gave a nice perspective of the film’s quiet but respectable legacy over the years.  For a first show of the night, I think this ended up a good choice for me.  Like Eddie Mueller jokingly said, “Who needs to watch E.T. again anyway.”

After the movie at the Legion Post, I made my way back down to the Chinese Multiplex for what I was hoping would be my ideal second film of the night.  That movie was going to be Topkapi (1964), an Oscar-winning heist film from Jules Dassin.  The reason why I wanted to see that film in particular was because it was the only one that evening playing in 35mm, and at this festival, if I can watch a movie on actual film, it’s an opportunity not worth passing on.  Unfortunately, this was my first strike out of the festival.  The screening sold out before any of us in the standby queue were even let in.  So, the option was to go home disappointed or stay and watch something else.  Not wanting to end the night on disappointment, I opted to watch a Preston Sturges comedy instead.  The movie was Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), starring Eddie Bracken.  To introduce the movie, the festival invited producer Michael Uslan; most famous as the executive producer of the Batman franchises at Warner Brothers.   Uslan is certainly a fan of Sturges’ comedies and he detailed for us the historical context of this film, which was set in and made within the midst of WWII.  The patriotic fervor is palpable throughout the movie, but at the same time you can see where Sturges managed to find the humor in it all.  The movie is certainly a product of it’s time, and perhaps doesn’t hold up in certain ways like other comedies of the era, but it’s certainly entertaining for it’s madcap energy.  At least watching this movie helped me to get a good start to my overall count for the festival.  In a rare oddity for the Los Angeles area, I exited the theater to find it pouring down rain, and because I left my car at home, I had to brave the elements just to get home by subway.  A certainly odd start off to my festival experience, but, the forecast was good for the rest of the weekend, so it would hopefully make the rest of the festival a pleasant experience.


Returning late because of work, I missed out on the morning screenings, which has been the case before at past festivals.  But, I arrived at the Hollywood and Highland complex ready and hopeful to have two more screenings complete that night.  For my first choice, I ended up going with the movie The Letter (1940), a Noirish drama starring Bette Davis and directed by William Wyler. I chose this because it was another movie that I hadn’t seen before and it peaked my curiosity.  However, I wish I knew what I was passing up, because screening at the same time in the Chinese Theater itself was a brand new 4K restoration of George Stevens’s classic Giant (1956).  Now, I have seen Giant before, but never on the big screen, and I only realized later that there was a surprise unannounced guest at that screening.  Apparently, Steven Spielberg showed up to help introduce the movie alongside previously announced guest, George Stevens, Jr.  Both were interviewed by Festival Master of Ceremonies Ben Mankiewicz, and if I knew that this was part of the screening, I would’ve absolutely been there instead.  However, The Letter itself was not a bad movie to pass on either.  The movie was introduced by TCM host Alicia Malone, who was there to interview the co-founder of the Bette Davis Foundation, and author of her biography, Kathryn Sermak.  Ms. Sermak gave a nice insightful look into the latter years of Bette Davis’ life as she had once worked closely with her as an assistant, all of which she details in the book.  It was interesting to hear how Davis could be a handful if she felt she was being disrespected and Kathryn managed to win her respect strangely through silence, which Ms. Davis characterized as intelligence.  It was an interview that definitely helped to shine a light on the iconic status of Bette Davis’ stardom, and after watching the movie itself, you really see how she embodied every bit the ideal of a movie star.

Leaving The Letter, I immediately got into line for my next preferred film, which was I, The Jury (1953).  Now, why would I want to watch an obscure detective movie from the 1950’s. That’s because this one was being screened in 3D.  Any chance to watch an old 3D movie in the way it was intended is definitely an experience not worth passing up.   Unfortunately for me, this was strikeout number two for this year’s festival.  Some standby guests did manage to get a seat, but my place in line was too far back, and after about 5 people, they had the show sold out.  Because this was around 10pm at night, there were no other options left; except for the midnight show.  Every festival, they save slots past midnight for edgier movies that probably are contrary to the tastes of some of the older classic movie fans.  Because I again didn’t want to end a night on disappointment, I stuck around for a couple hours, taking in the sometimes chaotic nighttime atmosphere of Hollywood Boulevard, before getting in line for that night’s midnight showing.  Thankfully, getting into this one was easier, as there were plenty of available seats.  The movie screening that night was a movie best described as meet-cute romance combined with post-apocalyptic thriller.  It’s called Miracle Mile (1989) and it’s a movie that clearly had escaped my radar before because I had never heard of it.  But, one who had was TCM host Eddie Mueller, who really was championing this movie.  Joining Mueller in the introduction was the film’s director, Steve De Jarnatt.  De Jarnatt gave an interesting backstory for his movie, saying that he wrote the script right out of film school at the American Film Institute in 1979, but he didn’t get around to filming it until ten years later.  The movie is interesting for it’s clever use of limited budget and locations to tell this big story about the end of world through nuclear war.  For anyone familiar with the geography of Los Angeles, they’ll get a kick out of recognizing that all the locations used in the movie are just in small block radius of the Wilshire and Fairfax intersection, which of course is dubbed, “The Miracle Mile” like the movie’s namesake.  I have been hesitant in the past about doing a midnight showing, because of the time constraints because of work and the options of the festival, but I’m glad I finally gave myself the opportunity to try it this year.


Because of my choice of going to the midnight show the night before, I opted to skip the morning screenings on day three of the festival.  Thankfully, none piqued my interest, either because I wasn’t interested in the movie, or it was one that I had seen before.  So, I gave myself a couple extra hours of sleep and made my way back to the festival venues for Day 3.  For my Saturday start, I chose to begin in the crown jewel of the Festival venues; the TCL Chinese Theater.  Though the theater has been re-opened since the end of the lock down last spring in 2021, this marked my first actual return into that theater since the last TCM Film Fest in 2019.  And it is such a treat to be back in such an iconic place again.  Unchanged since my last visit, the Chinese Theater is majestic as always.  My first movie here is a screening of the musical Annie (1982) which is another movie having an anniversary; 40th, just like E.T.  I’ve made it known here before that movie musicals are not particularly my thing.  Still I wanted to check this out because I’ve never seen it before and it is a cinematic rarity being the one and only musical ever directed by the legendary John Huston.  The movie itself is a little too sweet for my tastes overall, but I do adore the supporting cast which includes a few of my favorites like Albert Finney, Tim Curry, and the always amazing Carol Burnett in a scene-stealing role as Miss Hannigan.  For this screening, the Festival gave us a wonderful introduction by little Annie herself, the now grown-up Aileen Quinn.  Interviewed by host Alicia Malone, Ms. Quinn talked about working at such a young age with  these icon, and she held John Huston up in very high regard, seeing him as very grandfatherly to her.  Despite my feelings about the movie, it was still a majestic experience watching it play on the undisputed largest screen in town.  Next up, I went to the multiplex to catch a quick little over an hour long Western called The Tall T (1957).  This Western, starring Randolph Scott and Richard Boone, just received a brand new 4K restoration, and the results are pretty outstanding.  It’s a slight Western, but was beautifully shot, which the restoration really highlights.  the movie was introduced by historian and author Jeremy Arnold, who talked extensively about the work of director Budd Boetticher and where this movie stands among his body of work.

Having two movies complete in quick succession, I made my way to stand in line for the next big show, which was a screening in the TCL Chinese Theater of the film Heaven Can Wait (1978).  The reason why I was determined to attend this screening was because the special guest in attendance was going to be the movie’s co-director, co-writer, and star Warren Beatty.  One of my goals at each of these festivals is to take the opportunity to see at least one of the old timer screen legends live in person while they’re still here.  It’s what introduced me to the festival in the first place, back in 2012 when I made my way there to watch a screening of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with a then 95 year old Kirk Douglas in attendance.   At this year’s fest, I had two both excellent options, of seeing either Beatty or the also very iconic Bruce Dern, who was one of this year’s spotlight honorees.  I elected to go with Beatty ultimately, and hopefully I can have another chance to see Mr. Dern another time.  For Warren, this was one of the rare instances of the discussion happening after the conclusion of the film.  This was a first time viewing of the movie for me, so I’m glad that the interview followed afterwards, just for the context.  Warren is certainly up there in years now, but he’s still very insightful about his experiences working on the film.  It’s interesting that only two people have ever nominated for an Oscar for acting, directing, writing and producing for the same film; one is Warren for this film, the other was Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (1941).  And Mr. Beatty accomplished that feat twice, doing it again for Reds (1981).  It was interesting to hear Warren talk about working with the legendary James Mason in the film, as well as sharing directing duties with Buck Henry.  Interviewer Ben Mankiewicz also noted that Warren was also working again with Julie Christie, who he’d worked with before on movies like McCabe and Ms. Miller (1971) and Shampoo (1975), while also being romantically involved at the time.  By the time they made Heaven Can Wait, their relationship was over but they remained on good enough terms to continue acting together, which Mankiewicz observed as being well reflective of both of them.

The audience of course was very pleased to see Warren Beatty, and he received two standing ovations from the crowd in the Chinese.  Once that was over, I made the trek up Highland Boulevard to the Hollywood Legion Post again for hopefully my last show of the night.  The showing was the Barry Levinson movie Diner (1982), another movie celebrating it’s 40th anniversary at this festival.  This was going to be a high demand movie, because the special guests at this show were four of the film’s stars; Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Steve Guttenberg, and Paul Reiser.  I really had to hustle, because it’s a half mile walk uphill between the Chinese and the Post, but when I got there, the standby line was already 20-30 people deep.  I took my place in line and as expected, strikeout number three.  The venue completely filled up with pass-holders alone, and everyone in the standby queue had to look at their other options.  For me, I wanted again to find an alternative.  So the best possible choice in that moment was to go back to the multiplex and pick one of the late 9:30pm showings.  What I ended up choosing was a screening of the Jackie Chan kung fu action flick, Drunken Master II (1994).  I missed the opening introduction by TCM host Jacqueline Stewart, but I arrived just as the opening credits were concluding.  What I’ve learned about this movie since watching it was that this was sequel was made 16 years after the original and it was Jackie Chan’s first tradition martial arts movie in nearly a decade.  Naturally, after that long of a gap, Mr. Chan was going to pull out all the stops and really take things to the next level with this movie.  And that includes many death defying stunts that Jackie himself performed.  Some of them are pretty crazy, like Jackie falling on real inflamed coals or being actually set on fire multiple times.  Suffice to say, the audience I was with was eating all that up, and were having a uproarious time watching this movie.  I was certainly impressed with the movie as well, just given the level of work that went into all those stunts, and how relentless they are throughout the whole movie.  What I thought was interesting was the fact that this was the North American premiere of the original uncut Hong Kong version of the film, as only the poorly dubbed English version had been available before.  Suffice to say, I salvaged my night with an uplifting choice.  Now it was time to get ready for the final night.


After a very short turnaround to get as much sleep in as I could, I made my way to the heart of the festival again the following morning, starting off with another of my must watches of the festival.  At the Hollywood Legion Post, they were going to being screening a brand new 70mm print of the classic historical epic Spartacus (1960).  It’s a movie that I have seen many times before, but never on a big screen.  It was something worth getting up bright and early in the morning, no doubt.  I managed to make it there just as the standby seating was beginning, and thankfully for me, it wasn’t a sell-out (morning screenings at the festival rarely are).  There was still a fair amount of people in the quite large venue, but I still got an ideal seat in the middle of the row, fairly close to the screen.  Jacqueline Stewart, the TCM host and curator for the Academy Museum on Wilshire Blvd. (my review here ), told us that this print came from a new 4K master and that it would be presented in it’s Roadshow format, complete with Overture and a 15 minute Intermission.  I can’t tell you just how majestic it is to see a film screened in 70mm.  It just has a texture when projected that is unlike any other format, and it’s especially wonderful to see a classic film like this presented in that way.  It was also neat to see the Legion Theater recreating the way Roadshow films were presented back in the heyday of Hollywood, with the curtain drawn closed over the screen as the Overture plays, opening once the studio logo appears on screen and closing once again over the Intermission title card.  There was a little hiccup in the middle of the show, as the screen went dark in the first half; something that’s unfortunately is a common hazard with screening film, as the projector can sometimes not work properly.  They resolved it within minutes and the movie played on without incident thereafter.  What really stuck me about the movie this time is how breezy the film feels with it’s 3 and 17 minute runtime.   And, it’s the first time seeing this movie after Kirk Douglas’ passing in 2020 at the age of 103, and it just reminds you of how much of an icon he was on the big screen.  This is the kind of cinema that just demonstrates what’s great about the movies, and seeing the magnificent epic grandeur put on screen by director Stanley Kubrick in the way it was meant to be seen.

Because of Spartacus’ epic length, the run time extended well through the morning, and by the time I got out of my screening, the next round of movies that morning had already begun.  This was planned for on my part, and thankfully, it didn’t interfere with my remaining plans for the day.  So, I had a lengthy break in between movies, which I used for grabbing lunch and to visit some of the other attractions in the area.  I took a look at the work in progress renovation of the Egyptian Theater.  The preexisting, 1922 structure looks like it’s being retained, but the whole courtyard out front is torn-up and filled with dirt, so it looks like there’s still a lot of work left to do.  Hopefully, it’s all done in time to have this as a venue at the next festival; complete with it’s capabilities of screening nitrate film like in past years.  After my break, it was back to the Chinese Theater to watch my next film; 1973’s The Sting.  The Best Picture winning film, best known for reuniting Robert Redford and Paul Newman after their iconic pairing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), was being presented here with a discussion after the film with the film’s two producers, Michael Phillips and Tony Bill, as well as the screenwriter David S. Ward.  Seeing David Ward at the festival was especially cool to see, given that he’s someone I’ve personally interacted with as a student in his thesis screenwriting class at Chapman University.  The remarkable thing about the trio was just how young they were when they made this movie; Phillips and Bill were just a little over 30 at the time, and Ward was 28 when he wrote the script.  And they were collaborating at that young of an age with established icons like Redford and Newman, as well as director George Roy Hill.  They had a lot of interesting stories, including the intriguing alternate casting of Peter Boyle in the role played by Paul Newman.  There was also a lot of talk about how tricky they had to be to make the twist at the end land as well as it does.  As they said, the key was to keep the audience as much in the dark about what was going on as the mark of the grift in the movie, played marvelously by Robert Shaw.  The movie itself still manages to hold up almost 50 years later, and it was great to see these three important players from the movie get a major honor of seeing their movie playing again at the Chinese to a pretty large and entertained audience.

So, coming to the very end, where would I go for my final film of this year’s festival.  Well, the clear choice had to be the Chinese Theater, despite the fact that I had just been there one movie ago.  There was a good reason to be there though because it was the closing night presentation, and thankfully standby tickets were available.  For this special showing, the movie selected was the 1992 Penny Marshall film A League of Their Own.  The movie, marking it’s 30th anniversary, is one that I certainly remember seeing in a theater when it first came out, and I enjoyed it quite well.  Seeing it on the big screen again is something that I certainly wouldn’t want to miss, and at this festival, we get the added bonus of seeing the movie with many of the film’s original cast.  Sadly no Tom Hanks, or Geena Davis, or Madonna.  But, the ones there were quite a great assortment.  In attendance were actresses Lori Petty, Megan Cavanagh, Ann Cusack, Anne Ramsey, Patti Pelton, as well as comedian Jon Lovitz, who played the part of the talent scout in the movie.  Ben Mankiewicz was there to moderate, but the panel pretty much was a conversation between long time friends sharing memories than it was an interview.  Lovitz of course offered his own humorous anecdotes throughout.  They of course touched upon how much they appreciated working with Penny Marshall, what it was like working with Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, and of course the surreal aspect of sharing the screen with Madonna, the biggest pop star in the world at the time.  There was also a very welcome surprise for us at this screening, because another guest of honor was one of the actual Women’s League baseball players that were the subject of the film.  Her name is Maybelle Blair, and though she wasn’t a participant in the panel itself, she did get a shout out and a standing ovation from the audience.  It was also pretty adorable that she was supporting herself with a walking cane shaped like a baseball bat.  That special connection to history helped to make this a very special screening, and in deed, the audience was really into this showing.  There were quite a lot of cheering and clapping at several points in the movie, especially at Tom Hanks now iconic line, “There’s no crying in Baseball!”  Overall, a good choice to close out the festival experience on.  I left the theater exhausted from a long four day stretch but at the same time a little sad that it was all done.  Sticking around for just a couple more minutes of atmosphere, I headed to the subway and made my way home, with another TCM Film Fest experience complete.

I think what really made this festival different from others in the past was the feeling of relief that it was finally here again.  It was one more thing that the pandemic took away from us that we finally got back and of course absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Though the festival was still affected by the absence of some past venues, it still felt like old times again for those of us who have made multiple trips throughout the years.  I for one managed to get the most out of my experience.  I saw 11 films in total (one short of my record in 2019) which is still quite an accomplishment, even with my three strikeouts.  I don’t feel like I wasted any opportunities, though that Giant screening with Spielberg is one that I wish I had prepared better for.  It was also wonderful being in these different venues again and having the chance of watching these classics in the way they were meant to be seen.  I got to see Warren Beatty live in person which was a nice experience, and I also watched a beautiful new print of Spartacus be screened in stunning 70mm.  Also, I managed to add a first to my festival experience and watch one of the midnight showings for the first time.  That’s a side of the festival that certainly differs from any other.  My hope is that this return of the festival proves as successful as years before and that it will be back in full force next spring.  The level of attendance seemed pretty strong so I think it’s a definite probability.  Hopefully the refurbished Egyptian will be added back to the roster of venues and also (fingers crossed) the Cinerama Dome as well.  After a two year absence, I am so happy to be sharing these experiences will all of you again.  It was a rough pandemic for the movie going experience, but the level of popularity in this festival that I saw over the weekend makes me hopeful for the future of the movie theater experience.  There is nothing better for a cinephile like me than to be able to watch so many classic movies in the heart of Hollywood in the most famous movie theaters in the world.  Thank you for bringing this back to us TCM Classic Film Festival.  Hope to see you again next year.

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

Focus on a Franchise – The Hobbit Trilogy

From the moment the credits rolled on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), the entire Middle Earth fandom began to chatter all at once, “When are we getting The Hobbit.”  It’s understandable that the demand would immediately be there for more adventures on the big screen within this world from the creative mind of J.R.R. Tolkein.  Director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkein’s trilogy did an amazing job of making the immense world of Middle Earth feel real and immerisve, and it was a world that audiences were very much in favor of revisiting.  Thankfully, Tolkein had given his world plenty of extra lore to draw from.  In fact, The Lord of the Rings itself was a literary successor to Tolkein’s first ever published novel, The Hobbit.  First hitting bookshelves in 1937, The Hobbit became an instant hit in what was considered “children’s literature,” and it would become a highly influential book in the history of 20th century fantasy writing.  Tolkein was of course pressed upon by his publisher to write a sequel, and Tolkein would spend the next 20 years developing the three volumes that make Rings.  Though The Lord of the Rings is still considered to be J.R.R. Tolkein’s magnum opus, The Hobbit is still a treasured story in it’s own that thankfully has thrived outside of Ring’s shadow.  In 1977 in fact, The Hobbit was the first Middle Earth story to receive a cinematic treatment, with the Rankin Bass produced animated feature, long before The Lord of the Rings would ever get it’s own film treatment, despite many attempts.  It is interesting, however, that so many filmmakers bypassed The Hobbit so many times in favor of the Lord of the Rings.  It’s understandable, Rings is the grander story, but at the same time it’s also built upon the foundation laid for it by The Hobbit.  One can’t begin the story without addressing the events that came before in The Hobbit.  Even Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy calls back to events in The Hobbit, which of course didn’t exist as a movie yet.  So, once the Rings trilogy was complete, it’s only natural that long time fans would want to have The Hobbit adapted too as a way of completing the saga, even if it meant going backwards.  However, getting there was easier said than done.

Of course, fans wanted to see Peter Jackson return as a director for The Hobbit, but after devoting five tiring years of his life to this one production, it was very understandable that Jackson initially chose to step aside and let someone else take charge.  He instead chose to stay involved as a producer, but before any movement could be made on the project, a long rights battle behind the scenes had to be resolved.  One point of contention was the feud between Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema over the profits made on the Rings trilogy.  I wrote more at length about it in my breakdown of the failed launch of The Golden Compass here, and suffice to say New Line brought about their own downfall over the situation, as parent company Warner Brothers took charge and resolved the matter themselves, effectively diminishing New Line’s independence in the process.  At the same time, Warner Brothers had to deal with the fact that while they held the rights to The Lord of the Rings, the rights to The Hobbit belonged to MGM, who had made the Rankin Bass feature years ago and still firm ownership, given that they received the rights from Tolkein himself.  Knowing the value that they held, MGM were keen to make sure that Warner Brothers were not going to short change them if they sought to get the rights from them,  This became a long, protracted battle that took many years to resolve, with some fans worrying that this studio war over this valuable IP could make it impossible for The Hobbit to ever be made; especially in the way they wanted it, as a companion to Jackson’s trilogy.  Eventually, a deal was cut and The Hobbit could finally move forward as a WB/MGM co-production.  Meanwhile, Jackson and his team were working hard to make up for lost time.  As a replacement in the director’s chair, Jackson found an ideal candidate in Mexican auteur Guillermo Del Toro, who shares many of the same cinematic qualities as Jackson does.  Alongside returning co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, Jackson and Del Toro worked out a script for a two film adaptation of The Hobbit.  The casting also began in earnest, with the team managing to secure returning cast from Lord of the Rings like Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom, and even then 90 year old Christopher Lee.  The production team, also made up of Rings alum also got to work in earnest.  However, the long delays due studio driven turmoil would eventually become too much, and Guillermo sadly had to step aside. In order to keep this troubled project from falling further apart, Peter Jackson reluctantly stepped back into the role of director, hoping to guide this massive project to the finish line.  And, in 2012, a decade after the The Lord of the Rings made it’s debut, audiences finally made their return to middle earth.  Looking at each film now, we see an interesting examples of all the rights and wrongs that can happen in trying to pick up where one massive success began.


Even with The Lord of the Rings being as wildly successful as it was, there’s still a lot of pressure to setting the tone right in the beginning of another story within this world.  It becomes even more treacherous when the audience is already aware where the story is ultimately headed, as Rings preceded this as a film adaptation.  At the start of the first film, An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson does deliver a bit of fanservice and table setting, with a prologue narrated by Ian Holm, who played Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings.  For good measure, we also get to see Elijah Wood return as Frodo, as it becomes clear that the prologue takes place mere moments before The Lord of the Rings begins.  But, once that scene does it’s job, and the opening title has been cast upon the screen, then Jackson returns the movie to where it needs to be, ripped right from the text of the book.  We flash back 70 years to Bilbo in his younger days, and it’s here that the the movie establishes what it needs to be; that it is firmly Bilbo Baggins’ story.  For the adaptation of The Hobbit to work, there had to be a lot of pressure in finding the right actor to play Bilbo Baggins.  Thankfully, they found him in beloved British character actor Martin Freeman.  Freeman, best known at that point for his comedic work in shows like The Office, was certainly a popular choice for the part, and he perfectly fit into the mold of what was needed for the character of Bilbo.  Building upon what Ian Holm already brought to the character, Freeman really imbues Bilbo with an everyman likability; quirky, but relatable, and capable of balancing screwball comedic timing with heartfelt pathos without losing any integrity in the performance.  It’s an especially strong performance that arguably is even better than any we’ve seen before in The Lord of the Rings, and it’s even more remarkable that he’s able to shine so much in this movie, given how busy and jam packed it is.

Not only do we get the story of Bilbo Baggins, but also that of his 13 Dwarf companions.  One of the best aspects of The Hobbit is that it focuses so much on the people and culture of the dwarf race of Middle Earth, something that The Lord of the Rings barely touches upon with only Gimli there to represent it.  Peter Jackson manages to expertly balance each of the different dwarves personalities, helping to distinguish them from one another.   But, despite creating entertaining characters, there’s also needs of the story to lay out in this first chapter, and this is the point where some find fault with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit.  The original book is 350 pages long, which is very slim compared to the 1400 page behemoth that is Lord of the Rings.  For Peter Jackson, he was under pressure to make The Hobbit feel as grand as Rings, but the source material by it’s very nature is much more modest.  So, to satisfy the need for a bigger story, Jackson included other elements from Middle Earth lore to build up the story much more than what was originally on the page.  That way he could get the film to a bulkier six hour run-time spread over two films.  However, the downside of that leads to a film that feels more bloated and languid than what we saw in The Lord of the Rings.  Pacing is a problem, with some scenes long over staying their welcome, and side tracks in the story that feel more laborious than they should.  The extended section of the movie in Goblin Town and a side track to Rivendell in particular feels a lot less magical than they should have been.  However, when the movie needs to focus on the moments that should be the highlights of the whole story, it doesn’t let down.  Chief among them is the Riddles in the Dark segment, one of the most foundational chapters of all of Tolkein’s writing, as it is the moment that sets off the events of Rings.  The scene brings us into cave dwelling of the creature Gollum, with Andy Serkis returning to his iconic role and not missing a beat.  The scene has Bilbo and Gollum exchanging riddles as a way of bargaining for safe passage, and the tension comes from Bilbo realizing that he’s found Gollum’s “precious,” which the latter will turn into a murderous rage in order to get back.  With Freeman and Serkis acting in pitch perfect harmony, along with a much improved digital model for Gollum, the scene that is so crucial to this film is done to perfection, and is a treat for long time fans.  While there were pacing issues, audiences generally loved this first chapter of The Hobbit, as An Unexpected Journey did deliver all the moments that people loved from the books and more.  But, of course, there would be more surprises on the horizon, even to those making the movie.


As An Unexpected Journey was in it’s final stages of production, a surprising decision came down from Warner Brothers with regards to what was going to come next in the series.  The Hobbit was no longer going to be broke into two halves, but was instead going to become a trilogy just like The Lord of the Rings.  Now, it was already a stretch to spread the 350 pages of The Hobbit out into two separate movies.  Peter Jackson was now in the position of having to fill out three.  And for a series that was already going to suffer pacing issues, this was only going to complicate things further.  So, the film that was originally going to be titled The Hobbit:  There and Back Again now had to be reworked into two films instead of one.  So, a year after An Unexpected Journey hit theaters, we were presented with a middle chapter that a year before wasn’t even in the planning.  And much like the middle chapter of The Lord of the Rings (that being The Two Towers) Jackson had to find creative ways to make a story without a beginning and an end work.  In all honesty, that’s what helps to make The Desolation of Smaug the highlight of this whole trilogy.  It’s freed up from the burden of setting up the narrative from the first movie and it doesn’t have to reach too high for a crescendo of finale either.  Smaug as a result feels the most complete of all the Hobbit movies.  One thing that this movie benefits from is that it’s the movie that introduces us the most to new parts of the Middle Earth map that we have yet to visit.  Unexpected Journey tread a lot of the same ground as The Lord of the Rings.  In Desolation of Smaug we see a whole host of new places like the realm of the Northern Elves, the mangled interior of Mirkwood Forest, the sprawling decaying structure of Lake Town, and of course the primary destination of Erabor, the Lonely Mountain.  You can tell that this is the part of the story that Peter Jackson was most excited to get to, because these are the most iconic elements of Tolkein’s original story.  All the while, we still never lose track of Bilbo’s story, as he not only endears himself more to his Dwarf companions, but he also discovers the increasingly dark hold that the ring he found in Gollum’s cave has on him.

But of course, the real highlight of Desolation of Smaug, and really the entire trilogy as a whole is the introduction of it’s namesake; the terrifying dragon Smaug.  Described in the book as the “greatest of dragons in his day,” Peter Jackson’s vision of Smaug is truly epic in scale.  Smaug is a tour de force of computer animation, and is in many ways the best entirely CGI character since Gollum from the original Lord of the Rings.  In addition to the remarkable efforts to bring him to life by the animators at Weta Digital, Smaug is also given an incredible booming voice courtesy of Benedict Cumberbatch, who also did reference motion capture performance in person for the movie to build off of.  All these elements work together to help make Smaug one of the most memorable movie monsters ever in cinema, and his presence really helps to give the film an engaging finale where Bilbo and the Dwarves do battle with this foe many hundred times their size.  Apart from Smaug, there are other elements of the story introduced here that are brought to effective life from the book.  The internal politics of Lake Town are given plenty of life to delve deep into; especially with the introduction of a key character named Bard (played by Luke Evans) and his antagonistic history with the Mayor (played with perfect pompous absurdity by Stephen Fry).  The only things in this film that don’t quite work as well are the things added that are not from any Tolkein text.  In particular, a needless romantic subplot is added, involving one of the Dwarves named Kili (Aiden Turner) and a newly created for the film warrior Elf maiden named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).  I can see the addition of a character like Tauriel in the story, as there is a significant lack of female representation in the story as a whole, but to tie her into a love story subplot seems very reductive and distracting to the narrative as a whole.  Regardless, of all The Hobbit movies, The Desolation of Smaug is the one that fulfills most of the promise of a big screen adaptation of this story, and feels overall the most satisfying.  But, of course, there’s still one more movie to go.


There’s a line that Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins says in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001) regarding how old he feels inside.  He describes that he feels “thin” like “butter scraped over too much bread.”  That’s a statement that feels especially descriptive of the third and final film in The Hobbit trilogy: The Battle of the Five Armies.  What was originally just the three final chapters of J.R.R. Tolkein’s, Peter Jackson was now forced by Warner Brothers to stretch out this section into it’s own movie.  And try as he might, even Peter Jackson couldn’t overcome the challenge of stretching out so little story over such an epic length.  The Battle of the Five Armies is far and away the most problematic film of the whole trilogy, as well as throughout the entire Middle Earth saga.  Now, at the same time, it’s not an absolute failure of a movie either.  Peter Jackson does do the best he can and the movie does have some moments.  But all the problems about pacing and needless subplots that have plagued the trilogy so far become even more pronounced in this conclusion.  What the biggest problem is with the narrative of The Battle of the Five Armies itself is that at this point in the narrative of the book, Bilbo’s journey is complete.  He no longer has any urgency over what happens next in the oncoming battle, and thus he just remains an observer of a struggle that’s out of his control.  For a narrative that was so crucially tied to Bilbo Baggins before, it becomes frustrating to see him become more or less a supporting character in this final chapter of the trilogy.  Another thing that also becomes annoyingly pronounced in this movie is Peter Jackson’s over reliance on CGI.  The original Lord of the Rings had a perfect balance of computer animation mixed in with real world environments and hand crafted sets.  Throughout The Hobbit, it seemed like CGI became far more of a crutch to help Jackson speed up an already complicated production, and as a result the titular battle has this unfortunate blue screen detachment that makes it feel less real.  Other parts of the trilogy certainly felt that way, but it’s almost overwhelmingly obvious in this final film.  There are plenty of moments here where it just feels like you’re watching an animated film rather than an immersive, tactile world.

Though a lot of problems arise in The Battle of the Five Armies, there are some things to still admire.  Chief among them is actor Richard Armitage in the role of Thorin Oakenshield.  Thorin has up to this point been a strong presence in the trilogy, giving Thorin a very regal and dignified presence.  But, it’s in The Battle of the Five Armies that he really shines, as the narrative focuses more on his character.  As Thorin finally retakes his throne after the defeat of Smaug, he descends into a greed induced mania, which puts him at odds with everyone around him, including friends and kin.  Armitage does a remarkable job of portraying this change in the character, never taking it over the top and giving the descent this tragic poignancy that really brings depth to the character.  Of course, The Hobbit is first and foremost Bilbo’s story, but Thorin is an important character in that narrative, and also throughout all of Middle Earth lore.  The Battle of the Five Armies is at it’s best when it gives focus to Thorin’s story, even though his ultimate challenge in the end is comparatively weak compared to everything else we’ve seen in the Middle Earth saga.  In a trilogy that features Smaug the Dragon, and a dark force known as the Necromancer (who turns out to been the reincarnation of the Dark Lord Sauron), it’s kind of anti-climatic that the final battle to cap this trilogy is against a lame orc commander named Azog the Defiler.  Present in all three films, we are to believe that Azog is the primary antagonist in Thorin’s story, and it just feel underwhelming.  Overall, we see The Battle of the Five Armies reveal the pitfalls of trying to spread too little story over too lengthy of a time frame.  Warner Brothers thought that they could repeat the same formula that carried Lord of the Rings to great success, and Peter Jackson certainly tried his hardest to please, but ultimately The Hobbit trilogy revealed why taking this route with the material was not a great idea.  The focus on what matters the most in the story gets lost in the noise as the film tries to fill itself more with needless filler.  Ultimately, The Battle of the Five Armies falls well short of giving this trilogy a satisfying conclusion, though there are still admirable elements within it.  I especially like how it perfectly folds into the start of The Lord of the Rings by the end, which works well if the viewer is seeing all the movies in chronological order.  But, a Return of the King this is not and it only reminds us of why it’s better to not chase after more riches when you don’t need to.

I for one am more happy that we got a big screen Hobbit from the same team behind The Lord of the Rings than not.  Unfortunately, the whole drama behind the scenes made the trilogy more trouble than it’s worth.  Peter Jackson’s insistence on using new high speed, 3D photography may have undermined the production a bit, as it meant much more reliance on CGI to bring Middle Earth to life which as I stated before, gave the movie this unfortunate detached feel to it.  It didn’t help that Jackson also wanted to present his film in theaters with a new 48 frames per second mode, which audiences ultimately rejected for not looking cinematic.  There’s also the unfortunate collateral damage that resulted from this often chaotic production.  Sir Ian McKellan became so frustrated with the new process of shooting the scenes in 3D, which required him to film his part of Gandalf in a separate green screen room away from the other actors, that it nearly broke him and he strongly considered retiring afterwards (which thankfully he didn’t follow through on).  And then there’s the very problematic action taken by Warner Brothers where they pressured the government of New Zealand to change their labor laws and diminish the power of the unions there, otherwise they would move their production elsewhere.  Given that The Lord of the Rings is such a monumental part of New Zealand’s cinematic legacy in world cinema, the country sadly relented so they could keep the production home.  It’s a particularly egregious and greedy move by a major studio and one that I’m sure Peter Jackson was not at all happy to comply with.  In many ways, this trilogy also might have broken Jackson’s confidence as a filmmaker, as he has not made a narrative film ever since, instead focusing his attention to found footage documentaries like They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) and The Beatles: Get Back (2021).  It seems like The Hobbit was just too grueling an ordeal for the legendary filmmaker, and I hope someday he finds another project that helps reinvigorate his creative impulses.  The Hobbit trilogy has many problems, chief among them it’s length.  But, with Martin Freeman’s incredible performance as Bilbo, the amazing realization of Smaug the Dragon, and the glorious opportunity of seeing more of the unseen parts of Middle Earth brought to life, there is still plenty to love about The Hobbit trilogy.  Any opportunity to revisit the rich and textured world of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth is an expected journey that people everywhere will be all too happy to go there, and back again.

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