Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Review

Out of all the success that Marvel Studios has had in the last decade, perhaps the most monumental contribution it has brought to the culture at large is the film Black Panther (2018).  Despite being a cog in the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe machine, Black Panther transcended into a historic, full blown cultural phenomena.  This was a touchstone movie for African-American filmmaking, with director Ryan Coogler granted a large budget and creative freedom to present black culture on the big screen on a scale never dreamed of before, with a mostly black cast and crew in tow.  Coogler was able to present the cultural influences that shaped him into this mighty fictional world called Wakanda, the Afro-futuristic utopia from the Black Panther comic books, and bring a very African sensibility to the art and geopolitical themes of this world and mainstream it with the full blessing of Marvel Studios.  Suffice to say, of all the movies Marvel has made, none have impacted the culture as much as Black Panther has, as it elevated black voices in cinema to much higher degree, as the movie became one of Marvel’s highest grossing films ever.  It also in turn made it’s lead star, Chadwick Boseman, into an A-list star.  Boseman would continue to shine as the Black Panther in the subsequent appearances he made in the Avengers films, and he also began to shine in movies made outside of the Marvel banner as well.  But, in the summer of 2020, the world received the shocking news that Chadwick had succumbed to his private battle with cancer at the age of 43.  A life cut tragically short right when it was taking off into the stratosphere.  Chadwick Boseman’s loss left the world a much emptier place, especially in a year full of tragedy like 2020, and the question quickly arose about what it meant for the future of the character that he will be forever celebrated for: King T’Challa of Wakanda, the Black Panther.

Before anyone knew of Chadwick’s condition, plans were already set in place for a Black Panther sequel.  Ryan Coogleralready had his script written and a release date was announced at the D23 Expo in 2019.  But, plans were inevitably thrown into blender the following year.  Boseman was gone, and the world was reeling from a catastrophic pandemic, which delayed the film’s start of production.  Inevitably, the entire Marvel calendar had to be moved back a year, which had it’s silver lining for Ryan Coogler as it now gave him more time to work out how he would continue with this project without his leading man.  Working with the Marvel team on what to do, the decision that came forward became a surprising one for many.  The role of T’Challa would not be re-cast.  This led many to speculate how Marvel and Ryan Coogler were going to move forward with the franchise.  Could you make a Black Panther movie without Black Panther?  From the promotional materials surrounding the movie, it looked like the solution was to focus was to put the world of Wakanda front and center this time, with all the supporting characters from the original movie now being the focus of attention.  Also, the new threat facing the nation of Wakanda would also be a major factor in the story; an ocean based race of super-beings led by a mutant king named Namor.  The inclusion of Namor is significant because he is one of Marvel’s oldest and most iconic characters, dating all the way back to Marvel Comics Issue #1, but here he will be making his big screen debut into the MCU.  Despite the challenges put up against this movie, which included a struggling production shoot in the middle of a pandemic, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever managed to finally come together and is now ready to be brought before an eagerly awaiting fan base.  The only question is, does the movie manage to overcome the obstacles that were placed in front of it and rise up to the level of it’s predecessor or does it struggle to find it’s way without it’s mighty king.

The film opens with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) frantically working in her lab to synthesize medicine for her brother T’Challa who has suddenly fallen deathly ill.  She tries as quickly as she can to do all that is possible, but soon her mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) enter the lab to deliver the terrible news; her brother has joined with the ancestors.  Wakanda enters a period of mourning, now finding itself vulnerable without their king.  Despite T’Challa’s sudden death, Queen Ramonda asserts that Wakanda remains a strong and independent nation, still closely guarding it’s most valuable resource, Vibranium, the super strong metal that among other things has been used to create things like the Black Panther armor and Captain America’s shield.  However, scientists exploring the Atlantic Ocean discover another deposit of the precious metal beneath the waves.  Their discovery unfortunately brings attackers from the ocean itself to disrupt the excavation of the Vibranium from the sea.  Among them is the sea people’s leader, a wing-footed flying super being named K’uk’ulkan, or as he is known to his enemies, Namor (TenochHuerta).  Namor, equally protective of his claim to Vibranium, approaches Queen Ramonda and Princess Shuri to offer an alliance, uniting Wakanda and his underwater kingdom of Talokan against the rest of the world.  As part of this offer, he wishes for Wakanda to help him seek justice against the scientist that invented the Vibranium finding machine that was illegally used in his kingdom.  Ramonda and Shuri don’t want to wage war with the rest of the world, so they decide to seek out this scientist in the hopes of guarding them from Namor’s wrath.  They soon discover that the scientist is in fact an MIT student named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne).  With the help of Dora Milaje general Okoye (Danai Gurira) Shuri manages to track Riri down, but not before the Talokan warriors working on behalf of Namor get to them first.  Both Shuri and Riri are captured and taken beneath the waves, with Okoye left to explain the situation to an already grieving Queen.  Ramonda, through her power and influence, seeks help from other allies, including American agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and Wakandan agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).  With multiple forces bearing down on the nation of Wakanda, from Namor and the Talokans to hostile intentions from people working within the governments of other nations, can Wakanda manage to survive what is coming without their “protector.”

What I just described is merely the set up for the movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, as this is a very plot heavy film.  There is no question that this movie, due to the circumstances surrounding it’s production, had to do a lot of heavy lifting in order to ground itself again not just as a follow-up to the original film but also as a continuation of the MCU as a whole.  In the end, the movie does a commendable job of pulling things together under the harshest of circumstances, but it also suffers from some issues as well.  One of the things that it does absolutely perfectly, however, is honoring it’s fallen hero.  T’Challa’s presence is still felt throughout the film, and in a way that feels respectful to Chadwick Boseman’s memory.  It doesn’t go too far in dwelling on the tragedy, but does an adequate job of using that feeling of loss as a motivating factor within the story.  Each character has their own different way of dealing with the loss, whether it’s in Shuri’s distractions or Ramonda’sdefiance.  Each reaction to the tragedy informs how the story can progress in a variety of directions.  It also establishes how Wakanda itself finds itself in a position that it didn’t know it would be in; vulnerable.  This is also a Wakanda that has lost their king twice, first to Thanos and now to this sudden illness, and unfortunately there is no coming back from the latter.  It’s in looking at the degrees of grief that Ryan Coogler really finds the heart of this story.  He is very good at getting emotion out of his stories, so given the harsh hand he was dealt with, he thankfully had the skill and the imagination to weave that grief into his art without losing any of the magic that made this world work in the first place.

Where the movie struggles unfortunately is in it’s plot.  The movie is a beefy 2 hours and 41 minutes, the second longest film Marvel film overall (behind Avengers: Endgame’s 3 hours and 1 minute run time).  to Ryan Coogler’s credit, the movie never feels that long, but there are points in the story where the movie does come up a little hollow.  I think that this is due to having to juggle so many plotlines all at the same time.  Not only is he having to continue the story he set up with the first Black Panther, but he also has to incorporate what has happened in the larger MCU as well (especially with a 5 year time jump established in Endgame), as well as establish important new characters like Namor and Riri Williams, and the entire nation of Talokan and it’s entire history as well.  It’s a lot on his plate and despite Coogler’s best efforts not all of it manages to geltogether.  The Talokan part of the plot seems to suffer the most.  It feels like we merely get the cliffs notes version of their cultural history as the plot desperately needs to move forward, which is in contrast to how immersed we were able to be in the world of Wakanda in the first Black Panther.  Namor and the Kingdom of Talokan needed their own movie’s worth of development to really grasp the significance of their place in the world, but the movie unfortunately does not have time for that, even at it’s extended length.  The Wakandan side of the story also suffers because of that, as we don’t really see anything new from that world in this movie.  It’s been said the thing that unfortunately works against this movie is that we can no longer be re-introduced to the Kingdom of Wakanda again.  One of the most magical moments of any Marvel movie was that first glimpse of Wakanda’s mighty capital from the first movie.  Such a scene doesn’t exist this time around as now we are all too familiar with this world.  Not to mention there are side plots a plenty involving how Agent Ross is dealing with protecting Wakanda from hostile intentions within his own government, as well as the internal politics of Wakanda also coming into play, as Shuri has to confront more of her role in the future of her country.  Needless to say the movie buckles under the weight of it’s plot, but Coogler does manage to keep it from collapsing completely.

One of the movie’s best strengths is the performances of it’sactors.  Everyone, probably with the knowledge of the film’s significance in honoring the high bar set by Chadwick Boseman, brings their A-game to the film with some emotionally charged acting.  Though working outside her strength built up in previous appearances in the MCU, playing a mischievous supporting character at Black Panther’s side as Shuri, Letitia Wright does her best to bring emotional depth to the character now that she is front and center in this story.  Shuri thus far has been one of the more comic relief characters, being a carefree quartermaster to her brother with a slight proclivity towards mischief.  But this movie now has to put that character into the position of picking up the emotional weight of this journey with Wakanda and it’s connection with the Black Panther.  It’s not an easy shift to make, and you can’t help but miss the version of Shuri that was more comical in nature.  But, Letitia Wright picks up the challenge and manages to shine despite the obstacles.  She is also equally matched with Tenoch Huerta who brings the mighty Namor to life.  Namor of course comes with this long history behind him, but thus far he has yet to appear on the big screen, mainly due to some rights issues where Marvel had initially granted them to Universal Studios but the purchase by Disney made it impossible for Universal to make any use of their rights.  So basically, Namor can appear in a MCU film, but cannot star in one, similar to the deal regarding the Hulk.  So, this movie managed to work Namor into this story by making him the villain, as opposed to the anti-hero that he is in the comics.  Tenoch does a great job of making Namor this threatening presence but at the same time making him relatable given his tragic backstory.  In the end, they do the iconic character justice, even though he has to piggyback on the shoulders of another Marvel property.  Dominique Thorne thankfully brings some much needed comic relief as RiriWilliams and she steals every scene she is in.  It’s good that she stands out as well as she does given that she’ll be back in a spin-off series called Ironheart on Disney+.  Great performance come from many of the supporting cast as well including returning stars like Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira, and Winston Duke, who also brings some wonderful comic relief as M’Baku.  Of course the performance that most people will talk about is Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda.  Ramonda has a more important role to play in this film and Angela brings some of her most powerful acting chops to her performance here, with some especially electrifying moments of Oscar-worthy acting.  In a series already known for stand-out acting, Wakanda Foreverraises the bar even more for powerful performances in the Black Panther franchise.

The production quality has also translated over from the original movie.  It makes sense as most of the same production team has returned.  Oscar winner Ruth Carter, the costume design genius who created the look of Wakanda with her award-winning designs is back and not only is she working with more of the look of Wakanda, but she also has the unenviable task of imagining the look of Talokan as well.  She has come up with some incredible designs for this underwater kingdom, taking cue from Mesoamerican influence.  One of the especially incredible designs she has accomplished in this movie is the re-imagined look of Namor.  In the comic books, Namor is merely defined by a green speedo and red boots.  For Namor in this  film, Carter has added an incredible metallic bead collar that hangs across Namor’s chest that really defines the majesty of his character.  In addition, when he sits on the throne in his kingdom, he wears a majestic headdress that really invokes this image of a Mayan god come to life.  Carter’s costumes also updates the look of the Wakandan citizens as well, including some truly majestic dresses that Angela Bassett gets to wear throughout the movie.  It’s stuff like Ruth Carter’s costumes that really help to set the world of Wakanda apart in the MCU.  Also returning to deliver even more incredible work is Ludwig Gorranson, who also won an Oscar for his work on the last Black Panther.  Gorranson, who has been busy as of late in other major franchises like Star Wars delivers the same Wakandan sound that we’ve grown to love, but also adds to it the unique sound of Talokan as well.  Remarkably he manages to capture Mesoamerican melody just as well as he does with African sounds and the mix of the two cultures really helps to underline the theme of that clash within the movie.  What I especially love about Gorranson’s work this time around is how he uses silence in his score.  Whenever memories of T’Challa come up in the movie, the music suddenly goes silent as if it too was showing it’s respect to the dead.  It’s an emotional wallop when you hear that wall of sound from Gorranson’s score suddenly go silent, understating the loss that’s felt by both the characters and those of us watching the movie.  The only thing that I think doesn’t work as well this time around is the cinematography.  Rachel Morrison, the DP of Black Panther was not available this time around, so the duty fell to Autumn Durald Arkapaw, who previously shot the series Lokifor Marvel.  Autumn is a capable cameraperson, but her sense of color schemes is less refined as Morrison’s, who managed to bathe the original Black Panther in a gorgeous palette.  Arkapawdoes competent work, but it makes the movie feel more in line with the generic Marvel film look that feels a bit too repetitive.  Otherwise, this is a solidly mounted production that mostly falls in line with the high standard of the Black Panther franchise.

Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached a high-point with the original Black Panther, you would think that the bar would be set very high with the newest entry in the series.  This film, given it’s shortcomings, may end up being a let down for some, but in this critic’s case, I feel that some of those expectations were set a little too high.  I for one admire the first Black Panther quite a bit, but it’s not one of the all timegreats for me.  In my original review here, I stated that I had some reservations about the story while at the same time praising it highly for it’s world building.  Though I loved Chadwick Boseman’s performance, I thought the original movie lacked character development for T’Challa, as most of his character arc happened in Captain America: Civil War (2016).  It was the world around him that stood out more to me in the original movie, something that gets more of the spotlight this time around.  It’s sad that T’Challa’s story ends so abrubtly for us, but it can’t be helped.  We can’t bring Chadwick Bosemanback, and Marvel and Ryan Coogler made the choice to not recast the part.  It will remain to be seen if that was the right choice in the long run.  It wouldn’t have been the first time Marvel has recast a major character (Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Don Cheadle as War Machine) nor will it be the last time (Harrison Ford replacing William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross).  Coogler decided for his story that Boseman alone was going to be his T’Challa and that for the franchise to progress it fell upon the rest of Wakanda to become future of the series.  I won’t spoil how the Black Panther itself is worked into that story, but there is a reason why this is still a Black Panther movie.  For the most part, it’s a commendable sequel that I think is pretty close to being on par with the original, but doesn’t exactly exceed it.  The performances are amazing, as is the production design.  And Namor is an absolute stand out villain that does justice to the iconic character from the comic books.  Perhaps with the difficult task of moving on from the tragedy of the past out of the way we may see a bright future ahead for this franchise.  It remains to be seen what that will actually mean, but the end credits promises “Black Panther Will Return.”  For now, Marvel and director Ryan Coogler have done a magnificent job of honoring the memory of Chadwick Boseman with this emotional tribute of a film and hopefully the future remains bright for Black Panther in the years ahead.  Indeed, Wakanda Forever.

Rating: 8/10

Black Adam – Review

DC comics is well known for it’s collection of Super Heroes, but it can be said that they are just as well known for it’s rogues gallery of dastardly villains as well.  As often as we talk about Batman, Superman, and Aquaman we are just as likely to be talking about the Joker, Lex Luthor and Black Manta respectively.  In general, this is because DC Comics has been just as good at making their villains interesting characters as they do with their heroes.  And because of the complexity of character development that have put into their comic books over the years, they have managed to create characters that straddle the line between hero and villain.  These anti-heroes also share a special place within the DC pantheon.  Too dark and violent to be considered a hero, but not quite evil enough to be considered a villain.  The character within DC comics that probably embodies this type of personality the best is Black Adam.  Making his first appearance in 1945, Black Adam initially started off as the main antagonist to the DC super hero Captain Marvel, later known as Shazam.  Embodying the same power set as Shazam, Black Adam uses his nearly god-like abilities in a far more morally degenerate way; often having no objection to killing his enemies or anyone else who gets in his way.  This runs contrary to the heroes of the DC universe, who make it their duty to protect the innocent.  Black Adam often falls on the dark side when doing battle against Shazam or many other super heroes, but when something far more dangerous threatens his world, he will put aside his grievances and assist in saving the world as well.  Through his nearly 80 years in the comics, he has remained a very complex character and has become a favorite amongst comic book readers.  However, until now he has yet to be featured on the big screen.

Enter Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is bringing to life the classic comic book anti-hero on the big screen for the first time.  This has actually been a passion project for the wrestler turned actor.  He’s been in talks with Warner Brothers and DC to make a Black Adam film for over 15 years.  Even before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, Dwayne Johnson has been eyeing this role for himself.  A lot of things have put the project into limbo many times over the years, often due to change over and restructuring going on at Warner Brothers.  This movie, now that it is finally complete, comes again at yet another crossroads in the drama that is Warner Brothers history.  With the merger between WB Pictures and Discovery Entertainment, the new regime has been ruthlessly cost cutting across the empire in order to secure year end tax breaks, and DC falls into that turmoil as well.  Just a couple months ago, the entertainment world was stunned by the news that a $90 million Batgirl film was getting cancelled without ever seeing the light of day as a measure of the new Warner executives drive to get a tax write-off.  In addition, many of the upcoming Warner Brothers projects still in development were pushed back significantly; almost a full year for the Aquaman sequel.  Even amidst all this, the Black Adam (2022) premiere date stood firm, and it seemed like this would be DC’s one and only hope to deliver for the back end of this year.  Of course, it helps that Dwayne Johnson in those 15 years has become one of the biggest box office draws in the worldwide market, which bodes well for Black Adam.  And considering this is a passion project of his, you’d hope that he’s going to give a bit more to this performance than many of his other roles.  The question is, can Black Adam deliver on the same level of the titans of the DC universe?  Can Dwayne Johnson make a heroic stand for DC at this tumultuous time in it’s history on the shoulders of this iconic anti-hero?

The story is set in the fictional middle eastern kingdom of Khandaq.  Legends speak of a hero who protected the kingdom from mad king who sought to use the power of demons to rule with ultimate power.  The hero, Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson) confronted the king, who forged a crown with demonic power called the Crown of Sabbac, and stopped him before the king could wield it’s dark magic. However, after defeating the king, Teth-Adam vanished without a trace.  Nearly 5,000 years later in modern day, the kingdom of Khandaq is occupied by foreign interests who are robbing the small nation of it’s natural resources.  A brave archaeologist named Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shani) believes she may have found the hiding place of the Crown of Sabbac.  With fellow archaeologist Ismael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari) and her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), she discovers the cave that house the crown and manages to retrieve it.  However, something else is trapped within that cave.  After being ambushed by the criminal organization Intergang, which is one of the occupying powers in Khandaq, Adrianna reads the spells carved into the floor of the cave temple.  Suddenly, a robed man in black appears and effortlessly destroys the whole troop of Intergang soldiers.  Adrianna and Karim manage to escape, but they end up running into the robed man, later learning that he is Teth-Adam reawakened.  They try to help him out, and Adrianna’s son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) becomes immediately attached to what he thinks is his country’s own super hero, even giving him the name Black Adam.  But, the re-awakening of Black Adam also alerts a watchdog group of super heroes known as the Justice Society of America.  The JSA includes the winged hero Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), the mystical sorcerer Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), the wind-controlling Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and the size-changing Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo).  Their goal is to stop Black Adam before he has a chance to cause immense damage with his still unchecked powers.  But their adversarial confrontation may have to wait as they are forced to align their strength in order to keep the Crown of Sabbac out of the wrong hands.

As far as DC movies have gone in this era of the DC Expanded Universe (DCEU), my opinions have strangely gone against the grain with the general consensus.  Sure, I love the movies that everybody loves like James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021) and the first Wonder Woman (2017), and hated the movies that everyone hated like the original Justice League (2017).  Those were never controversial opinions.  But, there have been a few of my reviews that didn’t match up with everyone else’s; contrary opinions that I actually still stand by.  I did not like the first Aquaman (2018), which everyone seemed to love but me, and I ended up liking Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) quite a bit, which I found myself being well in the minority on.  So, where do I fall on Black Adam?  Well, it’s not by any means the worst film in the DCEU; not by a long shot.  But, it is far from being among the best films either.  It is a very middle of the road film, for good and bad.  Let me get the bad out of the way first.  The movie is very rushed and unfocused, and seemingly uninterested in filling in detail to important things like character development and coherent plot.  A well-written movie this is not.  I think the thing that is going to upset most audiences is the fact that the movie packs in a whole bunch of different things, but never gives them enough time to really sink in; favoring spectacle above all else.  Characters are introduced with backstories only hinted at but never truly explored.  I think the writers wanted to cram in a whole bunch of DC comic book lore just because they could, but it distracts away from the fact that this is a Black Adam movie first and foremost.  Black Adam’s story is drowned out by so many different plot elements thrown into this movie’s 2 hour runtime.  What’s more, the JSA gets especially short-changed with very little time devoted to their character development.  If you are fans of the individual heroes of the JSA, and have been waiting years to finally see them on the big screen, you may come away very disappointed, because they are little more than plot devices here.

The visual effects of this movie are also a mixed bag.  In some instances, there are some pretty good visual effects in this movie.  The body swap effect that makes a de-powered Black Adam look like an average sized man is pretty convincing.  I never thought it looked weird seeing Dwayne Johnson’s head on an average built body, and the effect is actually pretty effective.  The moments when we see Doctor Fate’s power in full effect are also pretty imaginative.  I can tell that the effects team behind the movie were trying hard to differentiate how Doctor Fate’s powers would look compared to Marvel’s Doctor Strange, considering the similarities between the two.  Watching the movie, I feel like they were able to make it just different enough to where I don’t think they were doing a copy and paste of the effects in Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016), though there were a couple that were borderline.  The same cannot be said however with the super hero powers of Cyclone and Atom Smasher.  Cyclone’s whirlwind power is so weirdly conceived that I had no idea what she was able to do and how she was able to do it.  She just floats around with multi-colored smoke and spins really fast, which I guess the effects artists thought would look cool in slow motion, but instead it just looks cartoonish in a bad way.  And speaking of distractingly cartoonish, whenever Atom Smasher grows to his giant size, he stops looking realistic and becomes essentially a walking-talking special effect.  In this regard, it has a negative comparison to a similar effect found in the Marvel universe.  Whenever Ant-Man would do the same size change, like he did in Captain America: Civil War (2016), those movies made his presence within the scene feel believable.  Not once in this movie did I feel like it worked to the same degree, and it’s one of the most glaringly subpar visual effects in a movie that goes back and forth between the believable and the unbelievable.

So, what is good in this movie?  Well, despite working with a very poorly written script, the cast of this movie actually does a pretty good job with what they have to work with.  First and foremost, Dwayne Johnson does not disappoint as the titular anti-hero.  It took him 15 years to make this movie a reality, so you know he was going to pour a lot more effort into his performance here.  You can tell that the years of researching and rehearsing the essence of Black Adam paid off, and Dwayne Johnson captures the character perfectly.  Naturally, being the main character, he gets the lion’s share of the character development in the film, and I appreciated how well he built the layers of this character into his on screen persona.  You honestly have no idea which way this character is going to fall; either to the side of good or the side of evil, and I think that’s a testament to how composed Johnson was able to make the character.  He keeps the character an enigma until the very end, and even still after he has helped save the day, he’s remains a character with ambiguous moral backbone.  I also appreciated what the actors playing the JSA bring to their roles, as bare bones as they may be.  Aldis Hodge especially shines as Hawkman.  His character is paper thin on the page, but Hodge brings emotional weight to his performance which helps to elevate the character throughout the film.  His performance is so could that you wish he was given a movie of his own instead of being shoehorned into a Black Adam origin story.  Pierce Brosnan’s Doctor Fate also warranted a movie’s worth of development too, but Brosnan likewise makes the most of his brief screen time.  His contribution to the climatic battle is especially awe inspiring, and it makes me happy that they brought in an actor of Brosnan’s caliber in to bring this iconic character to life.  And though they have even less impact on the story, Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell are likable enough as their respective characters.  The remainder of the cast are pretty forgettable largely, and the movie suffers from have a very weak villain; one that pretty much here as an afterthought.  Still, where it mattered the most, they did get the character of Black Adam right, and that is a testament to a movie star who took the role seriously and was determined to not mess it up for the sake of the fans.  If anything, hopefully this movie will establish the character as an important part of the DCEU moving forward, because it would be worth it to see Dwayne Johnson in this role again.

Apart from the performances, what else is there to keep the movie from becoming an incoherent disaster?  There are action sequences that do work, and I do have to say that the movie does finally gain some footing in it’s latter half.  The movie, when it’s languishing in it’s exposition heavy first half, can be a pretty heavy slog to get through.  Even the early action sequences, featuring some Zack Snyder-esque slow-mo, feel fairly derivative and uninspiring.  But, as Black Adam and the JSA begin to clash about half-way through the movie, the film begins to find some life.  There is an exciting high-speed chase through the streets of Khandaq, where future-tech hover bikes and Black Adam are literally crisscrossing at the speed of a bullet in the air, and it is an action sequence that is actually well staged and feels unlike any other action sequence I’ve seen in a super hero movie before.  The action sequences also balance out the darker elements of the movie with just the right amount of humor.  There is a running gag where Black Adam tries to deliver a witty catch phrase but ends up killing his adversaries too quickly for them to hear it that actually gets a laugh.  The final battle scene, even though it’s up against a rather throw away villain, is also well done, and it does a fairly passable job of making the stakes in the moment feel pretty dire.  The only thing that could have been better handled with these action scenes is if they didn’t make up such a large part of the story as a whole.  There really is too much focus put on spectacle in this movie, with no time at all given to let the story breath and introduce more character building moments.  Instead, the movie just jumps from one set piece to the other, and it makes the whole movie feel like a mess as a result.  A lot of stuff is going on to be sure, but you the audience are given little reason to care, unless you are coming to the movie with a lot of prerequisite knowledge of DC lore as a whole.  You may know these character from the comics and various other media, and the movie probably hopes you already know them well enough too, but it ends up leaving the average fan with little to latch onto because the movie never gives us enough explanation about anything in the movie; not the characters, not the plot details, nor the world these characters live in either.  It’s a movie meant for fans, pure and simple, and even there it seems to take the fandom for granted.

So, was it worth the long wait to finally see Dwayne Johnson play Black Adam on the big screen.  It’s going to depend for a lot of different people, but ultimately it’s a fine performance in a movie that honestly falls short of reaching it’s goal.  Dwayne Johnson is the ideal actor to play this role, and I’m happy that after 15 years he finally got his wish granted.  The movie, however, is created more as an afterthought.  It’s by no means an absolute disaster.  There are good to great performances throughout, and the occasional battle sequence that is fun to watch.  But the lack of any detail in the story and the character development ends up making this movie feel pretty hollow as a whole.  The JSA especially feels wasted here, and it might have been better if they were either left out of the movie completely, or were reduced to just one or two characters.  I think it would’ve worked better if Cyclone and Atom Smasher had been left out of the movie, and that it was just Hawkman and Doctor Fate facing off against Black Adam.  At least then there would have been more time to develop those characters and give them the screen time that those iconic characters deserve.  These are characters deserving of their own movies, and the actors playing them are giving it their all.  It’s a problem with many of the DCEU films, where they try to pack too much into their movies, probably due to the worry that the films may never do well enough to warrant a sequel.  I will say that this was one of my biggest problems with Aquaman, where it felt like they were trying to tell every Aquaman story ever written in one movie.  It was way too overwhelming in that movie, and it’s a problem here in Black Adam too, though I feel it fares a bit better.  Between my controversial picks of a negative review of Aquaman and a positive review of Wonder Woman 1984, I’d say that Black Adam skews closer to the failure of Aquaman, but is only redeemed with better battle scenes and a better rounded cast.  I’m sure we’ll see more of Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam, and the mid-credits scene hints at a very exciting future ahead.  I just wish his place in the DCEU’s big master plan was laid on a much stronger foundation.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Amsterdam – Review

The movies of David O. Russell can best be summed up as a mixed bag.  For the most part, he has delivered a track record that is more on the good side than the bad.  But when he misses, he misses spectacularly.  Mainly, he is a director that swings very hard for the fences, and that can sometimes lead to decisions that may end up working as a detriment to his films.  One of the most noteworthy cases of his roller coaster style of directing shifting from film to film was in 2004, when he made the movie I Heart Huckabees, a movie that very much missed with both audiences and critics, mainly due to it’s self-indulgent nature, and this was coming off of a movie that won him universal acclaim as a director; the Iraq War dark comedy Three Kings (1999).  The lows of I Heart Huckabees eventually led to another high, with the Oscar-winning The Fighter (2010).  And for a while, he enjoyed a decade of relatively successful hits afterwards, with The Fighter being followed-up with Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), but even that string came to a halt with the underwhelming Joy (2015).  There’s no doubting that David O. Russell is a filmmaker with considerable talent, but sometimes he can be his own worst enemy too.  He has notoriously battled with actors on his sets.  He got into a physical fight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings and a tape of him shouting obscenities at actress Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees leaked to the public, casting a very negative image on the director.  And yet, he still manages to be one of the most in demand filmmakers in the business, probably due to the fact that he can on occasion deliver a massive critical hit for a studio.  It’s possible that the reputation that follows him around is the reason why he takes long breaks in between projects.  It’s been 7 years since his last theatrical film (Joy) and to make his return he has put together what may be his most ambitious film to date.

Amsterdam has one of the most stacked casts in recent memory, with even small parts being filled by A-list talent.  He reunites again with Christian Bale, making his third David O. Russell movie after The Fighter and American Hustle.  Joining him are co-stars John David Washington and Margot Robbie, as well as a dozen other recognizable faces from Mike Myers to Taylor Swift.  But what is interesting here is that Russell, who typically works with contemporary storylines, is going way back in time for this period piece.  The furthest that he went back in time before was the 1970’s with American Hustle, which didn’t seem too alien a time for him to plant his sardonic style within.  But now he’s taking it into a time period nearly a century ago.  If balanced well, it could work, but as I’ve said, he’s got a track record that can verge either way.  Still, the movie comes as the Awards season starts to heat up, and a star studded epic with high production values is something that movie studios are always happy to put their money behind.  The fact that he has delivered multiple performances to Oscar wins and even more to a nomination, it’s easy to see why so many actors are more than happy to jump on board his films, though some may end regretting it later.  Amsterdam sees Russell return after a long hiatus and with a pedigree of talent on his side that is far grander than anything else he has made in the past.  The only question is, are we getting peak David O. Russell in this roller coaster of his film career, or are we heading into another treacherous valley.

The movie covers over 20 years of the lives of a group of misfit friends in the tumultuous early 20th century.  During World War I, Lt. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is put in command of a regiment of mostly black soldiers after many other officers had refused the role.  During battle, he builds a close friendship with one of the soldiers, Harold Woodman (John David Washington).  The two end up in an army hospital together after being hit by a shrapnel bomb, with Burt even losing an eye.  There they meet a nurse named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) who not only helps them get back to good health, but forms a deeper and sometimes romantic relationship with the duo.  The three form a pact to protect one another and they move to Amsterdam to live a carefree Bohemian life.  But, Burt is called back home to New York where he wants to return to his upper class wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), and his medical practice.  After a couple years of practicing medicine for veterans in alleyways and drinking himself into the gutter, Burt eventually reconnects with Harold, who tells him that Valerie left him behind without a trace.  The two rekindle their friendship and begin working together, with Harold now practicing law.  However, their quiet life is disrupted when they learn that their commanding general Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) has died, and his daughter Liz (Taylor Swift) suspects murder.  What follows is a journey down a rabbit hole of conspiracy involving a bird watching society run by British glass salesman Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers) and his American associate Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon) who both may be spies for their respective governments, a wealthy but suspicious couple Tom and Libby (Rami Malek and Anya-Taylor Joy), and a retired General who has turned into a popular orator for Veteran’s rights named Gil Dillenbeck (Robert DeNiro), who may be the target of a fascist organization.  Despite being clueless about what they are getting into, the friends are determined to get to the bottom of this wild conspiracy gearing to attack the very fundamental pillars of democracy in America.

As you can see, this is a loaded movie with a lot of puzzle pieces involved and even more familiar faces that I didn’t even mention yet.  One would think that with a plot this dense and an all-star cast this massive that it may fall out of the grasp of the director to reign it all in.  And sadly, that’s the case with Amsterdam.  This is definitely one of the lesser David O. Russell movies.  I wouldn’t go as far to say that it is the worst film that Russell has made (I Heart Huckabees takes that crown easily) but it is definitely a frustrating movie to watch.  What’s most disappointing with this movie is that you can see all the elements of a really good movie there, but the pieces don’t fit together well at all in the way that Russell has set them up.  Tonal shifts are a major problem with the flow of this movie.  You can’t tell if David Russell wants this to be a raucous comedy or a taught political thriller.  It seems like he wants to have it both ways and it really undermines the flow of the film.  The movie has scenes individually that are well shot, acted and paced, but they’ll conflict with the scene that follows after or before.  It’s like he wrote a bunch of scenes separately then threw them in a hat and picked the order of his movie randomly.  Yes, there is a through-line, but you’ll be in the position of having to re-center yourself from scene to scene as there are so many tonal and plot shifts back and forth.  There is a story in there, and one that is deserving of telling, but Russell’s style gets in the way, favoring quippy dialogue to motivate the flow of the movie rather than a sense of building tension.  By the end of the movie, the big climatic revelations just feel hollow, because Russell hasn’t given the weight of the situation the time to build to make it more shocking.

And the  most frustrating part is that it’s a story that really deserved to be told.  It’s plot involves the characters uncovering a conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States and replace it with a fascist one; a tact that had proven effective in that time with Italy and Germany.  Not exactly new, but in Amsterdam, you see how fascist powers are given backing by corporate interests in America, which is a story that sadly remains relevant even today.  There are some connections there that I see Russell trying to get at, but the message just gets drowned out by all the other nonsense in the movie.  Any scene where we see the characters putting together the pieces of the conspiracy in an interesting way will then be followed-up by another scene where Christian Bale’s Burt will collapse to the floor at the most inconvenient moment due to the hard drugs he is experimenting with.  It can be funny, but it’s placement in the story clashes to much with the rest and breaks any momentum built up for the story.  The movie also has one of my least favorite screenwriting tools, and one that I think shows Russell’s weakness as a writer.  That tool being where a character monologues their entire backstory to the audience.  It’s a sign of lazy screenwriting, because it’s forcing development on a character rather than letting that build through the plot of the movie itself.  One such scene is delivered by Christian Bale in such an awkward way early in the movie; like he is just reading strictly from the character bio.  There’s a lot of scenes like that in Amsterdam, where characters catch up the audience on the plot by explaining what’s happening in monologues.  It shows that Russell has too much plot to detail, and he is impatient getting to it.  His strength primarily rests with character interactions, which there are scenes in the movie where Russell writes clever back and forth with the different characters.  But he builds up those moments in sacrifice of moments that drive the plot forward.  That’s why there is a lot of talking in this movie and not a whole lot of action; because David O. Russell is focusing on his strengths here in detriment to everything else.

The performances of the actors in the movie also reveals a rift between the two kinds of movies that Russell is trying to tell with Amsterdam.  Christian Bale is definitely trying to do character work in this movie, while John David Washington and Margot Robbie more or less playing things straight.  That ends up making the movie feel schizophrenic, because Bale’s flashy performance clashes with everything else in the movie.  That being said, I do think Christian Bale is the best part of the movie, because he at least is doing something to bring the film to life.  If only the rest of the film was on the same page; I would’ve appreciated the movie more if it was as quirky as Bale’s Burt.  I do like how he works the battle scars and glass eyeball into his character’s posture and facial expressions.  If anything, I think the character of Burt embodies more of the tone that David O. Russell was trying to attempt.  The remaining performances seem a little lost in comparison, though Rami Malek and Anya-Taylor Joy do a pretty good job of reaching Bale’s oddball level, with perfect parodies of the idle rich in their performances.  The biggest disappointments are Washington and Robbie.  We know how talented these actors are, but they bring none of that charisma into this film and have even less chemistry with one another.  One of the other big problems with a large star-studded cast like this is that you get distracted by all the familiar faces.  Some of them successfully disappear into their roles, including an unrecognizable Timothy Oliphant as a hitman.  But others like Taylor Swift and Chris Rock become a distraction because they just play their characters much like their own personas, and it feels really out of place in this period setting.  I don’t know if Russell intended for a star studded cast as packed as this one, or if it was forced upon him by the studio, but it’s clear that he does not spread out his attention evenly to all of them, and the movie ends up wasting a whole lot of big names in meaningless roles.

But, the movie does have saving graces about it and it’s largely found in the visuals.  The movie was shot by three time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, who brings a beautiful filmic quality to the movie.  He gives the movie a nice earthy glow that feels very appropriate for the time period that the film is set in.  In particular, he captures some very well composed close-ups of the actors.  Sometimes the close-ups have an uncomfortable feeling about them, with the actors looking right down the barrel of the lens of the camera, which helps to build up some of the tension of the movie.  Where the script lets down the story so much the visuals help to pick the movie up again.  Apart from the beautiful cinematography, the movie also does a fantastic job with period details.  It does a great job of invoking the time period, with the grimy streets of Depression Era New York City to the pristine Victorian era mansions that many of the story’s elites occupy.  The only downside is that Russell’s unfocused vision doesn’t allow for too much time to soak up the atmosphere of these settings.  You can really see the work and care that was put into the crafting of the costumes, the sets, and the on location shoots.  It feels timeless, but Russell’s direction is not.  He is very much a contemporary filmmaker, better equipped to tell personal everyman stories in modern or recent society.  The trouble with period films is that it takes a lot of work to make the past come alive again, and ultimately it falls on the skill of the director to make us believe in the this dramatization of the past.  For Russell’s sake, he should be happy that his unfocused vision is at least pleasing to the eye, which helps to make it at the very least watchable and at times very entertaining.

For David O. Russell’s career in total so far, you can’t help but feel disappointed in a movie like Amsterdam.  So much talent is involved behind the camera and in front of it; many whom you could say are at the tops of their fields.  And yet, it’s all wasted for a movie that barely functions as a narrative.  The grasp of what David O. Russell is trying to say in this movie (which is the threat of rising fascism in the free world, sponsored by multi-national corporations) get lost in the detours into absurdity that Russell seems to like putting into his movies.  You would think after a long hiatus that Russell would have crafted a more balanced piece, but in the end it seems like he has lost some of that creativity over time.  Still, you could do worst, and it is admirable that a filmmaker like Russell swings as hard as he can, even if it leads to a strike or an easy  flyball out.  I still think Russell is a talented filmmaker; it’s just that Amsterdam is the wrong vehicle for him to work with.  The performances are mixed, the script is a meandering mess, the cinematography is strong but could have been better served with a more cohesive narrative.  I think if the movie had just Christian Bale’s eccentric performance at it’s center, it could have been something more than what we got.  It’s frustrating to sit through, but at the same time not unwatchable.  Some people in my theater quite enjoyed it, but there was clearly not enough laughs to justify the goofier tones in scenes throughout the rest of the movie.  Hopefully for David O. Russell  takes on another project after this  that better plays to his strengths.  For now, Amsterdam is a movie that cannot rise to the ambition that it’s director was hoping to get out of it.  It’s epic, but also hollow; an exercise more in period film aesthetics rather than the taught conspiracy suspense thriller that it should maybe aim better for.  Still, it’s good to know that David O. Russell is still a risk taker, and some of his cinematic choices in Amsterdam bear fruit of that.  Time will tell if he’s able to return to a  worthwhile project where he is able to deliver cinematically in a sense different than how Amsterdam landed.

Rating: 5/10

Bullet Train – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10

Nope – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5/10

Thor: Love and Thunder – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8/10

Lightyear – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10

Top Gun: Maverick – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5/10

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8/10

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5/10