Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Madame Web – Review

The once resilient comic book movie genre that dominated the box office in the 2010’s has had a rough time of it lately.  It’s no longer just the reliable moneymaker that it once was, and it’s a problem that is growing increasingly problematic across the whole industry.  It’s even affected the undisputed champ of the genre, Marvel Studios, who suffered their own worst year in a long while in 2023.  The problem is not so much the characters or the stories that are being told on screen, but the fact that the productions of these movies have become so over bloated and the market has been over-saturated to the point where box office revenue can no longer cover the costs of making the movies.  There are still some bright spots, as movies like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) still managed to check off a box office victory, but overall audiences have made it clear that they are growing tired with a genre that looks to be well past it’s peak. The studios seem to be getting the message at the moment, as both Marvel and DC have pulled back on their production slate in order to reassess their upcoming futures.  Marvel Studios only has one theatrical release in the whole of 2024, with Deadpool & Wolverine coming in the Summer, while DC is working on a full reboot of their Cinematic Universe starting in 2025.  And it’s probably a good thing for both them and the audiences that we’ll have a bit of breathing room that will help us to fall in love with the genre once again.  It’s too bad that Sony Pictures and their licensed Spider-Man Universe didn’t get that same memo.  If there was any hope for a comic book lite year at the movies, it’s been dashed with Sony’s onslaught of new films that are already built on a flimsy foundation of what Sony considers to be a cinematic universe.

Since the turn of the millennium, Sony has retained the cinematic rights to the character Spider-Man and his affiliated cast of friends and rogues; a result of Marvel’s then plan to spread their characters around to all interested parties around Hollywood.  As Marvel began to reconsolidate it’s cinematic rights into a singular studio, with the help of parent company Disney, Spider-Man remained the sole holdout purely because Sony continued to have box office success with every film.  They believed that if they continued to release a new Spider-Man affiliated movie every year, their rights to the character would remain intact and they could sustain a franchise on it’s own without having to relinquish it back to Marvel.  The plan, however, hit some speedbumps as The Amazing Spider-Man reboot of the franchise didn’t have the strongest legs.  In order to keep the rights in house, the set up a special deal with Disney where the Spider-Man character could participate in the mega-successful MCU while Sony would continue to produce the standalone Spider-Man films in conjunction.  Marvel was thrilled that they could have a say in the cinematic representation of their A-list hero again, and Sony could now benefit from the exposure that could spill over into their own movies.  While this arrangement was happening, Sony also looked for other ways to maintain their hold onto the Spider-Man rights, and they believed the best way to do that was to build up a cinematic universe of their own; not just centered on Spider-Man, but all the characters in his orbit too.  Soon, famous spider-foe Venom received his own solo film, which itself turned into a surprise success, thanks to the star power of Tom Hardy in the role.  After this, movies based on other Spider-Man linked characters emerged, including a movie for Dr. Michael Morbius and Kraven the Hunter.  This hope for a Spider-Verse seemed short lived however, as the Morbius (2022) movie opened to dismal box office and terrible critical reviews.  Right now, despite early success with Venom, the Sony Spider-Verse is looking very much like the poster child for everything that’s wrong with the super hero genre right now, and things don’t any brighter as Sony is premiering a film this week centered around one of the truly most obscure characters in the Spider-Man storyline; the mysterious Madame Web.

The movie follows the story of New York City based EMT Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson).  She spends most of her day saving as many lives as she can alongside her fellow ambulance driver and friend Ben Parker (Adam Scott).  On a routine assignment helping out victims of a factory explosion, she starts to have peculiar visions; almost like time slipping backwards and forwards without warning.  She soon learns that some of her visions end up coming true, which becomes an alarming revelation for her.  As she heads home from a psychiatric exam, she has her most troubling vision yet.  She witnesses three girls aboard her commuter train getting assaulted by a mysterious man.  As she regains her composure, she alerts the three girls and guides them away from the man who is pursuing them.  After a chase through the city, Cassandra manages to find a hiding place, and she tries desperately to explain the very peculiar situation to the three frightened teens.  She quickly learns that each of the girls have actually interacted with her in the past couple of days, right before the visions manifested.  Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney) was the step-daughter of a victim that Cassandra helped deliver to the hospital.  Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) was nearly run into by Cassandra’s ambulance on the same run. And Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) lives in the same building as Cassandra.  All of them are somehow linked together by what seems like chance, but Cassandra believes there might be more answers elsewhere.  She decides to consult the journal written by her mother, the one thing she has from her as her mom died during child birth, leaving her an orphan.  In her journal, Cassandra finds a photograph of the man that was trying to hunt after her and the girls earlier; a rich tycoon named Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who was after a source of power that comes from a certain Spider species deep in the Amazon jungle.  It turns out that Ezekiel and Cassandra’s powers of foresight are linked, as Ezekiel has had visions of his own of his life ending at the hands of the three teenage girls, who themselves will be bestowed with powers in the future.  Does Cassandra manage to gain control of her special ability and help save the future heroes, or will Ezekiel manage to undo his own fate by destroying the lives of these girls in a time when they still have no idea what is happening?

My own experience with the Sony Spider-Verse has been fairly mixed.  Excusing the animated Spider-Verse movies, which are definitely separate from the live action productions (and might I add also much better movies), the overall value of Sony’s films is a far cry from what’s been put out by Marvel Studios itself.  I for one didn’t mind the first Venom (2018), which while not a great movie was nevertheless helped greatly by a winning performance by Tom Hardy as the titular anti-hero.  Morbius was very much a mess of a movie, though I didn’t have the same hatred for it as most other people do.  It was bad, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve seen much worse movies and Morbius was just boring for the most part, with Matt Smith’s vampy villainous turn being the one bright spot.  Now we have Madame Web, which seems even more superfluous than a Morbius film, and the timing for it couldn’t be worse as it seems the super hero fanbase is drying up.  It is possible that a movie like Madame Web could overcome these roadblocks to stand on it’s own as an engaging action thriller.  Unfortunately, this movie has ended up being exactly what we expected it to be, and honestly even worse than that.  This movie is the worst Sony Spider-Verse film thus far, and it’s not even close.  Morbius had some redeemable moments by being entertainingly bad at times.  Madame Web is a movie devoid of any entertainment value.  It isn’t even the fun kind of bad.  This was without a doubt one of the most difficult sit throughs of a movie that I have had in a long time; almost reaching Dear Evan Hansen (2021) levels of discomfort.  At a time where the super hero genre desperately needs to win back goodwill with it’s audience, this movie is unfortunately going to remind everyone of all the bad things about the genre, because this movie is full of every single one.

I honestly don’t know where the genesis of all the problems with this movie lie.  The script is certainly one of the worst factors.  Remarkably, Sony decided to go with the same team of writers that had written Morbius, showing that that they learned nothing from that experience.  Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless are also the scribes responsible for such cinematic gems like Dracula Untold (2014), The Last Witch Hunter (2015), and Gods of Egypt (2016), which makes you wonder how some writers somehow manage to fail upward in the movie business.  Madame Web may be their worst script left, because the whole thing reads like a first draft from someone who just completed a Screenwriting 101 course.  The movie has the clunkiest expositional dialogue I have ever seen.  Nobody speaks like a human being, they are just information dumps simply there to move the story forward.  There’s absolutely no interesting scenes of character development.  Every motivation is forced and the situations are contrived.  The main character herself, Cassandra Webb, suffers the most from this.  We don’t get any insight into her character, such as quirks or desires.  She’s just a passive pivot point for all the events of the movie to center around.  If the powers that be at Sony thought she was deserving of her own film, than make her a interesting enough to make us care.  The same can be said for all the other characters as well.  Ezekiel Sims is likewise also hollow as a character.  We only get the most miniscule of reasons as to why he’s a villain.  He’s sole purpose here is to look menacing in a Spider-Man like suit, and he fails pretty hard at even that.

The performances are also likewise pretty subpar.  I don’t know what kind of direction Dakota Johnson got (if any), but her performance as Cassandra Webb is like watching a mannequin emote.  There is nothing there but barely above a whisper line deliveries and the occasional eye roll.   Dakota Johnson may get a bad rap based on her past work in the Fifty Shades of Gray franchise, but she is capable of strong performance, as seen in movies like Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) and The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019).  She may have had the capability of crafting a more interesting performance here, but the lack of direction just leaves her lost.  That’s true of pretty much all of the leads in this film.  The three teenagers lack chemistry with each other, which makes their interactions more grating than endearing.  They feel even more awkward interacting with Dakota Johnson’s Cassandra, who’s supposed to be the guiding mentor to all of them, but in the end just feels like another moody teenager.  Tahar Rahim doesn’t help matters much more with his performances as Ezekiel Sims.  His one-note, understated performance is the blandest possible route to take with a character that’s supposed to be a terror.  Honestly, his performance is better when you can’t see his face once it’s behind a mask.  It doesn’t improve his performance much, but it’s better than the dead eye dour expression that makes up the rest of his performance.  Honestly, the only salvageable performances in the movie are from the film’s smallest parts; that of Adam Scott as Ben Parker and Emma Roberts as Mary Parker, the future mother of Spider-Man (the movie takes place 20 years in the past by the way).  They don’t add much to the overall movie, but these characters at least offer their actors a little bit of personality to hold onto, and Scott and Roberts are at least trying.  That’s the big takeaway from the performances in this movie, a very big lack of trying.  These actors are certainly capable of emoting, but whether it’s the lack of direction or the actors just not invested in the whole production itself, what we are left with is a movie lacking in any personality whatsoever.

Is there anything about the film that is worthwhile.  The only good things I can say is that the movie does do some interesting things with the time slipping that Cassandra experiences.  I did find the editing of these scenes effective, as it does a fair job of disorienting you while also making it clear how these visions appear from Cassandra’s point of view.  It doesn’t do the time travel thing as well as similar sequences found in Groundhog’s Day (1993) or Edge of Tomorrow (2014), but it works just enough to give the otherwise stale action sequences a little bit more flavor.  It seems like the editors were the only ones making this movie that actually did their jobs right.  Otherwise, visually, this movie is another mess that ruins the experience.  Some have rightly pointed out that this movie feels like a throw back to the mid-2000’s era of super hero movies, with it’s washed out color scheme and bland camera work.  While there were definitely some super hero movies of that era that had that kind of look, which thankfully went out of style once the bright and colorful MCU emerged, the 2000’s still had plenty of visually impressive movies in the genre too; especially the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy.  Madame Web definitely feels like it’s a movie stuck in the past, and not in a good way.  It’s only compounded more when the very generic looking visual effect appear in the climatic final act.  The movie for the most part doesn’t so much feel like a super hero movie from 20 years ago, but rather an action film from 20 years ago; the kind of filmmaking that was coming out of the school of Jerry Bruckheimer.  For Marvel’s sake, at least no one will mistake this kind of movie for one of their own; as they’ve been pretty good at keeping their own house style consistent and appealing.  There’s nothing really offensively bad about the way that the movie looks; it’s just that Madame Web’s visual style is as devoid of character as everything else in the movie, again pointing to the whole pointless nature of it’s existence.

In many ways, this movie honestly puts the problems with Marvel and DC’s recent films in a more favorable light.  As much as films like The Marvels (2023) and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023) have struggled at the box office, those movies at least tried to do something to be entertaining.  I for one actually quite enjoyed The Marvels and a recent re-watch has confirmed my positive view.  All of the complaints that other critics have levied at The Marvels I feel are more pronounced in the nothing burger that is Madame Web.  It is by far the lowest effort super hero film I have experienced in a long time; maybe even ever.  It’s astounding to see so little passion put into this kind of movie.  It’s like even the actors and the filmmakers knew just how pointless this whole thing was from the get go, and they just gave up caring.  There was no love put into this movie.  The only reason it exists is so that Sony can extend it’s cinematic rights to the Spider-Man corner of the Marvel library.  Madame Web was perhaps a stretch too far, as no one outside of the most knowledgeable comic book reader even knows of the character’s existence.  And I’m sure even that kind of devoted fan will be angered by the butchering of Madame Web as a character in this movie.  It’s likely that Sony’s going to learn a lesson from this experience, as the film is very clearly going to bomb, even harder than Morbius did.  It’s hard to say if there was any valuable reason why this movie should exist at all.  If someone put their heart into it and had a worthwhile story to tell, then it’s certainly possible.  But, Madame Web is far from that movie and another example of Sony missing the mark when it comes to building a cinematic universe in the vein of the MCU.  I don’t know if I would say it’s the worst comic book movie ever made, since we do live in a world where Fant4stic (2015) still exists, but it certainly feels like the most pointless super hero movie ever made.  And in the end, the Sony Spider-Verse has found itself caught in a web of destruction that I don’t see them ever finding a way of escaping; except solely through animation.

Rating: 3/10

Argylle – Review

Matthew Vaughn’s career has been a turbulent one as a filmmaker.  He first made a name for himself as a producer, specifically as the one who guided the early films of Guy Ritchie.  After the success of Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), Vaughn believed that it was time for his own foray into directing.  Staying within the comfort zone that he was familiar with through his collaboration with Guy Ritchie, he debuted as a director with his own take on the British gangster film genre; 2004’s Layer Cake.  Starring a pre-007 Daniel Craig, Layer Cake was generally well received by audiences and critics.  And while many would have thought Matthew Vaughn would’ve followed Guy Ritchie’s continued success within this gangster film genre, Vaughn surprisingly went in a much different direction and spread his wings out into the realm of fantasy filmmaking.  His follow-up would be the fantasy adventure Stardust (2007), which while being a big departure from Layer Cake it still showed Vaughn’s talent for mixing action and comedy together, something that he would continue to expand upon in his later films.  Those skills would especially propel him to further success as he extended into the comic book genre.  His next film, the hyper-violent super hero send-up Kick Ass (2010) would be the purest expression of Matthew Vaughn’s cinematic style yet.  The cartoonish excess of his action scenes would become the staple of his directorial style, and it would be the thing that guided his career as a director through the next decade.  Almost a year after making Kick Ass, he was called upon by Marvel and 20th Century Fox to help revive the ailing X-Men franchise, and he managed to succeed there as well, giving that franchise the reboot it desperately needed with X-Men: First Class (2011).  But where Matthew Vaughn would take his talents next would be a turning point for him as a filmmaker.  He would soon launch a franchise that both gave him the best showcase for his talents yet but also would end up holding him back and begin a decline in what had been a momentous career up to that point.

Working again with source material from comic book writer Mark Millar (Kick Ass), Matthew Vaughn set out to bring the comic series Kingsman to the silver screen.  Kingsman: The Secret Society (2015) was all of Vaughn’s best cinematic tricks put together in one fun romp of a movie.  The mix of cartoonish action and excessive violence mixed in with a cultured English aesthetic was a winning formula, and the film became Matthew Vaughn’s biggest success to date.  The church massacre scene in particular, where Colin Firth’s secret agent character takes out an entire congregation of crazed zealots in a brilliantly choreographed oner is seen by many to be one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed.  The success of this film led Vaughn to undertake a first in his booming career as a director; he was going to direct a sequel.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) was quickly churned out in two years, and anticipation was high given the beloved status of the original.  Sadly, lightning didn’t strike twice as the reception of The Golden Circle was not as warm, making this the first misfire of Vaughn’s career.  What had been his strong suit up to this point was now starting to become his weakness; namely the irreverent comedic tone of his action scenes.  When Elton John, in an extended cameo, is doing obvious wirework fight scenes in the movie, the humorous tone begins to fall apart.  Add to this a lot of plot contrivances and a bloated 2 1/2 hour run time, and many Kingsman fans came away disappointed.  You would think after this disappointment that Matthew Vaughn would want to move on, but shockingly he remained committed to this franchise.  He chose to next direct a prequel to the Kingman franchise by showing the origins of the organization in the awkwardly titled The King’s Man (2021).  The film suffered from the affects of the Covid-19 pandemic, delaying it over a year, and while it was more consistent in tone than it’s predecessor, the film still failed to generate renewed interest in the waning franchise.  Cut to now and Matthew Vaughn is still finding himself in the espionage genre, but he’s hoping to begin again with a new potential franchise launch with the film Argylle (2024).

Argylle follows the life of a lonely espionage novelist named Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose Agent Argylle books are international best-sellers.  Though she is immensely popular for her writing, she chooses to live a solitary life in her secluded Rocky Mountain getaway with her beloved feline companion Alfie.  Occasionally she’ll receive feedback on her books from her mother Ruth (Catherine O’Hara), who tries to needle her into being more outgoing.  While she writes her newest novel, she vividly pictures in her mind how it will look, with Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) being a dashing super spy who is assisted by his tech wiz Keira (Ariana DeBose) and his musclebound back-up man Wyatt (John Cena).  When she hits her writers block moment, Elly decides to travel cross country to visit her mother and father in Chicago.  While taking the train, she ends up sitting across the aisle from a stranger who just so happens to be reading her book.  He introduces himself as Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell) and bluntly tells her that he’s in the business of espionage, which she dismisses as a joke.  However, the two are approached by another fan seeking an autograph who suddenly tries to attack Elly.  The attack is thwarted by Aidan, who disposes with a dozen or so would-be assassins, and the two manage to escape by parachuting off of the moving train, along with Elly’s cat Alfie in a carrying pack.  Once safe, Aidan confides that Elly’s Argylle novels have predicted real events in the past, and a shadow organization is trying to get to her because they believe her oracle like senses will lead them to a black book of secret files.  The leader of the shadow organization named Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston) is hell bent on getting to Elly before Aidan can bring her to his own director, also named Alfie (Samuel L. Jackson).  Elly embarks on a harrowing mystery that turns up many surprises along the way, all of which makes her realize that Argylle is more than just a character she made up for her book.

It is certainly nice to see Matthew Vaughn pull away from the Kingman funk that he has fallen into over the last few years, but it leaves us with the question as to whether he has something new to offer as a director.  Sadly, Argylle is not the revitalizing tonic that he needed as a filmmaker.  Even worse, this movie is actually the worst film he has made so far.  While the Kingman films became a little scattershot over time, they still displayed a strong sense of style that at least kept them watchable.  Argylle on the other hand doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.  This movie is one of the most unfocused films I have seen in a long time, as it tries to be so many things all at once.  It wants to be a comedy, but it tries way too hard to be shocking with it’s twists and turns; it wants to be cartoonishly violent, but seems to be undermined by it’s PG-13 rating; and it wants to be grandiose and operatic in it’s scale, but just looks artificial most of the time.  I think that the problems with this movie stem mostly from the screenplay itself, written by Jason Fuchs, whose credits to date include Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) and notorious box office bomb Pan (2015).  Fuch’s script tries way too hard to be a Romancing the Stone (1983) style action romantic comedy, with plot twists that think they are clever but are telegraphed way too clumsily that you can see them coming a mile away.  While Vaughn’s flashy style can overcome shortcomings in the script, it sadly becomes it’s own problem simultaneously as the excesses become more obnoxious than engaging and the film brings out Vaughn’s worst tendencies as a filmmaker.  Every problem that started with his sequels in the Kingsman franchise are amplified here.  As well choreographed as the action scenes are, they just don’t land as well when you don’t care about much else from the movie.

That’s not to say that the movie gets everything wrong.  While the movie is a failure in most places, one thing they do get right is the chemistry between the two leads.  What helps to keep this movie from becoming a total disaster is the performances of Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard as Aidan and Elly.  They are not awards worthy performances, but they do help to ground the movie and give it a bit of redeeming power; particularly with Rockwell.  Sam’s performance as Aidan is the clearest high point of the whole movie, as he seems to be the only actor that understands the assignment.  He’s charming, funny, and surprisingly adept in the action sequences which he gets quite a few moments with before he’s replaced with the stunt double.  You can definitely see a Bruce Willis in his prime quality with Sam Rockwell’s work here, as he perfectly balances the humor with the sincerity of his duty as a figure within an action movie scenario.  Bryce Dallas Howard does the best she can with a character whose whole story gets more and more convoluted as the movie goes, and it’s in the moments she shares with Sam Rockwell on screen where her performance shines the most.  Honestly, it’s in the brief moments where the two characters are aloud to actually connect on a human level that the movie actually finds it’s brief footing.  I wish the movie was more about them working off each other and solving the mystery together rather than series of plot detours and action set pieces that it ends up devolving into.  The ingredients are certainly all there, but Vaughn just refuses to pick a lane and decides to go for the loudest and most insane trek possible.  And it ruins what otherwise would’ve been a fun romp of a spy action comedy.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag.  The imaginings of the Agent Argylle books give very little for the actors to do, but that seems to be the point as the characters are meant to be archetypes.  Still when you have a trio as talented as Henry Cavill, John Cena, and Ariana DeBose together on screen, you’d like to see them emote just a little bit.  Cavill’s part in the movie is especially confusing, as Matthew Vaughn doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with the Agent Argylle character.  He flashes in and out of Elly’s imagination throughout the movie, as if Vaughn wanted to keep Cavill in as much of the movie as he could beyond just a cameo.  But for someone who is supposed to be the movie’s namesake, Argylle is such a throwaway character and Cavill’s whole participation just comes down to looking literally like an action figure.  I feel bad for Henry Cavill as he is very much a talented actor, but he sadly gets dumped into these failed action franchises that end up wasting his talents.  There’s a bit more gained from the inclusion of veterans like Bryan Cranston and Catherine O’Hara.  O’Hara especially gets to shine here, taking her comedic chops and working them surprisingly well into a more action packed movie.  Cranston has a nice menacing presence, though his villainous character is sadly underdeveloped and is fairly bland overall.  Strangely enough, it’s really just the cat that comes across as the most sympathetic screen presence, and half of the time he’s a visual effect, given the dangerous situations that they put him through.  Overall, the movie has an enviable all-star cast that it ultimately just ends up wasting.  It’s not surprising that the movie was bankrolled by a mega-corporation like Apple, as they clearly had the money to cast big names in all the parts.  But none of that promise with this kind of cast translates as they are all just lost in the shuffle of Vaughn’s excessive direction and the unfocused story that values shocking twists over actual character development.

Another big problem is the visual degradation of Matthew Vaughn’s style that this movie seems to demonstrate.  Vaughn, for most of the early part of his career, was able to balance his excesses as a visual story-teller with a clear sense of vision that was cohesive.  But through the Kingsman sequels and Argylle, the style is clearly overwhelming the substance.  One of the big issues is that he seems to be relying too heavily on CGI to get the style he wants for his action scenes.  The reason why movies like Kick Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Society worked is because they had a lot of thought put into the fight choreography first and foremost, and then later used visual effects to accentuate.  This was definitely evident in the church fight from Kingsman, which had the visceral mayhem of a handheld shot, but was aided by CGI to help add the blood and cover up the edits in the quick pans.  This is also why The King’s Man worked better than The Golden Circle, because there were more scenes involving real stunts than visual effects.  Sadly, it’s all too obvious that most of Argylle’s big stunts were constructed using computers.  There’s two visually operatic action sequences late in the movie that might have worked better had they not felt so artificial.  It’s where Vaughn’s instincts are working against him, as his need to go big are robbing the movie of it’s impact.  It’s the unfortunate desire on his part to go further than he had in the Kingman movies, but using a shortcut to get there.  He went from cartoonishly violent to just a cartoon by the end of this movie.  It’s also laughable that this is supposed to be a globetrotting movie, but it’s obvious they never left their London area soundstages as most of the movie is reliant on greenscreen for all the locales.  It’s a sad result for a film director like Matthew Vaughn who for the longest time was one of the most inventive and exciting filmmakers of the moment.

Argylle is sadly another step down for Matthew Vaughn as a filmmaker.  It’s like everything from Kingsman: The Secret Society on has been one big audition reel for a James Bond movie, but it just keeps getting sloppier the longer it goes on.  While James Bond has it’s own excesses, it does know how to play by it’s own rules and also it’s a franchise that knows when to revitalize itself with fresh blood.  Matthew Vaughn for some reason seems to be chasing his own bad instincts and letting them undermine the work that he does.  He has a creative eye for action, but he seems to be losing the confidence to make that work in a realistic way.  Argylle shows a director at odds with himself, unable to reign in a big project with the same kind of focus that he used to.  Perhaps he needs to step away from the spy stuff for a while and find a different kind of movie to make that his talents would be best suited for.  It was certainly interesting when he stepped into the fantasy genre with Stardust; I wonder if he still has that kind of movie in him.  He’s also been pretty vocal about what he’d do with a property like Star Wars as of late.  Perhaps he should get a shot at a sci-fi film like that.  He basically just needs to have a reinvention of some kind, because his creative juices are just not flowing anymore as a spy film director; or even as a comedy director.  As someone who was very much on board with his first five films, I found Argylle to be yet another crushing let down for a director that needs to do better.  In the end, all the flashy style and many twists and turns do nothing to resurrect a bare bones effort and it just ends up being a bore by the finale.  It’s a waste of top tier talent and will likely not be the franchise starter that it’s aiming to be.  The best it could do is to wake up Matthew Vaughn from his career stagnation and help him see the shortfalls that he’s been mired in for far too long.  Hopefully then, we can get back to the fun, inventive action packed material that we got excited for in Matthew Vaughn’s earlier work and hopefully forget Argylle as a footnote in the grand scheme of his cinematic body of work.

Rating: 5/10

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom – Review

2023 is going to be looked at as a turning point year for the super hero movie genre.  The genre was undeniably the dominant force at the box office over the last decade, led by the unprecedented success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Following Marvel’s lead, rival DC Comics began their own expansion of their cinematic presence with the creation of the DCEU.  And for several years, it was a mutually beneficial competition that looked to be unstoppable in creating big bucks for the studios.  For many years, especially in the later half of the 2010’s, putting out a super hero movie into theaters was almost guaranteed to make money.  What was especially surprising was how even the most obscure, B-list super heroes were succeeding at the box office.  A large part of this was the success of Marvel’s interwoven cinematic universe, which made every one of their movies, even the one’s with lesser know characters, essential to the over-arching narrative that they were building up.  For them, the culmination of all those story threads was the monumental team-up films under the Avengers banner.  For the DCEU, it was the Justice League that their universe building would culminate around.  This was very much a box office engine that was unlike anything else that Hollywood had seen before, and it seemed like there would be no end to that money train.  However, gravity does inevitably catch up, even with the most astronomical success stories.  This year, we saw the inevitable collapse of the once sure thing that was the super hero genre.  While it’s too early to say that the genre is dead, it certainly has stopped being a sure thing in the business now.  2023 was a year of staggering box office disappointments all around, but the super hero movies were the ones that suffered the most.  Even the mighty Marvel didn’t escape the implosion.  There were 8 super hero films put out into theaters this year, and only 2 could even be considered to be profitable; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).  All the rest failed to justify their enormous budgets which in turn led to a catastrophic collapse across the board for the genre; some even considered to be among the biggest box office bombs of all time.

While Marvel is hurting with the low box office returns of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) and The Marvels (2023), the story is even more dire for DC.  DC perhaps benefitted the most from the rising tide of the super hero genre of the 2010’s, as their movies saw a surge in success in the latter half of the decade.  The DCEU had a strong start on the back of the Superman film titled Man of Steel (2013), and they continually produced movies that grossed in the neighborhood of $300 million domestic for several years.  Perhaps the most surprising result was that it was neither Batman or Superman that achieved the highest grosses of this era, but rather Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018) that ended up on top.  Because DC felt confident in competing with Marvel at the box office during this period, they began to greenlight movies for some of their lesser known characters, such as Shazam, Black Adam, and Blue Beetle.  But while box office was strong, the DCEU had one deficiency that prevented them from reaching the heights of Marvel.  One of the reasons why the DCEU is often nicknamed the Snyderverse is because of the filmmaker who helped launch the franchise from the beginning; Zack Snyder.  And like most of Snyder’s movies, the most common critique that the DCEU faced was that it was built on style and not substance.  DC rarely reached the same critical acclaims that Marvel enjoyed and over time that began to take it’s toll on the box office that the series enjoyed.  The DCEU was plagued with a lot of second guessing from the executives at the Warner Brothers offices that were bankrolling the whole venture.  This led to the especially messy shake-up that doomed the Justice League (2017) movie, and the residual turmoil soured the rest of the DCEU as a whole.  Since then, the only DC movies that have succeeded commercially and critically have been the ones not tied to the Extended Universe; 2019’s Joker and 2022’s The Batman.  The ultimate collapse began with the disappointing returns on Black Adam (2022), and with the shake-up of the Warner Brothers and Discovery merger, the writing was on the wall for the DCEU.  Unfortunately, they still had four films in the pipeline, set for a year where the audience no longer had interest in a dying franchise.  Thus, we got the back to back flops of Shazam: Fury of the Gods, The Flash, and Blue Beetle.  Only one movie is left of the now defunct DCEU, and the question remains if Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom can sink or swim?

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom takes place a few years after the events of the last film.  Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) has taken up his birthright as the King of Atlantis, a powerful underwater kingdom unknown to most of the surface world.  He has found the job a bit tedious as he has learned that his powers are limited and kept in check by a council of high households, pretty much making him a figure head.  He desires to use his power as king to enact reforms to help his kingdom prosper, but at the same time he understands that taking power is not in his DNA, as that was the folly of his power hungry half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who is now in prison for his crimes.  In the meantime, Arthur is balancing being king with living life on the surface world as a father.  Arthur Jr., barely a year old, lives on land with his grandfather Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), and Arthur and his Queen Mera (Amber Heard) ensure their child is safe whenever they are away from their duties on the throne of Atlantis.  However, trouble is brewing in the ocean and on the surface world.  Rising global temperatures are creating chaotic storms above the waves, and is causing sickness in the sea life below.  The source of this imbalance is coming from the use of ancient sea tech discovered by Aquaman’s nemesis, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).  Black Manta is intentionally polluting the land, sea and air in order to melt the polar ice caps as a means of unleashing a dark evil onto the world.  And equipped with a dangerous magical trident, Manta is far stronger now than the last time Aquaman fought him.  In order to defeat Black Manta, Arthur needs the help of an old enemy who once used Manta’s power for his own ends; the fallen King Orm.  Arthur and Orm are now in a position where they have to have to put their differences aside in order to save the world together.  But, can past rivalry be forgiven so easily?  And can Aquaman still succeed against the new power that Black Manta wields that is unlike anything he has face before?

The whole team that worked on the last Aquaman returns for this sequel, including most of the returning cast, director James Wan and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick.  Considering that Aquaman (2018) is the highest grossing DCEU film of all time (the only one to gross over a billion worldwide), it makes sense that a sequel would be greenlit right away for the continuation of Aquaman’s stand alone franchise on the big screen.  But a lot has happened in between when the first Aquaman movie came out and now, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’s release on the tail end of truly the worst year ever for the genre could not have come at a worst time.  It’s unfair for Wan, Mamoa and company to be the one’s given the task of closing out the DCEU, because it’s very clear that this particular movie was never intended to be the end point.  The decision by DC parent company Warner Brothers Discovery to cut their loses and start over from scratch has only happened within the last year.  As a result, audiences were all too aware that the DCEU no longer had a future beyond 2023, so interest in the ongoing narratives suddenly disappeared.  That’s why the box office for DC was so abysmally low this year, because there was no point to any of these movies now.  Still, it was possible for them to stand on their own as an entertaining movie.  Sadly, for many, that didn’t work either.  I myself enjoyed the charm of Shazam: Fury of the Gods enough to recommend it, and Blue Beetle has it’s strong points too.  But The Flash was a colossal mess of a movie that definitely spelled the doom that the DCEU was about to face, and sad to say, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom just continues that downward trend.  With all things considered, Aquaman is not the worst thing that has come from the DCEU, but it’s too unremarkable to take the DCEU out with anything other than a whimper.  Considering where I myself come from, I was not much of an Aquaman fan to begin with, as I disliked the first film too.  If there is any positive thing to take, I’d say that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is just slightly better than the first film because it’s shorter and feels less bloated.

In general, I think Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a perfect distillation of all the things that have plagued the DCEU from the very beginning.  DCEU movies, for the most part, are heavy on spectacle but light on character.  The movies within the franchise can certainly look like they were made with the GDP of a small nation, but very rarely will you see any critic or fan praise the films for their richly textured characters.  The reason why Wonder Woman and Shazam (2019) were able to rise above the formula and win critical praise is because those films did a much better job at allowing us to understand why their heroes want to be heroes.  Wonder Woman has that wonderful moment where she declares “It’s what I’m going to do,” before she storms into No Man’s Land after being told that it’s not what they came there to do.  That is a quintessential hero moment, and it’s something that strangely feels absent from most of the DCEU movies, especially the Aquaman films. I was often frustrated with how aimless the first Aquaman was, as it tried to be too many different movies all in one, and in none of them do they ever make you care about Aquaman’s journey towards becoming a hero.  It’s strange that the best character building moments we ever get of Aquaman come from the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League; you know, the version that never made it into theaters.  There was enough flashy spectacle in the first Aquaman to make audiences forget how shallow the story was, but the same unfortunately cannot be said with this movie.  It becomes very clear watching Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom that there was little to no heart put into it.  I don’t know if everyone saw the writing on the wall or not, but the whole vibe of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is that it feels like a movie made out of obligation.  Everyone involved in the movie was under contract to make a sequel, but the circumstances surrounding the making of that sequel caused the whole thing to become irrelevant by the end.  So, we have a director and a cast pretty much just giving the bare minimum so that they can fulfill their contracts and move on.  There’s just this overarching “let’s get this over with” detachment to the whole movie, which I’m sure is going to feed into the already low expectations audiences have with this movie.  The sad thing is, there are pieces in the narrative, had they been nurtured under a different environment , that could have contributed to a much better movie overall.

The movie very much rests on the shoulders of the cast, because it certainly gets nothing from the story.  And even there, we have a mixed bag.  The strength of the Aquaman series, and honestly the DCEU in general, has been the perfect casting of Jason Mamoa as the character.  Mamoa can carry so much of the movie just from his charming presence on screen alone.  Out of all the Justice League characters we’ve seen over the last decade, Mamoa’s Aquaman is really the only one with a distinct personality.  Despite so many good actors cast in the roles, only Jason Mamoa has been able to feel like he belongs in the role, and that no one could do it better.  And thanks to that ability to feel comfortable in the role, he’s able to make Aquaman fun to watch even when he’s horribly written, which happens a lot in the DCEU.  The same applies here as well, because while the script gives him almost nothing to work with, Mamoa still is able to play the character affably enough to make you smile when he’s on screen.  Another character who rises above the bland writing is Black Manta.  While the plot involving the character in this movie is pretty convoluted, Yahya Abdul-Mateen still gives him an effectively menacing presence that does work for the most part.  Kudos to the character design team to make the Black Manta helmet look as cool as it does in this movie; which is admittedly difficult to do given it’s cartoonish origins with those giant bug eyes.  There’s also some nice sincere moments with Temuera Morrison as Tom Curry, giving the movie a much needed earthbound character to help deliver some essential heart into the movie.  Sadly, very few other actors stand out.  Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman, two actresses with very important roles in the first film have barely anything to do here.  And Patrick Wilson is even more wooden in the role of Orm here than he did in the first movie.  He’s required to work a lot more with Jason Mamoa in this movie in a sort-of “buddy cop” way, and it falls flat because neither actor has chemistry with each other.     Mamoa’s charm on screen can go a long way, but there’s only so much heavy lifting he can do, and sadly most of the movie squanders the best efforts that he makes to get you to care about Aquaman’s story.

Another aspect of the low effort in this movie is the general way that the movie looks.  I hope that audiences are fine with looking at actors composited into CGI environments, because there is a lot of that in this movie.  To be fair, there really was very little choice in that manner, considering how much of the movie takes place underwater.  There are touches of decent CGI work in the movie, such as in how the characters’ hair is animated in the underwater scenes to give them a weightless flow.  But for the most part, you’re going to be looking at a lot of unrealistic looking fight scenes that are too cartoonish to ever be grounded in reality.  Much of the action is buried underneath too much visual mayhem to ever give the audience a grasp on the scenes they are watching.  The only action moments that work are the ones where Aquaman and Black Manta are dueling one on one, because it’s the only time where the movie isn’t relying on any trickery to liven up the scene.  As this year has proven, audiences are tired of action scenes loaded up with excessive CGI effects.  Movies like John Wick have shown that in camera stunt work is what audiences are finding more impressive these days.  This is a problem that really is plaguing super hero movies in general, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is just the latest example of it.  The genre has been dying because the market has been flooded with too many movies that all look and feel the same.  And what’s worse is that the budgets for these movies have ballooned to unsustainable levels.  A decade ago, a super hero movie costing over $200 million was indicative of a major event.  Now, it has become the norm, and it’s costing the studios too much.  That’s why we’ve seen a sudden re-assessing of the genre as a whole this year, with even Marvel starting to second guess their priorities.  It’s clear that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was more of a symptom of an already ailing industry, and not nearly the worst offender.  But, considering that it is the final note on this horrendous year, it’s probably going to also be the movie that most people point to as the poster child for everything wrong with the super hero genre as a whole.

As I stated before, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is certainly bad on many counts, but it’s not by any means the worst we’ve ever seen from the genre.  By being such a low effort this time around, I think it has fewer faults than the first film.  It doesn’t have much to offer, therefore it didn’t have far to fall from my already low expectations.  In the end, I think that it’s just going to stand as a minor footnote of a film in the greater picture of the super hero genre as a whole, and I think that’s the best that can be said for it.  Better to be remembered as a minor failure than a colossal one.  Sadly, the fact that this is the movie that the DCEU goes out on is likely to bode poorly for the film in the long run.  I think it’s unfair to have put so much weight upon the shoulders of this movie that it clearly was not intended to hold.  James Wan and his team never intended to be the ones to write the final chapter of the DCEU.  They just wanted to keep Aquaman’s story going strong, but other circumstances got in the way.  The fact that they got any movie completed and released at all is it’s own kind of triumph.  But, what it certainly shows is that there needs to be a clear change in the direction of the super hero genre as a whole.  DC is certainly doing it’s part, re-launching their cinematic universe with the guidance of filmmaker James Gunn at the helm.  Marvel is also slowing things down to re-organize, with only Deadpool 3 being their sole film release in the next year.  Despite the best efforts of a lot of good filmmakers and actors, the DCEU was always handicapped by a lack of direction and interference from the studio, so it’s best that it be put to rest.  It’s just too bad that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is such a minor film to go out on.  I should note that even though 2023 was the year of super hero movies bombing at the box office, it doesn’t also mean that each of those movies was terrible either.  I strongly recommended the films Shazam: Fury of the Gods and The Marvels as both of them were genuinely a lot of fun to watch, and Blue Beetle had a lot of charm as well despite being a bit cliché.  Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Flash on the other hand were deserving of their box office failure, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom falls closer to that camp as well, though it’s fall feels less steep than the others.  If you were a fan of the first Aquaman, you might enjoy it well enough, and it does benefit from being less cluttered than the original, but that’s about all the praise I can give it.  Otherwise, it and now the entirety of the DCEU, sleeps with the fishes.

Rating: 6.5/10

Wish – Review

This is what 100 years of artistry has led to.  The Walt Disney Company is a multi-faceted machine that has many branches into different aspects of our pop culture; from movies to theme parks and so much more.  But the core of Disney still remains their now century old animation studio.  Started out of a back room of a law office, Disney quickly grew into the juggernaut of the still maturing animation medium of filmmaking.  They were the industry leaders and the trend setters, and to this day, Disney Animation is still regarded as the gold standard of the art form.  Though the studio has been responsible for many beloved animated projects, what most fans hold the most dear is what is called the Disney Feature Canon.  The canon of animated features dates back to the groundbreaking first, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), which was at the time thought to be an impossible achievement.  But, the success of Snow White proved that animation could indeed hold peoples’ attention for the length of a full feature film, and Walt Disney and his team wasted no time in repeating that achievement.  Before Snow White was even out of theaters, the Disney animators were already at work on two more projects, Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940), with a couple more also in the early pipeline.  Disney has continued to build upon this canon of films, through both good times and bad.  The tools over time have changed as well, with computers replacing the traditional hand drawn method.  With the release of last year’s Strange World (2022), the total number of Animated Features in the Disney canon reached 61.  But, there was a milestone coming up in 2023 as the Animation Studio was about to hit it’s century mark.  And with a huge milestone like 100 years, the Disney animation team needed to figure out a special way to mark the occasion.

Sadly, the 100th anniversary has fallen on a hard time for the Disney company.  The studio has seen a lot of their projects over the last year fall short of expectations, which has led to a significant priority shift.  At the same time, the industry itself is not what it used to be, as the streaming market has put every previous metric of success into flux.  The last couple of years has been a bit of a perfect storm of confusion and bad fortune to fall upon every aspect of Hollywood, but especially at Disney.  The pandemic caused significant disruption across the spectrum of the business, with Disney seeing not just a hit to their box office performance with theater closures, but also lengthy closures of their theme parks as well.  Once the world began to re-open, the problems didn’t go away.  Budgets that ballooned over the course of filming during a pandemic made it harder for them to re-coup at the box office once theaters were re-opened, and a significant shift towards streaming viewership also made it hard for studios to generate excitement for theatrical releases.  This was particularly evident with Disney, as their corporate mandate went aggressively into the streaming market.  Though all animation at Disney was affected, the brunt of this shift was particularly felt at Disney’s sister studio in Emeryville, California; Pixar Animation.  Their movies for over 2 years weren’t even granted a theatrical exhibition, including Soul (2020), Luca (2021) and Turning Red (2022).  Meanwhile, the main animation studio still was able to get theatrical releases, though they didn’t fare much better in the post-pandemic box office.  Since Covid, no Disney Animation film has crossed the $100 million mark at the box office, which is troubling given that before the outbreak in 2019, Frozen II (2019) managed to gross over a billion worldwide.  With the 100th anniversary looming, and pressure mounting to deliver a movie that could reverse the sagging fortunes of Disney Animation, the studio heads decided the right thing to do was to return to basics with their newest animated film called Wish (2023); a traditional fairy tale adventure musical with all the hallmarks of what made Disney the dream machine that it has become over the last 100 years.  The only question is did their wish come true or is a dream too far to reach?

The story of Wish takes place in the mythical kingdom known as Rosas.  The island kingdom has become a place of refuge where residents have come from all over the world to have their greatest dreams come true.  They all come to Rosas because the kingdom is ruled over by a sorcerer turned monarch named King Magnifico (Chris Pine) who has the power to grant wishes, though on a limited basis.  Everyone desires to serve the king and his Queen Amaya (Angelique Cabral) fatihfully in order to have their wish selected and fulfilled.  Chief among them is an eager young woman named Asha (Ariana DeBose), who has been granted an interview to become Magnifico’s apprentice.  Asha has no wish to give herself, but instead she wants to fulfill the wish of her 100 year old grandfather Sabino (Victor Garber).  Upon meeting Magnifico in his palace, she learns that the King is not really granting wishes, but rather hoarding them, picking and choosing a select few to grant each year.  Asha challenges his assertion of what to do with the wishes and it causes her to lose her candidacy for the job.  Distraught, Asha looks for hope in her own wishes, and seeks guidance in the stars above.  To her surprise, a star comes down from the sky towards her.  The Star has a mind of it’s own and begins to spread it’s magic around the forest where Asha has found herself in.  To her surprise, all the creatures touched by the star dust begin to speak, including her pet goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk).  The arrival of the star alarms King Magnifico, who believes it to be a threat to his hold on power over the people of Rosas.  He declares Asha to be a traitor for sheltering the Star, and he promises a wish granted to anyone who rats her out.  Asha seeks the help of her seven friends in the palace, including Dahlia (Jennifer Kumiyama), Gabo (Harvey Guillen), Hal (Niko Vargas), Simon (Evan Peters), Safi (Ramy Youssef), Dario (Jon Rudnitsky), and Bazeema (Della Saba) to assist her in getting Star to the wishes so he can grant them all.  But, they’ll have to act fast once Magnifico has started to delve deeper into his dark, forbidden magic.

As described before, the movie Wish has a lot of heavy lifting to do.  It’s got to help restore Disney’s waning success at the box office while at the same time mark the 100th anniversary of the studio as a whole.  Either is no easy task, but on paper this movie does have the ingredients to make a valiant attempt at the job.  It’s got a charismatic princess type heroine at the heart of its story, vibrant animation, ambitious musical numbers, an unambiguous villainous threat, and plenty of funny talking animals.  It pretty much is every Disney movie you can think of rolled into one.  Unfortunately, the pieces don’t all come together like they should.  Disney’s Wish sadly feels more like a parody of a Disney movie rather than the fleshed out stand alone feature that it aspires to be.  As a life long Disney fan, this movie is especially disheartening in its disappointment because of all those factors that weigh on its shoulder that I described earlier.  It’s the movie that was “100 years in the making” according to the marketing for this film, and this is what we ended up with?  The characters are all shallow imitations of characters we’ve already seen in other, better Disney movies; quite literally in seven specific cases.  The songs are bland and will in no way climb the charts the same way that classics from “When You Wish Upon a Star” to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” have done in the past.  Even the animation feels woefully generic, especially in contrast to more ambitious films in the last year like Dreamworks’ Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) and Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse (2023).  Now, to be fair, I have seen worse from Disney; the abysmal Frozen II comes to mind, as well as the basement dweller Chicken Little (2005).  But the way that Wish squanders all of it’s opportunities just makes the end result feel so frustrating and pretty much a punctuation mark on the lackluster year that Disney gave us to mark their 100 years.  Of course, the studio is aware of it’s shortcomings right now and are taking steps to right the ship, but sadly the occasion of a one hundred year anniversary is one they should have gone the extra length to make particularly special and it’s ultimately a wasted effort.

The first and foremost problem with Wish is the story, or more appropriately the lack of one.  Again, the ingredients are there for something special, but it just feels like the filmmakers want to speed run us through them.  This was really apparent to me at a point watching the film where I thought the movie was actually beginning to find some dramatic footing but then I realized that it was already heading into its climax.  I was shocked to to see that almost nothing of substance was happening in the lead up to the climax; it’s just a collection of cat and mouse chases and then on to the final battle.  The movie is 95 minutes long, a full 11 minutes longer than Beauty and the Beast (1991) for example at it’s 84 minute length, and yet in the Beauty and the Beast’s case those 84 minutes developed a richly textured love story that grows organically without feeling rushed and even finds time for seven original songs.  Wish never gives the story enough time to breath and allow us to get to know the characters and the world they inhabit.  One obvious problem is that there are simply too many characters.  Not only do you have Asha and King Magnifico, the two characters who we should be learning the most about in the story, but their time on screen has to be shared with Asha’s seven friends, her pet goat, as well as Asha’s grandfather and mother, and also the Queen as well.  The movie has a big problem with balancing all of these characters into the story as a whole, and as a result character development suffers.  This is especially a problem when it comes to Asha, as she should stand out as a more interesting heroine.  We don’t understand her motivations other than standing up to King Magnifico.  Her wants and desires are ultimately surface level and she never exhibits any aspirational qualities.  More useful time used to develop her as a character could have helped, but I guess the filmmakers were desperate to have a song and dance scene with chickens.

Not every aspect of the film fails though.  If there is a silver lining to the film, it would be the voice cast.  While her character development suffers greatly in the movie, Asha still is able to be endearing enough thanks to the soulful performance of Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose in the part.  You can tell she is trying her hardest in the performance to make Asha an appealing character, and it does translate in the film.  There’s a wonderful earnestness in her vocal performance that helps to cut through the lackluster writing.  You can probably tell from Ariana’s performance that voicing a Disney heroine was a dream come true for her, so she definitely seized her moment and made the most of it, especially in the songs that she performs.  Of all the songs in the movie, the one that comes closest to working is the big ballad “This Wish;” your standard Disney “I Want” song.  The song itself is no “Part of Your World,” by a long shot, but Ariana DeBose still crushes it with her angelic, Broadway trained voice.  The other noteworthy vocal performance is from Chris Pine, playing the villainous Magnifico.  You can definitely see that Pine understood the assignment and goes full maniacal Disney villain with his performance.  It’s a little cartoonishly over the top at times, but given the blandness of most of the rest of the movie, his performance is the one thing about the movie that stands out, and as a result he ends up stealing every scene he’s in.  Alan Tudyk has over the years become Disney Animation’s good luck charm, having had a role in every film from the studio since Wreck-It Ralph (2012); much like the role John Ratzenberger has played over at Pixar Animation.  Tudyk’s performance as Valentino the Goat is fine, though not as funny as his past roles, and he’s mainly here just to get a chuckle out of the little kids in the audience, which I guess he does a fine job with.  The rest of the cast don’t stand out much at all, but they aren’t terrible either.  Again, the cast is let down by a poorly written story, and it’s only through the efforts of a talented vocal cast that they movie escapes becoming a complete disaster.

There’s a lot to say about the animation as well.  Wish continues the recent trend of textured animation being applied to 3D computer generated models.  It’s basically CGI trying to emulate the look and feel of something that was hand drawn.  In some cases, we’ve seen a brilliant utilization of this animation style, like with Sony Animation’s  Spiderverse movies.  It’s a trend that is definitely catching on, and Wish is Disney’s first attempt at adopting this style.  While the Spiderverse movies emulated the look of comic books for its art style, Disney delved into its own history to find the right kind of texture to build their palette around.  The art style of Wish is a mixture of the kind watercolor richness of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but with the angular composition and high detail of Sleeping Beauty (1959).  While the end result does look pleasing to the eye, it also makes the movie feel derivative.  The movie tries too hard to look like a Disney movie, and as a result it lacks its own iconic elements to help it stand out.  All the classic Disney animated features stood out from the pack because they didn’t just copy what had been done before.  That’s why each kingdom is unique in the Disney canon, and why they work with so many diverse cultural influences.  When Disney movies are your cultural inspiration, it just feels like animation cannibalizing itself.  Also, Disney doesn’t fully commit to the textured animation either.  The distinctiveness of the Spiderverse movies is attributable to the way the characters are animated as well, with the animators using choppier frame rates for the characters to make their movements seem more dynamic and hand drawn.  The characters in Wish have the skin and clothing texture of that classic Disney hand drawn style, but they still move with the same fluidity of a computer animated character, making the characters feel a little too plastic.  Perhaps it may have worked better if, you know, Disney actually tried to make this movie the traditional hand drawn way like they used to.  I feel like Disney has been spooked ever since the post-Renaissance decline and the fact that the big hand drawn come back in the late 2000’s, led by The Princess and the Frog (2009) never lit up the box office the way they would’ve liked.  Since then, it’s been all CGI for better and worse.  I know it’s out of their comfort zone now, but I feel Wish would’ve been better served as a return to the traditional hand drawn art style that built the company in the first place, rather than this compromised half-and-half approach that ultimately doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

I don’t think that Wish is the end of Disney Animation as we know it as some more doomerist critics have deemed it to be.  It definitely feels like a good idea that unfortunately was squandered by a lot of bad creative decision.  How far up the problems go at Disney Animation I am not sure, but the movie definitely feels like it was the victim of corporate interference as the studio was desperate to have a product out by the end of the year to commemorate an anniversary.  It doesn’t surprise me at all that this was a late Chapek era project, as it has all the hallmarks of a movie made by a committee rather than artists.  The screenplay was co-written by Disney Animation head Jennifer Lee, but her success in the pass with working on classics like Frozen (2013) and more recently Encanto (2021) should say that she’s got enough good creative good sense to see these features through.  Considering that this movie was produced during the turbulent transition from Bob Chapek back to Bob Iger tells me that the film needed more time to fully cook, but it unfortunately had to still hold it’s anniversary release date which meant not giving it enough time to work out all it’s issues.  I just hope that Bob Iger and the top Disney brass takes the disappointment of this movie as a sign that they need to invest less in their animation output.  If anything, this movie shows that the Animation Department at Disney has been neglected these last couple years, and should really be focused on more.  You can still tell that the animators poured their heart and soul into their work.  It’s just that all that great animation ultimately doesn’t stand out with a story that is insultingly flimsy.  Sadly, this is what we ended up with as a touchstone to mark Disney’s 100th anniversary.  We as fans wanted a love letter and all we got was a greeting card.  But, if you are looking for a more rewarding experience to mark Disney’s 100th, check out the short Once Upon a Studio (2023), playing right now on Disney+.  The short is a wonderful celebration of the studio’s history, as all of the animated characters from every film, from Mickey Mouse to Asha, assembles outside the Burbank Studio office to take the ultimate family photo.  It’s a wonderful short that both works as a well crafted piece of animation as well as the love letter to Walt Disney’s legacy that this 100th anniversary deserves.  As for Wish, it sadly will be looked at as a lost opportunity.  Younger audiences unaware of the 100 year legacy may not care as much and will probably enjoy the movie a lot more.  But for adult fans who wanted something more than this, you’re better off wishing for something else.

Rating: 6.5/10

The Marvels – Review

There is no doubt that the 2010’s belonged to Marvel Studios at the box office.  The comic book movie machine dominated the multiplexes, creating the most lucrative franchise in Hollywood history with a connected universe of super hero franchises all contributing to a grander narrative while also working perfectly well on their own.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe reshaped the way stories could be told on the big screen, and suddenly every other studio was looking for their own cinematic universe to mine gold from.  But few if any could do what Marvel had done.  Under the leadership of studio head Kevin Feige, and with the deep pockets of their parent company Disney, they managed to build upon each movie they put out, making each one more profitable than the last.  But of course, all roads must lead somewhere, and the culmination of all of these connected stories in their movie train had to have a satisfying conclusion to justify the audiences’ time and money spent watching them.  The collection of Avengers movies in Marvel’s first three phases made excellent destination points to drive the story towards, creating monumental adventures that loom large over all the other stories told up to that point, but also satisfying our desire to see all threads woven together and having all of our heroes sharing the screen together.  The first decade of Marvel’s master plan culminated in the two part saga of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), and given how well Marvel mastered their storytelling craft over those ten years, audiences were overwhelmingly ecstatic with the results.  What became known as the Infinity Saga is a masterclass in franchise building over multiple individual story arcs with many different star characters.  Marvel managed to successfully wrap their colossal story up in a thoroughly satisfying manner, defying all conventional wisdom.  But, once you’ve successfully done the impossible, you are then expected to do it again.

It’s not uncommon on the comic book page to start another chapter after completing a big, universe changing event.  It is however untried territory in cinema.  Kevin Feige and his team did turn to one such crossover event to begin a new phase of their Cinematic Universe; one that involved the concept of the Multiverse.  Much like how all the connecting threads of the Infinity Stones in Marvel’s first three phases led down a road to a confrontation with the fearsome Thanos, the Multiverse would be woven into multiple storylines in the MCU, eventually culminating with the multiverse’s biggest menace from the comic books; Kang the Conqueror.  A sound plan on paper, but harder to achieve in reality as it turns out.  Marvel, more or less, has struggled to keep their post-Endgame momentum going.  Some of it certainly has been due to external forces (Covid, economic uncertainty, the strikes) which have disrupted Marvel’s release plans numerous times.  The inclusion of projects meant exclusively for streaming on Disney+ has also increased the workflow of Marvel to a point where the studio is starting to buckle under the massive burden on their shoulders.  In the span of only 3 years, Marvel has released double the amount of film and television projects that they had in any of the previous phases.  And audiences who loyally kept up with the MCU for the last 15 years are now starting to feel burned out.  Sure, there are still highlights here and there (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Wandavision, Loki, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3), but a lot more are just okay (Moon Night, Multiverse of Madness, Hawkeye) or a couple that are just downright bad (Black Widow, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Secret Invasion).  For the first time in it’s history, Marvel Studios seems to have lost it’s luster as the good is being outweighed by the bad.  And into this cloud of uncertainty, Marvel is releasing what has reported to be one of their most troubled productions; the big budget sequel to Captain Marvel (2019) titled simply The Marvels (2023).  Is The Marvels another harbinger in Marvel’s collapse, or is it a surprising bright spot in an otherwise bad situation?

The Marvels has to juggle quite a few story elements that may be hard to follow if you haven’t seen any of the Disney+ shows.  Captain Marvel herself, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is out patrolling deep space when she receives a message from her contact on Earth, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Fury is on the Earth orbiting Space Station S.A.B.R.E where another super powered agent named Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) is also stationed.  Fury is concerned over an anomaly found at a intergalactic portal point near Earth.  He asks Carol to investigate the portal’s exit point while Monica checks the other end.  When the two come into contact with the portal, the energy causes a reaction.  Suddenly Carol and Monica are warped into different locations, but they are also not alone.  Someone else has been caught in this entanglement as well; a super-powered teenager from Jersey City named Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), aka Ms. Marvel.  After the trio have to deal with the dilemma of their displacement, they come together to assess what is happening to them.  There is a lot of baggage coming into the meeting on these heroines; Carol was best friends with Monica’s mother, but her 30 year absence after gaining her super powers has chilled their once affectionate friendship, especially after Monica’s mother Maria (Lashana Lynch) passed away.  On top of this, Kamala is a massive fan girl of Captain Marvel, which makes her extremely overwhelmed in her presence.  They all realize that they’ve been connected together based on their light based super powers and any time they try to use them, they’ll warp into the other’s place, which can be major problem when one of the heroes can’t fly.  Though reluctant at first, given Carol’s preferred isolation, Captain Marvel decides to have the other two follow her along as she unravels the mystery surrounding the broken portals.  She soon learns that the havoc is being caused by a Kree warrior named Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton) who has gained possession of a powerful weapon, a bangle identical to the one that gave Kamala her powers.  Dar-Benn is hell bent on targeting Captain Marvel personally, calling her the “Destroyer” after Carol had been responsible for the downfall of her home world.  Can the three heroines manage to work around their unfortunate entanglement to save multiple worlds affected by Dar-Benn’s actions, and even more so, can they become better heroes as a team rather than by themselves.

The Marvels unfortunately has to carry a lot of baggage with it into theaters.  It’s coming into theaters at an unfortunate time, with both Marvel and Disney having struggled all year long with multiple disappointing results at the box office and in the streaming ratings.  The discourse around this film has also become unfortunately negative, and in some corners toxic.  It stems back to when the original Captain Marvel released into theaters.  Actress Brie Larson made some comments in the past about diversity mattering in film criticism (not even about her own film, but instead about the reception of the 2018 movie A Wrinkle in Time) and this caused an uproar from people online.  Critics of Brie Larson labeled her (wrongly) as being anti-man and began a crusade online to attack her at every turn no matter what she said or did as a means of putting her back in her place.  Thankfully, Captain Marvel managed to rise above the hatred directed at it’s star and became a billion dollar hit at the box office.  But the trolls didn’t go away and continued to hound Brie Larson for her perceived crimes in their eyes.  There are dozens of channels on YouTube alone that are devoted to solely condemning Brie Larson or any cultural figure that expresses any feminist opinion on their own, and sadly these channels are the ones that the algorithm drives traffic towards because negativity creates more engagement.  With the financial woes of Disney and Marvel, and the unfair “culture war” negativity placed upon it, The Marvels seems to have been put into this no-win situation as it has become a lightning rod for the state of the industry and the culture itself.  With all that going on, the outlook is not a positive one for the movie, but even still I tried my best to leave all that baggage at the door and just judge the movie based on it’s own merits.  And surprisingly I found myself actually having a good time.  The Marvels, despite all the burdens laid on it’s shoulders, actually managed to do what Marvel does at it’s best: entertain.

Of course, The Marvels isn’t perfect either.  It does have a fair share of problems; particularly with it’s story.  The narrative in this movie is pretty scattershot, with what seems like a bunch of ideas thrown at the wall hoping to have something stick.  It becomes even more complicated when the movie has to incorporate back story completely disconnected from what we’ve seen from Carol Danvers story up to now.  Somebody who has watched only this and the previous Captain Marvel will be completely lost.  Not only is there a 30 year gap between the stories in each film, but Monica and Kamala’s backstories require information from the shows Wandavision and Ms. Marvel to understand, especially regarding how each got their powers.  The Marvels doesn’t feel in any way like a sequel to Captain Marvel, and instead just feels like an episode of the ongoing MCU series that now spans several more hours of view time since we last followed Carol’s story.  It’s a lot to unpack, and it doesn’t really give adequate time to newcomers to catch up with the story.  On top of that, the story that we do get is pretty flimsy, especially when it comes to the villain’s plot and how they overcome it.  So, why isn’t the movie any worse for that.  Well, as sloppy as the story is with it’s story, it manages to overcome it by having a good vibe to the flow of the story.  At 105 minutes, this is the shortest MCU film ever, and I think that brisk run time helps the movie out immensely.  It doesn’t try to force any more weight on the story than it needs, which has become more of a problem recently with Marvel’s output, and just lets the vibe of watching these characters interact carry the movie along.  The pacing is on point as a result, and more of the gags land better.  I think a lot of the success of finding that right balance comes from director Nia DaCosta.  She’s not trying to shake-up the MCU as we know it, but instead manages to find the heart of the story that she’s been assigned to tell.

There is little doubt, even from the most ardent critics, that the movie’s best asset is the cast.  In particular, the three leads.  Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and Iman Vellani have remarkable chemistry, and it’s their interaction on screen that helps to propel this movie past it’s shortcomings.  For one thing, I actually think this is the best we’ve seen Brie Larson in this role ever.  She didn’t quite have the grasp of the character in Captain Marvel, and she wasn’t given a whole lot of screen time to develop more in Avengers: Endgame.  Here, we actually see her make Carol Danvers much more relatable than before.  She conveys the lonely existence that she’s lived over 30 years (Earth time) as essentially a galactic beat cop, and being forced to work as part of the team opens up new avenues of her character we have yet to see.  Where we see her become disarmed and regretful of the actions of her past are some of the best character moments yet that Brie has displayed in her run as the character.  Teyonah Parris picks right up from her excellent  performance as Monica Rambeau in the Wandavision series and she has some of the best reactions in the movie when the film goes into some of it’s weirder moments.  But the star of the film is undoubtedly Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan.  She steals every scene she is in, and her infectious bubbly personality is a big reason why this movie has such a strong vibe to it.  Given that Iman is a true comic book nerd in real life, it’s especially fun to see her playing Kamala as this hyper fan girl in Captain Marvel’s presence, knowing that it’s not a far cry from who she really is in person.  The movie also does a great job of incorporating the whole Khan family into the story, including Kamala’s mother, father, and brother (played by Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, and Saagar Shaikh respectively).  There’s a couple great sequences where they are even involved in the action, which leads to some very crowd pleasing moments.  Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t get much to do as Nick Fury, and he’s probably just here as a holdover because of his history with Captain Marvel, but he does manage to make the most of his short time and even gets some of the best one-liners in the movie.  If there was a weak spot in the cast, it’s the villain Dar-Benn.  Zawe Ashton isn’t bad in her performance, it’s just that her character is a bland stock villain overall that she really can’t do much with.

There’s been a lot of discussion regarding the way Marvel has used their visual effects in recent years.  A lot of complaints have arisen over the fact that Marvel had been over-burdening their visual effects teams, leading to a lot of burn out in the industry with artists working long hours for little extra pay.  This has been a industry wide problem for the most part, but Marvel has been one of the worst offenders.  The mismanagement of this situation even led to the firing of longtime Marvel executive Victoria Alonso, who was one of the overseers of the visual effects department.  This has all led to what many people have seen as a downgrade in the quality of visual effects from recent Marvel projects, especially in films like Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), which looked like they released in theaters with unpolished effects.  It’s a mess in the ever crucial effects department, and this has led to effects artist beginning to unionize for the first time at the major studios.  With all that going on, how did it affect the visuals in The Marvels.  Well, there are a couple effects that did look rushed and unfinished at times, but they are thankfully not as distracting as the ones found in the other movies.  In one aspect, the lighter vibe of the movie actually makes some of the more cartoonish effects shots feel not too out of place.  This is true about a sequence involving cats that I won’t spoil too much, but I will say that the fact that the visual effects didn’t look completely naturalistic in that scene actually helped to make it a whole lot funnier, and it’s to the movie’s benefit.  When the movie calls for a stand out effects sequence, it does deliver and credit to the visual effects team for doing the best they could under the circumstances.  It probably helped that Nia DaCosta had a clearer sense of the tone she wanted to set, which meant that there was more leeway to be creative in the process.  This movie knows it’s not an Avengers level project and it wants to treat the audience to a more fun romp by comparison.  I don’t know if there was trouble involved behind the scenes when it came to making the movie look the way it does, but you definitely aren’t made aware of it while watching the movie.

Sadly, the discourse surrounding this movie is going to get ugly for the next few weeks.  The trolls are going to make a lot of noise and claim victory for their cause after the movie doesn’t perform well.  Of course, there are other factors contributing to the low box office projections for this movie, including Disney’s cost-cutting affecting it’s marketing as well as the actors not being able to promote the film because of the strike that only just ended days before the premiere, that are completely unrelated to the “culture war” narrative that the trolls are trying to shoehorn this movie’s fortunes into.  I dare say, those factors are more than likely what’s causing The Marvel’s problems right now, and much less what the trolls think of Brie Larson.  I think that it’s unfortunate that all of this baggage has had to fall on the shoulders of this movie.  Too many people are saying that the future of Marvel rests solely on the box office performance of this one movie, and that it’s failure at the box office will mean the end of the MCU.  This of course is ridiculous.  Marvel, and for that matter Disney, are going to come out of this fine.  Marvel already is making adjustments for a post-strike roll out that will likely see them improve in the years to come, especially with their next film in theaters being the highly anticipated Deadpool 3.  What worries me is that the discourse will be hurting the creatives behind the film more.  Nia DaCosta and the three leading ladies did an admirable job here and helped to elevate the film above it’s issues, leading to an overall enjoyable experience.  Same with all the hard working crew.  But all of that is going to get buried under a whole lot of negativity in the coming days and weeks.  My hope is that when the discourse dies down that people actually judge the movie based on it’s own merits and not on how it fits into a cultural and political narrative.  I know it’s not going to be for everyone, and it’s still likely going to be a divisive film no matter what.  But please, if you are going to see this movie (which I heartily recommend) do so with an open mind and with all of the discourse noise filtered out.  Tune out the pundits and the apologists and the trolls, and just let the movie speak for itself.  If you don’t, you may in fact be robbing yourself of a good time in the theater.  I watched this with a semi-full theater, and this movie had the best response I’ve seen to a Marvel film in a long time, with the audience laughing and cheering like they did at the Marvel movies of old.  And that’s certainly something to marvel at after all is said and done.

Rating: 8/10

Killers of the Flower Moon – Review

Few filmmakers have managed to achieve the kind of careers heights that Martin Scorsese has.  Now in his seventh decade of filmmaking, Scorsese remarkably is not slowing down one bit.  In fact, he has found new avenues of getting his visions made.  While some of his peers like Spielberg, Tarantino, and Nolan have scoffed at the streaming market, Scorsese has embraced streaming, with his last two films getting financing from Netflix and Apple respectively.  Some purists may see this as selling out, especially for a filmmaker like Marty who has been a strong champion for cinema and for film preservation.  But, at the same time, Scorsese recognizes that getting the money to produce the kinds of movies that he wants to make is something that he can’t reliably count on the traditional movie studios for.  Martin has notably been critical of the ways that the film studios have abandoned adult themed movies in favor of comic book “rollercoaster rides” as he calls them; basically creatively bankrupt movies solely meant to please the masses rather than challenge them.  So, with studios turning away from the movies that he prefers to make, it doesn’t seem that irrational for him to look to streaming as an alternative, since they have been more friendly to auteur driven cinema.  Scorsese’s big move to streaming was marked with his new crime themed epic The Irishman (2019), which marked a welcome return to the mobster movies that put him on the map from the beginning.  In many ways, it acted as a capper to an unofficial trilogy of mafia movies, reuniting Scorsese with his favorite leading man, Robert DeNiro, but containing many of the same familiar themes and faces of his past films like Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).  Structurally, The Irishman also had the same fourth wall breaks and inner monologues of the those two movies, which is why so many believed together they were a sort of trilogy.  The one thing The Irishman didn’t have in common with the others is that it never had a wide theatrical release; it solely streamed exclusively on Netflix.  So, though Scorsese was given the budget and the creative freedom to make the movie he wanted, he unfortunately had to compromise on the film’s exhibition.

The situation is different with his new film, however, which is also going to be exclusive for a streaming platform, but only after a theatrical run.  Apple Studios, the company behind the new Scorsese film, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), is approaching the streaming business much differently than Netflix is.  While Netflix has refrained from wide theatrical engagements it’s whole history, with the intent of driving traffic to their platform, Apple has decided that giving their movies a run in theaters works better to boost the profile of their projects.  Some of their films have gone straight to streaming, but others like their Oscar-winner CODA (2021) have made it to theaters on a much wider scale than Netflix gives their own.  This year in particular, Apple is very much flexing their cinematic muscle with two new big epic features from two legendary filmmakers, the aforementioned Scorsese’s Killer of the Flower Moon, and Napoleon (2023) from Ridley Scott.  Apple still doesn’t have a distribution wing for their studio, so they are partnering up on these big budget epics with other studios (Paramount and Sony respectively) to share the financial burden.  Still, Apple is a deep pocketed company with near endless resources, and that’s probably why Scorsese wanted to work with them.  They want to give their brand a prestige reputation, and he’s got the visionary mind to make that happen.  So, why Killers of the Flower Moon.  The 2017 best-selling true crime novel from David Grann is very much a different kind of source material than what Scorsese usually lends his filmmaking style to.  But in many other ways, it is also the kind of story that he is perfectly matched for.  Also, it is far and away one of the most ambitious films he has ever undertaken, as the boundless riches of Apple Studios has put far fewer creative barriers in his way.  The only question is, where does Killers of the Flower Moon rank in the unparalleled filmography of Martin Scorsese’s half-century long career.

Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of the Osage Nation murders that occurred in the 1920’s.  This moment in time is noteworthy, because it was one of the first cases ever investigated by the newly formed FBI, founded under J. Edgar Hoover.  The Osage Nation was forcibly moved off of their ancestral homes in Missouri and Arkansas during the turn of the century, and were given what was believed to be worthless land in the Indian Territory, which is now the State of Oklahoma.  But, unbeknownst to the white people who forced the move, the land that the Osage Nation owned was rich in oil.  By the 1920’s, the members of the Osage Nation were the richest people per capita in the entire world.  No longer living with what they could off the land, the Osage were now living in luxury, building oppulent mansions and owning multiple cars at a time when most Americans still couldn’t afford one.  And for the first time ever, they were being treated like royalty by the white people who once forced them to resettle.  Among the white population that has ingratiated himself to the Osage people is a cattle rancher named William Hale (Robert DeNiro) who has been affectionately nicknamed “King” by the people in the community.  His nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), has returned from serving during the Great War, and Hale propositions him with the plan to ingratiate himself into the life of a wealthy heiress from the Osage Nation.  Mollie Brown (Lily Gladstone) has already lost a sister to illness and her mother Lizzie (Tantoo Cardinal) already has a foot in the grave.  If Mollie’s two other sisters die before her, she is set to inherit a vast fortune.  Ernest turns on the charm very quickly and manages to court and eventually marry Mollie.  Meanwhile, more Osage members turn up dead all over town.  Mollie and the other Osage members suspect there is a conspiracy at play, which prompts them to seek help from the government, since local law enforcement either seems disinterested or complicit in the murders.  Pretty soon, a former Texas ranger turned government agent named Tom White (Jesse Plemons) shows up and starts to shine light on the situation, causing divisions among the white population behind the conspiracy.  Ernest, getting caught up in all this, is pulled into two directions; obey the Machiavellian plans of his powerful uncle, or remain a loving husband to his embattled wife.

There really is no denying Scorsese’s might as a filmmaker after seeing Killers of the Flower Moon.  Even at 80 years old, he has not lost one ounce of his might as a cinematic storyteller.  And it only seems at this point that he is becoming even more ambitious in his old age.  Killers of the Flower Moon, like The Irishman, carries an expansive 3 hour and 26 minute runtime (Irishman was 3 hours and 29 minutes), which is not an easy runtime to fill and remain captivating from beginning to end.  Some filmmakers get lost in the attempt to go epic with their length, and end up floundering to fill that timeframe, but Scorsese has managed to not only do well with making long movies, but he also makes them feel fast paced and lively as well.  The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is a great example as the whole 3 hours of that film is a feverish adrenaline rush that feels perfectly in tone with the crazed reality of the Wall Street world it is satirizing.  I think a big reason why Scorsese’s movies continue to feel alive in every frame of their long lengths is because of the perfectly attuned creative partnership he has had over 40 years with editor Thelma Schoonmaker.  The legendary creative partnership has managed to withstand the changing standards of the industry, and Thelma at this point is so effortlessly perceptive of the rhythm that Scorsese’s films must take.  They are two confident filmmakers with the same intuitive instincts about how to make a movie on an epic scale and make it sing.  Killers of the Flower Moon shows undoubtedly that their creative talents have not wavered, as the whole film is indeed a monumental achievement.  The one question is, how does it stack up against Scorsese’s own high standards.  Overall, pretty well, but with a few unfortunate shortcomings that holds it back from being an all time masterpiece.

In comparison to it’s recent predecessor, The IrishmanKillers of the Flower Moon is a more grounded and subdued movie, which has it’s benefits as well as it’s faults.  The interesting thing about the movie in the wide breadth of Scorsese’s body of work is that it’s the first movie of his that you could call a Western.  Mostly that has more to do with the aesthetic of the setting rather than the story itself, which actually surprisingly falls more into line with his oeuvre of mafia movies.  Along with the aesthetic of the old west the movie takes a quieter, more methodical approach to the story telling.  There are a lot of mood setting stillness in scenes throughout the film, with Scorsese making great use of sound and sometimes the absence of it to drive the emotion of a scene.  There’s a wonderful moment involving a rainstorm in the background that Scorsese just plays out to great emotional resonance.  I really appreciate that he has the confidence as a filmmaker to have character building moments like that play out in full without having to chop it up in order to tighten the plot.  At the same time, there are a few too many moments like that across the whole of the movie, and a few don’t really add much to the story.  After a while, the film gets repetitive (particularly in the middle) as the story stalls in order for the character interactions to play out in full.  Thankfully, at the 2 hour mark when the FBI arrives in town the movie’s pacing begins to improve, and it leads to a satisfying final hour.  But compared to Scorsese’s other epics, like Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, and The Irishman, all of which never let up in their pacing, the more methodical pacing of Flower Moon makes the movie feel a bit more arduous to sit through for 3 hours.  It doesn’t ruin the movie too much.  I’d compare it to something like Scorsese’s Silence (2016), another beautiful but slower paced film for the director.  They are both movies that require patience on the part of the audience, but still are artistically satisfying in their own right.  Remember, the scale we are working with is solely within Scorsese’s filmography, and Killers of the Flower Moon handles it’s length far better than most epic movies do in general.  But, compared to his own movies, the pacing does knock it down a bit from the very peak of the filmmaker’s best work.

What the movie does exceptionally well, and perhaps at the most impressive level of his entire career, is to immerse the viewer into the setting of the film.  It is clear that Scorsese spent every little bit of the $200 million budget that Apple gave him and didn’t waste a cent.  The 1920’s period detail is exceptional, right down to the smallest prop placement.  Scorsese is no stranger to lavish period epics, but here he really outdoes himself.  What makes the movie impressive is just how well they make this a lived in setting for the characters.  The details of Mollie’s home, from the furniture to the color of the wallpaper just feels 100% authentic and just the way it would’ve been in that time period.  The fact that Scorsese shot the film in wide open prairies of Oklahoma also give the film that authentic flavor, and it makes great uses of the anamorphic widescreen frame as well.  It helps that he’s working with production designer Jack Fisk, whose resume also includes grim Western styled films like The Revenant (2015) and There Will Be Blood (2007).  Fisk just has that eye for recreating the American west with an air of foreboding danger lurking underneath, from the cozy opulence of the Osage manor houses to the roughness of a moonshine distillery camp on the outskirts of town.  It’s all beautifully captured through the lens of Rodrigo Prieto’s camera, whose making quite the bold jump in films this year, working on this immediately after shooting Greta Gerwig’s vibrant Barbie (2023).   It should also be noted that this movie marks the final collaboration between Scorsese and his longtime music producer Robbie Robertson.  One of the members of the legendary rock group The Band, Robertson first met Scorsese during the making of the influential concert documentary, The Last Waltz (1978), and the two have remained good friends since, with Robertson acting as the music supervisor on Scorsese’s films that featured a lot of pop music as part of the soundtrack, from The King of Comedy (1982) all the way up to The Irishman.  For Flower Moon, Robertson provides the omnipresent guitar infused heart beat that underscores most of the movie.  It’s simple but artistically daring choice, and it perfectly matches the melancholy that persist throughout the film.  Sadly Robertson passed away at the age of 80 this August, making Killers of the Flower Moon his final production.  It’s a fitting finale to a legendary musical career, and perhaps a fitting final personal statement given Robertson’s own ancestry with the First Nations tribes of Canada.

Of course, the thing that people are going to talk about the most with this film are the performances of it’s stars.  The most interesting thing about this cast is that it’s the first time that Scorsese is featuring both of his favorite leading men, DeNiro and DiCaprio in the same film.  Marty and Bobby have had perhaps the longest continuous partnership of actor and director that Hollywood has ever seen, going back 50 years to  their breakout film Mean Streets (1973).  Killers of the Flower Moon marks their 10th film together, and it’s clear that they both bring out the best in each other.  Not to be outdone, DiCaprio also seems to do his best work when acting for Scorsese, and Flower Moon is no exception.  In many ways, DiCaprio has the hardest role in the movie, because for most of the film he’s playing a bad person complicit in the conspiracy to kill multiple people throughout the story.  At the same time, he also has to show that there is a conscience underneath all the criminal activity, manifested through his genuine love for his wife and family.  A lot of actors would find it daunting to play a character like that, especially considering that the character could easily become too unlikable, not to mention a bit dim-witted.  But, Leo manages to strike the right balance and makes Ernest Burkhart a compelling character.  DeNiro likewise takes a character that could’ve been easily one dimensional and adds a bunch of complexity to the persona of William Hale, making him a rather interesting villain.  The scenes between him and DiCaprio are especially captivating.  It’s not the first time they’ve shared the screen together (going all the way back to 1993’s This Boy’s Life), but it is interesting to see the balance of power projected through their interactions on screen, showing both actors relishing in the material given to them in this film.  Of course the breakout for this movie is Lily Gladstone in the role of Mollie.  Her role is to ultimately represent the plight of the whole Osage people during this ordeal, and Lily does a magnificent job of creating a character in Mollie that represents quiet grace and power.  She says so much in this movie solely with a look.  It’s not a showy performance, and she more than anyone grounds this movie in it’s realism.  It’s a very brave performance too, given all the things that Mollie has to go through in this movie.  Unfortunately, the movie sort of sidelines her for a large chunk of the run time, which is another nitpick about the film, because you do miss the commanding presence that she brings to the movie.  A lot of the supporting cast is also great, with many of them played by character actors who feel right at home in the rugged setting.  One character actor named Ty Mitchell in particular looks like he was pulled right out of the old west with his distinct rugged features.  Like most of his other movies, Scorsese knows how to use his actors well.

Killers of the Flower Moon, for the most part, succeeds in creating a compelling and vast epic story about a dark time in our nation’s history.  Scorsese, naturally, nails all of the period details of the setting, and he doesn’t shy away from showing us all of the grisly details of what occurred in this true life story.  The violence in the film will still shock many, but it’s on par with what we’ve seen in most of Scorsese’s other films.  I don’t think any other filmmaker out there has made violence on screen feel so visceral and devoid of exploitation as he has.  When someone dies in his movies, you really feel the loss of a life, whether they were good or bad, and Flower Moon continues that tradition.  Comparatively, I feel that the movie falls a bit short of Scorsese at his absolute best, and that is largely due to the repetitiveness of the middle part of this movie.  Some of my favorite Scorsese films, like Goodfellas, The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Irishman just had better pacing from beginning to end.  Perhaps a tighter 3 hour cut would’ve made the movie work just a little bit better, but I honestly don’t know what would’ve been better left on the cutting room floor.  Individually, all the scenes are brilliant on their own, and just collectively it feels like a bit much.  Maybe on further re-watches the long length will feel a bit lighter.  Overall, it is still mightily impressive, and I’m happy that there are filmmakers who are not afraid to use 3+ hours to tell a story on the big screen.  It’s hard to know how well Killers of the Flower Moon will do with it’s 206 minute run time.  We are starting to see a bit of a revival of epic length movies recently at the box office, with Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) and Oppenheimer (2023) both banking huge profits in theaters despite 3 hour plus runtimes.  If anyone can achieve that same kind of success, it’s Martin Scorsese.  Killers of the Flower Moon may not be peak Scorsese, but it is nevertheless an impressive artistic achievement that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, and in many ways is a crucial documentation of a dark but pivotal chapter in history of the American West.  For shining a light on the troubled history that America has had with the first nation tribes that have been here long before there was an idea of America, the movie is very much an essential piece of cinematic art that we all need to see and absorb it’s greater meaning.

Rating: 8/10

A Haunting in Venice – Review

There’s something about a good murder mystery that fits in well with this time of year.  The whodunit mystery is a tried and true narrative that plays well off of spooky elements like murderers lurking in the shadows, paranoia, and grisly death.  Not all mysteries though are dark in nature.  The Queen of the whodunit mystery, Agatha Christie, was never one to create a spooky mood in her many novels, but rather she roped in her readers with the procedural elements of solving a murder and entertained them with the clever way that the clues come together to reveal the truth.  For atmosphere, she left that up more to the people who adapted her work to figure out.  The globe-trotting nature of her Hercule Poirot mysteries have often led to film adaptations of those novels to have an exotic adventure element to them.  In those novels, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the setting has just as much to do with the tone of the mystery as the actual crimes themselves.  But, Agatha Christie would still indulge a darker side to her stories to help create a more spooky tone to the mysteries she wrote.  One of her stories in fact uses the Halloween holiday as a backdrop to a murder that Poirot must then investigate.  The appropriately named “Hallowe’en Party” does not take the world famous detective to some distant local, but instead finds him at a stately English manor house where someone ends up dead during the Halloween festivities.  It’s not a spooky story per say, but the added element of Halloween does fit in well with the whodunit mystery at it’s center.  Of all the Poirot novels that Agatha Christie wrote, “Hallowe’en Party” is seen as one of the lesser one in the series, and it’s largely been the reason why it has not been so quickly adapted into a feature film or any other adaptation.  But, surprisingly, a film director who has been lately interested in the works of Ms. Christie has decided to take on the challenge, and even more surprisingly, he’s also giving it a spooky makeover that fulfills the promise of what the original premise of the story calls out for.

Kenneth Branagh has been very active recently in creating a modern take on the Poirot novels; hoping to make the character franchise worthy over multiple films.  Thus far, he has now managed to get three of these movies to the silver screen, which is quite the achievement, though it’s been somewhat of a rough road.  Branagh launched this franchise off with the most well-known of the Poirot mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express (2017), which was received with modest success.  Like many other adaptations from the past, Branagh was keen on having an all-star cast for his adaptation, and he managed to get an impressive cast on board including Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and Leslie Odom, Jr; with of course himself in the role of Poirot.  He tried to repeat the success of that film with a follow-up based on the novel Death on the Nile (2022).  Unfortunately, Nile would turn out to be a problematic film for a whole variety of reasons.  The film went massively over-budget, crossing into the nine figure range, and it unfortunately was pushed back many times due to both the merger of it’s production company 20th Century Fox with Disney and also the Covid-19 pandemic.  On top of those delays, one of the films stars (Armie Hammer) was exposed in a career-ending scandal that further cast a cloud on the picture.  It eventually limped into theaters in February of 2022 with almost no fanfare and was received with lackluster reviews and audience indifference.  Shockingly, after the Nile debacle, Disney greenlit a third film for the series, with Branagh looking to continue the series with a much darker reboot adapting “Hallowe’en Party” into the newly titled A Haunting in Venice.  It probably helped that while Death on the Nile failed to launch, Branagh was also flying high with his Oscar-winning Belfast (2021), which gave Disney confidence that he could salvage this franchise.  The only question is does A Haunting in Venice inject new life into this little franchise that could, or is it as lifeless as the bodies at that heart of it’s mystery.

A Haunting in Venice finds Hercule Poirot living in a self-imposed exile in the city of Venice.  He no longer accepts clients seeking his expertise to help solve their mysteries, and instead chooses to live in peace and quiet in his villa, guarded by a local bodyguard named Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio).  Poirot’s solitude is broken by the arrival of an old acquaintance, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), an American crime novelist who has based many of her books off of Poirot’s exploits.  She entices Poirot with a challenge; seeking his help in exposing what she believes to be a fraudulent medium named Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) who’s performing a séance for a Halloween night party at the villa of a local socialite named Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly).  Poirot reluctantly accepts, knowing full well that he’ll expose the fraud with little effort, and in the meantime will get to enjoy some of the food and wine available at the party.  In attendance at the séance are Poirot, Ariadne, Ms. Drake, as well as Drake’s close friend Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his son Leopold (Jude Hill), Drake’s housemaid Olga (Camille Cottin), and Mrs. Reynolds’ assistant Desdemona (Emma Laird).  The purpose of the séance is to gain contact with Rowena’s recently deceased daughter Alicia.  Before they begin, an unexpected visitor arrives; Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Alicia’s fiancé who has returned to expose more of the truth on his own about her death, since he doesn’t buy into the idea that she committed suicide.    Poirot effortlessly exposes Mrs. Reynolds’ façade, but Rowena is still convinced that contact was made with her daughter’s spirit.  Soon after, an attempt is made on Poirot’s life, nearly drowning him in a bobbing for apples bucket, and a moment after that, one of the party guests is found dead.  Now that things have turned personal, Poirot has his man Vitale lock all the doors in the creaky old villa so that he can get to the bottom of this mystery and find out who at this party was the one who committed the murder.  But as he soon finds out, the villa may have a few ghosts lurking about getting in his way.

So far the Poirot films from Kenneth Branagh have been a mixed bag.  Murder on the Orient Express is a well-crafted if a tad dull exercise, which rides high on the talented cast assembled for the film.  Death on the Nile, by all accounts, is just a mess.  All of the problems of Murder on the Orient Express are magnified tenfold in Nile, and despite Branagh’s best efforts, he’s unable to reign in the film to make it a workable adaptation.  What became Nile’s biggest problem is that it feels bloated and artificial.  It’s like Branagh was being forced to up the ante to justify the film’s production to the studio.  The movie is brought down by excessive visual effects, an all star cast that lacks any cohesion (never mind all the scandals) and just a general sense that Branagh couldn’t reign in this out of control film.  While nowhere near his worst film, it nevertheless was a huge disappointment.  Which makes one wonder why he would try again so soon.  He clearly likes playing Poirot, and there is an enthusiasm behind his direction that tells you that he is definitely putting his personal touch into this and is not a hired hand for the studio.  A Haunting in Venice definitely feels like a re-set for this franchise, with Branagh rethinking his approach.  It’s much smaller in scale, centralized in one location for most of the movie and featuring a smaller cast, though still with a couple of noteworthy names.  On top of that, he is completely changing the tone of the series, getting away from the adventurous tone of the first two movies and instead adapting this story in the style of a horror movie.  It’s a bold choice, but surprisingly, it does work.  A Haunting in Venice is not just a well-executed reboot for this series of Poirot mysteries on the big screen, it is by far the best one yet.  Branagh has stripped the Agatha Christie whodunit down to it’s most essential parts and added a strong sense of spooky atmosphere and it makes for a perfect mix of the best elements of each to make this an excellent addition to the series.

What I was especially impressed with was how well the horror movie elements actually worked in this series.  Branagh has work in a whole variety of genres over the years, but horror hasn’t been one that has been his strong suit.  His only attempt before was the clumsy re-make of Frankenstein (1994), which in no way was scary at all.  Since then, it’s clear that he did his homework and learned a lot about horror filmmaking and how to make it work on screen.  In the movie, he makes good use of extreme angles, moody lighting, unsettling close-ups, and especially sound to generate a spooky tone throughout.  All the while, he still remains faithful to the Christie formula, with the talent of deductive sleuthing being central to the entertainment of the movie.  Like his successors in different media afterwards, from Columbo to Benoit Blanc, the fun is watching the master detective find the clues and piece them together and then reveal his findings in a climatic final report at the end, exposing the killer red-handed.  While it’s not exactly the most shocking turn out by the end, Branagh still builds the films expertly to the point where not every clue is obvious in plain sight, and some of the reveals do end up being surprising.  But the horror film elements also don’t feel out of place.  There are jump scares and grisly violent occurrences, but Branagh knows well enough to not overdue them, and make them work towards maximum impact when they are needed.  That being said, anybody expecting something along the lines of a Stephen King horror movie might be a bit underwhelmed, because the film doe rightly stick closer to it’s Agatha Christie roots.  But it is nice to see Kenneth Branagh bring in a different kind of flavor with nods to horror to give new life to this kind of murder mystery that we have seen too many times before.

One of the movie’s best elements to be sure is the cast.  Of all the Poirot movies from Kenneth Branagh so far, this is the first time the whole cast has felt universally well cast for the parts they are playing.  The past films has had one or two cast members who just felt well out of place for this kind of movie, and only seemed to be a part of the films because they came with a built in recognizable name.  Here, while there are a handful of famous faces, there are also a fair amount of unfamiliar talent in this film, which helps out the film a lot.  The lesser known actors help to make it less distracting seeing them in the film so that we can better concentrate on the performance and be reminded of their off-screen baggage.  Two of the more well known faces, Tina Fey and Michelle Yeoh, are both well cast for their individual parts.  Fey, while a little out of character for her usual contemporary characteristics as a performer, fells right for the role of the brash, ahead of her time novelist Ariadne Oliver.  She also provides the movie with some much needed levity without it feeling too out of it’s time period.  Michelle Yeoh, fresh off of her historic Oscar win for Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), perfectly portrays the mysterious Mrs. Reynolds, expertly delving into a somewhat sinister side in her performance.  Of course, Kenneth Branagh himself shines as Hercule Poirot himself, and it feels like his grasp on the character is improving with every film.  It’s definitely his best work yet in front of the camera as the character.  He also clearly had a good experience working on the film Belfast, as he has brought along two of that film’s stars, Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, once again playing a father and son pair, only the dynamic is flipped around a bit in this movie, and the two actors play their roles perfectly.  A particular standout in the cast is French actress Camille Cottin as the housekeeper Olga.   Cottin plays her character so effectively that you really can’t tell if she’s truly innocent or guilty, much more so than the other actors.  There is a lot of subtlety in the way she performs her moments where you really get a sense of the pain that her character has experienced over the years.  What really helps out the movie a lot is that there aren’t a whole lot of characters present for us to keep track of, so most of them don’t get lost in the shuffle and it allows the whole cast to shine as a result.

The film also has another strong asset and that’s the setting as well.  The city of Venice, and in particular the creaky old villa where most of the movie takes place, are characters in their own right.  One of the things that clearly is an improvement for this film over it’s predecessors is that it’s the first one that actually was made on location in the place within it’s title.  Both Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile were for the most part filmed on blue screen sets with visual effects added later to create the exotic environments.  This was a much bigger problem with the film Death on the Nile, because it made the whole movie feel artificial, with shoddy CGI never once making it feel like the actors were really on the actual Nile River.  But, it is very clear in this movie that the film did indeed shoot on location in Venice, Italy.  The centerpiece villa’s interiors may have been recreated on a soundstage, but when we are out on the streets and canals of Venice in the daylight, it is clear we are looking at the real deal.  Branagh even includes some beautiful aerial shots to show off the city as well.  The villa itself is a wonderfully constructed location as well.  The whole location just retains this unsettling, decayed atmosphere which really lends to the spooky tone.  The way the scenes are lit also give this sickly feel to the location, perfectly underscoring the unsettling nature of the mystery.  It’s an impressive job done by the production design team, managing to bring so much detail and character into the location, without it feeling too unnatural and out of place.   I was also impressed with the cinematography for the film, done by Branagh’s regular DP Haris Zambarloukos (who also shot the other two Poirot films).  Instead of using the usual 70mm format that Branagh has preferred for his other Poirot film, this one was shot in the more claustrophobic 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which fits the unsettling atmosphere needed for this story.  He even makes good use of extreme wide angle lenses to give the shots an even more off kilter look.  Needless to say, this is a gorgeous looking movie, and one that thankfully shows Branagh returning to a more naturalistic feel for his movies rather than the over-produced artificiality of his other Poirot films.

A Haunting in Venice is not a perfect movie by any means.  There are times when Branagh’s grasp on the horror elements get a little out of hand, and become more clunky than scary.  But, it is a far better effort than what we’ve seen him do before.  I feel like the movie Belfast was a great refresher for him as a filmmaker.  The semi-autobiographical Belfast had him working with a more personal story and with a stripped down style of filmmaking that had him working without special effects and more with what he could do in camera.  Belfast may have come out before the muddled Death on the Nile, but it was the film that he had completed most recently, so A Haunting in Venice is really the truest beneficiary of his re-focused talents as a filmmaker.  This is the kind of approach that he should have been giving these Poirot movies from the very beginning; don’t try to make them spectacle, make them interesting and realistic.  A Haunting in Venice, even with the added horror style, feels much closer to the spirit of Agatha Christie’s work than what we’ve seen before, and it’s nice to see Branagh finally find the right tone to make these movies work.  With a smaller cast filled with a mix of familiar faces and a few unknowns, we are better able to buy into the story and not be distracted by the celebrity status of who’s playing who.  The movie as a whole feels a lot less distracted, with Branagh feeling less pressured than before to build a franchise around the character of Hercule Poirot.  It’s a smart move to pivot to a horror movie style for this kind of story, given that horror tropes can often accomplish a lot more on a smaller budget.  It remains to be seen if Kenneth Branagh continues on with these Poirot films in the future.  He clearly got the formula right this time around, so I would hope that they can keep these movies going in the future.  It probably will depend on the box office performance of this film, which thankfully is a smaller financial risk that the past two films.  It may also depend if Branagh wants to keep going with it too, or if he wants to focus more on smaller films in the vein of Belfast.  As a continuation of this series of Agatha Christie adaptations, A Haunting in Venice is by far the best we’ve seen so far in this series, and it’s a smart, spooky whodunit murder mystery that makes for a engaging Halloween time entry that hopefully will do well this season.

Rating: 8.5/10

Blue Beetle – Review

DC to say the least has had a rough time of it lately.  The last decade they have been playing catch up to Marvel, which has dominated the landscape when it comes to comic book movies.  There have been bright spots to be sure in their output, like the box office success of Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018), but their reputation has been more defines by their failures more than their successes.  The controversial Justice League (2017) release proved to be a tipping point for the fledgling cinematic universe, as it just exposed all of the faults of the DC Extended Universe’s lack of cohesion.  The pandemic also effected the success rate of DC, as the highly anticipated sequels Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) and The Suicide Squad (2021) both failed to deliver on the same level as their predecessors, though Warner Brother’s misguided plan to do day and date streaming releases for these movies was probably a bigger factor in their struggle.  Still, the DC brand took a big hit in popularity, and with the Warner Brothers Discovery merger, the powers that be saw that it was a better option to scrap the future of the DCEU and just start anew.  Director Zack Snyder was the chief creative force of the original cinematic universe, which gave the DCEU the nickname of the Snyderverse, but for this new era of DC under new management, Warner Brothers appointed filmmaker James Gunn to chart the course of the DC Universe.  Gunn, coming off of his tenure at Marvel with the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, is now in charge of giving DC the shot in the arm it needs to re-find it’s footing.  Unfortunately for DC, there are some remaining projects in the pipeline that still needed their release.  The last of the DCEU has been released throughout this year, and much to the dismay of Warner Brothers execs, the films are showing that the DCEU is not going out with a bang, but rather a wimper.

Things did not start off great, with the sequel Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023) performing well under what the original film did; grossing a mere $133 million worldwide compared to the 2019 original’s $367 million.  But that lackluster result was nothing compared to the disastrous results of the release of The Flash (2023).  This notorious troubled production underperformed so badly, making only $260 million worldwide against a $250 million production budget, that it looks like Warner Brothers is set to lose $200 million alone on just this one film.  If it wasn’t for the phenomenon of Barbie (2023) right now in theaters, Warner Brothers’ accounting team would be sweating pretty hard right now.  What is likely happening with DC and these back to back failures is that audiences have already lost interest in the DCEU.  With the collection of Justice League heroes now about to be rebooted in the James Gunn DCU, why would anyone care about these relics of a now doomed universe.  This also doesn’t bode well for the last remaining DCEU film, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023), which is scheduled for this Christmas has it’s own set of production woes that are ballooning it’s already high production budget.  And then there is this little oddity in between called Blue Beetle (2023).  Blue Beetle is a film based on the comic book hero that has gone through many different personalities since his debut in 1939.  The film, a first time adaptation for the comic book hero on the big screen, introduces us to the third and current iteration of Blue Beetle, whose alter ego is Mexican-American Jamie Reyes.  Initially, this film was developed to be a straight to streaming film for Warner Brothers’ MAX app, but after being screened for James Gunn and other studio executives, they felt confident that this could be a theatrical release instead.  Strangely, Gunn has stated that this is separate from the established DCEU continuity, but he has also declined to commit this film as part of the new continuity that he is establishing.  So, the question remains, is Blue Beetle enough to reverse DC’s bad fortune at the moment, or is it going to circle the drain along with the rest of the DCEU.

The story takes us to the bustling metropolis of Palmera City, where young Jamie Reyes (Xolo Mariduena) is returning home from college.  He is greeted warmly by his family, including his father Alberto (Damian Alcazar), his mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), his abuela Nana (Adirana Barraza), his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) and conspiracy nut uncle Rudy (George Lopez).  Unfortunately, he learns that the family has suffered hard times in his absence, due to his father’s health problems and the increased gentrification of the neighborhood, known as the Edge Keys.  Jaime hopes to help give his family a boost by putting his degree to work by finding a job in the big city.  Things don’t quite work out the way he planned, as the best he can do right away is get a service job cleaning up a beachfront house owned by the wealthiest woman in town, Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon).  While on the job, Jamie runs into a young woman named Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), Victoria’s niece and her chief adversary at the omnipresent Kord Corporation.  Jenny responds well to Jaime’s assertive chivalry and offers to give him a meeting at the corporate office at a later date.  Believing that this is a breakthrough for him, Jaime arrives at the Kord headquarters hoping Jenny will give him a job offer.  Unfortunately, he finds her on the run from security.  She eventually runs into Jaime, and asks him to protect something she has hidden in box.  Jaime takes the box home with him, and sees what’s inside.  What he finds is a weird metal scarab, which suddenly comes to life and immediately latches onto Jaime.  Jaime suddenly finds his whole body getting covered in blue colored armor.  Afterwards, the armor, which has it’s own computerized voice (Becky G) takes Jaime for a ride out of his control, demonstrating all of the power the suit holds; including the ability to fly.  Jaime wishes to get rid of the scarab, but it has already been imbedded into his body.  He seeks out Jenny, but she’s being hunted by her Aunt Victoria’s henchmen, led by the fearsome Lt. Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), who has a super suit of his own.  Jenny reveals to Jaime that her father Ted was the previous host of the alien scarab, and he used it to become a vigilante hero known as the Blue Beetle.  Jamie can’t get rid of the scarab, but he can learn to master it, and with his family and Jenny Kord’s help, he is determined to set things right and accept his destiny as a hero.

The situation for this movie coming out at this moment is pretty dire for comic book movies.  As mentioned before, DC right now is flaming out as it releases the remainder of it’s DCEU output, but the year hasn’t been kind to comic book movies in general.  The disappointing box office of Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) began a trend of diminishing returns for this once mighty force in the global box office.  Despite that, the Marvel brand still has had bright spots, with both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse both doing well enough at the summer box office, albeit not to record-shattering numbers.  Nothing this year has gone DC’s way, with Shazam: Fury of the Gods and The Flash becoming two of the biggest box office bombs ever in the genre.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on Blue Beetle’s shoulders, and it doesn’t look like the movie is going to turn the ship around for DC at the box office based on early predictions.  The upside is that Blue Beetle isn’t as big of a risk compared to the other two, costing a more reasonable $100 million to make; and honestly what it makes at the box office now is more than what was initially planned with it’s original streaming plans.  Still, DC needed a win, and for a lot of longtime fans of the character from the comic books, this is a movie that needs to succeed.  So, does it?  Yes, and no.  As a standalone movie, it does what it needs to do; creating a likable hero worth rooting for and delivering fun and colorful spectacle to please audiences.  But, it’s also nothing that we haven’t a dozen times before in so many other comic book movies.  It comes in with low expectations, performs above average, but does little to actually leave a mark on the genre as a whole.  It’s good enough, and sadly that’s not enough to reverse course for a studio much in need of finding it’s footing right now.

The problem with the movie is it’s familiarity.  We know all of the beats that this movie is going to hit before they happen.  Plot wise, the movie does exactly what you know it’s going to do.  It’s following the same super hero origin story plot that has been done to death over the last several decades.  It’s why Marvel wisely decided to dispense of origin narratives for some of their franchises like with Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Black Panther (2018) and Captain Marvel (2019) as it worked better to drop into their heroes storylines already in progress.  In a way, DC also did that too with Aquaman, and it resulted in their biggest box office hit.  It frees up a lot of unnecessary time wasted on world building, which this movie does quite a bit of.  The character of Jenny Kord in particular unfortunately suffers quite a bit from being the exposition deliverer for most of the movie; filling in all the Blue Beetle lore that the movie needs to deliver to the uninformed audience.  The film definitely feels like an early, Phase One Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, where it has to lay down some very heavy handed world building, as opposed to allowing the audience to just absorb the world through the experience.  That being said, it’s not delivered in too clumsy of a way.  While the message may be old hat, the delivery still comes through in an effective way.  The story is very much better handled here than the messy Flash movie, which didn’t really know what it wanted to be.  Blue Beetle may be cliched, but it’s got it’s heart in the right place.  One of the things that is refreshing is that it keeps the stakes small compared to most other super hero movies.  It’s not a fate of the universe story, but rather a simple hero looking out for the ones who matters most to him and stopping a greedy tycoon from causing more trouble.  For a genre that in recent years has gotten lost in the need to keep topping one another in spectacle, it’s kind of refreshing to see a story that just delivers on the basics and nothing more.

The best part of this movie which really helps to put it above average is the winning cast.  In his first starring role, Xolo Mariduena (best known for his work on Netflix’s Cobra Kai series) is really charming as Jaime Reyes.  For one thing, he really nails the reluctant hero aspect of the character; not jumping into his role right away, but over time learning to accept his duty as a super hero.  Given his martial arts background, he also does a good job of selling the fight scenes in and out of the suit.  It’s a physically demanding performance, which sometimes requires the actor to go mask off for close-ups, and Xolo does his best, while at the same time making the character endlessly likable.  He is also surrounded by an exceptional ensemble.  The Reyes family is just as important to this movie as it’s hero, and they get involved in a surprisingly large amount of the action too.  The movie does a surprising job of making each of the family members an important part of the story, and each one a distinctive personality in their own right.  The standouts are definitely Uncle Rudy, who obviously is the movie’s most comedic character given that he’s played by legendary comedian George Lopez, and Nana Reyes, played wonderfully by award-winning Mexican actress Adriana Barraza (Babel) who shows a few surprising skills of her own.  Susan Sarandon does the best she can with a rather cookie-cutter villain, and Raoul Trujillo likewise brings surprising depth to his big bad that otherwise would’ve been missing in a lesser performance.  But, the most pleasing aspect of this movie is that it is unapologetic with it’s cultural representation.  This movie proudly displays the Mexican heritage of it’s main hero and wears it like a badge of honor.  From the way the movie is cast, to the cultural references found throughout (Guillermo Del Toro films, telenovelas, and a very Latin flavored soundtrack) to the very frequent use of Spanish throughout the movie; the filmmakers definitely wanted it’s audience to know that they were taking the introduction of the first Latino super hero on the big screen seriously and it really helps to give the movie a strong identity as a result.

Visually, the movie carries those cultural inspirations over too.  The location of the fictional Palmera City is very much meant to be the DC universe equivalent of Miami, Florida, and the flashiness of that city’s identity really carries over into this film.  The movie is awash with a bright neon color palette, which recalls the visual look of shows like Miami Vice.  This is very evident in the depiction of the city, but the filmmakers also did a fine job of creating the look of the Edge Keys where the Reyes family call home.  It definitely feels like an authentic Latin ethnic neighborhood that you find in most big American cities, with the Reyes home feeling like it has been lived in for generations.  It’s not a Hollywood depiction of what an inner city neighborhood looks like, but something that clearly feels closer to reality; rough around the edges because it’s a poorer part of the city, but still warm and inviting because it’s built out of love for the community.  You can tell that the film’s director, Angel Manuel Soto, wanted that authenticity to come through and help dispel the outdated view of Latinx communities that Hollywood has perpetuated over the years.  At the same time, the movie also does well with the visualization of it’s titular hero.  The Blue Beetle suit itself looks pretty sleek, without deviating too much from the comic book.  Obviously, it’s trading in tights for more metallic looking armor, but the design sticks pretty close to how the character currently looks in the comics.  I like how it continues the trend of allowing expressiveness in the eyes through the mask that we’ve seen in other recent comic book movies like Deadpool (2016) and the MCU’s Spider-Man.  The way that the Blue Beetle powers work also is well utilized, even if it at times feels a little too similar to Iron Man.  One thing that is refreshing is that it looks like the filmmakers made an effort to incorporate more live action stunt-work into the movie, using CGI more as a tool to support the action on screen rather than replace it.  It helps to give the action scenes more of a tangible feeling of ferocity, knowing that in quite a few moments it’s real stunt men on the set rather than digital rag dolls.  It’s not a particular game changer on the graphical front, but the movie does have a flavor all it’s own that serves it well.

Overall, the movie’s biggest weakness is that it largely plays it safe.  It tells us an over-familiar story with not a whole lot of surprises.  But, at the same time, it does so with an earnest approach with a cast that is irresistibly likable.  Putting so much emphasis on Jaime Reyes place within his culture and more importantly his family is what helps to lift this movie up above what would’ve otherwise been more super hero mediocrity.  I still think the two Shazam movies were better executed comic book adventures, but Blue Beetle is infinitely better than the messy Flash.  For one thing, Blue Beetle is a character worth rooting for, and he doesn’t spend the movie making obnoxious low brow comedy.  The movie, despite the familiarity, does remain engaging throughout, with it’s faults only coming when the movie has to set up the rules of it’s world.  Thankfully, the movie knows when to kick into gear, and it leads to a very engaging and satisfying finale.  It’s hard to know how well this movie will do in the long run.  It already seems like the film will not reverse DC’s box office woes at the moment; which may hurt it’s chances for a sequel, or a future in James Gunn’s re-launch of the DC Universe.  That’s too bad, because the star of this movie, as well as the people who play his family, are delightful enough to make me want to see more adventures with them.  And there was one other thing that made me appreciate the film as well.  Because I live in Los Angeles, there was a strong chance of me seeing a Latinx family at my screening, and sure enough one such family was seated right next to me.  They were really digging the movie, especially the young boy who must’ve been so delighted to finally see a super hero on screen that had a family just like his.  That’s the kind of impact a movie can have that goes beyond just the nuts and bolts that I was analyzing.  The movie may not have been speaking the same way to me, but to a kid like the boy at my screening, it was speaking a whole lot louder.  That is something that I can really appreciate beyond just the movie itself.  Like Wonder Woman and Black Panther before him, Blue Beetle can be another super hero icon that can transcend culture and help give a face to an underrepresented group of people within the most powerful box office genre in the world and help break down more barriers as a result.  Blue Beetle is a decent enough entry into the overly crowded super hero field at the box office, but it’s impact could lead to some very, much needed changes in the halls of Hollywood if it manages to successfully find an audience.

Rating: 7.5/10

Oppenheimer – Review

I know that you’re clicking on this to hear my thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s new big screen epic Oppenheimer, but before I get to that, I really want to delve into the strange phenomenon that is surrounding the release of this movie.  Back in 2020, Nolan was set to release his highly anticipate film Tenet (2020) into theaters; specifically in large format venues like he has for many of his previous films like The Dark Knight (2008), Interstellar (2014), and Dunkirk (2017).  Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic upended those plans, as theaters across the country were closed, especially in the big markets of New York and Los Angeles.  This made it impossible for Tenet to get the kind of roll out that Christopher Nolan preferred for his movies.  Being a champion for large format filmmaking, with 70mm IMAX being his go to choice in film stock, Nolan wanted to be sure that his movie would be getting the ideal release in theaters in the preferred format.  Unfortunately for him, Warner Brothers (the company behind the film) didn’t see eye to eye on his plans for the film.  They seemed more willing to release the film on streaming to help boost subscriptions for their then struggling launch of the HBO Max platform than sitting on the film for another year once theaters were ready to re-open.  Eventually, the movie released in theaters right in the midst of the pandemic, with Nolan unable to have the ideal roll out on large format screens, and as a result the film had a measly result at the box office.  This in turn soured relations between Nolan and Warner Brothers, which had been his home for the last 20 years, and Christopher Nolan soon cut ties with the studio, seeking a new distributor for what would be his next film, Oppenheimer.

Universal Studios wound up taking Christopher Nolan into their wings and granted him the chance to make his ambitious new project at their storied studio, ironically just across the street from Warner Brothers in the San Fernando Valley.  With the pandemic now in the rear view mirror, Nolan finally had the opportunity to make a large format film that could connect with a mass audience once again, and with movies like Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) helping to revitalize the IMAX experience, the timing couldn’t be more ripe for this movie to succeed.  Unfortunately, Nolan’s plans ran into a roadblock with his former studio.  Warner Brothers decided to release a big blockbuster film on the same weekend as Oppenheimer; that being their big screen film based on the Barbie doll line.  The colorful Greta Gerwig directed film starring Margot Robbie as the titular icon couldn’t be more different tonally than Nolan’s Oppenheimer, and many saw this move as a petty move on Warner Brother’s part to undercut Nolan at the box office.  WB had the mass appealing, toy brand film and Universal had the introspective historical drama about the creation of the atomic bomb.  Surely, Nolan didn’t have a shot at succeeding, and many believed that Oppenheimer would budge from it’s release date first so it wouldn’t have to compete.  Only it didn’t.  Both Warner Brothers and Universal decided to keep their release dates, and this in turn led the internet to create a faux rivalry about these two polar opposite movies.  It became Barbie vs. Oppenheimer; a joking battle that sparked a lot of discussion about this inevitable showdown.  But then, a funny thing ended up happening.  Instead of two warring factions forming, people on the internet began to create a new faction that was in favor of celebrating both films together.  The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon was born, with many people deciding to turn the release of both films into a cinematic event, committing to seeing both back to back.  So ironically, if Warner Brothers did mean to undercut Christopher Nolan by releasing Barbie opposite Oppenheimer, it ended up backfiring as the Barbenheimer craze ended up inextricably linking both film’s fortunes together.  No matter how well each film performs, which early estimates point to being very strong, this phenomenon is something that will probably go down as one of the most peculiar in movie history.  With that, let’s now finally talk about the movie Oppenheimer itself.

The movie is a look at the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the physicist who oversaw the development of the first atomic bomb; a pivotal moment in scientific and human history.  The film itself looks at Oppenheimer’s life from several different points; his early years as a student in quantum physics, his development of the nuclear research program that would lead to the creation of the bomb, and then the years afterwards when his distress over the rise of the atomic age led to him being suspected of treasonous activity by the US government.  In his early years, we see him gain prominence in the field of physics based science, earning recognition from esteemed peers in the field, such as Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti).  While working in the same laboratory as prominent American physicist Ernest Lawrence (Josh Harnett), Oppenheimer is approached by Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who is seeking to enlist Oppenheimer into the program to develop nuclear powered weapons for the military.  Though Oppenheimer is opposed to war, he knows the dangers of allowing Nazi Germany to gain a nuclear capabilities before the Allied Powers, so he accepts the position.  In a short amount of time, Oppenheimer and the military personal under Groves command achieve their miracle and develop the first successful atomic bomb test.  In the years after, Oppenheimer feels guilt for the destruction his work caused, and he begins to become a vocal critic of American nuclear policy.  This puts him at odds with the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) who works secretly to discredit Oppenheimer  and ruin his reputation.  Dirt is dug up around Oppenheimer, including his ties to people who were members of the Communist party, including his own brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) and a woman named Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) whom he had a multi-year affair with.  The turmoil of this period also puts a strain on his relationship with his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt).  Facing both internal turmoil over the guilt of his actions and the severe attacks to his moral character in the public eye, Oppenheimer’s story turns into one of tragedy after he had gained immortality for changing the world; a distinction that has gained him the nickname of the “American Prometheus.”

There is a lot going on in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.  It is to date the longest movie that the director has ever made, running an even 3 hours, which is quite something, given that the average Christopher Nolan film typically clocks in at 2 1/2 hours.  And even in those 3 hours, Nolan does not let off the gas once.  This is a movie that covers so much ground and doesn’t waste a second.  Like he did with Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan tells his story in a non-linear way, moving back and forth in time to different points in time.  This is a bit disorienting, and it actually is one of my nitpicks about the film, as Nolan doesn’t give us much time to ground ourselves into the story.  In some ways, it is kind of refreshing that he doesn’t hand hold us through the movie; there are no texts printed on screen to give us historical context, nor to tell us where we are, or who the people we are seeing are.  It’s a good sign that Christopher Nolan is trusting his audience to keep up, but one thing that I think undermines the effectiveness of this mode of storytelling is that the story being told is a tad too complex for it to work as well as intended.  Dunkirk played around with non-linear storytelling much better because it kept things simple; three specific storylines with easily definable characters, which made the whole through-line more consistent.  Oppenheimer doesn’t exactly fail in this regard, but it comes up just a little short too, because the different parts of the story don’t completely line up as well as he planned.  That being said, the individual story elements are still exquisitely constructed and are very impressively put together.  This certainly is the most ambitious film in Nolan’s oeuvre and that is saying something.  As I am writing this review, I am only separated from my first viewing by 24 hours, so I am still trying to process everything, and subsequent viewings may indeed allow me to see the film as a more complete whole.  For right now, my most nagging feeling after seeing this film is that as impressive as it is, I feel like I’ve seen Nolan do better before, but at the same time it’s a movie that I am still processing and may appreciate more over time.

It’s perhaps the fact that this movie is working on a much different level than other Christopher Nolan films and it wasn’t the same visceral viewing experience that I got from my first time viewings of Inception (2010) and Dunkirk, which to this day are still my #1 and #2 favorite Nolan films.  Oppenheimer is Nolan’s first ever biopic, and that is kind of uncharted territory for him.  Instead of developing larger than life conceptual films like Inception and Tenet, or an original story set in backdrop of a real historical event like Dunkirk, here he is applying his filmmaking skills to telling the story of a real man who achieved one of the most monumental actions of not just the 20th century, but of all human history.  The story of Oppenheimer fits well within the filmography of Christopher Nolan, as he has always been fascinated with the perils of human beings who play around with the extremes of science.  That’s a trademark of most of his work, including even some of the Batman movies he made.  Certainly the IMAX loving filmmaker that Nolan is would be drawn to the idea of making a movie about the first atomic bomb test, which would certainly be epic enough for the larger than life format.  But, strangely enough after seeing this movie, I feel like it’s the man who drew Nolan in more than the event itself.  The vast majority of this movie is devoted to examining the life of Oppenheimer, and the firestorm of controversy that surrounded it.  It is far more of a drama than a spectacle, though the movie does have it’s sweeping moments too.  As a dialogue writer, Nolan does have some shortcomings.  There are some oddly written moments that seem a little too poetic for a grounded film like this.  At the same time, Nolan’s sweeping narrative never lags, as he covers a lot of ground and manages to keep the pacing consistent, which is impressive for a movie this length.

One of the most striking things about this movie is it’s cast.  Despite being centered around one man’s journey, the film features a stacked cast of hundreds, and a hefty chunk of them are all played by familiar faces.  A lot of people have likened this to Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), which had all the parts, no matter how big or small, filled with a famous actor.  Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) also comes to mind.  Watching Oppenheimer, you’ll be struck by just how many well known actors suddenly pop up throughout the movie, even for just one scene.  But, out of all that cast, there are certainly standouts, and chief among them is Cillian Murphy in the title role.  Murphy has been a long time favorite of Nolan’s, first appearing as the villainous Scarecrow in Batman Begins (2005), Murphy has subsequently been cast in five more films that Nolan has directed.  But here, for the first time, he gets to play the lead, and he does not disappoint.  Cillian appears in almost every scene in this movie, and he commands every moment.  It’s not a showy performance; J. Robert Oppenheimer didn’t exactly have an outsized personality.  But, Murphy does get across the humanity of the character in a profound way, with the pained look in his eyes as he is constantly having to balance the science in his head with the realities of his life.  Of the supporting cast around him, there are certainly some great stand outs.  Matt Damon brings some much needed levity to the film as the tough as nails general whose personality style clashes with the quiet, methodical Oppenheimer, which leads to some of the film’s more amusing character interactions.  Emily Blunt also brings some fiery sparks to her character of Oppenheimer’s opinionated wife Kitty.  But perhaps the most astounding commanding performance other than Murphy’s Oppenheimer is Robert Downey Jr. as the vindictive government power player Lewis Strauss.  Downey’s Strauss is another fascinating character, a person who feels threatened by the shadow that Oppenheimer casts, and RDJ does an amazing job of portraying this character without turning him into an overt, base villain.  There’s a lot of other surprisingly deft work from a variety of actors; including a couple of Nolan’s favorites like Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, and even Gary Oldman in a surprise role; and there are great performances from Nolan first timers as well, like Benny Safdie, Josh Hartnett, David Krumholtz, Florence Pugh, and Jason Clarke.  For a cast as monumental as this one, you never feel at all like Nolan wasted any of that talent.

Of course, the thing that most people are going to talk about with this movie is the craft behind it.  Nolan is working again with Hoyte Van Hoytema, the Dutch cinematographer who specializes in large formats that he has worked with consistently since Interstellar.  They once again deliver a stunning display of the 70mm IMAX film format, though the strengths of their work here are not what you would expect.  The movie has some amazing sweeping shots of the Los Alamos testing site, but just as impressive are the IMAX close-ups of Oppenheimer himself during his most intimate moments of self-reflection.  Perhaps the most brilliant moment of the movie is not the actual bomb test itself (which to be honest was a tad underwhelming), but instead it is a moment in the movie where Oppenheimer gives a speech.  What Nolan and Hoytema do in this scene, holding the camera uncomfortably close to Cillian Murphy’s face in the scene, really emphasizes the isolated state of mind he is in and it is a captivating moment, especially given how the scene plays out.  Another incredible thing about the cinematography in this film is that the team actually coordinated with the people at IMAX to essentially invent black and white IMAX film; something that had never been done before.  Those black and white moments in the movie are quite something too; especially with the amount of clarity the image has.  It’s also thematically inventive as well, as black and white alerts us to when we move away from Oppenheimer’s POV, and shift to the POV of his rival, Lewis Strauss.  And while I did state I felt the actual atomic blast looked a bit underwhelming for what could have been the most impressive IMAX image ever (what we got sadly lacks scale), the use of sound in that scene was still inventive and interesting.  The sound mix in this movie alone is a work of art, with much of the sound effects helping to lift the sense of bigness to this film.  It is also impressively underscored with a largely experimental epic music score by Ludwig Goransson, who returns to team Nolan after working on the score for Tenet.  Couple all that with exceptional era detail that really helps to drop you into the time period and you’ve got an epic drama that truly lives up to the word.

It will take me some time to figure out where I would rank it with Christopher Nolan’s other films.  I did like it more than Interstellar and Tenet, but it also didn’t hit me with the same visceral first time reaction that I had with The Dark Knight, Inception, or Dunkirk.  Those are among my favorite films of all time, so it’s an extremely high bar to overcome, but that’s my tastes.  Overall, Oppenheimer is a mostly successful work of cinematic art that just falls a little short of perfection for me, but at the same time I feel like this will be a movie that grows on me.  After a day to let the movie simmer in my mind, I am still processing what I saw and that’s a good sign that it’s a movie that is sticking with me well after I’ve first seen it.  Given that we’ve had a summer full of movies that have failed to leave much of a lasting impact, it’s refreshing to finally have a movie come out that I actually think will leave an impression on cinema in general for this year and beyond.  For one thing, the Barbenheimer phenomenon is something that I think is going to be studied and analyzed for years to come.  For something to start off as little internet joke to actually manifest into a full blown real cinematic event that actually mutually benefitted both movies involved is one of the most unexpected cultural outcomes that I have ever witnessed.  On the plus side, these are two movies deserving of the good fortune that fell into their laps; as an aside, I do also recommend Barbie as well.  After a lackluster summer so far that saw longtime franchises like Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, and Transformers fail to light up the box office, it’s great to see audiences rally around these two movies that somehow by virtue of sharing the same day have become spiritually linked.  One other added pleasure is that the overwhelming success that these two films are likely to have really breaks the back of the “get woke, go broke” narrative about Hollywood that so many annoying internet trolls have been proclaiming all summer.  Because of the “Barbenheimer” craze, the two most “woke” movies are about to be the summer’s biggest successes; the gender conformity breaking social commentary of Barbie and the compassionate biography of the unambiguous leftist J. Robert Oppenheimer.  In the end, it’s not about politics, but about making personal stories that connect with a broad audience, and offer something new and fresh, and that in essence is what is making Barbenheimer the event that it is.  We are finally getting movies that actually have ambition behind them, and don’t just feel like an obligation to keep entrenched franchises going.  This is an especially lucky moment for Oppenheimer in particular because a 3 hour historical drama about the creation of the atom bomb is not the kind of movie that should be riding the wave of a grassroots internet driven phenomenon.  “Barbenheimer” is a rare beneficial good thing that has gone viral in our often toxic internet culture, as it is helping not just to make hits out of two deserving and provocative movies, but it’s helping to boost business for movie theaters that have been struggling with the lackluster summer we’ve had so far.  Despite some flaws, Oppenheimer is a genuine big screen event not to be missed (preferably on the biggest screen possible), and if you so choose to make it a double feature with Barbie, all the better because both films are great reminders of why the cinematic experience matters.  Here’s to Barbenheimer, savior of cinema.

Rating: 8.75/10

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny – Review

There will never be a better pairing in cinema history of actor and character than Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.  To say that he was born to play the part would be an understatement.  The moment we first saw him walk out of the shadows and into the spotlight wearing that trademark leather jacket and fedora we knew an icon was born.  And this was fairly impressive for an actor like Ford who already had the character of Han Solo on his resume.  It helped that the greatest filmmakers in the industry were there to make Harrison shine on screen as the character.  Developed from the mind of George Lucas and brought to life on screen by Steven Spielberg, Indiana Jones’ debut in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a timeless classic that still stands as a high water mark in blockbuster filmmaking.  And unlike the work that he put into the Star Wars franchise, this was a movie completely formed around him as an actor.  Surprisingly, it’s a match that almost didn’t happen, as Tom Selleck was at one time going to play the character, before his commitment to Magnum P.I. pulled him out of the running.  While Selleck might have done alright as the character, it’s hard to imagine this role without Harrison Ford.  The gruffness of Indiana Jones as well as the ability to dive into the silliness of the character are unmistakably things that Ford brought to the character that no other actor would have.  Despite having a career that now spans 6 decades and a body of work that includes many of the best action films ever made, as well as a couple very good dramas and comedies, Ford will always be known best for his performances as Indiana Jones, and it appears that he is happy with that distinction.  Ford has been vocal of his affection for the character, believing that the character is among his best work, and it’s the thing that has allowed him to return time and again over these 40 plus years that Indiana Jones has been around.

The Indiana Jones franchise as a whole has been one that’s inspired a wide range of opinions, both good and bad.  The good thing is that the Indiana Jones films are not serialized, so each movie can stand on it’s own as a stand alone adventure.  But the choices of which adventures he goes on bring out a different mix of emotions in audiences.  Critics initially were not happy with the follow-up film in the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), with many saying it was too dark and lacked a cohesive plot like Raiders had.  Of course, over time the movie has been re-assessed, and people of my generation who grew up with the film regard it very highly; even putting it ahead of Raiders.  The third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was generally better received as it was reviewed as a return to form after the riskier Temple of Doom.  For the longest time, the series stood alone as a trilogy, with Crusade working very well as a fitting end to Dr. Jones’ adventures.  But, that’s not where George Lucas saw it ending.  There was always talk of another Indiana Jones movie, but it would take 19 years for it to become a reality.  The resulting film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) did bring the whole team back together, with Harrison Ford once again cracking the whip and Spielberg guiding the adventure behind the camera.  Unfortunately, the reception to the film did not get the same result as the original trilogy, and in fact the movie was widely panned by the fandom.  Time has also not been kind to the movie like it has been to Temple of Doom, as the majority of Indiana Jones fans still consider Crystal Skull a low point for the series and even a betrayal.  Many people lamented that this was going to be the final note that Indiana Jones left the silver screen on, but fortunes would change as new leadership took over at Lucasfilm.  After being brought into the Disney Company, many hoped that there was a shot of another Indiana Jones movie possibly in the works. With the revival of the Star Wars series, that possibility seemed strong, but it would take some time.  Eventually, it was announced that a fifth Indiana Jones movie would get made, and that Harrison Ford would indeed step into the role one final time.  The movie would be delayed multiple times, with the pandemic being especially disruptive, but now, over 40 years since his debut, we are finally getting the long awaited sequel Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023).  The only question is, does the movie end the series on a high note, or does it further sink the franchise to a new low?

The movie opens with a flashback to Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford) during the final days of World War II.  He has been captured by the Nazis, who are in the process of mobilizing their stock hold of stolen artifacts to get them away from allied forces.  Among the Nazi soldiers is scientist named Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) who has been brought on to authenticate all the artifacts.  Among the artifacts, there is one that sparks Voller’s interest above all others; a device known as Archimedes’ Dial.  Jones manages to make his escape, with the assistance of another archaeologist named Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), and the two manage to steal away the Dial from the Nazis, with Shaw being particularly knowledgeable about the artifact’s importance.  25 years later, Indiana Jones is living alone in New York City, with his marriage to Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) on the rocks, and is on the brink of retirement.  His final lecture at the university is attended by a woman who reveals herself to be Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), daughter of Basil and Dr. Jones’ goddaughter.  Helena inquires about the Dial that her father and Jones found all those years back, but Indy is reluctant to share any information, knowing how the Dial ended up driving Basil crazy in his final days.  Still, Jones helps Helena find the Dial which he’s kept in storage, but they soon learn they’ve been followed by some hired guns also seeking the Dial.  The henchmen (Boyd Holbrook, Olivier Richters) are working for Dr. Voller, who has been working in America on the space program as a beneficiary of Operation Paperclip.  Voller is adamant about finding the Dial, because he believes it has the power to re-shape history, which he believes could lead to a different outcome for the war.  Unfortunately for Indiana Jones, he loses track of the Dial as Helena runs off with it, leaving him having to make a daring escape again, in the typical Indiana Jones fashion.  Despite his advanced age, Jones seeks to go into harms way to find Helena and the Dial, and solve the mystery behind it, with the help of old friends like Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and new like diving expert Renaldo (Antonio Banderas).  But, will this be the adventure that will Indiana Jones make history or become history?

Considering how much time has passed from when this series has started to where it is now, it’s pretty amazing that Harrison Ford is able to still play this part again at all.  Now in his 80’s, Ford definitely is unable to pull off some the same kind of action sequences that made the original trilogy movies so memorable.  But, as long as the movie is able to work with the limitations that the actor now faces rather than try to force him into the impossible mission of going all in again, there’s a way to make an older Indiana Jones work while still being true to the character.  One thing that helps this movie is that it’s being helmed by James Mangold, who has a history of sunsetting legendary characters in one final blaze of glory.  He helped Hugh Jackman say goodbye to the character of Wolverine in the poignant film Logan (2017), so giving him the responsibility of bringing Harrison Ford’s time as this character to a close is well within his capabilities.  He definitely has big shoes to fill, with Spielberg passing the reigns on to someone else for the first time in the series’ forty years.  Mangold has many talents as a filmmaker, but he’s not anything like Spielberg.  The question remains whether or not the injection of a different directorial vision is exactly what the series needed.  The fandom surrounding the Indiana Jones movies is a very vocal one, and making a misstep is bound to rile up some feathers.  I for one am in a minority within the fandom in that I actually like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the most reviled film in the series for a lot of people.  Considering my tastes, I seem to like when the series takes chances and does things in a very different and unexpected way.  Temple of Doom is my favorite film in the series, so I’m a bit more forgiving of the series as even the ones with flaws have their charms.  So, considering that I am more forgiving of Crystal Skull, it would stand that I may feel more positive about Dial of Destiny than most.  For the most part, I would say that Dial of Destiny in no ways changes my view of the series, as it ultimately is a very serviceable sequel.  At the same time, it does have it’s share of flaws, but those flaws to me put it mostly on par with Crystal Skull, which is not a knock against the movie given my scale of judgement.

To expect that this movie is going to reach the heights of the series in it’s heyday during the trilogy is kind of an impossible high standard to reach.  Dial of Destiny does not have the benefit of 40 years of rose colored nostalgia to build it’s reputation upon.  Sadly, it has to contend with a very demanding fanbase that wants to feel the magic that the original movies had once again, and I don’t think it’s going to be able to live up to that for many.  That being said, can the movie stand on it’s own as a rousing action adventure.  I’d say that there are definitely moments that shine in this film, and help to at the very least remind us why we love Indiana Jones in the first place.  What I would say is the biggest problem with this movie is the bloated run time.  At nearly 2 1/2 hours, this is by far the longest film in the series, and it really doesn’t need to be.  One really longs for the economy of storytelling that Spielberg always exceled at with his direction in these movies.  The original trilogy movies have all the fat cut out and each action sequence is perfectly paced for maximum  effect; my favorite in particular is the climatic sequence of events at the end of Temple of Doom, which is an all time great example of how to build tension in a final act.  The action scenes in this movie feel too busy and complicated.  There is one scene with a cart chase through Moroccan streets that was so chaotic and repetitive that it took me out of the film for a moment.  Honestly, where the movie worked best for me was not in the action scenes, which used to be a staple of the series, but rather in the quieter moments where we see Indy doing the actual tomb raiding.  It’s in those moments where it does feel like the old glory days of Indiana Jones again.  There are good action sequences to be sure, like a very well done prologue scene on a train, and none of the action sequences are insultingly horrible by any means, but you can really feel in these moments the absence of the Spielbergian touch.  Mangold is a very capable director, but in this case his instincts are pretty uneven.

The thing that definitely lifts this movie up the most, without a doubt, is Harrison Ford himself.  You can tell that the reason why Ford wanted to come back to this role one more time was so that he could give Indy a proper goodbye.  Crystal Skull it would seem was an unsatisfying exercise for him, and with Dial of Destiny, he is clearly trying to dig a bit more into the character and bring out a sense of Indiana finally coming to terms with the history that he left behind and the history he wishes he could forget.  This movie digs a bit deeper into the psyche of Indiana Jones, seeing him grapple with mortality as time begins to take it’s toll.  He’s not the same death-defying Dr. Jones that we once knew, and I liked the fact that the movie leans into that aspect, showing that while Indy is still a force to reckon with, at the same time he is also bearing all the scars of those adventures.  And yet, the sparkle in his eye when he discovers things once lost to time found again is enough to make you fall in love with the character all over again.  Harrison Ford doesn’t miss one note, and he easily carries this movie, making us all fall in love with Indiana Jones once again.  And the way that the movie settles his narrative in it’s final act is poetic and quite fitting given the legacy of the character.  The supporting cast, while not quite as memorable as characters in years past, are still doing their best with the material.  Mads Mikkelsen’s Dr. Voller is in no way within the same category as legendary adversaries like Belloq, Toht, or Mola Ram, but Mikkelsen still gives him a presence that works well enough.  As underwritten as he is, I still found him to be a better villain than Last Crusades’ Donovan, played by Julian Glover.  Sadly, the other main lead, Helena Shaw, is not as good of a character.  Phoebe Waller-Bridge is trying her best in the role, but her smarmy, quippy attitude feels out of place in the movie, and she ends up being more obnoxious than endearing.  Even Temple’s Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), as corny as she was, still left an endearing impression.  Other than that, it’s also nice to see John Rhys-Davies, another Raiders alum make a return as well, and there are other actors like Toby Jones and Boyd Holbrook who make the most of their limited roles.

One thing that I think will likely be debated hotly about this film is the heavy reliance of CGI.  For a series that was renowned for it’s mix of practical and state of the art visual effects, to see so much of this movie be reliant of CGI is kind of disappointing.  At the same time, it was almost inevitable, as you couldn’t rely upon Harrison Ford to do as much of the on set spectacle as before given his limitations at this age.  There are some effects that do indeed look good and were necessary for the moments in the film, like with a climatic storm near the end.  One moment that I think will either anger or impress viewers is the de-aging effect on Indiana Jones in the opening prologue.  You can tell that the de-aging technology has gotten better over time, and some shots do look pretty believable.  But there are other times when it crosses into uncanny valley territory, and it will be interesting to see how audiences overall accept it.  Given that the de-aging effect happens in the best scene of the entire movie, it didn’t end up being a critical distraction for me, but there were times when it does pull you out of the scene for a moment.  I understand why they did the effect, but I have a feeling that it’s an effect that probably won’t age well over time.  Once we get to the modern day, the movie does have a good sense of capturing the time period.  It’s interesting to see how Indiana’s world has changed through the whole progression of the series, from the pre-WWII era art deco pastiche of Club Obi-Wan in Temple of Doom   to the Vietnam War era grunginess of New York City in Dial of Destiny, each era becomes a character in it’s own right within the movies of this series.  Of course, one of the other things that will indeed earn due praise for this movie other than Harrison Ford’s performance is the new score provided by the great maestro, John Williams, in what will likely be the last big studio production he’ll ever work on.  The 91 year old Williams insists that if Spielberg ever calls him for an assignment he’ll answer, but for now there is a strong likelihood this will be the legendary composer’s swan song at the end of an unparalleled career.  So it is fitting that he is putting down the baton with and Indiana Jones score.  There are some repeating themes in this film, including the iconic Indiana Jones march, but remarkably the vast majority Dial of Destiny’s score is made up of original music, showing that even in his old age, Williams still has got it.  I guess he and Harrison Ford have that in common.

For the things that count the most, mainly doing the character of Indiana Jones justice, I do think Dial of Destiny is a success.  But, it still comes up short of the series’ greatest hits.  I certainly think expecting this to rise to that level is a bit unfair, because it’s impossible to make an Indiana Jones movie feel as fresh and groundbreaking as it was when Raiders of the Lost Ark first came out.  Time has changed and so have the audiences.  It’s clear that the time has come for us to bid farewell to the Indiana Jones that we knew, because a lot of the past glory has clearly faded.  All that said, the movie doesn’t do an insulting job of trying to bring back Indiana Jones to the big screen.  It’s clear that the people who made this film put a lot of love into it.  Unlike a lot of other cash grab sequels, it does not feel cynical in any way.  I certainly felt it does a more honorable job at continuing an old franchise based on classic IP than say what Jurassic World does, and it’s certainly a better series finale than what we got from Star Wars with The Rise of Skywalker (2019).  Despite a script that features some wild leaps in logic and characters that aren’t as endearing as they should be, the movie does stick the landing when it comes to Indiana Jones and how the story puts this era of his to rest.  The final scene in the movie, without giving anything in the way, is almost perfect and is exactly the way I want to remember Harrison Ford’s final scenes as this character.  It’s poignant in the best way possible, a fitting final note to leave on.  I don’t think it will be the end of Indiana Jones entirely as a franchise.  There is always the possibility of Disney doing a James Bond situation and starting fresh with a new, younger actor in the role.  It might even be worthwhile to reboot the Young Indiana Jones TV series again.  Whatever happens, the Harrison Ford comes to a close in a satisfying, if not exactly perfect, way.  Thank you for all the years of fun over the years and for making one of the greatest cinematic heroes in history.  Fortune and glory forever.

Rating: 7.5/10