Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Thor: Love and Thunder – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8/10

Lightyear – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10

Top Gun: Maverick – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5/10

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8/10

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5/10

Morbius – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5.5. /10

The Batman – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10

Death on the Nile – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7/10

Spider-Man: No Way Home – Review

With the roller coaster year that 2021 has been, leave it to Marvel to be the ones commanding the box office through all the turbulence.  If the mighty studio hadn’t already been on top of the world before with their record breaking success with the Avengers, 2021 would be a banner year for them regardless.  They started off with their big launch of their Disney+ programming all the way back in January with Wandavision, a highly acclaimed mini-series focused on the characters Scarlett Witch and The Vision.  Then came even more successful series like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki to tide us over into the summer season.  As big a deal as these shows were, the industry was far more interested in seeing how Marvel would fare at the box office.  Movie theaters were slowly coming back to life after a year long pandemic forced closure in 2020.  Though Marvel’s parent studio Disney started by hedging their bets going back into the theater market with a hybrid theatrical/streaming release, they nevertheless set out to bring their big screen pictures back to the big screen.  The pandemic delayed Black Widow (2021) was first, and even with the hybrid release it still managed to scrounge up an $80 million opening weekend.  It also saw the biggest second weekend drop of any Marvel movie, and it’s final gross end up on the low end of the MCU, but it still showed that the Marvel brand still had enough mojo to liven up the decimated pandemic box office.  This led to their next film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) getting a theatrical only release to see if that led to a better result.  And even while the Delta variant of Covid was flaring up, Shang-Chi managed to not only succeed, but also flourish beyond opening weekend; leading to it’s current status as the box office champ of the year.  However, that didn’t help Eternals (2021), their third film, which to many underperformed.  But, it should be noted that Eternals didn’t fade quickly as many expected, and has actually accumulated a healthy box office that while low for Marvel it’s still impressive for a film in the pandemic era.  Now, at the end of a busy year for Marvel, which has included all the properties from last year as well as this one, they are bringing us the next installment of one of their marquee franchises, Spider-Man, in the hopes that it not only ends the year on a strong note for them, but also hopefully brings the box office back even more strong than before.

While Spider-Man has always been a hot property for Marvel, it’s interesting that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) hasn’t rested all their success solely on his shoulders.  If anything, in the grand narrative of the shared universe that the MCU has been, Spider-Man has thus far been a fairly secondary character.  That would’ve been unheard of before the launch of the MCU, but Marvel chose to Avengers be the driving force of their connective thread, and Spider-Man was not an original part of that team.  Since then, he has come into his own, taking more of a central role, but in the grand scheme of things, he’s still second tier to the likes of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.  But, after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), several new possibilities have opened up for the character.  The best part thus far of Spider-Man’s development in the MCU is seeing how this hero we are all familiar with interacts within a world where what he does is not as extraordinary as we’ve seen before.  He exists in a world full of super heroes, so the dynamic is very different.  As a result, the MCU has been able to focus on their Spider-Man being a naïve but eager kid, much like he is in the comics.  One of the best character dynamics of the MCU that has resulted from that was the mentor/apprentice relationship that he had built up with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.  This became a central part of the story going into the final chapter of the Infinity Saga with Infinity War and Endgame, and with Iron Man’s departure, it has taken the Spider-Man character into a whole different path than we’ve seen before.  Of course, a Spider-Man movie where the hero has suffered a heart-breaking loss is nothing new, but when he is now expected to fill in a vacancy within that same dynamic, it has opened up a new layer of character that we haven’t really explored with Spider-Man just yet.  In fact, everything with this MCU iteration has felt fresh, especially in his own franchise of films.  In what has been dubbed the Spider-Man “Home” trilogy, we have seen the character grow on his own, through the trials of high school life in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) to the dilemmas of a post-Endgame world in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).  Now, the trilogy comes to a climax of it’s own with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and the question is, does it bring Spider-Man’s story together in a satisfying way, or is it caught in a web of it’s own problems?

One thing I definitely have to say before hand is that so much of this movie is filled with plot elements that I don’t want to spoil.  So, before I go into a plot summery, let me just state that what I’m going to write forward in this paragraph and review after is solely in line with what’s already been revealed in the movie trailers thus far.  So, spoiler free, let’s talk about what happens.  Picking up literally right where Far From Home left off, Spider-Man’s secret identity has been leaked to the public thanks to internet provocateur J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons).  Now, everyone in the world knows that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is really Spider-Man.  This suddenly thrusts him and those close to him into the spotlight, including his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend M.J. Watson (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).  Life is no longer the same for them, and it comes to a brutal head when the revelation about Spider-Man’s identity excludes him from college admittance to his desired school, which also happens to M.J. and Ned.  After this crushing disappointment, Peter seeks out help from another Avenger ally, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who he believes can turn back time in order to help erase his identity being revealed.  Since Strange no longer has the Time Stone, he can’t help Peter by reversing time, but he believes he knows another way to help him instead.  Strange begins a Forgetting Spell to erase Peter Parker’s identity from everyone’s memory, but Peter realizes that doing so will make even those close to him forget.  Unfortunately, this botches the spell, so Peter is out of luck again.  He tries to think of his next move, but that is interrupted when new enemies begin to emerge.  They are powerful foes who have faced Spider-Man before, but not the Spider-Man of this universe.  They include Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), and Norman Osborne, aka the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).  Doctor Strange reveals that the broken spell opened up a rip in the multiverse, and if they don’t return these multiversal tresspassers back to their own universes, it could lead to a collapse of reality as we know it.  So, Spider-Man must set things right, but he soon encounters a different dilemma; is it right to send these villains back to their fate where their destiny is to die fighting Spider-Man?

There’s definitely a lot to unpack with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  Not only is it continuing the story that’s already been told thus far in the MCU Spider-Man films, but it’s also incorporating elements from previously existing Spider-Man franchises.  We are seeing pretty much every major villain Spider-Man has faced on the big screen over the last 20 years.  Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, and Thomas Hayden Church return to play Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Sandman respectively from the Sam Raimi directed / Tobey Maguire starring Spider-Man films of the 2000’s.  And then there are Jamie Foxx and Rhys Ifans also playing Electro and The Lizard from the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man reboot directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield.  That’s a lot to pack into a single film, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg without going into spoilers.  Which makes me all the more amazed by how well this movie manages to bring everything together in the end.  This movie is just a remarkable achievement in logistics alone.  How they managed to pull all these multiversal things together and not loose sight of the central narrative thread is truly amazing.  There are some big revelations in this movie that I’m sure are going to be the stuff of movie legend in the years to come, but I think where the movie excels the most is in how well it stays focused on Spider-Man’s story.  This is still a movie that falls in line with the plot thread spread across the rest of the “Home” trilogy as well as with all the MCU movies that Spider-Man has been a part of, and it helps to give this movie a surprising amount of emotional weight.  In particular, I think this movie does an especially great job of fleshing out what it means to be Spider-Man.  What we’ve seen throughout the MCU movies is that the universe is far more complex than the black and white morality of good vs. evil.  We’ve seen villains like Killmonger from Black Panther and Thanos portrayed with layers of character that show they aren’t just evil for the sake of being evil.  And we’ve also seen heroes in the MCU commit some very evil acts like Iron Man creating Ultron, or Scarlet Witch holding a town captive within her fantasy world in Wandavision.  That same depth of examination is also brought beautifully into No Way Home, and it helps to re-contextualize all the Spider-Man films as a whole in a surprising way.

One of the things that is going to easily blow people away is seeing all the different characters from all the different Spider-Man films together.  But, to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t just plop these characters in for the sake of nostalgia alone.  Each and every one of them has a purpose in the story, and none are wasted.  I actually want to say, without going too much into spoilers, that the most refreshing thing about this movie is that it holds back and doesn’t try to do too much.  It would have been very tempting to just throw all the doors open of the Multiverse and bring in a whole lot more into this movie.  But, director Jon Watts and producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal wisely decided not to.  They give us just enough multiverse treats to satisfy what we’d hope be in this movie and don’t go overboard.  Had they done too much, it might have overwhelmed the story to a point of breaking.  There are some points where that is the case, and it’s the only flaw that the movie has.  The movie is the longest of any Spider-Man film at 2 1/2 hours, but it doesn’t feel like that at all except for a select number of scenes.  And those scenes are where the characters basically stop the movie to go through a “previously on” recap of their backstory, so that the audience that hasn’t been up to speed can be caught up.  It’s the most awkward part of the script, and I see why the filmmakers felt that they needed to include it, but I also felt like they were the only parts of the movie that started to take me out of the film.  Credit to the actors for selling that clumsy exposition as well as they can.  There’s an especially funny exchange where Electro and Sandman compare their origins like they are casually trading battle scar stories.  Apart from that nitpick, the movie surprisingly has a sound flow to it and manages the tone perfectly.  And given all the building blocks they had to work with, that’s really something remarkable.

It’s suffice to say that the movie’s biggest asset is the stellar cast, both with the central players as well as all the legacy characters carried over from other franchises.  Most importantly, it continues to put Tom Holland’s Spider-Man front and center, and helps to build upon the character development that we’ve seen with him up to now.  In many ways, this is Holland’s best performance thus far as Spider-Man.  He goes through the gamut of emotions in this movie, managing to perfectly balance the goofy playfulness of Spider-Man’s lighter moments with the hard pathos of the movie’s more tragic scenes.  And seeing him interact with all these legacy characters is also quite an interesting new avenue to take this character.  Of course, the big deal with this movie is all of these legendary characters returning to the big screen, and with all the original actors making the return as well.  Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock hasn’t appeared on screen since Spider-Man 2 (2004), which was 17 years ago.  That film is considered by many to be one of the greatest super hero films of all time, and Molina’s iconic performance was one of the reasons for that.  So not only is it a pleasure to see him in the role again, but he doesn’t waste the opportunity either, slipping right back in effortlessly.  Jamie Foxx, who was kind of shortchanged in the disastrous The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) gets to redeem himself here with a version of Electro that feels truer to the comic book and gives Foxx more to chew on as an actor.  Naturally, he’s the character most improved upon in this film.  Thomas Hayden Church and Rhys Ifans have less to do than the rest of the cast, but are no less a welcome presence in the movie as their respective characters  But if anyone steals the movie the most, it’s Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin.  Somehow, he managed to find a way to make the character even more menacing since his debut almost 20 years ago.  His performance here is really remarkable and probably the highlight of a movie already full of iconic moments.  The fights he has with Spider-Man are especially brutal and carry a lot more weight than we’ve seen from other films in the series.  In addition to the great return of the iconic villains, I’m especially happy to see that characters like M.J., Aunt May, and Ned don’t get lost in all the shuffle, and their respective actors all contribute something special to the movie as a whole.  If anyone is short-changed, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, since he actually has less screen time than the trailers would have you believe.  He’s not terribly used, but if you’re looking for a Spider-Man/Doctor Strange team-up in this movie, it ain’t there in the way you’d expect.  Still, overall, audiences are going to go wild for the cast of charcters I described here, and of course, there might be surprises as well.

Given the enormity of what the movie has to accomplish, even in an expansive 2 1/2 runtime, it’s amazing that the film flows as well as it does.  Director Jon Watts certainly deserves that credit.  His work on the Spider-Man franchise has really been the most consistent that we’ve ever seen for the character.  It probably helps that he had the guidance and support of a producer like Kevin Feige whose expertise has been to manage multiple franchise on a scale unseen before.  For the Raimi and Webb films, they often fell victim to studio interference negating the vision of the director, and resulted in films like Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that were unfocused messes.  No Way Home feels so certain about what it is and it’s in line with the story that has been told over not just Spider-Man’s own films, but also those in the MCU as a whole.  At the same time, Watts certainly knows that this is the movie that has to go bigger than anything we’ve seen before.  Many are comparing this to Avengers: Endgame in many ways, and some of that comparison is warranted.  This movie feels like the culmination of so much of the Spider-Man mythos built up not just within the MCU but also with all Spider-Man media.  At the same time, like what I previously stated before, this movie knows when to hold back as well, giving us enough to digest while not spoiling the whole meal.  I think that’s why the movie holds together in the end when it could’ve easily fallen apart.  That’s evident in the final confrontation that takes place at the Statue of Liberty (not a spoiler because part of it is shown in the trailer).  Director Webb manages to keep the action in that scene focused and consistent, so no one in the audience is likely to be confused by what’s happening.  I also want to note the incredible themes set forth by the movie, especially that one about the gray areas of morality that have been present in the MCU.  What I like most about this movie is that it brings to the forefront what drives Spider-Man to be a hero.  And that moral is that a hero strives to help save everyone, even the worst among us.  In this movie, that will to do the right thing gets tested and I love how the movies centers it’s story around that theme.  Those immortal words written by the late great Stan Lee all those years ago, “With great power comes great responsibility,” takes on a more important meaning in this film, and that in essence, helps to elevate this movie to a far more lofty place than I think most of us would’ve ever expected.

It’s hard to say just yet where I would rank this movie among all the Spider-Man films.  I definitely think it’s the best of the “Home” trilogy of Spider-Man movies, but the bar is still high that has been set by Spider-Man 2 and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018).  It may take a few more viewings to properly place this film in the pantheon of all the Spider-Man movies.  Honestly, the thing that impresses me the most is just how they managed to pull off what they did.  I’ve been very careful to not spoil some of the movie’s biggest surprises, but let me just say that the packed house IMAX showing that I saw this movie in had some of the loudest audience cheering that I have ever witnessed.  And this was the same IMAX theater I saw Avengers: Endgame in, so that really is saying something.  All that said, there are still something flaws in the plot and mostly in the dialogue that holds this movie slightly back from that level of greatness, and I hope they become less noticeable the more times I see this movie.  This movie really had an almost impossible task, and I felt that this was the best case result we could’ve hoped for.  For one thing, I think it does a great service to the legacy of all the Spider-Man films of the past, especially with regards to the much maligned Amazing Spider-Man films.  It’s great to see the actors who played these iconic roles from the past slip right back into character and not only deliver the good once again, but also find new avenues to explore.  And I’m also really impressed with the fact that the movie isn’t afraid to take some risks as well and doesn’t just wrap up Spider-Man’s story in a nice happy resolution.  Like many of the MCU films to date, the characters carry on the scars of their ordeal, and this especially is true with the MCU’s Spider-Man, who I am definitely intrigued to see where they take him next.  Without saying what happens, I’ll tell you that I especially found the ending of this movie to be a surprise and quite a ballsy move on Marvel’s part.  It shows that they recognize the significance of Spider-Man as a character not just on his own but as a part of a larger world, and they are determined to give him a story that carries a lot of weight with it.  Suffice to say, this is going to be another blockbuster for Marvel.  I know the lingering effects of the pandemic are still making things weary for some movie-goers, but if there is any film that you’ve been willing to take the chance on, this would be the one.  It’s a movie that demands to be seen with a large audience.  It’s certainly the best in theater experience that I’ve had all year, and it’s something that I though I’d never see again after the pandemic decimated the theatrical market all of last year.  Leave it to the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to bring some much needed life back to the box office again.  This is definitely one of the webslinger’s finest hours, and a movie whose very existence is likely going to stand as a ground-breaking moment in the super hero genre as a whole.

Rating: 8.75/10

Encanto – Review

Going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Disney has built a long canonical line of feature films that have been the backbone of their company.  Even to today, the animated film canon is central to Disney’s identity, and they have been keeping track of their total number of features for the sake of celebrating every milestone.  Here, in 2021, they have reached yet another of those, with their 60th overall animated feature.  This particular milestone is special in how it represents the amount of success that Disney has had in recent decades.  It took Disney 54 years to reach their 30th feature film (1991’s Beauty and the Beast) and only 30 years to reach their 60th; the newly released Encanto.  That accelerated pace shows just how prolific Disney has been in recent years, being propelled by the Disney Renaissance and extending now through the Digital Era.  It has been a very transitional time period for Disney animation, but of course, there is plenty more planned for the future.  Though Encanto has been planned for some time to hold up the mantle of the 60th Disney feature, it became speculative for a time if it may indeed be a theatrical release.  The 59th feature (Raya and the Last Dragon) had to settle with a hybrid theatrical and digital release last Spring, which in some ways took the wind out of it’s sales and diminished it’s ultimate box office take.  Of course, it’s the best they could do for audiences at the time because of the lingering effects of the pandemic, and Disney not wanting to stall the release any longer.  Still, depending on how things panned out, the hybrid model could have ended up becoming the new norm, or even more dire for the theatrical loving community, it would show that digital only was the preferable choice.  As the pandemic lingered on through the summer, Disney wasn’t really confident either way.  And then the unlikely blockbuster success of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings resurrected the sleepy theatrical market and helped to confirm for Disney that theatrical first was the way to go.  Thus all of Disney’s remaining 2021 releases would be premiere first in theaters.

Unfortunately, through this era of pandemic related experimentation, Disney revealed itself to be playing favorites a bit with their catalog of titles.  Of the movies that did get a theatrical release instead of only digital, the Disney Animation department seemed to benefit the most, while Pixar was left off the movie screens altogether.  Pixar’s last two animated features, 2020’s Soul and 2021’s Luca both were dropped onto Disney+ instead of theaters.  It’s understandable for the movie Soul as it was premiering during the pandemic’s peak, but Luca premiered in the summer, long after movie theaters across the country had reopened and Disney had successfully implemented their hybrid release on films like Raya and the Last Dragon and Cruella (2021).  Why Luca was chosen just for digital doesn’t make much sense out of that.  Pixar is still a valuable and profitable brand, and the movie had a lot of broad appeal across all ages.  From the outside, it appears that Disney was playing favorites with their own in-house animation studio, hoping to use them to drive the return to theatrical.  Then again, Disney may have been more guarded with regards to their Pixar titles, believing that a digital release would help them avoid disappointing box office in a still unsettled market and possibly believing that the movie would find more eyes on Disney+.  What ever went on behind the scenes, it’s unfortunate that Pixar got the worst situation out of the lingering effects of the pandemic, while Disney Animation got both of their 2021 releases the theatrical releases they deserved.  Personally, I am biased, and I wanted all movies to make it to the big screen in any way they could.  Disney made their choice based on how they saw things, and sadly that meant that most audiences couldn’t see Luca the way it was intended to be seen.  2022 will be different, as Pixar has two films set for theatrical first releases (Turning Red and Lightyear), and Disney has no doubt has sided with theatrical for the long run, though any further economic disruptions could change things.  For now, we are given the new theatrical film, Encanto, Disney’s milestone 60th feature.  The question is, does it have the same kind of Disney magic as all of it’s predecessors, or did it waste it’s good fortune of a milestone release?

Encanto is set in an unnamed fictional land based largely on Columbian culture.  After escaping vicious marauders who have driven them from their homes, a family makes their way into the unknown terrains of the South American jungles.  After loosing her husband who sacrifices his life to buy them time to escape, Alma Madrigal (Maria Cecilia Botero) and her newborn triplets are left alone in the wild.  Miraculously, the candle that had lit their way through the dark becomes enchanted.  The candle creates a home around them to give them shelter, which itself comes alive.  Several years later, the Madrigal home has become a paradise and safe haven, with many other peaceful settlers creating a village around the house.  The triplets have grown up and as we learn, have all been given special gifts from the house that involve supernatural powers.  The eldest daughter Julieta (Angie Cepeda) has the ability to heal people with the food she cooks.  Pepa (Carolina  Gaitan), the younger sister, can control the weather.  Pepa’s older children Dolores (Adassa) and Camillo (Rhenzy Feliz) have the gift of enhanced hearing and shape shifting respectively.  Julieta’s three daughters, Luisa (Jessica Darrow), Isabela (Dianne Guerrero) and Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) also live in the home with the rest of the family.  Luisa and Isabela have their gifts, which are super strength and conjuring flowers in her wake respectively, but Mirabel stands out because unlike the others, she was not given a gift.  When the family gathers the town to celebrate the gift giving to Pepa’s youngest son, Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers), who ends up talking to animals, Mirabel discovers something wrong with the house.  She believes that the house is beginning to crumble and the magic begins disappearing with it.  She intends to discover for herself what is happening.  The clue to the house’s fate lies in what remains of her Uncle Bruno’s room.  Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) left the house long ago after he discovered through his power of seeing the future that the thing Mirabel is fearing will come true, and the family has since never spoken of it.  But, Mirabel is set in finding out the truth behind Uncle Bruno’s prophecy and discover why she is at the center of it.

Encanto marks the second collaboration between Disney Animation and famed songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda.  His first project with them was the hit film Moana (2016).  Encanto hits a little closer to home for Miranda who gets to tap more into his Latino roots for the music in this film.  This also finds him a lot more involved in the production, because he’s also credited as part of the story team on this film.  This movie does indeed feel more crafted around Miranda’s contributions than anything else he has done with Disney, with the songs definitely showing his distinctive writing style.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  For one thing, the songs are definitely well crafted and catchy.  On the other hand, it almost feels like more focus was given to the songs than anything else in the movie.  Encanto is unfortunately a very unfocused movie that feels too lightweight to leave an impact.  I was hoping for a more rousing adventure from the likes of Disney, but the movie keeps things very low stakes throughout.  The Madrigal home is central to pretty much every aspect of this movie, and the film doesn’t even venture outside of it that much.  As a result, the movie just comes across as being very small, which is a little bit disappointing.  For a studio that once had climaxes that involved fighting dragons, or battling on the highest points of a mighty palace, or chasing after one’s true love and possibly laying their life on the line to save them, this movie’s climax hinges on a simple generational disagreement.  I see how it fits within the story thematically, but it’s still kind of anti-climatic.  The movie, as I mentioned before is best served by Lin-Manuel’s involvement, as his songs are where the movie comes alive the most.  But, in between the songs, there isn’t much story to speak of.  It’s just a simple series of events between a single family, dealing with their own internal dramas, with the only twist being that they mostly all have special powers.  And those powers are really explored as much as they should be.  It just feels like the powers are there to liven up the story and give the animators something to have fun with.

Moving from that, the movie is not an absolute failure in story.  It certainly is a lot better than Frozen II (2019).  The Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are definitely what salvages the movie for the most part.  If you are familiar with Miranda’s style, which extends from his movie contributions like this and Moana, as well as his most iconic work, the Broadway show Hamilton, then these songs will feel very familiar as well.  Miranda’s hip hop infused lyrics manage to work seamlessly with the Latin beats of the main score.  I often found myself marveling how the singers in the film manage to string together so many words in a single breath.  The songs are their own special achievement in this movie, and I’m sure that many people will find themselves humming these tunes afterwards, and replaying them on Spotify when they get home.  They may not have the sing-a-long re-playability as some of Disney’s most long lasting hit tunes like “Be Our Guests,” “Under the Sea” or “Hakuna Matata,” but no one is going to come away feeling disappointed by these songs, even if they like me find the story itself to be disappointed.  The animation in the movie also comes alive and rises to the challenge of these songs.  Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard (Zootopia) certainly bring a playfulness to the songs, whether it’s through the creative staging or the wild character animation.  I think one of the highlights is a catchy number called “We Don’t Talk about Bruno,” a song going into the backstory of the character, which definitely felt like all the departments working to their fullest, from the vocal performances, to Lin-Manuel’s manic songwriting, to the clever creative animation, all put into this tango like showstopper.  Most of the other songs do their job well enough too.  I think that the reason why the movie may have faltered a bit in the story department is because the songs probably came first and then the story was crafted to surround them, which wasn’t as assembled with quite the same amount of care or energy.

The movie does benefit from an effective main character as well.  I like the fact that out of this family of super human beings, the movie’s plot does hinge on the two characters who don’t have any gifts; Mirabel and her Abuela Alma.  The fact that the main character has to work at a disadvantage that her extended family does not have helps to make her role in the story more interesting.  She was denied something that everyone else that she loves managed to gain, and she doesn’t understand why.  It makes her character motivations clear.  I like the fact that she is neither portrayed as purely good or distantly resentful.  She bounces back and forth between wanting to know why she was left out and having it not be the worst thing in the world for her.  It makes her more dynamic as a result, as you see the internal conflict in her guiding her through the mystery that she must unfold.  The rest of the family are a colorful bunch of characters as well, though I feel like some of them could have done with a bit more personality other than the powers that they show off.  The supporting characters that stand out the most are those in her immediate family.  Her sisters, Isabela and Luisa, in fact are the only other characters in the movie who get their own songs.  Luisa’s song “Surface Pressure” is another highlight, especially in the way it stages the song around her super strength ability.  It might have served the movie better if it trimmed the more extended family members and just focused on a more tightly knit family unit.  Not that the other characters are bad in any way, it’s just that the movie has a hard time giving all of them any amount of spotlight.  One really welcome character is Uncle Bruno, who comes into the story fairly late.  Though he has limited screen time, he does make the most of it, with John Leguizamo delivering a delightfully eccentric vocal performance.  Stephanie Beatriz also is strong as Mirabel, making her both funny but not obnoxiously quirky.  Given her already long working history with Lin-Manuel Miranda in projects like In the Heights (2021), she is clearly skilled enough as an actress and singer to take on a character like Mirabel.

Where the movie also delivers up to the high Disney standards is in the animation.  This is a visually impressive film, with animation up to the same quality of some of Disney’s most classic titles as of late.  One thing that I especially was impressed with was the visualization of the Madrigal house itself.  The house is a world in of itself, quite literally in fact, as the individual rooms for the family members open up into large spaces, like the Tardis from Doctor Who.  One of the nicest touches is that the movie turns the Madrigal house into a character itself.  The house comes alive with the floors, drawers, doors, shutters and tile roofs all moving independently and giving assistance to the characters.  It’s a home with a personality, and some of the biggest laughs in the movie comes from the clever ways that the animators found to communicate gestures through the architecture of the house.  The movie also has a colorful palette to it.  The colors pop on screen and dazzle with a wide kaleidoscope of visual splendor.  You also really get the sense of the Columbian influence of this movie, where the multicolor house stands out from the deep greens of the dense jungle that surrounds it.  I’m sure the team of animators on this film looked at how small Columbian villages come to life through their choices of color in contrast with the tropical surroundings.  It wouldn’t surprise me if they had come across quite a few buildings that looked like the Madrigal home in their research.  The movie benefits a lot from the work put it in it’s setting, but it also makes the magical gifts given to the family interesting as well.  I especially like the ideas of Pepa’s weather control being limited to a cloud flying over her head and raining entirely around her depending on her mood.  Isabela’s flower power is also beautifully realized.  Overall, while the story may be lacking, the animation is undoubtedly on par with Disney at it’s best, and in many ways also offers up a few worthwhile surprises that helps to set this movie apart within the canon.

Encanto is by no means a bad film and in many ways I think it will prove to be a hit with audiences.  It might just be my sometimes impossibly high standards with regards to Disney animation, but Encanto just felt like it lacked that special thing to put it higher on the list of great Disney film.  I want a Disney movie that has a lot more to say like Zootopia, or comes to a much more exciting climax like Aladdin (1992).  Encanto just feels like an exercise for the animators and less like a bold statement for the future of animation.  Perhaps where some of my disappointment comes from is the fact that this is a milestone film and that it generally feels a bit too small for that distinction.  All that said, there is still a lot to like with this movie.  The characters are likeable, the Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are catchy, and the animation is definitely top notch.  It’s just all put together in a way that felt like it wasn’t reaching it’s full potential.  For a milestone movie, I really think something more ambitious like Raya and the Last Dragon should have been given the pivotal milestone.  But, that’s just my opinion.  I’m sure Disney believed in this movie more and were happy to spotlight it.  It certainly shows that they are eager to continue working closely with Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Whether or not he continues to work with Disney more is uncertain, but this movie will likely be a good collaboration that both sides will be proud of.  Regardless of what I personally thought of Encanto, it is great to see Disney Animation reach this amazing milestone, and even more importantly, do so in the theatrical market.  I can definitely say that this is a movie that benefits from being shown on a big screen, and I’m sure that audiences will appreciate having that option available to them.  It is not an all time great, but Encanto is a perfectly fine piece of entertainment that will no doubt leave audiences happy and feeling as magical as the enchanted world they have been welcomed into.

Rating: 7/10