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Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – Review

It’s been a wild ride through the wastelands for the Mad Max franchise.  Began in 1979, Australian filmmaker George Miller created an icon with his shoestring budgeted original film.  And every movie since, he has upped the ante, making his world more dystopian and mythic in process.  The franchise helped to make a star out of Mel Gibson, and both he and Miller would continue to build their world with the even zanier sequels The Road Warrior  (1982) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).  After Thunderdome, Miller spent a long while figuring out where he wanted to take the adventures of Max Rockatansky next.  It would be another 30 years before the Wasteland would be seen once again on the big screen.  In that time, Miller spent his years dabbling in more family friendly fare like Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and Happy Feet (2006), but all the while he was continuing to brainstorm his next move with Mad Max.  Entering the 2010’s, he finally found the road he wanted to take, and he got Warner Brothers to bankroll his bold new vision for this classic action franchise.  But, there were going to have to be some changes.  For one, Mel Gibson had aged out of the part over the 30 plus years, in addition to a number of scandals that had diminished his star power.  In addition, the story would be less focused on continuing Max’s ongoing story and instead would be geared more around building the world around him into something far more epic and surreal.  It would still be a Mad Max movie, but it was about far more than one man’s journey.  And in particular, George Miller found himself becoming more intrigued about the possibilities involving a wholly new original character named Furiosa.  As we would soon discover, this new heroine would be the shining star of a new future for the Mad Max franchise.

The 30 year wait proved to be worth it, as Mad Max; Fury Road not only made a healthy gross at the box office but was also critically acclaimed as well.  Many even began to herald it as one of the greatest action films of all time, and it accomplished the unexpected task of earning 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, of which it ended up winning and impressive six total.  As far as action films go, Fury Road became a new high water mark for the industry, with audiences being wowed by it’s impressive stunt work and practical effects, as well as just the overall creative world-building throughout.  To create the film, Miller and his team spent months filming in the remote Namibian desert, which allowed them to create these massive scale stunts in a remote and desolate environment on a scale unseen before.  It very much invigorated the franchise in the way that George Miller had hoped for.  In addition, audiences loved the performances from the leads, with Tom Hardy filling the role of Max adequately and easily helping audiences get over the replacement of Mel Gibson in the role.  Charlize Theron brought an intensity to the role of Furiosa that made the character an instant favorite for both longtime fans and new ones as well.  It’s very clear that Furiosa and Mad Max are both the main character’s of Fury Road’s story and that Miller spent as much time figuring out her narrative as much as he had his iconic hero.  During all those 30 years in the process of making Fury Road, Miller had also spent years developing Furiosa’s backstory, including going so far as to writting a full draft of a movie that would have centered around her.  In his words, he wanted to fully understand her character before he made her such a central part of his new direction in the franchise.  After seeing Fury Road succeed as well as it did, Miller decided it was time to take another look at his script for a Furiosa movie, and he suddenly became interested in bringing it to the big screen as well.   It would take nearly another decade for that project to also become a reality, but now we George Miller making his return once again to the franchise that define his directorial career with this prequel adventure, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.

The story begins many years before the events of Fury Road, where we find a young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) living in the peaceful oasis known as the Green Place.  Outside of the Green Place is a vast desert known as the Wasteland, where the remnants of human civilization are scattered across as warring nomadic tribes.  One such tribe of motorcycle riding marauders invade the Green Place and kidnap Furiosa.  They take her back to their camp, where she meets their fearsome leader, Dementus (Chris Hemsworth).  Her mother, Mary Jabassa (Charlee Fraser) tries to save her from the camp, but the valiant attempt at a rescue ultimately fails, and Dementus ends up executing her in front of Furiosa, an act that the young girl would hold a grudge over for many years after.  Eventually, Dementus and his gang arrive in a part of the Wastelands that is lorded over by a man named Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), who resides in the fortress called The Citadel.  Immortan Joe’s forces, including the cult like faction know as the War Boys, prove too overwhelming for Dementus, but the ambitious madman decides to make more trouble by capturing the important stronghold known as Gastown, which supplies The Citadel with all it’s fuel.  Dementus and Immortan Joe strike a truce, but part of the deal involves Furiosa remaining within The Citadel as a future bride for one of Joe’s sons, Scrotus (Josh Helman) and Erectus (Nathan Jones).  Furiosa initially escapes her new captors, and lives anonymously in The Citadel, eventually becoming one of the mechanics.  Grown up Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) eventually develops a partnership with The Citadel’s top rig driver, Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke) who helps her gain the skills she’ll need to survive in such a dangerous world.  But in all this time, her heart is set on two main goals, to get her revenge on Dementus and return home.

There’s no doubt that following up the success of Mad Max: Fury Road was going to be hard, even with George Miller still firmly holding the reigns.  Fury Road is considered an all time classic and one of the most celebrated movies of the last decade.  Still, you can feel the desire with George Miller to tell this story in particular, leaving out the namesake action hero we all know in favor of exploring someone else’s tale in this same world.  It’s a risk to be sure, but also one that does fit within the greater narrative that Miller wants to tell.  Furiosa was undoubtedly the breakout star of Fury Road, and many fans agreed that she was a character capable of carrying a film all on her own.  So, with the work already done before cameras even rolled on Fury Road, Miller had the story he needed to deliver on the promise of Furiosa’s own movie.  Now, going into this film myself, my expectations were perhaps a bit different than most other people.  It may shock you, but I’ve been a bit more lukewarm on my opinions of Fury Road.  I certainly liked it a lot, but I fell a little short of believing it to be this unassailable masterpiece that stands among the greatest movies of all time.  To me, it was an above average action film that certainly impressed me with it’s creativity and craft, but not much else.  For me, I found it a bit light on story, or at least lacking in a story that I could latch onto and make me want to revisit it countless times after.  So, heading into Furiosa, my expectations were certainly not low, but were also hedge a bit, and after seeing the movie, I’d say that it hit about where I thought it would.  Just like Fury Road, I found it to be an impressively mounted and fairly entertaining movie, but nothing that is going to stand out to me as a masterpiece of cinema either.  It is neither a step down from Fury Road, nor does it exceed expectations.  It accomplished what it needed to do and nothing more.

It will be interesting to see the overall reactions that will follow this movie.  I imagine most people will react to it the same way that they did with Fury Road, because if there is one thing that George Miller certainly hasn’t lost his touch with it’s his ability to film an engaging action sequence.  But, there may be many out there that will come away disappointed and that’s solely because they hold Fury Road in such high regard and expected too much out of this follow-up.  One thing that may drive some of the division on this movie is that it is very much a different kind of movie than Fury RoadFury Road by all accounts is one long action sequence stretched across the entire length of the movie, which was the most thrilling aspect of the movie for many people, but for others like me it was what made the story feel a little flimsy.  In this regard, I feel like Furiosa improved on it’s predecessor a bit, because here we actually get a deeper storyline that actually explores the world of the Wasteland much more, including telling us more about the cultures that have formed in this dystopian world.  There are still some impressively mounted action set pieces, but they are supported by more character developing moments.  We even get more involved back stories with Fury Road characters like Immortan Joe and his followers, making them much more interesting as a result.  Though strangely enough, while so much more of the world gets richer detail in Furiosa, the main character herself kind of gets overlooked in the story.  I feel like George Miller used all of his best character development for Furiosa in Fury Road, and gives little to work with in this film.  She really has nothing more to her character than just acting tough and being a survivor.  We know her motivations, but Miller doesn’t give us any time to see what’s going on inside her mind; at least not as much in this film as he did with Fury Road.

Despite the lack of character in the way that Furiosa is written, she still manages to make an engaging protagonist thanks to Anya-Taylor Joy’s intense performance.  She certainly has big shoes to fill, as Charlize Theron was so iconic in the role.  But what makes Ms. Joy’s performance work so well is how she acts non-verbally in the movie.  Furiosa is actually a character of very few words in the movie, but with the expressions that Joy can deliver through her very expressive face, as well as cold-dead stares through those large distinctive eyes, she makes Furiosa a very intimidating presence.  She also holds her own in much of the film’s complex action set pieces.  You can tell this was a demanding role for her physically, even with the aid of stunt performers.  Going back to the early days of Mad Max, Miller always wanted his actors to be as involved in the action as much as possible, from Mel Gibson all the way up to Tom Hardy.  It’s a testament to Anya-Taylor Joy that she does as much on-screen stunts as she does on this film.  She also is backed up by an excellent ensemble of the best Aussie character actors in the business, many of whom have been in George Miller’s circle for years and have appeared in a number of his other movies.  Credit certainly is due to Lachy Hulme who took over the iconic role of Immortan Joe from the late Hugh Keays-Byrne, and doesn’t miss a beat.  But, the whole film truly belongs to Chris Hemsworth who creates a scene-stealling iconic performance as the villainous Dementus.  He delivers one of the most cartoonish villains in recent memory and he is just a blast to watch through the entire film.  It seemed like George Miller just told him to ratchet up Chris’ Australian accent to 1000% and he went to Crocodile Dundee and beyond.  Dementus is such a great character to watch and Hemsworth’s performance is worth the price of admission alone.

One other thing that I liked about this movie is that Miller is expanding upon the world that he has built for this franchise.  His Wasteland feels even bigger and more epic than we’ve ever seen before.  We do revisit the iconic location of The Citadel from Fury Road, which we see slightly more of in this movie.  But, Miller also finally shows us locations that were hinted at in the previous movie, but are now fully realized here in Furiosa.  In this movie, we finally see Gastown and the Bullet Farm, which are incredible set pieces in their own right. They also help to give the film a grander sense of scale that seems to find George Miller at his most ambitious level to date.  Fury Road was certainly big, but not particularly expansive in it’s world building.  The one thing that I do think Fury Road does have over Furiosa is that the action sequences had a bit more authenticity to them.  There was a lot of DIY action filmmaking going on in Fury Road, with the film accomplishing a lot in camera.  In Furiosa, in order to create this more expansive view of the world, Miller also makes more use of CGI to create the action set pieces.  Most of it still looks good, but you do still lose some of that remarkable practicality in the process.  I do like however the way that Miller’s style comes through in the editing of the film.  There are several moments where Miller will suddenly speed up the film itself on certain shots, which creates this fun disorienting effect.  He uses this a lot especially with zoom in on his characters when they are behind the driver’s seat of the the many different hot rod vehicles in the film.  It’s something that he carried over from Fury Road, and it’s nice to see it still being utilized well here.  It definitely shows that Miller has a lot of trust in his crew, as many of them are returning from their work on Fury Road, including Oscar winners like costume designer Jenny Beavan, production designers Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson, as well as the nominated Visual Effects team and composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL), all of whom once again deliver the goods here.  Even while a lot of things still look and feel the same, I do appreciate that this movie is not simple retread of the Fury Road formula.  Many people returned to work with George Miller again on this film, but they also did their best to add something new to the mix too.

Overall, like Fury Road there is a lot to admire about Furiosa, but it also doesn’t rise to the level of all time greats, at least in my opinion.  In general, I see Furiosa as a slight improvement, but it’s also a movie that feels less focused than it’s predecessor.  Furiosa comes pretty close to feeling a bit bloated at times with it’s lengthy 2 1/2 hour run time, making it by far the longest movie in the franchise.  Fury Road’s story may not have been a deep one, but it was a tightly constructed 2 hour story.  At the same time, I do appreciate that George Miller uses that extra time to give us a bigger scope of the world itself.  There are some spectacularly mounted sequences in this movie that Miller gives the right amount of time to.   The movie also features one of my favorite villainous characters in quite a while with Chris Hemsworth’s gloriously demented role as Dementus. Again, the movie is worth seeing just for him alone.  Anya-Taylor Joy does a pretty great job too in the title role, though I feel like the best Furiosa moments still belong with Charlize’s performance in Fury Road.  While it may not be what I consider to be the peak of action filmmaking (honestly I’ve been more impressed recently with the John Wick and Dune movies in that regard) it is still something that I would recommend seeing, just for the big screen spectacle of it all.  If you were a huge Fury Road fan, I would imagine that this film will deliver what you’re looking for.  Just don’t go in expecting the same kind of movie.  Furiosa is a different animal of a movie, one focused more on character and world-building than action set pieces, so hedge your expectations around that.  For me, it delivered about what I was expecting.  For a more lukewarm appreciator of the Mad Max franchise, I generally was pleased by what I saw, but it’s not going to be one of those movies that I’m going to necessarily revisit over and over again.  But one thing that I do find enormously impressive is that at the age of 79, George Miller is still delivering massively entertaining action films on this kind of scale without losing any of his edge.  He’s continuing to hold action film-making to a high standard, and even teaching the younger generation a thing or two.  For a veteran filmmaker like him, it’s inspiring to see him continue to be a fury road warrior at a time when most other filmmakers fall off into the far horizon.

Rating: 8/10

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes – Review

The Planet of the Apes franchise has had one of the most interesting histories in Hollywood.  When the original 1968 film that launched the series first premiered, it was heralded as a landmark in science fiction, famous for it’s groundbreaking make-up turning human actors into simian characters as well as it’s infamous twist ending.  But, what was groundbreaking in it’s time would lose it’s luster the longer the series went on.  The studio behind the Apes franchise, 20th Century Fox, continued to release more movies throughout the 70’s, and each one saw diminishing returns and dwindling budgets, before ultimately being shelved after the mediocre box office of the fifth movie, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).  As the films began to feel antiquated in the blockbuster era that followed, Planet of the Apes became something of a punchline of how not to make a science fiction movie.  But the original film remained an untouchable classic to many, and it would remain an influential film for a new crop of filmmakers coming into Hollywood.  One such filmmaker, the visionary Tim Burton, tried to give the Planet of the Apes franchise a refresh in 2001.  Unfortunately, despite having some fairly impressive and more realistic looking make-up for his cast, Burton’s remake couldn’t hold a candle to the legacy of the original.  It would take another decade before there was another serious attempt at bringing the franchise back to it’s former glory.  With the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Fox managed to find renewed life in the series with a much more effective tool at their disposable; motion capture computer imaging.  The technology could effectively mimic an actors performance into a CGI sculpted model and have that digital creation feel authentically lifelike.  The rubber masks of the old Planet of the Apes were now obsolete, because an actor could now embody their characters fully within the skin of a real looking ape.

Of course, it also mattered who was in the digital monkey suit.  One of the reasons why the newer Planet of the Apes movies worked as well as they did is because they featured a standout performance from an actor who has made his whole career through excelling in motion capture performances.  Andy Serkis, who had also famously brought the creature Gollum to amazing life in The Lord of the Rings trilogy through the same motion capture process, helped to push the boundaries of this technology even further.  Each film in the most recent batch of Apes movies keeps improving on the technology to where the seams between the digital characters and the live action environments are pretty much seamless, and Andy Serkis is so comfortable performing with the technology that every subtle gesture gets perfectly translated.  And it helps that the story and characters are compelling enough to get us invested in the movie’s narrative.  For Andy Serkis, he couldn’t have asked for a better character to embody than the ape Caesar.  While Rise certainly laid the groundwork for a strong return of the franchise, it wasn’t really until director Matt Reeves took the helm that the franchise found it’s core strength and achieved it’s greatest success.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) were critically acclaimed epic adventures that really showed off the potential that this franchise had long promised.  With Serkis’ passionate performance, outstanding visual effects work, and intense action film-making, the Caesar Trilogy as it is now called has helped to bring Planet of the Apes  back to the high place it once had in the annals of great science fiction.  But, the Caesar trilogy also was a story with a definitive end, as the franchise also put to rest it’s central character in War with a heartfelt heroes exit.  For the franchise to continue, things were going to have to start fresh, especially after the Fox/Disney merger has shaken up things even more.  Still, 20th Century Studios knows the value of one of the marquee franchises, and a new era begins this weekend with the release of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes takes place many generations into the future.  The remnants of human civilization have been reclaimed by nature, and the memory of Caesar has now evolved into the legend of Caesar.  Various tribes of Ape cultures now roam the planet, all with their own customs and beliefs that guide their internal societies.  We meet a young ape named Noa (Owen Teague) who belongs to a tribe of apes that have trained and domesticated eagles.  As part of a rite of passage, Noa must care for an unhatched eagle egg, but through an accident he has ended up smashing the one that was in his care.  Hoping to retrieve a replacement, Noa leaves his village in the middle of the night.  But on his way to the nesting grounds, he stumbles upon an ambush from another ape tribe, who are heading for his village.  He returns to find his home set afire and his whole family taken away as hostages.  With nothing left, Noa leaves his smoldering village behind to track down the marauding apes in hopes of rescuing the rest of his family.  Out in the wild, he stumbles upon the encampment of an old sage ape named Raka (Peter Macon), who devotes his life to spreading the teachings of Caesar to any civilized ape society that he can.  He agrees to help Noa on his quest, using his knowledge of the wider world to give them a better sense of where they must travel.  On the road, they discover that they are being followed by a human girl (Freya Allan).  Roka names the girl Nova, as he does for all humans, and Noa observes that she is smarter than most of the other humans that he has encountered.  Human kind has turned feral after the same virus that gave apes intelligence also took away their ability to speak, but Nova seems more aware of what the apes are saying to one another.  The trio of travelers soon find where Noa’s tribe has been taken.  They are being held at a makeshift fortress made out of old tanker ships, which is lorded over by a tyrannical ape lord named Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), who keeps an intelligent human companion by his side named Trevathan (William H. Macy).  Can Noa save his family and stop Proximus from seeking more ultimate power as the ape lord attempts to open up an ancient human bunker?

One of the smart things that this movie does is that it doesn’t try to give you too much homework to digest upfront.  If you have never seen any Planet of the Apes movie before this, you’ll be able to catch on pretty quickly.  This is a complete refresh of the franchise, putting it somewhere in between the Caesar era where the origins of the Planet of the Apes started from and the far futuristic era of the original classic, allowing this movie to exist as it’s own thing.  Sure, if you have followed along with the franchise from the beginning, there are plenty of legacy call outs in the movie that will be fun Easter eggs for longtime fans, but they never take away from the story that this one is telling.  And as far as both a continuation of what’s come before as well as a kick off for what’s to come next, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes does an excellent job accomplishing it’s mission.  What I especially love about this movie is the world building.  Director Wes Ball previously worked on the Maze Runner series, and despite what you may think about the storytelling of those YA adaptations, the one thing that Ball does excel at is giving his worlds a very lived in feel.  In particular, he is excellent at blending the natural world with a mechanical one.  Here, this style is used effectively to convey a world where human civilization has fallen and all the infrastructure that we left behind has turned into ruin.  The way that Ball visualizes this is striking, with things like skyscrapers and bridges appearing as these silent sentinels in dense jungles the same way that we view the Mayan temples and the Pyramids of Giza today.  A lot of it is subtly placed in many scenes, as what looks like a cliff face at first glance reveals itself to be the wall of what once was a tall building.  The mix of the natural world and the crumbling remains of the modern world is effectively immersive in this movie and the overall effect helps to make the story all the more engaging.  It does make me excited about what director Wes Ball has next for us, as his next project will be a live action adaptation of The Legend of Zelda video game series; a job that I believe he is well suited for given what he has done here.

The film’s narrative is also effectively told, if at times a bit predictable.  One thing that I do like is that the movie keeps the focus small, even though the setting is epic.  Like the Caesar movies before it, Kingdom doesn’t try to telling a grander, global story and instead focuses on the the journey that our central characters take.  The previous films gave us a sense of the greater world conflict through just the eyes of Caesar, and this movie does the same with Noa.  It is ultimately his story, and the movie works best when it allows the world to unfold through his experience.  What I thought was especially surprising in this movie was the fact that it had some interesting things to say about religion.  We see both the good and the bad influences that religion can have on a society, especially one that is still in it’s infancy like those of the apes.  In this movie, Caesar has become something of a Christ figure to the apes, and their attempts at proto civilizations on the foundations of their newly enlightened consciousness seem to circle around their creation of a new faith.  In some cases, there are apes like Roka who take the teachings of Caesar and try to use them to seek peaceful ways of life.  Then there are others like Proximus who use the name and words of Caesar to justify his own evil deeds.  You can see the hallmarks of early Christianity in these different followers of Caesar, and I thought that it offered a very interesting subtext to the movie.  It also plays well into Noa’s story, as his journey begins without him being aware of this new religion to begin with.  By movie’s end, he soon learns that the apes view much of Caesar’s example through his own growth as a leader.  The movie also delivers this subtly, as it doesn’t try to hit you over the head with any obvious Christ allegory.  This is still a Planet of the Apes movie after all, and most of the film still centered around a lot of action, which can sometimes feel like overkill as it’s just adding more run time.  Still, allegory has also been a trademark of the Apes franchise, so it is still in character for the franchise.

With the story starting fresh, it is definitely important to create engaging characters for us to follow along with.  The issue that this movie had to overcome was that it was going to be missing the character of Caesar, who has been one of the most captivating characters in recent cinema history.  Andy Serkis also set a high bar when it comes to how to act through motion capture, as his performance was so nuanced and powerful even through the CGI transfer.  Thankfully, the cast of this movie manages to rise to the challenge.  It really shows how far this motion capture technology has advanced to where the filmmakers can confidently fill nearly all the roles with actors performing through CGI avatars.  As the newer Planet of the Apes movies have come along, the ratio of live action to motion capture characters has completely flipped.  Now the humans are greatly outnumbered by the apes, with only two major roles given to the humans this time around.  The most daunting assignment was to have a character to stand out in the place of Caesar as the new protagonist.  Thankfully, Noa is a compelling enough character to carry this movie.  It helps that he’s a bit more juvenile than Caesar was, only just reaching manhood and not as confident in his abilities from the start.  He’s a character with a lot of room to grow and that he does throughout the movie.  Owen Teague also does a fine job of making him a well rounded character as a result, and he perfectly picks up from where Andy Serkis left off in creating that balance between simian and human.  Peter Macon also brings some wonderful levity into the story as Raka, the one character who’s able to bring optimism and humor into an otherwise bleak world.  And though he doesn’t factor in until late into the movie, Kevin Durand is an effective menacing presence as Proximus.  Sadly it’s the human characters that feel the least fleshed out.  Freya Allan does the best she can as the human girl Nova, and she does convincingly shares her scenes with her digital co-stars, but the script sadly makes her character a bit too much of an enigma.

The film’s visual are also impressively realized.  I already talked a bunch about the world-building, but the reason why it works so well is because the film balances it’s visual and practical effects to perfection.  The practical elements work because there are actual actors interacting in natural environments.  The motion capture technology allows for actors to still perform their scenes on set with special tracking suits, and the technology has improved to the point where they can actually do this effect outdoors without the need for a controlled digital environment.  That’s why these Planet of the Apes movies have been the best showcase for this technology, because it’s been the best testing ground for every new challenge for the digital artists.  The CGI models for the apes are also becoming more impressive with each movie.  At times, even in fully sunlit scenes, the ape characters hold up really well and maintain their integrity to the point where you really believe that they are there.  The visual effects also do a great job of giving this movie an epic feel.  This movie definitely feel like the grandest we’ve seen so far in this series, and this is a movie that demands being seen on the biggest screen possible.  There’s also a lot of other things to like about the presentation of the movie, including the musical score.  Longtime Planet of the Apes fans will appreciate the call backs to past musical scores in the franchise, including an especially noticeable reference to the original film’s theme written by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith.  The new composer John Paesano clearly is familiar with the soundscape of this franchise, and this is one of the most ambitious sounding scores we have heard yet.  Overall, it elevates the Planet of the Apes  into a different register, and it’s a clear sign of the new direction that the series wants to take in the future, going from the camp of the original movies, to the grittiness of the Caesar Trilogy, to what is likely going to be a more epic adventure in what is anticipated to be a whole new trilogy.

Regardless of where the franchise goes next, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is still a great stand alone movie on it’s own that both honors it’s legacy but also lays the groundwork for something special yet to come.  It shows that this half century old franchise still has a few tricks up it’s sleeve left to play.  What has really worked to the franchises favor is it’s embrace and practical use of motion capture technology.  The series knows how to make the best use of this tool by having it be no more than just the extension of the actors performance.  If the character and the actors portraying them weren’t compelling, no one would care and it would be just a gimmick.  But actors like Andy Serkis have shown that you can not only give a captivating performance through motion capture, you can even make it Oscar worthy, and it’s characters like Caesar that have proven how best to work with this kind of technology.  Kingdom shows us that we can now fill a whole cast of characters with actors performing through this technique, and that indicates some very promising new horizons that could be possible in the future for cinema.  Even still, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is still a worthy addition to this long running franchise, and it is well worth seeing, especially on a big screen.  It’s lush world building and surprisingly philosophical story also make it a richer film experience than you would expect.  It may not consistently reach the emotional heights as some of the Caesar Trilogy movies, but there are still plenty of exciting and memorable moments to help make this more than just your average popcorn flick.  I certainly am excited to see where the series goes from here.  Will it actually dove tail into the events of the original classic? Imagine if all of this is going on while Charlton Heston’s astronaut is still lost in deep space.  I’m happy that this movie is dependent on trying to tie all the lore together, but rather is more interested creating new bits of lore to expand upon.  In any case, we have an exciting future to look forward to with this new chapter in the Apes franchise and Kingdom is an adventure worth taking this summer at the movies.

Rating: 8/10

Civil War – Review

It’s no mystery that we are in polarizing times.  With online discourse fanning the flames of mundane disagreements into profound cultural wedges, it’s as difficult as it has ever been to discuss anything civilly anymore.  This is especially true when discussing media, as too many people are quick to project their own prejudices upon any new TV show or film without ever having seen one second of it.  Sometimes you’ll get a film that can rise above the “culture war” attacks, like last year’s Barbie (2023) did, but too often a new movie that tries to shake up the normal formula will be subjugated to attacks from purists, or people who are just looking to stir up controversy just for the clicks.  While online discourse is tiresome when it delves into “culture war” discussions, there is also the growing anxiety that is rising from the lack of accountability in our media coverage.  We are at a point where accountability can not keep up with the quickness of viral social media, and misinformation has become rampant in our culture.  Before the truth wills out, the misinformation will sadly have taken hold with too many people, and this has led to the rise of radicalization which leads to increasingly tense situations in our society.  Worries about rising violence in our communities are becoming ever more a concern in today’s age, and that makes many people wonder if our union as a nation is heading toward a cataclysmic end.  With that worry circulating in our culture, it makes one wonder how movies of this era will document the moment we are living in.  Given how “culture war” discussions have become so toxic in recent years, any movie or show that tries to take it head on is likely to face a heavy bit of scrutiny and resistance.  And stirring up controversy is something that the major movie studios are keen to avoid.  Luckily there are risk takers out there like A24 who are willing to stick their necks out and make a movie that at the very least tries to put some perspective on what a moment like this could lead us towards.

Into this tumultuous time comes a new film from Writer and Director Alex Garland.  Garland first gained notoriety for his gritty and grounded screenplay for the zombie flick 28 Days Later (2002), which was directed for the screen by Danny Boyle.  Garland would contribute a number of other celebrated screenplays before ultimately stepping behind the camera himself.  His directorial debut, Ex Machina (2015) was lauded for it’s subtle, grounded portrayal of the perils of unchecked A.I. implementation, and how it could wreck havoc by blurring the lines between reality and artificiality.  It also won a surprise academy award for it’s visual effects, which did a remarkable job of transforming actress Alicia Vikander into a humanoid robot.  Garland’s follow-up, Annihilation (2018) was even more of a mind-trip, bringing a new twist to the alien invasion subgenre of Science Fiction.  He left his Sci-Fi comfort zone with the horror thriller Men (2022), which is his most divisive film to date, as well as his least successful at the box office.  Coming off of that, he is embarking on his most ambitious film yet as a filmmaker with a scenario that feels eerily timely.  Civil War (2024) imagines a scenario where the United States of America has broken out into a second civil war.  It’s a risky type of movie to make  because in this kind of climate, especially in an election year, too many people are going to try to project their own political views upon the movie, which could either drive people away or be misinterpreted as something it is not.  Before the movie even was released, some pundits were poking holes in the premise of the movie, noting that the U.S. government in the film is at war with an alliance of the states of California and Texas, which of course is not something that could happen today given that both of those state’s governments are polar opposites in their political make-up at the moment.  But, Alex Garland is not telling a story about America as it is now, but is instead imagining an America that could exist and telling us a story about the people who would be caught up in the chaos that a modern Civil War could bring.

The subjects of Alex Garland’s Civil War are not the main players in this nation at war with itself, but rather the people who are risking their lives trying to capture the memory of it.  It’s a story about a rag tag group of journalists who risk their lives in order to capture the brutal reality of the war as it happens.  We meet Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura), two Reuters affiliated documentarians who are partnered up as they cover rioting in the war torn city of New York.  Lee is a celebrated veteran photographer who has seen one too many wars in her lifetime, while Joel is an interviewer who craves the adrenaline rush of combat.  While they make rest in their hotel, they have a conversation with a veteran New York Times journalist named Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who was once a mentor to the two.  They let it slip to Sammy that their next goal is to head to Washington D.C. and get an exclusive interview with the President of the United States (Nick Offerman).  Sammy tells them it’s a suicide mission, as the Western Forces of California and Texas have advanced far into the Government’s territory and are now encircling the Capital.  And if they even make it past the frontlines and into D.C., the President’s army has been ordered to shoot all intruders, including journalists.  Lee and Joel still remain determined, and they even offer Sammy a ride knowing that he has the same goal that they do.  Before they make their treacherous trip southward, the team takes on another passenger, a young freelance photographer named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) who looks up to Lee and wants to get her first taste of combat coverage.  The four passengers head out on a Heart of Darkness like journey through the depths of the once prosperous nation now brought to ruin through conflict.  Through it, they experience the extremes of both sides of the battle, and even have run ins with psychopaths who thrive in the chaos of war.  And as they get closer to Washington, D.C., the more violent and dark the world becomes.

Suffice to say, Alex Garland’s Civil War is not an easy movie to watch.  The film is very blunt about the atrocities of war and how it is often impossible to decipher who are the good and bad guys in the moment of battle.  It’s a very smart move on Garland’s part to not make the movie about the politics of the the two warring sides, but instead center the movie on the journalists who put their lives on the line in order to document the events that take place.  Now the movie is not entirely apolitical; the film does portray the President as a despotic dictator who has committed atrocities in the past against the American people as a means to hold onto power, and the timing of the story puts the conflict in it’s final days where the Government is on it’s last legs, showing definitively who the victors in this war will be.  But that’s all background noise.  Garland’s movie doesn’t try to hold up a mirror to our current political climate, but rather makes us the audience understand the gruesome nature of war by showing us an all too realistic portrayal of modern combat in a setting which hasn’t seen combat on it’s soil since the first Civil War.  The movie’s message is that there’s nothing glamourous about fighting in a war, and that the hard work of wartime journalists is terrifying but also essential.  And that’s what makes the movie such a profound experience that really needs to be experienced.  If anything, this is a more essential movie than anything that would have carried a more pointed political argument.  Anyone who trivializes the nature of war and thinks that another Civil War fought in this country would be an ideal outcome in order to silence those who disagree with them should be required to watch this movie and see what a folly that would be.  It’s a profound statement that I’m happy to see Alex Garland make.

Despite working with a bigger canvas and budget, Garland’s Civil War is still just as grounded as most of his other movies.  Garland’s directorial style is not flashy and remains centered and precise, giving us a very you are there feel.  This helps very much with the world building of the movie.  The America in this film is not some post-Apocalyptic hellscape, but rather a country that still looks familiar and somewhat in tact, but has been scarred by battle.  One of the things that this movie reminded me of is the recent Best Documentary winner at this year’s Academy Awards, 20 Days in Mariupol (2023), which was a movie compiled of footage from real war journalists who captured the early days of the Ukraine-Russian war in 2022 in the titular war torn city.  Having seen that documentary and the horrible things that it shows, you see the desperate ways that people try to hold their cities together even as war is trying to tear it apart.  Places that were once peaceful suddenly become devoid of life and littered with the reminders of war, like the wreckage of a helicopter in a mall parking lot, or an apartment high rise turned into a swiss cheese like ruin through constant shelling.  In Garland’s film, he juxtaposes those images in profound ways that constantly reminds you of how fragile peacetime can be, and how things we just take for granted can be taken away suddenly.  Suddenly, a routine gas station stop could turn into a life or death situation depending on how you interact with the locals.  There are times in the movie where I do feel Garland’s imagination does exceed the limitations of his budget, as some of the rendering with the visual effects do look a little cheap and it breaks the illusion, but thankfully these are rare as the movie presents the majority of the action in ground level depictions of combat.  And this is definitely a movie that benefits from a robust sound system as the battle scenes are loud and intense.

The staging of the battle scenes are definitely the highlight of the movie, as Alex Garland puts you right on the ground in the midst of it all.  You really experience the battles in this movie the way that the war journalists would.  One thing that I really liked in this movie is the emphasis it puts on capturing moments in combat that will inevitably be what the war leaves behind and frames it’s history.  This is shown in the film as snapshots taken by the characters of Lee and Jessie.  As the battle scenes play out, you see the characters aim their cameras and then the movie pauses for a second and displays the still photo that they just took, with the sound also being paused in that scene to emphasize the singular documentation that has been made.  It makes you think of the war photographs that have survived throughout history and how those brief moments have shaped our understanding of what the wars were, from something triumphant like the flag raising in the Battle of Iwo Jima to something horrific like the pained faces of the survivors of the My Lai Massacre.  A picture can say a thousand words, and this movie puts an emphasis on what it means to capture a moment that matters in a battleground photograph.  Jessie even uses an older model camera that runs on film, and she is able to capture her subjects in an even grittier black and white image.  While the movie is limited in budget, it nevertheless feels big when viewed through the eyes of the characters in this movie.  This is especially true in the climatic battle in Washington D.C. at the end of the film.  The movie doesn’t try to be epic in it’s depiction of a fortified D.C., but rather shows us what it likely would look like in a realistic sense, meaning crude barricades quickly built in an urban setting.  The battle scenes are still shot in an impressive way by cinematographer Rob Hardy where you do feel the scope of the conflict as it’s happening, and it’s definitely the type of movie that benefits from the biggest possible screen.

A lot of the success of the movie comes down to the authenticity of the performances in the film.  We know very little about the characters other than what their jobs are, and they only give us the briefest of backstory.  Mainly, it’s up to the actors to define these personalities, and the cast assembled does an outstanding job.  Kirsten Dunst does an especially great job of conveying a person who is just numb to all the violence that surrounds her.  There’s a great moment in the movie where she is just silently staring off in the direction of a battle that is glowing in the distance under a night sky, and her face just reads this hardened, jaded lack of optimism that tells you so much about her character.  But Kirsten also does a great job of showing those brief moments of warmth, especially when Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie manages to crack through that wall with her more upbeat personality.  Spaeny also does a great job of portraying that spunky, novice personality within Jessie that you watch get broken down as she gets into increasingly hairier situations.  Wagner Moura provides the movie with some of it’s brief moments of levity with his gun ho adrenaline junkie portrayal of Joel, who often is the one that has to break the ice in tense situations.  Veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson also does a wonderful job of rounding out the quartet with his soulful portrayal of the seasoned and wise journalist Sammy.  Nick Offerman, who only briefly appears in the movie, still leaves a strong impression as the lightning rod of a President at the center of the conflict, wisely choosing to not emulate any specific familiar political figure and instead making him one that eerily feels too normal, hiding the fact that in the context of this movie that he’s committed horrible atrocities.  What the movie also does a great job with is make all of the minor characters stand out as well.  Each new encounter the characters make along the way adds to the tension of the movie, and all the supporting actors do a great job of creating these civilians who are barely hanging on, often through brutal and desperate means.  One particular standout is a cameo from Jesse Plemons as a white supremacist mercenary that becomes an especially terrifying obstacle for the main characters.

I don’t know if this is the kind of movie that will change hearts and minds with regard to the divisive cultural situation we are in right now.  But, as a cinematic experience, it’s an exceptional piece of work that know doubt will leave an impression on it’s audience.  There will be some who will try to frame the movie in a way that fits their own agenda; you would have to think that the movie is courting that a bit by calling itself Civil War.  But, upon watching the movie, you’ll see that there is a universal story about survival in here and also about fighting to capture the truth in the moment so that it can be preserved and remembered for future generations to learn from it.  Alex Garland and the actors in the movie have said in interviews that this movie is meant to be a love letter to journalism, and specifically to front line journalists who put their life on the lines to document the truth.  At a time when so many politicians and media personalities are trying to gaslight people into believing an alternate reality that suits their fortunes through misinformation, the work of these independent, battlefront journalists is even more essential than ever and Civil War does an excellent job of showing us the important role that they play.  We are seeing the important work of these journalists making an impact right now with conflicts happening in both Ukraine and the Gaza Strip.  What makes Civil War feel so impactful is that it is bringing that unimaginable situation home and showing us how fleeting our domestic peacetime situation can be.  We trivialize the idea of a domestic civil war, and in some grotesque cases even fantasize about it, but if one were to break out here in America it would have devastating effects that ruins the lives of everyone involved, and this movie does an effective job of communicating that bleak scenario.  Hopefully it makes audiences more aware of how devastating modern warfare is on those countries that are living through today.  It’s not a perfect war film; some of Garland’s creative choices do undermine the impact of the harshest scenes, especially some needle drop choices that feel a bit out of place.  But as an overall experience, Civil War is harrowing and thought provoking in all the right ways, and in many moments hauntingly beautiful to look at.  And to see wartime journalism at it’s finest, please also seek out the Oscar-winning 20 Days in Mariupol, though prepare yourself first for some harsh, graphic content as part of the experience.  Civil War may be a dramatized depiction of war through a scenario very much separated from our current political situation, but there is a lot of truth in the story that it is telling with regards to the people who live through such times as depicted in the movie, and it hopefully acts as a cautionary tale for us as we grow more and more closer to having our own petty conflicts flare up into something much worse.

Rating: 8.5/10

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire – Review

It’s not an easy time for a franchise like the Legendary Pictures “Monsterverse” to be around in theaters.  Audiences in general are growing tired of interconnected movie “universes” are are more interested now in movies that feel fresh and diverse.  Hollywood is having to adjust accordingly to this shift after spending much of the last decade milking audiences with promises of mega-franchises based on interconnected IP.  Marvel certainly was the trend-setter with their massively successful Cinematic Universe (MCU), but even they are seeing the writing on the wall and are reigning in their universe expansion in order to make their films more successful.  Other franchises are either re-booting completely, like DC, or were just abandoned completely before being fully matured, like Universal’s Dark Universe.  But unlike all of those, the Monsterverse, a franchise built around iconic kaiju beasts like Godzilla and King Kong, has managed to defy gravity and keep growing with every new film.  It helps that the franchise didn’t exactly explode right out of the gate.  2014’s Godzilla, a modern day reimagining of the iconic monster’s debut directed by Gareth Edwards (Rogue One) was a bit of a disappointment for many.  It was visually impressive, but ended up taking itself far too seriously and as a result became something of a bore.  What a lot of critics rightly pointed out as the strengths of the movie were the brief moments where we actually saw Godzilla fighting other monsters, and that this should have been the focus of the movie all along and not the bland human characters.  While the sequel, Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019) basically fell into the same trap of boring subplots with cool looking monster fights, it was clear that Legendary Pictures were taking in the feedback and were looking at different ways to make their franchise work.

One of the answers came in the response to their debut of their other marquee movie monster; King Kong.  Kong: Skull Island (2017) was radically different in tone from the first two Godzilla movies; with a more relaxed and comical flavor to the human storyline.  It showed that the franchise worked better when it didn’t take itself too seriously and actually leaned on it’s more absurd elements.  This shift in strategy came an an opportune time because what awaited next for the Monsterverse was the highly anticipated crossover of the two icons.  Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) was a matchup that everyone had been eager to see happen, in many cases for decades.  The last time these monsters shared the big screen together, they were played by guys in rubber suits.  Now, with the full arsenal of CGI tricks at their disposal, Legendary was able to create a showdown between these titans that could truly feel as massive as the monsters themselves.  But, at the same time, Godzilla vs. Kong was a movie that demonstrated the lessons that Legendary had learned in building their franchise, giving the monster fights the spotlight, and keeping everything in between light and entertaining.  In the end, the movie accomplished it’s goal.  Released into theaters and on streaming at a time when the pandemic was still raging was risky, so it’s a real testament that Godzilla vs. Kong flourished even in those conditions.  It was the movie we really needed in that time, a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser that was worth taking the risk to see on a big screen.  Another smart move made by Legendary in their franchise plan was to accompany their new phase of the Monsterverse with a world-building spin-off series on Apple TV called Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, which gives back story to the in universe agency that monitors and sometimes protects these colossal monsters.  Overall, Legendary has successfully managed to maintain steady growth in their franchise while so many others have fallen off in recent years.  And the next chapter of their story comes in the second film teaming up the franchise’s two marquee stars with the awkwardly titled Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.  The question remains whether the Monsterverse continues to reign supreme, or is it going to crumble like so many other cinematic universes.

The movie picks up shortly after the events of Godzilla vs. Kong.  After Godzilla and King Kong put aside their rivalry to defeat the more dangerous Mecha Godzilla, they agree to settle with both remaining as from from each other as possible, ensuring harmony for the human civilization that has continually been in their crosshairs.  Godzilla will live on the surface world and ensure his dominance over other titans there, while Kong will live in the freshly discovered hollow earth world beneath the surface of the planet.  Meanwhile, the Monarch agency keeps tabs on both of these rivals and watches their activity closely, with bases even set up in the Hollow Earth.  On one particular observance, the Monarch team picks up mysterious electro-magnetic signals coming from deep within the planet, even beyond Kong’s domain.  The signals even trigger the young tribal girl Jia (Kaylee Hottle) who had befriended Kong on his Skull Island home.  Jia has been in the care of Monarch agent Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), and Jia is worried that the signals are going to trigger another war between Kong and Godzilla, as both monsters are again converging on the surface world.  Andrews seeks additional help in trying to understand what may have triggered this mysterious event, so she seeks the advice of conspiracy theorist and hollow earth expert Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), who figures out that the signal seems to be a distress call; but from where?  Andrews enlists Hayes’ assistance, as well as the help of an old colleague and current titan veterinarian named Trapper (Dan Stevens) as they embark on a journey into Hollow Earth to see where the signal may be coming from.  Meanwhile, Kong digs deeper into a deeper part of Hollow Earth that has been revealed from an earthquake.  There he finds an unexplored country with even more diverse wildlife.  And as he soon finds out, he is not the only titan sized ape in existence.  Is the signal meant to warn of an even greater danger hidden deeper under the surface of the Earth, and is it a big enough threat to make King Kong and Godzilla reluctant allies once again.

The thing that made Godzilla vs. Kong work so well is that it knew exactly what it needed to be and delivered.  We paid to see those two monsters fight, and the movie did not disappoint on that front, not wasting any time getting to the nitty gritty with the matchup happening as early as the first act of the film.  It had to live up to that title and director Adam Wingard understood the assignment.  Was it silly and ridiculous, yes, but that was part of the charm.  Godzilla vs. Kong was not afraid to lean into the absurd, especially when it came to the human characters and their part to play in the movie.  It was refreshing after the misplaced pathos of Gareth Edwards’ depressing Godzilla.  Did Adam Wingard, who returns to direct A New Empire, manage to repeat that balancing act with this new movie.  Well, let me just say that when it comes to the plot and character writing of this movie, this is probably the dumbest film in the franchise to date.  There are so many plot contrivances and non-sensical motivations on the part of the characters.  The dialogue is also heavy handed and loaded with exposition.  But, is the movie still a load of fun to watch even with all those shortcomings?  Absolutely.  What ultimately works in the movie’s favor is that it still understands what the big draw of this movie is, and that is getting to see giant monsters fighting each other, and director Wingard rightly puts the emphasis on that first and foremost.  The only thing that works against that this time around is that the movie takes a bit more extra time to get started.  The first act of the movie is honestly hard to get through, as it focuses primarily on catching up with the human characters, which as we know are the weakest element of this franchise.  But once the movie shifts it’s focus towards the monsters themselves, the movie does pick up and thankfully keeps building.  Unfortunately, the sluggish first act does keep the movie from truly being a great film and makes it a lesser follow-up to Godzilla vs. Kong.  But, if you can make it through that opening, the rest of the movie is one wild and entertaining ride.

What I found to be especially effective are the moments when the human characters are away and we just focus on the kaiju themselves.  The title of this movie is a bit misleading because this is primarily Kong’s movie.  Godzilla is little more than a supporting player, only playing a major part towards the end in the film’s climatic battle.  Thankfully, Kong himself is able to carry the movie on his own.  The movie is at it’s best when we focus on his story.  In fact, there are a surprisingly abundant sequences of this film where we follow along with Kong on his journey and there is no dialogue throughout those scenes.  The movie becomes a bit of a silent movie at this point, with Kong entirely conveying character non-verbally through pantomime.  We see him encounter the other giant apes in the underground world, and though we can’t understand what they say through their grunts and screams, we still are able to read the scene through their gesturing.  Honestly, it would be a neat cinematic experiment to have a kaiju movie done entirely like these moments, without a single word of dialogue.  Something tells me that the thought has crossed Adam Wingard’s mind, and this movie seems to be a test of sorts for if they could do a Monsterverse movie entirely through the perspective of one of the titans, with no human characters at all.  There’s no doubt that these are the most captivating moments of the entire movie, and it’s a real testament to the effectiveness of this Monsterverse franchise that we actually care that much about a character like King Kong at all.  The only thing that would’ve made it better is if more attention was paid to the character development of Godzilla as well.  Godzilla is no more than the brutish, atomic breath spewing monster that we are all familiar with, and not much else is made of his, which is probably why the filmmakers chose to sideline him for most of the movie.  Thankfully when he does enter back into the story it’s a triumphant moment.  But, it’s understandable that Kong is given the lion’s share of screen time, because he is the one grounded mostly in the human world.  He has that connection to civility, and that helps to make him a highly expressive and even introspective character.

So, what about the troublesome human characters.  Well, the script of course doesn’t do the cast any favors.  It’s to the actors credit that they can make the most out of the often clunky dialogue that they are given.  I think another plus of the Monsterverse movies is that they don’t clutter up their films by focusing on too many characters.  It is interesting how many times they establish new characters to this ongoing franchise and then just abandon them without much explanation.  None of the characters from the original 2014 Godzilla made it very far in this franchise.  The only carry overs to the sequel were the Monarch agents played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins.  Watanabe’s character does die on screen, but Hawkins’ character has been dropped completely out of the story.  In King of the Monsters, it looked like actress Millie Bobby Brown was being set up as the new main character, and while she did play a minor part in Godzilla vs. Kong, she is now completely absent in The New Empire with no mention of her character anywhere.  Instead, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry and Kaylee Hottle are the sole carry overs.  In a way, that works to the movies benefit having a smaller cast because it allows for the human story to be as brief as possible so that the parts with the monsters can take center stage.  The actors are fine, and though he’s a bit of a cheesy character overall, Dan Stevens does make for a colorful addition to the series.  It’s not really necessary to include a continuation of the human storyline at all, as these monster movies have never really been about continuity before.  But it definitely works towards making Monarch a constant fixture in this franchise, one in which all of the world-building revolves around.  While the human characters will come and go, Monarch as an organization will be the thing that connects this whole universe together across all the films.  Again, this movie knows where to put it’s focus with regards to balancing the human and monster storylines.

One of the other elements that really shines in this movie are the visuals.  Hollow Earth has been one of the best creations of this franchise so far, and The New Empire does a great job of expanding on what we’ve seen so far.  The movie also has a sense of scale that is impressive, making the titan creatures feel appropriately massive.  I also commend the CGI animators for bringing so much character into the character of Kong.  He is incredibly expressive throughout the movie and that helps to make the lengthy sequences of just him without the humans around all the more captivating.  He is a fully rounded character and given that we can only get that through non-verbal communication with Kong is a pretty good indication of the strength of the animation that was used to bring him to life.  Godzilla is a bit more limited when it comes to expressions, but the movie does a fine job of making Godzilla a believable presence as well.  What I also think is a key factor in this movie is the excellent sound design as well.  I watched this movie in an IMAX theater with the loudest sound system possible, and this movie definitely makes great use of it’s soundscape.  Every time you hear Godzilla’s iconic screech of a roar, it is something to be feared.  The sound design also helps to give you a sense of the scale of these creatures, as there is a weight to their presence, especially in the heavy uses of bass in their actions.  Even just listening to Godzilla sleep is chilling as every breath he takes in slumber sounds like rolling thunder.  Kong’s massive presence also benefits from the sound design, especially in the punches he dishes out as well as the ones he takes.  There’s also a beautiful use of color in the movie, especially when the film ventures deeper into the lost world found within the chasm discovered in the Hollow Earth.  Also, Godzilla sporting a pink color scheme after an atomic power up is a nice visual idea that really helps to set this movie apart from others in the franchise.  It’s a sign that the Monsterverse is a franchise willing to take some creative risks and more importantly not be afraid to get a little weird as well.

The one downside to this movie is that it doesn’t have the same beginning to end level of fun as Godzilla vs. Kong had.  The sluggish first act does weigh it down unfortunately.  But, one it finds it’s rhythm and manages to let loose, The New Empire can actually be a lot of fun.  It’s just the right amount of stupid without crossing into the insufferable.  The movie could’ve easily have been mishandled, especially if it took even more time trying to catch up with everything that has gone on with the human characters.  The movie knows that the humans are the true B-plot, and it just gives us enough about them to care a little about their journey while not letting it distract from the main attraction which are the monster fights.  There are some great battle scenes in this movie, with Kong especially showing of some incredible moves.  The movie also rewards audiences who have followed along with the whole Monarch linked elements of the franchise, while at the same time not making it confusing for audiences coming to this with fresh eyes.  The movie may unfortunately fall prey to changing audience tastes, especially after long time monster movie fans fell in love with last year’s Godzilla Minus One.  That film, made by original Godzilla creators Toho Studios, showed us what a monster movie could be when the human story is actually made to be captivating on it’s own.  It’s a rare example where a studio managed to make a prestige film centered around Godzilla of all characters.  That movie also won critical acclaim (and even a Visual Effects Oscar) in a way that this Monsterverse movie will fall well short of.  But, I really do feel that both of these can stand out well on their own.  Godzilla Minus One and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire are intended to be different kinds of animals.  One takes the franchise back to it’s original roots as a dire reminder of the trauma placed on the nation of Japan after a nuclear bomb was dropped on them.  The other is just popcorn entertainment done very efficiently and with some really engaging monster mayhem on screen.  Both kinds of movies are valid in their own way.  So, yes Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is a dumb action movie, but those have value too just as long as they remember to be fun, and this one is indeed fun.  I was dreading sitting through the full movie if it continued to be as lanquid as the opening act, but by the film’s end, I had a smile on my face, and that’s what a good action movie should leave you with.  Whether you are Team Kong or Team Godzilla, this movie offers just enough thrills and fun to make it worth seeing.

Rating: 7.5/10

Dune: Part Two – Review

It has not been an easy road to the big screen for Dune.  The beloved sci-fi epic novel from author Frank Herbert was once thought to be un-filmable.  Within it’s nearly 700 pages of text is a densely plotted narrative filled with political intrigue and deep philosophical questions.  Oh, and there’s giant sand worms too.  Many filmmakers flirted with adapting the text for the big screen.  Avant Garde Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky famously made a valiant attempt in the 1970’s to get Frank Herbert’s vision to become a reality, but sadly it never got past the development stage.  It’s considered by many to be one of the greatest films that never got made, and the details of it are spotlighted in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).  In 1984, the task would be given to rising star filmmaker David Lynch, who brought his own bizarre directing style to the project.  While he was able to complete the film, it would end up being a compromised project, condensing the vast expanse of Herbert’s novel into a compact 2 hour and 17 minute run time, making it a somewhat messy adaptation.  Audiences were generally unimpressed and the film performed poorly at the box office, though over time it would gain a cult following.  David Lynch himself swore off ever attempting another big budget project like Dune ever again, instead focusing his energy on smaller, more auteur driven projects in the decades after, and he has largely disowned the movie as well, even taking his name off of extended cuts.  It would take another four decades for Hollywood to seriously take another shot at adapting Herbert’s monumental epic, with many more filmmakers flirting with the prospect before ultimately passing it by.

Enter Denis Villeneuve, a French Canadian filmmaker that had put together an impressive resume in the 2010’s.  After a string of critically acclaimed thrillers such as Enemy (2013), Prisoners (2014), and Sicario (2015), Denis made an even bigger impression moving into science fiction.  His film Arrival (2016) earned him his first recognition from the Academy Awards with nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and that in turn led to a high profile gig of creating the long awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017), his highest budgeted film to date.  While Blade Runner 2049 was not a box office success, it still won a lot of acclaim for Denis for his remarkable handling of the film’s epic scale.  But all of these films seemed like warm-ups for what had always been Denis’ dream project; Dune.  With his proposal winning over the rights holders at Legendary Pictures, Denis was set to get his wish granted with a grand scale adaptation of this iconic novel for the big screen.  To do justice to Herbert’s narrative, Denis Villeneuve determined that the story would need to be split into two films.  However, to convince the financers of the project, Warner Brothers, that this was the right course of action, he would have to make Parts One and Two separately, with approval for the latter contingent on the success of the former.  It was a gamble, but it guaranteed at least one film for Villeneuve.  Unfortunately, the ability to turn Part One into a success hit a major roadblock with the Covid-19 pandemic.  Originally slated for an October 2020 premiere, the film ended up being delayed a full year.  And then, when it did finally make it to theaters, the effects of the pandemic were still in play with audiences not fully back.  Plus, Warner Brothers foolishly decided to release their entire 2021 slate day and date on streaming in addition to theaters, cutting back any potential box office profits.  This boded poorly for Dune: Part One, and yet, the film managed to find it’s audience, managing to be one of the few WB projects that year to cross the $100 million mark and it picked up a total of 6 Oscars for it’s technical achievements, and even earned a Best Picture nom.  Needless to say, despite the odds, Warner Brothers was convinced to fulfill their promise and allowed Denis Villeneuve to complete his epic adaptation.  The question is, though, did Denis Villeneuve stick the landing with Dune: Part Two.

The movie picks up right where the previous film ended.   In the distant future year of 10191, on the desert planet Arrakis, the high House of Atreides has been destroyed after a bloody coup perpetrated by the rival House Harkonnen, with the knowing consent of the Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken).  Although the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and his brutal nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista) believe that they have wiped out the entire Atreides household, far out in the desert plains of Arrakis, two survivors remain.  The son of slain Duke Leto, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) both survived their assassination attempts and are exiled far from home.  To survive in the harsh, worm infested desert, Paul and Jessica have formed an alliance with the native Fremen people who seek refuge in underground settlements.   Their leader, Stilgar (Javier Bardem) believes that Paul is a prophesized spiritual savior that could unite the Fremen people and help them reclaim their home world from the Imperium once and for all.  Stilagar’s daughter Chani (Zendaya) is far more skeptical of the prophesy, but over time she warms up to Paul’s presence within their tribe and over time, a budding romance emerges.  Paul and the Fremen engage in guerilla warfare against the spice trade that the Harkonnens run on Arrakis, weakening the Baron’s status amongst the high households.  The Baron seeks help from the Emperor and his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), both of whom suggest that the Baron elevates his youngest nephew to commander of the Harkonnen forces.  That nephew is the psychotic warrior Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), who has no qualms about achieving success by any means necessary; even in harming the most innocent.  With a new threat coming to Arrakis, Paul Atreides must decide if he should embrace his position as the prophesized savior, the Kwisatz Haderach, in order to unite all the Fremen tribes, or abandon it and disappear out of fear of the thing that he may turn into if he fully accepts his destiny, igniting a much bloodier holy war across the known universe.

When Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One (2021) first premiered, it was heralded by long time fans of the books and causal viewers alike.  Dune has often been described as the Lord of the Rings or science fiction, and that distinction carries over with it’s cinematic adaptation as well.  Just as with Peter Jackson’s beloved adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic fantasy trilogy, many believe Villeneuve’s Dune to be the definitive adaptation of the novel for the big screen.  But getting to this point almost didn’t happen because of some short sighted moves on Warner Brothers part.  Unlike The Lord of the Rings which had the luxury of filming all the films in one single multi-year shoot, the completion of Dune was split up and could have ended abruptly had things not gone well.  The ill-fated “Project Popcorn” initiative of 2021 also gave ill tidings for the completion of Villenueve’s vision.  It could have been very possible that we would have only had the first half of the book on screen and nothing more; which would have been double insulting given that Dune: Part One ends so abruptly.  Thankfully, despite the hurdles, the movie was a success and Dune: Part Two is here, giving us the full breadth of Frank Herbert’s original novel.  And thankfully, despite all the drama and the long wait, Denis has managed to stick the landing.  There is no drop in quality at all between Parts One and Two, and it really does feel like the continuation of the first film.  Of course one big difference is that Warner Brothers feels less cautious this time around and has gone full force giving their full confidence to Denis.  Part One in many ways was Denis setting the pieces on the board, and Part Two is where the game really begins.  Everything is bigger, grander, and the stakes are even higher.  It definitely feels that this is the dream part of the project that Denis Villeneuve was always itching to get to, and thankfully the stars aligned to make it happen, even amidst the wort resistance.

There are a lot of things to be impressed with in Dune: Part Two and it does feel like the mightier film in the series.  But, I wouldn’t say that it does everything better than Part One.  The one thing that is a nitpick for me with the movie is that I think the pacing is not as strong, or should I say consistent as it was with Part OnePart One was a masterfully paced film that never let off the gas from beginning to end.  While the pacing is still overall good in Part Two, I do feel there are some hiccups along the way that stall an otherwise spectacular experience.  And it’s not just scenes that pad out the run time; there are moments as well that I feel don’t fully take advantage of some of the big moments in the movie.  The ending in particular seems a bit rushed, as big moments toward the finale don’t quite carry the weight they should.  The film already has a epic sized 166 minute run time (which alongside Part One‘s run time takes the full experience to 5 hours of storytelling) but I feel it could have made the experience even stronger if it let the finale breath a bit more to let the pivotal moments feel even grander.  It’s a rare instance where I’d say an already long movie should have been just a little longer; possibly even rounding out to the full 3 hours.  Even still, all of the classic moments from the book are here, and they are still impactful.  Where the movie actually feels well paced though are in some of the moments that Frank Herbert more often glosses over.  The development of Paul Atreides earning his place within the Fremen society is given more development here than any past adaptation, as is his romance with Chani, which becomes a crucial backbone for the movie overall.   One other thing that the movie sadly lacks apart from Part One is the novelty.  Dune: Part One was such a revelation when it first premiered; a welcome return of a prestige blockbuster in a time when popcorn entertainment in the form of comic book movies still dominated the landscape.  Dune: Part Two doesn’t really stand out as much; it’s just the same movie, but more.  I feel like the two movies are intended to be viewed as a whole, but it unfortunately takes away from the individual merit of the movie itself.  Again these are nitpicks for what otherwise is an impressively mounted film on any other measure.

One of the things that Denis Villeneuve really ups the ante with in this film is the scale of the action scenes.  Part One had some impressive action moments, but most of the best action scenes were contained on a intimate one to one scale.  Here, Villeneuve takes things to a more biblical level, with armies numbering in the thousands clashing on vast battlefields.  This is a movie that definitely demands to be seen on the largest screens possible, which thankfully now in a post-pandemic environment are more widely accessible than they were back when Part One was in theaters.  I caught this movie in 70mm IMAX, and let me tell you that is the ideal way to watch the movie.  Villeneuve took the cue from fellow grand epic director, Christopher Nolan, and specifically shot most of the movie with IMAX cameras with this presentation being the intended showcase.  There are some moments in this movie that will take your breath away with how immersive they are.  Arrakis is it’s own character in the movie, and Villeneuve really showcases the beauty of the familiar yet alien landscape that the planet has.  Even the surreal sunsets with the two moons of Arrakis eclipsing the sun create a kind of eerie crescent unlike anything we’ve seen before.  And then of course, there are the worms.  The colossal titans of the desert are a marvel meant to be appreciated on a vast movie screen, and the visual effects team did a remarkable job making them feel as grandiose as possible.  The scene where Paul Atreides takes his first solo ride aboard the back of a worm is a particular highlight of the movie, with all departments of cinematography, sound, computer animation, and practical effects all working together to create a truly epic moment on screen.  Also, the legendary Hans Zimmer delivers yet another heart-pounding musical score that certainly was rattling the rib cages of everyone in my theater with that mighty IMAX speaker system.

Giving the movie another air of high quality is the incredibly strong all star cast.  Part One had a very impressive cast to begin with, and Part Two managed to maintain all of the holdovers from that cast without losing any of the performance in between films.  Everyone whose character made it out of Part One alive picks right up where they left off and continues to deliver pitch perfect performances in Part Two.  Timothee Chalamet continues to impress in the role of Paul Atreides, a character that was always going to be a challenge to get right especially in this second half of the book, and he rises to the challenge with some impressively commanding moments.  The Fremen characters that only come into the story late in Part One are thankfully expanded upon here, and the actors do a masterful job with their roles.  Javier Bardem’s Stilgar is one of the few characters allowed to be a little more loose and comical compared to the stoic others in the movie, and Bardem gets some well earned laughs in the movie without it feeling out of place.  Zendaya, whose Chani barely factored in the first movie, is the biggest standout in Part Two, as you see her character go through some substantial growth in the story.  Zendaya really captures the passionate fervor that drives Chani as a character, and given all the craziness that goes on, she really helps to ground the movie with her cynical eye towards the myths and lies that have shaped the world around her.  Of the brand new characters, the real stand out is Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha.  It’s hard to imagine that this is the same actor who played Elvis Presley in the Baz Luhrrman directed biopic just a couple year ago.  He is transformed in this role, and he leaves an eerie impression.  His coliseum fight on the Harkonnen home world may be one of the best villain introductions I’ve seen in a long while.  And while they don’t have a whole lot of screen time, the characters of Princess Irulan and Emperor Shaddam IV do make the most of their presence and that’s largely due to the talents of their actors.  Florence Pugh carries a captivating sense of intelligence in her performance.  And of course Christopher Walken’s casting as the Emperor brings a great deal of gravitas to the minor role and it’s a real coup on the part of the movie to get an actor as legendary as him to be a part of this.

I don’t know what Warner Brothers was thinking by not planning ahead and having both parts of Dune filmed simultaneously.  It was probably an economic choice, but if it didn’t work out, you would have left a beloved story cut unceremoniously short with a nagging open-ended finale that connects to nothing.  Thankfully, Dune: Part Two has become a reality and the full story of Frank Herbert’s original novel can now be appreciated cinematically for all time as a complete whole.  Of course, this isn’t quite the end just yet.  Dune was only the first of many books that Frank Herbert wrote about the desert planet Arrakis and the legacy of Paul Atreides.  Denis Villeneuve has already said that he intends to return to adapt the second book in the series, Dune Messiah, which has a far better chance of getting green lit with the expected huge box office that Dune: Part Two is expected to generate.  In the end, it all worked out for Denis Villenueve, and he may have made it possible for their to be an epic movie franchise that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  As a movie on it’s own, Dune: Part Two is an impressively mounted movie, though I think it works best as a companion to the first film and vice versa.  Denis Villenueve intended for the two parts of Dune to be a complete whole rather than two individual films with their own unique identities.  While I do appreciate the incredible achievement that this movie is, I do wish it had resonated just a bit more as it’s own film.  It might also be possible that I may warm up to the movie more with repeat viewings, and that I just need to give the film time to fully marinate in my mind.  It happened with Oppenheimer (2023) last year, where it took me two more viewings to fully appreciate that film as a genuine masterpiece.  I feel like Dune: Part Two will stick with me in the same way.  It is an overwhelming experience the first time, and that can be a good thing.  I was sitting pretty close to the colossal IMAX screen at my theater (one of the largest in America) so some distance may help me in the future.  For now, I highly recommend seeing this on the big screen and ideally in IMAX if available in your area.  Few movies are made with this kind of spectacle in mind, and like great epics of the past like The Lord of the Rings, Denis Villenueve has taken a beloved work of literature and brought out it’s full potential as big screen spectacle.  Capturing every detail, from the tiniest grains of spice to the enormity of the mighty sand worms, this movie does Frank Herbert’s vision proud.

Rating: 8.5/10

Madame Web – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3/10

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5/10

Wish – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5/10

The Marvels – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8/10

Killers of the Flower Moon – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8/10