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Killers of the Flower Moon – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8/10

A Haunting in Venice – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5/10

Blue Beetle – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10

Oppenheimer – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.75/10

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10

The Flash – Review

The Flash as a character in the comic books has had quite a long and storied history.  First introduced in 1940, the character was an immediate hit with comic book readers thanks to his colorful appearance and affable personality.  During the Silver Age of comic books, DC elected to make The Flash one of the founding members of the elite Justice League, the super team made up of all of their top tier characters, putting Flash in the same company as Superman and Batman.  Over the years, the mantle of the Flash has carried over to a number of different people, from Jay Garrick, to Barry Allen, to Wally West and several more.  But it’s the Barry Allen years that defined the character the most, mainly because it’s with him that most of the iconic elements of the character’s story emerged, including the famous Red and Yellow suit.  Being a Speedster type super hero, Flash is defined by his ability to run super fast, to the point where he can even out run the speed of light.  This ability in particular has led to a certain set of problems for the character, as going faster than the speed of light has led him to be able to travel through time, and of course messing with time carries it’s own consequences.  This was the dilemma the character faced in what many consider to be the greatest Flash storyline, Flashpoint, published in 2011.  Though Flash has enjoyed consistent popularity on the comics page, his screen presence up to now has been minimal compared to other DC icons.  He has been the star of two television series, one short lived one from the 90’s and another in the 2010’s that was part of CW’s Arrowverse which just ended it’s run after 9 successful seasons.  Flash has also been featured a lot in DC animated projects.  But it wasn’t until Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) that we got our first true big screen debut for The Flash.  Played by Ezra Miller, Flash was to be a key player in DC’s Extended Universe plans, playing a part in the Justice League (2017) film as well as getting his own standalone film.  A bright future for the character indeed, or at least that’s what DC thought.

Problems began to rise almost immediately in the rollout of projects featuring The Flash.  Despite being announced at San Diego Comic Con as the director, Rick Famuyiwa left the project soon after citing creative differences, eventually leading him towards his eventual work on The Mandalorian series on Disney+.  Other directors came and went through the years and eventually the project was given over to horror film director Andy Muschietti, who was just coming off his successful duo of adaptations of Stephen King’s IT.  Several re-writes occurred as well, with DC making a lot of course correction in the wake of the disappointing returns for Justice League.    But, towards the end of 2019, it looked like the cameras would finally be rolling on the feature.  Then, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic happen, putting a freeze on The Flash yet again.  Eventually, production did resume, but it had been a long time ever since the film was first announced.  But, Muschietti and his team did get the production across the goal line, with the hope that it would be ready once the theatrical business was running smoothly again.  Unfortunately bad luck struck again, this time from the lead actor.  Ezra Miller had been something of a loose cannon before, but in 2022, without going too much into detail about what happened, they became what is referred to in the entertainment business as a PR nightmare.  The brushes with the law were also coming at a volatile time for DC’s parent company Warner Brothers, which was about to form a merger with Discovery Entertainment, leading towards a huge disruption in DC’s plans.  The newly formed company of Warner Brothers Discovery began to restructure heavily, with many projects getting outright cancelled while still in production.  With the cancellation of projects across all parts of the company, including DC, and Ezra Miller’s public meltdown, some were wondering if The Flash  would even be seen at all.  If Batgirl didn’t survive, what hope would Flash have?  Despite all this, Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslev still spared The Flash and let it remain on the release calendar.  That being said, they made it clear that Ezra Miller’s future involvement with the character was over and that this movie was not going to be one of the last of the old DCEU line-up of movies, with a re-boot in the works as the DCU, shepparded by new creative head James Gunn. So, that’s the atmosphere in which The Flash movie finally releases into theaters, and the only question remains is if it’s worth all that wait and can it stand out amidst all that off-screen drama.

Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is struggling to manage his new life as a member of the Justice League.  He remains on-call with the other members, basically being relegated to clean-up duty while Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) do the more exciting work.  The hectic schedule runs into conflict with his day job working in a forensics lab, where he ironically always ends up being late.  Part of his drive to work in forensics is because he is hoping to exonerate his father Henry (Ron Livingston), who has been in prison for the murder of his wife Nora (Maribel Verdu), though Barry is convinced of his innocence.  On a particularly difficult night dealing with his grief, Barry learns that if he runs fast enough, he can actually turn back the flow of time.  He shares the discovery with Batman/Bruce Wayne, but Bruce warns him that time travel carries dire consequences.  Barry still believes that if he’s careful enough, he might be able to save his mother.  He, travels back far enough in time to prevent the moment that would have left his mother vulnerable and begins to head back to his time, only to be knocked off his pace by a dark stranger in the realm between time.  He visits his home again to find his mother alive and well, and his father out of prison.  But, there is another problem; another Barry also lives in this timeline.  He intercepts his younger self, tries to fill him in on what happened, but soon learns that his altering of the flow of time had a dire significant consequence.  In this timeline, there is no Superman, or Wonder Woman, or Aquaman.  However, he does learn that there is indeed a Batman in this universe, and he takes the other Barry along with him to find this Batman.  At a dilapidated Wayne Manor, they run into a very different Batman than who Barry knows.  This Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is much older and mostly retired.  Still, the older Bruce Wayne has all the gadget and gear stowed in his Batcave, and he agrees to help out Barry find who they believe to be this universe’s Superman.  Hidden in a secret Siberian prison, they discover that it’s not Kal-El that landed on Earth, but instead his cousin Kara (Sasha Calle).  Though Barry has the help he needs to return to his own time, another problem arises that could complicate things, the arrival of General Zod (Michael Shannon), with no Superman on Earth to fight against him.

To say that this movie is arriving into theaters with a lot of baggage is saying the least of it.  One thing that seemed to keep this movie afloat within the halls of DC and Warner Brothers was the strong word of mouth from all the executives at the company.  Even the ones who were going to be tasked with re-booting the DCU, James Gunn and Peter Safran, had high praise for what Andy Muschietti did with The Flash.  They felt so confident in the movie’s ability to perform even despite all of the controversy that they gave an exclusive first look screening to visitors at this year’s CinemaCon.  Many came out of the screening very happy by what they saw, and Warner Brothers Discovery CEO even began to feel confident in the film’s release.  The movie was even shown to an A-lister like Tom Cruise, who also sung it’s praises.  In a short amount of time, they were able to turn around the bad buzz surrounding this movie, helping to generate excitement around it that it otherwise would’ve not had.  But, what would the average audience think.  One thing that still loomed over this film even up to it’s release date was whether the Ezra Miller factor would make any difference.  It’s hard to sell a movie when your lead star isn’t even able to participate in it’s promotion.  Plus, the movie has to get over the cloud of controversy that they carry.  I’m one who in most cases can separate the art from the artist.  One of my favorite films is still Braveheart (1995) even with all the Mel Gibson baggage that that film carries.  So, is DC right to feel confident in this Flash movie.  For me, it’s complicated.  For one thing, the movie does manage to deal with the whole Ezra Miller situation pretty well, as I never was thinking much about their offscreen problems while watching the movie.  One the other hand, I do feel much of the hype that DC  and Warner Brothers were trying to drum up in the last few months weren’t warranted either.  It’s neither the worst things I’ve seen from the DCEU, nor is it in the league of their best either.  It’s a very average movie in the end.

There certainly is ambition behind this movie, much more so that quite a few other recent comic book movies, but the film doesn’t gel together as effectively as one would hope.  I think the issue boils down to there never being a grounded point to where we feel the gravity of the events in this movie.  It’s a lot of spectacle without the human factor to make it resonate.  The character of Barry Allen just haphazardly trips his way through a bunch of situations and that essentially is the story.  In some regards, it is refreshing to see a comic book film that doesn’t have to devote so much of it’s run time to backstory.  We are essentially picking up Barry’s story from where we left off after Justice League, and flashbacks are integrated sparingly with the context of them having meaning to Barry in his journey through time.  There isn’t even really an antagonist in this movie, with Barry proving to be his own worst enemy, and that’s an interesting way to go with a stand-alone super hero film.  Still, it seems that even with a run time of 2 hours and 20 minutes that a lot of stuff still ended up on the cutting room floor, so there are gaps in logic a plenty throughout the film.  Ironically, the thing that does manage to hold the film together from becoming an incoherent mess is Ezra Miller.  Muschietti wisely molded Miller’s performance closer to what Zack Snyder had the actor do in his Snyder Cut, which is far more full of depth than the obnoxious turn he had in the theatrical cut of Justice League.  Miller, particularly in the older Barry role, is giving a measured and compelling performance.  One moment toward the end of the film in particular, where Barry has to say one final goodbye to someone, is actually the best acting I’ve seen from them in all of the DCEU movies he’s appeared in.  Their performance as the younger Barry is more of a mixed bag, where they can deliver some of the movie’s biggest laughs but at other times can be a little grating.  But for all the movie’s faults, Ezra Miller is definitely not the one who drags the film down, and at some moments they are the one who actually delivers the best parts of the movie.

But, even though this is The Flash’s movie, the best part of the film is unequivocally the return of Michael Keaton to the role of Batman.  For many people, particularly those of my age who grew up with the Tim Burton directed films, Keaton is the reason why we are excited for this movie, and boy he did not disappoint.  Despite being 71 years old at the time of this release, Keaton slips effortlessly back into the cape and cowl like he never left, and it’s been a whopping 30 years on now.  Even with my misgivings about the movie in most of the first half, I indeed got a chill up my spine when we see him appear on screen again in the Batsuit and saying the line, “Yeah, I’m Batman.”  This was definitely the big applause moment in the movie for the audience that I saw the film with.  And while a lot of the Batman moves are enhanced this time around with CGI, there are a couple moments where you do see Keaton’s Batman do some hand to hand fighting.  Just the fact that he still looks good in that big rubber batsuit, and was willing to put it back on in the first place is really impressive, but Keaton also gives a nuanced performance as well, showing the years that have passed him by as he’s put Batman aside while still maintaining some of the spark.  Though she has less to do in the movie, Sasha Calle does make the most of her screen time as Kara, or Supergirl.  It’s a performance that allows her to say a lot purely through her expressions.  It’s a shame that with the upcoming reboot of the DCU that we are likely not going to get any more of her version of Supergirl on the big screen.  So, given that this is a one and done performance, it’s good to see her make the most of it.  Some of the returning faces are also welcome here, particularly Ben Affleck as the Batman from the DCEU timeline.  It’s definitely apparent that Affleck is having a better time playing the character here than he did during his difficult experience on Justice League.

One thing that I think most people are going to pick apart about this movie are the visual effects.  I do have to agree that most of the effects in this film look rushed and incomplete.  And in some moments of the movie, this actually undermines the film.  Not every effect looks bad, but there are definitely some moments where the characters suddenly lack detail and depth and instead feel like Polar Express quality digital puppets.  The subpar CGI especially sabotages a moment late in the movie that should have been one of the most epic moments in comic book movie history; an Easter egg filled extravaganza that sadly comes across as looking fake and filled with a bunch of unnecessary visual noise.  I don’t know what led to the visual effects looking so mediocre here, but it honestly becomes a distraction the heavier they are relied upon deep into the movie.  That being said, I do give Muschietti credit for at least attempting some interesting visual moments in this movie.  The man definitely had a vision, and I bet the pre-visualization of these effects scenes showed a lot of promise.  Some of the highlights include the visualization of the hyper-speed cross country trip that Barry makes in the film’s opening scene to get to Gotham City across hundreds of miles.  The design behind Barry’s perception of time travel is also unique and creative, and you really wish that with better executed CGI that it would have looked even better.  I don’t know if the post-production budget got slashed midway due to the upheaval at Warner Brothers, but I feel like Muschietti is not the one to blame for the visual effects looking as bad as they do.  He had some good visual ideas that you can see on screen in the bare bones of the image, and unfortunately to get them up to the standard he wanted was too much for a studio uncertain about the film’s future to risk ballooning the budget even further.

I can’t in the end say that the movie failed to live up to the hype.  The movie was always going to be a problem for DC.  The fact that it got released at all in theaters is in itself a triumph of perseverance.  I do like quite a bit about the movie; especially Michael Keaton’s return to the Dark Knight which absolutely lived up to my expectations.  Ezra Miller, for all their off-screen issues, successfully managed to make me forget about all that while watching this movie and allowed me to appreciate his character work as The Flash in this film.  But, after seeing this movie, I don’t exactly care any more about the Flash than I did before going into this movie.  The film is just another super hero movie, adding little but at the same time not insulting the genre either.  I don’t know what the future holds for the Flash in the DCU reboot.  Thankfully, James Gunn recognizes the strong contribution that Andy Muschietti brought to the film with his direction, and he’s already offered him the assignment of directing the next Batman movie; The Brave and the Bold.  Ezra Miller has certainly burned any chance of returning as the Flash, and though it’s hard to excuse the things that they did, one hopes that they’ll get the help they need in order to set their life back in order and make things right with the ones they wronged.  It’s likely that the DCEU is going to go out with a whimper, with not much hype being felt around it’s closer, the Aquaman sequel releasing this holiday season.  And hopefully something worthwhile comes out of those ashes as Gunn and Safran launch the DCU in the years ahead; maybe with an even better take on the Flash character.  I really wanted to like this movie more, and there are indeed things to like, but in the end, it’s just a confused mess.  I enjoyed the pair of Shazam movies much more, mainly because they had a consistency of tone to them that helped to make them work.  Flash, much like the character in the film, is trying to do too much in a short amount of time, and ultimately just runs out of energy as a result.  Despite “flashes” of greatness, this Flash is stuck in the middle of the pack.

Rating: 7/10

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – Review

The comic book super hero genre has dominated the box office for the last decade and a half, but for the most part, the dominance has been represented in live action.  What we haven’t seen too much of are super hero films in the realm of animation; at least on the big screen.  Both DC and Marvel have produced a number of animated features through their respective animation arms, as well as a number of series, but those films have been relegated to either direct to video releases or straight to streaming.  But there have been some animated comic book films that have managed to make it to the big screen.  In 1994, DC released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm briefly into theaters; a film spun off from their popular Batman: The Animated Series.  Surprisingly, despite being owned by a company founded on art of animation since 2009, Marvel didn’t have an animated feature based on their comics until 2014, and it was based on one of their more obscure titles; Big Hero 6.   Despite there not being a lot of familiarity with the Big Hero 6 comic series in the general audience, the Disney animated film still managed to be a box office success and even won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, which just shows how strong the Marvel brand had become up to that point.  But, what a lot of comic book fans were wondering was if there would be any animated representation on the big screen from one of the marquee characters within the pantheon of super heroes in their library.  Though Disney has a legendary animation department at their disposal, they have mostly decided to use their Marvel brand in live action on the big screen, with the streaming arm of Disney+ being the place where they are more comfortable bringing Marvel into animated form; most notably with the What If? series.  However, a different studio which still maintains their license over one of Marvel’s premier characters is not afraid to take Marvel super heroes more into the realm of animation on the big screen.

Sony, which has it’s own animation department, sought to make the most of their legacy license over the character of Spider-Man and do so both in live action and animation.  Though their live action films have been pretty hit (Venom) or miss (Morbius), a very different result occurred with their animated attempt.  Produced by the creative team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the same mad geniuses behind The Lego Movie (2014), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018) not only managed to hit well with audiences as a comic book movie; it significantly changed the market of animated films in general as well.  While computer animation has for nearly the last 30 years been following the lead of Pixar and Disney Animation, with soft edged character models and detailed environmental design, Sony Animation decided to take their film in a whole different direction.  While still computer animated, Spider-Verse’s design was far more stylized, utilizing an aesthetic that felt more hand drawn while still three-dimensional.  Every character and environment looked like they had leapt right off of the comic book page.  Not only that, but their movement on screen was very stylized, utilizing a slower frame rate that made the characters’ animation feel even more hand drawn.  Combine this with the hilarious comedic sensibilities of Lord & Miller, and Into the Spider-Verse was not just a great comic book movie, but arguably one of the greatest animated movies of all time.  It solidified it’s hit status by additionally winning the Oscar for Animated Feature; breaking a monopoly on the award by Disney and Pixar.  The graphic art style has even influenced all animation in general, as more animation studios are ditching the traditional Pixar look for something more like Spider-verse; as seen in Dreamworks’ recent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) and Nickelodeon’s upcoming Ninja Turtles reboot.  Even Disney’s upcoming Wish (2023) is adopting a more hand painted aesthetic to it’s animation.  But of course, Sony is also keen to continue building on this franchise as well, especially since it gives them a successful Spider-Man franchise that they don’t have to share with the Disney owned Marvel Studios, like they do with the Tom Holland Spider-Man films.  And this year, we are finally seeing the next phase of their Spider-verse plans with the highly anticipated sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).

The film picks up the story a year after the events of Into the Spider-Verse.  Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is trying to balance his new life as the new Spider-Man protecting the citizens of New York City.  His mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) are concerned that he is shirking his responsibilities at both school and home, unaware of his double life as a super hero.  Things become more complicated when a strange new super villain named The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) has shown up on the scene.  The Spot, who gained his inter-dimensional portal opening abilities from the super collider incident that Miles thwarted in the last film, has a personal vendetta against Miles and is seeking revenge, which Miles initially ignores.  Things, however, get more complicated when one of Miles’ old Spider Friends, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) aka Spider Gwen, shows up.  She has in the past year been recruited by a team of interdimensional Spider heroes to help set things into order within the multiverse.  The team is led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), known as Spider-Man 2099, who takes the protection of the multiverse very seriously.  His second in command is Spider-Woman, aka Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), and another member of the elite squad is Miles’ old mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) who now has a baby daughter named Mayday.  There are also some outsider assistance provided by Spider-Man India (Karan Soni) Pavitr Pradhakar whose fairly new to the job, as well as Hobie Brown, aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), whose rebellious instincts conflict with most of Miguel’s plans.  Miles sneakily follows after Gwen, who has been on the trail of The Spot, who’s seeking to enhance his powers.  The mayhem as The Spot leaves behind prevents what Miguel O’Hara calls a Canon Event from happening, which he tells Miles is essential to holding up the framework of the multiverse.  When Miles learns that a canon event is meant for his future, he seeks to be sent home in order to stop it, which Miguel refuses.  Miles determination puts him at odds with the team, and soon a whole city’s worth of Spider Heroes is chasing after him.  Is Miles right to determine his own fate, or is he making a selfish decision that could threaten the stability of the multiverse.

It definitely has to be said that when the original Spider-Verse movie came out in 2018, it was a breath of fresh air in an animation market that felt very homogenized.  Animation really lacked variety in the later part of the 2010’s.  Because of the dominance of Disney and Pixar, all animated movies throughout the world market just copied their same style to a degree; even rivals like Dreamworks and Illumination.  Animated movies to that point were not so much judged on the quality of the animation since it was all so interchangeable, but more on the strength of their stories, which of course helped to put Pixar up at the top with their excellently written films.  Into the Spider-Verse however was not just excellent in it’s storytelling, but it equally wowed audiences with it’s wild animation style.  The movie was wall to wall creativity, with surprising details in every frame.  Not since Toy Story (1995) had an animated film challenged the established order of things in the world of animation, and it did so with a story that also tugged just as hard at the heartstrings as any Pixar film.  Suffice to say, it’s a tough act to follow, but of course anybody who knows the super hero genre well will tell you that a sequel is inevitable.  So, five years after the fact, Sony Pictures Animation has finally released a sequel to their ground-breaking hit film.  Surprisingly, the team behind the movie not only had enough story for one film; they had an idea that was big enough for two.  Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the first of a two-part arc, which will conclude next year with Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse (2024).  The question is, did Sony manage to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.  For the most part I would say yes, but I did find a couple issues with this sequel that I will point out.  On the whole, this movie does deliver exactly what you would want from a continuation of the Spider-Verse storyline.  It builds upon what we’ve already seen and even ups the ante in terms of creativity in the art style.  But, as I was watching the movie, and generally having a good time with it, I couldn’t get over this sense of maybe it was all too much of a good thing.

Here’s where I have my issues with the film.  At 140 minutes, this film breaks the record for the longest animated film ever produced by a Western animation studio.  Even Disney has never gone far beyond the 2 hour mark, with Fantasia (1940) being their longest film at 125 minutes.  Most animated films fall within the 90-120 minute mark, so Across the Spider-Verse really has shattered the record.  On one hand, this is a typical length for a standard live action super hero movie.  The longest Spider-Man movie on record is the 148 minute Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), which felt appropriately lengthed.  It’s possible that the time needed to tell a story in animation isn’t as much to tell it in live action, as movement plays by different rules in each medium.  In any case, I really felt the length of this movie, particularly in the slow build first half, and it kind of robbed the movie of some momentum in the story.  While there is still a lot of moments to love in the opening half, you do feel a bit of the bloat in order to get this movie up to the epic length.  Some character moments feel like they would have been better trimmed down without loosing the essentials.  Thankfully, the movie picks up steam in the second half, and culminates in a heart-pounding cliffhanger finale, but I do wish it had kept up that level of energy throughout the film.  The original Spider-Verse was a taut 117 minutes, and it used every moment wisely.  The one other thing I feel worked against the sequel was the fact that it no longer had the novelty of the first film.  Into The Spider-Verse felt like such a discovery when we first saw it; like we were witnessing the beginning of something new in cinema.  Across the Spider-Verse gives us more of the same, which is still amazing to look at and incredibly creative, but it just isn’t the groundbreaking achievement that the original film was.  These issues still don’t ruin the movie as a whole, but I do feel like they hold the film back from truly achieving iconic status in the same way that the original did.

Still there is a lot to praise about the movie.  One of course is the animation.  The Sony Pictures Animation team clearly wanted to build upon what they already achieved in the last film.  One of the most interesting ideas that they executed for this movie was giving each new dimension of the Multiverse it’s own distinct art style.  In the original movie, the art style remained mostly the same when it came to the environments, with much of the diversity of styles saved for the character designs.  This made sense, as we were seeing the world through the prism of Miles Morales’ reality.  Here, the characters jump into multiple universes, and each one is stylized to match the characters that inhabit it.  Spider-Man India’s home world, which is cleverly named Mumbattan, is designed to resemble Indian poster art, including a change in the onomonopia text to reflect Indian lettering.  The various Spider-Man are also creatively animated in their own styles.  One of the visually creative ones is Spider-Punk, who is animated in a way to make it look like he’s made out of a collage of newspaper clippings; making him a clever nod to British punk rock artwork of the 70’s and 80’s.  The movie integrates so many different animation styles together, including having versions of the Spider-Man characters from the animated television series sharing the screen, as well as the ones from the video games.  There are even live action characters integrated in seamlessly.  All the while, the artwork is kinetic, but still services the story effectively.  There is an especially beautiful scene late in the movie with Spider Gwen where the backgrounds change in every single shot, reflecting the change in mood, and each one could be put on the wall and framed as a work of art on it’s own.  The fact that this animation team still is able to pull off a visually creative scene like that, one that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a mainstream studio animated film before, this late in the game is a real testament to their commitment towards driving the capabilities of animation even further.

I also want to spotlight the talented voice cast of this movie, who again bring so much life into these characters.  Hailee Steinfeld is given much more to do here as Gwen Stacy, with the character becoming something of a co-lead alongside Miles Morales this time.  She really brings a sense of gravitas to the character that helps to build her journey across the multiverse.  Of course Shameik Moore once again does a brilliant job of voicing Miles Morales.  His performance definitely reflects the growth the character has gone through between films; finding him in a far more confident place.  Once Miles Morales makes his live action debut eventually, it will be a hard act to follow, as Shameik has done such a good job capturing the infectious exuberance of Miles so far in this animated version.  Though his role is smaller this time around, it’s also good to see a welcome return of Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker.  This time around he has traded in the dad bod to become an actual dad, and Johnson hilariously plays up this Spider-Man’s new domestic situation.  Of the many new characters, the one who stands out the most is Oscar Isaac as Miguel O’Hara.  While Isaac did make a first appearance in the post credits scene of the first Spider-Verse movie, that cameo was played mostly for laughs, poking fun at the “Pointing Spider-Man” meme.  Here Oscar Isaac really gets to chew into this character, and you really feel the weight of his tragic paste playing out in the portrayal of the character.  Miguel O’Hara isn’t exactly cast as the villain of this movie, but his contrasting worldview clashes in a harrowing way with Miles Morales, and Oscar Isaac carries those scenes with ferocious power.  I also liked Daniel Kaluuya’s heavily accented Spider-Punk, which matched the art style that he’s personified with.  As far as the villain goes, Jason Schwartzman does an interesting thing with The Spot, where he’s played off as a bumbling joke of a bad guy in the beginning, but as he builds his power over time, Schwartzman begins to voice him in a much more menacing way, and it’s effectively done.  It’s good to see that in terms of the art style and the voice acting, Across the Spider-Verse is continuing to keep the standards high and giving us the things we really want the most out of this series.

It certainly looks like Sony Animation is pulling out all the stops when it comes to creating these Spider-Verse films.  I definitely love the collection of art styles used throughout the film.  I feel like I’m going to need a few more watches in order to catch every little detail found on screen.  My issue, however, is that I feel like the movie was a good twenty minutes too long.  It takes almost an hour just to get to the actual multiverse jumping that the movie promises.  Once we finally get there, the film definitely gets rolling, but I wish that it had that same kind of energy throughout the film.  A tighter paced first act might have helped with giving me a more satisfactory experience, but at the same time, there are quite a few things to love in that first half of the movie.  The cast of characters namely helps to make the movie an engaging experience.  The film still makes us fall in love with Miles Morales and his journey, and it also helps to flesh out returning characters like Miles’ mother and father, as well as Gwen Stacy, who gets the most additional character development in this film.  I also loved the new characters introduced here, with Spider-Punk being an easy new favorite.  Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara is also a fascinating new addition to the series, and I’m very interested in seeing where the series takes his arc in the next film.  One thing that I wonder if it had a possible impact on my viewing experience is that this film is the middle chapter in a planned trilogy.  There are certainly many great examples of brilliant middle chapters on the big screen like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), but I wonder if I may like this movie better once I have the full context of it’s story which will conclude with Beyond the Spider-Verse next year.  I do think I may like this movie better once the trilogy is complete, but for now my first impression is one of admiration, but with a reservation for some uneven pacing.  For now, I would put it under the original film slightly, though there are some individual scenes that I do think exceed the brilliance of the first movie too.  I hope that once the trilogy is complete that the full scope will be seen in all of it’s brilliance.  The thing I appreciate the most is that Sony Animation with this series is really shaking up the animation world and holding it up to a higher standard.  Especially coming off of the stale storytelling of The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023), this kind of film with it’s bold brushstrokes in both art and storytelling is so refreshing to see, and my hope is that the other animation studios, including Disney and Pixar, continue to up their game in order to compete.  You got to appreciate a game-changer like the Spider-Verse series, and it’s definitely the hero we deserve right now.

Rating: 8/10

Disney’s The Little Mermaid (2023) – Review

You’ve got to give credit to Disney, they’ve always found a way to make a boat load of money no matter the circumstances.  Sometimes, however, their money making ideas come at a cost of damaging their brand.  Take the later part of the Michael Eisner era at the Disney Studios.  The Disney Renaissance that heralded the return to glory for the Animation Studio at the core of the company was beginning to wane in momentum going into the new millennium, with many films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002) and Brother Bear (2003) all performing well under the average of what films like Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) took at the box office.  Couple that with the rise of computer animation from places like Pixar and Dreamworks, and Disney’s once mighty money making machine was just not able to compete anymore.  Unfortunately, the way that the Disney Team saw as a lifeline through the hard economic times was to turn towards the home video market.  Disney Television animation was in the middle of creating a weekly series spinoff for the film Aladdin, and their epic two part series pilot included a return of the film’s villain, Jafar, as part of it’s central plot.  Disney, seeing the potential appeal of the television event, decided to repackage the pilot into a direct to video movie release, declaring it the official sequel to the original film.  The Return of Jafar (1994) had none of the glossy animation, nor the popular songs, nor even Robin Williams as the Genie, and yet it still made a lot of money for Disney in home video sales; even rivaling the original film with it’s video release.  With the waning box office for their movies happening at the same time, Disney saw this as a lucrative new market for them, so the focus in the early 2000’s shifted away from spending money on new expensive movies, and instead towards raiding the Disney library to make cheap direct to video sequels to their classic films.  They found their way to make money, but at what cost?

From Walt Era classics to Renaissance era new masterpieces, no original Disney film was spared from getting a sequel treatment.  Most of the films made of course were lazy retreads of what had worked before with most of the original magic missing.  If you ask most Disney fans, none will consider any of the movies made in this era canon.  The direct to video craze was thankfully short lived as there was a renewed drive to revitalize the Animation brand with the arrival of Bob Iger as CEO of the Disney Company.  Disney went so far as to close the DisneyToon studio that had been set up specifically to churn out these low grade film and consolidate everything back to it’s roots; even bringing Pixar Animation fully into the fold.  And this led to another bright era for Disney, with films like Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013), Zootopia (2016), and Moana (2016) all performing magically for Disney.  But, while the direct to video era had come to an end, there were still minds within the studio who wanted to find ways to make money off of all the legacy titles they still had in their library.  In 2010, director Tim Burton created his live action version of classic story Alice in Wonderland with the Disney company.  The film became a surprise hit at the box office, grossing nearly a billion worldwide.  The results suddenly made Disney look at what other movies they had that could be given the live action remake treatment.  Suddenly, the new money making machine for Disney became taking their classic animated titles and giving them the live action treatment.  And the results, unfortunately, feel reminiscent of the direct to video craze at Disney.  Yes, they are making a lot of money off of these films, but in doing so, they are stripping away the things that made the original movies so memorable in the first place.  Thus far, they have gone through most of the biggest titles in the Disney canon, with less than stellar results.  This year, they have gotten to he film that launched the Disney Renaissance era itself, The Little Mermaid.  The big worry for many long time Disney fans is that this film will for the best pale in comparison to the original and at worst, stain it’s legacy by being a soulless money grab.  What kind of movie did the new Little Mermaid end up being.

The story of course is familiar to anyone who has either read the original Hans Christian Andersen story or seen the original Disney animated classic.  The ocean is ruled over by the mighty King Triton (Javier Bardem) who welcomes his daughters home for a festival celebrating what they call the Coral Moon.  Unfortunately, he finds his youngest daughter Ariel (Halle Bailey) is missing, so he sends his majordomo, a crab named Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to go out and find her.  Ariel has secretly been collecting artifacts from the human world with the help of her friend, a fish named Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and has consulted with a seagull named Scuttle (Awkwafina) to know what humans use those artifacts for.  Ariel’s collection is part of her obsession with life above the ocean surface, which Triton has forbidden her from reaching.  However, one evening she is drawn to the surface when she sees peculiar lights flashing above.  There she sees fireworks being fired from a passing ship, and on board the crew of humans are celebrating the birthday of their highness, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King).  Ariel is immediately smitten with the young prince, but the celebration is cut short when a storm hits.  Eric ends up nearly drowning when the ship is destroyed in the fury of the storm, but is rescued by Ariel.  He is too weak to see Ariel’s face, but he can hear her siren song and it sticks with him, leading him to vow to find her anywhere on his island if she is real.  Meanwhile, Triton learns of Ariel’s infatuation with the humans and punishes her by destroying all of her artifacts.   Ariel is left heartbroken, which then leads to a intervention from a sinister force that has been spying on her the whole time; Ursula, the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy).  Ursula promises Ariel that she can make her human for three days, allowing her to finally reconnect with Eric in the surface world.  However, Ursula’s spell is purposely meant to entrap Ariel, with Ursula intent on using her to get Triton’s crown and trident.  Can Ariel find her true love before the witch’s spell ends and become a part of that world?

There is no doubt about it; the original Little Mermaid is a landmark classic in the Disney canon.  It’s the movie that jump started the Disney Renaissance and brought back Disney Animation back from the dead.  To this day, it is a beloved film to a generation of Disney fans who came of age during this era; myself being one of them.  So, you can expect me to be a tad bit worried about how a live action remake would reflect on a movie as beloved as the original animated film.  Disney’s track record as of late with the live action remakes isn’t great.  Some are definitely genuine good films (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella, Cruella) while others are just average (Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan and Wendy), while sadly most are just downright awful (Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pinocchio).  Given that, I was anxious about what might happen to The Little Mermaid, but at the same time, I have to go in with an open mind and just accept the movie on it’s own merits.  And after having seen it, I am grateful in saying that the new Little Mermaid is one of the better Disney remakes I’ve seen.  I even dare say it’s worth seeing, even if you are against the idea of it existing in the first place.  To be clear, it’s not without it’s flaws.  The novelty of the original is not here, but there is a lot of creativity still on display that it still kept me engaged as I was watching it.  While most of the other Disney remakes feel like pale imitators, made I might add without passion, The Little Mermaid does what I hope for all the Disney remakes to accomplish, which is to justify it’s reason for existing.  Sadly, too many of the Disney remakes feel like the direct to video sequels, which are just movies existing solely as a product rather than a work of art.  There are times in this Little Mermaid where you do feel the pressure of corporate mandates, but there’s also a sense from the people who made this movie that they are trying their best to give us something special, and that helps to elevate it above the other remakes.

The first great thing I’d like to highlight about this movie is the thing that I’m sure most people are going to be talking about the most with this film, and that’s the performance of Halle Bailey as Ariel.  Bailey is transcendent in her performance as the titular Little Mermaid, giving far and away the best performance that I have ever seen in any of these Disney remakes.  From the first moment she appears on screen, she commands this film and elevates the movie as a result.  Throughout the movie, she exudes this infectious charm on screen, even in the moments where she has to act without her voice.  And man, what a great singing voice.  If there was anything that needed to translate directly from the original to this new live action version, it’s that Ariel had to have the most beautiful voice in the world.  Ariel’s original voice actor, Jodi Benson, is a tough act to follow, but Halle more than meets the challenge.  This is definitely evident in Ariel’s iconic “I Want” song, “Part of Your World,” which Halle performs to absolute perfection.  The audience I saw the movie with were spellbound during that scene, and even applauded at the end, demonstrating just how well she nailed the performance.  I am extremely happy to see her shine so brightly in this movie, given the controversy that surrounded the news of her casting in the film.  Because Halle Bailey is a different skin tone than the animated Ariel, there arose a racist online backlash towards the movie.  Sadly, many attacks were levied at her specifically, and she had to weather a firestorm of negative attention from people were pre-judging the movie before a single frame had been shot.  To see Halle rise above all that and give the kind of heartfelt performance that she did is the best outcome out of all this, and I hope that the undeniable power of her performance silences all the trolls and haters online as a result, especially if it leads to Halle becoming a major star because of this role.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie for the most part rises to the level of Halle’s performance as Ariel.  One thing that I think helped is that the film is directed by Rob Marshall.  Marshall has a mixed record as a film director, but where he has done his best work is in adapting musicals, and more importantly, staging musical numbers.  Drawing from his Broadway experience, the guy knows how to make visually interesting musical numbers for the big screen, something that he demonstrated very well in his big screen debut; the Oscar-winning Chicago (2002).  In The Little Mermaid, he’s working with a very different kind of musical, dependent on a lot of visual effects, but to his credit, he managed to make those musical numbers just as visually inventive as the ones he does with no visual effects.  The “Under the Sea” sequence in particular is perfect example of what Rob Marshall managed to bring to the movie.  Every shot is choreographed well to the song itself, and at the same time it doesn’t merely just copy the original film either.  That’s the one thing that made the Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King remakes so frustrating for me; the lack of creativity in the musical sequences.  They either were copy and paste jobs of the original animated sequences, or they lacked any visual stimulation at all.  With the Little Mermaid, Rob Marshall wants to make these songs feel special, and that thankfully carries through in all the classic Howard Ashman/ Alan Menken songs carried over from the original, as well as the new ones written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Not only that, but the movie benefits from a cast that can actually sing.  While I was worried about the more realistic depictions of the animal characters of Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle, the voice cast helped me to get used to them, and they turned out to be entertaining on their own.  Daveed Diggs’ performance as Sebastian especially works well, making the character just as entertaining as his classic counterpart (voiced by the late Samuel Wright).  The only actor that I wished had gone a bit further with her performance is Melissa McCarthy as Ursula.  She’s not bad by any means, and thankfully exceeded my dire expectations, but at the same time her performance seems too grounded and more of an imitation of the late great Pat Carroll’s vocal performance in the original.  At the same time, I did like McCarthy’s overall look as the character, especially with the bioluminescence they added to Ursula’s tentacles.

The one area where I think the movie may fall behind the original is it’s depiction of the ocean world.  The visual effects are not the worst that I’ve seen in these Disney remakes, but you still get this unfortunate artificiality that encumbers many moments within the movie.  For one thing, the underwater sequences still feel too murky, which dilutes some of the colors.  Coming right off of the heels of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), which revolutionized the ways digital water scenes can be filmed, doesn’t help.  The effects to turn the actors into merpeople is also mixed.  I feel like most of the resources for the mermaid effect went into the characters of Ariel and Ursula, both of whom come off as convincing as the iconic characters.  Other merpeople look unfortunately not as great, which is especially true for poor Javier Bardem as Triton, who often looks awkward in the role, buried under too many layers of effects both for his tail fin as well as for his beard.  The above water scenes fare much better, and the production design team did a great job of crafting Eric’s kingdom into this colorful, vibrant place, complete with a Caribbean flavor to it.  One thing about the visual effects that I really think helped out a lot was actually giving expressions to the animation of the animal characters.  After seeing the cold, lifeless faces of the household objects in Beauty and the Beast as well as those of the animals in The Lion King, it’s refreshing to see the digital animators make an effort here to be less adherent to limitations of live action and actually make the animals a bit more cartoony.  There’s also a lot to be said about the structure of the movie as well.  At 135 minutes, the movie is nearly an hour longer than the original, which ran a tight 83 minutes.  But, even with all that extra length, the movie never feels padded with unnecessary scenes.  All the extra time instead is devoted to extra character development, particularly with Ariel and Eric, whose courtship is fleshed out much more here.  Too often Disney chooses to fill their remakes with plot elements that either add nothing or effectively ruin the story as a whole (the idiotic teleportation book from Beauty and the Beast for example), and that’s thankfully absent here.  This is essentially the same story, but just with more meat on the bone.  And to director Marshall’s credit, it flows just as well as the original.

Out of all the Disney remakes, only Pete’s Dragon is one that I would say exceeds the original, which frankly didn’t have that high of a bar to clear.  In the case of all the Disney remakes, none of them ever have been better than the original animated versions.  But, with The Little Mermaid, I would say it joins the likes of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella remake, which doesn’t exceed the original, but at the same time compliments it.  After so much disappointment, it’s nice to actually say that about one of these Disney remakes.  The film is especially worth your time just for Halle Bailey’s performance as Ariel alone.  I can’t think of a better live action embodiment of one of these iconic Disney characters than her version of Ariel.  She really rose to the challenge, taking on a difficult role, and shone through magnificently.  Thankfully, the rest of the movie is worthwhile as well.  It’s not perfect, and sometimes suffers whenever it has to adhere too close to the original, including some unnecessary shot for shot imitations.  But, there’s a lot of care put into this film that feels absent from so many other Disney remakes.  Somehow, Rob Marshall managed to succeed in a way that other acclaimed directors like Tim Burton, Bill Condon, Robert Zemeckis and Jon Favreau have all failed to do, which is to make a movie that doesn’t feel like a hollow cash grab.  Don’t get me wrong, this movie is still a cash grab, and I worry that Disney will take the wrong lesson from it if it becomes a success.  But, for the first time in a long time, they got the remake formula right.  Much like Cinderella, it changes enough to make it feel like it’s own thing, while still fulfilling the expectations of what we remember from the original.  Despite it’s success, I do wish Disney would get out of this trend of remakes and get back to making original films again.  They’ve got a valuable brand and they are doing no favors for themselves by rehashing their glories from the past.  At least with The Little Mermaid they didn’t stain the legacy of that beloved classic, and at the very least gave it a deserving companion; one where you can definitely say both are worth watching, even though the original is still the top choice.  Thank you Disney for not spoiling your lovely Little Mermaid and letting her be part of our world once again.

Rating: 8/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – Review

What an extraordinary route it took for this movie to finally make it to movie theaters.  When it was first announced at Comic Con 2012 that Marvel was indeed going to adapt a film based on the Guardians of the Galaxy line of comic books, people thought that they had lost their minds.  It made sense in those early years of the MCU to create movies centered around Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, but the Guardians of the Galaxy?  Still, Marvel believed in what they had and more so they believed in the talents of a rising star filmmaker named James Gunn.  The resulting film in 2014 not only proved everyone wrong, but the original Guardians of the Galaxy quickly became regarded as one of the best comic book movies ever made.  The film was a hit, and it quickly sired a sequel in 2017, which also was a box office hit with critical acclaim.  With the Guardians cast also playing a major part in the culmination of Marvel’s Infinity Saga with the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame (2019), these once obscure character known only to die hard comic fans were now part of the Marvel elite.  And they were about to continue the win streak beyond Endgame, with a third film in their franchise meant to be the launching pad for Marvel’s Phase 4 in the summer of 2020.  But, alas, plans went astray.  First off, James Gunn was fired suddenly by Marvel’s parent company Disney in a short sighted response to years old offensive jokes that an online provocateur uncovered as retaliation for disliking Gunn’s left wing political stances.  Disney later realized their mistake and re-hired Gunn a few months later, but by that time he had already been hired to direct The Suicide Squad over at rival DC.  Gunn still accepted the offer to come back so that he could complete the story he created his own way, but it would be some time before he could start production.  The shut-down caused by the pandemic also complicated things, so by the time cameras finally started rolling on this third Guardians film, 5 years had passed since the last one and the world was a much different place.

Still, James Gunn is keeping his promise and we are now finally getting Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  So many different scenarios could’ve played out between Vol. 2‘s release and now, including having this threequel having a different director appointed during the time that Gunn was out at Marvel.  The movie certainly no longer is the launching pad for a new Phase of the MCU.  In fact, it no longer is even part of Phase 4, which ended last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).  While it’s placement in the continuity of the MCU has changed, the goal of the movie seems to have remained the same.  This is James Gunn’s final hurrah with this franchise and these characters.  It may not have been conceived that way, but the way things have played out over the last few years, the movie has taken on a very definitive significance that will certainly define it’s place in the Marvel canon overall.  And it comes at a time when Marvel needs it.  While Marvel is not financially hurting right now, there are many who are observing the fact that the once unbeatable box office juggernaut has been appearing a little soft lately.  Most of their post-Endgame movies are being received more lukewarm compared to the ones that came out before, both by critics and general audiences.  None of their movies have bombed, but they are performing well under the high expectations that have been placed on the Marvel brand.  Many believe that we’ve now reached a point of super hero movie fatigue, which is not only affecting Marvel, but their rival DC as well, given the box office failure seen with Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023).  Given the shaky ground that the genre now sits on, the pressure is definitely high on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to break the current losing streak.  It’s not going to be easy as both of it’s predecessors grossed higher than $300 million at the domestic box office each, and this film is coming off the heels of Marvel’s first ever money loser with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023).  Is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 the movie Marvel needs to save the day, or is it continuing the trend of diminishing returns in a post-Endgame world.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 finds the rag tag bunch set up in their new headquarters, the skull shaped sanctuary known as Knowhere; a place once ruled over by The Collector.  There they’ve helped to set up a community for refugees from across the galaxy.  Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) has taken charge for the most part, since Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord is wallowing in his depression and drinking his sorrows away.  Their peaceful existence is shattered however when a super powered being known as Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) breaks into Knowhere, intent on capturing Rocket.  The Guardians manage to overpower the intruder, but now before Rocket ends up being mortally wounded in the scuffle.  Normal methods of healing him don’t work as they find that there is a kill switch device implanted on his heart; a leftover from the horrible animal experiments that made him who he is.  Peter vows to find a way to save his friend, so he musters his fellow Guardians, including Nebula (Karen Gillen), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to join him in a search across the cosmos for a way to save Rocket.  Their journey involves breaking into an ultra secure laboratory called the Orgosphere, which they receive help from the Ravagers, Quill’s old gang, to infiltrate.  Among the Ravagers ranks now is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is the alternate time line variant of Peter’s murdered ex-girlfriend and has no memory of their past relationship, making their team up a little awkward.  While Rocket remains invalid, he flashes back to memories of his days when he was experimented on by a demented mad scientist named the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who may be the only person capable of saving Rocket’s life.  Unfortunately for the Guardians, The High Evolutionary is behind the attempted abduction of Rocket and he’s adamant about continuing those experiments further, which will endanger more than just Rocket’s well-being.  Despite all their harrowing adventures so far, this is definitely the most personal battle for them so far, and one that will make the team members confront more of their tortured pasts.

Going over the story of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, it’s pretty clear that this is not as much of a fun little romp that the past films in the series have been.  It will become apparent from the opening of this movie right away that James Gunn is aiming for a much different tone with his trilogy caper.  The movie does open with a thematic needle drop like the past films; but whereas the original opened with the upbeat “Come and Get Your Love” from Redbone and Vol. 2 opened with the equally light-hearted “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra, Vol. 3 starts out with Radiohead’s “Creep.”  That upfront statement tells you that this is going to be a much different movie than what we’ve seen before, and to be honest, it’s actually a refreshing change.  After several movies in a row from Marvel that felt more formulaic and tethered to a bigger franchise continuity, Vol. 3 is a movie that immediately throws out expectations and does something refreshingly different for a change.  Don’t get me wrong, it still feels like a James Gunn directed Guardians of the Galaxy movie, but Gunn proves here that he’s not afraid to make things a little darker and more serious.  The experiment works for the most part.  It’s clear that James Gunn was intent on pushing a few more boundaries with this movie, as far as he could go with the Marvel mandated PG-13.  This movie even has Star-Lord uttering the MCU’s first unbleeped F-bomb.  And despite it being a harsher story than we usually get from Marvel, it still hits the right emotional notes and it feels in-line with what Gunn has led his story up to now.  I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite of the Guardians movies, that is still reserved for the nearly flawless first film.  But this may be the one that impresses me the most with it’s handling of riskier material and it’s epic scope; showing how accomplished James Gunn has gotten as a filmmaker.

The thing that really elevates the movie is the way it treats all of the character arcs in this film.  Each character, even some of the minor ones like Sean Gunn’s Kraglin and Cosmo the Telepathic Dog (voiced by Maria Bakalova) get these wonderful side stories with satisfying pay offs.  Certainly the Guardians themselves have the most important story beats, but one doesn’t overshadow the other.  Of the Guardians characters, Groot may be the one with the minimalist character development, but he’s still a welcome presence throughout the movie, and there is some resolution to his overall character arc by the end.  They continue to build upon Drax and Mantis’ peculiar courtship as well, which provides the movie with some wonderful comedic moments.  I also love how they have continued Nebula’s arc from villain to hero as she has continued to soften her rough edges, while still at times struggling to control her temper.  One thing I was curious about was how they would deal with the whole Star-Lord and Gamora ordeal.  It picks up from where things left off with Avengers: Endgame, where a different Gamora has emerged whose separate from the team she used to belong to.  In the wrong hands, Star-Lord’s desire to rekindle a romance between them would’ve come across as creepy, but thankfully James Gunn handles the relationship in a delicate way that doesn’t cast poorly on either character and feels organic as part of the story.  But, even with all this, the movie is first and foremost Rocket’s story.  His storyline, part of which is told in flashback, is the most powerful part of the movie, and I can tell you without spoiling anything that his moments were the ones that hit the hardest when comes to the emotional weight.  I saw quite a few people wiping away tears at my screening.  A few of the Rocket scenes may be among the bleakest ever put into a Marvel movie since the “snap” from Infinity War, but James Gunn didn’t put them in here for shock value.  He wants us to understand the hardship that his characters had to overcome, and it’s something that needed to be faced head on.  To make those moments work in a film franchise that up to now had been on the lighter side, with a character mostly known as a comedic sidekick is something really impressive, and one of the main reasons why this movie works as well as it does.

The movie is not without it’s faults though.  Chief among them is the villain, The High Evolutionary.  Given how so many of the characters in this film get these rich story arcs, it’s a shame that the villain they face is so one note.  We don’t learn much at all about the High Evolutionary other than he’s extremely powerful and a egomaniacal scientist trying to play God with his experimentations.  Even by the film’s end he remains an enigma; who is he, where did he come from, why is he experimenting on animals?  The movie just never gives us any answers to those questions.  To be sure, actor Chukwudi Iwuji is swinging for the fences with his performance; giving scene chewing ferocity in every moment he is on screen.  But as hard as he is trying, the movie just never quite makes him as interesting as he should be.  It’s a step down from the impact that Vol. 2′s villain , Ego the Living Planet, had.  At least with Ego and even the first film’s Ronan the Accuser there was a feeling of imminent danger to the lives of the Guardians.  High Evolutionary is only a major force of evil in one character’s story, Rocket’s, and no one else’s.  There are also some pacing issues with this movie that hamper it a bit.  At 2 1/2 hours it’s the longest in the franchise, and while much of the epic scale of this movie supports the increased run time, there are plenty of moments, particularly those devoted to comedic bits, that feel like padding.  There are two extended comedy moments, one related on how to properly use a couch with another about how to open a car door, that on their own are funny enough, but when put back to back of each other makes the film feel like it’s wasting time.  Overall, these moments certainly don’t ruin the movie, but about 10-15 minutes could’ve been shaved off of this movie, and I don’t think it would have harmed any of the story telling at all.

Now there are still plenty more things to praise about this movie.  One is definitely the cast.  It’s clear that these actors knew that this was going to be a film that ends an era, so they are giving it their all to make this movie feel like a worthy culmination of the story.  The most impressive work comes from Bradley Cooper in his vocal performance here as Rocket.  He’s called upon to take Rocket into some very dark places in this story and he really finds the heart and soul of who Rocket is in order to make the movie’s darkest moments carry an emotional wallop.  Christ Pratt naturally continues to make Star-Lord a lovable rogue, which he’s consistently done across all three movies, plus the three other MCU films the Guardians have appeared in.  The same goes for Karen Gillen as Nebula, Dave Bautista as Drax and Pom Klementiff as Mantis.  One of my favorite performances in this film, though, is Zoe Saldana as Gamora, as she is playing a very different version of this character; one who’s a bit more blood-thirsty than we’ve seen before, which leads to some wild moments in the movie.  Newcomer Will Poulter’s introduction as Adam Warlock may be not what comic book fans were expecting or wanting, as it’s a bit of a departure for the character, but how James Gunn uses him in this movie makes sense for this story, and Poulter is perfectly suited for the role.  The movie is also on par with the others in the series when it comes to the visuals.  The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has always been one of the more imaginative visually within the MCU, paving the way for the studio’s more celestial bound adventures, and this movie continues that tradition.  There are some bold visual ideas in this film, like the organically grown structure of the Orgoscope or the oppressive jagged-ness of the High Evolutionary’s fortress.  Even individual scenes are crafted to stun, like a stand-out fight scene set to the Beastie Boys late in the film.  As I said before, despite the change in tone for this movie, it still holds up the high quality craftsmanship that has set this franchise apart in the MCU.

One of the unfortunate things that comes to mind while watching this movie is knowing that we’ll likely never see another movie like it again in the MCU.  James Gunn was a singularly identifiable voice in the whole of Marvel’s pool of talent, and sadly his time at the studio is coming to an end.  He’s about to take the big job over at DC, assuming a similar role over there that Kevin Feige holds at Marvel, and he’ll be responsible for spear-heading the development of all the new DC films and shows coming out over the next decade.  Had Disney not acted as drastically as they did and not fired him over something that turned out to be nothing, who knows if things may have turned out differently.  As far as I’m concerned, James Gunn is in a good position where I think he is going to do an outstanding job.  He clearly has an un-shakable love for comic books and wants to do them justice on the big screen.  He’s already amassed a great track record at DC with the very underrated The Suicide Squad, as well as the spin-off series Peacemaker.  Thankfully, he was able to close the chapter on the Guardians of the Galaxy series his own way, and give it the proper closure that it deserves.  I won’t spoil where all the characters end up by movie’s end, but this movie is definitely a swan song for the team we knew.  Who knows what futures Marvel has in store for them, if at all; we only get the promise of one character’s return in end credits.  But the way that the movie culminates their story after three films is enormously satisfying.  I’ll need to consider more of where I would rank it in the greater MCU, but I can definitely say it’s up there with it’s predecessors in the upper echelon of Marvel Studios movies.  The Rocket Raccoon moments alone I would rank among the best of any Marvel movie.  It’s a movie that I highly recommend for both die-hard and casual fans.  James Gunn did not disappoint, and I’m glad to see that he left Marvel on good terms with one final gift worthy of the franchise’s legacy.  Is it the kind of movie to change Marvel’s fortunes.  That remains to be seen, but it is great to finally spend some time again with the “freakin’ Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Rating: 8.5/10

The Super Mario Bros. Movie – Review

For the longest time there was one thing that was certain about Hollywood; that they couldn’t make a movie based on a video game.  There were many attempts to be sure, but many of them resulted in spectacular failures, both at the box office and with critics and audiences.  A poster child for the dismal record of video game movies was one that was based on the world’s most popular game: 1993’s Super Mario Bros.  The live action film starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as the titular brothers was so removed visually from what the original 8-bit game represented that audiences didn’t know what to make of it.  The film would go on to be a cautionary tale of how not to adapt a video game into a movie and the industry for the longest time steered clear of going all in on video games as sources for their movies.  But, in recent years, something has changed.  Not only are movie studios starting to adapt video games into feature films and series, but in some cases they are actually succeeding in their adaptations.  The Sonic the Hedgehog movies for instance wildly exceeded expectations, especially considering that the first one went through an extensive eleventh hour re-design of the main character that many thought was going to doom the movie.  And on television, a series adaptation of the Playstation game The Last of Us is not only earning high viewership numbers, but it’s also being critically lauded as one of the best shows on TV in general.  I think one thing that has turned the tide with video game adaptations in film and television recently is the fact that we have finally have a generation of filmmakers working now who grew up playing video games.  This isn’t an older generation trying to figure out what these kids are liking any more; now the filmmakers are bringing a lifetime of knowledge about how to tell stories through the video game medium and giving them the admiration they deserve as they adapt them into a different medium.  With this change in the culture, it would make sense that Mario would get another chance on the big screen.

Super Mario Bros. started in Japan in 1985 before eventually making it’s way to North American markets in 1987.  Mario Bros. became what they call in the video game industry a “hardware seller,” because the appeal of the game was so immense that Mario was very much responsible that millions of households in America had a Nintendo Game System.  Often packaged with the console itself, nearly every Nintendo user played the game, and it’s presence in the pop culture spread like wildfire.  As a mascot for the Nintendo corporation, Mario was to video games what Mickey Mouse had become to cartoons; a character recognized all over the world.  Mario’s creator, game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, didn’t just rest on his laurels with the first game.  He would continue to refine the character and his gameplay through subsequent titles in the series, each one taking advantage of the advancing graphical capabilities of each new Nintendo console.  Every time new hardware was released, a new Mario game was to follow, and each game continues to build on what came before it, which has helped Mario to keep his relevancy nearly four decades later.  As the series has gone on, not only has Mario managed to stay popular, but so have all the other characters that appear in those games; some even getting their own popular spinoffs.  Mario’s brother Luigi has his own popular series called Luigi’s Mansion, where he goes ghost hunting, and there are games devoted to characters like Toadstool, Yoshi, and Mario’s doppelganger nemesis Wario.  Now, there seems to be a major attempt to capitalize on the multi-generational appeal of the Mario series, with a major film studio involved in the action.  This year, Universal Pictures is not only attempting another big screen adaptation of the game, but they’ve opened a new section of their Studio Lot park in Hollywood dedicated to the Mario franchise.  As a wise move, they’ve avoided going the live action route like the doomed 1993 film, and instead gave the project to their Illumination Animation division, with full blessing from Nintendo.  The only question is if they are able to make Super Mario Bros work this time as a movie experience.

The story begins with the two Mario brothers, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) starting off their new careers as expert plumbers in present day Brooklyn.  They unfortunately suffer several setbacks on their first day on the job, and it leads to their family worrying about their futures, including their highly skeptical Father (Charles Martinet).  A local water main break in their area convinces Mario that they may have a second shot at success, so they take their gear and travel down into the lower maintenance levels of the New York City.  There they find a mysterious green pipe, which unexpectedly sucks them in and sends them on an interdimensional journey.  The brothers get split up, with Luigi being sent to a dark, foreboding place called the Dark Lands, and Mario ending up in the Mushroom Kingdom.  While exploring the strange new place, Mario runs into a talking mushroom creature named Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who agrees to help Mario by guiding him to the castle of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy).  Mario meets the Princess and learns of the dangers that faces her kingdom.  Across their world, the tyrannical leader of the Dark Lands, the Koopa King Bowser (Jack Black) is causing terror with his army and flying fortress.  Peach believes that Mario can be of some help, so she agrees to help him find his brother if he agrees to aid in their fight against Bowser.  She believes that the key to stopping Bowser’s army is by recruiting the help of the Monkey Kingdom, and that means having to challenge their mightiest warrior, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen).  Meanwhile, Bowser advances towards the Mushroom Kingdom and learns that Mario has allied with the Princess, after Bowser’s wizard assistant Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson) has captured Luigi in the Dark Lands.  Can Peach and Mario succeed in bringing Donkey Kong and his forces to their side to stop Bowser from destroying the Mushroom Kingdom?

Truth be told, there isn’t much to making a movie adaptation of Super Mario Bros.  The original game’s story is as simplistic as it can be (Mario saves the Princess from the depths of Bowser’s castle) and many of the other games deviate very little from that central premise.  The bar is already set low by the 1993 film as well, which is evident upon watching it that the filmmakers had no idea what they were adapting in the first place.  One of the things that worried me is the fact that Illumination Animation was involved.  Illumination is a studio that has yet to make a movie that I consider anything more than just okay.  They do have a quality animation team, but they also seem to do just the bare minimum when it comes to their stories.  Through their Despicable Me, Minions, and Secret Life of Pets series of films, they are a studio that is more geared toward broad entertainment rather than actually reaching their audience on an emotional or intellectual level.  That’s often why they never gain the critical reception that Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks do with their movies.  On the other hand, their broad entertainment style is what has also helped them to make a killing at the box office.  Their films consistently play very well in theaters, mainly due to the fact that their target demographic is little kids and also because they aggressively market their movies months in advance.  I’m sure that Super Mario Bros. will do exactly the same, because the way I felt about this movie is the way I felt seeing every other Illumination movie; underwhelmed but aware of how big this movie will be with it’s target audience.  It disappoints me a lot that this kind of box office success is keeping Illumination from actually improving as an animation studio.  While other studios take chances, sometimes to the risk of failure, Illumination plays it down the middle safe and it results in their movies coming across as boring.  Sadly, Super Mario Bros. is another one of those movies, and it’s equally heartbreaking that they are doing so with such a legacy brand as Mario and Nintendo.

What I had the biggest problem with in this movie is the lack of focus.  It just seems like each scene was crafted to indulge the audience with references to the games, but none of it really adds up.  The thing that especially gets sacrificed the most in this movie is character development.  Not once in this movie do I ever fully get what Mario or any of the other characters wants; they are all just passively playing their role in the story that vaguely follows the progression of the games.  There seems to be kernels of character arcs set up early in the film, like Mario wanting to impress his family, but that goes by the wayside once Mario arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, where the story just puts Mario through the paces of becoming the hero who will stop Bowser.  Mario’s family is all but forgotten for most of the movie, until the very end suddenly shoehorns the message back in at the last minute.  Also, most of the characters in the story never change throughout the progression of the plot.  Mario never gains the confidence to be a hero; he’s already the more confident of the two brothers in the beginning of the movie, and the film never advances beyond that.  The way the movie starts, with a lot of emphasis placed on the relationship of the brothers, also gets abandoned as the characters spend most of the movie apart.  Luigi’s screen time is also shockingly short in this movie too.  Like with so much of Illumination’s movies, it’s all about cramming in more time for humorous bits to please the younger viewers, and in doing so, character moments get pushed to the side.  The pacing of this movie is just a freight train of Easter eggs and sight gags, with no time to stop and center the story itself and actually find it’s core.  Yes, I know, the Mario games are simplistic too, but you got think that other animation studios would’ve tried a little harder to find purpose and meaning in the story they were telling.  Can you imagine what Pixar or Dreamworks would have done with the Mario IP.  Honestly, I don’t know why Universal didn’t take this film to Dreamworks, since they are also a part of the studio, and have a better track record of adapting already existing IP (Mr. Peabody and Sherman).

At the same time, this isn’t a complete failure of a movie, nor is it the worst video game adaptation.  For one thing, the animation is exceptional.  The direct involvement with Nintendo was a big help, because every character is on model with their video game counterpart, and the environments that they inhabit are beautifully realized.  I especially like the ominous appearance of Bowser’s floating fortress, which seems like a volcanic mountain suspended in the air and with Bowser’s face as it’s intimidating mast head.  If you’ve played the game, As I’m sure most of you from my generation have, you will see references galore throughout the movie, and most of them are true to the games from where they came from.  There’s even a clever reference to the Mario Kart games when Mario and his crew have to build their selective vehicles.  Even if you aren’t a gamer, you’ll still appreciate how colorful and imaginative the movie is.  As someone who has grown up playing these games since childhood, I can definitely say that they nail the visual look of what a Mario game should be.  It’s definitely a far cry from the grungy, dystopian world from the 1993 Mario Bros.  In particular, this movie draws a lot of visual inspiration from the 3D graphics Mario games; from the Nintendo 64 generation on.  Princess Peach’s castle is definitely inspired by the Super Mario 64 game, which has served as the basis of design for every Mario Bros. structure in the games ever since.  The movie also uses clever ways to re-imagine things that before only appeared in the 2D classic games.  The arena in which Mario Fights Donkey Kong features bright red steel beams, a reference to the retro arcade game from which both Mario and Donkey Kong both made their debuts in the early days of gaming.  The movie also does a neat perspective change to emulate the side-scrolling gameplay of the Mario games in a couple of moments.  Where the game has many shortcomings in it’s story, it thankfully still serves up a strong visual feast for the audience, and in a way that is respectful and in line with the legacy of the games.

One of the things that a lot of people were worried about going into this movie was how the celebrity voice cast would work out playing these iconic characters.  In particular, a lot of scrutiny fell upon the peculiar casting of Chris Pratt as Mario.  For many years, the voice of Mario has been provided by voice actor Charles Martinet, who has given Mario this very distinctive, peppy Italian-accented voice that is instantly recognizable the world over.  Chris Pratt is no stranger to lending his voice to animated movies (The Lego Movie, Onward), but given the iconic nature of the way Mario sounds, the news of his casting was not received well by most of the public.  The biggest worry is that like all the other characters that Chris Pratt has played in animated movies, his performance here was just going to be another variation of his own natural voice, which would not have fit the character at all.  But, the final judgment must come after seeing the finished film.  I do have to say that despite the casting of Chris Pratt not being ideal, he actually does an okay job in this film.  For one thing, he doesn’t do the Italian stereotype voice the whole movie, but instead emulates a Brooklyn accent which is closer to being in his wheelhouse.  After a while, the voice just sounds natural for this version of Mario, so at the very least the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario was not the worst case scenario.  He’s also well matched with Charlie Day as Luigi, who was the ideal choice all along for that character.  The voice cast overall does a fine job with the characters they have been cast as; it’s really just the script that let’s them down.  Anya Taylor-Joy is a perfect choice as Princess Peach and Seth Rogan is frankly the only choice for Donkey Kong.  The one who steals the film, however, is Jack Black as Bowser.  Black goes above and beyond with his performance as the villainous tyrant, being adequately menacing when he needs to, but also laugh out loud funny in the most unexpected ways as well, all the while remaining true to the character.  The movie even finds a way to work Jack Black’s musical background into the movie in what has to be the film’s finest moment.  I also do appreciate that the movie did bring Charles Martinet on board to provide a few other voices; an acknowledgement of his long time legacy with the series of games.  While a lot of worries surrounded how the voice cast would be used in this movie, I can definitely say that the actors did the best they could, and some were even better than we would have hoped.  I hope this especially pull the pressure off of Chris Pratt, who actually did alright by this character.

I do know that this movie is going to do very well no matter what I say.  A lot of anticipation has been built up for this movie, for both young audiences looking for something light and silly to watch, and also for their parents who grew up playing these games.  If they find this movie satisfactory, then good on them.  I on the other hand felt the movie fell short of it’s potential.  Typical of other Illumination Animation movies, the film is all style and routine, without a resonate story at it’s center.  I’ve seen many other animation studios take already established IP and develop films that not only utilize to properties to their full potential, but actually deliver a resonate and emotional story with it.  The Lego Movie for example is a film that could’ve turned into a shameless feature length commercial for it’s title product, but in the hands of the right people (in this case, the duo of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord) it became an instant classic movie with a lot of heart at it’s center.  Super Mario Bros. just doesn’t have that emotional center that it should have.  Not once did I feel like I got to know these characters, nor care what they were doing.  Even compared to recent video game adaptations the movie falls short.  While the Sonic the Hedgehog movies are no masterpieces themselves, I still was able to understand the character motivations and be engaged by their development throughout the story.  In those movies, they did a much better job of establishing what the character of Sonic wanted, which was a family and a purpose for being a hero.  In Super Mario Bros. the main character starts off special, and just remains that all the way to the end.  That makes his story boring by comparison.  Visually, this movie gets the look of Mario’s world right, but within that pretty shell is a hollow story.  So, it’s not quite a game over, but I feel that after so many years of waiting for a worthy Super Mario Bros. movie, it feels like the one we deserve is still hidden in another castle.

Rating: 6.5/10