My Top 10 Movie List for 2022

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Another year of movies has come and gone, and all things considered, it was a darn good year for celluloid.

I returned to the movie theaters this past year, after keeping away since spring 2020 due to the pandemic. I still wear a mask in the theater, except when eating popcorn, of course, and I’m usually the only one in the theater wearing a mask, but that’s okay. I have no problem wearing a mask in public places. If it was good enough for the Phantom of the Opera, it’s good enough for me!

Anyway, I returned to seeing theatrical releases in July, and so I pretty much saw films in the theater for half the year, and streaming releases the other half. An interesting thing happened during the pandemic. By watching movies at home, I discovered that streaming platforms like Netflix and Prime Video offer a lot of quality original movies, so much so, that I’ve now fully incorporated their offerings into my movie selection process. Sure, they offer duds as well, but so do the movie theaters.

I saw approximately 75 new movies this year, and the list below comprises my ten favorites of 2022. I am always amazed by the number of new movies that are released each year, which is a good thing, but there are so many that I know that you and me don’t see all the same movies, and so there are bound to be movies that you loved this year that I simply didn’t see. But of the ones I did see, here are my Top 10:

10. BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER – it’s been a rough stretch for Marvel. Even as a big Marvel fan, I’ve been disappointed with most of their recent movies of late. Not so with this superior BLACK PANTHER sequel. It pays respectful homage to late actor Chadwick Boseman and to the Black Panther character, while telling a compelling story, featuring a formidable villain, and nicely setting up the future of the Black Panther superhero. Three and a half stars.

9. BABYLON – I loved this tale of early Hollywood by writer/director Damien Chazelle, starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. The movie has a lot to say, but my favorite part was its take on fans’ relationships to movies, how important movies are to people, and how film really is high art, and it says all this in the raucous, bawdy, unpredictable and unforgiving world of 1920s Hollywood. Three and a half stars.

8. THE WONDER – It was a great year for period pieces, and several of them made it into my top 10 list. THE WONDER is one of them. This Netflix original period piece thriller stars Florence Pugh as an English nurse sent to the Irish Midlands in 1862 to observe and either validate or disprove the claim that a healthy young girl has gone months without food, an event the locals are calling a religious miracle. Florence Pugh is one of the best actresses working today, and so her presence alone lifts this movie, but THE WONDER has more to offer. Where this story ultimately goes speaks to both the hypocrisy of religion, and faith in humanity. Three and a half stars.

7. THE MENU – a delightfully dark comedic thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes about a select group of rich guests traveling to a private island to partake in an extravagant meal prepared by a team of chefs led by one of the world’s finest chefs, played by Fiennes, who just happens to have an agenda which he enacts on these folks, who mostly deserve the comeuppance he has planned for them. Like Florence Pugh, Anya Taylor-Joy is also one of the best actresses working today, and while there is a lot to like about this delicious thriller, her performance is the best part. Three and half stars.

6. THE PALE BLUE EYE – Another Netflix original, and another period piece. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, THE PALE BLUE EYE tells the story of a serial killer loose at West Point Academy in 1830 who likes to cut out the hearts of the young cadets there. Disenchanted detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is called in to solve the case, and he receives help from a young cadet there named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Beautifully shot, exquisitely written, and well-acted by a veteran cast, led by Melling in a phenomenal performance as Edgar Allan Poe, and by Christian Bale as the weary, somber detective with secrets of his own. Three and a half stars.

5. THE BANSHEES OF INERSHERIN – certainly one of the more unusual movies I saw this year, and another period piece, as it takes place in 1923 on an island off the coast of Ireland. Receiving lots of hype, deservedly so, but erroneously marketed as a comedy, this tale of a man named Padraic, played by Colin Farrell, who out of the blue is told one day by his best friend that he no longer likes him as a person and that he doesn’t want to spend any more time with him, ever, starts off light and humorous but grows increasingly dark as it goes along, building to a very somber conclusion. This one is offbeat to be sure, but you can’t beat the dialogue or the acting. Colin Farrell is superb as Padraic, the man who begins to question his very existence and being, when he is faced with an absolute and unforgiving rejection by a man who he thought was his best friend. Three and a half stars.

4. EMILY THE CRIMINAL – I loved this small market thriller starring Aubrey Plaza as a young woman struggling to pay off her college debt and pay her bills with one thankless low paying job after another, and when she says yes to taking part in an illegal credit card scheme, because it will pay her a quick $200, she finds that the criminals treat her better than her employers. The scams certainly pay her better, and as she discovers she has a talent for this sort of thing, she agrees to take on bigger scams, which earn her more money but also become much more dangerous. This is a tight, hard-hitting thriller with no fat on its bones. Much more satisfying than many of the big budget Hollywood releases and features an exceptional performance by Plaza. Three and a half stars.

3. ELVIS- I love writer/director Baz Luhrmann’s visual style, and he’s at the top of his game here with ELVIS, a glitzy rocking extravaganza of a bio pic of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Featuring an energetic and uncanny performance by Austin Butler as Elvis, and Tom Hanks as Presley’s slimy self-serving manager, Colonel Tom Parker, ELVIS is a visual and musical tour de force. Don’t expect a deep insightful look into the inner mind and soul of Elvis Presley. This movie doesn’t go there. Instead, it plays out like an Elvis performance in Las Vegas, which artistically speaking, is a perfect way to tell Elvis’ story. Three and a haf stars.

2. LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER – Another Netflix original, and yes, another period piece. This latest film version of the D.H. Lawrence novel, scores so highly for me because of the way it honestly and unabashedly features sex in its story, something that Hollywood movies these days strangely shy away from. LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is the story of Lady Connie Chatterley (Emma Corrin) who’s stuck in a loveless marriage with rich Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), and when she meets and falls in love with the gamekeeper on their estate, Oliver (Jack O’Connell), she realizes that he’s the love of her life, and she decides that in spite of the odds against her– she’s married, and Oliver is of a different social status than her— she will not conform to social norms and instead will do whatever it takes to ensure her happiness and a future life with Oliver. Wonderfully filmed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, and perfectly capturing the World War I English countryside, LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER features fine performances by all involved, but the most captivating part of this one is the way de Clermont-Tonnerre films the story’s love scenes, as they are boldly realistic and passionate, showing physical love in a way that most other films these days don’t have the guts to do. Four stars.

1. EMERGENCY – My favorite movie of 2022 was this Amazon Prime original film which received very little attention this year. I liked it because it speaks to race relations here in 2022 in a way that is far more natural and effective than most, and it does it largely on a comedic platform. EMERGENCY tells the story of two black college friends, Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (R J Cyler) who before a night of partying discover an unconscious white girl on the floor of their apartment. When Kunle attempts to call 911, Sean stops him, telling him that the police will never believe that they— two black men– had nothing to do with how an unconscious white girl ended up on their apartment floor. So, instead, they decide to take her to the hospital, and so they embark on an odyssey of an adventure trying to transport this girl across town to the hospital, while the girl’s sister and her friends try to find her, and what can go wrong, does go wrong in this comedic drama that will have you both laughing and trembling. The scene late in the movie where the police confront Kunle, and pull guns on him, is nail-bitingly tense. EMERGENCY offers a fresh and funny premise— yes, officers, this girl really did just appear on our apartment floor unconscious, and we really have no idea how she got here or who she is— thrusts it into the racially charged environment of our current culture and delivers it all in a tremendously thought-provoking and satisfying package. Directed by Carey Williams and written by K.D. Davila. EMERGENCY is my pick for the best movie of 2022.

And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2022. It was a great year for movies. Now it’s on to 2023!

As always, thanks for reading.

—Michael

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

And coming soon, my Top 10 List for the Worst movies of 2022. Look for it soon right here in these pages!

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AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (2022) – Big Budget James Cameron Sequel Worth the Wait, Not the Price Tag

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Thirteen years?

Are you kidding me?

That’s the time in between the first movie AVATAR (2009), and its sequel AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (2022) which just opened in theaters this weekend. I loved AVATAR. I remember being blown away by its 3D effects, which were the best I had ever seen at that point, and its story wasn’t half bad either.

But thirteen years? Why should I care about a sequel to a movie I barely remember? This has been my mindset leading up to the release of this sequel, but truth be told, I am only half serious, and that’s because I know the answer to that question. The reason I still care about this sequel is because it’s being made by James Cameron.

Cameron of course has directed a long line of innovative movie hits, including THE TERMINATOR (1984), ALIENS (1986), TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991), TITANIC (1997), and AVATAR. Cameron’s movies are always visually impressive, and sometimes, as was the case with the 3D technology in AVATAR, groundbreaking. So, while I poke fun at the gap of years between the two movies, I still was interested in seeing this sequel.

Speaking of which, let’s get down to business. Is AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER any good? Well, of course it is! The real question is, just how good is it?

Visually speaking, it’s tremendously good! This is a movie that is nearly one hundred percent animated, using motion-capture and CGI effects throughout, on the fictional planet of Pandora. It’s a visual treat for the senses. The film is beautiful to look at.

My favorite part, though, is actually the characters, who though animated, come to life through their expressions and mannerisms. You really believe the characters you are watching are real.

Now, I wasn’t able to see AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER in 3D this time around, and that was just fine with me. I mean, a movie shouldn’t need 3D technology to make it a success. It has to stand on its own. As such, even in 2D, the effects here hold up.

The story in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER takes place several years after the events of the first movie, and we find Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) living with his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) among her forest people, and as such they now have a family, two sons and two daughters. We find out that the villainous Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who Jake and Neytiri killed at the end of the first movie, has been cloned in the form of the indigenous people of Pandora, as have a bunch of other military soldiers.

The Sky People— people from Earth— continue their military mission to conquer the natives of Pandora because Earth is dying, and humans need a new place to live. The mission has been going badly because the native animals in the forest attack and kill the soldiers before they can even reach the native peoples they want to conquer. So, the thinking is, these new soldiers created to look like Pandorans will get by the animals because they will be perceived as natural to the environment. And Quaritch has an added mission, which is to find and kill Jake.

When Jake realizes they are coming for him, he moves his family away, and they relocate far away in a new community with the ocean people who primarily function underwater. But, as expected, Quaritch and his soldiers eventually track Jake down, setting the stage for a climactic battle.

As stories go, the one told in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is okay. The big picture stuff is all rather simplified, the evil soldiers who don’t care about the environment, the animals, and ultimately the people there, vs. Jake and his people who care about all these things. It’s simplified, but it makes its points, and it works.

The story works even better when it focuses on family, and I’m tempted to say that AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is more about Jake’s and Neytiri’s children, but that would be an unfair assessment, because it’s also about Jake and Neytiri. But a bulk of this movie is about the children, who range in age from young adult, to teen, to school age, and their stories are every bit as interesting as the adult stories, especially their relationship with the children of the ocean people, and with the animals, especially the sea creatures. That all worked for me, and so when you get to the film’s conclusion, and all these folks are in harm’s way, it makes for some very exciting and emotional storytelling.

The screenplay by James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver works best when it creates these characters and allows the audience to get to know them and care for them. It doesn’t work as well when it comes to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. The film gets off to a sluggish start as little or no effort is made to connect events unfolding to the previous movie, and for me, it took a good twenty minutes before I started to settle in and feel like this movie was going somewhere.

The movie runs three hours and twelve minutes, which is an incredibly long running time, but honestly, it held my attention, and so the running time itself isn’t an issue. However, after sitting through a movie for three hours, you expect a finite conclusion, and AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER doesn’t really give us one. The major conflict between Jake and Quaritch isn’t resolved, and questions about Jake’s and Neytiri’s oldest daughter’s powers and heritage are left unanswered. Movie audiences deserve a finite conclusion, even if more movies are planned.

There are also some lapses of logic. It struck me as naive that the ocean people accept Jake and his family without realizing that doing so would threaten their own family, knowing that the Sky People are actively searching for Jake. Jake tells them as much when he explains why they fled their homeland. And at the end of the movie, Jake declares that with his newfound family, the ocean people having accepted them, that this is their new home, and their days of running are over. It’s better to stand firm and defend one’s home than run away, which begs the question, where was this attitude at the beginning of the movie?

It’s difficult to talk about the actors in this one because we never really see their human likenesses, but in terms of voice work, they all do superb jobs. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, and many others all lend their voices and do great work. A lot has been made about Kate Winslet doing her own underwater diving and holding her breath for a record time, and while this is impressive, it’s weird to think about, because you don’t really see Kate Winslet underwater. I mean you do, but it’s her as an Avatar character. It’s just weird to think about. There’s a part of me that hopes this isn’t the future of movies, where you will have actors involved who are unrecognizable because the technology has completely changed the way they look.

Edie Falco appears in human form as General Ardmore, and she was fun to watch as she was one of the few characters allowed to talk down to Quaritch, but she’s only in the movie during its first half.

I enjoyed AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER quite a bit. However, this movie cost between $350-$400 million to make, and when you see the effects, you’ll understand why. And yes, admittedly, the visuals in this movie blew me away. But a movie is more than just visuals. There’s story, characters, themes, dialogue, and emotion. Now, AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER gets most of these right as well, or at least the characters and the emotion part. The story is as I said earlier rather simplified.

So, what’s my point? Simply this. A $350-$400-million-dollar budget doesn’t guarantee the best movie of the year, meaning there were plenty of other movies I’ve seen this year that I liked better than this one. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful that Cameron made this movie, but that’s a ton of money, and it will be interesting to see if this film makes enough money to turn a profit.

At the end of the day, I liked AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER a lot. Its visuals, especially the world it creates, is second to none. It also has a lot of likable characters and tells an emotional story. But it still plays like a sequel, or at least one small part in a bigger story arc that is set to continue with more AVATAR movies. Which for me is the biggest knock against AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. It’s just not a standalone movie. $350-$400 million dollars is a lot of money for just one chapter in a story.

I give it three stars.

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE SOUND OF 007 (2022) – Documentary Chronicles the Stories Behind the Music to the James Bond Movies

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Bond. James Bond.

Bet you like the sound of that. And I bet you can’t hear those lines without hearing the signature James Bond theme playing immediately afterwards.

That’s one of the many on-target points made in THE SOUND OF 007 (2022), a new documentary by director Mat Whitecross that is now available on Prime Video, which chronicles the stories behind the iconic music in the James Bond movies.

The point that the music to these films is every bit as important as the James Bond character, the actors who played Bond, the action, and the overall adventures in each movie, is both true and pretty much unique to this film series. While other film series have notable and recognizable music— the STAR WARS franchise for example— more has been done with the Bond music, and it’s difficult to think of the movies and the character without the iconic theme.

THE SOUND OF 007 explains the origin of that signature theme, and tells the story how producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman hired Monty Norman to write the music for their first Bond movie, DR. NO (1962), and Norman, who till this day still receives sole credit for the James Bond theme, wrote many of the Jamaican songs for the movie, including the catchy “Underneath the Mango Tree,” but he was struggling with the overall music score, so Broccoli and Saltzman hired John Barry, and Barry took what Norman had started and tweaked it, and thanks to the efforts of the two, an iconic theme song was born, and the rest, as they say, is history.

THE SOUND OF 007 does its best to cover the music to all the James Bond movies, but there are so many, and so the film struggles to do justice to them all, and so I’m sure there will be certain fans who will be disappointed that their favorite score wasn’t given ample time in this documentary. But the film has its heart in the right place and does a decent job in its 90-minute running time covering most of the music in the James Bond movies.

It addresses multiple fronts: the actual scores, the theme songs, which became an entity in and of itself, and the process of hiring performers to sing these theme songs, which the film explains, for the producers, became almost as important as hiring the right actor to play Bond himself.

This process really started in GOLDFINGER (1964), which really is the quintessential James Bond movie of the 1960s Sean Connery era. Everything in this movie works, including the music, and it pretty much defined James Bond for a generation. GOLDFINGER was the first Bond movie where composer John Barry was allowed to also write the theme song, and when Barry chose Shirley Bassey to sing the song, it became a huge hit. Barry also incorporated elements of the theme song into the score for the film, a first for a James Bond movie.

THE SOUND OF 007 contains a lot of fun anecdotes. When Shirley Bassey asked John Barry what the song “Goldfinger” was about, since he really didn’t know, all he could tell her was it was about the villain in the movie, so think of the villain. Other anecdotes include Tom Jones nearly passing out when singing and holding the incredibly long note on the song “Thunderball,” Barry telling Bassey to think of the male sex organ when singing “Diamonds Are Forever,” and Michael Caine, who was John Barry’s roommate in 1964, telling a story of how he was kept awake all night by Barry playing the piano, and when he awoke the next morning and asked Barry what he was playing, he answered his new song, “Goldfinger,” and he played it for Caine; so Caine said he was the first person ever to hear “Goldfinger.” And he heard it all night.

The film talks about how the Bond music changed over the years, how Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” was the first rock song to be a James Bond theme song, and how Bill Conti’s score to FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981) was the first score to use disco elements. The film makes the point that the James Bond music followed the trends of the time, and so the music changed with the different periods in history, taking on different sounds in the 1960s, 70s, 80s. 90, and 2000s.

The movie spends a lot of time on the music to the latest Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2021), both on the theme song by Billie Eilish, and the film’s score by Hans Zimmer. While this makes sense since this is the latest Bond movie, I found these stories the least interesting in the documentary. I mean, they were fine, but they didn’t deserve nearly a third of the screen time of this movie. There’s a lot of other James Bond movie music that was barely mentioned here and could have been covered rather than spending so much time on NO TIME TO DIE, films like THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), which has a great theme song which wasn’t even mentioned, although singer Lulu, who sang the song, is interviewed, but not about her song, and Madonna’s “Die Another Day,” which also wasn’t covered.

But other than this, THE SOUND OF 007 is an excellent documentary and does a very good job covering its subject. Its coverage on composer John Barry is the film’s best part, and every James Bond movie fan needs to know the story behind the Bond movies’ most famous composer. It also does a nice job with the rationale behind the controversial scoring to Daniel Craig’s first James Bond movie, CASINO ROYALE (2006), in which the James Bond theme isn’t played until just before the end credits. I enjoyed this portion of the documentary because this decision in CASINO ROYALE has always been one that I really liked, and it was fun to listen to composer David Arnold explain the reasoning and tell the story of how emotional it was to finally blast that theme song just at the right moment in the movie, and as a fan of CASINO ROYALE, I have to say I completely agree with what Arnold did with the music in that film. It works tremendously well.

All in all, I really enjoyed THE SOUND OF 007. If you’re a fan of the James Bond movies, you will enjoy this one too. And even if you’re not a fan, it’s worth a look, as its stories of how John Barry in particular used some innovative methods to create his film scores, are both interesting and informative for all movie buffs and scholars.

To tweak a famous phrase from GOLDFINGER:

Do you expect me to talk?

No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to— SING!

THE SOUND OF 007 sings, and then some.

I give it three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

WEREWOLF BY NIGHT (2022) – Marvel’s Werewolf Movie a Visual Treat but Not Exactly Horrific

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WEREWOLF BY NIGHT (2022) is a curious creature.

This very short movie, which runs only 55 minutes and is a standalone film, not an episode of a TV series, is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s also a horror movie. Based on Marvel’s Legion of Monsters comic series, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT is being billed as an action, adventure, horror comedy.

Talk about your vegetable soup!

Anyway, I’d been hearing a lot of good things about this one, mostly from horror fans, who have been saying WEREWOLF BY NIGHT reminded them a lot of the classic black and white Universal monster movies. Sadly, I didn’t see or feel that connection. The only similarity I saw between the two was they were both shot in black and white. For me, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, which premiered on Disney Plus and is now streaming there, plays like a Disney/Marvel family friendly hybrid with a few mild and tame horror elements thrown in. While I appreciated the visual elements of this movie, I was basically unimpressed with just about everything else.

Indeed, the best part about WEREWOLF BY NIGHT and the main reason to see this one is the work by director and music composer Michael Giacchino. Giacchino is one of my favorite film composers working today, and he has composed a ton of memorable movie music scores, including music for THE BATMAN (2022) and THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022). He has written the scores for other Marvel superhero movies, for the recent JURASSIC PARK films, for the recent PLANET OF THE APES series, for the recent STAR TREK movies, and on and on! Two of my favorite Giacchino scores were in horror films, the Hammer vampire movie LET ME IN (2010), and one of the all-time best giant monster movies, CLOVERFIELD (2008). His very memorable theme in CLOVERFIELD doesn’t appear until the end credits, but it’s worth the wait. He also wrote a pretty memorable score for ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

So, yeah, he’s scored a few movies.

WEREWOLF BY NIGHT is Michael Giacchino’s directorial debut, and it’s a good one. Visually, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT is a real treat to watch. The black and white photography is atmospheric and effective, and Giacchino even includes a la STRANGER THINGS the grainy look of film, even inserting the infamous cigarette burns— the little dot in the upper half of the frame– which used to appear in all movies to alert projectionists that it was time to start the next reel. Of course, there’s no need for those anymore since today’s movies are all digital. Giacchino does use some color, most notably for the very red bloodstone, which is integral to the movie’s plot.

Oh yes. The plot.

It’s pretty standard and also at 55 minutes pretty quick.

Basically, a group of infamous monster hunters gather at the castle of the recently deceased Ulysses Bloodstone, the most famous monster hunter of them all. These hunters are all tasked with hunting a very dangerous creature, and the one who slays the beast, will inherit the glowing red bloodstone, which will give its owner the power and right to be the master monster hunter. Blah, blah, blah.

The two main characters are Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal), a hunter who isn’t quite who he says he is, and Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), the estranged daughter of the deceased, and these two form a pact during the hunt to work together so Elsa can get the bloodstone, and Jack can get what he really wants.

Things don’t go as planned, and during the film’s second half, the werewolf element finally emerges.

Since this is based on the Marvel comic by Gerry Conway, the screenplay by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron pretty much tells an action-adventure story. While the horror elements are there, they are downplayed. The film also contains some witty snappy dialogue which Marvel superhero movie fans have come to expect.

But since I am also a huge fan of werewolf movies, I have to say that the werewolf stuff— both the actual werewolf and all of the werewolf sequences in this movie— was a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t impressed with the actual werewolf, and the scenes were just meh. The biggest problem I had with the werewolf scenes comes down to the movie’s plot, about hunters trying to slay a beast, which isn’t even the werewolf, by the way. The story is all rather mediocre.

But Giacchino’s work behind the camera is definitely not mediocre, nor is his music score, and it was fun to watch how he integrated the music with his film direction. The timing was impeccable.

I enjoyed watching WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, even though I found its story to be something of a snooze, and as such, and I for one was glad it was only 55 minutes long.

I give it two and a half stars.

—END–

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

SAMARITAN (2022) – Sylvester Stallone Kicks Butt as Grizzled Gray Superhero

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Sylvester Stallone as a superhero?

Who’s he playing? Senior Citizen Man?

And with that, we’ll dispense with the “old people” jokes for the rest of this column. I just think it’s funny that in this day and age, between CGI effects in the movies, and the healthy regimens of many actors who like Stallone are aging much better than previous generations, you can tell a story about an older superhero with a 76-year-old actor in the lead role and have it be believable! This is a good thing.

SAMARITAN (2022) opens with young Sam Cleary (Javon “Wanna” Walton) recounting the story of twin brother superheroes Samaritan and Nemesis, who fought to the death twenty years earlier when Nemesis went rogue and tried to kill his good superhero brother Samaritan with a special hammer he forged just for the job. Both men were killed in a massive explosion inside a warehouse, but Sam doesn’t believe Samaritan died. He believes the former superhero is just hiding out somewhere.

And when the garbage man named Joe (Sylvester Stallone) who lives in the apartment across the street from him shows up one day and saves him from some gang member bullies, showing off superior strength and fighting skills, Sam believes he has found his man. He believes Joe is Samaritan.

Meanwhile, local gang leader Cyrus (Pilou Asbaek) discovers Nemesis’ hammer and mask and decides to use them both as he begins a crime campaign to wreak havoc and cause chaos across the city. Sam is part of this gang, and Cyrus has taken a liking to him, but when things get more dangerous and Sam’s life is endangered, he turns to Joe for help, and he gets it, but not in the way he was expecting.

As superhero stories go, the one told in SAMARITAN, now playing in theaters and also available to watch for free on Amazon Prime Video, is pretty standard. It didn’t really do all that much for me, and the longer it went on, the less I was interested in it. Also, the big reveal at the end wasn’t that hard to figure out, because there were enough clues in place earlier in this one to see how it was going to go down. Bragi F. Schut wrote the screenplay, and other than a few good lines for Stallone, it’s nothing to write home about.

I like Stallone, and admittedly he’s the main reason I wanted to see this move, and on that front, it wasn’t a disappointment because he’s pretty darn good in the role. Of course, he’s been doing this for so long he can probably do it in his sleep, but that doesn’t mean it’s not another enjoyable performance. From Rocky to Rambo to a myriad of other action film performances, Sylvester Stallone has a presence and persona that serves him well. He’s the working man’s action hero, the blue-collar tough guy, who is more at home dishing out wisdom and advice over wise-cracking one-liners.

And he’s at it again here. Joe becomes a mentor and father figure to Sam, and late in the movie schools the boy on the nuances of good and bad in the world, of how people mistakenly believe it’s all about good vs. evil. Joe tells Sam it’s not that clear cut because there is good and bad in every person, and it’s all about the choices people make. It also goes without saying that Stallone is believable here as the grizzled superhero, as he efficiently kicks the butts of much younger villainous foes.

This also isn’t the first foray into superheroes for the Rocky/Rambo star. He provided the voice for the CGI-created King Shark in the hilarious THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021), a fun performance in a very fun movie. He was less memorable in a small role in Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017) as Stakar Ogord. Stallone is currently working on THE EXPENDABLES 4, due out next year, a series I’ve enjoyed.

I can’t say that I was all that impressed with Javon “Wanna” Walton as Sam. There was something rather annoying about his personality.

Pilou Asbaek is decent as the villain, Cyrus. He’s had plenty of practice. He’s played similar tough guy roles in films like OUTSIDE THE WIRE (2021) and GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017). He also played Euron Greyjoy on GAME OF THRONES (2016-2019).

I did enjoy Dascha Polanco as Sam’s mom Tiffany. She makes for a memorable hard-working single mom who because of her job can’t be there as often as she likes for her son. She’s as tough as nails, a side of her which she gets to show off later in the story.

Moises Arias also stands out as an annoying gang member named Reza who is a constant thorn in Sam’s side.

Directed by Julius Avery, SAMARITAN is a decent superhero movie, but not a great one. Its look is standard and didn’t offer anything I hadn’t seen before, and its action sequences, while okay, aren’t mind-blowing. It’s ultimately successful for a couple of reasons. It tells a simple straightforward story and doesn’t get lost in a convoluted muddled mess of storytelling like some of the recent Marvel entries, films like DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2021) and THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022). It’s also not overlong and doesn’t get boring.

Most of all, it benefits from the presence of Sylvester Stallone. Watching him play the lead role was a real treat. It’s like ROCKY meets UNBREAKABLE (2000).

He’ll not only go the distance; he won’t even be down for the count. Not ever.

Yo, Adrian! Look, no black eyes!

—END–

BEAST (2022) – Idris Elba Anchors Solid African Adventure

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For an actor as talented and as popular as Idris Elba, he sure has made his share of bad movies.

And based on the trailers for his latest, BEAST (2022), a tale where he plays a dad protecting his two daughters from a menacing lion in the wilds of Africa, I expected this one to be added to that list. The good news is BEAST is not a bad movie.

Not at all.

BEAST opens in Africa, where we see a bunch of poachers killing a pride of lions, but the male lion gets away and moments later returns to attack and kill the poachers who had remained in search of him. So, right off the bat, we learn that this isn’t just some random hungry lion, but rather, an animal with an agenda. He’s out for revenge, against the poachers or any other human who gets in his way!

Cue Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) and his two teenage daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) who arrive in Africa from the U.S. to reconnect after the death of Nate’s wife and the girls’ mother. Nate and his wife had been separated, and while separated, she had died from cancer. Meredith blames her dad for not being there for their mother while she was sick, and the guilt is something Nate carries with him deeply. He never intended not to be there for his wife, and he wants to make amends now by being there for his daughters. His wife was born in Africa, hence the trip, to reconnect with her roots.

They are greeted by Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), Nate’s good friend and uncle to his daughters. Martin is the man who introduced Nate to his wife, and so they all share a special connection. Martin spends his days helping the authorities keep the poachers away from the animals. When he takes Nate and his daughters out for a ride through the wilds of Africa, they unfortunately cross paths with the vengeful lion from the movie’s opening, an animal with only one goal in mind: kill every human it comes in contact with.

And that’s the set up for the rest of the movie, as it pits Elba’s Dr. Nate Samuels against the vicious lion, as Nate vows never again to let his daughters down.

As premises go, the one in BEAST isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. The reason it works however is the material is handled well by everyone involved.

The screenplay by Ryan Engle, based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan, rises above the material mostly because the dialogue is excellent, and it gets the dynamic between Nate and his daughters right. They act like real people, and when you put real people in danger, you have an exciting movie. There is just so much stress in the conversations between Nate and his daughters, and all of it comes off as real. It also helps that both Meredith and Norah have distinctive personalities. There’s one scene where Nate tells his daughters to stay behind while he goes up ahead to see what’s going on, and when Martin tells him to run, and he turns to say the same to the girls, he sees that Norah is missing, and he asks Meredith where she is, and she says she was there minute ago. As Nate desperately searches for his youngest daughter, he says to Meredith, “You had one job!” In this one moment, you have genuine father/daughter angst plus the suspense of the rogue lion closing in on them.

Engle co-wrote the screenplay to RAMPAGE (2018), a very different “attacking animal” movie, as that film, which told the story of a giant ape and some other giant monsters, was based on the popular video game and was high camp and was a perfect vehicle for Dwayne Johnson. Engle also wrote a pair of Liam Neeson action thrillers, THE COMMUTER (2018) and NON-STOP (2014), both of which were formulaic but ultimately worked because they were Liam Neeson action thrillers! I liked these movies, and BEAST is not only on par with them, but it’s probably the best of the lot for creating realistic believable characters.

Director Baltasar Kormakur also does a nice job here. First and foremost, the lion scenes are intense, better than I expected. Sure, it’s CGI, but it looks really good. The best part is the lion moves with a speed and a ferocity that is quite scary. There are these quick bursts of insane aggressive energy which jostle the audience. Even though the final outcome of this movie is never in question, the lion sequences where he constantly attacks Nate and his daughters are quite suspenseful.

And of course, the film takes place in the wilds of Africa, which is a plus. I believe it was movie critic Gene Siskel who once said when he was reviewing the Sidney Pollack film OUT OF AFRICA (1985), a love story starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford which took place in Africa, that any movie which was set in Africa would be improved just by the scenery and setting alone. He wasn’t wrong.

But I didn’t go to see BEAST because of its African scenery or its marauding lion. I went to see it because of Idris Elba. As I said, he’s a terrific actor, and I’m a big fan. And yes, he has made his share of bad movies…. NO GOOD DEED (2014) and THE DARK TOWER (2017) come to mind…. but the thing about Elba is, regardless of the movie, he always delivers a top performance and often lifts up lesser movies by his performance alone. And when he’s in a movie that really works, like THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) for example, the results are usually outstanding.

Elba is terrific here in the lead role as Dr. Nate Samuels, a man who is guilt-ridden over the death of his wife, since he wasn’t there for her, and who is hell-bent on protecting his daughters from the menacing lion. He’s also believable in the physical aspects of the role, having to go toe to toe— or is it claw to claw?— with the lion, even if towards the end some of the sequences do border on the far-fetched. The other neat thing about his character is at first his daughters seem to have lost a lot of respect for him, and later, when his skills as a doctor become so important to their survival, and they witness this, it makes for some noteworthy moments.

Of course, the gold standard for Elba fans remains his work on the superior TV show LUTHER (2010-2019). And for years now, Elba’s name has been floated as possibly being the next James Bond, and even though the producers of that series are supposedly seriously interested in him for the role, he’s on record this year as saying he’s not interested in Bond, so it sounds like that’s not going to happen. Which is too bad. He’d be really good.

Both Iyana Halley as Meredith and Leah Jeffries as Norah bring their characters to life, and they represent a complicated family dynamic that only ads to the tension in the film. They are both fiercely independent characters, and for example, at one point when Nate tells them to say inside the vehicle, Meredith believes otherwise and doesn’t listen to her father. What makes this moment and these characters work is that she’s not wrong, She sets out to do something she believes she can do, and she does it.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Sharlto Copley in a movie, and he’s fine here in a supporting role as family friend and guide Martin Battles. Back in his heyday, Copley was playing major roles in some pretty big science fiction movies, as the soft-spoken hero in DISTRICT 9 (2009) and as the violent and vicious villain in ELYSIUM (2013).

BEAST was better than I expected. It’s a well-written movie that creates believable characters and puts them in danger. For the most part, it keeps things realistic, although things do grow more far-fetched towards the end, and its ending does strain credibility. I think most people would be dead when put in similar predicaments. Elba’s Nate pretty much challenges the lion to a hand-to-hand combat battle. Yeah. That’s the one part of the movie that— yeah.

But the rest is all very good. You have an exciting story throughout, amazing African scenery, and yet another worthy performance by Idris Elba anchoring the whole thing.

BEAST is a genuine popcorn movie that provides solid summertime entertainment.

Give it a roar!

—END—

THIRTEEN LIVES (2022) – Ron Howard Expertly Chronicles True Story of Extraordinary Underwater Rescue

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THIRTEEN LIVES (2022), the latest movie from director Ron Howard, tells the extraordinary true story of the rescue of thirteen young soccer players from a flooded underground cave in Thailand in 2018, and it does so in a straightforward manner without fanfare or fuss.

This is both good and bad.

But since the story on its own is indeed so extraordinary, it’s mostly good.

In June 2018, a group of school-age boys on a soccer team decide to visit a cave before going to one of their teammate’s birthday parties, and they’re accompanied by their coach. Despite the fact that the cave has a history of flooding, it’s still before the monsoon season, so the boys feel they are safe. However, torrential rains hit shortly after they descend into the cave, flooding it and trapping them deep below. By the time their families arrive at the cave looking for them, it’s too submerged in water for them to go inside and search for the boys.

They call the local authorities, who quickly see they are in over their heads, both figuratively and literally. Soon, Navy Seals arrive, but they too cannot get far into the cave to reach the boys, as it’s all underwater in narrow passageways, and there is zero visibility. The call goes out worldwide for help, and two of the most skilled cave divers in the world, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) heed the call and arrive in Thailand where they are looked down upon by the Thai Navy Seals for being too old, and while they certainly are older than the Seals, John points out that they train specifically for diving in and around caves.

John and Rick receive permission to dive into the cave, and after many trials and errors, they eventually, after a six hour plus dive, find the boys and their coach alive. They promise to return to the boys with help. When news breaks that the boys are alive, there is great joy and celebration, but Rick is not happy at all, and as he tells the authorities privately, the boys may be alive now, but there is no way they are getting out of the cave alive. For that to happen, each of them would have to be able to swim underwater with the divers for six to eight hours, and as Rick points out, even when earlier they helped an adult volunteer who had been trapped inside, he had panicked during a much shorter swim.

Faced with a no-win situation, the authorities go silent, frustrating the waiting families, but it’s Rick who suggests a very controversial plan, one that had never been tried before. Even though it is extremely risky, and he tells the authorities point blank that the boys may die, if they try nothing, they will die anyway.

Ron Howard directs this one without any frills, and it plays out like watching news footage or a documentary. It’s really well done. I’m not always the biggest fan of Howard’s movies, but he definitely taps into here the suspense of one of his best movies, APOLLO 13 (1995) starring Tom Hanks which chronicled the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. I enjoyed THIRTEEN LIVES more than some of his recent movies, including SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) and IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015). Howard won an Oscar for Best Director for A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), which also won for Best Picture that year.

Here, the most amazing part of Howard’s work is the underwater photography. It’s breathtaking. The scenes of the divers submerged in the caves are claustrophobic, riveting, and heart pounding. And like I said, Howard doesn’t film these like a suspense movie. He simply lets the action unfold, and we are drawn in watching these volunteers risk their lives to save these boys. Just as astounding, the actors, including Mortensen and Farrell, did their own underwater stunts! Even though professional divers were there and available, Mortensen felt so strongly about the authenticity of the project that he and the others trained to dive in caves, and they convinced Howard to let them do it.

And while obviously it was filmed in a massive underwater set and not inside real caves, it was still a dangerous undertaking for all the actors. Their dedication pays off, because these scenes really work.

Viggo Mortensen is terrific in the lead role as diver Rick Stanton. His cool, aloof persona is perfect for a man who spends his time swimming in life-threatening, narrow underwater caves. And he’s not reckless. At one point, he says point blank that as much as he wants to save the boys, if he thinks they (the divers) can’t get out alive, he’s not going in.

Colin Farrell is also superb as fellow diver John Volanthen. He’s the more empathetic of the two, and as a divorced dad of a young son, his own child is always on his mind as he tries to rescue the trapped boys.

Equally as good in a supporting role is Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris, another diver who John and Rick call in to join them, as they assemble a team of the best cave divers in the world. And they are particularly interested in Harry because of his expertise, which is part of Rick’s controversial plan to rescue the boys. And when they first tell Harry of this, he refuses, because he knows it could kill the boys, but later, when he sees there is no other alternative, he relents and changes his mind.

The screenplay by William Nicholson based on a story by Don MacPherson is comprehensive and thorough and goes beyond just the story of the divers. There’s a whole other story of other volunteers led by a water expert who understands that the cave is not flooding from below but from the rains above, and so he assembles a team to find and plug up all the sink holes in the area, an undertaking that is nearly as impossible as the underwater diving mission. In fact, the sacrifice among the locals is just as great, as plugging up the sink holes means diverting the water, which will destroy the local farmers’ crops. The farmers agree, knowing they are helping to rescue the boys.

There’s the story of the families, waiting anxiously over the course of seventeen excruciating days, and of the local leadership who have to navigate around the politics of the lives and possible deaths of thirteen children under their watch. It’s a really good screenplay, which comes as no surprise, because William Nicholson has a ton of writing credits, including EVEREST (2015), MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (2013) and LES MISERABLES (2012) to name just a few.

If there’s any knock against THIRTEEN LIVES it’s that it runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, and with its no frills style, sometimes it seems a bit long. When the divers are underwater, the film had me on edge. When the action returned to above ground, things could have been edited a bit more tightly.

THIRTEEN LIVES is an Amazon Original movie and premiered on Prime Video and in select movie theaters. It’s one you definitely want to see.

Sure, you may already know the ending, but the story of human ingenuity, camaraderie, and bravery it took to rescue these boys under pretty much impossible odds, is one you don’t want to miss.

Thirteen lives could very easily have been lost that day. But they weren’t.

The movie THIRTEEN LIVES successfully celebrates this fact by so expertly telling this amazing story.

—END–

BULLET TRAIN (2022) – Stylized Action Sequences and Silly Banter the New Norm in Hollywood

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Stylized action and banter.

That’s the new normal in Hollywood action movies these days. Sure, it worked for Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, and actually for most of their movies pre-AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), but for that level of success you need both nifty writing and characters you care about, which is not as easy as it sounds.

BULLET TRAIN (2022), a new action/comedy/thriller— why not throw in musical while we’re at it? — directed by David Leitch, the man who directed FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW (2019) and DEADPOOL 2 (2018), and starring Brad Pitt, is the high concept story of several assassins all on the same bullet train roaring through Japan, all interested in the same gray briefcase. Before I go any further, I have to give a shout out to Peter Bogdanovich’s classic comedy of yesteryear and one of my all-time favorites, WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972), one of the most underrated comedic films ever made, which featured Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and used a similar plot point, but in that film, it was a bunch of cases that all looked the same. That was a funny movie. BULLET TRAIN has its moments, but it also has to split time between being a comedy and a thriller and an action movie. Maybe it should have just picked one and focused on that!

BULLET TRAIN reminded me a lot of a movie we just saw a couple weeks ago, THE GRAY MAN (2022) which starred Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. Same formula, action and banter, similar results. BULLET TRAIN has a couple of things going for it which makes it preferable to THE GRAY MAN. One, its action scenes aren’t as ridiculously over the top (although some come close), and two, it has Brad Pitt, who creates a character in this movie who is more fleshed out and enjoyable than either character played by Gosling or Evans in THE GRAY MAN.

Pitt plays an assassin whose codename is Ladybug, and as the movie opens, he’s in Japan enjoying some rest and relaxation, working on getting his head and mood together, so when he agrees to return to action and take another job, he’s feeling rested and terrific, even if he feels he’s always plagued by bad luck, which is a running gag throughout the movie. The job he receives from his handler (voiced by Sandra Bullock) is described as very simple: just board a bullet train, locate a gray briefcase, and take it off the train.

But the job is anything but simple because there are a bunch of other assassins on board, and they also want the briefcase. And that’s the plot folks, as pretty much the entire 126-minute running time is spent with assassins vying for the same case on a speeding train. I half expected Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, and Wile E Coyote and friends to show up.

As I said, BULLET TRAIN was directed by David Leitch, and it plays like any number of movies he’s made already, although it reminded me the most of his HOBBS AND SHAW vehicle, which was more silly than fun, and I felt similarly about BULLET TRAIN. Leitch also directed ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) which was not a comedy and featured some of the best action fight scenes in a movie in a long time, and so that’s probably my favorite Leitch film.

BULLET TRAIN looks great with its colorful cinematography, and you can’t go wrong with its polished stylish action sequences. You just aren’t going to believe many of them, because they come off as cartoonish. Pitt’s Ladybug is like Bugs Bunny. Bombs explode and he walks away without a scratch. Always.

Zak Olkewicz wrote the amiable screenplay based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, and it’s filled with nonstop banter, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll have fun here. It works for me up to a point. It’s certainly better than the dialogue in another action/comedy hit (which I did not like at all) from earlier this year, UNCHARTED (2022), a ridiculous movie that featured Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg exchanging barbs while travelling the world in search of treasure. Audiences ate this one up, though. I found it dumb and redundant.

Here, Brad Pitt is very funny as Ladybug, the assassin who can’t stop thinking and philosophizing on life. His character and his performance are the best parts of the movie. His laid-back attitude is the perfect foil for the high-octane action sequences. From his genuine disappointment upon being attacked— you stabbed me? Really?— to one point where he’s speaking to a woman during a fight sequence and catches himself, saying I’m mansplaining.

Pitt is very good, and the script does its best job with his character, but it’s not enough. The biggest knock against BULLET TRAIN is I’m just getting tired of this kind of movie. After a while, the action and banter get boring. Even with a whole host of assassins on board.

The two best, besides Pitt, are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), “twins” who work together but who share nothing in common other than the fact that they treat each other like brothers. Tangerine is a proper speaking Englishman, while Lemon bases his entire life on the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s stories. Their banter is also funny, but as is the case with Pitt, they are simply not enough to carry this movie.

This is probably the most fun role I’ve seen Aaron Taylor-Johnson play since way back when he was much younger playing the lead in KICK-ASS (2010), and the most satisfying role I’ve seen him play since SAVAGES (2012). Bryan Tyree Henry is equally as good, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give. Henry has also appeared in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), JOKER (2019) and HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) to name just a few.

Joey King as Prince was probably my least favorite character in the movie. She’s a young woman pretending to be a victim when in reality she’s a major villain. In spite of the duality of the part, it’s pretty much a one-note character and performance on King’s part.

The Japanese characters pretty much play it straight. Andrew Koji as Kimura and Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder are serious throughout, and as such, kinda seem out of place because the rest of the movie takes nothing seriously.

Michael Shannon shows up late in the game and briefly as The White Death, but it’s both way too late and too short for him to make much of an impact. And when we finally see Sandra Bullock, she looks like she’s either been heavily airbrushed to look younger or they used CGI on her. She just doesn’t look natural. For such a brief appearance, it was weird.

BULLET TRAIN doesn’t really know what kind of a movie it’s supposed to be, yet it feels comfortable in this role, because that’s kind of a new genre today. Make a movie that’s equal parts action, comedy, and thriller, with lots of good-natured banter, and the audience will go home happy. In other words, show lots of stylized violence and bloody deaths, but if the main characters remain cool and make jokes about it, and survive, it’s all okay.

Sort of.

At times, BULLET TRAIN with its R rating seemed to be aiming for a Quentin Tarantino vibe, but it’s vastly inferior to Tarantino’s work. First, Tarantino isn’t above showing the gruesome realities of violence. His characters are still funny and still banter, but his worlds are less cartoonish and safe. Also, the editing here, especially early on, seemed off. It took me a while to really settle in with BULLET TRAIN, as its jumping-around early scenes were more jarring than introductory.

BULLET TRAIN had a lot of moments that I liked, and it featured performances by Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Brian Tyree Henry that I really enjoyed, but at the end of the day it simply wasn’t enough because it’s part of a new “genre” of films that likes to link action and comedy, and through amiable clever banter give the illusion that death and destruction is safe and harmless.

A la Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. But they’re cartoons. And movies should be more than cartoons. I’m not arguing that you can’t make “safe” action comedies. You can.

But you can also make less safe action comedies that are even funnier and work better because the audience is on edge and feeling less safe.

BULLET TRAIN, in spite of its high body count, remains a safe passage for its audience for the entirety of its ride, even with its R rating.

Fans of nervous laughter might want to ride a different train.

—END—

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) – Fourth Thor Movie A Misfire From Start to Finish

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So, THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) opens and in the first scene we see a thin bald humanoid on a barren desert landscape, and for a split-second my mind flashes back some thirty some odd years to the opening of STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989) which opened in a similar way. I chuckle and quickly dismiss the memory, but then a funny thing happened over the course of the next two hours.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER, the latest Marvel superhero movie and the fourth Thor movie, goes full throttle with the humor, most of it silly, and sadly, most of it misfiring, which once more reminded me of that STAR TREK movie of old, STAR TREK V, which is generally considered to be the weakest in the original STAR TREK movie series. STAR TREK V followed the immensely popular and successful STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) which had a superior script and at times was laugh out loud funny. STAR TREK V tried to recapture this formula, but with a far lesser script, its humor didn’t really work, and the film suffered from a bad case of the sillies which sadly didn’t translate into laughter.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER also suffers from a bad case of the sillies.

The bald humanoid in the opening scene is Gorr (Christian Bale) who, after watching his young daughter die, gets to meet their god, only to be disappointed when he learns from this god that his and his daughter’s life means nothing to the gods. When Gorr denounces the god, the deity tries to kill him, but an all-powerful dark sword reaches out to Gorr, and he uses it to slay the god. Not only this, but Gorr decides to make it his life’s goal to kill all the gods in the universe.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still hanging out with the Guardians of the Galaxy, busily saving different planets and civilizations from disaster, but when he receives a distress call from Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) who’s running the new Asgard on Earth, he leaves his guardian friends and returns to Earth with his rock buddy Korg (Taika Waititi). There they learn that Gorr is in town, and he’s taking no prisoners.

Thor also learns that the love of his life, the woman who he has not been able to forget, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has changed her look a bit: she’s now wielding his old hammer and dressed in fighting garb, and she calls herself The Mighty Thor. While he’s impressed, he’s also confused, but it turns out that Jane has cancer, and she doesn’t have much time left, and so when she felt the hammer reaching out to her, she accepted it, hoping that perhaps it could restore her to health. And while it does give her great strength and the ability to fly, it’s not doing anything to rid her of the cancer.

Gorr wants Thor’s new hammer, Stormbreaker, to use it to access unlimited power in the universe to destroy all the gods, and when he manages to steal it away from Thor, it’s up to our heroes, Thor, Jane, and Valkyrie to chase Gorr to the ends of the universe to get it back and save the gods.

I’ve said this before, but I’m just not a big fan of fantasy plots in superhero movies, and the Marvel films have increasingly gone this route, being more about witches, evil spells, gods, and a whole host of other things that are so far outside any sense of reality. So, the plot here in THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER did nothing for me. In fact, I was quite bored. I did like the theme of the uselessness of gods, of how they really don’t help humanity all that much, and much of what Gorr has to say in this movie makes a lot of sense, but the film downplays this theme.

The rule of the day in THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER is silly humor, and unfortunately, it just isn’t all that sharp. I saw this is in a fairly crowded theater, and it was a fairly quiet theater. No loud laughter, cheers, groans, just silence. Even after the two post-credit scenes, the audience departed quietly. No chatter, no buzz, no excitement.

It’s no surprise that humor is a huge part of this movie, since it was written and directed by Taika Waititi, a very funny guy who wrote and directed one of my favorite movies from 2019, JOJO RABBIT (2019). Waititi also directed the previous Thor movie, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), a film I enjoyed more than THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER, mostly because the humor in that movie worked better.

Here, it’s one misfire after another, from Jane’s constant search for a catch phrase, which was more sad than funny, to Thor’s banter with the Guardians of the Galaxy, which for the most part fell flat. Speaking of whom, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and friends are completely wasted in a glorified group cameo that has nothing at all to do with the rest of the movie. Unlike the appearance of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in THOR: RAGNAROK, who was integral to the plot of that movie, the Guardians of the Galaxy here in this movie have no importance whatsoever other than to exchange some quips with Thor before they disappear for the rest of the proceedings.

Then there’s the screaming goats— yes, you heard that right. Screaming goats—, two animals which Thor receives as gifts early in the film. For some reason, they can’t stop screaming, this horrendous high-pitched wail. They do this nonstop throughout the movie whenever they show up. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s not.

The humor reaches its lowest point when Russell Crowe shows up as Zeus, in one of the most unfunny tries-too-hard-to-be-funny scenes in the history of the MCU.

So, the humor is a complete disaster. The screenplay which Waititi co-wrote with Jennifer Kaytin-Robinson struggles to get laughs, and also doesn’t really have much of a story to tell. The whole thing just felt muddled from beginning to end.

The other theme that is prevalent in the movie is love, as the love story between Thor and Jane makes up a huge chunk of the film, and for the most part, I like these two characters and their story is interesting, but sadly, it’s not much of a love story. We have barely seen them on screen together, and when he have, it’s not like they were steaming up the theater. And the overall theme, that love is the reason for everything, as Thor tells Gorr at the end of the movie, and that it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, largely falls flat. It all just seemed superficial.

Chris Hemsworth has never looked better as Thor. He’s in super shape, and he looks like he’s as powerful as the character he is playing. But the forced humor in the script doesn’t do him any favors, and gone are the days when his awkwardness with humanity would be funny, simply because he’s no longer awkward and that source of humor no longer exists.

Natalie Portman largely hams it up as The Mighty Thor, and while she may have been having a good time in the movie, it doesn’t translate all that well to her character. Her best scenes are when she is Jane, dealing with her cancer.

Tessa Thompson fares better as Valkyrie. She has a more natural story arc throughout the movie, and Thompson makes her formidable, and she’s very comfortable playing this exceedingly strong female superhero.

But the most intriguing performance and perhaps the best in the movie belongs to Christian Bale as Gorr. Yes, the Dark Knight is now a dark villain! Bale is now the second movie Batman to play a villain in a Marvel movie, as Michael Keaton played the villainous Adrian Toomes in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). Playing Batman must be good practice because both these actors, Keaton and Bale, have been some of the best Marvel villains yet!

In Bale’s case, he doesn’t fare quite as well as Keaton did in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING for the simple reason that unfortunately his Gorr isn’t in the movie very much. But when he is, Bale is very, very good. He looks as if his character from THE FIGHTER (2010), boxer Dicky Eklund, donned some silver make-up and gained some superpowers! Gorr’s story is certainly the most intriguing in the movie, how he felt slighted by the gods, how they didn’t save his daughter, and so he has decided to take them all down, in the interest of making the universe a better place to live. There are times when it’s difficult to argue with that logic.

But like I said, as good as Bale was as Gorr, he’s not in the movie much. Instead, there’s plenty of Thor and Jane/aka The Mighty Thor, and gods, and silliness, and more silliness, and a pair of screaming goats.

I saw THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER in IMAX, and I can’t say that it added a whole lot to the movie experience. It was a bit louder, yes, the screen a bit larger, but the film did not have any element in its story which IMAX enhanced, unlike another Christian Bale movie from a few years back, FORD V FERRARI (2019), in which he co-starred with Matt Damon (who has a cameo here too by the way playing an actor who plays Loki on stage) in which IMAX made the racing car scenes even more authentic, and I really felt as if I were in those cars with the actors.

Marvel is officially in a slump. Since AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), they have really struggled to reclaim their mojo, and other than SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021) haven’t made a film that I’ve truly enjoyed since.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER means well but is a misfire from start to finish. Whatever seriousness its story wants to project is lost in humor that doesn’t work and in a plot that suffers from a very bad case of the sillies.

It simply tries too hard to be funny, so much so, that for the most part, the audience forgot to laugh.

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DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022) – Underwhelming Doctor Strange Sequel Keeps Marvel Slumping

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The title says it all.

Multiverse of madness, indeed. That’s how I felt watching this one. As if I were stuck in a multiverse of bad Marvel adventures which after two hours eventually led me to madness.

I don’t know. Maybe, like a lot of you, I’m finally growing tired of the Marvel formula. Or maybe DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022) just isn’t that great a movie.

Anyway, I finally sat down to watch the second DOCTOR STRANGE movie, which premiered in theaters in May and is now streaming on Disney Plus.

The movie opens with a long and not terribly exciting battle sequence with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a teenage girl (Xochitl Gomez) fighting a giant monster which ends with Strange waking up— ah, it was just a dream! Actually, it wasn’t. Because later, the girl, whose name is America Chavez, shows up in real life and tells Strange that it wasn’t a dream– that it was real but in a different universe. See, America possesses the ability to travel through the various multiverses, but the trouble is she doesn’t know how she does it. It only happens when she’s scared, which is a lot, since she is being chased by some unknown villain who wants her powers. She also tells Strange that dreams are real. They are just things that are happening in other universes.

Wait, what? Stop. Stop right there. Dreams… are real? Dreams… are events from other universes? Hmm. There are some pretty weird universes out there, that’s all I can say.

Anyway, back to our movie. Doctor Strange and his buddy Wong (Benedict Wong) decide they have to protect America— that’s the character, not the country— from this unknown villain, but since doing so involves witchcraft and evil spells, Strange decides he needs the help of an old friend, and so he seeks out Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) aka The Scarlett Witch. But it turns out good friend Wanda isn’t over her “WandaVision” trauma, and much to Strange’s horror, he discovers that she’s the villain who is after America’s power, which she wants in order to travel to other universes to find her sons who do not exist in this universe.

The battle lines are drawn, and the battles takes our heroes and villains through all sorts of multiverses and multiple versions of characters, which sounds like much more fun than it actually is in the movie.

Yeah, at the end of the day, I just wasn’t all that impressed with DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. I had much more fun with the most recent SPIDER-MAN move, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021). That film also involved the multiverse, but it had a much more playful attitude, and what it did with the various universes in that movie, like bringing back previous versions of Spider-Man and previous villains, was much more fun than what happens here in this second DOCTOR STRANGE movie.

Speaking of previous Spider-Man movies, DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS was directed by Sam Raimi, who directed the three Tobey Maguire SPIDER-MAN movies. Of course, Raimi is mostly known for helming the EVIL DEAD horror movie trilogy. There are some neat Raimi touches here, like Doctor Strange having to resurrect himself as a corpse, which later has a key scene in the movie. And with evil spells and some violent ends to some of the heroes, along with some well-timed humor, there were plenty of moments that had me thinking more of the EVIL DEAD movies than a Marvel film.

But it wasn’t enough for me, largely because the screenplay by Michael Waldron I found to be a snooze. Granted, I’m a bit biased, because I’m just not a fan of magic, fantasy, or supernatural when it shows up as the main plot point in a superhero movie. These stories ultimately don’t work for me. So, there’s that. But I also didn’t find the dialogue very effective, and it certainly wasn’t the snappy kind of dialogue one has become accustomed to in a Marvel movie.

Yes, I appreciated the story arc of Doctor Strange having to learn how not to do everything himself and at the end defer to America, but at the end of the day it wasn’t terribly exciting. I actually preferred Wanda’s story arc, where she is driven to find her children, who in reality don’t exist because she invented them in a fantasy, but as she tells Strange, they do exist, in other universes, and she knows this to be true because she’s dreamt about them.

On the other hand, none of the other characters, including teen America, did much for me. And the storyline following Strange’s failed relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) was disappointing in that it didn’t really go anywhere.

You know things are bad when even Benedict Cumberbatch is boring. The guy is a tremendous actor, and I believe I have enjoyed every performance I’ve seen him play, but this time around as Doctor Strange he plays second fiddle to the special effects, which of course, are first-rate. But effects alone are not enough to carry a movie.

As I said, I enjoyed Wanda’s storyline more here than Doctor Strange’s, and as such I really enjoyed Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda/The Scarlet Witch. Not only was her story the most compelling in the movie, but she also makes for a heck of a villain! Part of her effectiveness is because she was an Avenger, after she wasn’t, and so there’s the whole back and forth element for the character, and we’ve seen her enough to understand that she wants to do well by others, but life keeps knocking her down and giving her sh*t, and finally she snaps and says she’s not taking it anymore. As I said, I really enjoyed Olsen here.

But the rest of the cast not so much.

Xochitl Gomez was fine as America, the teenage superhero, but the character was pretty boring. Benedict Wong adds nothing new to his Wong shtick, and Rachel McAdams, another terrific actor, is stuck in a bunch of redundant dull scenes as Strange’s former love interest Christine Palmer. Chiwetel Ejiofor reprises his role as Baron Mordo from the first DOCTOR STRANGE movie but does nothing terribly exciting here.

A bunch of other folks show up in bit scenes and cameos, to little avail, including Haley Atwell as Captain Carter, Lashana Lynch as Captain Marvel, John Krasinski as Reed Richards, Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, Charlize Theron as Clea, and Bruce Campbell as Pizza Poppa, to name just a few. But none of these portrayals and reprisals do much for the movie.

The whole tone of the movie is underwhelming. The DC movie, THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) is a film that also featured a ton of superheroes and crazy shenanigans, but that film had a script that rocked, and the movie just took off. DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS just sort of runs in place as it jumps around from one multiverse to another, with nothing particularly memorable happening in any of them.

I remember liking the first DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) movie well enough, but I didn’t love it. Similarly, I liked DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERS OF MADNESS less, but I didn’t hate it.

And yes, I’m still a Marvel superhero movie fan, and I’m looking forward to the next release in two weeks, of THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022), but there’s no denying that these folks have been in a slump lately. With the exception of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, they have really struggled to get the ball rolling after they wrapped up their initial story arc with AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019).

With DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, that struggle continues.

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