BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (2022) – Fitting Memorial to Chadwick Boseman and Tribute to Black Panther Character

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The best part about BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (2022), Marvel’s latest superhero movie and sequel to one of its all-time best, BLACK PANTHER (2018), is that it captures the right tone of mourning and respect for late actor Chadwick Boseman, who passed away in 2020. It also successfully handles the transition to the future of the Black Panther character.

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER opens with the offscreen death of Wakanda’s young King T’Challa, aka The Black Panther, and so at the outset we follow main characters in mourning, most notably T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and close friend Okoye (Danai Gurira). Their feelings regarding T’Challa’s untimely death mirror the audience’s feelings of mourning for actor Chadwick Boseman, and so these early scenes have great resonance.

Wakanda is chastised by the United Nations for not sharing its precious natural resource, vibranium, an element which gives the nation all of its special powers. Ramonda pushes back saying Wakanda doesn’t trust other nations with this power, and also warns nations to think twice about becoming aggressive with Wakanda in light of The Black Panther’s death, as she says the country is still strong and quite capable of defending itself.

However, the United States launches a plan to seek out vibranium on its own, and locates some under the ocean, but their salvage mission is thwarted by a mysterious force of underwater fighters. The U.S. suspects Wakanda, but soon the Wakandans are invaded by these same underwater people, led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta), who, along with his people, possess superior power and threaten Wakanda with invasion unless they kidnap the young scientist who invented the device which helped the Americans find vibranium, which they also possess.

The Wakandans are not used to people being able to get through their defenses, and also do not take kindly to being threatened, and so eventually these two powerful races become involved in an all-out war, with the future of Wakanda and perhaps the world at stake.

Director Ryan Coogler, who directed the first BLACK PANTHER movie, once again presses all the right buttons here. The film’s somber tone is perfect, and it was also refreshing in light of the recent inferior Marvel movies which have all tended to strike comedic silly tones, which sadly haven’t worked all that well, movies like THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) and DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022).

The film plays out like an homage to both actor Chadwick Boseman and to the Black Panther character. It all works beautifully.

Coogler co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, and the story told in this one is a good one. Both these guys co-wrote the screenplay to the first film as well.

First off, the story is rock solid, and the villain Namor, is as formidable as the come. Tension runs high many times during this movie, which was most welcome after the recent spat of silly Marvel movies in the past couple of years. I also enjoyed the way the film transitioned the Black Panther character into the future. The character who takes over is fitting, and it makes perfect sense for things to play out this way.

The main character in WAKANDA FOREVER is T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri, who was already a dynamic character even when she was playing just a supporting role in the earlier BLACK PANTHER movie. Letita Wright had already made her mark playing the character in BLACK PANTHER, and in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). WAKANDA FOREVER simply gives her a bigger canvas on which to paint, and she doesn’t disappoint. Shuri is driven by vengeance and bitterness over her brother’s death, and she uses these feelings to her advantage, but it’s a complicated journey because in her heart she knows she can’t be confined by revenge or consumed by grief. There’s more to being a leader. It’s a great story arc for Shuri, and Letita Wright does a phenomenal job with it.

Much of the same cast from the first BLACK PANTHER movie return to reprise their roles and they all do admirable jobs. Angela Bassett as Ramonda, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, who plays a particularly important role in this movie, and Winston Duke as M’Baku all return, and they all make their mark.

Martin Freeman returns as well as CIA agent Everett Ross, but it’s kind of a throwaway role in this movie, as his character only appears fleetingly. And then there’s poor Julia Louis-Dreyfuss who’s stuck in a terribly written role as Ross’ no nonsense superior, who also happens to be his ex-wife. It’s a pretty sad role, and Louis-Dreyfuss deserves better.

But it’s Tenoch Huerta who stands out the most in this sequel as the villain, Namor, who seems as all-powerful as Thanos at times, and like some of the best movie villains, his back story emits sympathy, and so the audience relates to where he is coming from, even as he causes ample death and destruction.

Speaking of death and destruction, the battle scenes in BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER are expertly handled and some are very suspenseful, especially the fight to the death between Namor and Shuri.

I really enjoyed BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER. It’s a step above the recent silly Marvel misfires, and also a step in the right direction towards getting the Marvel movies back on track.

It’s also a successful send-off to the original Black Panther character and a fitting memorial for Chadwick Boseman.

I give it three and a half stars.

Wakanda forever!

—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–

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.

—END–

THE BLACK PHONE (2022) – Horror Movie Based on Joe Hill’s Short Story Among Best Horror of the Year

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I’m ba–ack!

Yes, I’m happy to say that for the first time since pre-Covid days, since April 2020, I finally returned to the movie theater! While I continued to review movies at home over the various streaming services, it just wasn’t the same. I can’t tell you how good it felt to watch a movie on the big screen again! Actually, I can tell you: it felt friggin good!

And I chose a pretty good movie to see as well, because THE BLACK PHONE (2022) is one of the best horror movies I’ve seen this year.

Mind you, I haven’t seen a whole lot of horror movies this year. But still!

THE BLACK PHONE takes place in 1978 and is the story of a serial killer known as The Grabber who drives a black van and snatches children off the streets. Finney (Mason Thames) and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) go about their business as best they can, dealing with school and bullies and their alcoholic single dad who can’t get over the death of their mom, and they try not to think much about The Grabber, but things change when one of Finney’s best friends becomes the killer’s latest victim.

Gwen, who like her mother before her, has dreams which sometimes are vision of real things, sees black balloons in one of her dreams about one of the missing children, and when the police catch wind of this, they are intrigued because it’s a detail from the abductions that was never leaked to the public, and so they want to know who told her that. In one of the movie’s livelier scenes, Gwen tells the police it was only a dream and pushes back against their suspicions that she, a young girl, may have inside information about the abductions. She does tell them that she sometimes sees things in her dreams that prove to be real.

And when Finney becomes the next victim of The Grabber, Gwen tries to force herself to dream about him, but that’s not how things work. Finney, now a prisoner, finds himself locked in a basement room with only a mattress and a disconnected black phone, with little hope of escaping the weird Grabber (Ethan Hawke) who speaks to him from behind various eerie and chilling masks. But when the disconnected phone rings, and Finney answers it, he hears the voice of one of the Grabber’s victims. Through the black phone, Finney hears from all of the Grabber’s victims, each with veiled advice on how he can possibly escape.

THE BLACK PHONE was directed by Scott Derrickson, a talented director whose previous horror movies include THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), SINISTER (2012), and DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). These are all pretty decent horror movies, with SINISTER probably being his best-known horror flick, but his work here on THE BLACK PHONE is by far his best.

First off, he captures the look and feel of 1978 perfectly, and I should know, as in 1978 I was about the same age as main character Finney. There’s even a scene where Finney and Gwen are home watching the TV show EMERGENCY!, which was the show back then for kids and teens of a certain age. But Derrickson does more than just capture the period. He’s made a movie that is actually scary, which is a rare thing these days. It’s scary because he does a great job with the characters, making Finney and Gwen two young characters you really care about. He does it without jump scares or gratuitous violence and gore. And he does it through compelling storytelling.

Of course, he’s working with superior source material, as the screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill was based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill, who’s a terrific writer. Cargill also wrote SINISTER, as well as the first DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) movie, which Derrickson also directed.

The story here combines the lurid tale of a creepy serial killer of children, with the supernatural goings-on of both Gwen’s dreams and the black phone itself, along with the raw unpleasantness of life for these kids even without The Grabber in their neighborhood, as Finney’s and Gwen’s dad is not only drinking all the time but he’s also abusive. And the story takes the time to even explain their dad’s abusiveness— not to excuse it away— but to show why, that is he is stuck in grief over his wife’s suicide, who took her own life when the voices inside her head became uncontrollable, which is why he is merciless towards Gwen when she speaks of her dreams because he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to his daughter. It’s all superior storytelling.

The casting is also a strength.

The two child leads are fantastic. Mason Thames is perfect as Finney, the kid who can’t stand up for himself yet possesses strength he didn’t know he had, strength he will need when he fights for his life against The Grabber. And Madeleine McGraw is equally as good as Gwen. She has some of the best scenes in the movie, when she shows off her fiery personality, like when she comes to the rescue of her brother when he’s being beat up by bullies. But her best moment is one of the most emotional moments of the entire movie, the scene where her dad uses a whip on her in retaliation for the police having visited him at work with questions about her dreams. The emotions she brings out in this scene are way above what you would expect in a horror movie.

And Ethan Hawke is completely creepy and sinister as The Grabber. And he performs without really showing his face, not until the end, and that’s because he’s always wearing a mask, or a variation of the same mask.

Actually, the argument can be made that the true star of this movie is the mask created by horror icon Tom Savini. It is creepy!!!

Getting back to Ethan Hawke for a moment, what makes his performance so unsettling is he doesn’t play The Grabber like some ultimate evil monster or some vicious mindless killer, but instead he plays him with a sense of comical absurdity. With the mask and make-up, he’s almost Joker-like. There was also something in Hawke’s cadence and delivery that made me think of Michael McKean.

Scott Derrickson also frames several scenes to perfection. The scene where Finney is warned not to take the bait and exit through the unlocked door because it’s a trap set by The Grabber, and in the next shot we see the shirtless masked Grabber sitting with a whip in hand just waiting for Finney to walk by him is shiver-inducing. There are several scenes like this.

I also enjoyed THE BLACK PHONE more than HORNS (2013), the film version of Joe Hill’s novel. While I liked that movie, it didn’t completely work for me. But THE BLACK PHONE does. It’s my favorite film version so far of a Joe Hill story, who as I said is an exceptional horror writer. And for those of you who don’t know, not that it matters, but he’s also the son of Stephen King.

THE BLACK PHONE is on par with my other favorite horror movie so far this year, X (2022), but I think I was even more impressed with THE BLACK PHONE because it’s scarier, and it scares without using as much blood and gore as was found in X.

If you like to be scared, you’ll love THE BLACK PHONE. Not only is it frightening, but it scares on multiple levels: serial killer, supernatural, and real-life.

I’d say more, but… there’s a phone ringing on the wall behind me that I have to answer.

Hey, there wasn’t a phone there, before.

—END—

SPIDERHEAD (2022) -Mild Science Fiction Thriller Can’t Take Advantage of Good Script and Solid Acting

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SPIDERHEAD (2022), a new science fiction action thriller now available on Netflix, is a mishmash of these three genres, never really developing into anything special, yet remaining generally entertaining throughout.

It stars Chris Hemsworth, who must have a deal with Netflix, because he keeps showing up in their original movies. He starred in the superior Netflix action movie EXTRACTION (2020), one of the streaming network’s best movies to date, and appeared unbilled in the recent INTERCEPTOR (2022).

In SPIDERHEAD, Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, a scientist who runs a special prison program in which he accepts volunteer inmates to be guinea pigs for drugs he is working on that he hopes will help curb humans’ criminal personality traits, in the hope of keeping more people out of prison. While generally safe, the drugs can be dangerous, and so in exchange for taking the risk, the inmates are housed in a rather fancy minimum-security prison, complete with some pretty nice living conditions and freedoms. These drugs are administered in packs which connect to the body, and the dosages are all controlled virtually with the help of Steve’s trusted assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio).

Enter inmate Jeff (Miles Teller) who agrees to help and is one of Steve’s most cooperative test subjects, mostly because Jeff feels terribly low and worthless, due to the crime he committed which got him sent to prison in the first place. When he’s not being tested, he’s friends with fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), who’s harboring a dark secret from her past as well.

Everything is hunky-dory until Steve begins to ask Jeff and some other inmates to do some weird things, like having sex with another inmate Heather (Tess Haubrich) while Steve controls how attracted or unattracted they are to each other. And when things grow even more bizarre and dangerous, Jeff begins to question Steve’s motives, and so he does a little snooping and what he finds out is— of course— that things aren’t as they seem!

No surprise there.

SPIDERHEAD pretty much remains mediocre throughout. Its story is mildly interesting, mildly disturbing, but not overly exciting or mind-blowing. Honestly, throughout most of the movie I had a “so, what?” vibe going on. I was never all that invested in what was happening to the characters or their stories. While I understood Jeff’s plight, I never really cared for him all that much, and Steve is pretty much a one-note character without any real motivation other than to be the villain in this one by film’s end.

The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, is a mixed bag. The dialogue is really good, and there are some memorable exchanges between Jeff and Steve, but the story never becomes more than a standard melodrama. When we finally find out what is really going on, it’s not that explosive a revelation. And the characters, while fleshed out well enough are all kind of— boring. This comes as a surprise because Reese and Wernick are the guys who wrote the DEADPOOL movies and the ZOMBIELAND movies. Go figure!

Visually, SPIDERHEAD is impressive to look at, but like a lot of other Netflix films, it suffers from not being all that cinematic. It plays like a TV movie. It was directed by Joseph Kosinski, who is receiving high praise these days for his work at the helm of TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022).

Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller do work well together, and their scenes together are the best in the movie. However, overall, Hemsworth plays Steve as a one-note guy, and even with the charismatic Hemsworth playing the role, at the end of the day, Steve’s boring.

Miles Teller fares better as Jeff, and while I have not been a Teller fan over the years, he gives the best performance in the movie. He makes Jeff a real person, and his story arc is the most interesting and emotional in the film. Sadly, it’s a story we’ve seen countless times before, where a character hasn’t meant to, but his reckless actions led to someone else’s tragedy, and he’s beating himself up over it because he can’t get over the guilt.

Jurnee Smollett is also solid as Jeff’s friend and possible girlfriend Lizzy, another character with a tragic past.

Themes of loneliness, abandonment, and letting down those you love, permeate the proceedings, but the film never rises to the level in terms of plot where these themes can take center stage. They’re there, but in the background of a tale that struggles to come to life.

I wouldn’t rush home to see SPIDERHEAD, but on a rainy summer night, when there’s not much else going on, it might be worth a look.

And for Chris Hemsworth fans, it’s something to watch before his highly anticipated Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) opens in theaters on July 8.

SPIDERHEAD is a minor diversion, a mild science fiction thriller that possesses a good script and solid acting, but remains low-key and muted throughout, mostly due to plot points that fail to resonate because they have been done before and done better.

—END—

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.

—END—

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021) – Third Tom Holland Spider-Man Movie Playful with the Multiverse

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I finally caught up with SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021), Marvel’s super successful Spider-Man movie, the third with Tom Holland in the lead, which hit the big screen this past December and is currently available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.

Like the previous two Tom Holland Spider-Man films, NO WAY HOME is exceedingly playful, and definitely belongs with the lighter Marvel superhero fare. Of course, one of the main reasons it performed so well at the box office was its exciting and creative decision to play with the multiverse and bring back characters from previous unrelated Spider-Man movies, including the two previous movie Spideys, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, as well as their villains.

This happens because in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, which begins right where the previous film SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) ends, dying villain Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals Spider-Man’s (Tom Holland) true identity as Peter Parker, and the moment is captured on video and broadcast to the world by Spider-Man nemesis J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who also frames Mysterio as a hero and Spider-man as his murderer.

The result not only is massive hating on Spider-Man but on his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). So, Peter Parker pays a visit to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks if he could use some time travel magic like he had wielded to save the world in AVENGERS: END GAME (2019) in order to help him out, to which the good doctor scolds him for suggesting such a thing, adding that even if he wanted to he no longer possessed the time stone. However, Strange suggests he could cast a spell which would make everyone forget Peter was Spider-Man, to which Peter agrees before he realizes he still wants MJ to remember him. And then there’s Ben, and Aunt May… Peter basically interrupts Doctor Strange’s spell and inadvertently causes him to screw up, and as a result, portals open from different universes, letting in villains like Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and Electro (Jamie Foxx), to name a few.

Spider-Man and Doctor Strange then work together to capture these villains in order to send them back to their proper universes, until Spider-Man realizes that back in their prospective universes they all will die, and so he decides to find a way to “cure” them in the here and now in order to send them back with the chance of surviving, an idea that Doctor Strange disagrees with, but Spider-Man is undeterred, until the Green Goblin makes it known he has no intention of being “cured.”

Eventually, two other visitors arrive through the portal, Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) and…. Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire). and they decide to work with the Spider-Man in this universe in order to send everyone back home to their proper places.

So, pretty much the plot in SPIDER MAN: NO WAY HOME is nothing more than cleaning up all the messes made by Peter Parker and Doctor Strange because they decided to play around with the multiverse. No villains trying to take over the world or the universe. Nope. Just fixing what Parker and Strange messed up, and since this is a Marvel movie, you can rest assured that at the end of the day, all will be well. Did I mention that this was a playful movie?

I have been a huge Marvel movie fan since their amazing run started with IRON MAN (2008), the film which introduced Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark to movie audiences, and while others have been bemoaning the frequency of their movies and complaining that the formula for success has gone stale, I haven’t been one of them. However, since AVENGERS: END GAME wrapped up nearly every storyline their movies had been telling for over ten years, Marvel has struggled to keep it going. I was tepid on both BLACK WIDOW (2021) and SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021), as neither film worked for me. I didn’t even see THE ETERNALS (2021).

Now, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME worked better for me than the two movies mentioned above and went a long way towards recapturing the magic of the Marvel superhero movie. In short, I had fun watching it and enjoyed it a lot. However, the main reason I enjoyed it was watching the two previous actors who played Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, on screen with current Spidey Tom Holland. When all three are on screen together, the movie rocks.

Likewise, I enjoyed watching the return of all the villains, most notably Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, who remains with apologies to Thanos, as one of Marvel’s best movie villains ever. Dafoe is excellent once again, and for my money, delivers the best performance in the film. He has such an evil presence as Green Goblin. I wish there were more superhero movie villains with this kind of edge. Dafoe is a master at it, and it’s sad to think that this is only the second time he’s been able to strut his stuff as the character. He did have cameos in the second and third Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies, but that barely counts.

So, while nostalgia rules the day in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, it doesn’t exactly look forward, unless there are plans to keep these resurrected characters in the mix. It does of course set up the next DOCTOR STRANGE movie, which hits theaters this week, DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022), as it looks like Doctor Strange is still working on cleaning up the multiverse mess he started in this movie!

My favorite of the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies remains the first one, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), as that one not only featured Holland’s high-octane Spider-Man for the first time in his own movie, but also Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Michael Keaton as a nifty menacing villain. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME is my second favorite of the Holland Spider-Man movies. All three were directed by Jon Watts, and he imbues all of them with an energetic and high-spirited style.

One of the reasons the Marvel superhero movies have been so successful is they have for the most part sported some amazing casts, and SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is no exception.

Tom Holland has been a bright spot as Peter Parker/Spider-Man since he first played the role in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2017), and he’s amiable once again here. Likewise, Zendaya is perfect as MJ, and she and Holland really generate chemistry in their scenes together. Jacob Batalon is back as well as their best buddy Ned, and as they have been doing since SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, they generally entertain when sharing the screen.

Then you have Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin, Jamie Foxx as Electro, Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan— a role he’s been playing since IRON MAN, in addition to directing that Marvel trend setter! —and of course Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. Charlie Cox even shows up as lawyer Matt Murdoch from the Netflix’ Marvel show DAREDEVIL (2015-2018).

For my money, the two best parts of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME are Willem Dafoe’s scene stealing performance as the Green Goblin, and watching Tom Holland, Tobey Maguire, and Andrew Garfield share the screen together. Their scenes are the best in the movie, and they really capture their individual Spider-Man personas and work seamlessly together in this movie. They really do seem to be three Spider-Man brothers here.

Last week I finally saw THE BATMAN (2022), Matt Reeves’ ambitious reimagining of Batman, a film I enjoyed for two of its three hours before it ran out of gas and stalled. It’s interesting to compare these two movies. THE BATMAN was by far the more ambitious and innovative of the two, and had more to say, but it went on far too long and ultimately lost me during its final hour. SPIDERMAN: NO WAY HOME was a much lighter and less ambitious flick that while also running fairly long at two hours and twenty-eight minutes, did not lose me. This film, with a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, kept things simple and grounded in its characters, specifically its three Spider-Man characters. As such, the end result was much more satisfying.

The Marvel superhero movie universe still hasn’t found its full footing since ending its major storylines with AVENGERS: ENDGAME, but SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME provides a nice diversion as well as a friendly homecoming for some prior Spider-Men.

It’s a highly entertaining movie that shows that the Marvel movies are not quite finished yet. There are more stories to be told. Even if some of them, as was the case here, are older ones that are dusted off, revisited, and re-imagined.

—END—

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021) – Superior Action Carries This Marvel Adventure but Weak Characterizations Prevent It from Soaring

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I finally caught up with Marvel’s SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021) now that it’s streaming for free on Disney +.

And while I liked it better than BLACK WIDOW (2021) I can’t say that I loved it.

People have been complaiing that the Marvel superhero movies have run their course for a long time now, but I haven’t been one of those voices. I’ve loved the Marvel superhero films. Since IRON MAN (2008), they have been on a remarkable run churning out one quality superhero movie after another. In fact, most of their movies have made my top ten lists during the years of their releases. One, BLACK PANTHER (2018), transcended the genre and was as insightful a movie about race as any other serious drama.

All this being said, it’s been a while since I’ve really loved a Marvel movie. They are definitely struggling to reclaim their mojo after AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) wrapped up most of their initial ongoing superhero storylines, which begged the question, where do they go from here? Well, so far, they haven’t really gone anywhere. They seem to be running in place.

But that’s not to say I didn’t like SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. I did. I just didn’t love it.

One of the reasons I didn’t love it is I’m just not a huge fantasy fan, and the bulk of this movie’s plot revolves around fantasy elements rather than superhero components.

Shaun (Simu Liu) is a young man in his twenties who lives an unassuming life, working as a valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But in reality, his real name is Shang-Chi, and he’s the son of two powerful warriors, Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen). Thousands of years ago, Xu Wenwu gets his hands on the Ten Rings, mystical weapons that give him unstoppable power. He goes through the centuries wielding that power in selfish ways, doing whatever he pleases, until he meets and is bested by Ying Li. They fall in love, have two children, and life is grand until people seeking vengeance against Xu Wenwu murder Ying Li, and they’re able to do this because as parents, Ying Li and Xu Wenwu had given up their powers.

Afterwards, all bets are off as Xu Wenwu vows revenge against these murderers and asks his young son Shang-Chi to help him. But, Shang-Chi doesn’t see himself as a junior version of his father, and so he runs away to the United States where he changes his name to Shaun and tries to live the good life. Which is what he does until his father comes looking for him. See, it seems daddy had heard from mommy, but mommy is dead so…. story-wise, the third act of this movie becomes muddled and is by far the weakest part of the movie. It involves battling dragons, a special effects extravaganza, but hardly compelling storytelling.

I also had to keep reminding myself that this movie’s title was SHANG- CHI, not XU WENWU, because at times the story is much more about Shang-Chi’s father than him.

Also, it’s another origin tale which is almost unnecessary. The final reel has Shang-Chi meeting some familiar Marvel faces explaining to him that they need him and that his life is about to change forever. Had this movie begun this way, now that would have been interesting!

By far, my favorite part of SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS was its action sequences. It contains some truly memorable scenes. The chase scene on the bus is exceedingly well-done and exciting. Likewise, the chase scene at the fight club is also rousing. However, the climactic battle during the film’s third act falls rather flat. Overall, I enjoyed the work of director Destin Daniel Cretton here. Visually, this one does not disappoint.

But the script by Cretton, Dave Callaham, and Andrew Lanham isn’t quite up to the usual Marvel standards. The humor is there and largely works, but the story is meh and the characterizations mediocre at best. A lot of the time I just didn’t know what the characters were thinking or feeing, especially Shang Chi and his father Xu Wenwu. Not a good thing in a movie. And at times, the story couldn’t decide whether Xu Wenwu was a villain or a sympathetic character. The characterizations were not clearly defined.

Dave Callaham co-wrote the screenplay of MORTAL KOMBAT (2021) which shared a lot of the same thematic and story elements with SHANG-CHI. He also co-wrote the deplorable WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020). I enjoyed SHANG-CHI more than these two movies.

Simu Liu is okay as Shang Chi. He’s likable enough, but that’s about it. I can’t say he ever wowed me here.

Tony Chiu-Wai Leung fares somewhat better as Xu Wenwu, although he too suffers from writing that does not clearly define his character. Is he a villain or sympathetic? In the film’s opening moments, when we learn what he has been up to the past thousand years, he certainly seems like a clear-cut villain. But then he becomes a daddy and gives up his evil ways, only to revert to them to seek vengeance for the murder of his wife, a decision that in many stories could be a sympathetic one. But here, it doesn’t help that the film’s hero, Shang-Chi, kinda hates his father.

Awkwafina is better than both these two as Shang-Chi’s best friend Katy. She’s funny and lively throughout. Unfortunately though, she’s reduced to being just a sidekick.

Fala Chen is very good as Shang-Chi’s mother Li, but she’s mostly in this movie via flashback. At first, especially since it’s her voice telling the story in the film’s opening moments, you think she’s going to be a more prominent character, but she’s not. And she pretty much disappears during the film’s second half. A head scratcher.

Meng-er Zhang is solid as Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing, but sadly she plays second fiddle to Shang-Chi throughout this one.

And Michelle Yeoh shows up as Shang-Chi’s aunt, Ying Nan, and she’s fine in this supporting role.

Finally, there’s poor Ben Kingsley playing Trevor Slattery, a character he played back in IRON MAN 3 (2013). Slattery was the main villain in that one, until it was revealed that he wasn’t, that he was an actor who was only pretending to be the bad guy. Here, he’s imprisoned for that transgression, but he helps our heroes escape, and he spends the rest of the movie as light comic relief. And he’s fairly funny, but it’s Ben Kingsley for crying out loud!

The action sequences in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS are so good they are definitely worth a look, but with a mediocre plot and weak characterizations, the film is certainly not one of Marvel’s better superhero movies. While it had its moments, and there were a few times when I was really into this one, taken as a whole, it’s only slightly better than average.

Unlike many of its Marvel predecessors, I don’t think this one will be making my top 10 list at the end of the year.

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