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.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

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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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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BLACK WIDOW (2021) – Scarlett Johansson’s Standalone Black Widow Movie Just An Average Entry in Marvel Superhero Canon

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With apologies to Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh, who both deliver excellent performances, BLACK WIDOW (2021), the long-awaited standalone movie for Marvel’s Black Widow, is not excellent. In fact, it’s all rather by-the-numbers and ordinary.

Not my favorite Marvel superhero movie. Not by a long shot. Fans of Black Widow, and of Johansson’s portrayal of the character, deserve better.

Another issue I have with BLACK WIDOW is it’s a prequel, in that it tells a back story of the character with events taking place in between the ending of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) and the beginning of THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), and in the process, shedding light on Black Widow’s origins as well. I’m simply not a big fan of prequels, especially when we already know the main character’s ultimate fate, as is the case here, with Black Widow having died in AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). I would have much preferred a story in which the future of the character was still unknown, so in a way, it’s a shame that Black Widow didn’t get her standalone movie earlier.

Anyway, BLACK WIDOW, which was released theatrically in July after being delayed for over a year due to Covid-19, is now streaming for free on Disney Plus.

Natasha Romanoff/aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run as the Avengers are now fugitives from justice after the events in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Romanoff is contacted by her estranged and adoptive sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) who seeks her help in taking down a secret Russian organization led by the mysterious Dreykov (Ray Winstone) that is using mind-altering drugs to brainwash young girls into becoming deadly assassins the world over. Both Natasha and Yelena are familiar with this organization because they used to be a part of it.

Natasha agrees to help her sister but decides they also need the help of their former adoptive parents, Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), and so they seek out these folks, and eventually, as a family, they square off against Dreykov and his army of brainwashed assassins. And that’s pretty much the plot of BLACK WIDOW, and as plots go, it’s pretty standard. In fact, the premise of this one I found dreadfully dull, which is surprising, since generally the Marvel movies are scripted much better than this one.

Sure, there are plenty of specifics I’m not mentioning here, from Red Dust, to Red Room, to Red Guardian, but at the end of the day, the screenplay by Eric Pearson is just a standard tale of a family of assassins finding each other at long last and reconciling their differences in order to take on the super bad guy pulling all the strings. It also strangely doesn’t overly focus on Black Widow. The film is every bit as much about the rest of her “family” as it is about her. Pearson was also one of the writers who wrote GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), a movie that had a screenplay that was far worse than the one here in BLACK WIDOW. And he also co-wrote THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) which featured a better screenplay than the two aforementioned movies.

Where BLACK WIDOW soars is with its action scenes. They are phenomenal. The fight sequences here are fast, furious, and expertly edited, especially the ones where sisters Natasha and Yelena square off against each other. Director Cate Shortland gets the actions scenes right. But it’s a rarity for a film to be enjoyable based solely on its action scenes. You need a good story as well. And that’s the case here with BLACK WIDOW. Great action sequences, but they’re not enough to lift this one.

This is Scarlett Johansson’s ninth time playing Black Widow, and she has wowed audiences every time. Her performance here in BLACK WIDOW is no exception. Unfortunately, in her standalone film, she’s stuck in a subpar story and with the most mediocre dialogue I’ve seen in a Marvel movie in quite a while.

Florence Pugh is equally as good as assassin sister Yelena. I’m almost tempted to say Pugh’s performance overshadows Johansson’s because Pugh is that good, but I won’t, because Johansson as Black Widow is still a wee bit better.

But these two actors dominate the movie, and the good news is they are on screen most of the time, and they pretty much save this one and keep it from being a snooze fest.

So, you have two outstanding actors delivering kick-ass performances, and topnotch action sequences to boot, but at the end of the day, that’s pretty much all you have, and with a mediocre story and dialogue, the film struggles to become anything all that special.

Also, unusual for a Marvel film, neither Johansson or Pugh get much help from anyone else in the cast. David Harbour is fine as Alexei/Red Guardian, and he enjoys some fun comedic moments, but there aren’t a lot of these moments. And while Rachel Weisz is spot on as the humorless Melina, the character is humorless. Nuff said.

I did enjoy Ray Winstone as Dreykov, but in a movie that runs two hours and fourteen minutes, his evil on screen presence only takes up about ten minutes of it.

One of my favorite bits was Florence Pugh’s Yelena teasing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow about her constant need to pose before she starts a battle. That was a funny gag.

By far, the best parts of BLACK WIDOW are the performances of Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh, and the energized polished action sequences, but a surprisingly lackluster script weighs the whole thing down throughout, so when all is said and done, BLACK WIDOW remains just an average entry in the Marvel superhero movie canon.

It’s difficult to pose this one as anything else.

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