The Invitation

How to make a movie about Dracula feel new, or at least new-ish?  The Invitation addresses this by telling a very familiar story about a very familiar character through the eyes of Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), an African American toiling away in the States as a waitress.  Her job sucks and with her mother’s recent death, misses having connection to a family.  The answer to her ennui arrives when she completes a DNA test and discovers she’s actually a long-lost relative to the white-as-can-be Alexander family in England.  Her best friend Grace (Courtney Taylor) cautions her not to go, but nobody ever listens to their best friend’s advice in these movies.

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The Batman

Gotham: a city beset with drugs and crime.  The police are overwhelmed and have sought the help of a vigilante known as Batman (Robert Pattinson).  Bruce Wayne, the man behind the mask, is more than willing to oblige.  After two years, he has instilled fear into the city’s criminals, but criminal activity is on the rise despite his actions.  Within this hellish landscape emerges a man dressed in green and the city’s power structure in his sights.  On Halloween night, he brutally kills the mayor, but isn’t satisfied with committing murder.  Instead, he leaves behind ciphers, a card addressed to Batman and the words “No More Lies” scrawled on the victim’s face.  With each successive murder, the Riddler (Paul Dano) exposes the corruption at every level of Gotham.  For reasons known only to himself, he seeks revenge upon the people in Gotham’s power structure, including the mayor, the police commissioner, district attorney (Peter Sarsgaard) and a “rat” who helped them all put a gangster behind bars years ago.  Surprisingly, millionaire and philanthropist Thomas Wayne is also implicated by the Riddler, making Bruce a target as well.

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Minions: The Rise of Gru

In this prequel sequel, Gru (Steve Carrel) is intent on joining the Vicious6, a group of super villains who have deep-sixed their leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin).  Even though the minions have given Gru nothing but unwavering loyalty and dedication to his cause, he doesn’t believe that the minions are ready for prime time.  What 11 & ¾ year-old kid doesn’t need some help becoming a supervillain?  As for Wild Knuckles, he’s furious that the team he founded tried to kill him.  If you haven’t guessed, Minions: The Rise of Gru is about loyalty.  Well, it’s about loyalty in those moments when it isn’t hilariously funny.

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The flying saucer movie has been a staple for over seventy years.  The first movie to feature a UFO, appropriately titled The Flying Saucer, came out in 1950.  Since then, the genre has primarily been about a flying saucer, or flying saucers, showing up on Earth causing problems for hapless humans.  There have been some great ones over the years, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET.  However, this category of science fiction mostly exists to provide cheap thrills.  Oh no, a big-headed alien has just abducted our helpless heroine!  Send in the Army and all of its tanks, jets and men with machine guns!

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Thor: Love and Thunder

What if all Gods are jerks who couldn’t care less about the suffering of the faithful?  For Gorr (Christian Bale), the sole surviving member of an extinct race whose daughter just died, the answer is simple: kill ‘em all!  If I didn’t know better, I’d accuse Thor: Love and Thunder (or Thor4) of appropriating Nietzsche’s most famous quote (God is dead) for a plot device.  Not to worry, this is the only deep thought the movie has to offer over its two hour run time.

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The Great Gatsby (novel, 1925)

I don’t remember when I first read The Great Gatsby.  It may have been in high school, or my first year in college.  I hadn’t thought about the novel much in the intervening decades.  I opted not to see the Baz Luhrmann movie (2013), although I did watch Z: The Beginning of Everything back in 2015.  (It was unceremoniously canceled after one season.)  Then, on January 1, 2021, a singular event caught my attention.  I noticed it listed among those works no longer under copyright protection.  After sheepishly realizing that the novel was almost one hundred years old, I found myself wanting to read it again.  Since my reading habits are undeniably slothlike, I accomplished that goal a year-and-a-half later.

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Where The Crawdads Sing

If Where The Crawdads Sing was only about a girl living in the North Carolina marsh who, after being abandoned by her entire family, learned how to survive and grew up to become a successful nature illustrator, the movie would have been a compelling one.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have anywhere near the confidence that Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has in herself.  Instead of following through on the themes of independence and self-reliance, the story chooses a safer approach by including a plethora of subplots that are under-cooked and unconvincing.

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Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis tells the story of a performer who, if you’re versed in American popular culture, needs no introduction.  This movie, however, is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill biopic.  While the movie does a decent job of recounting the key events of Elvis’ life, it intends to remind us of how exciting Elvis was as a performer.  Mission most definitely accomplished there, as Austin Butler and director Luhrmann amazingly channel the electricity of Elvis on stage, when he was at his best.  The movie also tries to refurbish Elvis’ image by addressing criticisms of racism and cultural appropriation.  Even though the movie’s attempts were made in good-faith, I doubt they will likely win over any new converts.

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The Black Phone

Set in 1978, a child killer nicknamed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has been terrorizing a Colorado suburb.  Under the guise of a hapless magician, he snatches kids in broad daylight, spraying an intoxicant into their faces before cramping them into his black van.  A middle-schooler named Finney (Mason Thames) eventually becomes his target and finds himself trapped in a soundproofed basement.  When Finney is alone, a phone on the wall rings.  This is curious as the phone is disconnected.  On the other end is the voice of another boy Finney knew.  Subsequent calls are from the other boys who’ve gone missing, five in all.  Initially they give Finney advice on how to not play The Grabber’s “game”, which has been lethal for them.  They then proceed to coach him on things he can do to try to escape.

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Pixar, the studio that has produced so many animated classics, has managed to do the unimaginable.  Somehow, they’ve taken one of their best known and beloved characters, Buzz Lightyear, and put him into a boring, generic science-fiction adventure.  On top of that, Buzz is no longer the officious-yet-funny blowhard.  Instead, he’s a person with no sense of humor and several troubling psychological tendencies.  In Lightyear, Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) is a Space Ranger whose dislike of computers is matched only by his avoidance of help from others.  (Why?  Who knows.)  His single-mindedness nearly gets himself and everyone else killed, and from that point on, he’s fixated on undoing his mistake.  Buzz proceeds to spend years testing a new fuel cell that could get everyone back home, to the exclusion of all else.  Every test only lasts minutes for him, but years elapse for everyone else.  Best with failure after failure, he loses his only friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba) to old age.  (Yes, this is a children’s cartoon.)

Fortunately, his new companion, a computerized cat robot named SOX (Peter Sohn), helps him solve a problem with the fuel cell.  But first, Buzz must deal with Zurg and his robot henchmen.  Why is Zurg attacking the colony?  Why is Zurg hell-bent on capturing Buzz?  The answers may surprise you, especially if you’ve seen The Lego Movie: The Second Part.  Everything about Lightyear is surprisingly lazy.  With the exception of SOX, the jokes fall flat.  The science-fiction aspect is a timid riff on Interstellar.  The graphics are shockingly dull for a company that made Wall-E.  The morals of the story, about moving on from failure and accepting the help of others, have none of the emotional resonance of prior Pixar movies.  There may never have been a good reason to make Lightyear, but that’s no excuse for the result being this shallow and listless.  If cribbing from a Warner Brothers animated feature isn’t the equivalent of Pixar hitting rock bottom, I don’t know what is.  Pixar won Best Animated Feature not even two years ago for Soul.  How can this be the same studio?  Not recommended.  (Not even on Disney+)

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