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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Elvis

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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Lightyear

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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Jurassic World: Dominion

In Jurassic World: Dominion, humanity is beset by two man-made disasters: dinosaurs running amok and gigantic locusts devouring the food supply.  The former is fallout from the previous movie, where the baddie had the brilliant idea to hold a dinosaur auction in his mansion.  The latter is the result of some nefarious genetic engineering on behalf of Biosyn, run by ruthless tech bro Dodgson (Campbell Scott).  Not content with controlling the world’s food supply, Dodgson is searching for Maisie (Isabella Sermon), a genetically-engineered clone who is now the ward of Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard).

The supersized locusts catch the attention of Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who promptly recruits old flame Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) to visit the Biosyn headquarters at the behest of mutual friend Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum).  (They need a locust sample to prove that Biosyn is behind the big bugs.)  The headquarters doubles as a dinosaur sanctuary, and you just know the dinosaurs won’t be kept under wraps for long.  After Dodgson’s henchmen kidnap Maisie and Blue’s baby raptor, Owen and Claire head for Biosyn to retrieve their children.  After running from dinosaurs separately, the two casts unite so they can run away from the dinosaurs together.  

Dominion is not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination.  Its plot is driven by coincidences and contrivances.  The dialog is mostly perfunctory.  In spite of its limitations, I enjoyed it.  In the sixth entry of this franchise, the filmmakers can still rely on a solid performance by Pratt and a tolerable one by Howard to anchor the proceedings.  The dino-action is, as always, top notch.  The movie avoids the unforced errors that sank Fallen Kingdom, in that nobody does anything glaringly stupid.  I’m not sure if the reappearance of OG trio Neill, Dern and Goldblum was a panic movie to regain fans after that disastrous sequel, but it ultimately disappoints, with the gentlemen tossing gutterballs.  (Dern emerges unscathed.)

Fortunately, the chances director/writer Colin Trevorrow took with the story succeeded, and turned the movie into something better than the sum of its parts.  He thankfully moves the franchise beyond the tired “dinosaurs as entertainment” angle into interesting new territory.  He shows us what a world where dinosaurs and humans coexist actually looks like.  Then, he explores how the genetic engineering used to bring dinosaurs back to life could make things dramatically worse for humankind.  Finally, he turns the question of dominion on its head for a theme of cooperation and collaboration.  The movie also introduces several intriguing new characters, including DeWanda Wise’s tart cargo pilot Kyla, Dichen Lachman’s henchwoman Soyona and Mamoudou Athie’s Ramsey, an heir-apparent to Goldblum’s Malcolm.  Omar Sy is also back, and if this series will continue with another trilogy, he should be given the leading role.  Dominion takes risks when none were expected, and for that it earns my respect.  Recommended.

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Men

If director Alex Garland had any sense of humor at all, he would have titled the movie “Fear and Loathing in Cotson”.  As it is, Men is about how badly men behave, particularly when they are rejected by women.  Jesse Buckley plays Harper, a woman suffering in a marriage with the violent and emotional James (Paapa Essiedu).  When she says she wants a divorce, he threatens her with committing suicide.  He figures she would prefer to stay married over having to deal with the guilt of his death, but Harper is determined.  James dies suddenly, and it’s unclear whether it was intentional or an accident.  Some time afterwards, Harper decides to take a vacation.  She rents a house in the English countryside.  Once there, Harper meets proprietor Geoffrey, an overly polite English type.  On a walk, she’s stalked by a naked man.  Shortly afterwards, she is confronted by an angry child, an oily vicar, a dismissive policeman and assorted male dullards, all played by Rory Kinnear.   (“The Many Faces of Rory Kinnear” would also have been a better title.)

Each Kinnear starts out by being nice to Harper, only to reveal their true ugliness when she rejects their advances.  Yes, (some) men act like assholes when the object of their affection rebuffs them.  Unfortunately, that is all that Men has to offer thematically.  Garland has met the enemy, and it is men.  In his righteous hands, feminism is blunt instrument and the audience a set of nails to be pounded.  Problem is, the audience for this movie is likely full of converts.  Allegorical horror movies like these are easy to admire for their audacity and conviction.  I admire Garland’s guts with seeing his vision through.  Unfortunately, the movie is such an obvious and didactic affair that it becomes ridiculous very early on.  It’s a well crafted and well acted movie, but it lacks any subtlety and nuance.  The more serious it becomes, the more laughs it induces.  I smell a cult movie.   Not recommended.

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Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness

Doctor Strange 2 is a superhero-horror movie mashup that takes chances and mostly succeeds. Director Sam Raimi brings some a sense of anarchy and fun to the proceeding. As Strange Benedict Cumberbatch gets to flex his acting muscles for the first time as the character, bringing subtle shadings and tinges of vulnerability to the character. Recommended. Continue reading Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness

Downton Abbey: A New Era

If you aren’t a fan of the television series, there’s no point in seeing this movie.  If you are a fan, A New Era delivers the goods.  All of your favorite characters are on hand once again in a new chapter that is more of a continuation of the main plot line than the previous movie.  The Crowley’s (a.k.a. the poorest rich people you know) need money to fix a leaky roof.  As luck would have it, a director wishes to film a movie on the estate.  Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is all for it, but Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has his priggish qualms about it, as usual.  As (even more) luck would have it, Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) has just been left a villa in the south of France from a Marquis she met eons ago.  (Yes, before she was married.)  Mary sends her father and a contingent of her family off to the villa so that she can supervise the production.  Unfortunately, technology catches up with the director, who must shift gears and make a talkie.  Mary thinks they can pull it off, but unfortunately the lead actress sounds like a wench in a pub.  (What movie does that remind you of?)  Meanwhile, in sunny France, Lord Grantham has to confront the idea that his mother had a dalliance out of marriage, making him a bastard!

Like the series and the preceding movie, A New Era delivers what fans have come to expect and appreciate:  impeccable production values, top-notch acting, dollops of melodrama, wonderful costumes and snappy dialog, all set to that iconic orchestral score.  I liked how several of the supporting characters continue to grow in interesting ways, including resident nebbish Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle).  It goes without saying that this movie includes a wedding, a proposal and several professions of love, some expected, some surprising.  In the end, there’s the unexpected departure of a character who’s been around since the beginning, as well as the not-so-unexpected death of a beloved character.  Julian Fellowes, the mastermind behind Downton Abbey, makes it look so effortless.  Regardless, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is still the luckiest chauffeur ever, and he knows it.  Recommended.

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Top Gun: Maverick

Top Gun: Maverick is a direct sequel to Top Gun and just like its predecessor, it’s an endorphin-fueled joyride of a movie.  Tom Cruise is back as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a gifted Naval aviator with a need for speed only matched by his penchant for taking risks.  Thirty-some years later, Maverick is still doing his thing, flying experimental aircraft.  He’s haunted by the death of his wingman Goose, a tragedy that he still feels guilty about.  (An official investigation cleared him, but, you know.)  A top-secret mission pulls him back into the TOPGUN program, where he’s tasked with playing the role of instructor to a bunch of hot-shot pilots almost as arrogant as he was way back in 1986.  In between training missions, Cruise alternates his free time between romancing bar proprietor Penny (Jennifer Connelly) and dealing with the anger from Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Goose.  Director Joseph Kosinski manages to recreate the spirit of the original, which is no small feat for a rebootquel.  Like its predecessor, Maverick is expertly made, very entertaining and features a performance by Cruise that makes him look a bit more mortal than usual.  If you liked the original, you’ll like this one.  Recommended.

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