Movie Review ~ The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

The Facts:

Synopsis:  On a mission to make Christmas unforgettable for Quill, the Guardians head to Earth, searching for the perfect present.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Kevin Bacon
Director: James Gunn
Rated: NR
Running Length: 42 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  In 1978, the now-infamous Star Wars Holiday Special aired for the first and only time on CBS, becoming an example of how pandering to fandom can be dangerous.  While that special has become the punchline for jokes over time, it’s so legitimately terrible that even a revaluation can’t change public opinion.  The joke has now extended so far into the meta-verse that a popular franchise (which draws from much of the same fanbase) is throwing caution to the wind and creating its own holiday special.  Released as the second Marvel Studios Special Presentation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is intended as an early gift to unwrap but might be a lump of coal for some.

Shot during the production of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (due out in May 2023) by writer/director James Gunn (The Suicide Squad), this 44-minute short film is a standalone adventure that mainly focuses on Drax (Dave Bautista, Riddick) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Oldboy) attempting to cheer up Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World: Dominion) during the holidays. (A classic set-up.)  Mantis thinks it’s due to the recent loss of a loved one and a secret she’s keeping from Peter, so she’s extra invested in making this season merry and bright while Drax is volun-told he’ll be helping her out.  Their big plan?  Bring back Peter’s favorite Earth-bound hero as a surprise for Christmas.  If only they knew where this Kevin Bacon fellow lived…

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) is a term growing in shorthand popularity, meaning that your experience with something may differ from others.  That applies perfectly to The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.  Watching it, I got the distinct impression the comedic bits of physical comedy and juvenile-level jokes were meant for a specific group instead of a broader base that could join in the appreciation of it.  A litmus test is the opening credits which play over a cracked song about Santa performed by the band the Old 97’s.  If you aren’t guffawing through the number, the next 40 minutes may be rough-going. The humor is stagnant and half-baked in an exhausting “we’ve seen Napoleon Dynamite, too” sort of way.

The first Marvel Studios Special Presentation, Werewolf by Night, had a more serious tone. While it was meant as a standalone story in the overall Marvel Universe, it felt like it invited the audiences into its orbit.  Conversely, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special doesn’t have to work to introduce new characters, so it’s a bit freewheeling and unfocused. Drax and Mantis dipping into a gay bar feels like a badly timed bit, made worse by the lame zingers lobbed while inside.  Gunn tightens things up when Bacon (They/Them) enters, playing himself.  Demonstrating again that he’s a good sport, he lets Gunn, and the oddball Guardians characters gently rib his persona and fame, likely because he gets the last laugh (and sings a closing number), and the whole thing is generally received in good fun.

Not destined to be the kind of Christmas perennial classic like a Rankin/Bass feature nor relegated to the “never-watch” wasteland like the misguided television special from which it drew inspiration, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special will get the laughs from the fans but isn’t likely to capture any new followers.  The filmmaking feels a bit like we got the B-Team of effects techs, and if you told me they had a quick turnaround time to get this done, I’d believe it based on how soft the completed film looks.  I wouldn’t put it on my naughty list; just more of an obligatory watch for most. I hope these Special Presentations will start feeling a little more ‘special’ in 2023.

Movie Review ~ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The people of Wakanda fight to protect their home from intervening world powers as they mourn the death of King T’Challa.
Stars: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Tenoch Huerta, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett
Director: Ryan Coogler
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 161 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  By all accounts, 2018’s Black Panther was far more than just another Marvel movie. Director Ryan Coogler’s film arrived after the success of Thor: Ragnarok and before the beginning of the bend rounding that was Avengers: Infinity War, yet it stood out. Instead of feeling like it was serving as another puzzle piece that told a larger story, it flipped the power dynamic to invite the Marvel fans into its orbit instead of the other way around. That formula paid off incredibly well, not just in audience satisfaction but in the movie becoming the first Marvel Studios property to be a major awards contender, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and in six other categories. Ultimately winning three (rightfully so), Black Panther set a high bar that no other similar genre film has met as of this writing.

A sequel was inevitable even if the awards hadn’t come and there were always plans to bring back Black Panther down the line. No one could have predicted how difficult that would be, though. Getting Coogler and the cast to come back was a matter of signing on the dotted line, but when original star Chadwick Boseman tragically died of colon cancer in 2020, questions were raised on how the film and franchise would deal with this loss. Considering Boseman’s legacy and his too-short career’s tremendous impact on the world, Coogler and Marvel have made wise decisions regarding their follow-up. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever allows a time for mourning befitting Boseman’s immense contributions.

The opening of Coogler’s sequel is this passage of time as heroic efforts by princess Shuri (Letitia Wright, The Silent Twins) cannot save her brother King T’Challa from a mysterious illness that claims his life. As her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett, Olympus Has Fallen), and the Wakandans mourn, Shuri cannot forgive herself or let go of her brother’s memory. With T’Challa’s passing and the throne reverting to Ramonda, the Black Panther, a symbol of protection for Wakanda, has also been laid to rest. A year later, Wakanda’s protection of vibranium, their powerful natural resource, is called under question by the United Nations, which feels the country should be more willing to share it with the world, even though it has proven dangerous when it falls into the wrong hands.

It appears that vibranium may not be as exclusive to Wakanda as everyone thought. A deep sea rig has discovered a possible new source within a subocean cave but couldn’t have predicted that another nation of underwater people is ready to protect it as fiercely as the Wakandans.  Led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía, The Forever Purge), a super-powerful leader with wings on his ankles and “ears that point toward the sky,” they speak ancient Mayan and fight with an extreme severity that makes them nearly invincible either underwater or on land. 

When Namor asks Shuri and Ramonda for help in locating a ‘scientist’ Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne, If Beale Street Could Talk), really an MIT college student, who has unknowingly created the only device that can detect vibranium so that he may eliminate her, the two nations become divided over how to handle the threat of outsiders. Namor would instead wipe all danger out immediately, whereas Shuri and Ramonda know that taking down one enemy often creates numerous others in their place. As Namor’s armies demonstrate their power over the Wakandan people, striking with deadly force and creating more tragic situations for all to deal with, Shuri must decide whether to continue living in an unresolved shroud of guilt or emerge from self-imposed darkness into the light as a leader her people deserve.

The first half of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is about exciting as any film you’ve seen in recent memory. After that opening which may have you dabbing your eyes, Coogler’s film wastes little time kicking into high gear with impressive action sequences and story-building that again manages to keep his movie centrally located as opposed to other Marvel endeavors, which can fly all over the world. This doesn’t need to jump locations to keep us engaged; the set-up and characters make us inch forward in our seats. Brief trips outside of Wakanda, like Shuri and head of special forces Okoye (Danai Gurira, Avengers: Endgame) taking a trip to capture Riri before Namor gets to her, are opportunities for Coogler and cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw to have fun with action sequences and the results are spectacular.

It’s the last hour of the sequel that gets dicey. Maybe it’s the special effects that aren’t as polished as the first (an alarming trend in many Marvel movies), or perhaps it’s just because something is missing in Wright’s performance that doesn’t align as nicely as Boseman’s did with the hero track. Wright is a fine actress with good instincts, but an action star? I’m not so sure about that. Her dramatic scenes carry a nice heft, but when she’s asked to take center stage, it feels a little like asking the solid second-chair violinist to lead the entire orchestra suddenly. They get the job done, but there’s more effort than necessary in the work. Luckily, Wright often has the towering Bassett and the excellent Gurira (where is the spin-off show for this character?) by her side for support.

Filling out the rest of the cast, Mejía makes for a surprising villain of sorts, though even classifying him as such can be tricky, seeing that his goals are often in lockstep with Shuri and Ramonda’s. He’s just going about it in a slightly more forceful way. It’s not the cruel world dominator we’ve seen in other Marvel movies of the past. Funny enough, it’s the stars of Jordan Peele’s creepy Us don’t share many (if any) scenes, but Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and Winston Duke (Nine Days) have several excellent moments in the spotlight throughout. Don’t you dare, don’t you even dare, leave before the mid-credits scene (the only one) for an emotional wallop game-changer.

The biggest nitpick I had with the film is that for a movie that focuses so much on tradition and ceremony to honor the dead (multiple funerals happen in the movie), there is often little acknowledgment of the loss of life of those that serve the leaders of these nations. Though they are fictional, many people give their lives to protect their homes, but both leaders fail to mention their sacrifice. At the same time, Coogler focuses a great deal of effort on funeral services for others. In a movie about uniting and not dividing, I think having even one sentence of acknowledgment would have helped.

Successfully continuing the Black Panther franchise was a monumental undertaking, not just in terms of a regular sequel but with the added cloud of loss hanging above the filmmakers. Instead of it being a time of sorrow, you can almost feel Boseman’s presence around the endeavor at times. I wouldn’t dream of saying something as gauche as “he would have approved,” but I’m happy that these were the filmmakers responsible for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever because they had worked with him and respected and mourned him. You can tell they took this seriously, which shows in the quality sequel that rose from such a tragedy.

Movie Review ~ Thor: Love and Thunder

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thor enlists the help of Valkyrie, Korg, and ex-girlfriend Jane Foster to fight Gorr the God Butcher, who intends to make the gods extinct.
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Jaimie Alexander, Taika Waititi, Russell Crowe
Director: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  We’re pretty deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe now that we can freely talk about those first two Thor movies and how not that great they were, right?  Good.  Starting in 2011, the Norse god made a dull debut in a standard special effects picture when the gathering of the Avengers was still in its infancy.  While Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat) would make a solid addition to the first Avengers in 2012, the next standalone film in 2013 was perhaps even more of a disappointment.  Lifeless and aimless, coming out between Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier made Thor: The Dark World look even more pedestrian by comparison.

It surprised many, then, that 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok was the energy boost it proved to be.  As part of the Marvel blitz of films in 2017/2018, leading toward the final official two Avengers films, new director Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit) brought a renewed strength and style this hero desperately needed.  Leaning heavily into the silly comedy that Waititi was known to mix nicely with dynamic visuals and narrative, this third Thor outing had a dynamite villainess (Cate Blanchett, having a blast) and even gave Hemsworth a shot of adrenaline he’d been missing.

With the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe looking far into the future, Thor would always play a part. Still, it was never sure where he’d fit since Ragnarok and previous post-Avengers appearances changed much of his trajectory.  While Waititi was on a solid roll as a director, sometime actor (Lightyear), and producer of several highly-regarded properties, it was a coup for Marvel to get him back on Thor: Love and Thunder. Part of the anticipation, then, for this fourth installment was to see where Waititi would take the blonde bodybuilder butt-kicker next.

Despite continuing to help when needed occasionally (hence an early appearance by the Guardians of the Galaxy), Thor prefers to keep a low profile and discover his inner zen after years of fighting world-crushing evil.  Suffering much loss of family and friends, Thor has gotten good at holding others at arm’s length and not allowing them to get close.  It’s only after Gorr (Christian Bale, Out of the Furnace), known throughout the galaxy as the God Butcher, appears and begins to enact a vengeful vendetta against the gods he believes wronged him when he needed them most that Thor is called back into action. 

To defeat this potent foe, Thor must team up with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Sylvie’s Love), now King of New Asgard and former flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, Lucy in the Sky) transformed into Mighty Thor thanks to a reconstructed version of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, along with a rock gladiator (voiced by Waititi), and a duo of screaming goats (the funniest of several running gags).  Their quest to stay one step ahead of the murderous Gorr will lead them to a city of gods ruled over by Zeus (Russell Crowe, Unhinged), where they hope to gather a greater allegiance and, later, to the far reaches of the universe robbed of all color.

I’ll start by saying that the marketing for this film (posters, trailers, etc.) are totally on target and nail the right vibe that continues to help define Thor as separate from the other Avengers, who are already adept at curating their brand.  Waititi has contributed so much to give Thor and his gang a near-kitschy ‘80s feel, and it works as well here as it did in the previous film.  What doesn’t work as well is Waititi’s insistence on overplaying that wacky comedy which, when doled out in spurts, works nicely.  When it’s nonstop goofiness, as it often is in Thor: Love and Thunder, the movie can be exhausting to watch and genuinely baffling to experience.

It’s nice to see Portman back, you can see why the chance to work with Waititi was an enticing offer to get her to return. One wishes she had more robust material to work with and her overall purpose wasn’t so rudimentary.  There’s an essential piece of her puzzle not given away in the trailers, so I won’t spoil it here, but the writers lay something on Jane Foster to overcome and care so little about it aside from it being a convenient plot device, they don’t give anything in the way of specifics. (I know that’s just as vague and non-specific but once you see the movie you’ll understand why and also what I’m talking about.)  Then you have Crowe with the strangest of accents (perhaps wanting to compete with Tom Hanks in Elvis for the worst attempt at indistinguishable dialect) in a befuddling appearance that’s more jokey than jovial. 

Thankfully, Hemsworth keeps the movie somewhat grounded and reminds you that Thor: Love and Thunder is, at its heart, a superhero film.  As strange as it was to see Bale appear on the other side of the good guy/bad guy wheel, the Oscar winner does wonderful (and frightening!) work. Several sequences deliver quite nicely, despite an overabundance of somewhat shoddy CGI…if you can even see it in the first place.  One battle near the end has monsters barely defined before they are defeated.  Does it deliver the kind of standalone fun that recent Marvel success stories have?  I don’t think so, and, based on the shoulder-shrugging post-credit sequences, I’m not sure I’d be chomping at the bit for the next installment of a Thor story either.

Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: No Way Home

The Facts:

Synopsis: With Spider-Man’s identity now revealed, Peter asks Doctor Strange for help. When a spell goes wrong, dangerous foes from other worlds start to appear, forcing Peter to discover what it truly means to be Spider-Man.

Stars: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx ,Willem Dafoe, Rhys Ifans, Thomas Haden Church, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, J.K. Simmons, Benedict Wong, Paula Newsome

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 148 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: At a recent gathering of friends, the talk turned to movies (I only keep the best company, naturally) and we got to discussing the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Aside from a heated debate comparing the movies made within the MCU with those that come from the realm of DC Comics, a few well-rounded film fans expressed a feeling of exhaustion when it came to these extravaganzas, and I can’t say I didn’t agree. Look, I’m plopping my tush into a theater seat as fast as the next person when the newest chapter in the seemingly endless series of interconnected superhero adventures is released but a feeling of sameness has seeped in for a while now. The bright spots are fewer and farther between, so when you look far ahead on the Marvel slate and see films scheduled out literally years in advance there’s less to get wowed about.

That was a discussion I had the Saturday night before I saw Spider-Man: No Way Home.  Three nights later I was leaving the screening fighting the urge to skip a little bit back to my car because Sony and Marvel have jointly delivered one of the collective franchise highlights to date.  It’s essentially an entertainment package aiming to please without coming off like it’s building a bridge to “what’s next”.  Though it certainly is a gateway to…something…it wastes little time with one foot out the door or an eye on the exit sign.  Instead, director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers keep the focus on hyper-immediacy which makes this third film featuring Tom Holland (Cherry) as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man the absolute best one yet.

While plot points are discussed below, rest assured there are no spoilers included (anywhere on this page) that have not been already revealed through marketing.

At the end of the previous film, for his final act of treachery Quentin Beck / Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) revealed to the world that Peter Parker was Spider-Man.  Framed for Beck’s murder, Peter is hauled in with his family and friends by a shadow government agency before being released back to public scrutiny.  Assimilating to daily life under the eye of a cruel society based on unfounded judgement is easier said than done, however. Hatching a plan to make the world forget they ever found out his truth, Peter calls on Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Mauritanian) for his assistance, but the spell he orders gets complicated and winds up opening the multiverse, bringing forth everyone that ever knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man.  With the multiverse cracked, it allows villains from previous Spider-Man films not starring Holland to enter this realm…Big Baddies Spider-Man will have to track down and send back to where they came from.

It’s always odd when a different actor starts playing a role in an established franchise.  The first Spider-Man reboot saw Andrew Garfield take over for Tobey Maguire and I remember thinking at the time how weird it would be to see another actor in the role.  It was even more discombobulating when Holland stepped in so rapidly when the Garfield era came quickly to a close.  To have elements from the Maguire and Garfield films cross over into this third Holland one was a big risk but it comes off so well, it’s got to have other studios wondering how it could work in their own franchise tentpoles. 

What great possibilities this made into reality. Seeing Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina, The Water Man) from Spider-Man 2 appear to greet Holland is one of those movie moments you can really get excited for.  I felt the same about O.G. villain Willem Dafoe (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin acting the heck out of his role. Actually, it’s kind of incredible to see all of these legendary foes back together sharing the screen.  Even if the two Garfield villains are sort of lame (sorry Jamie Foxx and Rhys Ifans, but thank goodness Paul Giamatti didn’t show up), it’s more than a little thrilling when they’re all standing in the same room.

Most notable in Spider-Man: No Way Home is a true devotion to hitting as many emotional beats as action-heavy ones.  For as many spectacular scenes as there are, Watts and his team are willing to give Holland (who has never been better) and equally aces co-stars Zendaya (Malcom & Marie), Marisa Tomei (Frankie), Jon Favreau (The Wolf of Wall Street), and Jacob Batalon (Banana Split) the space they need to deal with some major events that happen during the extended run time.  I don’t know if you’ll have a similar experience but darn it if I didn’t get a little misty on a least two separate occasions.  Fans that have waited a while for this will be more than pleased with the developments that take place and movie-goers in general who have held back from entering a theater will be sufficiently satiated by the feature. 

Movie Review ~ Eternals

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A team of ancient aliens known as the Eternals have been living on Earth in secret for thousands of years. When an unexpected tragedy forces them out of the shadows, they reunite against mankind’s most ancient enemy, the Deviants.

Stars: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Bill Skarsgård, Harish Patel

Director: Chloé Zhao

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 157 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: A year ago at this time I was getting so burnt out on the Marvel adventures that were coming at us left and right (and center and above and below and diagonally) and, not that I didn’t find them entertaining, but I just felt like they were all starting to blend together into one amorphous mass that looked like a large black hole where a franchise used to be.  The kick of the discovery was gone and what remained were good guys and bad guys, buildings falling, worlds ending, then not ending, and happy finales for a moment until the post-credits scene revealed something we needed to start worrying about six months or more down the line.  It was just a constant state of “NEXT!” before you’d even had time to digest the meal you’d been served.

Announcing indie director (very indie) Chloé Zhao as the director for Eternals, a film that represents a significant shift in tone and temperament for Marvel isn’t all that out of the ordinary.  The studio has done a good job over the last decade at picking interesting (read: new) filmmakers to helm their movies and the bet has largely paid off in spin-offs and major pivots that have their own style and calling cards.  You can bet the studio heads were jumping on their gaming chairs when Zhao rode a tidal wave of good notices in 2020 to an Oscar win for Best Director and another one for producing Nomadland, the quiet Frances McDormand drama about a woman traveling the country not quite aimlessly but without any true destination. It’s a feeling the superheroes at the heart of Eternals are familiar with.

Instead of losing that indie vision and voice, Zhao applies it liberally to this superhero film which feels altogether different and quite special, and one that will certainly divide many.  For starters, and this isn’t a bad thing, its pacing is off from your typical Marvel film.  It’s not that it’s too long, it’s as long as a number of its brethren, but there are long stretches where its characters are allowed to be human as well as superhuman and use their words instead of their wonder.  Drama instead of dramatics doesn’t always sell tickets or inspire amazement in those that come for hyperbolic extravaganzas and while Eternals does have some incredible moments of special effects wizardry, it’s far more interested in what can be created through connection.

Five thousand years before the birth of Christ, ten beings from a distant planet arrive on Earth to rid the still developing world of creatures known as Deviants.  Sent on a mission from a powerful ruler and waiting for their next message delivered to Ajak (Salma Hayek, Savages), their leader on Earth that will send them home, they remain on our planet over the next seven thousand years, watching humankind evolve but barred from using their advanced knowledge to help them progress in their growth.  Taking place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Eternals picks up with Sersi (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) living in London and dating Dane (Kit Harrington, Pompeii) while watching over Sprite (Lia McHugh, The Lodge). 

When a Deviant emerges unexpectedly from a canal in the River Thames and goes after Sersi and Sprite, old friend (and former Sersi flame) Ikaris (Richard Madden, Rocketman) flies to their rescue just in time.  The three decide this Deviant appearance isn’t a coincidence and set out to reunite the rest of the Eternals who have scattered across the globe…but not all want to be reunited and as the Deviants grow stronger the race is on to protect the humans from a global extinction event that makes The Snap look like child’s play.  Mistrust, old grudges, and their own failing health keep the Eternals from full strength, and it will take their collective energy to stop an enemy that feeds off of their power.

Even as some will convince you otherwise, there’s a whole lot going on in Eternals.  Like, a whole lot.  First off, the representation on display here is wonderful and doesn’t feel forced in the least.  Diversity in casting is joyous, as is the normalcy in characterizing Brian Tyree Henry’s (The Woman in the Window) Eternal Phastos as a married gay man living with his husband raising their son.  You have Lauren Ridloff (Sound of Metal) as hearing impaired Eternal Makkari, Kumail Nanjiani (Dolittle) as an Eternal now living as a popular Indian Bollywood actor, and Angelina Jolie (Those Who Wish Me Dead) playing Thena, an Eternal waylaid by a disease that comes across suspiciously like early onset Alzheimer’s.  Add to that the conflict between the never-aging Sprite and the love triangle she creates in her head with Sersi and Ikaris and there’s enough drama off the battlefield to keep things hoppin’ even with a well-designed Deviant breathing down their neck.

The well-utilized visual effects pair nicely with Ben Davis’s (Captain Marvel) gorgeous cinematography (absolutely the best in any Marvel film, period) and you’re crazy if you don’t see Eternals in IMAX where you can enjoy it to the full extent.  What I noticed early on was how “small” the movie feels in comparison to others. This could be the Zhao effect, but for much of the movie it’s really just the main characters and that’s it.  There’s not a lot of swarming extras (real or computer generated) and when there are large crowd scenes, everyone looks to be really there and present.  That energy helps fuel all who are on camera, giving it all a reality bounce that pushes the movie ever forward.

I haven’t checked recently (I just can’t bear to) but shortly after seeing Eternals I read it was the lowest rated Marvel movie to date and had heard about all these negative reviews that were coming out – and I was stunned.  Near the end, there are moments of such transformative beauty that are simply not in the scope of presence in Marvel films to date…and this is the movie that gets ravaged?  I can’t help but feel like it has something to do with the diversity of the cast and its far-reaching scope of inclusivity – I thought (and hoped) fans that celebrated light triumphing over dark would be better than that.  I hope these early reviews were just the loudest voices of a minority of viewers that have seen the film so far.  On the eve of the release, here’s wishing Eternals and future adventures eternal good will.

Movie Review ~ Black Widow

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha Romanoff must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O.T. Fagbenle, Rachel Weisz, William Hurt, Ray Winstone

Director: Cate Shortland

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  In the year we’ve had to wait since Black Widow was supposed to debut, I’ve occasionally caught wind of a think piece or two (oh, how I love a think piece by another wise Marvel fan or general fuddy duddy) that has blasted the movie for being “too little, too late”.  Too little, too late for what?  We live in a world where we make full billion-dollar trilogies that later serve as prequels to sequels that are themselves sequels to their own prequels.  I think we can allow a superhero or two to come back from the dead so they can tell their origin story.  If I have to sit through countless tales of how Batman got his cowl and Superman got his cape, I believe I’ve earned the right to know how Black Widow developed her love of changing up her hairstyles.

At times, over the years that Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story) has played Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, I will find myself wondering what the character and even the whole Avengers make-up would have been like had Emily Blunt stayed with the role as originally cast.  Hilariously, it was Blunt’s commitment to the far over-schedule 2009 Jack Black ‘classic’ Gulliver’s Travels which led to her stepping down from the part when it was introduced in Iron Man 2, paving the way for Johansson to take it on. The rest is history and now Johansson is set for life with all the residuals she’ll receive for her efforts.  Part of that deal was, I’m sure, this stand-alone film that was never quite the priority until now and I’m actually glad it came out when it did.  Now, Black Widow isn’t just seen as a filler film while audiences wait for the next Avengers adventure, and it doesn’t have to be a connector (at least a major one) to anything currently cooking in the Marvel Universe.

Right off the bat audiences are going to be able to tell that director Cate Shortland and screenwriters Jac Schaeffer, Eric Pearson, & Ned Benson don’t have a traditional Marvel movie in mind.  Far more along the lines of a James Bond-ian espionage thriller for the majority of its running length, the Marvel-ness of it all doesn’t truly come into play until the final act when we get a major dose of the heroism that has come to define this franchise up through today.  That accomplishes two things in my book.  There’s a little something thrown in for those fans who miss their Marvel friends and have been waiting for more high stakes action (though The Falcon and The Winter Soldier on Disney+ had a fair amount of it) and it gives Johansson a stand-alone film that has a style all its own.  A superlative plus is the addition of two (or two and a half possibly) new characters that amp up the fun.

An opening prologue introduces us to young Natasha and her “sister” Yelena as well as her “parents” Alexei (David Harbour, Hellboy) and Melina (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) while they are posing as an American family in the mid ‘90s.  After their mission goes south, the group is separated and it’s only after the events of Captain America: Civil War twenty years later when Natasha is a fugitive from the government that she is put on a collision course with her past.  Reuniting with the now-grown Yelena (an fantastic and energetic Florence Pugh, Little Women), another in a long line of Black Widows, the two have some old business to work through first and their physical and verbal sparring is one of the first highlights Shortland capitalizes on.  Showing Natasha and Yelena as immovable forces pursuing each other, the interplay between the two is captured with a fresh style and played to the hilt by both actresses. 

Eventually breaking out Alexei from a maximum-security prison (another gigantic and impressive sequence), the two Black Widows now have an aging former father figure to deal with, one that served as Russia’s version of Captain America: the Red Guardian.  Though offing mugging to the extreme back of the theater, Harbour has a good time with this role and when he’s not trying to fit into his old suit, he’s finding some nice ways to connect with Pugh to quash a few fake-father/fake-daughter issues.  This all leads to finding mom who may just have the key to how a vengeful assassin (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace) has been tracking them down and also how to save numerous Black Widows out in the field from a maniacal villain (Ray Winstone, Cats) that is controlling their every move.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to watch the film and not have that one scene in the Avengers: Endgame (you know the scene) in the forefront your mind. Yet it doesn’t render this movie pointless nor even gives it a feeling of remoteness in relation to the action that’s taking place in front of you.  Black Widow is exactly what it sets out to be, a summer blockbuster stand-alone utilizing an existing character from a proven franchise.  The popular character has been given a breakneck outing that has its own style that separates it from others, but still has enough of the Avengers DNA (and that welcome final credit scene…stay for it) to link it to what has come before.

Streaming Review ~ Loki (Episodes 1 & 2)


The Facts:

Synopsis: After stealing the Tesseract during the events of Avengers: Endgame, an alternate version of Loki is brought to the mysterious Time Variance Authority who give Loki a choice: face being deleted from existence due to being a “time variant” or help fix the timeline and stop a greater threat.

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sophia Di Martino, Wunmi Mosaku, Richard E. Grant, Sasha Lane

Director: Kate Herron

Running Length: ~50 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Can you believe it’s been nearly two years since the last Marvel film was released in theaters?  It’s true, not since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home have we seen one of our favorite superheroes on the big screen.  Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may have missed out on their chance to see Black Widow in theaters this past year when it was delayed due to the pandemic, but in 2021 we’ll make up for lost time as that film is released along with a whopping three others, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. It hasn’t been too quiet in Marvel’s world, though. We’ve all had our fair share of consolation prizes in not one, but two well-received television series that have premiered on Disney+. 

The streaming service watched the quirky WandaVision become a bona fide hit with its tonal differences from the previous films.  It had its moments where it reared its more Marvel-y moments but by and large this felt like a self-contained bit of creative freedom that wouldn’t have been possible outside of Disney’s weekly platform release structure.  This was followed fairly quickly with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier mere weeks after WandaVision concluded its 9-episode run.  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s 6-episodes, by comparison, were much more like the traditional Marvel movie.  Not that that was an all-together bad thing.  Allowing supporting player Anthony Mackie (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain) to rise to leading man status was welcome and if Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya) didn’t do as much to forward his character as I would have liked, the duo proved to be a smart pairing.

Now comes Loki, the third Marvel series to debut on Disney+ and it appears to be the most ambitious one to date.  But wait, you may be asking, didn’t Loki, you know, perish in Avengers: Endgame?  Well, that’s where the storytellers in the big Marvel warehouse have worked some magic and come up with an interesting way to keep Loki alive, but as a “variant” of himself.  In fact, according to the Time Variance Authority (TVA), there could be multiple timelines that we follow if we aren’t careful and that’s why they are there, to help police the master timeline and ensure it is proceeding as intended. 

When he steals the Tesseract in Avengers: Endgame, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Only Lovers Left Alive) upends the timeline and sets into motion a series of events that puts him in front of Ravonna Lexus Renslaye (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, A Wrinkle in Time) from the TVA who prefers that he be “reset”, i.e. zapped, for his infraction.  She’s persuaded by TVA agent Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson, Bliss) to release Loki to his watch because he needs the trickster’s help in solving a mystery currently confounding the TVA.  Apparently, someone has been jumping through timelines and getting rid of any TVA security detail that comes looking for them.  Agreeing to help Mobius but planning his own escape by infiltrating the TVA from within, Loki becomes an unlikely ally to combat a most unexpected villain.

Above and beyond the production design for the series which has a retro vibe from the late 60’s/early 70’s mixed with a dash of steampunk (not the annoying kind), there’s a boldness to Loki that feels like another step forward for Marvel where their television endeavors are concerned.  Further, it’s totally different than WandaVision and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, showing that Marvel is having fun experimenting with their style as well as their substance.  Director Kate Herron keeps the vibe fresh and fun, allowing Hiddleston free range to let his Loki grow in stature without making the villain too unlikable.  It’s also a great showing for Wilson, who takes the role just seriously enough to be convincing but not overtly dry.

Time-travel shows can be a tough sell because it’s easy to play fast and loose with the rules.  At times during the first two episodes there are some head-scratching moments where the action can be tough to track, but that is what the rewind button is for.  Still, I wouldn’t want to keep having to think too terribly hard over the remaining four episodes about how the timelines merge together but trust that it will all line up by the finale.  Loki proves that Marvel is running a solid three for three.  Still to come in 2021 is an animated series (What If…?) and two more live-action entries, Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye.  Based on the track record so far, the bar is set awfully high for what’s next.      

The Silver Bullet ~ Black Widow (2020)

Synopsis: A prequel featuring Natasha Romanoff set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.

Release Date:  May 1, 2020

Thoughts: If you have yet to see Avengers: Endgame, I’m going to drop a spoiler so you may want to just watch the new trailer for Black Widow after reading my thoughts in a nutshell: this looks fun, it’s about time, what took so long?

If you’re still with me, you’re aware that Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit) sacrificed herself for the lives of her friends in Avengers: Endgame and could be wondering why she’s starring in her own movie.  Well, this long overdue movie focusing on her popular character is taken from an earlier adventure during less dire circumstances.  Fans have been wanting this movie for a while and it’s too bad we had to wait until Natasha was snuffed out to get a stand-alone film but perhaps the wait could be worth it.  Boasting fun names like Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), David Harbour (Hellboy), and rising star Florence Pugh (Midsommar), I’m hoping this is more than a tired superhero one-off.

Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Far From Home

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Peter Parker and his friends go on summer vacation to Europe and there Peter finds himself trying to save his friends against a villain known as Mysterio.

Stars: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, J.B. Smoove,

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In some ways, Spider-Man: Far From Home was always bound to be disappointing.  Being the follow-up to the biggest movie on the planet and arriving barely two months after it’s release is an unenviable position.  Here’s the kicker, though.  If you believe the trade papers then it seems Sony, which still owns the rights to Spider-Man and has loaned him out to Marvel Studios for his work in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame, actually pushed to have this particular release date so close to the final Avengers film.  It’s a strange strategy because everyone is bound to compare this to the juggernaut last chapter of Iron Man and his team which is still playing in many theaters and is even being re-released with new footage around the same time Spider-Man is swinging into cinemas.

Yet here we are, with another comic book superhero movie and, if you count the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, our fourth big-screen appearance of Spider-Man in a year.  Sony is playing chicken with audiences and betting they aren’t suffering from Spidey fatigue yet and based on the genial but oddly underwhelming Spider-Man: Far From Home I’m guessing they made the right call at express shipping this next chapter into theaters right in time for the July 4th holiday.  Though flawed in the action department and failing to provide a showcase for an A-list actor trying his hand at playing an evil genius villain, the film succeeds best when it focuses on the people and not the effects.

As this site is spoiler-free as much as possible, a caveat that while the plot secrets of Spider-Man: Far From Home will remain hidden there are elements from Avengers: Endgame I’ll have to discuss.

So, if you don’t want the end of Avengers: Endgame spoiled for you then it’s best to turn back now.

You ready?

You sure?

OK.

Seriously.  This is your last chance.

I’m going to spoil something, don’t be mad.

OK…here we go.

Picking up where Avengers: Endgame left off, Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Impossible) is still mourning the deaths of Captain America, Black Widow, Vision, and his mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man.  With the rest of the Avengers dispersed on their own missions around the world and in other galaxies, Peter is getting back to a routine in school and making the occasional appearance as Spider-Man to help raise funds with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, The Paper) to support the population vaporized in The Snap that were returned in what came to be known as The Blip.  As the school year winds to a close, Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) prepare for their science trip abroad which will take them across Europe.  Ned is looking forward to spending time with his friend as bachelors overseas while Peter is more interested in getting closer to MJ (Zendaya, The Greatest Showman).

The group has barely arrived in Venice when the floating city is attacked by one of four elementals, a creature made of water that goes about destroying everything in its path.  Before Peter can jump into action and save the day, Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) appears and helps vanquish the threat with some marginal assistance from your friendly traveling neighborhood Spider-Man.  Recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Shaft), Beck teams up with Peter to take on the final elemental who is due to show up in Prague, where Fury reroutes Peter’s class trip (though what his school is doing in Europe is a mystery, it’s never clear why they’ve traveled overseas) so he can believably stay part of the action.  Dubbed Mysterio by the press, Beck quickly (too quickly) becomes a new Stark-ish figure to Peter, establishing a trust that hides a darker agenda.  When Beck’s true nature is revealed it’s up to Peter and his friends (including Jon Favreau, The Wolf of Wall Street, as Tony Stark’s former bodyguard) to eventually save London and its key landmarks from danger.

What may surprise viewers is how long director Jon Watts takes to get to the first round of action in the film.  Aside from a very brief prologue there’s not another major action scene for nearly a half hour and, truthfully, I didn’t mind at all.  The characters established so well in Spider-Man: Homecoming have been brought back fully realized and we’re dropped right back into their mix without much adjustment needed.  When the action does start, in that first battle in Venice, the film gets less interesting almost immediately and it’s because we’re focused less on the people and more on the sturm und drang of it all.  It doesn’t help the action sequences are curiously flat and rarely edge-of-your-seat exciting like previous Marvel (and Sony Spider-Man) films have been.  Even the effects seem off and uneven, like the film wasn’t quite ready by time it had to go to theaters.

Another stumbling block is, surprisingly, Gyllenhaal as Beck/Mysterio.  I had high hopes for the actor entering this universe and lending some of his trademark intensity to a character.  Usually, Gyllenhaal has an interesting way into inhabiting whatever role he’s taking on but he was either stymied by the studio heads or just opted for the wrong approach because he’s dramatically inert here.  Watch the movie and see if you can spot how many times Gyllenhaal moves throughout – you rarely seem him walking or making any kind of actionable movement, the majority of his performance he’s sitting or standing still.  It’s like he was performing injured or filming his scenes in one soundstage over the course of two days.  What should have been a nice match of actor and fan favorite villain was a whiff and a miss for me, extra disappointing because I am a big fan of the actor.

The movie is saved in no small part due to the performances given by Holland and Zendaya, both of whom were appealing in their first film paired together but now have honest to goodness chemistry that is entirely palpable.  In Holland, we finally have a Spider-Man/Peter Parker that feels like he’s the right age and the actor plays him as more than an angsty teen longing to be more than the sum of his Spidey parts.  He knows the great responsibility he has and understands why Tony chose him, but doesn’t want to continue to miss out on the life that doesn’t include inter-galactic wars and infinity stones.  Zendaya isn’t your cookie-cutter MJ and mores the better.  I like her awkwardness and affinity for the darker side of history.  Like she did with Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman, she plays well off her costar and helps them to shine.

Based on the reactions of the audience at my screening, maybe I’m the one that’s fatigued at the present moment with these films.  Perhaps my attraction to the pieces of Spider-Man: Far From Home that had nothing to do with action or effects say something about were my attention is at this point and time.  I still don’t think Gyllenhaal is doing anywhere near his best work and the previous Spider-Man film was, in my opinion, more focused, unexpected, and heads and tails more entertaining from start to finish.  We’re all trained by this point to stay through the credits but the mid-credit stinger and post-credit scene are absolutely essential.  The final scene actually changes something about the movie entirely – don’t miss it or you’ve missed a huge piece of the story.

Movie Review ~ Dark Phoenix


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Stars: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters

Director: Simon Kinberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Having never been someone that has done a deep dive into the comic book realm, I can’t speak to fan reactions when a franchise plays fast and loose with characters and story arcs. There are some that can’t look past a studio wanting to continue their cash cows by making financially motivated choices to keep their films alive and there are others (like myself) who don’t mind sitting back and taking in the movie for what it is – entertainment. It’s not for lack of interest or ambivalence on my part, it’s stepping back and seeing the big picture. Of all the superhero tentpole films, it seems the X-Men movies take the biggest beating from critics and fans that revolt at the slightest stray from where they want to see the action go and I find that so strangely fascinating.

I’ve gone on record multiple times saying that by and large I’ve enjoyed most all of the X-Men films and their numerous spin-offs. True, some have been problematic and less winning than others but they’ve been more consistent than most long-running series and have evolved from the silly seriousness of the original film (you know it’s true!) to something bold and musclar like 2016’s brilliant Logan. A new era of the X-Men began in 2011 with X-Men: First Class and I was not moved either way by that semi-reboot until X-Men: Days of Future Past arrived in 2014. That film was a grand return to form and while The Wolverine didn’t connect with some I appreciated what it was doing in advancing Hugh Jackman’s character toward Logan. Knives were unfairly out for X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016, even though I found it a weirdly fun film.

Arriving amidst an ominous cloud of bad buzz is the next film in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix, and I imagine it will take the same beating from former fans and critics eager for an easy target. Delayed several times by 20th Century Fox due to highly publicized reshoots not to mention its pending purchase by Disney studios which had its own Marvel superhero movie to attend to earlier this summer, I’m not sure this ever would have had a fair shot when it was released. Honestly? The film has some major flaws and often feels like it’s held together by packing tape that’s long since lost its ability to keep things in place but when it works it works like a charm. For all the negative things I’d heard about it going in, maybe the bar was set low enough that my opinion couldn’t be worse than what people were saying.

When we last left our world-saving mutants, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had unleashed the full force of her powers to destroy Apocalypse. After a brief prologue shows us the tragic beginnings of how Jean came to stay with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) at his school for teens with extraordinary talents we are thrown right into action set in 1992. The team, comprised of Jean, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, mother!), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Love, Simon), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect), is dispatched to save the crew of a space shuttle in the path of a solar storm. This is no ordinary space mission, though, and Jean is exposed to an energy source at the center of the storm.

Now possessing remarkable power that begins to consume her, Jean goes rogue to seek out answers from her past to help her decide what to do with her new gifts. At the same time, she’s pursed not only by Professor X, the X-Men, and a revenge-seeking Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), but by alien huntress Vuk (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) who has arrived on Earth with a large number of her own warriors aiming to harvest the lifeforce within Jean that has the power to create new worlds…and destroy Earth in the process. It leads to a showdown that begins with Jean’s allegiance and ends with the lives of many hanging in the balance.

It’s clear this movie has been through many an edit and it shows not only in the hastily reshot footage but in the tonal shifts throughout. Looking at the success of grittier fare like Deadpool and its sequel, you can see where writer/director Simon Kinberg (Murder on the Orient Express) wanted to push the boundaries a bit by making this one more intense but without being able to go all the way with the blood, language, or violence it comes off as too tentative and neutered. There’s also a strange reliance on scenes with characters gulping down booze whenever they can’t cope with pressure or wanting to tamp down their own emotions. Normally good actors paint with broader strokes here, perhaps knowing this was their final time at bat they are really swinging for high camp. Chastain, Hoult, and McAvoy in particular seem to be trying to outdo each other in who can be the most ostentatious…until Fassbender shows up and puts them all to shame.

Yet somehow the movie checked off enough of the right boxes on my score sheet to emerge a winner and that’s mostly due to a fantastic finale set aboard a train. Usually a reshot ending can be one big eye roll since it often is an afterthought that rarely gels with the rest of the film but this one felt like it came after the filmmakers had some distance from the work and came back refreshed. There are some crowd-pleasing moments to be had here and it provided the requisite thrills some other parts of the movie lacked. Also, it showed once again that Shipp’s Storm (and just the character of Storm in general) needs her own movie, like, yesterday.  I still long for the filmmakers to spend more time at the school so we can see more of the youngsters and their burgeoning abilities — anytime we’re in the school and we see hints at the comic-books fringe characters people recognize you can tell people want more.  Now that 20th Century Fox is owned by Disney, perhaps Disney will get a series together for their streaming Disney+ service that’s all about the school?  Might be a good idea.

I’m still grappling with these recent X-Men movies not totally lining up with the original three X-Men films that started off this whole series of films. Don’t think too hard that the first X-Men movie is set a mere eight years after this one is to take place…or wonder what happens to Fassbender and McAvoy in those eight years to turn them into Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Instead, take these movies as the prequels they were always meant to be and for what they are, casual entertainment. Perhaps if you go in with the lowered expectations like I did you’ll set yourself up to get something more out of this than others who went in prepared to hate it. Give it a chance.  I’m not totally sure where the series goes from here.  There’s absolutely room for more sequels but based on the struggle this one had to get to theaters and the boos and hisses already coming from the Twitter-verse, a reset might be in order to restore some faith in this franchise.  Clearly, I’m easier to please than most and found the fun in this Phoenix…but I’m also not a hardcore fan that had a great investment in it either.