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

1

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

1

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.

Movie Review ~ Doctor Strange

1

doctor_strange_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Scott Adkins, Amy Landecker, Benedict Wong

Director: Scott Derrickson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Can I let you in on a little secret?  Every time I hear the phrase ‘space time continuum’ in a movie I start to look for the nearest exit.  After years of taking in sci-fi movies that zig zag and fold back on themselves (like Interstellar and Inception) I’m at the point where any talk of the butterfly effect, messing with the natural order, or the aforementioned space time continuum means that naptime is imminent for The MN Movie Man.

I make this admission at the start of my review of Doctor Strange so you know that though I went in with mid-range expectations for Marvel’s latest superhero origin story (as 2nd tier as the Doctor Strange character may be), the moment the talk turned to time travel my internal timer started its countdown to impatience.  Here’s a film with a lot of heavy hitters and some big ideas that can never corral them all into being on the same page at the same time. What made previous Marvel films work so well (aside from Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and Ant-Man) was a meeting of the minds where effects and character lived in entertaining harmony.

Shades of the first Iron Man haunt the first quarter of the movie as we meet a brilliant but uncouth surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) known for his steady hand and icy heart.  A terrible car crash (never text and drive, ok?) leaves him scarred and shaky but just as cool and distant to those that care for him.  Exhausting his options medically he hears of a possible miracle cure near Kathmandu and it’s there he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Trainwreck) who opens a new world of possibilities.

As he regains his strength and explores the untapped regions of his consciousness, Strange becomes wrapped up in a plot orchestrated by a nasty villain (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, who has a PhD in playing bad guys) and his crew of disciples wearing some fierce drag make-up to, what else?, destroy humanity.  Leaping from Hong Kong to London to New York, Strange makes a pit stop to get some medical attention from a former colleague and love interest (Rachel McAdams, Spotlight) before being chased through a kaleidoscopic parallel universe where the world gets turned literally upside down and inside out.

If you’re like me and are literally physically exhausted by movies that are all flash and special effects spectacle, you’ll get the same bad taste in your mouth from Marvel’s newest piece in their larger cinematic puzzle.  The best parts of Doctor Strange are also the most taxing on the brainwaves and when you add a 3D presentation on top of it all it’s time for the theaters should pass out free barf bags.  I don’t get queasy in movies but almost from the start I was nervously wondering where I would toss my cookies if I was forced to flee.

Yeah, the effects are impressive (and pleasantly colorful) when it counts but too often give off the stink of third level craftsmanship.  That goes for the script as well with McAdams’ character being so tragically underwritten they couldn’t even find a place for her to show up in the last 40 minutes.  Swinton seems to be having a crazy ball as a bald headed mystic (sketched in the comics as an elderly Asian man…oy) but Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) looks like he wants to cry for the majority of his screen time.  It’s only in the closing credits (it’s a Marvel movie, you know you need to stay to the end, right?) that we see what may have attracted him to the role.

That brings us to Cumberbatch who is merely serviceable in the title role.  Sitting here I can’t think who would have been better but the character is so onerous in his bravado that Cumberbatch has no room to wiggle around in.  Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) doesn’t do him any favors by allowing a cape to steal the scenes it shares with Cumberbatch…yes you read the right, Cumberbatch gets upstaged by an article of clothing.

If credit should go to something, it should be to the entire cast for giving it the good old college try with some very silly material.  Cumberbatch and his gang have a way of conjuring portals to hop continents by doing a modified “wax on” sort of motion and around the 100th time this action is performed I had to let a laugh escape.  The sight of all these characters making something out of nothing draws some obvious parallels to the Oscar nominees playing them.  Destined to be one of the films you’ll beg to skip if doing a Marvel marathon down the road, Doctor Strange wheezes when it should whallop.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Apocalypse

1

xmen_apocalypse_ver19

The Facts:

Synopsis: With the emergence of the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Dear readers, it’s OK if you are in the throes of Superhero Movie Fatigue. I’ve been suffering symptoms of SMF for over a year now and I’m sure it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone if you suddenly find yourself recoiling at the first whiff of a CGI created villain or needing to lie down from exhaustion when you try to tie all of the various multi-film storylines together. While I don’t see a cure for SMF in the near future (both the Marvel and DC universe are mapped out for the next several years), I think we’ll learn to adjust to an onslaught of comic book adaptations that will eventually start to compete only with films from their own franchises until a death rattle finishes them all off.

In the meantime, 2016 has brought forth the good (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War) and the misunderstood (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and judging from early reaction you might feel inclined to add X-Men Apocalypse to the miscalculated pile. I’d caution you to see for yourself though because this eighth X-Men movie is big (BIG!), rather exciting, and sets the stage for a new era with a careful hand and a gentle nod.

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I was slow to warm to the series and never really had much of an interest or stake in the opinion of the overall quality or the consistency that true fans seemed to find the most fault with. The first movie was decent but half-baked, the second addressed the major concerns and righted a listing ship only to have the third one stank up the joint. Venturing into solo territory, Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) tried to get a Wolverine series off the ground but fans weren’t interested. A prequel reignited the flame and led to another Wolverine film (which I enjoyed more than most) and the 2014 time-hopping head-scratcher X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I didn’t think the franchise could stuff more into its running length but X-Men: Apocalypse is the stone soup of the bunch…it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s going to divide many a fan/critic/movie-goer and maybe I was just in the right mood for it because I found myself highly engaged and, yeah, emotionally invested in the continued adventures of Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy), and their mutant co-horts that go up against their most formidable enemy yet.

His presence was teased at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past and an energetic prologue in Egypt shows how Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) came to be buried under a pyramid until he’s uncovered in the ’80s by a faction of his descendant followers. Luckily, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy) is there to see it all take place and sound the alarm that something big is about to go down.

Meanwhile, Mystique is spending most of her time sans blue skin (you can just hear Lawrence negotiating ever y second she has to be in full Mystique-garb), watching out for mutants being mistreated the world over. Rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy), she brings him back to Professor X’s school where he falls in with Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It isn’t long before the mutants find themselves under attack in their own home, culminating in a most impressive rescue sequence (it took the longest to film) led by Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect) who happened to be in the area looking for personal answers of his own.

With Apocalypse freed and intent on bringing the world back to square one by wiping the human population out, he gathers his four horsemen to assist him in his end of days plot. One will remain secret here but a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Magic Mike) are part of the mix. Scenes of massive destruction and special effects threaten to overtake the picture but those that complain about director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) focusing more on computer generated mayhem instead of human heart must not realize they bought a ticket for a movie about superhero mutants fighting a doomsday villain.

On the disappointing side are McAvoy and Fassbender largely sleepwalk through the movie and Munn is totally miscast, mostly because she’s not that impressive to begin with. Isaac gets lost in his big blue bad guy but he does what he can in moon boots under all that make-up. It’s the younger generation that impresses here, with Hoult, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Turner signaling that they have what’s needed to continue on with the franchise. This is reportedly Lawrence’s last spin and her absence will leave a big hole in the emotional core of the film. Even though she’s a top-tier A-List star now, Lawrence never looks down on her role or gives it anything less than her full attention.

For a PG-13 film, the movie has a questionable amount of bloody violence (especially in a sequence that involves a cameo that seems to be standard issue for any film bearing the X-Men moniker). Parents should likely see this one first before bringing young children, it’s not only heavy on viscera but at nearly 2 ½ hours it can start to feel long during its mid-section. It ramps up nicely to a whopper of a climax but even I struggled to stay alert as the film reached the two hour mark.

There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse and for those living with SMF you could find yourself stretched thin by the time the credits roll…but if you can hang on it’s highly worth seeing on the largest screen you can get to.

Movie Review ~ Deadpool

1

deadpool_ver6
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A former Special Forces operative turned mercenary is subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers, adopting the alter ego Deadpool.

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Ed Skrein, Brianna Hildebrand

Director: Tim Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  The first time I was supposed to see Deadpool, I sat in the theater for close to an hour while the projectionist and theater manager tried desperately to get the movie to  play.  We had just come in from the cold, the theater was hot, and the audience grew more restless as the minutes ticked away.  In the end, the technical difficulties sent us back into the chill and I had to wonder if a movie that relied so much on its smart-alecky marketing had pulled the ultimate prank on critics by getting us all ready to go and then leaving us hanging.

At the follow-up screening several days later I was just ready to get it over with.  Growing wearier with each passing comic book turned movie and already feeling strained with months of campaigns featuring Marvel’s wise-ass anti-hero lampooning itself and other similarly themed films, it was finally time for the long in the planning franchise starter to put up or shut up.  And put up it did, emerging as the first shamelessly entertaining movie of the new year.

First introduced awkwardly in the unkempt X-Men Origins: Wolverine, there was a hint in the final moments of a Deadpool spinoff that wound up bumped to the back burner when X-Men Origins: Wolverine tanked with audiences and critics (for the record, I didn’t mind it much).  While 20th Century Fox licked its wounds and threw money at a new path for the X-Men, memories of the Deadpool character started to become a distant memory.  With the rise in popularity of cross-over pictures in The Avengers franchise and soon with Batman/Superman, Fox looked for ways to cross-pollinate their own Marvel niche to co-exist with the X-Men and headline their own movie.  Finally… Deadpool was back in business.

Returning as Wade Wilson/Deadpool is Ryan Reynolds (Woman in Gold), an actor I’ve long since learned to expect little from. His sardonic flair mixed with frat boy good looks only took him so far on my popularity meter…so I wasn’t prepared for how perfect he meshes with the overall style and tone of the film.  Finally, he’s able to capitalize on his sharp snap and make it an actual benefit to a movie, rather than a detraction from the overall impact.

Opening with a ballsy title sequence that lets you know right away egos are being checked at the door, we meet up with an action sequence already in progress.  Bloody, violent, vulgar, and go-for-broke, the film starts out firing on all cylinders and manages to keep up that momentum throughout the remaining 105 minutes.  Flashing back to a time when Deadpool was just ordinary, cancer-striken, tough as nails yet romantic softie Wade Wilson, we gradually see how Wade’s desperate attempt to prolong his life backfires and leaves him with the power of regeneration but looking like a thumb pruned from too much time in the ocean.

Vowing revenge on the man that made him (Ed Skrein, The Transporter Refueled), Deadpool slices his way through a host of bad guys and girls (including Gina Carano, Haywire, as a powerful henchwoman) while trying to reconnect with his girlfriend (Morena Baccarin, Spy, a zinger of a match for Reynolds) and staving off the requests to join Professor Xavier’s elite X-Men.

I love a film that has a little spring in its step and wink in its eye and Deadpool hits the target squarely, never taking itself too seriously yet not becoming an outright spoof of itself.  Like it’s star/lead character, no entendre is left un-doubled and no fourth wall remains unbroken.  There’s references to other X-Men and the actors that play them, a dig at Reynolds stint as People’s Sexiest Man Alive (and recently named Sexiest Dad Alive!), and more profanity gore, and nudity (yep, that’s Reynolds going the full monty) than you’d ever find in the PG-13 recent big budget tentpole films,

Usually I’d be nervous with a first time director and screenwriters with a spotty track record but Tim Miller brings his history as visual artist and blends it nicely with Zombieland’s Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese’s cheeky tale.  Sure, some stuff doesn’t work like T.J. Miller’s (Transformers: Age of Extinction) deadpan comic second banana that feels extraneous when Reynolds already is more than pulling his weight in that department.  I’d also like to have seen more with Deadpool’s grumpy geriatric blind roommate played by Leslie Uggams but there’s only so much you can pack into a respectable running time.

As always make sure to stay until the end of the credits …and if you do you’ll have one upped me because preview audiences only saw one of two post-credit sequences.  Usually I’d wait to catch what I missed when it arrives on video but Reynolds is so in his element and the film so consistently entertaining that I’m already considering a return visit.

*A final note…parents, please for the love of Stan Lee do not take your kids to this. It’s rated R for a reason, make this the film your kids can look forward to watching when they reach the right age.  This is most definitely not for youngsters.