BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (2022)

November 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The big secret was spoiled before the film ever hit theaters, and of course, I won’t reveal anything here for those who have managed to avoid the leaks. We do learn the identity of the new Black Panther, complete with action sequences. What really stands out in this sequel to the 2018 original, is that writer-director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole return with less action, and more focus on grief, the transition of power, and the introduction of yet another society that has lived undetected for generations.

The film opens with the death of King T’Challa from a mysterious illness. We see his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and the whole of Wakanda attending his funeral in a sea of white. Ms. Bassett kicks into dominant Queen Mother mode, while butting heads at times with Shuri in a collision of tradition vs. science. A couple of sequences make sure we understand that Vibranium remains the most valuable and sought-after natural resource on the globe. Wakanda will stop at nothing to protect their way of life and their corner on the Vibranium market. However, it turns out, it’s not a corner they control, but rather one they share with a previously unknown society.

The CIA is involved … in a botched mission of greed, of course … and this means Agent Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman) continues his communication relationship with Wakanda, which drags the agency director and his ex-wife (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) into the fray. The story has many tentacles and bounces around the globe, mostly to appear complicated and important. Other familiar characters are back, including the fierce Okoye (Danai Gurira, a standout in the first film), M”Baku (Winston Duke, given little to do this time), and super spy Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) who now runs a school in Haiti.

New to the proceedings are Dominique Thorne, who plays 19-year-old MIT science and technology whiz, Riri Williams, and especially Tenoch Huerta as Namor, the ruler of the underwater kingdom of Talokan. Not back are Daniel Kaluuya (scheduling conflicts?) and, of course, the late Chadwick Boseman, who passed away in 2020. Director Coogler includes a tribute to Boseman over the opening credits, and another near the film’s end.

The film is two hours and forty-one minutes long, and definitely drags at times. Still, the attempt at in-depth storytelling is commendable in the Marvel universe, though on a couple of occasions, the interjection of songs are distracting and recall 1980’s filmmaking. The underwater segments look somewhat realistic rather than cartoonish, and the reveal of the new Black Panther probably won’t surprise many – although the high-profile cameo might. Everything about the movie seems to set the stage for more sequels, all quite likely despite this one not reaching the unattainable level of the original.

Opens wide in theaters beginning November 11, 2022

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MEDIEVAL (2022)

September 9, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. There are some actors I follow simply because I admire their work. Ben Foster earned that loyalty with his performances in such films as LEAVE NO TRACE (2018), HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), and 3:10 TO YUMA (2007). Here he is cast as Jan Zizka, the legendary 15th century Czech icon whom historians have pegged as having never lost a battle. At the helm is Czech writer-director Petr Jakl whose previous films did not come close to this scale. The list of credited screenwriters includes director Jakl, his father Petr Jakl Sr, Marek Dobes, Michal Petrus, Kevin Bernhardt, and Petr Bok. I don’t pretend to know which of these writers had the greatest impact, but what I can report is that the film looks great and includes some of the best battle scenes you’ll find in any film set in the Middle Ages.

Tyranny.” The narrator opens the film with that word, followed by an explanation of the ongoing battle for the power and control of the Catholic Church. That narrator is Lord Boresh, played by 2-time Oscar winner Michael Caine, who has paid Jan Zizka and his band of rebels to protect him from assassination attempts. Director Jakl doesn’t make us wait long for the first skirmish, and it gives us a taste of what’s to come. These are no-holds-barred battles where bones and faces are crushed, and horses toppled into rivers. This is Italy 1402.

After the battle, Zizka heads to Prague to reunite with his brother, and while he’s there, the political maneuvering and power-brokering is occurring. Those involved include Lord Boresh, the King of Bohemia (Karel Roden, ROCKNROLLA, 2008), his half-brother, the King of Hungary (Matthew Goode, THE IMITATION GAME, 2014), and nobleman Rosenberg (Til Schweiger, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, 2009). When Rosenberg refuses to cooperate, a plan is hatched to kidnap his fiancé Katherine (Sophie Lowe, so good in BLOW THE MAN DOWN, 2019), who also happens to be the niece of the King of France. It may seem challenging to keep the political alliances straight, but fear not, double-crossing and backstabbing adds to the fun.

Katherine is in fact kidnapped. And then kidnapped from the kidnappers. And then rescued … well, you get the idea. It seems her own allegiance transitions as she discovers the true character of her fiancé. Plus, it seems she walks at least 42 miles during all of this. What really makes this one worth watching are the battle scenes, including a face-off between Zizka and his mentor, the intimidating Torak (Roland Moller, ATOMIC BLONDE, 2017). The fights are bloody and gruesome and violent. The brutality is as realistic as you could want, while cinematographer Jesper Toffner captures these scenes in the most visceral manner possible … we are not let off the hook from the damage caused by swords, axes, maces, and mauls.

Director Jakl highlights Zizka as a military strategist and tactician, and not just a brute. It’s this part of the personality that best fits Foster’s talent. It’s difficult to know how much of this true story is accurate and how much is legend (always print the legend!), but the push for religious and political power and control seems a common topic regardless of century.

Opening in theaters on September 9, 2022

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DAY SHIFT (2022)

August 18, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We are taught from an early age to take good care of our teeth. For vampires, oral health care is even more important. See, their fangs cannot grow back … in fact, that’s the only part of their bodies that those supernatural powers can’t heal. This leads us to the premise of this film – vampire hunters collecting fangs not just to thin the heard, but also for the monetary reward attached to such valuable collectibles. Look, I’m trying here; but this first feature from long-time stuntman and stunt coordinator JJ Perry suffers from a lackluster script seemingly gap-filled to connect a handful of decent ideas and raucous fight sequences.

Bud Jablonski (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) is a struggling pool cleaner. He’s behind on his rent, and his daughter needs braces and her school tuition is due. Making things more stressful and urgent, his ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) is threatening to pack up and move their daughter Paige (rising star Zion Broadnax) cross-country from the San Fernando Valley to Florida. She gives Bud just a few days to raise the money. We get a tour of the familiar spots in the valley, and then quickly move to the first action sequence. Bud’s “real” job is hunting vampires and selling those precious fangs. He takes on an “old” lady in a cartoonish fight sequence that serves as a precursor to most every fight scene that follows. The fangs don’t bring much on the black market run by the always colorful Peter Stormare, but it leads Bud to request re-entry into the Vampire Hunter’s Union … a very inspired idea in a film that isn’t consistently filled with them. Bud’s sponsor is none other than the legendary vampire hunter, Big John Elliott (played masterfully by Snoop Dogg).

It turns out Bud has been expelled from the Union for multiple infractions over the years, and the shop steward (a mulleted Eric Lange) has one condition … Bud must be accompanied on his hunts by nerdy union clerk Seth (Dave Franco). What we soon learn is that Seth is not cut out for the field, and more importantly, Bud’s old lady kill was actually the daughter of Queen Vamp Audrey (Karla Souza), who also happens to be a real estate developer looking to mainstream the population of vampires into the Valley. Audrey seeks revenge by kidnapping Bud’s ex-wife and daughter, and Bud’s rescue mission becomes a veritable blood bath.

The Miami Vice joke made me chuckle, but for an action-horror-comedy, there are simply too few laughs. With the talent on screen, we can only look to the script for fault. Director Perry certainly knows his way around stunts and fight scenes, and while we may question the career choices of a very talented Jamie Foxx, he continues to work regularly and expand his producing skills. For those who enjoy sinking their teeth into over-the-top fight sequences (Perry worked on the first two John Wick movies) and aren’t too demanding on the cleverness of jokes, this one will likely work. And I likely speak for all viewers when I say that Snoop Dogg makes the coolest cowboy since ‘the man with no name’.

Opens on Netflix beginning August 12, 2022

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BULLET TRAIN (2022)

August 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are one that still needs proof that movie stars matter, this latest from director David Leitch (a former stuntman who also directed ATOMIC BLONDE, 2017) and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (adapted from Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel, “Maria Beetle”) may be submitted as evidence. Replace Brad Pitt with almost any other actor, and this one becomes borderline unwatchable. However, with the Oscar winner, there is sufficient charm, humor, and entertainment to keep us around for the more than two hour run time.

Mr. Pitt stars as Ladybug, a floppy bucket hat wearing last minute fill-in for an assassin who called in sick. His handler (voiced by Oscar winner Sandra Bullock) walks him through what is supposed to be a simple snatch and grab job involving a briefcase. Of course, it turns out to be anything but simple as the train is filled with what seems to be an endless stream of contract killers intent on securing the same briefcase. Among those are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). Mr. Taylor-Johnson continues his tradition of over-acting and lacking the charm he believes he has, while Mr. Henry’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine at least gives his character a reason for us to be annoyed. The two are referred to as British brothers or even ‘twins’, which gives you some idea of what the film wants you to buy as humor.

A slew of other characters include Joey King as Prince, the “Shibumi” reading type who pushes a kid off a roof, and then uses her skill of crying-on-demand to escape most danger; Andrew Koji as Kimura, that kid’s distraught father; Hiroyuki Sanada as Kimura’s father; Zazie Beetz as The Hornet; rapper Bad Bunny as Wolf; Logan Lerman as the son of a Russian gangster, and Lerman spends much of the movie auditioning for the title character in “Weekend at Bernie’s”; and Michael Shannon as said Russian gangster, White Death. Beyond all of these highly recognizable folks, we also get two very high-profile cameos, both used for comic effect.

In between the one-minute stops on the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, there is an abundance of fighting – comical, rapidly-paced, and violent – using such available props as the features on a smart toilet, knives, guns, swords, poison, bombs, and a venomous (incorrectly labeled as poisonous in the movie) Boomslang snake. Since most of the action takes place on the train, we get action in passenger cars, the galley, the lounge, the control booth, and even on top of the speeding train.

It’s Pitt’s character who keeps us interested, and the movie drags when he is off screen. Ladybug is a skilled improvisational fighter, although his recent personal growth through therapy has him eschewing guns, dwelling on his inherent bad luck, and reciting affirmations and wisdoms, when he can remember them. Mostly, by golly, he just wants to be a nicer person (quite a short trip for a contract killer). This chaos and spontaneous convention of bad players were all part of White Death’s plan, which is revealed late in the film.

It appears director Leitch (a former renowned stuntman) worked diligently to create a new form of zany by blending Guy Ritchie’s best work with Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films, and then adding a dash of ‘who-done-what-to-whom?” Instead, with the near slapstick action and goofy dialogue, it plays more like a modern day CANNONBALL RUN, which was also directed by a former stuntman (the legendary Hal Needham). As a bonus, we also get the Japanese version of “Stayin’ Alive”, replete with Brad Pitt strutting through Tokyo in tennis shoes.

Opens in theaters on August 5, 2022

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THE GRAY MAN (2022)

July 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. You’ve likely heard, and maybe used, the old adage, “everything but the kitchen sink.” It’s typically meant to emphasize the inclusion of many unrelated and often unnecessary elements into a conversation or event. It also provides a description of the strategy filmmaking brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have taken with the action sequences in the highest budget Netflix original movie to date. Of course the Russo brothers have directed numerous Marvel movies, including AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), so subtlety is never anticipated in their films. If you are curious to know what kind of kitchen sink you get for $200 million, Anthony and Joe show us: lots of guns, a global trek to various countries, more big guns, plenty of characters – some relevant, some not, even larger guns and weapons, lots of rayon, and the destruction of a town square in Prague.

Fans of turbo-charged action films such as the John Wick and Jason Bourne films will likely be quite satisfied with the set pieces, stunts, and manic gun fights and fist fights that are packed into a two-hour run time. There is so much bouncing around the globe that it’s kind of difficult to keep up – especially since there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for all of the globetrotting (well, other than it’s pretty unusual). I couldn’t keep track of every locale, but we definitely visited Bangkok, Austria, Croatia, and Czechoslovakia. And that’s beyond Washington, D.C., and Langley, where we spend time in dark offices.

Co-director Joe Russo co-wrote the screenplay with frequent Russo Brothers collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and it was adapted from Mark Greany’s novel (the first in a series). Ryan Gosling stars as Court Gentry, codename Sierra Six, a CIA black ops hit man recruited directly from prison by veteran CIA agent Donald Fitzroy (Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton). This is Gosling’s first movie in 4 years (FIRST MAN, 2018) and it’s nice to have him back in a role that will recertify his ‘man card’ before next year’s BARBIE movie. As you might expect, Gosling’s Six is cool as a cucumber, popping off quips, and stoic in the face of adversity. In fact, much is made of his character’s ‘street cred’, despite most every scene involving colossal mistakes, should-be death encounters, and enough mayhem to make Allstate jealous. Six is so cool that he has less reaction to being shot or stabbed than I have when I stub my toe on the leg of the bed.

When Six’s mission goes awry due to his human compassion, three things happen. First, Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) bails him out (the first of a few). Second, his target gives him advice and the always mysterious thumb drive with incriminating evidence; and third, his corrupt station chief, Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page, “Bridgerton”) throws a tantrum and hires a psychopath to track down Six and eliminate him. The psychopath is Lloyd Hansen played by Chris Evans, sporting an evil mustache and resort casual attire. It seems Mr. Evans is having fun with the villainous role that he hopes will put distance between his career and the Captain America role he has embodied for more than a decade. The argument could be made that he overplays his hand here, but he does get to spout the already infamous line, “If you want to make an omelet, you gotta kill some people”.

Other players here include the always terrific Alfre Woodard as a former station chief, Jessica Henwick (Bugs from THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS), Dhanush as yet another hired assassin, Shea Whigham in flashbacks, and Julia Butters as the ‘damsel in distress’. You might recall Ms. Butters’ scene-stealing turn as the precocious child actor in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD. This film’s title is derived from the term for a CIA operative who effectively moves around without being noticed or remembered (the opposite of a Kardashian). The ironic thing is that Gosling’s Six is almost never undetected. He is frequently in fights, shootouts, car chases, and either causing or escaping explosions. Even the Russo’s “gray” lacks subtlety! It makes perfect sense that the film’s cinematographer, Stephen F Windon, is best known for his work on multiple entries in “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. Here he employs some supersonic drone shots in order to add further hyper-activity to the proceedings. Again, this one is for extreme action fans, not those looking for a brainy spy-thriller.

Opens in theaters on July 15, 2022 and on Netflix beginning July 22, 2022

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THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022)

July 5, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. With a steady stream of Marvel movies and TV serials, maintaining coherent and connected storylines has become challenging. In fact, it’s probably best if fans take these at face value, rather struggling to connect the dots, only to end up frustrated. Perhaps no one understands this better than Taika Waititi, the director behind what many (including me) consider the best MCU film, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017). Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson once again embrace the blend of quick quip comedy and expected action sequences, supplemented this time a love story.

The pre-opening credits sequence provides the backstory for the film’s villain, Gorr the God Butcher, played by Oscar winner Christian Bale. Gorr has spent a lifetime worshipping the Sun God, only to realize his worshipping has occurred in an actual God-forsaken world that costs him dearly. Gorr ends up learning the lesson of ‘never meet your heroes’, and this confrontation gives him the power and curse of the Necrosword, and sets him on a revenge mission to kill all Gods. We have to respect a villain who has a legitimate claim to his mission – it’s not just a thirst for world domination. Gorr wants the Gods to pay for their ambivalence.

We then pick up Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) as he has been fighting with the Guardians of the Galaxy since the end of AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). With no shortage of characters who excel in comedy, this sequence shifts us into laughter and light-hearted mode after the bleak Gorr opening. It’s this pacing that holds for most of the movie … Waititi never lets things stay too serious for very long. Soon, Thor splits off from the Guardians, as he returns to New Asgard, being run by King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Now based on Earth, New Asgard is a theme park and tourist attraction. One of the features is the theater acting group we’ve seen previously, and this time Matt Damon, Luke Hemsworth, and Sam Neill are joined by Melissa McCarthy as Hela. While this is going on, we learn Thor’s old flame, astrophysicist Jane Foster (Oscar winner Natalie Portman) is now an author being treated for Stage 4 cancer. A trip to New Asgard provides her strength as the shattered Mjolnir hammer magically re-forms in her presence. Jane’s story boils down to whether she wants to try to extend her life through science or live every remaining day to it’s fullest.

Gorr kidnaps the Asgardian kids, forcing Thor, Valkyrie, Korg (voiced again by Waititi), and Mighty Thor/Jane Foster to track him to the Realm of Shadows. Their plan is to stop by Omnipotence City to request assistance from the almighty Zeus (Russell Crowe). They are shocked to discover that Zeus is little more than a colorful televangelist with a Borat accent performing a whiz-bang show so that he can get on to the next orgy. Zeus refuses to assist with an army, but he does manage to chain Thor and strip him nekkid centerstage. The good guys nab Zeus’ golden lightning bolt and head off to rescue the kids and confront Gorr.

In a reverse Wizard of Oz twist, the films turns to Black & White when they reach the Realm of Shadows. It’s an eerie environment befitting Gorr. Bale is certainly at his best when he is terrifying and menacing, although the writing is a bit inconsistent for the character, and sometimes it drifts into Pennywise mode, a definite drop in suspense. The action sequences are fine, but really nothing we haven’t seen before. And that’s probably the biggest issue with all superhero/comic book stories these days. Anything new must come from the story or the characters, and we know the characters far too well at this point.

Waititi’s version delivers many laughs throughout. Among the best is the odd relationship between Thor and his hammer Mjolnir and his axe Stormbreaker. Thor’s jealousy of his ex-hammer hooking up with his ex-girlfriend is almost as funny as Stormbreaker’s jealousy of Thor trying to steal back the hammer. Also cool is Thor’s homage to Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the look of the Altar of Eternity, where one last wish is granted. Maybe not as effective is the apparent Guns ‘n Roses fetish or Jane’s struggle to come up with a catchphrase. Sure to be a divisive element is the recurring gag of bleating goats … I found them hilarious, but many won’t. Another piece that simply didn’t work for me is Ms. Portman’s performance, especially in the scenes with Hemsworth. Her comic timing can’t match his, and it’s a match that just never clicks.

Obviously, the characters originated from the minds of Stan Lee and Jason Aaron in Marvel Comics, and it’s Taika Waititi who brings his unique touch to the project. Since he directed THOR: RAGNAROK, he won a screenplay Oscar for JOJO RABBIT (2019), and I’ve been a fan of his style dating back to EAGLE VS SHARK (2007), and on to the brilliant HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016), and TV series “What We Do in the Shadows”. Waititi is scheduled to direct a Star Wars movie in the near future – one surely to be divisive among that fan base. As for this latest Thor movie, it may be tonally jagged and have a few too many zippy quips for some, but it manages to be silly and tender and emotional, while having the look and feel of a comic book come to life. Stay for the two end-credit scenes.

Opening in theaters on July 8, 2022 (Thorsday)

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GREEN GHOST AND THE MASTERS OF STONE (2022)

June 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Next up in this prime era for Superheroes comes “Green Ghost”, a struggling south Texas car dealer who moonlights as a Lucha Libre wrestler with untapped mystical powers linked to the Mayan Apocalypse! Does that sound preposterous? Sure it does. But really, is it any more ridiculous than Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet? With an overall budget that was likely less than that AVENGERS powerful glove prop, writer-director Michael D Olmos and co-writers Charlie Clark and Brian Douglas deliver their version of a gently comical, semi-serious genre film saturated with martial arts moments and finding meaning in life. While certainly no cinematic masterpiece, what’s obvious about the film is that it was a labor of love … a true passion project.

Charlie Clark stars as Charlie Clark, aka “Gringo”, aka “Green Ghost” (the latter two make for an easy to decipher play on words). The real Charlie Clark is a car dealer in Brownsville, Texas. He’s also the star, producer, and co-writer of this project, so obviously it is very personal to him. This movie is not meant to be compared to big budget productions. In fact, it feels more like a bucket list item for Mr. Clark, and he was fortunate enough and committed enough to fulfill his own wish of making a movie (very) loosely based on his life. In real life, Clark was raised in the Mexican culture by his Nana … photos are shown over the closing credits. This plays as a tribute to her and his upbringing.

In the film, Charlie’s dealership is floundering, mostly because he’s quick to shirk his duties and head to the latest underground wresting match for his adoptive brother, Marco (Kuno Becker). Charlie supports Marco by donning his Green Ghost spandex costume – one that the crowd loves to jeer, and that causes fellow wrestlers to cringe. At a very high level (and low bar), the story involves a plan by evil forces led by Drake (Marko Zarar), the son of Nana’s sister, to obtain the magical and mystical emerald and rule humanity. The defenders of humanity are the trio nicknamed, El Trio de la Luz, and it consists of Marco, his sister Karina (Sofia Pernas), and to his surprise, Charlie. The group’s leader is Nana (screen veteran Renee Victor, who voiced Abuelita in COCO). To prepare for battle, Nana arranges a training program featuring Master Kane (MMA fighter Cain Velasquez), Master Hung (renowned stunt coordinator Andy Chang, “Rush Hour” films), and, best of all, Master Gin, played by the always great Danny Trejo … who even gets a “Machete” punchline. A “Rocky” montage technique is utilized, replete with a Spanish version of “Eye of the Tiger” performed by (director) Robert Rodriguez’s band.

An inordinately high percentage of scenes involve martial arts fighting, and some of the stunt work is much better than we’d expect. And then there are the moments that are meant to ensure we understand the filmmakers are in on the joke … like the flinging of tortillas, and a protective force field negated by fancy eyewear. We are never really sure how all of the mystical powers fit together, but the issue of corruption by power is pretty obvious, even within a family. The film’s best line is, “Every family’s not perfect, Charlie. Sometimes, we just have to make our own.” While watching, a few other films came to mind. This includes Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM, and Jack Black’s NACHO LIBRE. Perhaps that will help you find the right mindset for this one.


available VOD beginning June 28, 2022

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JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION (2022)

June 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 30 years since Steve Spielberg captivated us, and John Hammond (the late Sir Richard Attenborough) “spared no expense” in stunning Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) with our first look at dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK (1993). Best-selling author Michael Crichton’s original characters and ideas have since spun off into THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997), JURASSIC PARK III (2001), JURASSIC WORLD (2015), and JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018). We now have this latest franchise entry to cap off the second dinosaur trilogy, and it finds director Colin Trevorrow back at the helm. He also wrote the story and screenplay with Derek Connolly and Emily Carmichael.

The big news here (other than the dinosaurs) is the 4-doctor reunion of Dr. Alan Grant (Neill), Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong). It’s the first time all of these characters have reunited since the original, and those of us who hold a special place in our movie heart for the transformative 1993 film, are most appreciative of the nostalgic touch. However, the hopes for a magical finale to conclude the franchise are dashed in the film’s opening segment … a cringe-worthy “news” report designed to catch us up four years after the destruction of Isla Numbar, and set the stage for what’s to come.

You might assume that dinosaurs roaming our planet would be the headliner, but somehow locusts get the nod. Well, they are genetically modified locusts threatening the world’s non-Biosyn food supply. See, Biosyn is the evil corporation run by twitchy CEO Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott) that is attempting to control dinosaurs, the food supply, and even human cloning via DNA manipulation. It’s that last part that brings Maisie Lockwood (an excellent Isabella Sermon) into the fold, and the DNA-mix also provides an easy punchline to Trevorrow’s approach to this final film (blending DNA from the two trilogies). Maisie has been living deep in the Sierra Nevada forest with Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). When poachers nab both the offspring of Owen’s favorite raptor and his quasi-offspring Maisie, the hunt is on. The only question remaining is how are they going to finesse this so that the old crew (Grant and Ellie) collides with the new crew (Owen and Claire)?

A stop in Malta to confront smuggler Santos (an impeccably dressed Dichen Lachman) results in the film’s most frenetic action sequence. As Owen eludes trained killer-raptors while zipping his motorcycle across streets, alleys, and stairwells, Claire is sprinting (not in high heels) across rooftops like she’s Jason Bourne or James Bond. While Owen and Claire deliver the heart-pounding action, Ellie has tracked down Grant on a dig in New Mexico, where he’s “educating” a group of teenagers who remain glued to their mobile devices. Ellie convinces Grant to help in her mission to expose Biosyn, but we get the feeling he’s making the trip for her, not to save humanity. With an assist from ice-cold pilot-for-hire Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise), everyone ends in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains at Biosyn’s stunning headquarters. Slowly the connections become apparent, as it’s Malcolm (Goldblum) who is the resident philosopher (all evil corps need one), and the one who has been feeding intel to Ellie.

The rest of the movie exists so that all of these characters, along with Biosyn whistleblower Ramsay (Mamoudou Athie) can get in and out of trouble and dodge various stages of peril. The callbacks and nods to previous ‘Jurassic’ films are numerous. Some work and some don’t. Malcolm’s sardonic quips are mostly in tune, Grant’s grumping and knowledge are spot on, and Ellie has remarkably little to do for someone who is responsible for one of the two main plot lines. Owen and Claire spend the bulk of their non-Malta time consistently recreating the facial expressions that have become all too familiar, though of course, Owen does get to hold out his palm in an attempt at controlling dinosaurs. There is a well-timed small dose of John Williams’ iconic score from 1993, but it’s the musical work of composer Michael Giacchino who mostly guides us along the way.

Credit goes to director Trevorrow for the multiple location shoots around the globe, which helps minimize the set pieces … most of which disappoint. Especially surprising was the weak CGI effort in the mines as some of the characters end up where they shouldn’t be. DNA manipulation run amok is perhaps the underlying theme, but we have to ask why this is … all we really desire are cool dinosaurs and a story that makes sense. Despite the film’s best shot coming at the end – a Mosasaurus underwater – we do hope that, in regards to continuing the franchise, Hollywood doesn’t find a way.

Opens in theaters on June 10, 2022

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THERE ARE NO SAINTS (2022)

May 27, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you’ve ever wondered what it would look like if the often-great Paul Schrader wrote his version of the Liam Neeson action-revenge film, TAKEN (2008), well here is your answer. Okay, so it’s not the exact story line, but it’s close enough for conversation, and director Alfonso Pineda Ulloa seems happy to work with a script that is not Schrader’s best, yet clearly bears his stamp. The esteemed screenwriter has had recent success with THE CARD COUNTER (2021) and FIRST REFORMED (2017), both of which he also directed. And his track record of screenplays includes such remarkable work as TAXI DRIVER (1976), HARDCORE (1979), AMERICAN GIGGOLO (1980), RAGING BULL (1980), and AFFLICTION (1997).

Jose Maria Yazpik stars as Neto Niente, known on the street as “The Jesuit”. We first see him being released from prison in Huntsville, Texas after serving only four years as a convicted murderer. As Neto is leaving, the jailer says, “I’m sure I’ll see you again.” Neto’s sleazy attorney (played by Tim Roth) recommends he leave town and stay away. Of course, Neto says he first needs to see his young son. Julio (Keidrich Salladi, “The Americans” son Henry) is happy to see his beloved father, but Neto’s wife Nadia (Paz Vega, SEX AND LUCIA, 2019) is frightened for their safety because her boyfriend, Vincent (Neal McDonough, fun to watch in two of my favorites “Justified” and “Boomtown”), is a psychopath criminal kingpin, and his reaction to Neto’s visit is murder and kidnapping.

Before learning that his son has been kidnapped, Neto tries to calm the waters with those pursuing him. This includes the local police and the Mexican cartel that he once worked for. We see flashbacks of Neto’s work and it’s obvious the film’s title fits. During all of this, he meets Inez (Shannyn Sossamon) a capitalistic strip club worker. The two team up to track Julio to Mexico, but not until Neto has had a few brutally violent run-ins with the cartel and a gun dealer who goes by the name Jet Rink (James Dean’s character in GIANT was Jett Rink). The gun dealer is played by Tommy Flanagan (“Sons of Anarchy”), and their meeting is yet another brutally violent scene.

Neto is a tough, confident, man, who despite his particular set of skills, remains mostly quiet; however, he is consistently involved in brutally violent interactions, which is why I keep referring the film’s brutal violence. I’d like to say this is an exaggeration, but it’s not. And just in case some viewers need more, Act 3 ratchets things up a notch. Ron Perlman (a hardworking actor recently seen in last year’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY) shows up as Sans, some kind of crime lord who has a dungeon perfectly set up for torture and imprisonment, and director Ulloa takes full advantage.

The film’s opening quote, paraphrased from the book of Exodus, reads “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons.” This is a B-movie packed with thrills, adrenaline, energy, and yes … brutal violence. It’s a world of payback and retribution that never offers Neto the chance for the spiritual new beginning he hopes for. Schrader’s script lacks the character depth of his best work, and seems to be aimed at a group of viewers with a very particular set of tastes.

In theaters, On Digital, and On Demand beginning May 27, 2022

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TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022)

May 22, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Heavy on melodrama. Heavy on cockiness. Heavy on fighter jets. Heavy on nostalgia. Check. Everything that we want and expect in the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 film is present. It’s a movie spectacle featuring one of the few remaining bonafide movie stars front and center, as well as breathtaking action sequences that beg to be experienced on the largest screen possible and with the highest quality audio available. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr are credited for the characters, while the new screenplay involved collaboration from Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Peter Craig, and Justin Marks. The original film’s director, Tony Scott, passed away in 2012 at age 68, and Joseph Kosinski (OBLIVION, 2013, also starring Tom Cruise) takes the helm.

Callbacks to the original are plentiful, and we get our first in the opening title card – the same one used in 1986 to explain the “Top Gun” training center. Of course, there is one reason we are here, and that’s Tom Cruise. He was only 24 years old in the original, and now lives and exudes the swagger of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. When the film opens, Maverick is an extreme test pilot pushing himself and an experimental aircraft to Mach 10, and yes, this goes against the wishes and order of the program’s Rear Admiral in charge played by a curmudgeonly Ed Harris. It’s a shame that Harris only has a couple of brief scenes, but he is the one that informs Maverick of his new orders to return to Top Gun immediately. His new commanding officer is Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), who is none too happy about Maverick being back. However, the order came directly from Maverick’s old nemesis/friend, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now a highly decorated Admiral in failing health.

Maverick is disappointed to learn that he has been brought in, not to fly, but to teach a group of Top Gun graduates how to execute an extraordinarily dangerous mission involving extended high speeds at a low altitude, dropping bombs on the uranium enhancement plant protected by a mountain range, and then immediately elevating to a nearly impossible level to avoid a crash – all while being targeted by the enemies radar and defense system. The enemy goes unnamed so that the movie can remain timeless and avoid any type of political backlash. Plus, this film is about thrills and action, not a political statement.

Being back means Maverick crosses paths with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who was mentioned briefly in the first film as an Admiral’s daughter. She now owns the local bar, has a daughter, races sailboats, and still carries a bit of a torch for Maverick, although she’s quick to bust his chops whenever possible. However, it’s the pilots he’s charged with training that cause the biggest issue for Maverick. One of them is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). Rooster is the son of “Goose” (played in the original by Anthony Edwards), who flew with Maverick as his Radio Intercept Officer (RIO) and died in an ejection mishap. Rooster holds Maverick responsible and Maverick is still haunted by his friend’s death. Goose is seen in photos and via flashbacks, and Rooster emulates his dad at the bar’s piano. The conflict between Rooster and Maverick adds complications to the mission – and a bit of melodrama to the entire film.

The newbies (and the Navy) consider Maverick a relic of a bygone era, so of course, ‘instructor’ Maverick takes to the sky to strut his pilot stuff. In addition to Rooster, the standouts in the new group include Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Bob (Lewis Pullman), and Hangman (Glen Powell), the latter of whom, along with Rooster, tries to recreate that symbiotic relationship we originally saw with Iceman vs Maverick. Teller and Powell are both solid, but this aspect never really clicks like the Rooster vs Maverick piece.

We can’t help but notice that the dramatic elements seem to be more of a focus this time around. The biggest impact comes from the scene where Mavericks visits Admiral Kazansky (Iceman) at his home. Despite his well-known physical limitations, Val Kilmer delivers a memorable performance, and the two actors seem to relish this opportunity. The situation is handled with grace, and we are appreciative of Cruise standing firm in his demand for Kilmer to appear in the film. As for the love story between Penny and Maverick, it had to be a bit frustrating for Ms. Connelly to work so hard on an underwritten role, while Jon Hamm’s constant furrowed brow and barking leaves him coming across as little more than jealous of Maverick.

Obviously it’s the fighter jets and aerial sequences that folks will come for, and spectacular and exhilarating are the best words I can find to describe what we see. I was fortunate to see his in IMAX, and if you have one near you, it’s certainly the preferred viewing format. Thanks to the Navy and the training and equipment received by the cast, there is an authentic feel that’s almost throwback in this day and age of CGI. We sense the speed and gravity pulls, even if we are never in peril. The aircraft carrier sequences are mind-boggling, though it’s jets in the air that provide the energy jolt.

Wise-cracking and heartstring-tugging moments fill the screen, and you can relax knowing Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” is back, while Berlin is thankfully not. Sand volleyball has been replaced by some semblance of shirtless and sweaty beach football as a team-builder, and yes, we get the patented Tom Cruise sprints – three times: on a treadmill, during beach football, and in a forest. The familiar sounds of Harold Faltermeyer’s original score are back, this time enhanced by Hans Zimmer and an ending song by Lady Gaga. Those from the original who are absent this time are the great Tom Skerritt, James Tolkan, Kelly McGillis, and Meg Ryan (whose character is mentioned as having passed away). Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is back, though his partner on the original, Don Simpson, died in 1996 at age 52. Deserving of kudos are cinematographer Claudio Miranda, film editor Eddie Hamilton, and those involved with sound, visual effects, and music. For those feeling the need for speed, this sequel delivers; just embrace the cliches and familiarity, and predictability.

Only in theaters (as it should be) Friday May 27, 2022

Here is my link to my 2013 article when I revisited the original TOP GUN

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