BLONDE (2022)

September 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. For those who have studied Marilyn Monroe’s personal and professional life, writer-director Andrew Dominik’s (first feature film since KILLING THEM SOFTLY, 2012) interpretative adaptation of the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates may send them into the early stages of shock. In fact, regardless of one’s level of knowledge of the details of Marilyn’s background, shock and bewilderment are likely reactions. It should be made clear for all viewers that it’s a fictionalized account of her life, not a true biography. One should also know that this is cinematic artistic mastery to complement an incredibly in-depth and revolutionary performance from Ana de Armas (KNIVES OUT, 2019, NO TIME TO DIE, 2021).

At times, the film is surreal, while at others, downright hallucinatory. It’s certainly never boring. However, it’s a disturbing beatdown and a grueling watch for a single sitting at close to three hours long. The film begins in 1933 with a young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) living in poverty and misery with her single mom Gladys (a terrific Julianne Nicholson). Mom has obvious mental issues and would much prefer Norma Jeane not be around. It’s here where the ‘Daddy issues’ take hold – issues that stick with the girl for the remainder of her life. After being rejected by her father, her mother, and the friendly neighbors, Norma Jeane ends up in an orphanage. A montage takes us through her teenage modeling years, where we see the beginnings of her being taken advantage of and treated as a commodity.

There is an extended sequence involving the threesome of Marilyn and the sons of Hollywood legends Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson (Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams, respectively), and a vicious rape scene with a studio head “Mr. Z” (hmmm). Marilyn’s first pregnancy leads to an abortion, which is the first of a few tragedies she will experience – and director Dominik finds an entirely new (and bizarre) method of filming these occurrences. The Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) marriages are noted, yet the men go unnamed, instead referred to as “former athlete” and “playwright” … as if somehow that will trick us.

Of course, all of these relationships are right in line with her “Daddy issues” … Marilyn even goes so far as to call these men “Daddy”, in hopes that one will finally give her the love and acceptance she so craves. One of the more uncomfortable scenes (and that’s saying something) involves her tryst with JFK (also unnamed), played by Caspar Phillipson, whose uncanny resemblance to the former President has resulted in his casting for the role in multiple projects. It’s likely this White House moment, replete with Marilyn’s inner voice, is responsible for the film’s NC-17 rating.

Dominik and cinematographer Chase Irvin recreate some of the most memorable film moments from Marilyn’s career … including the subway vent scene from THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. After capturing that film magic, the sequence seems to drag on with leering onlookers and what proved to be the final straw with DiMaggio. A recurring feature involves Marilyn receiving and reading letters from the father she’s never met – including promises of meeting “soon.” The payoff for this is disappointing for us and for her.

Perhaps the main point of Dominik’s movie is the enormous gulf and psychological contrast between Norma Jeane, the eternally-scarred young girl, and Marilyn Monroe, the iconic bombshell she created for public consumption. There is a sadness about her most of the time, even when she flips that switch to become Marilyn – the familiar sultress adored by so many. Toby Huss plays Whitey, a version of real-life Allan Snyder, who was Marilyn’s long-time make-up artist and confidant. Her famous diary gets a mention, and we see the price she paid for taking drugs to calm anxiety while dealing with the crushing weight of fame.

Ana de Armas delivers a performance for the ages. Of course, the scrutiny she will face playing one of the most famous women of all-time will be senselessly nitpicky, yet from an artistic standpoint, her work is supreme. Costume Designer Jennifer Johnson somehow manages to nail the different stages, films, and moods (of both the film and its subject). Is this exploiting the woman who made a career out of being exploited? Or is it simply telling a story? Norma Jeane was a fragile creature constantly victimized as she desperately searched for love. Has the filmmaker continued that abuse with this vision? From a moviemaking aspect, it’s’ a thing of beauty. From a human perspective, it’s torturous to watch. If you are in need of a ‘feel-good’ movie, keep searching. On the other hand, if you are in the mood for the work of a cinematic visionary and one of the best acting performances of the year, settle in.

Opens on Netflix September 28, 2022

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PINOCCHIO (2022)

September 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Once upon a time … in 1880 (or so) … writer Carlo Collodi (aka Lorenzini) had his original “Story of a Marionette” published. The story of his character Pinocchio has since been told to countless children through just about every possible form of media. The classic Disney animated feature film from 1940 won two Oscars (song, score) and the recent 2019 Italian film version received two Oscar nominations. So why is it that we continue to find new ways to tell the story? Well, because the messages are crucial for kids to understand: pay attention to your conscience, beware of temptations, and decisions have consequences. Of course, anytime a filmmaker re-imagines a classic, folks will line up to shout about how unnecessary it is. However, with a kids’ movie, we must recognize that expectations and tastes have shifted. It’s a bit more challenging to get today’s kids to pay attention for 90 minutes.

This version comes to us from Disney as a Live Action film enhanced with computer animation. No, Pinocchio isn’t played by a real person, and in fact, there are only a few real actors on screen – the most important being Oscar winner Tom Hanks as Geppetto. However, the computer-generated Pinocchio (looking almost identical to the 1940 animated version) interacts with both human actors and other computer-generated characters, almost always in a seamless manner.

The film opens as our narrator (Jiminy Cricket) explains that we are in for a “humdinger of a tale.” We soon see low-talking Geppetto (Oscar winner Tom Hanks) in his shop of ‘Toys, Clocks, and Oddments.” He’s busy crafting, and talking to, a wooden puppet meant to fill the void that has left Geppetto a grieving man. His fantastical wall of cuckoo clocks features beloved Disney characters, including the instantly recognizable Jessica Rabbit from WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988). That film, as well as this one, were directed by Robert Zemeckis (an Oscar winner for FORREST GUMP, 1994). Mr. Zemeckis was also one of the screenwriters along with Chris Weitz and Simon Farnaby.

Most everyone on the planet knows the story of Pinocchio. The Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) tasks Jiminy Cricket (voiced perfectly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to be the conscience of the ‘almost real boy’ and sets the ground rules for becoming real: Pinocchio must be brave, truthful, and unselfish. As with all of us, Pinocchio immediately faces temptation and danger. His comes in the forms of Stromboli, Pleasure Island, and ultimately, Monstro the giant sea creature. Tension is elevated when Geppetto and Pinocchio are separated, and a great adventure follows. Much of this follows the original storyline, with contemporary flourishes included … not all of which are positive additions.

Benjamin Evans Ainsworth (TV mini-series “The Haunting of Bly Manor”) voices Pinocchio, and of course, Mr. Hanks is spot on as Geppetto. Other voice and live acting is delivered by Angus Wright, Keegan-Michael Key, Kyanne Lamaya, Luke Evans (as The Coachman), and Lorraine Bracco (voicing new character Sofia the Seagull). Alan Silvestri composed the film’s score and Don Burgess was the Director of Photography. Ms. Erivo serves up a “big” version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” in a key most kids won’t come close to, but other than a few moments too dark for the youngest of kids, this should make for enjoyable family viewing … which may not be the case when Guillermo del Toro releases his stop-motion animated version later this year for Netflix.

Premieres on DISNEY+ on September 8, 2022

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THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING (2022)

August 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. I should start by admitting I would purchase a ticket to watch Tilda Swinton jaywalk on a country road or sit in a corner reading quietly to herself or carefully slice the crust off a PBJ. In other words, I find her to be a fascinating performer who takes risks and whose characters and movies are consistently worthy of attention. This film is directed by Oscar winner George Miller and he adapted the script with co-writer August Gore (Mr. Miller’s daughter) from the 1994 short story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by AS Byatt. This is Mr. Miller’s first film since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) and fits into his diverse filmography that also includes the original MAD MAX (1979), THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987), LORENZO’S OIL (1992), BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998), and HAPPY FEET (2006). This is a filmmaker who chooses his own projects.

Oscar winner Tilda Swinton stars as Dr. Alithea Binnie, a narratologist and literary scholar who describes herself as “a solitary creature by nature.” She’s in Istanbul to present at a conference ‘to tell stories about telling stories.’ Alithea preaches that science can explain all, even as she’s experiencing vivid visions that she herself cannot explain. After purchasing a handcrafted bottle, she returns to her hotel (in the Agatha Christie room) and cleans it with her electric toothbrush. When a Djinn swooshes from the bottle in a plume of purple smoke, she’s beyond skeptical of making that first wish – all too aware of the legendary tales around just such circumstances. But this giant Djinn is played by Idris Elba and he’s quite persuasive.

The Djinn explains the rules of her 3 wishes, and then regales Alithea with four tales of his escapades, most of which involve love and betrayal, and all of which resulted in him being trapped in a bottle. The first story involves the Queen of Sheba (a stunning Aamito Lagum) and how the Djinn was in love until a sly King Solomon messed it up and banished him to the ocean floor. All of the tales are played out in vibrant colors and fascinating detail, with the Djinn explaining that in order to gain his freedom, he must grant Alithea “her heart’s desire.”

Reminding me a bit of Tarsem Singh’s THE FALL (2006), each of the four tales told by the Djinn explode in color from a different era. Even the Djinn and his Spock ears begins too large for the screen, and certainly too large for the hotel room. And oh, that hotel room. For the vast majority of their time together Alithea and the Djinn are stuck in a bland – mostly white – room that contrasts with the stories he tells, but gives Ms. Swinton little to work with. Each of the stories is beautifully told, though a bit more humor would have been beneficial, and it should be noted that this one takes some definite “buy in” from the viewer. However, there is certainly no reason to complain as we are treated to two stellar actors and multiple stories of love and fate.

Opens in theaters on August 26, 2022

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MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON (2022)

July 7, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. For proof that social media and the internet can be used for good, I offer as evidence this film from writer-director Dean Fleisher-Camp and co-writers Elizabeth Holm, Nick Paley, and Jenny Slate. The first ‘Marcel’ short film hit the internet in 2010 and was such a hit that there were two follow-up short films and a best-selling picture book. Now expanded to a feature length film of 90 minutes, the innovative and curious premise holds up due to the fully-formed character of a precious one-googly-eyed mollusk shell wearing … yes … shoes.

Why do we connect with Marcel? Well, the instantly recognized voice created by Jenny Slate plays a huge part. There is a welcoming innocence in the wispy tone, and when combined with the exceptional writing, the result is a relatable character full of warmth and wit, and pain and humor. Marcel is naïve, yet persistent. He’s someone we like and pull for. The story is told via faux-documentary as a filmmaker (played by director Fleisher-Camp) stays in the Airbnb where Marcel lives with his aging grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). During interviews, we learn that Marcel longs for his family and community that was disrupted when the home’s original owners broke up and moved out. Since then, Marcel has looked after his grandmother and helped her tend the garden. They have been quite creative in their use of household resources, including a tennis ball for transportation.

The filmmaker posts the interviews online and soon Marcel has a huge following, giving him hope that his family can be tracked down. This leads to a terrific “60 Minutes” segment with journalist Leslie Stahl. The best description I can offer of Marcel is adorable – not a word I use very often. Marcel forces us to view the world through a child’s eye, but it’s important to note, that while young children may find Marcel cute, the dialogue, wit, and life issues covered will be way over their heads (though not offensive in the least). Young kids (under 10) should probably stick to the shorts. The sad and painful context is balanced by sweetness and optimism. Marcel’s story inspires us to embrace all stages of life with an open heart and mind – dealing with grief and sadness, while coming out the other side with spirit intact.

A24 specializes in distributing innovative and creative movies, and this certainly qualifies. It’s not really a mockumentary because it’s not mocking anything. The stop-motion approach in documentary style may initially seem like whimsy, but we quickly realize it’s more substantive. Individual strength and the power of community are on full display, and somehow Marcel the Shell teaches us … while wearing shoes.

Opens in theaters on July 8, 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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EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022)

April 5, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s bonkers, I tell ya’! Co-writers and co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively (by their choice) as “Daniels”, follow up their ‘farting corpse movie’ SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) with one that is somehow more bizarre, more audacious, and more fun. It’s one of the most innovative films I’ve seen in a while, and although I can point out influences, I’ve yet to come up with a movie comparison that seems just or fair.

Every small business owner can relate to the stress Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is under as she attempts to organize her documents in preparation for an IRS audit of the laundromat she owns with her husband Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan). As if that’s not enough, her father is scheduled to arrive the same day. She knows Gong Gong (James Hong) is disappointed in his daughter for the husband and life she chose. And while being crushed with those two events, Evelyn’s strained relationship with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) continues to fracture as Evelyn wants to keep Joy’s girlfriend status with Becky (Tallie Medel) a secret from dear old conservative dad/grandfather.

That’s just about the end of the “normal” part of the story, other than Waymond has had divorce papers prepared, not for the purpose of ending the marriage, but with the hope that the threat might force Evelyn to have a real conversation with him about their relationship. Things start to get weird even before they head to the IRS meeting with an agent played with gusto by Jamie Lee Curtis, but while there, we get our first real taste of the fantastical trip we (and Evelyn) are about to take. Of course, I can’t really offer any description of the action that occurs, but nothing is spoiled if I tell you that some characters cross multiple dimensions and universes in an attempt to ‘save the world’. While doing this, they mix in some acrobatic martial arts that would make Jackie Chan envious.

It’s the rare film where the frenetic pace of dialogue keeps pace with breakneck action sequences. A fanny pack, trophies with an unfortunate shape, and blue-tooth type devices all play unusual roles here, and this film challenges everyone from the actors to the directors to the editors to the fight coordinators. You’ll likely recognize Evelyn’s husband as the grown-up version of the child actor who played Short Round in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984), and daughter Joy is portrayed by Stephanie Hsu (a contributor to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), who gets to cover just about the widest range of character we’ve likely ever seen on screen. The estimable James Hong is a riot as Gong Gong. Mr. Hong is now 93 years old with an incredible canon of 450 credits in his 8 decades of work. His presence is quite crucial to the film. It should also be noted that, as we would expect, Jenny Slate shines in her brief role as “Big Nose”, a regular customer at the laundromat.

As terrific as the cast is, this is really a chance for Michelle Yeoh to bring her full arsenal to the role of Evelyn. She’s angry, frustrated, scared, courageous, and even adds her comic timing. Ms. Yeoh flashes her CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON fighting skills, while also brining a regal presence to a film that requires a strong core. It’s no mystery that family and love can solve many of the world’s issues, and Daniels have delivered a wild ride that defies simple description. It’s a long one at 139 minutes, but you’ll thank me later for not saying much more than … it’s bonkers!

Opens in select markets on March 25 and April 1, 2022 and nationwide on April 8, 2022

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MORBIUS (2022)

April 1, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Trust the science, they said. Dr. Michael Morbius is a brilliant doctor/scientist who has devoted his life to formulating a cure for the rare and crippling blood disease he and his friend Milo were born with. This is an origin story pulled from the Marvel comic book characters created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. The film is directed by Daniel Espinosa (LIFE 2017, SAFE HOUSE 2012) with a script adapted by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, who previously collaborated on DRACULA UNTOLD (2014) THE LAST WITCH HUNTER (2015) and GODS OF EGYPT (2016). Sometimes past work tells you what you need to know.

An opening sequence features the always cool shots of a helicopter zipping around the water and cliffs of Costa Rica, before landing at the mouth of a cave that houses zillions (I counted) of vampire bats. The brilliant Dr. Morbius (Jared Leto) plans to blend vampire at blood with human blood in his latest try at finding a cure. All of his work is funded by the ultra-rich and equally suffering Milo, both men desperate for relief from their deteriorating bodies. We flashback 25 years to a clinic in Greece where young Michael (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2016) and Milo (Joseph Esson) first meet as they are being treated with regular blood transfusions by Dr. Nikolis (Jared Harris, “Mad Men”).

Jared Leto stars as Dr. Michael Morbius, who is known in Marvel comics as “The Living Vampire”, so we kinda know where things are headed. It’s a surprisingly subdued performance by an actor renowned for his characterizations that are anything but. His grown-up friend Milo is played by the always entertaining Matt Smith, and Morbius’ love interest and research partner is Dr. Martine Bancroft (an excellent Adria Ariona). You’ve probably guessed that the blood blend works … right up until it turns Morbius into a blood thirsty killing machine. This puts FBI agents played by Tyrese Gibson and (master of wisecracks) Al Madrigal on his trail. And yes, we know this is headed to the high noon (or midnight) showdown between childhood blood buddies and it’s the do-the-right-thing Morbius versus the ‘hey, I like this superhuman power’ Milo.

The first segment of the film does a terrific job of setting the stage, but the story, the characters, and the execution let us down for the final two acts. The fight scenes feature some of the worst special effects I’ve seen in years. Sure, the film’s release has been delayed a couple of years, but that’s no excuse for what we see. On the bright side, some of the effects do work, and Matt Smith is fun to watch in a couple of his scenes. We do wish for more of Martine’s story, and for a better story overall (after the intro). The film is part of the SSU (Sony Spider-man Universe) and perhaps its best comparison is VENOM, sans the chuckles. It’s clear this film’s mission was to set the stage for a sequel, and that becomes even more obvious in the mid-credit scenes. Normally, I wouldn’t mention this, but since the director has already discussed, and an appearance was made in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, I believe it’s fair game. The great Michael Keaton pops in as Adrian Toomes (aka Vulture), giving us an indication where the sequel is headed.

Opening in theaters April 1, 2022

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TURNING RED (2022)

March 10, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If only the transformation brought on by puberty were half as soft and cuddly as the giant Red Panda in this latest from Pixar, imagine the reduction in slammed doors and the increase in dinner table conversations between parents and young teenagers. Writer-director Domee Shi won an Oscar for her excellent animated short film BAO (2018), and has collaborated with co-writer Julia Cho for the director’s first feature. It seems reasonable to assume that much of what we see on screen is taken from their own adolescent experiences, as well as those of countless others.

Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old 8th grader who fancies herself as a free-spirited teenager basking in her independence. However, the real story is that she’s a straight-A student obediently following the highly structured life constructed by her mother. Mei’s responsibilities include helping her mother clean the temple the family manages … the oldest temple in Toronto. It not only serves the local Chinese community by paying homage to the Gods, but it also holds a sacred place for Mei’s ancestors. Mei’s mother keeps her so duty-bound, that she’s unable to find time to karaoke with her friends.

One morning, after a particularly vivid and emotional dream, Mei is transformed into a giant Red Panda … well she pops in and out of Panda state. Her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) quickly reacts assuming her daughter’s “change” is the beginning of a menstrual cycle. But things change drastically when Ming finds out about the Red Panda. Her family has considered this a spell from the Gods, one that has followed the women for multiple generations. Mei discovers this when her grandmother and a slew of Aunts show up for the Red Moon ritual – the only way to rid Mei of the Red Panda.

Mei soon realizes her emotional outbursts are what cause the transformation. When she’s overly excited or agitated, the Red Panda appears. It’s mostly when she’s calm and at ease around her friends that she’s her ‘normal’ self. In fact, the friendships are the key to this story. Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) immediately rally to Mei’s defense and accept these startling changes. They even find a way to use it to their advantage, focusing on an upcoming concert by 4-Town, a 5 member (yep) boy band that the girls are gaga about. The music for 4-Town is co-written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, and is humorously in line with what we’d expect (and remember) from a 2002 boy band.

We watch as Mei struggles with the emotional rollercoaster that brings out the Red Panda. It’s refreshing to see such a portrait of friendship, and also acknowledge that overbearing parents can cause stress, no matter how caring they might be. Mei learns that by letting go of the perfect kid syndrome and wallowing in her messy self, she can truly discover who she is as a young person. It’s a Pixar movie, so we fully expect life lessons and psychology to play a role. And that’s also part of the problem here. Being a Pixar film means you get compared to other Pixar films, and that’s a crazy high standard. This one doesn’t come close to the best work from the studio, although we welcome the rare look at female adolescence and friendship, as well as the impact a mother-daughter relationship can have on multiple generations.

Available exclusively on Disney+ beginning March 11, 2022

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