AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (2022)

December 13, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. I’ll admit that I’m not easily dazzled, and I’m very happy to admit that the thirteen years since James Cameron’s AVATAR was not just worth the wait – this latest one truly dazzled me. While the 2009 film was impressive from a technical standpoint, the new one is awe-inspiring, especially in the underwater sequences. I should disclose that I saw this on a huge screen in a theater with a spectacular sound system, and even the 3D glasses didn’t bother me at all (a first). The usually annoying muted color tones of 3D were minimal here, and the colors still popped as the 3D effects became a part of the presentation rather than the typical gimmickry.

Heading back to Pandora is either something you look forward to or could care less about. For those who have been anxiously awaiting the release, prepare to be amazed and stunned at just how far the CGI has come since Cameron set the standard years ago. On the other hand, one should be prepared for a middling, cliché-driven story with a script by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, with story credits to Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno. And since there will be at least one more film in the franchise (filmed simultaneously with this one), and possibly as many as three more, be prepared for unresolved and dangling story lines (that you may or may not care about). The reality is that the magic of the Avatar movies is in the visuals – escapism and fantasy creatures – not in the plot.

A lot has happened since the previous film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the human-turned-Na’vi (via genetic engineering) is now a tribal leader on Pandora. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have two teenage sons and a young daughter, as well as an adopted teenage girl Kiri (played via stop-motion by Sigourney Weaver, one of the scientists in the original), and a quasi-adopted human son named Spider (Jack Champion). Family bliss in paradise is a pretty darn good life … at least until the evil humans return, scorching the land with their machinery. Since humans have pretty much ruined Earth, the mission is to find a new homeland, and what better place than Pandora. A miscast Edie Falco is the General leading the mission, and her advanced exoskeleton is a nod to Ripley in Cameron’s ALIENS. Her elite squadron of Na’vi Avatars is led Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a human character who died in the first film, but his memories are now implanted in a physically superior Na’vi body and he has revenge on the mind … specifically hunting Sully and Neytiri.

As beautiful as Pandora is (and it is), the island that Sully and family escape to takes beauty to another level. This tribe of Na’vi has evolved to live at one with the ocean. The water people aren’t overly excited about taking in the forest people, especially since bad guys are chasing the newcomers, and what follows is a stream of predictable interactions – though the predictability is quickly forgiven once Cameron takes us beneath the surface. It’s truly breathtaking to see this underwater world filled with wildlife, plants, and coral. The creatures are unique, colorful and exciting, none more so than the mega-whales considered spirit animals by the water people.

The stop-motion technology means we see only a few actual humans, though the cast is often recognizable, and in addition to Worthington, Saldana, Weaver, Lang, and Champion, it includes Oscar winner Kate Winslet, Jemaine Clement, Cliff Curtis, and CCH Pounder. But this isn’t a showcase for actors. Instead, it’s a showcase for Cameron to blend his love of technology with his love of the ocean and commitment to environmental protection. He succeeds in wowing us and reminding us what a true cinematic spectacle can be. Another warning I’ll offer is that at least one-third (maybe closer to half) of the film is either the hour-long battle in the final act, or some other action sequence sprinkled in. Just don’t think this is a relaxing getaway to Pandora! Lastly, for those interested in seeing this, I encourage you to seek out a local theater that is decked out with the latest technology, and don’t shy away from 3D showings unless you are one of those who get nauseous or experience motion-sickness.

Opens nationwide in theaters on December 16, 2022

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GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022)

December 9, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Looking for someone to create the opposite of a whimsical childhood fairy tale? The obvious answer is filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (an Oscar winner). He has built his career on delivering dark thrillers that dig into the recesses of our nightmares (PAN’S LABRYNTH, THE SHAPE OF WATER). In fact, he’s a master of this, which makes his vision of Carlo Callodi’s 1883 book a must see. GDT shares a director credit with animation expert Mark Gustafson (FANTASTIC MR FOX, 2009) and screenwriting credit with Patrick McHale. Matthew Robbins has a ‘screen story’ credit, and of course it all links back to Callodi’s source material.

From scene one we immediately sense the different approach than both the light-hearted Disney animated classic from 1940 and Robert Zemeckis’ sentimental live-action version starring Tom Hanks released just a few months ago. It’s darker and gloomier with a unique stop-action look saturated in browns. We also recognize that GDT has chosen a different timeline, as the effects of one of the last WWI bombs takes the life of Geppetto’s beloved young son, Carlo, and Mussolini and fascism are referenced throughout the story.

Everyone knows the story, and the core remains intact – though GDT adds his special touches and twists. One night, a drunken grieving woodcrafter carves a wooden puppet. As Geppetto sleeps it off, the Wood Sprite brings the puppet to life, and just like that, Pinocchio is born and Geppetto has his new son. Another unexpected twist is how much of the film is musical with song lyrics and music by del Toro and the film’s composer, two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. But don’t mistake songs for an upbeat movie. It’s still dark and bleak, and of course, GDT nails the sea beast whose belly houses Geppetto and Mr. Cricket in the most thrilling segment.

Young Gregory Mann voices Pinocchio and Carlo, Ewan McGregor voices Sebastian J Cricket, and David Bradley is Geppetto. Beyond that, the all-star voice cast features Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tim Blake Nelson, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, and Burn Gorman. No one does fantasy-horror better than Guillermo del Toro, and even with his first foray into animation, delivers a unique look and spin on a familiar story. He even makes it easy to pick up on the Frankenstein (the Mary Shelley novel) influence, so I’ll say it again … don’t mistake this for the family-friendly Disney fare you grew up on.

Opens in theaters and Netflix on December 9, 2022

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VIOLENT NIGHT (2022)

November 30, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. HO-HO-HO! Who is ready for the best ever Santa slasher movie? Admittedly, it’s a narrow sub-genre and anyone that knows me or reads my reviews, knows full well that this is not the type of movie I typically recommend. However, it’s the season for charity and director Tommy Wirkola (HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, 2013 – sequel in the works) and co-writers Pat Casey and John Miller (the screenwriters behind the “Sonic the Hedgehog” films) have gifted us an extremely violent and often very funny Christmas present, replete with a sledgehammer-slinging Santa Claus.

We first meet an inebriated Santa (“I’m on a break”) at a local pub, where he explains to a mall Santa why he has become so disenchanted with the job … greedy, self-centered kids who only want more video games. The booze numbs Santa’s disgust as he heads off on his sleigh … and Wirkola delivers the first shocking moment as Santa’s barf keys us into the type of twisted tale we are about to experience. David Harbour (best known for “Stranger Things” and HELLBOY, 2019) is absolutely all-in for this far-from-glamorous portrait of jolly ol’ Saint Nick. On his rounds, Santa raids household liquor stashes while chomping on cookies and eschewing skim milk. He’s a full-blown slob, yet still holds a soft spot for “nice” kids, while having little mercy for the “naughty” among us.

Most of the story takes place at the Lightstone family compound, where one-percenter Gertrude (CHRISTMAS VACATION alum Beverly D’Angelo) is the foul-mouthed matriarch ruling over her entitled and unlikable family consisting of daughter Alva (Edi Patterson) and her airhead-actor husband Morgan (Cam Gigandet) and their poser teenage son Bert (Alexander Elliot). Also present for the festive evening are Gertrude’s son Jason (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder) and their precious 7-year-old daughter Trudy (Leah Brady). Santa arrives at the Lightstone mansion not long before a team of mercenaries, led by Mr Scrooge (John Leguizamo), storm the place and take the family members hostage. Their mission is to break into the family vault and abscond with $300 million in cash.

What follows is a demented mash-up of DIE HARD (1989), HOME ALONE (1990), BAD SANTA (2003), and THOR (2011). Deadly weapons used here include your expected firearms, but also a finely-honed candy cane, an icicle, a skating shoe, and a Christmas tree star, among other holiday items. Most prominent is the sledgehammer wielded by Santa, and the flashback to his pre-Santa days for explanation. The violent action is plentiful, and it’s well-balanced with countless lines of comedy. Surprisingly, there is a story nestled in amongst the mayhem, and the heart of it revolves around the bond between Santa and young Trudy. She’s a true believer in him and that overrides his uncertainty about the job, and inspires him to stick around for the fight. Santa can’t explain the mystique of Christmas “magic”, but he does know an 1100 year marriage has its ups and downs.

Obviously, this is not one for the kiddos (it’s a hard R-rating), and they should be shielded from this Yuletide yuck. Director Wirkola has delivered an instant holiday classic for those seeking the bizarro world flicks contrasting to the more respectable family fare of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and A CHRISTMAS STORY. Who would have ever thought that Festivus might be the safer holiday?

Opens in theaters on December 2, 2022

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BARDO: FALSE CHRONICLES OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS (2022)

November 24, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Many filmmakers mine their own lives for projects, making their work personal, revealing, and sometimes invasive. It’s easy to label these works as narcissistic, and by definition, that would be accurate. However, some of the finest films from our most interesting writer-directors fall into the autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) category. Examples include Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS, and Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES. This time it’s Oscar winner Alejandro Inarritu looking inward. Inarritu won his Oscars for THE REVENANT (2015), and his previous nominations include BIRDMAN (2014) and BABEL (2006), and those are in addition to his other standouts: BIUTIFUL (2010), 21 GRAMS (2003), and AMORES PERROS (2000). He’s joined on this project by his BIUTIFUL and BIRDMAN co-writer, Nicolas Giacobone.

The film begins with a Terrence Malick-like dream sequence of a man leaping and flying through the desert as his shadow follows below. Next, we see a woman giving birth in a hospital as her husband lends support. Only this time, the mother and doctor agree that the baby didn’t want to come out, so they put him “back in.” The father is Silverio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, (BAD EDUCATION 2004, CRONOS 1993), and it’s quite obvious he is representing our real-life director, Mr. Inarritu. A few years later we are informed that Silverio, a respected journalist and documentarian, has become the first Mexican selected for a prestigious award in the United States.

Griselda Siciliani plays Lucia, Silverio’s wife, and she is integral to his life, yet we witness much of his life outside of their relationship. The film struck me as a metaphysical exercise as an artist turns his lens into selfie mode. It seems as though Inarritu is coming to grips … and sharing his philosophy with us … that emotions drive the reality of our truth. Stated another way, truth is an illusion of emotion. Our emotion skews how we view everything. Additionally, he examines (his own) midlife crisis, and the corresponding insecurities, dreams, fantasies, and doubts. And since much of this occurs in his native Mexico, spiritual and cultural aspects enter into what we see, as does the uncertainty of time as an element.

Inarritu and cinematographer Darius Khondji capture some startling imagery, including a sequence on the dance floor, a segment where bodies drop in the street, and a bag of Axolotls being held on the train. Much of the film has a surreal look and feel, but then there are moments that are more emotionally grounded – like the terrific rooftop exchange between Silverio and his friend Luis (Francisco Rubio). In contrast to that heartfelt conversation, there are the moments when Silverio seems to be heard by others without his speaking. “Move your mouth when you speak”, he is told … yet, his thoughts are conveyed.

The use of sound is masterful, and is crucial to numerous scenes. A second watch will allow me to more fully appreciate this aspect. However, at two hours and thirty-nine minutes, Inarritu likely had many thoughts and ideas, and we find ourselves wishing things were a bit tighter on the editing side. Still, while the film may be self-indulgent and ego-driven, it’s also spectacular and stunning filmmaking. There are some slyly comedic touches, and the best may when this Netflix production doesn’t shy away from taking a jab at its competitor, Amazon.

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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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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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