Friday, December 31, 2021

Spider-Man: No Way Home. A Review (Review #1564)



Author's Note: This review will have spoilers. If that bothers you, I'll use the words a high-ranking non-furloughed Administrator told me when I told her that many formerly furloughed staff were still traumatized over their experience and near layoff.

"They really should just get over it".

I too have affection for Spidey, though that affection has never extended to Tony Stark, Jr. The Marvel Cinematic Universe to my mind has made Peter Parker into a total blithering idiot, forever going on about "THIS REALLY OLD MOVIE" that is "old" because it was released before he was born. I have long held that the MCU is the world's longest and most expensive soap opera. Spider-Man: No Way Home is the Christmas/anniversary special to said soap opera.

Picking up right where Far From Home left off, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been outed as Spider-Man by The Daily Bugle website impresario J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). This news does not surprise his lady friend Michelle Jones-Watson (Zendaya) or Ned (Jacob Batalon) the Patrick Star to Peter's SpongeBob SquarePants. The havoc this causes to not just their lives but those of Peter's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and her beau Harold "Happy" Hogan (Jon Favreau) is so great that Peter, MJ and Ned are rejected by MIT, which doesn't want the negative publicity.

At this point I am dead-serious in asking how it is remotely possible that Peter, Ned, MJ or their frenemy Flash (Tony Revolori) could possibly be MIT candidates. They are all idiots, total absolute idiots. I find the idea of multiverses invading each other more believable than the idea that any of them possibly being accepted into MIT (with Flash actually getting in). 

After all, Peter is so intelligent that he, rather than file an appeal to MIT, decides to use magic.

Who else to consult on this matter than Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)? Peter knows "Sir" can whip up a spell to have everyone forget Peter is Spider-Man. Typical of Zoomers however, Peter immediately begins making demands on who can remember, causing Strange to lose focus and control of the spell. That little bit of interference causes multiverses where others know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man to enter this realm.

Thus, Peter Parker is hunted down by the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, as well as Electro (Jamie Foxx) and The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) from the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man films. Everyone is confused, but despite Strange's warning that the villains cannot be changed, the MCU Spidey thinks he can change them.

That, however, leads to tragic circumstances, but do not lose hope. If the villains could have been brought from one universe to another, what is to say that those universes Peter Parkers could not have slipped through. Thus, both Spider-Man II (Tobey Maguire) and Spider-Man III (Andrew Garfield) join forces to save the worlds, though not without great sacrifices and surprise help. With things mostly restored, Peter now strikes out on his own, rebuilding his life as your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

As I watched Spider-Man: No Way Home, I came to the realization that the film is essentially the MCU version of the Doctor Who twentieth anniversary special The Five Doctors. In that special, two former Doctor Who leads joined the then-current actor playing the title role (along with a doppelganger to play the role in place of the actor who had passed away by then) as various versions of The Doctor to fight against new and old enemies. I liked The Five Doctors, a nice nostalgic trip to celebrate the television show.

As such, I understand the enjoyment many got from No Way Home. It gave fans a chance to look back at a franchise that has had three leads and a myriad of villains, some of which impacted their fandom and youths (though I doubt The Amazing Spider-Man films are as loved as the Raimi and/or MCU versions). However, nostalgia goes only so far with me, and No Way Home is like the previous MCU Spider-Man films: big on the dumb.

I have so many questions revolving around the logic in No Way Home apart from the "these kids could get into MIT"? That I will leave for another time, but for now I think that the film gives audiences what they want. I cannot fault them for that, but I can say that it does not convert me to thinking it good, let alone a Best Picture contender.

No Way Home does one thing that impressed me tremendously. The Tom Hardy cameo allows for Sony and Disney to have their cake and eat it too. His Eddie Brock/Venom manages to pop in and out in such a way as to introduce a new villain for the next MCU Spider-Man film while keeping the Venom franchise safely tucked away from this particular arachnid. 

At this point I would like to point out that Tom Holland was a month away from turning six years old and was sixteen years old when Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man respectively were released. Tobey Maguire, I also note, is 21 years older than Holland, thus making him old enough to be Holland's father (Garfield is a mere 13 years older). To be fair neither Maguire nor Garfield looks their respective ages, but one should give credit where it is due. Both easily slip back into their roles to where it is believable that they could still be Spider-Men in their own universes. Holland too goes back into his "Peter as near-total moron", though here he does have moments of maturity in how his actions affect others.

Cumberbatch is fun as the less serious Strange, looking on the antics of his "Scooby-Doo" gang with a mix of irritation and puzzlement. He can be serious when the need arises, but given he was shunted off into the multiverse for long stretches he does not play a major part in No Way Home.

As a side note, both No Way Home and the post-credit scenes play out like trailers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Make of that what you will.  

The best performances come from two of the three Raimi Spider-Man villains. Molina, with some de-aging effects, brings back the conflicted Doctor Otto Octavius: evil yet able to do the right thing. Dafoe's Norman Osborne continues to be the standard to which all Spider-Man villains are held to. He is equally adept at being the confused, frightened man and the gleefully villainous Green Goblin.  

Given that we have so many villains, the others are lost in the shuffle. While Foxx's Electro is the third major villain, he is given little to do. His statement that he thought Spider-Man III was black and that in some other universe there is a black Spider-Man was a nice hint for Miles Morales, though if No Way Home had really wanted to be bold, it would have given us a live-action version to match the brilliant Spider-Man: Into the Multiverse.

Either that or Spider-Ham. 

Ifans and Church were essentially voice-actors, playing little to no role in No Way Home. Tomei and Favreau were equally poorly served. Zendaya continued the same sarcastic, scowling MJ, though little moments where she appeared to be more than a quip-spouting machine creeped up.

Saying one did not like Spider-Man: No Way Home seems almost like saying one does not like puppies or Mom's apple pie. It is not terrible, but it is little more than fan service. I cannot fault it for that, but I cannot celebrate that either. 

Next Marvel Cinematic Universe Film: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness


Thursday, December 30, 2021

White Shadows in the South Seas: A Review



The South Seas have always attracted travelers due to its geographic beauty and foreignness. White Shadows in the South Seas is surprisingly progressive for the times, even if it does indulge in a little stereotyping on both sides.

Disillusioned white doctor Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue) is appalled by how the white man have destroyed the beauty of both the Marquesas Islands and its people. He is shunned for his views as well as his drunkenness. The colonizers are so irritated with Lloyd that they shanghai him on a bubonic-filled ship and cast him adrift.

Fate, however, smiled on Dr. Lloyd, for he washed ashore on another remote island, where the local community welcome him as a White God. He does not dissuade them from their idea, only pausing when told that the beautiful native girl Fayaway (Raquel Torres) is forbidden to him. She is "tapau", a virgin bride of the temple whom not even Matta Loa can look upon. 

Things take a turn though when Matta Loa saves Fayaway's little brother, but like all white men, his greed soon takes over. Appalled now that the islanders cast pearls aside in place of the material the oysters provide to shape fishing hooks, he starts hoarding and diving for them. He goes so far as to try and signal a ship but repents when he sees how the new visitors will destroy the community as they have all others. Repentant, he tosses the pearls and gives his life to try and save the community, but like all white people, he knows only greed and destruction.

What is surprising about White Shadows in the South Seas is how the film sees whites as the embodiment of evil. I figure there are people now who would agree with that assertion, but this film is from 1928. Long before such concepts like "white privilege" came about, we see in the film that the arrival of Anglos was not a blessing but a curse. Lloyd sees how the greed of his fellow whites is literally killing the original inhabitants. The rapid change of sea pressure causes havoc on the young men's lungs, and White Shadows in the South Seas, almost documentary-like, shows how this "last remnant of an earthly paradise" was brought to ruin.

Perhaps this is why I am puzzled by Lloyd's shift. He starts out horrified by how the colonized were treated, so much so that he responds to a fellow Anglo how rather than bringing shame to the white man HE was ashamed to be white. However, while living in peace and happiness with the new natives, his personality change seems more for dramatic effect.

"Pearls! He was only a white man, after all -- no good --and the instinct of his ruthless race was his -- Greed!" the intertitles say. I was not completely convinced that Lloyd could change so much, especially given his successful romance with Fayaway. Moreover, there seems something odd about ascribing the aspect of "greed" to someone solely based on that person's race.  

That again may have been to create conflict and allow for our "white savior" to have a moment of redemption. However, White Shadows in the South Seas is less about interracial relationships than it is about capturing the beauty of the Pacific Islands on film.

White Shadows in the South Seas won the second Academy Award for Cinematography, and one can see why. The film has some beautiful and impressive sequences, particularly the underwater scenes where the young men dive for pearls. It helps that the film was "produced and photographed on the natural locations, and with the ancient native tribes of the Marquesas Islands in the South Seas" as the text states.

The film showcases what one perceives are the traditions of the islanders, such as the elaborate welcoming ceremony for the white god. The lavish meal includes "the Dancer of Ceremonious Welcome", and here the film could be seen as almost documentary-like. I figure the entire ceremony may have been created for the film, so White Shadows in the South Seas is hardly a documentary. However, some scenes are quite visually splendid.

The acting is mostly hit. Monte Blue does have some of that cliched theatrical overacting that silent film is spoofed about, but there are moments, particularly when he expresses disgust at his fellow colonists' manner, where he shows more range. In retrospect, casting the half-Mexican Torres as the "native girl" is a product of the times, and while her acting was good it still does not sit well to have a non-Tahitian playing one. They play off each other well and make bird imitations look romantic.

White Shadows in the South Seas is a silent film in that there is no audible dialogue, but it does have synchronized sound. Everything from the "native music" to bird calls matches the film to where it becomes a precursor to sound.

White Shadows in the South Seas has some beautiful and impressive imagery and with an interesting story where the white shadow is held in a bad light. Sometimes a bit overdone, it still mostly holds up.


Monday, December 27, 2021

West Side Story (2021): A Review



Musicals are a hard sell nowadays. Making remakes is already a daunting task. What then to think when people decide to film a remake to a musical that won ten Academy Awards and is thought of as one of the greatest films ever made? West Side Story attempts to simultaneously bring the material forward and keep it in its time frame. While not without its virtues, separate from the original, it fumbles more than it catches.

As their neighborhood starts getting demolished to build Lincoln Center, two rival gangs fight it out for control of the turf. The Caucasian Jets face their bitter rivals, the Puerto Rican Sharks. Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist) decides it is time for the final rumble and challenges Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) at a dance.

Riff wants his BFF, former jailbird Tony (Ansel Elgort) to back him up, but Tony really does not want to. He goes anyway, and there he sees Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo's sister. They instantly fall in love, complicating matters for everyone.

While drug store owner Valentina (Rita Moreno) suggests caution to her employee Tony when it comes to wooing Maria, Tony is too much in love. Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) also wants everyone to slow down, but she is not heeded. Things take an ugly turn at the rumble, where Riff and Bernardo are killed. With our lovers now thwarted, will there be a place for them or will the hate all around them condemn them too?

One of my greatest difficulties in looking over West Side Story is that I am too familiar with the 1961 version. I work to keep that knowledge from coloring my view on the 2021 version, both pro and con. I try to put myself in the mindset of someone who has never seen either the original film or a stage adaptation. I think people who are unfamiliar with the original version will enjoy it.  

There is plenty to appreciate. West Side Story is almost universally well-acted and performed. Ariana DeBose is a standout as Anita: smart, proud and unafraid to speak her mind. When not singing DeBose holds her own, transcending the "Latina spitfire" stereotype to make Anita an independent woman. When singing and dancing DeBose showcases real vibrancy and enthusiasm. 

Faist's Riff is also fascinating, a young man tightly wound up, always on edge, the nerves hidden under the bravado. I wasn't overwhelmed by Alvarez's Bernardo as much as I was with DeBose or Faist, but he did well in showing Bernardo's machismo, not so well with showing Bernardo's caring for Maria or Anita. I don't think Josh Andres Rivera as Chino has received enough credit. Usually seen as a minor character/plot device, here he is given more to do. Chino is the one who is getting an education, the embodiment of upward mobility, who likes Maria but perhaps is not truly in love with her. Pleasant but doomed to excessive loyalty, Chino's role has opened up, and Rivera makes his journey worth watching.

Zegler is also exceptionally strong as Maria, even if her singing bordered on operatic by the end. At the A Boy Like That/I Have a Love number, Zegler slipped into bombast, especially next to the more naturalistic DeBose. To be fair, this is Zegler's debut, so her slips into "deer-in-the-headlights" look can be forgiven. Still, West Side Story should make for a good calling card in her career.

And then there is Elgort. Granted, I have never thought Elgort had any talent and continue to wonder why Hollywood pushes him at us. However, Elgort is totally blank as Tony, his facial expression never changing. I should be fair in that Tony is one of the weakest characters in theater, his sole purpose to be lovelorn. Still, Elgort brings nothing but a monotone to Tony, and his singing is worse. Hearing him belt out Maria is a bit painful, and Cool was no better. Thinking of him as a tough ex-con newly released from prison is laughable.

And here is where I have my beef with West Side Story: the musical numbers. The songs are still strong in and of themselves. However, it was the staging of many of them that I have an issue with. Sometimes they are quite pleasant: I Feel Pretty being sung at the department store makes it flow and has a light, jaunty feel. Something's Coming too is more fluid as Tony strolls around Doc's Drug Store. 

Others though fall flat. The Mambo number is filled with too many sweeping camera movements to let the audience appreciate the choreography. In fact, the entire dance section is pretty bad: flare lights and cuts that focus on the face than the body. It brought to mind what Ginger Rogers allegedly said while watching Stayin' Alive. In disgust, she reported said, "These kids think they can dance with their faces!" By that it was meant that there was a greater emphasis on close-ups, thus robbing audiences of the body's movement. West Side Story similarly has that issue.

Take Cool, where because the camera moves often you do not get what I figure should be the tension between Riff and Tony building. You see their legs, feet and hands, but because there is no master shot, you see only parts of the dance. I also wonder if having Moreno sing Somewhere was a good idea. This used to be Tony and Maria's prayer for hope, but by shifting it to the new character of Valentina takes away focus on their love story and shifts it towards a more general "brotherhood of man" type.

The worst number is probably Gee, Officer Krupke. Here, we somehow slip away from the more realistic staging that director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner were going for and go into almost bizarre. Seeing these kids all but trash the police station with elaborate dance (again with no time to appreciate the choreography) is bad enough. However, for me the Gee, Officer Krupke sequence shows how the Jets have no personalities. They are nothing more than backup dancers.

As a side note, why there seemed to be a greater emphasis on the minor character of Anybodys (Iris Menas) who isn't even a real Jets member is unclear. Anybodys is not formally introduced until the Gee, Officer Krupke number, but we see Anybodys forever hovering in scenes, such as when despite being identified as female by everyone else Anybodys casually is in the male dance line to pick partners at the dance. 

I noticed that the separation between the Jets and the Sharks via color-coded costumes was stronger to where it was dangerously close to farcical. Same with some of the dance numbers, which curiously did not draw on the original Jerome Robbins choreography but went with another choreographer, Justin Peck. 

Finally, on the lack of subtitles, again that is difficult for me to judge. As I do speak Spanish, I understood what was being said. I do not think it was a major problem given that non-Spanish speakers could understand things based on context and scenery. However, I think subtitles would have helped enhance certain sections, such as when Anita complains that she is not considered "part of the family" because she is "prieta" (Spanish for "darker-skinned"). 

I think Spielberg was completely wrong in his thinking that subtitles give English power over Spanish. To my mind, using the term "Latinx" gives English power over Spanish, as that to my mind is cultural imperialism. "Latinx" forces English rules and American cultural sensitivities into a foreign language to my mind. I, as both a Spanish-speaker and Hispanic, would have preferred subtitles be included. It is not a major issue, but it is an issue.

West Side Story is good, but it could have been better. As it stands, it has the benefits of some great performances but the drawbacks of some weak musical numbers. 


Saturday, December 25, 2021

It Happened on Fifth Avenue: A Review


Another Christmas, another Christmas-themed film. This year, it is the lesser known It Happened on Fifth Avenue, which I would argue is not a real Christmas film. Pleasant enough but not particularly interesting, It Happened on Fifth Avenue has an idea around it that just did not fulfill its promise.

Hobo Aloysious T. McKeever (Victor Moore) slums it every winter in the boarded-up mansion of Michael O'Connor (Charles Ruggles) while O'Connor is in his Virginia winter home. Aloysious happens upon veteran Jim Bullock (Don De Fore), recently thrown out of his apartment to make way for another O'Connor building. As there is plenty of room in O'Connor's Fifth Avenue mansion, Aloysious offers him room to stay.

Al clears up the confusion that he really isn't O'Connor's friend and assuring Jim that he leaves things exactly as he found them, which puts Jim at ease. However, unexpected complications arise with the arrival of Trudy (Gail Storm). Al and Jim mistake her for another homeless person when in fact she is O'Connor's daughter. She keeps up the ruse, with "Trudy Smith" and Jim falling in love. 

However, Michael eventually finds his wayward daughter. To please her and see if Jim is really in love with "Trudy Smith", he agrees to be "Mike", yet another homeless man. The house is bursting with people, as two of Jim's former Army buddies (and their respective wives and children) also take up residence at the O'Connor mansion. Mike is displeased at the indignities foisted on him in his own home and is on the edge. Only the arrival of his ex-wife Mary (Ann Harding) can help keep up the subterfuge and bring this unofficial house party to a joyful conclusion.  

There is a Christmas scene in It Happened on Fifth Avenue. There is even a Christmas song (That's What Christmas Means to Me). However, for a film billed as a "Christmas movie" this is the only reference to Christmas in the whole of It Happened on Fifth Avenue. Christmas itself appears to be incidental to the story. It is not the focus of the film, so I am puzzled as to why It Happened on Fifth Avenue is called a "Christmas movie".

The movie is not terrible, but I found it dull and long. That isn't to say there weren't nice elements in It Happened on Fifth Avenue. Moore is absolutely winning as Aloysious T. McKeever, the wise and kind hobo. He is polite, caring, moral (he won't have any hanky-panky going on between Mike and Mary) and despite his squatting and breaking-and-entering, he leaves the mansion exactly as he found it. There's a lightness to Moore's performance that is endearing.

De Fore and Storm (perhaps the most uniquely named actress of her time) were also pleasant and delightful as Jim and Trudy. Ruggles and Harding too worked well as the formerly married pair who still loved each other. Curiously, Ruggles got the best lines and moments, surprising given he wasn't a major part of the film until past the halfway point. 

The best bit is an extended albeit perhaps unnecessary part where he mistakenly thinks Trudy already has a baby. The wordplay is good enough to make it barely plausible that Mike gets the wrong impression, though to my mind it is a bit forced. De Fore also has a bit of clever dialogue when he is ejected from the apartment while chained to his bed. "Just because I'm in bed it's no sign I'm taking this lying down!" he yells on his way out.

If the film had kept its focus on the romances and this particular family, we could have had a better film. However, It Happened on Fifth Avenue instead started becoming too crowded, just like the mansion itself. You had nine characters all vying for attention, and something had to go. What had to go was the two married couples and their two kids. They not only added little to nothing to the film but also were pretty much forgotten for most of it.

They were needed only when the film turned its focus on Jim's plans to turn a former Army barracks into low-cost affordable housing for returning GIs. There is nothing unique about the cold and uncaring businessman attempting to squash the little guy until he gets wise thanks to the kindly poor. It Happened on Fifth Avenue squandered a good opportunity to be a good film by crowding in too much and too many.

It is like a Frank Capra knockoff: the basic idea of it but without the skill and heart Capra would have brought to it.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue, despite claims to the contrary, did not strike me as a genuine Christmas film. It is barely passable thanks to the performances, especially Moore, but I am hard-pressed to make it a genuine Christmas classic.

2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
2014: Prancer

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Belfast: A Review (Review #1560)



There is something to nostalgia, recalling the past as halcyon days even in the midst of tragedy and terror. Belfast, the newest film by writer/director Sir Kenneth Branagh, is a sweet, charming little Irish tale of how even the middle of horrors youthful exuberance will not be denied.

Buddy (Jude Hill) dreams of slaying dragons and believes his life on a quiet Belfast, Northern Ireland street is the best of all worlds. However, The Troubles come his way when a marauding group of Protestant militants attack the homes of the Catholics living there. As Buddy's family is Protestant, they are unharmed, but they and the other Protestant families side with their Catholic neighbors. 

Pa (Jamie Dornan) is away in Britain working, trying to pay off a massive back tax debt but unable to fully stay away from gambling. Ma (Caitriona Balfe) does her best to keep home and hearth together, watching Buddy and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie). Buddy also has Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds) to offer love and advise.

Buddy worries he may be going down the wrong path towards Hell after a fiery sermon, loves the magic of television and movies, and pretty, smart classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant). He also observes the financial and marital troubles his parents are going through and the tumult his community faces as Protestants and Catholics begin tearing at each other. Things culminate when his friend Moira (Lara McDonnell) gets him involved in a riot. In a mix of terror and innocence he steals washing powder, setting off a chain of events that forces his parents' hands about their future in this place they love.

Belfast manages a strong balance between Buddy coming of age and of the chaotic world around him. The Troubles mostly stay in the background, but they are never far off. We start with the rioting that invades Buddy's world and near the end we see the tense standoff involving Pa and local Protestant thug Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan). In between moments of sadness and irrational violence, we get slices of life that most of us understand.

The springing of first love. The loss of beloved family members. The magic of movies. 

It is quite easy to fall in love with Buddy, as Jude Hill gives a smashing and delightful performance. In turns innocent and slightly impish, Hill does wonders with the role. He shows Buddy's pleasant manner when aiming to attract Catherine's attention, yet a frightened and confused person when caught up in the rioting and looting. He does not want to do wrong, and in his misguided effort to follow Moira's instructions his thoughts are for his family. Showing the washing powder to his horrified and enraged mother, his cries of "IT'S ORGANIC!" show how unaware he was of the seriousness of what had happened.

Belfast is a strong showcase for some of the actors. While billed as a supporting role, Balfe's Ma for me was a lead. Balfe uses stillness and quiet to show Ma's genuine love for her family. However, she can use that quiet to show the frustration to anger she has against her husband and his irresponsibility. 

Dench's Granny and Hinds' Pop also handle their roles as the older but loving couple well. We see how despite losing so many, Granny still has inner strength to let go. Hinds makes Pop the wise and caring second father to Buddy, offering his knowledge on wooing.

No force on this Earth will compel me to say Jamie Dornan can act. He is a very pretty man, I will grant. Perhaps Dornan's success in Belfast is due to how generally quiet and blank Pa was. As such, Dornan wasn't asked to do much, merely look on and be pleasant. 

Belfast also makes good use of the small amount of color it has. The film opens and closes in color, indicating the present while the past is almost always in black-and-white. When we do see color in the film, it is when we see the various color films or a stage version of A Christmas Carol that Granny took Buddy to. Branagh was making the magic of movies, of theater, be the only color that this world had, emphasizing Buddy's imagination in making fiction more fantastic than his reality.

Part of me thinks that the dislike of Belfast comes from its open and unabashed sentimentality. I have no issue with an openly, unabashedly sentimental memory. Belfast is simple, short, sparse and devoid of flash. Those, however, turn out to be some of its best qualities. 

Murder Ahoy: A Review



Murder Ahoy perhaps was one step too far for Dame Agatha Christie. The three previous Miss Marple films had at least been adapted from her novels (albeit both Murder at the Gallop and Murder Most Foul being based on Hercule Poirot novels). Now it was decided to write an original Miss Marple story with no input from Dame Agatha. The end result is a weak film, though through no fault of Dame Margaret Rutherford.

Miss Jane Marple (Rutherford) is, thanks to a relative's death, made a trustee of the Cape of Good Hope Youth Reclamation Centre. At her very first meeting, fellow trustee Cecil Ffolly-Hardwick (Henry B. Longhurst) is murdered through his snuff. Who would want him dead, and why? The answer lies on the HMS Battledore, the trust's good ship where young men are trained away from their former life of crime.

Miss Marple, dressed up in a naval uniform, soon comes aboard, much to the Battledore crew's irritation. Captain Sydney De Courcey Rhumstone (Lionel Jeffries) quips that she looks like Neptune's mother. He's more irritated when she commandeers his quarters, forcing everyone to move down based on pecking order. Soon, however, the Battledore begins revealing her secrets, ones that involve juvenile delinquents, forbidden romances, and more murders. With help on land from her Boy Friday Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis) and Chief Inspector Craddock (Charles "Bud" Tingwell), Miss Marple soon unmasks the killer and even manages to play matchmaker.

I think alarm bells should start ringing when the opening credits show the formerly sane Miss Marple strut around in naval garb and we see that Murder Ahoy is "based on their interpretation of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple" (emphasis mine). "Their" interpretation is that of screenwriters David Pursall and Jack Seddon, who had worked on the previous Miss Marple films. However, while they did well when adapting a Christie novel, it is when they got a free hand that they made a right mess of things.

Their interpretation of Miss Marple was to make her less shrewd detective and more Bonkers Betty. They forgot that Miss Marple could be funny, but not a loon. Her get-up, the almost oblivious manner to things, the manner of deaths was all set up to force humor. However, when she and the Nelson-mad Rhumstone see a body hanging from the mast both seem more confused than horrified.

I think this is because Murder Ahoy leaned far too heavily on trying to make all the characters "funny" versus merely "amusing but still rational". Jeffries bears the brunt of the forced humor, forever muttering and coming across as too dimwitted to be in charge of himself, let alone a whole ship. Rhumstone could have been a stereotypical "idiot in charge" but as played by Jeffries, Rhumstone was too stupid for even that.

You can't take seriously a naval or semi-naval officer who both wears a kimono and curls his beard openly in front of others. Not that seeing Miss Marple in a fencing contest with someone who is or is not the murderer any more serious.

Murder Ahoy made a terrible mistake in separating Stringer and Marple. They work best together because they can play off each other, but because Stringer is on land and Marple at sea they have to communicate through Morse code sent through flashlights. I kept wondering why and how Mr. Stringer managed to stay up late enough to receive news from Miss Marple.

The film also leaves a lot of unanswered questions. What happened to the boys who were part of the criminal enterprise? Were they willing participants or forced into things? Why and how did the fictitious novel The Doom Box help the murderer plan the nefarious schemes? What is up with all the silly names? 

I think Rutherford gave it her all and she is still enjoyable to watch. She was failed by the material, which gave her little to work with. Cutting off Davis from her weakened her overall performance as she now has Jeffries to play against her. He however is too overtly silly to take seriously, let alone be either the detecting protege or murderer. 

I'm not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as there is a nice quip between Craddock and Sergeant Bacon (Terence Edmond). "A tramp wants to see you urgently!" Bacon tells the Chief Inspector. Without missing a beat, Craddock replies "I don't urgently want to see a tramp!"

Murder Ahoy was the last Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple film, and it is a shame that the nice, light manner the previous films had did not carry over to this one. This last hurrah would sadly lead to a decline for dear Jane until Joan Hickson came along. It is not terrible, but it just missed what made the previous films enjoyable.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

American Underdog: A Review



I confess to not being a football fan and while I did read NFL Hall of Fame member Kurt Warner's autobiography, I could not make sense of things when he "talked shop". American Underdog, the adaption of his All Things Possible, works well in what it sets out to do: be inspiration and moving.

Ever since he was a small child idolizing San Francisco 49 legend Joe Montana, Kurt Warner has worked to get to the National Football League. This dream will be extremely hard to accomplish for someone who gets little play at the University of Northern Iowa. Despite his exceptionally low profile, he does get a call from the Green Bay Packers, who drop him on the second day.

This setback devastates Warner, for whom football is one of the only things he has to give him meaning. There is, however, something else: his long-term relationship with Brenda (Anna Paquin), a divorcee with two children, one of them legally blind and with developmental issues. Needing to move on and wanting to support his de facto family, Warner takes a job as a grocery store stock clerk.

His tale takes a turn though when after family tragedy he goes into Arena Football, which he initially detests. He soon takes to it like a duck to water, so much so that the St. Louis Rams pick him up as a backup quarter. That backup status ends in preseason, and despite some misgivings from the Rams coaching staff, Coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) believes Warner can succeed. Thus begins an impossible rise from stockboy to Super Bowl MVP.

American Underdog, according to Warner, is not strictly about himself. The title applies to not just him but Brenda and Zack (Hayden Saller), their special needs son. That is a wonderful way to look at the Warner family as a whole: three individuals facing large odds who managed to achieve their individual goals. The film certainly knows what it wants to do right from the get-go. American Underdog starts in voiceover with Levi as Warner recite the diminishing percentages of any high school player moving on to college football to the NFL to the Super Bowl to MVP. This is accompanied to the sight of a young Warner, in his homemade jersey, throwing his imagined Super Bowl-winning touchdown.

To my mind, Warner's near-impossible and unbelievable story is worth looking at, and I think many will be inspired by this story of ordinary people, visited by at times immense tragedy, finding all forms of love. There's the Brenda and Kurt love story, both stumbling into each other's lives. There's the love Kurt has for Zack and vice-versa. There's the love Kurt has for football, the primary motivation to work and overcome a hard life where he is almost always dismissed by others.

I hesitate to include the love Kurt and Brenda have for God for American Underdog seems to downplay the strong Christianity the Warners are known for. We get hints of their strong religious faith: Brenda talks about how her faith has helped her endure a myriad of personal tragedies, Kurt prays for her after her parents are killed in a tornado, and he mentions how he wants her faith when he proposes.

However, we never see them attend any Services, share prayers or give much indication that Christ is central to their lives. It feels a bit like God is mostly absent from American Underdog. Even the famous moment when Warner replies to the "First Things First" question about the final touchdown pass with, "Well, first things first, I've got to thank my Lord and Savior up above. Thank you, Jesus!" at Super Bowl XXXIV is cut. It's no secret that Kurt Warner is a devout, passionate Christian. Judging by American Underdog, however, his faith is not "first things first" but "secondary". Perhaps screenwriters David Aaron Cohen, Jon Gunn and co-directors Jon Erwin (directing with his brother Andrew) were aiming for broader appeal with a more general "inspirational" story about overcoming than one about how Christ helped them overcome.

I cannot say for certain but given how I read All Things Possible and know how central Christ was in his memoir, seeing the film adaptation downplay both Christ and the Warners faith in Him is puzzling.

Zachary Levi deserves much praise for showcasing a believable football athlete given he does not have an athletic background. His performance had some positives, particularly in his interplay with Zaller, who stole the show as Zack. He also brought some of the everyman quality Warner has in his romancing of Brenda. However, sometimes all he is left to do is stare intensely into space, and the overall effect is slightly amusing. Much better is Paquin, who transcends the "supportive wife" cliche and makes Brenda a more interesting figure.

She is a hurt woman, hesitant but also loving and even a bit flirtatious (her manner with Levi in the beginning shows a slightly naughty albeit clean side to Mrs. Warner). I thought well of Chance Kelly as Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz, oozing contempt for Warner until we see it was all part of the metaphorical "iron sharpening iron". Quaid's Dick Vermeil is effective, being one of the few who has faith in this undrafted rookie quarterback.

American Underdog is clearly inspirational, and I admit at times I got caught up in Kurt Warner's struggles to achieve his goal of gridiron glory. It is surprising on the whole, however, to find that the Greater Glory of Christ is a bit opaque. 

Born 1971



Sunday, December 19, 2021

Murder Most Foul: A Review



Murder takes center stage in Murder Most Foul, the third of the four Miss Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford as our snooping busybody. The film did not stray from its winning formula, making for another nice romp.

Miss Jane Marple (Rutherford) is the lone juror who voted against convicting a man accused of murdering his landlady. She is not convinced the open-and-shut case is as open-and-shut as it appears. Through her own investigation, Miss Marple finds that the victim, Ms. McGuinty, was blackmailing someone from her past.

That past leads Marple to the Cosgood Players, a theatrical troupe where McGuinty had worked once as an actress. Its impresario Driffold Cosgood (Ron Moody) is not keen on having Jane Marple as his newest stage star, but he thinks he can dupe her into being a financial backer by indulging what he sees as her acting whim.

Marple, however, knows that there is a murderer among the actors. Who could the murderer be? There are more victims, some intentional, some accidental, until with some help from her Boy Friday Jim Stringer (Stringer Davis) she finds that McGuinty's killer means to do her in too. The murderer, however, learns too late that Miss Marple has a few tricks up her own sleeve.

Murder Most Foul got an unexpected bonus when its star, Margaret Rutherford, won Best Supporting Actress for The V.I.P.s. Now with an Academy Award-winning actress at your star, you can tout the Oscar in your ads. This may have been a nice touch, but frankly by now audiences should know what they are getting with a Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple film. 

What that is, is a nice and not uncomplicated mystery punctuated with bits of humor. Murder Most Foul has some surprisingly clever wordplay. Poor Constable Wells (Terry Scott) bemoans the lack of a conviction. "That woman's made a mockery of my one and only murder," he sadly notes. Cosgood remarks that Miss Marple would make for a good Angel or Duchess, and at least one is a pun (Angel as both a character and the name for a financial backer). Whether "Duchess" is a nod to her Oscar-winning role as the Duchess of Brighton I cannot say for certain, but it is a nice touch. 

We get a nice shoutout to Agatha Christie herself when Miss Marple rifles through old playbills from the fictitious Christie play Murder She Said

The film also has the blessing of being set in the world of the theater, allowing for actors to ham it up to their hearts content. Ron Moody's equally daffy and pompous actor/director is wickedly amusing. It's a pity that he could not end up being Miss Marple's sidekick given how well they work together. He and Rutherford, who puts in another charming performance, do an excellent job.

Rutherford too gets a chance to indulge a little bit of comic theatricality when performing her audition monologue. The film falters in terms of performance only when we get such characters as Eva (Alice Seebohm), who is a bit too exaggerated as a fellow thespian who goes into psychic trances and has intuitions. 

Despite taking Mrs. McGuinty's Dead from Hercule Poirot to Jane Marple, the adaption is probably less complex than the book it is based on. We get a group of suspects, a few victims and a conclusion to the mystery. Murder Most Foul keeps to the "murder and mirth" formula that these Christie adaptations created. It is a pleasant romp which satisfies those who enjoy them.

What's the Matter with Helen?: A Review



Who would want to murder Debbie Reynolds? That is one of the mysteries in What's the Matter with Helen?, a curious effort that shows the so-called "hagsploitation" genre did not skip America's Sweetheart.

After the convictions of their sons for a brutal murder, Depression-era widows Adelle Bruckner and Helen Hill decide to move to California and start again. Now as Adelle Stuart (Reynolds) and Helen Martin (Shelley Winters), they have a dance school for wannabe child stars: Adelle teaching dance and Helen as pianist.

There is evil at work, however, as the past is never far behind. Someone is calling them by their real names. Could it be the loquacious Hamilton Starr (Michael Mac Liammoir), who pushed his way into being the school's elocution teacher? It can't be Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver), the wealthy father to one of the aspiring Shirley Temples who starts a romance with Adelle. As the excessively religious Helen starts struggling with her fears and desires, Adelle asks "What's the matter with Helen"?

Things come to a head when Helen finds herself killing an intruder who knows her real name. Adelle is forced to rejoin her frenemy but now with her on the cusp of becoming the next Mrs. Palmer, the situation comes to a shocking conclusion.

To be honest, it isn't all that shocking, but it is almost pleasantly schlocky. What's the Matter with Helen? started out well, as if both Reynolds and Winters were making an effort to take this seriously. Perhaps, however, things started going downhill when Hamilton Starr comes into the picture. Mac Liammoir is camping and vamping it up to the Nth degree, almost as if he is from some other film that wandered into this one. It's such a cartoonish performance that one almost admires how he just went all over-the-top and never let up, even when he's helping a clearly unhinged Helen.

It is curious that until we get well past the halfway point What's the Matter with Helen? already has some pretty bonkers scenes that are scarier and spookier than Helen's mental deterioration.

The "Adelle's Kiddystar Revue" is startling on so many levels. The sequence opens with a staging of Animal Crackers in My Soup from the Shirley Temple film Curly Top. The various tyke singing and dancing up on stage is bizarre: various children dressed as animals while Linc's daughter mimics Temple to end up looking like an auto-animatronic figure. After that, another future star belts out Oh, You Nasty Man in the Mae West style. You are left virtually stunned that this little girl is so openly sexual, down to the vocal inflections.

The musical numbers conclude with a tribute to "our President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt". While everyone taps their heart out to John Phillips Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, all I could think was that the adulation FDR got bordered on idolatrous. 

Perhaps credit can be given that the lesbian aspects of What's the Matter with Helen? was not overplayed but were pretty obvious. Helen, despite her almost crazed faith in radio preacher Sister Alma (Agnes Moorehead) it's none-too-subtle that Helen is in love with Adelle. Her jealousy over the Adelle-Linc relationship could be passed off as mere suspicion, but what to make of Helen clutching and smelling Adelle's corset? She beat a similar scene in Brokeback Mountain by thirty-four years.

Moorehead acted mostly as a voice on the radio, having only one scene where she's on screen. I figure she thought What's the Matter with Helen? was an easy paycheck given she was there only to see Helen go bonkers. To her credit Reynolds did make the effort to make things believable, though at times she too went a bit into camp. Sometimes she brings out Adelle's vanity and desires well. Other times she seems a bit too dramatic. 

It is, however, Winters who seemed to be unsure if Helen really was crazy or merely paranoid. Winters can't seem to decide if Helen is merely lost in her own fears or a wrathful lesbian who won't let the object of her affection go. 

What sinks What's the Matter with Helen? is Henry Farrell's script. It wants to be shocking but ends up illogical. Take for example the man Helen killed. Given how the situation played out I would have declared it justifiable self-defense. Then we get the "shocking twist" that he was merely a messenger to notify Helen of a small inheritance. THEN we find out at the end that the man was actually a stalker who tried to get revenge on them for their sons killing his lover.

Well, which is it? It can't be both because one cancels out the other. If he was a stalker, why did he bring in a letter stating a long-lost relative had left Helen some money? If he was merely an innocent victim of Helen's paranoia, how then did the police discover he was really a vengeful potential killer. It would have simplified things to have things be one or the other. However, by trying to be all the situation just becomes unnecessarily confused.

We also do not know what happened to Hamilton Starr after he escorts Helen back inside the studio/home. Did Helen kill him too? Did he just leave? It never answers what the fate of this overtly strange man who just came in and out was. 

One aspect of What's the Matter with Helen? that perhaps hasn't been commented on is how the film sticks to stereotypes. Here, we have another "crazed lesbian killer" who would rather murder someone than let her sex goddess find a man of her own. Not that "crazed Christian fanatic killer" would have been any better. Granted, the film might not have wanted to go further into the barely suppressed sexual desires Helen harbored for Adelle. However, was her increasingly intense embrace of faith a way to try and suppress her "unnatural desires" or was her orientation finding an outlet through her almost worshipful attention to Sister Alma?

What's the Matter with Helen? would have done better to embrace its camp elements or been more serious. Instead, it wanted to be a hybrid of the two, leading to not a bad film but something less than we ended up with. 


Sunday, December 12, 2021

Murder at the Gallop: A Review (Review #1555)



As Murder, She Said was a surprise hit, there was no doubt that a Miss Marple sequel would be made. Murder at the Gallop stays close to the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple formula: a not-very-complicated murder mystery punctured with some humor. It is the very definition of a light romp, a breezy and enjoyable film that seeks only to entertain.

After coming upon the sudden death of rich recluse Mr. Enderby, Miss Marple (Rutherford) and her friend Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis) suspect it was not a mere heart attack. Instead, it was murder, where Mr. Enderby was literally frightened to death.

Who could be the murderer among his relatives, all of whom benefit from his death? His estranged sister Cora is soon ruled out, as she herself is quickly murdered. Miss Marple, aware that a murder based on inheritance rarely if ever ends in one murder, knows there's another one coming. Launching her own investigation, she goes to the Gallop Hotel and Riding Establishment.

Mr. Enderby's cousin Hector (Robert Morley) is delighted to have a formidable horsewoman staying at the Gallop. The other suspects: fourth cousin George Crossfield (Robert Urquhart), niece Rosamund (Katya Douglas) and her husband Michael (James Villiers) are less enthusiastic. What role if any could Cora's loyal companion Miss Milchrest (Flora Robson) have had in the case? Whodunit and why? Will solving the mystery mean Miss Marple may be the next victim herself?

Regardless of the logic of the conclusion, you know what kind of film Murder at the Gallop is when you see the portly, elderly Margaret Rutherford shake her groove thing when dancing The Twist. This is meant as light entertainment, with a greater focus on mirth than on murder. As such, we get treated to the double act of Rutherford and Morley doing sight gags. There is nothing that says "this is not serious" more than Hector literally putting his foot on Miss Marple's ample derriere as she pulls his boot off.

We even get a bit of an in-joke when Miss Marple advises the disbelieving Inspector Craddock (Bud Tingwell) to read Agatha Christie's fictitious The Ninth Life, where a cat is the murder weapon. "Agatha Christie should be compulsory reading for the police force," Miss Marple intones. Perhaps this homage to Christie was a way to apologize for taking her novel After the Funeral and switching the detective from Hercule Poirot to Miss Marple.

Then again, the MGM Miss Marple films were not exactly straightforward adaptations to start with.

The murders themselves are not graphic, adding to the lightness of Murder at the Gallop. As such, the enjoyment comes less from trying to find out who the murderer is than on the performances. Here, we get treated to a couple of nice ones.

Rutherford has an absolutely endearing face and manner as Miss Marple. She isn't stupid by any means, but she also is not strict or serious. Instead, she balances the danger with an almost impish manner, a twinkle in her eye among the various bodies lying around.

She is matched by Morley, who keeps to his usual slightly befuddled Englishman. Though the idea that Hector could be the murderer given how often he tut-tuts around, there are flashes of potential menace underneath the addled manner. Robson, the third of the three best-known names in the film, was a bit too forced in the "meek maid" manner, but I think this was right for the role.

Murder at the Gallop even allows for an ever-so-slightly opening to the innocent yet sweet manner between Miss Marple and Mr. Stringer, no surprise given that in real life Rutherford and Davies were married. While always referring to each other as "Miss Marple" and "Mr. Stringer", there is one moment when she calls him "Jim", indicating a little more than perhaps we have seen before.

If there are flaws to note in Murder at the Gallop, it is in the plot itself. Miss Marple overhears, for example, something about a valuable painting that may have been the motive (Miss Marple is a Mistress of Eves-dropping). Yet we have already heard the discussions about a painting that everyone wants but which Hector won't give (as it is not listed in the will he isn't required to). It feels a bit of a MacGuffin but not a particularly good one. 

Moreover, given its brief running time (at 81 minutes it is the shortest in the Miss Marple series) we do not have much time to see who could be the murderer. The actual murderer is slightly obvious only due to how they behave, not so much for the clues pointing this particular person out.

Still, those are minor quibbles. Murder at the Gallop is a delight from start to finish, a mystery one can watch without delving too much into things, anchored by a delightful performance from Margaret Rutherford. It may not be pure Christie, but it is pure entertainment.


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Alphabet Murders: A Review



MGM, having had great success with the Miss Marple series, decided to take Agatha Christie's other detective and give him the comedic touch. The Alphabet Murders is a bungled fiasco that put the kibosh on more Hercule Poirot comedy films. 

The great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Tony Randall) is stalked by many people. One is a mysterious femme fatale-like figure known only as ABC later identified as Amanda Beatrice Cross (Anita Ekberg). The other is bumbling spy Captain Hastings (Robert Morley). Both draw Poirot into investigating a series of murders where the victims each have the same initials (A.A., B.B. and so forth).

Who could be behind these series of murders? What role if any does ABC herself have? Is she really bipolar as her former psychiatrist Duncan Dorchester (Guy Rolfe) says? What about her jealous married boyfriend? There's a red herring in all this, and Poirot finds the surprising conclusion to these nefarious crimes.

The Alphabet Murders, based on Christie's The ABC Murders, is the rare case when a studio expected the same results by swapping a man for a woman in pretty much the same role. The Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films may have strayed far from Christie's original stories, but they had their own charm thanks to Rutherford. Whatever the flaws in them, they never made Miss Marple look like a total doofus. 

The Alphabet Murders, conversely, painted Poirot as a near-total idiot who just blustered his way around things. He as played by Randall is too much of a dolt to take serious as a protagonist. This is not laying the failure on Randall alone. I think he played the part as written: Poirot as nincompoop. However, by making Poirot into such a buffoon you wondered why anyone would think he could solve a series of murders as allegedly baffling as these.

His odd accent of unknown origin, his insanely grotesque nose (or rather beak), his strutting all turned Hercule Poirot into a foolish clown. Foolish clowns don't solve murders. It was a poor decision to lean in too much on comedy, and again it goes back to the Miss Marple films. They were amusing in the wordplay and some of the situations, but they never made Miss Marple herself or some of those around her into barely functioning figures. The Alphabet Murders, however, failed to learn those lessons and paid dearly.

There was a greater focus on sight gags than plot, which made The Alphabet Murders cringe-watching. You cannot take seriously a film whose brilliant detective not only goes bowling but almost skips across the bowling lanes. Again, I cannot fault Randall completely, and I say "completely" because he must have known that he was making his character too silly for all this. The fault mostly lies with director Frank Tashlin and screenwriters David Pursall and Jack Seddon. 

The former decided to make some sight gags too obvious: a steam room scene is shot in such a way to make it look like Poirot and Hastings are saying what the other is. The end result is not funny or clever but cringey. 

The latter mishandles what could have been a good plot with too many bad puns and situations. At one point, Poirot proudly proclaims to Hastings that a failed assassination attempt included finding a black widow in his bed.

"Black widow in his bed? I don't know why he should object to that unless she wasn't very..." Hastings responds to himself. GROAN. 

Later on, Poirot and a victim's boyfriend have a discussion while his wife is loudly snoring between them. Attempting to carry on a conversation as the Missus is sawing wood may have read funny on the page. It did not play funny on screen. 

Moreover, a lot of The Alphabet Murders does not make any sense or offer a chance to find the motive. Is Cross' split personality real or a front? We get information about her that one could not have known or even deduced, instead just coming out of thin air. We do not get any information as to the motive until near the end, and that too seems to come out of nowhere. It is a jumbled mess trying to get things going. 

If anything, The Alphabet Murders is best remembered as the only time that Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple ever crossed paths. Agatha Christie rejected the suggestion that they meet, let alone work together. She observed that Hercule Poirot, the complete egoist, would not like being told his business by an old busybody spinster. Here, we have Rutherford making a cameo appearance where she says that the solution is ABC to anyone with half a brain.

This briefest of scenes shows Christie was right. Rutherford's Marple shows up Randall's Poirot, diminishing him further into the blundering, blustering idiot The Alphabet Murders painted him as. It shows that each character works best in his/her own world. 

The Alphabet Murders was mercifully the debut and farewell to the Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot comedy film series. While at times Poirot has been more lighthearted than Dame Agatha intended (such as in the Peter Ustinov films), he was restored to a more serious figure with the Albert Finney, Kenneth Branagh and especially David Suchet interpretations. Randall delivered the performance asked of him, and for that I cannot fault him.

I can fault The Alphabet Murders for taking a good character and plot and making the worse thing possible: an unfunny comedy and idiotic murder mystery. 


Sunday, December 5, 2021

Ghostbusters: Afterlife. A Review



When theaters began slowly reopening after the (hopefully) worst of the COVID-19 pandemic/panic, older films were rereleased to welcome back audiences. Among them was the 1984 Ghostbusters, and one takeaway I had when I saw it again was a surprise as to how long it was. I have never been so enamored of Ghostbusters as to find it an unimpeachable classic. I was simply too young to be passionate about the first one. Just like Superman III star Annette O'Toole was unaware there was a Superman IV, I didn't know there was a Ghostbusters II, let alone seen it.  The Ghostbusters reboot was terrible, and I have long argued it wouldn't have been funny with men. 

Now we have either a course correction or a nostalgic trip of a sequel with Ghostbusters: Afterlife. It tries, bless its heart, it tries. However, I think your enjoyment of Ghostbusters: Afterlife will depend on how attached you are to the original Ghostbusters franchise. 

After the death of her father Egon Spengler, young Callie (Carrie Coon) takes her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) to Summerville, Oklahoma. Her long-absent father, known as a major eccentric, left them a dilapidated home, which for better or worse will have to do for the very poor Callie.

While here, the more intellectual Phoebe makes friends with a tween podcaster nicknamed "Podcast" (Logan Kim), whose podcast revolves around crime and the supernatural. Her brother Trevor has more interest in pretty Lucky (Celeste O'Connor), who works at a diner and is the Sheriff's daughter. Callie herself starts a tenuous romance with Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a generally disinterest science teacher far too bright for his job but far too fanboy of the original Ghostbusters.

There's something spooky going on in Summerville: earth tremors without any cause, a specter of sorts haunting Phoebe, the discovery of a secret lab, strange otherworldly figures bursting out from a long-abandoned mine. What evil is at work here, and what does both the town's origin story and Egon's mysterious work have to do with things? It all culminates with an epic battle against an old enemy, the reappearance of old frenemies and unexpected help from old friends. 

My sense is that because Ghostbusters means so much to so many, audiences will embrace all the shoutouts, cameos and nods to the original. The film has so permeated the culture that I think people who have never actually seen all or any of the various films probably know things like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The genuine love and affection the Ghostbusters franchise maintains with many, however, I think blinds people to Ghostbusters: Afterlife's flaws. 

Take for example the sequence where the miniature Stay Pufts create cute mayhem at the Walmart. The sight gags were at times cute, but other times creepy (they really would roast each other to make s'mores). Also, and I will admit I may be overthinking things here, how is this Walmart so empty at this particular time? 

I could not shake the sense that cowriter/director Jason Reitman (writing with Gil Kenan) was coasting too much on nostalgia to where other elements disappeared. Gary is meant to be reasonably intelligent, but he never seems bothered by the fact that he put the lives of two minors at risk by trying to open Egon's ghost trap. Other elements, such as Trevor's attempts at romancing Lucky or the logic of Phoebe being able to use her one-phone-call-from jail to call Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) from Summerville to New York seem flat-out pointless or illogical. 

A bigger issue is with Ivo Shandor (J.K. Simmons). This character, buried in a Lenin's Tomb-type manner, has no purpose. Worse, he barely says anything to his goddess Gozer before said goddess rips his body in half. For a film pushing two hours it not only felt longer but at times just adding things that did not serve much of a purpose.

Perhaps by biggest complaint however goes to what is meant to be a touching tribute. For myself, I found seeing the late Harold Ramis reappear as a literal ghost not at all moving but almost garish to freakish. There is something just so off-putting to me about the whole thing regardless of whether the family is fine with it or not. I was a little creeped out at the sight of Ramis fighting alongside the other returning original Ghostbusters. 

Here is where I separate myself from fans: they, I imagine, loved it, while I did not. Also, as a side note, I thought Ramis' Spengler looked more like a resurrected Trotsky but that's neither here nor there.

I think the actors on the whole did well with the material they were given. Wolfhard and Grace worked well in their roles of Trevor and Phoebe even if the former was more a cliche (bumbling lovelorn teen) and the latter veered close to being a Mary Sue-type, far more knowledgeable about everything and rarely if ever being wrong. Kim's efforts to be comic relief are appreciated if not embraced by me, and O'Connor felt the need to channel Zendaya's MJ from the MCU Spider-Man movies. To be fair she was better than Zendaya's eternally sarcastic MJ in that Lucky was capable of some humor, but on the whole, I think the script held everyone back.

There is nothing wrong with the love Ghostbusters elicits from its fans. I don't dislike the original one bit, though I confess to finding the fanaticism around it puzzling. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is pleasant enough, harmless nostalgia and fan service. I didn't warm up to it as others, but not terrible.