Sunday, July 31, 2022

Summer Under the Stars 2022: Some Thoughts

 


SUMMER UNDER THE STARS 2022

As we get ready for Turner Classic Movies annual Summer Under the Stars series, I note with some sadness how disappointed I am with this year's slate.

This is not to say that I am going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some selections are surprising: I never pictured that bombshell Raquel Welch would be featured on TCM's marathon of film stars. She and Jacqueline Bissett (whom I have advocated for in the past) make up the living performers, along with Clint Eastwood, last selected in 2018. Jane Powell missed being one of the living performers by a year, having died in 2021.

I do not know if Welch also fills the Hispanic slot, as she had not been cast in "Latin" parts for most of her career. Perhaps that slot is filled by Gilbert Roland, who like Welch is also I believe making his Summer Under the Stars debut and whom I have also championed as a SUTS player. 

Roland and Greta Garbo appear to share the silent film slot, as I cannot find a performer who is known exclusively or primarily for silent films in the Buster Keaton or Mary Pickford style. The African American slot is filled by the late Sidney Poitier, who was last selected in 2017 when he was still alive. For the second year in a row, TCM has opted for an Asian actor in their foreign-language slot in Japan's Toshiro Mifune, following last year's surprise and welcome selection of his fellow Japanese, actress Setsuko Hara.

Other choices are for me sheer delights. As a longtime fan of his work, I am thrilled that Jack Carson is finally getting his moment. Despite her small filmography, seeing Vivien Leigh selected is also a pleasant surprise.

With that being said, I confess to being a bit miffed by how routine a lot of the selections are. Let's look at some of this year's Summer Under the Stars players and see when we last saw them.

This year's SUTS player from 2016: Spencer Tracy, Jean Arthur

This year's SUTS player from 2017: Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Gene Kelly, Elvis Presley

This year's SUTS player from 2018: Sidney Poitier, Joan Crawford, Clint Eastwood, Myrna Loy

This year's SUTS player from 2019: Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando

This year's SUTS player from 2020: Cary Grant

Some might even be more repetitive. Poitier may have been selected in 2017 AND 2018, and Cary Grant might have popped up in 2017 as well as 2020. 

The point is simple: we are now getting pretty much the same players, sometimes the same films for those same players, on repeat. I get that if you are going to select Orson Welles, you pretty much have to play Citizen Kane. However, it would be nice if they played something like F for Fake, Filming Othello or They'll Love Me When I'm Dead. Granted, the last might be difficult given it is a Netflix production. However, I do not see major licensing issues for the other two, though I may be wrong.

Why can't Elizabeth Taylor have A Little Night Music or Young Toscanini for her day? What prevents Little Nikita or Sneakers to be screened for Sidney Poitier's day? Marilyn Monroe could have 1964 documentary The Legend of Marilyn Monroe or the early dramas Don't Bother to Knock or Niagara versus the usual selections of Some Like it Hot, The Prince & The Showgirl or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The mischievous part of me would get a thrill if Turner Classic Movies dared show The Island of Dr. Moreau for Marlon Brando, but I could go with the 2015 documentary Listen to Me Marlon. Instead, it's back to Teahouse of the August Moon, Mutiny on the Bounty, Julius Caesar and Reflections in a Golden Eye

The old hits. The familiar. What most TCM viewers have already encountered.

Yes, I understand licensing may be an issue, but is that a major reason to withhold Tortilla Soup or even Legally Blonde when it comes to Raquel Welch? 

It astonishes me that Jack Carson's best performances (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Mildred Pierce, the 1954 version of A Star is Born) are not listed as part of his day. To my mind, this will give a limited view of his range, to pigeonhole him as a comedy star when he could do so much more.

It also astonishes me that there is a myriad of character actors and foreign stars who could easily be selected, but somehow keep getting passed over for bigger names. I've tired of bringing up names that would make for new viewing for TCM fans (living performers as of this writing in red): Pedro Armendariz, Sr., Diane Baker, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow, Jessica Lange, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Margaret Dumond, Jeanne Moreau, Anthony Hopkins, Fernando Rey, Guy Kibbee, James Hong, Klaus Kinski, Charlotte Rampling, Joanne Woodward, Geraldine Page, Martin Landau, Bela Lugosi, Mary Wickes.

It should be pointed out that Stockwell and von Sydow died in 2021 and 2020 respectively. As such, they could have been selected while they were still alive versus picking "names" that have been dead for over 20 to 30 years.

There are so many stars, or at least names that longtime TCM viewers will recognize. Instead, we are going to take another turn on the Speedway, finding out that You Can't Take It with You and finding if these really are The Best Years of Our Lives.   

I am disillusioned with Summer Under the Stars both in terms of stars and features. Same stars, same films. I used to look forward to discovering new stars and new films. However, given that Turner Classic Movies is either unable or unwilling to search for either, why get excited? 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Nope: A Review (Review #1610)

 

NOPE

From what I have seen of his work, Jordan Peele loves science-fiction and horror. Get Out, Us, a revamped The Twilight Zone, Peele has shifted from his early days on Mad TV and Key & Peele. Nope is his first science-fiction feature.

My review is pretty simple: I nodded off. 

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) is struggling to keep the family's horse training facility Haywood's Hollywood Horses going after his father's death. His sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) would rather sell it to pursue her own Hollywood dreams, but the taciturn OJ won't give up on it.

The Heywood ranch neighbor, like the Heywoods, has Hollywood history too. While the Heywoods descend from the first person captured on film (the jockey from the 1887 photographic experiment A Horse in Motion), Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun) is a former child star. His claims to fame are starring in a kid show, Kid Sheriff, before costarring with a chimp named Gordy in Gordy's Home!. That show lasted two seasons due to how one of the chimps playing Gordy went bonkers, killing the cast when a balloon triggered him, leaving only Jupe alive.

Now Jupe runs a Western-themed play area, Jupiter's Claim. OJ has started selling his horses to Jupe, and is now contemplating selling him the abutting ranch too. That is, until otherworldly beings start menacing the area. To capture them on film (the Oprah shot as Emerald describes it), they get Angel (Brandon Perea), a Fry's Electronic employee. Later on, they recruit Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a cinematographer who rejects electronic equipment.

Jupe's plans to "lasso" the UFO meet with a grisly end for his park guests and his family, but the Haywoods may be able to capture the creature on film while also surviving its hunger.

I do not know what it says about Nope that I nodded off at what I figure was meant to be a big moment: the climatic confrontation between the Haywoods and the UFO. I think it is because by this time, Nope had long overstayed its welcome. At over two hours, Nope not only feels much longer, it adds elements that don't fit into whatever story it was looking at. 

You could have cut out all of Keith David as OJ, Sr. without impacting the story. You could have cut out other elements, such as a long segment where Jupe recounts with a mixture of horror and almost pride the horror of Gordy's Home!'s murderous rampage.

At the sight of the crazed chimpanzee killings, I just puzzled over why there were no animal handlers or trainers on set to bring the chimp to heel. I find it impossible to imagine that the cast would be left to its own devices as a chimp is killing people. I find it impossible to imagine that Saturday Night Live would create some kind of iconic comedic sketch about the Gordy's Home! slaughter. I find it impossible to imagine that Jupe, who would understandably be traumatized by all of that, would have a secret collection of Gordy's Home! artifacts that he charges people to secretly visit. I find it impossible to believe that Mary Jo Elliot (Sophia Coto), his Gordy's Home! teen costar, would come to Jupe's Lasso Experience at all, even if heavily veiled to hide the massive face wounds she received that bloody day.

Perhaps it seems too much to focus on, but I think Nope is so hopelessly bloated that it shifts away from what could have been a more entertaining film to say nothing.

I think of the performances and wonder what Peele was aiming for. I think Kaluuya and Palmer played their parts correctly, but that does not mean they were good parts or performances. The former's OJ is so catatonic that he might as well be asleep. I think that was the part, but it does not make one interested in seeing someone who is disengaged from the world survive. The latter's Emerald is the opposite, so loud as to be parody. Yeun was closer to Kaluuya's vastly understated manner, as if he was just there (and wasn't sure why).

Brandon Perea's Angel had moments where he could have come across as a wacky UFO enthusiast or believer, but he by the film's end fell into line of the not-enthusiastic manner. I found Wincott's performance funny, but not in a good way. It's hard, even with a gravely voice, to make the novelty song The Purple People Eater sound menacing versus as hilarious as it came across as. 

Mercifully, if there was any symbolism in any of this, it mercifully went over me. I'm sure many will find much in Nope that is deep or a commentary on something. For my part, I found nothing there.

In the end, would I watch this film again? Let me think of a word...

DECISION: D-

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Gray Man: A Review

 


THE GRAY MAN

I am not a fan of the strong, silent spy characters that populate many a thriller. Figures such as Lee Child's Jack Reacher or the late Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp are, to my mind, soulless and sterile. The Gray Man falls in the tropes of these action films. However, it managed to be extremely boring and far too long.

Super assassin known as Sierra Six or just Six (Ryan Gosling) finds his latest assignment a trifle more difficult. He does not botch the job but learns from the intended target that his true identity is Sierra Four. Four has secret information against Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page), a top CIA officer who has been up to no good.

Six now goes rogue, and with him in possession of the information Carmicheal seeks out Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a psychopath too crazy for the CIA. Hansen opts to hold hostage both Six's father figure/mentor Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and Fitzroy's niece Claire (Julia Butters). Now, with the help of his frenemy Miranda (Ana de Armas), Six travels the world to find the Fitzroys while Hansen chases after him, with the shadowy Tamil assassin Lone Wolf (Dhanush) in league with Hansen.

The best summation for The Gray Man for me is that it feels like the highlights special to a television show I have never seen or heard of. So much happened that it ended up showing us nothing happening. For example, Hansen's reluctant second-in-command Suzanne (Jessica Henwick) shouts at Hansen about how he killed Margaret Cahill (Alfre Woodward) and my response is, "Who is Margaret Cahill? Why should I care? What does it matter (especially since her character, we are helpfully told, is dying of cancer)?"

That we have a minor character made to be something of great importance with no buildup is a sign of how the novel might have built things up, but the film adaptation could not. It also set up a sequel without bothering to give us anything new.

What I find extraordinary is that I can summarize The Gray Man so briefly yet the film itself is over two hours long. And you feel every single minute of it, as it goes on and on, galivanting about all over the world and giving us nothing for our trouble. If there is a cliche that The Gray Man can hit when it comes to action films, it will go beyond hitting them and into pulverizing them.

Nefarious work at a spy agency? Check. Rogue, taciturn agent pursued by others? Check. World jumping? Check. Secondary figure dragged into things? Check. Minor in danger? Check. 

The Gray Man goes into some of the crew's worst instincts. Ryan Gosling has simply not changed his method in acting: silent, blank, confusing emotionless for intense.  How long will Gosling keep up this schtick? Granted, when he is saddled with lousy lines as "You guys taught me how to kill people, not care for them"; even if he had had a better adaptation from Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and co-director Joe Russo (directing with his brother Anthony), Gosling did not make us care about Six.

Gosling's restraint is countered by Evans' wild scenery chewing. I can grant a little leeway in that Lloyd Hansen is meant to be somewhat cartoonish. However, his quip-spouting figure with his Hitler mustache never proved menacing or serious. It is as if he knew The Gray Man was a paycheck and did not bother to take things seriously. As such, he took it as a license to overact. The one moment I thought was good was due to Evans. In the film, he says, "Extra ten million to the first guy to put a bullet in this Ken Doll's brain".

Whether that was a subtle jab at Gosling playing Ken in the Barbie movie, I cannot say.

It's a shame that Ana de Armas was reduced to a nothing role. With this and No Time to Die, I think de Armas is making a good case to be an action star in her own right. She's wasted in this role. Same for both Thornton and Woodward, cashing checks and not giving a damn. As for Dhanush's Lone Wolf (a comically bad name), who he is or why he develops scruples later on is a puzzle. I figure he is there to set up for a sequel, but The Gray Man never makes a case for why we would care about Six. 

The fight scenes were similarly boring even if they were at times bordering on cartoonish. There's a laziness to some of them, where they end up more a chore than a thrill.

Dull story, poor performances, pointless situations. I thought The Gray Man was the worst film I have seen this year. Absolutely the worst, and the idea that there will be more horrifies me. If I wanted to see better takes on what The Gray Man offered, I'd go see Taken or Man on Fire, though not Suicide Squad, all of which The Gray Man took from.

We fade to Gray, and hope it fades away.

DECISION: F

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Topsy-Turvy (1999): A Review

 

TOPSY-TURVY

In The Fighter, there's a scene where a man takes a potential girlfriend to a tonier part of Boston, ostensibly for a date but really to hide his budding relationship from his family. The film he picks at random is Belle Epoque, which they mispronounce as "Bell Epo-Q". We next see them bored out of their minds, with the woman irritatedly suffering through a dull film as she sees the man dead-asleep, snoring through this artsy feature far removed from their working-class roots.

I imagine they would have the same reaction to Topsy-Turvy, a love letter to the art of artistic collaboration and conflict. At times too indulgent in presentation, Topsy-Turvy can also be a celebration, or at least an acknowledgement, to the personal and professional rewards of the creative process.

Theater masters Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) are finding that they are in something of a creative rut. Sullivan is not in the best of health; Gilbert is not in the best of tempers. Their collaborations have been wildly successful, but Sullivan in particular thinks their comic operas are a distraction from more serious work. Moreover, Sullivan thinks they are repeating themselves, which Gilbert disagrees on.

Their newest production has to be delayed, with a revival of their previous work, The Sorcerer, as a stopgap until they can finally get their creativity back. Upon seeing a Japanese exhibition, Gilbert comes upon the idea that will become The Mikado. This idea reignites Sullivan as well, and the rest of Topsy-Turvy revolves around the various rehearsals and all that entails. The temperamental stars, the exacting nature of producers, the excessive calls for authenticity. All the preparations finally result to the premiere, where The Mikado becomes a triumph.

At nearly three hours, Topsy-Turvy will test many a viewer's patience. A lot of Mike Leigh's film seems to take up more time than necessary on giving us this peek into Victorian theater. We get a lengthy recreation of a scene from The Sorcerer that while nice separate from the film adds nothing to the overall story. At the hour and 17-minute mark, I stopped watching, feeling that Topsy-Turvy dragged far too much. 

Perhaps having an intermission would have helped the film (as well as cutting most if not all of The Sorcerer sequence). I found that once I took a breather, I could appreciate Topsy-Turvy a little bit more. I think it is that once we get to the central plot (the creation of The Mikado), the film picks up.

The various difficulties with mounting a production: troubled and troubling actors, the loss and gain of star-making moments, efforts to be accurate that end up as clumsy efforts at ethnic accuracy. These are moments that anyone involved in the creative process understands.

The second half allows for funny and true moments. In an early role, Kevin McKidd's turn as prudish divo Dulward Lely is amusing, insisting on proper recognition while complaining that his costume is too revealing. Timothy Spall as the aging star whose big number was cut to have the cast stand up for him also works. 

As the leads, both Broadbent and Corduner as the temperamental Gilbert and surprisingly lascivious Sullivan did well. Their interplay as they work together while working out their differences is enjoyable to watch. It is unfortunate that it takes over half an hour to see them share the screen, which is due to the length of the film itself.

The makeup and costumes are deserving of their Oscar wins, and we get beautiful recreations of the Victorian era. 

However, again at close to three hours Topsy-Turvy can be very punishing. I also think the film is a little too hoity-toity for my tastes. As such, I have to give it the mildest of dislikes. I'm sure that a Mikado performance is more entertaining and probably shorter than the film on how it came to be.

DECISION: C-

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Thor: Love and Thunder. A Review

 

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER

I do not think that a film has had such contempt for its lead character as Thor: Love and Thunder has. Plotless, pointless, pretty witless, its efforts to make the world's longest and most expensive soap opera jokey end up making it a waste of time to all but the MCU's hardest of hardcore fans.

Narrated somewhat by rock creature Korg (cowriter/director Taika Waititi), we learn that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is palling around with the Guardians of the Galaxy, forever fighting battles and forever making a mess wherever he goes. This himbo with an inflated view of himself eventually returns to Earth after learning of a new threat to both himself as a god and to New Asgard.

New threats, rather, as there is Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), who has sworn to kill all the gods, and a surprise rival for both the title of Thor and his beloved hammer Mjolnir. It is in the shape of The Mighty Thor, who just happens to be Thor's ex-girlfriend, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Despite having Stage Four cancer, Jane can wield Mjolnir with ease. Thor's longing for his old hammer causes conflict with his new weapon, Stormbreaker.

Gorr has abducted all the children, and now it is up to Old Thor, New Thor, Korg and King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to rescue them. The other gods are no help, particularly Thor's hero, Zeus (Russell Crowe), a dilettante who is sillier than Thor and does not take Gorr seriously. Now it is up to the Asgardian crew to fight Gorr, stop him from reaching Eternity where his one wish will be granted, and save the children. Will everyone survive?

I think there is consensus that Thor has been one of the weaker MCU characters. Unlike the evolution of Steve Rogers into Captain America or Tony Stark's Iron-Man journey from arrogant to conflicted, Thor has pretty much not changed. At least not changed enough to where he is different in Love and Thunder as he was in his debut. I would argue that he actually has regressed from 2011's Thor to 2022's Love and Thunder. In the former, he was arrogant and pompous, but that fit his life prior to being banished to Earth.

Now, he is still arrogant and pompous, but that is mixed with a blinding idiocy. Less a muscular man of action and more a meathead Mr. Magoo, he apparently journeys with the Guardians to save various worlds but appears unaware of the chaos and destruction he himself causes. Early on, despite being victorious against his foes, he is blissfully, happily unaware that the Guardians are tired of his lofty battle declarations or that the planet's sacred temple was destroyed behind him. Thor appears to think he will be praised, the collapse of the structure he was asked to save being a non-issue for him. 

Love and Thunder has no structure. The entire opening with the Guardians of the Galaxy could easily have been cut given how unnecessary it was to the film. Same with the visit to the gods' compound, which added nothing to the story except the chance to see Russell Crowe ham it up for a nice paycheck.  For an actor once known as this intense performer, seeing him adopt a bizarre accent and daintily lift up his skirt as he skips down the stairs shows people will do anything if the price is right.


The phrase "as funny as cancer" has taken on a new meaning with Portman's Jane Foster. When Foster's wacky BFF points out that she has Stage Four cancer, Dr. Foster replies, "It's Stage Four, out of how many stages?" Hold the beat, with reply of "Four". The delivery from both actresses is cringe inducing.

Granted, not as cringe inducing as Melissa McCarthy's cameo as Hela in a New Asgard stage show, but it is hard to impossible to look on her impending death with any interest. If Love and Thunder does not care, why should we?

The film is desperate to be jokey to funny, but the comedy such as it is, is forced. I cannot figure out why Thor, who should on some level realize that children are in danger of being killed, can try to encourage them by calling them "Team Kids in a Cage" to their faces. It makes him look stupid. Love and Thunder almost goes out of its way to make its lead look stupid. The sight of this mighty, hunky Asgardian going all fanboy when he sees Zeus fly down should depress longtime fans, not cause them to cheer. Seeing Bao, God of Dumpling pop up just shows how Love and Thunder went overboard on the goofy.

There are no performances in Love and Thunder. Hemsworth, to my mind, is not an actor. He's a very built, good-looking action star, which is fine. However, I did not see a character or performance. I saw someone just speaking words written for him with no sense of conviction. Portman too seemed like she just wanted to get through this, but at least with the opportunity to show she could play superhero. 

Bale has been much praised, but I think he was in Love and Thunder so little that it did not impact me one bit. He filled the requirement for an antagonist, that is all. 

It is sad that Waititi, who cowrote the script with Jennifer Kaytlin Robinson, now enjoys mocking the visual effects in his own film. For a movie that cost an estimated $250 million dollars to make, some of the visual effects are sometimes shockingly weak. Given the reports of how the VFX staff was pushed to create so much with few resources and limited time, I won't be harsh on this aspect.

I think Thor: Love and Thunder was not interested in the title character. I think it was interested in making fun of the title character. I think it was interested in looking as silly as it could. Whether it was using November Rain for a climactic battle (which I still think is the wrong use for the Guns & Roses song) or Thor telling someone he has kept people at arm's length (and then literally putting his arm out to keep someone at arm's length), the film I think isn't fun.

I think it makes fun of both the characters and its devoted fanbase. More than anything, Thor: Love and Thunder lives up to Martin Scorsese's remark that comic book movies are theme parks. Given that New Asgard is essentially a theme park itself, down to an Infinity Cones Ice Cream Shop and a tacky stage show of Thor: Ragnarök, Marty is right.

DECISION: D-

Next Marvel Cinematic Universe Film: Wakanda Forever

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: A Review

 


DOCTOR STRANGE IN 

THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS

As we continue with the world's longest and most expensive soap opera, I find that Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is determined to be more expansive. To follow Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, you have to have knowledge not only of the previous Doctor Strange film but also Captain Marvel, the ABC television shows Agent Carter and Inhumans, the Disney+ television shows WandaVision and What If...? as well as previous X-Men television cartoons and films and even past Fantastic Four films. Less a feature film than a mishmash of past and future projects, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will keep the middle-aged devotees of the MCU thrilled, while leaving the rest of us slightly underwhelmed.

Doctor Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has little to no time to see his former love Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) marrying someone else. Into his life from another dimension comes America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman who can travel through various dimensions that contain myriad versions of people in this, our dimension. In fact, it is her version of Doctor Strange that died getting her into our version to get Doctor Strange's help.

Help that Strange needs from Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Still grieving the death of her great love Vision and the loss of her imaginary children, Wanda is, we find out, eager to find America and take her powers so that she can find that version of Wanda that will have her children restored to her.

Yes, at this point I do have many, many questions about her looney scheme, but I have to roll with things.  

Attacking and pursuing America like a crazed harpy, Wanda eventually chases Strange and America to an alternate universe where we find The Illuminati, a collection of superheroes we have seen variations of in other films, television shows and even from other franchises. They range from Captain Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) to Mr. Fantastic/Reed Richards (John Krasinski) to Professor X/Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Scarlet Witch is able to dispatch them all quite easily via "dreamwalking" or taking over the body of her doppelganger in this universe.

It will take all of Strange's powers, along with the corpse of his own, to do battle with this wounded villainess.

I have yet to understand why the Marvel Cinematic Universe genuinely believes this is epic storytelling on a level dwarfing such efforts as Remembrance of Things Past or The Iliad. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series and Wagner's Ring Cycle are more compact than the whole of the MCU. I have never seen any Disney+ Marvel television shows and fail to see why I should. If not for the saturation that WandaVision had, I would not have understood Wanda's fixation on recreating a world that simply never existed. 

Moreover, looking into this part of the MCU/Disney+ franchise, I am squarely on the "Wanda is a homicidal maniac" side of the debate, so the efforts to make her actions sympathetic or make her some kind of tragic figure fall flat with me. Her insistence that she and Strange are somehow the same is laughable.

To coin a phrase, some people would rather destroy whole multiverses rather than get therapy.

I am not so enamored of the past that I need constant shout-outs to it. Moreover, I find such actions more grating than endearing. It is barely tolerable for me to see 81-year-old Patrick Stewart trotted out for a meaningless, pointless cameo that serves only to make middle-aged man-children squeal with glee. To have the animated X-Men television theme play as he comes out is to my mind rather insulting and insufferable. I genuinely do not get excited in seeing characters that I have no idea who or what they are appear for cameos, which is what the Illuminati scene was.

It was fan-service pure and simple, pointless, unnecessary and illogical. It seems almost a waste of time to see Scarlet Witch destroy them so easily and to my mind rather gruesomely. Reed Richards' disintegration was rather grotesque, making him even less necessary.

As a side note, I do not know if John Krasinski will eventually play Reed Richards in an upcoming Fantastic Four film or series of films. However, the flat-out laughter from the audience that accompanied his appearance does not bode well. I think Krasinski would make a good Mr. Fantastic, though to be fair the Fantastic Four have stubbornly failed to translate into films, having failed to jumpstart two franchises.

I also do wonder if these middle-aged children will demand explanations as to why the first Johnny Storm/Human Torch and Steve Rogers/Captain America look exactly alike in the same way Doctor Who fans demanded an explanation as to why the Twelfth Doctor and Caecilius from the Doctor Who episode The Fires of Pompeii looked exactly alike. Yet I digress.

I noted that Wanda made A Beautiful Mind's John Nash look sane by comparison. There was an almost comic manner to Olsen's performance, as if she was directed by Sam Raimi to be so overdramatic as our villainess. I found her to be camp, devouring the scenery with total abandon.

Perhaps this was to compensate for the blank Gomez as our first "Latinx" heroine. She had no personality, no great interest apart from looking perpetually confused. She did not pop out as a character, save perhaps for being the woke element of not just being "Latinx" but having two moms. 

Neither was of importance, except perhaps for some Spanish thrown in to mock Strange's lack of multilingual skills. At that point, she to be fair did show something to America: being a bit of an entitled bitch. As with most Hispanics, I detest the term "Latinx" and if America Chavez is meant to be progress, inclusivity and representation for my community in Phase Four, I'd rather not be represented at all. 

At least until they can find a better actress or better material to give her.

I have never been enamored of Benedict Cumberbatch either and looking back now I cannot remember whether he was interested in Multiverse of Madness or just decided to take the money and run. I guess after losing Best Actor twice one can coast through things like live-action cartoons. 

To be fair, there are some positives to be seen. Certain moments such as when Strange and Chavez crash through a series of multiverses is beautifully filmed. However, other moments almost smacked of desperation. I think Agent/Captain Carter said, "I could do this all day", obvious riffing off Steve Rogers' Captain America quote. 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness had nothing for me. However, I have to recognize that Phase Four of the world's longest and most expensive soap opera ever made has not had anything for me for some time. Even the Phase Four films that I did positive reviews to, now in retrospect, feel like I was almost cajoled into it. Should I ever revisit them I might change my mind; for now, I do not think any version of me would want to see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness again.

DECISION: D-

Next Marvel Cinematic Universe Film: Thor: Love and Thunder

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The Black Phone: A Review (Review #1605)

 


THE BLACK PHONE

I confess to finding the premise of The Black Phone very disturbing. As such, I was not eager to see it. However, The Black Phone offers some excellent performances, a great sense of atmosphere and a mostly restrained visual style that works well.

1978, the suburb of West Denver is being terrorized by a kidnapper known as The Grabber. The community is concerned, but life has to go on. That life, however, is not particularly good for Finney (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwendolyn (Madeline McGraw). Living with their abusive father Terrence (Jeremy Davies), Finney also endures bullying, though both Gwen and tough kid Robin Arellano (Miguel Cazares Mora) come to his aid.

Robin may be tough, but not tough enough against The Grabber. Neither is Finney, who is the next victim. A terrified Finney now has to deal with The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) and his deadly games. Finney, however, has surprise allies via a disconnected telephone in the basement he's been held in: the voices of the Grabber's past victims. Each call and some appear to Finney, giving him information that will culminate in his efforts to survive and escape. 

Gwen is also able to help via her psychic powers and dreams which she attributes to her ideas of God. These are inherited from her late mother, which also cause Terrence great pain and may explain his violent manner and drunkenness, but will it be enough to save Finney from being killed? The race is on to save Finney and bring closure to the Grabber's past victims.

I get very uneasy when I learn of films where kids are placed in danger or killed. There is something distasteful to me about movies that place the most vulnerable in those types of dangers. One of my major concerns with The Black Phone as advertised was that it was veering towards torture porn; I am glad however that director Scott Derrickson (adapting the Joe Hill short story with C. Robert Cargill) was quite restrained on the subject.

The most violent abduction was that of Finney in terms of visuals, where the rest were either hinted at or not shown. Moreover, we saw at most only a few of them post-mortem, and even that was kept from being gruesome. There were a couple of jump scares, but The Black Phone used them sparingly. That in turn made them more effective. 

People who make horror or supernatural films should take a lesson from The Black Phone that sometimes less is more. Rather than drench the audience in blood, The Black Phone filled the film with atmosphere, making things more involving and frightening.

The atmosphere also went into the film's visual style, which felt as if this was the late 1970s. The overall look of The Black Phone kept to both the times it was set and the dark, creepy nature of the story.


The Black Phone has been hailed for Ethan Hawke's performance of The Grabber. I am a little more lukewarm towards Hawke in this film. I am not saying he was anywhere near bad. He was effective as this creepy monster, someone in the John Wayne Gacy mode of serial killers with a dash of the theatrical. However, at times I did think he was a little camp and overdone as said crazed killer, putting in more theatricality than I thought necessary. On the whole, Hawke was effective: cold, cruel, with open sadism, he does not bother to try and make The Grabber sympathetic.

I would hope that The Black Phone is more remembered for the performances of the younger set. Thames is absolutely excellent as Finney. He shows Finney's fears, confusion and determination to survive. The evolution of Finney from this nice kid who is targeted by bullies to finding the courage to fight against the most dangerous of bullies is one of the best performances by a teenager that I have seen in a long time. The soon-to-be fifteen-year-old carries The Black Phone on his shoulders and makes it a star-making turn.

More than equal to Thames is McGraw as the younger sister. She is able to be sweet and sarcastic in equal measure, terrified of her abusive father but also mouthing off at the cops who cannot comprehend that she knows details due to her visions versus literally being The Grabber. One moment she is blaspheming against God for giving her visions but not helping find Finney, the next she is bicycling down the streets she has seen, begging forgiveness for doubting.

In turns funny and intense, McGraw shows a range and maturity far beyond her years.

I do not think there is a bad performance in the film. There are the ones from the boys who were victims and despite sometimes not being seen show distinct personalities. The adults also had strong moments, such as Davies, who went past the abusive father role to reveal a reason for his behavior. It does not justify his violent manner towards his children, but it also shows that he is not a monster.

I might be predisposed to move The Black Phone higher if not for the overall subject matter, which still troubles me. Less a horror film and more a thriller with supernatural elements, I think The Black Phone works well, builds up atmosphere, and is mostly logical. It has the benefit of excellent performances, and I think fans of the genre will like it. It is not in the Saw or Insidious mode, but it is a good film. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

Minions: The Rise of Gru. A Review (Review #1604)


MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU

The talking twinkies and their "Mini Boss" are back at it again. Minions: The Rise of Gru is silly, frothy fun, with lots of jokes that parents will appreciate and big, bright colors and silliness that kids will like.

In 1976, 11-year-old aspiring super-villain Gru (Steve Carell) is eager to join the Vicious Six, an international criminal gang. Oddly, the group, headed by groovy super-villain Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson) scoffs at the idea of a minor replacing White Knuckles (Alan Arkin), whom the Vicious Six has gotten rid of via nefarious means.

However, you can't keep a good, or bad, child villain down. Gru steals a magical medallion from right under the Vicious Six's noses. Unfortunately, Otto, one of the Minions (Gru's yellow, gibberish-spouting henchmen) trades it in for a pet rock. In the confusion, White Knuckles returns from apparent death and abducts Gru as part of his revenge against the Vicious Six. The main Minions now go to San Francisco to rescue Gru, trained by Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh) in the art of kung-fu, while Otto manages to recover the medallion.

In San Fransisco, it is full-on chaos during Chinese New Year as the Minions, Gru and White Knuckles join forces to battle the Vicious Six in an ultimate showdown involving magic and mischief. With Gru triumphant and his mentor making yet another miraculous resurrection, there is no limit to their wickedness.

I was charmed by Minions: The Rise of Gru. This film does not take itself seriously and coming in at a brisk 88 minutes we still get a lot of Minion mayhem. In their strange language and oddball antics, I think the Minions have grown into quite the delightful symbols of playful anarchy. Their efforts to get to San Francisco will be the highlight for the toddler set with their inability to fly an airplane properly.

There are a lot of sight gags that work to elicit laughter. Of particular note is when via Gru's narration we see how the Minions answered a help wanted ad and convinced Gru to hire them by pulling a fast one over him involving the rain. The Rise of Gru has very funny moments that show it is not above being absurd beyond the point of rationality, but I think it knows its target audiences: small kids and their families.

While kids will enjoy the Minions going about their lunacy, the parents will I think appreciate the various visual shout-outs and puns. The opening credits are clearly a spoof of James Bond openings, and the film is not afraid of almost groan-inducing wordplay. The Vicious Six's criminal gang not only includes a person named "Belle Bottom", but another villain named Nun-chuck, who is a literal nun that swings nun chucks. As The Rise of Gru is set firmly in the 1970s, audiences will get a lot of disco music. 

Somehow, the idea of torturing little Gru in a device dubbed the "Disco Inferno" by having him spin on a giant record to Andrea True Connection's More, More, More is hilarious. Granted, it got that song stuck in my head for about two days, but it was a torture I was willing to live with. The feel for the 70s extended to the film's theme Turn Up the Sunshine, helped by having Diana Ross sing the song. We get nods to Tupperware parties and pogo sticks (which I was unaware were big in the 70s), pet rocks and an oddly moving use of The Carpenters.

If anything, The Rise of Gru understood that there had to be something for adults to latch on to.

Curiously, The Rise of Gru managed to evoke memories of more recent films like Everything Everywhere All at Once and even The Black Phone. However, there is nothing in The Rise of Gru that I think would give offense. One or two moments might be a bit intense for really small kids, but the film quickly establishes that things are ultimately all right.

The Rise of Gru is not perfect. The film did not use the voice cast to the best of its abilities. With a cast that had not just Henson but Lucy Lawless, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Julie Andrews voicing various characters, they did not seem that important. However, on the whole I think Minions: The Rise of Gru will please kids who love the Minions and their parents and grandparents who will like hearing the latest offerings from the Criminal Records store. 

Silly, frothy, short enough to keep small ones amused, The Rise of Gru works well enough to be a nice, cute, delightful romp.

DECISION: B-