BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER

By Marc S. Sanders

Marvel does it right.  DC doesn’t.  Black Panther: Wakanda Forever  is not a perfect film, but it’s not Black Adam.  The latest Marvel production offers sharp visual effects and action scenes, along with thought provoking moments that reflect on loss.  Black Adam offers a crusty, yellow lightning bolt on the chest of The Rock.

Director Ryan Coogler was faced with a terrible challenge to make the follow up to his smash hit, Black Panther.  The star at the center of the film, Chadwick Boseman, unexpectedly passed away from colon cancer.  A screenplay for the film’s sequel had to suddenly be rehashed.  A unified cast had to work with a hole in its structure.  Coogler opted not to recast the role of T’Challa, the King of the fictional African nation, Wakanda.  That was a smart choice.  Boseman’s portrayal was so embraced in that film, as well as three other Marvel chapters, that he was seemingly irreplaceable.  T’Challa was not just another James Bond or Batman.

I liked most of Wakanda Forever.  First and foremost, the primary cast is mostly female and Marvel’s early reputation with female characters left a lot to be desired when all they would do is flirt with the action star and scream for help.  As well, none of the women characters were very diverse.  The African influence of the Black Panther characters demonstrate that the Marvel universe is unlimited in appearance and style.  (Star Wars productions of late prove that as well.) 

The design of the picture is also gorgeous.  I still yearn for Wakanda to be a real locale that can be toured.  I’m sure Disney is already giving this some thought.  At times, it was hard to know what overhead locations were mere CGI and what was real.  The backdrops are seamless.  The whole movie is gorgeous. 

The sensitivity to the loss of Boseman is especially handled beautifully.  The opening sequence is a ceremony we have all been waiting for since the actor’s death two years prior to the release of the film.  Some of the customs and practices might be fictional, albeit inspired by what has been researched in other factual nations and observances, but it is also endearing.  The silence of the Marvel logo montage will especially grab you.

Wakanda Forever is carried primarily by Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.  The film takes place one year after T’Challa has passed away from a disease and she is not ready to burn the funeral garb she wore when his soul was sent off to the ancestors.  However, while Wakanda was once thought to be the sole resource of Vibranium, the most powerful element in the world, a new character is introduced from under the ocean.  Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is the mutant who leads a nation of underwater dwellers with their own source of Vibranium.  He proposes that his nation works in conjunction with Wakanda to protect what they possess from other nations (like the United States and France; though why must Marvel show these countries in a bad light?) who could potentially use this commodity for nefarious purposes. 

From this seed in the storyline, subplots are branched out.  They just don’t work, though.  Wakanda’s American ally, Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), is brought back into the fold.  He only adds unnecessary running time to a very long film.  First, he provides a lead on to a new character, that’s expected to fill the hole left by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man.  A character named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who I have learned becomes the super hero Iron Heart with a new Iron suit.  After that Ross is left to watch Anderson Cooper on CNN as we have already seen the plot unfolding for ourselves, and have conversations with a character named Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis Dreyfus, looking at her most uninteresting and boring).  I know. This character serves as teaser fodder for what the MCU promises in future installments, but why is it necessary?  I believe this is her third appearance between the films and Disney + shows.  All she does is drag the stories down.  Wakanda Forever is a 2 hour and 40-minute film, that could have saved thirty minutes without the characters from Freeman and Dreyfus, and likely Thorne as well.  Let’s just stick with the Wakandans and forget about advertising what’s coming next from the Marvel factory, please.

Another issue with the film is the delay of showing the new Black Panther.  That’s what we ultimately paid for.  The middle section of this long running time had me yearning for when I could see the new suit in action, and who was going to wear it.  When it finally arrives in the third act, I gotta say I was let down.  While there’s a newly inventive design, like each time there was with Iron Man, we don’t see much of what’s new in action and there’s hardly anything that’s novel about it.  Does this Black Panther suit offer any new tricks? 

What’s fortunate for the film is the cast.  Letitia Wright has a good balance of youth segueing into maturity as she toils with loss.  I love this angle in the same way I appreciated the cancer storyline written for Natalie Portman in Thor: Love And Thunder.  Superpowers do not shield us from what slowly dwindles our lives away.  Angela Basset remains a very strong actor after an over forty-year career as the surviving Queen of Wakanda.  She commands a powerful presence of authority.  Danai Gurira as the spear wielding acrobatic Wakandan warrior Okoye is absolutely cool in action scenes.  She also has well written scenes to perform with the other two leads, as her character’s commitment to country is tested. 

Ironically, the Namor character is one of the oldest Marvel characters in print, introduced long before Spider-Man or the Hulk came on the page.  I was never a fan of the character though.  He just didn’t have a cool enough costume for me as it was only a bathing suit and he had wings on his ankles.  Meh.  I feel the same way here.  The back story of the character is altered to fit the mold of the script, and that’s okay, but I didn’t feel for this antagonist’s plight.  In the prior film, I was more on the side Eric Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) cause than I was on T’Challa’s.  In this film, Namor is just a guy to do battle with while he flies and swims.

Ryan Coogler is a detailed director.  When I’m in Wakanda, I want to explore every building and hop aboard each vehicle that hovers overhead.  He leaves no stone unturned.  I would have chosen for some of the action scenes to be shot in the daytime so I could get a better look at what goes on.  I feel that way about all action and adventure films.  However, a darkened action scene in nearly any Marvel film is much more articulated than any scene, daylight or otherwise, in Black Adam from DC.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a good film, but not great, mostly due to its overstayed running time.  What should have been cut from the final reel is obvious.  Yet, good writing and acting allows for the film that many Marvel fans needed after one of their heroes left us.  Losing Chadwick Boseman likely equates to how we lost our Superman, Christopher Reeve.  It seemed so unfair that someone who offered such heroic optimism and joy could be taken from our reach so early in life.  At least, the loss of Boseman was thankfully not washed over with a replacement that could never fill his void.

BLACK ADAM

By Marc S. Sanders

Black Adam has to be the first superhero movie that apologizes for the mind numbingly stupid two hours you just endured, by offering up an enticing ninety second end credits scene.  That’s all that this headache inducing piece of noise has going for it; the end credit scene.  The film is so headache inducing that I’d rather be serenaded with a duet performance of a car alarm and a leaf blower singing a rendition of a song I’ve always despised, like Red, Red Wine.

About twenty minutes into Dwayne Johnson’s debut into the DC Cinematic Universe, as the title character, I reflected on Raiders Of The Lost Ark from 1981.  Remember when the government suits ask Indiana Jones about the significance of the Ark Of The Covenant?  It took three minutes to sum up what was at stake, what the hero was going after and who he was expected to be up against.  That’s it.  After that, the piece was constructed to offer up one kind of stunt or action sequence or visual effect after another.  The difference is that everything you saw served its story and thus carried on the pursuit. How I long for the days of intelligent writing.

Black Adam tries at least three times over the course of two hours to explain brainless conjecture about an ancient city where its inhabitants dig for some powerful element, called Eternium, at the behest of their harsh ruler.  Then there’s something about a crown and a slave boy who comes into play.  Later, I think his father is mentioned, but I was nodding off by then.  I’m only mad at myself for focusing more on inhaling the contents of my popcorn bucket rather than getting invested in a movie.  My mission was no longer to maintain an interest in this big budget comic book tripe.  Now, I was destined to get to the bottom of my overly priced snack food container.  This is not why I go to the movies, people!

When the movie is not talking (which hardly ever happens), it is pounding at my cranium with horrible CGI dust clouds and lightning bolts that offer up blindingly, irritating sights and bombastic sounds.  My eyes hurt.  My ears hurt.  Light a firecracker, drop it in a tuba and blow.  It’s likely more soothing to the senses.  For surround sound, turn on your garbage disposal with your car keys in it.  It’ll all be much more harmonious and pleasant. 

What little I know of Black Adam is limited to a scant few comic book images.  Long before I knew of Dwayne Johnson, it seemed inevitable that only this guy could play the part.  It’s an uncanny resemblance.  No one else can play this role.  The supporting cast is promising, especially a sophisticated and well-aged Pierce Brosnan as the one with sorcerer like powers.  His Dr. Fate is maybe DC’s equivalent to Marvel’s Dr. Strange.  Aldis Hodge is Hawkman, and he looks absolutely confident in the guise with outspread bird wings and a kick ass helmet and spiked ball on a staff for a personal weapon.  A guy named Noah Centineo is the Atom Smasher.  He’s cute enough to fill the void for Ezra Miller when he eventually gets fired from his cushy gig as the Flash.

So, I don’t get it.  Warner Bros and DC assemble a terrifically talented cast who not only look good in the costumes, but can act with timing as well. Yet, they give them nothing to do but be digitized in terrible CGI that makes the Hanna Barbera Superfriends cartoons look like breakthrough technology.  Everything looks terribly animated in Black Adam, and therefore it’s as boring as a church sermon that won’t end because the minister is overindulging in chastising you for cheating on your diet.  Johnson on the big screen flying up to the top of a towering monument looks ridiculous, like an ¾ inch action figure next to a life size kitchen refrigerator.  I’m supposed to believe that’s Dwayne Johnson up there?  Probably because Johnson was not in the image, or if he was there, he had no concept what he was supposed to be looking at.  Captions like this happen multiple times here, but they are all devoid of emotion or depth.  The statue itself looks unfinished by the effects wizards.  There’s hardly any detail to it. What’s it supposed to signify?  I completely bought it when Christopher Reeve flew against the skyscrapers of Metropolis way back when.  In today’s age of films, this movie takes about a hundred steps back in progress.  Everything looks artificial.  Nothing looks convincing.

Black Adam is also unsure of a well contained story.  I’ll take no issue with the movie being episodic if that’s what its intention was meant to be.  First the main character is fighting a military that stems from I don’t know what organization or country.  They fire rockets and machine guns at him.  Does nothing.  So, what do I care?  Then he’s fighting the other super heroes in the picture.  They pound each other into the desert streets and dust clouds heighten into the earth.  What’s to be gained from any of that? Black Adam then fights a gang that looks no more threatening than a lame motorcycle posse.  Eventually, he’s battling some kind of CGI devil monster who needs a cough drop.  This guy mustn’t sit on the throne located at the top peak over the city.  If he does, all hell breaks loose and blah, blah, blah.  This is like watching a lame CW TV series crammed into two long tortuous hours.  How does this movie go from here to there and then over there and end up wherever?  I gave up trying to string it all together.

It’s ridiculous how dumb Black Adam is, especially when you consider how much thought went into a ninety second epilogue teaser before you leave the theatre.  I’m sorry but I expect these filmmakers and studios who harbor these big budgets and hype to work on the same level of imagination and craft as a Steven Spielberg or a Christopher Nolan.  Nolan reinvented the Batman franchise.  He took his time to flesh out character motivation while painting a scenery for his own flavor of Gotham City.  Marvel did this as well when Jon Favreau was wise enough to follow a Spielbergian trajectory with the original Iron Man.  Kevin Feige often has not broken the formula since, because it succeeds.  Black Adam neglects all of these techniques.  Its lack of any quality is traitorous towards its consumers.

I don’t recall a conversation among the characters that lasts longer than four sentences.  By the end of the film, I’m not sure if Black Adam is a bad guy or a good guy.  I don’t know what was resolved to tie up the picture.  I don’t know when the turning point occurred, and Black Adam got an upper hand over anyone he does battle with.  Actually, he’s never challenged or weakened.  So, where’s the suspense?  What stakes are at play?

Black Adam functions as an eight-year-old kid in his room with his toy action figures.  They crash into another and the child makes a “pshoosh!” sound with his duck face lips.  I expect eight-year-olds to just enjoy their play things.  They don’t have to focus on exposition for themselves or anyone else.  Let them escape.  However, I didn’t pay to watch an eight-year-old play on the floor with his toys. 

The failure of this movie is inexcusable.  It angers me that filmmakers with unlimited resources and a wealth of source material are not trying harder like some of their industry peers.  It’s unfair to movie goers to pay for junk primarily assembled on a Dell computer with a wireless mouse.  Coloring books have more texture than this finished product.

Black Adam is a treachery in any context of the word, filmmaking.  It’s not art.  It’s not fun.  It’s nothing more than shit turned white.  It’s not fresh shit.  It’s worse.  It’s rotten shit.

BACK TO THE DRIVE-IN

By Marc S. Sanders

I have a confession to make.  As much of a movie lover that I am, I have never seen a movie at a drive-in theater.  I should know better.  Fortunately, I had the honor of learning about this well-established culture of Americana while getting a private screening of a new documentary film called Back To The Drive-in, written and directed by April Wright.

Back To The Drive-in covers the resiliency of eleven different drive-in theaters spanning from Massachusetts, down to Texas, across to the state of Nebraska, and California beyond.  All of these institutions have likely been around longer than three times the age of most of their teenage and twentysomething employees.  They may be located in different areas of the greater United States, but many of these outdoor movie palaces have no choice but to contend with the same ailments that accompany a new age of living during the time of the Covid pandemic.  That’s the common theme April Wright covers as she turns on her cameras allowing the owners, their families and staff to discuss experiences, frustrations, worries and uncompromised passion for the drive-in.

The craft of Wright’s film is beautiful.  There are vast overhead shots of each drive-in that transition perfectly into the intimacy of a lived-in office or a concession stand down below.  As her film moves from one drive-in to the next, the chapters open like picture perfect post cards of an American institution that has survived for over 60 years.  My only familiarity with drive-in movies likely stem from episodes of the sitcom Happy Days, where Richie and Potsie would make out with their girlfriends in the front seat during the monster movie.  This insightful documentary, however, showcases how drive-ins operate in an age of new technology or lack thereof.  It also presents problems that have been ongoing since long before Covid arrived. 

The unpredictability of weather abounds for many of these owners. The most interesting story for me comes from the Wellfleet drive-in located near Cape Cod, Ma.  The owner, John Vincent, is a friendly enough gentleman, who tells of his history working for the drive-in first in the ticket booth while he was a teenager back in 1987, all the way up to now being a proud and concerned owner.  Warts and all, he loves the drive-in.  The offensive f-word for him, though, is fog.  With his business located near the ocean, it is hard to tell if the large outdoor screen will offer up a good enough picture for the Saturday night film.  Each time April Wright’s documentary returns to footage from Wellfleet, I was in suspense.  Mr. Vincent talks about how on a good night he’d have 300 cars parked ahead of the feature presentation.  On this night, with imminent fog, it’s lucky he has 117 cars.  Every time Wellfleet appeared in the film, the fog only looked thicker and thicker.  Fog has become an all too real fear.

A common problem for all of the drive-ins is the weather.  Another location is concerned about lightning in the area.  It goes with the territory that the managers and operators regularly monitor the weather apps.  I want to know what they did in the ‘60s to prepare for this uncertainty. 

Supply shortages, inflation, worker shortages.  All of these drive-ins face the same threats.  Wellfleet also contends with out-of-date technology where the speakers are burned out and the underground wiring needs repair.  Yet, that means digging up concrete at a huge expense.

As the time period focuses on the drive-in attractions in response to Covid, it seems to present a small favor for these businesses.  At the start of the pandemic, when new Hollywood pictures were being released in limited supply, there was at least the escapism of the drive-in for consumers who were exhausted over quarantining.  People could at least catch a classic flick like Back To The Future, and maintain social distancing within their own cars.  Still, Brian Smith who owns Coyote out of Fort Worth, Texas has to protect his teenage staff from angry, foul-mouthed patrons unwilling to cooperate with mask mandates while visiting the concession stand.  He talks about how he looks out for the kids who work for him, but even depression and the challenge to keep up with school is overwhelming. 

Now that vaccinations have provided relief from isolation, the struggle is all the more real for these business owners.  Ben and Nora Harroun who operate Galaxy Drive-in Ennis, Texas mention competing with streaming services for new film releases.

Other drive-ins attempt to reinvent what they have.  Field Of Dreams located in Ohio is offering up live concert entertainment.  Quasar in Nebraska was an I-70 drive-in refurbished by Rod and Donna Saunders with the latest technology and architectural designs.  Their friends said they were crazy to invest in this, but for the Saunders it is crazy to let an institution fade away.  Their retirement was meant to sustain the atmosphere accompanied with a drive-in movie.

There’s a culture to this industry.  These owners talk with one another and share their love for this uncertain and struggling industry.  Drive-ins seem outdated in an age of comfortable multiplexes and the convenience and safety of at home streaming.  They share each other’s pain while also appreciating the value a film like F9 (Fast & Furious) can draw on a Saturday night.  They take pride in the specialty food crafts they sell at the counter from funnel cakes to a delectable pulled pork sandwich for seven dollars.   To many of us, selling a box of Nerds candy or not selling chocolate products to avoid the risk of melting, might seem like a mundane awareness, easily taken for granted.  To these folks, it means the difference of the outcome of their current season in the age of Covid.  April Wright captures a young girl describing how she burned a scar into her finger on a popcorn machine.  These are proud war wounds, accepted within the ongoing challenge of keeping a business afloat and a decades long tradition alive.

April Wright’s documentary is breathtaking.  As her camera soars above the wide-open spaces of worn-out grass and cratered concrete with large movie screens at the edge, you absorb the history of places within the United States urging us to rediscover again.  Our eyes only opened a little during a desperate time in 2020, but these preservationists wonder if they will be able to hold on.  I won’t spoil the outcomes some of these businesses face during a footnote of coverage featured in the end credits, but perhaps a follow up piece is on the horizon from Ms. Wright.  These drive-in locales live with unstable fluidity.  Doubt, accompanied with hope, is what I walked away with following my viewing of the picture.  What will the American drive-in theater look like in a year from now?

LIGHTYEAR

By Marc S. Sanders

It’s kind of neat to see the evolution of a classic film character when you are a fully aware adult.  In 1995, I had no idea what the term Pixar meant, or knew the impact it would have with the Disney brand as a whole or on the cinematic landscape.  Pixar is now as pioneering as Skywalker Sound or Industrial Light and Magic.  There’s Pixar, and then there’s everything else.  Back in ’95, I was age 23, and my intuition never perked up that I was watching a touchstone character like Buzz Lightyear who would become as grand today as Batman and Elvis turned out to be in an ever-changing pop culture lexicon. Buzz Lightyear is by far one of the company’s most inventive creations.

Jump to nearly thirty years later, with four Toy Story adventures, and endless amounts of merchandising the Space Ranger has been primed for a more personal adventure beyond the imagination of a young child possessing an action figure in his playroom.  Lightyear tells of the adventure that leant to merchandising of the toy depicted in the Toy Story fictional world.  (Try not to think too hardly on that description.)

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is the eminent Space Ranger of Star Command, out to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and– STOP! That’s another franchise.  When Captain Lightyear comes upon an unchartered planet, complications in unexpected science fiction adventure ensue.  Buzz and the small colony living on his global spaceship are marooned on this planet with no immediate solution for getting off and returning to Earth, 4.2 billion light years away.  Buzz makes it his mission to uncover a new kind of resource fuel that will eventually help the colony make its eventual return home.  Yet, with each experimental try, the minutes he spends in his super speed orbits around the planet equate to years for the colony who have set up habitation below.  His comrades on the ground below continue to age while Buzz does not.

I needed help with this picture.  My wife had to explain the staple lesson that usually comes with each Pixar film that I just didn’t catch while watching Lightyear.  I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, but the film reminds us to accept the hand dealt to us and appreciate what has come even if we never expected or planned on the circumstances in the first place.  It’s a good lesson.  I guess I just wish Lightyear made it a little clearer.  There’s a lot of mud on the windshield that I needed to wipe away before I realized what the message was about.

Maybe I was not fair with this film.  Tim Allen was not invited back to lend his recognizable voiceover to the character.  I guess Pixar is insistent that he’s reserved only for the toy version of the character.  Chris Evans is fine, mind you, and he doesn’t overdo it.  Yet, I could not help but think Tim Allen would have been just as capable and even more entitled to voice the role yet again.

Perhaps I was thinking that if Pixar wanted to go in another animated direction with the character, it just seemed completely fruitless.  How different could Lightyear be from the Toy Story films if the animated design is pretty similar in every frame?  Honestly, it doesn’t look like a new kind of device.  So that was a problem for me, as well.  It wasn’t inventive enough.  Maybe it’s time for a live action version of the space traveler.  Imagine Chris Evans wearing a live action and tactile version of the famous astronaut costume with the colorful buttons.  I still say that could work, and it’s what Disney/Pixar should have considered.

Maybe I’m getting bored with the time travel motif.  Isn’t everyone doing that these days?  Doesn’t it also seem like all our heroes are meeting their future selves and struggling to understand their current predicament?  Lightyear hinges on these story developments, and when the moments arrive my eyes rolled in the back of my head.  Time travel stories are very tricky for me to appreciate.  Often, the narrative paints itself into a corner, unable to explain itself back correctly.  Only two films that come to mind have worked their way out of it almost seamlessly – Back To The Future and 12 Monkeys.

So, while I love the lesson that Lightyear offers, the standard carbon copy plot outline left me unfocused at times.

The voiceover cast is well done with Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and James Brolin.  The animation is gorgeous, most especially when Buzz is piloting his super jet around the planet’s sun. The atmosphere of the planet is fun when it becomes a nuisance with giant flying insects and vines that come alive to entangle the characters at any given moment.

Science Fiction can go to infinity and beyond with the directions it can take.  There is absolutely no limit.  With today’s technology in filmmaking and the endless resources that Disney provides, why didn’t the filmmakers try a little harder with Lightyear? Again, a live action interpretation would have allowed it to stand apart from the character’s prior Toy adventures, and some different avenues in space exploration would have opened a leaner and more entertaining story.  If Star Trek can do it, Lightyear can do it too.

I think Pixar tried to go the route of Christopher Nolan, by way of Interstellar.  However, Lightyear is designed for people of all ages where the brain of the show is in reminding us how to carry ourselves through life, and not to uncover the twists that a brilliant filmmaker like Nolan has become recognized for.  I didn’t want to resolve a puzzle in fictional science.  Lightyear is trying too hard to be to be brainy and thus we get distracted from its “The More You Know” lesson in self-effacement.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER

By Marc S. Sanders

Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love And Thunder doesn’t just operate as a standard Marvel Super Hero movie.  I think it encapsulates what moviegoers treasure when watching a film, and that consists of a gamut of emotions with the opportunity to absorb the best in sight and sound.  Even if we are watching a guy fly through the skies with a cape that’ll be marketed into a million toys and t-shirts, sight and sound are nothing without brains behind a script.  It’s fortunate that a director like Waititi always works with that in mind.  Marvel overseer Kevin Feige knows how to recruit talent behind the camera and you just can’t go wrong with the architect of a spoof on the surface, yet an all too horrifyingly real film underneath, like the widely acclaimed Jo Jo Rabbit.

I’ve always laid claim to the fact that movies largely recognized as “tear jerkers” like Steel Magnolias and Terms Of Endearment are actually comedies first, and then dramatic sob stories second.  I’m serious about that observation.  Why?  Because if a film is going to go to great lengths to risk the outcome of one of its main characters, then it must get its audience to embrace and deeply love that person first.  The best avenue to that approach is to outrageously laugh and cheer that character on ahead of what’s to come.  Taika Waititi’s second film to center on the God of Thunder does just that.  The best reward I got from Thor: Love And Thunder is that I laughed quite often (as the trailers imply), but I also teetered on tears as well.  Good fantasy storytelling will incorporate an all too real conflict with its protagonists and then introduce the strange and unusual as an escape.  The best example may be The Wizard Of Oz, and the simple set up of Dorothy and the risk of her perishing with her dog Toto in a threating tornado.  More recently, I also think about Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth centering on a young girl in early twentieth century war torn Europe.  Again, Waititi’s coming of age during Nazi occupation opus, Jo Jo Rabbit, follows this formula as well.  Without spoiling too much from Thor’s latest adventure, Waititi presents an all too real and unforgiving circumstance for one of the film’s characters and then segues into his delightfully and never too weird assortment of settings and characters.

It’d be easy to think that by what may be the sixth or seventh time we’ve seen Chris Hemsworth in the garb of this character that anything inventive would have been exhausted by now.  Not so.  A new dimension in storytelling arrives midway through the film that presents a different crisis for the proud God.  Hemsworth really approaches it beautifully.  It was reminiscent of Christopher Reeve in the original Superman, actually.

A supporting cast of return players work well together, particularly Natalie Portman, who is given a much more fleshed out and well considered character arc than her two previous Thor films. (Early on, Marvel Studios was notorious for not writing good female characters in any of their pictures.  They were just presented as glamorous damsels in distress. Thankfully, that’s well behind them by now.)  Portman returns as the on again/off again love interest, Dr. Jane Foster, for Thor.  Even better though, Jane actually becomes Thor!!!!! (No spoiler there.  Just look at the trailer or marketing poster.)  There’s great on-screen interaction with Portman and Hemsworth, even when it’s a montage of past dating episodes like in ridiculous Halloween costumes or having a domestic squabble as any typical married couple might have.  Hollywood should reunite these two for a romantic comedy in the vein of Rob Reiner/Nora Ephron material.  Chris Hemsworth is a much better partner than Ashton Kutcher ever was in a past Natalie Portman film.  Put Chris Hemsworth together with Natalie Portman again and they could become as adoring as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan did.

By the time the fourth movie comes, does it really matter who the villain is played by?  Well, when you are writing a smart script amid ridiculous visuals like Taika Waititi is known for, the answer is yes.  This film surprisingly opens on a downer prologue that necessitates good dramatic acting amid silly CGI and garishly loud costumes.  It’s fortunate that Christian Bale, who regularly performs on a method level comparable to Daniel Day Lewis, was available to portray the scrawny, pale and scarred Gorr The God Butcher.  Bale puts all his talents into what could’ve been a throwaway role like, say a Ghostbusters bad guy.  (Can anyone tell me who actually played Gozar in the 1984 film????)  This is another notch in Bale’s repertoire of outstanding credits that should not be overlooked.  You can sympathize with Gorr, as well as be frightened of him.  There’s much range in this character on the same level as the Thanos villain from earlier Marvel films.

Russell Crowe has a fun appearance as the God known as Zeus.  He looks over the top ridiculous and he works in antics that seem like they came out of episodes of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?  Put it this way, I haven’t forgotten how Crowe walks down a staircase yet.  If Russell Crowe is anything of an educated performance artist, then when he was getting sized up in wardrobe, I’m sure the wheels were turning and he was considering what tics could work for that of a God drowning proudly in his own vanity.

Tessa Thompson and Taika Waititi are thankfully back, respectively as Valkyrie, King of the fishing/tourist destination New Asgard, and the simply innocent rock guy buddy, Korg.  The Guardians Of The Galaxy are here too.  It’s a fun bit of material they have to play with.

In another director/screenwriter’s hands, any Thor film would likely get boring with its standard formal Shakespearean like vocabulary and artificial CGI.  Isn’t that an ongoing problem with CGI anyway?  So often it looks to fake.  Because Taika Waititi opts for bright colors and odd shapes and sizes of setting and background characters, nothing could look artificial, because the fantasy is always acknowledged as over the top by the very characters occupying the space.  A glass castle of pinks and purples that resembles gigantic glass Mary Jane bongs or science lab beakers is accepted in a Thor film, just as much as munchkin size, owl like creatures with small beaks are a terrorizing army in flying jet skis with mounted laser guns.  Mix in a blaring rock soundtrack and Waititi hits the notes where it’s okay to laugh at the silliness of it all. In other moments, he’ll invite his audience back in from recess to take in what’s hard and difficult to live with and endure.  Again, Waititi pleasantly surprised me with the balancing act of outrageous comedy against crushing drama when he made Jo Jo Rabbit.  The blend works so well here in not so typical Marvel fashion.

Thor: Love And Thunder left me thinking that it is the best of the superhero’s four films.  It’s measure of laughs and choked up drama kept engaged and I appreciated the experience.  Remember, I recalled Steel Magnolias and Terms Of Endearment in this write up.  If you don’t take that comparison lightly, then hopefully you’ll have the same experience I did with this installment of the Marvel franchise.

PS: Hats off to the trailers for not incorporating everything the film has to offer.  Within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, I was actually taken aback by an element I never considered or expected.  It only enhanced my perspective of the film.

PSS: Anyone that knows me, knows that I love Guns N Roses.  Consider me a born-again fan.  Particularly Sweet Child O’ Mine will always be one of my most favorite songs.  This film reminded me that it was the first song my daughter heard the day after she was born, when I sang it to her in the hospital room. 

TOP GUN: MAVERICK

By Marc S. Sanders

Top Gun: Maverick is why we should never, ever give up on movie theaters and only settle for the flat screen TV.  This is a film, a sequel to a very hokey, cheesy 1980s blockbuster, that will top my list of most unexpected surprises.  This picture seemed inconceivable to accept, and yet, barring an unnecessary love story subplot, I relished every second of it.  Finally, a movie delivers more, a lot more, than its trailers ever promised.

One of Tom Cruise’s best films has him return to preppy boy Navy Aviator pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.  He’s a captain now, declining opportunities for promotion over the last near 35 years since we first saw him on screen in 1986.  Like Cruise, Maverick looks like he’s barely aged.  So, with that in mind, I guess we can accept that he can jack up his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle to unbelievable speeds with no helmet, and can take a super powered jet to Mach 10 speed, crash it and survive with everything on his person still intact.

Maverick is called upon by his old Top Gun classmate and former competitor Iceman (Val Kilmer) to teach a class of the current one percent of elite fighter pilots.  They are about to embark on a mission to take out an enemy weapons depot hidden behind treacherous low altitude mountain terrain with sharp curves and narrow pathways.  The area is also highly secured with machine guns, rockets, advanced radar, and enemy fighter jets.  This film truly convinced me that this mission is actually impossible.  Even Ethan Hunt of the Impossible Mission Force couldn’t survive this. 

The highlight of Top Gun: Maverick is of course the aerial training and combat maneuvers done with actual F-18 jets that Cruise has gone on record insisting that the cast fly in.  The barest minimum of CGI and manufactured effects were used.  As a producer powerhouse in Hollywood, if Tom Cruise demands his action to be as convincing as possible, you are going to get your finished product.  Much of the second act of the film focuses on Maverick outsmarting his students in the skies.  These are the best the country has to offer but they haven’t encountered Maverick yet.  The planes fly at one another and over each other and spiral together like a well synchronized ballet.  I believe the footage that Tony Scott provided in the first Top Gun film still holds up very well.  In this new film, it’s a tremendous enhancement. I know nothing about the laws of physics or computing the trajectories a jet can make at a particular speed, but what this film demonstrates is that what seems inconceivable is downright actual.  You can not help but be impressed.

Still, to satisfy my particular movie requirements cannot hinge on action alone.  I have to care about the characters.  The characters are the stakes at play in dangerous action films like Die Hard or Indiana Jones.  It’s what heightens the suspense.  Fortunately, the script from Peter Craig takes time to invest in an older, more mature Maverick who remains haunted, but wiser following the loss of his best friend and co-pilot Goose.  Now, Goose’s son, code name Rooster (Miles Teller) is one of the stand out students who holds a grudge against Maverick.  It’s not as simple as the guy losing his father at a young age.  There’s more to it to be revealed. 

Teller plays well off of Cruise, as do the other hot shot students made up of Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, and Glen Powell.  They’re all daredevil pilots like the first film offered, but they are written with more believability this time.  These are not the frat house beach bum guys that were so often shown in 1980s pictures.  Powell, known as Hangman, and Teller’s Rooster fill the Iceman/Maverick opposition here.  Only this time, it gets more personal as the characters go after their back stories and history.  Maverick is caught in the middle.  So, the drama is well played here. 

Director Joseph Kosinski makes the mission easy to comprehend.  Graphic maps show the impossible trajectory these pilots are expected to face.  The audience easily understands the challenges of going at impossibly low altitudes followed by fast upward careens into near atmospheric space while still trying to maintain consciousness and not get shot down. 

At the very least, to enjoy this picture, I think I’m thankful that I’m not a Navy pilot.  If I was, perhaps I’d be apt to dismiss the daring stunts that are committed over the course of the film.  I don’t want to know what can and can’t be done.  Let me have my illusion.  What’s especially appreciated is the perspective you’re given from the cockpit of these jets whether they are flying in a straight line, or alongside another plane or when Cruise himself is there in his trademark Maverick helmet taking his aircraft into an inverted and upside-down position with the top of the snowcapped mountains beneath him.  It’s positively mind-blowing. 

Maybe you have an idea of how the film will end up.  I won’t spoil it, but I certainly stopped thinking about it as the movie played along.  This movie had my undivided attention for just over two hours.  Moments occur where characters are in such convincing peril that any outcome would have worked and kept the integrity of the film.

Naturally, there’s a love story.  Most people didn’t care for the romance of the first film.  Not me.  I really liked how Kelly McGillis and Cruise performed together.  It was sweet and sensitive.  It took its time.  (See my review.)  For this picture, McGillis wasn’t welcomed back.  Google her quite frank and very honest response as to why she’s not here.  Instead, Jennifer Connelly romances Cruise as a bartender named Penny Benjamin (yes, the Admiral’s daughter).  Opposite Cruise, they look like a good couple.  However, when their shared scenes come up, honestly if you need a pee break this is when to rush out of the theatre.  The two characters don’t challenge one another like the first time around.  Penny has to just hide Maverick from her teen daughter.  Meh.  That’s sitcom fare.  This is nothing terrible here.  It’s just not overly necessary.  Does Maverick need to have a love interest?  Is it the end all be all?  This movie would have held up just fine without the love story.  Just be glad there’s another shirtless beach scene for the guys to frolic around this time with a couple of footballs. 

Without question, to date as of this writing, Top Gun: Maverick is the best picture I’ve seen this year.  I already declared the inventiveness of Everything, Everywhere, All At Once as one of the reasons why that film is one of the best of the year.  Cruise’s film tops it though.  The craftsmanship on display is like nothing you’ve seen before.  It challenges the technical marvels of James Cameron’s auspicious achievements and raises the bar for anything to come out after it.

If people like Tom Cruise and other daring producers in Hollywood can manufacture films on this level of story, adventure and suspense, then please, please, please do not close up the Cinematic Multiplexes.  Top Gun: Maverick is meant for the big screen; the biggest screen you can find with the best sound system available.  I’ll be sure to see again it while it remains in theatres.  In fact, release this film every summer until something else tops it.  It is a that good a film. 

THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT

By Marc S. Sanders

I’m looking forward to seeing a film that pokes fun at the life and career of actor Nicolas Cage.  After seeing his new film, The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, I’m still waiting.

The title is the best thing about this film.  In fact, it might be the best title of any film to come out this year. 

Cage portrays an account of himself, Nicolas Cage.  His career in Hollywood seems to always be scraping the bottom of the barrel and he comes up desperate for the next film that will financially sustain him.  Look actors gotta work too!  He’s so anxious for a part that he’ll recite a monologue with a dreadful Boston accent to a Hollywood producer as he’s waiting for the valet.  Alas, no roles are coming his way and he’s over $600,000 in debt.  Best that his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) can do is get him a million-dollar paycheck to spend a weekend at a supposed super fan’s island chateau.  Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) is that fan. 

As Nicolas’ stay commences, somehow, he finds himself caught up in a real-life action-packed story.  The CIA inadvertently recruits him to stay on top of Javi as they suspect he’s kidnapped the daughter of a foreign country’s President.  Yet, Javi doesn’t seem to give off any clues.  He’s only enthusiastically concerned with entertaining his celebrity guest and selling the adventure screenplay he’s written with Cage in mind.

I gave up on this film after the first fifteen minutes.  If I laughed three times during the course of the picture it was a lot.  The oversight that I think occurred here is that it never felt like a spoof of the actor Nicolas Cage.  Cage has a lot of suspect material in his past.  He’s a die-hard Superman fan.  After all, he named his son Kal-el.  Who does that?  As well, he’s infamously known to have recorded himself in a terrible looking Superman suit for Batman director Tim Burton to consider for a film revival with Cage in the superhero role.  Cage has also been married multiple times, including to Elvis Presley’s daughter at one point.  I believe his most recent marriage lasted all of three days.  He has his odd collection of film roles, and he’s a member of the famous Hollywood family, the Coppolas (as in Francis Ford and Sofia).  Yet, none of this material that comes to me off the top of my head makes its way into The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent.  The title seems to scream Nicolas Cage and yet this film is hardly about Nicolas Cage.

Instead, this film directed by Tom Gormican, who also co-wrote it, opts to actually turn the second half of the film into an actual shoot ‘em up adventure with clumsy comedy scraps.  Cage and Pascal scream amidst the bullets and car chases, but none of it is funny.  It certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Lethal Weapon fanfare.

I think back to a film called This Is The End which features the Judd Apatow fraternity of actors (James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel).  Earth is coming to an end and the celebrities play themselves.  The inside jokes were abundant with nods to their film careers, their penance for smoking weed and various gossip stories.  If Nicolas Cage is truly playing himself and this new film is selling itself on that message, then show me Nicolas Cage.  If you are just going to show an unfunny Pedro Pascal and clumsy gun fire galore, then you can easily swap out the celebrity at the center of it all and replace him with any other well-known actor.  Don Knotts could have been inserted here, or Charles Nelson Reilly.  Kim Kardashian could have had opportunity with this script.

Sure, there are some salutes to Cage’s film credits.  Javi’s secret man cave of all things Nicolas Cage is a little fun for the short while we are there.  Yet, what’s so relatable with a forgettable film like Guarding Tess?  It’s actually a good movie with Shirley MacLaine in the title role.  How many people actually saw it though, much less remember it?  Face/Off gets a nod but nothing great beyond the gold-plated prop guns he used.  Gone In Sixty Seconds is mentioned in one sentence of dialogue.  Con Air hearkens back to the bunny in the box for a beat.

Other than one well known celebrity cameo for a blink and you miss close up, the Hollywood populace doesn’t even turn up to roast the film’s star.  Imagine if Francis Ford Coppola made an appearance.  “Nic, stop embarrassing the family.”  Consider Sean Penn having a beer with Nicolas to reminisce about Fast Times At Ridgemont High (Nicolas’ first film appearance as a stoner dude, when his surname was Coppola).  There’s not even a mention about his Oscar winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas.

I am happy to admit that Nicolas Cage has a very storied career and life behind him, and yet hardly anything is touched upon in this film.  Instead, we are distracted with a kidnapped young woman that I don’t recall has even one line of dialogue in the picture.  If she did, it happened when I dozed off.

One avenue seems so obvious for a film intending to spoof this actor.  Walk with me for a second.  Nicolas Cage did the film Con Air with actor John Malkovich.  There’s already a much better film called Being John Malkovich that had a little fun at the expense of that real life actor.  It was written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze.  Know what else Kaufman & Jonze wrote and directed?  A film called Adaptation with Nicolas Cage.  See where I’m going here?  This stuff writes itself.  I’d love to have watched a scene where Malkovich walks in and says “I know what you’re going through Nic.  I really do. Charlie and Spike never let up.”  There’s much to play with here. 

Yet instead, we are belabored with the unbearable weight of this unfunny film. 

VALERIE

By Marc S. Sanders

Stacey Souther’s short documentary, Valerie, explores the colorful life of Valerie Perrine. 

I must confess, up until I saw the film, the most I knew about Ms. Perrine was as “MISS TESCHMACHER!!!!!,” the adorable sidekick dame of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor from the first two Superman films.  Yet, in just 36 minutes, Souther offers a wealth of knowledge about the famed star that only motivates me to uncover her other accomplishments and films.  I already have her Oscar nominated turn in Bob Fosse’s Lenny, with Dustin Hoffman, cued up on my Roku.

Having watched Valerie twice, it stands to reason that this life could be covered quite well in a full-length biographical film adaptation.  I petition Souther to direct if that ever comes to light.  He provides a large selection of pictures and video footage that cover Perrine from childhood through her late teens and early twenties as a Vegas showgirl, on through her prime of adulthood in Hollywood films and then finally reaching her most recent years as she bravely lives with Parkinson’s disease.

On top of the photos, testimonials are weaved into the movie from co-stars like Jeff Bridges (The Last American Hero), directors like Richard Donner (Superman) and George Roy Hill (Slaughterhouse-Five), friends like David Arquette, Loni Anderson, Angie Dickenson, George Hamilton and Howard Hessman.  All have nothing but celebratory words of their experiences with her.  The comments are provided over film footage and photos of smiles and non-stop energy.  Souther makes it seem as if you could never be in a bad mood if you are standing next to Valerie.  Just watch her own the stage on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  She belts out a scream of absolute fire that Johnny and Ed can’t help but applaud and cheer for. 

How fortunate that Stacey Souther was able to recover old interview footage and glimpses of times where Valerie offered up a comment on her philosophy of life.  In one televised interview, Valerie answers a question with “I have no worry about tomorrow…the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, I’ve grown up with (it).”  Once the film concluded, this observation stayed with me.  Souther depicts Valerie in the past and her present time, as only being concerned with the now and never focusing on the unpredictability of what’s to come.  It takes real strength to approach each day you awaken with a purpose.  One time in her younger years, she’s captured answering a question with “It’s karma…look at the good things in life…”  Things like that are said to us all the time in fortune cookies or greeting cards, maybe.  When Valerie said it, I believed her.

Tragedy has also crossed paths in her lifetime having lost two boyfriends to violent and unexpected deaths.  Jay Sebring was one of the victims of the infamous murders committed by Charles Manson’s followers, which also included actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child.  According to the film, Valerie was actually meant to be at that gathering.  Yet was called away at the last minute for work.  These incidents are hard for her to recall, but it also opened a transitional door for Valerie to move on from Vegas and go to Hollywood for acting.  She may not have had any formal training, but that didn’t stop her from trying, and she succeeded.

Valerie is quite debilitated by the year 2014.  Her Parkinson’s wants to upstage her life and dominate her with uncontrollable shaking.  Still, she puts on her makeup and Souther inquires about her daily routine.  By this point it takes her a good forty-five minutes before she can finish applying.  It’s involuntary to notice her shaking before anything else, yet that doesn’t ever stop Valerie from maintaining a proper appearance. 

We see her eating a salad and her fork shakes in her hand as she brings it to her mouth.  Valerie comments on how this is not so easy when trying to eat soup.  Her delivery offers a sense of humor to this annoyance.  For my own attempt at empathy, I found it annoying for Valerie.  For the camera, Valerie will never admit it is annoying.  It’s just what she is living with today.

Valerie is described and admits to never having any inhibitions when she was a Las Vegas Showgirl, wearing revealing outfits or appearing topless.  She was also comfortable with the well-known Playboy shoot she did.  From this film, I learned that’s a skill of hers.  Because she does not carry insecurities, she is able to offer up the unglamourous life she endures today as a woman with Parkinson’s.  Souther captures moments where health professionals are getting her comfortable in bed and she may not be completely dressed.  There are times where she is lifted in a harness and it looks anything but graceful.  Often, she is responding to interview questions and her voice is raspy and shakes.  The film shows that Valerie Perrine does not carry one bit of bashfulness.  She has never been shy.  So, whether she’s breathtakingly beautiful or physically unhealthy, she does not perform for the camera.  She only shows herself. 

I have to praise Stacey Souther for an especially telling moment in his short film.  Valerie goes in for surgery in an attempt to alleviate the shaking and tremors she’s experiencing.  Like always, she welcomes Souther’s camera in the hospital room just before she’s to go under.  Soon after the procedure is completed, we learn that Valerie is suffering from a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA).  Blood was not flowing properly to her brain and thus she was dealing with neurological issues like poor vision, confusion and frequent unconsciousness.  To get an idea of this moment, Souther fades his film in and out of blackness.  At one moment, Valerie is tasked with simply saying her name and counting to three, but she just can’t do it.  As best as a film medium can provide, we get a sense of how lost Valerie must be during this period.  It’s a frightening moment, but again I went back to how she was described best; lacking any inhibitions.  Other subjects would have insisted that sequences like this be removed from the final cut of the film.  For Valerie Perrine, if a film is going to cover her life of ups and downs, then it’s going to cover everything.  This is quite brave of both Valerie and her director, Stacey, to cover.

Valerie’s younger brother, Dr. Ken Perrine, recollects memories of a vivacious childhood, as well as accompanying her to the Oscars, and then witnessing the health challenges she’s been facing since before 2014.  He’s as forthright as his sister.  A hard moment to watch is when he describes what it’s like to leave her home on any given day.  He wonders will this be the last time he ever sees her.  The film explores the beginnings of her illness in 2014 and goes through 2018.  Now, in 2022, Valerie is still with us and this feeling has likely never escaped Ken’s subconsciousness.  Illness of any kind is hard on the victim, but it’s also so trying on the loved ones as well.

I found out about this film from Valerie’s Facebook page.  I was only following her because she was a member of the Superman cast.  When she posted about the completion and upcoming release date for this picture, I jumped at the chance for an advance screening so that I could offer up a review.  The fact that Valerie still connects with her fans by means of social media with pictures and anecdotes inform me that she still lives life to the fullest.  The Parkinson’s never pushed her into hiding.  She stays out front with her makeup applied, adorable headpieces to wear and with her friend Stacey by her side, a camera pointing right at her.  Valerie Perrine is nothing less than an exceptionally triumphant woman.

Valerie is available now to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Appletv, google play and Youtube.   

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE

By Marc S. Sanders

That’s it.  I’ve had it.  Enough already.  After three unnecessarily long movies, if you can’t get it right then what’s the point anymore?

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore, the third film in the Harry Potter prequel series, is an absolute failure beyond any magical or Muggle measure of comprehension. It operates with the same handicaps that crippled the prior installment, The Crimes Of Grindelwald, and maybe picked up an additional dozen or more problems along the way.

I don’t understand it Warner Bros.  Following the abysmal reviews of the prior film and the tepid overall assessment of the first, why, with all the monies at your disposal, would you settle for a boring piece of production work like this, all over again? This new film’s main attraction is simply men in dull grey wool suits and overcoats speaking to one another in quiet English whispers.  Every so often they do something quirky like pull a wand out of their pocket.  Fleetingly, they use them.  How novel. 

It boggles my mind that this world from Rowling’s colorful imagination was at one time intended for pre-teens and young adults.  I’ve seen political debates or Sunday morning commentary programs with more flair.

The fault in these films holds primarily with the creator, J.K. Rowling, and David Yates, the director that’s helmed the last four Potter films and all of the Beasts films up to date.  I’m so exhausted in saying it.  ROWLING NEEDS AN EDITOR!!!!!  There is so much fat on this meat that is impossible to swallow.  Someone needs to speak up and advise her to save this scene and that scene for the DVD extras.  One curse that this film suffers from is the exact same thing that the second film dealt with.  A background story is told, with a majestic fade up and fade down and fade up again flashback.  It takes a good five minutes to tell this tale, and then someone else chimes in and says hold on, that’s not how it happened at all.  Then a new character starts from the beginning and apparently tells us the real story as it truly occurred.  Why in the hell should I trust this new character if you’re now telling me not to believe the lies of the former?  Fodder like this stretches this fantasy towards a distant two- and half-hour mark, though it feels like four.

David Yates has always been a problem.  Look, I know nothing about a camera or the most up to date technology in filmmaking or digital making, but I’ve seen enough special effects laden films in my time.  The prologue to this film commits the same visual atrocity as the prologue to the prior film.  Here, our main hero, Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander – a magic zoologist – is observing a magical deer like creature deliver her offspring.  Suddenly, some other magic figures come upon the sight and attempt to zap the creature and Newt with their wands.  It’s the middle of the night amid a dense forest/jungle of thick plant life and trees.  We see flashes and blurs.  We hear ear piercing sound effect swishes, and the music from James Newton Howard (which is quite good) carries to a high volume.  Just like the last film, though, action scenes like this are murky.  It’s like the lens is covered with the bottom of a soda bottle filled with vinegar.  I can’t tell who is chasing who or who is zapping who, who dies or who lives.  Yates is not doing any favors for what bills itself as fantastical adventure.  When he isn’t shooting action scenes like this, his direction seems to perform on cruise control at a top speed of 15 mph.  There’s little drama or interest in any of the speaking scenes that drag on and on.

The movie’s story picks up with whatever cliffhangers were left from the last time.  It’s really not necessary for me to recap.  They hold little relevance here. 

Basically, Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelson, now taking over from a controversial Johnny Depp) is getting his bearings together with the troubled young man Credence (Ezra Miller) who we were told earlier is the brother to the Albus Dumbledore (a well-cast Jude Law).  Once again, Dumbledore recruits his former prized pupil Newt Scamander to locate the criminal Grindelwald and defeat him.  Newt assembles his brother, his assistant (neither of which we hardly get to know; so why should I disclose their names) and his Muggle baker friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Two more new characters round out this fellowship.  However, if you are looking for a real, solid fellowship, go back to those movies where the characters go after a plain gold ring.  That is fantasy at its finest.  This is the back story of a National Geographic issue found in your grandmother’s attic.

A whole lot of nothing happens for long stretches of time.  Grindelwald has managed to get the criminal charges against him dropped, and arranged to become a viable candidate to be elected the head of the magical world.  That spells trouble though, as he believes in complete genocide of the entire Muggle/No Maj population.  Dumbledore, his former lover, stands on the other side of that debate.  What does this have to do a with a magic deer that was delivered many moons ago when this movie started?  Well, you find out……….eventually, but your patience will be shot to hell.

Only one good scene in the film works on a sort of mischievous Spielberg direction (like the Cairo sequence in Raiders) where a “shell game” with various suitcases is passed around through a small village.  This turns up in the third act and finally we see some fun magic arrive.  Wands are lit up that trap one wizard in a transparent brick wall.  Props are turned into glass globes to trip over, and the characters smirk at one another through the hijinks.  This one scene provides some welcome reminiscence of Quidditch and other prop pieces from earlier Potter films. Until this moment, no one is enjoying themselves in this movie.  There’s next to no humor or cuteness from Newt’s assortment of magic wildlife. There’s no discovery from any magic spells.  Dumbledore doesn’t even have any secrets to disclose, save one. 

Yates and company fail as well with the details.  When we get to visit Hogwarts, it’s terribly boring and dull.  There’s no interesting Easter eggs or wonderment to savor.  No new rooms or tunnels to uncover.  No silly spells or magic props or ghosts to engage with. 

A glaring part of this new series is also conspicuously missing.  Tina (Katherine Waterston), puppy love interest of Newt, is hardly seen nor acknowledged.  Her role was a large part of the first film, minimized in the second film and only welcomed this time as a close up with no more than four words of dialogue.  Maybe not even that much.  Why establish this romance angle for the hero, if she’s hardly to be used?

The one error that really stands above all else is Grindelwald played by Mikkelson.  This is such an underrated character actor destined to be in every popular film franchise.  He’s done Marvel, James Bond, Star Wars, now Potter, and he’ll be in the new Indiana Jones film.  I welcome him to have this role in the Beasts series.  Yet, he looks nothing at all like Depp’s appearance.  Mikkelson just wears a grey wool suit and tie with an overcoat.  Depp had bleach blond hair and pale white skin for a foreboding albino characterization.  I’m not suggesting a complete duplication of what was formerly seen, but there’s a huge difference in looks between the two actors who have now occupied this part.  Reader, when there’s an absence of story, mundane dialogue and distorted visuals to settle for in a big budget movie, this is where my mind is going to run off to.  Mikkelson looks like he’s showing up for a read through rehearsal before the full-dress performance.  At the very least, couldn’t you dress the guy in the same unusual silk vests and fabrics that the other guy wore?  Put the different colored lenses in his eyes?  It truly makes me wonder if there was a stipulation in Mikkelson’s contract – he’ll do the role, but he refuses to look like a clown.  You just can’t not see how far apart this is from what’s been traditionally shown already.

Two more films are promised to be released in this prequel series.  Really? Another two more near three hours pieces of tripe?  Well, according to my Potter versed daughter, it has to be that way.  These films take place near the end of the 1920s.  There’s the climactic showdown that must be depicted between Dumbledore and Grindelwald though, and according to Rowling’s timeline, that occurred in the late 1940s. 

So, we got another twenty or so years of this.  Friends, watching these three films, I feel as if I’ve gone about sixty.

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE

By Marc S. Sanders

Exploring the science fictional context of parallel universes can turn your thought process into a tailspin.  It can leave you up at night trying to find the center of a never-ending spiral.  Maybe that is why this gradually more common story line is reviving itself in current films like the next Doctor Strange installment from Marvel, or DC’s The Flash with multiple Batmans, and the unexpected surprise of Everything Everywhere All At Once.

My first experience with a multi-verse concept happened one Saturday morning in the early 1980’s.  At age 7 or 8, my favorite cartoon, Hanna Barbara’s Superfriends, explored a Universe of Evil.  Following a volcanic eruption, an evil Superman exchanged places with the noble Superman that we all know.  They each found themselves in opposite universes.  For the good Batman, there was an evil Batman, dressed in pink.  (Pink is evil????)  Evil Robin had a mustache itching to twirl.  Aquaman had an eyepatch.  Later, I hypothesized that this simple plot catered for kids was likely inspired by the famous Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror.  (Evil Spock donned the evil goatee. Mwah ha ha ha ha!!!!!) These two storylines, which I highly recommend you seek out and watch, were very cut and dry in the concept of multiple universes.  There was a Yin and Yang structure of just black and white.  Everything Everywhere All At Once welcomes diverse complexity in its storytelling.  In this film, nothing is black and white.  Instead, everything consists of infinite shades of grey and gray.

The Wang family are Chinese immigrants buried in demanding and overwhelming tax obligations from the IRS while trying to manage a California laundromat.  Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is the matriarch who is married to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and they have a daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu).  Upon visiting the IRS agent assigned to their case, Deidre (Jamie Lee Curtis, who finally found something else to do besides another Halloween retread), odd occurrences take place.  Evelyn is warned by Waymond with suddenly a strange and very different personality to act upon their current situation, like getting off an elevator and turning to the right, not the left.  Just trust me when I say that while you will likely be bewildered for a while as the exposition unravels itself, it will all pay off satisfyingly.  Somehow in another universe that is performing parallel to the one we first see in the film Joy is a villain bent on destroying Evelyn…and that’s not even half of what’s out of place.

I saw this film directed by the “Daniels” (Dan Kwan and Dan Scheinert) with my Cinephile colleagues, Miguel and Thomas.  After it was over, it was no surprise that they knew what I was talking about when I said this film is the reason why good editing is necessary in a film.  Because the Daniels introduce not one or two parallel universes, but SEVERAL, and there is so much happening…well…all at once.  I’d argue most shots in the film last no longer than an average 8-10 seconds because the multiple universe equivalents of Evelyn, Waymond, Joy and Deidre switch on a blink of your eye.  I warn you not to make a quick bathroom exit.  Quick flashes of scenes are relevant towards something else you may see in the next minute or an hour later.

Anyway, I’ll bet you never realized that there is a universe where the people have raw hot dog like fingers.  There’s also a universe where Evelyn is a street sign twirler, and a good thing there is an Evelyn like that to help another Evelyn fend off of a bunch of attackers in a different universe.  There’s also a world where humanity doesn’t exist.  Yet the equivalent of Evelyn and Joy are represented by two rocks.  That’s right.  Rocks with no limbs, no way of speaking vocally.  Yet, the film cleverly has the characters or products of its earth communicate with one another.  There’s even a different variation of the Pixar creation, Ratatouille.  Replace the rat with a racoon and see what transpires.

So, what does this all lead to?  Fortunately, there is a reason for these different worlds to collide and it leads to a valuable lesson in love and understanding within family.  Now that may sound hokey, but the film demonstrates that none of us are the same in what we are affectionate about, or what’s important to us.  How a daughter considers a girlfriend is not going to be easy for a mother to accept as any more than a friend.  The Daniels’ film carries much profoundness among its silliness depicted on the surface.

Having only seen Everything Everywhere All At Once one time so far, I could not help but laugh often and uncontrollably at what I was looking at, and the laughter becomes contagious when watching the film in a crowded theatre.  What made my movie going experience with this film quite fascinating though is that I responded in tune with the rest of the crowd.  Once you get past looking at Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis (two recognizable and accomplished actors) flap their hot dog fingered hands at each other, eventually you recognize the “normalcy” of that particular universe.  You are no longer laughing with them.  Now you are accepting the people and how they function in that specific environment.  Same goes for the rock universe.  The Daniels are brave enough in their direction to just show two inanimate rocks perched on a ledge and communicating with subtitles of very aware and well written dialogue.  It looks completely crazy at first.  Later, you yearn for the impending destiny of those rocks.

Much symbolism is tucked into the Daniels’ script as well.  The most telling is that it focuses on an Asian immigrant family obligated by law to honor American tax codes.  The Deidre character portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis is not so empathetic to the Wangs’ comprehension of resolving tax violations.  Basically, two different cultures are butting heads with no progress because they have a different viewpoint on how things function.  Wisely, this serves as a springboard to demonstrate how multiple universes will lack perfect chemistry as well when they collide.  None of this is written off as communication barriers.

I imagine on a second viewing, I likely will look at Everything Everywhere All At Once through a different lens.  I won’t laugh as much because I’ve grown acclimated to what were once very odd and strange environments for these characters that dwell within.  Instead, I’ll be even more observant and appreciative of the film as it presents different behaviors and cultures encountering one another.  This is a very good picture that is worth multiple viewings for sure.

In fact, this film is such a pleasant surprise, that I am comfortable suggesting this early on that I will consider it one of the best films of 2022.  If at least Everything Everywhere All At Once does not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, then it would be a terrible disappointment.  The imagination of its endless devices is just so inventive.  Heck, I’ll throw my hat out there and strongly suggest nominations for Michelle Yeoh’s performance, along with Best Editing for Paul Rogers (this guy should win the award) and Best Picture of the year.

See Everything Everywhere All At Once in a movie theatre with a crowd and/or a large group of friends.  You may just have a cathartic experience of how human nature responds when getting acclimated to what at first appears to be so foreign.