Ep. #68 – Lightyear

I’m joined by my in-laws Deb and Dennie Doud as we blast off into Lightyear, the latest Pixar offering now playing only in theaters. Then we talk over some other streaming options like Operation Mincemeat, a 2022 World War II movie now on Netflix, and The Staircase, which is available to watch in its entirety on HBO Max. We also heap more praise atop Severance, whose first season is available to watch now on Apple TV+. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Lightyear

After two long years of having their premieres relegated to direct-to-Disney+ release, Pixar is finally back in theaters. While their latest effort Lightyear doesn’t match the quality of the outstanding trio of films (Soul, Luca, Turning Red) that were launched on the streaming service, it’s a fun and familiar spin-off that will reacquaint theatergoers with the studio’s magic. Fans of Toy Story may be confused as to why Tim Allen, who voiced the toy Buzz Lightyear, hasn’t returned for this entry. The reason is that this new movie is meant to act as the movie that actually inspired the Buzz toy within this universe, a sort of “origin story” for the new action figure Andy got all those years ago. Admittedly, it’s a confusing and strained framing device but once Lightyear takes off, it doesn’t matter much anyway.

Chris Evans voices this version of Buzz Lightyear, a headstrong Star Command Space Ranger whose job it is to explore new planets across the galaxy. After one such expedition goes haywire, Buzz attempts to escape with his crew of 1200 in tow but accidentally damages their ship in the process. Many years pass as Buzz completes trial runs with hyperspace fuel to get his stranded crew off the planet but by the time he’s successful, they’ve developed a livable colony and most don’t want to leave. Buzz recruits a small group of outsiders, including Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules), to help him get the necessary materials to get the ship travel-ready again but Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his invading robot army have other plans in mind.

Though Lightyear borrows liberally from sci-fi touchstones like Star Trek and Interstellar, the rhythm of its narrative follows the familiar structure of many animated adventure films where obstacles crop up and our protagonists have to think up a way around them. Buzz wants to be a lone ranger, so to speak, but along the way, he’ll learn the value of companionship and teamwork. Visually, the movie doesn’t always break new ground either; Buzz’s attempts to break into hyperspace will no doubt remind audiences of the Darkstar scene from the recently-released Top Gun: Maverick. But there are some choices with chronology and story that do break the mold, like a montage of the time that flies away from Buzz during his hyperspace runs that echoes the “Married Life” sequence from Up.

There’s also a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ethic to certain creative choices too, like the inclusion of a robot “therapy cat” named Sox to help Buzz during his quest. The animated genre is saturated with animal friends that help human heroes in their journey and while Sox isn’t entirely unique in its conception, the character completely works in this setting and practically scampers away with the whole movie. Voiced by Peter Sohn, who played Emile in Ratatouille and various smaller characters in other Pixar films, Sox has a humble and helpful timbre that seemed to channel Tom Hanks’ most genial and gentle work. Plenty of laughs are derived from the juxtaposition of Sox’s ability to make advanced calculations and hack into computer systems with his proclivities towards feline behavior like wanting belly scratches and chasing laser beams.

Sequels and spin-offs are my least favorite sub-genre of Pixar movies and while Lightyear certainly isn’t as banal as the Cars follow-ups or Monsters University, it’s not up to the level of the three Toy Story sequels either. The screenplay by Jason Headley and director Angus MacLane relies too heavily on action-adventure tropes while having to rope in Toy Story lore and Pixar pathos along the way. Not every Pixar movie has to reach for the profundity of their most meaningful work but their more escapist efforts should at least strive for a sort of cinematic equivalent. Perhaps it didn’t help that the theater in which I saw this film had pretty wimpy sound; the dialogue was audible but the surround sound didn’t kick in for impact during the action scenes. Despite the pedestrian story, I will likely give Lightyear another chance on my home theater system in the future.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Black Phone, a supernatural horror movie starring Ethan Hawke and Mason Thames about a boy who is abducted by a serial killer and locked in a soundproof basement where he starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.
Also exclusively in theaters is Elvis, a music biopic starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks which chronicles the life and career of legendary singer and actor Elvis Presley.
Streaming on Netflix is The Man From Toronto, an action comedy starring Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson where a case of mistaken identity intertwines a New Yorker and an assassin while the pair are staying at an Airbnb.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Cha Cha Real Smooth

After taking CODA all the way to Best Picture Oscar gold earlier this year, Apple TV+ continues their trend of putting down serious cash to acquire wholesome hits out of the Sundance Film Festival. Though Cha Cha Real Smooth didn’t quite score the $25 million price tag that the streamer shelled out last year, $15 million is still a chunk of change to put down for distribution rights of a movie titled after lyrics from a DJ Casper song. It turns out to be another laudable purchase from the formidable streaming service, by virtue of being in their wheelhouse of magnanimous entertainment and in line with their quality-over-quantity pattern of content development. Putting the business aspects aside, it’s simply a sweet movie with a smart script and two winning leads.

Cha Cha Real Smooth follows amiable and adorable twentysomething Andrew (Cooper Raiff) as he toils away at food court oddity Meat Sticks while living with his mom (Leslie Mann) and his stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett). While taking his teenage brother David (Evan Assante) to a bat mitzvah, he inspires young mother Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) to hit the dance floor and get funky to “Funkytown”. Andrew takes this as a cue to try his hand at becoming a party host and professional DJ for the mitzvahs to come, while also helping take care of Lola while Domino’s fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo) is perpetually out of town on business.

The 24-year-old Raiff, who is also the writer and director of Cha Cha Real Smooth, has an infectious energy and youthful exuberance that comes across in both his performance and his filmmaking. The sharp screenplay allows us to gain insight on who Andrew is by the instant and lasting connections he forms with those around him. By the time he and Domino have their second and third conversations, it seems like these two have known each other for years. Andrew’s boyish charm almost makes him seem too good to be true at times but Raiff shades him with moments of ugliness, like his not-so-subtle jabs at his stepfather, that show the downside of being so demonstrative. “I know how to soft-step,” he drunkenly details to Domino one evening. “I just don’t want to right now.”

The inevitable romance between Andrew and Domino is necessarily given the most amount of screen time in Cha Cha Real Smooth but Raiff finds pivotal moments for Andrew to share with all the main characters where they truly see each other. Even though Andrew isn’t exactly someone who is in a position to give out life advice, his younger brother David still giddily looks up to him for tips about how to get through middle school. There’s a conversation Andrew has with his mother late in the film that is so open-hearted, gracious and downright sweet that she jokingly asks him if he’s trying to kill her as she tears up. Andrew’s interactions with Joseph are understandably awkward and even terse but their final scene together underscores how these two men with different backgrounds and sensibilities have found common ground.

Johnson, who also serves as a co-producer, has become something of a star in the indie movie circuit since her work in the Fifty Shades trilogy and she delivers another well-calibrated performance here. Domino has a push-pull relationship with Andrew where she’s withholding one minute and unmistakably flirtatious the next. Raiff and Johnson have a palpable chemistry that makes their time together feel vibrant, even if we’ve seen these story beats in other romantic dramedies before. The film’s overall arc is familiar as well and even though it’s still enjoyable, I hope Raiff is able to push himself even more artistically in his next effort. Big-hearted and bright, Cha Cha Real Smooth is a charming and charismatic film that, indeed, goes down real smooth.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Lightyear, an animated adventure starring Chris Evans and Keke Palmer that serves as an origin story for the Buzz Lightyear space ranger character that inspired the correlated toy from the Toy Story films.
Streaming on Netflix is Spiderhead, a sci-fi thriller starring Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller about two convicts living in a near-future society where prisoners can reduce their sentence time by volunteering for experiments using emotion-altering drugs
Premiering on Hulu is Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a romantic comedy starring Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack exploring the relationship that develops between a retired widow and a young male prostitute after their initial tryst.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Watcher

In the opening shot of the new thriller Watcher, Julia (Maika Monroe) looks out a taxi window with a glimmer of excitement at the Bucharest buildings that surround her new residence. She and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just moved from the US to Romania for work, even though Julia doesn’t know the Romanian language nearly as well as her hubby. She spends her first days there working to remedy the linguistic barrier, listening to foreign language courses while discovering the city on-foot. But bumming around Bucharest gets much more tense by the presence of Daniel (Burn Gorman), an across-the-way neighbor who too frequently looks into the married couple’s apartment window and who Julia suspects may be following her around as well.

Watcher is the first feature from writer/director Chloe Okuno and while it may not be the most auspicious debut, there are some signs of promise in the way she brings the audience into this tale. Visually, she captures rainy Bucharest in its paradoxically opulent griminess as the high-concept story vacillates between stately and seedy. All the angles to suggest a shadowy figure is stalking Julia are there, from the negative space of the most tense frames to the shallow focus on Julia’s worried face. Like Monroe’s 2014 breakthrough It Follows, it’s all about putting us in the mindset that the protagonist could be in danger and under pursuit at any moment. Up until the final 15 minutes, the pace and rhythm is in line with a slow-burn thriller, although it can feel more like it’s spinning its wheels rather than calculatedly creaking them for effect.

Where Watcher flats flat is in the scant screenplay, adapted by Okuno from a script written originally by Zack Ford. There is shockingly little character development amid the limited ensemble; a next-door neighbor character played by Madalina Anea may be the most well-rendered person in the whole film and she’s only really in a few scenes. Okuno does a fine job setting up the scenario of whether or not Julia is actually in danger and considering what she should do about it but the conflicts therein too often become redundant. I understand that Okuno is more concerned with establishing a mood of unease rather than writing scenes of lengthy dialogue but nevertheless, there has to be a compelling narrative first to make the atmospheric scenes resonate.

From a story perspective, Watcher plays like a Eurotrash mash-up of two classics, one from a very similar genre and another from a different genre entirely. Polanski’s horror film Repulsion, which also follows a young woman’s descent into paranoia through her perceived encounters with menacing men, seems to have been a touchstone for Okuno while making this film. While existential dramedy Lost in Translation isn’t scary, I was often reminded of Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte when watching Monroe’s Julia try to find herself in an intimidating new city. Glusman’s Francis also shares similarities with Giovanni Ribisi’s Translation character, both blasé workaholics whose disinterest in their wive’s satisfaction (and well-being, in Watcher’s case) should land them in hot water more than it actually does.

Glusman hasn’t made much of an impact on me in his filmography thus far and he’s a total bore as a character who needs sharper definition to make the relationship angle of this movie work. It doesn’t help that he and Monroe have little to no chemistry, although it’s possible that was somewhat intentional. Monroe is a talented young actress and this should theoretically be as much a showcase for her abilities as It Follows was 8 years ago but this project just isn’t up to her level. It’s hard to tell what on the page drew her to this role but I hope she’s able to find better scripts in the future, if for no other reason than to firmly retain her scream queen status. Watcher wears the guise of better voyeuristic thrillers but it’s ultimately not much more than window dressing.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Jurassic World Dominion, the conclusion to the Jurassic World trilogy starring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, which finds dinosaurs now living alongside humans all over the world as the fight to determine the true apex predator comes to an end.
Streaming on Netflix is Hustle, a sports drama starring Adam Sandler and Queen Latifah about a former basketball scout who tries to revive his career by recruiting a player with a checkered past from overseas to play in the NBA.
Debuting on HBO Max is The Janes, a documentary highlighting a group of activists who built an underground network that provided safe and free abortions prior to the passing of Roe v. Wade.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Top Gun: Maverick

Just because Hollywood’s propensity for producing legacy sequels seems to currently be flying at an all-time high doesn’t mean the subgenre is limited to this century. Take 1986’s The Color Of Money. Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to 1961’s The Hustler saw veteran Paul Newman handing the reins to hotshot Tom Cruise across the billiards table. 36 years after Top Gun, another Cruise vehicle released 1986, it’s now the hotshot’s turn to pass the torch to another generation once more. While Top Gun: Maverick follows maneuvers popularized by lucrative “legacyquels” like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed, it carves out its own airspace with jaw-dropping stunt work and a world-wise story that enriches the characters set up by its predecessor.

Cruise returns as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, to whom we’re reintroduced as he suits up to push a hypersonic jet further than anyone ever has before. It turns out the test run wasn’t exactly “authorized” by Maverick’s commanding officer and as a result, he’s transferred to the Naval TOPGUN program once again, now as an instructor instead of a student. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to train a dozen new recruits with precision flying skills that will allow them to covertly take out a developing uranium plant before it becomes operational. Among the new class is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s deceased flying partner “Goose” and Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), a cocksure flyboy whose prickly demeanor is as cold as ice.

Five minutes into Top Gun: Maverick, I was worried we were in danger. The Harold Faltermeyer music score, the intertitle setting up the backstory of the Fighter Weapons School and the shot choices in the opening credits are identical to those from the original Top Gun. But Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski assure us soon after that this is merely a taking off point for a follow-up that actually has its own story to tell and its own unique moments to etch into action movie history. The Darkstar scene, which finds Maverick going Mach 10 in a Lockheed Martin SR-72, is a thrilling sequence that reintroduces the character brilliantly while visually recalling the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” segment from Cruise favorite 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But Top Gun: Maverick has dramatic moments that may pin you to the back of your seat just as much as the full-throttle setpieces. Ed Harris appears early as the superior responsible for chewing Maverick out after he carries out impressive but insubordinate acts, citing drones as writing on the wall for old-timers like them. “The end is inevitable,” he laments to Maverick, who retorts “maybe so, but not today.” The screenplay, co-written by Cruise’s Mission Impossible wingman Christopher McQuarrie, finds opportunities to flesh out these characters and their motivations amid the technical aircraft jargon and mission detailing. Cruise is also better equipped at volleying his cheeky one-liners and stern exchanges this time around too. Re-watching Top Gun recently, it needs to be noted how far he’s come as an actor since his earlier roles; he always had the star power but now he has the dramatic chops to back it up.

With due respect to the original, the aerial photography and commitment to realism is also on an entirely different level in this sequel. Not only are the actors actually flying those planes but they’re actually helping to run the cameras while in the cockpits too, giving close-up access that takes the intensity into the next stratosphere. Obviously special effects are helping with the illusion that these pilots are truly completing these runs in the air but the execution and editing makes the movie magic pop like never before. If the predecessor does retain a clear advantage, it’s in the soundtrack; the new Lady Gaga song featured throughout the film simply can’t reach the heights of classics like “Danger Zone” or “Take My Breath Away”. Other than that, Top Gun: Maverick is a high-flying success and a crash course on how to do a legacy sequel right.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Watcher, a thriller starring Maika Monroe and Karl Glusman which follows a young couple as they move from America to Bucharest and are seemingly stalked by a sinister neighbor near their new apartment.
Streaming on Hulu is Fire Island, a romantic comedy starring Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang centering around two best friends as they embark on a week-long vacation to the titular hot spot off the southern shore of Long Island.
Premiering on Disney+ is Hollywood Stargirl, a follow-up to 2020’s Stargirl starring Grace VanderWaal and Elijah Richardson about a teenage girl and her mother, the latter of whom is hired as the costume designer on a movie, as they relocate to Los Angeles and meet new friends.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Men

She’s startled by the sound of acoustic guitar strings on the soundtrack. Bathed in orange-tinted light through the curtains of her flat, the bloody-nosed Harper (Jessie Buckley) moves towards the windows as her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) fatally falls in slow motion outside. While the circumstances of his death aren’t entirely clear, what is clear is that Harper needs time away to recover from the loss, so she rents a seemingly lovely house in the English countryside for two weeks. Upon her arrival, she exchanges exceedingly British pleasantries with the homeowner Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and checks in via FaceTime with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin). While enjoying a nature walk one day, Harper gets the feeling that she’s being followed by a mysterious presence and soon learns that all is not right in this quaint village.

Men is the third directorial effort from writer/director Alex Garland, who has gone full horror this time around after flirting with the genre in the mind-bending Annihilation. His latest effort may be the simplest in terms of pure story but also his most provocative in terms of how the film is being marketed and how it tries to make good on those promises. Those triggered by the trailer (which gives away a casting choice I wish I hadn’t known beforehand) may be relieved to know that the mischievous distributor A24 is playing up the gender politics more than the film actually does. Sure, concepts of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity are brought forth in the subtext but like many other horror films before it, Men comes back to the fascinating and unique ways we process grief and trauma.

Another staple of the horror genre is the inclusion of religious allusions and even if you’re not looking too closely for Biblical references, Garland sets up an easy one for us at the outset. When Harper first arrives at the rental home, she observes a large apple tree on the grounds and without thinking, grabs one of the abundant fruits and takes a bite as Geoffrey looks on from the window. “Mustn’t do that,” he jokingly chides minutes later when they meet, claiming the apple is “forbidden fruit” before rushing to say he’s kidding after a quick beat. Outside of the more obvious Genesis nods to the Garden of Eden and the fall of man, there are mythical and literary quotes from Agamemnon odes and Yeats poems as well but when it comes to the larger allegory at play, religion seems to be on Men‘s mind more than anything else.

Visually, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy earmark the three chronological acts with their own distinguishable hue. Everything prior to Harper’s stay in the rural village is overlaid with a soft orange, while the the chapters involving the early parts of her sabbatical are punctuated by the lush natural greenery that surrounds her. It isn’t until the trip really starts to unravel that the color red starts to permeate the frame, not unlike Vertigo or Suspiria. Garland lingers on certain shots, like a many-branched tree or a long echoey tunnel, for so long, it becomes difficult not to look for symbolism and a greater meaning in the images. Some movies invite and reward analysis and interpretation over multiple views; this one demands one.

But crucially, the experience of watching Men is as viscerally exciting in the moment as it is intellectually engaging afterwards. Garland doesn’t forget he’s making a horror movie and he knows how to play with our expectations and emotions. Aiding the effort is the brilliantly effective score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, which centers around a four-note melody that Harper chirps down a tunnel and forms a leitmotif that grows uglier as time goes on, like an apple rotting after its skin is exposed. In intensely demanding roles, Buckley and Kinnear offer some of the very best work of their respective careers and contribute perfectly to the film’s persistently unnerving tone. Fearless and fervent, Men is Garland’s most accomplished brain-bender yet.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Top Gun: Maverick, a belated follow-up to the 1986 classic starring Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly which follows one of the Navy’s top aviators as he trains a new class of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is The Bob’s Burgers Movie, an animated musical comedy starring H. Jon Benjamin and Dan Mintz involving the beleaguered Belcher family as they try to save their restaurant from closing as a sinkhole forms in front of it.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Emergency, a satirical thriller starring RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins about a trio of college students who must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unexpected situation en route to a party.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Firestarter

The new sci-fi/horror hybrid Firestarter is quite a few things. It’s a remake of the Drew Barrymore-starring chiller that was released 38 years (almost to the day, as fate would have it) prior to this new iteration. It’s another Stephen King adaptation, an author whose work has been the direct inspiration for dozens of films, TV series and stage productions over the decades. It’s yet another modestly-budgeted Blumhouse Productions project, one of six slated for release this year alone. Most important for streaming war beancounters, it’s Peacock’s latest hope that prospective subscribers will be drawn in enough by the film’s familiar marketing to start their free trial and forget about cancelling after it expires. But perhaps it’s most pertinent to instead detail what Firestarter is not: engaging, well-crafted or necessary.

Firestarter‘s opening credits show video footage of college students Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) being interviewed for a clinical trial involving an experimental chemical drug known as Lot-6. Years later, the pair is married with 11-year-old Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) and all three are burdened with supernatural powers as a result of the exposure to Lot-6. Andy’s ability to psychically influence people (“the push”, as he calls it) and Vicky’s telekinesis are generally well-controlled but Charlie’s burgeoning pyrokinesis isn’t maintained as effectively. An incendiary incident at her school alerts agents of the Department of Scientific Intelligence, a shadowy government organization aiming to monitor and control those concealing superhuman faculties.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how 1980s science-fiction like the original Firestarter, and Drew Barrymore’s preceding film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, inspired the megahit series Stranger Things. The story points of a young girl discovering her growing superpowers and a group of youngsters hiding the supernatural force from scary government officials were fused together in the show’s first season. Netflix (which, curiously, is name-dropped twice during this Peacock product) saw the power in the nostalgia behind these cultural touchstones and has (at least until recently) coasted on Stranger Things‘s success since its premiere. Even with this wind at its back, this new Firestarter can’t fan the flames for long enough to set up a compelling story on its own terms.

The problems start with the dull script from Scott Teems, which doesn’t develop its protagonists well enough for us to care about them and doesn’t spend enough time with the antagonists to make them feel threatening. The inclusion of groan-inducing lines like “I don’t need to see your eyes to feel your fear” certainly don’t help the movie’s cause either. Some of these story elements could be overcome by strong performances but Efron and Armstrong don’t have the kind of chemistry together to sell the father-daughter relationship upon which the film’s pathos would presumably rely. The best acting comes courtesy of Michael Greyeyes as a troubled superhuman caught between the will of the DSI and the potential of Charlie’s future.

One aspect that is far above the pedigree of everything else in the film is the terrific musical score, a collaboration between vaunted horror composer John Carpenter, his son Cody and musician Daniel Davies. Electronic band Survive leaned heavily on John Carpenter’s synth-heavy scores when composing the music for Stranger Things but it’s even more fulfilling to hear original master at work again in the playground he helped to build. Eerie and enveloping, the pulsating music drives the narrative forward better than most of the characters and dialogue do. Sadly, the flat and uninspired cinematography by Karim Hussain can’t visually match what the trio of composers are able to accomplish sonically. Firestarter is a non-starter in the race between streaming services trying to outdo one another with brand new titles.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is Downton Abbey: A New Era, a sequel to the 2019 TV-to-film adaptation starring Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern following the Crawley family and Downton staff as they receive a royal visit from the King and Queen of Great Britain.
Also premiering only in theaters is Men, a folk horror film starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear about a young woman who goes on a solo holiday in the English countryside after the death of her husband and encounters an ominous presence there.
Streaming on Disney+ is Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, a live-action/animated family movie starring John Mulaney and Andy Samberg about the titular chipmunks reuniting thirty years after their TV series to rescue a missing member of the original cast.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #67 – Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness

I’m joined by my friend Kate as we get strange with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the latest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then we discuss some streaming titles we’ve been consuming recently, including Kim’s Convenience, which is streaming in its entirety on Netflix, and Severance, whose first season is available to watch now on Apple TV+. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness

Is there a point at which the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes too massive and unwieldy that it collapses in on itself? This is a question I asked myself repeatedly while watching Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a film centered around the concept of breaking this shared universe and rearranging the shards like a broken mirror. With scores of movies and TV series now included in the unprecedented franchise, producer Kevin Feige and his team keep pushing for ways to tell new stories as more characters and circumstances are introduced into this world. Each entry has pushed the scope of the storytelling to such a degree that Phase One films like Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger feel positively quaint by comparison. We’re certainly not in Kansas anymore and I have a feeling we’ll never get back to it.

After the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) attempts to retreat into normalcy as he attends the wedding of his former flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Naturally, the reception is interrupted by the ruckus created by an octopus demon that pops up from somewhere else in the multiverse. After subduing the creature with mystic arts colleague Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange meets America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who has been hunted by monsters ever since it’s been discovered that she can travel between dimensions. To save Chavez from constant threat and to learn more about her powers, Strange consults fellow Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as an even more powerful threat emerges across these alternate realities.

A common charge against the MCU is that Marvel Studios will hire up-and-coming directors for their projects and then sideline their artistic contributions to instead present a pre-packaged product. This criticism doesn’t apply to Multiverse of Madness. Veteran director Sam Raimi not only has experience with the superhero genre, having helmed each entry in the original Spider-Man trilogy, but signature touches of his, like comically macabre imagery and schlocky close-ups, are felt throughout this new movie. Harkening back to his Evil Dead days, eyeballs pop up (and out, on at least two occasions) more often than Infinity Stones do in Avengers: Endgame. When Strange sees the Sorcerer Supreme from another universe, the camera locks in on their locked eyes and for a brief moment, the film turns into a Spaghetti Western.

The disappointment here isn’t from the direction but from the writing, as Michael Waldron’s screenplay is heavy on heady exposition about universe-hopping but light on character and believable motivations. The villain of this piece is both overly powerful and under-developed, even if you go into this film having seen the Marvel Studios TV series that are now apparently prerequisites for their cinematic output. This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve gone into one of these movies not understanding which character has powers that are more powerful than another characters’ powers but as I see it, this antagonist should be able to wipe out the protagonists in no time. Not only that but the reasoning behind their actions is frustratingly one-dimensional and makes them a less interesting foe for our heroes to defeat.

Another refrain about MCU films is their tendency to start strong but peter out with final acts that indulge in explosive extravaganza. While Multiverse of Madness has a finale that is far from staid, this movie breaks from the mold by opening with a first act that is quite dull from a story perspective but picks up momentum and delivers one of the most enjoyable third acts that I can recall from this franchise. At some point, character motives and stakes go out the window entirely but when the film fully commits to Raimi’s stylistic lunacy in the back half, it finds its voice in an immensely entertaining way. With a few more passes at the script, Multiverse of Madness could have been an exceedingly well-balanced superhero tale but as is, it’s fleetingly fun and an improvement on the first Doctor Strange chapter.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and streaming on Peacock is Firestarter, a remake of the 1984 Stephen King adaptation starring Zac Efron and Ryan Kiera Armstrong about a father who must protect his daughter after she develops pyrokinesis and is hunted by a secret government agency.
Streaming on Netflix is Our Father, a documentary about a fertility fraud investigation tied to an Indianapolis-based doctor after a woman’s at-home DNA test reveals multiple half-siblings of which she was previously unaware.
Available to rent on demand is On The Count Of Three, a dark comedy starring Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott about two friends whose pact to end each others’ lives takes a number of unexpected turns.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Memory

Since his iconic tough guy role in 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has been on a mission with his specific set of skills: to star in as many similarly budgeted and crafted action movies as humanly possible. From anonymous thrillers like Unknown to Blacklight from just earlier this year, the almost-70-year-old performer doesn’t seem to turn his nose up at any script, provided his character growls some threatening lines and he gets to punch a few people along the way. His latest endeavor along these lines is Memory, an English-language remake of early-aughts Belgian thriller The Alzheimer Case, itself adapted from a novel of the same name. With an accomplished director like Martin Campbell at the helm, this movie had the potential to be a memorable entry in Neeson’s unofficial “Old Guy With A Gun” franchise but instead, it falls far short of that mark.

Neeson is Alex Lewis, a veteran assassin whose brutal precision is skillfully depicted in the film’s opening minutes when he ambushes a target in front of his hospital bed-ridden mother. The latest task from Alex’s handler calls him to El Paso, where he’s expected to eliminate an underage girl holding information that could be passed to the FBI. In addition to the job conflicting with his principled stand to never kill children, Alex is also struggling to keep his advanced Alzheimer’s diagnosis from interfering with his work. When someone gets to Alex’s mark before he does, FBI agents Vincent (Guy Pearce) and Linda (Taj Atwal) begin to follow the trail of mistakes that the ailing Alex leaves behind, eventually leading to hedge fund CEO Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci) and a band of child traffickers under her employ.

It may be enough to say that no one seems like they want to be in Memory but more specifically, no one feels like they belong in the world that Memory attempts to create. Everything feels like it doesn’t fit together and naturally, the actors seem uncomfortable as a result. It would be easy to take Neeson’s awkward performance and pin its stilted nature on the condition from which his character suffers but there are more fundamental problems here. It’s not that he can’t be bothered to give a compelling performance in one of these on-brand actioners anymore; it’s that this outing seems like this is his first time appearing in one when the complete opposite is true. Elsewhere, Pearce engages in dialect rodeo with a Texas accent that barely hangs on at times but otherwise wavers violently from line to line.

This sort of cops and robbers — perhaps agents and assassins is a better fit — story isn’t particularly novel anyway but scribe Dario Scardapane peppers in a plethora of character details that add up to nothing. Much of the film boils down to Vincent and Linda meeting with witnesses or suspects but these parlays go round and round with virtually no benefit to the story. I’m all for character refinement but when we’re an hour in and learning about a tertiary character’s former Olympic swimming career as opposed to what Alex is going to do next, something has gone awry. Campbell, also responsible for directing two all-time great James Bond entries, seems to lose interest in Alex’s dementia for most of the runtime, just to exploit it later on for an eye roll-inducing last act reveal.

It would be reasonable to expect that Neeson is about ready to hang up his “action star” hat and that Memory would be his last time fronting this type of action thriller but he’s reportedly in the middle of filming another one right now. He’s obviously a talented performer and even during this gun-heavy period of his career, he’s given terrific performances in films like Ordinary Love and Widows. I can’t say I understand what is driving Neeson to keep doing these films — he even joked about the dubious existence of a second Taken sequel, only to eventually appear in it anyway — but if they allow him to appear in smaller movies without having to sweat a paycheck, then I suppose they may be worth continuing to endure. We can only hope that the next one isn’t as bad as Memory.

Score – 1.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the newest MCU superhero film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen following the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home as Strange looks to mend the Multiverse with the help of Scarlet Witch and other mystical allies.
Streaming on Netflix is Marmaduke, an animated adaptation of the titular comic strip starring Pete Davidson and J. K. Simmons about a legendary dog trainer who believes he can help Marmaduke become the first Great Dane in history to win the Westminster Champions trophy.
Premiering on HBO Max is Navalny, a documentary that follows the months-long recovery of a Russian opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt by poisoning with a lethal nerve agent in August 2020.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My thoughts on the movies