Tag Archives: 2022

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

The Northman

Three films into his career, writer/director Robert Eggers has carved out a niche for himself with period pieces that stick closely to the language used during their respective eras. Much of the script for his debut The Witch was translated directly from 17th century Puritan texts, while the dialogue from The Lighthouse leans heavily into the dialects of late 19th century sailors. His latest effort, The Northman, is another piece of historical fiction — this time in 9th century Iceland — but everything just feels a bit too hollow in this outing. The music of the characters’ words somehow doesn’t ring as true this time and it doesn’t help that this is the most straightforward narrative that Eggers has told thus far. There are wrinkles of weirdness and wonder left in this tale but like the film’s hulking protagonist, it prefers bold print over footnotes and action over contemplation.

We meet the Viking warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as a young boy, excited to greet his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) on the way home from his most recent pillaging. It turns out the most treacherous battle awaits him in his kingdom, where Aurvandill’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders him in front of Amleth and takes the throne for himself. The young prince narrowly escapes Fjölnir’s forces, is taken in by a separate band of Vikings and vows vengeance on Fjölnir, while also swearing to rescue his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as well. Factoring into his conquest for revenge is Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a slave who comes to have a growing affection for the fearless Amleth and whose knowledge and practice of dark magic proves useful to their shared goal of overthrowing Fjölnir.

The ubiquity of the Scandinavian legend of Amleth is due in no small part to the direct influence it had on William Shakespeare while writing Hamlet, a tale that has itself been adapted countless times in various mediums. Like just about any other movie, The Northman is less about the “what” and more about the “how”; it’s less important what it’s about than how it’s about it. This is where the film is chiefly a disappointment: its story doesn’t do quite enough to distinguish itself from myriad other fictional accounts of a son swearing revenge of his murderous uncle. Too much of the film is blunt in its execution of its core mission; Amleth literally repeats it in voiceover over and over like a mantra. There are details in the journey that evoke the time period in interesting ways but they don’t often add much to the way that we’re supposed to feel about these characters.

Eggers is working with a budget that’s roughly 8 times the size of each of his two previous features and he certainly makes good use of the extra cash when it comes to presentation and overall cinematic experience. A bravura attack sequence set in the land of the Rus feels like a follow-up to the opening salvo Iñárritu put together for The Revenant. It begins with Amleth grabbing a thrown spear mid-air and chucking it back at the opposing forces and doesn’t end until his battle axe has spilled more than its fair share of blood. Willem Dafoe makes the most of his limited screen time as an overseer of a spiritual ceremony, talking directly to camera while ominously describing fates being sealed and tears of sadness that can no longer be shed. The reclusive Icelandic artist Björk also pops up as a sorceress with foreboding news and an outfit that is exactly as ornate as one would expect from the fashion iconoclast.

It’s window dressing and exquisitely-rendered window dressing but the more I sat with The Northman, the more it felt like a distraction rather than a supplement to the storyline. The Witch and The Lighthouse simply carried much more weight subtextually and psychologically than this film and put bluntly (as Amleth may respect), there just doesn’t seem to be enough brains to this story. There is a scene between the grown-up Amleth and Gudrún that challenges our conception of what their relationship may be but there are too few moments of character insight like this in the rest of the movie. From a narrative perspective, I didn’t feel challenged or moved very often but perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t in suspense as I watched this revenge tale play out. Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting something different from Eggers based on his previous work but The Northman is a let-down nevertheless.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Memory, an action thriller starring Liam Neeson and Guy Pearce about an assassin-for-hire who finds he’s become a target after he refuses to complete a job for a dangerous criminal organization.
Streaming on HBO Max is The Survivor, a historical drama starring Ben Foster and Vicky Krieps that tells the story of a real-life survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp who boxed fellow inmates to survive.
Available to rent on demand is Hatching, a Finnish horror movie starring Jani Volanen and Reino Nordin involving a young gymnast who discovers a strange egg and hides it from her family until something wholly unexpected emerges.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent

Following up one of the very best performances of his career in Pig, Nicolas Cage is back with his most challenging role yet: Nicolas Cage. The taunted and vaunted star is naturally playing a heightened version of himself in the cheekily-titled The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, an undeniably affable if frustratingly cursory buddy comedy that may still satisfy the cult of Cage. That the finished product is more Midnight Run than Being John Malkovich is completely understandable from a marketing standpoint but may be disappointing for those expecting, as the tagline boasts, “The Most Nicolas Cage Movie Ever.” Yes, there are plenty of easter eggs and nods to numerous films in Cage’s 40-year pilgrimage on-screen but the fan service often feels more like window dressing than an integral part of what makes the mechanics of the movie work.

We meet this version of Cage as he is over-selling himself to a director (David Gordon Green, in a cameo) who already seems nervous to cast him in his King Lear riff. As has seemingly been the case for the real-life Cage, this Nick is also struggling with finances as mortgages and alimony to his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) add up to more than he has to repay. Given the circumstances, his agent Richard (Neil Patrick Harris) is excited to report that Cage has been offered $1 million just to show up to the birthday party of wealthy super fan Javi (Pedro Pascal). On his way to Spain, Cage is stopped by a pair of CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz), who don’t buy that Javi has become a billionaire strictly from working in the olive industry. As Cage and Javi’s bond grows closer, Nick’s torn between helping the CIA and protecting his new friend from danger.

What’s most important about The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is that writer/director Tom Gormican is in on the joke with Cage and seems to understand both the person and the persona at the center of this meta comedy. At various points in the film, Cage is confronted by a devil-on-the-shoulder version of his Wild at Heart character, whose bawdy advice is designed to get them back up to the top, no matter what. It’s a derivative but effective way to bifurcate Cage’s larger-than-life screen presence from how he most likely behaves in real life. Gormican is able to reconcile Nic Cage: Leaving Las Vegas Oscar winner with Nic Cage: star of The Wicker Man (yes, it’s referenced) and create a universe where both can peacefully coexist.

The seeds of a great movie are there but the soil isn’t packed as well as it could be. Having Cage go to an eccentric billionaire’s fancy villa and reflect on his storied screen career through the eyes of a super fan is a terrific comedic setup. But Gormican wimps out and dedicates most of the runtime to a broad storyline where Cage is investigating Javi’s potential cartel connections behind his back and doing a poor job of spying at the CIA’s behest. It sets up moderately funny scenes like one where Cage breaks into a server room and accidentally gets knocked out by his own tranquilizing weapon. Cage sells it as well as Leonardo DiCaprio did in the Lemmon Quaalude scene from The Wolf of Wall Street but it’s a nondescript sequence that could be in any other spy comedy from the last ten years.

When the movie focuses on the friendship between Nick and Javi, it becomes sharper both as a specific kind of drug-fueled buddy comedy and a compendium of Cage conceits. The inevitable scene where Cage finds Javi’s embarrassing shrine of Cage memorabilia features plenty of references to his past projects but also narrows in on the peculiar bond between the two characters. When Cage happens upon a sequined pillow with his face on it and makes a self-effacing remark while swiping his hand across it, Javi lovingly puts the pattern back in order to reveal his face once more. Javi knows all sorts of fun facts about Cage — like the fact that he did his own car stunts for Gone In 60 Seconds — but still has more to learn about who the man actually is off-camera. A more focused script would’ve made The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent an even bigger joy for fans but as is, it’s an enjoyable romp centered around Hollywood’s most beguiling thespian.

Score – 3/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is The Northman, a historical epic starring Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman which tells the brutal story of a young Viking prince on a quest to avenge his father’s murder in 10th-century Iceland.
Also playing only in theaters is The Bad Guys, an animated crime comedy starring Sam Rockwell and Marc Maron about several reformed, yet misunderstood, criminal animals attempting to become good, with some disastrous results along the way.
Premiering on Netflix is Along For The Ride, a romantic drama starring Emma Pasarow and Belmont Cameli about a pair of high school seniors whose shared insomnia leads to overnight dates around their seaside town.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ambulance

Michael Bay. Just the mention of the director’s name has stirred up preconceived notions in the minds of cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike since he hit the scene in the mid-90s. The one-two punch of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor solidified the tropes that are now inextricably linked with the filmmaker, codified in a style popularly called “Bayhem”. Bay’s frequent uses of melodramatic dialogue and epic, saturated landscapes, along with his fetishization of the military and of women, are just a few trademarks of his often-replicated technique. His latest film Ambulance is as action-packed as his other work and maintains signature trademarks of his approach — intense close-ups, circular camera movement, excessive lampposts — but includes breakthroughs for the director that allow it to instantly rank among his finest work.

The film centers around two adoptive brothers who have gone their separate ways since their father’s passing years ago. Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a former Marine fighting to care for his cancer-stricken wife and newborn son as the medical bills become more than his one-off jobs can pay. His brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) has taken after their father’s life of crime, knocking off banks while fronting a car detailing shop in Los Angeles. While in the middle of asking Danny for money, Will makes a snap decision to assist with a lucrative heist, which goes swimmingly until young LAPD officer Zach (Jackson White) unknowingly interrupts their plan. The unraveling of said plan involves Zach sustaining a bullet injury and the Sharp brothers hijacking an ambulance with EMT Cam (Eiza González) and the injured Zach onboard as hostages.

From the outset, Ambulance sets up its characters and their motivations with more breadth and depth than your typical action thriller. Screenwriter Chris Fedak taps into the frustrations with medical bureaucracy to which many people can relate, especially the past couple years, and Abdul-Mateen does an excellent job selling it. Gyllenhaal presents his character as the sort of cool operator who is paradoxically the most anxious person in the room at any moment, while González portrays her paramedic as a consummate professional who is enviably heroic under pressure. The scenario that puts the rookie cop in that bank at the wrong time is loaded with layers of dramatic irony and social pressure that makes the situation tense and enthralling before the rubber even meets the road.

Don’t worry: the action does come and when it does, it rarely takes any breaks. Not since Mad Max: Fury Road has there been a sustained vehicular battle this utterly engrossing and casually inventive in the way that it interjects escalating variables into the predicament. With DP Roberto De Angelis, Bay ups his aerial camerawork game by use of roving drones that dive-bomb and zig-zag across LA with both speed and precision. Put bluntly: these are exhilarating shots that wouldn’t have been possible in an action movie ten, or perhaps even five, years ago. But the cinematic fundamentals of sound action moviemaking are also present throughout, underscored by editor Pietro Scalia’s adept sense of visual timing and storytelling priority.

Bay has been charged with having a stunted and sophomoric sense of humor that accompanies his seeming lack of self-awareness but there are signs in Ambulance that he may have at least temporarily overcome these obstacles. Two police officers reference two other Michael Bay movies in a five-minute span, the second joke coinciding with the low-angle hero shot so overdone that I’ll chalk up to knowing parody rather than self-own. Gyllenhaal also rips off some diabolically sarcastic one-liners with sadistic glee, while a police captain played by Garret Dillahunt does some excellent age-juxtaposed verbal sparring with other officers. It may not be the most sophisticated humor in the world but it’s a marked step-up from Bumblebee peeing gasoline on John Turturro 15 years ago. Prior to Ambulance, Transformers was the last Bay film I had seen in a theater but his latest is clear evidence that I shouldn’t wait another 15 for my next appointment.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, starring Jude Law and Eddie Redmayne, is the latest entry in the Wizarding World franchise that finds members of the British Ministry of Magic battling dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s army.
Father Stu, starring Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson, is a based-on-a-true-story drama which follows the life story of Father Stuart Long, a boxer who turns to Catholic priesthood after suffering from an inflammatory muscle disease.
Everything Everywhere All at Once, starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, is a sci-fi comedy about an aging Chinese immigrant who is swept up in an cosmic adventure where she alone can save the world by exploring other universes connecting with the lives she could have led.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Morbius

For those who don’t have their PhDs in cinematic universes, it should be said that the awful new superhero movie Morbius is the third entry in the Sony’s Spider-Man Universe that was created in 2018 for Venom. See, Sony leased the rights for Spider-Man away to Marvel Studios in 2015 but in an effort to ring all the cash out of the spider web that they could, they developed movies based around the character’s villains, even in the hero’s absence. Making a pair of Venom movies without Spider-Man is sort of like making a film about macaroni without cheese but at least baddies like Venom and Vulture are on the A-list of the webslinger’s foes. By selecting Morbius, Sony has already jumped down to the C-list of comic book antagonists as their SSU plows ahead against petty obstacles like artistic integrity and good taste.

We meet Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) as he arrives at a cave in Costa Rica and draws vampire bats out using a machine whose function is never clearly (or unclearly) stated. Along with his childhood friend Lucien (Matt Smith), Morbius suffers from a rare blood illness, for which the doctor has spent his entire life trying to develop a cure. His latest attempt involves splicing his DNA with the recently-captured bats, which gifts him with vampiric superpowers but also curses him with an unquenchable thirst for blood. Morbius’s hunger is temporarily satiated by a synthetic blood he created but his growing bloodlust has coincided with a string of attacks on the city by someone who has been sucking victims dry. Together with fellow scientist Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), Morbius sets out to take down the city’s new “vampire killer”.

Like many films that have been released over the past year, Morbius is yet another victim of covid-related delays after an initial July 2020 premiere window and as that’s the case, its trailer has played ad nauseum since movie theaters have reopened. It teases about a dozen Easter eggs and scenes that never made the final cut, which points to manipulative advertising rather than judicious editing on Sony’s part. It’s also indicative of aimlessness when it comes to what story director Daniel Espinosa is trying to tell. The film shamelessly rips off specific moments from better superhero films like Batman Begins and 2002’s Spider-Man but not in a way that helps justify why this interpretation of the Morbius character should exist in the first place.

From the casting of Leto as a brilliant scientist to a plot that’s been drained of every ounce of originality, there’s not an aspect of Morbius that doesn’t feel haphazard and sloppy. An awkward early flashback depicts a meet-ugly between Morbius and Lucien, where the former insists on calling the latter by the incorrect name to mock his expendability. From that moment on, the title character operates in two modes of “selfish jerk” and “outright bore” for the rest of the movie. Leto injects the film with lifeless voiceover narration that insults the audience’s intelligence, as if we’re not supposed to know what echolocation is. At least Matt Smith is trying to have some fun — he even gets a peppy dance number before a night on the town — but his antics are bogged down by the film’s brooding and moody nature.

What’s most painful about Morbius is just how hard it’s trying to be cool and how dated it looks in all of its efforts to do so. With speed-ramping bullet effects out of an Underworld sequel and color palette that blends shades of Hot Topic and Spirit Halloween, it’s about as edgy as an Evanescence cover band on a Tuesday night. I’m all for a comic book movie with moral complexity or a darker tone but there’s nothing ambiguous or artistic about the way this film tries to get across its message. Perhaps I was a bit too hard on Venom a few years ago because that movie and its sequel at least have an admirable, out-of-left-field goofiness that’s nowhere to be found in this self-serious dreck. Tawdry and toothless, Morbius is more BS from a media conglomerate that needs to put a stake in the heart of this bungled cinematic universe.

Score – 1.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Ambulance, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is a Michael Bay-directed action thriller about two robbers who steal an ambulance and hold an EMT hostage after their heist goes awry.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2, starring Ben Schwartz and James Marsden, is the sequel to the 2020 video game adaptation that finds Sonic and his new partner Tails squaring off against the evil Dr Robotnik and his new ally Knuckles.
Everything Everywhere All at Once, starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, is a science fiction action comedy about an aging Chinese immigrant who is tasked with saving the world by exploring other universes connecting with the lives she could have led.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood

The 2019 documentary Apollo 11 was a just-the-facts recreation of the titular historic spaceflight but thanks to the magic of rotoscoped animation, we now have a fantastical prequel of sorts. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, the latest from writer/director Richard Linklater, is likely his most personal film yet and a fine return to form after a couple recent misfires. Utilizing the rotoscoping technique he helped launch in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Linklater overlays live-action footage with bursts of animated color in a way that resembles a home movie that’s been strategically painted over. The effect is perfect for this wistful tale of remembering what was and daydreaming about what could have been during an era when anything seemed possible.

It’s 1969 in Texas and ten-year-old Stanley (Milo Coy) is at recess playing kickball when he’s called into a classroom to meet with two NASA officials (Glen Powell and Zachary Levi) about something top secret. As with his friends and family, Stanley is enraptured with the ongoing Apollo missions as they watch the shuttles launch on their televisions but these gentlemen have a proposal that will get him closer to his dreams than he ever imagined. Though NASA scientists are the best and brightest, they accidentally made a lunar module too small for an adult astronaut, much less three of them. So as to not waste resources, NASA offers to train Stanley in their program so that he can make the trip to the moon that Kennedy promised earlier in the decade.

Okay, so Linklater is playing a bit fast and loose with the historical facts of what actually landed man on the moon for the first time but the boyhood fantasy of Apollo 10½ is accompanied by very accurate details of time and place otherwise. About twenty minutes into the story, the film freeze frames on an unflattering moment during high-g training and goes on a lengthy detour that paints an evocative portrait of what life was like in this specific Houston suburb. As Daniel Stern did in The Wonder Years, Jack Black plays the adult version of Stanley looking back on his childhood via voiceover narration. It’s easy to see this as a younger brother to Linklater’s similarly nostalgic Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, as fascinated with 1960s culture as those were with the 1970s.

There’s quite a bit of archival footage used in Apollo 10½ but Linklater and his head of animation Tommy Pallotta incorporate plenty of deep cuts along with the expected cultural touchstones. Sure, most people who grew up during this time can relate to watching The Wonderful World Of Color on Sunday nights or hearing “Sugar, Sugar” played way too often. But the film is more specific about the subculture of Texas suburbanites who were smitten by NASA and their tireless endeavors throughout the decade at the nearby Johnson Space Center. As he does multiple times in the movie to rattle off lists of period-relevant board games or TV shows, Linklater fills up the frame at one point with revered astronauts as they appear on collectible trading cards.

Narratively, the film is split between the fictional account of Stanley’s trip to the moon and his life on the ground with his family of 8 but it doesn’t exactly split the time evenly. Obviously Linklater is using the outer space story as a way to show us a scrapbook of his early years, so it shouldn’t be surprising when the movie meanders for long stretches of time. Though it’s intentional, it does give things an uneven feel and the pacing can be a bit all over the place when the waxing nostalgic goes full throttle but the visual pizazz and the heartfelt nature carry the day. In one scene, Stanley describes one of his grandmothers as “a very sweet lady you couldn’t find much fault in” and the same could be said of Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Morbius, the latest entry in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe starring Jared Leto and Matt Smith about a scientist suffering from a rare blood disease whose attempts to cure himself afflict him with a form of vampirism.
Streaming on Netflix is The Bubble, a meta comedy starring Karen Gillan and Fred Armisen about a group of actors struggling to film the newest sequel of a dinosaur-based blockbuster franchise during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premiering on Disney+ is Better Nate Than Ever, a family-friendly musical starring Rueby Wood and Joshua Bassett about an unpopular 13-year-old who has a goal of becoming a Broadway musical star, even though he can’t land the lead in his school’s play.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup