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Saturday, May 7, 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness



"Are you happy?" Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) asks Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Wong). If he asked me, I'd answer with an unequivocal "yes." Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness - the director's first superhero movie since his Spider-Man trilogy and his first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe - is a giddy good time, a wild and weird magic carpet ride through the Marvel Multiverse that was established in the animated Marvel's What If...? series and unlocked in live-action by Spider-Man: No Way Home. This is Doctor Strange's fifth movie appearance since his debut film in 2016 and it's the wizard's best outing as Strange and his magical and multiversal friends dive headlong into the wacky alternate realities of the greater Marvel Universe.

Perhaps the best thing about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is that it's a direct sequel to WandaVision. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff is the best thing in the movie. When a teenage girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the power to travel across the Multiverse, lands in the main MCU's Sacred Timeline (the universe designated 616), Doctor Strange decides to protect her from whatever is trying to steal her power. Seeking help from an Avenger, Strange turns to the other most powerful magic-user in the world, Wanda Maximoff, who wastes no time revealing she has become the Big Bad known as the Scarlet Witch. Still coping with the trauma of losing her husband, Vision (Paul Bettany), and her twin sons, Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne), Wanda succumbed to the evil magic book called the Darkhold and became the Scarlet Witch. Wanda has simple desires: she wants to reunite with and be a mother to her sons. If she has to kill lots of people to be with her kids again, well, that's just her being reasonable. Wanda as the main villain is an unexpected treat but it logically follows up her fall from grace as a result of WandaVision, and she is a spectacularly frightening evildoer. Yet because it's Wanda, and she's still an Avenger at her core, we root for her even as she slaughters her way across universes. Elizabeth Olsen proves herself as the MCU MVP in Multiverse of Madness and she delivers what may be the best villain performance of the entire 28 movie MCU oeuvure. 

As for Doctor Strange himself, life isn't going too well for the world's most famous magician. People seem 50/50 on Strange; some love him for his role in stopping Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, but others question his judgment that there was "no other way" and Strange helping enable Thanos to wipe out half of all life in the universe for five years, to begin with. Meanwhile, Strange is still pining for the woman he gave up to become a wizard, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who he loves in every universe. But Christine always sees Strange for who and what he is - the one who always has to "hold the knife" - and she wisely moved on. Even America is wary of Doctor Strange since the other versions of him she's met (and we meet) are much less likable than ours. When Wong and Strange attempt to protect America from the Scarlet Witch, their magical stronghold of Kamar-Taj easily falls to Wanda's black magic. Strange and America flee through the Multiverse, landing in the 838 universe, which is where Doctor Strange gets really strange.

Strange and America are taken hostage by the Illuminati, a superteam comprised of incredible Marvel cameos and Easter eggs: Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Captain Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch), Black Bolt of the Inhumans (Anson Mount, getting the chance to redeem his hero from the godawful Marvel's Inhumans), Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and, best of all, Reed Richards AKA Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four (John Krasinski, fulfilling the most prevalent Marvel fan-casting of recent years). The Illuminati end up getting wiped out by the Scarlet Witch but just seeing this mind-bending assemblage of heroes is so dazzling and opens up so many possibilities, that it's worth the price of admission all by itself. Ultimately, Doctor Strange has to figure out a way to stop Wanda and it all leads to a MacGuffan called the Book of Vishanti, which is, cleverly, a swerve since the book is a non-factor. In the best Marvel tradition, the real key to beating Wanda is to force her and Strange to face their own internal inadequacies. Wanda comes face-to-face with her alternate universe self and realizes that she would be stealing her own children from herself. Meanwhile, Raimi, who already frolics in every weird idea screenwriter Michael Waldron conjures up, goes gonzo by having Strange possess a zombie version of himself, complete with multiple arms and a third eye.

If Multiverse of Madness has an inherent flaw, it's that Doctor Strange, try as he might (and he does try), is still the least interesting person in his own movie. In order of How Much I Love The Characters, I'd rank them: 1. Wanda 2. Wong 3. America 4. Doctor Strange's magical flying cape 5. The Illuminati 6. Doctor Strange. Yet Strange still becomes the most compelling and sympathetic version of himself in the Multiverse of Madness, and his pain and loneliness at having all the magical power he needs to save the Multiverse yet still never getting the girl - unlike, say, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) - is palpable and touching. Thankfully, Wong is a rock who has rapidly become one of the MCU's best characters, and Xochitl Gomez is a fantastic new addition to the pantheon of Marvel heroes. The day America meets Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), Cassie Lang (Kathryn Newton), and the other new MCU heroes to form the Young Avengers can't come soon enough. Most importantly, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is about men and a woman wanting to literally take a young girl's power from her. And Doctor Strange learns that the right thing to do is to empower that girl and teach her to use it to kick a witch's ass. A relevant lesson for our world today. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so much fun and so packed with Marvel goodness, that you'd practically need a third eye to take it all in, but multiple viewings will more than suffice.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

The Batman



Matt Reeves' The Batman is an immersive, fever dream that begins with the Dark Knight living out countless dark nights wondering why his tactics of punching crooks in the dark isn't having a positive effect on Gotham City. A majestic, R-rated three-hour cinematic tour de force posing as a PG-13 superhero blockbuster, The Batman is relentless, merciless, and hauntingly beautiful. It reimagines, once more, Gotham as a desperate closed world of urban decay. Decent people shouldn't live in Gotham; they'd be happier someplace else. The Batman bucks the current trend of shared superhero multiverses and returns to the Dark Knight's movie roots as a singular vision of a lone vigilante fighting a violent war he can never win to honor the memory of his dead parents. The Batman is a shattering masterpiece, an art-house equal to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, all backed by Michael Giacchino's driving score, and it's one of the best superhero movies ever made.

Robert Pattinson is the Batman, and he's ideal. Pattinson portrays the first movie Batman whose hair is mussed up and his eye makeup stays on when he removes his cowl. The Batman is an armored tank proficient in violence but not so keen with the small talk, although he narrates the film like Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) does Watchmen, giving the audience unprecedented access into the Batman's mindset. As the Batman prowls the shadowy corners of Gotham, moving incognito through the frightened populace in motorcycle gear, a vast conspiracy with Bruce Wayne's parents at the very heart of it, unravels around him. Together with his partner in the Gotham Police Department, Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), the only good cop in Gotham City, the Batman tries to foil an elaborate plot by a fiendish and diabolical psychopath calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano), who is murdering members of Gotham's elite to uncover their role in the city's darkest secret. As the Riddler, Dano manages to be as frightening as any Joker yet he's as intelligent as he is sad, vile, and insane. 

The Batman has more in common with films like David Fincher's Se7en and Zodiac than the recent output by Zack Snyder where Batman teams up with other superheroes and fights aliens. The Batman also owes a lot to the popular Batman: Arkham video games as well as Frank Miller's seminal Batman: Year One comics. Fittingly, The Batman is the opposite side of the coin to Joker, which isn't part of this universe but obviously shares its DNA. Both films are concerned with the sins of Thomas Wayne (Luke Roberts), who, in this universe, ran for Mayor but made a crucial mistake in turning to sleazy mob kingpin Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) when the truth about his wife Martha's (Stella Stocker) mental health issues was going to be publicly leaked. Bruce grew up believing his murdered parents were saintly victims of Gotham's criminal rot and the revelation that Thomas Wayne was flawed rocks the Batman's world. As the Riddler continues his murder spree, the Batman finds a reluctant ally in Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a slinky waitress who moonlights as a cat burglar. Kravitz is sensational as Selina, who has a secret parent of her own and she's intimately tied to the seedy revelations the Riddler wants to uncover. Meanwhile, an unrecognizable Colin Farrell chews the scenery as Osward Cobblepot, a middling mobster who owns the Iceberg Lounge and wants to be called Oz, not Penguin.

Batman and Catwoman have teamed up in the movies before but The Batman's versions have an undeniable chemistry that feels more incendiary than Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway or even Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer. The Bat and the Cat in The Batman are young, beautiful, wounded, and volatile, warily circling their fatal attraction but also quickly understanding that they're made for each other. Back in the Batcave, which is beneath Wayne Tower instead of Stately Wayne Manor in this universe, Bruce's butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) impatiently manages Wayne's affairs and believes (perhaps correctly) that he's gone insane. As much fun as an eternally disappointed Alfred taking the piss out of Bruce is, the Batman's repartee with Jim Gordon is one of the highlights of the film. It's the best live-action depiction of Batman and Gordon as crimefighting friends working together, eclipsing even Christian Bale's Dark Knight's team-up with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). We don't get the back story of why the Batman and Gordon are such bosom buddies but their us-against-the worst of Gotham dynamic is aces.

The Batman is the first Batman movie that reflects the title Detective Comics, finally delivering a sordid and cerebral detective story that challenges the Dark Knight's sleuthing skills as the World's Greatest Detective, although the Riddler, who thinks he's actually working alongside the Batman in his twisted mind, is disappointed when the Batman doesn't see the big picture. The Ridder's scheme not only involves exposing a 20-year-old plot by the city's officials and the mob to embezzle billions left behind by Thomas Wayne meant as the "renewal" of Gotham City, but he also wants to literally sink the city. The Batman weaving in the inevitable peril posed by climate change is timely and powerful. Of course, The Batman also hedges its bets at a potential sequel and drops in a cameo by Barry Keoghan as "Unnamed Arkham Prisoner," i.e. the Joker, just as Nolan's Batman Begins telegraphed the Joker for his sequel. 

But while The Batman's stunningly brutal action, including an eye-popping car chase involving the Batman's new muscle car Batmobile, really delivers, The Batman's best trick is in the end when the Batman publicly risks his life to save Gotham's new mayor and thousands of refugees from Riddler's murderous incel goons. This was already a Batman who had no qualms of marching shoulder-to-shoulder with cops, but The Batman shows the Dark Knight's unprecedented willingness to be seen by the people he's trying to save. The Batman shows touching personal growth as he realizes he's meant to be a hero, not just the city's shadowy avenger. The Batman's self-sacrifice as he saves women and children during Gotham's greatest catastrophe is perhaps the most uplifting ending of any Batman movie. In the end, the Batman realizes he has to be a better Batman for Gotham, and his bittersweet parting with Selina as they roar in separate directions on their motorcycles is as powerful a denouement as The Dark Knight's unforgettable conclusion. For Matt Reeves, Robert Pattinson, and Warner Bros., The Batman is a triumph and deserves to earn as many billions as Bruce Wayne has in the bank.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Spider-Man: No Way Home



With Spider-Man: No Way Home, Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios opened the toy box, turned it over, dumped everything onto the floor, and said, "Have at it!" Directed by Jon Watts, who helmed Tom Holland's previous Spider-Man movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which, I guess, is now the "Home Trilogy," Spider-Man: No Way Home is a massive list of fanboy Spider-Man movie dreams dutifully checked off. Watching it is like reading a dozen Marvel Comic books in a row at a breakneck pace. As a coherent movie, No Way Home teeters on disaster and then careens headlong into it, yet it also delivers the most relentlessly jaw-dropping fan service as the most pure comic book movie since Avengers: Infinity War, and that's a compliment. Give No Way Home too much thought - or any rational thought at all - and you'll be driven as mad as the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). So you know what? Don't. Just let the live-action Spider-Verse happen, man. 

Spider-Man: No Way Home has an astounding amount of --- story's not the right word -- stuff it has to get done according to Marvel and Sony's big agenda. Oh, and there is an agenda here, and it's big. First off, No Way Home has to establish the Multiverse to set up Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness by having Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) play the thankless role of "Guy who's right about everything but Peter Parker won't listen or else the movie won't happen." No Way Home also has to immediately address the cliffhanger from Spider-Man: Far From Home, where Peter's secret identity is revealed by Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) and J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). The first act of No Way Home is quite novel, showing us the fallout of Parker becoming "the most famous person in the world" and being hunted by the authorities as well as ordinary people coming out of the woodwork who want a piece of Spider-Man. Just like that, however, Peter's legal troubles are resolved, thanks to his blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox)! Did I mention guest stars? There are so many, like Wong (Benedict Wong), the new Sorcerer Supreme who pops up all over the Marvel Cinematic Universe now. No Way Home reflects the success Sony saw with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse's Multiverse and saying, "We should do it in live-action too and make even more money."

The second phase of No Way Home happens after Peter bungles Doctor Strange's magical "Make the world forget Peter Parker is Spider-Man except for six people" spell and it somehow cracks open the Multiverse so that supervillains who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man jump from the Sony movie universes to the MCU. The Spider-Villain parade includes Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), and Green Goblin from Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man movies and Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Lizard (Rhys Ifans) from Andrew Garfield's Amazing Spider-Man movies. It's awesome to see Tom Holland's Spidey face the classic non-MCU villains he's never fought before. But despite Doctor Strange's pragmatic warnings that the villains need to go back from whence they came, Peter goes rogue when he learns that the villains are fated to die fighting the Spider-Men of their universes. Admirably, Peter "does the right thing" and tries to save the villains, and he even uses his science-y smarts to cure the crazy ones like Doc Ock and Green Goblin. But it's also not the right thing to do. In fact, in many very important ways, it couldn't be the more wrong thing to do, but No Way Home's rules are unfathomable, contradictory, full of holes, and glosses over the tough questions about the Multiverse to fulfill Peter's moral imperative and keep this train hurtling along.

While rumors abounded for years that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would share the screen with Tom Holland in No Way Home, to actually see it happen is immensely satisfying. Never mind that Maguire seemed to be constantly trying to remember what playing his version of Peter Parker was like. Meanwhile, Garfield was really just playing himself in a Spider suit but he was clearly happy to be included. The three Spider-Men hanging out and swinging into battle together is worth the price of admission as 100% giddy fan service. Just as satisfying, No Way Home worked to give closure to elements from Maguire and Garfield's movies that were left hanging. Tobey's Peter reunited with Dr. Otto Octavius as friends after Holland's Peter cured the malfunctioning A.I. chip that twisted Doc Ock's brain because of his robot arms. Andrew's Peter had some touching moments with Electro, and he caught MJ (Zendaya) from falling to her death, saving her in a way that he couldn't save Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). No Way Home hit all the fanboy notes and contrasted how the three movie Spider-Men are different but also the same - Garfield feels left out because Maguire fought an alien in Venom (Topher Grace) but Holland's been to space to fight an alien, Thanos (Josh Brolin) - and it was worth all of the Multiversal hijinks. 

Unfortunately, the most frustrating part of No Way Home is Tom Holland's Peter. The MCU's version of Spider-Man is the youngest version of the live-action movies but No Way Home especially equates Peter's youth for being dumb. Peter even admits he's dumb multiple times in the movie. But the movie needs Peter to do a million dumb things to enable its plot to happen and to get to the cool guest stars and cameos. Tom Holland does his best to keep the audience on Peter's side even while he's literally wrecking reality by not thinking things through, and he pays for his mistakes tragically when the Green Goblin murders Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). To his credit, Tom Holland embodies the whirlwind of emotions as Peter and he suffers a Multiverse's worth of tragedy (mostly self-inflicted) in No Way Home. After the roller coaster of Spider-Man: No Way Home, you're too exhausted to ask questions like, "How could MJ and Ned forget Peter entirely? Didn't they still go to school with him?" It's better to remember the thrills of seeing Holland, Maguire, and Garfield facing all of their super villains and hum the Spider-Man theme until we see the web-slinger again.

Tom Holland's Spider-Man has always been far luckier than his predecessors: He has a devoted girlfriend in MJ, whose surname was retconned to Watson, he's got his Man in the Chair, Ned (Jacob Batalon), he had his Aunt May, two surrogates Uncle Bens in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), and he's an Avenger. When Spider-Man: No Way Home winds down, Sony's ultimate agenda becomes clear as they systematically strip all of the good things in Peter's life away to bring him to the mold of the lonely Spider-Man Maguire and Garfield are, complete with a classic Spidey suit he sewed himself, so no more Stark Tech for him. It's a sad ending for the plucky young Spider-Man of the MCU to lose everything and everyone he held dear as Sony resets him for the next wave of Spider-Man movies, but Parker grins and bears it as the penance he must pay for almost breaking the Multiverse. After all, nothing is more Spider-Man than suffering alone. Like Maguire and Garfield said, "It's what we do."

Sunday, October 10, 2021

No Time To Die



You Have All The Time In The World

The final act is often the hardest to get right but director Cary Joji Fukunaga's urgent and stunning No Time To Die gets it so right. No Time To Die is the fifth and final movie starring Daniel Craig as James Bond and while I have an overwhelming love for and devotion to Skyfall, No Time To Die outdoes it by delivering something 007 has never truly had: a definitive ending. But en route to that end - Bond's end - is one more globe-hopping adventure - Matera, Italy, Jamaica, Santiago, Cuba, London, Norway, and a mysterious island between Japan and Russia - where Bond saves the world from the 21st-century threat of deadly nanobots. More importantly, James Bond faces the scope of his dangerous life as a Double-0 agent and finally confronts both his own mortality and the chance to leave something (and someone) behind.

Daniel Craig has never been better as James Bond. Well-aware that his and the audience's hearts weren't in Spectre, Craig does not waste this opportunity to go out with a kiss-kiss bang-bang. In No Time To Die, Bond is the happiest he's ever been on holiday with Dr. Madeleine Swann (a fantastic Lea Seydoux) when he's ambushed by Spectre agents sent by his old enemy (and ex-brother, adoptive), Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). Bond believes Madeleine betrayed him and he's heartbroken. (Although as Blofeld later taunts James, "You were always so sensitive!") Using his indomitable Aston Martin DB5, Bond annihilates the Spectre agents, puts Madeleine on a train, and tells her she'll never see him again. And he meant it. For at least the third time in Daniel Craig's quintology, Bond quits MI6 and he means it.

Retired in Jamaica five years later, Bond is now a man with unlimited time to kill but at least no one is trying to kill him, for once. Until James' old spy buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) comes calling. Felix temps Bond back into action but James meeting M's (Ralph Feinnes) efficient new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch) also had something to do with it. From there, No Time To Die puts its foot on the accelerator and takes us on a two-hour thrill ride. Bond walks into a trap in Cuba alongside Paloma (Ana de Armas), the most cheerfully gorgeous Bond Girl of Craig's 007 era. Ana de Armas is so good at drinking, quipping, and fighting alongside James, we wish she stayed for the whole movie. But the mystery of who's working against both James Bond and Spectre, which led to a trap for Bond turning into the massacre of every Spectre agent, leads right back to Ernst Stavro Blofeld. But the real key to this mystery is Madeleine Swann.

In the film's brilliant opening flashback, young Madeleine was attacked by No Time To Die's new twisted villain, Safin (Rami Malek). Safin's family was wiped out by Madeleine's father, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), on Blofeld's orders and Safin came to White's Norway home looking for revenge. After killing Madeleine's mother, Safin becomes infatuated by the young girl and he saves her from drowning in ice (an echo of Bond nearly drowning in ice during Skyfall's climax). Decades later, Safin is back to finish the job he started and use Madeleine to kill Blofeld with his bioweapon that only works on a specific target's DNA. But Madeleine has another secret Bond discovers: they have a four-year-old daughter named Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet). At first, Madeleine lies that James isn't the father of the blue-eyed girl, but he is and he knows it. Mathilde, James Bond's first offspring in any movie, is a bombshell that sets No Time To Die apart from every Bond movie and enables the movie's incredible ending.

No Time To Die's finale, like everything that builds up to it, is absolutely spectacular. Bond and Nomi team up to assault Safin's secret island base, where the madman plans to wipe out entire demographics of people with nanobots, and to save the kidnapped Madeleine and Mathilde. The action is visceral and first-rate as 007 fights his way through scores of soldiers in order to open the blast doors so that missiles can wipe out the island. But Bond is injured by Safin and, worse, he's infected with nanobots targeted to Mathilde and Madeleine's DNA. Even if he got off the island, touching either the woman he loves or his daughter would kill them both. And thus, James Bond makes the ultimate sacrifice, one that feels unthinkable from any of his predecessors from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan - Bond willingly dies so that Madeleine and Mathilde can live. Daniel Craig's storied and incredibly successful run as James Bond explosively ends as 007 gives up his life to ensure his daughter can have hers.

A courageous and majestic James Bond story like no other, No Time To Die not only wraps up the serialized story about Daniel Craig's 007 that began with Casino Royale, it also gracefully genuflects to the greater franchise, with special reverence paid to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Bond repeats the ominous promise, "We have all the time in the world" to Madeleine as Hans Zimmer's score evokes John Barry's booming On Her Majesty's Secret Service theme and weaves in Louis Armstrong's "We Have All The Time In The World." As missiles are about to rain down upon him, James Bond promises Madeleine that "You have all the time in the world." This is Bond's most important promise of all and one he means to keep. With this incredible final chapter where everything feels earned and definitive, Cary Joji Fukunaga and Daniel Craig give 007 a legacy he never had before and close out the Craig Era of James Bond with an unforgettably poignant and emotional ending.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Venom: Let There Be Carnage



Venom: Let There Be Carnage is what everyone dreaded the first Venom movie would be. Director Ruben Fleischer's Venom was an oddball entertainment with the bizarre relationship between Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and Venom (Tom Hardy) at its center. In contrast, Andy Serkis directs Venom: Let There Be Carnage and strips away the connective tissue that made the original Venom a movie, leaving only the guts (but no blood, because Let There Be Carnage is PG-13). Venom: Let There Be Carnage is the equivalent of three Saturday morning cartoons smashed together with a threadbare plot (credited to Tom Hardy and Kelly Marcell) that was probably scribbled on a cocktail napkin during an all-night bender. And yet, despite my loathing this cacophonous misery, Carnage literally says, "Let there be Carnage!" in the movie, and saying the title of the movie in spoken dialogue nets the film an automatic four stars from me.

As set up by Venom's ending, Let There Be Carnage is about a serial killer named Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, who has nothing to play and plays that nothing right off a cliff). Cletus is holed up on death row in San Quentin but he bites reporter Eddie Brock and swallows some of the Venom symbiote. The result is Cletus is transformed into his own, even grosser, more prehensile tail-y, space monster named Carnage. Cletus/Carnage murder their way out of the clink and head straight for San Francisco to reunite with Cletus' childhood love, Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris). Barrison is also a superpowered freak who can emit sonic screams and she's been locked up her whole life. However, Carnage, Venom, and all of these goopy symbiotes only have two fatal vulnerabilities: fire and really loud noises. So naturally, Carnage isn't too happy that Cletus' missus can kill him if she opens her yap. Three's definitely a crowd there. But the bottom line is Carnage sucks; he's a hideous, terrible, eyesore who's somehow both barely in the movie yet in too much of the movie.

Meanwhile, Eddie, who was a loser in the first movie, is having a career renaissance where he's now the most important and respected reporter in San Francisco, despite still being a swarthy, twitchy weirdo who is clearly hiding a psychotic pile of murderous ooze beneath his skin. Venom is bored of being with Eddie and how controlling his human host is. Eddie won't let Venom eat human brains and he keeps shooting down Venom wanting to call their dynamic duo the "Lethal Protectors." It's not easy being in a symbiotic/romantic relationship with a symbiote and, just like in any rom com, Eddie and Venom break up and go their separate ways for a while. Unfortunately, Eddie has no heterosexual outlet with a human female to turn to because his ex-fiancee, Ann Weying (Michelle Williams), is now engaged to Doctor Dan Lewis (Reid Scott), who, strangely, turns out to be the most heroic person in the movie. For his part, Venom has a scene where he hits a rave and has a fantabulous emancipation of Venom - or he tries to, anyway, but Venom soon realizes he literally can't live without Eddie.

What passes for a plot in Venom: Let There Be Carnage is summed up thusly: Cletus wants to kill Eddie/Venom, marry Frances (who also got a codename, Shriek), and then kill Ann, Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham), the cop who shot Frances years ago but didn't know she survived, Dan, and the priest who was going to marry him and Frances, not necessarily in that order. The movie culminates in a church, not unlike Spider-Man 3, where the ringing of a giant bell helps kill Carnage, just like how Venom (Topher Grace) was defeated in Sam Raimi's unloved threequel. To get to the church on time (record time, almost, since the movie is only 90 minutes long), Venom: Let There Be Carnage packs a lot of nonsense into its short runtime, and it rockets through scenes that barely even qualify as scenes. But that's okay, I guess, since this thing barely qualifies as a movie. Every scene with Michelle Williams, who is barely in the movie, mind you, is made more baffling when one remembers she's been Academy Award-nominated four times.

So why sit through and endure Venom: Let There Be Carnage at all? Well, the Sony Spider-Man Universe is in a symbiotic relationship of its own with Marvel Studios and they finally pulled the trigger on bringing the universes together. In Venom: Let There Be Carnage's headscratcher of a mid-credits scene, Eddie and Venom are in bed together on a beach vacation when Venom randomly starts waxing philosophical of all of the crazy things he's seen traveling through 80,000 lightyears of space. Venom decides to show Eddie some of what he's seen but somehow, they end up transported into a hotel room in the Marvel Cinematic Universe right at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home. Specifically, the moment when the MCU's J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) publicly reveals Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man. How did that happen? How does any of this work? Who cares. At least the mid-credits scene clocks in as the only memorable thing in Venom: Let There Be Carnage, though it's not as standout a moment as when Tom Hardy crawls into a lobster tank and starts eating crustaceans in the first Venom.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings



Instantly upon meeting Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina), it's clear that they are the best platonic friends in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a title previously held by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Steve and Nat are both gone now but nature abhors a vacuum and so Shang-Chi and Katy seamlessly slide into their spot. They even top Rogers and Romanoff because Shang-Chi and Katy know how to have fun, whether it's jacking luxury rides in their day jobs as hotel valets or refusing to go to bed at a sensible hour and staying up all night getting drunk and singing karaoke. With these two as the focus of director Destin Daniel Cretton's entertaining adventure yarn, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, we're in good hands even when things get really weird, really fast.

Before Shang-Chi goes viral by fighting off assassins from the Ten Rings, including the hulking Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), on a speeding San Francisco bus, Katy only knew him as "Shaun." (Katy rightfully gives Shang-Chi shit for his unimaginative choice of alias). Shaun has been in America for ten years and, like Katy, he's content to go nowhere while enjoying his life as it comes. But Shaun has a secret: He's really a master of kung fu and a super-assassin trained by his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the Ten Rings, China's most powerful criminal organization. The Ten Rings was the Middle Eastern terrorist outfit Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) fought in Iron Man and Iron Man 3, but faster than you can say "retcon," Shang-Chi reveals their true origins as the network led by Wenwu, who is a thousand years old and the master of the mysterious Ten Rings, which are ten powerful bracelets of alien origin. Wenwu always knew Shang-Chi was in San Fran but he decided it's time to summon his son home.

Shang-Chi and Katy, who is also caught up in this mess, travel to Macau to find Shang-Chi's sister, Xu Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), who runs an underground fight club like she's the Chinese Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Only instead of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), one of Xialing's prizefighters is the Abomination (Tim Roth), who makes his return to the MCU after his lone appearance in The Incredible Hulk 13 years ago. Shang-Chi and Katy also meet Wong (Benedict Wong), one of the Masters of the Mystic Arts, who has basically become the new Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) since Wong seems to know everybody in the Avengers now. These are Shang-Chi and Katy's first steps into the larger, crazy world of the MCU, but it turns out Shang-Chi's China is pretty goddamn crazy itself. 

The forward movement of Shang-Chi's plot is interrupted by numerous flashbacks showing how Wenwu met his beloved late wife Ying Li (Fala Chen), their happy early years of marriage, and Shang-Chi's childhood before and after Ying Li is murdered. Lots of family secrets are spilled, including Shang-Chi's shame that he let his father turn him into a killer. Meanwhile, Xialing harbors her own resentments at being her father's forgotten and ignored child, but she turned herself into a self-made crime lord all her own, so she's a chip off the old Ten Rings. Shang-Chi also makes a big deal of both of Wenwu's kids having jade pendants given to them by their mother. Wenwu goes to a lot of trouble to take the jade pendants from his children but there's no real payoff for it. But at its core, Shang-Chi is about family, the one you're born into and the ones you make your family, and living up to your potential while staying true to yourself.

There's also a lot of exposition in Shang-Chi's bonkers third act, which takes place in the magical Chinese village of Ta Lo, an enchanted land that has all manner of exotic mythological beasts, including a dragon called the Great Protector. In Ta Lo, Shang-Chi learns how to use his mother's powers to enhance his martial arts abilities thanks to his aunt, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh). Katy also turns out to be an incredibly quick study with a bow and arrow and basically becomes another Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in a day. Weirdest of all, Shang-Chi learns that thousands of years ago, a great evil soul-sucking dragon attacked Ta Lo from another universe and all that's keeping it back is a door in a mountain that the lovesick Wenwu wants to bust down because he thinks his dead wife is on the other side. It's a lot of bizarre data to absorb and there's no time because there's kung fu fighting and CGI flying monsters the movie has to get to. Shang-Chi's third act is a scaled-down version of the Battle of Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity War mixed with Mulan with as much dragon-riding as the final season of Game of Thrones.

In the comics, Shang-Chi is known as "The Master of Kung Fu," but the MCU's Shang-Chi isn't necessarily the greatest hand-to-hand combatant in the world (although he probably will be the best eventually), and it's a little disappointing when he uses the Ten Rings to explode the soul-sucking evil dragon but he doesn't deliver a cool kung fu blow to the beast as a coup-de-grace. Then again, in the comics, the Ten Rings are actually rings worn by a Chinese supervillain called the Mandarin, but Iron Man 3 changed the Mandarin into a blundering actor named Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) who posed as a terrorist and almost dismantled the U.S. government. Trevor returns in Shang-Chi, which has to do MCU continuity clean-up for Iron Man 3, but Kingsley's guest spot is just wacky comedy from an otherwise unnecessary character. Overall, Shang-Chi's terrific martial arts action scenes compensate for its paint-by-numbers origin story and plot, and the movie becomes a bewildering CGI spectacle in its third act. However, the charming camaraderie of Liu and Awkwafina as Shang-Chi and Katy holds the whole thing together, while Leung's Wenwu is an emotionally-driven villain who's more interesting than a lot of Marvel bad guys.

The title Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings seems like a bit of a misnomer since we learn very little about the Ten Rings themselves. The bracelets are weapons of immense power, we're told, but mostly, Wenwu just uses them to leap long distances, throw super punches, and make energy whips. Despite a thousand years of wielding the Ten Rings, they jump from Wenwu to Shang-Chi pretty easily, and the latter figures out how to use them maybe too quickly. The Ten Rings don't actually get interesting until Shang-Chi's first end-credits scene, which is one of the best MCU stingers: Wong summons Shang-Chi and Katy to analyze the bracelets' alien design and the best friends meet Bruce Banner and Carol Danvers (Brie Larson). It's an obvious set-up for Shang-Chi to join the Avengers and it's pretty awesome. Hopefully, Shang-Chi and Katy bring karaoke nights to the Avengers' get-togethers. We know Wong is down for it.

Friday, August 20, 2021




You're going on a journey...

Remember Chinatown? Remember Casablanca? Remember Wolverine? Remember Westworld? Well, that last one was co-created by Lisa Joy, the writer and director of Reminiscence, so she definitely remembers it. In the stunningly photographed Reminiscence, Joy paints a visually sumptuous post-apocalyptic Miami in the not-too-distant future and plunges Hugh Jackman into a boilerplate detective plot with a couple of intriguing time-tossed twists that don't quite land with a SNIKT. Reminiscence is about memory, and love, and lust, and Hugh Jackman's search for the truth about his lost romance with Rebecca Ferguson, but Reminiscence's wrapping paper ends up being more interesting to look at and think about than the actual gift inside.

Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine Nick Bannister, a mutant "detective of the mind." His business with his partner Maeve Watts (Thandiwe Newton) allows his clients to pay by the hour to use his Reminiscence machine to relive their favorite memories. This involves stripping down and sliding into a sensory deprivation tank as if you're Logan submitting to the Weapon X program replacing your bones with Adamantium. When you're deep in Reminiscence, your memories are projected into 3D holograms Nick and Watts can watch. Considering how intimate many people's memories are, they sure put a lot of trust into Nick and Watts' discretion. Like Wolverine, Hugh Jackman once again falls for the wrong redhead, Jean Grey Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a slinky nightclub singer who's obviously hiding quite a lot, but the detective doesn't care about that (at first). Nick is hot for Mae and they begin a torrid romance they mostly conduct on rooftops looking over the flooded streets of Miami. Then one day, Mae vanishes and Reminiscence drops its first time-loopy twist that the whole first act of the film was Nick's memories of Mae after spending months in the Reminiscence machine.

For Wolverine Nick Bannister, love means never having to let go of your girlfriend you didn't know anything about. Driven by his desire to find out "Who is she when she's not with me?", Nick plunges into the watery underworld of both Miami and New Orleans, meeting skeevy criminals like Saint Joe (Daniel Wu), a dirty ex-cop named Cyrus Booth (Cliff Curtis), and Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen), the most powerful land baron in Miami. Nick gets into fistfights, nearly drowns, and throws away his partnership with Watts in order to find out who Mae is and how she came to be. The revelations about Mae aren't exactly Earth-shattering (she's an ex-junkie running from bad guys she stole drugs from) and, beautiful as Ferguson is, Mae doesn't seem like the type of dame a private dick should toss his whole life (such as it is) away for, but the heart wants what the heart wants. More interesting than Mae is the sordid conspiracy she was caught up in as a pawn, involving Sylan's mistress Elsa (Angela Sarafyan), their bastard son, and Sylvan's firstborn son who doesn't want anyone to mess with his inheritance of owning all of the dry land that's left in Miami. Reminiscence's final twist that the entire film is merely the memories of Nick Bannister, who is now an old man cared for by Grandma Watts after spending decades in the Reminiscence machine reliving his romance with Mae and investigation into her disappearance, is intended as a Christopher Nolan-esque bombshell but, unfortunately, it goes off with a sputter.

Every character who meets another character in Reminiscence starts reminiscing about things that happened in the past that sound way more interesting than what's going on in the present. Reminiscence's backstory and post-apocalyptic setting are simply far more intriguing than Nick's Adamantium-like hard-on for Mae. Joy sprinkles in tasty dollops about Reminiscence's future universe, where climate change not only sank Miami but sparked a bloody war with climate change deniers. Nick was a Navy seaman who was 'drafted' to border patrol, which involved Bannister using the Reminiscence machine to interrogate enemy soldiers and poor people fleeing the tides. When the war ended, Nick somehow finagled the Reminiscence machine to start his sinking business. The way society and culture evolved because of the war and climate change, like Miami becoming a nocturnal city of boats and canals, aren't just a grim forecasting of our probable future in the real world, but it's a backdrop that begs Joy to delve further into. Compared to the impressive future world Joy envisioned, unfortunately, the problems of Nick Bannister and Mae don't amount to a hill of beans in Reminiscence's evocative, sci-fi noir world.