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Always Watching: DVD and Blu-ray Reviews Post Social Distancing

It’s amazing to consider that in just three years we’ve completely changed how and where we watch movies.

But, thanks to streaming and DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K releases, movies prevailed.

And now, with record box office receipts, the movies are back.

Unless of course three years of masks and vaccinations have made you a bit of an agoraphobic cinegeek.

Regardless, there’s plenty to watch.  Check out some of our thoughts below.

 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Disney

Even though the good Doctor Stephen Strange has left an indelible mark on the MCU as a key player in the conclusion of the Infinity Saga, he is nonetheless the character who has thus far had the longest hiatus between solo outings, having had six years pass since his MCU debut in his eponymous solo feature.

Aside from Loki and Wanda Maximoff, magic users were few and far between in the early phases of the MCU, but with 2016’s Doctor Strange, magic was thoroughly examined and properly introduced, as Stephen Strange struggled to harness the spells that would eventually make him one of the most powerful Avengers.

Since then, magic users have turned out to be among the mightiest of both heroes and foes alike, which was especially the case with the advent of WandaVision, as this first MCU Disney+ series expanded on the history and development of the powers of Wanda Maximoff.

Here, the grieving heroine was turned into a tragic anti-heroine, displaying just how formidable her powers truly were when she embraced her full potential and became the Scarlet Witch.

And the series is not only of relevance to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness because the Scarlet Witch is one of the film’s main characters, but also since this is the first MCU feature film to rely significantly on narrative elements from one of the franchise’s Disney+ shows.

As such, those who have not watched WandaVision prior to attending Strange’s second solo outing may find themselves unable to fully engage with where Wanda currently finds herself emotionally and mentally, just as the importance of her children will not pack as much of a punch if one is not familiar with the narrative arcs of Tommy and Billy from their time on the show.

All things WandaVision aside, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a maddening rollercoaster of some of the most bizarre things the franchise has had to offer to date, and that is most certainly a good thing.

Here, Sam Raimi manages to rather successfully marry the MCU style with a surprisingly substantial amount of his trademark horror style, both in terms of camera work, editing and visual gags, which induce gasps, screams and laughter in equal measure.

While the horror has of course been toned down enough to fit the standard MCU format ratings-wise, it is nonetheless their creepiest feature yet, and it makes sense that the filmmaker who masterminded such gems as the Evil Dead franchise can match his trademark humor and absurdity well with the multiversal madness of a superhero that it very different to the Spider-Man whom Raimi is of course also responsible for with his trilogy about the beloved web-slinger.

Embracing many of the zanier concepts from the Doctor Strange comics, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness at times exudes a hint of kinship with the likes of Army of Darkness, which is unlike anything the MCU has previously seen, but it somehow manages to fit into the wider narrative just fine.

However, the film does suffer from evidently having had a little too much left on the cutting room floor.

While the superhero action and wacky horror comedy elements make for a thrilling enough ride, it nonetheless feels like a significant portion of slower and more character-building moments have been left out, which is to the detriment of the overall impact of the film, resulting in the viewing experience becoming uneven in places.

Extras include commentary, deleted scenes, gag reel, and featurettes.

That being said, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness still manages to be a satisfying entry into the MCU in spite of its narrative shortcomings, but it would be great if the franchise would enable director’s cuts to be become available down the line, as it ultimately feels like Raimi’s longer initial cut of the film would have made it a more complete and engrossing feature. (– Leyla Mikkelsen)

 

Monstrous

Screen Media

Monstrous is a psychological thriller starring Christina Ricci (Sleepy Hollow), directed by Chris Sivertson of All Cheerleaders Die and I Know Who Killed Me, and produced by Chicken Soup for the Soul’s film division.

While the film features a strong central performance from Ms. Ricci and a promising first act filled with genuine suspense, it falls apart under the weight of the needs of the plot which depends on some very predictable twists, and some weak supporting work.

Ricci plays Laura, a young mother in the early 1960’s who moves with her frail and sullen son, Cody (Santino Bernard) to a remote homestead.

Soon we’re to infer that she’s on the run from an abusive husband, and both Laura and Cody’s dreams are being invaded by a nebulous entity that lives in the nearby pond. This early section of the film is very inventive, atmospheric, and well-shot with a dreamy, Impressionist quality.

Ricci’s performance is committed; with a kind of quirky eccentricity that greatly enhances the disturbing quality of the first act’s horror.

Who can we trust? Is she all there?

There are sequences where she seems to be enacting a vision of a “proper” wife and mother of that period, and as things begin to go sour she conveys a sense that she’s practiced this facade and if she can just keep to it, things will be alright. That said, she never goes over the top, which in a movie built around a child in jeopardy, is always a temptation for the best of actors. She has that wonderful quality that all thriller protagonists require: the sense that the wheels are turning, but that we’re never quite sure exactly what she’s thinking.

The film’s third act twists, as often as we’ve seen them before, are given life by her performance which has clearly been the product of a lot of thought and careful layering. 

Unfortunately, the tension of the first act, which seemed suited to a Carnival of Souls style slow burn, gives way to a hokey computer-generated monster and a sinking feeling as the film sets up its final act twists which any devotee of the genre will see coming a mile away.

Ricci makes a valiant effort to hold the film together, but the other players don’t feel like they know they’re in a period piece and so she doesn’t have a lot to play off of. It also suffers from an issue a lot of independent films have where the best visual and thematic ideas are present in the first third of the film and as the production moves towards its finale they begin to drop away.

Carol Chrest’s screenplay which seems to take inspiration from A Tale of Two Sisters and the contemporary horror classic The Babadook desperately needs either the former’s baroque surrealism or the latter’s bracing emotional honesty.

As Cody begins to drift under the thrall of the creature stalking the family there was ample room for the exploration of a parent’s rage towards their own child that that film relied upon for its emotional core. Failing that, the film needed another character who the audience could invest in and who could keep the dynamic fresh and vital through the latter two thirds of the film. Laura’s landlords and co-workers are introduced early and remain one-note phantoms through the entire 90 minutes.

Director Sivertson is known for dynamic visual style, even previous projects which were troubled have a stylistic ambition which is commendable, and there are some strong visual moments: a child’s bedroom bathed in the setting set that looks like a Rockwell painting; a mock Universal Studios monster movie Ricci’s character has inserted herself into via a dream; shadows a motion across a pond that seems to be calling out to young Cody; an inventive sequence where we see Cody’s night terrors are prefigured in her mother’s behavior as a child.

Unfortunately, all of these moments seem to be contained in the first act of the film, and when the accumulated tension is cashed in the viewer finds they were waiting on a train that never arrives.
In summation, Monstrous is probably only suited for devotees of the genre or fans of Christina Ricci who want to see her carry a film. I hope that the next time she’s called upon to do so, the script can bring the same thoughtful attention and depth of feeling to the proceedings that she does. (– Will McGuire)

 

 

Nightmare Alley

Disney

Nightmare Alley, which was made into an underrated film noir in 1947 starring Tyrone Power, is tailor-made for Guillermo del Toro.

With a phenomenal cast and deliciously noirish cinematography by Dan Laustsen – who also shot Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water – it’s a knockout blend of horror and noir.

Bradley Cooper, sporting a soft Southern drawl, is charm itself as handsome drifter Stan, who – after a stunner of an opening prolog – ends up working for the circus run by Willem Dafoe’s geek handler Clem and Ron Perlman’s strongman character Bruno.

Starting off as a manual laborer, he is soon elevated to an assistant for fortune teller Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), whose “clairvoyant” tips come from her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn).

But that’s not good enough for Stan, who sees a way to adopt a more upscale version of Zeena and Pete’s act for himself and sweet circus performer Molly (Rooney Mara).

A circus and its ghoulish sideshow of human and pig fetuses is del Toro’s catnip.

Dafoe is perfect as the carny who calls the jarred specimens his “little angels” and explains how he turns desperate addicts into geeks – performers whose gruesome show is biting the heads off chickens for a horrified audience.

The film hums along nicely for the first hour, but when Cate Blanchett’s sultry psychiatrist Lilith Ritter enters, she takes the movie to an entirely different level.

At first, she tries to expose Stan and Molly as fakes at a nightclub, until Stan does a surprisingly accurate reading of her. This femme fatale is only more intrigued with Stan and suggests they team up to fleece her wealthy clients with her inside information about them.

If you’re a fan of the 1947 film, this is, as you would expect, a darker, more grotesque take on an already disturbing tale.

And even if you haven’t seen it, noir fans will drink in the exquisite lighting, especially in the charged scenes between Stan and Lilith in her sumptuous Art Deco office.

One shot in particular is almost electric, with Cooper smoking a cigarette as twilight descends over the carnival, the circus lights burning bright in the darkness of the open field.

It’s a grim story told by a note-perfect cast and a director whose obvious delight in the milieu is evident in every shot. He sinks his teeth into the twists and turns as charlatans try to out-hustle each other.

Extras include three featurettes.

There’s something wonderfully primordial about Nightmare Alley that lingers after the end credits, the same shuddery feeling you might get after visiting a real carny sideshow, I imagine. It’s a grim entertainment, but one that’s well worth the admission fee. (– Sharon Knolle)

 

The Matrix Resurrections

Warner Bros.

One more time back to the well.

When last we left our heroes, they were dead. Dead, dead, deadski. Agent Smith was defeated. The Architect had been thwarted. There was peace throughout the land. But it cost Neo and Trinity their lives.

20 years later and…um…they’re alive again? Because….money?

Well, whatever the reason, I think this is almost the sequel that everyone was hoping for back in 2003. It’s full of action in the “real world” and inside the Matrix.

It’s not nearly as confusing as the last two movies. Yeah, there’s still some philosophy and psychology BS, but it doesn’t take over the entire story. At two and a half hours it’s the longest of the movies, but it feels shorter than the last two.

I like the thought of Thomas Anderson being back at work and falling apart because he doesn’t know whether he’s in the real world or if the game he designed (The Matrix) is really his life.

I think maybe part of the issue with me is that I never felt super invested in the love story between Neo and Trinity. It never felt like a “love of the ages.” It always felt like two characters that were meant to be together to have a love interest in this heavy sci-fi movie. Which is fine. It never distracted me.

Yeah, yeah, I know. he brought her back to life by squeezing her heart in code and he felt empty when she finally died at the end of Revolutions. But, again, those felt like just part of the religious philosophy of the films, not some epic romance. All of that makes the fact that this movie is ALL about their “perfect love” feels a little over the top for me. Like, I don’t necessarily care if they’re together in the end or not. I just want to know what the deal is with Neil Patrick Harris’s cat.

But I did enjoy the movie more than the last two. I get how some people love it and others hate it. For me, it does a pretty good job of balancing expectations with surprises.

And it’s pretty hilarious that they call attention to the fact that Keanu never ages. (– Mark Wensel)

 

 

The Batman

Warner Bros.

As has been par for the course these last few years, the theatrical release of Matt Reeves’ The Batman has been postponed several times, but the latest cinematic take on the iconic DC Comics character has been unleashed upon the cinema-going public and home-viewers, with a dark realism that makes Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy look almost cartoonish in comparison.

While The Batman is in no way meant to be seen as a sequel to 2019’s Joker, it is not much of a stretch to imagine that the bleak, Scorsese-esque 1970s style of Todd Phillips’ Joker could eventually morph into Reeves’ contemporary, dystopian Gotham depicted in The Batman, as Reeves’ film oozes Se7en and Zodiac vibes without feeling derivative of David Fincher’s work.

As such, it is safe to say that there is nothing family-friendly about this version of Batman.

This is not only in terms of the violence – which is grim without going overboard – but even more so due to the darkness that saturates both the film’s visuals as well as the motivations of its characters, showcasing the worst in humanity from several angles.

This will be a welcome change of pace not only for those who dislike the general style of superhero entertainment from the behemoth MCU, but also for those who like darker types of cinema in general, as The Batman is above all a neo-noir – this one just happens to have a main protagonist who wears a rather unusual outfit while he solves crime.

With so many incarnations of the caped crusader having graced the silver screen over the decades, comparisons to past portrayals are inevitable, and much like the many Batmen that came before him, Robert Pattinson is now up for scrutiny as well.

As anyone who has been keeping up with Pattinson’s career can tell you, the actor has long since cemented himself as a charismatic and uncompromising performer, which results in Pattinson’s Batman having a subtle yet deeply unsettling presence. Similarly, his Bruce Wayne is also an unusual take on the public persona of the orphaned Wayne, as the playboy antics of Batmen past are abandoned entirely in favor of a socially inept recluse.

Boasting superb acting across the board from its impressive cast, Zoë Kravitz also makes for a compelling Selina Kyle and Catwoman. Here, she embodies the character with a determined sultriness and level of agility that feels true to both the essence of Catwoman as well this more grounded version of the character, just as her relationship with Batman is moved into a more mature realm, where the complexity of their relationship is handled in a respectful manner that forgoes the tired clichés often used to convey their dynamic.

One of the few issues with the film is that its duration of nearly three hours may be slightly too long, as the pacing does struggle in a few places, particularly towards the middle of the film. Similarly, some may find it somewhat lacking the grandeur associated with superhero action sequences, whereas others will consider this a bonus, as it helps immersion from a point of realism.

Be it the child-like joy of Shazam! or oversaturated campiness of Aquaman, the DCEU has become a tonal shambles of superhero entertainment, and it is difficult to see exactly where The Batman fits into the bigger picture.

But perhaps making it all fit into a bigger narrative is not always necessary.

Extras include featurettes and deleted scenes.

Considering a film like The Batman is better served by standing on its own, as it will easily find an audience across movie-going demographics thanks to its mix of earnest darkness and a sincere level of emotion, which makes The Batman a version of the character many will want to revisit in spite of his apparent grimness. (– Leyla Mikkelsen)

 

 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Sony Pictures

I’m just about the biggest Ghostbusters fanboy I know.

No, I don’t dress up as a Ghostbuster to do charity work or anything like that, but I just absolutely love the movie.

Actually, no. I love ALL of the movies.

Even the one that other “fanboys” hate.

And I was totally into The Real Ghostbusters back in the day. I loved that, in that universe, the movie was based on them. “He doesn’t even look like me!”

I was worried about this one. Maybe more than I was about the 2016 movie. I mean, that one was a complete reboot, so whatever they changed would be mostly alright as long as the movie wasn’t terrible. (IMHO, it was pretty damn good.)

But this is a sequel.

And not just a sequel with the old characters like the second movie. That one was an obvious cash in and the script just wasn’t quite there. (I still like it, though. Just not nearly as much as the others.)

No, this is a sequel with all new characters in the same world as the originals. So this is building on one of my favorite movie worlds of all time 37 years later. Sure, the cast is great…or at least the cast that I know is great. But can they make the movie work?

They did. It works incredibly well. Maybe on a second viewing I’ll be able to pick it apart more, but this first viewing totally charmed me.

McKenna Grace is amazing as Egon’s granddaughter. Finn Wolfhard is great as his grandson. Logan Kim and Celeste O’Conner are a lot of fun as their two friends that get dragged along for the ride. Paul Rudd is pretty hilarious as the teacher who clues the kids in on what happened in NYC in the 80s. And Carrie Coon is very good as the pissed off mom who hates Egon because he left his family behind to live on a farm in the middle of nowhere where no one knew him and they all called him “The Dirt Farmer.”

This movie is a lot like if Spielberg had directed Ghostbusters in the 80s, which I am totally here for. The childlike wonder of getting to know all of the Ghostbusting gear and seeing actual ghosts for the first time. The sentimentality. The missing/bad dad. Jason Reitman caught just the right vibe for a nostalgia-fest with kid protagonists.

Oh, and I love the fact that Egon is the catalyst for everything. That just feels so right and I think Harold Ramis would have loved it.

Extras include featurettes, and a deleted scene.

This movie just made me feel good (yes, like bustin’ does). It’s nostalgic without feeling like a rehash and sentimental without making me want to puke. (– Mark Wensel)

 

Dr. Phibes Double Feature (The Abominable Dr. Phibes / Dr. Phibes Rises Again)

Kino-Lorber

AIP’s famous Dr. Phibes is purposefully cheeky and over-the-top.

Setting the action in the 1930s gave director Robert Fuest great opportunities for strange colorful Art Deco sets. Price speaks only in voice-overs, but he delivers Phibes’s grandiose poetic ruminations as an actor at the top of his form. Joseph Cotten is sympathetic as the head of the surgical team that Phibes blames for his wife’s death; Cotten’s character is never a match for Phibes, but this is part of the fun.

Phibes offers excellent conceptual gore, as each murder unfolds in a luridly funny fashion. My favorite was the frog mask murder, followed closely by the unicorn horn. A bit involving a key was picked up in Saw II. Other movies offer more outright gore – more blood, more guts. But Phibes scores highly on my “Gore” scale because its gore is so satisfying. It’s fun to find oneself rooting for a sadist.

The quick pacing keeps us on our toes as we wait impatiently for the next murder, wondering what surprises Phibes has in store for us. Price remained happy with the movie through the end of his life.

Price returned to form in the 1972 sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again.

Here, Phibes travels to Egypt where he hopes to unlock ancient secrets of eternal life. “What pharaoh of what forgotten dynasty, he asks, “rested here before he drifted on the bosom of what stream beneath these stones to find eternal life?” Robert Quarry (Count Yorga) is his foil, hoping to steal the secrets beforehand. Phibes again has a beautiful mute female servant, and again stages crazy murders amidst crazy sets. There are fewer murders but each is drawn out. Inspector Trout and Chief Waverly have better and funnier interplay. Peter Cushing has a dull cameo as a ship captain. It’s an excellent sequel although, understandably, it can’t top its predecessor.

Extras include multiple commentary tracks, radio spots and trailers. (– David E. Goldberg)

 

West Side Story

Disney

I’ve honestly forgotten more about the original West Side Story than I’ve ever known, but I do know this: it’s a musical about Puerto Ricans written by white Jewish dudes and based on a play written by a dead white man.

So let’s not pretend that it’s the paragon of the Puerto Rican experience in any era.

In fact, the creators didn’t even mean for it to be any sort of authentic depiction of Puerto Ricans. Their race was just convenient.

BUT…

Seeing as how Jews were/are persecuted in NYC throughout history, this could be seen as their story, too.

Anyway, it’s still one of the greatest musicals ever written and blah, blah, blah.

I’m not really here to talk about all of that, though. Just wanted to bring it up. I’m here to talk about the new version of it directed by my favorite director of all time starring actual Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rican roles, as opposed to the original filmed version and every staged version up to the 80s.

This new version shows the West Side neighborhood that the characters live in being torn down to build Lincoln Center. (The original was the last film to be shot in that neighborhood before it was knocked down for the Center. I think the residents has already been evicted.) It looks like a war zone. The Jets are picking through the rubble to find valuables and using the construction machines as places to do what young couples do.

The 1961 world of West Side Story is very racist and things are only stirred up with Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) meet and fall in lurrrrrve. Then things get worse, as we all know.

Spielberg’s version brings the racism to the fore and makes gentrification a devil for both sides. If you’re poor, you have no place in the new West Side. It doesn’t matter your skin color. But, of course, the white boys think that they’re better than everyone else.

Besides the casting, it feels like much of the story has been brought up to date to more parallel our current environment. There’s a transgender character, and he isn’t just wedged in. He makes sense and is treated as he would have been treated in 1961.

But let’s talk about that casting…oh man. 99% of it is great. The Jets and Sharks are mostly Broadway kids, Ariana DeBose is amazing, Rachel Zelger is great, and Rita Moreno is Rita Moreno…meaning she’s perfect.

Of course, there’s a weak link and that’s Ansel Elgort. He’s fine. He can kinda sing. He doesn’t do a ton of dancing, so that’s probably good. But he’s surrounded by all of the super charismatic people and he just can’t keep up. Not to mention I think he might be a bit too pretty for this role. Tony was a fighter. He almost killed a kid. He was in prison for a year. Ansel Elgort is not someone who looks like any of these things are true of him. Maybe he’s a monster in real life, but he looks like he wouldn’t make it a day in prison.

Extras include a multi-part featurette.

The movie is really, really good, though. It’s beautiful to look at and, honestly, feels like it has a bit more depth than the original. Maybe it’s not quite as good overall, but it’s absolutely a worthy remake. (– Mark Wensel)

 

Dune

Denis Villeneuve’s minimalist approach to Frank Herbert’s sprawling epic Dune succeeds by focusing on the mother/son bond between space witch-nun Lady Jessica Atreides (Rebecca Ferguson) and her reluctant white savior-in-training son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet), who if things go according to the predestined plan will one day bring balance to the galaxy.

Of course, there might be a few tiny hiccups along the way. Wanting Paul’s dad, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his entire bloodline eradicated, the Emperor of the known universe generously gives them control of the all-powerful “spice” producing planet Arrakis to put them squarely at odds with the previous, perpetually pissed-off landlords House Harkonnen (led by Drax the Destroyer). But if Moon Knight can find a way to make a peaceful alliance with the indigenous, untrusting spice-infused Fremen they might actually stand a chance against their sworn enemies.

Before you can say “The Sleeper has Awakened!,” the sandworm shit hits the harvester and all bets are off.

As someone who made sure to read at least the first half of the book before this version came out, its expansive mythology and roster of characters is begging to be better served as an updated series on HBO Max. A Game of Thrones on Tatooine if you will.

But since that didn’t happen, by whittling it down to its brass tacks, Villeneuve (along with co-writers Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) manages to reel in the beast of a book with Paul and Jessica leading the way, smartly propping them up with the movie’s two best characters; Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Dr. Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). And yes, I would totally watch a spin-off with these two where they “borrow” a thopter and fly around Arrakis solving spice-related crimes while falling in love. That being said, I could easily see someone who hasn’t read the book being a little left behind when it comes to filling in some of the blanks on the world-building front.

In many ways, Dune feels like a spiritual and visual successor to Villeneuve’s own excellent Blade Runner: 2049 with its breathtaking yet bare-bones aesthetic and firm focus on characters in full-blown self-discovery mode that are violently fighting to come to grips with who they truly are and what place they hold in their respective worlds.

Extras include Behind-the-Scenes featurettes, Filmbooks featurettes and Inside Dune featurettes.

Dune is a great piece of entertainment. More than worthy of two and a half hours of your time. ( – B.S. Walker)

 

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Sony Pictures

I read absolutely nothing about this before I saw this. Of course I knew what the main push was because I had seen the trailer. I knew some of who made appearances because people talk. But I had purposely avoided as many spoilers as possible. So, if you are like that, go ahead and look at my 4.5 star rating and move on.

Because now, I’m gonna talk.

Having not grown up reading comics like so many other people in my circle, I only know a little about multi-verses and how that works. I also didn’t really know much about Spider-Man before the first Sam Raimi movie outside of what I had seen on The Electric Company. So, really, Tobey Maguire was my first Spidey. And, MAN, I loved those first two movies. The second is still up there in the top tier for me. The third one…well, it was a disappointment, but it’s not as bad as I remembered.

I knew that the next two movies were made pretty much just so Sony could keep the Spider-Man character and not lose him back to Marvel. It’s pretty petty, but I guess I get it. So they spent millions of dollars to keep one character. But they saved money by getting relative unknown, Andrew Garfield, while he was on his way up. I only just saw these movies in my run up to No Way Home because I had heard that they were not good. Well…they’re ok. Better then the third Raimi film, but the villains are pretty unmemorable. The star is the chemistry between Garfield and Emma Stone.

But, honestly, Tom Holland is the best Spider-Man yet and I think he’s about to explode. And his third film doesn’t fall in the trap that Tobey’s did. Yes, it has a lot of villains (more than any other with five, one from each movie), but there are really only two fights with all of them and they never seem overwhelming.

The star of THIS show, though, are all of the scenes with Tom, Andrew, and Tobey all being their versions of Peter Parker and being snarky, but so sympathetic to each other. These guys would be best friends if they were in the same universe. Honestly, I would watch a sitcom with the three Spider-Men living together. (Hey, Disney +. Just cut my check now.)

The villains are a little weird. Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) is more savage than he was originally. Norman Osborne (Willem Defoe) goes from charming but broken homeless man to pure evil in a split second. (Are we supposed to believe that Norman was EVER a good man? No! He was ALWAYS a bastard!) The Lizard (Rhys Ifans) is still unmemorable. Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) is about the same. Just wants to see his daughter, doesn’t care about anything else. And Electro (Jamie Foxx)…huh. He’s just a different character. I was really surprised at how ugly he allowed them to make him in Amazing Spider-Man 2. Now, though, Electro has a full head of hair and is all buff. I don’t know what happened to him, but I think Jamie didn’t want to look like that again.

The real villain, though, is J. Jonah Jameson (the only man who can play him, J.K. Simmons). He’s the one who reveals the secret identity. He’s the one who keeps pushing and pushing until things break. And he’s the one who forces Peter’s hand at every turn. Those other guys? They all got superpowers that turned them evil. (Except maybe Norman. He was a dick.) Jameson is just a true monster. And I love that he does such a great impression of Alex Jones.

This whole movie is really Tom Holland’s time to shine. Peter 1 loses so much in this movie even while all of his relationships get deeper. He and MJ (Zendaya) fall more in love, even though this takes place immediately after the last movie and they’ve really only been together for about a week. (One big question I have about the end…why didn’t he just stick around while they lost their memories? I mean, she and Ned suddenly find themselves at the Statue Of Liberty for no reason? What if Pete had just kept kissing her? Would that have been the magic that kept them together? Maybe a group hug?)

So, yes. I loved this movie. Some nostalgia, some great interplay with familiar characters, and, amidst the comedy, so much loss and sadness. And Peter 1 keeps his humanity. That’s the big throughline, here. Always try to do good, even if it hurts. And sometimes it hurts so goddam much.  (– Mark Wensel)

 

Edge of Tomorrow: Live. Die. Repeat.

Warner Bros.

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt star in this dystopian sci-fi tale directed by Doug Liman. With spectacular robot control suits and space age firepower, the heroes take on the Mimics, a spindly looking race of alien monsters that seem to know what is happening next.

When Private Bill Cage (Cruise) has an encounter with one of the slippery beasts, his fate is changed by absorbing some of the Mimic’s power.

Under Rita’s (Blunt) training, Cage and the misfit goons of Master Sergeant Farell’s (Bill Paxton) J Squad go after the enemy with guns blazing.

The catch?

They get to do it over again by resetting Cage’s life.

Again and again.

And again.

Contrasting the star power of our leading man Cruise is the seriously bad ass Blunt, who’s Rita is the world’s ultimate super soldier. Her destruction of Mimics in the course of the five years since the Invasion has given her the street nickname of “Full Metal Bitch:, inspiring recruitment videos for United Defense Force (UDF). She takes a full boar Lara Croft meets Kara “Starbuck” Thrace military leading role that of course makes the guys drool while the ladies in the audience get to see what they deserve to see but rarely get.

Blunt’s action heroine is as fierce and even more deadly than the leading male role and we hope she gets the attention she deserves. A veteran of the screen, seeing her blast and cut up the Mimics and inspire not only the nation, but the world as the supreme model of a soldier is beyond refreshing and frankly overdue.

Cage starts out the movie as a Major in rank, head of the UDF propaganda machine. His number one tool was spinning Rita’s soldier image into one that inspired millions to sign up against the invasion. By back talking to General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) he is busted down to Private, delivered to Farrell (Paxton) and assigned to robot suit wearing J Squad. While in the field, he’s floundering and can barely move his suit or unlock the safety. After a lucky shot, he is forever changed and the movie takes on it’s Groundhog Day adventure.

Cage is killed and gets to relive his day from the moment he wakes up on the tarmac and is introduced to Farrell. After the first few resets, he’s telling Farrell what he is going to say next.  What this eventually serves as — even if the resets seem a bit overboard at some points — is a way for Cage to get muscle memory for the next time he dies and is resurrected. In string theory, or multiple universe theory, you could have him repeat this until the inevitable outcome of destroying the Mimics is achieved.

There is a catch however, if he is treated medically, the power goes away.

Eventually — and at one point particularly funny point where Cage miscalculates rolling under a moving vehicle —during his training he makes it to Rita to explain this phenomenon. Apparently she had it too, until her Achilles Heel was stricken. Rita and scientist du jour Dr. Carter (Noah Carter) are able to explain the reset phenomenon as well as the ultimate secret to taking down the Mimics. Cage will need to find the Mother (The Omega) and destroy it.

The third act is when we see it all go down, and just when we are sick of hearing Cage get called a “maggot” by drill instructor Terence Maynard (billed only as Cruel Sergeant) in one last reset, the team of Cage, Rita and J Squad head to Paris.

We’re not told how or why the Mimics are here, or what they want exactly but they are a world conquering race. That small detail aside, this is pure sci-fi manna for anyone hungry for pure entertainment.

Extras include featurettes and deleted scenes.

The 4K release has never looked better.  And worth watching again and again.

And again. (– Clay N. Ferno)

 

 

New Year’s Evil

Kino-Lorber

Contrived purely as a product, completely ridiculous and illogical by the conclusion, New Year’s Evil yet has its fans because of the fine performances from its co-stars: Roz Kelly (known to my generation as Pinky Tuscadero from Happy Days) as the actress-heroine and Kip Niven (one of the evil cops from Magnum Force) as the flamboyant killer. We see the killer’s face right from the start, and we get to witness several creative murders.

I disliked the picture as a whole, but I had to admit I was impressed by the middle and later death scenes which managed to be surprising and original without getting overly gory.

The dumpster scene is tops. It’s also fun to watch the killer take on a new disguise and identity each time he seeks new victims.

Rock music inspired by Kiss, or The Ramones, is also pretty fun.

Too bad everything else is pointless and contrived. The victims have no relation to one another. The murder methods have no relation to the victims.

At least the coda gets set up along the way.

Extras include commentary, making of and trailer.  (– David E. Goldweber)

 

 

Licorice Pizza

Universal Studios

Strange that the most romantic of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies is about a 25 year old woman being pursued by a 15 year old kid. But there you have it. And somehow it doesn’t come off as creepy as she starts to fall for him over the course of the film.

But really the movie is a love letter to the Los Angeles of the early 70s that Anderson grew up in. The movie was built of stories of his own, Jon Peters’, and Gary Goetzman’s. The era is, as far as I can tell, recreated perfectly and the characters are all so charmingly off center that it’s easy to fall under the movie’s spell.

Let’s not forget the Zelig-like nature of the story. Alana (Alana Haim) tries out for Breezy. Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is a child actor who was in “Under The Same Roof,” a barely disguised version of Yours, Mine, & Ours with Lucille Ball. Alana works for Joel Wachs’s campaign. The oil embargo. The repealing of the anti-pinball laws of L.A.

It’s all interwoven into the story of two crazy kids pulling away and pushing into each other.

There are a few celeb kids thrown in, too. Spielberg’s daughter, Demme’s son. Tim Conway, Jr. Cooper is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son. And, he’s a father, but DiCaprio’s dad is in it. (He was famous around LA at the time the film was set in.) And the entire Haim family is here.

Extras include camera tests, deleted scene, behind-the-scenes footage and a Fat Bernie commercial.

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most consistently interesting directors in Hollywood right now. I love that he can’t seem to make a bad film. (– Mark Wensel)

 

 

Morbius

Sony Pictures

So… Sony made another superhero movie.

Or rather, they made the same uninspired, bland mess of a live action superhero movie they have been making for the past decade and a half in their misguided attempts to catch up with the MCU.

Having made the choice to focus on anti-heroes such as Venom and Morbius while Spider-Man has been on loan to Marvel Studios, Sony uses Morbius to showcase that they still have not understood the first thing about what it takes to make a compelling superhero movie that makes the audience invested in the characters and the world they inhabit.

While the Venom films have at least managed to entertain to some extent thanks to Tom Hardy’s amusingly chaotic Eddie Brock and ditto Venom, Morbius has absolutely nothing going for it other than seemingly being hellbent on taking the Sony live action Spider-Man cinematic universe to new lows.

In a word, Morbius is boring.

Every single aspect of the film is unengaging, from the story to the visual style to the acting and the visual effects. It looks like a film you have seen dozens of times before, but any other films it reminds you of were most certainly better executed.

The stakes are practically non-existent as there is never any sense of urgency, nor is there any of the suspense you would normally associate with both the superhero and vampire genres, as the action is blurry and dull, and even the most moderate kind of vampiric gore is glaringly absent thanks to the reluctance to make Morbius R-rated.

Being boring is enough of a cinematic sin for any movie, but where things truly go off the rails is in the two mid credit scenes, which easily take the prize as the most grotesquely idiotic content Sony has concocted to date.

One can almost imagine the powers that be at Sony grinning smugly, patting themselves on the back for finally getting what makes people connect with live action superhero entertainment, but they absolutely do not get it.

Instead, what they have done is the cinematic equivalent of soiling themselves and, to an extent, staining the innocent bystander that is the MCU by completely misunderstanding how that cinematic universe continues to keep people invested as it expands.

Normally, a solid mid and/or end credit scene can create a substantial amount of buzz among fans, but the only buzz surrounding the Morbius mid-credit scenes is the swarm of flies buzzing around the fetid bowel movement that is this narrative abomination of bonus content.

Effectively undermining one of the key narrative elements of the MCU’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, Sony manages to reveal that they absolutely do not understand nor care how the creative process aids the financial success of the final product.

Extras include featuretttes, and outtakes & bloopers.

Instead, the cynicism of Sony is displayed for everyone to see, and it is difficult to decide if Morbius is an embarrassing, depressing or infuriating milestone for how bad superhero movies can get.

Sony is not incapable of making refreshing and enganging superhero entertainment, as Into the Spider-Verse was a stunning animated adventure that had all the components to make it the superhero masterpiece it is.

However, with Morbius, it is clearer than ever that Into the Spider-Verse was a beautiful fluke, as Morbius stays true to the Sony superhero formula, which is to well and truly suck.  (– Leyla Mikkelsen)

 

Encanto

Disney

Disney seems to be on a roll lately. Not only have the movies been really good, but they’ve been diverse, representative, and they’ve been about human problems that just about everyone is dealing with in some way.

This time out, we’re dealing with inter-generational trauma and forced perfectionism. That’s something that Colombians in particular, but people in general, are currently dealing with.

We’re finally seeing the harm that past generations have handed down to us, whether it be in their families or their countries. (I’m going to go ahead and count the U.S.’s current grappling with generations of slavery and racism as “inter-generational trauma.”)

But how is the movie?

Yeah, it’s pretty great.

A couple of the songs are maybe a little bit too Top 40 sounding for me, but Lin-Manuel can pretty much do no wrong. The story of the non-magical girl in the magical family hits right at home.

And, of course, the animation is beautiful.

The movie is an hour and 42 minutes, but it felt like it went by in about an hour. At the “lowest point” part of the movie I though we still had at least half the movie left. Turns out, nah. More like 20 minutes.

Extras include a sing along, Far From The Tree short, featurettes, outtakes, and deleted scenes.

So lay this one in the pile of new Disney classics that actually live up to the name and move the storytelling further into our real lives.  (– Mark Wensel)

 

 

Fatherhood

Sony Pictures

Like many comic actors before him, Kevin Hart has proven that he has the chops necessary for dramatic work.  He was great in The Upside (a remake of the French film, The Intouchables), and his performance in director Paul Weitz’s Fatherhood, shows that he’s evolving into a far better actor.

In the film Hart plays Matt Logelin, an immature newlywed who has been fortunate to marry his childhood sweetheart, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde), who also has been his personal cheerleader, especially when it comes to his strained relationship with her parents, who never quite approved of him.

When Liz goes into labor and has a C-Section, the unthinkable happens as she unexpectedly passes away, leaving single father Matt with his infant daughter, Maddy, to raise.

Both his mother (Thedra Porter) and in-laws (Alfre Woodard and Frankie Faison) have their doubts about Matt taking the reigns, but he winds up being the ultimate father to his now young daughter (played by Melody Hurd).  When career opportunities and an unexpected romantic relationship (DeWanda Wise), taking up most of his time, will Matt step back and let everyone who doubted him take over and take care of Maddy?

There’s an honesty and poignancy in Hart’s portrayal.  He never goes for the joke when real emotions are necessary in a scene.  His situation was neither anything that he expected, nor anything he was prepared for.  The ensemble is amazing with a stand out performance by young Hurd displaying talent beyond her years.  Also appearing are Lil Rel Howery, Anthony Carrigan, and Paul Reiser.

Fatherhood’s story borders on predictable, but the performances elevate the material into something special (– Stefan Blitz)

 

 

 

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