Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Doctor Strange encounters multiversal threats once again as he goes on a journey across realities with America Chavez, Wong, and Wanda Maximoff.

This sequel certainly lives up to the madness part of its title by providing a journey of visual marvel throughout alternate universes, a concept that’s been set up in other Marvel properties like Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home but is explored here in full effect. Sam Raimi’s direction provides what feels like a true creative vision, including amazing, adventurous grandeur and use of CGI as well as some horror undertones in certain scenes that is some of the darkest a Marvel Cinematic Universe film has gotten. But to add to that, there’s genuine excitement and thrills to be found in nearly every frame — the pacing is fast and wastes no time doing anything but moving the story forward. Benedict Cumberbatch does a great job as the witty Strange but also some of his more unhinged variants from other universes. Elizabeth Olsen, who was Emmy and Golden Globe nominated for her performance in WandaVision — which I’d call a required watch to understand the events of this film — continues her journey into Wanda’s darker side and wonderfully delivers the pain she experiences and the empathy she conveys with the audience even when her inability to properly grieve from the events of Avengers: Infinity War has gotten people hurt. Together with the preceding show, Olsen creates one of the most tragic and powerful performances in the MCU. Xochitl Gomez is a lovely addition to the franchise as the young America Chavez, who shares a lot of fun scenes with Cumberbatch.

With the vast possibilities of alternate realities comes lots of excitement as to what could happen, as well as genuine thrills and suspense weaved within the many magical rules of the world of the Sorcerer Supreme and the Scarlet Witch. Sam Raimi goes back to his horror roots with some of the dark undertones in certain scenes, that still blend in well with the cheerful and wondrous MCU tone we’re used to. The one thing that gets lost within the gigantic adventure is Strange’s own character arc — Strange’s growth through the film as an actual person has the right setup, but the payoff feels underwhelming and his internal journey needed more of a through line, which was felt more in his first solo movie. Chiwetel Ejiofor is fun to see as Mordo but his inclusion feels haphazard and incomplete. It’s also easy to get lost within all the explanations and world-hopping events that require some attention, with some exposition that ends up being unnecessary. Ultimately though, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is one of the most creatively rewarding MCU films in a while, though not the most emotional, funny or heartfelt, it’s filled with moments of edge-of-your-seat action, epic imagination, breathtaking visuals, campy horror, and insanity that have to be experienced in a theater, creating a sensory overload like no other superhero movie or blockbuster.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Nicolas Cage, down on his luck at a creative, financial and personal crossroads, attends a superfan’s birthday party in Spain for $1 million, but must soon become a real life action hero when he finds himself in real danger and conflict.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is refreshingly meta about the movie industries and its stars — a sort of hybrid between Adaptation and Lethal Weapon. It’s a tribute to the magic of movies and movie stars, and the diversity of Nicolas Cage’s films, including the absurdity of some of his roles and personas, as well as the large fan following he’s retained throughout the years. The movie has some direct references to his various roles, from his Oscar-caliber roles in Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation to his action blockbuster hits such as Face/Off, The Rock and Con Air, and his more recent indie ventures like Mandy. But they also namedrop Moonstruck, National Treasure, Gone in 60 Seconds, and even The Croods: A New Age, I mean what more could you ask for in a movie about Nic Cage? Within all of this, it’s both a meta commentary to the kinds of scripts and films audiences like — as Cage has been in some of every type — and a laugh-out-loud buddy comedy between Cage and the wonderful Pedro Pascal. Though Cage embraces and pokes fun at himself as, well, himself, Pascal plays Cage’s biggest fan and new best friend who may or may not be a dangerous arms dealer. Pascal’s line delivery, exaggeration and lovability makes him an undeniable delight to watch. So it has something for people looking for an intricate script about scripts, a tribute to an iconic actor, and an action-packed laugh-out-loud comedy. Not to mention there’s some heart involved as the movie tries to parody the idea of a “mature movie about people and relationships” while genuinely getting you interested in the main two friends.

Though it helps to have watched some of Cage’s most iconic movies (on a personal note, my favorites of his are Face/Off, Adaptation and Raising Arizona), it’s also on the stronger end of crowd-pleasing action comedies and has a little something for everyone, definitely living up to the Massive Talent part of its title.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Newt Scamander and crew join Albus Dumbledore in a quest to stop the evil Gellert Grindelwald from taking control of the entire Wizarding World and starting a war between wizards and Muggles.

Though the Harry Potter films have a fanbase that will stay strong for generations to come, the Fantastic Beasts films yet again fail to capture that same magic, and by now it feels like they’re not even trying to. The strengths still come in its production value and cast — the production design is very impressive and the musical score is top-notch. The cast is sufficient, especially Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander who was perfectly cast in the role. His bond with the titular beasts is very touching and gives the films an arc of compassion and heart. Jude Law also gives lots of nuance to the younger Dumbledore as his conflict with Grindelwald is explored deeper. Mads Mikkelsen also gives his fair share of menace and is much better than Johnny Depp, who came off as annoying in the last film. However, this is Jessica Williams’s first time as a lead in this film and she steals her scenes. Her charisma and energy are on another level and she’s going to be recognized by more audiences after this role, hopefully. However, Ezra Miller’s performance is still irritating, and feels rather deadpan and directionless. I don’t appreciate them giving Miller’s character so much screen time when they instead could’ve emphasized Katherine Waterson or Zoe Kravitz as main characters in this series (though Waterson still appears in a minor role).

The first one, though not amazing, still had its fair share of charm and excitement, but the following two installments became needlessly slow and gloomy when the Wizarding World thrives on being touching and cheerful; even in the darker Potter installments, the story is rooted in friendships and themes of goodness and courage. Thematically, these films suffer from a lack of direction in comparison. Though The Secrets of Dumbledore is a big improvement over The Crimes of Grindelwald, it still suffers from the same tonal issues, like feeling too much like a slow-burn drama for its own good and lacking thrills. The movie’s climactic battle is fairly thrilling but the buildup isn’t strong enough to give us much payoff. Where Warner Bros. really messed up here is writing this as a series of five films instead of a trilogy. The last 2 movies in the franchise were very dragged out and unrewarding from a story perspective and this way of pacing the story is costing the films a lot of excitement and coherence. The Harry Potter films were 8 movies and even the less eventful installments are memorable because of the nuances and world-building, but times have changed and having the same story and villain for five movies isn’t something audiences are looking for, as blockbuster films need to feel like a rewarding event when people buy a ticket — and here it’s once again evident that they should’ve stuck to the original plan and kept it at three films.

Though the potential for an exciting story and conflict are there, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore suffers from pacing and tonal issues that Wizarding World fans may be able to ignore for fantastical visuals and some strong performances, but it can’t bring the stakes and direction to the level such an epic-scale story needs to hit home.

Morbius

Biochemist Michael Morbius tries to cure himself of a rare blood disease that has rendered him handicapped his entire life, but he inadvertently infects himself with a form of vampirism instead and must fight for control of himself.

After lots of delays and unconvincing trailers, Morbius pulls off the impossible — it’s even worse than expected. It’s one of the worst superhero films to date and one of the worst films I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. Academy Award winner Jared Leto continues a streak of subpar acting choices with a miscast, creepy turn as Michael Morbius, who’s supposed to be a social outcast doctor turned hero the way Benedict Cumberbatch so convincingly was in Doctor Strange, but Leto brings forth no charm or charisma and actually comes off as an unlikable hero who’s distant from the audience for the whole runtime. Matt Smith also delivers a horrible performance with a character you can’t stand and whose every move is predictable. Adria Arjona and Jared Harris try their best but are stuck with poor writing that doesn’t serve their skills or characters any well. Speaking of which, the characters’ morals, decisions, and conflicts feel so hollow they’re almost non-existent and simply there to check off boxes on the list of superhero origin clichés.

The movie attempts to be darker than the Marvel Cinematic Universe films in the main Tom Holland Spider-Man continuity, but unlike The Batman, another dark superhero film this year, Morbius has no energy, tone or clear objective to exist. The CGI makes the fights hard to watch, especially the vampire look and powers which look like images from a video game. The action is done in a way where it’s impossible to tell what’s going on and the lighting and score are dark and gloomy, sucking any life out of this sad movie that feels more like a first-draft concept idea than an actual movie made for an audience’s entertainment. But it’s not only embarrassingly bad to watch — it commits the unforgivable sin of being boring. Although at 1 hour and 44 minutes, it’s one of Marvel’s shortest movies ever, it feels so much slower than any other superhero film and I was begging for it to end. There comes a point where even when you find yourself drifting off and the movie has become beyond saving, it still finds a way to outdo itself and become simply unbearable and laughable in the final act. Even the bland Venom movies (which are set in the same universe as Morbius) have had aspects to offer some fans of the source material, but to any fans of comic-book movies, vampire movies, or just good movies, please spare yourself — the only thing you’ll get out of this movie is the desire to forget it immediately after you watch it.

The Lost City

A reclusive romance novelist on a book tour with her cover model gets swept up in a kidnapping attempt that lands them both in a cutthroat jungle adventure.

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum make a fun pair in this romantic action-adventure comedy that had me laughing out loud. The leads have great chemistry and they both get to exercise their comedic skills to this wide-appealing genre film. Da’Vine Joy Randolph also steals the show as Bullock’s best friend and Brad Pitt makes an outstandingly thrilling appearance. Though the story is very similar to other recent films like Jungle Cruise and Uncharted, the silly, almost self-aware touch is what makes it a delightful, harmless time. It’s easy to tell where the ride is going, but it’s also very tempting to go along with the ride due to Bullock and Tatum’s chemistry, enough to go to the theater and enjoy with others.

Turning Red

Mei Lee is a 13-year-old girl who is torn between being her mother’s obedient daughter and the chaos of her youth. As if that were not enough, when she gets too excited, she turns into a big red panda.

Turning Red has some surprisingly mature undertones but manages to be witty and charming in its execution just enough to please youngsters, as all Pixar’s films find the balance to do. Director Domee Shi gives the film imaginative visuals and unique use of culture for an animated film. Rosalie Chiang shies in her first ever voice performance as Mei, and Sandra Oh proves herself a fantastic voice actress as her mother Ming, who embodies the mother who expects big things of her daughter but forgets to let her live a life of her own, which may be exactly what her character did in another Disney movie, Raya and the Last Dragon. The movie portrays youth in a lively way that involves the frights of adolescence, and the journeys of growing up with your friends and being obsessed with boy bands with them, for some. This leads to a lot of charm from the youthful side of the film, as well some some wit in the execution and the way the music ties into the film’s mood. Ludwig Goransson of Black Panther, Creed and Tenet fame again proves himself one of the most exciting film composers, and Billie Eilish and Finneas contribute to the lyrics of the fictional boy band 4*Town’s songs. This coming-of-age fantasy comedy doesn’t rank among Pixar’s stronger works but it proves that they’re still at the top of their game with new ways to bring sweet, relatable themes to the screen, in this case about loving your family while staying true to yourself, and embracing your flaws whether that be anxiety or rebelliousness.

The Batman

This reboot of one of the most beloved movie characters focuses on a dark, crime-ridden Gotham City. When the Riddler, a sadistic serial killer, begins murdering key political figures in Gotham, Batman is forced to investigate the city’s hidden corruption and question his family’s involvement.

Despite already having a magnificent trilogy for the character in the Nolan Dark Knight films, Matt Reeves’ reboot is unpredictable, fascinating, and masterful — even reaching the heights of Nolan’s films. Robert Pattinson delivers an incredible performance as a man who fights crime but also finds himself as Batman due to his own misery and demons, and the film explores Batman as a sign of fear towards criminals, as well as a detective and antihero. But gone is the glamor of Bruce Wayne’s rich life — Pattinson portrays a lonely, depressed man who can only find meaning for himself by going out and finding a fight. He gives off the vibe of Ryan Gosling’s reserved, morally ambiguous performance in Drive, and I’d also compare this most to Pattinson’s role in The Lighthouse. Zoe Kravitz surpasses past portrayals of Catwoman from actresses like Anne Hathaway and Michelle Pfeiffer by making Selina Kyle feel incredibly human and as interesting of a character as Batman, instead of being part of the story just for him. Paul Dano is menacing and terrifying as the Riddler, but Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as the Penguin, under so much convincing makeup but still delivering a scene-stealing performance. Andy Serkis is also great as Alfred and Jeffrey Wright is another standout, wonderfully cast as Gordon and his relationship with Batman is very interesting to watch grow.

But this movie isn’t only packed with great stars. Reeves’ direction, as well as award-worthy cinematography and score (Michael Giacchino — known for The Incredibles, Inside Out, Up, Spider-Man, and more — delivering his best live-action score yet), brings to life a riveting, nail-biting crime mystery noir atmosphere reminiscent of cynical murder mystery thrillers like Se7en and Zodiac — even more grounded than The Dark Knight, which feels like a crime epic but still had a larger scale than this. This dark, mysterious atmosphere makes the film nail-biting and never slow, even at 3 hours. The conspiracies and mysteries that unravel are intriguing and the fights are gritty for a PG-13 superhero movie. By the last hour, it genuinely becomes difficult to tell what is going to happen next, which feels rare for blockbusters of this size today, due to the darkness that envelops the characters and their world.

The Batman is more than up to the task of delivering a mind-blowing reboot that surpasses expectations and earns every minute of its runtime. It’s packed with memorable performances, a meticulous atmosphere, and edge-of-your-seat tension, ultimately making one of the best superhero films of recent years that has to be seen on the big screen.

Uncharted

Street-smart Nathan Drake, is recruited by seasoned treasure hunter, Victor “Sully” Sullivan, to recover a fortune amassed by Ferdinand Magellan, and lost 500 years ago by the House of Moncada.

Video-game movies are always a concerning subject, and with Uncharted being one of my personal favorite video games (not being a huge gamer myself), this film does translate the set pieces and globe-trotting style to the big screen, but much of the wonder is lost in translation. Tom Holland plays a younger version of Drake than seen in the games, and its his charisma and energy that elevate his take on the character, and even when his dialogue feels lacking, it’s Holland’s spirit and star power that do the heavy lifting. Mark Wahlberg shares some good chemistry with Holland, but on its own, his performance as Sully falls short. His character’s writing can’t quite decide what it wants to be, and it feels like a case of less-than-stellar casting with Wahlberg’s delivery. Sophia Ali also does a good job as Chloe, but again, it’s the script that can’t take her character in a satisfying direction. Even famous Oscar nominee Antonio Banderas has an all-in-all boring presence — as if that was even possible for him. The writing also fails to make the origin between Drake and Sully’s meeting feel unique, and ultimately the entire film suffers from being cliché. The editing feels watered down and studio-like, despite some exciting action which feels visually imaginative, but the actual CGI work looks digital and unbelievable. The exposition to explain the adventure can’t quite pull you in and the twists are easy to see from a mile away. Like I said, the scenes they’ve come up with are interesting, whether it’s journeying through ancient underground rooms looking for clues or hanging off planes while fighting bad guys, but the way it’s shot and edited makes any sense of originality or wonder and discovery feel lost. In the hands of a better director and more creative freedom and realistic-looking green screen, this could have been something special. While the action scenes are certainly watchable and bombastic, the delivery feels too fluffy and disposable, without any sort of new creative touch, and fails to differentiate itself from films from the worlds of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider.

Death on the Nile

During the honeymoon cruise of the Doyles and their wedding party on the Nile, a murder occurs and a detective onboard, the iconic Hercule Poirot — played once again by Kenneth Branagh, who also directs –must dig through the motives of the passengers to find the killer and bring them to justice.

Death on the Nile embraces the thrilling aspects of the Whodunnit murder mystery genre, with a case that keeps you guessing. Kenneth Branagh leans more into the vain, larger-than-life portrayal of Poirot. However, the performances of some of the cast, especially Branagh and Gal Gadot, can get over-the-top and distractingly humorous, possibly unintentionally. They also try too often to give Poirot a tragic backstory, which can be appreciated but it’s far inferior to the story involving the other characters. However, Letitia Wright and Emma Mackey are standouts whose acting turns are actually able to shine. The buildup to the titular murder mystery is too long, as the title and marketing clearly tells you what kind of movie this is but takes too long to actually become that film. Once it does, however, I was actually engaged and following along as new details, motives, and alibis were presented. Though the costume design is stellar, the visuals have lots of moments of obvious green screen and CGI and the movie could’ve benefitted from a more practical look. Though it isn’t a must-watch, Death on the Nile is an improvement over its predecessor but doesn’t manage to necessarily be shocking or rewatchable — it doesn’t also help that Rian Johnson’s 2019 caper Knives Out set the bar so high for murder mysteries and that it has a sequel coming out later this year, or that Branagh just released the best film of his career, Belfast, only a few months ago. If you know what you’re in for, the ride is fun, but keep your expectations light and reasonable for an interesting and edge-of-your-seat second and third acts.

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Licorice Pizza

The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley in 1973.

Licorice Pizza is no less than a Paul Thomas Anderson movie — stylized, larger-than-life, and a beautiful anomaly. Like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, things happen to the characters that often go unexplained but its the way the characters react that defines the story. PTA makes movies that are defined by characters who feel larger-than-life but have a human core, though one may not always understand them on the surface. Alana Haim steals the show in her very first movie role, portraying a young woman trying to find herself only to find that she may not be alone in that. To make things even cooler, her family plays themselves in the film! Cooper Hoffman is also great as an incredibly confident teen actor who looks forward to achieving his destiny someday. The crazy situations that happen may not always add up to much sense but they offer revealing moments about the film’s spirit and character. With that comes a layer of irreverence and craziness with how bold and out there this film gets — like a famous actor trying to his favorite scenes from his movies, or another Hollywood star having a big meltdown — but it’s all PTA’s complex way of conveying his themes and the messy beauty of the human condition. The free-spirited nature is amplified by the vivid direction, including great production value and soundtrack to immerse you into the Valley in the 70s. Like many of PTA’s other films, the movie doesn’t quite fit the mold of one genre — it’s part coming-of-age story, part outrageous comedy, part political drama, part Hollywood-based epic. The movie does slow down in the second half but ends on a strong beat. The movie is a picture of youth, the parts we play to fit into the world, and the bonds that not everyone may understand. It’s a great watch, but it’s best to be familiar with the director’s style and filmography to know what you’re in for.

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