Powerfully forgettable except for its time-wasting twists and erasure of stakes, Hypnotic is an action thriller that feels out of time from the 1990s. In this movie’s universe there are a clandestine group of “hypnotics,” people with genetic powers that can manipulate others to do whatever they want. Ben Affleck plays a detective who is also searching for his abducted daughter and the case is mixed up with uncovering the secrets behind hypnotics and a mysterious and devious man (William Fichtner) who commands people to kill themselves. This should be a fun movie from its premise, Affleck chasing after killer physics like Scanners. It’s written and directed by Robert Rodriguez based on a script he’s been dying to make since the early 2000s. The problem with Hypnotic is that it wastes so much of its structure on playing into the expected, and once that happens it more or less invalidates the first hour of the movie. Once they introduce the concept of hypnotics erasing their own memories and placing triggers to remember key things, it’s not so hard to determine where the ultimate twist is heading. It leads to some serious wheel spinning from its plot, and then the end relies upon a standoff where one side is so all-powerful that there is no real danger. Therefore the emphasis of this movie hinges on the “wow” factor of its twist with little else to keep your waning attention. I suppose the appeal for Rodriguez from a directing standpoint were the sequences where the hypnotics are altering perception, watching the world bend onto itself in trippy Inception-style visuals. I wish there was more of this. The problem with Hypnotic is how unremarkable it is and how inevitable it will be forgotten (with or without your own psychic powers).
Nate’s Grade: C
Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania (2023)
Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has had a bumpy ride, coming after the significant climax of 2019’s Avengers Endgame and releases shifting thanks to COVID, with plenty of think pieces and pundits waiting to seize upon the possible decline of the MCU’s box-office and pop-culture dominance. This was still a phase with several enjoyable blockbusters with stars of old (Black Widow, Loki, Black Panther 2, Spider-Man No Way Home) and stars of new (Shang-Chi, Ms. Marvel), but it’s been defined by movies and series that have not engendered the same level of passion with fans and audiences, and left many questioning whether audiences are finally suffering from dreaded Marvel Fatigue. I cannot say, because even movies people were so-so on have generated tons of money, and it’s not like I even have to travel far in the past for a good-to-great Marvel movie with Wakanda Forever last November. However, after the muddled response to a third Ant-Man movie, as well as a bland Shazam sequel within weeks, then the old media narrative reignites the Marvel Fatigue question. I think the better question is aimed at the studio and whether we’re entering into Marvel Complacency.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is trying to live a normal life, at least for a superhero that helped save the world. His adult daughter Cassie (recast as Kathryn Newton) is a social activist and a burgeoning scientific genius, and with the help of her grandad, Hank (Michael Douglas), they’ve developed a way to communicate into the Quantum Realm, the metaphysical world of subspace where Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) was lost for decades. The entire family gets sucked into the Quantum Realm and separated, fighting to make their way in a strange new land. Among all the unorthodox beings is Kang (Jonathan Chambers), a banished interdimensional conqueror. He’s looking to break free of his prison and thinks Scott can be persuaded to help under the right pressure.
Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania is blatantly weird and shapeless, which allows for some of the most silly character designs in the MCU yet, and it also adds up to so precious little. From a character standpoint, we get minimal forward progress, which is strange considering Scott was deprived of years from his daughter, missing out on her growing up into an adult. When you have a villain who can manipulate space and time, and this scenario, wouldn’t you think that the ultimate appeal would be to regain that lost time? Maybe Scott feels like this older Cassie is a version of his daughter he doesn’t recognize, and he misses the innocence of her younger self, and therefore he wishes to experience those moments he had missed. Mysteriously, this doesn’t factor in at all with Ant-Man 3. I suppose it’s referenced in vague terms, but you would think the thematic heft of this movie would revolve around lessons learned about thinking in the past, of trying to recapture what is gone, of moving onward and trying to be present for those we love, you know, something meaningful for the characters besides victory. Nope, as far as Cassie is concerned, she serves two story purposes: 1) being a plot device for how we got into this crazy world, and 2) being a damsel in distress. Kang’s threats to withhold Cassie or harm her are the motivating factor for him to collaborate with the villain. How truly underwhelming. I did enjoy a sequence where a plethora of Scotts across multiple timelines come to work together with a common goal, with every one of the many Scott’s love for Cassie being their top ambition.
As for the universe existing between space, the Quantum Verse of our title, it’s the highlight of the movie, so if the characters and their personal conflicts aren’t hitting for you, like me, then at least there’s some fun diversions to be had with every new locale and introduction. There’s an enjoyable sense of discovery like a new alien world where the possibilities seem endless. The strange quirks were my favorite. I adored the exuberant goo creature Veb (David Dastmalchian) fascinated by other creatures having orifices. There’s also a mind reader played by William Jackson Harper, who was comically brilliant on The Good Place, and just repeating the same lazy joke here about people’s minds being gross. There’s even Bill Freakin’ Murray as a lord. I enjoyed how many of the new characters, many of them strange aliens, had prior relationships with Janet, and her hand-waving it away explaining that over thirty years she had certain needs. This subplot itself could have been given more. time, with Janet having to deflect Hank’s sexual inadequacies in the face of so many virile lovers (“How can I compete with a guy with broccoli for a head?”). I think this reunited couple confronting their discomfort would be far more entertaining than yet another massive CGI face-off with thousands of soulless robots. There are interesting moments and characters in this strange new world, but they’re all so fleeting, meant to be a goofy supporting character or cameo or simply a one-off joke and not what matters.
Like Multiverse of Madness and Love and Thunder, this feels very much like a table-setting MCU movie, meant to move the pieces along and set up other movies, chiefly the next Thanos-level big bad with Kang, first portrayed in Loki’s season one finale in 2021. I found this character version underwhelming. Part of this is that Kang’s first appearance was so memorable, spirited, anarchic, but also subversive, going against the audience expectations of what the final confrontation with the puppetmaster was going to involve. With Ant-Man 3, this version of Kang is an overly serious, well-poised castoff in a secondary Shakespeare play, which would work if the screenplay gave the guy anything interesting or memorable or even really threatening to play. He’s just another authoritarian who speaks in grand speeches of their greatness and then proves not to live up to his much-hyped billing. I worry that the next few years of the MCU will feature a rotating set of Kangs to topple with every film, which will make the villain feel less overwhelming and powerful and more like a reoccurring Scooby Doo villain (“I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddlin’ heroes, and YOUR ANTS!”). This isn’t to say that Majors (Creed III) gives a poor performance. It’s just so stubbornly stern and shouty and rather boring in comparison to He Who Remains from his Loki appearance. Note to Marvel: given the serious charges that have surfaced against Majors, if you do wish to recast the role, a character who is different in many universes should be a pretty easy explanation for any change.
Is Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania the beginning of the end of the country’s love affair with the MCU? Well… probably not. Just three months later, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 hit it big, so maybe it’s less fatigue with big screen superhero escapades and more fatigue with mediocre movies. Maybe the public won’t be so forgiving of less-than-stellar efforts, but at this point the MCU in a moving train and some movies seem to get caught in the churning wheels of “progress.” After thirty movies and counting, some of the novelty is gone, that means just delivering the same old won’t deliver the same old results. Too much of Ant-Man 3 feels like the characters are inhabiting a large and empty sound stage. The visuals are murky and gunky and less than inspiring, and while some of the special effects are occasionally dodgy, they aren’t the travesty that others have made them out to be (though MODOK is… something, I suppose). It’s such a dank-looking movie that it feels like somebody put the light settings on power saving. There were things I enjoyed but most of Quantumania left me indifferent, and that’s the feeling I got from the cast and crew as well. I dearly missed Michael Pena’s Luis, who should have gone along for the ride just for his commentary for all the weirdness. At this point, you’re along for the MCU ride or not, and this won’t deter your 15-year investment, but coasting on its laurels will also not satisfy anyone. Not every MCU entry will be great, but they can at least try harder.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)
In the 13 ensuing years since James Cameron’s smash hit Avatar, we’ve debated whether or not the collective consciousness has simply moved on and forgotten what was, at one point, the highest-grossing movie of all time. What cultural dent had it made? Are there really still fans? Was it a fad of the new 3-D, itself already dissipated? Does anyone really want three or four sequels? Then Avatar: The Way of Water was released in late 2022 and it didn’t do as well as its mighty predecessor. Instead of being the highest-grossing movie ever, it’s only the third highest-grossing movie ever with a paltry $2.3 billion worldwide (how can the man even sleep at night?). It’s a lot of the same, both in its big feelings, awe-inducing visuals, and its resurrection of characters, scenarios, and conflicts of before, so you’ll likely find yourself reliving your own 2009 Avatar reaction.
Cameron’s long-awaited follow-up returns to the alien word of Pandora where our Marine-turned-Na’vi Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has raised a large blended family with his Na’vi partner, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, given little to do but cry this time). The first hour of this three-hour blockbuster is establishing the family dynamic with the different kids, including adopted daughter who is… somehow… the daughter of the deceased scientist Grace (both Sigourney Weaver) as well as the human child nicknamed Spider who is the biological son of Quaritch (Stephen Lang), our deceased villain. Nobody seems to stay dead in this series as Quaritch concocted his own backup plan in case of his untimely demise. He transferred his consciousness into a tank-born avatar, and this new Na’vi Quaritch has his own team of Marines in blue-skinned Na’vi bodies. They’re heading back to Pandora for some out-of-body vengeance, and thanks to their genetics, they seem to get a pass from the natural environment of Pandora mistaking them as native.
There’s a lot of set up here, and the second hour introduces us to the coastal community, and it becomes another formula of the outsiders learning the rules and culture of the new setting and integrating, turning enemies into friends, gaining honor, etc. It’s within this second hour that the big environmental message coalesces around whaling, with one Sully son bonding with an alien whale Free Willy-style. There’s a whole hunt sequence that poaches a mother and her calf that’s quite upsetting. The parallels are obvious but subtlety is not exactly one of the storytelling options in the Avatar universe. This is a broad canvas in the biggest sense, so every message will be spelled out very finely and underlined, with character voicing obvious themes and villains practically twirling space mustaches. And that’s okay. The final hour is an action-packed showdown bringing all the characters to account and forcing Jake to face off once again with his old commander.
The visual immersion is outstanding and the real reason to sit still during all three hours of Way of Water. The Oscar-winning visual effects are transcendent, and the extended sequences underwater really captivate and achieve the sense of natural awe Cameron aspires for. It is an exceedingly pretty movie to watch, and the level of high-definition detail is astounding. There’s a tangible realism here even when it’s entirely gangly CGI characters. At no point does it feel like an empty green screen stage or an over-exposed cartoon. The world of Pandora is still interesting and worth exploring, and the coastal aliens with their evolutionary differences makes me excited to explore other corners and communities of this alien world. The story works, and the payoffs work, and each of the Sully kids has a moment to shine, though I kept confusing the two older brothers (where did one of these kids learn to say “bro” every other word?). It’s a bit strange to see and hear Weaver in a preteen alien’s body, but that disconnect is part of the point, as the character feels like a foreigner searching for meaning. Considering the decade-plus delay, the huge scope, and setting up potentially three other movies, I’m impressed that Way of Water even works as well as it does as a sequel. I was able to re-acclimate pretty easily in that first hour.
It’s not revolutionary storytelling but not every movie need be. It follows a familiar formula but puts in the work to make the action meaningful and connected to character and for the emotional beats to resonate. I thought the upside-down sinking military vessel had some striking, terrifying Poseidon Adventure-esque visuals, and the sequence was rooted in the family trying to save one another. With so many moving pieces and characters, the plot can be overburdened and redundant at times (the Sully kids get kidnapped so often they might as well save time and tie themselves up early) but even at three hours it doesn’t feel slow or wasteful. There is a sense of repetition in bringing back so many of the same faces, like literally rehashing the same villains. I wish more consideration was given to the new Quaritch and his own existential journey of the self. Just because you have the brain of this dead evil guy, do you have to follow in his doomed path? That could have been a really intriguing and profound character journey, the cloned Marines bred to be weapons who decide their own identities. That could have sufficed as the entire movie for me. The messages are heavy-handed but effective, though Pandora already had a natural resource that Earth wanted to exploit so I didn’t think we needed a second natural resource that essentially functions as immortality juice. At this point, will the third movie introduce ANOTHER magical resource that cures cancer? Likewise, I hope the next movie doesn’t find us yet another Quaritch (a twin brother!) looking for further score-settling. The ending sets up a larger confrontation with Earth’s corporate elite that will come about with the ensuing sequels, though I would have thought since Way of Water makes a big leap forward in time that Earth’s powerful forces would have already marshaled their unhappy response to being kicked out in the original movie.
Cameron has an innate blockbuster sensibility and storytelling structure; the man just knows how to tell rousing big screen adventures like few others. I didn’t see Way of Water in theaters but I won’t make the same mistake with the many Avatar sequels that will dominates the 2020s. It’s a bit hokey though deeply sincere, and Cameron proves yet again that he should not be doubted on big stages of his own creation. It might take the domestic gross of a small country to make these sci-fi epics of his, but the man delivers like few in the rarefied field of dependable blockbuster artists. There’s going to be an Avatar sequel every two years, so this universe won’t go extinct anytime soon, and I’ll be there waiting too.
Nate’s Grade: B
Have you ever watched a movie that felt like it was created by soulless robots? That was the overwhelming feeling I had with Ghosted, a supposed “romantic” “comedy” and spy thriller debuting on Apple Plus with big stars and a big budget and lacking anything that feels recognizably human. 2023 has been a year of exciting and precarious technological advances, and the emergence of A.I.-assisted chat and performative generators, from art to stories, is a Pandora’s Box that will not go away, especially for an industry looking to cut corners wherever possible to save a buck. Super producer Joe Russo has bleakly predicted it’s only a matter of time before studios lean into A.I. programs to help them write bankable screenplays. When that dark day arrives, if we haven’t already crossed that Rubicon, I imagine those A.I. ghostwritten scripts will feel a lot like Ghosted, a movie that feels like it was constructed from imperfect observers.
It all begins when boy meets girl at a farmer’s market. Cole (Chris Evans) refuses to sell a potted plant to Sadie (Ana de Armas) because her job keeps her away for up to months at a time. He cannot, in good conscience, sell this woman a plant he knows will be neglected. From there, they spend a whirlwind first date getting to know one another in and out of the bedroom. Then Sadie never returns Cole’s messages and calls again. He frets that he’s yet another modern dating victim of being ghosted when strange men kidnap him and ask him scary questions about things he has no clue about. He’s rescued from this interrogation by none other than a gun-toting Sadie. She reveals she’s really a secret C.I.A. agent and somehow her enemies have mistaken Cole for “The Tax Man,” a dangerous and mysterious assassin that’s actually Sadie. Now they’re on the run and Cole has to learn the ropes of spy business or else, and maybe he can get a second date while he’s at it.
The premise alone is a workable high-concept we’ve seen comedy variations of before, from Charade to Knight and Day to The Spy Who Dumped Me (remember that movie, anyone?). It’s the perspective of the novice being plunged into the chaotic and overwhelming world of spy-craft and having to rapidly adjust to a world they thought was just the stuff of movies and beach reads. It’s the kind of story that pokes fun at spy movies while embracing them as well, and it posits what would happen if one of us normies ever accidentally found ourselves in this high-stakes world. Where Ghosted doesn’t work is that the characters are both awful versions of the Novice and the Expert. There’s a slight amusement watching Evans plays out of his depth in action contexts, running counter to a decade of Marvel heroics, but this is short-lived. He eventually begins to be a capable partner for Sadie as she learns to trust another, which is the most expected and basic character arc for each of these people. However, Sadie is also boring, and even when the truth about her profession is revealed, it doesn’t make her that much more interesting. I was already doubtful when we opened with her talking to her therapist over her car’s phone and this was the first scene. She’s been slotted as Killing Machine with Trust Issues, and he’s been slotted as Too Afraid to Seek His Dreams, and so their conclusions are predictable and bland. There’s even a lack of a technique that Sadie teaches Cole that comes into play at a pivotal moment. That’s the most basic thing and they miss that.
There is also a notable absence of chemistry between the leads. While de Armas and Evans have co-starred in two prior films, they were opposed in 2019’s Knives Out and 2022’s The Grey Man. Actor chemistry is one of those ineffable qualities that you can tell pretty quickly whether it’s evident or lacking, and within minutes of the tortured house plant meet-cute, I sensed a gaping black hole of palpable chemistry. It’s even more obnoxious when MULTIPLE characters in MULTIPLE scenes implore the two to “get a room” because their supposed sexual tension is off the charts. Sure thing, movie.
Another quality that becomes very apparent is how forced everything in Ghosted feels. The romance feels forced but the comedy especially feels forced. The four screenwriters include the writers behind the Deadpool, Zombieland, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and recent Jumanji movies, so we know these credited writers have a keen understanding of comedy. It makes the results on screen all the more mystifying and disappointing. The jokes generally feel off (“He expected a hottie not Mata Hari,” womp womp), the rhythm and tone feel a little too much, too forced, like the actors are desperately trying to compensate. It comes across like they were instructed to speak at a more fast-paced and clipped rate to attempt to emulate screwball comedy patter, but the material isn’t there to match the hyperactive verbal presentation. The music is also another factor in trying to better compensate. It’s trying to provide a jaunty, breezy energy level that isn’t sustained in the movie by its comedy, action, or romance. The number of needle drop song selections can also be insufferable and dumbfounding. The characters will start a gun fight and then “My Sharona” will crank up or, even more inexplicably, “Uptown Funk.” The relentless fallback of familiar pop and rock ditties intruding over the action doesn’t so much elevate the moment as make you realize just what would be missing without the song. I’m all for the clever use of music to jazz up a scene, but the final action sequence shouldn’t have to rely on Bruno Mars for any nascent fun.
There are a handful of moments and ideas here that could have worked in a better movie. I enjoyed a stretch in the middle where Sadie and Cole are ambushed by one bounty hunter with an absurd name after another, and each is a cameo from a familiar face and each gets dispatched swiftly. The movie also takes pains to make fun of Cole’s smothering qualities, including his snapping a picture of Sadie while she slept in his arms post-coitus and unaware. I wish this line of criticism would pick up more momentum but there’s only so much heat that Cole will take when he still needs to be the handsome and appealing lead. I also liked the idea of a villain, played by Adrien Brody like his copy of the screenplay didn’t have a single joke inside it, who is simply trying not to be revealed to be incompetent. I think there was especially more room to mine with the confusion over which character was the infamous Tax Man. The assumption that it must be a man could have opened up a broader and interesting subplot over sexist gender assumptions, with nobody believing that a g-g-g-girl could be such an accomplished trained killer (alas, the “girls can do it too” message seems to be all the movie offers in response).
Ghosted is not a good action movie, as it’s poorly sourced and edited, it’s not a good comedy, as the jokes are iffy and delivered in such an exaggerated and clunky manner, and it’s not a good romance, with two bland and under-developed genre character cliches portrayed by two actors who have a startling lack of chemistry together. The music is obnoxious and trying to compensate for the flagging energy level and forced comedy, the movie runs too long at almost two hours, and director Dexter Fletcher (Rocketman) has no feel for action or romance. It’s the comedy that made me most depressed, as no character talked like a semblance of a real human being, nor was their fast-paced, quippy dialogue truly zingy and entertaining. t was like watching a desperate person try and prove they are not, in fact desperate, but with every word only proving more and more their desperation. I’m sure some people out there will find this movie passably breezy or charming or at least inoffensive for two hours of inattention. It all felt so forced and inauthentic and tired to me. It’s best to just ghost this film in real life.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Bulletproof Monk (2003) [Review Re-View]
Originally released April 16, 2003:
This is one of the dumbest movies you will ever see. I don’t mean to sound overly sensational or alarmist, but this is the honest truth if you sit and watch all of Bulletproof Monk. Item #1: The bad guys in the film are –get this– the grandchildren of Nazis. Yes, that’s right, Nazis. We had to have Nazis as the bad guys. There’s actually a scene where a blonde-haired blue-eyed granddaughter wheels her decrepit Nazi grandpa around. Oh yeah, and one of the Nazis runs the –get this– Museum of Tolerance. Oh stop it, you’re killing me. Item #2: The titular monk (Chow-Yun Fat, pray for him) recruits pick-pocket Kar (Seann William Scott) to be his apprentice. Kar is an idiot. The Monk doesn’t help. His big mystery is –get this– why hot dogs and hot dog buns come in different numbers? Man, haven’t heard that one since the third grade. That would heartily explain why a character is called “Mr. Funktastic.” Item 3#: The monk teaches in stupid opposite talk (“You cannot be free until you have been taken. You cannot be cold until you are hot. You cannot die until you have lived,” you try some). One of the monk’s lessons is that the laws of physics, mind you the LAWS of physics, can be bent just by putting your mind to it. He says gravity can be overcome if you just don’t believe in it. This is insane. At least in The Matrix it had some plausibility. Item #4: The movie is a complete rip-off of The Matrix. I’m not just talking style, no, I’m talking everything. There is a scene where the monk and Kar run through a street and building, defying gravity, being chased by men in suits and sunglasses, and they get to a roof where they must combat a helicopter. What movie does this sound like, hmmm? Item #5: The visual effects are done by –get this– Burt Ward’s effects house. Yes, that’s right, the guy who played Robin on the campy 60s Batman show has an effects company. And they did the horrible work on Bulletproof Monk. This movie is so terrible at every level of filmmaking that it becomes enjoyable to watch, in the same vein as 2001’s stinker Dungeons and Dragons. I defy anyone to find merit in any of it. Sometimes you have to wonder what Hollywood was thinking.
Nate’s Grade: F
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS
This is, without a doubt, one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and I was entertained for every bizarre, outlandish, and awful second of it. Bulletproof Monk is based on a comic book series but it’s really an incompetently designed and executed $50-million mock version of The Matrix. Within seconds of the movie, I was already laughing out loud, and I need to go into detail just for the first ten minutes, which I highly recommend to everyone as a taste setter. We open with two monks battling atop a rope bridge and, even accounting for the poor aging of special effects two decades later, it is some of the hokiest green screen I’ve ever seen. The way both characters leap, the way the movie haphazardly edits around the fight, the speedy levitating like a video game glitch, the duel spinning that goes on and on without orienting the audience, and then it all concludes with the apprentice grabbing the elder monk’s incongruous rubber sneaker before he falls. In just a short couple of minutes, we already have a clear indication what a mess this will be. Then the Nazis show up and kill the Tibetan monks and search for a mystical scroll that has the power to destroy all life on the planet, which is a good enough reason not to leave it easily accessible to Nazis. The lead Nazi massacres the monks with the exception of Chow Yun-Fat’s nameless monk who has just recently been dubbed the supreme monk in charge of scroll security. The main Nazi shoots him and the monk falls off a cliff, but not before the Nazi says “monk” a dozen times, including screaming it to the heavens to conclude the scene when he cannot find the fallen body. I defy anyone to watch and appreciate the opening on an intentional level.
The action goes from incomprehensible to boring. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys will just show up with a helicopter with attached Gatling guns and fire into a warehouse even though there’s been no established reason they know our characters are inside or where inside they should start firing. It doesn’t matter because all the movie wants is a sudden burst of action with a vroom-vroom going pew-pew-pew until there’s a big boom. These same goons are also perhaps the dumbest hired goons in memory, as they’ll miraculously get the jump on our heroes, complete with helicopter action, but not check behind doors when coming onto a roof. There’s a moment where Sean William Scott is overpowering a man six inches taller than him and clearly with a hundred more pounds on him. This isn’t through some ingenious example of outsmarting the competition or using torque to your advantage, it’s just Scott out-pulling this guy, and this is before he even adopts the fantasy-blurring superpowers the monk will teach him.
The action scenes are all chopped up with jumbled edits. The choreography can be passable at points but seems to emphasize the exact wrong moments, like the duel spinning monks that twirl needlessly forever in the opening or Fat leaning forward and spinning around the floor while casually eating a bowl of noodles to clown Scott. It’s badly composed and badly edited. The action scenes are so silly and stupid and then you throw in the willful distortion of gravity because, as we’re told, physics are only real if you believe in them. The world of bending reality worked in The Matrix because reality was an illusion (or, as the Merovingian would say, “an eloooschean”) and a virtual reality setting where rules could be bent. What we’re entering here is a realm closer to 2008’s Wanted, where the tried-and-true laws of nature are merely suggestions, and all the cool kids can curve bullets if they really put their mind to it. It’s not like action movies don’t already exist in a heightened world of expectations and genre pyrotechnics, and then you add martial arts mysticism on top of it with wire-fu and we’re already stretching the bounds. I think what rubs me the wrong way thoroughly with Bulletproof Monk is how lazy it is. It’s not like this monk has some special power that allows him to overcome physics, some master knowledge that will educate his protégé. He just tells him that belief is stronger than physics, like this was a sentimental children’s movie about Santa Claus. If that’s the level of explanation that’s acceptable, it’s a bad sign how much more effort will be put into any storytelling or entertainment factor in this ridiculous mess.
Let’s also zero in on the apprentice character played by Scott, an actor I’ve generally enjoyed and who was hitting his commercial heights circa 2003. He plays Kar, though when the monk informs him that he is mispronouncing the Cantonese word for “family,” the American pickpocket brushes away the cultural correction from the native speaker. Here is a man who lives and works in an old Chinese movie theater with a crotchety old Japanese owner (Mako) and where he watches classic kung-fu movies and teaches himself martial arts. I suppose Kar could be a self-taught genius but he displays little dedication or skill beyond pickpocketing, which has always been a nagging movie cheat to me where people can just barely bump into you and magically gone inside your coat pocket and lifted a wallet all without your awareness. He’s the wise-cracking sidekick-slash-protégé learning about the wider world and breaking the rules, like Neo. Except he’s mostly obnoxious and useless, that is, whenever he isn’t inexplicably taking out professionally trained mercenaries with moves he learned from Bruce Lee marathons. Kar is not even an enjoyable annoying role for Scott like in 2003’s The Rundown.
Another ridiculous character and storyline involves the leader of the underground street gang and his name is Mr. Funktastic. I know this because Marcus Jean Pirae (Girl Next) literally has “Mister Funktastic” tattooed on his bare chest (though it looks like he might be missing a well-placed “N” as well). He’s British and the leader of a gang of would-be street toughs and orphans, and it’s like the movie has dipped into something downright Dickensian, or maybe the 1991 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. These guys are upset that Kar is stealing on their turf and challenge him to prove his mettle. I don’t know what this idiot character adds to this universe besides further making it incredulous. He and “his girl” even party in the underground raves in old subway cars, and all of this just makes me wonder what adults think goes on in subway systems. Oh, and that’s right, the female love interest is named Jade, played by Jaimie King (Sin City, Pearl Harbor), and this plays into one of the most stupid yet hyper specific ancient prophecies that tips off the monk to Kar’s potential. All you need to know about the supporting characters in this movie is that there are multiple generations of Nazis and they are running a Holocaust museum secretly to hold onto their trophies under the cover of enlightening the world about anti-Semitism and white supremacy.
Bulletproof Monk is the only movie directed by Paul Hunter, a respected music video director who has worked for decades and is responsible for Aaliyah’s “One in a Million,” Mariah Carey’s “Honey,” the “Lady Marmalade” remake from Moulin Rouge, and the unfortunately titled duet by Jay-Z and convicted rapist R. Kelly, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent.” This experience must have been so bad that Hunter swore off ever helming another feature-length movie again. The nature of music video direction attracts stylists, but this movie is so overburdened with trying to ape The Matrix on a scaled-down budget, with janky bullet-time effects and wire work (our heroes are even on the run from men in suits and sunglasses). The wire work doesn’t add grandeur and majesty to the movie because it doesn’t have the understanding of how to present it so that it looks cool; it always just seems goofy and inferior to better references. I think Hunter’s personal vision and style were just swallowed whole by the demands of making this silly movie, encroaching studio pressure, and it feels like he just gave up and the movie was benignly born by committee. I don’t blame Hunter for giving up on this movie and I guess on all movies.
Can you enjoy Bulletproof Monk on a so-bad-it’s-good level? Do hotdogs come in packages of ten and hotdog buns come in packages of eight? The answer is an enthusiastic yes. This movie is ridiculous in every moment, only forming a somehow more ridiculous whole that defies not just the laws of physics but conventional storytelling and good taste. It’s a movie that has no idea what to do with Chow Yun-Fat and his abilities, instead coasting on the idea of the man’s involvement like the geezer teasers of recent memory that don’t so much challenge their famous stars as advertise they could afford them for a weekend or two of un-taxing demands. It’s a movie that begs to exist on a dumbed-down level of action movie junk science but doesn’t understand how to, properly, have fun within that setting. It’s so transparently indifferent or lazy or ripping off its many action/sci-fi inspirations, chiefly The Matrix. John Woo is a producer on the movie and it’s not hard to see how a Woo-directed Monk would have played to its outlandish peaks. Instead, everything is an inferior version of the better reference point. It’s silly and worthy of a night with friends, adult beverages, and lots of boorish and increasingly incoherent commentary.
Looking back at my initial review from 2003, I think my criticisms still hold but I would elevate the grade simply from its unintentional entertainment value. This is pure unintended camp, and as such Bulletproof Monk might be one of the worst movies I’ve watched and still undeserving of a failing grade, and so I will charitably raise it a letter to a D grade (on a curve, a bullet curve).
Nate’s Grade: D
John Wick Chapter 4 (2023)
As many of you are well aware, I believe great action can be some of the highest cinematic highs one can experience through the transporting thrill of the movies. It’s the larger-than-life quality, the symbiosis of so many tactical teams working in harmony to pull off the breakneck stunts, rapidly escalating stakes, and organic story complications, that it all feels like the best kind of magic trick. For my money, Mad Max: Fury Road is closer to the pinnacle of the artform than a majority of self-serious Oscar bait drivel. In many ways, musicals are very similar to action movies, as fight choreography is nothing more than a rehearsed dance between professionals. Both must incorporate geography, spacing, and interaction to maximize their appeal. It is from this perspective that I approach the John Wick franchise, a series that I have enjoyed and has gotten more popular with every new entry. John Wick: Chapter 4 is about as action-packed as they come, running at nearly three hours long. I purposely waited and saw the movie with my father, a fellow lifelong lover of big screen action and particularly Fury Road. We both had a blast, and rather than write a review of exclamatory nonsense, I thought I’d look over some of my finer critical points with 2019’s John Wick 3 and analyze how 4 excels beyond.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a legendary assassin in a world where I think half the population are secretly, or not so secretly, trained assassins. I have to think the union collective bargaining negotiations are brutal. Regardless, John has been on the run ever since he upset the High Table, the cloak-and-dagger authority over this clandestine universe. He’s had a bounty on his head getting larger and larger with every foiled assassination, and there have been hundreds at this point. To finally clear his name, John plans on challenging the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard), the new controlling High Table member who is un-sanctioning every international hotel that gives refuge to Wick. The old rules state that Wick can challenge the Marquis to a duel, but getting to the actual dueling site might be murder.
As I wrote in 2019: “Most other action movies have one or two moments that make you wince or make you shake your head in astonishment of something intense, gnarly, or self-evidently awesome. John Wick 3 is packed with these moments… For action fans, the John Wick series is a simplified adrenaline shot where the director and star are working in unison to compose goose bump-triggering action cinema for the masses.”
This compliment is still applicable because the lasting draw of the John Wick franchise has always been its highly polished and intense action sequences. Series director Chad Stahelski has an intimate understanding of his star’s physical capabilities, having served as Reeves stunt double for years, and he and his team stress the fidelity of visceral realism with their overtly preposterous movie. The action is displayed in long takes, wide shots, and gloriously accessible visual arrangements to allow the audience to truly enjoy the splendor of the moment. This philosophy stretches to car chases, like an exciting roundabout of the Arc de Triomphe making bodies fly through the air, and even horseback chases, like an opening evoking Lawrence of Arabia. There were several moments that made me giggle in giddiness, like a woman relentlessly stabbing a man she rode piggyback up the stairs, and a sustained high angle where Wick clears room after room of baddies with fiery canisters that turn each target into a burst of flames, and a fight ascending many flights of stairs that has echoes of Wile E. Coyote slapstick. If you are a lover of action, these movies will not disappoint in that department. The movie takes about 30-40 minutes to set up its stakes and goals, and from there it’s relentless. The best compliment I can give is that Chapter 4 did not feel like three hours because it just flew by for me.
This is where my small criticisms of 2019’s third entry began, and I’ll address them one-by-one: “Because the movie rarely catches its collective breath, it can also feel like a mindless video game, with each new location a new level and with innumerable, faceless cohorts rushing in to be battled. The violence can be brutal but also feel a bit programmed, lacking some of the visceral dynamic realism of The Raid movies, the closest equivalent action franchise.”
This was a concern I was beginning to notice with Chapter 3, that the movies were in danger of becoming repetitive as Wick clears room after room of opponents. In general, that is the plot of all four movies, so the emphasis needs to be on how each sequence differentiates itself. Chapter 4 does this very well by giving every sequence its own underlying identity. This can be through unique locations or even weapon preference. One sequence is entirely John battling with nunchucks. One sequence is John fighting through a rainy Berlin club that becomes an ax fight. There’s a fight that utilizes well-placed doorbells to cue a blind swordsman Caine (Donnie Yen). The change in locations also helps differentiate the action sequences, with trips to Osaka, Berlin, and finally Paris each adding their own style. It’s a lot more fun to change things up and make sure that the change in scenery, weapon preference, and character is incorporated into the fight.
Another undervalued aspect of the Wick franchise is how damn good looking these movies are. Stahelski can frame some beautifully lit sequences to make all the subsequent carnage and fisticuffs that much more pleasing. We’ve been settling for far less for far too long, folks. There’s no reason our grungy, dank, overly gray action movies cannot look as pristine and striking as the John Wick series.
I also wrote in 2019: “The further and further we get from the events of the original John Wick, the less emotional involvement the series seems to ingratiate, especially with its central baddies onscreen. Every dog-loving audience member was willing Wick to get his vengeance in the first movie. We wanted him to get the bad guy in the sequel. Now it’s basically wave after wave of hired guns that he has to defeat, and without a better connection to that opposing force, the movie franchise runs the risk of losing any long standing personal stakes. The bad guys are just interchangeable and only present to be dispatched. There’s no emotional victory or satisfaction for the audience if Bad Guy #12 gets toppled by the climax.”
I was beginning to worry that by the time of John Wick 12 he would have killed the entire world’s population and forgotten it all started because of one dog. It’s not that story is the preeminent feature of the Wick franchise but there is more thought and curiosity put into this world building and it would be a shame to ignore it simply for wall-to-wall violence. Fortunately, I think Chapter 4 does the best about introducing new and engaging characters. The John Wick series has introduced new faces but rarely do they seem like more than overly glorified NPCs meant to root for John or take stock of the current predicament (they’ve never found a meaningful use of Laurence Fishburne). With Chapter 4, the new characters actually matter, and they’re great. The best addition is Caine, made even more intriguing by being a blind assassin and made even more fantastic through the performance of Yen (Rogue One, Ip Man). He’s a friend to John and feels great guilt about trying to kill him (his daughter’s life is threatened as leverage). He’s a conflicted killer, the rueful warrior, and his disability makes every fight worthy of watching how exactly he’ll take down his next opponent. It’s enough that I could foresee a Caine spinoff if the fortunes of the universe demand even more Wick spinoffs (Ballerina, a spinoff starring Ana de Armas, is expected to be released summer 2024).
The other new characters are also strong. Skarsgard (It) makes a great hiss-able villain and he really eats up his French dandy accent. There’s also Mr. Nobody (Shamier Anderson) who spies from afar, biding his time until the bounty on Wick gets high enough. He has a dog too that is trained to attack men in a very vulnerable spot first. Then there’s Scott Adkins (Ip Man 3) in perhaps the performance of his career. He gets to slather on makeup, a fat suit, false teeth, and really becomes a broad character, a German crime lord but more a menacing fairy tale behemoth. The way Adkins relishes every syllable is a delight. The man isn’t known much for his acting, other than his finely honed martial arts skills, but he showcases plenty of potential if given a chance. It’s fun to watch all these martial arts experts cut loose, most in their middle age. Recording artist Rina Sawayama makes a killer acting debut as the concierge of the Osaka Continental hotel, and she wreaks havoc with a bow and arrow and some intense knife work.
Because of having more interesting characters meaningfully involved, including those who have a familial history with John Wick, it brings a new emotional stakes to the franchise because we don’t know what will happen to these new faces. I cared enough to be newly invested.
And lastly, in 2019, I concluded with: “I’ll happily continue watching further adventures of John Wick, though I’d be just as interested in an exploration of the world without its titular star. At some point it may be necessary to retire John Wick (Reeves seems to have lost a step, but he’s still like a hundred steps beyond most of us) and when they do, I hope this interesting and peculiar world is allowed to house further weird and exciting adventures.”
By the end of Chapter 4, you question whether this universe can exist beyond the bloodshed of Mr. Wick, and my answer would be yes. A Continental TV series is premiering in the fall on Peacock, taking place in the 1970s with younger versions of Winston (Ian McShane) and Charon (the late Lance Reddick). There’s at least one spinoff in the works I’ve mentioned earlier. It very much appears that Reeves and Stahelski intended for Chapter 4 to be the definite conclusion to their story they began in 2014. I doubt things will stay that way, especially with Chapter 4 becoming the biggest earner in the franchise. I would suspect the studio would be begging for a Chapter 5. Regardless, if this is the intended series finale, then Reeves and Stahelski have gone out on top. John Wick: Chapter 4 is action movie nirvana.
Nate’s Grade: A-
It’s a movie about Adam Driver as a spaceman fighting dinosaurs. What could go wrong? 65 (as in 65 million Years Ago) is a sci-fi action thriller with a ripe concept overworked by blockheaded studio notes that mitigate its potential and engagement. I was initially intrigued because it was the directorial debut of the writers of A Quiet Place, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. That 2018 movie was a masterful genre exercise, though director John Krasinski was also a key contributor and rewrote their initial script. First off, I don’t know why this movie makes the decision to have Driver from an advanced alien species that crash lands on a prehistoric Earth unless it was related to the eventual development of humans on this planet. The opening segment explains in text and then a “Dad, don’t go” flashback before jumping into the action of the crashing spaceship. Even the dramatically protracted title reveal (65…………. MILLION YEARS AGO!) makes little sense considering the timeline was conveyed earlier. It makes me think about studio execs questioning whether audiences would get it, so what follows is mostly a survivor story of surrogate father and surrogate daughter (Arianna Greenblatt). A lot of our emotional involvement hinges on this relationship and I don’t think it carries the film. There’s a language barrier with the little kid, which is an interesting complication for their cooperation, but it also means Driver’s absent father is projecting a whole lot onto this little kid as if she were his daughter. The central relationship is serviceable but unremarkable, which could also suffice for discussing 65 as a whole. Driver trying to escape from a dinosaur territory dispute could have been plenty for survivor thrills, plus with little Predator-style advanced weapons to even the playing field of man and beast. What I didn’t need was a literal apocalyptic final act where Driver and the kid must not only survive dinosaurs but get off-planet before the big dinosaur-killing meteor strikes. It’s excessive bombast that feels tacked-on, like studio execs worried that dinosaurs by themselves would be boring. 65 is loud and obvious and only 90 minutes, and that can be enough for escapist entertainment, but it squanders its bigger concept.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023)
As required for every film critic before discussing the new Dungeons and Dragons movie, subtitled Honor Among Thieves, I must tell you my personal history with the seminal tabletop game. Well, I don’t think D&D is for me. Many of my friends are heavily involved in D&D, several as the quest-fashioning dungeon masters, and I’ve even sat in for a few games, but there’s something about the group improv experience that I never feel comfortable while playing, like my mind just runs into imagination roadblocks trying to come up with options in a near limitless space. Plus I think character creation is one of my lesser storytelling skills; I typically build characters more out of plot and concept and theme. Also, the demanding time commitment to play a game that can take possibly months or years to conclude makes me hesitant. I already think Monopoly lasts too long and has a habit of ruining friendships (if I was ever paid to write a Monopoly movie, that would be my starting point, not bringing to life Mr. Moneybags).
Anyway, D&D has had something of a cultural renaissance the last decade, reaching new levels of wider acceptance partly thanks to its prominent placement in Stranger Things. Pretty good for an ever-evolving 50-year-old game system that was at one point blamed for luring impressionable youth into the ways of Satanism and insanity (see the ridiculous 1982 movie Mazes and Monsters starring a young Tom Hanks as a student who cannot distinguish between reality and the game world to murderous effect). It’s such a substantial fantasy property that it was only a matter of time for movies to follow. There was an abysmal D&D movie from 2000 co-starring Thora Birch and a go-for-broke Jeremy Irons that isn’t worth your time. I wasn’t excited for a new Dungeons and Dragons movie until I saw that its directors and co-writers were Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. I was a big fan of 2018’s Game Night, their last directing effort, and they’ve been a dependable comedic writing duo. It was with them that I placed my faith and that faith was fully rewarded when my wife and I watched Honor Among Thieves and had a delightful time. This is a wildly fun D&D movie for every viewer.
In the world of owl bears and sorcerers, Edgin (Chris Pine) and his trusted partner, Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), are looking to settle the score. They’ve broken out of prison and are trying to gather their old team back together but everyone has a grudge. Forge (Hugh Grant) has betrayed the group for power and especially riches, serving as the city’s reigning lord. He’s recommissioned a gathering of games and sport, drawing crowds back to the city, and with games comes betting and with betting come large sums of money from the rich. Edgin plans to rob from the treasure hold for the games and with that score he can regain his daughter and possibly reclaim a magical totem that can bring his dearly departed wife back.
I have no prior understanding of anything relating to the world and lore of D&D, and I found it to be extremely accessible and engaging. That’s because Goldstein and Daley have put the emphasis of their movie not on its lore or history or locations but on its characters. I appreciate that here is a major work of IP for a studio that is attempting to tell one very good and accessible story for the masses rather than set up a cinematic universe and ready it for possible sequel bait. Get the movie right and have that make me desire more movies rather than establishing a world that has potential but otherwise goes unfulfilled. The very concept of Honor Among Thieves helps to keep things light-hearted and moving. My pal Ben Bailey and I have been clamoring for years for a heist movie set within a fantasy world. It was ready-made to satisfy with the genre structure of heists, and putting a team together that rolls with unexpected adversity, and the cleverness of incorporating fantasy abilities and elements into heist genre familiarities. Thankfully, Goldstein and Daley realized how entertainingly plentiful this combo can prove.
The fun characters are what help to make the movie so enchanting. Rather than settling on a subsection of class representation (one dwarf, one elf, one wizard, etc.), the characters are more about what they bring to the team and what motivates them for character arcs. We have a shapeshifter (Sophia Lillis) who is trying to protect the kingdom’s encroachment on her kind. We have a shaky wizard (Justice Smith) who is battling for his own self-confidence and respect. Nobody feels like a token appointment. Even characters that would seem like a D&D player’s dream, a powerful paladin played by the dashing Rege-Jean Page (Bridgerton), are given more purpose. He serves as a contrast to our hero’s journey back to respectability, and the character is so noble and serious that it’s yet another shade of comedy to explore. His obliviousness to irony and sarcasm reminded me of the very literal-minded Drax (Guardians of the Galaxy). This is a character that would appear in standard fantasy epics, and yet he’s played for laughs just through sheer juxtaposition without ever mocking the reality of this world. At no point will characters condescend to their reality, saying self-aware critiques like, “Well that’s a very inconvenient and stupid place to put a castle,” etc. There is a cameo where the gag is that this person is much smaller. The appearance is played for goofy laughs and yet it’s also shocking in its emotional sincerity. If you removed the size differential, this would be a dramatic and eventful scene (I did enjoy the unspoken preference of this individual when it comes to a romantic partner). The movie is very funny and very skilled at being funny without reliance upon meta genre riffs.
Elevating an already great movie, Pine (Don’t Worry Darling) is robustly charming as a bard/secret agent. He secured my loyalty within two minutes of the movie when he gave up on his prison knitting project and said, summarily, “I’m just gonna make a mitten. Who am I trying to impress?” Pine has long been one of our most effortlessly charming leading men, and playing a rakish heist leader who also sings will only magnify the man’s innate appeal to the masses. He works even better alongside Rodriguez (any Fast and Furious movie after 6) who becomes the real physical presence. This is a career-best performance with Rodriguez sliding right into exactly the comedy wavelength she’s needed for – the gruff and cynical worldview of the weary warrior. They make for a great bantering lead duo.
The set pieces are also tailored to the character arcs while still being memorable and entertaining. This is a movie that doesn’t get complacent over its 134 minutes. Each sequence must stand out, whether it’s because of creative and intuitive fight choreography that makes keen use of geography and circumstance, or a graveyard Q&A with very constrained magical rules to follow that leads to a lot of digging to find the right corpse with the right information, or escaping from an obese dragon (with its “widdle wings”) that resembles a chonky cat, or a dangerous trip through a maze that abruptly reconfigures itself, or a prison escape that doesn’t quite go as you expect, nor at the characters expect. Every scene has a purpose. Every magical item has a specific use, and every set piece sets itself apart visually and from a story standpoint.
Goldstein and Daley have excelled as writers, but they’re also proving to be visually adept directors. With the emphasis on characters, it’s not CGI spectacle for spectacle’s sake. There’s a pleasing physicality to this world. The budget is in the $150-million range, which is quite a show of confidence for the directors, but the emphasis is on what best elevates the moment. There’s a thrilling escape performed as a tracking shot with a zooming camera tracing the escape of our shapeshifter from harm, and there’s fantastic visual inventiveness with a magic portal and its application for the film’s equivalent of a rollicking stagecoach robbery. There’s a noted intention here with the shots and scenes and visual arrangements, so Honor Among Thieves feels like a studio film with vision.
Allow me to take one very fleeting moment to digress just how much care Goldstein and Daley put into even the smallest of details. After we’ve met the last core member of our crew, he confidently leans backwards and falls into a pit leading to an underground cavern. The rest of the crew creep toward the opening and stare down below with trepidation. Simon then says, “I’m going last.” We then cut to the group at the bottom of the cavern. It’s such a small detail, but the previous scene ends on a character-appropriate punchline for Simon reconfirming his squeamishness, but then by transitioning to the entire collected crew together, we know he was last and so we’re ready to move forward. Again, it’s a small detail but it’s a microscopic example that proves, to me, how much thought and care the directors have given.
As a novice to the famous role-playing world, I found Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves to be an exhilarating and highly entertaining fantasy adventure where fun is the chief priority. It’s not at the expense of great characters, good humor, and satisfying payoffs with well-developed setups strewn throughout. It’s a reminder how enjoyable and escapist blockbusters can be when you have the right artists using the expansive box of paints. It’s great for all ages and families too. I don’t have any personal connection to this sword-and-sorcery universe but now I want many more adventures if this is kind of quality they’re offering.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)
I enjoyed 2019’s Shazam! because it felt like a breath of fresh air, a lighter story compared to the relentless gloom and doom of the DCU. It was more a silly Big-style body swap movie than a super hero romp, tapping into childhood wish fulfillment of getting to transform not just as an adult but as a super-powered adult on a whim. It was funny, sweet, and different. The 2023 sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, feels like the definition of a sequel for the sake of a sequel. It is thoroughly mediocre and lacking the charm and heart of the original. I’ll try and deduce why this super-charged sequel feels so lacking and why the fun feels so forced.
Billy Batson (Asher Angel) can turn into Shazam (Zachary Levi) by uttering the magic name, and now his foster family share his same super abilities. They’re trying to adjust back to “normal life” when the Daughters of Atlas, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Luicy Lui), arrive with a vengeance. Turns out Shazam’s powers were stolen from the Greek gods, and now they want them back, and if they don’t reclaim their power, the gods will destroy the world of man.
I think one of the most lacking elements of Fury of the Gods is that it loses its core appeal. The first movie was about a child fulfilling their adult dreams and leaping into maturity before their time. Levi (Apollo 10 1/2) was goofy and enjoyable in his broadly comical fish-out-of-water portrayal as a kid in an adult’s body. Now, the growing pains of being an adult, and a superhero, have been eclipsed. In fact, the amount of time we spend with Billy is pretty sparing. It’s all Shazam all the time, and this hurts presenting a worthwhile contrast between the mythic and the recognizably human. You forget the initial dynamic of this kid pretending to be an adult and what advantages this affords. At this point, being an adult is the same as being Billy Batson, who is approaching 18 and will age out of the foster system. This reality creates an existential crisis for Billy, as he’s afraid his family will move on so he’s eager to keep them together all the time, trying to maintain control. It’s about fear of change; however, I never fully understood why Billy was so worried. He’s already found a home with a loving mother, father, and extended clan of siblings, so why does aging out matter? He’s not going to be removed from his home. His siblings also aren’t talking about shipping out to the different corners of the world to begin careers or higher education. It’s a forced conflict to make the character uneasy about growing up. If the first movie was about a kid coming to terms with himself and letting others in, then this movie is all about a kid worrying his relationships will arbitrarily evaporate. This anxiety over losing something meaningful could have been an interesting storyline, but it’s all so contrived, and the whole body swap dynamic, the selling point of the first film, feels strangely absent.
Likewise, the villains have questionable motivation and character development. The movie begins with cloaked and masked figures wreaking havoc in a museum, and then it makes a big deal that these figures happen to be… women (also middle-aged and older at that). The opening is meant to be surprising in a way that feels out of date (what… g-g-girls can be powerful too?). It’s a strange point considering we’ve already had Wonder Woman. This same easily-satisfied, lowest common denominator plotting is disappointingly prevalent. These powerful gods want their father’s powers back but they already seem pretty powerful, so the movie lacks a fitting explanation of why these extra powers are worth all this effort. I suppose there’s a general revenge and righting of wrongs but the characters don’t play their parts too scorned. They’re more annoyed and tired, which doesn’t make for the most compelling villains. Another Daughter of Atlas has the power to mix and match the world like a volatile Rubix cube, but what is this power? It’s virtual obstacle-making but it feels arbitrary too in the world of superpowers. The ultimate scheme to conquer the world is as flimsy as the reasons it’s ultimately defeated.
Let me dissect that part for a few words, the solutions to overcoming our vengeful gods. They raise an army of mythical creatures to destroy Philadelphia and it’s Ray Harryhausen character designs with cyclops and unicorns and the like. The way to reach through to the monsters and bring them on your side is to offer them a gift of “ambrosia,” some tasteful bounty that they can’t help but fall in love with. So what is the solution to this? One of the kids literally drops a handful of Skittles onto the street and the unicorn happily snarfs them down. Yes, through the power of Skittles-brand candy the heroes are able to save the day. There’s even a moment where the kid is riding the unicorns into battle and screams, “Taste the rainbow,” before the movie cheekily cuts her off before she can unleash an added “MF-er.” What is this? I’m usually agnostic on product placement in movies; characters have to eat and drink, etc. But when it’s egregiously transparent and played as the key to victory against all odds, that’s a bit much. If the joke is that contemporary food is a blast of flavor that nobody would have been prepared for thousands of years ago with their palettes, then any modern food could have worked. It didn’t have to be a brand-name candy with its brand-name slogan screamed in battle. This is but the first of several contrived and unsatisfying deus ex machina solutions that erase consequences.
Even with returning director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), the enterprise feels like an empty retread relying too much on rote spectacle and missing the heart and perspective of its predecessor. There is an action sequence atop a collapsing suspension bridge and the song “Holding Out for a Hero” plays, and then we have a character comment on it, and it all seems like a desperate attempt to add some energy or style or fun to the sequence that is absent. The action relies on a lot of watching characters zip pedestrians to safety, but it’s the end result we see, not the whoosh and flurry of the arduous mission. The whole sequence feels like it’s going through the motions, as much of the movie does, falling back on a formula of superhero blockbuster autopilot. The CGI army of villains, the face-offs between characters shooting magic beams at one another, the overly quippy and tiresome dialogue and mugging cranked up to overdrive, the world-saving stakes feeling so minor. I was longing for some of the ’80s Amblin tone of the original, which got surprisingly dark. With Fury of the Gods, everything feels so safe and settled, with the stakes feeling inauthentic and the action reinforcing this with effects sequences that feel like Saturday morning cartoon filler.
There’s a strange question with the family powers. The extended brothers and sisters can utter “Shazam” and turn into adult alter egos, but the character of Mary (Grace Caroline Currey, Fall) now transforms into a super suited version of herself with slightly different hair. In 2019, she transformed into actress Michelle Borth (Hawaii 5-0). Mary is the oldest sibling, and we’ve undergone a time jump of years to account for the ages of the kid actors, so does this mean that as the kids get older they will just turn into versions of themselves? Does this mean that the Zachary Levi-persona is set to expire once Billy turns legally an adult at 18? The implications of this casting choice made me question the very reality of the Shazam universe’s mechanics.
I can see certain audiences enjoying the slapstick and gee-whiz goofiness of Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and I have no doubt that the people making the movie wanted to tap into that childlike wonder of magic and myth. The problem is that this feels like the most inessential of the dozen DCU movies, going through the motions rather than exploring cogent and potent drama. Just take the character of Pedro (Jovan Armand) who is unhappy with his larger body and transforms into a handsome, slim, musclebound version of himself as a fantasy. That’s an interesting psychological exploration for the character, on top of his own self acceptance on a whole other front. Or take the sidekick from the first movie, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), and his Romeo and Juliet-esque romance of a super-powered being from the other side of the conflict. There’s some drama there as well as his understanding of who the good and bad guys can be. Or simply take the perspectives of the parents trying to raise a household of kids who can transform at whim and what worries and joys this can offer. There’s material here to be finely explored, fun dynamics going beyond just repeating the Big-style body swap hi-jinks. Unfortunately, this is a sequel that feels like what made the original special has been replaced by blockbuster status quo.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Core (2003) [Review Re-View]
Originally released March 28, 2003:
I knew about 15 minutes in that The Core was not going to take its science too seriously. Aaron Eckhart, as a hunky science professor, is addressing military generals and essentially says, “We broke the Earth.” He tells them that because the Earth no longer spins (don’t think about it, you’ll only hurt yourself) the electromagnetic shield will dissipate and the sun will cook our planet. And just to make sure people understand the term “cook” he sets a peach on fire as an example. At this point I knew The Core was going to be a ridiculous disaster flick with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.
Earth’s core has stopped spinning and horrific disasters are starting to be unleashed with anything from drunken bird attacks to lightening strikes in Rome. I always love how in disaster films Mother Nature always instinctively goes after the monuments, the landmarks, the things of cultural importance. The United States government hires a ragtag group of scientists and NASA pilots to journey to the center of the Earth and jump-start our planet. Of course everything that can go wrong on this fantastic journey will eventually go wrong.
The Core is so improbable, so silly, that it ends up being guilty fun. If you let go, ignore the incredible amounts of birth imagery (the sperm-like ship tunneling through to get to the egg-like core), then the very game cast will take you for a fun ride.
There’s a scene where the government approaches kooky scientist Delroy Lindo to build the super-ship that will take them to said core. When asked how much he thinks it’ll cost Lindo laughs and says, ”Try fifty billion dollars.” The government responds, ”Can you take a check?” I was pleasantly reminded of an episode of Futurama where the space-time continuum is disrupted and time keeps skipping forward. The old scientist and a Harlem Globetrotter (it was a very funny episode) theorize that to create a machine to stop this problem they would need all the money on the Earth. Flash immediately to the two of them being handed a check that says, “All the money of the Earth.” Richard Nixon’s head, in its glass jar, then says, “Get going, you know we cant spend All the Money on the Earth every day.”
The assembled cast is quite nice. Hilary Swank assumes a leadership role quite nicely. Eckhart is suitably hunky and dashing. Stanley Tucci is very funny as an arrogant science snob. Tcheky Karyo (the poor man’s Jean Reno) is … uh, French. I don’t think anyone would believe that these people were the best in their fields (only in movies are scientists not old white men but hunky and sexy fun-lovin folk).
Director Jon Amiel (Entrapment) seems to know the preposterous nature of his films proceedings and amps up the campy thrills. An impromptu landing of the space shuttle in an L.A. reservoir is a fantastic action set piece, yet is likely the reason the film was delayed after the Columbia crash. The cornball science and steady pacing make The Core an enjoyable if goofy ride. The film does run out of steam and goes on for 20 minutes longer than it should.
The Core is pure escapist entertainment without a thought in its head. And in dire times of war and harsh realism blaring at us every evening, there’s nothing wrong with a little juicy escapist fair. Buy a big tub of popcorn and enjoy. Does anyone else wonder if we broke the Earth just after its 5 billion-year warranty was up?
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS
I never knew just how influential the 2003 disaster movie The Core has been. It’s a schlocky Hollywood sci-fi thriller built upon junk science but still enjoyable junk food entertainment. However, the science was so unrepentantly bad, that the science community as a whole decided to do something about it, and in 2008 the Science & Entertainment Exchange was launched. Founded by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), its director Rick Loverd told Salon magazine how influential pop culture can be in its depiction of science, citing Star Trek inspiring scientists, Top Gun inspiring pilots, and CSI inspiring young forensic students. He also cites the power of seeing positive representation, like 2016’s Hidden Figures. The Science & Entertainment Exchange is an organization that is intended to consult on the application and depictions of science in cinema, hoping to make things more realistic. Apparently, The Core’s director, Jon Amiel (Entrapment), was so taken back when a science advisor was bad-mouthing the movie to Scientific American because he was under the impression that his movie, including restarting the Earth’s iron core with atomic bombs, had been scientifically accurate. Among the scientific community, they regard The Core as the nadir of big screen accuracy (as an example of a movie that got the science fairly accurate, they cite 2014’s Interstellar). I bet you never knew how truly influential and world-changing The Core was, albeit for being a junk movie. However, as it was in 2003, and even twenty years later, this is exactly my kind of junk.
I recognized the campy appeal of The Core right away. It’s a goofy movie from the premise to the science to the action set pieces but it’s all played one hundred percent straight, which makes it that much more entertaining and amusing. The opening sequence involves people with pacemakers dropping dead (approximately 1.5 million people worldwide). Then the birds start acting funny and crashing into buildings and cars and panicked outdoor crowds. For a disaster movie literally about the possible demise of the planet, this is such a strange and minimalist start to the looming threat at hand. The movie feels like it’s a throwback to the science fiction mission movies of the 1950s with a touch of the worldwide disaster movies of the 1970s. Even with the modern special effects, which are as delightfully cheesy as the rest of the movie, it doesn’t feel akin to the disaster epics of Roman Emmerich. The movie feels cornier and more dated and less interested in large-scale disaster spectacle. The surface-level disaster carnage is marginal, mostly an out-of-control lightening storm in Rome that knows to always steer for the monuments and cultural artifacts. The Core, at its core, is about the fantastic journey of its brave scientists. Take for instance a scene where the Serge is locked behind and being crushed to death by extreme pressure. I don’t know how anyone could keep a straight face while Aaron Eckhart, our handsome lead scientist, shouts, “Serge!” over and over while Tcheky Karyo (The Patriot) pretends he’s being squished to death while the walls get closer and closer to his face. That’s the kind of stuff I want, not CGI waves killing thousands in large-scale yet antiseptic spectacle.
The movie takes about an hour before it really gets going, which is also admirably silly. Why devote so much time to setting up the reality of this dilemma for the complications and solutions to seem so throwaway? Seriously, the government uses one hacker (DJ Qualls) to control the entire Internet so that they can cover up the news about the possible impending apocalypse. It reminds me of an episode of The X-Files from the early 1990s where the government sends out an “all-Internet alert.” Perhaps the screenwriters felt we needed more time to accept the outlandish premise, which is strange because most disaster movies get a significant benefit of the doubt from audiences. Just having a person in glasses, and maybe a lab coat, or sweater if you want it to be more casual, explaining in a grave tone while removing their glasses dramatically, is likely all we need to accept the craziness to come. However, we do spend more time with our characters so that, when they depart one-by-one through sacrifice and accident, I actually cared enough because I was enjoying their comradery. I enjoyed Stanley Tucci being a blowhard who would even record his own narration as they travel through the Earth. I enjoyed Bruce Greenwood as the stern father figure that of course has to die first. I enjoyed Delroy Lindo as our excited but exasperated drill scientist. I enjoyed Hilary Swank as, essentially, the “best damn pilot I’ve ever seen.” I liked simply watching them all banter and bond together. It had enough development that their losses actually felt like losses and/or the accumulation of a character arc.
The question arises how do you keep things interesting when you’re burrowing through layer after layer of rock, and the answer is to just make things up. How about a layer of air? Could the Earth, compact as it is through billions of years of gravitational forces, have a layer of air like it was an English muffin? I did enjoy how the team had to restart their vessel before the magma poured into the vacant and awaiting space from their entry point. Of course, that raises the question now that magma is filling this vacant layer, have these scientists unintentionally ruined this unknown layer of the Earth? How about a layer with diamonds the size of states? These internal layers might as well be alien planets for as little they connect to reality.
The movie is overlong and too uneven, but for fans of schlocky science fiction, it’s a delicious combination of campy entertainment. The silliness, played completely straight, even down to the part where Richard Jenkins explains man’ hubris is at fault for destroying the rotation of the Earth, is the grand appeal. I’m not going to call The Core a good movie but it sure feels like it knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and boy does it lean into that. My original review in 2003 caught on right away and I still recognized that same knowing vibe (why do we need a visual demonstration for the obvious concept of the sun cooking the Earth?). There really is a lot of birthing imagery too with the shape of the vessel burrowing to that egg at the center, so there’s that as well. The special effects are pretty murky and hokey for this kind of budget, but in 2023, that even works to the bountiful charms of the movie. I won’t pretend that most people will watch The Core with derision regardless of whether or not you’re an actual scientist. It inspired a generation of movies to be more scientifically sound, and it also inspired one of the biggest filmmakers on the planet. The metal that encases the spaceship? Unobtanium. You cannot tell me James Cameron wasn’t watching and taking notes.
Re-View Grade: B
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