Bullet Train and The Princess are two recent releases that could serve as a double feature for all they have in common. Both movies prioritize fun above all else, both of them feature stylized violence and bloodshed, both of them have a perverse sense of humor, and both of them feature young actress Joey King (The Kissing Booth, Wish Upon), coincidentally playing the listed roles of Prince and The Princess. What more do you need for this combo? If you are a fan of Bullet Train, you’ll likely be a fan of The Princess, and vice versa, because both of them are exactly as advertised. They’re wild, whimsically violent, but succeed with nimble action construction, bizarre and engaging characters, and high energy that sparks fun escapist entertainment.
Bullet Train is set almost entirely on a speeding bullet train in Tokyo, and we follow a group of hired killers, mercenaries, and generally nasty people all sharing one very fast locomotive. “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt) is a reformed hitman who only takes snatch-and-grab gigs as he’s trying to better himself with therapy and meditation. He’s meant to grab a briefcase of money and get off the train. Naturally, things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Onboard the train are “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Hill) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have the briefcase in their possession along with the prodigal son (Logan Lerman) of a scary Yakuza boss known as “The White Death.” Also on board is Kimura (Andrew Koji) seeking to find the person responsible for pushing his child off a rooftop, Prince (Joey King) using her diminutive stature to trick unsuspecting men, the Wolf (Bad Bunny) seeking out the person responsible for the death of his bride, and several other masked killers looking to up the ante. Characters will clash, many will die, and “The White Death” will be appeased by the end, coming to collect a blood debt from all.
Bullet Train was, blissfully, everything I was needing it to be. It’s a universe familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino and especially Guy Ritchie, with colorful and threatening characters with large personalities and quirks colliding in unexpected and violent ways. I’ve seen so many Tarantino knock-offs, and Tarantino knock-off knock-offs, so I appreciate when someone is able to understand what it takes to succeed on this unique playing field. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street: 1978) knows how to sharpen the kind of off-the-cuff banter that makes these movies excel, with space given for the characters to make a sizable impression. There needs to be time to get to know them, their quirks and faults, and then send them all running at one another at cross-purposes, interacting in fun ways that lend to one character screwing something up for another. There’s about a dozen characters dropped upon us, and just about everyone gets a flashback or introduction set piece, sometimes more, sometimes extensions of previous flashbacks, sometimes extensions from alternate perspectives. Part of the fun is just seeing how the different characters relate to one another, so there is a period of time where the mask has to eventually drop, and the reveal needs to be worthwhile. It’s a lot, and Bullet Train gleefully trades in excess upon excess all in the name of chasing after a good time, and if you connect on its zany and breezy wavelength of reckless violence and dark humor, then you shall be happy for the ride.
The movie is constantly reshuffling and transforming, allowing it to hyperextend into whatever shape it necessitates before contorting back to its next phase. This malleability makes the movie far more responsive, sometimes overlapping, and it provides an extra level of energy. It’s reminiscent of Snatch, my favorite of the Ricthie cockney crime capers, where the story zigged and zagged through linear time, providing answers to different stacked questions. I won’t say the characters are as distinct as Snatch, but Olkewicz takes his time to introduce each with relish. Pitt may be the marketable star of the movie, at least as far as advertising is concerned, but it’s really much more of an ensemble, and one anchored by Lemon and Tangerine. Their droll, snappy banter really cements their long-term relationship almost like a screwball romance. They end up becoming, strangely, the heart of the movie, if one were to suggest a movie with an entire wedding party vomiting their guts to death had a beating heart. Their exact connection and genuine affection for one another, even when they’re driving one another mad, is one of the film’s many surprises as it zooms ahead. There are fun cameos, and some unexpected abrupt deaths, but Bullet Train works because of the entertainment of the kooky killer characters. I enjoyed that one character’s obsession, namely likening people to Thomas the Tank Engine avatars, has a personal connection but actually leads to some ironic turns. Not every set-up has the best payoff (Chekov’s toilet snake comes to shockingly little) or resolution (why wasn’t the snooping conductor thrown back in or given a revelation?) but with so many characters criss-crossing, so many goofy asides and cul-de-sacs, and so much bloody mayhem, there’s a steady stream of fun, satisfying payoffs and retribution until the mid-credits sequence.
To me, the water bottle symbolizes Bullet Train at its best and worst. After two hours of multiple characters and their out-of-order flashbacks shuffling for dominance, we get an inanimate object with its own flashback. It’s a goofy and superfluous addition, as the water bottle has served as a plot device but has served its ultimate plot purpose already, so seeing its entire history offers no new information that the audience didn’t already have. However, what it does is show the movie from the perspective of this bottle, and many sequences are reframed from the bottle’s rigid point of view. It made me think about how after they got their shot setups, someone on staff would then call out, “Okay, we need the water bottle POV shot now,” and they would film that. I appreciate the effort for something this fleeting and silly. They didn’t need to put in this flashback or this level of attention to an object that ultimately just gets thrown at a guy’s head. However, it’s the misdirect, the ridiculous inclusion on top of the others, and the ramping of energy that made me smile, even as little else came out of it. I appreciated the showmanship. For me, this is emblematic of the movie as a whole, an overload of style and energy just for the fleeting hell of it.
Under the direction of David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2), the action is as fun and energetic as the colorful characters. Leitch has become one of the best modern directors of action movies. The hand-to-hand combat is refreshing and makes use of close quarter combat demands. I enjoyed that the two participants in a fight are trying to sneak in quick moves without getting caught by an older lady who demands quiet in the quiet train car. I enjoyed the zany flashback where Tangerine and Lemon recount to the camera and dispute the number of men killed on a previous job. With a character cursed with bad luck, it provides opportunities to have fun with accidents and bad timing, which Leitch works into different action set-ups and setbacks. Even when the movie literally goes off the rails and becomes a big cartoon, Leitch finds ways to marry the big tone in such a manner that the ridiculous doesn’t prove off-putting. When characters are swinging samurai swords in slow-mo, while a Japanese version of “Holding Out For a Hero” is pumping on the soundtrack, I just sat back and soaked up the deliciously disposable fun times.
The plot of The Princess is as straightforward as Bullet Train is knotty. The Princess (Joey King) of a fantasy kingdom is chained at the very top of a castle tower. Her captor, Julius (Dominic Cooper), has imprisoned her family and plans to wed the princess and become king. The princess, however, has other plans. Thanks to her martial arts and weapon training, she breaks free and becomes a one-woman wrecking crew as she descends the tower floors to freedom.
I was genuinely surprised at how well developed and exciting the action sequences were. The Princess shares more in common with The Raid than anything by the Grimms. The script by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton follows the model of a video game; every new floor is a literal new level with a new boss or new objective to be achieved to advance to the next level. The simplicity of the premise is refreshing, and the movie doesn’t waste any time ramping things up. Blood is shed within the first few minutes and it doesn’t let up. What I really appreciated was how well constructed each new action set piece was. There’s variety and specification that challenges our heroine, who is powerful but still not all-powerful and bereft of vulnerability. Each new encounter forces our protagonist to think through a different application of skills. There’s a situation that involves overpowering a larger and stronger man, a situation trying to wound a fully armored man, a situation battling two men, then even more, a situation with men charging into the battle and having to escape to a safer environment, a situation where she has to swing along the outside of the castle to enter a different room, a situation involving stealth, and many others, but each requires something different and thus each proves to flesh out our main character and her capabilities and problem-solving acumen. It’s always a pleasure to watch smart people overcome challenges in fun and smart ways, and The Princess has this formula down. I was worried the movie might get repetitive with its video game level design, but each new challenge is an opportunity to dazzle and enlighten us about our John Wick-esque fighter.
That’s probably the best comparison, the John Wick franchise, because it’s a series of movies that is defined by the thrills of its fight choreography and action set pieces. That’s it. The world has some interesting flourishes but the draw is the fight scenes and the pleasure of watching professionals operating at such a high level and with demonstrations that allow us to better immerse and appreciate the artistry of the fighting. And it’s good here. The impressive choreography has a really nice A-to-B propulsion, with each move connecting to the next to tell its own story of countermoves and adjustment. I really appreciated how the specific geography of each location is incorporated into the action, whether that be as a hindrance or an assistance to the fighting. It makes the sequences more meaningful and better developed. It’s also a movie that understands that if you give your villains specialized weapons, they better use them in fun or nasty ways. If all you’re looking for is imaginative, bloody, and brutal fighting, The Princess delivers it all. Credit also to King for throwing herself completely into the role. She effortlessly executes complicated fight moves and swordplay during long takes. You can tell she’s having a blast being a badass. Think of The Princess like a feminist version of The Raid or an upside-down version of Dredd (“Instead of fighting up, this character fights her way… down.”).
The Princess could have made more social statements but its very conceit is a feminist reworking of outdated fantasy tropes, so I don’t mind that it’s a streamlined action movie with a blunt yet obvious point. The familiar story tells us that these damsels in distress are the maidens in need of rescuing (“Sorry, our princess is in another castle” and the like), so just having the princess be her own champion is a simple yet satisfying subversion. This is an action movie and less one on politics; however, it’s a movie that cannot help from being political because it’s upsetting the expected social norms, that women are docile and weaker and at the whims of men. The Princess isn’t breaking new ground here. There have been plenty of movies that re-contextualized the feminine roles of old legends and folk tales and made them more capable and strong and fierce. That doesn’t mean there’s any less enjoyment watching our princess take down one leering man after another. It’s the appeal of the underdog who makes men pay dearly for underestimating her. These repeated interactions and bloody comeuppance speak about as well as necessary for this kind of movie. I doubt things would have radically improved if one of the characters broke into a treatise on the misapplication of gender roles. It’s a woman beating the stuffing out of creepy and lascivious misogynists. For this movie, that’s more than enough to keep me watching.
Where The Princess starts to lose itself is once it shifts into its final act and abandons its formula. I can understand wanting to shake things up so the viewer doesn’t get lulled into complacency, but because the sequences were, beforehand, varied, my interest was not lagging. During this final stretch, the titular princess leads a squad to take down the baddies, and the movie becomes any other number of similar fantasy action movies. The enjoyable fight choreography is still present, but it feels like a rush to clear everything in comparison to the methodical floor-by-floor clearing from before. I wish the filmmakers had merely held steady with their plot rather than throwing things out and relying upon a grand team-up revolutionary raid. There’s also a sudden shift that throws out the rationale for keeping the princess alive. The bad guy just shrugs and says, “Forget it, I’ll find a replacement,” and it feels too arbitrary of an escalation. If he could do this, why was he so insistent for the first hour that she not be killed? It’s not a bad ending or one that ruins the movie but it’s definitely a downshift from the action excitement highs from before.
The Princess and Bullet Train are both frantic, over-the-top, cartoonishly violent, while still understanding how to effectively sell their escapist mayhem. We need to be dazzled by the action sequences and have them be meaningful (check), we need weird and interesting characters that we want to root for or watch bumble onscreen (check), we need payoffs that feel rewarding (check), we need an onslaught of style and attitude (check), and we need, above all else, fun and surprises (check). Neither of these movies is going to qualify as one of the best movies of the year. That’s just not the kind of experience either is shooting for. However, they may be some of the best fun you have with movies for 2022, and in a world in short order of fun, that’s plenty.
Bullet Train: B
The Princess: B
Two movies removed from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I’m starting to wonder if the brotherly directing duo of Joe and Anthony Russo are absent their own vision. Cherry was an exhausting and annoying experience overloaded with self-conscious stylistic choices that dominated the movie and squeezed it from its dramatic potential. Now we have The Gray Man, based upon the 2009 book by a former Tom Clancy writing collaborator, and it looks indistinguishable from any other big-budget spy thriller. It feels like The Russos doing their version of Michael Bay doing his version of the Jason Bourne series. It’s an expensive movie for Netflix, in the range of $200 million, and it just made me think about 2019’s Six Underground, their $200 million collaboration with Bay where he had creative freedom to make the most bombastic, hyper masculine, and tedious movie of his career. If you’re going to devote a fifth of a billion dollars for a Michael Bay-esque action movie, you might as well hire the real deal again. The Gray Man is a passable action movie, especially in its middle, but it’s wholly derivative and coasting off your memories of better spy thrillers and better characters.
The titular “Gray Man” is a super-secret Sierra agent given the code name Six (Ryan Gosling). He’s been the government’s indispensable tool for taking out bad guy and keeping the world safe for 18 years, working time off his prison sentence. Then it all goes wrong when, of course, his callous boss (Rege-Jean Page, Bridgerton) demands he “take the shot” even if it means the death of an innocent child in the process. Six declines, the covert assignment becomes much messier, and he learns that his target was a former agent from the sane secret Sierra cabal. The dying man gives Six a MacGuffin necklace that the big bad boss really wants. Six goes on the run, with the help of some allies like another agent (Ana de Armas) and his retired handler (Billy Bob Thornton), and the CIA sends every professional killer to get their man. This includes the mustachioed Llyod Hansen (Chris Evans), a ruthless private mercenary who brags about being kicked out of the C.I.A. academy for his lack of ethics and impulse control issues.
If you’re just looking for an action vehicle that provides enough bang and sizzle, The Gray Man can suffice. I’ll champion the highlights first before equivocating on them. There’s a recognizable blockbuster elan to the movie with enough energy to keep your attention. There is a significant uptick in the middle that gave me a false sense of hope that The Gray Man had transformed into a better movie. Again, this occurs well into an hour into a slightly under two-hour movie, but credit where its due, there is a nicely developed sequence of substantial action. For being a spy thriller, a majority of the movie takes place in and around Berlin. Six is handcuffed by German police to a park bench in the middle of an open square. Lloyd sends in vans of powerfully-armed goons that take out the police and then set their sights on Six. He’s trapped to the bench but still mobile, to a point, but he’s also unarmed. Watching the character react to these limitations and adapt is greatly pleasing. This is the stuff of good action cinema; supermen get boring without having to overcome legitimate obstacles and/or mini-goals. He’s able to escape and thwart his attackers and hides in a tram. This then becomes the next level of our action, and he has to utilize close-quarter combat to tease out his new attackers. And then a speeding truck with a rocket launcher shows up. And then de Armas shows up with a sports car for Six to try and leap into. And then both of those vehicles do battle while Six climbs atop the speeding tram and uses the reflection in a passing building to line up his shot to take out a goon inside the train underneath his feet. This entire middle action set piece is top-notch. It’s exciting, stylish without being too derivative, and there’s a clear set of cause-effect escalation. This is good action writing, and it’s a shame that this is also the peak with still 40 minutes left.
The beginning and closing of The Gray Man blunt whatever enjoyment I could gather. The film is oddly structured and uneven from reliable screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Avengers: Endgame). The opening scene watching Thornton recruit Gosling in his jail cell seems completely superfluous as something that could have been explained in passing, or needed no setup, but it’s at least short. There’s also a lengthy flashback in the middle of the movie that sets up Six’s allegiance to Thornton’s niece (Julia Butters, the little girl from Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) as he babysits and saves her from kidnappers. Again, I don’t think we needed to have a set up why our protagonist would deign to save a child, but even if the movie wants to add more emotional heft to their relationship, why drop this in the middle of the movie? Why not even have this open the movie instead of the jailhouse recruitment? I like their scenes together. It reminded me of 2016’s underrated The Nice Guys. It’s just not enough to hang onto because there is no heart to this film; it is all quips and speed and flagging genre imitation. Just re-read the plot description. The genre cliches are all there, and we even have the old chestnut where the villain monologues that they and the hero are not so different.
There’s also a questionable series of shorter flashbacks of Six as a kid surviving his abusive father’s rigorous “training,” including burning a kid’s arm with a cigarette lighter or dunking his head underwater. Again, I doubt we needed to visualize these scenes when Six could have explained his traumatic upbringing with Gosling’s acting. I was worried, and I’m still not dissuaded, that The Gray Man was establishing the parental abuse as having trained Six for these unique circumstances, that dear old bad dad somehow saved his adult son’s life. Do we need a flashback of his dad holding his head underwater to convey that Six, as his head is held underwater by Lloyd, does not like this? It reminded me of 2017’s Split when Shyamalan questionably had his character survive her captor because he recognized that she too had been abused. Did her trauma save her? The needless jumping around in time feels like The Gray Man attempting to be cleverer, or perhaps aping more of the genre expectations from an action movie of this size. The finale also lacks either the emotional catharsis or action climax that can serve as a satisfying conclusion. The last act is a compound assault set piece but it’s really just a series of interconnected gunfights and explosions. The mini-goals and engaging cause-effect escalation from before is absent.
There are a few commendable moments or choices among the blockbuster cruise control. I enjoyed that this was not just a Knives Out reunion between de Armas and a villainous Evans but it was also a Blade Runner 2049 reunion between de Armas and Gosling. I think de Armas deserves her own spy vehicle, especially after being one of the highlights of 2021’s No Time to Die (granted, it helps having Phoebe Waller-Bridge writing your character). I liked a hand-to-hand combat scene where Six utilized flares both to obscure his presence as well as an offensive weapon. Evans is fun to watch as a preening peacock of a villain, though there’s so little to his character beyond a bad mustache and smarmy attitude. There are some decent drone shots, though the dipping of the camera makes them feel more like point of view aerial assault shots. The Russos really, really like their drone shots in this movie (how much of the budget did this suck up?). However, the drone shots just made me think of the better drone shots from 2021’s Ambulance, Michael Bay’s newest movie, and it further cemented The Gray Man feeling like a clunky combination of other movies and artists. If you’ve seen any espionage action movie of the last ten years, you’ve seen enough to recognize all the key pieces of The Gray Man, and while its competent enough to satisfy the most forgiving of genre fans, it’s really just more empty noise.
Nate’s Grade: C
Thor: Love and Thunder reminds me a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, admittedly a film I’ve come more around on since my initial viewing in 2017. When Ragnarok was released later that same year, it was an irreverent blast, a breath of fresh air for a franchise that didn’t really know what to do with its hero, and under director Taika Waititi’s sensibility, the character had new, witty life. A similar response occurred with the original Guardians of the Galaxy as the world fell in love with the offbeat characters and storytelling and style from writer/director James Gunn. Before 2014, we didn’t know what to expect with a Guardians movie. When the sequel was released, we had a template of expectations, and the follow-up didn’t feel quite so fresh, quite so lively, and falling back on repeating too many of the same moments or jokes because it’s what was expected. It felt a bit burdened with the creative shackles of upholding these expectations. The same feeling of same-ness permeates Love and Thunder, and to be fair that’s also because the success of Ragnarok raised our expectations for a Waititi MCU movie.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is trying to find his way after the events of 2019’s Endgame. He’s gotten in shape, spent some time palling around with the Guardians of the Galaxy (returning in 2023!), and reconnected with the love of his life, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). She’s been chosen by Thor’s old broken hammer to be its new wielder, granting her superhero status. Except in her human status, she’s dying from stage four cancer. Just as Jane comes back into his life, Thor might have to come to terms with losing her all over again.
This movie just doesn’t feel like it has the same natural prankish energy of Ragnarok, though part of this again might be myself acclimating to Waititi as a filmmaker and storyteller. Prior to Ragnarok I had only known him for the delightful vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and since Ragnarok Waititi has become his own industry, winning a screenwriting Oscar, lending his name and acting to hit TV shows, including a version of What We Do in the Shadows, and even Disney wants his mark on Star Wars. In short, the man is everywhere. In 2022, we now have a much better idea of what to expect from a typical Waititi project. Love and Thunder is recognizable to the man’s omnipresent brand, and still a fun movie with some solid gags, but it also feels a bit sloppy and repetitive.
I kept thinking about all the powerful dramatic potential in the different storylines that are barely explored because the driving plot is a universe-hopping caper to save a bunch of kidnapped children (yes, the children represent something, the next generation, renewal, legacy, but let’s carry on). Tackle the pathos of Jane Foster, who in her normal human state has her body betraying her. She feels weak and incapable of the greatness she feels burdened to still accomplish with her declining time. With the power of Thor, she becomes a superhero, and with super swole arms. However, this power trip also has its own ironic downside. Every time she powers up, the magic hammer is actually draining more of her life force, meaning she’s actually speeding up her terminal illness. Here is a character given a dire situation and an escape and yet that escape only worsens the illness. There’s such powerful drama there to explore as she comes to terms with how to spend her final moments, among them reconnecting with her super ex-boyfriend. This could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from her perspective.
Then there’s Gorr the God Butcher, gloriously played by Christian Bale like he’s in a James Wan horror movie. Here is another example where the villain doesn’t just have a sympathetic back-story but where they are correct in their aims, though maybe not in their methods (think Killmonger arguing Wakanda should do more). Gorr is tired of the gods crushing the little guy with their general entitlement, indifference, and selfishness. These fancy deities aren’t worthy of worship. The power structure needs upending. It’s easy to get behind Gorr’s plight and see connections to our own imbalanced world. This too could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from his perspective. Now, things could have gotten even more interesting and complicated for Jane, because she’s not officially a god unless she’s yielding Thor’s hammer and joins those rarefied ranks. It would pose another question of whether wielding this power would be worth her remaining time, especially with a heat-seeking missile coming for her on a righteous quest of vengeance that is slowly eating him alive. Both are dying but can they fulfill their goals?
If these storylines had been given careful development and the necessary time to breathe, Love and Thunder could have been one of the most interesting movies in the ever-expanding MCU cannon. Instead, it’s galloping to work so hard to stick to the Waititi brand expectations, to reignite our feelings of Ragnarok, and so these promising elements ultimately get shortchanged by hit-or-miss comedy bits. I liked several of them even despite myself. The set piece where Thor and Jane and friends travel to Omnipotence City has such imaginative heights. Russell Crowe is having a grand time as a hilarious Greek caricature of Zeus that is more concerned about the upcoming company orgy and brushing feta crumbles from his beard. I loved the almost Lego Movie-esque zany sight gags of the cohabitation of gods from different religions (Korg’s god sits on an iron throne of scissors, its own visual joke). It’s such a fascinating concept that I wish we could have spent even more time here. Let’s see the Egyptian gods mingling with the Sumerian gods while pranking some weird alien deity. The set piece serves two narrative purposes: gathering a powerful magic weapon, and learning the gods are sitting out the battle with Gorr for their own short-sighted self-preservation. It’s mostly a pit stop. Again, there was more pathos that could have been explored here as people meet gods, but this is my cross to bear. The general banter is amusing and has more hits than misses even if the hit percentage is lower. I laughed every time the magic axe would silently pop onscreen in jealous judgement. I even enjoyed the screaming goats even though from their first moment they are the exact same joke. Regardless, whenever Thor and company would travel to a new place and I heard that familiar goat scream, it would make me giggle despite my reservations.
I also had my qualms with the concept of Eternity, a magical place located at the center of the universe but destined to grant a wish to whomever gets there first. It’s too transparent as a plot device and its very existence this far into the MCU creates too many nagging questions. In the history of the universe, no other creature successfully reached this wish-granting locale? And if this existed at least to Thor’s understanding, then why didn’t the characters think about this as an option to thwart Thanos and his universe-halving finger snap? I know the answer, because it wasn’t written into a movie until now, but this is the drawback of throwing ultimate power plot devices without more careful context. Eternity could have been a secret just to the inner circle of the famous gods, unknown to all but a few, but even that strains some credulity. If Zeus is such a carousing hedonist of legendary status, I’m sure he would have either blabber-mouthed its existence or sought it ought for his own gain. I genuinely liked the set piece at Eternity, a small planet that sucks all color from existence, making the imagery even more striking like the inky panels of a comic. The same question happens when Thor shares his power late in the movie. Couldn’t the Avengers have used this too?
I fully acknowledge that my criticisms are butting against the movie Waititi wanted to tell. I’m pushing for its inherent dramatic potential while it wants to be a more comic and romantic adventure about the power of love. I think by the end it gets there, and the dramatic confrontations have some emotional weight to them, especially about the idea of what we leave behind for others after we’re gone. Although, even this is mitigated by the general stakes-lowering reality that death never seems so permanent in the world of comics and monetarily useful IP. It’s a joke how many times Loki has been brought back from the dead and Thor doesn’t even know that his trickster brother has been brought back from the dead again (again again). We’ve now established time travel and an emphasis on the multiverse of alternate universes, which means at a moment’s notice, any meaningful death or sacrifice has the possibility of being undone. This is also the reality of a moneymaking machine that has dominated the movies and pop-culture landscape for 14 years. No death is ever going to be for real in this environment so why should I put so much emphasis on the dramatic potential of what losing a loved one, or your sense of self, can have? I can sit back and enjoy the lesser, but still enjoyable, Waititi quirk on display for two hours of silly.
Hemsworth (Spiderhead) is so sharply skilled at comedy that I feign to remember his previous existence as a dramatic actor. He’s still on the same sublime, charismatic yet blithely self-effacing vibe he was with Ragnarok. Portman (Annihilation) comes back after close to a decade for a clear reason to leave her mark on what had been an otherwise forgettable character and giving her a renewed sense of power and direction and agency. Bale (Ford v. Ferrari), as mentioned, is fantastic. I appreciate that his character isn’t physically huge and bulky. He looks quite the opposite, like he’s wasting away, like somebody slathered an ashy coat of paint from living-skeleton Bale after The Machinist (yes, also the obvious Voldermort comparison). He is relishing every teeth-stained syllable as a nightmare creature living from the shadows. The prologue with his character is heartbreaking and yet understated (and truth be told, having young children in my household, it hit me more personally), and I turned to my fiancé and said, “I’m supposed to not like this guy?” I wish the opening credits were then a montage of Gorr seeking and slaying wicked gods. Bale is playing his role like he’s definitely not in a Waititi movie about goofy screaming goats; he’s playing Gorr like a tragic hero of myth. This is why I would have been happy had the whole movie been told from his perspective. The new characters from Ragnarok suffer the most and become sidelined as “Others Along on the Quest.” For Korg, this is fine, but for Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, I mourn her absence. Also, both characters are definitively queer now, though Korg might be more a question, making Love and Thunder the gayest movie in the MCU, and just after Pride Month, so take that for what you will, folks.
As a fun matinee, Love and Thunder will amuse and brighten, even if its comedy highs don’t quite hit as high this time under the burden of franchise expectations. Love and Thunder is a movie that will be best known for Portman and Bale, both of whom elevate the scattershot material with their dedication and professionalism. It might even be known for Crowe’s hammy scene-stealing, or the super-powered cadre of cute kiddos, or even the screaming goats. It’s a movie more of moments and ideas, too many underdeveloped or lacking the gravitas they deserve, especially concerning Jane and Gorr. I feel like a grump bemoaning that the big superhero movie should have more time spent on a woman contemplating her own existential demise as well as man’s relationship and fealty to our gods. Still, it’s Waititi doing his signature brand of quirk with $200 million of house money from Disney. Thor: Love and Thunder is a lesson in diminished returns but when you have Ragnarok as your starting point, it’s at least guaranteed to still be worth your two hours once and deliver some chuckles and smiles.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Jurassic World: Dominion has received, by far, the worst reviews and reception of the six-film franchise that has taught us the valuable life lesson that dinosaurs will eat people. Director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) is back though he remained a screenwriter for the entire World trilogy along with Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed). It’s also bringing the band back together by including Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum as their beloved original trilogy characters (there’s also B.D. Wong, again, if that does anything for ya). I’ve delayed seeing the movie because of my own sense of caution and resignation. Is it as bad as feared?
It’s years after dinosaurs have become reintegrated into the human world. Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) are living out West together with the clone girl from 2018’s Fallen Kingdom. He’s lassoing wild dinos and she’s breaking them out of illegal testing sites. The BioSyn CEO (modeled after Apple’s Tim Cook, here played by Campbell Scott) has big plans for… world domination? It’s actually unclear besides general profit. The evil businessman hires kidnappers to abscond with the little clone girl, the baby dinosaur to Blue, America’s favorite family-friendly raptor, and for good measure, he’s also unleashing swarms of killer locusts. Owen and Claire are hopping the world to find their missing family (Owen promises the raptor he will return her baby) and uncover yet another evil scheme from an evil rich person.
There is a lot going on with Jurassic World: Dominion and yet so little is happening, at least from an intellectual standpoint. This feels like three different movies inartly slammed together and it is overstuffed with subplots all competing for screen time, so every few minutes feels like a possible off-ramp for another episode of what the opening concept portends. The concept of a world where humans are forced to co-exist with dinosaurs is a genuinely exciting starting point, and it’s a Jurassic movie I would want to see, and I do… for a montage to open and close the movie. It’s a shame that the most interesting part of this movie, the global acclimation of creatures of an older millennium rejoining our ecosystem, is kept as literal background. I suppose by the end nature just took care of itself. Instead, the majority of the movie is split between two less engaging stories: giant locusts and a rich guy’s private dino enclosure. Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly. After five movies of dinosaurs in parks, where we begin with dinosaurs in the real world, it’s back to spending time in another glorified dino park, and would you believe that something goes wrong at this park too? Why even bother setting up an exciting premise if it’s abandoned so completely? The movie we do get is a lesson in diminished returns and accepting disappointment. This feels more like a giant locust movie for half, about a villainous corporation weaponizing genetically modified plagues to kill their competitors’ stock. It’s certainly something that seems plausible for a massive corporation, but what is this doing in my Jurassic World movie? Why did we need another blankly evil CEO, this time the guy who appeared in one scene in Jurassic Park, as if that mattered? Why do we need more extraneous characters taking away oxygen from the legacy characters returning especially when they seem too similar to the already established characters? Why should I care about three dinosaurs fighting at the end like I’m personally invested in any of these creatures? My sadness manifested watching this franchise descend into even more farcical dumb blockbuster nonsense.
The best part of this movie might actually be its most ridiculous. There’s a mid-movie set piece where our heroes infiltrate an underground dinosaur fighting ring in Malta. That’s cool, and we’re introduced into new secondary villains we can enjoy get their just desserts once the dinosaurs inevitably get set loose. The lead trafficking lady says the raptors have been trained to kill anything that she shines a laser pointer on, which was also introduced in the last film. She targets Claire and then it becomes a foot chase between Claire and a determined raptor. It’s a silly excuse for a chase but it has an extra sense of urgency. It’s also completely ridiculous and ridiculously fun. Claire transforms immediately into Jason Bourne and is leaping from rooftop to rooftop and crashing through windows. Owen is riding a motorcycle through the narrow streets while being chased himself. It’s all action movie pablum and it works for what it is in the moment. Treverrow’s action set pieces have some moments that pop, especially Claire cautiously slipping into a pond to escape a supposedly blind dinosaur. There are even dinosaurs with feathers now. Alas, the movie can only work as dumb fun for so long before it just becomes infinitely more of the latter.
There are so many moments on repeat here that Dominion feels like it’s stitched together like another genetically modified dinosaur clumsily patched with parts of the franchise’s past. Oh, and you better believe we’re going three movies in a row with a new genetically-modified super monster to better sell toys (at least this one isn’t stated as being part raptor). The appeal of this movie, besides the concept abandoned above that I mentioned, is the old characters coming back together, even though Goldblum and Neill each headlined a Jurassic sequel. This action is also a tacit condemnation of the investment in the new trilogy’s main characters. I doubt anyone is going to say, “Wait, Owen Grady and Claire Dearing are back for another movie? Count me in.” I bet most people didn’t even remember either of their names. But if we’re bringing back important characters of franchise past, let’s give them something important to do. They get into danger and scrapes but it’s also always with a wink and a nod that is grating. Goldblum gets to wave his arms around to distract like he did in Jurassic Park. Dern gets to cuddle a triceratops like she did in Jurassic Park. Even Neill features in a dangerous teetering automobile like he did in Jurassic Park. The contrivances to get them all in the movie were already there, but then you give them little to do other than go through the motions of their past (I will always demand more Goldblum time). There are certain dinosaurs reappearing to hit that nostalgia button. It’s the poison-spewing dinos, the ones that blinded and killed Nedry (Wayne Knight), and they’re back, except they can also have their mouth grabbed shut in the most unintentionally hilarious moment. Why even bring back an evil CEO barely mentioned in 1993? Do we need that strained connection for a role recast because the original actor is in jail for assaulting a minor? It’s an excellent example of losing track of the appeal of nostalgia by metric volume.
As far as I’m concerned, that little clone girl, a.k.a. Maisie (Isabella Sermon), is responsible for all the pain and suffering in the world because of deadly dinosaurs. At the end of Fallen Kingdom, this little kid single-handedly rescues the dinosaurs from extinction because, as she said, “They’re alive, like me.” I guess her reasoning is they weren’t supposed to exist, but they do, so we should value life. The problem with that occurs when that creature also happens to be a predator. I would have loved Dominion to explain why Maisie is living in an isolated cabin is because she’s the world’s most wanted person, as mobs of victims blame her for their loved ones dying at the hands, feet, and claws of dinosaur mayhem. The world is in chaos because of this little kid’s rash decision. This cloned girl storyline was the worst part of Fallen Kingdom and now she gets to be the worst part of Dominion as well. Her entire presence is once again as a plot device. I guess she served a purpose as her realization over her identity lead to her decision to save the poor dinosaurs, but here she’s a literal savior cure with legs. Apparently, the reason why the big bad corporation kidnaps her, along with baby Blue, is because her DNA is the key to eradicating genetic disorders. Fortunately, you only need some blood or saliva for a DNA sample and kidnapping seems like overkill. You could have just asked her nicely for a sample, fellas.
However, the dumbest aspect of this requires some sticky spoilers discussion, so you have been warned. Maisie was the grandchild of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a retcon character to elbow in another rich co-founder of Jurassic Park that we just never heard about until the fifth movie. Except she was really his daughter but as a clone. Well now we get even more retconning because Maisie’s mom, herself, gave birth to her… self. The adult Maisie impregnated herself with her own clone (because this was the easiest way to have a child?) but she’s also genetically modified her DNA to exclude a terminal disorder killing the adult Maisie. If adult Maisie wanted to save others from having her genetic disorder, why not publicize this valuable information? Why not tell her colleagues? Why leave her clone as the lone evidence? This new info makes me kind of hate the adult Maisie. She brought her clone into the world and made her a target. This seems cruel and unnecessary. It also doesn’t make sense for a person supposedly valuing life or the larger scientific community or even her own child. I’ll say it: she’s a bad mom.
The wild swings and retcons reminded me of what happened with the newer Star Wars trilogy. In 2015, both The Force Awakens and Jurassic World are released to massive success and kickoff reboots of their respective franchises. Both of the movies purposely leaned onto nostalgia for their originals, even repeating similar plot beats and reminders to trigger positive association. Then both directors, J.J. Abrams and Treverrow, left the franchise and the second movies, 2017’s The Last Jedi and Fallen Kingdom, took big swings, tried to be something different from the mold, and were met with divisive responses from the larger fanbase. I appreciate both of these movies attempting to do something different with something so entrenched in formula. Then for the concluding movie, both franchises had the original director return to essentially retcon the retcons, to bring the movies back to what was familiar and ultimately dull. It’s even more interesting when you take into account that Treverrow left the Jurassic series to spend a year of his life developing Episode 9 before being fired and hastily replaced with Abrams.
I remember the meta-commentary in Jurassic World about modern audiences becoming jaded and complacent to scientific wonders mirroring movie audiences becoming blasé to what used to marvel us in the realm of special effects extravaganzas. As it leaned into its considerable nostalgia, it was doing so in a thinly veiled satirical criticism of, “Is this what you want?” Now all the meta-commentary and irony have been stripped clean and it’s simply a big, dumb, lumbering beast awaiting its own creative extinction as it meets an end. The franchise is still a colossal moneymaker and Dominion has a chance of topping one billion in box-office, so there will be more adventures cannibalizing the past for inevitably diminished returns, and then we’ll get the special reappearances of, like, Jake Johnson’s character or Guy at Computer #4 to the celebration of few if any. None of the Jurassic movies have ever come close to capturing that certain magic from the first movie but they have all been, in some way, serviceably entertaining even at their worst. Dominion is the worst of the franchise and feels devoid of passion and awe and curiosity. To paraphrase a clever man, the studio execs were too busy thinking about whether they could and less busy worrying about whether they should. I guess you could shut off your brain and possibly enjoy it but that’s admitting defeat. Jurassic World: Dominion makes dinosaurs dull and that’s a disservice of imagination.
Nate’s Grade: D+
The successful Uncharted series (2007-2016) are some of the most movie-ready video games for big screen adaptation. While playing the globe-trotting, puzzle-solving, treasure-hunting action-adventures, it feels very much like you’re already in the middle of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. The game was in development for so long that the producers have finally ditched Nathan Fillion, the celebrity doppelganger in look and attitude of the game’s swashbuckling protagonist Nathan Drake, and resorted to everyone’s favorite web-slinger Tom Holland as a younger version of the hero. He’s a brainy bartender who is looking for some hidden Magellan treasure, and maybe his missing older brother too, and is aided by Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), an Army vet with a shared goal of retrieving the gold before his rival, wealthy industrialist Santiago (Antonio Banderas). It’s a race against time and while it doesn’t reinvent the action-adventure wheel, Uncharted is a perfectly diverting piece of entertainment. The banter is fun between Holland and Wahlberg, the action set pieces are brisk, and the third act in particularly is just a showstopper of big action bravado. The visuals are eye-grabbing and the action sequences are inventive and exciting. That’s what Uncharted gets the most right, that sense of fun the games have built into their core, while keeping things moving smoothly with colorful characters and large-scale action. You’ve seen some combination of this movie before, but even genre masterpieces are built from their influences, so being derivative is not a fatal flaw as long as the filmmakers get the essentials of storytelling and action cinema right, and they do here. The world of video game movies is already one where the bar is fairly low for quality, but it seems like Hollywood has started raising its game, like with the new Tomb Raider, Detective Pikachu, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the upcoming Last of Us prestige HBO series. Count Uncharted as the Saturday morning popcorn spectacle that knows exactly how to deliver a good time in only 105 minutes.
Nate’s Grade: B
If ever a film franchise looked to be in decline, I submit to you, the Fantastic Beasts movies. Begun in 2016 as a presumed five-part series, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was the one writing the screenplays this time and going back to 1920s America. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, chronicling bashful magical animal caretaker Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), made $800 million worldwide. In the years since, Rowling has burned through much of her good will with transphobic comments, Johnny Depp has been replaced as series villain Grindelwald by Mads Mikkelsen, and 2018’s Crimes of Grindelwald made $150 million less than its predecessor. Now with COVID transforming the box-office, the question remains whether the Wizarding World franchise (as Warner Brothers has been calling the Harry Potter universe) can survive without its Boy Who Lived. The third film, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, finds young(er) Dumbledore (Jude Law) confronting his old foe –- franchise fatigue.
It’s hard for me to fathom anyone, even the most ardent of Harry Potter fans, watching this movie and exclaiming, “I can’t wait for two more of these!” The Secrets of Dumbledore feels more like a regular episode of an ongoing TV series than a story that demanded to be told as a big screen adventure, something that meaningfully reassembles the key characters and moves the larger wizarding world story forward. By the end of the movie, Wizard Hitler still looks like Wizard Hitler. The end. The last movie set the stage for a looming wizard-vs-wizard civil war that would push the magic world to choose its sides. That’s why it’s so bizarre to then go right into a weird election conspiracy with a weird magic deer creature. This is a fantasy world with crazy characters and weird rules and I can’t adequately explain why this whole plot point with a magic deer wrings so silly and ridiculous for me. It’s like if we replaced our electoral system with letting the groundhog choose the president on Groundhog Day. Why bother with democratic elections when we can just have a pure magical creature provide its endorsement? The big scheme for Grindelwald to rig the election at any costs, which has a bizarre 2020 Donald Trump political parallel that also makes me dislike the plot more. The entire movie is hinging on this little creature making its opinion known, so why not guard it better if it’s so integral to their foundation of wizarding governance (warning: animal cruelty early)? This plot line does not work for me, and it feels clumsy both in contemporary political parallels as well as an effort to find reason to continue inserting Newt Scamander into these movies. The franchise began as a light distraction with a goofy zookeeper for magical creatures. Now it’s become a political thriller about the fate of the world against Wizard Hitler. It’s a bit different tonally, and perhaps it’s time to let Newt tend to his animals off-screen, much like what has happened to Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), the co-lead of the other movies, casually “staying home.”
This is also the first Fantastic Beasts movie where Rowling is sharing screenplay credit, with Steve Kloves, the man who adapted all but one of the Harry Potter movies. It feels like another act of trying to salvage this franchise. I’ve read plenty of critics claiming that this movie corrects the screenwriting miscues of the past films, and to this I do not agree. Reaching out for help from an industry veteran used to adapting Rowling’s imagination is a smart move, but the movie still suffers like the previous Fantastic Beast movie from a plot overburdened with incident and less on substance, willfully obtuse and convoluted in its plotting. Since Grindelwald gains the power to see into the future, a power that is woefully underutilized, the only way to disguise Dumbledore’s plot to uncover election fraud is through sheer confusion. They have to make things purposely confusing and hard to follow on purpose, dear reader. A purposely convoluted and confusing movie is the only way they can beat the bad guy. It’s like Kloves is speaking directly to the audience and admitting defeat at keeping anything clear. I went to brush up by reading the Wikipedia summary for this review and even that made me tired. A wizard heist is a great setup, but Secrets of Dumbledore cannot live up to that potential. The set pieces don’t lean into what a wizard heist could bestow. There’s one memorable sequence where Newt and his brother must escape from a crustacean prison by literal crab-walking. It’s the only light in an otherwise dismal, overwhelmingly grey movie. It all feels less transporting and more plodding.
What even are the “secrets of Dumbledore”? If it’s that he’s gay, well at least the movie finally has the temerity to finally say that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were more than just really special friends who decided to wear vials of each other’s blood as necklaces. The movie unequivocally confirms that they were lovers, had a relationship, and yet it’s all also contained in a prologue flashback that can easily be cut for foreign markets that would object. So congrats, Warner Brothers, for going far enough to at least say Dumbledore and Grindelwald were boyfriends at one point. However, this secret has been publicly known since Rowling outed Dumbledore in the late 2000s, so that’s not it. I guess we’re carrying over the revelation at the end of 2018 that Credence (Ezra Miller) is a Dumbledore, except that it’s revealed he’s the son of Dumbledore’s brother, meaning the big reveal in 2018 was… Dumbledore had a nephew? This character has even less screen time than the other two movies and it feels like the filmmakers are actively trying to work him back to the sidelines (perhaps Miller’s penchant for legal trouble accelerating matters). This all seems pretty minor, and I suspect the filmmakers are ret-conning a direction they thought would be pivotal and have since changed their minds. That’s all I can gather as what might constitute a “secret of Dumbledore,” although allow me to posit a different theory why the third movie has this subtitle. This is a franchise that has been leaking cultural cache and fan interest, and so the producers say, “Nobody knows a Newt or a Grindelwald. They know Dumbledore. They care about Dumbledore. That’s the title.” It’s about rescuing a flagging franchise with the only character that reaches forward to Harry Potter.
It’s also a little strange that the movie doesn’t even comment that Grindelwald’s appearance has changed. This is made more confusing because of that prologue flashback where Grindelwald had the face of Mikkelsen, so I guess he just chose to hang as Depp for a while. Even a passing reference to this being his “preferred form” would have sufficed. It was established that the big bad wizard could alter his visage, but we shouldn’t just go movie-by-movie with a brand-new actor (really the third actor in three films) as the main antagonist without even the barest of references for the audience. I guess it’s just all assumed.
I think this franchise also needs a break from David Yates as its visual steward, the same director of the last two Beasts films and the last four Potter movies. This is the dankest, most greyed out blockbuster movie I can recall. Yates’ muted color palate and somber handling of the material has begun to drain the fun and magic from this universe for me. I said 2020’s Ammonite was “all grey skies, grey pebbles, grey shores, grey bonnets, grey leggings, grey carts, grey houses, grey this, grey that, irrepressible grey.” This movie is the Ammonite of studio blockbusters (it’s not quite Zack Snyder’s Justice League, where color is not allowed to exist by force of law). The last time someone else directed a Wizarding World picture was 2005’s Goblet of Fire. Yates has served his time, although considering he’s only helmed one non-Potter movie in the same ensuing years (2016’s The Legend of Tarzan), maybe he’s just as reluctant to walk away from this universe.
My personal interest in this franchise has been decreasing with each additional movie, and at this point I’d be content if the planned fourth and fifth movies stayed purely theoretical. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore feels, front to back, like a filler movie, a story that is rambling and haphazard (but on purpose!) and a franchise that has outgrown its initial parameters and is struggling to explain why these adventures are persisting and what the overall appeal would be. If you’re happy to just step back into this special world one last time, then you’ll at least walk away satisfied. I still enjoy Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalksi, the Muggle pulled into the crazy world, the character that should have been the protagonist of the series. Mikkelsen is an upgrade for any franchise. I liked Jessica Williams (Booksmart) and her posh British accent. The special effects are solid if a bit twitchy. I just don’t see the driving force to continue this series, and Warner Brothers as of this writing has not greenlit either of the two proposed sequels to close Fantastic Beasts out, so we may end as a trilogy after all. If that’s the case, what will the legacy be for Fantastic Beasts? It feels like a franchise that started in one direction and was quickly course corrected to another, leeching the initial charm and light-hearted energy. Just like The Matrix universe, I think there are more creative stories that can be told here, but maybe it’s time to allow some fresh voices into the creative process. Maybe it’s time for Rowling to gracefully open her storytelling sandbox for others to dabble within. In many ways, it feels like the fan community and even the movies themselves have simply grown beyond Rowling.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Originally released May 16, 2002:
Yes, it’s easy to say that Attack of the Clones is better than Phantom Menace, but hey, most anything was better than watching that movie about trade and taxes. The truth of the matter is that for a long while Clones is just as boring as Menace, especially anything involving Anakin onscreen. It’s slow moving, dull, and remarkably poorly written. Lucas cannot write dialogue and someone needs to take away his yellow writing notebooks before he strikes again. The movie only shows life during the last 45 minutes when it finally cooks with a non-stop rush of action. Before then though I would recommend resting up for this period.
Can anyone ever say “no” to the Jedi master in plaid? What Lucas needs desperately is collaboration, writing and directing. Lucas needs to loosen up the reign of his empire before the three Star Wars prequels undermine the original set. He may have the technology to create any manner of CGI creature but he has no power to get his actors to show any of the realistic and animated life. It seems all Lucas cares about is directing blue screens and leaving his actors out to dry.
And that much ballyhooed romance between Anakin and Amidala? Oh ye God, what romance? You could find something more alive in a monastery. Portman and Christensen have as absolutely no chemistry (unlike the romantic pairs in another, huge Hollywood movie out now). Portman has perfected the staring ahead method. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be romantic. Now I like Natalie Portman, I really do. Her performance in The Professional gets me every time, but her acting is stiff and overly serious here.
I thought Anakin could not get any more annoying than Jake Lloyd’s awful “yippee”-filled run in Menace, but I’m starting to reconsider this begrudgingly. It’s easy to see why Christensen was chosen, he looks like the lost N’SYNC member. His acting on the other hand is not with the force. The Clones Anakin mopes around and when he gets upset he whines in a falsetto voice. It’s actually quite funny to see the future Darth Vader, evil master of the Dark Side and much feared, whining like a six year old throwing a tantrum. This Anakin needs a time out and a lolly.
When Anakin returns to become a protector for the senator, upon their first meet in ten years he shoots her the puppy eyes and says, “I see you have grown as well — grown more beautiful.” Subtlety, thy name is not Anakin Skywalker. The very next scene where they’re alone he’s trying to put the moves on her, though he does not try and use the force to undo her bra. Then somewhere along the line his dogged persistence just wears Amidala down and she relents. She says, “I’ve been dying a little bit day by day, ever since you re-entered my life.” Ugh. You’re likely to find more romantic passages in a Harlequin bodice ripper at 7-11.
The romance in Clones is like spontaneous romance. There is no beginning, the nurturing of it is not shown, we don’t see the eventual progress. All that happens is he shows up and then instant romance. It just happens. I don’t think so. It’s like a kid went to a girl’s third grade birthday party, then they meet in high school for the first time since that day and are instantly in love. Do you buy that? Well I certainly don’t.
The scenes revolving around Obi-Wan are the only ones worth opening your eyes for. Ewan McGregor has got the Alec Guiness voice down and proves to be a capable leading hero. His voyage to see the clone army and Jango Fett is the subplot that we want, but the movie keeps skipping back and forth between this and the inept romance. By this time everyone knows that Yoda shows off his fighting mettle with a light saber. This is a great idea and the audience I saw it with was having the time of their life during this moment. It’s the only part of the movie that taps into the feeling of whimsical fun of the original trilogy.
Lucas curtailed the criticism of Menace saying it was the setup for all five other movies. I imagine he’ll say the same thing with this one, except that it was setup for four movies. Yes it’ll make a huge amount of bank. Yes it’s a technical achievement but what good are all the bells and whistles if we as an audience are bored? You’ve got one more Star Wars left George, please do it right.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Something unexpected has happened in the ensuring twenty years since the Star Wars prequels were first released to a generally muted response from the rabid fandom. A generation has grown up with these movies as “their Star Wars.” In my own anecdotal experiences, many teenagers do not just view Episodes I-III as entertaining movies, they even view them as their preferable Star Wars trilogy. After the latest Star Wars movies, Episodes VII-IX, some fans have even been looking back on George Lucas’ much maligned prequels with revised appreciation. “At least there was a cohesive vision,” they’ll say, in comparison to the wild pendulum swings between directors J.J. Abrams (Force Awakens, Rise of Skywalker) and Rian Johnson (Last Jedi). Have we all been too harsh on Lucas and his moribund attempts to inject life into his three-movie arc charting the fall from grace from legendary villain, Darth Vader a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker? The short answer is… no. While I agree that children who grew up with the likes of Jar Jar Binks and CGI overkill will consider Episodes I-III more their style, the flaws of these films are undeniable when compared to the superior storytelling and characterization of the others. Even in comparison to the new Star Wars, these movies still suffer. So please remove your rose-colored glasses, fandom, and accept that even with time, Attack of the Clones is still a lousy adventure.
I think a majority of Star Wars fans experienced the five stages of grief upon the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace, the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. I remember a classmate who wore Star Wars T-shirts every day for weeks in fevered anticipation of the new movie, including T-shirts relating to the new characters and merchandizing opportunities (what the “new characters” were, even Darth Maul). After the movie came out, I remember charting over the last weeks of school his response, going from claiming that, “Of course it was great,” to a more measured, “Well, it wasn’t what the originals were, but it’s still good,” to, “It has its problems but…” and finally the acceptance that it just wasn’t a very good Star Wars movie or even a good movie. He stopped wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Phantom Menace characters.
This was the backdrop for the production of 2002’s Attack of the Clones, a realization that must have spurred Lucas to do better. During the many years of pre-production for Phantom Menace, Lucas was cloistered by yes men agreeing that every new addition was going to be sensational. Lucas was astonished to learn about the volume of hatred against Jar Jar Binks, a character he thought would transcend and become the most popular character in all of Star Wars. The intense negative feedback threw the old Jedi Master in plaid for a loop. Maybe residing in a creative bubble that only reinforces everything you say isn’t the best environment. We were told that Lucas had learned from his mistakes from Phantom Menace. He even brought on another screenwriter to help him, Jonathan Hale (The Young Indiana Jones TV series), something he didn’t do for the concluding Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. At the time, I was among the throng of fandom that wanted to cling to hope, that maybe The Phantom Menace was an aberration, that maybe that same feeling of elation could return of the Star Wars of old. And then I watched Attack of the Clones and it confirmed what I and many feared: Phantom Menace was no fluke; it was merely the way things were going to be from here onward.
The prequels had two major storytelling goals: 1) to explain the transformation of Anakin Skyler into the mighty Darth Vader, and 2) to explain the rise of the evil Empire and its Emperor. To offer some compliments before the onslaught of criticisms is unleashed, I think Lucas does an agreeable job with developing the latter goal. This movie came out around the time of Bush’s War on Terror where the threat of attack was enough to call pre-emptive strikes and where the president was given special war powers that, to this day, and the formal conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, haven’t been fully relinquished. There are several obvious and eerie parallels to the political instability of its initial release but also for today in 2022. We are witnessing one political party lurching toward rampant authoritarianism, a repudiation of democratic norms and ideals, and celebrating personality over principles and winning at any cost. Watching the different alien races of the Republic champion the need for a strong, decisive ruler to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of representative democracy, someone who seems above politics, someone who will protect the people, and someone who sees opponents as enemies of the state, well it’s not hard to make the connections. This is the path of fascism, the rise of dictators, and it was the same brew of nationalism, grievance, fear-mongering, bigotry, scape-goating, and information distortion during the 1930s as it is during the 2020s. For those angry Star Wars fans upset by the diversity of the newer movies, screaming, “Keep politics out of my Star Wars,” you do understand the entire thing has been a metaphor for fighting fascism, right? It’s not even subtle.
However, where the movie pitifully fails is by linking Anakin’s downfall with his romantic relationship with Padme (Natalie Portman). There was potential here with a forbidden romance where Anakin fights against the oath of chastity to the Jedi and both must try their best to subsume their out-of-control feelings. I’m sure that’s what Lucas thought he was making. It didn’t quite work out that way. The romance in Attack of the Clones is laughably bad. The dialogue is cringe-worthy and deeply inauthentic. Every character speaks like a robot. When Anakin starts to finally court Padme, he shares his infamous “I don’t like sand” observation, but he directly pivots toward liking his current location because it’s “soft and smooth,” and it is WITHIN SECONDS of saying this that he stares weirdly at Padme and they share their first kiss. That line worked! Upon meeting Anakin, almost every character remarks how much he’s grown up, as if Lucas is trying to say, “He’s no longer a kid, so it’s okay for him to try and get some.” Padme repeats this observation at several points, and I started to question what exactly was the age difference between these two. Nothing about this romance feels genuine. At one point, they literally roll down a hill like two children rough housing. The romance is so hilarious juvenile and poorly developed. In my original review in 2002, I referred to it as a “spontaneous romance,” and that’s exactly what it feels like. Anakin’s yearning looks more like a child having a temper tantrum. Also, Padme ignores a host of red flags including when Anakin confesses to killing “men, women, and children” in a blind rage upon his mother dying. She also tells him to stop looking at her because it makes her uncomfortable, and does he stop? No.
The other problem is that the actors are clearly bored with one another. Natalie Portman has since become of my favorite actors, but she’s always been an actress that has trouble hiding her boredom with a role she doesn’t connect with. You can feel her eagerness to be done with the franchise in every green screen scene (just keep chanting, “Only one more movie, Natalie”). Her destiny is to be a mother and to be the catalyst for Darth Vader becoming Darth Vader, and she’s never been looked as anything more. Sure, you can argue she’s headstrong and resourceful in a general sense, but then she has to be scraped by an arena monster so she can bare her midriff during the climactic action scuffle. I don’t think any actress can make this clunky dialogue work, like, “I’ve been dying a little every day since you came back into my life.” Is that supposed to be complimentary? Another quick dialogue criticism: EVERYONE is always addressing everyone all the time with titles. “My old friend,” and, “Master,” and, “My Padewan,” and, “Master Jedi,” in case anyone forgets for a moment what the character relationships are.
This was Hayden Christenson’s first movie as Anakin and it’s worth noting that for a time being he was regarded as a hot up and coming actor. He was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for 2001’s My Life as a House, and he’s genuinely fantastic in 2003’s genuinely fantastic Shattered Glass, a film role that takes full advantage of the actor’s whiny, pubescent acting tendencies. Christenson was widely lambasted for his performances in Episodes II and III. His performance is definitely weak, especially compared to the heft of James Earl Jones’ voice. He’s not good as Anakin Skywalker but nobody would have survived this role. It was one thing to find out big bad Darth Vader used to be an annoying little twerp of a kid, and it’s not that much better to also discover that annoying kid matured into an annoying, moody teenager. It’s demystifying one of cinema’s greatest villains and providing so very little in return. Patton Oswalt had a comedy bit about not caring where the stuff you love actually comes from. There was a rash of villain back-stories in 2000s cinema, with Vader and Hannibal Lector and Michael Myers, and none of these stories lived up to providing a satisfying explanation. Christensen has been unable to exit the shadow of the Star Wars series. He has a brief stint as a leading man, most notably in 2008’s Jumper, but has receded into the world of direct-to-DVD offerings, appearing in five movies since 2010. He’ll be reprising Darth Vader in Disney’s upcoming Star Wars TV series, so it will be interesting to see if the brunt of fandom that once rejected him now accepts him.
The other sad aspect of the prequel trilogy is just how meaningless so much of the action feels. I was watching the extended climax on Genosis, which feels clearly inspired by 2000’s Gladiator, and just shrugging at all the onscreen CGI carnage. I just didn’t care. While the prequels have more action and special effects wizardry, and the lightsaber battles are more intense and acrobatic, the emotional stakes are still so absent. Watching a dozen CGI characters kill a different dozen CGI characters is no more exciting than watching dominoes fall unless there is an emotional connection to what is happening. Any emotional connection with the prequels is strictly imported from the prior movies. I find it hard to believe that people can watch Episodes I-III and genuinely care about the conflicts of these characters. The prequels also reveal that Lucas was at his best not just with collaboration but also with restraints. With all the money in the world, the man doubles down on his worst directing and writing impulses, and everything onscreen feels weightless and vapid and intended to sell a new line of toys. The movie takes so long to get going because it divides its time between a romance that does not work and an investigation into a clone army that can only go so far. It’s memorable and a little fun to watch Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) as a mighty Jedi lightsaber warrior, but that’s about all that I found Attack of the Clones had for me as far as intentional entertainment value.
I also want to note that the movie really clears any doubt about the aura and competency of the Jedi. These guys suck at everything. They get killed pretty easily. They are terrible at sensing the encroaching Sith and Dark Side. They are terrible at upholding rules, order, galactic safety. They just suck at everything they do. They carry a cool laser sword and can play mind tricks and that’s about it. Maybe Lucas was intentionally laying a critique at the guardrails of democracy, saying we cannot trust the guardians to stand alone to protect against the rise of fascism, but I think I’m projecting too much thematic clarity onto a man that thought Jar Jar Binks was destined for greatness. Another side note: it’s hilarious to me that Lucas has Jar Jar as the Senator that proposes giving Palpatine the emergency war powers. It’s like Lucas said, “Oh, you don’t like my silly Jamaican rabbit alien? Well, what if I made him an essential footnote to the end of the Republic? You can’t erase him now, unless you’re me, and I’ll tinker however I want!”
My 2002 movie review was right on, which has been something of a rarity for the early part of this re-review. I enjoyed the line about this Anakin needing a “timeout and a lolly.” I would probably lower my rating down to a C. I’d rather watch this or any of the prequels before 2019’s Rise of Skywalker, but that’s because I was more invested in those characters and their stories and thus far more disappointed in how Abrams handled his finale. Maybe that’s to its benefit, that the characters are so poorly written, and poorly acted, and the CGI action is so blandly imagined, that I’d rather watch Attack of the Clones and let my eyes glaze over.
Re-View Grade: C
Consider writer/director Robert Eggers’ bloody Viking revenge movie as a companion piece to 2021’s The Green Knight. Both movies take mythical, supernatural-aided tales of heroics and medieval masculinity and feed into the spectacle while also cleaving the legend to make way for a sense of humanity. We follow Amleth (Alexander Skatsgard) who is a displaced prince who has sworn to kill his treacherous uncle and rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman). It’s a tale so old that it inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though that play could have benefited from a climax involving two hulking naked men dueling to the death atop an exploding volcano. The Northman reminds me a lot of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, a movie I described back in the day as “an art film for jocks.” It’s immersive and impressive down to the exact detail, and it doesn’t shirk on the blood and combat. It’s also unmistakably the work of Eggers, a very precise and idiosyncratic indie director whose prior movies felt like stylistic dares. The camerawork is often long with single takes, making all the visual arrangements and coordination that much more impressive. It’s staggering that a studio provided Eggers with $90 million to go make his version of Conan the Barbarian. At a lugubrious 140 minutes, there’s enough sticky carnage to satiate fans of brutish medieval action movies, but I appreciated how Eggers keeps his story purposely streamlined and simplistic until a few keen reveals force the audience and protagonist to re-examine the assumptions and fleeting honor of vengeance in this harsh, unfair environment of men out-killing one another. It’s a movie that provides the red meat and then makes you question whether you might want to go vegan. There’s more that can be unpacked but I wish Eggers had cut back at points. This is a slow movie, which does contribute to its mood and atmosphere, but I also wish Eggers had gotten to some of his plot points with a bit more haste and vigor. The Northman is transporting and bold and also more than a bit bloated. You could laugh at some of its over-the-top machismo but I feel like Eggers is inviting criticism of that very machismo, so enjoy the movie on one level where it indulges all the Old World violence, and then enjoy it on another level where it subverts and castigates the same Old World violence. Or you could just watch for the glistening muscles, famous faces, bad accents, bad wigs, guttural score, and weird imagery.
Nate’s Grade: B
Not the train wreck the advertising made it seem, Morbius is merely a bland superhero retread that reminded me of the early 2000s superhero output like Daredevil and the Tim Story Fantastic Four. Having been delayed almost two years thanks to COVID-19, the film was released on April 1 for full unintended irony, and it’s a silly mess but also nothing worth getting too worked up over. Method actor extraordinaire Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) plays Dr. Michael Morbius who is suffering from a rare disease and finds a solution via a serum mixing vampire bat DNA but it has some consequences. He has super powers but needs to feast on blood every six hours and is dreading the point where he may not be able to resist the allure of feeding on humans. It’s a very Jekyll/Hyde concept, man trying to control his inner demons made literal, and once again we have a villain that essentially has the same powers as the hero. Matt Smith (Doctor Who) play’s Morbius’ childhood friend who also suffers from the same rare blood disease, but Dr. Morbius refused to share the cure because he explains it’s a “curse,” although maybe let the man suffering make that personal health choice. Bless you, Matt Smith, because you’re the only one having any fun with this movie, and that includes in the audience. Leto is actually fine though not much about the Morbius character is really imparted. The action sequences are erratic and the stylistic flourishes, like the “look at me” slow-mo ramps and the inexplicable wispy colorful smoke clouds trailing Morbius in action, hamper the ability to even discern what is happening onscreen. Maybe that’s on purpose after two years delay. The movie establishes a basic structure, series of goals, antagonist, and problems efficiently enough to make it to the end credits after 90 minutes. It’s just that we’ve come to expect better from our super hero cinema by now. As a disposable monster B-movie, Morbius is okay. It’s not recognizably campy, it’s not so-bad-it’s-good, it’s just a generic origin story/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde territory with a lot of dropped subplots and subpar CGI. I have my serious doubts about Sony’s plan to hatch solo movies for all these different Spider-Man villains, and the creakiness of this plan is even more evident with their contrived post-credit scenes trying to awkwardly establish their retinue of villains to confront Spider-Man. Does Morbius know who Spider-Man even is? Morbius the movie and character just feels too half-hearted for anyone to care.
Nate’s Grade: C
The first Doctor Strange is one of my favorite movies in the ever-expanding and incredibly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It was a visually audacious and imaginative sci-fi action movie that just had one standout set piece after another. The original director, Scott Derickson, departed over creative differences with the MCU brass, and having now seen Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I might have the same stark differences of opinion.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is still nursing his regret over his former flame, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who is now getting married to another man. During their wedding reception, Strange helps a young woman being chased by a giant one-eyed monster. America Chavez (Xochitil Gomez) is from another universe and has the power to open portals to other dimensions. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know how to control these powers and they only seem to activate when she’s reached a level of fear. Strange protects America Chavez from a malevolent force that wants to gain her unique power and open the multiverse for conquest.
It’s been almost ten years since Sam Raimi directed a movie and Multiverse of Madness is at its best when it feels most like a Raimi picture. The man’s beginnings in low-budget horror comedy are still evident, and it’s that campy combination that entertained me the most in Multiverse of Madness. There are some creepy, goofy moments that definitely reminded me of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. If you’re not a fan of these heightened levels of horror that incorporate slapstick and camp, then you might roll your eyes and find these moments to be too goofy for the MCU. As much attention as this movie has gotten for being darker, which is a tad overblown, it’s also one of the goofier Marvel movies. The MCU has a relatively breezy, wiseacre sense of humor that can occasionally undercut some of its more serious or sentimental moments of drama, but with Multiverse of Madness, Raimi is inviting the audience to laugh and cringe in equal measure. A horror sequence where reflections are a vulnerable point has both laughs and creeps. It’s a different kind of tone for a Marvel movie, which propelled my entertainment level when it occurred. Raimi getting to play once again in the superhero sandbox and still retain his signature style and impulses, which is exactly what I would want from this man as a blockbuster filmmaker. I loved the match cuts of Wanda experiencing two different universes in one smooth camera move. I cackled when Doctor Strange took his final form for the finale, and how ridiculous it looked, and that screenwriter Michael Waldron (creator of Loki) set it up with Chekov’s corpse.
For a movie with “multiverse” in its title, we don’t really get much of an exploration of the alternate universes. The concept of a multiverse is mostly kept at a thematic level and as a delivery system for wishes. The villain views the prospect of a multiverse as their means of fulfilling a vision of their life that is unrealized in their present reality. Strange thinks of an alternate version of himself where he got the girl. Beyond these reflections, that’s really about it. We jump to about two alternate realms and the only real exploration we have is that, hey, in this version of the universe people walk on red lights. It’s a bit trifling considering that there are endless imaginative possibilities, some of which are showcased during some stylish visual transition sequences crashing through different realms. It feels far too small for a concept with boundless possibility. Strange was already in another multiverse movie six months earlier with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. That movie also explored the idea of second chances, redemption, and sacrifice but far better. For a better multiverse movie that really lets loose on the wild possibilities of alternate realities, as well as grounding the feats of imagination in relatable human drama enriched by its theme, see the amazing Everything Everywhere All At Once.
I’m not just disappointed because the movie doesn’t take full advantage of its plot possibility, it’s because what it settles for is so much more predictable and disposable as fan service. This current phase of the MCU is setting up a dilemma of multiverse proportions, so things are getting very expansive and their slate of Disney Plus TV series are becoming more incorporated into the direction they’re heading. The danger starts to become whether the entire process is becoming more and more specialized, insular, and directed for the most hardcore of hardcore fans, and whether or not such a heavy undertaking, across platforms and franchises, can be done well. Marvel has earned some faith from me with how they’ve handled their interconnected franchises and film universe, but my main complaint with 2010’s Iron Man 2 and 2015’s Age of Ultron was that they were spread too thin trying to set up other movies and offshoot franchises, so this still remains a danger. As the MCU gets more and more successful, and integrates more characters, this is always a risk, the balancing of the spinning plates, making the movies their own but fitting into a larger whole. With Multiverse of Madness, it feels like the mighty gears of the Marvel machine are a little too forceful and crushing for this endeavor. This doesn’t feel like an essential next chapter in Doctor Strange’s ongoing cinematic journey. The first film was already about him regretting what his life could have been, an expert surgeon, and learning to accept his new role as a sorcerer and ultimately sacrificing his ego and old sense of self. We’re running through the same motions this time but instead of lamenting he could have been a great surgeon he’s lamenting he could have gotten the girl. It’s again coming to terms with his personal regrets.
The other notable aspect of the multiverse is the inclusion of fun but diverting cameos that don’t so much as serve this story as provide winks and nods of what is down the line. I won’t spoil who shows up in the middle portion of the movie but there are a few alternate version characters and a few characters that have yet to be fully integrated in the MCU, meaning these early appearances also serve as confirmation of the intention to bring these characters, stories, and worlds into the ever-expanding reach of their storytelling. This sequence is best as throwaway fun and has some neat visual moments including a disturbing death played for effective gallows humor. Ultimately though, it’s meaningless because it’s one other universe of characters who only serve as reflections of the past and coming attractions for the future. Even the mid-credits sequence is just more of this (and it’s becoming a trend). It’s disposable fan service and no more meaningful than serving as a tacit promise of what’s to come.
But the biggest problem I have with Multiverse of Madness is also its biggest storyline, which concerns a certain character making a big villainous turn and becoming the primary antagonist. I was getting a lot of Game of Thrones season 8 vibes from this plotting insofar as the end result is not out of the question but it sure feels like we skipped a lot of necessary stops along the way. I won’t be able to go into greater detail without delving into spoilers, so dear reader now is the time to skip to the last paragraph if you wish to remain pure. I like the concept of a friend becoming a foe because we already have an investment in that relationship and therefore there’s more at stake with the fights and possible consequences. That’s the kind of drama that lends itself to heartache and tragedy. When it feels forced, that’s a tragedy of characterization.
I have to imagine that fans of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch are going to be let down from this movie’s calamitous turn of events. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the character prior to the WandaVision TV series, which I also found to be pastiche that wore thin before finally settling on what the show’s core would examine, the messy process of one woman dealing with her powerful grief. I liked that they didn’t excuse Wanda’s misdeeds, namely holding an entire town of people hostage to her reality-bending whims. However, by the end, the show had her come to terms with letting go of Vision and her fake life with him she had manifested. To then have her next film appearance revolve around her universe-destroying mission to get her fake kids back doesn’t just feel like backtracking, it feels like we’ve erased the character journey and growth from her TV series. If you hadn’t watched the series, then this villainous turn would feel especially jarring. The whole “You’re a monster’/”No, I’m a mother” hysterical villain lady is tiresome. This is why I was making the Game of Thrones season 8 comparisons. It’s cool to see Wanda fully unleashed and how formidable she can be, but it’s at the expense of wiping out her character’s growth for a single-minded crazy momma. It’s reductive. If she can assume the life of her multiverse self, why not just do that? Also, what’s the great urgency? Wanda wants to kill America Chavez and absorb her power so she can jump through multiverses. Why can’t she just wait a matter of months to allow America to learn how best to control her powers? The movie never explains why the villain can’t just work with her magic MacGuffin rather than kill her. And then it all comes to Wanda realizing, “Oh no, what have I become?” and allowing herself to die as penance for the hundreds if not thousands she has killed over the multiverses. It’s all just a rather dispiriting development and questionable end for a character that I feel deserved better.
Walking away from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I feel like there’s a better movie buried under everything (everywhere all at once). This movie was originally supposed to come out before Spider-Man: No Way Home, and America Chavez was the original reason for Spider-Man’s multiverse dilemma, but it was delayed because of COVID. Raimi has gone on record that they figured out the plot of the movie while filming and conceived of the ending halfway through the film shoot. That’s not a great place to be for creativity, but then again, neither is being the twenty-eighth film in an ongoing interconnected chain of franchises. I won’t harp on that too much because plenty other MCU movies have excelled under such conditions and requirements, but every now and then one of Marvel’s movies just feels like a sacrificial offering to the greater altar of the MCU’s need to keep progressing with its multiple projects. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t a good Doctor Strange sequel, it isn’t a good multiverse movie, and it could have even used a little more madness, as those were my favorite moments, excluding the sharp villainous turn. I’d consider this film in the bottom tier of the MCU, among the likes of Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron, other similar altar offerings.
Nate’s Grade: C+