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Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is, surprisingly, genuinely great. No kidding. It’s very very good. It’s been eleven years since the first Puss in Boots spinoff, and that itself was seven years after the character was introduced in 2004’s Shrek 2, and there hasn’t been a Shrek movie since the franchise-killing Forever After in 2010. I would have assumed that Dreamworks had just moved on from this character in the ensuing years, especially as How to Train Your Dragon became their big new commercial franchise, until they too ran that into the ground with 2019’s disappointing third film. I had little expectations of greatness once I heard there was a new Puss in Boots feature, even after I started hearing the growing critical consensus. Early in, only mere minutes, I realized that a Puss in Boots sequel was one of the best movies of 2022 and an exciting and heartfelt sequel that proves that with the right artists and storytellers, any old character can still have vibrant relevance. It’s a children’s movie that can appeal to everyone.

Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) is a famous adventurer, sword fighter, and lover of women, but he’s also nearing the end of a long journey. He’s used up his eight lives and is now on his ninth and last, and to escape Death, he sets out on a quest to retrieve a fallen star that will grant one person a wish. It just so happens there are a lot of other characters in this fairy tale kingdom that want to get there too.

It is amazing how hard this movie goes. In its opening sequence, it establishes its bold artistic style that enlivens every second onscreen, it establishes its caliber of exciting action that feels akin to wild comic books and anime, and an emphasis on mortality that provides a sense of danger and emotional foundation for what could have been just another shoddy animated sequel drafting off brand recognition. Let’s just focus on the animation style to begin with. I was expecting the same old CGI that has dominated the world of animation for twenty years, but The Last Wish has been clearly inspired by the greatness of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse. There is a distinct 2D edge given to the designs, accenting the imagery, and during bouts of action they will lower the frame frate, making the movements much more stark and pronounced. Add to this a lovely, painterly watercolor visual style, more emphasis on the overall impression than finite definition, and the movie is a consistent feast for the eyes. There are stylized sequences that communicate fear and desperation, as well as sequences that exemplify the kinetic movement of superhuman action, smartly altering its visual appearance to better serve whatever emotion it wants you to feel. I hope more and more animation companies continue this magical hybrid of CGI and traditional animation techniques, as also seen in 2021’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines. It’s a great step forward combining the old and the new into a stylized look that allows the creators to make the best of both animation worlds.

The action is also satisfying and surprisingly well developed. The opening sequence involves Puss awakening a giant behemoth and it made me think of the exaggerated and intense action of anime series with giant kaiju monsters like in Attack on Titan. The camera will freely circle and zoom around the theater of action, heightened with exaggerated motion lines and split screens and POV swaps. I also love that the filmmakers understand the inherent qualities of what makes for good action, incorporating the personality of the characters into the situations, providing organic consequences, tailoring to the geography, and providing clear mini-goals. After introducing the secondary antagonist of greedy Jack Horner (John Mulaney), as well as Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Coleman, Samson Kayo) “crimin’” gang, the movie transforms into a delightful and unexpected fantasy version of Midnight Run. There are multiple groups racing against one another to a destination, all the while jostling for supremacy and bumbling into one another’s way. It makes for a fun series of events as every group has their own reasons for gaining the wishing star. Because of this, their behavior feels in-character and the cross-purpose motivation allows for fun combinations of characters getting in the way of one another and utilizing the specifics of their fantasy character details. There was a midpoint sequence combining all sides in a colorful brawl, including unicorn horns exploding into confetti upon contact, and I just felt a surge of pure incandescent joy.

In yet another of the movie’s pleasant surprises, it has one of the best villains of the year as it deals with the concept of mortality with actual nuance. The main antagonist is literally Death itself, personified as a red-eyed, grinning bounty hunter wolf and voiced by Narcos’ Pablo Escobar, Wagner Moura with a menacing purr. This Wolf is after Puss because he’s now on his last life and the Wolf is personally offended at the idea of having multiple lives. Their first encounter makes Puss feel fear for perhaps the first time in his nine lives. In a morbidly amusing montage, we zip through Puss’ previous eight lives and specifically the moments leading to their comical end. He’s flippant with an unchecked ego, and Death seriously humbles him, being the first to ever land a blade on Puss in Boots, a detail he’d been bragging about even in song. From here, Puss is deathly afraid and the hairs of his body will stick up whenever he suspects the return of the Wolf, who certainly enjoys terrorizing his targets with an ominous whistle to announce his presence. So at a moment’s notice, the crazy and colorful hijinks can stop from hearing that familiar yet eerie whistle. In some ways, it’s a family-friendly depiction of working through trauma. The larger theme is Puss acknowledging his moral shortcomings with his many lives, the time wasted on frivolity and ego, and making the most of the time he has left. The need to re-up his lives is a fine starting motivation based upon fear, personified as trying to literally escape the scary wolf, but it’s also what makes Puss confront his own behavior and want to change as well as hold himself accountable.

The heartfelt portion of the movie is its emphasis on found families, and it was done so well that I actually teared up at points. Yes, dear reader, Puss in Boots 2 had me on the verge of tears more than once. Goldilocks is the leader of her gang of squabbling thieves, but she still views herself as an orphan first, whereas the bears view her as an equal and valued member of the family and crime gang. Even her character arc comes to a poignant conclusion where she realizes that her real family isn’t the one she comes from but the one who makes her feel that she belongs. This theme is also demonstrated with little Perrito (Harvey Guillen, What We Do in the Shadows TV series) as the adorable and undying optimist puppy sidekick. His selfless vantage point contrasts with Puss, and greatly annoys him, but Perrito also has his own goal. He wants to be a comfort dog, and one of the sweetest moments of the movie involves him helping Puss come back from a traumatic response through a shared moment. Even typing these words makes me tear up. The screenplay knows how to develop characters that can grow as friends and family and the drama is directly connected to well-honed characters and thoughtful story without being overly sentimental and maudlin, a slippery slope to doom many child-friendly animated efforts with messages.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish does everything well. It’s funny and colorful and exciting and meaningful and heartfelt and everything you would want in any movie, let alone one featuring a talking cat swashbuckler in tiny boots. No matter your mixed feelings on Dreamworks animated movies, or their iffy sequels, or even children’s movies as a whole, I whole-heartedly recommend that everyone give this magical movie a fighting chance. The animation is gorgeous and vibrant and colorful, the vocal performances are terrific, the action is fun and well-developed, and the themes and character arcs have substance to provide meaningful layers and emotional heft. This is superior entertainment and all in about 90-some minutes. While I’d slot it below Guillermo del Toro’s masterful stop-motion Pinocchio, this is a wonderful movie and one of the best to ever bear the Dreamworks mantle. It’s the 2022 sequel you never knew that you needed but will be oh so happy that it rightly does.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The King’s Daughter (2022)

Originally filmed in 2014, The King’s Daughter is a curiosity as it’s been on the shelf for almost eight years. As another critic quipped, in the ensuring years, star Kaya Scodelario has been in an entire trilogy of Maze Runner movies. I don’t know what this Chinese-by-way-of-French production was going for as we follow the court of King Louis XIV, played by Pierce Brosnan in an astounding array of outlandishly bad costumes and terrible wigs. He resembles a Vegas magician set back in time. Anyway, he calls to court the young Marie-Josephine (Scodelario) who has been raised by nuns since she was dropped off as a baby. If you can’t already see where this is going, then I can’t help you. But wait because there’s also a mermaid (Bingbing Fan, who in the years since this movie possibly served time in China’s prison for tax evasion) in the basement being held captive because Louis thinks eating her heart will be the key to him becoming immortal. So, yeah, what is this? It’s striving for a fairy tale/storybook sort of feeling but it’s a plot that will only work with the youngest of children. The characters are simplistic and boring, and once the mermaid is introduced it becomes like a costume drama version of Free Willy. Even with being on the shelf for eight years, the finished film still feels rushed, and the special effects for the mute mermaid are a colorful mess. Fun fact #1: the director is responsible for 4 Baby Genius sequels. Fun fact #2: this will be the late William Hurt’s last movie to his career. The King’s Daughter is a movie that makes you ask, “What were they thinking?” quite a lot, and the best decision was to withhold it from mass viewing for eight years.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)/ Pinocchio (2022)

It seems 2022 has unexpectedly become the year of Pinocchio. The 1883 fantasy novel by Carlo Collodui (1826-1890) is best known via the classic Walt Disney animated movie, the second ever for the company, and it was Disney that released a live-action remake earlier in the year on their streaming service. Now widely available on Netflix is Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio, so I wanted to review both films together but I was also presented with a unique circumstance. Both of these movies were adaptations of the same story, so the comparison is more direct, and I’ve decided to take a few cues from sports writing and break down the movies in a head-to-head competitive battle to see which has the edge in a series of five categories. Which fantastical story about a little puppet yearning to be a real boy will prove superior?

    1. VISUAL PRESENTATION

The Netflix Pinocchio is a lovingly realized stop-motion marvel. It’s del Toro’s first animated movie and his style translates easily to this hand-crafted realm. There is something special about stop-motion animation for me; I love the tactile nature of it all, the knowledge that everything I’m watching is pain-stakingly crafted by artisans, and it just increases my appreciation. I fully acknowledge that any animated movie is the work of thousands of hours of labor and love, but there’s something about stop-motion animation that I just experience more viscerally. The level of detail in the Netflix Pinocchio is astounding. There is dirt under Geppetto’s fingernails, red around the eyes after crying, the folds and rolls of fabric, and the textures feel like you can walk up to the screen and run your fingers over their surfaces. I loved the character designs, their clean simplicity but able readability, especially the sister creatures of life and death with peacock feather wings, and the animation underwater made me question how they did what they did. del Toro’s imagination is not limited from animation but expanded, and there are adept camera movements that require even more arduous work to achieve and they do. I loved the life each character has, the fluidity of their movements, that they even animated characters making mistakes or losing their balance or acting so recognizably human and sprightly. There’s a depth of life here plus an added meta-textual layer about puppets telling the story about a puppet who was given life.

In contrast, the Disney live-action Pinocchio is harsh on the eyes. It’s another CGI smorgasbord from writer/director Robert Zemeckis akin to his mo-cap semi-animated movies from the 2000s. The brightness levels of the outside world are blastingly white, and it eliminates so much of the detail of the landscapes. When watching actors interact, it never overcomes the reality of it being a big empty set. The CGI can also be alarming with the recreation of the many animal sidekicks of the 1940 original. Why did Zemeckis make the pet goldfish look sultry? Why did they make Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) look like a Brussel sprout come to life? It might not be the dead-eyed nightmare fuel of 2004’s The Polar Express, but the visual landscape of the movie is bleached and overdone, making everything feel overly fake or overly muddy and glum. The fact that this movie looks like this with a $150 million budget is disheartening but maybe inevitable. I suppose Zemeckis had no choice but to replicate the Pinocchio character design from 1940, but it looks remarkably out of step and just worse. When we have the 1940 original to compare to, everything in the 2022 remake looks garish or ugly or just wrong. The expressiveness of the hand-drawn animation is replaced with creepy-looking CGI animal-human hybrids.

Edge: Netflix Pinocchio

       2. FATHER/SON CHARACTERIZATION

The relationship between Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) and Geppetto (David Bradley) is the heart of the Netflix Pinocchio, and I don’t mind sharing that it brought me to tears a couple of times. As much as the movie is about a young boy learning about the world, it’s also about the love of a father for a child. The opening ten minutes establish Geppetto’s tragedy with such surefooted efficiency that it reminded me of the early gut punch that was 2009’s Up. This Geppetto is constantly reminded of his loss and, during a drunken fit, he carved a replacement child that happens to come to life. This boy is very different from his last, and there is a great learning curve for both father and son about relating to one another. This is the heart of the movie, one I’ll discuss more in another section. With del Toro’s version, Geppetto is a wounded and hurting man, one where every decision is connected to character. This Pinocchio is a far more entertaining creature, a child of explosive energy, curiosity, and spitefulness. He feels like an excitable newborn exploring the way of the world. He’s so enthusiastic so quickly (“Work? I love work, papa!” “I love it, I love it!… What is it?”) that his wonder can become infectious. This Pinocchio also cannot die, and each time he comes back to life he must wait longer in a netherworld plane. It provides even more for Pinocchio to understand about loss and being human. This is a funny, whimsical, but also deftly emotive Pinocchio. He points to a crucifix and asks why everyone likes that wooden man but not him. He is an outsider learning about human emotions and morals and it’s more meaningful because of the character investment.

In contrast, the Disney live-action Pinocchio treats its title character as a simpleton. The problem with a story about a child who breaks rules and learns lessons by dealing with the consequences of his actions is if you have a character that makes no mistakes then their suffering feels cruel. This Pinocchio is simply a sweet-natured wannabe performer. He means well but he doesn’t even lie until a sequence requires him to lie to successfully escape his imprisonment. The relationship with Geppetto (Tom Hanks) is strange. This kindly woodcarver is a widower who also has buried a son, but he comes across like a doddering old man who is quick to make dad jokes to nobody (I guess to his CGI cat and goldfish and multitude of Disney-tie-in cuckoo clocks). I don’t know what Hanks is doing with this daffy performance. It feels like Geppetto lost his mind and became stir crazy and this performance is the man pleading for help from the town, from the audience, from Zemeckis. It’s perplexing and it kept me from seeing this man as an actual character. He bounces from catalyst to late damsel in distress needing saving. The relationship between father and son lacks the warmth of the Netflix version. Yet again, the live-action Pinocchio is a pale imitation of its cartoon origins with either main character failing to be fleshed out or made new.

Edge: Netflix Pinocchio

       3. THEMES

There are a few key themes that emerge over the near two-hours of the Netflix Pinocchio, which is the longest stop-motion animated film ever. Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) repeats that he “tried his best and that’s the best anyone can do,” and the parallelism makes it sound smarter than it actually is. The actual theme revolves around acceptance and the burdens of love. Geppetto cannot fully accept Pinocchio because he’s constantly comparing him to Carlo. When he can fully accept Pinocchio for who he is, the weird little kid with the big heart and unique perspective, is when he can finally begin to heal over the wound of his grief over Carlo, allowing himself to be vulnerable again and to accept his unexpected new family on their own terms. There’s plenty of available extra applications here to historically marginalized groups, and del Toro is an avowed fan of freaks and outcasts getting their due and thumbing their nose at the hypocritical moral authorities. By setting his story in 1930s Italy under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, del Toro underlines his themes of monsters and scapegoats and moral hypocrites even better, and the change of scenery really enlivens the familiar story with extra depth and resonance. All these different people want something out of Pinocchio that he is not. Geppetto wants him to strip away his individuality and be his old son. Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) wants Pinocchio to be his dancing minion and secure him fame and fortune. Podesta (Ron Perlman) wants Pinocchio as the state’s ultimate soldier, a boy who cannot die and always comes back fighting. When Pinocchio is recruited to train for war with the other young boys to better serve the fatherland’s nationalistic aims, it’s a far more affecting and unsettling experience than Pleasure Island, which is removed from this version. In the end, the movie also becomes a funny and touching exploration of mortality from a magic little child. The Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), this version of the Blue Fairy, says she only wanted to grant Geppetto joy. “But you did,” he says. “Terrible, terrible joy.” The fleeting nature of life, as well as its mixture of pain and elation, is an ongoing theme that isn’t revelatory but still feels impressively restated.

I don’t know what theme the Disney live-action movie has beyond its identity as a product launch. I suppose several years into the Disney live-action assembly line I shouldn’t be surprised that these movies are generally listless, inferior repetitions made to reignite old company IP. For a story about the gift of life, the Disney Pinocchio feels so utterly lifeless. I thought the little wooden boy was meant to learn rights and wrongs but the movie doesn’t allow Pinocchio to err. He’s an innocent simpleton who gets taken advantage of and dragged from encounter to encounter like a lost child. The Pleasure Island sequence has been tamed from the 1940s; children are no longer drinking beer or smoking cigars. They’re gathered to a carnival and then given root beer and told to break items and then punished for this entrapment. The grief Geppetto feels for his deceased loved ones is played out like a barely conceived backstory. He’s just yukking it up like nothing really matters. By the end, when he’s begging for Pinocchio to come back to life, you wonder why he cares. If you were being quite generous, you might be able to uncover themes of acceptance and understanding, but they’re so poorly developed and utilized. That stuff gets in the way of Pinocchio staring at a big pile of horse excrement on the street, which if you needed a summative visual metaphor for the adaptation, there it is.

Edge: Netflix Pinocchio

      4. EMOTIONAL STAKES

One of these movies made me cry. The other one made me sigh in exasperation. The Netflix Pinocchio nails the characterization in a way that is universal and accessible while staying true to its roots, whereas the Disney live-action film feels like a crudely packaged remake on the assembly line of soulless live-action Disney remakes. By securing my investment early with Geppetto’s loss, I found more to relish in the layers of his relationship with Pinocchio. In trying to teach him about the world, Geppetto is relying upon what he started with his past son, and there are intriguing echoes that lead to a spiritual examination. Pinocchio is made from the tree from the pinecone that Carlo chased that lead to his death. Pinocchio hums the tune that Geppetto sang to Carlo. Is there something more here? When he visits Death for the first time, the winged creature remarks, “I feel as though you’ve been here before.” These little questions and ambiguity make the movie much more rewarding, as does del Toro’s ability to supply character arcs for every supporting player. Even the monkey sidekick of the villain gets their own character arc. Another boy desperately desires his stern father’s approval, and he’s presented as a parallel for Pinocchio, another son trying to measure up to his father’s demands. Even this kid gets meaningful character moments and an arc. With this story, nobody gets left behind when it comes to thoughtful and meaningful characterization. It makes the movie much more heartwarming and engaging, and by the end, as we get our poignant coda jumping forward in time and serving as multiple curtain calls for our many characters, I was definitely shedding a flurry of tears. Hearing Geppetto bawl, “I need you… my boy,” to the lifeless body of Pinocchio still breaks me. Under del Toro’s compassionate lens, everyone is deserving of kindness.

As should be expected by now, the Disney live-action movie is lackluster at best when it comes to any kind of emotional investment. The characters stay as archetypes but they haven’t been personalized, so they merely remain as grubby facsimiles to what we recall from the 1940 version. Jiminy Cricket is meant as Pinocchio’s conscience but he vacillates from being a nag to being a smart aleck who even breaks the fourth wall to argue with his own narration. I hated every time he called the main character “Pee-noke” and he did it quite often. He’s far more annoying than endearing. There’s also a wise-cracking seagull that is just awful. The Honest John (Keegan Michael-Key) character is obnoxious, and in a world with a talking fox who dresses in human clothing, why would a “living puppet” be such a draw? He even has a joke about Pinocchio being an “influencer.” The only addition I liked was a coworker in Stromboli’s traveling circus, a former ballerina who injured herself and now gets to live out her dancing dreams by operating a marionette puppet. However, the movie treats the puppet like it’s a living peer to Pinocchio and talks directly to the puppet rather than the human operating the puppet, and the camera treats her like she’s the brains too. Safe to say, by the end when Pinocchio magically revives for whatever reason, just as he magically reverted from being a donkey boy, I was left coldly indifferent and more so just relieved that the movie was finally over.

Edge: Netflix Pinocchio

       5. MUSIC

This was one area where I would have assumed the Disney live-action film had an advantage. Its signature banger, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” became the de facto Disney theme song and plays over the opening title card for the company. It’s still a sweet song, and Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) is the best part of the movie as the Blue Fairy. It’s a shame she only appears once, which is kind of negligent considering she sets everything in motion. The Netflix Pinocchio is also a musical and the songs by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water) are slight and low-key, easy to dismiss upon first listen. However, the second time I watched the movie, the simplicity as a leitmotif really stood out, and I noticed the melody was the foundation for most other songs, which created an intriguing interconnected comparison. While nothing in the Netflix Pinocchio comes close to being the instantly humable classic of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the songs are more thoughtful and emotionally felt and not just repeating the hits of yore, so in the closest of categories, I’m going to say that Netflix’s Pinocchio wins by a nose (pun intended).

Edge: Netflix Pinocchio

       CONCLUSIONS

One of these Pinocchio movies is a visual marvel, heartfelt and moving, wondrous, and one of the best films of 2022. The other is a hollow vessel for corporate profit that copies the imprint of the 1940 animated film but only more frantic, scatalogical, and confused. In the year of our lord Pinocchio Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, there is only one movie you should see, and at this point ever see as it concerns this old tale. Guillermo del Toro has harnessed magic, and we are all the better for his bayonet imagination and enormous heart for his fellow outsiders.

Nate’s Grades:
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio: A
2022 Pinocchio: C-

Bullet Train (2022)/ The Princess (2022)

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.

Nate’s Grade’s:

Bullet Train: B

The Princess: B

Lightyear (2022)/ Luck (2022)

After two years and three movies sent straight to Disney’s burgeoning streaming service, Pixar returns with a theatrical movie that taps back to the very beginnings of this storied storytelling company. We’re told, via opening text, that Lightyear was Andy’s favorite movie and thus the reason he was so excited to bring home a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first Toy Story. However, if this is Andy’s “favorite movie,” then this kid needs to be exposed to more movies. It’s an acceptable sci-fi story about Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) learning the value of others and that being vulnerable is not the same as being weak. He’s a space ranger stranded on an alien world. Every time he attempts to restart their fuel system, it jumps him forward in time four years, and soon enough he’s a man out of time and those stranded have built a colony civilization over 100 years. There’s a band of misfits, who aren’t terribly funny, and some laser fights and action sequences, which aren’t terribly exciting, and the third act twist is predictable. The animation is top-notch, but the storytelling is definitely a few notches below infinity and beyond. What astounds me is that Andy could watch this movie and want a Buzz toy instead of the real breakout, the robotic cat Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn) who is wonderfully droll. I cannot fathom anyone watching this movie and desiring owning another character above this delightful supporting character. This movie makes me think a little less of Andy as a discerning arbiter of pop-culture zeitgeist. Lightyear is fine as escapist entertainment but too facile and inessential to the Toy Story universe.

Luck is the first animated feature from Skydance, a production company that entered the animated realm by hiring former Pixar head John Lasseter as their chief creative executive. In some ways, Luck feels reminiscent of early Pixar movies, exploring the “secret life of” those in charge of dictating the forces of luck. The problem with Luck is that it is overwritten and overburdened with world building that crushes the emotional core. We follow a young woman aging out of the foster system and she’s been besieged with bad luck all her life. She follows a talking cat and discovers a hidden world where workers mine luck crystals and have lucky pennies as portal generators and there’s a dragon, for some reason, as the CEO of Good Luck, and to get back home she needs to team up with the cat to find a thing, but to find that thing they need to go to a place, but to go to that place they need to – and you get it. The plot is overworked with a chain of tasks that explain more of this world’s mechanics without connecting to the emotional journey of the character, like in 2015’s Inside Out. I was amazed that this woman lacks even a shred of bitterness about her own trenchant bad luck. There’s a nice message about accepting the bad with the good in life, and how both are opportunities for growth, but I kept wondering why our hero didn’t once lash out at those responsible. I’m also a little hesitant about using whether a little girl will be stood up by her potential new foster family as the stakes of completing the good luck reset goal. That seems pretty heavy for wackiness. The animation isn’t quite at the level of Pixar, or the best of Dreamworks, but it’s colorful and bright even if lacking more advanced lighting and texture. Luck lacks enough gravitas and development to really appeal to adults but it’s also probably too busy and convoluted to entertain small kids.

Nate’s Grades:

Lightyear: B-

Luck: C+

A Story for Winter (2021)

Writer/director Nathan Weidner is a local teacher at Canal Winchester schools where he teaches video production and French. The 54-year-old has made two other movies before, both of which available on YouTube, but it’s clear that A Story for Winter is his passion project. The man wrote the first draft in 2009 and was rewriting it for over a decade. It’s inspired upon his own real-life family tragedy. Weidner’s daughter Meah was born in 1988 with cerebral palsy. She was non-verbal and Weidner said he always wondered what she could be imagining. The movie’s end is even dedicated to her with archival footage. Sadly, Meah was taken tragically when her mother’s new boyfriend shook her too violently (he is now serving a life sentence). In the summer of 2021, Weidner gathered former high school students, a budget of $3000, and his iPhone 12, and over the course of 15 August days he made his movie. Weidner was the photographer, editor, producer, and even wrote and performed a mournful song in the movie. A Story for Winter is currently available on Amazon and is a clear labor for love for Weidner and everyone involved wanting to see this through. Their intentions are pure and lovely. I wish the final movie was a bit more focused to better tap into its accessible emotions.

Dr. Owen Hughes (Adam Ashton Scott) is the new small-town Ohio doctor after his 80-year-old predecessor kicks the bucket. He’s chaffing under adapting to the new position, and he insists he will not see children for medical consultation. He freaks out when his newly eloped wife, Connie (Allison Kuck), even suggests they could have a child. His chilly stance begins to soften when he meets Winter (Chloe Gardner), an ailing child in town with cerebral palsy who was abandoned by her drug-addict parents. She’s being taken care of by the kindly Cora Preston (Cynthia Smith) who has opened her home to many foster children, most of whom have some form of special needs. She recognizes that Winter will not be long for this world but that doesn’t mean the life she has remaining cannot still have its rewards. As her condition worsens, Dr. Hughes opens himself up by telling allegorical fantasy stories to Winter about his own troubled family history.

The first thing you have to acknowledge with A Story for Winter are its technical and professional limitations. It’s unfair to complain too much about obvious limitations of time and budget. You’ll notice that there is very little editing coverage or camera movement in the movie. Until the late narration-heavy fantasies, just about every shot is stationary. Characters will often talk directly in front of one another and the edits primarily feature a shot-reverse shot rhythm that feels born out of necessity than creative vision. The excuse of the newly moved couple explains the sparse nature of the home furnishings. However, there are some budgetary choices that made me scratch my head that could have been avoided. The setting is around Christmas to slot the movie as one of those feel-good holiday movies, a thriving industry unto itself. There are some references to Christmas as a theme of giving and blessings but it’s more a superficial connection, so I think the story could have stood on its own minus the holly jolly. Regardless, it’s a snowy Christmas season that keeps several characters housebound. Considering the budget and that it was filmed in the summer, I would avoid anything that would give away the unreality of the season. This movie disagrees. We see obvious green screen shots of Dr. Hughes driving in the snow. Even more befuddling, there is a plurality of exterior shots of the home except it has been rendered as a completely CGI model. It is not subtle. I kept wondering why even bother with these shots. Does it make the movie more seasonal? If so, why not use affordable stock footage or, failing that, wait until actual winter in Ohio and record thirty seconds of an establishing exterior shot of the same house but now with real snow? So even with being considerate to the limitations at hand, there are creative decisions that seem iffy.

I think many fans of sweet Hallmark movies will find A Story for Winter to be heartwarming and be inspired from its message. Characters talk about the value of human life as well as the prospect of human suffering in familiar Christian terminology. I’ve never been a big fan of “this person exists to teach you how to be a better person” as a plot device, but I can understand and sympathize with the human impulse to find larger meaning in personal tragedy. However, where the movie feels more complete, for me, on a message front is that even those who have limited times on this planet are still of value and our compassion. I’m reminded of 2016’s Arrival that hinged on a twist ending that the (six-year-old spoilers ahead) flashbacks were actually flash-forwards, and Amy Adams wasn’t mourning a past daughter but knew ahead of time that her eventual daughter would tragically die at a young age, and yet she chose to have her. For that review, I wrote, “Knowing what is to come means that a child was brought into existence to die sadly as a teenager and will suffer, but she will also live and love and laugh for many days beforehand, and knowing the end provides a lens that incentivizes every moment spent together. Yes, she will die eventually but any one of us could be snatched from the world at any moment. At least she got to know love and life for so many years before it was taken away from her.” I thought it was very nice when the movie gives Winter her voice, granted it’s through dream sequences, which means it’s Dr. Hughes’ conception of what that voice could be. I wish the movie had given her more time to express herself rather than utilize her as the key to getting Dr. Hughes to finally reveal his own family drama, though also through the lens of fantasy.

My emotional investment was stalled because of two main factors: Dr. Hughes being a jerk and having far, far too many underdeveloped subplots competing for attention. Our protagonist is a prickly person, immediately dismissive and practically disdainful of his medical practice coworkers. He’s also a jerk to his wife and makes a snide comment whenever he feels she could have been doing more to settle their home. He keeps complaining about eating on disposable plates or Styrofoam containers. Hey, buddy, you can put dishes away too. They are recently married, eloped after a year of dating, and Connie’s extended family is not too happy about it. What better way to assure her than have her marital partner is the right person for her with him being a mean jerk? He’s also actively hiding his past and hastily establishes a cover story for not explaining to her that the town sheriff (Bryce Millikin) is his “uncle.” This should all be red flags to his wife, and how he treats her makes me dislike this man even more. For half of the movie, Dr. Hughes is a jerk, and then after the hour mark, he just spills his own personal history. There are short flashback clips peppered throughout of a young Owen with his distraught, inebriated, irritable mother and his younger sister suffering from an incurable illness. It’s enough to establish why a child with a terminal ailment would affect him so, never mind just general empathy. Now, beginning with a grumpy character and watching them transform is nothing new to storytelling. Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t exactly a nice guy either, although we got glimpses of his past self so we knew there was a core of decency that could possibly return.

The movie cannot be a character study of Dr. Hughes finding his way back from his grief and grievance. The character doesn’t have enough dimension to him because the movie is divided with so many subplots. Namely, in our 100 minutes of movie, we have: 1) fitting into a new town and sliding into the shoes of a beloved predecessor, 2) being newlyweds with his wife and the strain of their marriage, 3) caring for Winter and opening up to her, 4) the many lives of Aubrey House, 5) Connie’s family unexpectedly coming over for a Christmas gathering, 6) Dr. Hughes explaining Winter’s past through a fantasy allegory, 7) Dr. Hughes communicating with Winter through his lucid dreams, 8) Dr. Hughes sharing his own family tragedy through a fantasy allegory, and 9) Dr. Hughes coming to terms with his relationship with his mother and forgiving her. There are more aspects to each of these, and some are more prominent than others, but that’s A Story for Winter. It’s easy to see the connected tracks but the narrative could have benefited with some careful pruning to better emphasize its most essential moments.

I don’t think much is added by keeping Connie in the dark about her husband’s past. You can still dole out the truth over time, saving the full picture for the end of your movie. It’s not like she’s seriously second-guessing her marriage, or at least we are not given a scene that expresses this doubt. I also think little is gained through the first allegorical vehicle, using the realm of children’s fantasy to explain Winter’s own past to her. The character of Winter, again through the lens of Dr. Hughes’ subconscious mind, doesn’t seem too concerned about coming to terms with her own family’s faults. Perhaps she’s meant as the starter vehicle for Dr. Hughes to then come to terms, but why go through this process twice? Revealing Dr. Hughes’ backstory is also not a mystery that I was too desperate to uncover. The movie seems to think delaying the full information will provide more dramatic catharsis, but I’m not as certain. I think uncovering Winter’s past, then dealing with it through allegory, then doing the same with Dr. Hughes, is just making things too busy. Especially when Connie, her family, and everyone else is put on literal hold during these lengthy fantasy interludes, freezing them out from further development. The only two characters the movie really examines are Winter and Dr. Hughes, so why not consolidate? Too much feels ladled on to either pad the running time, make superficial connections to holiday film staples to satisfy its presumed audience, or reflect upon Owen’s emotional journey. If the world is cultivated to better bring one man to a change of heart, then let’s give enough room for that journey to feel well-developed and organic and satisfying.

The conclusion about acceptance and, more importantly, about forgiveness is sweet and still has some dramatic points that will hit plenty of viewers. Weidner knows how to craft a workable redemption story, though much of the comedy bits are a bit stale and hokey, though that could also be a selling point for fans of Hallmark movies that view hokey comedy as comfort food. My criticisms are directed at what could help make this the improved version of the screen story. Streamlining, being less precious with our protagonist back-story, and giving more consideration and depth to Connie would have benefited the overall emotional investment and uplift.

A Story for Winter is a nice movie made by people who really wanted to see the director’s vision become a reality, something so close to home and so personal. I won’t fault the limited budget, the bland editing and shot selections, or the amateur acting by the leads. However, creativity is not dependent on money. Even with its minuscule budget, I think Weidner could have made further judicious choices to maximize the characters and story he had on the page. There are interesting characters here but they are too defined by their circumstances, thus becoming static mouthpieces about their experiences and not enough about them in the present. Maybe I’m being a seasonal Grinch, as admittedly Christmas movies are not a salve for me, so take everything with whatever caution you’d heed. A Story for Winter feels a little too beholden to its message and its feel-good holiday genre trappings to really explore the human drama at its beating heart. It’s a commendable micro-budget DIY effort with all the right intentions, though some of its storytelling choices managed to hold back my full intrigue and investment.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022)

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+

Encanto (2021)

2021 has been quite a year for Lin-Manuel Miranda who has provided the musical accompaniment to three movies, Vivo, In the Heights, and now Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical (Miranda also has the live-action Little Mermaid, though that’s 2023). It would be unfair to expect a generation-defining Hamilton-esque masterpiece every time Miranda sets pen to paper; I’d happily settle for even a lesser Moana, as far as quality goes (to be fair, Moana is also brilliant). With Encanto, the musical numbers have interesting tone/melody shifts and the hip-hop syncopation we’re used to from Miranda’s style, but none of them will be able to be hummed by the end credits. They evaporate from memory pretty quickly. They seem on par with Vivo and less than In the Heights. With that being said, I found the remainder of Encanto to be quite charming and emotionally resonant. It’s set in Columbia and follows a magic home to a magic family where at a certain age the children are blessed with a unique magic power with a ceremony and celebration. Except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who was denied a power and is looked at with skepticism by her Abuela, who insists on sticking to their family traditions no matter if her children and grandchildren chafe from her expectations. This is a much more insular and contained musical, almost taking place entirely on the family grounds. Its great quest is much more about repairing family relationships and actually listening to another person rather than making assumptions about their life because of their status. Because of this story design, it leads to plenty of catharsis and reconciliation, and it made me blubber like a baby at points. I bought into the emotional stakes of the family, of Mirabel feeling like an outsider, and the pressure to conform. I enjoyed that near everyone in this extended family gets a chance to share their own perspective. The story felt very empathetic to its supporting players while still remembering to be entertaining and funny. The conclusion feels a bit rushed, with happy endings being doled out rather hastily, but quite satisfying. I found Encanto to be colorful, rich in feeling and theme, and delightful to experience. Also, the animated short with the raccoons beforehand hit me hard too.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Clifford the Big Red Dog (2021)

What can one expect from the 80-minute live-action feature film of a children’s book series that was about a giant red dog? While ostensibly made for little kids, like those strictly under ten, Clifford the Big Red Dog (not to be confused with the equally alarming Clifford) is banal entertainment that’s inoffensive as long as you don’t have a deep personal attachment to the best-selling source material. It’s your standard children’s fantasy come alive with a giant dog that needs to be cared for as well as kept a secret. There are rambunctious moments of quelling the dog, mischievous moments of chasing the dog, and frantic moments of running away from a gene-splicing tech guru (Tony Hale). And oh, you bet there is scatological humor. We got dog farts. We got dog butt humor. We got dog pee. We got dog poop, at least in reference though thankfully never seen. I don’t know why we needed an added story of a little girl struggling to fit in at middle school with preppy, mean girls. I guess because a big red dog is also struggling to fit in? For that matter, the movie never returns to the opening scene of Clifford’s dog family being taken from him (a baffling and sad opening). There’s a more charming, heartfelt movie somewhere in here, akin to a Paddington where the central character changes those around them for the better, but our little New York City neighborhood is strictly in a more plastic and safe world. There are a few jokes that slipped past and made me laugh, so it’s not all a loss. Clifford doesn’t pretend to be anything more or less than its meagerly stated goals, and it’s a serviceable family film as long as your little ones have a low threshold for realistic-looking CGI dogs.

Nate’s Grade: C, for Clifford

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

After dominating the cinemas for over the last decade, Marvel took 2020 off thanks to that great menace even its own superheroes couldn’t overpower. Now in 2021, we’re eager for those big popcorn thrills of old, of a time before lockdowns and denials and vaccine misinformation. There’s a gauntlet of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies coming down the chute, including The Eternals (November), Spider-Man 3 (December), Doctor Strange 2 (March), Thor 4 (May), Black Panther 2 (July), and Captain Marvel 2 (November). That’s eight movies from July 2021 to November 2022, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings might just be the one that has the least recognition with the general public (I had never heard of him, sorry). And yet, I entered a theater for the first time in two months to see Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster on the big screen, and as the MCU’s first foray into the fantastical world of martial arts epics, Shang-Chi is a mostly agreeable success in the realm of expert face punching.

Shang-Chi (Simu Lei) is the son of a very dangerous and powerful man, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who has lived for thousands of years thanks to the power of ten magic rings that give him tremendous power to annihilate armies. Shang-Chi ran away as a teenager, leaving his sister Xialing (Meng-er Zhang) behind. She sends word requesting her brother’s assistance; dear old dad is on the warpath, and the two siblings might be the only ones who can stop him. Shang-Chi, living as Shawn in San Francisco, is trying to avoid larger responsibility as a valet with his good pal Katy (Awkwafina). However, he cannot ignore the assassins his father has sent, and so he and Katy travel back to China to regroup with Shang-Chi’s sister and face his destiny.

This is the most fantasy-heavy movie of a universe that previously defined the magic from the Thor universe as just another advanced form of science. The entire third act looks like it’s taking place in Narnia itself; legitimately, the color palate and overly lit, CGI-assisted green landscapes reminded me so much of the 2005 adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ novel. Within the extended prologue over the history of the ten rings, the movie is acclimating you toward its larger-than-life universe that it treats with sincerity and graceful appreciation. The courtship of Shang-Chi’s parents is handled in that flirt-fight style reminiscent in classic martial arts films, and the balletic wire work and dreamy slow-motion, set to the soothing flute-heavy musical score, evokes romantic memories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Very early on, the work goes into convincing you that Marvel is taking this assignment seriously, and I appreciated that assurance and the follow-through. From a pure filmmaking standpoint, Shang-Chi works as a martial arts action film because it’s filmed and edited like one should be. The camerawork is vividly fluid and consistently roaming around the space of battle to better showcase the choreography and effort of the performers. The editing is also likewise very smooth and patient, with lots of longer takes blending together so that we can see multiple moves and counter moves, and if there are throws, we’ll travel with the fighters to continue the fight. I enjoyed a fight taking place on multiple levels of scaffolding. It all made my girlfriend nauseated in our theater, so you might be affected as well if you have a susceptibility to cinematic motion sickness. This movie allows you in on the martial arts fun.

I wasn’t expecting this kind of leap from co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton. This man was responsible for one of the best films of 2013, and the 2010s-decade, Short Term 12, which starred (drumroll please) future Oscar-winner Brie Larson, future Oscar-winner Rami Malek, future Oscar-nominee LaKeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn 99, In the Heights) and the best-known actor at the time of release, John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom). Wow that cast is an all-timer. This is like the Millennial Outsiders with a cast of up-and-coming actors who have gone on to ascendant and award-winning careers. It’s also a hard-hitting, deeply emotional and upending movie worth your time. Cretton has stuck to adult dramas based upon real stories of people struggling through the justice system (Just Mercy) and parental dysfunction (The Glass Castle). A big-budget martial arts epic I wasn’t expecting, and perhaps the Marvel Machine makes it easy for indie auteurs to plug right in, but it feels like Cretton clearly has an affection and at least a tacit understanding of favorable stylistic genre choices. At this point I shouldn’t discount what filmmakers can make those big artistic leaps with a studio project. James Gunn can go from Super to the Guardians of the Galaxy, and so Cretton can go from Short Term 12 to helming a large-scale, CGI-heavy martial arts fantasy.

Another aspect I found pleasantly surprising was the amount of work put into its primary villain and the ensuring father/son dynamic. I’m not going to say that Xu Wenwu, a.k.a. The Real Mandarin, is one of the more complicated or nuanced villains in MCU history, but he’s given more dimension than a simple “destroy and/or conquer the world” motivation. In fact, that was the motivation for the man before he met Jiang Li (Fela Chen), Shang-Chi’s eventual mother. Real Mandarin (or RN as I’ll refer to him because I’m lazy) was going about the whole conquer and raze kingdoms thing for thousands of years, establishing another one of those all-powerful yet still clandestine and very vague shadow societies pulling the levers of power. He found a person who made him want to reform, to put his old ways of violence behind, and it’s her death that spurs him back to his views of power absolving all conflicts, so the most powerful is the one who can have the most say and protect the people close to him or her. If he had the full power of those ten rings, ordinary gangsters wouldn’t have dared to threaten or harm his loved ones. He trained his son to follow by example, and despite the fact that he sent trained killers after his son rather than a more constructive and clearer message, RN declares his love for his children. He is moving forward to return his beloved back to the land of the living. Being motivated by grief and wanting to see a departed loved one no matter the cost is a relatable struggle and one that brings degrees of nuance that Leung can imbue with his great pained, hangdog expressions. Having a father be the villain but still love his children and be primarily motivated by bringing back his dead wife and honestly assessing how she made him a better person is a breath of fresh-ish air.

Liu (Kim’s Convenience) is easily charming and demonstrates a sharp affinity for the martial arts training and choreography. With the longer takes and clean edits, it’s clear that Liu is performing many of the moves, and he moves with great skill and balance to believably crack some skulls. A fight aboard a city bus is our real intro into seeing this man as he’s avoided, as a well-trained fighting machine, the identity of his father that he’s been attempting to run away from. Liu has a self-effacing charm to him that doesn’t cross over into smug. Awkwafina (The Farewell) is her reliable comic relief asset, though too often the movie resorts to just spotlighting her for a riff or one-liner when the context doesn’t provide the opportunity. It’s rather mystifying why her supporting character, a normal human, would accompany her pal into the word of underground martial arts ninja conspiracy fantasy, let alone that she could take up a bow and arrow and becomes a valuable member of a fighting force. Leung (2046, The Grandmaster) is just movie royalty, so getting him to read the phone book would have been an acceptable start. He sits out for long periods and his absence is noted. He brings such a heaviness, a quiet yet dignified despondency to the character, and there are several instances where he undersells his character’s danger and power, which just makes him so much more intimidating. I feel like Leung is finding connections with the somber, brooding heartache of his War Kong Wai roles, and yes film nerds, I just made that connection for a Marvel movie.

Not everything quite works in this MCU outing. There are several jumps in the screenplay that feel like further revision or clarity were necessary. I don’t really know why Shang-Chi is finally able to take on his father at the end except for some abstract concept of, I guess, believing in himself more. The power of the rings feels a little too unexplored for deserving of the movie’s subtitle. The rings come almost as an afterthought for much of the movie. There are a few moments where I was trying to connect how characters understood what they were supposed to do in any given moment, and I just gave up, which is kind of what the film also feels like it’s doing. There are clear characters included with the sole decision to sell merchandise. I don’t know if the nation’s children will be screaming for a faceless winged furry ottoman but that’s the gamble Marvel execs took and by God, you’re going to get many appearances. The sister addition to the movie feels decidedly undernourished, like she’s drafting from the father/son relationship that’s getting all the narrative attention. It feels like occasionally the movie pans to her to nod and go, “Oh yeah, me too.” The visual color palate is so brightly colored for so long, and then once the big splashy Act Three battle commences between CGI good and CGI evil, the visuals become so grey and murky and definitely hard to keep track of in the scrum. I wish the fantasy rules were more streamlined and explored rather than feeling grafted on when needed and forgotten when inconvenient, but this is their first foray into this sub-genre of action and while Marvel doesn’t need a sliding scale at this point, it’s still a moderate achievement.

Look, this isn’t exactly The Raid or Ip Man or anything that will challenge the most heart-pounding, intense, acrobatic heights of the crossover martial arts epic. Consider it a solid effort at watering down a Hero or House of Flying Daggers and switching over to the typical Marvel formula final act complete with onslaught of weightless CGI. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fun action movie that does just enough right to land it in the cushy middle-of-the-middle for the annuls of the MCU (I would rank it around the level of Black Panther). The fight choreography and presentation, as well as the exploration of the father/son dynamics, are surprisingly refined, which is good considering one provides the entertainment value for the eyes and the other the emotional connection for everything to matter more than flashes of punches and kicks and fireballs. It doesn’t transcend its genre or the tried-and-true Marvel formula, but it’s packed with enough to even keep a casual fan entertained for most of its 130 minutes. It’s more of a one-off that doesn’t require extensive knowledge of the two dozen other MCU titles, so Shang-Chi might be just the right Saturday morning cartoon of a movie to introduce new people to the larger world of Marvel movies.

Nate’s Grade: B

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