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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-

Glass Onion (2022)

When writer/director Rian Johnson wanted to take a breather after his polarizing Star Wars movie, he tried his hand at updating the dusty-old Agatha Christie mystery genre, and in doing so created a highly-acclaimed and high-grossing film franchise. The man was just trying to do something different and at a smaller-scale with 2019’s Knives Out, and then it hit big and Netflix agreed to pay $400 million dollars for exclusive rights to two sequels. Now as Johnson has reinvented his career as a mystery writer the big question is: can he pull it all off again?

Renowned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been invited to the world’s most exclusive dinner party. Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has invited all his closest friends to his Greek island soiree, setting up a murder mystery game his friends must spend the weekend solving. Except there are two interlopers: Andi Brand (Janelle Monae), the former partner of Miles who was betrayed by Miles and his cronies and… Benoit Blanc himself. Why was the detective invited to the murder dinner party unless someone planned on using it as an excuse to actually kill Miles?

Knives Out was a clever deconstruction of drawing room mysteries and did something remarkable, it told you who the murderer was early and changed the entire audience participation. Instead of intellectually trying to parse clues and narrow down the gallery of suspects, Johnson cast that aside and said it didn’t matter as much as your emotional investment for this character now trying to cover up her tracks while working alongside the “world’s greatest detective.” It made the movie so much more engaging and fun, and for his twisty efforts, Johnson was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Now, every viewer vested in this growing franchise is coming into Glass Onion with a level of expectations, looking for the twists, looking for the clever deconstruction, and this time It feels like Johnson is deconstructing the very concept of the genius iconoclast and including himself in the mix. The movie takes square aim at the wealthy and famous who subscribe to the idea of their deserved privilege, in particular quirky billionaires whose branding involves their innate genius (many have made quick connections to Elon Musk in particular). The movie’s first half is taken with whether or not Miles Bron’s murder mystery retreat will become a legitimate murder mystery, but by the midpoint realignment, Glass Onion switches into pinning down the bastard. It makes for a greatly satisfying conclusion as Blanc exposes the empty center of Miles’ calculated genius mystique.

As Blanc repeatedly says, the answers are hiding in plain sight, and this also speaks to Johnson’s meta-commentary of his own clever screenwriting. This is Johnson speaking to the audience that he cannot simply copy the formula of Knives Out. This is a bigger movie with more broadly written characters, but each one of them feels more integrated in the central mystery and given flamboyant distinction; it’s more like Clue than Christie. Through Miles’ influence, we have a neurotic politician (Kathryn Hahn), a block-headed streamer (Dave Bautista) pandering to fragile men on the Internet, a fashionista (Kate Hudson) who built an empire on sweatpants and has a habit of insensitive remarks, and a business exec (Leslie Odom Jr.) who admits to sitting on his hands until given orders from on high by Miles. All of these so-called friends are really bottom-feeders propped up by Miles’ money. It would have been easy to simply replay his old tricks, but Johnson takes the heightened atmosphere of the characters and plays with wilder plot elements of the mystery genre, such as identical twins and secret missions and celebrity cameos (R.I.P. two of them) and corporate espionage. The very Mona Lisa itself plays significantly into the plot (fun fact: Ms. Mona was not the universally revered epitome of art we know it to be until its 1911 theft). This is a bigger, broader movie but the larger stage suits Johnson just fine. He adjusts to his new setting, veers into wackier comedy bits with aplomb, and has fun with all the false leads and many payoffs. You never know when something will just be a throwaway idea, like the hourly chime on the island, or have an unexpected development, like Jeremy Renner’s hot sauce. Glass Onion is about puncturing the mirage of cleverness, and by the end, it felt like Johnson was also playfully commenting on his own meta-clever storytelling needs as well.

It’s so nice to watch Craig have the time of his life. You can clearly feel the passion he has for the character and how freeing this role is for an actor best remembered for his grimaced mug drifting through the James Bond movies. Craig makes a feast of this outsized character, luxuriating in the Southern drawl, the loquaciousness, and his befuddled mannerisms. After Knives Out, I begged for more Benoit Blanc adventures, and now with a successful sequel, that urge has only become more rapacious. Johnson has proven he can port his detective into any new mystery. Netflix has already paid for a third Knives Out mystery movie, and I’d be happy for another Blanc mystery every so many years as long as Craig and Johnson are willing. These are fabulous ensemble showcases as well with eclectic casts cutting loose and having fun. Norton (Motherless Brooklyn) is hilariously pompous, especially as Blanc deflates his overgrown ego. Bautista (Dune) is the exact right kind of blowhard. Hudson (Music) is the right kind of ditzy princess with a persecution complex. Her joke about sweatshops is gold. Jessica Henwick (The Gray Man) has a small role as the beleaguered assistant to Hudson’s socialite, but she delivers a masterclass in making the most of reaction shots. She made me laugh out loud just from her pained or bewildered reactions, adding history to her boss’ routine foot-in-mouth PR blunders.

There is one big thing missing from Glass Onion that holds it back from replicating the surprise success of its predecessor, and that’s the emotional lead supplied by Ana de Armas. She unexpectedly became the center of the 2019 movie and it was better for it. Glass Onion tries something similar with Andi Brand, and while she’s the easiest new character to root for among a den of phonies and sycophants, it’s not the same immediate level of emotional engagement. That’s the biggest missing piece for Glass Onion; it’s unable to replicate that same emotional engagement because the crusade of Andi Brand isn’t as compelling alone.

Glass Onion is a grand time at the movies, or as Netflix insisted, a grand time at home on your streaming device. It’s proof that Johnson can handle the rigors of living up to increased expectations, making a sequel that can stand on its own but has the strong, recognizable DNA of its potent predecessor. It’s not quite as immediate and layered and emotionally engaging, but the results are still colorful, twisty, and above all else, immensely fun and satisfying. I’m sure I’ll only think better of Glass Onion upon further re-watching as I did with Knives Out. Johnson once again artfully plays around with misdirects and whodunnit elements like a seasoned professional, and Glass Onion is confirmation that Benoit Blanc can be the greatest film detective of our modern age.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Until just the other day, I had never seen Top Gun. Growing up in the 80s into the 90s, I was familiar with the film as it was a staple in friends’ homes, as was the lousy Nintendo video game, and one of the major pillars of Tom Cruise becoming a superstar, but I was too young when it came out and then it got buried behind other movies I always intended to catch up with. Honestly, as I got older, I just didn’t have much interest in rote military thrillers the likes of Tom Clancy (I dub them “dad movies,” as they’re my father’s long-standing Clancy-loving preference). Then came the 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, and it became Cruise’s highest-grossing movie of his blockbuster career and the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time. I’m probably one of the last few people on the planet to finally catch Maverick and I’m a little befuddled what made this movie as highly praised, to the point where it’s a given it will be nominated for Best Film awards and even stands as populist chance of winning. Maverick is a perfectly enjoyable action movie with satisfying character arcs. It’s an example of what big-budget moviemaking can accomplish when the right artists are aligned. However, let’s not start jumping on any couches and going nuts here. It’s a solid sequel elevated by a great finish.

We follow Maverick, a.k.a. Pete Mitchell (Cruise), as he’s tasked with training the next generation of top guns for a very specific, highly dangerous aerial assault mission to take out a foreign nuclear arms lab. The big issue is that one of these pilots, Rooster (Miles Teller), is the son of Maverick’s former wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died in the 1986 original movie. Mav has been denying Rooster senior-level opportunities out of fear of being responsible for the death of father and son, but Rooster will not be ignored and denied, and they’ll square their feelings of guilt and resentment over the course of this impossible mission.

I can see why this movie would be successful. It plops our older hero down in a teaching role which allows the satisfying arc of building a team, gaining his own feet as a teacher, and the two-way transmission of respect. It’s a formula that works. We watch the younger pilots grow and become more capable, we watch Maverick settle into a natural teaching role, reaching out to others, and we also watch him and his team stick it to the naysaying Naval authority with every victory. It’s all there and developed with enough precision by screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Eric Singer Warren, and Cruise-lifeline Christopher McQuarrie to operate smoothly. In the 1986 movie, we had hotshot pilot Maverick learning personal responsibility and teamwork, though much of that original movie was preoccupied with so… many… characters telling young Mav how gosh darn special he really is and how the U.S. Navy needs him so bad. The emotional reconciliation also works between Maverick and Rooster (I guess the name and the mustache are affectionate odes to dear deceased dad) and serves as an effective emotional foundation for old fans and new. The drama works and the legacy elements and cameos feel better incorporated, though the “Great Balls of Fire” piano bar singalong was awkwardly forced nostalgia bait. The romance with Jennifer Connelly’s single mother barmaid even feels a little wiser and more honest rather than setting her up as a good-looking woman cheering our hero onward. Nobody’s going to leave the film citing the prerequisite love story as their favorite part, but it’s at least more thoughtful and less tacked-on than I was dreading. For all these reasons, Top Gun: Maverick has the tools to succeed as a sequel that can transcend its initial nostalgic fandom.

Where the movie really takes flight is in its action photography and the final act. Director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Spiderhead) filmed the aerial sequences with IMAX cameras and the in-cockpit perspectives make the action far more immersive and thrilling. The actors were charged with being their own camera operators while flying in their planes, so Kosinski would wait on the ground and then review the footage and then send the actors back up in the air for further takes. It’s a painstaking process, made more so by Cruise’s obsessive insistence on making things as real as possible, and it pays off remarkably. The dazzling footage within the cockpits as they swoop and swerve has an exciting verisimilitude that can’t be replicated by computer effects. The dogfights are easy to understand and follow thanks to the careful visual orientation from Kosinski, smooth editing that doesn’t become jumbly, and clearly stated goals and mini goals within the mission training (McQuarrie is so good at this stuff). It made me wish that they never got out of the air. It also made me envious of the grandiose IMAX presentation.

It’s the final act that really seals the deal from an entertainment standpoint. The team tackles their mission at the 90-minute mark, and it’s thrilling and everything you’d want in an action set piece. The way the mission is structured in well-defined pieces working in tandem reminded me of the Mission: Impossible franchise during its 2010s swing into becoming the best studio action franchise. It makes for a satisfying and thrilling conclusion, and it’s not a real spoiler to say that the team of underdogs defies the great odds and succeeds, but then the movie surprised me. There was still twenty minutes left, and Top Gun: Maverick says, “Oh, you think we’re done? We’re not going to just give you a good climax, we’re going to give you a buffet of action peaks, each somehow elevating the movie even higher while still working with the established character arcs.” It is a feat of deft studio action construction. After the mission, there’s a personal behind-enemy-lines rescue and escape that literally hinges upon a recognition of nostalgia as intrinsic value. I won’t explain the exact particulars, but the characters literally survive relying upon the devices and training of old, surely a reassuring nod to the older generation audience members. It’s like the movie has taken Cruise’s penchant for showmanship to heart and wants to give you everything it can. The results are a good action movie flying off the charts by the end with a fantastic finish.

Still, it’s hard for me to join the cheering masses declaring Top Gun: Maverick as one of the best films of recent years. It’s slickly made, solid in its storytelling and emotional foundation to produce satisfaction, and it’s filmed with visual panache from its commitment to practical effects and realism. The final act is a fabulous sendoff that shows the heights of blockbuster popcorn cinema. Maverick is without a doubt the superior Top Gun movie. The original had its own sense of style from director Tony Scott, one that became synonymous as the visual vocabulary of Hollywood military thrillers for decades. It’s also hard to watch the movie in 2022 and not see the dozens and dozens of imitators that came after, making the movie feel less enticing and more simply the progenitor of a genre formula that isn’t my favorite to begin with. Maverick improves in every way and sheds the worries of being a late-sequel nostalgic cash-grab. It’s a good and effective movie with a rousing and uncommon finish, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe people are looking for something that feels like comfort food done right, and I suppose that could be Top Gun: Maverick for many, as the box-office numbers would chiefly indicate. I might not be in its inner fandom but I can see what others would celebrate, even if I do less.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

It’s hard to talk about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever without first discussing its missing whole, namely Chadwick Boseman. It was a shock when Boseman died during the summer of 2020 of terminal cancer, which he had kept hidden except for a small number of close confidants. I remember hearing the news and being in disbelief, figuring this must be another celebrity death hoax, but then the terrible news was confirmed. It’s one of those celebrity deaths that you remember when you found out, mostly I think because here was an actor in his prime and headlining Oscar-nominated movies and precedent-setting blockbusters. It felt too soon to be gone. It felt wrong. It’s that grief that the characters of Wakanda Forever are also wrestling over. Reflecting real life, the sequel to 2018’s hit Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entry elects to have T’Challa (Boseman) pass away in the movie as well, off screen, and from a cause more human than super, dying from a disease. The movie is knowingly channeling our grief for the loss of Boseman into a story about characters also mourning the loss of this good man. This loss hangs over the entire movie and provides it more gravitas and emotional depth it would have had otherwise. Wakanda Forever is a suitably exciting and expansive sequel, especially following the empowering cultural model writer/director Ryan Coogler followed with the first film, but it’s hard not to feel the loss of Boseman, both in presence and in storytelling.

We open with Shuri (Letitia Wright) diligently trying to save her brother’s life only to be out of time. The nation of Wakanda is in full mourning, losing their champion and king. In the wake of this loss, the outside world sees opportunity. Having come out of hiding, Wakanda is being pressured to share its valuable vibranium mineral resources with other nations, and some are eager to take them by force if necessary. This has inadvertently created a gold rush for vibranium, and the C.I.A. has discovered traces of the rare mineral on the ocean floor. This undersea incursion has provoked a heretofore unknown underwater community into action. Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is a super-powered mere mutant, able to fly with tiny wings on his heels, and able to breathe under the sea just like the inhabitants of Talochan. Namor has declared war on the surface world and seeks Wakanda to be an ally, and if not that, then their first conquest.

This is a movie dominated by the women of Wakanda, and they bring the fury. Everyone is processing the loss of T’Challa in different ways. Shuri is rededicating herself to her scientific research, as she blames her brother’s death on her inability to solve his ailment in time. T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), has been appointed leader of Wakanda and must represent her nation’s interests while still grieving for her son. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) has retreated from the larger world of spycraft to open a school in Haiti. Okoye (Danai Gurira) is supposed to be the chief security officer for Wakanda, and she busies herself with new threats and armor rather than dwell on being unable to save her king. Each character feels the weight of the loss and opens up reflections of grief, as each knew T’Challa on a different level: mother, sister, lover, protector. The attention that Coogler allows for their and our grief allows the movie to work on a communal cathartic level (I teared up a few times myself). Wright (Death on the Nile) has some heavyweight emotional moments, and the movie is structured around her path of healing as well as the wayward detour of vengeance and hate. It’s a conclusion that hits upon the expected spectacle of superhero action but hinges upon, foremost, an emotional arc.

Coogler is two-for-two when it comes to creating dynamic, engaging villains who have strong perspectives that cause the heroes to better reflect upon their own roles. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is one of the MCU’s best villains, and I think it’s interesting that the first Black Panther ends with the hero realizing the villain’s perspective is right and adjusts from there. With Wakanda Forever, we get Namor protecting his people, and his reasoning sounds a lot like the Wakandan leaders who wished to remain separate from the larger world in the earlier film. The background for Namor is completely rewritten by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole and for the better. They’ve invigorated the character by attaching a rich Mesoamerican culture to Namor’s people and history. We have another hidden world of minorities that are super-powered and developed beyond the reach of colonialism. The flashback for Namor, dating back to the sixteenth century, is startlingly effective, establishing his strange origins, the great change for his tribe to being sea-dwelling, and what happens when he returns to the surface world to honor his late mother’s funeral wish. When he returns, the Spanish have built plantations and have captured the indigenous into being their chattel. Namor sees this exploitation in the name of a foreign God and swears off the surface world. This cultural angle imbues the character’s focal point but it’s also just plain neat to watch an ancient Mesoamerican culture given the big screen superhero treatment with reverence and awe. By providing a compelling villain, it also makes the emotional stakes more compelling. We’ll likely side with the women of Wakanda, but you might also be rooting for Namor too. I also think it’s fun that the underwater Atlantean prince character for DC and Marvel is portrayed by a Mexican-American actor and a Polynesian actor.

Where the movie doesn’t work as well is with its introduction of Riri Williams (Dominique Thorn, Judas and the Black Messiah) who is the human McGuffin. She’s a brilliant engineer who accidentally discovers a vibranium detection device, but why does nabbing her matter to Namor? With the device already created, the proverbial horse has left the barn. Kidnapping the inventor after her technology has already been utilized seems too late. There’s no real reason she could not be replaced with an inanimate flash drive except that this establishes the character up for her 2023 Disney Plus TV series. It’s this larger corporate portfolio push that I’ve always worried about with each new MCU edition, now 39 in total, that they will be forced to set up future movies and shows at the detriment of telling a focused and satisfying movie. The MCU movies I’ve generally liked the least are the ones that fall under this pressure the most, like Age of Ultron, Iron Man 2, and Multiverse of Madness. I found the character of Riri Williams to be fun, but her inclusion always seemed like a distraction to the larger story. I’m sure you can make thematic connections, a young brilliant black woman finding solace in Wakanda, but if you were looking to trim down an already overlong movie, I think Riri is the easiest to eliminate.

With Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Phase Four of the MCU has officially closed and Phase Five will begin shortly with Ant-Man 3 in February, 2023. In the wake of the conclusion of the multi-phase Infinity series and 2019’s Endgame, this phase felt dominated by closure and exploration. The Disney Plus series provided little conclusive offshoots for many of the original Avengers characters. It’s also been a period of experimentation, with Marvel broadening its tone and scope from martial arts movies, spy thrillers, romantic epics, and familiarizing audiences to the concept of the multiverse with good movies (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and not-so good movies (Doctor Strange 2). And of course Wakanda Forever is the biggest edition yet on fulfilling a sense of closure, though it had never been intended to be before Boseman’s passing. It’s a sturdy sequel with a palpable emotional undercurrent and an engaging villain to boot. I called 2018’s Black Panther as agreeable, mid-tier Marvel entertainment, and I’d say the same for its sequel. However, with Boseman’s passing, it’s naturally elevated. Wakanda Forever is long and overstuffed but also emotional and engrossing and satisfying.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Halloween Ends (2022)

If you’re a fan of the hallowed Halloween horror series, I can understand why Halloween Ends can be a disappointment, since it dramatically steers away from the formula that has carried this franchise since its beginning. However, if you are like me and find Michael Myers to be one of the most boring slasher killers, and too much of the slasher genre to be rote and repetitive, then this movie might actually be something of a welcomed surprise. Ends might be the least Halloween movie since the third film, the failed 1982 sequel that tried to establish life outside of the hulking menace that is Myers, and then the series shortly retreated back to its familiar bloody formula. Ends might be the least amount of screen time Myers has ever had in any film in the franchise, excluding the third movie; he doesn’t even get his first kill until almost an hour in.

The 2018 reboot was a mixed bag of a horror movie but it ended on the strongest note, with three generations of Strode women fighting together to end their torment. Unfortunately, the series had to continue because the 2018 movie made so much money for the studio, so we’ve been given two rather perfunctory sequels. It’s clear director David Gordon Green and his co-screenwriters, including actor Danny McBride, didn’t really have a desire to continue, and so they spent the sequels exploring other avenues of Haddonfield. I wasn’t a fan of 2021’s Halloween Kills, but the subplot about the mob of scared citizens becoming vigilantes was at least something new and added to a larger understanding of the trauma of this terrorized community. I can say the same with Halloween Ends, namely that the things that were most unexpected and tertiarily related to Myers were what I enjoyed the most. Halloween Ends is messy and disjointed but at least it’s interesting even as it strains to justify its existence and even seems slightly disdainful as well.

It’s Halloween time again in Haddonfield and the citizens are still psychologically recovering from the events of the prior year, as featured in Halloween Kills. Nobody has seen Myers since he killed Laurie’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) adult daughter. In fact the Myers’ estate has been demolished, at long last, and the town is trying to move on from yet another massacre. Laurie is trying to transition into domestic territory, watching over her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) as she works at an urgent care center. The real star of the movie isn’t Laurie but Corey (Rohan Campbell), a teenager who accidentally killed a child he was babysitting years ago. Corey is a pariah in town as he tries to get his life back on track, with the meager options that Haddonfield offers for someone with his baggage. He is befriended by Laurie, who introduces the lad to Allyson, and the two instantly connect as outsiders unfairly maligned by their town. These star-crossed lovers get more complicated when Corey begins to tap into his darker impulses and discovers the location of a recuperating Michael Myers. How far will he go?

Because Myers is such a colossal bore as a character, so readily deemed pure evil as to remove anything remotely interesting, I was grateful that Halloween Ends chooses to be something else for most of its running time, precisely the evolution of a killer. Characters that are just born as soulless evil don’t require much in the way of understanding or back-story. This movie decides to spend the majority of its time setting up a protégé figure for the big bad boogeyman, so much so that you could cut the scant Myers appearances in his subterranean lair and make the first half of this a completely different movie. It’s proof that Green and his screenwriters weren’t just coasting from creative inertia of delivering the same-old same-old. There is an actual story here that wants to explore elements of the franchise that have been dormant and chronicle how a young man can fall onto a dark path and lose himself. It’s the appeal of the dark side, and it’s personified in one young man’s journey. It’s the serial killer origin structure, and it mostly works. I was far more interested in Corey than anything else happening in Ends. The prologue establishes him as misunderstood and an outcast, blamed for an accident that nobody seems to think was actually an accident. It’s about how the ailing town treats this young man and how he tries to reform after tragedy, only to be met with suspicion and resentment. Getting to know Corey’s limited world and watching him succumb to his darker impulses, it’s like a little side story that you never would have known existed in the larger Halloween universe so often dominated by the endlessly wheel-spinning Laurie vs. Michael drama. I’m not going to say that the screenplay was nuanced and populated with three-dimensional characters, and the pacing of Corey’s descent is indeed rushed, but I appreciated the efforts to try something different.

Another issue I have is that first-half Laurie and second-half Laurie feel like two totally different characters. This version of Laurie Strode feels like a completely different character from the prior two Halloween movies that shaped her as a grizzled, obsessive, survivalist loner. This version is making awkward meet-cute small talk in grocery stores and burning pies she’s determined that her granddaughter will eat because of nascent Strode family traditions. Who is this woman? I know some time has passed from the previous movie, but where is the response or lingering grief over the loss of her daughter, the same person she spent years preparing to defend herself against the return of Myers and then was killed by him anyway. For all the weight given to this passing, it feels like an afterthought and that is bizarre. It’s as if Laurie’s daughter never existed for all the impact that her murder has on this story. Once Corey and Allyson become a romantic pair, that’s when something clicks over with Laurie and she recognizes the danger this boy represents, and then she becomes the overly protective mother (granted, her instincts are correct, but the characterization is blah). There was potential to explore the continued strained relationship between the different generations, but Allyson mostly comes across as the naïve child who just wants to run away with her dreamy new broody boy. Had the characterization for Laurie and Allyson been more coherent, and meaningfully tied to the past events in the new trilogy, I think it would have better aided the aims of the Corey examination.

Say what you will about the Halloween series stretching things out over its two lesser sequels, but Green and company add a definitive end note to their title. The degree to which the movie seeks definitive closure is almost comical. It feels like Green is saying to the studio, “Okay, this time it’s really, really over. There is absolutely no coming back from this. That’s it.” This sequence of finality goes so many steps beyond confirming its ending that I began to chuckle to myself at the absurdity of the movie telling its audience that this is the serious end. We go beyond beating-a-dead-horse territory into making the dead horse into a vase that is then shattered, and then the pieces thrown into a fire, and then the ashes launched into space. Of course, all of this will depend on the box-office viability of the movie and whether or not its parent company wants to squeeze even more money from the 40-year franchise (maybe an H50 in 2028?). After all, picking and choosing specific sequels to eliminate from franchise canon has become more popular, as evidenced by the 2018 movie blinking every sequel out of existence for its timeline, so all of these would-be definitive events can just be erased as easily by another sequel. That’s the nature of popular horror: everybody dies but nobody ever stays dead for long.

As slasher thrillers go, there’s probably not enough going on here to appeal to your baser desires, as there is no real memorable or gruesome kill. As a character study, there’s not enough careful development and plotting to reward exploring an offshoot to this universe. It’s fascinating to me, at best a middling fan of the Halloween series, how this sequel seems to simply not care about being a Halloween sequel, hence the shelving of Myers for so long, as well as the inconsistent characterization of Laurie and lack of follow-through, and the shirking of extensive gore and terror. I loved the strange detail that the friend group that bullies Corey aren’t a group of roided-out jocks but… marching band geeks (granted, with unchecked privilege). I loved how the movie goes above and beyond to persuade its conclusive ending, even closing out on the “Ends” of the title. You can almost feel certain degrees of disdain that Green and company have to create this added content, a misshapen denouement to the better climax in 2018. I guess there’s nothing stopping anyone from pretending these sequels are non-canonical, and it’s likely only a matter of years before the studio does the exact same thing to reignite the series. Halloween Ends is a strange, frustrating sequel that struggles to be a Halloween movie, for better or worse.

Nate’s Grade: C

Clerks III (2022)

I’m at a crossroads with writer/director Kevin Smith. Well, I might actually have already switched sides but don’t want to fully admit it yet even if it’s self-evident. I’ve written about this before but Smith was one of those major cinematic voices that helped shape my sense of indie film and even comedy during my formative teenage years. I became a diehard fan, watched every movie several times and had all their interconnected Easter eggs memorized, and I’ve seen the man in person three times, one time recorded for a college Q&A DVD release. In short, I was most definitely a Kevin Smith super fan. Then over the last five years or so, things began to change, or more accurately my perception of Smith’s movies began to change. The attempts at humor were strained, obvious, and gassed, and it felt like his biting wit and raunch had transformed into mawkish nostalgia. The man in his twenties who made comedies I identified with and loved became a man in his forties with different priorities and a different perspective. He evolved. However, I am no static creature, and I too was evolving, and my fanfare for Smith’s comedy sensibility has transformed into more of a pained grimace. I re-watched Dogma in 2019 and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2021, as well as its second-banana imitation Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in 2019, and my assessment was only reaffirmed with each movie: I’ve outgrown my old influence. As a big screen storyteller, Smith has become more and more insular, inaccessible, and beholden to eroding fan-service, almost like he too is trying to bid goodbye to his own universe of characters. Maybe that will be the big reveal, Smith putting all his toys back away while he still can.

Clerks III is a return to the old QuickStop convenience store in Red Bank, New Jersey, last seen in 2006 with friends and malcontents Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) as the new owners. Clerks II seemingly ended on a moment of triumph, of the guys returning to their roots but also stepping up, assuming ownership responsibilities. However, many can also view the ending as a darker indictment on what the future held for these men. Sixteen years later, what have these men accomplished? That’s the thrust of this third film, following Randal’s brush with death from a heart attack (based upon Smith’s own life-threatening experience). He re-evaluates his life at 50 and yearns to make a movie about his life and his personal experiences, which just happens to be life in service at the QuickStop. He bands together with Dante as producer and they put together a ragtag crew, including old buddies now selling their own state-approved brand of bud, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), to make their movie.

In many ways, Clerks III is like a remake of Clerks with the characters of Clerks making their own version of Clerks only thirty years removed from the actual scenes of Clerks. There’s a bit of a snake eating its own tail feeling; many scenes are re-creations of moments from the original Clerks and with the same actors. It’s slightly fun to see even the smaller non-actors come back to recreate these moments, but it also makes the movie feel like an extended high school reunion (“Oh look, that guy lost his hair.”). If you were not a fan of Clerks, well you shouldn’t really be watching the third film in the series, but if you didn’t have an attachment to these characters and this odd world, seeing older versions of former fleeting characters, from the Chewlie’s Gum rep to the angry ruse-baiting video store customer or the woman who manually masturbates caged animals, would feel like flipping through someone else’s photo album, devoid of whatever nostalgic or emotion was intended.

As a lifelong fan of Smith’s filmography, or at least a former lifelong fan now transitioning to accepting a parting of ways, it’s neat to see this reunion of sorts, but it’s also ultimately pointless from a narrative standpoint. Smith is treading the same ground now with irony and distance. Actually, the irony gives way more to sentimentality. It’s not an insult to say that Smith has gotten increasingly softer as he’s gotten older, blunting much of his comedy edge. He comes across as a sincere man who really cares for the people in his life, including these very people that contributed their time and efforts in 1992 to help make a young man’s dream come true. I understand his desire to pay back all the little people, to check back with them one more time, and to have Clerks III serve as a love letter to those who were there from the very beginning. If you’re plugged into this universe, you might smile and you might also feel some of the love.

There are famous cameos to balance out the lesser known faces from the original Clerks. You’ll see Ben Affleck hamming it up, Justin Long doing a funny voice, Fred Armisen grasping for something to do, and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s first film role since 2012 and first live-action film role since 2009’s Possession (Gellar was a voice on Smith’s Masters of the Universe animated series on Netflix). The two big additions from Clerks II also return. Trevor Fehrman, returning as the socially awkward coworker Elias, is the funniest part of the movie as his character goes through a spiritual crisis. He feels let down by Jesus and commits himself to Satan, and his runway show’s worth of crazy outfits and cosplays throughout the movie is the funniest joke that never even bears mentioning, which only makes it funnier (he too has his own Silent Bob-esque quiet sidekick played with good spirits by Austin Zajur). Elias was the voice of a younger generation of Internet fandom in Clerks II, allowing Smith his opportunity to criticize modern geek pop-culture, like the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings. That doesn’t really happen in Clerks III despite 16 years of Dante and Randal’s cinematic absence. Smith doesn’t even nibble or good-naturedly rib any pop-culture landscape. Even the jokes about NFTs feel hesitant and wishy-washy and lazy. Smith was defined by his ribald wit and hyper-literate dialogue, and now his comedy has become inane slapstick and pandering nods meant to serve as a replacement for an absent punchline. It’s disappointing how little the comedy registers now.

The biggest addition to the Clerks trilogy was Rosario Dawson, now even more popular as she’s firmly solidified in the Star Wars TV empire. I figured she would have been written out of the franchise as her availability was going to be far more limited. It’s not a spoiler considering it’s revealed within the first minute or so, but Dawson’s character, Becky, who was pregnant with Dante’s child and this presented a new route for his future, is dead. Not only is Becky gone but she died in 2006 from a drunk driver, which means that her unborn child with Dante also died, though this is never touched upon and that seems truly bizarre because much of Dante’s characterization in this movie will be his prison of grief he’s been unable to break from. It’s been 16 years and Dante has not moved on, and I wish more of this was explored thoughtfully. He views himself as a man stuck, now in his 50s, and having missed his off-ramp to another and better life. Without more careful attention, it can come across like a schlub holding onto his grief as a mistaken form of identity. Even that description could be interesting, but you’re not going to get that level of drama in something like Clerks III. Dawson does have a few appearances as a ghostly memory trying to help Dante move on, though if this is the case, I feel like she should be reaching some kind of breaking point after 16 years of effort.

By the end of Clerks III, it’s clear that Smith intends for this to be the concluding chapter, sending off these characters as reflections of his own film history. The focus of the final act is far more dramatic, as the act of retelling one’s life story as a movie becomes its own way of sharing the love and admiration of a decades-long friendship. I don’t quite think Smith gets to the dramatic heights he’s reaching for, even when some pretty significant and surprising events play out. Too much of the movie is like watching a low-budget remake of Clerks thirty years late, and while I’m a sucker for movies about the making of movies, and those fun found families of creatives banding together, the structural vehicle and conceit for Clerks III left much to be desired. If you remember the scenes of 1994’s Clerks, watching Clerks III is like reliving them as a strange Lynchian dream where the edges are smudged and everything isn’t quite as it should be. At this point, a new Kevin Smith movie is made strictly for the most diehard of fans. I can see that ever-shrinking pool of fans warmly smiling and chuckling from the movie but more in nostalgic recognition of time gone by. It’s nice to revisit these characters, as I’ve been eager to see what life has dealt them since Clerks II. You can feel Smith’s affection for these people, the ones who catapulted him into fame, but the movie is too backward-looking and uninterested in its own comedy as Smith winds down.

Nate’s Grade: C

Orphan: First Kill (2022)

This is such a strange movie. The original Orphan, released in 2009, was an otherwise forgettable killer kid movie with a memorable twist: little Esther (Isabelle Furhman) wasn’t a child but a 30-something woman with a hormonal disorder (supposedly inspired by a true story). What do you do with a prequel when the young actress is now a grown woman and the audience knows the big twist from the start? The first answer is use a body double, have the other actors wear platform shoes or step on boxes, and forced perspective with some de-aging CGI sprinkled over Furhman’s adult face. That’s a whole lot of effort, albeit practical and less costly, to make a prequel without much going on. We follow young Leena as she escapes from an Estonian mental asylum and poses as a missing child from an American couple (Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland) who adopt her and bring her back to the States. It’s here where little “Esther” must keep up the illusion, with the mother already gathering her suspicion but not wanting to trouble her husband. For the first hour of this 100-minute movie, I was quite bored and the movie was relatively listless. There were some kills but it all felt like simply going through the motions, especially already knowing her secret and not being emotionally invested in whether her new identity would be maintained. And then the movie makes a sudden turn, one I’ll spoil right now because I think it makes the film actually watchable, where the mother confesses she knows Esther is not her missing daughter, is an adult woman, and then both of the women in this dysfunctional nuclear family are trying to undermine and kill one another while vying for the favor of the father/husband. It took an hour of sequel/prequel drift, but here First Kill (there are many after her first) finally delivers something new to do after sitting for an hour rehashing the original twist. I wish the screenplay had gotten here even earlier and veered into wicked black comedy. It definitely feels like the movie wants you to laugh at the escalating battle between fake daughter and fake mother. I laughed out loud over a scene with slippery dentures. There’s no real reason for this movie in 2022, especially with all the extra work to make it plausible, but I wish the filmmakers had just embraced all its goofy implausibility.

Nate’s Grade: C

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

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 (2022)

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.

Why would this gesture work on other dinosaurs?

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+

Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022)

I have only watched the first movie, released in 2019, and know precious little about this widely successful BBC television series detailing the rich aristocrats and their plucky servants, so take my assessment with a whole serving tray of salt. The first Downton Abbey movie served as an epilogue for the series, providing extra resolution to several characters and coupling up others to provide a happy ending. Then it was wildly successful (a worldwide gross of almost $200 million) and so creator/writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) got to come upon with yet another epilogue, this time finding even more happy endings and couplings for the those left out from the first cinematic victory lap. As someone new to this world, I was amused by its understated wit, puffery and pomp, and class conscious dramatics, plus it had a killer cast, most notably Maggie Smith as the tart-tongued Dowager Countess. The second cinematic offering is mostly more of the same, splitting the cast in two locations. One half are inspecting a picturesque villa in the south of France left to the Dowager, to the buttoned-up surprise of her son who questions what relationship his mother had with the former owner. The other half are stationed at the Downton estate while a Hollywood film crew decamps to make a movie. The inclusion of the movie-within-a-movie allows for some dishy moments, starstruck characters, and opportunities for a few Downton residents to make their mark in the pictures. These scenes are fun and provide some interesting conflict as the production has to quickly adapt from being a silent movie to one of them newfound all-the-rage talkies (with a lead actress better suited without sound). It’s a fluffy side story but allows many characters to shine. While the movie is mostly low-key and charming, much like its first big screen effort, by the end there might be some real tears, especially if you’ve been with these characters from the start. If you’re a Downton fan, you’ll eat this all up. I did have two questions that lingered: 1) where is this baby that was the entire story line for Edith in the first movie?, and 2) where in the world is Lady Mary’s husband (Matthew Goode) by the end when he should definitely be in attendance? My pitch for Downtown Abbey 3: Stiff Upper Lip begins with Lady Mary divorcing her racecar-obsessed hubby and moving to Hollywood for a new adventure.

Nate’s Grade: B

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