Review of “The Black Phone”

“Stranger danger” was a marketing term used in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and to a lesser extent today, to educate children about the personal safety. It encouraged youngsters to be wary of people they encountered, not accept any candy, get in cars or accompany anyone they didn’t know. If a stranger says they lost a puppy and would you help find it, the child was encouraged to loudly say “NO” and run away. Popular media reinforced the idea of “stranger danger” with movies about child abduction, sexual abuse and murder perpetrated by a shadowy, usually middle aged, paunchy, sweaty man. The news focused on such cases when they happened and devoted hours of time and space to any missing child story. However, most of the concern over “stranger danger” was misplaced as most crimes against children, from sexual assaults and physical abuse to murder, are carried out by relatives or people they know. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 99% of abducted children are taken by relatives. Still, a custody dispute isn’t nearly as headline grabbing as an unknown menace stalking the streets, preying on innocent children. That’s the main story of “The Black Phone” from “Dr. Strange” director Scott Derrickson and, despite being a “stranger danger” story, it may keep anyone seeing it looking over their shoulder for a black panel van for some time.

It’s 1978 and a child predator dubbed the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has abducted four children in their pre to early teens from the same high school. Finney (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live with their single, alcoholic, abuse father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) in a suburb of Denver. Finney and Gwen know most of the kids including the latest abductee Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who recently protected Finney from some school bullies. Gwen speaks to another abductee’s sister at school, telling her about a dream she had containing information the police hadn’t released to the public. Gwen gets a visit at school from Detectives Wright and Miller (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal), wondering how she knows what she knows, but are disappointed by her answer she saw it in a dream. While walking home from school, Finney is abducted by the Grabber and held in a concrete, soundproofed basement. There’s a black rotary phone on the wall, but the cord has been cut. After a day or so, the phone rings. When Finney answers it, he hears static, but the next call has the voice of a child. It’s one of the Grabber’s victims, trying to give Finney the information he needs to stay alive as long as possible.

“The Black Phone” is based on a short story from Joe Hill in his collection “20th Century Ghosts.” When a short story is adapted for a film, there are can be new bits added to flesh out the narrative to feature length as the inner monologue of the characters is lost in the transition. Some of it can be incorporated into dialog, but it is often set aside. Derrickson, and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, manage to avoid the pitfalls of adaption and provide a taut, tense, sometimes funny story of a deranged child snatcher and his latest abductee.

The biggest kudos need to rain down on the young actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw. They make Finney and Gwen likable, relatable and sympathetic for both the horrors of Finney’s abduction and the terrible homelife they have. Each tiptoe around their alcoholic father, attempting to drown his grief over the death of his wife, and the children’s mother, from suicide. He explodes with violent anger if they make too much noise or cause him any other issue. A scene where Gwen is beaten with a belt is painful and uncomfortable to watch as she’s wailing with pain and fear, tears streaming down her face twisted with agony. There’s a fire in Gwen that still burns through the abuse and McGraw allows it to burst to the surface in that scene.

Thames’s Finney is just trying to get through each day without drawing the ire of various bullies. He wants to impress a girl in his class but is usually the victim of some sort of beatdown. Finney is also determined, looking to take care of Gwen and his abusive father. It’s not an easy life, but Finney is doing the best he can. That determination is what aids him in dealing with the Grabber, along with the advice of the disembodied voices over a disconnected phone. His scenes in the basement of his abductor, and at home with dad, are two versions of Hell. One threatens to break him while the other may kill him. With the voices’ help, he might one day walk in the sunshine again. Thames is a very good young actor with a promising future ahead.

Ethan Hawke is super creepy as the Grabber. He constantly wears a mask when in the basement. Sometimes the mouth of the mask is smooth and blank. Other times, it’s in a big frown or a giant smile. His voice is sometimes singsong, sometimes gravelly, but always threatening. No matter what mood his mask or voice is in, Hawke is a perfect fit as the Grabber. We never know when the rage and desire to kill might appear and Hawke’s performance constantly keeps us guessing.

The story is constantly tense, even before Finney is abducted. At home or school, Finney is under threat, his senses heightened for the next attack. The random posters of missing boys spread all over town never lets us forget the danger lurking in the shadows. The police have no clues, and the next boy could be snatched any time. When Finney is taken, the tension is cranked up to the max and we wonder if we’ll ever breathe easily again. This movie is the kind that will give your hands a good workout as you constantly grip your theater seat arms.

“The Black Phone” is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some drug use. There are a couple of school fights that turn very bloody. Gwen is punched in the face in one of them. She also is beaten with a belt by her father. We don’t see her hit, but we hear it. The spirits of the Grabber’s dead victims show signs of injury. Finney is gassed unconscious and punched in the face by the Grabber. A secondary character is shown snorting cocaine in two scenes. Foul language is concentrated in a couple of scenes with Gwen being the most active curser. While praying for more dreams with clues to Finney’s location she says something along the lines of “What the f***, Jesus?!”

If you enjoy tense horror thrillers, I cannot more highly recommend “The Black Phone.” It is a wonder of atmosphere, writing and acting. While there are a few scenes where you may ask if what happens is possible, they aren’t so egregious as to ruin the film. I would recommend gathering as many friends as possible to go together to the theater as “The Black Phone” is an experience best had in a group.

“The Black Phone” gets five enthusiastic stars.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Jurassic World: Dominion”

The older I get, the more I realize greed ruins everything. Cutting corners to make arbitrary deadlines, budgets and profit margins is why you get disasters like the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Kansas City Hyatt skybridge collapse, plane crashes, car fires, space shuttle explosions and more. The need to profit from EVERYTHING leads to poor planning, poor decision making and bad judgements. Sometimes taking a risk is necessary but when it flies in the face of common sense and science, someone must be mature enough to say “stop.” The “Jurassic Park/World” movies are examples of hubris and greed run amok. The idea we could bring back dinosaurs from tens of millions of years ago, keep them in a contained environment and make money from them without losing control is a theme running through all six films, including the latest “Jurassic World: Dominion.” I suppose you could say the movies are a commentary on humanity’s blindness to its own limitations and its desire to make money. The same could be said for the film makers behind this convoluted, illogical and messy exercise.

Claire, Owen and the clone Maisie (Brice Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt and Isabella Sermon) live in an isolated cabin in the Sierra Nevada. Owen wrangles loose dinos in the area while Claire works to stop the illegal smuggling and breeding of dinosaurs. Maisie is bored and restless as she wants to explore the world but is forbidden to go “past the bridge” as people are looking to abduct and experiment on the only known human clone. Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) is studying the recent outbreak of giant, long extinct locusts that are decimating crops in the Midwest and could lead to a worldwide famine. Sattler notices the locusts don’t eat the crops from grain sold by bioengineering firm Biosyn, owned by Dr. Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott). Biosyn has started a research and containment facility for dinosaurs in Italy’s Dolomites mountains. Sattler suspects Biosyn created the giant locusts and approaches Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) to help gather evidence at Biosyn headquarters, thanks to an invitation from Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) who is a consultant at the company. Back in the Sierra Nevada, Maisie is kidnapped along with the velociraptor Blue’s baby named Beta. Claire and Owen begin a worldwide chase to find the girl they consider their daughter, and Beta, and everyone eventually winds up at Biosyn.

I’ve left out another page worth of plot summary, including a sassy cargo pilot, an ice-cold dinosaur broker, a straight-from-Central-Casting bad guy/kidnapper, and the return of Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) who has grown a conscience out of nowhere. The overstuffed plot, the massive number of characters and the enormous number of coincidences that must play out for everything in the story to come together make this the silliest of all the six films dealing with the recreation of dinosaurs from the ancient past with fragments of DNA gathered from a mosquito captured in amber…and that’s quite a feat.

Despite all the goofiness, “Jurassic World: Dominion” is never boring. The slower parts of the film with the story and emotional beats are quick and to the point. The next action scene is never far away. Whether it’s Owen on a motorcycle being chased by raptors trained to stay on a target until it’s dead, or Claire crawling on her belly in a forest trying to escape a Therizinosaurus, or an airplane attacked by Quetzalcoatlus, or a swarm of giant locusts that are on fire, or any number of other hair-raising adventures involving dinosaurs and humans, you will have little time for your mind to wander. This works in the film’s favor, as you pay less attention to the lack of logic, the not following its own rules and the overall silliness of the story.

Let’s first consider the stamina of raptors. A big part of the trailer shows Owen on a motorcycle being chased. To a lesser extent, Claire is also a target. This chase scene appears to cover miles through the city of Malta. The raptors are never far behind Owen, even chasing him into a cargo plane that is taxiing down a runway. These creatures appear to have extraordinary speed and the ability to run for days without rest. While I’m no expert on raptor physiology, I doubt they could sustain a chase for that long.

The famous line about how Tyrannosaurus rex vision was limited to moving prey is repeated then ignored almost instantly. There are several instances when a character is confronted by a dangerous carnivore but doesn’t take an apparently clear path to, at least, temporary safety. Maisie is shown in the trailer climbing a ladder with a protective cage around it but stops when a Giganotosaurus clamps down on the cage. I’m sure it would be very frightening to be almost entirely in a Giganotosaurus mouth, but stopping your climb seems like the last thing one would do. There are several other similar instances where characters pause to gawk at another dinosaur when safety is just a quick bolt away.

There’s also a scene, also in the trailer, where Owen and cargo plane pilot Kayla Watts (played by DeWanda Wise) are running across a frozen lake that’s cracking beneath their feet while being pursued by a feathered raptor. The raptor dives through a hole in the ice and is chasing them underwater. For NO GOOD REASON, both people jump in the air and Owen crashes through the ice. Why did they jump? There was nothing in front of them to avoid. Why?! It makes no sense. But that can be said for just about everything in the film.

“Jurassic World: Dominion” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, some violence and language. Dinosaurs chase various characters through the film. Some children are terrorized by a swarm of giant locusts and these bugs apparently bite. Locusts also attack a pair inside a research lab. A character is bitten on both hands by dinosaurs and then killed when a third chomps on his head. The black goo spitting dinosaurs from the original “Jurassic Park” make a pivotal return. Various extras are chomped and swallowed by the larger dinosaurs. Some of the attacking dinosaurs are stunned with a high-powered electric prod. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Having the casts of the original “Jurassic Park” and the “Jurassic World” trilogies combine (again by coincidence) was a nice thing to see. But that warm feeling only goes so far to soothe away the awfulness of this film. Maybe this creative team and the films’ producers Amblin Entertainment will allow this series to go extinct. With a worldwide gross of $389 million in the first few days of release, it’s likely we’ll revisit the creatures of an ancient era soon. I can only hope more thought and logic is put into future stories and the “Jurassic World” franchise manages to make a movie that has more depth than a 3D model of a T. rex.

“Jurassic World: Dominion” gets two stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Crimes of the Future”

What does it mean to be human? It seems like a simple question. You know a human when you see one. A great ape shares 99 percent of their DNA with humans, but they aren’t human. We are related by distant ancestors in the tree of life but branched off from that line a very long time ago. There were other, early versions of humans like Neanderthals, australopithecines, homo habilis, homo erectus and more. There’s evidence in our DNA of homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbreeding some 40,000 years ago. Were these offspring humans or something else? There are scientific answers to these questions, then there are emotional conclusions some of us draw. Racists like to focus their hate of religious, ethnic or racial groups they see as inhuman. Their hate doesn’t make any sense as every human is the same on the inside. However, what if, in some distant future, we begin changing. We start to grow new, heretofore unknown organs. Mysterious growths that aren’t tumors but have no apparent function. Are these people human? That’s one of the questions asked by writer director David Cronenberg in his new film “Crimes of the Future.”

Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) grows new, unknown organs in his weak, sickly body for no apparent reason and he’s not the only one. The condition is known as Accelerated Evolution Syndrome. Tenser has turned this unusual ability into performance art. His performance partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux) operates a futuristic operating bed and removes the organs in front of large groups of enthralled fans. Humanity has evolved to feel no pain and body modification has become a new art form. A new government agency tracks and registers anyone with these random mutations to protect humanity from whatever these people are. Tenser and Caprice meet with representatives of this agency, Wippet and Timlin (Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart). Timlin seems to be most attracted to Tenser and Caprice’s performances as she sees surgery as the new version of sex. No one knows that Tenser is working undercover with Detective Cope (Welket Bungué) who works in the New Vice department. A separatist group thinks this evolution should be embraced and encouraged. The leader Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), along with other members, have undergone extensive surgery allowing them to consume and digest plastics processed into purple bars. Dotrice has a son that was born with this ability, but he was murdered by his ex-wife. Dotrice wants Tenser and Caprice to perform a public autopsy on the boy to show the world the future of human evolution.

“Crimes of the Future” is just plain weird. It starts weird, it continues weird, and it ends weird. Cronenberg is known for his “body horror” films like “Scanners,” “Videodrome” and “The Fly,” along with his violent films starring Viggo Mortensen, “Eastern Promises” and “A History of Violence.” There’s always more going on in a Cronenberg film than it seems and the same is true for “Crimes of the Future.” It asks difficult questions about what it means to be human, how we judge others’ differences and to what extent are we willing to go for individualism. I’m sure there are more themes and questions I’m not smart enough to see, but I wonder if Cronenberg doesn’t bury his meanings under so much gore and shock we can’t recognize there’s more going on.

The performances by Mortensen, Seydoux and Stewart are mesmerizing. Mortensen, constantly cloaked in black, usually with his face covered, looking pale and frequently coughing, clearing his throat or choking, is playing a man in a changing world, attempting to stay one step ahead of the government, the police and the separatists. He sees himself, and others see him, as an artist, sharing his mutations with a world hungry for experiences outside the norm. Mortensen takes this character seriously. No matter who he’s talking to, Tenser holds his ground, making it clear he believes in what he’s doing. That makes his reports to Detective Cope odd. It’s outside what he espouses to Caprice and others in the performance art world. He’s a character of contradictions, but we believe and accept them.

Seydoux’s Caprice is Tenser’s equal partner. They create the art together, each unable to do it without the other, like a painter and his brush and paints or a sculptor his medium. Seydoux is beautiful and delicate, yet strong as steel. Caprice is both caretaker and manager for Tenser. She takes care of the technical side as Tenser grows the source for their art. Seydoux does a great deal with few scenes where she’s the focus.

Kristen Stewart is brilliant as Timlin. She’s all quirk and nervousness as Timlin is introduced to Tenser. She’s obviously fascinated by him and Caprice, apparently wanting to join the duo in some way. Stewart sucks up all the attention when she’s on screen. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Stewart always looks to be on the verge of exploding or acting violently, yet never letting herself. The audience wonders what’s percolating in her brain to give her such nervous energy. Is she uncomfortable in public settings or meeting new people? Is she enamored with the underground body modification scene but feels she can’t allow herself to take part? All these questions bubble up around Timlin. Sadly, none are answered.

The same can be said for the story. Questions are put forth, like why are people spouting new organs? Why is the government keeping track of those that do? What do they fear? I know it’s not every movie’s purpose to explain why things happen within the story. But “Crimes of the Future” never offers any explanation for anything. A few theories would have been appreciated, but Cronenberg doesn’t seem interested in providing any, just posing the question. Perhaps this is the point as there are no concrete answers for why we are the way we are, other than the generic “evolution.” There are theories that have some scientific basis, but we’ll never know for sure. The same can be said for “Crimes of the Future.”

“Crimes of the Future” is rated R for strong disturbing violent content and grisly images, graphic nudity and some language. A young boy is smothered to death with a pillow by his mother. Medical procedures are carried out on screen several times, some very graphic showing the cutting of flesh and removal of organs. A couple appears to have a sexual reaction to being cut by automated scalpels. A naked boy is shown having an autopsy. A man is shown with a wound in his head and blood dripping after being murdered. Another murder is shown as a character has two power drills bored into his head. Through the film we see three women fully nude and the corpse of a nude boy. Foul language is scattered.

This is the second film written and directed by David Cronenberg with the title “Crimes of the Future.” The first was in 1970 and the plot shares similar aspects with his new film. There are other similarities with other Cronenberg films, like the organic looking nature of some machinery in “Crimes of the Future” and “eXistenZ,” and the questioning of what makes humanity and is it a threat as in “Scanners.” I wonder is Cronenberg’s unique visual style may get in the way of his storytelling. While “Crimes of the Future” is interesting to watch, I don’t feel like I got much from it.

“Crimes of the Future” gets three stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Top Gun: Maverick”

I only recently watched “Top Gun” for the podcast my wife and I do, Comedy Tragedy Marriage (Season 2, Episode 39). Neither of us liked it. It was too filled with testosterone-soaked horn dogs looking to impresses each other and get laid. None of the characters rang true and the story was lackluster. Tom Cruise and his love interest, played by Kelly McGillis, had zero chemistry and the love scene was uncomfortable to watch as Cruise looked like he was trying to swallow McGillis whole when he kissed her. Even the scenes of fighter jets screaming low over the terrain was dull. Camera limitations being what they were in 1986 prevented the all over coverage today’s smaller devices can provide. I was totally uninterested when a sequel was announced, expecting more of the same swagger and male bravado that filled the first. Of course, times have changed, and the cast isn’t just a bunch of white guys with abs and flattop haircuts. Various ethnicities are represented and there are a couple of women amongst the pilots. There is still plenty of peacocking and showing off between the candidates for a mission they may not come back from, but there is a maturity and seriousness in Cruise that was missing in the first film. He’s not the same Maverick we met 36 years ago. While he’s still a cocky and rule-breaking maverick (pardon the expression), he’s also looking mortality in the face, realizing he must teach these pilots how to push their jets and themselves beyond what they’ve ever done as this will be his last chance to prove all his recklessness is the only way to get the impossible done. “Top Gun: Maverick” is a far superior film to its predecessor.

Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is a test pilot for the Navy. When he destroys a multi-billion-dollar aircraft while pushing it beyond its limits, Maverick expects this to be his last ride, but he’s surprised to receive orders from Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) to report to Top Gun school as a new instructor. Arriving at his new posting, Maverick meets Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) who informs him he didn’t want Maverick for the position, but Maverick’s old rival and friend Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Val Kilmer) insisted. Maverick will prepare a dozen Top Gun school graduates for a suicide mission to destroy a uranium enrichment facility behind enemy lines before it becomes operational. The mission requires high-speed, low-altitude flying, high-G maneuvers and precision bombing of a small target. Out of the dozen pilots, only six will be selected with the rest being on stand-by. On top of the natural competitiveness between the pilots, there’s a personal grudge held by Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late RIO and best friend Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards, seen in photos and footage from the first film). Maverick pulled Rooster’s application to the Naval Academy at the request of his late mother Carole (Meg Ryan, seen in photos and footage from the first film), delaying his career by four years. Maverick must navigate the egos of his young pilots, like Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) and Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), and Rooster’s animosity, while teaching them the skills to keep them alive. Maverick must also deal with the wreckage of a past relationship with Hard Deck bar owner Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).

I wasn’t expecting much from “Top Gun: Maverick” and I’m pleasantly surprised to be completely wrong. From the first scene of Maverick piloting an experimental jet past its limits to the conclusion, this movie is the kind of thrill ride that’s currently only delivered by comic book movies. However, much of the spectacle of the film is created using real fighter jets with the actors in the cockpits. When the film is released on blu ray, the bonus features will likely last for days as the movie is reported to have shot over 800 hours of footage. The aerial scenes of training dogfights and battles with the story’s enemy create an excitement and tension that was missing from the original film. I could feel myself clenching as the pilots tried to outmaneuver their instructor and the enemy. I would imagine seeing the film in IMAX or in motion-controlled seating might lead to some air/motion sickness for some in the audience. The film is something of a technical marvel.

It also treats fans of the original film to some cameos, both from archival footage and new scenes. The most touching is with Val Kilmer. Kilmer, who in real life battled throat cancer and whose voice is greatly diminished, returns as Iceman, a Vice-Admiral and a friend and mentor of Maverick’s. Kilmer’s cancer battle is worked into his character and he and Cruise have a heartfelt reunion. This scene works not only because of the nostalgia some feel for the characters, but also the real-life bravery of Kilmer appearing in a film and showcasing his raspy voice as a part of his on-going story. I enjoyed this scene, even feeling a bit of emotion well up, which is capped off with a joke about their old rivalry. It makes a lovely conclusion to their former selves.

Where the film comes up a bit short is the love story between Maverick and his old flame Penny. I don’t know what it is about Cruise and his leading ladies, but I can never see what would attract a woman to his characters. Jennifer Connelly’s Penny is appropriately playful, keeping Maverick at arm’s length as she has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Maverick isn’t pushy, like in the first film with Kelly McGillis’s Charlie, and his charm eventually wears her down. I still don’t see what her character sees in Maverick as he’s broken her heart before, but at least their relationship isn’t as cringe-inducing as the first film.

The other supporting characters fill out roles like the first film, with Hangman taking on the Iceman role. Rooster has a character arc reminiscent of Maverick’s from the original. The rest of the cast are placeholders, filling whatever the script calls for at any given time. Most of the large cast is wasted in minimal roles.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some strong language. The dogfight scenes are very tense, as mentioned above. There is some shirtless (except for a couple of characters) football on the beach, replacing the shirtless volleyball of the first film. There is one physical altercation between a couple of characters, but it is stopped before any punches are thrown. Foul language is mild and scattered.

I really didn’t think I’d enjoy “Top Gun: Maverick.” The years have softened Maverick, making him more serious, but still willing to break whatever rules he feels stand in the way of the mission. He knows this is probably his last chance to make a difference and he makes sure to pass his knowledge and bravado on to the next generation. While the love story doesn’t feel organic and much of the cast is relegated to seat-fillers, “Top Gun: Maverick” works on almost every level as an exciting action movie and “rah-rah, blow up the bad guys” romp. See it on the big screen…the bigger the better.

“Top Gun: Maverick” gets four stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Firestarter”

Eleven-year-old Charlene “Charlie” McGee (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) is the apple of her parents’ eyes. Her father Andy (Zac Efron) and her mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) met in college. Both were subjects of experiments in ESP and telekinesis. They were also given an experimental drug from a secret defense company called DSI. It enhanced their abilities and allowed them to pass it on to their Charlie. Charlie can generate and transmit high levels of heat and fire without burning herself. The McGee family stays low key and off the grid as possible to avoid DSI from finding them and continuing experiments on Charlie or worse, turning her into a weapon. When Charlie loses control at school one day, the director of DSI, Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) sends a DSI’s “fixer,” John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to capture the family, or at least Charlie, and bring them back to the facility. Rainbird kills Vicky and eventually runs down Andy and Charlie, but Charlie gets away. Left on her own, Charlie begins to hone her abilities and plans to free her father and exact revenge on everyone involved in killing her mother.

Stephen King’s 1980 novel “Firestarter” was first adapted for the screen in 1984 starring David Keith as Andy, Drew Barrymore as Charlie, Heather Locklear as Vicky, and, for some reason, George C. Scott as the Native American Rainbird. A TV miniseries about a grown-up Charlie cast the English actor Malcolm McDowell as Rainbird. At least in this version, a Native American actor was cast as a Native American. Sadly, that’s about the only thing that was done correctly as this version of “Firestarter” is a dull slog.

Having watched the film in a theater (you can also stream it on Peacock), I was surprised about how dead it looks. A movie about a pyrokinetic girl and her psychically gifted parents should pop off the screen and fill the audience with wonder. Pop and wonder are missing from this adaption of King’s eighth published book.

A few scenes have some energy to them. When we see Andy use his abilities as a “life coach” helping people quit smoking, the sound of him popping his neck as he performs what he calls a “push” is startling. He enters people’s minds and rearranges their thoughts to make them do what he wants. Afterwards, Andy’s eyes bleed and we see his “gift” takes a physical toll. It’s an intriguing idea that is reduced to a sideshow carnival act by a script that feels like it’s in a hurry to get somewhere without knowing where to go. The first time we see Charlie shoot fire by blowing up a school restroom suggests some real fireworks to come. However, only a few times is what the child does impressive. One expression of her power comes at the expense of a cat that scratches her. It gives Andy the chance to explain that her powers can kill innocent people, even if she doesn’t mean to. However, the scene comes off as a cold and cruel example of what she can do as the cat isn’t killed with the first blast. It is suffering until Charlie finishes the job at her father’s direction. I know the cat they show burned is animatronic and didn’t feel a thing, but this scene was unnecessary given what had come before.

If you enjoy gore in your sci-fi/horror movies, “Firestarter” has a fair bit of it. The burned flesh effects are very gross and look realistic. There are at least three scenes featuring the victims of Charlie’s powers. All other fire effects are done on bigger scales with buildings burning or blowing up. Even this doesn’t manage to instill any excitement as it is just fire for fire’s sake. There’s no meaning attached to most of the big effects. They look to have been added to use up the gasoline and propane budget.

“Firestarter” is rated R for violent content. There are several shootings that lead to death or painful injury. Some of the shootings are head shots. We see the aftermath of Charlie’s abilities on several people. Some show blistered and oozing skin while others are blackened corpses. The most troubling for me was the cat. Foul language is scattered but consists mostly of the f-word.

Since the success of “IT: Chapter 1,” several of Stephen King’s novels and stories are getting TV or big screen treatments. Bryan Fuller is working on a new version of “Christine,” and “Salem’s Lot” along with a “Pet Semetary” prequel are in various stages of development. I’m hopeful for these and any other projects working to bring King’s stories to the big or small screen. I’m also hopeful they are better than this lackluster version of “Firestarter.” If you want to see a better attempt at the story, watch the 1984 film or read the book and let the images dance around in your head. While it isn’t unwatchable, the new “Firestarter” ever takes alight.

“Firestarter” gets two stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

Grief can be debilitating. When my parents died less than 11 months apart, I tried to bury my feelings deep inside. I thought it would make it easier to deal with their loss if I chose to ignore the pain and remembered them as the invincible beings they were in the prime of their lives, not the sick and frail mortals they became. Unfortunately, grief is an emotion that always collects its bounty. I would lash out in anger at my coworkers for minor issues that weren’t worth the effort. I found everyday life to be unbearable at times. It wasn’t fair that everyone was going on like nothing happened and I was suffering this unimaginable and seemingly targeted loss of the two people who had been there all my life. Looking back, that mindset feels very immature and selfish. Most people will lose a close loved one eventually. None of us lives forever, including our parents. Neither were perfect, but they were my mom and dad, and that was good enough for me. I saw a professional, explained how I was feeling and got what I needed to balance my moods. I highly recommend contacting a mental health professional if you feel like your life is something you just get through. That got heavier than I meant it to. I said all that to say this, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a comic book movie that looks at grief and the extremes someone might go to trying to minimize it. Even if it means taking another’s life and possibly destroying the multiverse.

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is having a dream about a young woman being chased by a fiery demon through a weird other dimension. After attending the wedding of his former romantic partner Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). he sees this woman, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), being attacked by what looks like a giant octopus. With help from Wong (Benedict Wong), the two sorcerers defeat the creature. They learn America can open doorways to other dimensions but cannot control when it happens. Strong emotions like fear are frequently the trigger. Strange is told by America, his dream wasn’t a dream. She and another universe’s Doctor Strange were being chased by that demon as they tried to get the Book of Vishanti, a spell book that gives a sorcerer exactly what he needs to defeat an enemy. Wong realizes America is being chased by a powerful wielder of magic. Strange goes to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) for help protecting America and her power. Wanda reveals she’s the one trying to gain America’s power so she can go to another universe and be with her two boys, Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne), from the grief-induced fantasy world she created. Unable to defeat Wanda in her form as Scarlett Witch, America accidentally transports herself and Strange to Earth-838 where they hope to get help defeating Wanda from Strange’s old frenemy, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Sorcerer Supreme in this alternate universe.

That’s just the beginning of the weirdness in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” It is a film that runs, including credits, just over two hours, but contains enough ideas and concepts to fill at least two movies. Director Sam Raimi, who came in when original director Scott Derrickson left due to creative differences, is no stranger to genre filmmaking. His “Evil Dead” films were low-budget gems, and his “Spider-Man” trilogy starring Tobey Maguire is credited with kicking off the bonanza of comic book films were in now. Raimi understands the need for spectacle and flash in genre films. Perhaps that gets in the way of storytelling in this film, along with numerous cameos and fan service, but the movie does deliver on thrills and pulls together various aspects of Marvel’s TV and cinematic properties. In other words, fans will love it, while critics will thumb their noses at “more of the same.”

The film is visually striking in all aspects. The special effects dazzle as well as confuse at times. The visualization of passing through numerous universes as is seen early in the film may bend one’s mind as we see a universe that is 2D animated, looks like a cubist painting, and is entirely underwater, among others. The concept of an infinite multiverse, where anything can and does happen, is the realm of quantum and theoretical physics. There is math to support the hypothesis, but there’s likely no way we’ll ever know in our lifetimes. That’s why imaginative filmmakers like Raimi show us what they might be like in the context of superheroes.

The numerous CGI battles in the film can get tedious. The audience knows Scarlett Witch will win until the film’s final showdown, but we must get there somehow. Fortunately, there is always something in these fights that makes them marginally interesting. We are introduced to the Illuminati, a kind of board of directors for the multiverse. The fight involving them is fun if predictable. There are cameos and dream casting that is done in this scene. I personally enjoyed seeing the return of some actors and the introduction of others. I’m not sure any of the Illuminati will be back for any future installments, so this may have to satisfy all those wanting appearances from characters introduced in other Marvel TV projects and the wishful thinking of the internet.

The performances from the main cast are strong and never disappoint. Benedict Cumberbatch is suave and cool as always. His easy style is a perfect fit for Doctor Strange. While he was a big part of “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” I hope he gets more solo films as is teased in the mid-credits scene (there is a short post-credits scene that pays off a joke). Benedict Wong’s Wong is the perfect foil for Cumberbatch’s Strange. While their characters are frequently at odds, their chemistry, friendship and mutual respect is never in question. Wong deserves a bigger role, perhaps a solo film of his own, in the MCU. The addition of Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez is a breath of fresh air. As we get deeper into Phase Five of the MCU, we’re going to need the introduction of new characters, and Ms. Gomez fits right in with our established heroes. Her character is just mastering her powers, but her abilities could make for a powerful addition to Marvel’s stable of female and POC heroes.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language. We see a version of Doctor Strange killed by a monster. A giant octopus-like creature is killed when its eyeball is pulled out with an improvised spear. A dead character is revived, and we see how decay has destroyed part of its body. Various evil spirits attack characters. Several heroes are killed in various graphic ways during one fight scene. Foul language is scattered and mild.

There is so much going on in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” nothing gets the attention it needs to be fully fleshed out. However, what we do see and learn about the high strangeness of Marvel’s multiverse does open the door for all kinds of story and character offshoots. There are multiverses where Loki rules Midgard, Ultron wiped out humanity and Thanos’ snap wasn’t undone. We may get peaks at those other realities and the brave varieties of other heroes trying to save what little remains or undo the damage that’s been done. This more thorough introduction to the multiverse kicks the door wide open for more stories, more villains and more heroes. The possibilities are infinite.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” gets four stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) are immigrants running a failing laundromat and facing an IRS audit performed by the very picky Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) while also coming to grips with their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) dating a woman named Becky (Tallie Medel). Adding to the pressure, Evelyn’s father, referred to by the Chinese word for “grandfather”, Gong Gong (James Hong), is visiting. On the elevator ride to the audit, Waymond begins acting odd. He writes down instructions for Evelyn to follow that make no sense and tells her he’s not her husband but a person from another reality and she’s the only person that can save the multiverse from a growing threat called Jobu Tupaki. Evelyn thinks Waymond has gone insane, but a series of events leads her to believe his crazy story and she begins fighting to preserve all realities across the multiverse.

It makes even less sense when you see “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” The film requires a great deal of patience on the part of the viewer, but you will be rewarded with a witty, imaginative, entertaining thrill ride…up to a point.

Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Stephanie Hsu all turn in amazing performances, making the insanity of hopping from one reality to another, with a new set of skills depending on the need at the time, into a coherent story with relatable characters, complicated relationships, and understandable situations. It would be like putting three distinct kinds of cake into a blender, mixing them up, then picking out only the bits from one of the cakes. It is at times a mess and not always worth the effort, but it leads to something delicious if you have the time.

The film makers don’t seem to know how to bring all the chaos to an end. There is an actual fake ending that looks like credits are rolling, but the actors names are their character names. We are seeing a different reality where Evelyn is a famous actor in martial arts films. Characters die, but only in one reality, so we aren’t sure if this is a real ending or not. The film runs out of steam and begins crafting endings for the various realities we’ve visited. There are dozens of realities visited in the movie and soon it’s difficult to keep track of one from another.

When we finally, FINALLY reach a conclusion after two-plus hours of mayhem, it feels as if the writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, billed as Daniels, aren’t sure what to do. We get a squishy, feel-good, kumbaya ending that feels wrong. If Jobu Tupaki is this malevolent evil looking to annihilate all reality, it seems like a firm hug and an “I love you” shouldn’t be enough to solve the problem. Maybe I’m too cynical and want all my finales to feel earned and justified. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” takes the easy way to a happy conclusion, not a satisfying one.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is rated R for some violence, sexual material and language. There is numerous fights throughout the film. There is very little gore. The sexual material is the use of two cylindrical items in a bizarre way. Foul language is scattered, but the “F-word” is used a couple of times.

I really wanted to love “Everything Everywhere All at Once” as it has an unusual premise and features Michelle Yeoh, an actor deserving of much more fame and recognition than she has received over her long career. Real critics universally love it, and we all suggest you see it. However, I think it could be tightened up by about 20 minutes and the ultimate ending could be better. It deserves your money and eyeballs but be prepared to leave the theater wondering if it couldn’t be improved.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” gets 3.5 stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Morbius”

Problem children can make a family’s life a living nightmare. Fortunately, my brother, sister and I were no more or less troublesome than average. A kid that lived next door to me was, however, a different story. While my sister was driving me home one early evening after a day out, we passed a very large car coming in the opposite direction. It nearly hit us, but we hugged the shoulder and the rocky hill it was cut from and avoided a collision. The other car overcorrected and drove down the embankment on the other side and rolled over. We both recognized the car as belonging to our next-door neighbor. We stopped to check if anyone was hurt and discovered the driver and occupant of the car was our neighbor’s son and his friend. They were both a year younger than I and not old enough to drive. The neighbor’s son was at the wheel as it was his parent’s car. Neither boy was injured, but I’m sure they would have preferred a stay in the hospital compared to punishment coming from their parents. The neighbor kid continued getting into scrapes with the law for drinking underage, possession of weed and other offenses. I believe he eventually straightened out, but I’m not 100-percent sure as we’ve been out of contact for decades now. The point is, no matter how hard we try to point others in the right direction, there will be people, even in our own family, that choose a different, more difficult path. Perhaps the makers of the Sony/Marvel film “Morbius” didn’t try to follow a tortuous path to getting the film made and released (and the pandemic didn’t help), but they have given us a long gestating, and utterly average, superhero origin film.

Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) has a rare incurable blood disorder that requires three transfusions a day to keep him alive. He’s weak and only walks with canes. He’s working at Horizon labs, treating other patients with his condition and doing research trying to find a cure. He also developed a blood substitute used during emergencies and on the battlefield, for which Michael is awarded the Nobel Prize. His colleague, Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Ajorna) discovers Michael has captured dozens of vampire bats and is trying to splice a specific section of their DNA into his own to cure his disease. He gets funding from long-time friend and fellow blood disorder sufferer Lucien (Matt Smith), whom Michael has called Milo since the two were in the same hospital as boys. Michael and Martine conduct experiments in international waters on a massive cargo ship. The experiments prove successful, but Michael has an unquenchable thirst for blood and kills the crew of mercenaries on the ship, leaving Martine alive. FBI agents Simon Stroud and Alberto Rodriguez (Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal) investigate the deaths and want to find Michael. Michael sneaks into his lab where Lucien/Milo visits. Milo steals a vial of the cure and injects himself, enjoying the feeling of power his newfound vampire-like abilities gives him, but killing a nurse closely connected to Michael. Milo wants to enjoy his powers and kills indiscriminately. Michael feels like it’s his duty to stop his former friend, now mortal enemy.

I am unsure where to begin talking about “Morbius” many shortcomings, so let’s start with the story. It is very unfocused. While we get the usual trappings of a character getting their powers, the way it’s presented is scattered to the point where a scene that’s in the trailer and has been for a couple of years that also appears in the movie doesn’t look like it fits anywhere in the narrative. I had to read the Wikipedia page of the film to figure out what part the scene in South America with the vampire bats meant to the plot.

There’s also no clear motivation for either the villain or the hero. Is Milo going to just live a hedonistic life of drinking blood and partying with supermodels? While Morbius wants to stop Milo from feeding on all of New York City, what does Morbius plan on doing with his powers afterward? There’s talk of the doctor killing himself with a potion concocted in a makeshift lab, but that gets tossed out the window never mentioned. What is the point of this character? This movie doesn’t know.

In the comics, Morbius begins life as a Spider-Man villain and then morphs into an anti-hero. Comics can reboot and retcon characters whenever they like to fit the needs of a changing market as the cost of producing a new comic book is relatively low. Movies have a much bigger problem as they only come out after years of preproduction/production/postproduction and millions of dollars in costs. The character of Morbius must be locked in and have a foreseeable path of sequels and team up films (as the two mid-credits scenes appear to tease), but we don’t know what kind of character he is by the end of the film. He fights the bad guy but only for a very specific reason. Where does he go from here?

Finally, let’s discuss the special effects. When Morbius uses his powers to travel, he is followed by color trails that match what he’s wearing. He sometimes can “poof” from one location to another. When it’s just him, it looks pretty good. However, when he’s battling an enemy, it all becomes a blurry mess. The action is slowed down to a crawl at times to give us a clearer picture of what the character or characters are doing, but otherwise, it’s just a guess. The finale felt truncated and uninspiring, in part because a colony of bats is used to hide lackluster action and CGI. For a film that was postponed so many times it is odd no one thought to use the time to clean up the digital effects.

“Morbius” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, some frightening images, and brief strong language. I’m not sure “intense” is the correct word for the violence in the film. We see Morbius and Milo attacking people numerous times. Blood is minimal, but you can hear squishing sounds implying there is a great deal of it. A character is slashed across the abdomen, but we only see blood stains on his shirt. Smaller children may find Morbius’ and Milo’s vampire face frightening. Foul language is mild and scattered.

While I liked Andrew Garfield’s two Spider-Man films (not as much as Tobey Maguire’s), there is considerable talk on the internet that Sony hasn’t made a great superhero film since 2004’s “Spider-Man 2.” While it’s all subjective, I can’t disagree. The “Venom” films have been commercial successes but critical failures (again, I enjoyed both). All three of Tom Holland’s solo Spider-Man films have basically been Disney/Marvel movies and they have all been great. Perhaps Sony and Disney can work out a similar deal as they have for Spider-Man and Marvel characters appearing in each studio’s films, but also mostly be made by Disney. Morbius could be an interesting addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (#MCU), but in Sony’s standalone Spider-Verse, he’s an anemic shadow of what could be.

“Morbius” gets two stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “The Batman”

Parents are the multi-headed beasts of all our lives.  When we are young, for most of us, they are our protectors and heroes.  Then for many, they become our antagonist when we enter our teenage and young adult years.  Then, when we are adults out of the house, some of us learn two things about the folks:  They were fallible humans doing the best they could, and they are pretty good people.  I know many grew up in awful, abusive environments with selfish, toxic parents who could not care less about raising their kids.  Fortunately, I was raised by two relatively normal people.  Each had their faults and shortcomings, but overall, they were good people.  My mom was a sweetheart and my security blanket growing up.  Dad could be gruff and didn’t understand having a son that preferred watching TV to helping him work on a car engine.  As they got older, their roles reversed, with my mom being more critical of my weight and career choices and dad being far more laid back about everything.  Neither deserved the way the end of their lives turned out.  Dad developed Alzheimer’s and slowly drifted away over seven years, becoming more and more of something that resembled a zombie than a man who could pull out, repair and install a car engine.  Mom was his primary caretaker all through that battle.  Then, shortly after he passed, her colon cancer returned in her liver.  She died less than a year after dad.  Neither were powerful figures in our community, and nothing has come out in the 20 years since their deaths to show there were anything buy a husband, wife and parents trying to keep a roof over their heads and their kids warm, fed and educated.  Things are a bit more complicated for a certain billionaire orphan in the gritty, crime-filled city of Gotham in “The Batman.”

Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) in his disguise as the Batman has been patrolling the streets of Gotham City for two years.  Criminals and citizens alike know the bat symbol shining on the city’s ever-present clouds means the vigilante could be anywhere, prowling in the shadows looking for criminals to beat up.  Gotham City Police Detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) involves Batman in some of his investigations, much to the chagrin of his superiors.  When Gotham City Mayor Don Mitchell, Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones) is murdered by an enigmatic killer calling himself Riddler (Paul Dano), Gordon brings Batman to the crime scene, angering Police Commissioner Pete Savage (Alex Ferns), but the killer left Batman a card containing a riddle and an encoded answer.  Batman solves the riddle and knows the coded answer may be the key to a larger cypher of the killer.  More of Gotham City’s elite become victims of the Riddler and they all may be connected to the city’s crime gangs and the drug trade.  Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a waitress at the Iceberg Lounge, run by a criminal nicknamed Penguin (Colin Farrell), catches Batman’s eye as she works.  He follows her to her apartment and watches as she comforts a distraught young woman.  Batman recognizes her as a woman seen in photographs with Mayor Mitchell who appears to be beat up and bleeding.  Catching her during a break-in, Batman and Selina form an uneasy partnership, trying to get to the bottom of the connection of Riddler’s victims and how all of Gotham’s secrets could rip the city apart.

“The Batman” was almost a very different movie.  It was originally conceived as a part of the Zack Snyder DC Extended Universe (DCEU) that included “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League.”  Ben Affleck would continue in his role as Batman.  He would also write and direct.  As the “Snyderverse” began to implode after the colossal failure of “Justice League” as redesigned by Joss Whedon, the whole idea of a connected DC movie universe began to fall apart.  The successes of “Wonder Woman,” “Shazam” and “Aquaman” as stand-alone films with sequel potential, and Affleck deciding to give up being Batman, meant Warner Bros. could create profitable franchise movies that didn’t need to follow the model set by Disney and Marvel with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  Affleck left the film as both director and star, and director Matt Reeves was brought in to remold the story in a new image, focusing on a younger Batman trying to figure out how best he can protect the people of Gotham.  It was more focused on the detective side of the character with limited big action set pieces. 

The casting of Robert Pattinson was met with a great deal of internet skepticism, including from myself.  How could the sparkly vampire actor pull off a gritty, violent, broken creature like Batman.  The collective internet owes Mr. Pattinson an apology as his portrayal is everything we didn’t know we wanted from the Dark Knight.  The broken, gaunt appearance of Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is something even the best comic book writer and artist would have difficulty creating on the page.  This Batman is a hollow shell, filled with rage and taking it out on the criminals of Gotham’s dark, rain-soaked streets. 

Pattinson’s first appearance in the suit is the oft-seen fight between Batman and some thugs in clown face paint.  He beats down the lead punk and says, “I’m vengeance.”  They then surround him and, while he eventually wins, he takes some punches that leave the final outcome in doubt.  This Batman isn’t the seasoned martial artist and fight tactician we normally see.  He’s also not in a close and loving relationship with Alfred, played by Andy Serkis.  They are frequently at odds, with Bruce saying, “You’re not my father” as one point.  This Bruce Wayne is angry, somewhat spoiled, and certain he can fight crime his way, without anyone’s guidance.

Much of Pattinson’s performance is in the script by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig, who approach this Batman as a work in progress.  He’s still dealing with the loss of his parents after 20 years and has ignored everything else in life except his need to punish villains.  This is the Batman hinted at in other portrayals by Michael Keaton and Christian Bale, but Pattinson, via Reeves and Craig’s script, puts the pain on his face in every frame.

The performances of the main and supporting cast are remarkable.  Colin Farrell, buried under prosthetics and a fat suit, is unrecognizable as Penguin.  Even his voice appears to have a costume as his Irish accent is nowhere to be found.  Zoe Kravitz also plays pain well as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.  Her sad backstory is its own subplot.  Pattinson and Kravitz have a sizzling chemistry that needs more exploration.  Jeffrey Wright is a fun Jim Gordon.  He knows he’s breaking all the rules letting Batman into crime scenes, but if it gets the job done, he doesn’t care.  His character will feature in a spinoff show about GCPD on HBOMax.  Paul Dano’s Riddler is a wonderous creation.  He’s clearly insane, brilliant and, like Batman, broken, but in a different, evil way.  Dano plays these off-kilter characters so well I wonder about his sanity.

“The Batman” is rated PG-13 for strong violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language, and some suggestive material.  There are numerous fights, beatings and killings but most are bloodless.  Batman is shot several times with guns and a shotgun, but his suit is bulletproof.  There’s an R-rated film bubbling just under the surface.  A drug called “drops” that are dripped in the eyes is shown being used.  Alcohol is also shown being consumed.  The suggestive material features Batman watching Selina changing into her cat suit.  She is shown in her underwear.  Foul language is scattered and mostly mild, but there is one use of the “F-word.”

The story is a bit convoluted with the crimes all leading to a massive action scene that left me thinking about our current political situation and misinformation on the internet.  I promise, that will make more sense after you see it.  By the end, I was satisfied all the loose ends had been wrapped up with the film leaving a bread crumb or two about a possible villain for the sequel.  If this is the first of a trilogy of Batman films, I feel certain the Dark Knight is in good shape to continue as a flawed beacon of justice that drives a badass car.  He just needs a few more of those wonderful toys.

“The Batman” gets five bat-shaped stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Studio 666” and More

I turned 60 years old on my last birthday. I’ve never been this old so I’m not sure how to behave. I enjoy playing video games, watching some cartoons, seeing gory, violent movies and listening to music that I’m at least 25 years too old for. For instance, my top three bands are Shinedown, Fall Out Boy (inside I’m a 15-year-old emo girl), and Foo Fighters. I was a youngster of 29 when Dave Grohl and his Nirvana bandmates released “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and my mind was opened to a new form of expression through music. There had always been angry, aggressive rock songs, but nothing like what I heard from that track. After Kurt Cobain’s suicide, I thought I’d never hear of Dave Grohl again (if I even knew his name before). Then Foo Fighters exploded on the scene. While not as grungy and raw as Nirvana, Foo Fighters radio singles were still straightforward rock that wouldn’t punch you in the face but would shove you a bit. My favorite song of theirs is “Learn to Fly.” Through various combinations of members, personality conflicts, artistic differences and at least one member’s trip to rehab, Foo Fighters have been consistently releasing great albums and Dave Grohl, at least from way outside, appears to be a quality guy. When I heard the band was making a horror movie, I knew it was, for me, a must see. But was it worth the trip across town to one of the few theaters showing “Studio 666” locally?

Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Pat Smear, Chris Shiflett and Rami Jaffee) are under pressure from their manager Jeremy Shill (Jeff Garlin) to quickly record their 10th studio album. Grohl says the album resides in all the band members’ heads and they just need a new and magical place to record it. Shill contacts real estate agent Barb Weems (Leslie Grossman) and she shows the band a rundown estate in Encino. While it looks like no one has been there in years, the house has the sound Grohl is looking for and he agrees to rent it for the duration of recording. As the band moves in and prepares to start recording, Grohl notices strange noises and a mysterious “groundskeeper” wandering the property. Next door neighbor Samantha (Whitney Cummings) welcomes the band and makes a nuisance of herself. Grohl can’t come up with new ideas and sounds for their album when he discovers a tape recording in the basement of an unfinished rock song. There’s also a raccoon sacrifice hanging on the wall with its blood dripping into a floor drain and black, smoky demons appearing from nowhere, but Grohl is obsessed with this song and a need to complete it. Grohl’s obsession with the never-ending song begins to tear Foo Fighters apart and may lead to the breakup of the band…permanently.

“Studio 666” is based on a story idea from Dave Grohl. While all the members of Foo Fighters have acted to some extent in music videos and cameo appearances, none is experienced, and it really shows in the movie. There are some very awkward line readings, reactions and attempts to look frightened. It is at times difficult to watch. All that said, “Studio 666” is fun to a point. After that point is passed (after the second “ending”), it is diminishing returns.

I’ll give Grohl and the rest of Foo Fighters credit: They don’t mind looking silly on a movie screen. Rami Jaffee comes closest to stealing the film. His hippie, New Age keyboardist character version is unafraid to show off his woowoo side, along with his chest hair trimmed into a heart shape and pouch-accentuating bikini briefs. Aside from Grohl, the rest of the band tries to act like adults in an unusual situation. Pat Smear is the most obvious fish out of water. He frequently has a goofy half-smile on his face and looks like he’d rather be anyplace but in this movie.

Grohl does most of the heavy lifting of the story and performance. He’s not great but I never felt sorry for him as he did his best to embody a musician possessed by an artistic desire to create and an evil, bloodthirsty demon. The Foo front man has been performing for decades in clubs, theaters, arenas and stadiums. Each of those venues requires a level of energy and Grohl is used to meeting and exceeding what the audience wants. Having a movie camera in your face requires a performance that is more controlled and nuanced. Grohl can do the big, screaming, bombastic parts well. It’s when he needs to bring the emotion and energy down to living room size that he often fails.

If you’re not interested in the quality of acting, perhaps the humor is what you’re coming for. The laughs are scattered and infrequent, largely coming from the side performers like Will Forte, Whitney Cummings and a cameo from Lionel Richie. There are a few funny moments between the band members, but otherwise the script from Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes is bereft of any noticeable humor.

If gore is more your desire, “Studio 666” provides that in concentrated chunks (figuratively and literally). The film starts with a flashback to 1993 and the bludgeoning death of a young woman with a hammer. There’s also the sacrificed raccoon, the cannibalism, projectile vomiting, double death via chainsaw and more. The gore effects at times look cheap and the geysers of blood from a couple of decapitations seemed overdone, but if you’re hoping to see death by cymbal, this is the movie for you.

“Studio 666” is rated R for strong bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, and sexual content. Aside from what I’ve mentioned above, the film contains a decapitated dead body posed with its intestines draped over the limbs, a character’s face jammed onto a hot barbeque grill, a wire poked into an eye, a knife jammed through a character’s head, a head crushed by a van, a character electrocuted and more. The sexual content is brief, comedic and interrupted by a grizzly death. Foul language is frequent.

The movie has three definitive endings. Following any one of them, the screen could have cut to the credits, but we must sit through all three before the curse of “Studio 666” is finally lifted. “Curse” might be a strong word as the film isn’t that bad, it just isn’t that good. If you’re paying your hard-earned money for a movie, you should get the best experience possible. On the other hand, if the participation of Foo Fighters is enough to get you to buy a ticket, hand over the cash and enjoy the ride. But be warned: Your enjoyment may be fleeting.

“Studio 666” gets two and a half bloody stars out of five.

Here are some quick thoughts about other recent films:

“The Cursed” is a variation of the werewolf story. After a group of gypsies is massacred by noblemen in the late 19th Century in a land dispute, the children of the nobles begin having the same nightmare of a scarecrow and some buried silver teeth. Then the disappearances and deaths begin.

“The Cursed” is pretty well executed in a “Hammer” horror way. The scares are more atmospheric, and characters are clearly delineated as either good or bad. It mostly works except for the horrible decisions characters make about leaving guns propped against open doors, not telling the nobleman at the center of the mystery about the blood-soaked sheets hanging on the wash line, and the incomprehensible need for everyone to investigate strange noises coming from upstairs or downstairs or the barn or the woods. The creature design is unique and horrifying.

“The Cursed” is rated R and gets four stars out of five.

“Death on the Nile” features pretty and rich people plotting against each other over money and love…or something. Only master detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) can untangle the deception that leads to murder.

The scenery is lovely, and the production design is sumptuous, but all the costumes and sets and attractive people cannot make this retelling of Agatha Christie’s murder tale remotely interesting. It doesn’t help that one of the methods the murderer uses to throw off suspicion is given away early. I enjoy Poirot as a character and Branagh is a joy to watch as the somewhat OCD detective, but “Death on the Nile” is far from a killer.

“Death on the Nile” is rated PG-13 and gets two stars out of five.

“Moonfall” is insane. The moon is an artificial object made by aliens to protect developing life on Earth from a sentient artificial intelligence of the alien’s creation. The AI finds us and causes the moon to fall from its orbit, so it destroys all life on Earth. A fired astronaut, his former space shuttle crewmate and a conspiracy theorist must fly to the moon in a retired shuttle and stop our satellite from crashing upon us.

Almost all science gets ignored in “Moonfall” for sci-fi and CGI spectacle. There is so much so wrong about the film I don’t know where to begin, so I won’t. The best thing I can say about Roland Emmerich’s disaster flick is it’s completely stolen out from under stars Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson by John Bradley as the conspiracy theorist that happens to be correct. I want a whole movie just about Bradley’s K. C. Houseman and how he got to this point in his life just before the events of the film. Otherwise, this is a piece of mindless trash.

“Moonfall” is rated PG-13 and gets one star out of five.

“Nightmare Alley” (both color and black and white versions) stars Bradley Cooper as a man with no morals and unyielding ambition who finds both a purpose and love in a traveling carnival. After leaving the carnival with his lover and a mindreading act of his own, he soon finds his contempt for those he considers beneath him is misplaced and dangerous.

Guillermo del Toro’s remake of the 1947 film of the same name stays true to the story and finds new depths to plumb. Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe and more of an excellent cast, find both the humanity and depravity in a story set during the Great Depression and at the beginning of World War II. The visuals (especially in the black and white version) wring the warmth out of the viewer, and any brief moment of hope is crushed underfoot like just another cigarette butt. It’s a brilliant, beautiful and devastating character study in unbridled ambition.

“Nightmare Alley” is rated R and gets five stars out of five (both versions).

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

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