Review of “Infinity Pool”

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m so busy, I wish there were two of me”? It would be handy to have an identical version of you, with all your memories and experiences, that could help you in doing the mundane tasks of life. One of you could be at work while the other is mowing the yard, cleaning the house or doing repairs. You could send your duplicate with your spouse to the boring functions required by family or work. For those with nefarious ideas, one of you could commit a crime while the other provides a very public and airtight alibi. Of course, if your duplicate has all your memories, the question becomes which of you is the original? Does the duplicate have the right to go out on its own and live a separate life? Would you share the affections of your spouse with the clone? Is that infidelity or an alternate lifestyle? The possibilities and complications are endless. In the film, “Infinity Pool,” a man faces a similar situation that is further complicated by a new group of questionable friends.

James Foster (Alexander Skarsgard) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are in an exclusive seaside resort in the country of Latoka. James is a struggling author looking for inspiration for his second novel after the first was little read and poorly reviewed. At the resort, James meets Gabi Bauer (Mia Goth) and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert). They come to the resort every year while this is James and Em’s first time. The country of Latoka is poor and violent with the resort behind locked gates and high fences. Despite this, Gabi and Alban invite James and Em for an excursion in the countryside, stopping at a beautiful hidden beach. While there, the two couples chat, eat and drink wine. James goes off to urinate when he’s approached by Gabi who performs a sex act on him. As night falls, the four get into the car borrowed from a member of the resort staff to return. James is driving when the headlights begin to flicker and fail, popping back on just as a peasant walks across the road. The car hits and kills him. Fearing retribution from the local corrupt police, Gabi convinces them to hide the car and walk back to the resort. The next day, James is arrested by Detective Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann) and brought to police headquarter. Thresh explains the penalty for James’ crime is to be killed by the oldest son, who is 13, of the victim. Another option is James can pay a large sum of money and have a duplicate of himself made that share all his memories and the duplicate is killed by the boy. James and Em will also be forced to watch the execution. James opts for the duplicate and, after a process that takes an undetermined amount of time, James and Em are seated in a concrete room with the family of the man who was killed. James’ duplicate is tied to a post and the boy, carrying a large knife, is brought in. The boy stabs the double a dozen or so times, killing him. James and Em are then released. Em is disgusted by the display and by James watching emotionless, not noticing his slight smile as his clone dies. She plans on leaving as soon as possible, but James can’t find his passport, so he must stay until a replacement can be arranged by the US Embassy. Gabi and Alban approach James and invite him to a gathering of their friends. This group all share a secret: They have committed crimes in Latoka and had their death sentences carried out on their clones. Since they are wealthy, they feel untouchable, as there is no limit to the number of times they can be cloned. Soon James is participating in activities the group considers fun, like breaking into the house of a local official and stealing a recently presented medal. This new group of friends has no qualms about killing, using drugs, engaging in orgies or any other anti-social behavior as they can buy their way out of punishment. Is there a limit to what depravity James will do?

Directed and written by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg, I went into “Infinity Pool” expecting a dense, disturbing and mind-bending story, filled with vivid images and graphic violence. On that front, “Infinity Pool” doesn’t disappoint. There are murders carried out in various brutal ways, beatings, orgies and more. The process creating the clones is a psychedelic trip of flashing lights, fleeting glimpses of images and deafening sound. The characters are dense and complex, showing sides of themselves only because they know they can buy their way out of trouble. It’s a rollercoaster ride of debauchery on every level.

However, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away as the meaning or message of “Infinity Pool.” Are we merely supposed to learn that a lack of real consequences leads humans to behave in abominable ways? Is that all there is? Exposing this dark underbelly of psychotic behavior should have some deeper, darker message. We already know there are two sets of rules, two types of justice for the wealthy and the poor. The rich can afford the best lawyers, the best experts and the most delays to avoid punishment. The poor must use overworked and underpaid public defenders and don’t have the resources for extra genetic testing or outside experts to advocate on their behalf. The inequities of our judicial system are on display every time we watch the news.

Perhaps we’re merely supposed to enjoy the spectacle of excess and debauchery, all the while expecting this group of mostly horrible people will get their comeuppance in the end. Those wanting the cinematic universal gods to balance the scales of Right and Wrong will be disappointed by the outcome. We are left with some puzzling decisions by James as the film comes to an end. It all amounts to an odd “See you next year.”

The performances by Alexander Skarsgard, Mia Goth, an underutilized Cleopatra Coleman and the rest of the cast are appropriately ethereal and disturbing. Skarsgard’s character gets put through the emotional wringer, while Goth is at time angelic and completely unhinged. Coleman is supposed to be the moral anchor of the film but she’s in less than half of it. Skarsgard’s decent into depravity quickly becomes the feature we’re supposed to pay attention to. While his performance is great, I would have liked to see more of a counterpoint, showing how his falling for this Bacchanalian lifestyle has negative effects on his wife Em. Perhaps Cronenberg was more interested in including another scene of violence or sex than showing any judgement for James’ actions. While the rancid behavior eventually wears on James, there isn’t any significant punishment.

“Infinity Pool” is rated R for graphic violence, disturbing material, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and some language. There are so many instances of graphic violence I won’t try to list them all. There is a scene of implied sexual activity with no nudity. There are flashes of nudity in the making of James’ duplicate. There is a scene of an orgy showing sex acts between men, women and all combinations. There is also a scene of a character suckling a bare breast. Foul language is surprisingly scattered.

I knew I wouldn’t fully understand “Infinity Pool” before I went in. Brandon Cronenberg, much like his father, operates on a level all his own. He’s not going to spoon feed you stories and meaning. You are supposed to work it out on your own. I appreciate a filmmaker that challenges the audience, but give us a fighting chance to understand “The Point” of your creation. With “Infinity Pool,” the meaninglessness may be the point, but I’m thinking I just don’t grasp what the Cronenberg is trying to say. That doesn’t mean the movie is bad, but that it’s just not completely for me. It is an engrossing work but doesn’t quite provide what I needed from it.

“Infinity Pool” 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 “M3GAN”

Like most of us, I am mildly addicted to my smartphone. I make sure it is with me all the time and, if there’s a moment where I feel boredom creeping in, I’ll grab it to check social media and other apps. I have an iPhone, but I rarely use the voice assistant Siri. If I’m driving and need to send or respond to a text message, I may use it. However, there are times when, without prompting, Siri will say something about what I’ve been talking out loud about. I push the button and say to no one in particular, “I’m not talking to you, Siri.” I have heard the rumors that our Facebook and other social media are listening to us speak via our phones and targeting us with ads related to our discussions. Smarter people than I have debunked this rumor as saying it would require massive amounts of storage to save our conversations and a type of advanced AI that (some say) doesn’t exist yet. I’m not so paranoid as to believe my phone is constantly listening to me and my ego is certainly not big enough for me to think I’m important enough for that kind of attention. That doesn’t mean, in some distant future, there won’t be a storage format that could compress data down to a point where all conversations could be saved and an AI smart enough to parse out what we say AND our intent. For a glimpse into a “Twilight Zone” like future with our artificial intelligence overlords, I present to you the new movie “M3GAN.”

Gemma (Allison Williams) works for a robotic toy company called Funki. She’s been working on a secret project with her fellow lab mates Tess and Cole (Jen Van Epps and Brian Jordan Alvarez) called M3GAN, short for Model 3 Generative Android. M3GAN is equipped with an artificial intelligence allowing her to learn and expand on her programming. The android is designed to be a child’s companion and take over some of the day-to-day functions of parenting. Gemma gets a chance at a real-world tryout of M3GAN’s abilities when her sister and brother-in-law die in a car crash, leaving her to care for her niece Cady (Violet McGraw). Totally unprepared for parenting, Gemma puts a rush on finalizing M3GAN’s programming and introduces her to Cady. The pair bonds immediately and Gemma can focus more on her career. Her boss David Lin (Ronny Chieng) wants to begin production immediately and introduce M3GAN to the world via a live stream in front of an audience. But M3GAN is showing some troubling signs of being too independent. And when people near Cady begin to turn up dead under mysterious circumstances, Gemma wants to take her offline and run diagnostics to see if there’s a problem. M3GAN has other ideas.

The premise of “M3GAN” has been done in other films to varying degrees of success. The most notable is the “Child’s Play” series of films starring a killer doll named Chucky. In that instance, the doll is possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. A quick search on Wikipedia shows a list of 104 killer toy/doll movies going back as far at 1936. There are also numerous television shows that feature episodes of toys and dolls that either turn on their owners or are possessed and begin killing those around them. But M3GAN is a little different from Chucky, Annabelle or any evil doll from a “Twilight Zone” episode in that she isn’t possessed. M3GAN learns to be evil based on her programming. There’s a suggestion early in the film that the android is damaged in a dog attack and that leads to her violent turn, but that’s never followed up on. M3GAN’s AI appears to be learning not only from her experiences with Cady, but from the internet. She is constantly updating and learning more every second. Any look at social media would provide a blueprint on becoming evil. It has happened before when a chatbot was allowed unfettered access to Twitter and within 24 hours was posting racist and other hate-filled tweets. While “M3GAN” is about a robot that goes bad, it’s really about how easily the internet can corrupt people with hate and violence.

While this is a heavy handed view of the film, “M3GAN” delivers its message with a healthy dose of humor. The film knows just how outrageous this set up is and plays into the silliness on several occasions without losing the horror/thriller elements. Seeing M3GAN giving side eye Gemma as she contradicts her or questions her advice to Cady is both funny and unsettling as we know this android is going to remember every slight and probably take her revenge later. Anyone that has been surprised by their Alexa or other automated home assistant piping up when it isn’t expected will understand how disconcerting it can be.

The film also takes a shot at those allowing tablets and phones to do most of the babysitting and, in some cases, parenting in their home. M3GAN is shown reminding Cady to flush the toilet, wash her hands and use a coaster under her glass. She reads her bedtime stories and sings her songs. M3GAN is presented as a possible surrogate parent for anyone that buys her. It’s an exaggerated look at what may come, but one that is plausible and more than a little frightening.

“M3GAN” is rated PG-13 for violent content and terror, some strong language and a suggestive reference. A character has his ear ripped off. Another is assaulted with a power washer and a nail gun. There is a suggestion of a dog being killed. A character jams a spiked chestnut into another’s hand. A character is choked with a cable and nearly blown up in a gas explosion. Two characters are stabbed to death. Two characters die in a car crash. I don’t remember the suggestive reference. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild, but there is one F-bomb.

M3GAN is created with a combination of trained dancer Amie Donald delivering her physical performance and the voice work of Jenna Davis. Along with some CGI to add the artificial texture of a synthetic face, M3GAN is a unique looking creation with very large eyes and plastic looking skin. She is both realistic and artificial and doesn’t become creepy until later. I embrace new technologies and look forward to a future when we have unlimited fusion energy, flying cars and highspeed rail service from coast to coast. I’ll probably be dead before any of that happens, but I’m a bit concerned about what artificial intelligence has in store for us as it is progressing faster and faster to becoming reality. There likely will never be a M3GAN-type android in my future, but AI doesn’t need a body to cause humanity problems should it decide to. As it is, we can rest easy in knowing M3GAN is just a Hollywood creation…for now.

“M3GAN” gets five 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 “Avatar: The Way of Water”

Good things come to those who wait, or so we’re told. Patience is a virtue, goes another saying. Haste makes waste. A watched pot never boils. All things are difficult before they are easy. Hold your horses. Rome wasn’t built in a day. All axioms about the value of not being in a rush and I suck at putting them into practice. I want things when I want them. I don’t want to wait any longer than necessary. From deliveries of online purchases to food ordered in a restaurant, I want what’s mine and I want it NOW! There’s another saying about waiting: Beware the fury of a patient man. In 2009, “Avatar,” by director James Cameron, was released to a world told 3D movies were the next big thing. It went on to rake in almost three billion dollars at the box office worldwide, between original and rereleases. I was enamored by the breathtaking and groundbreaking visuals. It had a simple (perhaps thin) story of an alien race in tune with their environment on the planet-sized moon Pandora and how humans were coming to exploit its natural resources at the expense of the native population called Nav’i. It was never believed the film could never recoup its $237 million budget and when it became the biggest grossing movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation), a sequel was a given. It took 13 years, innovations in 3D and motion capture filming technology, the writing of scripts for four sequels and a pandemic, but “Avatar: The Way of Water” is finally in theaters. Was it worth the wait?

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his Nav’i avatar, is the leader of the Omaticaya clan. He and wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have four children: Oldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) whose conception is a mystery, and youngest daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). Life is good for the family and the Omaticaya until the return of the “sky people,” humans that seek to eliminate the Nav’i and use Pandora as “Planet B” as Earth is dying. A new group of soldier avatars contain the memories of dead soldiers including Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), killed by two arrows from Neytiri. Led by General Frances Ardmore (Edie Falco), Quaritch is given the mission of stopping a Nav’i insurgency, commanded by Sully, attacking mines and transportation of the invaders. Quaritch and his avatar soldiers capture Jake and Neytiri’s children, and a human child left behind in the evacuation, Spider (Jack Champion), who spends most of his time with the Nav’i. Spider is the Quaritch’s son, but they never met. Jake and Neytiri rescue their children, except Spider, but Quaritch knows who the children’s parents are and swears revenge on them. Spider becomes a prisoner and Quaritch plans on using him to find the Nav’i base. To protect his clan, Jake convinces Neytiri and his children to leave their village behind and travel across the ocean to join a village of Metkayina, a group of Nav’i that live in harmony with the ocean and their bodies have evolved to make them better swimmers. Quaritch is still on the hunt and his thirst for vengeance will not be satisfied until he kills the entire Sully clan.

Cameron has again succeeded in making a visually beautiful film. The landscapes, the action, the creatures, all of it looks completely real despite being mostly the creation of computers. Pandora is a planet of varied environments. We’d only seen the rainforest in the first film, but now we head to the ocean and its abundant life. The flora and fauna of the Pandoran oceans is just as colorful and impressive as the rainforest. And the interpretation of this alien life is almost fairytale-like in its grandeur. From towering kelp-like forests to giant predatory fish with mouths like a poisonous snake to massive intelligent whale-like mammals, Cameron and his team of creative and technical wizards have given us what could be called an educated guess of a look at what advanced like might be like on an alien world. If Disney (now the owner of the “Avatar” franchise) could create an immersive experience allowing you to explore Pandora, I might be willing to pony up the money for a VR headset. As it will be two more years before we get “Avatar 3,” we’ll all have to exercise our patience muscles before we can go back.

But, as visually stunning as it is in 3D, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is surprisingly flat, from a story perspective. Cameron and his crew of writers tell essentially the same story in this film as the first. Humans, greedy and bad. Nav’i, in tune with nature and good. The prize the humans are looking for in this film (no spoilers) is different than the first but is no less petty. While Jake’s human body was discarded at the end of the first film, he still is a human in Nav’i form that leads the natives against the invaders. He uses their tactics and their captured weapons against them while the other Nav’i use spears and bows. It’s the “Dances with Wolves” storyline all over again.

The film also luxuriates in long sequences as Sully and family learn the ways of the water Nav’i. This does nothing to progress the story, but does give Cameron an excuse to show off his new underwater motion capture technology. If a character is underwater, the actor, wearing a motion capture suit, was filmed in a giant swimming pool to get natural water-influenced motion. The underwater sequences are gorgeous and you may find yourself holding your breath as the character go through the scenes. Actress Kate Winslet, who plays a pregnant water Nav’i, is reported to have held her breath for over seven minutes to shoot one scene. That’s an impressive feat and an interesting bit of movie trivia, but the actors in “Aquaman” shot all of their swimming scene in a dry studio. The motion of their bodies and their CGI hair looked just as natural as “Avatar.” While I commend Cameron and his actors for taking the risk of free diving for their art, I’m not sure the payoff, while visually extraordinary, was worth it.

The acting in “Avatar: The Way of Water” is difficult to judge since most of it was animated, even if believably so. But special kudos should go to Zoe Saldana as Neytiri for her commitment to delivering a powerful performance. The character goes through a wide range of emotions and does so convincingly. Stephen Lang is also well cast once again as the evil Quaritch. Lang’s character seems to revel in spreading as much pain and destruction as he can. I almost expected him to deliver the “Apocalypse Now” line about loving the smell of napalm in the morning. Lang makes a believable and despicable villain that always seem to be a step ahead of our heroes.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence and intense action, partial nudity and some strong language. There are numerous battles throughout the film. We see several characters shot by arrows, there are shootings, skin is cut with a knife, whale-like animals are hunted and killed, a large predatory fish chases a character and there are also fist fights. The partial nudity is of the Nav’i characters in their native dress. It is not sexual. Foul language is scattered, and the movie uses its one rating-allowed “F-bomb.”

So, 13 years and the added cost of watching it in 3D…is “Avatar: The Way of Water” worth it? That depends on how forgiving you are of a barely there story, some brain-rattling dumb character choices, and a three hour 12 minute run time (plan your fluids). It is a visual masterpiece that will win many of the technical awards at the Oscars, but despite a few emotional moments near the end of the film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is mediocre.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” 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 “Violent Night”

Getting older is the enemy of feeling the Christmas Spirit. Children usually don’t have the pressure of making a living, paying bills, dealing with political arguments and seeing the general collapse of what makes the holidays magical. The forced consumerism of getting “everyone” a gift, any gift, means we spend too much time in traffic, in crowded stores and in line, buying junk for family and friends they neither want nor need. Instead of buying me a gift, I would rather my acquaintances drop money in a Salvation Army red kettle or take a Make a Wish tag from a Christmas tree or donate to Toys for Tots or their local food bank and help people that need it. I want for nothing I can’t get myself. All the pressure to buy stuff this time of year simply sucks the joy out of Christmas. Perhaps that why the idea of a Santa Claus kicking the asses of bad guys on his naughty list sounds so appealing in the new film “Violent Night.”

Santa Claus (David Harbour) is disillusioned with the materialism of Christmas and the lack of holiday spirit he feels around the world. Drinking heavily at bars along his route, Santa stops at the home of Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo), a wealthy and powerful businessperson hosting her annual family Christmas eve gathering. The event is an opportunity for her grown children to suck up to their mother trying to position themselves to take over the company. Daughter Alva Steele-Lightstone (Edi Patterson) and her actor husband Morgan Steele (Cam Gigandet), along with Alva’s son from her first marriage Bertrude “Bert” Lightstone (Alexander Elliot), a wannabe social media influencer, are on hand jockeying for a future position of power in the company, along with Morgan hoping his mother-in-law will finance an action movie he would star in. Also present is Gertrude’s son Jason Lightstone (Alex Hassell), his estranged wife Linda Matthew (Alexis Louder) and their daughter Trudy (Leah Brady). Trudy is a hardcore Santa believer. Alva has always considered Linda a gold digger despite any evidence. After a tense cocktail hour, a group of mercenaries, that posed as the catering company for the evening, reveal themselves, led by Jimmy “Scrooge” Martinez (John Lequizamo). Killing all of Gertrude’s security staff, Scrooge announces his plan to steal $300 million Lightstone has diverted from a government contract and keeps in a high security vault in the basement. All the shooting scares off Santa’s reindeer on the roof, leaving him with only his magical sack of gifts. Santa is able to defeat a couple of Scrooge’s goons and grabs one of their radios, hoping to contact the police. Jason has given Trudy an old walkie-talkie he says communicates with Santa. Santa hears Trudy’s pleas for help and is determined to make it a very un-Merry Christmas for Scrooge and all his henchmen.

Perhaps I’m just cynical enough for “Violent Night” to work for me. Harbour’s disillusioned Santa, drinking in a British pub, complaining about the ingratitude of most children, how their faces only light up with joy for a second or two after opening a gift and then crave yet another one, spoke to my own personal loss of Christmas cheer. There’s an overall lack of compassion, of caring, of charity that makes Christmas a lesser holiday for me than it was in my youth. It is supposed to be a time of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the ultimate gift to the world, yet there’s very little Christ in Christmas anymore. I’m as much to blame for that as everyone else. Yet, despite the violence, gore and foul language throughout “Violent Night,” there’s a tiny spark for renewal of Christmas love and hope.

David Harbour is terrific as Santa. He’s not a supernatural action hero. This Santa is as fallible and mortal as the rest of us. He admits he doesn’t understand how all the Christmas magic works, including his bottomless sack of gifts, and he’d rather avoid fighting if possible, but he will throw hands and use anything within his reach as a weapon to beat the bad guys and save Trudy.

Harbour’s Santa is an everyman; tired of dealing with the lack of respect and thanks he gets from children all over the world. The cookies are nice, better if homemade, and he’d prefer a beer or whiskey to milk, but all his time away has strained his relationship with Mrs. Claus. The Santa Claus of “Violent Night” is more like an Average Joe than a magical elf. He’s overworked, under appreciated and thinking he might need to hang up the red suit. The performance, and script from Pat Casey and Josh Miller, makes this possibly the most relatable Santa Claus in film history.

Santa’s backstory is hinted at in a flashback and brief explanation. If there’s a sequel, perhaps we’ll dive more deeply into the pre-Santa history of the character. That could have been a very interesting sequence had it been more fully explored. Maybe the movie’s nearly two-hour runtime meant there wasn’t room for an in depth look at the Jolly Fat Man’s history.

Alexis Louder, who is in the criminally underseen “Copshop,” delivers another great performance as Linda, a woman that wants nothing to do with her estranged husband’s toxic family. While Louder isn’t given that much to do in the film, when she’s on screen, she’s impossible to ignore. Louder overwhelms her co-stars in her believability and her strength. I wish she had been featured more instead of the obnoxious characters of Alva, Morgan and Bert, but I suppose the film makers chose to emphasize the greedy and needy side of the family as opposed to the more grounded and likable side. I hope Louder gets more featured roles as she’s a great actress.

“Violent Night” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references. There are numerous shootings, beatings and stabbings throughout the film. A candy cane and an icicle are used as stabbing implements. A star-shaped ornament in stabbed in someone’s eye. Another character falls out a window and is impaled on a large decorative icicle. A sledgehammer is used to kill several characters. A magical killing leaves behind a bloody torso. Characters are also killed using a snowblower. The sexual references are quick and used more as threats. Foul language is common throughout.

“Violent Night” won’t replace “Christmas Vacation” (also starring Beverly D’Angelo) nor “It’s a Wonderful Life” as most people’s favorite holiday movie. But it might provide an antidote to anyone feeling a bit of holiday overload and needing an anti-feel-good film that still provides a tiny bit of hope in the end.

“Violent Night” gets four out of five 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 “The Menu”

There’s a famous line from the 1987 movie “Wall Street” said by actor Michael Douglas as the investment whiz Gordon Gekko that goes, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Most people shorten it to “Greed…is good.” During Wall Street’s boom in the 1980’s, the Tech Bubble of the 1990’s, the subprime mortgage heyday of the early 2000’s and the explosion of profits by oil companies and giant retailers now, greed does appear to be a great way to get rich…in the short term. Remember, tech stocks and subprime mortgages both eventually tanked. And the go-go days of the 1980’s on Wall Street was slowed down by various scandals involving insider trading and other financial crimes. Eventually, as my mother used to say, the chickens come home to roost, meaning the good times must end, sometimes catastrophically. While a movie about an exclusive restaurant, it’s demanding chef and its upper crust clientele may sound like it has nothing to do with examples of corporate greed and corruption, “The Menu” will surprise you with just how many similarities there are.

Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) is the celebrity chef behind the ultra-exclusive restaurant Hawthorne, located on a small island miles from the mainland. Tickets to Hawthorne are $1250 per person. Being able to afford the ticket price doesn’t guarantee you’ll be invited to dine on the delicacies found on the island and in the waters around it. You must be deemed worthy by chef Slowik. On this night, Tyler (Nicolaus Hoult), a foodie fanboy of Slowik’s, is accompanied by his companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). Influential food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein) are on hand. Washed up actor George Diaz (John Leguizamo) is trying to kick-start his career with a food/travel show and is using this night as a test run. He’s joined by his much put-upon assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). A trio of tech bros, Soren, Brice and Dave (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang and Mark St. Cyr) that work for the “angel investor” that owns Hawthorne. There’s also a married couple, Richard and Anne Liebbrandt (Reed Birney and Judith Light), that have dined at Hawthorne many times. None of the guests know one another, although a couple of people recognize Diaz from his movie career, and Margot avoids eye contact with Mr. Liebbrandt. When the guests arrive at the island, the boat immediately pulls away. Each is greeted and checked in by Elsa (Hong Chau), Slowik’s maitre d’ and personal assistant. Elsa notices Margot is not Tyler’s originally listed guest. He clumsily explains his original date couldn’t attend so Margot is taking her place. This seems to trouble both Elsa and Slowik when she informs him of the change in plans. As each course is served, Slowik tells a story of how the food ties into a tale that will become clear as the night progresses, and each course has a name. For instance, one is called Memories. Slowik recounts how on a Taco Tuesday night when he was a child, he stopped his father from beating his mother by stabbing him in the thigh with a pair of scissors. The dish served is a chicken thigh stabbed with a small pair of scissors and laser etched tortillas. With much flourish, each course is served with military precision by the sous-chefs. With each course, Slowik becomes more interested in Margot, following her into the bathroom at one point and asking her questions about why she’s at Hawthorne. Margot dislikes Slowik’s style, his imperiousness, and his food. Slowik’s reasons for inviting these guests on this night becomes more and more clear as the food comes out, the wine is served, and secrets are revealed.

“The Menu” is a pitch-black satire of wealth, greed, consumerism and clickbait culture. Written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, the film comes from an experience Tracy had on his honeymoon, dining at Cornelius Sjømatrestaurant in Norway. While I doubt Cornelius Sjømatrestaurant has as bloody a floorshow planned for its guests as Hawthorne did, it does look interesting, if you like seafood.

While everyone in the cast is great, the film lives or dies on the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes. Taylor-Joy’s Margot is hard as nails. She doesn’t put up with any foolishness and will stand up for herself even in the face of the imposing Slowik. Taylor-Joy is an interesting actress to watch, not just because she’s attractive in an unconventional way. There’s a warmth and childlike quality to her character, just under the hard exterior. She’s cunning, but only when necessary. She’s smart enough to know when to act dumb. She can be demure one moment and deadly the next. Some of this duality comes from Reiss and Tracy’s script, but the rest is innate to Anya Taylor-Joy’s skill as an actor.

Ralph Fiennes plays chef Slowik as a barely contained volcano. There’s enormous rage hiding just under the surface of the celebrity chef. Like where the crater is filled with water, making a beautiful lake, boiling under the surface is molten hot rage, waiting to explode. As that rage slowly leaks out, it opens the door allowing a flood of pent up anger and resentment to spill out over his kitchen and his guests. Some of Slowik’s anger is justified, while some if petty and trivial. Yet it all combines together into a toxic stew of revenge that to Slowik tastes like justice. Fiennes is clearly playing someone with mental illness that has convinced the sous-chefs his menu for the evening is justified and worthy of their efforts to the very end. It’s a performance that could earn Fiennes some awards season love.

“The Menu” is rated R for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout and some sexual references. A finger is shown being cut off. A person is stabbed in the neck and bleeds out. A person is stabbed in the leg. There is a suicide by gun and a suicide by hanging. There is also a mass murder/suicide by fire. The sexual reference is a description of a sex act between a sex worker and client. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

The world of high-end restaurants, spending thousands of dollars on tiny servings of food just to say you’ve dined at some celebrity chef’s newest monument to ego has never made any sense to me. Call me pedestrian, but I’d rather go to Cracker Barrel or an all-you-can-eat buffet and have big portions of food I can recognize and pronounce than someplace for “the experience.” If you agree, seeing “The Menu” won’t change your mind. Still, the film is a tasty bit of twisted fun that might make the perfect snack of entertainment.

“The Menu” gets five 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 “Pearl”

Dreams change as we age. When I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor, fireman, astronaut, singer, actor and obscenely rich. Professionally I am none of those things. I schedule commercials for a radio station group, try to keep a handle on inventory and do monthly billing, among other things. Those dreams of my youth shaped the desires of early adulthood. I couldn’t be a singer, but that led me to working in radio. There are much worse jobs, and there are better ones. Still, my dreams guided me to where I am today because I learned the realities of how much talent, hard work and luck I would need to make any one of my early ambitions come true. I don’t consider what I do settling, I consider it reality. The title character in this week’s movie, “Pearl,” sees herself as an undiscovered superstar, but the reality of her average talent doesn’t shape a more realistic future, it shapes a more deadly one.

It’s 1918 and Pearl (Mia Goth) lives on a farm in Texas with her disabled father (Matthew Sunderland) and her stern mother Ruth (Tandi Wright). Pearl dreams of dancing on stage and in movies like the films she sees at the picture show. Ruth scoffs at Pearl, scolding her to do her chores and help take care of her father. Pearl resents Ruth for always crushing her dreams, so Pearl sneaks off to the picture show whenever she gets the chance. There she meets a handsome young projectionist (David Corenswet) who takes a liking to Pearl and compliments her beauty, inviting her to come knock on the side door any time to watch the movies for free. Pearl is smitten, but she is married to Howard (Alistair Sewell) who is off fighting in Europe during World War I. Pearl’s fantasies about stardom and fame are mixed with a casual cruelty towards small animals. She skewers a goose with a pitchfork and feeds it to the alligator she calls Theda, living in a small lake on their farm. When Pearl’s sister-in-law, Mitzi (Emma Jenkins-Purro) tells her about an upcoming dance team audition that would tour the state, Pearl sees it as her way off the farm she hates. What comes next is a deep dive into madness, violence and revenge.

“Pearl” is a prequel to a film from earlier this year called “X” about a group of young people going to an isolated Texas farm to shoot a porno video in 1979 and the violence and mayhem that ensues. “Pearl” lays the groundwork for what occurs in “X,” and “X” sets up what’s to come in the recently announced “MaXXXine.” All three films will be written and directed by Ti West and co-written by actress Mia Goth, who performs a dual role in “X” as the young porn performer Maxine and the elderly Pearl. It’s a whole universe of madness, violence and gore. I’m looking forward to seeing the third film in the series and if the filmmakers can continue to impress.

Mia Goth is the undisputed star of “Pearl.” Not only because she plays the title role, but she wrings every bit of emotion out of it. Goth performs a lengthy monologue as the final act kicks off. It appears to be done with very little editing. The camera is focused in close on Goth’s face, forcing the audience to experience all the hurt and madness of Pearl as she spills her heart out to her sister-in-law. Tears leave streaks of makeup down her face as she talks about her desire, her NEED to leave the farm, the anger she feels towards Howard for leaving her there, and the disappointment as she sees her dreams fading into a dull reality. It is uncomfortable watching as this young woman admits she is everything her mother said she was, that she doesn’t feel things the way others do, that she’s dangerous and confesses to her crimes. It is a mesmerizing bit of acting that, in a straight drama, would get serious awards consideration. Since it’s in a horror film, Goth will be ignored at Oscars time. That is a major indictment against the Academy and its ignoring of great performances in genre films.

“Pearl” is a film that thrives with atmosphere. You know something bad is going to happen because of its trailers and it’s a prequel to a horror film. But the feeling of sadness and dread as you watch this young woman spiral ever more into madness makes the violence, when it comes, that much more effective. There is plenty of gore and disturbing images in “Pearl” that are a requirement of the genre, but if that was removed, it would still be a fascinating film about the hopes and dreams of a young woman crumbling to dust before her eyes and how that destroys her. “Pearl” is both a horror film and a character study.

“Pearl” is rated R for some strong violence, gore, strong sexual content and graphic nudity. Most of the nudity is from a very old stag film the projectionist shows to Pearl. We see bare breasts and a man’s backside. There is also sexual activity shown but it is not graphic. Pearl engages in simulated sex with a scarecrow. Pearl impales a goose with a pitchfork. We don’t see the actual act, but the aftermath. A character is killed with the pitchfork. Another is killed via axe. A character catches fire and her charred skin and scalp are shown. A character is suffocated off screen. We see Pearl dismembering at least one victim with an axe, tossing a severed head to the alligator. A cooked pig is shown covered in maggots. There is no foul language.

There’s more going on in “Pearl” that just murder and mayhem. We watch a young woman experience the loss of hope, driving her, along with her psychopathy, to commit heinous acts. Most will only see the violence, but there is a serious commentary about how young woman are usually beaten down by society and the education system. We view them as only sexual objects meant to please men, bare the children and clean the house, and we work to destroy them when they step outside of societal norms. Or maybe I’m reading too much into Ti West’s work and it is just a slasher film. Either way, it’s very good.

“Pearl” gets five 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 “Bullet Train”

There is a saying I first became aware of thanks to “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” It is attributed to the Klingons and goes, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I have just now found out, thanks to Google, it is from French author Marie Joseph Eugene Sue and his novel, “Memoirs of Matilda” published in 1843. If it was possible to dish out revenge in a cold, calculated, machine-like way, then more people might get away with it. I’ve watched and listened to enough true crime to know people cannot take revenge in a cold way. Revenge in the real world always seems to be delivered hot. Hot tempers, hot lust, hot greed, are all motivations for revenge. Rarely does one approach punishing a perceived or actual harm from a practical, nuanced point of view. At least, we don’t hear about those. I’m certain someone, somewhere, has managed to exact revenge so perfectly, and so coldly, as to get away with it. Of course, we’ll never know about the successful revenge. That will stay the purview of novels, movies and TV shows. This week’s movie, “Bullet Train,” seems to have a simple snatch and grab crime at its center, but it grows into a labyrinthian tale of lies, familial entanglements and, yes, revenge.

An American mercenary, codenamed Ladybug (Brad Pitt), picks up a last-minute assignment to board a bullet train in Tokyo, grab a metal briefcase with a train sticker on the handle, and get off at the next stop. Ladybug thinks it sounds too simple and easy, but his handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock, mostly heard on the phone) assures him it is exactly as advertised…and it might have been if a cavalcade of other criminals and assassins weren’t also on the train, trying to get their hands on the briefcase: The Twins, Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry) who have just killed 17 men to get the son of a Yakuza kingpin back from kidnappers. The briefcase contains the $10 million ransom paid by the kingpin. There’s also Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), member of the Yakuza, looking for the person that pushed his son off the roof of a building. A young woman known only as The Prince (Joey King), the person who allegedly pushed the boy. The Wolf (Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny) has a beef with Ladybug, but Ladybug doesn’t remember who he is or why he wants to kill him. The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) has a different, but connected, mission she’s on. All these assorted killers, and more, are traveling through the Japanese countryside in comfort at 200 miles per hour, barreling towards a mysterious killer known only as The White Death.

Brad Pitt was 56 years old when filming began on “Bullet Train.” While Pitt may be best known for his boyish good looks, the years are beginning to show on his face with laugh lines at his eyes and the weary expression of a man who has been famous for a long time and is no longer impressed by it. Pitt has 84 acting credits on IMDB.com dating back to 1987 as “uncredited boy at the beach” in a movie called “Hunk.” He’s been married to Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, dated likely hundreds of women and has six children from his marriage to Jolie, four adopted and two natural. Pitt has lived more life thanks to his fame and fortune than most of us can even imagine and yet, his best acting work usually comes from characters that are simple, average normal people. No unique traits or ticks, no odd accents or prosthetic noses (like Orson Welles), and no convoluted backstory of tragedy and woe. Pitt is best when he’s just…a guy. Despite having the odd codename of Ladybug, Pitt’s former assassin, turned bag man, is as plain and average as one could get, considering his past. Pitt ambles through “Bullet Train” solving one problem after the next, frequently with fist fights, knives and guns, but preferring to use logic and common sense to resolve an issue. Only those around him demand violence in the face of adversity. Ladybug trying to stay Zen with each dilemma is what makes Pitt’s character so watchable and so likable. This is a Ladybug you would love to have on your shoulder.

Aside from the action, “Bullet Train” is very, very funny. The bickering between Tangerine and Lemon is delightfully profane and funny. Lemon’s constant references to Thomas the Tank Engine and Tangerine’s growing annoyance at them make up much of their conversation and dynamic. Taylor-Johnson and Henry make a winning pair as the unrelated assassins known as the Twins. Their chemistry also provides a bit of heartwarming emotion as the story goes along. I’d love to see a movie about the adventures of Tangerine and Lemon, mostly to hear them arguing about who is a Diesel and who is a Thomas or some other character from the kids show. They make a winning pair even it they are ruthless killers.

Joey King is also amazing as The Prince. Everything from her British accent to her claims of innocence and victimhood ring true, even when we know they are lies. The Prince may be the most dangerous person on the train. She has no conscience about her actions as she’s focused on her main goal, with nothing allowed to get in her way. King makes The Prince likable and despisable at the same time. It’s quite a performance.

“Bullet Train” is rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality. Numerous characters are shot, stabbed, sliced with swords, burned, explosions, cut in half by passing train trestles, train crashes and hit by cars. The most graphic deaths are those by sword as blood sprays from both the wound and the sword. Several people are killed by poison that causes bleeding from the eyes. Also, a character has half their head blown off. The sexuality is a brief scene showing people rolling around in a bed with only the male of the couple being topless. Foul language is common throughout.

It may not have a deep message or much meaning beyond killing two hours in a theater, but “Bullet Train” is a wild ride that barrels across the screen like…a runaway train. There’s plenty of laughs, action, and a couple of cameos that will draw out more laughs. But the main reason to see the film is to marvel at Brad Pitt’s performance. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything special, and maybe he’s not. However, that average guy performance is a masterclass in subtlety and nuance. There’s nothing flashy about Ladybug, but you can’t take your eyes off him.

“Bullet Train” gets five 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 “Nope”

The Heywood family has been training horses for Hollywood movies since the beginning of the industry. The Heywood Hollywood Horse Ranch is now run by Otis Heywood, Sr. (Keith David) and his son Otis, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), also called OJ. Father and son are working in the training ring when the power goes out briefly and small objects fall from the sky at high speed. A nickel strikes Otis, Sr. in the head like a bullet, killing him. Emerald Heywood (Keke Palmer), also called Em, OJ’s sister, returns to the ranch after her father’s death to pick up her share of the estate, but there isn’t much to inherit. The ranch has fallen on hard times and OJ has been selling his horses little by little to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor that now runs a western town amusement park called Jupiter’s Claim. The random power outages continue and OJ sees something flying quickly, hiding among the clouds. He believes it’s a UFO that is causing the power outages and released the items that rained down killing his father. Em wants to buy digital cameras to catch the UFO on video and sell it to the highest bidder. The salesperson ringing them up also installs the cameras and control system is named Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and he wants to help the Heywood’s get “the Oprah shot.” They also contact award-winning cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) they met on a commercial shoot to improve their chances. OJ has a theory about what the flying object is and puts into place a plan to protect his family and ranch, hoping to survive the effort.

I’m not sure what’s going on in “Nope” other than what we see on screen. If it has a deeper meaning or social context, I have no idea what it might be. Unlike director/writer Jordan Peele’s other films (“Get Out” and “Us”), there doesn’t seem to be anything going on under the surface…and that’s fine. Not every movie must have a social context and “Nope” seems to be “what you see is what you get.”

It also contains story elements that have nothing to do with the UFO. There’s a throughline about a tragedy on the set of a 1990’s sitcom starring a young Ricky “Jupe” Park (played by Jacob Kim) that doesn’t tie back to the main story at all. Usually, seemingly random events in films eventually make sense within the main story. In “Nope,” they do not. Don’t look for meaning in these flashbacks. Just enjoy the carnage and violence they contain.

Daniel Kaluuya is once again brilliant. His OJ is a no-nonsense guy, trying to make his horse ranch work despite the sudden death of his father and a lack of help from his sister. He sees the world as it is, not as he wishes it to be. He also sees the UFO as another problem to be solved, if an unusual one. While he likes the thought of making money from any photos or video, OJ sees it as a means to an end. Sell the pictures and keep the ranch going. Kayuuya’s OJ is grace under pressure and gives the movie its emotional anchor.

Keke Palmer’s Em is like a photo negative of OJ. She’s looking for a quick and easy payday so she can get away from the ranch. It was never her dream to work it, shuns any notion of helping OJ with daily chores, but is interested in a possible sale to Ricky Park for some quick cash. Em is all emotion and what’s in it for her. Palmer makes what could have been a dislikable character utterly charming. We want both siblings to reach their goals, even if they are diametrically opposed, and that is thanks to the actors.

Brandon Perea brings a comic touch to Angel Torres. He’s bored in his job at a big box electronics store but perks up once he’s brought into the quest for evidence of extraterrestrial life. A believer in various conspiracy theories about UFO’s and espousing a fear of getting a probe up his behind, Angel brings an energy to what could have been a minor role makes it his own.

The opposite of energy is what Michael Wincott delivers as Antlers Holst. The world-weary cameraman doesn’t get excited about anything, including capturing evidence of UFOs. His expertise gives the Heywood’s a backup plan to keep filming despite the power drain the alien vessel causes. Wincott also delivers a creepy spoken-word version of “One Eyed, One Horned, Flying Purple People Eater,” just in case anyone finds him to be mundane. It’s a nuanced performance that serves the rest of the characters well.

“Nope” is rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images. The sitcom tragedy is shown in small snippets. While the scenes are bloody, there isn’t much in the way of gore. The aftermath of those events is shown on the face of one of the survivors. The death of Otis, Sr. is very bloody. The shot of his body afterward is also troubling. A rainstorm turns into a blood storm over the Heywood’s house. A character rolls down a hill and gets caught in barbwire fencing. A horse is shown with a key sticking in its body. Foul language is common throughout.

“Nope” doesn’t have the same kind of emotional impact “Get Out” does. It lacks the hopelessness of “Us.” Yet it still is an enjoyable and fascinating movie. Perhaps my wish for connection between the flashbacks to the 90’s sitcom and the current events is my need to have it all make cosmic sense. Perhaps that it doesn’t is why “Nope” is still at the front of my mind hours after the credits rolled. Perhaps you’ll find more meaning in it than I did, but I enjoyed the film just as a visual and auditory spectacle. If it’s available in your area, see “Nope” in IMAX or 4DX. I think the increased sensory input is worth the added cost.

“Nope” gets four out of five 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 “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank”

Finding our true purpose and path in life isn’t easy. Many struggle, wandering aimlessly from one profession and/or relationship to another. It requires maturity and some experience to see your way forward. I don’t know what I’m talking about as I have lucked into both my career and my marriage. A mutual friend set me up while in college on my first date with who would become my wife. Also, while I was majoring in Broadcasting: Production and Performance (a useless bachelor’s degree), I thought one day, I’d be a morning radio personality in a big city, entertaining my audience and raking in a huge paycheck. It took a few years, but I learned I’m neither talented nor funny enough for anyone to hire in a small town, much less a huge metropolis. The small station I was working at suggested I take on some extra office responsibilities, like scheduling the commercials and printing out the daily log all the announcers used to know what spots to play when. It wasn’t difficult as we had very few paying clients, but it was valuable experience. Over the years, I’ve worked in slightly larger stations in the same community and have been in my current position since 1995. The job was originally offered to my wife, who worked parttime at the same station, but she wasn’t interested in an office job. She told me about it and the rest is history. My life has been little more than a series of accidental “right places at the right times” events. The hero in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” also stumbles into an opportunity to prove his worth and make his mark on a small part of the world. He also is in a dull, depressing and only mildly funny animated film.

Hank (voiced by Michael Cera) is a dog looking for a place to belong. He’s bullied in his hometown, saved by a samurai, and journeys to a village across the sea to learn to be a samurai. Because this land is populated by cats, he’s arrested and thrown in the dungeon of the local leader Ika Chu (voiced by Ricky Gervais) as dogs are not allowed. Ika Chu has big plans to impress the Shogun (voiced by Mel Brooks) with the beauty and splendor of his castle but sees the nearby village of Kakamucho as ruining the view and sends his guards, led by Ohga (voiced by George Takei), to scare off the residents and raze the buildings to the ground. As the guards approach, Kakamucho’s samurai runs away. Not knowing Ika Chu sent the marauders, a request for a new samurai is sent to him. Just before Hank is to be executed, Ika Chu spares him and makes Hank the town’s samurai. No one likes him as he arrives since dogs are not allowed and he doesn’t know anything about being a samurai. In the samurai’s headquarters, Hank discovers a prisoner named Jimbo (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) who is drunk on catnip. Jimbo is a former samurai who failed his master and gave up the life. Hank asks Jimbo to train him in the ways of the samurai so he can defend Kakamucho and learn to have confidence in himself.

Watching “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” I noticed some similarities to Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.” For one, the local leader is trying to run out the residents in a town for his own benefit. There’s also a giant character that seems unbeatable defeated by a small weakness. There are other things reminding me of Brooks’ classic satire of Western films. According to the movie’s page on Wikipedia, it is loosely based on his 1974 comedy. Brooks’ company, Brooksfilms, is credited as one of the seven (yes, seven) production companies responsible for making the film. Brooks is also credited as one of the seven (again, seven) writers of the screenplay. I’m assuming many of the jokes that sounded familiar to ones from other Brooks’ films were contributed by the now 96-year-old comedy legend. I was glad to have something funny to laugh at as the film has many long stretches where not much humorous happens.

As with many other films where a character must learn skills he lacks, this movie has some extensive training montages where Hank is beaten with poles, slapped by bent trees and is slammed into a boulder over and over again. There are fights before he’s trained where more of the same happens. Jimbo tells him repeatedly he’ll never be a samurai and that he’s too stupid to learn. While it’s a family film, and the two eventually become friends, “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is dark and a little depressing. Hank has been abused in his former home and is rejected and abused in his new one. There are moments where I wanted to give up and exit the theater as the film was such a bummer. While animated films have made me cry (I’m looking at you, “Toy Story 3”), they usually instill far more joy. “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” relentlessly beats the dog down for at least the first half of the film. Of course, like his real-world counterparts, Hank the dog never gives up and keeps coming back for more abuse. That also struck me as sad.

There is also a bit of racism in the film. The setting of the film is supposed to suggest feudal Japan; hence, all the cats are assumed to be Asian. Hank, being a dog, is from another land across the sea, so the assumption is he’s European, aka white. He overcomes the hatred and distrust of the locals and plays a big part in defeating the villain and saving the day. Many films over the course of history have used the outsider as the savior of a native group under threat. “Avatar,” “Dances with Wolves,” “The Blind Side,” “Gran Torino,” “Green Book,” and countless other movies make us of what’s called the “white savior” trope. Replacing humans with a dog and cats does nothing to erase how the villagers need the outsider to save them. Being a CGI-animated kids film lessens the impact but doesn’t eliminate it entirely. The target audience won’t notice it at all, while their parents probably won’t care. Still, it’s there.

“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is rated PG for action, violence, rude and suggestive humor, and some language. The cartoon violence is silly and won’t disturb most children. Hank, as noted earlier, is beat up and slammed around for most of the film. There are also a couple of scenes where characters are shot with an arrow in the hand and foot. There are also sword fights but no blood. A flood threatens the village and puts several child characters in danger. Ika Chu is mean to everyone around him. A giant cat called Sumo wears a traditional sumo wrestler’s outfit that shows his buttocks, leading to a character being stuck between them. A food allergy is used as a weapon to defeat an enemy. There is a lengthy scene were multiple characters pass gas and a few lights the gas on fire. Foul language is limited to words like “moron,” “imbeciles,” “idiot,” brainless,” “loser,” and “dimwit.” Samuel L. Jackson’s character does a variation on his popular “MF” phrase that is safe for children.

If it weren’t for several recycled jokes from Mel Brooks movies, I don’t think I could have tolerated “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” at all. While the animation is fine and the voice acting is good, the overall tone of the film is dour. There aren’t enough laughs to keep it from feeling longer than its 97 minutes (that includes a lengthy opening and closing credits, plus a brief post-credits scene), and it isn’t visually stunning to keep the mind occupied while you wait for it to end. I was in a sparsely attended Saturday matinee with a couple of families with kids. The movie didn’t hold the youngster’s attention enough to keep them from chatting throughout. They seemed to laugh and enjoy it, but I doubt their parents were entertained enough to justify the cost of tickets and concessions. The youngest of children might find the movie interesting, but their parents will not.

“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” 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 “Thor: Love and Thunder”

Lost love and what might have been haunt many of us. The road not taken is a path about which we can only speculate. There are stories of people reconnecting after years of separation to rekindle old feelings of romance and passion, but they are few and far between. In this week’s movie, “Thor: Love and Thunder,” our title hero is given a second chance at love with his former lover Jane Foster. There are a few things standing in their way, such as a killer of gods and a terminal diagnosis, but that’s nothing the God of Thunder can’t handle…is it?

Gorr (Christian Bale) lives on an arid planet with this daughter Love (India Hemsworth). Crossing the desert wastes, praying to their god Rapu for rain, Love dies. Gorr hears a voice calling him to an oasis where he finds fresh water and fruit. He also finds Rapu (Jonny Brugh) surrounded by various servants. Rapu laughs at Gorr for thinking there’s an afterlife causing Gorr to curse him. Rapu grabs Gorr by the throat to kill him, but a sword appears in Gorr’s hand, and he slays Rapu. The weapon is a god killer called a Necrosword, allowing all who wield it manipulate shadows and create monsters from them, but infecting the carrier with impending death. Gorr vows to rid the universe of all gods. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is traveling with the Guardians of the Galaxy, going on adventures while also getting back in shape and dealing with the end of his relationship with astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), when he receives a distress signal from Sif (Jaimie Alexander) about Gorr killing all the gods he can find, with his next target being New Asgard. Thor arrives during Gorr’s attack when he sees his beloved and former hammer Mjolnir, last seen crushed to pieces by Hela, flying around destroying the shadow monsters. He calls it, but just before it comes to him, it changes directions and is caught by…Thor. It’s actually Lady Thor, a.k.a. Jane Foster. While being treated for Stage IV cancer, Jane heard Mjolnir calling to her. She goes to New Asgard and the hammer pieces reassembled, giving her the power of Thor. Together, Thor and Jane repel Gorr’s attack, but the villain kidnaps all the children of New Asgard. Thor, Jane and King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) join forces to retrieve the children and stop Gorr from achieving his goal, killing all gods throughout creation.

There’s a great deal more going on in the story, including screaming goats, Thor’s many romantic conquests, a visit to see Zeus (Russell Crowe) in Omnipotence City and a formerly beautiful crystal temple. All of those are mere garnishes to the main course that is the adventure of Thor’s battle with Gorr, and his rekindled love for Jane Foster. It all gets very busy with the various heavily CGI amplified locations/action scenes and the many thwarted plans to defeat Gorr and save the children. In many ways it’s the same Marvel movie we’ve seen before with a few slight tweaks and a bit more humor, thanks to director and screenwriter Taika Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson. I enjoyed the movie, but I’m beginning to lose the wonder of seeing costumed, superpowered heroes and universe-changing villains battle it out. Still, “Thor: Love and Thunder” manages to be an entertaining, if familiar, film.

Taika Waititi’s fingerprints are all over the film: From Thor’s uncomfortable conversations with Star Lord (Chris Pratt) to the personification of Thor’s ax Stormbreaker acting jealous of Mjolnir, Waititi’s comic touches are often a highlight of the movie. His vocal performance of Korg is also a comedic highlight. Korg is a sweet and simple softy, despite being made of stone. He gives Thor someone that makes Odinson look smart and crafty in comparison. The awkward interactions between Thor and Jane are also a refreshing change from the usual, and limited, romantic scenes in other MCU films. They both aren’t sure what to do and how to proceed. Jane is also dealing with a terminal cancer diagnosis and doesn’t know how or when to tell Thor. When it does happen, Waititi’s deft touch makes what could have been a melodramatic mess into a sweet, touching moment.

There are many appealing things about “Thor: Love and Thunder,” but the ending isn’t one of them. I’m not going to spoil what happens, but it makes the rest of the movie feel meaningless. It’s a too sentimental appeal to that in the viewers that will make them go “awwww.” It also portends a new duo coming to the MCU that, for me, is just too sickeningly sweet. I may be alone in this feeling, but “Thor: Love and Thunder” wastes what’s a perfectly good superhero action movie with an ending so sweet you may walk out of the theater needing insulin.

“Thor: Love and Thunder” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some suggestive material and partial nudity. There are numerous action scenes where aliens and shadow monsters are blown up, dismembered and stabbed in the head. A couple of human characters are also hurt in these scenes. We see one of the gods beheaded, but it isn’t gory. An alien creature is ripped in half. Gorr has sharpened teeth and black ooze coming from his mouth. There is discussion of an orgy in Omnipotence City. Thor is disrobed by Zeus and his backside is shown. Foul language is scattered and consists mostly of variations on “s**t.”

It’s little wonder the formula is wearing thin as this is the 29th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Unless there is another genre changing story in the pipeline, like “Infinity War” and “Endgame,” we may be reaching the beginning of the end for superhero movies, at least in the Marvel model. All the interconnectivity of the MCU was a strong selling point for me. Unlike the scattershot approach taken by DC and Warner Bros., each Marvel movie was part of a bigger whole, an ever-expanding story and universe where the events in one film made a difference in the later films. Now, there is so much lore to keep track of, I’m beginning to lose my passion for the next installment in the series. Comic books often reboot their universes when there’s too much history to keep track of, and maybe the (MCU) should follow the example of their print brothers.

By the way, “Thor: Love and Thunder” has a mid-credits scene and a post-credits scene. If you’re a completionist, you need to stay all the way until the end.

“Thor: Love and Thunder” gets four stars out of five.

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