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.

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 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.