‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is One of Wes Anderson’s Most Inspired Works

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009.

After watching “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I am convinced Wes Anderson should make as many stop-motion animated movies as he possibly can. Nothing against his live action work, but this form of animation seems really suited to Anderson’s unique blend of comedy and dysfunction. While his last film, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was very good, it started to seem like he had been dealing with the same themes once too often. But with the brilliantly made “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” his material is given a freshness which, for a moment, seemed to have escaped him. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable movies I saw in 2009. As a result, any frustration I had over not being able to see “Avatar” (it was a family outing, and it didn’t seem right for my 5-year-old niece) was completely forgiven.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is based on a children’s novel written by Roald Dahl whom Anderson considers one of his personal heroes. Dahl is the same man who wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” among other stories, and his work is characterized by a lack of sentimentality and a lot of dark humor. Judging from “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” with their strong black humor, it’s no wonder Anderson digs Dahl!

The Mr. Fox of the title is a cool and exceedingly clever animal, and we first see him with his wife sneaking into a farm to steal food. They are, however, caught in a trap which has his wife pointing out they should choose a safer form of work. Oh yeah, she also tells him she’s pregnant, and this changes the dynamics of their relationship in a heartbeat. We catch up with these two a couple of years later after they have found a home within a hole in the ground. Mr. Fox is now a newspaper columnist, and he and his wife are parents to a son, the sullen Ash, who constantly feels unappreciated in all he does. Still, Mr. Fox does not like where his family lives and promises to do better by them. Despite the warnings of his lawyer, Badger, he ends up buying a new home in the base of a tree. These new lodgings are also coincidently right near the gigantic farms owned by three ugly looking farmers: Walter Boggis, Nathan Bunce, and Franklin Bean. So, of course, this gets Mr. Fox all excited and back to his usual tricks of stealing food and drink while the rest of the family remains unaware. To quote another fox from a vastly different 2009 movie, “chaos reigns!”

The first thing people will notice about this movie is its “star studded” (what does that term mean anyway?) cast of actors. Voicing Mr. Fox is the most debonair of movie stars right now, George Clooney. With this, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and “Up in The Air,” I can’t help but wonder when Clooney gets the time to sleep. At this moment, he’s everywhere, and his constant presence would be ever so annoying if he weren’t such a terrific actor. Clooney perfectly captures Mr. Fox’s confidence without ever becoming overly smug, and he exudes the cleverness this character has in getting back at the three farmers.

Meryl Streep, who has also had a busy year with this, “Julie & Julia” and “It’s Complicated,” voices Mrs. Fox. I actually wonder how much sleep she gets as well as Streep always seems to be learning a new accent she has not taken on yet. Streep is the perfect contrast to Clooney’s charmingly reckless nature, and she serves as the conscience Mr. Fox needs to hear out more often. Streep doesn’t do anything incredibly different with her voice like she did for Julia Childs, but its warmth is quite seductive at times.

Anderson has also employed many of his regulars for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as well. Jason Schwartzman who was featured quite prominently in “Rushmore” and “The Darjeeling Limited” voices Mr. Fox’s son, Ash. Schwartzman perfectly captures the angst Ash feels at never fully winning his dad’s approval, and you feel Ash’s desperation as he goes to dangerous lengths to get any approval. Owen Wilson, who co-wrote “The Royal Tenenbaums” with Anderson, has a cameo voicing Ash’s athletic coach, Skip. You can tell its Wilson right away, and he gives Skip a wonderfully dry voice which gets a good number of laughs whenever he appears. Even Bill Murray, who has had a role in just about all of Anderson’s movies, voices Mr. Fox’s lawyer, Clive Badger, and he always seems to fit in perfectly in Anderson’s cinematic universe. And let us not forget Wallace Wolodarsky who voices the confidence challenged Kylie Sven Opossum who somehow gets sucked into Mr. Fox’s schemes against his better judgment.

Others to be found here are Michael Gambon, the current Dumbledore of the “Harry Potter” movies, who voices one of the farmers hellbent on eliminating the thieving Mr. Fox, Franklin Bean. Eric Chase Anderson, who is responsible for those illustrations of Anderson’s movies when they are given Criterion Collection releases, voices Mrs. Fox’s nephew Kristofferson who is perfect in every way Ash is not. But the most surprising voice here is from the actor who voices Rat, Bean’s security guard. Rat was a French character, so I assumed the actor voicing him was French. Turns out that it was actually Willem Dafoe! That’s right, the same guy who was in that other delightful 2009 movie with a fox, “Antichrist.”

With just about all of animated movies being done with computers and digital effects, it’s refreshing to see other filmmakers go a little retro with the stop-motion animation. The work here is brilliantly done, and I was surprised at how lifelike everything looked. Movies like these must require an exceeding amount of patience to make because they clearly take years to produce. It also fits right in with Anderson’s quirky sense of humor which remains intact a good ten years or so after “Rushmore.”

I also really dug the soundtrack Anderson chose for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Each of his movies contain a great selection of music which veers from classic British rock songs to American rock among other genres. With this film, Anderson includes songs from the Beach Boys and Burt Ives which fuel the proceedingas with an undeniable sense of innocence and adventure. It also made me an instant fan of The Bobby Fuller Four whose song “Let Her Dance” plays during one of the most joyful moments this film has. Composing the score is Alexandre Desplat who has composed music for movies like “Firewall” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” among others. I love how Desplat captures the infectious spirit of everything which takes place.

Is this a kid appropriate movie? I think so. It did get a PG rating which seems appropriate. Sure, there are many bottles of alcoholic apple cider and some smoked chickens which might give you the wrong impression of the goings on being displayed, but I really think this movie is harmless. Compare this to the recently released sequel to “Alvin and the Chipmunks” which has not so subtle references to classic movies like “Taxi Driver” and “Silence of the Lambs” among others. This film is not just aimed at kids, but for the whole family as well.

While many will be more likely to view this movie on DVD or Blu-ray (or VHS if it’s still available), ” Fantastic Mr. Fox” really is a fantastic piece of work which deserves a big audience. Anderson, along with co-writer Noah Baumbach (“The Squid & The Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding“), has managed to take his fascination with families that are less than perfect and put them in a context which will not scar your kids for life. It was also cool to see Clooney play a character who, unlike the one he portrayed in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” was not afraid to dance.

Was it worth not going to see “Avatar” this day and watching this instead? I hate to say it, but yeah.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Scream 4’ – The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2011.

Honestly, we needed another “Scream” movie. Since the original was released back in 1996 (YIKES!), we have had dozens upon dozens of horror movies thrust upon us. Many of them had an endless number of clear-skinned teenagers and were given PG-13 ratings which, after a while, indicated the horror genre was being watered down too much. Of course, there is the “Saw” franchise which makes the MPAA go nuts with all the copious blood and guts on display, but those plot twists always give me a massive migraine. Horror went at times from being laughingly lame to hardcore bloody, but they could never top what Asian or Japanese movies achieved. However you look at it, we needed Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson more than ever to give us their take on the continually evolving rules of surviving a horror movie.

Each generation has its own ongoing horror franchise(s) along with the occasional “remake” or “reboot.” When I look at movies from decade to decade, I eventually come to see the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is definitely the case with “Scream 4” which, while having a strong level of suspense, also has a weariness about it. In the process of dealing with a new generation of horror fans, this sequel feels no different from ones which preceded it as the old rules still apply when new ones should be installed.

So, the whole gang is back along with Craven, Williamson (sorely missed on “Scream 3”) and composer Marco Beltrami. Neve Campbell returns as Sidney Prescott who arrives back in her hometown of Woodsboro to promote her new self-help book, and she is reunited with her friends Dewey (David Arquette) who is now the Sheriff in this town, and Gayle (Courtney Cox) who has long since gotten married to him and retired from tabloid journalism. Soon after Sidney arrives, the Ghostface killings start up again. You might think this killer would be more imaginative and use another mask instead, but horror sequels are not heavy on originality, are they?

This time though, the focus of the killer’s rage appears to be on Sidney’s cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), and it also puts her best friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) in the crossfire. Ghostface’s priority targets are usually teenagers, but after a while he (or she) proves to be indiscriminate as adults become easy targets as well. Oh yeah, Jill has an ex-boyfriend named Trevor (Nico Tortorella) who still wants to be a part of her life regardless of the fact she wants nothing to do with him. Does any of this sound familiar?

With “Scream 4,” the chief thing to expect is to expect the unexpected, just like with any Peter Gabriel album. I do have to hand it to Craven and Williamson though because, even after a decade, they still leave us guessing throughout who the real culprit is (or if there is more than one) and of what will happen next. The movie moves along fairly swiftly to where you really have no time to examine the logistics of everything going on. I imagine you could punch a few holes in the plot, but only after you have watched this movie. I also got a huge kick out of the beginning which plays on the reality of what we are seeing on top of the monotony of a franchise which, like Michael Meyers, just won’t die.

But it’s also the inescapable problem with “Scream 4;” we have gotten so used to expecting the unexpected to where while there is tension, the whole thing is not as scary as it used to be. I kept waiting for this sequel to get seriously scary, but it never does. Even the moments designed to make us jump up out of our seats aren’t as effective as they once were. The first “Scream” was more than just a simple satire of the horror genre, but a movie going experience which was more intense than we expected, and it reinvigorated the horror genre at a time where it was not particularly popular. With each installment, the filmmakers gleefully deconstructed horror movies while scaring us out of our wits. But with this fourth film, the enthusiasm and inventiveness are at an all-time low.

It is nice to see Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox back as their infamous characters. I could not help but expect Campbell to be this Ellen Ripley/Paul Kersey character by now, so used to seeing people and those closest to her get killed off in brutal fashion to where she now desires to bring her own brand of vigilante justice to whatever nemesis chooses to cross the Prescott path. Perhaps Sidney could have used a bit more of this attitude as Campbell looks a bit worn out from all those sharp pointed knives that always get pointed in her general direction. Let’s face it, running from a demented killer is nothing new for her.

Of all the veterans, Cox shines the most as we watch Gale Weathers emerge from being just another desperate housewife to someone who is desperate overcome an unwelcome writer’s block. Seeing Gale get back to her bitchy self is fun to watch. In the other movies you hated her for it, but knowing Gale for this long makes you long for her inevitable return to greedy selfishness. As a result, it gives this sequel much of its bite.

In regards to the newcomers, they are more or less designed to be types, and part of me wished they were given more dimension and depth. Emma Roberts is fun to watch as Jill Roberts, but she gets the show stolen from her by “Heroes” star Hayden Panettiere whose character of Kirby is part tease, part sharp retort, and part movie geek more than she would ever admit. She’s got a lot of sass about her which reminded me of the girls from my high school I couldn’t stand, and of the heart and soul they do have which I never took into account back then.

It’s also nice to see Rory Culkin here, having made a strong impression in “You Can Count on Me,” “Mean Creek” and “Signs.” As Charlie Walker, he represents the chief movie geek Randy Meeks was in the previous “Scream” movies. Charlie is not exactly a geek nor is he exactly one of the cool guys. In the end, he’s kind of in between those crowds like most people I know. Culkin is truly one of the perfect actors to play someone very knowledgeable about movies in general, and he gives this sequel some of its more satirical moments.

But when all is said and done though, I still came out of “Scream 4” feeling rather weary. I didn’t dislike it, and it did keep me interested throughout to where I wasn’t looking at my watch. But in the process of creating a new formula for satirizing horror movies, it ends up getting caught in the clichés of them all. Also, I felt it could have spent more time examining the endless films which came out in the past few years. This franchise was incredibly influential, and we continue to realize this with the passing years.

Still, I am open to seeing a “Scream 5.” Whatever problems this particular sequel has, I believe and hope they can be compensated for in the future. And like I said, we always need movies like “Scream” because the horror genre will constantly be its own worst enemy from one generation to the next. As it was described before, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

* * ½ out of * * * *

The Coen Brothers’ ‘True Grit’ is a Far More Faithful Cinematic Adaptation Than What Came Before

Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of “True Grit,” it suddenly occurred to me I had read the book it was based on back in my sophomore year of high school. I can’t believe I forgot that as I usually remember every book me and my fellow classmates were made, or forced, to read such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” or “A Day No Pigs Would Die.” This book, which was written by Charles Portis, however, seemed to have escaped my memory of having read it. When I think of the book now, I am reminded of how Mattie Ross, when she saw the body of her murdered father in his coffin, simply told the undertakers, “Put a lid on it.”

Damn! Mattie seemed cold as ice; hell bent on pursuing her father’s killer no matter what and without ever shedding a single tear. But she is also a human being endowed with an undying sense of purpose, determined to find fairness in a world which often seems devoid of it. Now everyone remembers Rooster Cogburn more than any other character in “True Grit” because John “The Duke” Wayne portrayed him in the 1969 movie as it won him his only Oscar. But those who have read this novel know full well it is really about Mattie Ross, not the easiest person to get along with, but hard not to admire. It’s her story more than it ever was Cogburn’s, and the Coen brothers understand this completely in their cinematic adaptation which proves to be very faithful to its source material.

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin may have top billing, but the weight of “True Grit” rested on the soft shoulders of then 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Her astonishing performance brings Mattie Ross right off the written pages of Portis’ book and to vivid life. This was not necessarily the case when Kim Darby portrayed her opposite Wayne in 1969. Our sophomore English class watched some, but not all of, the original film, and once we saw Mattie cry in a way she never would have in the novel, we all knew one liberty too many had been taken with the source material. I guess having a character appear stronger willed than one played by The Duke must have seemed unthinkable at the time.

But seriously, Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie, and the movie would have completely failed were she not as fantastic as she was here. Seeing her stroll into the town with her no-nonsense attitude and wise beyond her years, the actress sells the character perfectly and has us eager to follow her every step as she pursues Tom Chaney before he escapes the hand of justice. Her eyes show a willful determination which I never doubted, and any sadness she shows is somehow restrained. Steinfeld takes a character who is not altogether likable and makes her one of the most compelling characters I saw in any 2010 movie. She doesn’t so much play the character as much as she inhabits the role. Now how many other 14-year-old actors do you know who can pull this feat off?

As the story goes, Mattie tries to procure the services of Rooster Cogburn because she believes he possesses “true grit;” someone who has courage, fearlessness, and guts. As played by Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, who owned the 2010 holiday season with this and “Tron: Legacy,” Rooster is a drunken lout who never appears to be fit for his line of work, but his sense of duty does manage to keep him sane in an increasingly violent world. The relationship he has with Mattie is not one based on kindness, and he would as soon as leave her in the dust than bring her along. But something about Mattie’s dogged determination, illustrated by her riding her horse across a river while keeping her head above water, wins the whiskey loving Marshall over.

I’m not going to bother comparing The Dude and The Duke because frankly I don’t have the energy. Wayne made his mark in one film after another, and Bridges’ performance works so well because he never tries to outdo what Wayne did. Like any smart actor, he makes the character his own, and his Rooster Cogburn threatens to be every bit as inebriated as Val Kilmer was when he played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” From the start, I was almost afraid Bridges might turn the character into a parody of sorts, and perhaps rely too much on his “Big Lebowski” persona to get him through the day. But this never was the case as Bridges makes his Rooster Cogburn into a wonderfully complex character who, despite his grungy appearance, still knows the Indian territory like the back of his hand.

Also along for the ride is Matt Damon who portrays Texas Ranger LaBeouf. I thought he would stick out like a sore thumb here, but he makes his character a wonderfully engaging one even as he keeps coming and going throughout. Seeing LaBeouf get his ass handed to him by Mattie Ross is a major highlight, only if to see the shocked expression on his face when he realizes he truly got suckered by a 14-year-old.

Josh Brolin, who previously worked with the Coens on “No Country for Old Men,” makes Tom Chaney not just a simple one-dimensional villain as his crime was motivated more out of jealousy and fear than anything else. Even he can’t intimidate Mattie as she has the strong resolve and moral fortitude he seriously lacks, and his life has lost its sense of purpose. Brolin manages to convey all this in the limited time he has onscreen.

Another guy I was happy to see here is Barry Pepper. As “Lucky” Ned Pepper (no relation I’m sure), he gives us a nasty outlaw and a vicious guy who will not allow anyone to undo his authority any more than he appears willing to brush his teeth; man, his teeth look hideous!

The main difference between the 2010 and 1969 movies is in how the wild, wild west is portrayed. The 1969 movie was more about watching Wayne blow away the bad guys just as he had in every other movie he starred in. But the 2010 version portrays the world it inhabits much more realistically, treating violence as a brutal and very vicious thing. This one is more akin to “Unforgiven” than “Rio Bravo.” Violence is a way of life for all these characters, and it defines the way they see the world around them. We also see how it affects their souls as the specter of death hangs over their every move. There’s no attempt to sweeten up the narrative or make it the kind of western many of us grew up watching.

Still, the Coen brothers have succeeded in making one of their most accessible movies to date for the mainstream audiences with “True Grit.” They also managed to do it without compromising themselves as this film sees them getting the widest audience they ever had before. They continue to employ their regular collaborators who never fail them such as cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Roderick Jaynes, and their longtime composer Carter Burwell who contributes another in a long line of great movie scores.

If there was any problem I had with this “True Grit,” it was in the way it ended. We see one character many years later, and the effect is disorienting. It was the same thing that happened at the start and the end of Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile,” and it just took me out of the moment. The effect wasn’t too bad in this one, but I was hoping to see the actor who played said character get more of a proper send off.

Remaking a movie like “True Grit” seems like the last thing the Coen brothers would ever do, but I believe them when they say this was never intended to be a remake. They stayed very true to the source material and even made the language Portis scribbled down seem very much alive and sharp witted. Whether or not you value Wayne’s take on Rooster more than Bridges’, you have to give the Coens credit for staying true to a book written back in 1968.

The Academy Awards showered a number of nominations for this film including Best Actor for Bridges and Best Picture. While I was happy to see Steinfeld nominated for Best Supporting Actress, I still think it was a travesty she was not nominated for Best Actress instead. Once again, this movie rested on her shoulders, and she was cast in a role which 15,000 other actors auditioned for. Seriously, Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress. Her male co-stars were supporting her instead of the other way around.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Fish Tank’ – 2009 Jury Prize Winner at Cannes

Here’s a little British independent feature which came out at the beginning of 2010 in America after being named the Jury Prize Winner at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, however, it barely registered in movie theaters, so here’s hoping it finds an audience on physical media and/or cable. “Fish Tank” is a raw and unsentimental character study that pulls no punches in its portrayal of a tough and troubled teenage girl growing up in an East London council estate. It was directed by Andrea Arnold, an actress turned filmmaker who previously directed “Red Road,” and it stars Katie Jarvis as Mia, the teenage girl you may figure is up to no good just by looking at her. There is no Hollywood gloss on display here, and the environment this young woman inhabits feels both real and rundown, just like the other characters who are stuck there with her.

Now council estates are to England what public housing or “the projects” are to cities all over the United States; rundown buildings designed for the economically challenged that carry a stigma of poverty and endless crime. Now whether this is true or not, this is usually the impression people have of these places. It is clear from the start that Mia, along with her mother and younger sister Tyler, have lived in this place for a long time, and it has shaped them into the people they are today. There is seemingly no room for much in the way of respect or gratitude towards neighbors or strangers.

Mia appears to have it the roughest compared as she has been kicked out of school and seemingly wanders around the estate aimlessly. We see her putting up a seriously tough front for some girls whose dancing moves she bluntly criticizes as sucking big time, and this leads to her head-butting a girl in the face which shows how quick she is to defend herself. At home in one of the many far too cramped apartments in the council estate, her mother continually treats her like dirt and appears more interested in partying and getting drunk rather than being a parent. The only real tender moment between them comes at the end of the film, and you will know it when you see it. As for Mia’s younger sister Tyler, she has a vocabulary which Chloe Grace Moretz’s character from “Kick Ass” sound PG rated in comparison.

Being the loner she is, Mia’s only escape is practicing her dance moves in an abandoned apartment near where she lives. This proves to be her only real outlet for the frustration and aggravation which has consumed her life to this point. She is shy in revealing this part of herself to just about anyone as vulnerabilities are easily spotted and exploited for all the humiliation which can be derived from them. No one is ever quick to show any weakness in this kind of environment.

Into this environment enters her mother’s latest boyfriend, Connor, a security guard at a nearby hardware store played by Michael Fassbender. Mia is never quick to warm up to others she doesn’t know well, but she quickly develops an interest in Connor who becomes the father figure she lacks. From the moment we see Mia help him catch a fish in the lake with his bare hands (it’s possible), he inspires her to try new things and open herself up to possibilities which previously seemed beyond her reach.

This leads to a great deal of tension in “Fish Tank” as we cannot help but wonder if this relationship is going to end up crossing any boundaries. There are moments captured where the chemistry between Mia and Connor is so strong, you fear the possible and destructive ways this relationship can go to. Words are not needed to illustrate the bond they have, be it when Mia films Connor with a video camera while he’s getting dressed for work, or when Connor gives Mia a piggy back ride out of the river after she injures herself. Their growing discoveries of one another and what they are capable of is impossible to ignore, and we can see the positives of this even while the negatives are never far off.

Arnold films the movie in a way where nothing feels staged, and every character and location feels authentic to what it must be like in reality. I’m not sure a movie like this could have been filmed any other way and have the same effect. She also captures the suffocating environment of being in these big government buildings which are treated more like dumps for the lowest on the economic ladder. The apartments themselves are ridiculously tiny, and there is no privacy for any family member who has to live there. Places like these must feel like prisons to those who inhabit them, and Arnold captures this mindset clearly to where you feel as helpless as these characters do.

As bleak as “Fish Tank” is though, its ending offers hope that anyone can escape such a confining environment if they have the means and the foresight to change their lives for the better. Some are too far gone to be saved, but Mia still has a chance to move forward, and her relationship with Connor makes this clear to her.

Katie Jarvis who plays Mia in had no real acting experience before she got cast in this movie. It turns out she got an audition after one of the casting assistants saw her arguing with her boyfriend quite loudly outside a train station. Indeed, this role not only requires an actress who comes off as tough, but one who inhabits a role more than play it. While a lot of struggling actors out there may hate the fact Jarvis got one of the luckiest breaks ever, it makes a lot of sense Arnold would cast someone who came from this environment.

The role Jarvis plays is not an easy one to portray. Mia has to be tough yet show just enough vulnerability to let the audience look past the defenses she has built up. She also has to be shy but angry, curious without spelling it out for the audience, and her character needs to evolve from the person we see at the start of the movie. This makes her performance all the more revelatory because you come out thinking she has been acting all her life. She successfully captures all the subtle nuances of Mia to bring out the complexities which makes her more than just any other angry young person. Truly, it’s a daunting role for even the most experienced actor, and Jarvis comes out of the picture looking like a pro.

The other key performance comes from Michael Fassbender as Connor. Fassbender has been in movies like Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” and he stole a number of scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” As Connor, he comes across as a generous human being, and it’s commendable that he would want to try and be a father figure to someone else’s children. This is something most people would NOT want to do. But her also gives Connor an enigmatic nature which makes him hard to pin down and figure out. Like Mia, you want to more about this guy than what he is telling everyone around him.

The only real problem I had with “Fish Tank” involved one character’s revelation in the last half. It’s hard to talk about it without giving anything away, but it was one of the few times where I have watched a movie and left it begging for more answers. Mysteries which stay after a movie ends can be fascinating, but others are not so lucky. Some movies need and demand closure, and this one could have used more of one. Either that, or I completely missed something…

I meant to see this film when it briefly played in theaters back in January 2010, but I never got around to it. When I did, it was playing at New Beverly Cinema in a double feature with “An Education.” That film featured another breakout performance from Carey Mulligan, another actress who seemingly came out of nowhere. Having seen both, it was clear why the New Beverly put them together; they are both about the same thing. Each is about a young British girl who feels trapped in an environment they desperately want to escape. Just when they think they have found a way out, reality rears its ugly head and takes any possibilities for an exciting life away from them rather cruelly. Still, both women rise above the pain inflicted on them and find a way to move on in spite of what they were forced to endure.

For those of you with a hankering for dramas with raw emotion and non-manufactured realism, “Fish Tank” is definitely a movie I recommend for you to see. As I write this, the Criterion Collection has released a special edition of it on DVD and Blu-ray. It features a digital transfer of the film, some short films by Arnold, and interviews with the actors, one of which is with Fassbender. In a time where the local cinema is getting overrun by blockbuster movies and immortal franchises, movies like this demand to be seen, and this is one of them.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ in Which Jason Segel Bares All

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

How cool would it have been to be on one of those Judd Apatow television shows? Neither “Freaks & Geeks” nor “Undeclared” lasted for more than one season, but the cult audiences for these shows keeps growing. Moreover, so many actors and writers from them have gone on to bigger careers in television and film. Seth Rogan was one of the kings of last summer as both an actor and a writer for “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” James Franco has been in several movies including the “Spider-Man” trilogy, Linda Cardellini went on to the “Scooby Doo” movies playing Velma and now she plays Nurse Samantha Taggart on “ER,” etc. The list goes on and on, and Apatow keeps bringing out his extended family members for all to see. It’s like being on one of the shows gives you the greatest stroke of luck you can ever hope for in show business.

This reminds me, I once did extra work for “Freaks & Geeks.” This was on the episode right after Sam Weir broke up with his cheerleader girlfriend, and you will probably see me wearing a plaid shirt from the 1970’s. Yes, I was a geek that day. But you know what this means? Maybe some of the Apatow touch could spread to me! Yes! I can lay claim to being a part (albeit a very small part) of one of the best television shows you never watched. This makes me want to write my own screenplay and act in it! But anyway, enough about me…

The latest Apatow star to burn his name and identity into our collective consciousness is Jason Segel, and he wrote the screenplay for the movie he also stars in, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” The movie follows Jason’s character of Peter Bretter who is so in love with the title character (played by Kristen Bell) who is actually the big star of a television show which is a cross between “CSI” and “Bones” (William Baldwin plays her constantly adlibbing partner). One day, Sarah confronts a fully naked Peter to tell him she is breaking up with him. She says she has found someone else, and she tries, and fails, to let Peter down gently. Quickly, Peter falls into a deep dark depression which just about everyone goes through when they are dumped, and not even his stepbrother Brian Bretter (Bill Hader) can lift him out of it.

So, Peter heads off to Hawaii for a vacation to get away from his heartbreak and take some time for himself. But since Hawaii is such a romantic, it only makes his heart ache even more, and he gets phone calls from the front desk saying that a lady is crying very loudly from where he is. When Peter tries to hide his tears and says it must be from a lady in the room above him, the desk clerk reminds him he is on the top floor. But then things get even worse; Sarah shows up at the same resort with her new beau, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a rock star who is as dense as he is sexy. The movie becomes a game of sorts between Peter and Sarah as each tries to get past the other and find ways to put their heartbreak behind them.

The plot of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is by no means original. We have seen this kind movie before, but not with this much male full-frontal nudity. The execution and writing keep it from being another formulaic journey which we have all grown so tired of. For the most part, none of the characters’ actions feel at all contrived. The journey they all take, and how they change in the end feels very believable, and I didn’t find myself questioning it at all. Like many of Apatow’s films, the characters are so refreshingly down to earth that we can see ourselves as them. I usually avoid romantic comedies like the plague because they usually come off as very trite and manipulative. It’s usually a case of “you’re sexy, I’m sexy, so let’s fuck and introduce ourselves to each other later.” This is not the case here. All the characters come across as very likable, even the ones you initially think you are not supposed to like.

Segel doesn’t make too much of a stretch as an actor here as Peter is not much different from his character of Nick Andopolis on “Freaks & Geeks.” But he is a very good actor all the same and makes his character very likable even though we would probably get sick of him very quickly in real life. Peter spends a lot of time telling other people how he split from Sarah when he should probably just shut up about it. But Segel does a great job of making his character transition from an irrepressible whiner to a more mature person moving past a very painful time in his life.

Sarah Marshall is a bit of a bitch, but Kristen Bell does make her somewhat sympathetic. She acknowledges how nervous she is about the jump from television to and worries she will have to show some bush on the silver screen in order to make the jump. Please keep in mind, this is in the same movie where Segel bares all and shows us his, as Robin Williams once described it, “throbbing python of love.” Her character also makes a transition from someone who appears to have it all together to someone who couldn’t be more insecure or jealous if she tried, and its hilarious to watch.

The other great presence to be found here is Mila Kunis who we all remember from “That 70’s Show.” She plays the hotel desk clerk Rachel Jansen who befriends Peter in his utterly pitiful state, and ends up developing a strong relationship with him. Kunis perfectly portrays this down to earth individual many of us hope to meet in our lifetime. Rachel too is going through growing pains and fears, and she is also having troubles putting the past behind her. Through Peter, she finds a kindred spirit with whom she can relate, and in which she can see part of herself. Together, they challenge each other to get past the hurts and disappointments which have stalled them in their lives.

I also loved Russell Brand’s performance as Aldous Snow, the dim-witted rocker who ends up stealing Sarah Marshall from Peter. Usually, this kind of character is portrayed as such a hateful son of a bitch, but in some ways, Aldous comes across as kind of a cool person. It never occurs to him that inviting Peter to dinner and Sarah would be so awkward, and he never wants Peter to feel uncomfortable around him. Some guys would boast about stealing someone else’s girlfriend, but not Aldous, the recovering alcohol and drug addict lead singer of a rock band. Even though his character is as dense as they come, he also makes a transition when he realizes something about Sarah which she should have realized about herself a long time ago.

The movie also features a number of Apatow regulars who never fail to disappoint. “Saturday Night Live’s” Bill Hader is hilarious as Peter’s brother-in-law Brian Bretter who keeps giving advice Peter never follows in time. “Superbad’s” Jonah Hill plays a waiter at a Hawaiian restaurant who is more helpful to all the guests and to a fault. “30 Rock’s” Jack McBrayer plays a newlywed who spends the movie trying to make love to his wife the right way. And then there’s the always dependable Paul Rudd who steals just about every movie he is in these days. Rudd plays Chuck, a surfing instructor who is never quite clear in his lessons, and watching him is comedy nirvana.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is one of those hit and miss comedies, but the stuff which does hit is funnier than anything else I have seen so far this year. Segel is a fine actor and writer as this movie proves, and the comedy juggernaut that is Judd Apatow Productions continues making some of the best movie comedies of today.

And I tell you, being an extra of “Freaks & Geeks” does qualify me for some of Apatow’s Midas touch. Laugh if you must, but my background work has to count for something.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Speed Racer” Runs Out of Gas Long Before It Ends

I’m not sure if I ever watched the original “Speed Racer” cartoon, but I feel like I have. Maybe it’s because that darn theme song can be so hard to get out of your head. Speed is one of those characters who has permanently engrained himself into pop culture for all time. Back in 2008, the Wachowskis brought this popular cartoon which is credited for bringing the world of anime into full focus onto the big screen in a live action version that is bursting at the seams with the most vibrant colors imaginable.

In short, “Speed Racer” is a visual splendor to behold, and also kind of an endurance test to sit through. At over two hours, this movie is simply way too long. I usually don’t complain about a movie’s length, but I can’t resist bitching about it here because I kept yawning in the second half and was checking my watch. When I check my watch during a movie, it is NOT a good sign.

“Speed Racer” starts off innocently enough as we see Young Speed (Nicholas Elia) daydreaming about someday being a great racecar driver like his brother Rex (Scott Porter). Speed comes from a family weaned on race cars and building them. His father Pops (the always dependable John Goodman) runs Rex’s race team along with Speed’s brother Sparky (Kick Gurry) until Rex ends up walking out on the family and their cars. No real reason is giving by Rex to his dad, but he warns Young Speed not to believe all the bad things people are going to be saying about him. Soon enough, Rex is slammed with a bad reputation which is not of his own doing, and he later perishes in a tragic car crash which haunts the family to the point where Pops won’t go into his garage to do any mechanic work.

Fast forward to several years later, and we see Speed all grown up (and played by Emile Hirsch), and he is as a good a racer as Rex. He amazes everyone with his skills on the track to the delight of his fans and ever-loving family. Pops has even come back into working on cars again along with Sparky, and Speed also has a great mother in Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) who I can’t help but say is quite sexy. He also has a loyal girlfriend in Trixie (Christina Ricci) who flies her pink helicopter in the most alluring miniskirts ever to make their way into a PG-rated movie. And there is also his annoying younger brother (is there any other kind?) Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his chimp friend Chim Chim. Still, he could not have asked for a better family.

Then into the picture comes Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), a spiffy CEO of one the world’s largest auto industries who offers Speed a chance to sign up with him to represent his corporation. Royalton is basically a man with the mind of a used car salesman (and I have dealt with many of them over the years) with an extravagant attire. This man wants to seduce Speed into a world where he can have everything he could ever possibly want, but Speed would rather stick with his family as he finds these corporations a little too frightening to deal with. This ends up bringing out the devil in Royalton as he gives Speed lessons in how the world really works, and he is determined to see Speed will never win a race from here on out. The movie then becomes a journey to showing how one racecar driver can change the world for the better, and can also succeed in blowing apart the corrupt corporations which threaten to destroy the world of racing.

The movie is deliberately campy, and that’s fine. I imagine the show was too. The beginning was fun as it introduced us to the world of Speed Racer and the people who inhabit it. There is an innocence which proved to be quite infectious as we see Speed daydreaming about the life he wants to lead. Who hasn’t had moments like that? Had the movie contained more of this innocent feel, then I imagine I would have liked it a lot more. There’s nothing wrong with a good throwback to the past, and it always brings back good memories which are always welcome.

But towards the last half, I found myself really getting restless. Just when you think “Speed Racer” has reached its climax, there is more and everything feels dragged out as a result. Maybe it’s because we all know how the story will end, and the depressing part is there is no excitement in it. The movie has heart, but not enough to fully envelop us into its gloriously colorful world. Because the Wachowskis are working with CGI and have practically shot just about every frame in front of a blue screen, we know everything is precise in movement and direction. This is nothing you can really improvise around, and it makes the race scenes all the more disappointing because there is no real thrill in them. In fact, there is no friction which you really need in any cinematic car chase to make it effective. By the end, I was ready for it to be over. It didn’t matter how brilliant the visuals were. They don’t mean anything without soul.

This was the first movie the Wachowskis directed since the “The Matrix Revolutions.” They still have a knack for groundbreaking visual effects, and of following that one character who is “the one.” If it’s not Neo, then it’s Speed himself. They do surround this film with good actors like John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci and Emile Hirsch who was coming off a plethora of praise for his work in “Into the Wild” at the time. But the story and the characters are not enough here like they were in “The Matrix.” Maybe it’s because we have seen this story so many times before; the one man on a mission to stop those who control everything and blind us to the truth of the world we live in.

With “The Matrix,” that story was revolutionary and groundbreaking. But with “Speed Racer,” there is nothing revolutionary except the visual spectrum of what’s on display, and it doesn’t change the fact that the story about a man going against the corporate world is old, old, old. There is also the sheer irony of the corporate world funding a movie where the independent people go against the corporations to win the day.

I didn’t hate “Speed Racer.” There is a lot to admire about it. It’s not really an actor’s movie, but then again, these movies rarely are. I guess I’m sad this movie, despite the amount of money put into it, didn’t excite me the way I hoped it would. And I am sick of being forgiving to movies like these. The Wachowskis may forever be imprisoned by the success of “The Matrix” movies, but they are better filmmakers and storytellers than this.

* * out of * * * *

‘Cloud Atlas’ Has Cult Classic Written All Over It

With a movie like “Cloud Atlas,” I go into it expecting to be overwhelmed by the visual spectacle and unable to understand all of what is going on in the story. On this level, the movie does not disappoint as you kind of need a road map to tell you who’s who and what’s what. Then again, what matters most when watching something like this for the first time (and watching it once is never enough) is you get the gist of what’s going on. The gist of this story here is that everything and everyone is connected in one way or another, and once you understand this. then the film becomes a fascinating movie going experience.

Some will say “Cloud Atlas” is too damn ambitious, and we need to stop saying it like it’s a bad thing. What’s wrong with being too ambitious in this day and age? It may cause filmmakers to take a wrong step from time to time, but it also guarantees we will get a cinematic experience unlike many others we often watch. This project brings together the Wachowski siblings who gave us “The Matrix” trilogy and Tom Tykwer who directed the brilliantly kinetic “Run Lola Run,” and “Cloud Atlas” represents some of the best work they have ever done.

The film is based on the book of the same name by David Mitchell, and it interweaves six stories which take place in different time periods: the Pacific Ocean circa 1850, Zedelgem, Belgium 1931, San Francisco, California 1975, the United Kingdom in 2012, Neo Seoul (Korea) in the 22nd century, and the last story takes place on a beautiful ocean island in a time which could be our past but might actually be our future. Guessing which time period the island story takes place in is one of the film’s great mysteries right up to the end.

The characters range from 65-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish who flees from the associates of a jailed gangster to Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered clone who is freed from her servitude as a fast-food restaurant server to explore a world which she discovers lives to exploit her kind. “Cloud Atlas” travels back and forth through these stories, and once everything is set up the film becomes an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future. One person ends up going from being a killer in one life to being a hero in another, and one act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and many other actors here end up playing many different roles. They will be recognizable in some, and others will only become clear when you stay through the end credits. I can’t help but wonder how they kept track of all the different characters they played, some which are of a gender opposite their own.

Hanks’ performance in “Cloud Atlas” goes all over the map as he plays characters as varied as a tribesman trying to rebuild his life in a post-apocalyptic world to a doctor who looks to steal from a patient more than help him. I especially liked his role as Isaac Sachs, a worker at a nuclear power plant in the San Francisco story. Hanks is always so good when he underplays a role, and Isaac was the one character of his I wish was expanded on a bit more. At the same time, I think he is miscast as Scottish gangster Dermot Hoggins which has him doing a lot of bombastic acting for no really good reason. Where’s Jason Statham when you need him?

Berry’s career since her Oscar win for “Monster’s Ball” has seen a lot of peaks and valleys, but she also does strong work here as a variety of characters. Like Hanks, she is especially good in the San Francisco story as reporter Luisa Rey. She also has some strong moments as Meronym, a member of a technologically advanced civilization who may not be all she appears to be.

Jim Broadbent, as always, is a blast to watch in each role as he is so delightfully animated whether he’s playing a publisher in hiding or a composer as famous as he is vindictive. Ben Whishaw, who played Q in “Skyfall,” “Spectre” and “No Time to Die,” is heartbreaking as Robert Frobisher whose artistic ambitions are unforgivably shattered. And Hugo Weaving channels his Agent Smith energy from “The Matrix” to portray a number of nasty antagonists, one of which threatens to give Nurse Ratched from “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” a run for her money.

But the best performance comes from Doona Bae who portrays the engineered clone Sonmi-451. Although she is not really a human being, Bae infuses this character with such a strong humanity to where she makes you feel the emotions she soon experiences herself. Just a look into those piercing eyes of hers is enough to melt one’s heart as Sonmi-451 finds a power no mere mortal can easily obtain, and one of her last moments onscreen speaks to a truth which no one person or a government can ever simply wipe away.

For the Wachowskis, “Cloud Atlas” represents a big comeback after the boring fiasco which was “Speed Racer.” I’m also thankful it doesn’t have the same kind of ending “The Matrix Revolutions” had because that would have driven me nuts. For Tykwer, the film represents a chance for us to re-evaluate him as a filmmaker. Ever since his incredible success with “Run Lola Run,” people have taken him to task (perhaps more so than they should have) for not making a film as good as that one was. But together, these three have created a visual feast which has you glued to your seat and at attention for almost three hours (yes, it’s long, but you won’t really notice).

“Cloud Atlas” was an independently made film, and an expensive one at that with a budget of over $100 million. It’s easy to see why no major movie studio would take the whole thing on themselves; it has a dense narrative which goes all over the place, and it forces the audience to pay close attention in a way most movies never demand them to. The fact it was not a big hit at the box office is sad because you want audiences to embrace films like this more as they try to do something different from the norm.

Regardless of its flaws, “Cloud Atlas” looks to be one of those films which will have a long shelf life. It invites repeated viewings so you can take in new meaning s you didn’t see the first time around, and you will come out of it wondering how the filmmakers put the whole thing together. This one definitely has cult classic written all over it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Matrix Resurrections’ – Welcome Back to the Real World

It’s been a couple of days since I watched “The Matrix Resurrections,” and my feelings about it are a bit mixed. Truth is, I have been waiting for a fourth “Matrix” movie for years following the ending of “The Matrix Revolutions” which ended the trilogy with a whimper instead of a bang. My friends and I came out of it thinking there had to be another one, and we guessed it would be called “The Matrix Resurrection.”  So, when the first trailer for “The Matrix Resurrections” was dropped for the whole world to see, I was thrilled to see Neo and Trinity alive again, and I could barely contain my excitement for what was to come. Then again, I am always reminded of how expectations and anticipation can lead you to an ecstatic high which the final product can never ever live up to.

To me, “The Matrix” movies are a lot like Peter Gabriel’s albums, you have to go in expecting the unexpected, and this is certainly the case here. Sure, all the cool special effects like bullet-time and characters jumping all over the place are back, but this installment is also more intimate. It takes jabs at Hollywood’s incessant need for remakes, reboots and sequels as nobody seemingly has the guts to produce anything original, and it echoes the events of “The Matrix” trilogy to where some will be saying “déjà vu” out loud. But deep down, this one is at its heart a love story of two people torn apart in their battle against the machines, but who now have a second chance to be together again because, hey, wouldn’t it be nice?

We meet up again with Neo and his alter-ego of Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) who has once again been plugged back into the simulated world and works as a highly successful video game developer who has long since created a successful trilogy of games entitled, you guessed it, The Matrix. The games are based on his dreams from his faint memories of being Neo, and now the parent company, Warner Brothers, wants him to make another game to the delight of his boss, Smith (Jonathan Groff), who starts off sounding quite a bit like Agent Smith…

Suffice to say, Lana Wachowski is looking to have a little fun with Warner Brothers as they have been constantly asking her and her sister Lily to make another “Matrix” movie. As Mr. Anderson’s fellow employees try to keep coming up with ideas about how to make a fourth game, and no one can seem to agree on anything. Lana ended up co-writing and directing this installment by her lonesome as Lilly did not want to return to this franchise, but I imagine Lana is speaking for the two of them as she flips the bird to the studio as if to say, “you think it’s easy coming up with another sequel? Just be happy with what we give you dammit!”

Still, Thomas is plagued by what he says are “dreams which are not really dreams,” and he tells his therapist (played by Neil Patrick Harris) that he believes he is going crazy. But his therapist, with his blue-rimmed glasses, assures him he is not and prescribes him medication which comes in blue pills. And we all know what happens when you take the blue pill, right?

There’s a lot going on in “The Matrix Resurrections” to where watching it once will not be enough. While it does repeat some scenarios and themes, it does so in a way which feels relatively fresh. Yes, Neo, has to be awakened from the simulated world and brought back to the real one once again, but history does have a nasty habit of repeating itself. After all this time, choice is still seen as an illusion to certain characters, but there are those who are willing to challenge this perception which helped bring me into the story on an even deeper level. After all these years, I refuse to believe choice is an illusion.

One character who looks like an agent introduces himself as Morpheus, but he looks a bit different here as he is played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. As to why Laurence Fishburne did not reprise his role, you have to remember what happened to Morpheus in the game “Enter the Matrix” which is considered canon. While Abdul-Mateen does try to sound like Fishburne at times, his Morpheus has his own moves and rhythms to where he comfortably makes the role his own and is a lot of fun to watch.

Jonathan Groff makes for a menacing Agent Smith (the second trailer revealed who this actor was playing), but it would have been great if Hugo Weaving were able to return as this character makes an interesting decision towards the latter half of the movie. Jessica Henwick, who opted out of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” to do this, makes Bugs a badass gunslinger whom you want to follow from start to finish. Lambert Wilson returns as The Merovingian, but this time he looks like he just jumped out of Terry Gilliam movie. And yes, Christina Ricci appears here in a small role which is like one of those blinked and you missed it ones. Much was said about her being in this sequel, but she’s barely in it.

The action here is exciting, but it does not have quite the same exhilaration as the original “Matrix” did. Regardless, there were some interesting moments on a train and throughout the city of San Francisco. Cinematographers John Toll and Daniele Massaccesi give this particular “Matrix” movie its own look to where it feels like its own thing. Composing the score this time around instead of Don Davis are Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer who have big shoes to fill, but the two give us music which makes the action and emotions on display all the more rousing. Having said that, I kept asking myself, “Where the hell is Juno Reactor?!”

But for me, the heart of this movie is in the relationship between Neo and Trinity. Although their characters were killed off in “The Matrix Revolutions,” something never quite sat right with me or with the conclusion where the humans essentially reach a draw with the machines. Lana has said writing the screenplay was her way of dealing with the grief of losing her parents, and bringing back these two iconic characters felt very welcome to me. While some may consider this a cheat as it threatens to retcon all Neo and Trinity went through, I am reminded of how anything is possible in this particular cinematic universe.

A lot of people still like to pick on Keanu Reeves’ acting, but I am willing to defend him on a number of roles he has taken on including this one. While there are certain scenes which have him emoting, his work overall was solid overall as he realizes how the dynamic between Neo and Trinity is taking on a different dimension this time around, and his time as John Wick is proof how he can handle action scenes like a seasoned pro.

It is also so cool to see Carrie-Anne Moss back as Trinity as she has not lost a step and still looks far too young to be getting grandmother roles. In the simulated world, she is Tiffany who is married with a couple of kids and has a thing for motorcycles, but upon meeting Mr. Anderson, she is convinced she has met him before. Moss invests this character with the same boundless energy she gave Trinity in the original trilogy, and I am thrilled she is back to keep some ass. Also, I am glad that the choice to leave the Matrix was given to her because, seriously, women should have the right to choose.

When it comes down to it, what really got me more involved in “The Matrix Resurrections” was seeing Neo and Trinity on the screen and wanting them to be together again. Seeing them torn apart previously may have inevitable, but I like to believe in second chances as the world of machines has gotten bigger and stronger than what we saw previously. In a world dominated by technology, the need for human emotions like love is stronger than ever.

As I write this, “The Matrix Resurrections” has been getting some rather polarizing reviews. People have been calling it a needless and soulless cash grab while others see it as a worthy installment which takes things in a fresh direction. Indeed, while Lana Wachowski does deliver on certain expectations, she openly defies several others as she is determined to make this movie her own and not simply give in to corporate studio heads or test screenings. The fact people are mixed on the final result is not really surprising as these movies are anything but your average sci-fi action spectacle, and they don’t always give you what you think they will.

For the most part, I did like “The Matrix Resurrections” even if it didn’t thrill me as much as I hoped. But like I said, it helps to expect the unexpected. I will see it again at some point in the hopes of uncovering more of its multiple themes and visuals as there is only so much I could take in on a first viewing. Many will be judging this sequel at its surface, but hopefully they will take the time to see what’s underneath it.

The Rolling Stones were right: you can’t always get what you wanted, but if you try sometimes, you just might find get what you need. That’s how I view this movie.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ is Fantastic Entertainment and One of MCU’s Best

Okay, why beat around the bush. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is far and away one of the very best “Spider-Man” movies ever made. It stands proudly alongside my other favorites (“Spider-Man 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) as it gives audiences quite a ride which proves to be as emotional as it is exciting. It also cements the fact that Tom Holland is the best actor to inhabit this iconic comic book/superhero thus far, and it even redeems the weakest Spider-Man movies (“Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) to where I think I can get away with saying all is forgiven. Yes, it really is that good.

When we last saw our friendly neighborhood human bitten by a spider, Mysterio had framed him for his murder which was gleefully exploited by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, because casting anyone else in this role would be uncivilized) on his Alex Jones-like broadcast. Even worse, the world now knows Spider-Man is really Peter Parker which makes his life a social media nightmare as people are quick to look at the headlines instead of reading the article or looking beneath the surface of things to get to the truth. Of course, even if the truth is revealed, there would still be many people around the world quick to believe the fiction, especially if it fits in with their deluded mindset.

In desperation, Peter seeks out Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to use the mystical arts to wipe out everyone’s memory of him being Spider-Man. Unfortunately, Strange’s spells get all messed up when Peter suddenly remembers he doesn’t want Michelle “MJ” Jones-Watson (Zendaya), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) or his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to forget about him or his alter-ego. As a result, the multiverse cracks open and many of Spidey’s devious enemies are brought into the world this particular Peter Parker exists in to do away with him. It’s up to Peter to, as Doctor Strange says, “Scooby Doo this shit.”

It is fantastic to see some of the best Spider-Man villains back on the silver screen here. I was especially thrilled to see Alfred Molina return as Doctor Otto Octavius as he is still the most memorable nemesis in all of these films. Molina does wonderful work once again as he plumbs the depths of his character to find the humanity within a man who has been driven to madness. This is an actor who never fails us.

The same goes with the always reliable Willem Dafoe who returns as Norman Osborne/Green Goblin. This time, the Green Goblin gets an upgrade to where Dafoe no longer has to bother with the cheap-looking mask he was forced to wear back in 2002 (he must have enjoyed smashing it to pieces). More importantly, he also makes this iconic comic book villain a fascinating study in good and bad, and the bad side of Osborne threatens to far more devious than anyone could have expected.

And in the other corner, we have the return of villains from the worst “Spider-Man” movies: Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). Church was forced to act in a sequel which already had too much going on and contained some truly underwhelming special effects. The same thing happened to Foxx in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” but his performance also proved to be underwhelming as he was unable to make Electro a menacing antagonist. But in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” both actors are clearly having way more fun this time around as their characters fit into the narrative nicely, and their appearances are upgraded to excellent effect. This is especially the case with Foxx who is no longer this blue-looking guy who looked like he belonged more in “Avatar” than a “Spider-Man” flick, and he gets to take Electro in some new directions which makes his performance much more memorable this time around.

As with any Marvel Cinematic Universe offering, there are many cameos from other comic book characters and superheroes throughout, but I will not spoil any of them for you here. Granted, many other websites and outlets have been digging deep into all the surprises and easter eggs just one day after this sequel opened, and I should not be surprised by this, but you deserve to discover these surprises yourself. There’s a number of good reasons why I did not post a spoiler warning at the top of this article.

The best “Spider-Man” movies deal brilliantly with how Peter Parker is just a regular kid who accidentally inherits incredible superpowers which excite him, and who eventually comes to see how with great power comes great responsibilities. Granted, someone usually has to say these words to him, but he does soon realize the magnitude of his actions and his place in the world at large.

Like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield before him, Tom Holland fully understands the humanity of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and the actor takes us on quite a journey as Peter goes from being a bright young kid whose world has been turned upside down to a man who is tested in ways he does not expect. Tragedy comes to define his life and takes him down a path of no turning back, but Holland, with his eyes and body, shows us a hero who can and will rise above hatred to take on a new adventure which will come his way eventually. Holland is phenomenal here.

I also liked how “No Way Home” deals with its themes such as the following: Can evil be turned to good? Can bad ways and tragic actions ever be redeemed? Is absolute power such an aphrodisiac to where giving it up really does seem insane? Is J. Jonah Jameson ever going to get sued for his program of shameless propaganda? And, perhaps most importantly, how much must a hero sacrifice in order to save the world? I really loved how director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers deal with these themes, even if some get more attention than others.

Some comic book/superhero movies go in and out of me quite easily to where there is only so much worth remembering about them. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” however, stayed with me long after the end credits and post credit sequences were done. Like “No Time to Die,” this 2021 motion picture packs quite an emotional wallop as Peter Parker and his iconic alter-ego remains as endearing and heroic as ever. This is one of best “Spider-Man” movies ever, and one of my favorite films of this past year. I was expecting a good movie as I walked into the theater, but I had no idea it was going to be this good.

I also have to hand it to Marvel as they know how to finish a trilogy. The third movie in a franchise can often prove to be disastrous to where it sullies everything which came before it, but that’s not the case here. Now if they can just do a better job with the second film in a trilogy, everything would be great. Seriously, does anyone remember anything about “Thor: The Lost World?” I don’t.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Many Saints of Newark’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

As someone who considers “The Sopranos” the greatest television drama of all-time, I was supremely excited to check out “The Many Saints of Newark,” which is a prequel to the television series which captivated audiences from 1999-2007.  At the time, I did not have HBO, so I, unfortunately, didn’t catch the show on its original run. Upon working at Blockbuster, I was able to pick up the series on DVD.  I now own the entire series on Blu-ray, and it only gets better with multiple viewings as there is the family drama, the therapy scenes, the crime element, and even moments of comedy.  It’s a masterpiece.

With “The Many Saints of Newark,” we open up in the late sixties on a young Tony Soprano with his Uncle and mentor Dickie Moltisanti.  Dickie is played brilliantly by Alessandro Nivola in a performance that is perfect from start-to-finish. Dickie is part of the DiMeo crime family.  Other members of the family include Johnny Soprano, Junior, Silvio Dante, Paulie Walnuts, Pussy Bonpensiero, and Pussy’s father who is nicknamed Buddha. Some of the stand-out performers here include Jon Bernthal as Johnny Soprano, Tony’s father. Junior is played by the versatile Corey Stoll. Buddha is also played by the always entertaining comedian Joey Coco Diaz.

If you have never seen “The Sopranos” before, you will probably have a very difficult time understanding what is happening in the film.  This is a film which was made for those who have watched “The Sopranos” and are familiar with the characters and all of their personality traits and even lines of dialogue. It’s been a while since I’ve watched the show, and it took me a moment to piece it together.  Once I did, it was a nice trip down memory lane.  Prequels can be hit-or-miss, and “The Many Saints of Newark,” for the most part, is a hit.  It left me looking forward to hopefully future installments, which I’ve heard have been talked about by series creator David Chase.

During this time in Newark, there are riots breaking out after an African-American taxi driver is killed by a white policeman. One of Dickie’s runners, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) is an African-American, and he’s getting sick and tired of being only a runner.  He’s also taking part in the riots as he wants there to be equal footing for African-Americans to be able to do business as well. Since Tony Soprano doesn’t have a great relationship with his father, he looks up to Dickie Moltisanti. Tony is getting in trouble by smoking, drinking and gambling at school.  It’s hard for him because his father is not exactly a model citizen, and his mother Livia (Vera Farmiga) is never satisfied and incapable of showing any affection.

I could go into more detail with numerous backstories, but I don’t want to give away too much for those who are going into the film blindly.  As you can tell by reading my review, which only touches on certain aspects of the story, there is a lot happening at once.  In some cases, this is a bad thing.  It is definitely a tale of two movies.  The first hour of this two-hour movie is the weak link. When the film introduces us to teenage Tony Soprano, played by Michael Gandolfini, the son of the late, great James Gandolfini, it really starts to soar and take off.  If the entire film was like the second half of the film, it would have been perfect.

One of the things I did not mention in my review is the dual-performance of Ray Liotta, as both “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti and as Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti.  The “Hollywood Dick” persona is loud, aggressive, and rude.  He marries a young Italian woman and treats her very poorly, which upsets his son Dickie as he saw the same behavior unleashed on his mother.  Salvatore, on the other hand, is in prison and full of Buddhist wisdom, which seems to be a great source of comfort for Dickie when he’s conflicted on what is the right thing to do in certain situations and scenarios.  Even though it’s the same actor, it’s two completely different performances.

In the end, “The Many Saints of Newark” is a film that almost reaches greatness, but the first half of the film is really hard to ignore.  However, the second half left me with goosebumps and reminded me of why I fell in love with the show in the first place.  The cast is also top-notch and incredible.  My personal favorite performance of the film comes from Vera Farmiga.  She really captures the essence of Livia and all of the drama and issues which came with her.  Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the performance by Michael Gandolfini.  He’s not mimicking his father as Tony Soprano.  It’s more about getting the little nuisances of the character and how he felt as a young teenager which led to his issues in the show as an adult mob boss.   Everyone is great here, so if I’m leaving anyone out, it’s not intentional.

I must also talk about the look of the film.  It’s shot perfectly with a great sense of time and place. Alan Taylor really gets the little things right.  It’s a gorgeous film to look at with its use of blue tones.  He left no stone unturned in making this film.  The outfits worn by the characters are even spot-on, which shows how much thought went into this production.  It was co-written by series creator David Chase.   Since he spent so much time with these characters, it’s obviously a very personal project for him. While “The Many Saints of Newark” is not perfect, the scenes and performances that work really stand out and will leave hardcore fans of the show quite pleased.  I think it will also leave them wanting more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Blu-Ray Info: “The Many Saints of Newark” is released on a single-disc Blu-ray from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It also comes with a digital copy of the film.  It is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity.  It has a running time of 120 minutes.

Video/Audio Info: “The Many Saints of Newark” comes on a crystal clear 1080p High-Definition transfer, which is simply stunning and incredibly vibrant.  The audio comes in a few different formats: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, English, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

The Making of Newark

The Sopranos Family Honor

Deleted Scenes

Should You Buy It?

I really wrestled with whether I wanted to give this film three stars or three and a half stars.  I’ll put it this way: the first hour of the film is a two-star movie, and the second hour is a four-star movie.  I know four plus two equals six, so if you divide those two, you should get three stars.  However, the second hour is so impactful and mesmerizing, I broke the rules of math and gave it three and a half stars.  It left me with such hope and promise.  Once I heard that music play at the end of the film and saw the look in the eyes of Michael Gandolfini, I said to myself, “I want to see more of THIS.”  I imagine, as with anything which is popular and a prequel, the film is going to be polarizing to fans of the franchise. I completely respect that, as “The Sopranos” is a show which is very personal to a lot of people, myself included. As far as if you should buy the film, I would buy it if you are a hardcore fan of the show.  If you watched the show, liked it, and never thought about it again, you can probably hold off on buying it for a little while.  There are some decent special features here, but it seems like studios are really lacking with physical media special features these days.  I can’t remember the last time I listened to a commentary track on a physical release.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.