‘Bullet Train’ – A Bumpy but Entertaining Ride Thanks to Brad Pitt

Bullet Train” is one of those movies which takes you on an adrenaline-fueled ride and leaves you wrung out at its incredibly chaotic conclusion. Now I usually begin writing movie reviews soon after I watch one, but I had to sit down for a bit after and gather my thoughts when it came to this particular feature film. Yes, it is furiously entertaining, but the story does drag from time to time and there are moments which defy simple logic. Also, some have accused the film of trying to be Tarantino-esque as the director wants the characters to look and sound cool when they talk. My response to those criticisms is this: didn’t the trailers spell out to you that this is a motion picture which you will need to check your brain at the door while watching it?

Based on the Japanese novel “Maria Beetle” by Kōtarō Isaka, “Bullet Train” is not a perfect movie, few movies are for crying out loud, but for the most part I found myself really enjoying the chaos on display as we watch Brad Pitt portray an American assassin who makes his way through a Japanese train going at a speed of about 200 miles an hour through the country’s vast railway system.

Pitt’s character has no name here, but he is given the codename of Ladybug by his contact and handler, Maria Beetle (voiced by an Oscar winning actress whose voice you will recognize). His mission is a snatch-and-grab one as he is to collect a suitcase on a train heading to Kyoto and then get off at the next stop. Ladybug is also an experienced assassin who has been doing his job for far too long, and this looks to be one of those last mission before retirement gigs for him. Also, he is trying to find some inner peace in the midst of all his deadly deeds and is quick to encourage others to do the same. Yes, “Bullet Train” is that kind of movie.

Now Ladybug is quick to acquire the briefcase which acts as this movie’s McGuffin, but getting off the train quickly turns into an insane comedy of errors as he keeps running into other assassins whose missions prove to be very similar to his. Among them are British assassins Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Japanese assassin Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) who looks to avenge his son who lies in the hospital in critical condition, a Mexican assassin known as The Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny) who has a special grudge against Ladybug, and Prince (Joey King) who is a British assassin who received her codename only because her parents really wanted a boy instead of a girl.

With everything set up, we know these characters will eventually collide with one another in inventive and creative ways as their individual missions have an inevitable connection. Seeing it all happen on a train traveling at a very high speed is especially exciting as, while these assassins are trying to kill or trick one another, the rest of the passengers are sitting in their seats as, to quote a line from another movie starring Pitt, “calm as Hindu cows.” Oh yeah, there is a venomous snake which manages to escape its cage and slither about the train in the same way that spider crawled around the McCallister house in “Home Alone,” and you sit in fear of it striking at the least suspecting passenger.

Directing “Bullet Train” is David Leitch who helmed the very first “John Wick” film, the insanely entertaining “Deadpool 2,” and “Atomic Blonde” which starred Charlize Theron who gave a performance which should have had you saying, “not bad for a human.” Clearly, he is out to give us a fun-filled ride, and he delivers for the most part. Not everything lands in the way it should as some moments fall flat, but those which do hit had me enthralled and laughing my ass off. While it may not be as thrilling as “Top Gun: Maverick” or the vastly underappreciated “Ambulance,” Leitch for my money gives this motion picture more entertaining set pieces than not, and that makes it worth seeing in my opinion.

The other actors go out of their way to fully inhabit their roles regardless of whether or not their screen time is long or short. Both Taylor-Johnson and Henry work off of one another very well, and that’s even though I could not always understand every word coming out of their mouths. As for Henry, his character of Lemon goes out of his way to give us all a special appreciation of the British children’s television series “Thomas & Friends” and of all the different kinds of trains there are in the world.

One of my favorite performances comes from Joey King as the oddly named Prince. From the first time we see her, she proves to be an alluring presence as she uses her disguise as a schoolgirl to gleefully throw her antagonists off-balance in an almost sublime manner. Her eyes show us a character who is infinitely dedicated to taking out her main target with extreme prejudice, but she also succeeds brilliantly in deceiving those around her ever so easily. Seriously, King steals every scene she is in.

But yes, the one person who manages to connect everything together here is Brad Pitt who once again proves why he is one of Hollywood’s best and most dependable of movie stars. Even if his performance threatens to be too broad at times, he made this film especially fun and looks to be having the time of his life. There’s also a scene where we see him traveling through the train cars in slow motion (you will now what I am talking about when it happens), and the expressions he gives off prove to be absolutely priceless.

Now I cannot say that “Bullet Train” will remain in the mind long after you have watched it but watching proved to be a blast for the most part. While many may say it pales in comparison to other films from its genre, I was never quick to compare it to others. There may a few bumps and lags on this particular train ride, but I still enjoyed this film for what it was, and that was enough for me. And, like “Where the Crawdads Sing,” it makes me want to read the book it is based on.

Oh, there are some truly brilliant celebrity cameos to be found here, especially towards the end. Seriously, they are alone worth the price of admission, particularly when it comes to the one actor playing an assassin named Carver.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Where The Crawdads Sing’ Doesn’t Dig Deep Enough into the Marsh

After watching “Where the Crawdads Sing,” I immediately went out and purchased a copy of Delia Owens’ novel upon which it is based. Judging from the opening narration in which the main character of Catherine “Kya” Clark tells the audience how “marsh is not swamp” but instead is “a space of light where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky,” this cinematic adaptation looked to defy all the perceptions we typically have of such places on Earth. This is further emphasized by her describing how swamp exists within the marsh and is “quiet because decomposition is cellular work,” and how it “knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as tragedy, certainly not a sin.” This dialogue comes straight from Owens’ prose, and it stayed with me throughout the film’s 126-minute running time.

This cinematic adaptation of “Where the Crawdads Sing” comes to us from Reese Witherspoon who has gushed endlessly about how much she loves the novel, and she produced this film alongside Lauren Neustadter. The screenplay was written by Lucy Alibar who co-wrote “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and it was directed by Olivia Newman who is best known for her Netflix film “First Match.” Clearly, there is a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera here, and the appreciation everyone has for the source material cannot be doubted. Still, while this film held my attention throughout, I Pate’s came out of it thinking, couldn’t the filmmakers have dug into the material even deeper?

We first meet Kya as a young girl who lives with her family in the North Carolina marsh, and it is fun to watch her being embraced by her loving mother. But then we see her dad (played by Garret Dillahunt) is an abusive bastard who treats every member of his family like crap. From there, Kya’s mother and siblings leave their home one by one to where it is just her and dad, and she learns to survive his drunken wrath in more ways than one. But soon he disappears, and Kya is forced to fend for herself and survive on her own to where she copes with loneliness in a way few others do.

Indeed, seeing Kya grow up in the marsh to where we can believe she can more than survive on her own provides this film with its most interesting moments, but it is all surrounded by a courtroom drama which makes the proceedings feel utterly routine and ordinary. As the story begins, the police come upon the body of Chase Andrews (played by Harris Dickinson), a high school quarterback who had been in a relationship with Kya which ended on a bitter and violent note. People in town are quick to label Kya as the key suspect as they have always viewed her as an outsider to where they fear her for all the wrong reasons. It is not long before Kya is arrested and charged with his murder.

Part of my problem with this film is that it treats many of the characters as caricatures instead of fleshed out human beings. More often than not, the filmmakers only touch on the surface of these individuals instead of transcending their nature to present something more unique. While certain characters are given special attention, others are painted in broad strokes to where they could have come out of so many other motion pictures. The period detail is spot on as the film immerses us in the times and tribulations of the 1960’s, but it still feels like we are just watching events unfold instead of living them through Kya and everyone else.

One actor who elevates his material here is the great David Strathairn who co-stars as Kya’s defense attorney, Tom Milton. While the prosecuting attorney looks and acts like a Jake Brigance wannabe, Strathairn transcends his character’s mannerisms and background to give us a performance which feels alive and lived in. Not once does he ever give us a moment which feels false as his character comes out of retirement to defend Kya in her murder trial. At the start, he asks Kya to her that he cannot help her until het gets to know her better. His character becomes key from there to the story as, like him, we want everyone to see Kya as an individual instead of some odd human being who exists in the shadows where few others dare to travel to.

Speaking of Kya, the actress who plays her is Daisy Edgar-Jones, and her performance for me was worth the price of admission. She more than inhabits Kya to where the character never comes across as some female version of Tarzan, but instead one who merely exists in the marsh as it is the only home she has ever known and feels comfortable in. Jones also renders many scenes she appears in with heartbreaking honesty as we watch her discover love for the first time, and later heartbreak which is always devastating, especially for the young.

It is also worth singling out Jojo Regina who plays the younger Kya as she embodies the character at a fragile point in her life. She shows us how lost the young Kya is when she first goes to school and discovers how cruel children can be to someone different from them. More importantly, Regina sets the stage for Kya becoming wholly independent as she digs in the marsh for mussels to sell to the local general store. Watching her, I believe Regina gave Jones so much great stuff to work with.

I also enjoyed the performances of both Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt as Jumpin and Mabel, the kindly African-American couple who own and run the local general store where boats get their gas. They respect and care they have for Kya is strong and shows through their eyes and actions. Plus, Mabel has one of the movie’s best lines as she rightly points out that the Bible says nothing about being careful.

But as for the rest of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” it all feels inescapably routine. Sure, the cinematography by Polly Morgan is gorgeous, the music score by Mychael Danna fits the material perfectly, and it is clear everyone here has great love for the source material. But in the process of being slavish to the novel, they don’t do enough bring everything it to life. I cannot help but believe this adaptation could have been given much more depth as this movie could have stood out in the same way Michael Apted’s “Nell,” which starred Jodie Foster as a similar individual raised away from civilization. While the novel may have given many a unique experience, this movie fails to do the same as it becomes like many we have seen time and time again.

I think it would have been best to focus much more on the trifecta of Kya, her first boyfriend Tate (Taylor John Smith), and her second boyfriend Chase. Where Kya is a child of the wilderness and the marsh, Tate has one foot in the civilized world and another in the wilderness, and Chase himself is a product of the civilized world which has given him a lot of bad ideas about social status and women. These relationships are dealt with, but in a rather shallow way with some acting which is too theatrical for motion pictures.

Heck, I would have liked to have seen more of Dillahunt as Pa as, from what I have read of the novel thus far, there is more to him than being just a drunken bully. Perhaps we could have been given more depth into this character as a result to where we could understand why he acts the way he does even as we rightly despise his actions. Still, the movie decides to keep him at arms’ length. Granted, the main focus is, and absolutely should be, on Kya, but perhaps knowing more about the key people in her life would have made her coming of age adventures all the more enthralling.

If you are a fan of the novel, I think you will have to see how the movie “Where the Crawdads Sings” compares to it. There is a lot to like about it, and again, Jones is simply wonderful in the lead role. But considering how beloved this novel is, I imagine many will come out of it feeling like more could have been done with the material.

For what it’s worth, both the movie and the novel serve as a reminder of how the civilized and uncivilized worlds don’t go by the same laws as survival takes on different forms in each. And remember, unlike animals, human beings are the only species to put their own in cages, behind bars.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Was Well Worth the Wait

Movies take a long time to make and bring to the silver screen, but this one took forever to debut thanks to the pandemic and a superstar’s strong desire to ensure it DID NOT debut on streaming. This is also a sequel which comes to us 36 years after the original, and that one was a classic 1980’s flick. Can you make a sequel to an 80’s classic in another decade where things have changed ever so much? I mean, Paul Hogan tried to do this with “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles,” and it proved to be one of the most needless sequels in cinematic history.

Well, when it comes to “Top Gun: Maverick,” this is a sequel which proves to be well worth the wait. While it does pay some homage to its predecessor, especially in its opening moments where the music of Harold Faltermeyer and Kenny Loggins blast through the speakers and generate a wealth of nostalgia, this sequel is the rare one which largely stands on its own and proves to be even better than the original. Now that is saying a lot as “Top Gun” forever holds a special place in my heart for being one of the most iconic 80’s films whose VHS tape gave our home speakers quite the workout and proved to be one of the few from this glorious decade which I did not walk out of crying uncontrollably. Believe me when I say this is saying a lot.

We catch up with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell all these years later as he continues to avoid promotion in order to keep flying. He works as a test pilot who is determined to lay waste to any of Chuck Yeager’s all-time records. The problem is, pilots like him are in the process of being phased out to make room for drones. As Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (the great Ed Harris) points out, Pete is on his way to becoming a relic. Of course, the Admiral tells Pete this at the same time he is forced to point out his talents are needed back at Top Gun to train a new generation of pilots for an important mission.

While his fellow aviators have advanced in rank, Pete has remained a captain and continues to piss off admirals and other superior officers in ways both intentional and unintentional. When the original “Top Gun” ended, Maverick was about to become a instructor, but here we learn he only lasted two months as one before ditching those duties. I have to say I was annoyed upon learning this as dropping out after such a short period of time seems rather petty of Maverick, but it also once illustrates what a rebel he is among his fellow aviators.

Upon his arrival at Naval Air Station North Island (a.k.a. NAS North Island), Maverick comes to meet a new generation of aviators which include Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), the lone female pilot of the bunch, and Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell) whose ego knows no bounds even when you want it to. But the two individuals who will factor most strongly into Maverick’s life here are Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), and admiral’s daughter whom he once did a high-speed flyby years ago and now owns a bar, and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller) who just happens to be the son of his best friend, the still missed Goose (Anthony Edwards). Suffice to say, some here have not quite gotten over the past, and dealing with the present may prove to be even more challenging.

One of the things I have to address about “Top Gun: Maverick” is the fact Kelly McGillis did not return to portray Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood. Many consider this the latest case of ageism in Hollywood, but while I do not want to lay any shade to that, there are also several other actors who are absent in this sequel: Tom Skerritt, Rick Rossovich, Meg Ryan, Michael Ironside, and James Tolkan to name a few. When it comes to the filmmakers/ response to this, they said they did not want to spend a lot of time looking backwards, and to this I applaud them endlessly.

The problem with a lot of sequels, especially ones which come 10 or more years after their predecessor, is how much they reflect on what happened previously. Sequels are clearly made to cash in on the original’s massive success, and it gets to where filmmakers are a bit too fearful to tinker with an established formula. I was reminded of this while I was watching “Blues Brothers 2000,” a sequel I was honestly excited to see come fruition. But as I watched this movie unfold before me, the following dialogue started playing in mind:

“Hey, remember when we did this years ago?”

“Yeah.”

“Remember when they did that?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, remember this bar owner from the original?”

“Yeah.”

“He was funny when he said what he said, you know?”

“Yeah, he was.”

“Seriously, do you want to turn this sequel off and just watch the original?”

“Oh yeah, way ahead of you!”

We love what came before, but not everything can be the same. Granted, “Tom Gun: Maverick” does not reinvent the formula or the genre it is a part of, but it does give us something new and fresh which makes everything we see here all the more thrilling. This is not a simple regurgitation of what we previously witnessed, but instead a look at the present and the challenges it presents for the characters here. While certain notes from the original are played on here, this sequel is not necessarily business as usual.

More importantly, this is one of those sequels which are better than the original. As incredibly entertaining as “Top Gun” was, it did suffer from cliches and a romantic subplot which the movie really could have done without. “Top Gun: Maverick” improves upon its predecessor in many ways as, even if repeats familiar beats, brings a lot more depth to the proceedings and more heart to where, even when things seem emotionally manipulative, I got so swept up in the action. I cheered as loudly as the next audience member during the climatic sequences, and this made me feel like I was back in Thousand Oaks watching “Return of the Jedi” for the first time. The audience got so involved in the action, and it filled my spirits in a way few cinematic experiences could have back then. Believe it or not, the same goes for this long-awaited sequel.

The late Tony Scott, who directed the original “Top Gun” and to whom this sequel is dedicated, gave us some amazing aerial dogfights years before. “Top Gun: Maverick” was directed by Joseph Kosinski who previously worked with Cruise on “Oblivion” and was also behind the camera for “Tron: Legacy” and “Only the Brave.” Like Cruise, he was clearly determined to not fake a single scene from start to finish. The g-forces you see the actors experience is no joke, and it made me wonder what was going through their heads as their faces were being smushed in beyond their control. And seeing those fighter jets fly through treacherous terrains at such high speeds was infinitely thrilling.

Kosinski has proven to be a strong director with a great visual style, and “Top Gun: Maverick” is his best film yet.

As for Cruise, there is no doubt about his dedication to authenticity. While, to quote a lyric from Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” all those lines on his face (or his forehead to be more specific) are getting clearer, he is not about to let age get in the way of what he wants to accomplish in a motion picture. When it comes to his star-making role, he slips back into it ever so easily, and he is not just portraying Maverick in the same way he portrays Ethan Hunt.

I also got to praise the rest of this cast as they more than rise to the occasion here. Miles Teller has long since proven to be a truly talented actor, and I love watching him hold his own opposite Cruise from scene to scene. Jennifer Connelly remains an infinitely talented presence as she gives Penny Benjamin a reason to stand head-to-head with a man who once flew by her at very high speed. Glen Powell tricks you into believing his character’s strong ego will be forever crushed, but it makes sense as to why it never does. And then there is Val Kilmer who returns briefly as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, and his presence reminds us of how powerful a presence this actor can be even if cancer has forever robbed him of his wonderful voice.

It would have been a joke if Cruise did a “Top Gun” sequel back in the 1990’s or at the cusp of the new millennium. He would have needed such a sequel back then as “Cocktail” would have. His career was flying high without a need to revisit his past, but when it became time to do so, he was not about to serve us the same old shit.

“Top Gun: Maverick” for me is the epitome of a summer blockbuster as it makes you feel like a part of the action, and you find yourself cheering with the audience in a way you normally do not. While it not be a cinematic masterpiece, it does its job with sincerity and boundless enthusiasm, and like many, I cannot wait to see it again. Yes, this sequel was made to be seen on the silver screen, so please do so before it does make its debut on streaming.

I cannot wait to see it again.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Batman” Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

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

I have stated in the past I’m not the biggest fan of superhero/comic book films. I know they are insanely popular, and they make up most of the current box office these days.  However, they have never quite tickled my fancy. A recent exception to the rule would be 2019’s “The Joker.”  It was my favorite film of 2019. When a superhero or comic book film is dark, gritty, and focused on character development as opposed to explosions and car chases, I can get into the film and appreciate the characters and the story. I’m happy to report “The Batman” is a really, really good movie that surprised the hell out of me.

When Robert Pattinson was named as the latest Batman, a lot of fans of the franchise were disappointed and fixated on his previous work in the “Twilight” franchise. Between “The Batman” and “Good Time,” directed by the Safdie brothers, Robert Pattinson has proven he is a solid actor when given the right material.  Everyone has their favorite Batman from the various films in the franchise. I haven’t seen all of them, so I can’t say with any clarity which one is my favorite or which actor has done the best job. I don’t feel as though Pattinson was asked to do a lot here, but what he does do is slightly above average.

It’s rather tough to judge Pattinson’s performance, as there is a lot going on in this nearly three-hour film.  It wasn’t a standout performance or one that blew me away. At times, it felt like the film was protecting him and didn’t give him a lot to do. When the film was over, I was impressed with the film and not really thinking about his performance as Batman. I would have liked to have seen more from Catwoman, played by Zoë Kravitz.  Considering the film’s length, I felt as though they could have included her a little bit more in the film.  There are also stand-out performances from Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Andy Serkis, and an unrecognizable Colin Farrell.

It’s Halloween in Gotham City, and it turns out to be a night of mayhem after its mayor Don Mitchell Jr. is killed by the Riddler. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), of the Gotham City Police Department, calls Batman into action as he feels he can be an ally in this case.  This is not met with open arms by the Gotham City Police Department.  This will also not be the first body that is found dead by Batman and James Gordon. The Riddler is leaving behind cards with various clues, taunting Batman.  In some ways, this film had the feel of “Se7en” to it.  This is much more of a dark thriller/horror film than a superhero film, which was appreciated. It helped that the film was directed by Matt Reeves of “Cloverfield,” “Let Me In,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War for the Planet of the Apes” fame.  He knows how to make a tightly wound thriller with human elements.

What makes “The Batman” work so effectively as a story is that the Riddler, right or wrong, has a motive behind all of his killings. He sees all the lies and coverups that are happening in Gotham City.  He just wants to expose the truth to the public. Speaking of the Riddler, I would have liked to have seen more from Paul Dano in this film.  I understand they want to build up to showdown between Batman and the Riddler, but it left me wanting more.  I imagine that is for us in the eventual sequels.  Again, I would have liked more from the Riddler and Catwoman.

There is also a moral dilemma at the heart of the film.  Bruce Wayne/Batman is looking to figure things out about his family with the help of the family butler, Alfred (Andy Serkis).  He’s piecing the clues together at the same time the audience is figuring them out as well.  There is a rhyme and a reason to everything which happens in this film.  At times, it felt like a smarter “Saw” film with some of the traps, letters, and messages that were being sent out by the Riddler.  The film is an intense ride which really packs a wallop.  That being said, I would have trimmed about 20-30 minutes from it.  That would have made it a four-star film.

I’m really surprised they were able to get away with a PG-13 rating with all of its dark material, which deals with subjects such as mental illness, grief, death, trauma, and explosives.  While I have no issues with films that are willing to be bleak and dark, it felt like an R-rated film to me, which is high praise.  I’m going to give the film three and a half stars because of the run-time.  At times, it really gets bogged down and can feel tedious.  In the end, this is a very enjoyable look at Batman from director Matt Reeves.  The way the film is shot is absolutely brilliant.  The dark, brooding cinematography and tone were very much appreciated.  I really, really liked “The Batman.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

4K Info: “The Batman” is released on a three-disc 4K Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It has a running time of 176 minutes and is rated PG-13 for strong violence and disturbing content, drug content, some language, and some suggestive material.  One disc is the 4K, another disc is the Blu-ray, and there is an entire Blu-ray disc devoted to the special features, which are over two hours long!

Video Info: Released in 2160p Ultra High Definition, “The Batman” is simply stunning with its dark black imagery. It’s a remarkable 4K, and it’s exactly why the format is really finding its way into the homes of more hardcore film collectors.  The film also comes with Dolby Vision. You won’t be disappointed by a single scene in this film.  It’s breathtaking. For the Blu-ray, you get your usual 1080p High Definition.  The special features come on a separate Blu-ray disc as mentioned earlier.

Audio Info: For the 4K and Blu-ray, you receive the following audio formats: Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio, English, French, and Spanish. Subtitles are also in English, Spanish, and French.

Special Features:

Vengeance in the Making: A Making-of Documentary Featuring Cast and Crew

Deleted scenes with director’s commentary

Anatomy of a Car Chase featuring the Batmobile

The Batman: Genesis

Becoming Catwoman

and more!!

Even though the film is incredibly lengthy, I’d love to watch it again.  I really liked the direction they went with this film as far as the Riddler having an agenda behind his killings.  I also thought the moral dilemma and the code Batman lives by was really tested throughout the film.  It’s an impressive movie.  I’m not going to discredit the work of Robert Pattinson in the film, as I thought he did a fine job, but it did feel like the film really didn’t allow him to show off more of his acting chops.  He’s really hiding behind the Batman character. This might have been by design.  However, I would have loved to have seen a performance that rivaled the film.  Once again, maybe it was not the intention of the filmmaker or the people behind the film.  Still, if you enjoy your superhero movies with a dark edge to them, you will not be disappointed by “The Batman.”  There is no stone left unturned with the special features as well.  Without question, this is a day-one purchase at your local retailer.  I can’t wait to see what they come up with for the sequels.

**Disclaimer** I received a 4K/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.

‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ – A Mixed Bag at Best

With Sam Raimi returning to Marvel Movies for the first time since “Spider-Man 3,” I honestly got really excited. With a title inspired by one of the many H.P. Lovecraft stories out there, and a look which makes this film seem like “The Evil Dead” as if it were produced by Kevin Feige, this “Doctor Strange” adventure looked to be more than the average superhero flick as it ventured into the horror genre, something we have not seen a Marvel movie do recently, if ever before. Plus, I was looking forward to the Bruce Campbell cameo you know is coming and to see where Raimi was going to put his classic 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 car on display as it has been featured in every one of his films. Come on, you know that car is going to make an appearance at some point.

Well, what stunned me about “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was how much of Raimi’s visual flair ended up onscreen here. When it comes to Marvel Movies, I assume they are usually made by committee to where the director does have some say, but the producers usually get final cut regardless. But watching this one made me realize how much leeway Feige and company gave this celebrated filmmaker, and that’s even though said leeway only goes so far. As for the screenplay, well, just read on.

I went into this “Doctor Strange” sequel believing it would take place after the events of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” but some have said this one is actually a prequel to it. Is it? I don’t know and would love it if someone could give me a definitive answer on this. What I can tell you is that it starts off with Stephen Strange and America Chavez (played by Xochitl Gomez) running away from an ever so fierce demon while trying to find the Book of Vishanti, this movie’s answer to the Necronomicon. But it is soon revealed that Stephen was just having a bad dream, or was he?

America then appears to Stephen again while he attends the wedding of his beloved, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to someone other than him. After defeating an octopus demon with one eye with the help of Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), they learn America is being hunted by demons because she has the power to travel through the multiverse in a way few others can only hope to.

It should be noted that this “Doctor Strange” sequel went into production without a finished screenplay, and it shows. Trying to explain everything which goes on here is very difficult as the number of universes these characters travel through is endless to where I am surprised no one had totems like those “Inception” did. Surely everyone here would eventually wonder if they were actually in the correct universe, right?

When it comes to the visual effects, I am back and forth on them. The opening featuring a lot of CGI to where I found myself not being the least bit enthralled at the action. As the show went on though, the effects became quite immersive and very clever, and there’s an absolutely brilliant scene in which Stephen and America find themselves flying through different universes which vary in colors, depth and weather. It reminded me of when Cameron Diaz chased after Catherine Keener while traveling through the mind of a celebrated actor in “Being John Malkovich.” With creativity like that, I wonder how far the imagination can stretch.

And yes, the actors are all terrific here as one would expect. I don’t even want to think about what other actors could possible inhabited have inhabited the role of Doctor Strange any better than Cumberbatch. While this is the second film where this Marvel character has the lead, Cumberbatch has already played this doctor in various other MCU adventures to where he can play a role like this in his sleep. With a simple move or inflection of his voice, this Oscar nominated actor can communicate so much even without uttering a single word.

Benedict Wong offers strong support throughout as, like Cumberbatch, is not about to let any of the visual effects upstage him in the slightest. Xochitl Gomez excels at playing a young adult who has more to deal with than the average teenager as she navigates through puberty while being afflicted with a special superpower. Rachel McAdams reminds us of what a pleasing presence she can be as Christine Palmer, the love of Stephen’s life who got away from him because superheroes can’t always have loving relationships. And there’s no leaving out the great Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays surgeon and Stephen’s one-time colleague, Nicodemus West. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a lot of screen time; Stuhlbarg makes every single second he appears onscreen count for all they are worth.

But for me, the best performance in this “Doctor Strange” sequel comes from Elizabeth Olsen who returns as Wanda Maximoff, better known as the Scarlet Witch. While Wanda may have been good in the past, we see here going rogue here as she attempts to reunite with her children, and these are kids who may not actually exist if you know what I mean. While this particular character could have easily turned into a one-dimensional villain whose selfishness comes at everyone else’s expense, Olsen gives Wanda an emotional depth which makes her threat to those around her all the fiercer. If there is one reason to check out this sequel, it is for Olsen.

After writing all of this, I imagine you must wonder why I have such mixed feelings about this MCU film. Simply put, it comes down to the inescapable fact that the screenplay needed another draft or two. I would have liked it if there were some sort of Thomas Guide available for the average audience member as the story is hard to navigate through to where it is difficult to become emotionally involved in everything going on. Perhaps it is best to view the previous events which took place in both the first “Doctor Strange” movie and “Wandavision” before stepping into this latest chapter as it will help ground you in every single event going on here.

Also, the pace drags in ways it should not, and taking this into account is especially frustrating. While many complain about the average movie lasting around two hours and 30 minutes, and this is not counting the half hour or so of commercials we are forced to experience at our local AMC theater, this one only lasts 126 minutes, and yet there were still moments where I found myself almost falling asleep. This should be a sign of when something or anything drags slower than your ordinary snail as we live in an age where we have no choice but to pick up the pace.

When it comes to “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” I cannot help but describe it as a near miss. While there is a lot here to admire, the final cut is undone by a screenplay which needed another draft or two before production began. While some filmmakers can get away with giving us an enthralling motion picture which everyone involved made up along the way, this one does not quite qualify. It really sucks to say this, but there you go.

As for the post credit scenes, one features an Oscar-winning actress who I did not expect to see here, and the other features an actor from many cult films pointing out the bleeding obvious. I hope you enjoy what they have to offer.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Dog’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

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

There is nothing about “Dog” that will offend your cinematic senses, nor is there anything in the film which will reinvent the wheel.  This is a simple movie with a simple concept.  For a lot of filmgoers, they probably love the idea of a dog movie starring Channing Tatum, who also co-directed the film with its screenwriter, Reid Carolin.  For some people, they are fine with a film that just leaves them feeling happy and does not require a lot of thought behind it.  They simply kick back their feet and enjoy themselves.  At times, I believe film can be a great form of escapism when done right.  In the case of “Dog,” there are individual moments that worked in the film, but as a whole, it’s missing a lot of key ingredients.

“Dog” follows Jackson Briggs (Channing Tatum), a former U.S. Army Ranger, who is having a tough time adjusting to regular life.  He has brain injuries and PTSD.  When the film opens, he’s making sandwiches at a sandwich shop, which is clearly not the best use of his skills.  Because of this, he’s eager to do something that will challenge and excite him. He wants to be put on the rotation for Pakistan, but there are major concerns about his health and if he will be able to handle it. He assures them he is fine, but it is clear he’s struggling.

This image released by MGM shows Channing Tatum in a scene from “Dog.” (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures via AP)

When one of his former squad members is killed in a car accident, he is given the task of driving Lulu, a Belgian Malinois military dog, to Arizona for the funeral.  If he does this successfully, they will put in a good word for Briggs for a future tour. After the funeral, Lulu, because of its violent nature, will have to be put down. From here, the film turns into a road trip movie with Briggs and Lulu.  The dog causes a lot of headaches for him, especially when he’s trying to have sex. There is also a comical run-in with a psychic and her paranoid husband, played by former professional wrestler Kevin Nash.  It was great to see Nash on the big screen once again.  There is also a cameo by comedian Bill Burr.

There are other encounters along the way for both Briggs and Lulu. Some of them are successful and some of them are unsuccessful.  Some of them are funny, and some of them are what you would expect in a road trip movie featuring Tatum and a dog.  I imagine that was a big selling point for the film.  Considering the low budget for the film and its final box office numbers, it was a low-risk, high reward project for the studio.  From an artistic standpoint, the film has real issues with its pacing.  It’s very slow-moving and tedious to sit through at times, even though it’s 101 minutes. Tatum is a fine actor, but he’s not the kind of actor who is going to keep my interest for an entire film as the lead.  Even though I love animals, the same is true of the dog.

This is a feel-good flick with a lackluster story.  It’s not a bad movie.  It’s average, run-of-the-mill, and forgettable.  After it was over with, there wasn’t anything from the film that really stayed with me.  Considering its subject material (the impact and healing powers of animals and the real struggles the military deals with from a mental health perspective), they could have done a lot more here.  Instead, they played it safe and easy with a formulaic film that needed a little more bite to it, no pun intended. There are some laughs to be had here, especially with some of the cast members I mentioned, but they are few and far between.  I’m sure a lot of families and Tatum fans will enjoy this film. It didn’t do it for me, however.

* * out of * * * *

Blu-ray Info: “Dog” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray and DVD Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment, which also comes with a digital copy of the film. It is rated PG-13 for language, thematic elements, drug content, and some suggestive material.  It has a running time of 101 minutes.

Video/Audio Info:  The film comes on 1080p High Definition with two audio tracks: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Special Features:

“Dog” Trailer

Should You Buy It?

I can’t think of any reason to buy this film unless you are part of the Channing Tatum fan club.  The film has its heart in the right place, so I can’t fault it for that.  It just doesn’t want to try to break out of its formula.  The film follows all of the familiar beats one would expect in a film like this, and it ends exactly how you would expect it to end.  It follows the formula from A to Z.  It does not take any chances or have any surprises, whatsoever.  I don’t even think it’s worth a Redbox rental.  It’s a film you can completely pass on, and you will be just fine. The Blu-ray does not come with any special features, which is a bummer.  It would have been nice to see how Tatum worked with the dog and some of the challenges it presented for the actor. I feel like the Grinch giving this film a bad review, but its screenplay is just lazy and the pacing is really rough.  I’d pass on this one altogether.

**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.

‘Ambulance’ – Michael Bay’s Best Film in an Eternity

Those of you who have read my review of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” know just how much of a simmering hatred I have for filmmaker Michael Bay. I walked out of that sequel so furious and angry to where I could never let myself sit through any of his films all the way through for over a decade. But with his latest action-packed spectacle, “Ambulance,” I could not help but be intrigued. Seeing two bank robbers desperately try to escape the police quickly brings to mind all of the Los Angeles car chases we keep seeing on the news with helicopters flying over a speeding vehicle being followed by several LAPD vehicles while news anchors comment on what we are seeing. Deep down, part of me roots for the pursued to escape as I honestly wonder if escape is even remotely possible for those hoping to evade the police when they have so much technology at their disposable to keep you in their sights.

Does “Ambulance” provide audiences with an accurate view of such a police chase? Well, no, but it does prove to be the best action film Bay has made in ages. Sure, many of the director’s flourishes are here such as quick editing, shots which swoop all over the place and characters yelling at each other while in close proximity to one another, but I could bear all of these things this time around with little in the way of argument. Sure, not everything we see go on here makes logical sense, but even I knew to leave my brain turned off when I entered the theater.

The movie opens up on war veteran Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as he tries to get his insurance to cover his wife Amy’s (Moses Ingram) much-needed surgery. But since this surgery is seen as “experimental,” the country he served to protect against all enemies foreign and domestic is not about to give him the $231,000 he needs for medical necessities. This should serve as a reminder of how politicians tend to stop saying “support the troops” when the war comes to an end. Lord knows our support for them should never stop there.

Desperate for help, Will turns to his adoptive brother, Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal), for a loan. The only thing is, Will is meeting up with Danny on the day he and his grungy cohorts are going to rob a bank of $32 million dollars, an amount Jeff Bezos would refer to as pocket change. Against his better judgment, Will goes along with Danny, perhaps out of a need to protect his brother among other things. But like all bank heists which are planned down to include every exact detail such as knowing when the police will arrive, acquiring the biggest and nastiest assault weapons, being aware of security cameras, observing the habits of the bank’s loyal employees and knowing where all the best escape routes are, it all goes horribly wrong. Then again, if everything went right, there would be no movie.

Will and Danny end up hijacking an ambulance, toss out its driver, and make their way out of downtown Los Angeles in the hopes of getting away with something God would not approve of in the slightest. However, they have a couple of guests in their midst which include emergency medical technician (EMT) Cam Thompson (Eiza González), and she is furiously trying to save the life of LAPD Officer Zach (Jackson White) who has just suffered a serious gunshot wound to his leg. Who shot him? Just watch the movie.

From there, “Ambulance” becomes one long chase as Will and Danny race through the streets of Los Angeles with sirens blaring as they seek to escape the cops and FBI agents who are right on their tail. As I watched Bay’s camera swoop all over the place, I wondered when rush hour traffic was going to start settling in. Certain characters like Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt) keep saying the city is about to hit rush hour, but it never does. Also, I kept waiting for the scene where Will and Danny realize their gas tank is almost empty, but it never came up. Do ambulances really get great gas mileage? Inquiring minds want to know.

But regardless of these questions, nothing could take away from my enjoyment of “Ambulance” which is the kind of action movie I feel I have not seen in some time: an exhausting action spectacle that piles one conflict on top of another and leaves you completely wrung out by the time the end credits start rolling. For Bay, this puts him right back in “The Rock” territory as the loud gunfights and explosions never overwhelm the actors and the characters they play, and it is their predicament that keeps us emotionally tuned into the action.

It’s a gas watching Gyllenhaal here as he looks to be channeling his inner Nicolas Cage. Seeing him go all bug-eyed while wearing a mask was almost worth the price of admission as I was laughing my ass off. Whether you find his performance among his best or worst ever, there’s no dying he’s as entertaining to watch here as Cage was in “The Rock,” and it is abundantly clear to me he gave at least 115% of his energy to this role.

Abdul-Manteen has proven to be a solid actor with his work in “Us,” “Aquaman” and “The Matrix Resurrections,” and he gives “Ambulance” the emotional center it needs. While his character of Will makes one questionable choice after another, the actor inhabits the role with passion and intense energy as he shows how Will is so in over his head here and trying to make things as right as he can.

As for Eiza González, she gives Cam a great introduction as she works to save a young girl who has been impaled by a metal object, and then makes it clear to her ever so naïve partner how important it is to keep an emotional distance from the patient in order to be an efficient EMT. Still, we know her work ethic will eventually be tested in an extreme way as she is forced to do the seemingly impossible to keep her patient, the wounded cop, alive. Watching her here reminds me of Jack Bauer’s last scene in season three of “24” as even he could not hold back the emotion which was overwhelming him.

And yes, Bay still has yet to meet a tripod he could truly fall in love with, but in spite of the cameras flying all over the place, I never got the slightest amount of motion sickness while watching “Ambulance.” Furthermore, I must add I had a full dinner of flank steak and a Roma tomato before driving out to the theater, and this is not the kind of motion picture you want to watch on a full stomach. But I did, and I am still in one piece.

Am I being a bot over effusive in my praise of “Ambulance?” Perhaps, but this is the first Michael Bay film I watched in years which I found myself applauding once the end credits began. The last one I did that for was “Armageddon,” and I don’t care what you say because it is part of the Criterion Collection for a reason. This film brings the filmmaker back to form after he got suckered into making one “Transformer” sequel too many (even he admits that), and I had no problem telling the good guys from the bad ones this time around. Here’s hoping his next films will be as good.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Morbius’ Isn’t Much of a Blood-Sucker

All actors deserve a second chance at a comic book/superhero movie franchise, don’t they? Ryan Reynolds may have painfully endured a dismal critical and commercial defeat with “The Green Lantern,” but he shot to soaring heights with “Deadpool.” Chris Evans suffered through those first two “Fantastic Four” films, and then he gave us the best Steve Rogers we could ever have with the “Captain America” trilogy. So surely Oscar winner Jared Leto is entitled to a second wind after his disastrous performance in the infinitely disappointing “Suicide Squad,” right?

Well, while Leto may fare a little better playing the brilliant but physically disabled scientist Dr. Michael Morbius in the Marvel/Columbia Pictures film “Morbius,” it quickly proves to be a stunning bore filled with too many stone-faced performances, pathetic CGI effects that belong in a 1990’s motion picture instead of this one, and a story which fails to dig deeper into the characters’ psyches to give us something more compelling. Instead, we get a comic book/superhero movie that plays it way too safe and seems to have borrowed far too many storylines and lines of dialogue from superior films of its genre. And after “The Batman,” I am now just far too sick and tired of watching bats flying all over the silver screen.

Like many scientists in your average cinematic event, Michael is looking to cure himself of a rare blood disease that has left him physically hobbled, and he looks to share this cure with his best friend, Milo/Lucien (Matt Smith), who has only so much time left to live. To gain ingredients for his brand of medicine, Michael gathers up a bunch of bats which he puts into a glass cage for use at his disposal. But then the time comes when he decides to try his cure on himself because, you know, why risk anyone else’s life? But despite the fact he is a Nobel Prize-winning physician who is extraordinarily bright and has prepared for every possible reaction to the chemicals he has been working with, it all goes horribly awry and turns him into a monster. Otherwise, you know, we wouldn’t have a movie. And, as with Tobey Maguire in “Spider-Man,” he gets a nice set of abs in the process, showing the amount of time the actor spent in the gym.

With this, Michael now has a form of transgenic vampirism which has given him superhuman abilities but none of the weaknesses, meaning he can walk in the sunlight without turning into a burnt shish kabob. When Milo wants to try the cure on himself, Michael refuses to give it to him because he sees it as a curse and does not want anyone else to end up in his predicament. But it’s too late because Milo already got a hold of the serum and somehow managed to administer it to himself. This left me thinking; is Milo a doctor? How did he know how to inject it? Moreover, when did he find the time to inject it and develop his own superhuman powers so quickly? Well, when you want to defeat the Grim Reaper at his own game…

“Morbius” does pose some interesting questions for the viewer such as the moral choices Michael faces as he wonders how long he can remain relativity sane before he is forced to drink human blood, and if he will be forced to bite the necks of innocent civilians in the process. The screenplay by Matt Sazama and Bruce Sharpless, however, is hollow at its core and becomes more concerned with filling the screen full of fights between Michael and Milo, all of which are rendered with subpar CGI effects, instead of giving this material any kind of depth. As a result, the whole movie quickly feels like a lost opportunity which makes “Blade: Trinity” seem more energetic in comparison.

As things went on, there were many scenes that took me out of the action as they reminded me of other movies which are far better than this one. The scene where Michael mingles with the bats feels like a steal from “Batman Begins” when Bruce Wayne, as an adult, rises amongst the winged creatures to confront his own childhood fears. Then there’s the scene where Michael tells a pair of FBI agents, “You don’t want to see me when I’m hungry.” Can anyone say “The Incredible Hulk?” And let us not forget the doctor’s storage room which is filled with both human blood and artificial blood which he created. We all know human blood is red, and the artificial blood looks blue. Now it has not been long since “The Matrix Resurrections” came out, and the whole red pill, blue bill thing has forever been burned into our collective consciousness. We know Michael is more eager to drink the blue blood, but sooner or later, we know he will have to go with the red stuff, and not just to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Another really big problem with “Morbius” comes down to how wooden everyone looks here. Leto looks to be deep into his character, but he shows little in the way of emotion, and he has little to no chemistry with Adria Arjona who plays his lover and confident Dr. Martine Bancroft. As for the others, Tyrese Gibson’s character of Simon Stroud has a face that looks etched in stone, Al Madrigal makes FBI agent Alberto Rodriguez look and sound like a John Munch wannabe whose jokes never generate much in the way of laughs, and Jared Harris is all but wasted in a supporting role as all he does is look overly concerned about everything and anything.

If there is any actor who deserves to come out of “Morbius” with any dignity, it’s Matt Smith. Right from the start, the former “Dr. Who” actor revels in portraying such a wonderfully crazed villain as no one is about to hold him back in his performance. Just when I thought I was going to pass out from boredom, Smith succeeded in keeping me awake as his energy was something everyone else onscreen could have drawn on. The only other actor who gave this material as much enthusiasm was Michael Keaton, and he only appears in a pair of post-credit scenes as his “Spider-Man: Homecoming” character of Adrian Toomes/Vulture. Am I giving anything away? No, trust me, I’m not.

When “Morbius” finally reaches its conclusion, the ending seemed very abrupt to where I could not help but say out loud, “That’s it?!” Clearly Columbia Pictures and Sony hope to continue the adventures of this vampire doctor as they desperately cling onto everything Spider-Man-related instead of letting Marvel Studios take everything over. Despite the massive success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the Spider-Verse, as handled by Sony, continues to experience more bumps and bruises than anyone would like. Perhaps they should consider letting Marvel handle things from here, but considering the amount of money involved, that is clearly never going to happen.

At the end of the day, “Morbius” only succeeds in becoming one of the blandest comic book/superhero movies ever made. Seriously, it makes “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” look like a cinematic masterpiece in comparison. To quote Count Dooku from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” surely you can do better!

* out of * * * *

‘Deep Water’ – Neither Erotic Nor Mysterious Enough For Your Enjoyment

With “Deep Water,” I could not help but feel a certain level of excitement at its arrival. With erotic thrillers, it feels like we have been in a drought of them at our local cinema. Sure, there was the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, but those movies were far more laughable than they ever were truly entertaining. This one also marks the return of Adrian Lyne to the director’s chair for the first time in 20 years, and he is known for specializing in erotic films such as “9 ½ Weeks,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Unfaithful.” And yes, the trailer in which we get to gaze at Ana de Armas’ lovely body as Ben Affleck gazes at her from a distance proved to be ever so alluring. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, it is based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, the same author who wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers from a Train?” This should have been the first I pointed out here.

Seriously, all these elements were in place for a great motion picture for us to take in, but despite an interesting start, “Deep Water” ends up faltering long before it ends as secrets are revealed far too soon to where the suspense is completely destroyed for no good reason. Also, the film is nowhere as erotic as you may hope it will be. Moreover, Disney, which bought 20th Century Fox and since renamed it 20th Century Studios, decided to dump it on Hulu as even Mickey Mouse was saying, “Even Minnie wouldn’t show me that much skin!” Well, some only get so lucky,

Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas star as Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a married couple living in the small town of Little Wesley, Louisiana who appear to have it all: an affluent lifestyle, a gorgeous home where they host many parties for their equally affluent friends, a beautiful daughter named Trixie (Grace Jenkins) who keeps telling Alexa to play “Old McDonald Had a Farm” to her mother’s infinite annoyance, and anyone outside of their lifestyle must be looking at them with either envy or tremendous resentment. Their marriage, however, appears to be a loveless one as Melinda seems far more interested in flirting with the many incredibly handsome men around her as Vic looks on, wondering what she is up to. On one hand, Vic seems content with her being with other men as he is willing to accept her for who she is, but the more you look into his eyes, the more you see how frustrated he is with this situation to where he might actually become emotional. This frustration becomes even more pronounced once some of the men Melinda is seen with are found dead. Were they murdered? What’s really going on with this couple?

Lyne tantalizes us with these questions in the first half of “Deep Water” as, while he used to show us a lot of wild sex in his previous films, only hints at what is going on here. Vic may be convinced Melinda is sleeping with other men, but he only sees so much of what she is up to. In the meantime, he tells her potential suitors that he murdered a man who was once her boyfriend. Is he being serious? It’s hard to say as Affleck is quick to remind us what a gifted poker player he can be, and that’s even if he has been banned for life from a casino or two.

Indeed, this film works best when the screenplay does not reveal all its cards to the audience. Affleck seems to revel in getting under the skin of others to where you wonder just how much his character enjoys in doing so. The same goes with de Armas who appears to revel in her husband’s inability to obtain her in the ways a husband can. As Vic and Melinda circle around one another like bloodthirsty sharks, I began to wonder if their continued relationship was strengthened by their endless strife with one another. While divorce might make more sense for these two, the conflicts between them seem to invigorate them to where a normal life is completely out of the question for them. It even reminded of a season six episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” entitled “Strangled, Not Stirred” in which we see a couple achieve supreme intimacy through murder. I figured things here would go in this direction with these characters, but no such luck.

When “Deep Water” reaches its midway point, it completely implodes as it reveals its cards to where the suspense is killed. In fact, things become increasingly laughable as the story barrels towards a conclusion that is unforgivably abrupt and unsatisfying. Like I said, this one comes from the director of “Fatal Attraction” which had one of the most divisive endings in cinematic history, but at least its ending had a catharsis which it demanded despite what others thought. This one, however, leaves far too many story threads to where I have to wonder if there’s a director’s cut just waiting for us to check out.

In retrospect, “Deep Water” might have been far more interesting if Lyne had focused more on the characters played by Affleck and Tracy Letts who plays Don Wilson. Don is immediately suspicious of Vic, especially after he playfully admits to murder, and seeing these two together in one scene to the next is especially fulfilling as we are watching actors who enjoy not just facing against one another, but are also eager to turn their characters into anything but mere cliches this genre often employs to a detrimental extent.

Considering the talent involved, I could not help but have high expectations for “Deep Water” as it arrives at a time when superhero/comic book movies continue to dominate our local multiplexes to where we wonder if variety is still a thing. Moreover, movies for adults are a thing I have been deprived of for far too long. Even with it going straight to streaming, I figured there was much more in store for the audience. That it falls short of greatness is frustrating as it may be a long time before we get another motion picture of its ilk.

In my research, I did learn this particular Highsmith novel is a favorite of Gillian Flynn’s who deeply admired how it showed the in-your-face warfare between a husband and wife. I believed this novel inspired her to write “Gone Girl” which became a bestseller and was later adapted into the twisted cinematic masterpiece directed by David Fincher. Whether or not “Deep Water” aspired to be on the same level as “Gone Girl,” it came up far too short.

When all is said and done, Lyne’s movie makes me want to pick up a copy of Highsmith’s novel even though I have so many books on my shelf to where it looks like a Jenga piece on the verge of collapsing. I am convinced a great movie can be made out of this novel, but we have yet to see it.

* * out of * * * *

‘The Batman’ – Even Darker and Grittier Than What Came Before

Bruce Wayne and his alter ego of Batman is one of those characters which, much like The Terminator and Leatherface from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I wish Hollywood would leave alone for a few years. After reaching an exhilarating high with Christopher Nolan’s amazing “Dark Knight” trilogy, the Caped Crusader hit a few speed bumps with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League” (the theatrical versions did anyway). Even with Ben Affleck donning the Bat suit, neither film could measure up to its predecessors even if they were far better than the ones directed by Joel Schumacher (nothing personal Joel, and rest in peace).

Nevertheless, Warner Brothers and DC Comics still want to keep this iconic character going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny, and now we have Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” which looks to reboot Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation yet again. Watching it reminded me of when my dad and I first watched Tim Burton’s “Batman” back in 1989, and I was stunned at how dark it was. Like many, I grew up on reruns of the campy “Batman” TV show which starred Adam West, and I expected Burton to do the same. Wow, was I wrong! It would take until “Batman and Robin” to see the movie franchise return to this campiness, but the less said about that installment, the better.

I bring this up because “The Batman” is much, much darker than what Burton or Nolan previously gave us. In fact, it is almost pitch black, and this shows in Michael Giacchino’s brooding music score which is designed to be nowhere as adventurous as what Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer gave us. Seriously, the opening scenes had me thinking this film would be as dark as “Alien 3” or “Seven” as Reeves looks to be venturing into David Fincher territory as he gives us a Gotham City forever beset by endless rainstorms and heavy clouds. If there is a scene featuring sunny skies in this film, I may have missed it.

Thankfully, “The Batman” does not waste our time in reminding us of what happened to Bruce Wayne’s parents. Instead, it drops us into his crime-fighting career two years after it started and soon after the Bat Signal has been created to gain his attention and instill fear in Gotham’s nefarious criminals who never know when to stop. Murders have been committed by a man known as the Riddler (played by Paul Dano) who is continually leaving messages for the Batman at every crime scene. Along with Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), he works to decipher the many puzzles and riddles this serial killer leaves in his tracks, and the answers may remind you of the words you never bothered to think of the last time you played Wordle.

Playing Bruce Wayne/Batman this time around is Robert Pattinson who has given us solid performances in “Good Time,” “The Lighthouse” and “Tenet,” but I have a feeling many still have a bone to pick with him over those darn “Twilight” films. It’s important to understand the context of Pattinson’s Batman as we see him early on when his vigilante career was at its infancy. Whereas the actors who played the Caped Crusader previously reveled in the moment where they told criminals right to their face “I’m Batman,” Pattinson’s intent is to instead say the following, “I’m vengeance!”

While many look at Pattinson as giving a one-note performance here to where his face looks to be frozen in one mood, I found him to be very compelling here as he plays the Caped Crusader as an individual long since consumed by revenge. His Batman is not the one who inspires hope, but one who is determined to make the villains pay in the most painful way possible. As a result, this makes the inclusion of a certain Nirvana song completely understandable as any song by Prince would be so out of place here.

As this movie reaches its furious climax, however, Pattinson shows us how his Batman can and will evolve into the figure of hope he is seen as in movies and comic books. Knowing and seeing this makes his work here all the more fulfilling to take in.

When it comes to certain superhero/comic book movies, some have far too many characters to deal with to where the whole project gets unnecessarily submerged due to excess weight of needless storylines. “The Batman” could have easily fallen into this trap as it features multiple iconic characters and villains throughout. But just as Nolan did, Reeves manages to balance everything out just right even as “The Batman’s” running length is nearly three hours long and contains as many endings and climaxes as “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

Colin Farrell is completely unrecognizable here as Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot / Penguin to where even his own kids could not recognize him, and this is one of the highest compliments you can ever give an actor. In his time onscreen, he makes this character his own and disappears ever so deeply into this role in a way any actor would ever want to. I remember watching this movie’s trailer and waiting to see him appear, and now I understand why I didn’t.

As Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Zoe Kravitz gives us the most grounded interpretation of this character yet as she is far more interested in finding her loved ones and seeking revenge than she is in purring at her devious adversaries. I am not going to bother ranking her alongside Michelle Pfeiffer or Anne Hathaway at this time, but she definitely held my attention from start to finish as she is determined to blaze a path of vengeance all her own even as Pattinson’s Batman urges her not to.

Jeffrey Wright, like Gary Oldman before him, succeeds in making James Gordon’s incorruptibility all the more appealing than it might seem at first. Even as Gordon’s fellow Gotham police officers are quick to dismiss Batman as a freak of nature, Wright makes his subtle defense of the Caped Crusader all the more profound. Either that, or he simply making this incorruptible police officer the kind who simply wants to close cases so he can quickly move on to the next.

But when it comes down to it, my favorite performance in “The Batman” comes from Paul Dano as he makes the Riddler a most fearsome villain throughout this film’s elongated running time. We don’t see the actor’s face most of the time as it is bandaged up, and the mask he wears helps to free his consciousness to a gleefully insane level. Even during his penultimate confrontation with Batman, Dano remains a frightening villain as he keeps the Caped Crusader guessing as to what he really knows and doesn’t. It’s a truly inspired performance, and if he is to appear in this film’s sequel, I would certainly welcome it.

Upon entering the theater to watch “The Batman,” my only real expectation from Reeves was for him to make his cinematic interpretation of this iconic character all his own, and he has succeeded in doing so here. He has long since shown what a gifted filmmaker he is with “Cloverfield,” “Let Me In” and two of the recent “Planet of the Apes” movies (“Dawn” and “War”), and he has nowhere to go but up from here.

By the way, while “The Batman” runs almost three hours long, it may run even longer than that depending upon where you watch it. I saw it at my local AMC theater, and it literally had a half hour of commercials and trailers before the feature attraction began.

And one more thing; the Batmobile Pattinson’s Batman drives here is awesome and I would just love to own it. Now this is a car that can go from zero to 60 in less than five seconds unlike my Nissan Sentra!

* * * ½ out of * * * *