‘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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *

‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ is Cinematic Chaos and Lacking in Depth

I came out of “Venom” thinking its inevitable sequel (heaven forbid Marvel or Columbia Pictures lets the train stop there) was easily going to be better. The 2018 film was fun and I was willing to accept “Venom” for what it was, but I could not help but believe a better version of it could have been made. With a talented cast of artists in front of and behind the camera, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” had the possibility of being as good as any of the recent “Spider-Man” movies or perhaps be as good a sequel as “X-Men 2.” Well, what results is is nothing more than sheer chaos which is louder than hell, and it lacks much in the way of depth. Whereas this infamous comic book character once showed a lot of promise for a cinematic adaptation or two, it now feels like a tragically lost opportunity.

We catch up with Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and the alien symbiote a year after the events of the first film, and Eddie is still looking for a strong comeback as a news journalist. He finds this comeback while interviewing psychotic serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) who is on the verge of being executed by the state of California. Cletus wants to tell Eddie his life story before he breathes his last breath as he says, “People love serial killers.” But after Eddie and Venom get a peek at Cletus’ prison cell which contains a plethora of clues as to where buried all bodies of victims, they instead betray Cletus’ trust to where his execution gets move up. Cletus, feeling betrayed, ends up biting Eddie’s finger to where his blood quickly infects him. From there, it is only a matter of time before Cletus turns into another symbiote, Carnage.

The most memorable moments in this “Venom” sequel come near the beginning when the title character and Eddie struggle to co-exist with one another. Director Andy Serkis has cited “The Odd Couple” as a major influence on this film, and it certainly shows in the early scenes as Venom is desperate to eat and digest some human heads while Eddie struggles to keep the symbiote’s hunger at bay with chickens and a truckload of chocolate. Still, Venom is quick to physically drag Eddie all over the place to where they literally hanging off the edge of a building.

Of course, considering how messy these two are, I have to wonder who is Oscar and Felix in this relationship. The way I see it, Eddie and Venom could both be Oscar while the role of clean-freak Felix would remain unfilled. Or maybe Eddie is the Felix in this relationship as we watch him meticulously clean up all the trash Venom leaves. Then again, Eddie never seems to shave and rides a motorcycle, things Felix would never do.

Anyway, there is a great scene in which Venom attempts to console Eddie after he discovers his ex-fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) is now engaged to Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott) because she says he makes her feel safe (lord only knows why). Seeing this pesky symbiote make Eddie breakfast while singing him a song is one of my favorite moments as it is truly inspired and something I did not expect to see.

But then there comes a pivotal moment when Venom, having grown tired and frustrated at Eddie for constantly wrangling him in, furiously departs his body and searches for a new host. It is then in which Eddie enjoys the first peace and quiet he has had in what must seem like ages. And that’s the thing, I enjoyed this peace and quiet too. For this sequel to have a moment a silence felt so welcome to me, and it could have used many quieter moments as well.

Before and after Eddie’s moment of comfortable solitude, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is sheer cinematic chaos filled with endlessly loud noises and explosions which proved to be overwhelming instead of thrilling. While Serkis doesn’t go all Michael Bay on us, and I could tell the difference between Venom and Carnage during their fight scenes, what we get is a lot of sound and fury which signifies very little. Sure, there are some laughs to be had, but the story and its characters do not have much in the way of depth.

I never felt fully engaged in any of the characters’ plights even as the world they inhabit is threatened with utter destruction. We learn of how Cletus was institutionalized as a child, and it was there he met the love of his life, Frances Barrison/a.k.a Shriek (Naomie Harris) who is soon stollen away from him. In a film like this one, a broken heart is something to be deeply feared. Still, everyone looks to be going through the motions to where I never cared much for anyone or how things would turn out. The only character I really gave a damn about was Venom as we watch him going up and down the streets of San Francisco looking for acceptance, and seeing him find it at a rave was fun, however brief it was.

Tom Hardy is a perfect choice to play Eddie Brock/Venom, but while he is certainly not bad here, he plays these characters a bit too broadly. While everyone here has gone out of their way to embrace the silliness of the previous film, I was hoping he would bring more pathos to this, but we instead just watch him suffer through all of Venom’s madness while wearing the kind of jacket and t-shirt Axel Foley wore in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, and it all quickly becomes tiresome and exhausting.

As for Harrelson, he makes Cletus an entertaining character but does not bring the fear and malevolence to this serial killer which I have seen him do in other films. At this point, I believe Harrelson can play anyone, be it a hero or a villain, and we have already seen him play at least one American President. But here, the screenplay by Kelly Marcel gives him only so much to work with, and he never comes across as a serious threat to the protagonists. Perhaps if Cletus was more like Harrelson’s character of Harlan DeGroat from “Out of the Furnace,” he would have been a far more enthralling antagonist.

In some ways, Naomie Harris represents the stronger adversary as she embodies Frances/Shriek in such a slyly threatening way to where when Shriek screams, the actress makes you feel the power of her scream all the more intensely. Seriously, she makes clear how Shriek can easily render you deaf or, at the very least, can give you a nasty case of tinnitus which will have you begging to be deaf. Alas, it is not meant to be as, like Harrelson, she has been given a role which was not as complex as I thought it would be.

As “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” rages on to is infinitely furious climax, I sat back in my seat wondering if a theater employee would be kind enough to turn the volume down. I was never thrilled with all the chaos being presented, and I walked out this sequel feeling rather empty and let down. While it is tempting to blame this on the weariness I have since developed for superhero movies in general (I have not been in a rush to see “Black Widow” or “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”), this is simply a film which is not very good.

I figured with someone like Serkis, who should have at least 6 or 7 Oscars for his work as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” or as Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” films, would bring a sense of wonder and imagination to this material. Instead, everything here feels average and shallow, and the endless bombast quickly becomes numbing to the senses.

As comic book characters go, Venom always seemed a must for a cinematic adaptation, perhaps even more so than Captain America. His transition to the silver screen, however, has been a bumpy and rather frustrating one. The character’s first appearance in “Spider-Man 3” was more of an after thought than anything else, and it proved to be just as disappointing as the film itself. I did like the first “Venom” film, but many did not, and I think I have a better understanding of why now. This character came with many expectations whereas Captain America initially did not, and it is no wonder as to which Marvel character had the easier time in any cinematic universe it could be a part of.

Despite some strong moments from Michelle Williams, and she is fantastic in everything she does, and a scene stealing performance by Peggy Lu as convenience store owner Mrs. Chen, there is very little I enjoyed about “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” as it feels like a poor facsimile of many superhero movies I have seen before. If there is to be a third “Venom” film, my hope is more attention will be paid to the story and the screenplay. If we should expect anything from any “Venom” film, it should be for it not to seem or feel the least bit average.

And by the way, where was Eminem’s “Venom” song? I kept waiting to hear it throughout!

* * out of * * * *

Michael Keaton on How He Came to Play Batman

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2011 when this screening took place.

One of the double features shown during American Cinematheque’s tribute to Michael Keaton was “Batman” and “Batman Returns.” When the actor was originally cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, fans objected to it as he was primarily known for his comedic performances in “Mr. Mom,” “Night Shift,” and “Beetlejuice” among others, and they could not see him playing such a traumatized character. Of course, many forgot about his powerhouse performance in “Clean & Sober” which won him a Best Actor award from the National Board of Review. In retrospect, his portrayal of Batman is still the best in the movie franchise, and Christian Bale’s portrayal is a very close second.

While talking with Geoff Boucher at the Aero Theatre, Keaton said it was “Beetlejuice” director Tim Burton who wanted him to play Bruce Wayne and his alter ego of Batman. At that point, Keaton said he did not fully understand the comic book super world. It was through his introduction to Frank Miller’s books that he got some ideas as to how Burton’s vision would reflect Gotham City in a darker way than ever before. Keaton said Bruce Wayne turned out to be the key to getting into the character.

Michael Keaton: The coolest thing from the get-go is that he doesn’t have superpowers, there are no magical things. He is a hero of intuition and inventiveness and discipline. I always knew the way in was Bruce Wayne. It wasn’t Batman. It was never Batman. That was the key. The only reason to do it, really, was to come at all of this from this guy’s point of view.

When Keaton and Burton made “Batman” back in 1988-89, Keaton said there was nothing else like it before, and that there was no example for either of them to follow. Unlike the television series from the 1960’s, this was not going to be full of campy humor. The fact that “Batman” became such a landmark film in Hollywood history is something Keaton owes to Burton.

Michael Keaton: What Tim accomplished changed everything. It was hard. It was harder on Tim than anyone and he changed the way people look at those movies. That really is the case and the reason for that is the originality of Tim and the people Tim put together. Anton Furst was off the chart, Danny Elfman was perfect, bringing in Prince and Nicholson, all of it was just so right and so huge. The promotion of the movie was genius too. The look of the movie was a turning point too; you still see that around in different versions.

When it came time to start making “Batman Forever,” Warner Brothers wanted to take the franchise in a different direction. The executives wondered if everything really had to be so depressing, and Keaton said when he realized they were going to lighten things up, he dropped out along with Tim Burton. We all know what happened after they left, and no real explanation is needed here.

Keaton said he never really got around to seeing “Batman Forever” or “Batman & Robin,” but he said he did see most of “the one that starred Heath Ledger” (“The Dark Knight“). In describing Ledger’s performance as The Joker, he called it “crazy great,” and that the tone of the film is what he wanted the third one to be like. But by then the whole thing had become a big machine which was going to go on with or without him. Had he been in “Batman Forever,” Keaton is convinced he would have been horrible because he would not have been able to give the studio what they wanted. The sad thing is, he is probably right.

‘The Dark Knight’ is the Best Comic Book/Superhero Movie Ever Made

The Dark Knight poster

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

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: “The Dark Knight” is fucking brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of good guys versus bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have long since formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie which actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews it has been getting. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional origin story, “The Dark Knight” thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery sequence. Christopher Nolan has said “Heat” was a big inspiration in this movie’s making, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis here, a truly inspired introduction. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain as he has nothing to lose while everyone else does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his alter ego of Batman is beginning to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” or Clark Kent in “Superman II,” he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), as she represents the best chance for him to lead a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is now seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of the crime which nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker gets everyone’s attention by saying he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals who he really is to the world. Naturally, the public blames Batman for what the Joker’s actions, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of his alter-ego. But while Bruce may be able to live without Batman, can Gotham City?

Of all the Batman movies to date, this one gives us a Gotham City totally rooted in reality. All the previous installments have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors which come to consume the spirits of those living there. This is not the fantastical city we have seen in the past, but instead a city like others we know which are forced to deal with high levels of crime and corruption. As a result, the look and locale really add a lot to the story and the characters in it, and this makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious as a result. To do this I think is a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and, along with this summer’s “Iron Man,” it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can be cinematically realized.

I saw “The Dark Knight” on opening day with colleagues from my day job, and some of the people I work with have lived in the rougher parts of Los Angeles for a long time. They definitely saw some of those rougher parts in this movie, and when we exited the theater, one of them said, “Gotham is even worse than South Central!” To quote a line from “Pulp Fiction,” that’s a bold statement!

Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us the strongest portrait of this character. With Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels which he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all, and even when he comes off as a cad, you still care about and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person Bruce believes is the one who can relieve him his Batman duties is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lawyer with a big ego and endless integrity which he vows never to relinquish. If “The Dark Knight” does not make Eckhart into a star, nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey’s transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he becomes the villainous Two Face is devastating. Eckhart makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel tremendous sympathy for him while even as he makes which may forever destroy his valiant reputation.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie’s best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look and a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums, and it is a shocking visual when we first see it.

The movie has a strong cast with actors who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes did, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, Gyllenhaal believably makes her character seem like anything other than a pushover.

Michael Caine returns as Bruce’s loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in any movie he appears in, and the moment where he compares the Joker to another criminal from his past is a strong one as he makes it clear to Bruce and the audience what kind of nemesis he is facing up against this time around.

Morgan Freeman is also back as Lucius Fox who is to Batman as Q is to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love him so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops, James Gordon. In the past, Oldman has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Since then, he has moved on to portray the good guy, and while this may seem like a bland choice for an actor like him to make, he succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors I can think of who could pull this off, and you come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is through his terrific performance.

But then there is Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen before his shocking death. There was a lot of talk, before “The Dark Knight” came out, of if he should be nominated for an Oscar and perhaps even become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in “Network.” Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers’ way of juicing up the excitement for this movie so it can have one hell of an opening weekend. While this criticism is certainly justified, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Ledger getting the damn Oscar as he took on a role already made famous by Jack Nicholson and others, and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced he would playing the Joker, but Nolan was correct in saying Ledger was “fearless.”

Seriously, Ledger’s performance is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn’t deny we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic and one to be feared whenever he is onscreen. God only knows what depths the actor went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains as he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy he can get out of Gotham, and he couldn’t seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire, and the tension when he is in a room with one he is taunting is so thick, you need a heavy-duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to this Joker other than a story he tells about his daddy cutting his face to explain why his face is scared, but then again, can you really be sure he is telling the truth?

Seriously, I would put Ledger’s Joker on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady from “Cape Fear.” I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal alongside Ben Kingsley’s ragingly raw performance as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” I love a bad guy who totally gets under our skin to such an effect to where it feels like he or she is reaching out of the screen to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of this, and Ledger’s performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the silver screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger’s performance as Joker, it makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the character he played in the same way Marlon Brando and De Niro have in the past. We were tragically robbed of an actor who would have easily become one of the greatest actors of his generation had he lived. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to take us on a journey to the darkest and most despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. This is a movie about how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many big choices are made not just by the main characters, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choices will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them, and are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but no one gets hit harder than Bruce as he finds, in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a ways which turn the public against him. In the end, he becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from “24” as he protects the people as much as he can, but in the process comes to pay a very high price for what he does. Batman says he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does have a point. And in order to protect what integrity Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see who they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. “The Dark Knight” finds its power and tragedy in the characters who start off good, but who soon lose their way as they head down a path they can never easily turn back from. As Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working today, and I am thrilled he got away with making a film as dark as this one and still get a PG-13 rating in the process. He started his career off with a bang with “Memento,” and he gave us his one of the few genuinely great remakes with “Insomnia” in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With “The Dark Knight,” he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever. Even while it clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan fully immerses you into what everything going on.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack which is composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on “Batman Begins.” For me, this is a sign of a truly great motion picture as I did the exact same thing after I saw “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie I want to see more often.

As of right now, “The Dark Knight” is the movie to beat for 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ is a Fun Ride, and it May Be the Web Slinger’s Last in the MCU

Spider Man Far From Home Theatrical Poster

So, after a summer filled with an endless need to make ends meet, I finally got the chance to check out “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” Watching it at this point proves to be bittersweet as this may be the character’s last time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Disney and Sony are in a battle over profits. Spider-Man does whatever a spider can, but even a spider can fight only so much against greed and capitalism before he is undone or rebooted. It’s a crying shame because Peter Parker and his alter-ego were wonderfully reinvigorated thanks to Tom Holland who, ever since “Captain America: Civil War,” has proven to be the best Spider-Man yet. Here is hoping this will not be the last time we see Holland in this role as he keeps us invested in this teenager’s never-ending struggle between managing adolescence and being a superhero.

Eight months have passed since the events of “Avengers: Endgame” in which our heroes thwarted Thanos’ snap (everyone else calls it “the blip”) but did so at a great cost. Peter still mourns the death of Tony Stark as he tries to get back to being just a friendly neighborhood superhero, but Tony’s face is everywhere and it seems like everyone else expects Spider-Man to be the next Iron Man. It’s a lot to place on the shoulders of any one person, let alone those of a teenage boy eager to tell the girl he has a mad crush on how he truly feels about her.

A better title for this “Spider-Man” outing would have been “Spider-Man’s European Vacation” as Peter and his classmates which include his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and love interest MJ (Zendaya), travel to Europe and some neighboring countries. Peter sees this as a much-needed opportunity to take a break from his Avenger duties and just be a kid, and Ned sees it as a chance for the two of them to be American bachelors in Europe because, or so he says, “Europeans love Americans.”

Of course, none of us can expect any Avenger to get much vacation time as the Water Elemental strikes with a vengeance in Venice, leaving our characters to run for their lives. Peter quickly springs into action, but he is aided by another superhero who goes by the name of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), but we all come to know him as Mysterio. Even though the two of them save the day, Nick Fury (the always reliably bad ass Samuel L. Jackson) shows up to tell him his help is needed. Peter protests how he is not ready to extend his duties beyond Queens, New York, but Fury bluntly reminds him, “Bitch, you’ve been to space!”

“Spider-Man: Far from Home” works best when it focuses more on the human element than on the spectacle. Spider-Man has always proven to be one of the most human of superheroes in movies and literature as his personal problems are no different from the ones we experienced at his age. Deep down, we all wanted to seem normal to our fellow classmates, and so does Peter. Still, hormones and awkwardness among other things needlessly but inevitably complicate our lives to where we are left with a lot of emotional scars which take forever to heal, if at all. Peter Parker is the MCU’s prime example of this, and it makes you admire him all the more as his juggling act is made all the more challenging throughout.

Jon Watts returns to the director’s chair after having done an excellent job with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and he infuses this installment with the same amount of fun and excitement. Along with screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, he makes Spider-Man’s predicament parallel with the insane times we live in as “alternative facts” and “fake news” have been given far more power than they ever deserved. Whether or not our heroes win the day, we are left to wonder if they will ever be able to fully control the narrative. As one character points out late in the film, “People need to believe, and nowadays they’ll believe anything.” As much as I hate to quote Rudy Giuliani in this or any other review, his ridiculous statement of how “truth is not truth” is played to great effect throughout this movie and its post credit scenes.

The thin line between reality and fiction is put to the test in an amazing sequence in which Spider-Man is thrust into a simulated world which alters his perception of reality in the same frightening way Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law were in David Cronenberg’s “Existenz.” Just when Peter thinks he has a handle on things, so do we, and this proves to be our Achilles heel as reality is not at all what it used to be.

The climatic battle in “Spider-Man: Far from Home” ends up containing a bit too much in the way of CGI and suffers from overkill as a result. It is entertaining to sit through, but the overuse of visual effects ended up taking me out of the action more than I would have liked, and it makes this sequel pale in comparison to “Homecoming.” It always sucks when you watch a visual effect knowing it is a visual effect because there are many moments in this film which made me feel the exact opposite. Still, it failed to take away much of the enjoyment I had in watching these characters suffer through one of the best and worst field trips any of us could ever hope to have.

I also gotta say just how much I love this cast of actors. Aside from Holland, you have the great Martin Starr who is a deadpan delight as academic decathlon teacher Roger Harrington, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau who gleefully returns as Harold “Happy” Hogan, Marisa Tomei who has long since proven to be the most alluring Aunt May of all, Cobie Smulders who remains an enticing and powerful presence as Maria Hill, and J.B. Smoove is a hoot to watch as science teacher Julius Dell. In addition, Tony Revolori returns as Peter’s classmate and YouTuber Eugene “Flash” Thompson as it allows us to see something many of us have wanted to see done to the most annoying YouTubers of all; get a swift kick in the balls.

It’s fascinating to watch Gyllenhaal here as he was almost cast as Spider-Man at one point. Seeing him making his first appearance in the MCU is a most welcome one as he has long since proven himself an actor to be reckoned with in movies like “Nightcrawler” and “Nocturnal Animals.” As Mysterio, he makes this character a complex one as he sympathizes with Peter’s plight while proving to be a bit of an enigma. When the truth of Mysterio is revealed to all, it made me respect Gyllenhaal’s performance all the more as it shows how he has to play not just with Peter’s mind, but the audience as well. Looks can be deceiving, and Gyllenhaal makes them especially deceiving here.

Like I said, watching “Spider-Man: Far from Home” proves to be very bittersweet as this may very well be the very last time we see this iconic character as part of the MCU. It’s a real shame as the first post credit scene we get foretells of a dark future for Peter Parker as his life is completely compromised through, among other things, doctored footage. Where can he go from here? It’s an infinitely interesting question.

Whatever happens from here, we will always have J. Jonah Jameson.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Dark Phoenix’ is the Worst ‘X-Men’ Movie Yet

Dark Phoenix movie poster

“X-Men: The Last Stand” has long been treated as the bastard stepchild of the “X-Men” franchise. The Brett Ratner-directed take on “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was sharply criticized by both fans and critics, and it took quite the beating from everyone it seemed including Bryan Singer who left the “X-Men” franchise to direct “Superman Returns,” and Matthew Vaughn who was set to direct this one before dropping out. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” helped wipe the slate clean by altering the timeline to where the events of “The Last Stand” no longer existed. And let’s not forget the scene from “X-Men: Apocalypse” where characters were walking out of “Return of the Jedi” which they felt paled in comparison to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and Jean Grey ends up saying, “Well, at least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.” Please do not try to convince me this was not a jab at “The Last Stand.”

Now we have “Dark Phoenix,” the twelfth installment of the “X-Men” franchise, and it aims to give audiences a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” It also marks the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, a long-time screenwriter in this franchise and someone eager to make up for the mistakes made in “The Last Stand.” With this being the last installment of the 20th Century Fox-produced “X-Men” franchise now that Disney owns Fox and plans to incorporate these characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one has to be the penultimate sequel of the bunch, right?

Nope, not a chance. With “Dark Phoenix,” Kinberg has given us the worst “X-Men” movie yet. While has a strong cast and excellent special effects to work with, the narrative is badly conceived, the screenplay is muddled, characters actions are ill-defined, and it features the blandest set of villains this franchise has ever had. While these movies have in general proven to be tremendously entertaining, I walked out of this one feeling very indifferent to it as the whole project feels inescapably dull and anti-climatic.

It’s a real shame because “Dark Phoenix” gets things off to a good start as we learn how Jean Grey came to be more or less adopted by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after her mutant powers inadvertently get her parents killed in a nasty car accident. From there, the story moves to 1992 when the X-Men fly into outer space to rescue astronauts after their space shuttle is damaged by a solar flare. But in the process, Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) absorbs the solar flare in her body and looks to have been killed. But after being rescued, she appears to be just fine, and soon she realizes her psychic powers have been amplified to an infinite degree. It’s like the scene in “Wolf” where Kate Nelligan wakes up Jack Nicholson after he’s been asleep for 24 hours. She asks how he is feeling and Nicholson, with a Cheshire cat grin, replies, “I feel ah… Good!” Yes, and so does Jean until the two separate personalities within her begin to fight with one another and leave a lot of damage which will have insurance agents scratching their heads in disbelief.

From there, everything in “Dark Phoenix” feels routine to the point where I got increasingly weary while watching it. We have been done this road before in the “X-Men” franchise before, and Kinberg fails to bring anything new or fresh to this material. This installment also lacks the powerful emotion which made the best “X-Men” even more enthralling than they already were. A major mutant character is killed off in this one, but this death was already spoiled in the trailers to where the loss feels hollow.

Jennifer Lawrence, who returns as Mystique, does have one good scene in which she chews out Professor Charles Xavier for getting caught up in all the celebrity hoopla foisted upon the X-Men for their heroic efforts they have done. She is quick to remind Charles how the women have at times been the most heroic of the bunch to where she wonders if X-Men should instead be called X-Women. Yes, score one for the Me Too and Time’s Up movements!

Other than that, Lawrence and other actors like Nicholas Hoult and Alexandra Shipp, both of whom return as Beast and Storm, don’t look terribly interested in reprising their roles. Things get even worse as alliances keep shifting back and forth and in ways which seem completely contrived. There was also plenty of laughter throughout the press screening I attended, and I have no doubt most of it was unintentional.

Then there are the villains of this piece, the D’Bari who are a shape-shifting alien race intent on obtaining the power Jean Grey now has. They are led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain, completely wasted here), and they are some of the most banal antagonists in recent cinema history. All of them look as though the life has been completely sucked out of their bodies to where I can’t help but say they each had too many Botox treatments. This alien race leaves very little to the imagination, and they are far from memorable.

Coming out of “Dark Phoenix,” I spent a lot of time wondering how something which came with a lot of promise could have gone so terribly wrong. It also makes me feel sorry for Kinberg as I have no doubt he came into this project with the best of intentions, but the road to hell is always paved with them. Everything here feels very tired and ill-thought, and having Magneto (Michael Fassbender) come back into the action after someone close to him has been killed made my eyes roll as this has always been the case with this character. Didn’t Magneto learn anything from the previous two installments?

What also infuriated me is that “Dark Phoenix” does not provide Quicksilver (Evan Peters) with a rescue scene set to a classic 1990’s song. “Days of Future Past” had this supersonic character saving his fellow mutants to the 1970’s song “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce, and “Apocalypse” had him doing the same thing to the tune of the Eurythmics’ 1980’s classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I came into “Dark Phoenix” expecting Quicksilver to do his hypersonic rescue thing to a 1990’s classic song, but no such luck. It could have been something by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or perhaps Nine Inch Nails (“Head Like a Hole” would have been a great choice). Heck, they could have even used “Dyslexic Heart” by Paul Westerberg.

It’s no secret of how troubled the production of “Dark Phoenix” was. Thanks to poor test screenings, the entire third act had to be reshot. Its release was delayed a number of times as a result, and even though Kinberg describe the reshoots as being a “normal” process for any movie, none of them helped to salvage the cinematic mess we have here.

This is also the first “X-Men” movie not to feature Hugh Jackman as Wolverine as he had played the character for the last time in “Logan.” Indeed, Wolverine is the missing link here as his romance with Jean Grey gave the story much of its emotional power. This same level emotion is seriously missing here as we reach a conclusion which is never really in doubt. Then again, having Jackman romancing Sophie Turner would have seemed a bit strange.

For the record, I liked “The Last Stand,” but I have also never read the Marvel comic books it was based on. Had I done so, perhaps my feelings on Ratner’s film would have been different, but I still found it to be an entertaining ride from start to finish and with emotion to spare. Even if it paled in comparison with the first two “X-Men” movies, it still fared much better than the prequel which came after it “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and I did not care for that one much. While I know fans and filmmakers were eager to see a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” come to fruition, the fact this is a complete failure makes it a stunning disappointment and the first real letdown of the summer 2019 movie season. Fans of the franchise will still go out to see “Dark Phoenix,” but the most fun they will have is in analyzing everything wrong with it.

My only hope with “Dark Phoenix” now is that it can drum up interest in the long-delayed stand-alone “X-Men” movie, “The New Mutants.” That one has seen its release delayed for over two years, and 20th Century Fox can only hide it next to the Lindberg baby for only so much longer.

* ½ out of * * * *