Archive for the Fantasy Category

The Little Mermaid

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 27, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

When critics lament the lack of creativity in modern entertainment, Disney’s habitual reliance on live-action remakes is usually exhibit A. I was surprised to discover Wikipedia lists ten made since 2019. I tolerate these pictures. Every so often, one will break through and captivate me. The 2015 adaptation of Cinderella remains the best because it felt like its own creation and, in some ways, improved upon the source. The two most recent examples, Pinocchio and Peter Pan & Wendy are some of the worst offenders. They bypassed theaters and went directly to Disney+ on streaming. The fact their existence is already forgotten is some consolation, given the unmitigated inferiority of those films.

It was only a matter of time before the studio would get their hands on The Little Mermaid. The classic cartoon kickstarted the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast were created during this period. Their live-action reimaginings were merely adequate but highly profitable. Both grossed a billion dollars worldwide. This big-budget production is getting a massive global release in theaters. The picture is expected to be one of the biggest — if not the biggest — hits of the summer. The new interpretation is competent, and while the movie has its moments, the magic is largely missing.

The good: A couple of the performances shine through. Halle Bailey is pleasant as Ariel. She has a beautiful singing voice and conveys the wide-eyed innocence needed for this part. Also, Melissa McCarthy is an effective villain as Ursula, the evil sea witch with octopus tentacles. She’s channeling actress Pat Carroll, who voiced the character before. McCarthy rises to the challenge of the campy part. She’s having fun. The production design is appealing, and whenever developments are happening underwater, things go swimmingly. Although nothing comes close to the breathtaking effects of last year’s Avatar: The Way of Water.

The bad: Everything is a dutiful exercise in copying something that already exists in a better form. It’s too frigging long. The animated feature was a breezy delight that didn’t waste a second in a scant 83 minutes. This update adds another 52 minutes to a patience-testing runtime. Every single scene in this bloated film is expanded until it overstays its welcome. Plus, three forgettable new tunes are added. The remainder of the cast (not Halle or Melissa) spans a spectrum of fair to not good. Pointless to list everyone else. I’ll simply highlight: Ariel’s ocean friends Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle were captivating characters with big personalities. Now observe these nature-realistic reproductions of a crab (Daveed Diggs), a fish (Jacob Tremblay), and a bird (Awkwafina). They are not cute.

The best — dare I say sacred — element has always been the songs. Yet even those have been manipulated and changed. Fundamental lyrics have noticeably been removed or altered to affect a less offensive worldview. My favorite (and most iconic) line: “And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!” from “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” is gone. Why someone thought the antagonist had to convey more positive language is a complete misunderstanding of the character’s motivation. How the songs are performed is occasionally different too. In the original “Under the Sea” number, the entire ocean floor of organisms is a rocking band that participates with backing vocals. Not here, though. The creatures dance around, but they don’t play instruments. Only Sebastian sings, with Ariel joining him at the end to sing in agreement. Huh? I thought she didn’t want to stay “under the sea.”

The Disney formula for these reworkings is to stick closely to the source for the sake of nostalgia but gently tweak a few details in superficial ways. If you’re taking kids to see this first before ever having shown them the 1989 release, the obvious question is, Why? The original blows this version out of the water. Children and some adults may be dazzled by what it is: an expensive spectacle. For everyone else, it’s hard to shake that this was done infinitely better 34 years ago. The animated model prevails as the standard.



Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Horror with tags on April 17, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Renfeield is a modern update of an old tale. This version is based on characters from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, but it also relies on the visual look of the 1931 movie starring Bela Lugosi. Nicholas Hoult is R. M. Renfield, the obedient servant of Count Dracula. Nicolas Cage embodies the legendary vampire from Transylvania and Renfield’s demanding boss. The premise is that Renfield has had enough of procuring his master’s prey and doing his every bidding. It’s been centuries, but he’s ready to break free from this life of servitude.

The initial concept is creative, and given the two thespians involved, I was excited to see this. The duo has moved from Transylvania to New Orleans. Renfield attends meetings there to help deal with his codependent relationship with a cruel boss. I was enjoying this at first. Unfortunately, an auspicious beginning is unnecessarily complicated by a major detour involving a mafia-style mob family pushing drugs into the city. The Lobo family is an organized crime empire in New Orleans that controls everyone in the police department. Awkwafina portrays a traffic cop named Rebecca. She may be belligerent and irritable, but at least she is not on the take. Although Renfield and Rebecca have zero chemistry, their interactions inexplicably lead to a blossoming romance. Oh, and when Renfield eats bugs (spiders, ants, etc.), he unlocks the ability to fight like Bruce Lee. Nothing makes sense.

The screenplay — written by Ryan Ridley (Cartoon Network TV series Rick and Morty) from a story by Robert Kirkman (AMC TV series The Walking Dead) — begins with a rather clever setup. Renfield plans to use his group therapy sessions to identify abusive people. He’ll hunt less virtuous souls for Dracula so he feels less guilty about their deaths. That’s funny. I appreciated those bits, but the developments vacillated from light comedy to extreme brutality. The schizophrenic shift between the two is awkward.

The bloodshed includes savage casualties with stomachs sliced open, entrails spilling out, human limbs being ripped off, and liquid blood spurting out like a volcano. I could go on, but you get the idea. The excessive gore is meant to be hilarious because it’s so outrageous. Trust that the violence is somewhat amusing in small doses. When a character uses severed arms as weapons, it is laughable. But after a while, the sheer amount of carnage is oppressive and overbearing. I didn’t relish the gratuitous displays. A good introduction is undone as the humor fades, and a generic plot with routine fights takes over. Renfield is indeed horrifying. However, it’s the gap between idea and execution that is most appalling.


Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on April 3, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The criticism that one film is too silly while contending another takes itself too seriously can feel a bit contradictory— especially coming from the same critic. I acknowledge this. Enjoyment of a movie is an emotional experience. The subsequent review ultimately demands that we assign capricious reasons as to why we did or didn’t like something after the fact. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves certainly ticks off specific boxes in providing a test-screened piece of Hollywood entertainment in 2023. It’s a competent interpretation of the role-playing game (RPG) first introduced in 1974–but not much more.

I played the game back in 1980. It simply required a book, a pencil, graph paper, and dice. Oh, and it involved a lot of arguing with a DM (dungeon master) because it gets made up as you go along. The haphazard nature of this narrative gets that part right. I’m going to boil the plot down to its essence. The saga concerns a wisecracking thief, perfectly realized by Chris Pine and his band of random adventurers, including Michelle Rodriguez as a barbarian, Justice Smith as a sorcerer, and Sophia Lillis as a tiefling druid. No need to explain what that is. Her shape-shifting race is immaterial to people unfamiliar with D&D. This picture has been designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Anyone can understand it.

It’s basically a heist film, and our heroes are out to retrieve a lost relic. They receive help from a handsome knight named Xenk Yandar (Regé-Jean Page). However, things don’t go as planned (they never do). The individuals meet up with some nasty characters. Hugh Grant stands out as an evil ruler named Forge Fitzwilliam. Hugh Grant’s breakthrough came nearly three decades ago, depicting the likable leading man in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). I appreciate how he’s pivoted to bad guys at this career stage. He’s very good at it. This is a compliment.

The entire cast is excellent, and they bring the requisite charisma and personality to their roles. So why didn’t I enjoy this more? , Well, the chaotic plot is a mishmash of special effects and CGI, and the visuals look fake. It’s all served up with numerous jokes and quips. That air of inconsequentiality eliminates the threat. Whenever the script stopped for a fight scene, I tuned out because there was such a casual disregard for risk. The spectacle didn’t inspire fear in our protagonists. It’s a lighthearted computer graphic-enhanced cartoon. There are no stakes.

My fondest memories of watching movies in the 1980s were fantasies like Clash of the Titans (1981), Dragonslayer (1981), The NeverEnding Story, and The Princess Bride (1987). Those classics contained danger and excitement, and they felt real. The screenwriters had the sense to pause and develop a fable you could embrace. I missed that quality here. Directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Gilio) know comedy. I consider Game Night one of the very best films of 2018. But here, frivolity works against the material.

Dungeons & Dragons is fine. It’s an adequate effort that incorporates some funny gags. My favorite bits are the scene where Chris Pine plays the lute and another where the group casts a spell to speak with the dead. Still, the whole exercise is a product of our age that doesn’t forge a distinct identity. Dungeons & Dragons aspires to be Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok more than anything else. That approach worked in that context but not in this realm. Structured like a Marvel production, it’s designed to please as many people as possible, which is ironic because it didn’t please me.


Avatar: The Way of Water

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on December 19, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It was thirteen years ago that director James Cameron wowed audiences with Avatar. With a box office of $2.9 billion, it still ranks as the highest-grossing film worldwide. Now he has finally returned with its sequel. Avatar: The Way of Water is set on Pandora, an extrasolar moon from the Alpha Centauri System. With an unintentional nod to the Fast & Furious franchise, it’s all about family. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña are back as parents: Jake and Neytiri. They manage an extended clan that consists of two sons (James Flatters & Britain Dalton) and a daughter (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss ), as well as an adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). Her mother is Dr. Grace Augustine, who was mortally wounded and perished in the original. There’s also a human boy named Spider (Jack Champion), the son of Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

Once again, evil colonizer humans invade Pandora. The “Sky People” are led by Quaritch, who technically died in the previous installment. However, he’s back in a slightly different form thanks to scientific advances. Jake and his family realize their presence has put the fellow citizens of their forest dwelling in danger. As a result, they exile themselves from that area and retreat to the sea. There they meet a new community on Pandora led by Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet). Despite their altruistic desire to avoid conflict, you can best believe a monumental battle is imminent.

The plot is a simple tale that preaches environmentalism over industrialism. That lesson is amusing coming from a director who reportedly spent $350 million to make this picture a high-tech stunner. The director has never been about sense or subtlety, but whatever. It’s all about the visual exhibition. The Way of Water delivers that using the most extravagant methods available. Reportedly, this is the 4th most expensive movie ever made, and it looks it. Advanced motion capture perfectly mimics the actors playing Na’vi characters. The technology not only impressively reproduces their underwater manipulations while swimming but their facial expressions as well.

It all builds to an epic showdown. The climax is a massive water-based confrontation between the invading humans vs. the native Na’vi. The latter gets a generous assist from aquatic creatures. The spectacle makes up for the deficiencies in the story. My frequent quibble: it’s far too long. The production is a patience-testing 3 hours and 12 minutes. Cameron could have easily trimmed an hour out of this bloated narrative to make it a little more efficient and enjoyable. Lengthy sequences exist to simply highlight the splendor of Pandora. The marvels of marine animals include a prolonged focus on alien whales. Part of the chronicle is akin to a nature documentary. Granted, it is gorgeous. See this in 3D on a big screen in a theater to fully appreciate its beauty and wonder. I was enthralled.


Black Adam

Posted in Action, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on October 23, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I don’t know how to enjoy a superhero picture like this anymore. As a coherent drama starring complex individuals with emotions that captivate your attention, Black Adam is awful. As a series of impressive special effects and explosions strung together in a halfhearted attempt at a story, it’s not….terrible. This is part of the DC Extended Universe which has been marred by more than a few clunkers: Man of Steel, Birds of Prey, and Justice League (both versions) being the most egregious examples. Comparatively, this is one of the better entries. I’d put it on the same level with films in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe, which include Marvel characters like Venom and Morbius. To quote Mongomery Burns in the Simpsons episode Brush with Greatness: “I know what I hate, and I don’t hate this.” So that’s a recommendation of sorts.

Part of my exasperation with this film is the convoluted exposition. Screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani have injected irrelevant plot details. It begins 5,000 years ago in a fictional land called Kahndaq. The middle eastern country is on the Sinai peninsula. It’s vaguely Egyptian to anyone with a casual knowledge of geography. An ancient king named Anh-Kot enslaves his people to dig for a magical element called Eternium. He wishes to create the Crown of Sabbac that will imbue the wearer with great strength. A young boy (Jalon Christian) using the power of Shazam transforms into a mighty champion initially known as Teth-Adam. Out for revenge, he kills King Anh-Kot and ends his reign. Teth-Adam is subsequently imprisoned, but the human man evolves from a myth into legend. Khandaq is still oppressed in the modern day under the rule of the Intergang, a mercenary team led by the militant Ishmael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari). Will any hero emerge to save them?

That’s a cue for the usually affable Dwayne Johnson — in a surprisingly somber performance — to take the stage. Teth Adam — later christened Black Adam — seeks to free the citizens of Kahndaq from being oppressed. That’s good. However, he’s also a godlike force with an unlimited appetite for destruction. . Because of that, the Justice Society (not the League) of America need to curtail his power. Their leader Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), rounds up a team consisting of Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), and Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). I guess Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were busy. I’m not a comic book aesthete, so I admit I am at a disadvantage. I rely on what is depicted here, but these characters emerge without explanation. Who are they? What can they do? Sorry. They simply appear and start doing magical things. When a poignant friendship between Hawkman and Dr. Fate is introduced, I felt absolutely nothing. Ditto for Cyclone and Atom Smasher’s developing romance.

Black Adam is a compelling character that straddles a murky line between a hero and a villain. He has an altruistic desire to help his community but remains a violent figure of chaos. The movie desperately clings to occupy a moral gray area for most of the production. A bigger threat looms when someone else takes the form of a demonic beast. The deeper we get into the picture, it’s clear that Black Adam is a good guy that is endearing. He was awakened from a 5,000-year slumber, so he’s got a lot to learn. Teen Amon Tomaz (Bodhi Sabongui) wants to help. Black Adam’s unfamiliarity with sarcasm is amusing. He attempts to incorporate it along with catchphrases into his interactions. The complicated exposition is merely an excuse to present an array of chaotic stuff. The production offers a lot of fights, chases, and battles for the viewer’s enjoyment. It’s never dull. I’ll give it that, so if you’re looking for action and excitement, it satisfies that department. Just don’t expect a meaningful story.


Hocus Pocus 2

Posted in Comedy, Family, Fantasy with tags on October 3, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Hocus Pocus was underappreciated in its time. Released in 1993, the picture was a commercial failure at the box office and got terrible reviews. However, something interesting happened over the years. Repeat showings on the Disney Channel and ABC Family (now Freeform) ultimately refashioned the flop into a beloved classic with a dedicated audience.

I don’t hold the original dear. Why? Well, so full disclosure. I had never seen it until just last week. However, I was preparing to review Hocus Pocus 2. I figured I should be acquainted with the first film. Considering them both, they are equally lightweight and silly. Yet I’d give the sequel a slight edge.

The youthful supporting cast here surpasses that of its predecessor. In this story, a teen girl named Becca (Whitney Peak) inadvertently lights the Black Flame candle and brings the Sanderson sisters back, who are out for revenge. These are the witches played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy. Their vicious personalities have mellowed with age. The opening intro shows that the sisters were misunderstood as children. Incidentally, Taylor Henderson is a standout as a younger version of Winifred, Bette Midler’s character. The witchy trio of Winnie, Sarah, and Mary are the only characters that return. Oops! Save for the notable exception of zombie Billy Butcherson. His storied history with the sisters comprises a minor plot point. Billy is delightfully portrayed by actor Doug Jones (Hellboy, The Shape of Water), who frequently appears in Guillermo del Toro’s movies.

Girl power reigns supreme in the follow-up. Becca has a quirky best friend named Izzy (Belissa Escobedo). The two have a tenuous relationship with former bestie Cassie (Lilia Buckingham). She has become a popular girl, much to their dismay. Cassie has a dim-witted boyfriend (Froy Gutierrez), but her loyalties still reside with her girls. The teens ultimately band together to stop the evil sisters. Lessons taught are that sisterhood is a powerful thing and that making fun of others for being different is not cool.

Despite sweeping cultural changes over the past 29 years, Hocus Pocus 2 is still a retread. There are some new jokes. Instead of a broom, Mary flies around on two Roombas under each foot. Those robotic vacuum cleaners will assist them later. The utter confusion the witches experience at Walgreens is the funniest scene. Like its forerunner, there are some musical numbers. I did appreciate a cleverly altered Elton John song, “The Witch Is Back.” This is a family film after all. Furthermore, when a group of children is told that a virgin must light the candle to summon the witches, a little boy — who looks to be about 5 — asks, “What is a virgin?” Fitting because none of the kids asked this question in the first installment.

This comedy is a pleasant diversion and manages to offer some improvements. For most people who watch this on Disney+, nostalgia will be a significant factor in their enjoyment. If you treasure the 90s flick, feel free to conjure up an extra star for my review.


Three Thousand Years of Longing

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on August 29, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Disappointment, thy name is Three Thousand Years of Longing. Director George Miller’s film had all the ingredients to be one of my favorites of the summer. The auteur is the orchestrator behind the beloved Mad Max franchise. Additionally, Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton are two of our era’s most unique actors. The juxtaposition of these two introspective personalities could only produce sparks, right? Somehow the chasm between idea and execution was vast.

Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) recounts a narrative of her life which she will render as a fantasy. She is a scholar of mythology. While in Istanbul to deliver a talk, she discovers a glass bottle in an antique shop. A fellow professor (Erdil Yasaroglu) suggests another item. Yet she is fascinated by the object, so he purchases it for her. While cleaning the bottle in her quarters, she unleashes a djinn (Idris Elba) from the lamp. The genie has the power to grant three wishes, but Alithea is skeptical. Despite his offer, she clings tightly to the mantra “Be careful what you wish for.”

The foundation sets the stage for the djinn to recount four separate yarns. The result should’ve been a thrilling journey. Unfortunately, the picture is a lethargic story about telling meandering stories. The spirit regales us with tales of his life that include queens, princes, and the like. Themes of love and desire untie them all. Yet his reflections fail to maintain interest. It doesn’t help that they’re all conveyed in a hotel room which gives the production an oddly claustrophobic feel. The CGI-enhanced depictions have their moments. Some elements hint at the excitement of Universal’s costumed adventure epics made in the 1940s, like Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. However, the reflective interactions between Swinton and Elba dazzle far more than the special effects.

George Miller has fashioned a somber fable about discourse, or more specifically — two people talking in a restrictive space while wearing plush white terry cloth bathrobes provided by the establishment. Mad Max Fury Road is one of the most exciting action movies of the last decade. Some would say ever. It’s been seven years since Miller’s previous outing, so expectations were admittedly elevated. This passive meditation couldn’t be more different. Even the director himself dubbed his work “anti-Mad Max.” Respect for attempting a project made for personal reasons and not commercial success. The supernatural romance had a $60 million budget and made $2.9 million in its opening weekend. The only magic I experienced in this mystical tribute to storytelling was as a soporiferous drug that worked its spell on me as I struggled to stay awake.



Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 18, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Three sentences flash across the screen to set the stage. “In 1995 Andy got a toy. The toy was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” After it was over, I didn’t buy that assertion. Yeah, I know. It’s probably best not to question such things. This feature doesn’t hold up to that kind of scrutiny, but given that the most captivating character didn’t become a toy back then is a huge leap of faith. Sox the cat (Peter Sohn) is the breakout star and it’s not even close. Buzz Lightyear’s robotic feline companion is an absolute delight. Buzz Lightyear himself? Oh sure, he’s in the film too. Just not a particularly interesting personality. He’s kind of an oaf, a bit of a dullard too.

Lightyear concerns a human astronaut (Chris Evans) — er uh space ranger — who is responsible for marooning his crew of travelers on a hostile alien planet. You see he’s branded a failure at the outset. He even tries to quit the mission but his commanding officer and best friend Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) refuses to accept his resignation. So Buzz attempts to devise the perfect formula for a working hyperspeed crystal to get his crew off this foreign planet, thereby fixing his mistake and fulfilling his duty. Buzz undergoes a series of test flights to reach hyperspeed to bring everyone back home. Whenever Buzz zips away in his spacecraft for a few minutes, four years elapse for everyone else. He doesn’t age but everyone else does — rather quickly. Unfortunately, he isn’t successful for a very long time. Decades pass and the progression of time suggest the first 10 minutes of Up. Guess who finally comes up with the correct formula? Psst…See the first paragraph.

My encapsulation above may read like the complete saga, but it’s just a prelude. The setup seeks to establish the emotional basis for the formulaic drama that comprises the bulk of the picture. Lightyear and Sox have their moments interacting as a duo. That computerized feline saves his owner’s neck on more than one occasion. There is a refreshing simplicity to their relationship. Yet this chronicle doesn’t allow them to shine alone. The plot introduces a goofy collection of additional helpers. Three space-colony outcasts show up to assist Lightyear in his objective. Chief among this ragtag trio is Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s granddaughter. She’s flanked by Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) a naive and inexperienced recruit, and Darby Steel (Dale Soules) an elderly convict on parole.

This is where the moral comes through: “Collaborate as a team. Be less of a maverick.” The idea that cooperation is glorified as the ultimate goal is so ubiquitous in children’s entertainment these days that you accept it as standard-issue. I’d suggest that a great many intellectuals or innovators in the adult world are free-thinking radicals, and far from conformists, but perhaps that concept is a bit too revolutionary for Pixar. Anyway, the woebegone characters are uninteresting and detract from the narrative rather than add to it. The sad-sack troupe faces off against an invading force of robots led by the mysterious Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) — another callback to the original Toy Story.

Lightyear isn’t terrible. It’s nicely animated and features an adventure with some lively sequences. But bestowing your creation with that title incites the exalted history of the Toy Story franchise. The first two are widely considered Pixar’s best. This production is not even in the same cosmos. It’s a straightforward tale, painfully ordinary and utterly lacking in imagination or depth. The only remarkable individual is a mechanical cat. Meanwhile, the milieu is oppressive and dreary. The plot throws in generic developments. A time travel subplot yields a reveal that is a ho-hum of a surprise. This is not the awe-inspiring entertainment that you’d expect to become any child’s most treasured movie. Lightyear may take place on a different planet, but creatively it remains — earthbound.


Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on May 9, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“I’m not a monster. I’m a mother.”

Why not be both? Benedict Cumberbatch may get top billing, but the driving force of the narrative is Elizabeth Olsen. She is Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch. The woman loves her sons Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) dearly. She simply wants them back with her safe and sound. Nothing wrong with that, right? The problem is, to accomplish this, she has to create a lot of chaos. What’s a mother to do? Enter America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the ability to travel to different worlds in the multiverse. Unfortunately, America cannot control her abilities. She is being chased by a demonic entity and requests the help of Dr. Stephen Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong). Strange realizes he needs further assistance and so he appeals to Wanda Maximoff for help.

The chronicle is surprisingly basic but made needlessly complicated. The title may be saddled with the sobriquet “In the Multiverse of Madness,” but this is a direct sequel to Doctor Strange. It’s not a movie for uninformed viewers. It demands knowledge of other Marvel properties before watching. Obviously, you must see part one. A familiarity with Spider-Man: No Way Home and the TV shows What If…? and Loki might also improve your experience. Essential viewing is the Disney+ TV show WandaVision. In that series, Wanda has two kids and the love for her sons is her motivation here in what could have been a straightforward saga. Complicating matters are cameos that distract from the drama at its heart.

This sequel is conspicuously hampered by a slavish devotion to being a piece in a much larger puzzle. Callbacks to other individuals within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) pop up to check off boxes and remind the viewer this is merely a chapter in a media franchise. The saga is burdened by the introduction of people that reference other releases and suggest potential developments in future films. A tedious detour presents Stephen Strange attending the wedding of Christine Palmer where Dr. Nic West also happens to be a guest. The extended sequence hijacks the narrative only to justify that Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg’s names be included on the movie poster. In another development, we meet Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo. He is the Sorcerer Supreme of the Illuminati, a secret society made of superheroes that Doctor Strange originally formed. This includes alternate versions of well-known characters from previous MCU features that have been recast. It feels like a distraction shoehorned into the account. They have little to do with the central tale. Even screenwriter Michael Waldron seems to secretly loathe their presence. No detailed spoilers, but I wouldn’t get attached to all of them.

It’s nice when an auteur can bring their style to the Marvel machine. Let’s face it. In this context, directors are talent for hire that must adhere to a set of rules overseen by a committee with the final say. The caliber of notables tapped to oversee something within the MCU is a most impressive list. Some are more successful than others at injecting their stamp onto the material. Taika Waititi added camp to Thor: Ragnarok. Chloé Zhao brought thoughtful introspection to Eternals. Sam Raimi brings his eccentric spirit. He’s already familiar with the superhero genre. The Spider-Man trilogy he helmed starring Tobey Maguire beginning back in 2002 is iconic. But it’s the horror aesthetic of The Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell that informs the DNA of this picture.

Doctor Strange 2 (yes I’m calling it that) is a weird and wild blockbuster. Director Sam Raimi’s signature is all over this film. When Stephen Strange and his ally America are falling through multiple universes, it is a surreal trip employing bizarre visuals and music. At one point they even briefly become cartoons. The snippet is one of the most inspired bits I’ve seen in a movie all year. Later Stephen Strange uses Dreamwalking (don’t ask) to take over the corpse of another variant of himself called Defender Strange. His walking and talking zombie is hideous. It can be entertaining — especially when Elizabeth Olsen is on screen as The Scarlet Witch doing her magic. When the story gets sidetracked by tributaries and detours it’s less captivating. It’s a mixed bag for me, although I lean toward a recommendation. It’s a fun summer flick with fantasy elements and special effects. I guess I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.


Petite Maman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Foreign with tags on April 21, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a wistful ode to childhood. Petite Maman — which means “little mother ” — tells the story of an 8-year-old girl who has just lost her beloved grandmother (Margo Abascal). Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) joins her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) in the painful endeavor of cleaning out her mother’s childhood home in the countryside. Mom is deeply disturbed by the process and leaves that night without saying goodbye. The next morning Nelly goes off to play in the forest and happens upon another girl her own age. The stranger’s name is Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) and she’s building a fort made of branches in the woods.

The less said about the narrative the better. Many reviews have spoiled the central conceit of the film. That’s a shame because the mystery is one of the film’s greatest charms. What exactly this meditative reflection is trying to say is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Nothing is explained. The bonds of family, specifically between mothers and daughters, is certainly a theme. Director Sciamma has cited Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki as an influence. A French movie told from the naive perspective of a child also recalls René Clément’s 1952 masterpiece Forbidden Games.

The story is slight and it unfolds at a languid pace. Whether Sciamma’s vague meditation approaches the depth of its influences is open for discussion. Your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, the bewitching yarn does manage to captivate in a mere 72 minutes. That’s saying something these days when films double this length routinely do not. It is in the quiet moments of solitude that the atmosphere can resonate as intensely as pages of dialogue. Sometimes the most profound ideas aren’t overtly expressed but rather felt with the heart. The otherworldly fantasy mines the evocative mood of a fairy tale. A tender devotion to the characters shines through, elevating the fable with warmth and poignancy.

Petite Maman opens in select US theaters on April 22 and goes wider on April 29.