Title: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Release Date: May 6, 2022
Director: Sam Raimi
Production Company: Marvel Studios
I wasn’t a big fan of Doctor Strange (2016), but Benedict Cumberbatch has done a good job with the character in various other MCU films including Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). So I did look forward to this film, especially since it also promised the return of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) after the events of WandaVision. The multiverse has been a recurring theme of Phase 4 especially in the tv series Loki and What If... and in No Way Home, and this movie leans into the “madness” of its title.
The basic plot involves a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who has the power to jump between universes although she is not able to control it. America arrives in the main MCU universe (Earth-616) pursued by a giant demon who is sent after her by someone seeking to take away America’s power, which would kill her. Doctor Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) agree to help and defend America leading into a heavily action-filled adventure. In another universe, they are aided by Stephen Strange’s ex Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). They also meet a crowd-pleasing team of alternate universe superheroes with actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Patrick Stewart, Hayley Atwell, Lashana Lynch, and Anson Mount reprising their roles from other Marvel properties and John Krasinski making a first appearance as a well-known character.
Director Sam Raimi is best known for his camp horror movies like Evil Dead and brings a horror aesthetic to this film as well. That means we see our protagonists chased by demons and a blood-soaked villain as well as scenes with a heavily-decayed zombie. There are a lot of brutal deaths in this movie which make it feel more dangerous than other entries in the MCU and may not be suitable for young children or anyone who is squeamish.
There’s a lot that I can quibble with about this movie, although it’s a definite improvement over its predecessor. I especially felt that the chemistry between Strange and Christine was never strong and it makes the “lost love” element of the plot a tough sell. America feels more like a MacGuffin than a character for much of the film, although she does get a good moment in the denouement. Despite the multiverse being a recurring theme in the MCU, this movie felt oddly self-contained as it had no connection with previous multiverse stories. I also felt that Loki and the non-MCU movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did a much better job with the possibilities of the multiverse for storytelling. Ultimately, I enjoyed this movie as a it was pretty much nonstop action set pieces with a lot of visual flair.
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Title: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Release Date: 7 July 2000
Director: Ang Lee
Production Company: Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia | Good Machine International | Edko Films | Zoom Hunt Productions | China Film Co-Production Corp. | Asian Union Film & Entertainment Ltd.
Summary/Review: I last watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when it was released in US theaters 21 years ago and it turns out I remembered very little of the movie. The one thing that stuck with me was the duel fought on the tops of a forest of bamboo which remains an awe-inspiring image in this rewatch.
The film centers on Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a governor who is promised in marriage but yearns for a life free to determine on her own terms. She learns Wudang skills from a bandit named Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) who is disguised as her governess and steals a famed sword named Green Destiny from the renowned swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat). Mu Bai and his friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) investigate the theft of the sword and attempt to aid Jen who resists any interference.
The movie features several wuxia fight setpieces, and in addition to being amazing action sequences also are all rooted in relationships and plot points. I’m impressed at how central women are in almost all the roles of this film especially since in just the last decade it’s been “controversial” for women to be centered in Hollywood action films. I also was really touched by the unspoken romance between Mu Bai and Shu Lien which is paid off in the film’s denouement. Chow and Yeoh are really terrific actors and express a lot of emotion with very little external display.
Title: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Release Date:August 9, 1985
Director: Tim Burton
Production Company: Aspen Film Society
“The mind plays tricks on you. You play tricks back! It’s like you’re unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting…”
Pee-wee Herman just kind of existed in the ether of the early 80s as this obnoxious man-child character. Created by actor Paul Reubens, Pee-wee basically became his identity. In fact, the credits for this movie say “Pee-wee Herman” as himself. At any rate, those of us were around in the 80s were uncertain about a whole movie about this character. But it got good reviews, and I remember going to see it with my family on our vacation to Martha’s Vineyard.
Turns out, it’s an absurdist masterpiece. I don’t know how many times I watched this as a kid, but returning to it after several decades, I can tell it’s lost nothing. The basic story is that Pee-wee’s bike is stolen and he goes on a cross-country journey to the Alamo to find it. It ends up being one of the best bicycle-themed movies ever made, along with Bicycle Thieves and Breaking Away. It also shares a meta-commentary on Hollywood movies with The Muppet Movie.
But really, this is a movie for misfits and weirdos. All the people Pee-wee meets along the way basically find happiness from their encounter no matter how much of an outcast they may be. Plus there’s just a lot of random weirdness, and one moment that haunted my childhood nightmares (“Tell ’em, Large Marge sent ya!”). Tim Burton, a former animator at Walt Disney, made his feature-length directorial debut here seemingly a perfect match for Pee-wee’s eccentricity. The score by Danny Elfman is best described as Clown College Fight Song music and also fits in perfectly.
“There are thousands and thousands of uses for corn, all of which I will tell you about right now.”
Title: Free Guy
Release Date: August 13, 2021
Director: Shawn Levy
Production Company: Berlanti Productions | 21 Laps Entertainment | Maximum Effort | Lit Entertainment Group | TSG Entertainment
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) doesn’t know that he lives in a video game as a non-playing character (NPC), and seems content with living in a city where violent crime is routine. The game, Free City, is a product from the company of melomaniac Antwan (Taika Waititi). Game developer Millie (Jodie Comer) enters the game to seek out her source code that she believes Antwan stole from her, sometimes with the help of her former partner Keys (Joe Keery of Stranger Things fame). Meeting Millie prompts Guy to become more self-aware and evolve as an artificial life form, prompting a revolution among the NPCs.
I won’t go too much more into the plot as it’s one of those plots that gets too convoluted and doesn’t make much sense if you think of it too much. The premise of this movie reminds me of The LEGO Movie and The Truman Show, but not so much that it doesn’t stand on its own. The real point of this movie is to see the charming Ryan Reynolds do action, comedy, and romance which he does well, and it features enough fun gags to make it worth the watch. I was also interested in seeing Free Guy because I remember when it was being filmed in Boston. Boston looks good as a video game setting and it was especially unnerving to see familiar Boston landscapes disintegrating in one scene.
Title: The Adventures of Robin Hood
Release Date: May 14, 1938
Director: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
I have not read Robin Hood books and the only Robin Hood movies I’ve seen are the 1973 Disney animated film and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. And yet, I feel I’ve absorbed most of the Robin Hood mythology by osmosis, and thus The Adventures of Robin Hood feels to me like it’s the iconic Robin Hood story. The films strengths include a technicolor brilliance that looks better than many color films made decades later. It also has the captivating performance of Errol Flynn in the lead role. Flynn feels very modern in his acting, like he could time travel to the future and replace George Clooney in a contemporary movie.
The cast overall is strong with Olivia de Havilland (Lady Marian Fitzwalter), Basil Rathbone (Guy of Gisbourne), Claude Rains (King John), Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck), Alan Hale, Sr. (Little John), and Herbert Mundin (Herbert Mundin) among others. There are great action sequences and Flynn gets to exchange zingers with Rathbone and Rains. There’s also a lot of people throwing their heads back in explosive laughter and men dropping out of trees in ambush. It’s a fun movie but it feels very slight in the connective tissue between the big set pieces.
Title: The Princess Bride
Release Date: September 25, 1987
Director: Rob Reiner
Production Company: Act III Communications | Buttercup Films | The Princess Bride Ltd.
I don’t remember The Princess Bride making any impression when it got its theatrical release in 1987, but in the ensuing years it was played endlessly on cable tv. When I was in college in 1991, it was a movie frequently rented and watched among my friend groups. And that was how it became a beloved classic!
At the time I first watched The Princess Bride, fantasy action adventure movies were rather unusual, seemingly old fashioned. And yet it was also modern with self-referential humor that also felt unusual for the time. Years later I would read the original book by William Goldman, itself a classic that bridges the border between spoof and homage to fairy tale romance. The movie proved to be a master class in adapting a great book by capturing the spirit of the book rather than the literal. This is fitting since the book was a parody of adaptation.
The success of the movie is due to its terrific cast. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright, then hot young newcomers, lead the film as Westley and Buttercup and in my mind are forever associated with those roles. Mandy Patinkin, André Roussimoff, and Wallace Shawn play the trio of villains Inigo, Fezzik, and Vizzini (the former two latter become heroes). The real villains are Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and his sadistic henchman with six fingers, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest). The supporting cast includes comic legend like Carol Kane, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, and Peter Kane. And then there’s a framing story with Peter Falk and Fred Savage as a grandfather and grandson reading the story.
Title: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Release Date: 31 March 2016
Director: Taika Waititi
Production Company: Defender Films | Piki Films | Curious | New Zealand Film Commission
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a 12-year-old orphan of Māori descent who the child welfare officer Paula Hall (Rachel House) refers to as “a bad egg.” He’s placed in a home on a remote farm with the warm and loving foster mother Bella Faulkner (Rima Te Wiata) and her laconic husband Hec (Sam Neill, who I never realized was from New Zealand). When Bella suddenly dies, Ricky and Hec shattered and uncertain for their future. Ricky wants to stay with Hec, but Hec wants no part of parenting. Through a series of events I won’t spoil, they end up on the run from the government in the bush, becoming celebrity outlaws in the process.
This film has a lot of heart, and Dennison and Neill are terrific in their acting of two men needing to break through their defensive shells to bond. It also terrifically funny with a lot of quirky humor. The landscapes are quite beautiful too, and reminiscent of the New Zealand scenery scene in Lord of the Rings (something that Ricky alludes to). I was late Taika Waititi’s movies, but I think I’m going to have to watch all of them going forward.
Title: The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Release Date: April 18, 2014
Director: Marc Webb
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Marvel Entertainment | Arad Productions, Inc. | Matt Tolmach Productions
While not quite the steep dropoff in quality of Spider-Man 3, this sequel is mediocre compared to its predecessor and for many of the same reasons. To wit, there are too many antagonists competing for screen time and a lack of focus and pacing to deal with them. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has to deal with the arrival of Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx) after yet another accident at Oscorp (this one ludicrously involving falling into a tank full of electric eels!). Meanwhile, Peter’s old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) makes his debut in this series and immediately adopts the Green Goblin persona (instead of dragging it out over three movies like James Franco).
Max is more of a sad figure than a threat so there’s not much pleasure derived from seeing Spidey fight with him. Meanwhile, Harry is so obviously a creepy ass villain that it seems unlikely that Peter would be friends with him. Gwen (Emma Stone) has a good role in the movie, helping Peter as much as he helps her, but she’s [SPOILER] dead by the end of the movie [/SPOILER] which feels very fridgey to me. Plus the finale of the film is overwhelmingly hokey. Why do people in New York in these movies stand around watching superheroes battle supervillains with their small children anyway?
Title: The Amazing Spider-Man
Release Date: June 13, 2012
Director: Marc Webb
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Marvel Entertainment | Laura Ziskin Productions | Arad Productions, Inc. | Matt Tolmach Productions
Despite only five years passing Spider-Man was rebooted in a new franchise with Andrew Garfield taking over the lead role of Peter Parker. This move goes even harder into the origin story by including Peter’s parents and a younger Peter in the prelude and flashbacks. Once again, Peter’s transformation into Spider-Man and the creation of his main antagonist, Dr. Curt Connors/Lizard (Rhys Ifans), happen nearly simultaneously at Oscorp.
Despite the fact that this seems to be way too soon after the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy for a reboot AND the fact that I’m generally not interested in origin stories (AND because the Lizard is a really silly monster), I actually feel that this is a quite good Spider-Man movie. Garfield brings a more modern feel to Peter without losing the anxious outsider feel of the character. Luminaries like Martin Sheen and Sally Field bring more gravitas to their roles as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. And Emma Stone, who I always like, plays a more interesting and capable female lead as Gwen Stacey.
Of the pre-Tom Holland era Spider-films, I’d say that this is the best one alongside Spider-Man 2.
Title: Spider-Man 3
Release Date: May 4, 2007
Director: Sam Raimi
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Marvel Entertainment | Laura Ziskin Productions
Like many blockbuster franchises, Spider-Man 3 reaches the point where they need to raise the stakes while neglecting to make a good movie. Thus we get a movie with three villains. First, Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire) friend Harry Osborne (James Franco) finally takes on the mantle of his late father and becomes Goblin, Jr., deadset on gaining revenge on Spider-Man. Next, there’s an alien symbiote that first infects Peter’s Spider-Man suit giving him both increased powers and increased assholery. Later the symbiote attaches itself to Peter’s photographer rival from The Daily Bugle, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) who becomes Venom. Finally, an escaped convict with a dark connection to Peter, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) falls into a particle accelerator which turns him into Sandman.
While Peter enjoys a newfound popularity at Spider-Man, his girlfriend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) struggles personally and professionally. This leads to tension in their relationship, something that’s exacerbated by the symbiote. The movie also features Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) as a romantic alternative for Peter Parker. There’s so much going in this movie that it feels more like a clip show of a Spider-Man tv show than a cohesive story in its own right.
There are some good parts in this movie. I especially like the effects of Marko turning into Sandman. But overall it is meh, and a sad end to the Raimi/Maguire era of Spider-Man.