Title: Spider-Man: No Way Home
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Jon Watts
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Marvel Studios | Pascal Pictures
Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has been one of the best parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it was with great enthusiasm that I went to see the third Spider-Man movie (although it took me a while to get to theaters!). Following up on the end of Far From Home where the Rush Limbaugh-like J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) reveals Spider-Man’s identity as Peter Parker to the world. Naturally, the publicity has a negative effect on Peter’s life, but also on his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya), and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).
Peter asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help casting a spell that would cause the world to forget that Spider-Man is Peter Parker. When the spell goes wrong it draws in villains from other universes including Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). Peter, M.J., Ned, and May realize that returning them to their own dimension would cause their deaths, so they work on first curing them of the various maladies that turned them into villains in the first place.
BIG SPOILERS AFTER THE TRAILER
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Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.
Title: The Green Knight
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: David Lowery
Production Company: Ley Line Entertainment | Bron Creative | Wild Atlantic Pictures | Sailor Bear
Summary/Review: Film can be a lot of things but it is primarily a visual medium. The Green Knight is a visual feast that uses the language of cinema to adapt poetry from the 14th century. It has all the magic and mystery of ancient tale with the techniques of modern cinema. And while a serious story, it possibly features humorous allusions to Monty Python and Ylvis. While I enjoy movies of various styles, there are some that complain that contemporary movies are too fast-paced. For them, this is a treat, a slow-paced film with room to breathe and ratchet up the tension (albeit not so slow-paced as to feature a character eating a pie for 10 minutes).
Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), who aspires to be a knight, but spends much of his time in alehouses and brothels. On Christmas Day, he’s invited to sit beside the King and Queen (Kate Dickie) at a feast that is interrupted by the arrival of The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). Gawain rashly takes up the Green Knight’s challenge which requires him to journey northward to the Green Chapel to face the Green Knight again on the following Christmas.
The bulk of the movie is Gawain’s journey and the adventures he has along the way. Patel is great in the lead role of young man who aspires to be courageous but doubts he has it in him. Alicia Vikander plays a dual role as Gawain’s commoner lover Essel and as the Lady of the manor where Gawain stops on his journey, and if I didn’t know it beforehand I wouldn’t have realized they were same actor. Joel Edgerton plays a key role as the Lord of the manor.
I’ve always enjoyed the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ever since I first read it in a Medieval Literature course in college. It was also the theme of the very first Christmas Revels I ever attended in 1996 in Washington, D.C. It’s great to see the story gain new life in such a stunning medium. This is definitely a movie I will need to watch again on the big screen.
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Jonathan Igla
Director: Rhys Thomas (episodes 1,2, & 6), Bert & Bertie (episodes 3-5)
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), is the overlooked Avenger, who not only never got his own movie, but was just kind of there when the first Avengers movie began. So this is a belated Hawkeye story that focuses on the aging superhero/dad dealing with the trauma of losing his friend Natasha Romanov as well as hearing loss. Enter Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), who as a child witnessed the Battle of New York in 2012 when her house in Manhattan was damaged and her father killed. Seeing Hawkeye’s heroics, Kate dedicated her life to learning archery and martial arts skill.
This series is obviously a “passing the baton” story as Barton just wants to get home to his family for Christmas but gets caught up in a crisis that center around Kate. They have a good chemistry and the show has a good balance of humor, action, and more reflective moments. It also has an surplus of villains including the Tracksuit Mafia, Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) – a deaf leader of the Tracksuits set on vengeance against Barton’s alter-ego Ronin, and Natasha’s sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), who was introduced in Black Widow and once again steals scenes left and right.
I won’t go into much detail but it’s an enjoyable series and another great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS
Title: The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
Release Date: 16 October 2013
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Production Company: Cross Creek Pictures | Epithète Films | Filmarto | France 2 Cinéma | Gaumont | Orange Cinéma Séries | Tapioca Films
French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is responsible for three of my favorite films of all time: Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, and Amélie. And yet, I only recently became aware of this most recent release of Jeunet’s from 2013, for which the loathsome Harvey Weinstein is partially to blame. This is Jeunet’s first film set in the United States and in the English language, and as such his whimsical approach to filmmaking suddenly feels a lot like a lot like Wes Anderson.
The titular T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is a ten-year-old science and engineering prodigy living on a ranch in rural Montana. His mother, Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter) is a devoted entomologist while his father, Tecumseh Elijah Spivet (Callum Keith Rennie), is a laconic cowboy “born 100 years too late.” T.S. siblings are older sister Gracie Spivet (Niamh Wilson), a wannabe actor who mocks her family’s obsessions, and brother Layton (Jakob Davies), who is like their father in miniature. We learn early on that Layton was killed in an accident while using a firearm and the way each family member deals with their grief is a key part of the movie.
T.S. wins an award from the Smithsonian Institute for inventing a perpetual motion device and feeling that his family wouldn’t understand, decides to travel on his own to Washington, D.C. to receive the award. The better part of the film documents his journey by freight train and hitchhiking. Jeunet’s direction captures the beautiful landscapes of the American West and feels as if it’s a peculiarly French understanding of American mythology.
While the movie has it’s share of adventures and quirkiness, it is overall a sad movie dealing with very heavy grief. When T.S. is sad or scared we really feel it, and when he’s injured part way through the film he continues to suffer the injury for the rest of the story. Unfortunately, Catlett doesn’t seem to be an experienced enough actor when it comes to delivering dialogue and when he talks like a detached scientist it feels artificial. I really wanted to love this film, and there are a lot of elements that are great, but overall it feels like it missed the mark. But and A for effort, I guess.
Title: The Eternals
Release Date: November 5, 2021
Director: Chloé Zhao
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Eternals is the story of the immortal alien race known as Eternals sent to Earth to fight the Deviants by the ginormous Celestial Arishem. Over several millennia, the Eternals fight the deviants and defend human civilization. Eventually the group of ten dissolves and blend into human society in various parts of the world. The main story is set in the present day and involves the Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan) “getting the band back together” when a new threat from the Deviants emerges. Along the way they make some startling discoveries about the truth of their existence, and face split opinions of how they should react to it in factions lead by Sersi and Ikaris (Richard Madden).
The biggest flaw of this movie is that it is way too long as it tries squeeze in a whole lot of exposition, world-building, and the stories of ten protagonists plus many supporting characters and antagonists. For a character-driven movie I feel that we really don’t to get enough time to know the characters, who are interesting in their own ways but mostly get short shrift. Perhaps some sweeping landscape pans and a gratuitous sex scene could’ve been cut for some character development. I liked a lot of the characters, especially Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, and Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, and really wanted to know more about them. I’m pretty sure Eternals was in production well before the launch of Disney+, but I feel that a lot of the problems could have been addressed by making it a short-form tv series.
Nevertheless, it is a solid film in it’s own right. It feels more grownup than other Marvel films without being dour and humorless. The film has an interesting theological theme under the story of the Celestials and the purpose of the Eternals. I didn’t like how the Eternals were shown influencing the technology and mythology of human civilizations because that rings too much of the Ancient Aliens canard, but I did like that parts of the movie are set among ancient civilizations of Babylonia, India, and the Aztecs among others. The movie is largely unconnected from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (although they do make a few mentions of what the Avengers are up to) so it could be a good film for people who have not watched any of the other films.
I feel in a year where Marvel has released classics like WandaVision, Loki, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, that Eternals isn’t quite up to par. Nevertheless it’s a solid if imperfect superhero journey in its own right.
MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS
Title: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Release Date: 19 May 2018
Director: Terry Gilliam
Production Company: Alacran Pictures | Tornasol Films | Kinology | Entre Chien et Loup | Ukbar Filmes | El Hombre Que Mato a Don Quijote AIE | Carisco Producciones AIE | Recorded Picture Company
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is reminiscent of The Fisher King in that that protagonist must deal with redeeming himself for past offenses with the help of someone who is delusional. It also reminds me of Time Bandits in the way it moves among places and times to increasingly surreal settings. And it is like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in that it has a brilliant set-up and design but somehow fails to deliver on a great premise. In short, it is a Terry Gilliam film through and through. And it is one that is very close to his heart in that it took him 29 years to realize, as documented in Lost in La Mancha.
Toby Grummett (Adam Driver) is a self-centered director filming a commercial in rural Spain which is not going well. He flashes back to his student movie, an adaptation of Don Quixote made with with non-professional actors from a Spanish village. Returning to the village he learns that the film had long-lasting negative effects on its participants. These include Javier (Jonathan Pryce) who has come to believe that is actually Don Quixote, and Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), who has essentially became a courtesan for the Russian oligarch Alexei Miiskin (Jordi Mollà).
The film starts really well with Toby cast by Javier as his Sancho Panza and joining him on his quest. It’s especially effective with Toby traveling in time between the present day and medieval Spain, which may be dreams or may be costumed locals, depending on the moment. But towards the third act the film goes off the rails and just becomes a jumbled mess of ideas and images that don’t really seem to fit the established story. The final scenes are absolutely excellent, but it’s not enough to make up for the fact that everything leading up to it did not earn this finale.
Author: Terry Pratchett
Title: The Carpet People
Narrator: Stephen Briggs
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
This book was Terry Pratchett’s first published novel, written when he was 17, and then rewritten in 1992. The people in this story, a tribe called the Munrungs, literally live in a carpet. Their world is a forest of hairs, they mine dropped coins for metal, used matchsticks for wood, and remove varnish from “achairleg.” Their world is threatened by a natural phenomenon called the Fray, which is most like a vacuum cleaner.
After their village is destroyed by the Fray, the Munrungs journey across the carpet under their leader, Glurk. They encounter other peoples including the Mouls, who worship the Fray, and the Wights, who know the future. Together they need to work out a solution for mutual survival. There’s a lot of humor here about monarchy and bureaucracies as well as working in references to ordinary life in our world.
Title: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Release Date: December 22, 2000
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Universal Pictures | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Blind Bard Pictures
Said to be based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has enough character names and plot points with mythological forebears to make you pull your hair trying to figure out the other parallels before you realize the Coen Brothers are pulling your leg. But this movie is deeply invested in the mythology of the South, from the sepia tones to the Spanish moss and the many cultural signifiers. Then there is the soundtrack! O Brother, Where Art Thou? is almost more famous for its music than the movie. It’s no myth that most great American musical styles originated in the South, and this movie is an anthology of some of the best.
George Clooney stars in one of his best roles as the loquacious and Clark Gable-like Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape from a labor camp. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson co-star has his companions Pete and Delmar. The film documents their journey home as the fall into an increasingly ridiculous situations including recording a hit folk song as The Soggy Bottom Boys and getting in the middle of a gubernatorial election between two corrupt fat cats. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not the pure absurdism of The Big Lebowski but it gets pretty close.
The story is told through a white perspective of the South, and most of the Black characters are in the background, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t hide the racism and segregation of the South either. Our heroes are remarkably not racist for the 1930s, but they find themselves in the midst of the structural violence of criminal justice typically practiced against Black people. One of the most chilling scenes involve them stumbling upon a Klan rally with choreography that simultaneously echoes Triumph of the Will, The Wizard of Oz, and a Busby Berkley musical. The main Black character in the film is Blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who plays guitar on all the Soggy Bottom Boys’ songs, perhaps a nod to the African American origins of American popular music.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favorite type of movies, one that makes me laugh and makes me think. Part absurdist comedy, part social satire, and part anthology of American folk music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is worth revisiting.
Title: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Shaun (Simu Liu) a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco, working as a valet and spending nights out at karaoke with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina, previously in The Farewell). When they are attacked on a city bus and Shaun shows considerable martial arts skill in their defense, he admits that his real name is Shang-Chi and he comes from a complex family background in China. His father Wenwu (Tony Leung, previously in In the Mood for Love) gained immortality through the use of a magical bracelets called the Ten Rings, and used the power they give to create an international crime syndicate also called the Ten Rings. His mother Ying Li (Fala Chen) was the guardian of a magical village of Ta Lo which is home to many mythical beasts. The murder of Ying Li drove Wenwu back into crime and eventually into the mad belief that Ying Li is being held captive in Ta Lo. In order to stop Wenwu from destroying Ta Lo, Shaun and Katy must first reunited with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in Macau.
As far as origin stories goes, this movie does a great job at efficiency with the backstories of Shaun, Xialing, Ying Li, and Wenwu filled in by a short prelude and many flashbacks that fit smoothly in to the flow of the movie. There are a lot of great martial arts sequences, some well-timed humor (mostly from Awkwafina), and some imaginative wonders rooted in Chinese folklore. A number of small parts and cameos of familiar characters include Wong (Benedict Wong) from Doctor Strange and Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) from Iron Man 3, who provides some more humor.
I knew nothing of Shang-Chi going into the movie, but I’ve read that the original Marvel comics used a lot of ethnic stereotypes. The film has people from Asia and of Asian heritage working on both sides of the camera, and does a great job at winding Chinese folklore into a modern superhero action film. I’d say the biggest flaw is that Xialing, who is constantly said to be in Shang-Chi’s shadow in the movie, is ironically given very little character development in the movie. A post-credit scene indicates that Marvel has plans for Xialing in future films, though. Other than that though, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an excellent Marvel movie with a great cast, story, and effects. It’s also Awkwafina’s second movie of the year featuring dragons after Raya and the Last Dragon, which makes for an interesting footnote.
MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS
Title: The Mummy
Release Date: May 7, 1999
Director: Stephen Sommers
Production Company: Alphaville Films
The Mummy is a lot of things: a remake of a Universal horror classic with 1990s sensibilities, a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of adventure with CGI, and a star vehicle for Brendan Fraser (who doesn’t seem to appear in big movies anymore). It’s kind of trash, but it’s fun trash if your looking for a goofy adventure. Fraser plays adventurer Rick O’Connell who guides librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to Hamunaptra, the lost city of the dead for Ancient Egypt. They face rival parties of treasure hunters and awaken the mummy of Imhotep. Chaos ensues until everything is resolved as you might expect. The movie gets extra credit for having Evelyn balancing on a library ladder and drunkenly proclaiming “I am a librarian” which have served well as memes in the library community for so many years.