Review: ‘Dune: Part Two,’ starring Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Christopher Walken and Javier Bardem

February 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in “Dune: Part Two” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Dune: Part Two”

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Culture Representation: Taking place in the year 10,191, on the fictional planets of Giedi Prime and Arrakis, the sci-fi action film “Dune” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: House Atreides royal leaders Paul Atreides and his mother Jessica, who are refugees from their planet Caladan, get suspicion from and ultimately join forces with the native Fremen people of Arrakis, to battle against House Atreides rivals in House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Prime.

Culture Audience: “Dune: Part Two” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Dune” novel and to people who like epic sci-fi adventures with stunning visuals and good acting.

Austin Butler and Léa Seydoux in “Dune: Part Two” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Dune: Part Two” is a masterful technical achievement that surpasses its predecessor movie on a storytelling level. It’s less cluttered with characters than 2021’s “Dune” and has a more compelling villain and higher emotional stakes. Fans of the the “Dune” franchise will have their expectations met or surpassed with “Dune: Part Two,” a sci-fi epic worth seeing on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system possible.

Directed by Denis Villenueve, “Dune: Part Two” (co-written by Villenueve and Jon Spaihts) is the second part of Villenueve’s movie triology adaptation of Paul Herbert’s densely packed 1965 novel “Dune.” (Villenueve’s “Dune” adaptations are far superior to 1984’s disastrously awful “Dune” movie, directed by David Lynch.) The first part of Villenueve’s “Dune” movie, released in 2021, was an introduction to the main characters and had a lot to do with showing the combat training and the rise of main “Dune” hero Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet), a royal leader from House Atreides.

Is it necessary to know about the “Dune” book and/or know what happened 2021’s “Dune” to completely enjoy “Dune: Part Two”? Yes. There are many references to 2021’s “Dune” in “Dune: Part Two” that will be confusing to viewers who don’t know what happened in 2021’s “Dune.” Viewers who watch “Dune: Part Two” who don’t know anything about the “Dune” story can still enjoy “Dune: Part Two,” but they will feel like they’ve started reading a book from the middle, not from the beginning.

In “Dune: Part Two” (which takes place in the year 10,191), Paul and his mother Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson), who is pregnant with a daughter, are refugees from their home planet Caladan, which has been devastated by a genocidal attack from House Harkonnen. The attack killed Paul’s father/Jessica’s live-in partner Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac), a duke who passed on his legacy to Paul before Leto died. Leto was ordered to be the fief ruler of Arrakis, a desert planet with harsh terrain that is the only place to find a priceless treasure: melange, also known as spice, a dusty substance that can enhance and extend human life.

Because spice is the most sought-after substance in the universe and can make people wealthy, people will go to extremes to get it and to be in charge of Arrakis, whose native people are called Fremen. Prolonged exposure to spice can turn humans’ eyes blue in the iris. Harvesting spice can be a deadly activity because gigantic sandworms ferociously guard the spice. “Dune: Part Two” begins with this caption: “Power over spice is power over all.”

House Atreides and House Harkonnen have been in a bitter rivalry over getting control of spice. House Harkonnen was behind the attack that killed Leto and several of his people. The evil leader of House Harkonnen is a baron named Vladimir Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård), an obese and ruthless tyrant, who likes to spending time in saunas filled with a tar-like substance. Vladimir’s closest henchman is his sadistic nephew Glossu Rabban (played by Dave Bautista), who doesn’t hestitate to kill anyone for any reason.

The person who orderd Leto to rule over Arrakis was his adoptive cousin: Padishah Emperor of House Carrino named Shaddam Corrino IV (played by Christopher Walken), who was not seen in 2021’s “Dune,” but he has a prominent role in “Dune: Part Two.” In the beginning of “Dune: Part Two,” Shaddam’s daughter Princess Irulan (played by Florence Pugh) can be heard in a voiceover commenting on the night of the House Atreides massacre: “Since that night, my father hasn’t been the same.”

Why? It’s because Shaddam set up Leto as ruler of Arrakis, knowing that House Harkonnen wold respond with a brutal attack on House Atreides. This betrayal (which isn’t spoliler information) becomes a layer in the conficts that exist in “Dune: Part Two.” There is also a big family secret that is revealed that has to do with House Atreides and House Harkonnen.

Meanwhile, Paul and Jessica have made their way to Arrakis, with the help of Stilgar (played by Javier Bardem), the leader of the Fremen tribe called Sietch Tabr. Stilgar is the translator, and negotiator when the Fremens become suspicious of the arrival of Paul and Jessica, who ar ebelieved by many Fremens to be spies. Stilgar, who is convinced that Paul is the messiah from a prophecy, is often the movie’s comic relief in how he how tries to convince his skeptical Fremen people to trust Paul and Jessica and to believe that Paul is the messiah.

In 2021’s “Dune,” Paul met an independent and outspoken young Freman woman named  Chani (played by Zendaya), who kept appearing in his dreams before he met her. In “Dune: Part Two,” Paul and Chani develop a romance that heats up quickly, as Chani teaches Paul how he can better navigate avoiding sand worms while walking in the desert. (“You sand walk like a drunk lizard,” she chastises Paul.) Before the movie is half over, Paul and Chani are kissing each other, and he declares his love for her. None of this is spoiler informaton, since this love affair is part of the marketing of “Dune: Part Two.”

However, the relationship between Paul and Chani doesn’t happen without problems. There’s the difference in their social classes: Chani is more uncomfortable with Paul is about the fact that he’s a royal and she’s a commoner. Chani also has to spend a lot of time defending Paul to Fremen skeptics, such as her close friend Shishakli (played by Souheila Yacoub), who is a perceptive and brave fighter. All of the female supporting characters in “Dune” are capable but obviously not meant to outshine Chani.

Meanwhile, House Harkonnen has heard stories that Paul and Jessica are still alive. And you know what that means: There’s going to be another big showdown. And guess who conveniently shows up? Paul’s no-nonsense mentor Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin), who was one of the teahcers in Paul’s fight training. Gurney is still loyal and mostly stoic. He doesn’t really become a father figure to Paul, but Gurney the closest male connection that Paul has to Leto, since Gurney and Leto knew and respected each other.

For the big showdown in “Dune: Part Two,” House Harkonnen has enlisted the help of a vicious killer named Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (played by Austin Butler), Vladimir’s nephew whose weapon of choice is a massive knife. A seductive psychic spy named Lady Margot Fenring (played by Léa Seydoux) has a plan to seduce and get pregnant by Feyd-Rautha, for reasons that are explained in the movie. She also does this seduction to find out what Feyd-Rautha’s weaknesses are.

The 2021 version of “Dune” was nominated for 10 Oscars and won six Oscars: Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Production Design, Best Sound, Best Original Score and Best Visual Effects. Without question, “Dune: Part Two” is also award-worthy in these categories as well. Everything in “Dune: Part Two” is done on a grand, immersive scale that are stellar examples of excellence in cinematic world building of a fictional universe. “Dune: Part Two” (which was filmed in Hungary, Abu Dhabi, and Jordan) has scenes taking place in the sand that are truly unforgettable.

As for the relationships between the characters, Paul sees a more vulnerable side to his mother Jessica, when she is pressured into becoming a reverend mother, which is a responsibility with physical and emotional burdens that Jessica is reluctant to have. In the first half of the movie, Jessica shows her powerful fight skills, but after she transforms into a reverend mother, Jessica ctually becomes passive, as she sits by and watches other people fight. Reverend Mother Mohiam (played by Charlotte Rampling), who was in 2021’s “Dune,” has a more scheming side that is revealed in “Dune: Part Two.”

“Dune: Part Two” might have more appeal than 2021’s “Dune” for people who want to see the romance of Paul and Chani that didn’t exist in 2021’s “Dune.” This romance is very chaste, with a “first love” tone to it. The “Dune” trailers already revealed much of the dynamics in this romance, where Paul respects Chani and wants to treat her as his equal. However, will Paul’s royal lineage and duties get in the way of this budding romance?

Chalamet and Zendaya are quite good in their roles as Paul and Chani, but nothing about their performances is worthy of prestigious awards. Paul is depicted as a sensitive and somewhat tortured hero. He tells Chan that he keeps having nightmares of thousands of people dying of starvation because of him. Chani is kind of a stereotypical “tough woman in an action film” who wants to act like she doesn’t fall in love easily, but of course she does just that with Paul.

A characteristic of an above-average sci-fi/fantasy film is the portrayal of the chief villain or villains. Skarsgård as Vladimir Harkonnen and Bautista as Glossu Rabban have less screen time in “Dune: Part Two” than they did in 2021’s “Dune” and don’t really do anything new with their performances. Butler as Feyd-Rautha is the “Dune: Part Two” villain who is the obvious standout, since it’s already been revealed in the movie’s trailers that the climactic battle scene includes a one-on-one fight with Paul. “Dune: Part Two” lacks susbtance by not telling more about Feyd-Rautha’s background. He’s an enigma for the entire movie.

“Dune: Part Two” will no doubt have multiple viewings from fans of the franchise. As for winning over new fans, the movie has a tone that seems to be saying, “You either understand what you’re watching , or you dont. And we don’t have time to explain it all to you.” If you’re unfamiliar with the “Dune” franchise, and you’re the type of person who doesn’t like the idea of dong homework-like research before seeing a sc-fi movie that has a complex story, then “Dune: Part Two” probably isn’t for you. For everyone else, “Dune: Part Two” will fill up your senses with an absorbing story whose cliffhanger ending hints at how this excellent cinematic adaptation continues.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Dune: Part Two” in outside the U.S. on February 28, 2024, and in U.S. cinemas on March 1, 2024.

Review: ‘The Boy and the Heron,’ a fantastical adventure anime movie from filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki

November 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Mahito Maki and the Grey Heron in “The Boy and the Heron” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Boy and the Heron”

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, mostly in 1944, the animated film “The Boy and the Heron” features a cast of Japanese human and animal characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: A lonely adolescent boy, who’s grieving over the accidental death of his mother, befriends a half-heron/half-man, who leads the boy to fantastical world inside a mysterious tower, where he encounters past versions of various people and a power-hungry group of parakeets. 

Culture Audience: “The Boy and the Heron” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and time-traveling anime movies that can be enjoyed by various generations.

Himi in “The Boy and the Heron” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Boy and the Heron” artfully blends heavy issues of grief with the escapism of a thrilling adventure. It’s a beautifully told and moving story that is as much about being a legacy to departed loved ones as it is about establishing one’s own identity. “The Boy and the Heron” had its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “The Boy and the Heron” is inspired by but not connected to Genzaburō Yoshin’s 1937 novel “How Do You Live?,” which is the Japanese title of the movie. “The Boy and the Heron” has elements of Miyazaki’s childhood in the movie, which has an original screenplay. Miyazaki (who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for 2001’s “Spirited Away”) has been synonymous with among the best of what Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has to offer. “The Boy and the Heron” ends a 10-year gap between Miyazaki’s movies. His previous movie was 2013’s Oscar-nominated “The Wind Rises.”

“The Boy and the Heron” begins with a tragedy. In 1943, in Tokyo during the Pacific War, 12-year-old Mahito Maki is woken up from his sleep to the sound of chaos. His businessman father Shoichi Maki tells him that the hospital where Mahito’s mother Himi works is on fire. The hospital and the fire can be seen from the Maki family home. Mahito (who is an only child at this point) wants to go with his father to the hospital to help save Maki, but Shoichi insists that Mahito stay at home. Unfortunately, Maki does not survive the fire. It’s implied that the fire was caused by a bomb during this war.

The following year, 13-year-old Mahito and Shoichi move to Grey Heron Mansion, in an unnamed city in the countryside. Shoichi, who owns an ammunition factory near the estate, is now married to Himi’s younger sister Natsuko, who is described as a look-alike to Himi. The first time that Mahito meets Natsuko, he finds out that she is pregnant with his younger sibling. It’s a lot to take in for introverted Mahito, who is deep in grief over his mother’s death.

The mansion has seven elderly maids, who dote on Mahito and often work together in a pack. The maids’ names are Kiriko, Aiko, Izumi, Eriko, Utako, Oyuki, and Kazuko. Kiriko is the unofficial leader of the maids. She is often stoic and less talkative than the other maids in the group. Natsuko and all of the maids treat Mahito with kindness. Shoichi is a caring father, but he is very preoccupied with his work.

One day, Mahito notices that a grey heron has flown up to him, as if to try to get his attention. Mahito is told that his grey heron has lived on the property for quite some time. The grey heron will visit Mahito more times over the next several days.

Shortly after moving to this new home, Mahito goes exploring in the estate’s wooded area. He finds a tower that is somewhat sealed off, but Mahito finds a way to peek inside. He’s later told by Natsuko that the tower was built by her granduncle, who had a mental breakdown and disappeared. However, this granduncle left behind a book of his writings. Natsuko also tells Mahito that when Himi was a child, Himi disappeared for a year, but reappeared a year later with no memory of having been gone.

Quiet and shy Mahito has a hard time making friends with other students at his school. The students mostly ignore him or give him hostile stares. Out of frustration and to get out of going to school, Mahito hits himself on the head with a rock. It causes him to bleed profusely. Mahito tells people that he fell down, but his father Shoichi doesn’t believe Mahito. Shoichi thinks that Mahito was assaulted by a bully and is determined to find out who it is.

While Mahito is recovering from his injuries, he gets an unusual visit from the grey heron, who flies to Mahito’s window and squawks, “Mahito, save me!” The heron tells Mahito that Mahito’s mother is still alive and living in the tower. Around the same time, Natsuko goes missing. Through a series of events, Mahito, the heron and Kiriko find themselves trapped in the tower, which is actually a magical place inside that has past versions of some of the people whom Mahito knows.

The grey heron also reveals himself to be half-pelican, half-man, who can wear the pelican part of his body like a costume. It’s best not to go into further details in this review, but it’s enough to say that the story in “The Boy and the Heron” also features pelicans, a parakeet kingdom, and beings called warawara that look like white-colored stars and have a purpose that’s connected to life forces. Some of the scenes in this movie are visually stunning and very immersive.

The voices of “The Boy and the Heron” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Soma Santoki as Mahito, Masaki Suda as the Grey Heron, Takuya Kimura as Soichi, Yoshino Kimura as Natsuko, Kô Shibasaki as Kiriko, Aimyon as Himi, Jun Kunimura as the Parakeet King and Kaoru Kobayashi as a wise old pelican. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Luca Padovan as Mahito, Robert Pattinson as the Grey Heron, Christian Bale as Soichi, Gemma Chan as Natsuko, Florence Pugh as Kiriko, Karen Fukuhara as Himi, Dave Bautista as the Parakeet King and Willem Dafoe as a wise old pelican.

“The Boy and the Heron” explores themes of life, death, and what it might mean to change one’s destiny by going back in time and possibly doing things differently. There are also some sociopolitical observations about how much control people should give leaders over who lives and who dies, as well as some obvious (but not preachy) commentary about the dangers of damaging the environment. There’s a point in the story where Mahito has to decide how much he is going to make his grief control a big decision that he has to make.

The movie has some well-animated and suspenseful action scenes and gives each of the main characters a distinct personality. The voice actors also give very good but not outstanding performances. With so many animated movies stuck in a formulaic rut, “The Boy and the Heron” can be a viable option for people looking for a well-made and entertaining animated film that also has meaningful messages about humanity’s connections to other creatures, the environment, and the life cycles that are unique to all.

GKIDS released “The Boy and the Heron” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on July 14, 2023.

Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,’ starring Chris Pratt, Zoë Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Chukwudi Iwuji and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel

April 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Zoë Saldaña, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Karen Gillan and Pom Klementieff in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”

Directed by James Gunn

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the universe, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (based on Marvel Comics characters) features a cast of characters as humans and other creatures.

Culture Clash: Superhero crimefighters Guardians of the Galaxy fight to save a seriously wounder member, as they also battle against a villain who wants to create perfect beings in a perfect society. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Marvel movie fans, “Guardians of the Galaxy” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and superhero movies that are the equivalent of having attention-deficit disorder.

Miriam Shor, Chukwudi Iwuji and Nico Santos in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (Photo by Jessica Miglio/Marvel Studios)

People who watch Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” might need a neck brace from all the tonal whiplash and messy editing that viewers will get from this mixed bag of a superhero film. It clumsily tries to blend mean-spiritedness with sentimentality. The new characters in this saga are hollow and horribly written. Most of the returning hero characters are often smug and irritating, losing much of the charm that they had in the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies: 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” These two previous films are necessary to watch, in order to understand a lot of what’s going on in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”

Written and directed by James Gunn (who wrote and directed the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies), “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” has sloppy storytelling that is very off-putting to viewers who are expecting that this third film in the series would be the best, since it’s supposed to wrap up a trilogy storyline. Unfortunately, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is the worst movie of the first three “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies. Maybe it’s because Gunn finished working on “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” when he knew he was going to be co-chairman and co-CEO of DC Studios, the longtime biggest rival of Marvel Studios. The Walt Disney Company, which owns Marvel Studios, famously fired Gunn from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” in 2018, because of vulgar jokes that he told on Twitter and elsewhere, but then Disney re-hired Gunn for the movie in 2019.

No matter what anyone says, when the chief filmmaker is also working for the competition, that conflict of interest had to affect filmmaking choices that were made for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” It shows in how the movie has a “got to fulfill the contract obligations before I leave” tone to it. And that’s not just with the writing and directing. Some of the cast members look a little tired of playing these characters, because they don’t have as much spark or enthusiasm as they had in the previous “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies.

Pity anyone who hasn’t seen the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, because “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” barely gives any crucial background information to viewers who don’t know what happened in those first two movies. But that’s not the main problem of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” With the exception of one standout fight scene (shown in slow-motion), the rest of the action scenes are scatter-brained and unimpressive. They’re staged with the idea that a lot of gun shooting and explosives are enough to make an action scene.

And speaking of scenes shown in slow-motion, how many times do we need to see the “heroes” walking together in slow-motion, as if they own the universe? Apparently, once is not enough in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” because this type of cliché is used at least four times in the movie. It’s also so tiresome and unimaginative.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” also requires that people know what happened in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” because Guardians of the Galaxy leader Peter Quill/Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt), who is originally from Earth, uses it as a reason to get drunk, be obnoxious, and generally have an angry attitude problem. The fun-loving Peter from the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie is mostly gone. He’s now a bitter whiner who’s often on a rampage. (Peter does some cursing and rage-filled violent acts that might surprise some viewers expecting this movie to be more “family-friendly.”)

Peter has changed for the worse because he’s grieving over the loss of his true love/soul mate Gamora (played by Zoë Saldaña), who (mild spoiler alert) died in “Avengers: Infinity War.” But because “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is a Marvel movie, multiverses can have different versions of the same character. And so, for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” an alternate version of Gamora (also played by Saldaña) has been “found” by her adoptive sister Nebula (played by Karen Gillan), who has had a love/hate relationship with Gamora for years. In “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” this “alternate” Gamora is a Ravager (a space pirate), but she helps the Guardians of the Galaxy when they go on a mission to stop an evil villain and to save the life of a fellow Guardian.

The other members of the Guardians of the Galaxy are hulking oaf Drax (played by Dave Bautista), whose brawn power far exceeds his brain power; raccoon mutant Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a sarcastic daredevil pilot, who can move like a human; compassionate empath Mantis (played by Pom Klementieff), who has the power to control minds; and shapeshifting tree creature Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who only says these three words when he talks: “I am Groot.” In the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, the chemistry between all of these characters was believable. In “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” the chemistry between these characters is disjointed and undermined by awkward jokes.

The beginning of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” shows Peter in a drunken stupor. He’s so drunk, he’s passed out, and Nebula has to carry him. Peter snaps out of his self-pitying alcohol abuse when something terrible happens: A golden-hued stranger from outer space named Adam Warlock (played by Will Poulter) has barreled into the Guardians’ territory by literally crashing through a window into Rocket. Adam, who has the power to quickly heal from any wounds, has come to attack. The rest of the Guardians rush to Rocket’s defense.

A big fight ensues that results in Adam retreating back to his world, but Rocket is critically injured from Adam’s stab to Rocket’s chest. During the frantic attempts to save Rocket’s life, the Guardians find out that Rocket has an internal kill switch that is set to take Rocket’s life in a little more than 40 hours. It’s surprising information to Rocket’s Guardians of the Galaxy friends, because Rocket has told them very little about his past.

The best part of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is the deep dive into Rocket’s past, shown as several flashbacks in the movie. He was captured as a baby and forced to live in a cage in a dark and dingy room at a scientific lab. Rocket’s name back then was Subject 89P13, often called P13 for short. As he grew up, he became friends with three other mutant creatures who were also imprisoned in this lab: Lylla (voiced by Linda Cardellini), an intelligent otter with mechanical arms; Teefs (voiced by Asim Chaudhry), a wheelchair-using walrus; and Floor (voiced by Mikaela Hoover), a mild-mannered and somewhat goofy rabbit who wears a metal muzzle.

The chief villain in the movie is the High Evolutionary (played by Chukwudi Iwuji), a stereotypical “mad scientist,” who wants power over how the universe works. In the movie, he says he has a “simple quest: create the perfect species and the perfect society.” Of course, this quest isn’t so “simple,” because the High Evolutionary has been sending his minions across the universe to find beings to capture and use for experiments. You don’t need to have highly evolved intelligence to figure out why Adam attacked Rocket.

The Guardians are now in a race against time to save Rocket’s life. They zip around on their new ship called the Bowie and get into various battles. The High Evolutionary does a lot of sneering and smirking, but he’s not in the upper echelon of Marvel’s most fearsome villains. The High Evolutionary has two main sniveling sidekicks: Recorder Vim (played by Miriam Shor) and Recorder Theel (played by Nico Santos), who follow the High Evolutionary’s orders out of fear, even though this villain isn’t all that scary. Recorder Vim is smart and outspoken, unlike Recorder Theel who doesn’t seem capable of processing an independent thought in his head.

Many of the fight scenes are nonsensical and look too fake. For example, there’s a scene where one of the Guardians sets off a huge bomb in a room with villains and other Guardians in the same room when the bomb goes off. It looks incredibly stupid to set off a bomb when you and your allies could be maimed or killed too. Bombers who know what they’re doing always make sure they’re far away from the bomb when it’s detonated, unless they’re suicide bombers. You don’t have to be a bomber to know that. It’s just common sense.

And there are too many fight scenes where the Guardians unrealistically don’t get the types of serious injuries that would happen if these fight scenes had more authenticity. Unlike other superhero groups, the Guardians of the Galaxy don’t have any phenomenal powers except above-average strength, Mantis’ mind-control abilities, and Groot’s ability to shapeshift. In the case of Peter, the only human in the Guardians of the Galaxy, all he has are his abilities to use weapons and any fight skills using his body.

The Guardians end up on an alternative version of Earth called Counter-Earth. It’s a missed opportunity to show a very fascinating world. Instead, Counter-Earth is just another place where the Guardians do some not-very-funny slapstick comedy, many of it involving children. The people of Counter-Earth have creature heads that look like less-gruesome versions of what writer/director Gunn used to work with during the years he was affiliated with the low-budget horror studio Troma.

Adam’s presence in the movie is erratic. He’s not seen for a long stretch of the movie, and then he comes back again toward the end for a big brawl. The movie can’t make up its mind if it wants Adam to be a muscle-bound menace or a sympathetic sap who’s the victim of the High Evolutionary. Adam’s mother Ayesha is portrayed by Elizabeth Debicki, a very talented actress whose role in this movie is shamefully shallow, thereby squandering her talent and the chance for Ayesha to be a fascinating character. Viewers will have a hard time remembering any lines of dialogue that Ayesha says in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” but she sure scowls a lot.

Other characters flit in and out of the movie, like insects that buzz around and have no real purpose. Maria Bakalova is the voice of a Russian astronaut dog character named Cosmo, which is a cute but not essential character. The running gag for Cosmo is she feels misunderstood and insecure because she keeps getting told she’s a “bad dog,” when she’s really a good dog.

Sylvester Stallone is in the film for a total about five minutes in two scenes in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” as Ravager captain Stakar Ogord. It’s another non-essential role that looks like a “contract obligation” cameo. The Stakar character was much more interesting in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Sean Gunn (James Gunn’s younger brother) reprises his role as Kraglin, an ally of the Guardians. Kraglin has a big moment in the movie that looks like a decision made from pure nepotism, because any other director probably wouldn’t have given Kraglin this type of scene.

Rocket is the only Guardians of the Galaxy member who has character development in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” Everyone else just seems to be going through the motions. And don’t expect there to be any sizzling romance in this movie. A lovelorn Peter tells “alternate” Gamora that they used to be a hot couple in love, but she coldly cuts him off and says that the Gamora he was with was “an alternate, future version of me.”

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” tries to cram in a lot of sentimentality and nostalgia in the last 15 minutes of the film. A few characters who died in previous Marvel films are briefly seen as visions or flashbacks. Toward the end of the film, Peter also does something that is blatantly intended to get viewers to cry.

It all seems very manipulative and forced though, considering some of the crude and unfunny things that this 150-minute movie wasted time shoving in viewers’ faces. And some of these scenes get monotonous, especially in the middle of the film. The mid-credits scene is unremarkable, while the end-credits scene assures viewers that a “legendary” character in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” series will continue in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a major way.

One area where “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” does not disappoint is in the movie’s soundtrack song choices. Songs such as Rainbow’s “Since You Been Gone,” Radiohead’s “Creep,” Spacehog’s “In the Meantime,” Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Faith No More’s “We Care a Lot” and Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” (which is in the movie’s biggest emotion-tugging scene) are all well-placed and used to maximum effect. However, some of the action scenes resemble music videos dropped into a movie. The visual effects in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” are not going to win any major awards.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” seems to want to convince viewers that throwing in some bickering and wisecracking in between jumbled action sequences should automatically deserve praise, just because it’s a Marvel movie. All of this recycled flash might be enough for some viewers who just want a noisy and messy superhero movie. But for “Guardians of the Galaxy” fans who want a more thrilling and insightful journey with new and returning characters, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is like being presented with an attractive-looking cake, only to have that cake deliberately dumped on the floor.

Marvel Studios will release “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” in U.S. cinemas on May 5, 2023, with a sneak preview in select U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Knock at the Cabin,’ starring Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint

February 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Jonathan Groff and Dave Bautista in “Knock at the Cabin” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Knock at the Cabin”

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in an unnamed city in Pennsylvania, the horror film “Knock at the Cabin” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, Asian and African American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two husbands and their 7-year-old adopted daughter are held hostage in a remote cabin by four strangers, who tell them that one of the family members must choose to kill another family member, or else there will be an apocalypse that will kill everyone on Earth except the three family members. 

Culture Audience: “Knock at the Cabin” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan and horror movies with apocalyptic themes.

Abby Quinn, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Dave Bautista and Rupert Grint in “Knock at the Cabin” (Photo by PhoByMo/Universal Pictures)

The apocalyptic horror film “Knock at the Cabin” has a more predictable story than the novel on which it is based, but the movie still delivers many tension-filled scenes and memorable characters. The cast members, particularly Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui, elevate the film with their credible performances. “Knock at the Cabin” is one of those movies where you can figure out from watching the trailers how everything is probably going to end. It’s one of the few movies from filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan that does not have a shocking twist.

Shyamalan directed “Knock at the Cabin” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman. The movie’s screenplay is adapted from Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” which has a very different turn of events than the movie version of this book. It’s easy to see why the filmmakers chose to make these changes, because there are many things in the book that would not be as “crowd-pleasing” to movie audiences.

Even though “Knock at the Cabin” plays it very safe in how the movie was adapted from the book, there’s still enough in the movie that brings a level of gripping suspense, thanks to skilled editing and capable acting performances. Except for flashbacks and scenes showing events on TV news, “Knock at the Cabin” takes place primarily in a remote area in an unnamed city in Pennsylvania. The filmmakers of “Knock at the Cabin” wisely chose not to clutter up the movie with extraneous characters and locations that are not in “The Cabin at the End of the World.”

“Knock at the Cabin” begins with showing a kind and intelligent 7-year-old girl named Wen (played by Cui) collecting grasshoppers in an open field and putting them in a bottle. Wen is an aspiring veterinarian—she says she wants to be “take care of animals” when she grows up. She is cataloguing the statistics of the grasshoppers that she has collected, and she has even named the grasshoppers. Wen (who is an only child) and her two gay fathers Andrew (played by Aldridge) and Eric (played by Jonathan Groff) are on a vacation trip in this isolated wooded area of Pennsylvania, where the family is staying at a cabin.

Suddenly, a hulking man named Leonard (played by Dave Bautista) emerges from the woods. He approaches Wen and makes small talk with her. At first Wen is wary of this stranger, but she starts to warm up to him when he shows an interest in her grasshopper collection by helping her get a grasshopper and asking her about the collection. Wen says she will turn 8 years old in six days. Leonard tells Wen that he wants to be her friend and he needs to go inside the home where her parents are.

Leonard is not alone. He has three companions with him, who all have the same intentions. Redmond (played by Rupert Grint) has an angry personality. Sabrina (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) has a calm personality. Adriane (played by Abby Quinn) has a cheerful personality. Leonard is their leader, and he has a “take charge” personality. All four of these strangers are armed and dangerous.

As already shown in the movie’s trailers, all four of these strangers break into the cabin and take Andrew, Eric and Wen hostage. Andrew and Eric put up a fight in self-defense. Eric gets into a losing brawl with Sabrina, and he gets a concussion from being knocked to the ground. Andrew and Eric are then tied to chairs, although (as the movie trailer already reveals) Wen is not tied up, and she briefly escapes.

Leonard tells this captured family that they have to make a choice: someone in the family has to voluntarily kill someone else in the family, or else there will be an apocalypse where everyone on Earth except this family of three will be killed. Every time someone in the family refuses to kill someone else in the family, a plague will descend on Earth until the world-ending apocalypse will happen.

Andrew (the more outspoken and more assertive husband) is immediately skeptical and thinks that these four strangers are mentally ill. Andrew mentions later in the movie that he’s a human rights attorney, which goes a long way in explaining why Andrew thinks he can argue his way out of this horrible situation. At first, Andrew and Eric also think that this home invasion is a hate crime because Andrew and Eric are a gay couple. But Leonard denies it and says that he and his three cohorts did not know in advance that the targeted family would have a same-sex couple.

Andrew and Eric refuse to kill anyone in their family. As already shown in the movie’s trailer, as a result, a plague happens that kills numerous people near the Pacific Ocean. (Shyamalan continues his tradition of appearing in small roles as an actor in the movies that he directs. In “Knock at the Cabin,” he briefly appears on the cabin’s TV set as a co-host of an infomercial that is interrupted by breaking news.) Leonard shows the family the TV news to prove that this plague happening.

Andrew is convinced that the four strangers knew in advance that this catastrophe was going to happen. Leonard insists that he, Sabrina, Leonard and Adriane were all strangers with the same visions who found each other through the Internet. Leonard also says that several families over time have had to make the same decision. And he emphatically states that he, Sabrina, Leonard and Adriane are “heartbroken” that they have to force Andrew and Eric to make this life-changing decision.

In order to make themselves relatable, Leonard and the rest of the home invaders tells the captured family more about themselves. Leonard says he’s from Chicago and has two jobs: He’s an elementary schoolteacher who runs an after-school program for second graders, and he’s a bartender.

Sabrina is a hospital nurse who works at an intensive-care unit in Southern California. She says she feel guilty about Eric getting injured in their fight, so she tends to Eric’s head wounds. Sabrina also says that the rules are that Eric must be thinking clearly when making his decision with Andrew. But who exactly is making these “rules”?

Adriane says she’s a line cook at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C. “I love to feed people,” she adds. Later in the movie, Adriane says she has a pre-teen son named Charlie, and she begs the hostage family to not let the apocalypse happen, or else her son is going to die.

Redmond is an ex-con who works at a gas company in Medford, Massachusetts. He mentions coming from an abusive family where “my father used to beat the shit out of me.” Later, Andrew is convinced that he knows Redmond from a traumatic event that happened in Andrew’s past.

As the tension builds over what decision will be made, “Knock at the Cabin” shows flashbacks of Andrew and Eric’s life together before this home invasion. Viewers will find out that Andrew’s parents (played by McKenna Kerrigan and Ian Merrill Peakes) disapprove of him being gay, while Eric’s mother (who is never seen in the movie) is accepting of Eric’s sexuality. Andrew and Eric also went to China to adopt Wen when she was a baby, but Andrew had to pretend to be the brother of Eric’s non-existent wife, in order to avoid any homophobic restrictions that would prevent them from adopting Wen.

There are also flashbacks to happy family times with Andrew, Eric and Wen, such as when they’re driving in their car while K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s 1975 hit song “Boogie Shoes” is playing. Andrew, Eric and Wen love this song so much, they sing loudly and joyfully move to the beat of the song. “Boogie Shoes” will be used again later in the movie in an emotionally powerful scene.

Because “Knock at the Cabin” is a horror movie, not everyone will make it out alive. At a certain point, it becomes very obvious which of the husbands will be more open to the idea of killing someone in the family, in order to save the world. But will that husband be able to convince his spouse?

There are no real surprises in “Knock at the Cabin,” except for how much the movie removed some of the risk-taking plot developments from “The Cabin at the End of the World.” With a total running time of 100 minutes, “Knock at the Cabin” is a taut thriller that doesn’t drag on for longer than the story needed, although some parts of the movie get a little repetitive. Knock at the Cabin” is a very Hollywood movie version of the book, but it’s ultimately satisfactory entertainment for horror fans who don’t want to see anything too disturbing on screen.

Universal Pictures will release “Knock at the Cabin” in U.S. cinemas on February 3, 2023.

Review: ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,’ starring Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista

November 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kate Hudson, Jessica Henwick, Daniel Craig and Leslie Odom Jr. in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”

Directed by Rian Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2020, mostly on an unnamed island in Greece and briefly in the United States, the comedy/drama film “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African American and Asians) portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc is invited to the private Greek island of a technology billionaire, who is hosting a murder mystery party, where at least one person gets murdered for real.

Culture Audience: “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of 2019’s “Knives Out,” star Daniel Craig, and murder mysteries that are also incisive social satires.

Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monáe and Daniel Craig in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Simply put: “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is a sequel that’s better than the original movie. This comedy/drama is a fantastic follow-up to 2019’s “Knives Out,” another comedically dark murder mystery with its central location being the home of a wealthy person. Both movies, which are self-contained stories written and directed by Rian Johnson, deliciously skewer arrogant, rich elitists and other people with bad attitudes, while American Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig) solves the murder mystery. “Glass Onion” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Johnson has said in many interviews that his greatest inspirations for his “Knives Out” movie series are Agatha Christie mystery novels and movie adaptations of these novels. In that respect, Benoit is like an American version of Christie’s “world’s greatest detective” Hercule Poirot from Belgium—someone who can deduce and reveal complex details and secrets about other people’s lives, but his own personal life remains a self-guarded mystery. (Craig is British in real life, but you can tell he has fun with doing a leisurely American Southern accent when he’s in the role of Benoit.)

Because the “Knives Out” movies are self-contained, it’s not necessary to see the first “Knives Out” movie to understand “Glass Onion.” However, seeing “Knives Out” can give viewers a better appreciation of how “Glass Onion” is an improvement from the first “Knives Out” movie, which is enjoyable but more predictable than “Glass Onion.” (“Knives Out” received several accolades that comedic murder mystery movies rarely receive, including an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.)

In “Glass Onion,” several people from different parts of the U.S. have each received in the mail a mysterious box from American technology billionaire Miles Bron (played by Edward Norton), a pretentious blowhard who loves to name drop and show off his wealth. Miles, a bachelor who lives alone, has made his fortune from co-founding a company called Alpha Industries. The box that he has sent contains an elaborate puzzle that reveals an invitation to go to Miles’ private island home in Greece for a murder mystery party. In the invitation, Miles says that he will play the murder victim.

Benoit is one of the people who receives this box as a mail delivery. Later, when he gets to the party, he finds out in an awkward way that Miles didn’t actually invite Benoit. But now that Benoit is at the party, Miles doesn’t want Benoit to leave, because Benoit is just another celebrity whom Miles can brag about attending one of Miles’ parties. Who sent Benoit that box? That answer is revealed in the movie.

“Glass Onion” begins on May 13, 2020—the day that the boxes are delivered. It’s just a few short months into the COVID-19 pandemic, before a vaccine was available, and when mask-wearing and social distancing were becoming a way of life for people who cared to take those precautions. Some of the party guests are more concerned about the pandemic than others.

Before going to the party, Benoit is seen having a relaxing bath at his home. He’s on a videoconference call with an eclectic group of famous friends, such as Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim (who died in 2021), classical musician Yo-Yo Ma, actress Angela Lansbury (who died in 2022), retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and actress Natasha Lyonne, who all make these quick cameos as themselves in the movie. It’s in this scene that viewers see that Benoit likes to play quiz games with his friends during the pandemic.

The only other peek into Benoit’s personal life is when he’s on a videoconference call with a man named Philip (played by Hugh Grant), who seems to know a lot abut Benoit and his personal life. In this scene, viewers can speculate how close Benoit and Philip are to each other and what kind of relationship they might have. Ethan Hawke makes a brief appearance in the role of an unnamed Miles Bron employee, who sprays a COVID-19 medical screener inside each guest’s mouth when they arrive at Miles’ Greek island home. The implication is that this screener can make any possible COVID-19 symptoms disappear, and Miles is so rich, he can afford this medical treatment before it’s legally sold to the public.

Miles’ party guests have been transported by a private boat to the island, whose biggest building is a high-tech mansion that Miles has named Glass Onion. The property’s centerpiece is a giant glass structure shaped like an onion and located inside a glass atrium. (The onion can also be seen as a symbol of the story’s layers that get peeled to reveal the truth. The Beatles song “Glass Onion” is played during the movie’s closing credits.) Inside this nouveau-riche home are dozens of glass sculptures and gaudy indications that Miles is a narcissist, such as a giant portrait painting of a shirtless Miles that makes his physique look more athletic than it really is.

In addition to Benoit, the other people at this party are:

  • Claire Debella (played by Kathryn Hahn), a progressive Democratic politician who is very image-conscious and currently running for re-election as governor of Connecticut.
  • Lionel Toussaint (played by Leslie Odom Jr.), an experimental scientist who has recently been testing a mystery product called Klear that Miles wants to sell, but Lionel has been warning Miles not to send this “volatile substance” on a manned airplane flight.
  • Birdie Jay (played by Kate Hudson), a controversial former supermodel who is now a fashion entrepreneur, who says and does racially offensive things on social media, and who is currently embroiled in a scandal about her fashion company using an exploitative sweatshop in Bangladesh.
  • Peg (played by Jessica Henwick), Birdie’s always-worried assistant who constantly has to clean up Birdie’s messes and prevent Birdie from doing more damage to Birdie’s reputation and career.
  • Duke Cody (played by Dave Bautista), a very sexist and gun-toting loudmouth who has become a famous social media influencer and “men’s rights” activist promoting the belief that men are superior to women.
  • Whiskey (played by Madelyn Cline), Duke’s airheaded girlfriend/social media sidekick who doesn’t seem to be doing anything with her life but being a hanger-on/gold digger/social climber.
  • Andi Brand (played by Janelle Monáe), Miles’ former business partner, who lost a bitter lawsuit against him, in which she claimed that she came up with most of the ideas for Alpha Industries, and she accused Miles of stealing her share of the company from her.

It’s eventually revealed in the story that Miles, Andi, Claire, Lionel, Birdie and Duke all knew each other from 10 years ago, when they were struggling to “make it” in their chosen professions. Andi was the one who introduced Miles (who was unlikable even back then) to the rest of the group. They all used to hang out at a bar called Glass Onion.

Miles is a big talker who is very good at making people believe that he’s smarter than he really is. For example, he makes up words that don’t exist. His incessant namedropping becomes an ongoing lampoon in the movie. He mentions how he got famous composer Philip Glass to write original music for him. Miles also brags about his other connections to celebrities, such as getting a personal gift from actor/musician Jared Leto and getting invited to a recent birthday party for CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

As the story goes on, cracks begin to show in many of the party guests’ façades. Birdie wants people to think that she’s confident, but she’s actually very insecure about being perceived as unattractive and a has-been. Peg, who appears to cool-headed and logical, is actually on edge and desperate, because she has spent most of her career with loose cannon Birdie, so anything that destroys Birdie’s career will probably destroy Peg’s career too. Lionel is uncomfortable with being paid by Miles to approve this mystery product Klear that Lionel says is too dangerous to approve.

Claire, who prides herself on being a “take charge” control freak, is worried about how wild this party might get and how it could affect her reputation in this crucial election year. Duke becomes uneasy when he sees that Whiskey is openly flirting with Miles, who does nothing to stop this flirtation and seems to be enjoying it. Andi, who is the most mysterious guest, keeps her distance from the group for a great deal of the movie, and she seems to be tough-minded and occasionally rude, but her emotional vulnerabilities are eventually exposed. When Andi arrives at the island, Miles tells her that he’s surprised that she accepted the invitation.

Of course, Andi appears to be the one who has the biggest grudge against Miles. She is also different from the other guests because she was the only one who didn’t bother to figure out the box puzzle but just smashed the box instead and found the invitation. In a group of characters with larger-than-life personalities, Monáe delivers a complex performance that is one of the highlights of “Glass Onion.”

It would be revealing too much to say who actually gets murderded in “Glass Onion,” but it’s enough to say that the movie has more twists and turns and than “Knives Out.” The comedy in “Glass Onion” has much sharper edges that result in some intentionally hilarious moments. The dialogue and scenarios portray in stinging accuracy what can happen when people try to impress each other too much and wallow in self-centered pretension.

Peg and Benoit are the only people at the party who don’t show any completely obnoxious qualities, for different reasons. Peg, who seems like a decent person overall, is at the party in the capacity of being a subservient employee who’s afraid of losing her job. Benoit, as always, is a keen observer of people and doesn’t really jump into action until there’s a murder to be solved. Craig, who seems born to play the role of this sly and sarcastic private detective, has no doubt found his next big movie franchise after retiring from the role of James Bond.

Also turning in very good performances are Norton as billionaire jerk Miles and Hudson as spoiled celebrity Birdie. These two characters have some of the best lines in “Glass Onion,” which makes them the type of characters whom viewers will love to hate. However, if we’re being honest, Norton and Hudson have played these types of unlikable characters in other movies before, so people might not be as surprised by these performances. Monáe shows a range in “Glass Onion” that she hasn’t had a chance to show in her previous movies. The rest of the principal cast members in “Glass Onion” have characters that are a bit shallow and underdeveloped.

The production design of “Glass Onion” (which was filmed on location in Greece) is quite striking and has more originality than the “old money” mansion setting of “Knives Out.” Johnson’s screenplay and direction for “Glass Onion” are sharp, witty and thoroughly engaging, even when the characters are saying and doing awful things. “Glass Onion” also benefits from having less characters than “Knives Out” had, thereby making the “Glass Onion” story less cluttered than “Knives Out.” Most of all, “Glass Onion” admirably avoids one of the biggest mistakes that most movie sequels make: It doesn’t try to copy its predecessor. To put it in baseball terms: It swings big in its ambitions and hits a home run.

Netflix released “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” for a limited one-week engagement in U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Thor: Love and Thunder,’ starring Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Taika Waititi, Russell Crowe and Natalie Portman

July 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth in “Thor: Love and Thunder” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)

“Thor: Love and Thunder”

Directed by Taika Waititi

Culture Representation: Taking place on Earth and other parts of the universe (including the fictional location of New Asgard), the superhero action film “Thor: Love and Thunder” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nordic superhero Thor Odinson, also known as the God of Thunder, teams up with allies in a battle against the revengeful villain Gorr the God Butcher, while Thor’s ex-girlfriend Jane Porter has her own personal battle with Stage 4 cancer. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of comic book movie fans, “Thor: Love and Thunder” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and action movies that skillfully blend drama and comedy.

Christian Bale in “Thor: Love and Thunder” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Thor: Love and Thunder” could also be called “Thor: Grief and Comedy,” because how of this superhero movie sequel balances these two themes with some results that are better than others. The movie goes big on showing bittersweet romance and the power of true friendships. Some of the movie’s subplots clutter up the movie, and any sense of terrifying danger is constantly undercut by all the wisecracking, but “Thor: Love and Thunder” gleefully leans into the idea that a superhero leader can be a formidable warrior, as well as a big goofball and a sentimental romantic.

Directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is also a commercial showcase for Guns N’Roses music. It’s the first Marvel Studios movie to blatantly shill for a rock band to the point where not only are four of the band’s hits prominently used in major scenes in the movie, but there’s also a character in the movie who wants to change his first name to be the same as the first name of the band’s lead singer. The music is well-placed, in terms of conveying the intended emotions, but viewers’ reactions to this movie’s fan worship of Guns N’Roses will vary, depending on how people feel about the band and its music. The Guns N’Roses songs “Welcome the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “November Rain” are all in pivotal scenes in “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

“Thor: Love and Thunder” picks up where 2019’s blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame” concluded. What’s great about “Thor: Love and Thunder” (which Waititi co-wrote with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) is that the filmmakers didn’t assume that everyone watching the movie is an aficionado of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), nor did they assume that everyone watching “Thor: Love and Thunder” will know a lot about the Nordic superhero Thor Odinson (played by Chris Hemsworth) before seeing the movie. Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a montage summary (narrated cheerfully by Waititi’s Korg character, a rock-like humanoid who is one of Thor’s loyal allies) that shows the entire MCU history of Thor up until what’s about to happen in “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

The movie’s opening scene isn’t quite so upbeat, because it gets right into showing that grief will be one of the film’s biggest themes. In a very barren desert, a man and his daughter (who’s about 8 or 9 years old, played by India Rose Hemsworth) are deyhdrated, starving, and close to dying. The girl doesn’t survive, and the man is shown grieving at the place where he has buried her. Viewers soon find out that this man is Gorr the God Butcher (played by Christian Bale), who is the story’s chief villain. But he didn’t start out as a villain.

After the death of his daughter, a ravenously hungry Gorr ends up a tropical-looking, plant-filled area, where he devours some fruit. Suddenly, a male god appears before Gorr, who is pious and grateful for being in this god’s presence. Gorr tells the god: “I am Gorr, the last of your disciples. We never lost our faith in you.”

The god scoffs at Gorr’s devotion and says, “There’s no eternal reward for you. There’ll be more followers to replace you.” Feeling betrayed, Gorr replies, “You are no god! I renounce you!” The god points to a slain warrior on the ground and tells Gorr that the warrior was killed for the Necrosword, a magical sword that can kill gods and celestials. The Necrosword levitates off of the ground and gravitates toward Gorr.

The god tells Gorr: “The sword chose you. You are now cursed.” Gorr replies, “It doesn’t feel like a curse. It feels like a promise. So this is my vow: All gods will die!” And you know what that means: Gorr kills the god in front of him, and Thor will be one of Gorr’s targets.

Meanwhile, Thor is seen coming to the rescue of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who need his help in battling some villains on a generic-looking planet in outer space. All of the Guardians are there (except for Gamora, who died at the end of “Avengers: Endgame”), and they see Thor as a powerful ally. However, the Guardians are worried that Thor has lost a lot of his emotional vitality. Thor (who hails from Asgar) is grieving over the loss his entire family to death and destruction.

Thor is also still heartbroken over the end of his romantic relationship with brilliant astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman), who was in 2011’s “Thor” and 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World.” Viewers will find out in a “Thor: Love and Thunder” flashback montage what really happened that caused the end of this relationship. Jane and Thor are considered soul mates, but their devotion to their respective work resulted in Thor and Jane drifting apart.

Guardians of the Galaxy leader Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt), tries to give Thor a pep talk, because Star-Lord can relate to losing the love of his life (Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana), but the main difference is that Thor has a chance to see Jane again because she’s still alive. As shown in the trailer for “Thor: Love and Thunder,” Jane will soon come back into Thor’s life in an unexpected way, when she gains possession of Thor’s magical hammer, Mjolnir, and she reinvents herself as the Mighty Thor. As an example of some of the movie’s offbeat comedy, Korg keeps getting Jane Foster’s name wrong, by sometimes calling her Jane Fonda or Jodie Foster.

The Guardians of the Galaxy section of “Thor: Love and Thunder” almost feels like a completely separate short film that was dropped into the movie. After an intriguing opening scene with Gorr, viewers are left wondering when Gorr is going to show up again. Instead, there’s a fairly long stretch of the movie with Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy

After spending a lot of meditative time lounging around in a robe, Thor literally throws off the robe for the battle scene with Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, as the Guns N’Roses song “Welcome to the Jungle” blares on the soundtrack. After the battle is over (it’s easy to predict who the victors are), Thor’s confident ego seems to have come roaring back. He exclaims with a huge grin: “What a classic Thor adventure! Hurrah!”

As a gift for this victory, Thor gets two superpowered goats, which have the strength to pull space vessels and whose goat screaming becomes a running gag in the movie. The visual effects in “Thor: Love and Thunder” get the job done well enough for a superhero movie. But are these visual effects groundbreaking or outstanding? No.

The Guardians’ personalities are all the same: Star-Lord is still cocky on the outside but deeply insecure on the inside. Drax (played by Dave Bautista) is still simple-minded. Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper) is still sarcastic. Mantis (played by Pom Klementieff) is still sweetly earnest. Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) still only has three words in his vocabulary: “I am Groot.”

Nebula (voiced by Karen Gillan), who is Garmora’s hot-tempered adopted sister and a longtime Guardians frenemy, is now an ally of the Guardians. Guardians associate Kraglin Obfonteri (played by Sean Gunn) makes a brief appearance to announce that he’s gotten married to an Indigarrian woman named Glenda (played by Brenda Satchwell), who is one of his growing number of his wives. It’s mentioned in a joking manner that Kraglin has a tendency to marry someone at every planet he visits.

With his confidence renewed as the God of Thunder, Thor decides he’s ready to end his “retirement” and go back into being a superhero. He says goodbye to the Guardians, who fly off in their spaceship and wish him well. Little does Thor know what he’s going to see someone from his past (Jane), whom he hasn’t seen in a long time.

Sif (played by Jaimie Alexander), an Asgardian warrior who was in the first “Thor” movie and in “Thor: The Dark World,” re-appears in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” but she now has a missing left arm and has to learn to re-adjust her fighting skills. Sif’s presence in this movie isn’t entirely unexpected. It’s a welcome return, but some viewers might think that Sif doesn’t get enough screen time.

Meanwhile, as shown in “Avengers: Endgame,” Thor gave up his King of New Asgard title to his longtime associate Valkyrie (played by Tessa Thompson), who’s finding out that being the leader of New Asgard isn’t quite as enjoyable as she thought it would be. She’d rather do battle alongside her buddy Thor instead of having to do things like attend dull council meetings or cut ribbons at opening ceremonies. New Asgard is a fishing village that has become a tourist destination that plays up its connection to Thor and his history.

The stage play recreation of Thor’s story was used as a comedic gag in 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok” (also directed and written by Waititi), and that gag is used again in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” as this play is staged in New Asgard, but with an update to include what happened in “Thor: Ragnarok.” Making uncredited cameos as these stage play actors in “Thor: Love and Thunder” are Matt Damon as stage play Loki (Thor’s mischievous adopted brother), Luke Hemsworth as stage play Thor, Melissa McCarthy as stage play Hela (Thor’s villainous older sister) and Sam Neill as stage play Odin (Thor’s father). This comedic bit about a “Thor” stage play isn’t as fresh as it was in “Thor: Ragnarok,” but it’s still amusing.

One of the New Asgard citizens is a lively child of about 13 or 14 years old. His name is Astrid, and he announces that he wants to change his first name to Axl, in tribute to Axl Rose, the lead singer of Guns N’Roses. Axl (played by Kieron L. Dyer) is the son of Heimdall (played by Idris Elba), the Asgardian gatekeeper who was killed by supervillain Thanos in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” As fans of superhero movies know, just because a character is killed on screen doesn’t mean that that character will never be seen again. And let’s just say that “Thor: Love and Thunder” makes it clear that people have not seen the last of Heimdall.

Jane has a poignant storyline because she has Stage 4 cancer, which is something that she’s in deep denial about since she wants to act as if she still has the same physical strength as she did before her cancer reached this stage. Jane’s concerned and loyal assistant Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) makes a brief appearance to essentially advise Jane to slow down Jane’s workload. Jane refuses to take this advice.

The way that Jane gets Thor’s hammer isn’t very innovative, but she finds out that the hammer gives her godlike strength and makes her look healthy. It’s no wonder she wants to explore life as the Mighty Thor. (Her transformation also includes going from being a brunette as Jane to being a blonde as the Mighty Thor.)

And where exactly is Gorr? He now looks like a powder-white Nosferatu-like villain, as he ends up wreaking havoc by going on a killing spree of the universe’s gods. And it’s only a matter of time before Gorr reaches New Asgard. With the help of shadow monsters, Gorr ends up kidnapping the children of New Asgard (including Axl) and imprisoning them in an underground area. Guess who’s teaming up to come to the rescue?

After the mass kidnapping happens, there’s a comedic segment where Thor ends up in the kingdom of Greek god Zeus (played by Russell Crowe), a toga-wearing hedonist who says things like, “Where are we going to have this year’s orgy?” Zeus is Thor’s idol, but Thor gets a rude awakening about Zeus. Thor experiences some humiliation that involves Thor getting completely naked in Zeus’ public court. Crowe’s questionable Greek accent (which often sounds more Italian than Greek) is part of his deliberately campy performance as Zeus.

“Thor: Love and Thunder” packs in a lot of issues and switches tones so many times, it might be a turnoff to some viewers who just want to see a straightforward, uncomplicated and conventional superhero story. However, people who saw and enjoyed “Thor: Ragnarok” will be better-prepared for his mashup of styles that Waititi continues in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” which has that same spirit. “Thor: Love and Thunder” tackles much heavier issues though, such as terminal illness and crushing heartbreak.

The movie’s cancer storyline with Jane could have been mishandled, but it’s written in a way that has an emotional authenticity among the fantastical superhero shenanigans. “Thor: Love and Thunder” also goes does fairly deep in exposing the toll that superhero duties can take on these superheroes’ love lives. Thor and Jane have to come to terms with certain decisions they made that affected their relationship.

The movie also provides a glimpse into the personal lives of supporting characters Korg and Valkyrie. In a memorable scene, Valkyrie and Korg are alone together in an area of Thor’s Viking ship, and they have a heart-to-heart talk about not finding their true loves yet. They are lovelorn cynics but still show some glimmers of optimism that maybe they will be lucky in love. It’s in this scene where Korg mentions that he was raised by two fathers, and Valkyrie briefly mentions having an ex-girlfriend. A scene later in the movie shows that Korg is open having a same-sex romance.

All of the cast members do well in their roles, but Hemsworth and Portman have the performances and storyline that people will be talking about the most for “Thor: Love and Thunder.” The ups and downs of Thor and Jane’s on-again/off-again romance are not only about what true love can mean in this relationship but also touch on issues of power, control, trust and gender dynamics. It’s a movie that acknowledges that two people might be right for each other, but the timing also has to be right for the relationship to thrive.

Bale does a very solid job as Gorr, but some viewers might be disappointed that Gorr isn’t in the movie as much as expected. That’s because the first third of “Thor: Love and Thunder” is taken up by a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy interactions with Thor. In other words, Gorr’s villain presence in “Thor: Love and Thunder” is not particularly encompassing, as Hela’s villain presence was in “Thor: Ragnarok.”

The movie’s final battle scene might also be somewhat divisive with viewers because one member of Thor’s team is not part of this battle, due to this character being injured in a previous fight and being stuck at a hospital. Fans of this character will no doubt feel a huge letdown that this character is sidelined in a crucial final battle. Leaving this character out of this battle is one of the flaws of “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

The mid-credits scene and end-credits scene in Thor: Love and Thunder” show characters who are supposed to be dead. The mid-credits scene also introduces the family member of one of the movie’s characters, while the end-credits scene teases the return of other characters who exist in another realm. Neither of these scenes is mind-blowing. However, they’re worth watching for MCU completists and anyone who likes watching all of a movie’s credits at the end.

What “Thor: Love and Thunder” gets right is that it shows more concern than many other MCU movies about how insecurities and isolation outside the glory of superhero battles can have a profound effect on these heroes. Saving the universe can come at a heavy emotional price, especially when loved ones die. Whether the love is for family members, romantic partners or friends, “Thor: Love and Thunder” acknowledges that love can result in grief that isn’t easy to overcome, but the healing process is helped with loyal support and some welcome laughter.

Disney’s Marvel Studios will release “Thor: Love and Thunder” in U.S. cinemas on July 8, 2022.

Review: ‘Army of the Dead’ (2021), starring Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Tig Notaro, Matthias Schweighöfer and Garret Dillahunt

May 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dave Bautista in “Army of the Dead” (Photo by Clay Enos/Netflix)

“Army of the Dead” (2021)

Directed by Zack Snyder

Culture Representation: Taking place in Las Vegas during a zombie apocalypse, the horror flick “Army of the Dead” features a racially diverse cast (Asian, white, African American and Latino) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A ragtag group is enlisted to retrieve $200 million in cash from a casino bank vault before the government drops a nuclear bomb in the zombie-infested area. 

Culture Audience: “Army of the Dead” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in epic and suspenseful zombie thrillers.

Ella Purnell in “Army of the Dead” (Photo by Clay Enos/Netflix)

What’s a filmmaker to do when there are so many movies and TV shows about a zombie apocalypse that cover a lot of the same problems? In the case of director Zack Snyder, you up the ante by making the story about looting a vault filled with $200 million in cash, before the area is detonated by government bomb. That’s the concept of writer/director/producer Snyder’s “Army of the Dead,” which definitely won’t be confused with director Joseph Conti’s 2008 low-budget supernatural horror movie “Army of the Dead,” which was about ghostly conquistadors.

Snyder (who was also the cinematographer for his “Army of the Dead” movie) isn’t new to directing a zombie film, since the previous zombie flick that he directed was the critically acclaimed 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” With a total running time of 148 minutes, “Army of the Dead” has a lot of time for viewers to get to know the story’s individual human characters, who each have a distinct and memorable personality. And believe it or not, a few of the zombie characters have semblances of personalities too—or at least a hierachy and customs that they follow—which is a departure from most zombie stories where the zombies only think about killing humans for their next meal.

Is it worth spending nearly two-and-a-half hours of your life watching “Army of the Dead”? It depends. If you’re inclined to watch gory horror movies, then the answer is a definite “yes,” because there’s enough of a good story and suspenseful moments that will keep you riveted. If you can’t stomach seeing brutal battles with blood and guts, then “Army of the Dead” is something that you can skip. The “Army of the Dead” screenplay (written by Snyder, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold) keeps things simple, so that even though there’s a relatively large cast of characters, nothing gets confusing.

“Army of the Dead” opens with a military convoy of trucks and vans somewhere in the Nevada desert, with one of the trucks carrying super-secret cargo. Two military guards named Corp. Bissel (played by Zach Rose) and Sgt. Kelly (played by Michael Cassidy) are in a truck together and speculate about what they might be guarding that’s so top-secret. Bissel thinks it might be an alien from outer space, because whatever is in the mystery truck came from Area 51. Kelly has been told on a walkie talkie to stay away from a truck that’s in the middle of the convoy.

Bissel and Kelly are about to found out what’s in that mysterious truck. A newlywed couple named Mr. Hillman (played by Steve Corona) and Misty Hillman (played by Chelsea Edmundson), who are in a car in the opposite lane of the highway, are engaging in some sexual activity, and the husband takes his eyes off the road while driving. Big mistake. The resulting crash is a big pile-up that ends with a massive explosion that kills the newlyweds and most of the people in the convoy, except for Bissel and Kelly.

The truck that was supposed to be “off limits” topples over. And out comes a zombie named Zeus (played by Richard Cetrone), who immediately goes on a rampage. Bissel and Kelly make a valiant effort to save themselves, but they inevitably become the zombie’s prey and then become zombies themselves.

“Army of the Dead” then fast-forwards to Las Vegas in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, by having a fairly long sequence of opening credits showing much of the action in slow-motion. The movie has many touches of humor, such as zombie showgirls who attack the type of creepy older men who would probably sexually harass them under other circumstances. Zombies have taken over casinos and are shown terrorizing people at slot machines and game tables. And because this is Vegas, there’s at least one Elvis impersonator who’s a zombie.

During all of this mayhem, a news announcement comes on TV that the government will drop a “low-yield, tactical nuclear bomb” in the worst zombie-infested area of Las Vegas, at sunset on (of all days) the Fourth of July. All people in the area have been ordered to evacuate. But a wealthy casino owner named Bly Tanaka (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) has other plans.

Bly’s eponymous high-rise casino is now abandoned and is in the area that’s scheduled to be bombed. The casino has a secret vault filled with $200 million cash. And he wants to get the cash out in time by having other people do the dirty work for him.

Bly visits Scott Ward (played by Dave Bautista), a widower who works as a cook at a diner. Scott isn’t an average diner employee though: He received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for saving several people at the start of the zombie apocalypse. (This heroism is mentioned, but not shown, in the movie.)

And due to his shady past, Scott knows the right people to assemble to get all of that cash out of the vault, even if it means risking their lives in an area crawling with zombies. Bly offers Scott $50 million to do the job and says that it will be up to Scott how Scott wants to divide the payment amongst Scott’s team members. Scott eagerly accepts the challenge because he wants the money to open his own fast-food business.

The decision of where to drop the bomb is controversial because it’s in a quarantine area for people who’ve been suspected of being exposed to zombie infections. In one of the movie’s satirical moments, there’s a TV news debate with political pundits on both sides weighing in on the controversy. Real-life liberal Democrat pundit Donna Brazile (a former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee) and real-life conservative Republican aide Sean Spicer (a former White House press secretary in the Donald Trump administration) are seen in this debate arguing over the ethics of this bombing. Brazile thinks the bombing is a human rights violation, while Spicer thinks the bombing is necessary to ensure the safety of non-infected humans.

Scott’s estranged daughter Kate Ward (played by Ella Purnell) works as a volunteer at the quarantine shelter/refugee camp. Kate has befriended a single mother named Geeta (played by Huma Qureshi), who is desperate to have her two underage children smuggled out of the shelter before the bomb hits. Geeta begs Kate to take the children to the nearby city of Barstow if anything happens to her.

One of the supervisors at the shelter is a sleazy bully named Burt Cummings (played by Theo Rossi), who takes particular pleasure in demeaning women. When he does a thermometer scan of Geeta, he stands too close for comfort and tells her that if she doesn’t like it, he’ll use another way to take her temperature: “I could use my rectal thermometer,” he smirks.

The bomb is supposed to be dropped in 72 hours. But Dave is able to quickly assemble his team. They are:

  • Maria Cruz (played by Ana de la Reguera), a strong-willed mechanic who had a past romance with Scott.
  • Vanderohe (played by Omari Hardwick), a quintessential action hero who has a sensitive side (he works at a retirement home) beneath his tough exterior.
  • Marianne Peters (played by Tig Notaro), a wisecracking helicopter pilot who will be responsible for flying the team’s getaway helicopter.
  • Dieter (played by Matthias Schweighöfer), a socially awkward and nerdy locksmith who will be responsible for cracking the safe’s complex security codes, which change on a regular basis.
  • Mikey Guzman (played by Raúl Castillo), a semi-famous YouTuber who likes to make extreme stunt videos of himself hunting zombies.
  • Chambers (Samantha Win), a feisty but emotionally aloof friend of Mikey’s who only trusts Mikey in the group.
  • Lilly (played by Nora Arnezeder), also known as The Coyote, a cunning warrior type who works at the quarantine shelter and was introduced to the group by Kate.
  • Kate, Scott’s daughter, who insists on being part of the team because she wants some of the money to help Deeta.
  • Martin (played by Garret Dillahunt), a security expert who works for Bly and is there to keep tabs on this motley crew so they won’t steal all the money for themselves.

One of Mikey’s friends named Damon (played by Colin Jones) was also supposed to be part of the team. But a fearful Damon quits early, before they even start their journey, when he finds out that the area they’re going to has a colony of zombies that will be sure to attack. Lilly knows the most about the zombies living in this colony, and she’s the go-to person to come up with strategies on how to outsmart the zombies.

As Lilly tells the rest of the team, these are not ordinary zombies. Regular zombies, which are more common, are called “shamblers” because they don’t think beyond eating and killing. The zombies that are near the casino are called “alphas,” because they’re smarter, faster and stronger than the shambler zombies.

These alpha zombies have formed a tribe headed by a king (Zeus, the same zombie who escaped from the military convoy) and a queen (played by Athena Perample), who expect the rest of the zombie tribe to follow their lead. These zombies, as seen in several parts of the movie, seem to have emotions of anger and sadness. And they also understand things such as bargaining, which might or might not come in handy for this group that will soon invade the alpha zombies’ territory.

“Army of the Dead” keeps things at a fairly energetic pace, although there are a few parts of the movie where people are standing around and talking a little too much. But the action, when it happens, lives up to expectations in intensity and realistic gore. There are some splatter scenes that were deliberately filmed for laughs. The movie also has a male zombie tiger named Valentine, which Lilly says used to be owned by Siegfried and Roy. Valentine is a scene-stealer, even though this creature is nothing but visual effects.

And in this group of opinionated people, there are personality conflicts, of course. Vanderohe doesn’t respect Dieter at first because he thinks Dieter is too wimpy and ill-prepared for the zombie-killing aspects of this mission. Kate has a lot of bitterness toward Scott because of how her mother died. (The death of Kate’s mother/Scott’s wife is shown in a flashback.) And no one seems to really like or trust Bly’s henchman Martin, who has a tendency to be a bossy know-it-all.

The big showdown battle toward the end of the movie is definitely one of the best scenes, as it should be. “Army of the Dead” doesn’t sugarcoat any violence, although there are moments that stretch the bounds of realism with some heavily choreographed stunts. All of the actors play their roles well, with Castillo, Notaro, Schweighöfer and Arnezeder bringing the most individuality to their characters’ personalities. Bautista doesn’t have a wide range of emotive skills as an actor, but “Army of the Dead” is the type of movie that showcases him at his best, rather than the silly action comedies that he sometimes does.

The biggest complaint or disappointment that viewers might have about “Army of the Dead” is regarding the movie’s final five minutes, when a character finds out something that this person should have found out much earlier. It drastically changes the tone of the film’s ending. But this potentially divisive ending doesn’t take away from “Army of the Dead” delivering plenty of thrills and chills that make it a better-than-average zombie movie.

Netflix released “Army of the Dead” in New York City on May 12, 2021, and will expand the movie’s release to more U.S. cinemas on May 14, 2021. Netflix will premiere “Army of the Dead” on May 21, 2021.

Review: ‘My Spy,’ starring Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal and Ken Jeong

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista in “My Spy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“My Spy” 

Directed by Peter Segal

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago and Virginia, the action comedy “My Spy” has a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, African American, white and Latino) representing the middle-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A bumbling CIA operative is “blackmailed” by a 9-year-old girl to teach her how to become a spy.

Culture Audience: “My Spy” will appeal mostly to people who like dumb, cartoonishly violent comedies that are entirely predictable.

Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley and Dave Bautista in “My Spy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“My Spy” (directed by Peter Segal) is one of those comedies that people know will be mindless from beginning to end. There’s hardly anything funny to be found in the movie’s trailer, which is an indication of how bad the movie is if the trailer can’t even highlight any good scenes. But what might really disappoint people is how boring this action comedy really is. Dave Bautista (the movie’s “tough guy” title character) is outshone in many scenes by his co-stars, including Chloe Coleman and Parisa Fitz-Henley, who play the daughter and mother who inevitably warm this dimwitted lug’s heart.

“My Spy” was written by brothers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, a screenwriting duo whose previous credits include 2018’s “The Meg” and 2012’s “Battleship.” In other words, their specialty seems to be writing dumb action movies. But a dumb action movie can be entertaining if there’s plenty of action. “My Spy” falls very short of that expectation, as the movie’s pace gets dragged down when the main character starts dating a single mom and starts acting like a domesticated stepfather.

In “My Spy,” Bautista plays lovable dolt Jason “JJ” Jones, a CIA operative who keeps messing up his missions. JJ (who’s an ex-Special Forces agent) does it in the film’s opening scene, which takes place at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine. There’s a big fight sequence that ends with explosions, the bad guys defeated, and JJ in possession of a plutonium pit that has the power to save or destroy the world. (Don’t they all, in movies like this?)

JJ drives off in his Jeep, listening to Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” as he basks in his victory. When he arrives at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, he is greeted with a standing ovation by his co-workers. But JJ’s glory is short-lived when he’s informed by his boss David Kim (played by Ken Jeong, playing yet another in his long list of “cranky” characters) that there were actually two plutonium pits, and one of the bad guys named Azar Ahmad (played by Ali Hassan), who got away at the nuclear power plant, has the other plutonium pit.

Meanwhile, David tells his team about an elusive criminal named Victor Marquez (played by Greg Bryk), an illegal arms trader who has recently been dealing in nuclear arms. Victor is so ruthless that he murdered his brother David because they were feuding with each other. Victor is believed to be working with a terrorist named Hasan (played by Basel Daoud), and the CIA thinks that the plutonium pit will find its way to Victor, who will probably sell it to Hasan.

JJ is excited about being assigned the mission to track down Victor. But his hopes are dashed because his boss David is fed up with JJ’s bungling and doesn’t want to give JJ a chance to correct his mistakes. David humiliates JJ in a group meeting by giving this coveted Victor Marquez assignment to JJ’s colleague Christina (played by Nicola Correia-Damude), and assigns JJ to “demotion” surveillance duty in Chicago. (It’s the equivalent of a homicide cop being assigned to traffic duty.)

JJ won’t be alone for this grunt work. His partner is Roberta “Bobbi” Ulf (played by Kristen Schaal, playing yet another goofy-but-nice character), who is very by-the-book. In other words, she’s more responsible than JJ. Bobbi and JJ go to Chicago, where (to JJ’s disappointment), they find out that they have to spy on a widow named Kate (played by Fitz-Henley) and her precocious 9-year-old daughter Sophie (played by Coleman), who live in a modest apartment.

JJ and Bobbie, who are doing surveillance duty in a nearby apartment on the same floor, are puzzled over why they have the boring task of spying on this innocent mother and daughter. However, it’s pretty obvious to viewers that Kate (who’s an emergency-room nurse) and Sophie aren’t just random characters in this story, especially when it’s revealed that they recently moved to Chicago to start a new life after Sophie’s father died.

Sophie is smart but she’s an outcast at school. One day, Sophie finds some of the surveillance equipment in her apartment and discovers that JJ and Bobbi are CIA agents who are responsible for the spying. And Sophie has the evidence on video that she recorded on her phone.

JJ and Bobbi are terrified that this kid will blow their cover, so they let Sophie “blackmail” them. She tells them that she won’t release the video if JJ will teach her how to be a spy. It’s clear within the first few minutes of JJ and Sophie’s interaction with each other that what Sophie really wants is a father figure and a protector, since she’s lonely and having a hard time making friends at school.

The action comes to a screeching halt when long stretches of the movie consist of JJ hanging out with Sophie, and JJ and Kate developing a romance. Bobbi disapproves of this breach of protocol, but she’s more afraid of being exposed as a spy by Sophie than whatever ethics policies that JJ is breaking. Of course, this movie is so stupid that it wants viewers to believe that even though JJ is considered to be an untrustworthy screw-up by his boss, no one from the CIA bothered to check up on JJ in Chicago.

Therefore, when JJ hangs out with Sophie or Kate in public, he’s not exactly “undercover.” Although Fitz-Henley and Coleman have convincing chemistry together as mother and daughter, the “romance” chemistry between Fitz-Henley and Bautista isn’t very convincing. Coleman’s Sophie is both charming and bratty, but the movie’s script is so poorly written that the character barely rises above the generic “smart aleck” kid that’s been seen in many other movies.

And since JJ is supposed to be “tough on the outside and tender on the inside,” he’s socially awkward when it comes to dating. It just so happens there are two apartment neighbors in the building who come to JJ’s rescue to help him with grooming, wardrobe and romance advice: gay live-in boyfriends Carlos (played by Devere Rogers) and Todd (played by Noah Dalton Danby). A running joke in the film is that Carlos is the sassy motormouth, while Todd is the type who doesn’t like to talk. Todd literally does nothing but grunt in the movie, but this gag gets old very quickly.

The action scenes in “My Spy” are also cringeworthy, especially those involving explosions. Characters walk too close to explosions, which look like cheap visual effects. In real life, these people would be knocked down or severely burned if they walked that close to an explosion, not to mention the damage to their lungs from inhaling all that noxious smoke.

STX Entertainment was originally going to release “My Spy” in theaters, but the company dumped the movie by selling it to Amazon Prime Video. It’s easy to see why this dud isn’t worth the price of a movie ticket. With long spans of the film bogged down in the would-be “stepdad” subplot, “My Spy” fails to deliver a suspense-filled action story. In that regard, the movie is very much like JJ—a lot of witless talk with a lot of bungling along the way.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “My Spy” on June 26, 2020.

James Gunn scandal: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ director fired over controversial tweets; ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ stars react

July 23, 2018

by Colleen McGregor

James Gunn
James Gunn (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

James Gunn, the writer and director of the first two of Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, was abruptly fired by Marvel parent company Walt Disney Studios on July 20, 2018, after tweets that he made from 2008 to 2011 in which he made crude jokes about rape and pedophilia were brought to the public’s attention on social media. After he was fired, Gunn made a public apology, saying in part that “when I made these shocking jokes, I wasn’t living them out.” Reactions from Hollywood celebrities have been mostly sympathetic to Gunn. Actor/comedian Bobcat Goldthwait and actress Selma Blair have publicly defended Gunn and demanded that Disney hire him back. Meanwhile, several “Guardians of the Galaxy” stars have publicly stated directly or indirectly that they support Gunn, with Dave Bautista being the most vocal by expressing his outrage over Gunn’s firing.

Bautista tweeted: “I will have more to say but for right now all I will say is this. @James Gunn is one of the most loving, caring, good natured people I have ever met. He’s gentle and kind and cares deeply for people and animals. He’s made mistakes. We all have. Im NOT ok with what’s happening to him.”

He later added, in reference to Gunn’s tweets being exposed by politically conservative pundits: “What happened here is so much bigger then G3 @JamesGunn, myself, @Disney etc. This was a #cybernazi attack that succeeded. Unless we start to unite together against this crap, whether people are offended are not! …it’s going to get much worse. And it can happen to anyone.”

Blair has advocated for people to sign a Change.org petition for Gunn to be re-hired by Disney. By July 23, the petition had nearly 170,000 signatures.

Goldthwait went as far as asking Disney to remove his voice from an upcoming Disney attraction. Goldthwait posted on Instagram on July 23: “I love James Gunn. He’s a loyal friend, super talented, passionate and kind. I wanted to say something, here it is: Dear Disney, I would hate for you to come off as hypocritical, so I’m suggesting that you remove my voice from an attraction that’s coming to your park. It’s called WORLD OF COLOR – VILLAINOUS, and I reprise the tole of Pain, a role I played in Hercules.”

Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, James Gunn,  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Elizabeth Debicki, Kurt Russell and Karen Gillan from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” at Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 23, 2016. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

“Guardians of the Galaxy” stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff and Michael Rooker made comments on Twitter that did not ask Gunn to be rehired, but seemed to imply sympathy for him.

Pratt tweeted: “‘Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters. Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.’ JAMES 1:19.”

Saldana tweeted: “It’s been a challenging weekend I’m not gonna lie. I’m pausing myself to take everything in before I speak out of [turn]. I just want everyone to know I love ALL members of my GOTG family. Always will.”

Gillan tweeted: “Love to every single member of my GOTG family.”

Klementieff, who joined the “Guardians of the Galaxy” cast for the second film in the series, tweeted: “We are Groot. We are a family. We stand together.”

Rooker tweeted: “This account will be inactive after today. We’re very tired & upset over the ongoing BULLS–T… neither I nor my rep will use Twitter again. Twitter sucks and I want nothing to do with it.  Thank you to all who gave kind words & support. See you on Instagram.”

“Guardians of the Galaxy” co-stars Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel (who voice animated characters in the films) have not yet commented on the controversy. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has also made no comment yet about Gunn’s dismissal.

Most of Gunn’s controversial tweets talked about pedophilia, rape and other sexual abuse of children. Disney’s firing of Gunn wasn’t the first time he got in trouble over remarks he made on Twitter. In 2012, he issued a public apology for homophobic and sexist tweets he made in 2011, when he speculated on what it would be like to have sex with fictional superheroes.

Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn issued this statement on July 20, 2018: “The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James’ Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values, and we have severed our business relationship with him.”

Gunn then made this statement: “In the past, I have apologized for humor of mine that hurt people. I truly felt sorry and meant every word of my apologies. For the record, when I made these shocking jokes, I wasn’t living them out. I know this is a weird statement to make, and seems obvious, but, still, here I am, saying it.

“Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today. Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then. All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse. To everyone inside my industry and beyond, I again offer my deepest apologies. Love to all.”

Gunn was a relatively unknown director of independent films such as 2006’s “Slither” and 2010’s “Super” before he was hired to write and direct “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The first “Guardians of the Galaxy” film, released in in 2014, made $775 million at the box office worldwide, according to Marvel. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” released in 2017, made $860 million at the box office worldwide.

Before he was fired, Gunn had been set to write and direct “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” which is expected to be released sometime in 2020. Gunn’s replacement for that film has not yet been announced.

On July 20, Gunn had been scheduled to be on a Comic-Con International panel in San Diego to promote a still-untitled horror film starring Elizabeth Banks that he is producing for Sony Pictures. His Comic-Con appearance was canceled, and Sony has not commented on the controversy or if Gunn is still involved in the movie or not. David Yarovesky will direct the movie, which will be written by Brian Gunn (James Gunn’s brother) and Mark Gunn (James Gunn’s cousin). The H Collective will fully finance the movie and produce it with James Gunn’s company Troll Court Entertainment. During the Comic-Con panel, James Gunn was not mentioned at all.

In a lengthy post on Twitter and Instagram, James Gunn’s younger brother Sean Gunn ( a “Gilmore Girls” actor who had small roles in the first two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies) commented that being part of the Disney/Marvel world had changed James Gunn: “I saw that he was more open-hearted than the guy who needed to get a rise out of people by making nasty or offensive jokes … So I guess my hope is that fans continue to watch and appreciate the Guardians movies, not despite the fact that the filmmaker used to be kind of a jackass, but because of it. They are, after all, movies about discovering your best self. Working on those movies made my brother a better person, and they made me one too. I’m proud of that. Peace.”

July 30, 2018 UPDATE: As of this writing, nearly 350,000 people have signed the Change.org petition for Disney/Marvel to re-hire James Gunn. “Guardians of the Galaxy” stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Michael Rooker and Sean Gunn have all signed a group statement that has been posted on social media accounts and various other Internet outlets. The statement has called for James Gunn to be re-instated as the writer/director of “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie franchise. Here is the complete statement:

“We fully support James Gunn. We were all shocked by his abrupt firing last week and have intentionally waited these ten days to respond in order to think, pray, listen, and discuss. In that time, we’ve been encouraged by the outpouring of support from fans and members of the media who wish to see James reinstated as director of Volume 3 as well as discouraged by those so easily duped into believing the many outlandish conspiracy theories surrounding him.

“Being in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies has been a great honor in each of our lives. We cannot let this moment pass without expressing our love, support, and gratitude for James. We are not here to defend his jokes of many years ago but rather to share our experience having spent many years together on set making Guardians of the Galaxy 1 and 2. The character he has shown in the wake of his firing is consistent with the man he was every day on set, and his apology, now and from years ago when first addressing these remarks, we believe is from the heart, a heart we all know, trust, and love. In casting each of us to help him tell the story of misfits who find redemption, he changed our lives forever. We believe the theme of redemption has never been more relevant than now.

“Each of us looks forward to working with our friend James again in the future. His story isn’t over — not by a long shot.

“There is little due process in the court of public opinion. James is likely not the last good person to be put on trial. Given the growing political divide in this country, it’s safe to say instances like this will continue, although we hope Americans from across the political spectrum can ease up on the character assassinations and stop weaponizing mob mentality.

“It is our hope that what has transpired can serve as an example for all of us to realize the enormous responsibility we have to ourselves and to each other regarding the use of our written words when we etch them in digital stone; that we as a society may learn from this experience and in the future will think twice before we decide what we want to express; and in so learning perhaps can harness this capability to help and heal instead of hurting each other. Thank you for taking the time to read our words.”

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