Review: ‘Maaveeran’ (2023), starring Sivakarthikeyan, Aditi Shankar, Mysskin, Yogi Babu, Sunil, Saritha and Monisha Blessy

July 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sivakarthikeyan in “Maaveeran” (Photo courtesy of Red Giant Movies)

“Maaveeran” (2023)

Directed by Madonne Ashwin

Tamil with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in India, the fantasy action film “Maaveeran” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A financially struggling comic-strip artist finds out that he can hear the voice of his created superhero in his head, and he battles with a corrupt politician who is the landlord owner of the unsafe building where the artist and his family live.

Culture Audience: “Maaveeran” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching superhero action movies that have a good balance of drama and comedy.

Mysskin in “Maaveeran” (Photo courtesy of Red Giant Movies)

“Maaveeran” is an entertaining and often-amusing spin on the superhero genre. The movie’s occasionally substandard visual effects are transcended by the engaging story and watchable performances. Sivakarthikeyan carries the movie with winning charm.

Directed by Madonne Ashwin (who co-wrote the “Maaveeran” screenplay with Chandru A.), “Maaveeran” has moments of being very hokey and sentimental, but they are balanced out by some of life’s harsh realities that are depicted in the movie. (“Maaveeran” means “legend” in Tamil.) The movie has a refreshing take on being a superhero: In this superhero movie, the hero does not have a superhero costume or disguise. He also didn’t get his superpower in a particularly heroic way, by birth, or through accidental genius.

In “Maaveeran,” the protagonist’s name is Sathya (played by Sivakarthikeyan), a graphic artist in his 30s whose passion is drawing superhero stories. In the beginning of the movie, Sathya is the writer/illustrator of a superhero comic strip called “The Great Warrior,” which is published in a local newspaper. The problem is that it’s a low-paying job. And the newspaper’s editor/publisher Dhanraj (played by Madhan Dhakshinamoorthy) says that “The Great Warrior” might be cancelled and replaced with advertising.

Sathya lives with his sassy widow mother Easwari (played by Saritha) and his younger sister Raji (played by Monca Blessy) because he can’t afford to have his own place. Easwari often nags Sathya for not having a better-paying job. She thinks his fascination with superheroes is childish. The slogan for “The Great Warrior” is “Bravery triumphs.”

Sathya, Easwari and Raji live in an apartment building that’s condemned and will soon be torn down and replaced by a more upscale building. The apartment dwellers are relocated to another building, but the conditions in this location are even worse: Plaster falls from ceilings and walls. The plumbing often doesn’t work. And other parts of the building are deteriorating. In addition, there are many creepy and criminal-like people who are living in this building.

Easwari is appalled and feels unsafe. She does what she can to complain to the landlord: a corrupt and ambitious politician named Jeyakodi (played by Mysskin), who is campaigning for an upcoming re-election. Jeyakodi is very dismissive of the building residents’ complaints. He completely denies that the building has any problems. Jeykodi has a subordinate named Paramu (played by Sunil), who is the epitome of a “yes man” enabler.

With these problems at home and at work, Sathya is feeling enormous pressure to keep his job. He has a co-worker ally named Nila (played by Aditi Shankar), who pleads with Dhanraj not to cancel Sathya’s comic strip. Dhanraj gives Sathya one last chance, by saying that the newspaper will keep the comic strip if Sathya can come up with a story that he hasn’t done before for “The Great Warrior.”

The slum-like conditions of the apartment building where Sathya lives become the inspiration for him to do a story about his superhero living in a crumbling palace. When the comic strip is published, Jeyakodi becomes enraged because he correctly assumes that the comic strip is a thinly veiled criticism of the Jeyakodi-owned building where Sathya lives. Jeyakodi uses his clout to get Sathya’s comic strip cancelled.

And to make matters worse for Sathya, he comes home one day to find his mother Easwari has been assaulted when she tried to protect Raji from a sleazy neighbor who intruded in their apartment for sexually voyeuristic reasons. Easwari berates Sathya for being fearful and wimpy. She also says that if Sathya’s father were still alive, he would’ve beaten up the intruder in brave self-defense.

A despondent Sathya feels like his life is falling apart. He makes a half-hearted attempt to commit suicide by falling out of the building. He lands on some scaffolding and becomes unconscious. When he regains consciousness, he finds out that he can hear the voice of the Great Warrior in his head telling him what will happen next and how he can be a better fighter. Sathya is going to need all the help he can get, because a vengeful Jeyakodi makes Sathya a target for bullying.

The rest of “Maaveeran” shows what happens as Sathya is initially frightened and confused by hearing this inner superhero voice, but he eventually uses it to become courageous and harness his own powerful fight skills. He tells a few people about hearing the voice of the Great Warrior in his head. Nila is the only person who doesn’t believe that Sathya is mentally ill after she finds out this information.

One of the movie’s main sources of comic relief is a handyman named Kumar (played by Yogi Babu), who is at the apartment building to do repairs. Sathya and Kumar have some hilarious dialogue because Kumar thinks Sathya is weird, while Sathya thinks Kumar is incompetent. The comedic chemistry between Sivakarthikeyan and Babu is very amusing to watch.

On a more serious level, Sathya clashes with his very opinionated mother Easwari. He craves her respect. And so, he decides he’s going to try to get her respect by going after Jeyakodi. Sathya isn’t seeking justice just for his mother. He’s doing it for all the residents in the building and for anyone else who’s affected by Jeyakodi’s greed and corruption.

Without being too preachy, “Maaveeran” has some pointed observations about gentrification and how low-income people are often forced out or displaced from their homes that become gentrified. Mysskin gives a somewhat stereotypical villain performance as the menacing Jeyakodi, but the performance is always watchable. And although “Maaveeran” has some artistically filmed action scenes that are worth admiring on a technical level, Sivakarthikeyan’s multifaceted performance is the main reason to watch “Maaveeran,” which is the type of engaging movie that seems made for sequels.

Red Giant Movies released “Maaveeran” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on July 14, 2023.

Review: ‘Adipurush,’ starring Prabhas, Saif Ali Khan, Kriti Sanon, Sunny Singh and Devdatta Nage

June 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Devdatta Nage, Prabhas and Sunny Singh in “Adipurush” (Photo courtesy of AA Films)

“Adipurush”

Directed by Om Raut

Released in Hindi and Telugu versions with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, the fantasy/action film “Adipurush” (based on the epic Hindu tale “Ramayana”) features an Indian cast of characters in a world populated by humans and talking creatures.

Culture Clash: A god prince goes on a mission to rescue his kidnapped wife.

Culture Audience: “Adipurush” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching an overly long fantasy film that has terrible visual effects and stupid dialogue.

Saif Ali Khan in “Adipurush” (Photo courtesy of AA Films)

“Adipurush” is a spectacle for all the wrong reasons. Viewers will be watching to see if the tacky visual effects and idiotic plot can get any worse. They do. And at three hours long, this bombastic and mind-numbing fantasy film becomes an endurance test. According to MeaningDB (a database for English-language meanings of Indian words): “Adipurush is a Sanskrit name that refers to the God Ishwara. Adi means first, and Purush means man. The name together denotes First Man/Supreme Person.”

Directed by Om Raut (who co-wrote the atrocious “Adipurush” screenplay with Manoj Muntashir), “Adipurush” is based on the epic Hindu tale “Ramayana.” However, there are enough changes to this movie adaptation, that there’s not much resemblance to the original story. What viewers will see in the movie is just a mishmash of fight scenes and chase scenes that revolve around rescuing a kidnapped princess. “Adipurush” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

In “Adipurush” (which takes place in an unspecified time period in India), the main hero is Raghava (played by Prabhas), a god prince who has extraordinary fighting powers. In the beginning of the movie, he’s seen defeating an army of harpy-like demons. Raghava’s loyal and loving wife Janaki (played by Kriti Sanon) soon gets kidnapped by the evil Ravana (played by Saif Ali Khan), a demon king of Lanka. Ravana can sprout 10 heads. The 10-headed Ravana is one of the more laughable (and not in a good way) parts of “Adipurush,” because the visual effects look so fake.

Ravana’s sister Shurpanakha (played by Tejaswini Pandit) actually instigated this kidnapping. Shurpanakha is jealous of Janaki, because Shurpanakha wanted to have a love affair with Raghava, but he rejected her and told her that he was going to remain loyal to Janaki. Raghava’s younger brother Shesh (played by Sunny Singh) also became a target for Shurpanakha’s seductions, but Shesh rejected her too. Shurpanakha tried to harm Janaki, but Shesh thwarted this effort and cut off Shurpanakha’s nose as a result.

Shurpanakha then told Ravana that she wants his help to get revenge on Janaki and Raghava. Ravana sees Janaki and immediately becomes smitten by her beauty and decides that he wants her for himself. This desire led to Janaki being kidnapped and hidden away in the Forest of Panchavati. Raghava, Shesh and many allies then go on a mission to find and rescue Janaki and defeat Ravana and his army.

One of the allies of Raghava and Shesh is a mutant human/monkey named Bajrang (played by Devdatta Nage), who looks mostly like a human, except for his long monkey tail. Bajang also has the ability to grow to the size of a skyscraper building. There are several talking primates in “Adipurush,” and they all look like rejects from director Matt Reeves’ masterful “Planet of the Apes” movies. There are also a few talking bears. The acting performances “Adipurush” range from average to barely watchable.

Perhaps the most ridiculous scene in the movie is when Bajrang finds Janaki in the forest. She is by herself in an open field, where she is unguarded, unrestrained, and not locked up in a room. In other words, it would be easy for anyone to rescue her at that moment. But no. All Bajrang says is that he’s a messenger for Raghava, and the message is that Raghava loves Janaki.

Imagine being a kidnapping victim and a warrior ally has a chance to rescue you, but all he says is, “Nice to see you. I have a message. Your spouse loves you. I have to go now so that your spouse can be the one to rescue you. Goodbye.” That’s essentially what happens in “”Adipurush,” which takes a full hour (the last third of the movie) to show Raghava trying to get to Janaki and the battles he has along the way. Anyone who wants a good adventure story that doesn’t insult your intelligence should steer clear of “Adipurush,” which is nothing but idiotic and very loud movie junk.

AA Films released “Adipurush” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on June 16, 2023.

Review: ‘The Flash’ (2023), starring Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Ron Livingston, Maribel Verdú and Kiersey Clemons

June 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ezra Miller, Ezra Miller and Sasha Calle in “The Flash” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics)

“The Flash” (2023)

Directed by Andy Muschietti

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional Central City (in the United States), in Russia, and in a fictional multiverse, the superhero action film “The Flash” (based on DC Comics characters) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Barry Allen, also known as the superhero The Flash, goes back in time to try to prevent the death of his mother, while the evil General Zod hunts for members of the exiled Krypton family that includes Superman and Supergirl. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of comic book movie fans, “The Flash” will appeal primarily to people who like watching imaginative multiverse movies that don’t get too confusing.

Ezra Miller, Michael Keaton and Ezra Miller in “The Flash” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics)

Bold, creative, and with some appealing quirks, “The Flash” lives up to expectations and offers some jaw-dropping surprises. Viewers who are new to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) won’t get too confused, while ardent fans will be constantly thrilled. Some movies with multiverses can get too convoluted with messy plots, or overstuffed with too many characters. However, “The Flash” (which is based on DC Comics characters) wisely sticks to less than six principal characters that get the most screen time. The movie’s plot (which has some fantastic twists) is easy to follow, although people who’ve seen previous DCEU movies will have a better understanding of everything. Viewers with extensive knowledge of pop culture will also appreciate some of the jokes in the movie.

Directed by Andy Muschietti and written by Christina Hodson, “The Flash” takes place mostly in the fictional Central City, a sprawling U.S. metropolis that is currently under attack by General Zod (played by Michael Shannon), a supervillain whose chief nemesis is Superman, the superhero who has the powers to stop Zod. Superman, who has an alter ego as journalist Clark Kent, has gone missing. Faora-Ul (played by Antje Traue) is a fearless warrior who is General Zod’s second-in-command.

As superhero fans already know, Superman (whose birth name is Kal-El) is a refugee of the planet Krypton, which was destroyed by Zod. Superman’s parents died in this massacre but sent him to Earth as a baby while the attack on Krypton was happening. Did other members of the family survive? All of this background information is useful for what happens later in “The Flash.”

The title character of “The Flash” is man in his 20s named Barry Allen (played by Ezra Miller), whose superhero alter ego is The Flash, who has phenomenal speed. The movie’s opening sequences shows The Flash saving babies from a hospital maternity ward when the building’s hospital was destroyed by Zod and his army. The movie foreshadows what type of comedy it will have by showing that during this crisis, The Flash took the time to eat and drink from a falling vending machine to boost his energy.

In other early sequence, a criminal with a briefcase is apprehended on a bridge by The Flash, Batman (played by Ben Affleck), also known as billionaire Bruce Wayne, and another member of the Justice League (whose identity won’t be revealed in this review) help The Flash. The briefcase contains a weapon that can “wipe out half of Gotham by lunchtime,” warns Bruce’s trusty butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by Jeremy Irons), who has a quick cameo appearance in “The Flash.”

When he’s not being The Flash, shy and insecure Barry is a forensics lab employee at the Central City Research Center, which does a lot of work for the Central City Police Department. Barry is preoccupied with proving the innocence of his father Henry Allen (played by Ron Livingston), who is in prison for the murder of his wife/Barry’s mother Nora Allen (played by Maribel Verdú), who was stabbed to death in their kitchen at home. (Livingston replaces Billy Crudup, who previously played the role of Henry Allen, but Crudup was unavailable to be in “The Flash” because of work commitments on Crudup’s Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show.”) Henry was wrongfully convicted of Nora’s murder and is appealing the conviction. In “The Flash,” Henry is awaiting a court hearing for this appeal.

A flashback shows that Barry at 11 years old (played by Ian Loh) was home and upstairs when the murder happened. Henry had been at a grocery store getting a can of tomatoes at Nora’s request, because she had forgotten to buy the tomatoes earlier. Henry came home to find his wife murdered. However, he doesn’t have a solid alibi. The grocery store’s video surveillance has images of Henry, but he’s wearing a baseball cap, and his face can’t fully be seen in the surveillance video. Henry was the one who discovered Nora’s body, and with no solid alibi, he became the chief suspect in the murder.

Through a series of events, Barry finds himself going back in time and interacting with his 18-year-old self (also played by Miller) in a multiverse that includes the Bruce Wayne/Batman (played by Michael Keaton) of the 1989’s “Batman” and 1992’s “Batman Returns.” When the two Barrys first meet this version of Bruce, he is a bearded and disheveled recluse who denies he was ever Batman, but then he admits it. This Batman grumpily and reluctantly comes out of retirement to help Barry.

The movie makes it easy for viewers to distinguish between the two Barrys: The younger Barry has longer hair, is goofy, and has blue light rays surrounding him when he becomes The Flash. The older Barry has short hair, is more serious, and has red light rays surrounding him when he becomes The Flash. The younger Barry has a homemade Flash superhero suit, while the older Barry’s Flash suit is the “official” Flash superhero suit.

Along the way, these three superheroes encounter Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El, also known as Supergirl (played by Sasha Calle), who has been imprisoned somewhere in Russia. Because it’s already revealed in the movie’s trailers, Supergirl joins both iterations of The Flash and Keaton’s Batman to team up to fight Zod. Central City journalist Iris West (played by Kiersey Clemons) returns in a supporting role as Barry’s love interest. Iris just happens to be covering Henry’s court case.

Although “The Flash” has a lot of dazzling images throughout the film, the movie’s visual effects fall a little short in scenes where Barry goes to stop time and pick a multiverse to enter. These scenes show flashbacks to other versions of the DC Comics-based movies and TV shows, with the visual presentation looking a little too much like the computer-generated imagery that it is. It’s a little distracting, but it doesn’t ruin the movie.

Miller excels in their performance as the dual Barry Allen/The Flash. (Miller identifies as non-binary in real life and uses the pronouns they/them.) Calle’s performance is a little stiff, but her Supergirl comes out of coma in the movie, so her personality is aloof and more than a little shell-shocked. Keaton steps back into his Batman role perfectly. It’s a performance that will delight fans of the first two “Batman” movies.

“The Flash” has some clever comedy about alternative castings for movies, including a running joke about Eric Stoltz being the star of 1985’s “Back to the Future” in an alternate universe. In real life, Stoltz was fired from “Back to the Future” and replaced by Michael J. Fox. Only people who know this pop culture trivia will really get the jokes. There’s also some surprise and sometimes hilarious references to other actors who were cast or could have been cast as superhero characters in other DC Comics-based entertainment.

“The Flash” is a rollicking adventure that earns its total running time of 144 minutes. The movie has an end-credits scene that is there for pure comedy and has no deep meaning to any sequels. If “The Flash” is the first DC Comics-based movie that a viewer will see, it’s best to know what happened in 2013’s “Man of Steel” and 2021’s “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” DC Comics-based movies have been hit and miss, in terms of quality, but “The Flash” leaves no question that it’s a “hit” on a storytelling level.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Flash” in U.S. cinemas on June 16, 2023.

Review: ‘The Little Mermaid’ (2023), starring Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy, Noma Dumezweni and the voices of Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina and Jacob Tremblay

May 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jonah Hauer-King and Halle Bailey in “The Little Mermaid” (Photo by Giles Keyte/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“The Little Mermaid” (2023)

Directed by Rob Marshall

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1830s, in and around the waters of an unnamed Caribbean island, the fantasy film “The Little Mermaid” (a live-action remake of the 1989 animated film of the same name) features a racially diverse cast of characters (black, white, Asian and Latin) portraying merpeople, humans and non-human animals.

Culture Clash: An 18-year-old mermaid princess falls in love with a young-adult human prince, and she unwittingly makes a deal with an evil witch to become a human, in exchange for the witch getting to keep the mermaid’s voice and making the mermaid mute.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious fans of the original movie, this live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” will primarily appeal people looking for family-friendly movies with messages about love, bigotry and re-invention, but fans of the original “The Little Mermaid” might not like some of the uneven qualities of this remake.

Melissa McCarthy in “The Little Mermaid” (Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The visual effects are uneven, and some of the characters are bland, but this live-action remake of the 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid” has enough appealing aspects to satisfy most viewers. Halle Bailey, Daveed Diggs and Melissa McCarthy are the standout cast members. The multicultural update to the live-action “The Little Mermaid” mostly works seamlessly, although some of it looks too forced and only there for the sake of looking multicultural.

The movie remake’s three new and original songs—with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and music by original “The Little Mermaid” composer Alan Menken (who won also composed the score to 2023’s “The Little Mermaid” remake)—are very good but are not in the upper echelon of classic Disney songs. Menken won an Oscar for composing the score to 1989’s “The Little Mermaid.” The musical score and original songs for 2023’s “The Little Mermaid” work well enough for the movie, but none of it is going to win any Oscars.

Directed by Rob Marshall and written by David Magee, the 2023 remake of “The Little Mermaid” adheres closely to the original story with some noticeable changes that don’t alter the overall spirit of the original story. “The Little Mermaid” remake takes place in the 1830s, in and around the waters of an unnamed Caribbean island populated by many races. It’s in contrast to the original “Little Mermaid” which had a cast of mostly white people.

“The Little Mermaid” is inspired by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name that was published in 1837. Although the writer of the original story was a white European, the story’s location of an island kingdom could be set anywhere in a cinematic version of “The Little Mermaid.” With a Caribbean island as the central human location for this remake of “The Little Mermaid,” it makes sense that the movie would have a multicultural/multi-racial cast, since many Caribbean islands are multicultural/multiracial.

Marshall has a background in movie musicals, having also directed 2002’s Oscar-winning “Chicago,” the 2009 version of “Nine,” the 2014 version of “Into the Woods” and the 2018 sequel “Mary Poppins Returns.” This remake of “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t look entirely like a musical but more like a movie with some music video segments incorporated into the film. Viewers will have varied reactions to how the movie puts some modern hip-hop and modern dance moves in a movie that’s supposed to take place in the 1830s.

Marshall also directed 2011’s “The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” so he has experience directing big-budget visual-effects movies taking place in a sea and in Caribbean settings. Although the visual effects get better in the last third of the live-action “The Little Mermaid,” the movie has some visual effects that look disappointingly fake and sloppy in the first two-thirds of the movie. For example, the movie’s opening scene, which shows the world of merpeople who live in an unnamed sea, has some off-putting visuals that make all of the merpeople look too much like computer-generated imagery.

It’s in this sea that viewers first see the underwater kingdom ruled by King Triton (played by Javier Bardem), a widower who has seven young-adult daughters of different races and who represent the seven seas. The daughters are Tamika (played by Sienna King), Perla (played by Lorena Andrea), Caspia (played by Nathalie Sorrell), Indira (played by Simone Ashley), Mala (played by Karolina Conchet), Karina (played by Kajsa Mohammar) and Ariel (played by Bailey). Unfortunately, the movie makes all of the sisters except Ariel have utterly tepid personalities that are indistinguishable from each other, thereby making all the sisters except Ariel look like “tokens” for whatever human nationality they’re supposed to represent.

At 18 years old, Ariel is the youngest and most open-minded of her sisters, who all have been taught to dislike and distrust the humans who live on land, because humans have been polluting bodies of water, thereby killing a lot of underwater life. King Triton has strictly forbidden his daughters to go above the water. Meanwhile, humans don’t trust merpeople, especially mermaids, because humans blame mermaids for casting spells on sailors (usually by singing) and causing these sailors to die.

Ariel has the belief that everyone should be judged on individual merits and not judged based on an identity group. It’s a belief that King Triton thinks is absurd and naïve. (Bardem does a reasonably good but occasionally stiff performance as King Triton.) Ariel is so fascinated with humans, she keeps a collection of human-made artifacts that she has found underneath the sea. In this early part of the movie, Bailey does a stellar version of “Part of Your World” that will hook even the most cynical viewers into wanting to see more of the movie.

Ariel’s closest companions are an amiable flounder appropriately named Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and a gossipy seagull named Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), who is easily able to observe the worlds of humans and merpeople. King Triton’s chief aide is a nervous crab named Sebastian (voiced by Diggs), who is eventually tasked with keeping an eye on Ariel when her father suspects that Ariel wants to go above the water and interact with humans. And sure enough, that’s exactly what Ariel ends up doing.

This version of “The Little Mermaid” has a somewhat drab introduction of the humans in the story. Prince Eric (played by Jonah Hauer-King), who is in his early 20s, is the heir to an unnamed island kingdom. He is first seen on a ship with several members of the royal navy, who are all very uninteresting. None of these navy subordinates has a personality that stands out from the pack. The ship accidentally becomes engulfed in flames, so everyone has to abandon the ship. Not everyone makes it out alive.

In the chaos, Eric falls into the sea, where he is rescued by Ariel and brought on shore to a beach. A groggy Eric regains partial consciousness and finds Ariel embracing him and singing to him. Eric’s vision is blurry but he is utterly enchanted by Ariel’s beauty, compassion and her voice. It’s “love at first sight” for Ariel and Eric. However, Ariel is too frightened to be seen with Eric, so she quickly returns to the ocean. Eric is eventually found by some of his ship mates.

Eric didn’t see that Ariel was a mermaid, so he assumes that she is a human. He goes back to his kingdom and tells his skeptical, widowed mother Queen Selina (played by Noma Dumezweni) that the woman of his dreams saved his life, and he’s determined to find her, because he wants to date her and probably marry her. It’s explained in the movie that Queen Selina and Prince Eric (her only child) are of different races because Selina and her husband adopted Eric when he was an abandoned baby.

Meanwhile, Ariel has become lovesick over Eric. One of the merpeople in this underwater kingdom who has noticed Ariel’s mopey mood is a sea witch named Ursula (played by McCarthy), who hatches a plan to use Ariel for a self-serving scheme to gain control of the kingdom. Ursula, who has a grudge against King Triton, is the half-human, half-octopus sister of King Triton, who banished Ursula years ago for her misdeeds.

Years before Ariel was born, Ursula thought that she would be the one to inherit the sea kingdom, but Triton was named the ruler instead. As part of this leadership position, Triton has a magical triton that has the power to be a weapon as well as way to transform creatures. Whoever owns the triton will essentially be the leader of this sea kingdom.

Ursula introduces herself to Ariel, who is wary because she heard from her father to stay away from Ursula. However, Ursula knows that Ariel and Triton have been arguing because he found out that Ariel disobeyed his orders to stay underwater. Triton also discovers that Ariel has fallen in love with the human prince whom she rescued from death. A smooth-talking Ursula uses this father/daughter conflict to her advantage.

Ursula makes a deal with Ariel: Ursula can turn Ariel into a human for three days, but Ursula will keep Ariel’s voice during this three-day period. If Ariel is able to get a “true love” kiss from Eric, Ariel can remain a human and be with Eric. But if Ariel fails to get this kiss from Eric before the three days are over, then Ariel will be turned back into a mermaid forever and Ursula will get to keep Ariel’s voice.

It’s a big risk that Ariel is willing to take. She’s transformed into a human and ends up naked (covered in seaweed and rope) when she is caught in a fisherman’s net. Ariel is given clothes by the fisherman and eventually finds her way to the kingdom’s palace, where she turned into a handmaiden, who is mute but who catches the attention of Eric. Ariel does not tell Eric that she was the one who rescued him.

Even if people didn’t already know the entire story of “The Little Mermaid,” it’s easy to predict what will happen in this Disney princess story. What makes this movie watchable are the luminous performance of Bailey, the lively voice acting of Diggs (who does a passable Caribbean accent) and the scene-stealing turn by McCarthy. The overall chemistry of the cast members works best when the characters played by Bailey, Diggs and McCarthy are on screen.

Bailey is entirely believable as Ariel, with a performance that is a skillful blend of sheltered innocence and independent curiosity. (A little joke in the movie is that Ariel believes Scuttle’s incorrect statement that a fork is a mini-triton that humans use to comb their hair. Ariel eventually finds out the truth.) Bailey shows undeniable star quality in “The Little Mermaid” (her first starring role in a movie), so it will be interesting to see what other leading-lady roles she will do after this breakthrough performance.

As the frequently exasperated and worried Sebastian, Diggs brings some swagger and bounce to a character whose loyalties are often torn between King Triton and Ariel. Sebastian is also the voice of reason when Ariel becomes too impetuous and stubborn, or when Scuttle becomes too scatter-brained and hyper. The comedy for Scuttle seems to try too hard, while the comedy for Sebastian seems more organic and natural.

Some viewers might not like the touches of comedy that McCarthy (whose speaking voice as Ursula has a lower octave than McCarthy’s real voice) brings to the Ursula character, but these moments of levity are needed and welcome in a movie that comes dangerously close to taking itself too seriously. McCarthy also handles the singing quite well, particularly in Ursula’s signature song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” McCarthy’s version of Ursula might not be as menacing as many people expect Ursula to be, but McCarthy does a convincing job of portraying a bitter witch who feels entitled to take what she thinks is owed to her.

Viewers will also have mixed reactions to Awkwafina as Scuttle, since people either like or dislike Awkwafina’s speaking voice. One of the highlights in “The Little Mermaid” is the new song “The Scuttlebutt,” a rap-pop hybrid performed by Awkwafina and Diggs, who each has a background in performing rap music. The only drawback to “The Scuttlebutt” song is that is it shows Awkwafina has limited singing skills and sounds better as a rapper.

The other new and original songs in this version of “The Little Mermaid” are “Wild Unchartered Waters” (performed by Hauer-King) and “For the First Time,” performed by Bailey. There’s also a new reprise of “Part of Your World,” performed by Bailey. “Wild Uncharted Waters” and “For the First Time” sound more like traditional Disney musical songs. Some viewers will like that conventional sound, while other viewers will think the songs play it too safe and should have been more inventive.

Sebastian’s showcase songs “Kiss the Girl” and the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea” (with music by Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman) join the Menken/Ashman songs “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from the original “Little Mermaid” movie that are in this “Little Mermaid” remake. The live-action movie remake of “The Little Mermaid” has a total running tme of 135 minutes, which is a little too long for a movie that just added only three orginal songs. If the movie needed to be this long, it would have been better to replace some of the duller dialogue scenes with dazzling musical numbers that have new and original songs.

Where the live-action version “The Little Mermaid” falters the most is in not really living up to the potential to have more exciting supporting characters. Hauer-King is perfectly pleasant as Prince Eric, but his performance doesn’t have star-making charisma. Hauer-King’s chemistry with Bailey evokes more of a puppy-love crush rather than the type of passionate true love that can lead to a quick marriage. Tremblay’s capable but uninspiring performance as Flounder is overshadowed by the squawking of Scuttle and the wisecracking of Sebastian.

This live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” has a real imbalance in making the sea inhabitants much more interesting overall than the human inhabitants. Prince Eric in particular should be the type of heartthrob who makes millions of admirers swoon, but that type of magnetic romantic appeal just isn’t there in Hauer-King’s performance. Queen Selina and royal court member Sir Grimbsy (played by Art Malik), who is Prince Eric’s chief advisor and confidant, go through the usual motions, but there’s nothing exceptional about the performances of these two characters. There’s also a royal maid named Lashana (played by Martina Laird), who helps Ariel adjust to work life in the palace, but Lashana is ultimately a very generic character.

That doesn’t mean all of the sea life is compelling in this version of “The Little Mermaid.” The eel characters of Flotsam and Jetsam (who are minions of Ursula) are silent, mostly forgettable, and barely in the movie. It’s a missed opportunity to give Flotsam and Jetsam memorable personalities in a live-action remake. And as previously mentioned, the movie makes Ariel’s sisters look like soulless CGI images, instead of mermaids with specific and identifiable personalities.

In other words, this live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” is a mixed bag of flaws and assets, with more assets than flaws. Seeing this movie on the biggest screen possible just makes these assets and flaws more noticeable. The movie’s concept that a female has to change her physical appearance in order to attract and marry a man seems a little outdated in a post-feminism world, even though most of today’s beauty standards for females are still based in these patriarchal ideals. The live-action “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t quite deliver an epic and authentic-looking romance, but the movie does have some delightful performances while staying true to positive messages of overcoming bigotry and self-doubt.

Walt Disney Pictures will release “The Little Mermaid” in U.S. cinemas on May 26, 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: ‘Shaakauntalam,’ starring Samantha Ruth Prabhu and Dev Mohan

April 23, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dev Mohan and Samantha Ruth Prabhu in “Shaakauntalam” (Photo courtesy of AA Films)

“Shaakuntalam”

Directed by Gunasekhar

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, the fantasy film “Shaakuntalam” (based on Kalidasa’s ancient play “Shakuntala”) features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy royalty.

Culture Clash: A king and his wife are driven apart by a curse and might or might not get back together after the curse is lifted. 

Culture Audience: “Shaakuntalam” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “Shakuntala” and tacky movie versions of classic fairy tales.

Mohan Babu in “Shaakauntalam” (Photo courtesy of AA Films)

The best thing that can be said about the bloated fantasy drama “Shaakuntalam” is that the costumes are eye-catching. Everything thing else is terrible, including the acting and fake-looking visual effects. It’s too much money spent on hackneyed filmmaking. With a total running time of 142 minutes, and with scene after scene filled with mind-numbingly stupid dialogue, “Shaakuntalam” will quickly induce boredom and/or irritation with viewers who know this could have been a much better movie with the right filmmakers.

Written and directed by Gunasekhar, “Shaakuntalam” is based on the ancient Indian play “Shakuntala,” written by Kaludasa. It has all the elements of old fairy tales (usually written by men) that are told in many other cultures. In these stories, dashing royal men meet, fall in love, and court beautiful women whom the royal men want to marry.

The women in these stories tend to be too good to be true: always kind, always patient, and always with the implication that their royal suitor is the “first, only, and greatest love” of the woman who’s being courted. We all know that these stories have inevitable “happily ever after” endings. But the journey to get there—and how it’s presented—determines if a fairy tale is a classic or not.

“Shaakuntalam” looks like a movie where the filmmakers cared more about cramming in as many phony-looking, obviously computer-generated animals in scenes, rather than in crafting a good story. This entire movie could have been 80 minutes or less, but it’s dragged out to 142 minutes of repetitive and moronic scenes. The original songs in the movie’s musical numbers have incredibly basic and soulless lyrics that could have been generated from any old computer program.

The maiden-turned-queen in “Shaakuntalam” is Shakuntala (played by Samantha Ruth Prabhu), who was abandoned as a baby. The movie’s opening scene shows baby Shakuntala being found in a forest and adopted by a kind of loving guru named Kanva Maharishi (played by Sachin Khedekar), who raises her along with several of his young male disciples. Kanva, who names the baby Shakuntala, is so wise, he already knows who are the parents of this abandoned baby is the daughter.

Shakuntala grows up to be a young women who has never met her parents: mother Menaka (played by Madhoo) and father Vishwamitra, who died before Shakuntala could meet him. Through a series of circumstances, Menaka ends up back in Shakuntala’s life and becomes a domineering force in trying to control Shakuntala. Menaka only seems to care about what Shakuntala can get out of Shakuntala’s relationship with a wealthy king.

Meanwhile, Shakuntala meets the powerful king Dushyanta (played by Dev Mohan), who charms and seduces her. There’s a very over-the-top scene of Dushyanta being a one-man army in fighting of a group of rampaging tigers who invade Shakuntala’s village. This fight scene is one of many in “Shaakuntalam” that look like scenes from a video game. It isn’t long before Shakuntala and Dushyanta get married, and she becomes pregnant.

Shakuntala has two best friends named Anasuya (played by Ananya Nagalla) and Sarangi (played by Prakash Raj), whose personalities are indistinguishable from each other. The purpose of Anasuya and Sarangi in the movie is to hang around and be like a “Greek chorus” for Shakuntala. Anasuya and Sarangi are supportive pals to Dushyanta, but these two sidekicks also spread gossip and misinformation.

One day, a pregnant Shakuntala meets a guru named Durvasa Maharishi (played by Mohan Babu), who is the guru of anger. Durvasa asks Shakuntala some questions that he thinks she doesn’t want to answer. In reality, Shakuntala has tuned out Durvasa’s attempts to start a conversation with her because she is lost in her thoughts about the impending arrival of her baby.

Durvasa thinks Shakuntala is being arrogant and disrespectful to him, so he curses her by saying that her husband will forget all about her. And sure enough, the next time that Shakuntala sees Dushyanta in the palace court, with several of the king’s court members in attendance, Dushyanta says that he doesn’t know who Shakuntala is, even though she insists that they are married and are expecting their first child together.

Dushyanta thinks that Shakuntala is pregnant with another man’s child and is trying to fool him into making this child his heir. Dushyanta publicly humiliates Shakuntala and banishes her from his kingdom. The curse, which caused temporary amnesia, is eventually lifted. Dushyanta is heartbroken to find out that Shakuntala has disappeared because of his own cruelty. He then goes on a mission to find her.

The rest of “Shaakuntalam” plays out exactly like you think it will. However, it’s done in such a lumbering and long-winded away, you could fall asleep or do other things in the middle of the film and you really won’t miss anything substantial. “Shaakuntalam” is an unfortunate example of filmmakers thinking that a movie with a “barely there” plot will somehow be better if the movie is more than two hours long. That lengthy time just shows up the movie’s flaws even more and makes it more obvious that watching this dreadful dud is a waste of time.

AA Films released “Shaakuntalam” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on April 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,’ starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis and Hugh Grant

March 23, 2023

by Carla Hay

Justice Smith, Chris Pine, Regé-Jean Page, Sophia Lillis and Michelle Rodriguez plays in “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and eOne)

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

Culture Representation: Taking place in an alternate universe called the Forgotten Realms, where magic exists, the fantasy/action film “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, Latinos and African Americans) portraying humans, mutants and various creatures.

Culture Clash: After being betrayed by a former colleague who has taken over leadership of a city-state, three thieves team up with a druid and a paladin to defeat him and gain possession of a resurrection tablet. 

Culture Audience: “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Dungeons & Dragons games, the movie’s headliners, and thrilling fantasy films that serve generous helpings of comedy.

Daisy Head, Hugh Grant and Chloe Coleman (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and eOne)

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is a rollicking adventure packed with thrilling action scenes and appealing touches of comedy. You don’t have to know anything about Dungeons & Dragons games to enjoy this movie. It’s the type of film that will inspire repeat viewing and a loyal fan base in what will inevitably be a major movie franchise.

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Michael Gilio), “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” takes the complexity of the Dungeons & Dragons games and simplifies it with an easy-to-follow story with memorable characters. One of the movie’s distributors is eOne, which is owned by Hasbro, the company that makes the Dungeons & Dragons games.

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” (which takes place an alternate universe called the Forgotten Realms) begins with a man named Edgin Darvis (played by Chris Pine) telling his story as a flashback. He used to be a member of the Harpers, a loosely knit group of spellcasters and spies who believe in equality and secretly oppose the abuse of power. The Red Wizards are among the most evil and powerful beings in the Forgotten Realms

Edgin’s wife Zia (played by Georgia Landers) was murdered by a Red Wizard durng one of his missions. After her death, Edgin raised their daughter Kira (played by Chloe Coleman), with the help of a bachelorette barbarian named Holga Kilgore (played by Michelle Rodriguez), whom he befriended. Edgin and Holga developed a brother-sister type of relationship, and Kira began to consider Holga to be like an aunt.

After his wife’s death, Edgin began a new life as a thief, working with a team that included Holga, a fumbling sorcerer named Simon Aumar (played by Justice Smith) and a con man named Forge Fitzwilliam (played by Hugh Grant). Edgin’s main goal in life is to find a resurrection tablet, which can grant the power to bring one person back from the dead before the tablet is rendered useless. Edgin wants to find the tablet to resurrect Zia.

One day, as shown in the movie, the four thieves break into former lair of the Harpers, but a Red Wizard named Sofina (played by Daisy Head) shows up and casts a spell that puts a time stop that makes Edgin and Holga unable to move. Simon and Forge escape. Before these two cohorts leave, Edgin asks Forge to look after Edgin’s daughter Kira. It’s a decision that Edgin will regret.

Edgin and Holga end up in prison for two years. They appear before a parole board to see if they will be pardoned. Before the board can make its decision, Edgin and Holga escape and go to try and find Kira. They discover that Forge has reinvented himself as the Lord of Neverwinter, and he has raised Kira to believe the lie that Edgin is a greedy thief who abandoned her because Edgin cares more about looking for treasures than being a father to Kira.

Edgin now must convince Kira that he is still a loving father who can raise her again, and he still wants to find the resurrection tablet. Holga and Edgin reunite with Simon, who recruits a tiefling druid named Doric (played by Sophia Lillis) to join them. Doric has shapeshifting powers and can transform herself to look like a variety of animals. Simon has an unrequited crush on Doric, who rejected his previous attempts to court her. Doric, who rarely smiles, doesn’t trust humans because humans have betrayed her in her past.

During the gang of four’s adventures, they meet a paladin named Xenk Yandar (played by Regé-Jean Page), who became an orphan as a boy when his family was slaughtered by Red Wizards invaded Xenk’s country. Xenk is highly intelligent, but wisecracking Edgin thinks that Xenk’s super-serious personality is annoying. This clash becomes a source of comedy in the movie.

“Dungeons and Dragons” Honor Among Thieves” has impressive visual effects and exciting action scenes that immerse viewers into this fantastical universe. There are many amusing parts of the story, such as corpses being interviewed at a graveyard. Grant as the roguish Forge gets many of the best comedic lines in the movie. Bradley Cooper also makes a cameo as Marlamin, a diminutive ex-boyfriend of Holga, who shows a vulnerable side to her tough and brave personality when she meets up with Marlamin. The principal cast members have great chemistry together, which hopefully won’t be lost when the inevitable “Dungeons & Dragons” movie sequels will be made.

Paramount Pictures and eOne will release “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” in U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.

Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,’ starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Kathryn Newton, Bill Murray, Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Douglas

February 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Paul Rudd, Kathryn Newton and Evangeline Lilly in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”

Directed by Peyton Reed

Culture Representation: Taking place in an underworld universe called Quantumania, and briefly in San Francisco, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (based on Marvel Comics characters) features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing superheroes, regular humans and alien creatures.

Culture Clash: Scott Lang (also known as superhero Ant-Man), his formerly estranged daughter Cassie Lang, Scott’s girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (also known as superhero The Wasp) and Hope’s parents get dragged into the Quantum Realm, where they have to battle evil forces, led by Kang the Conqueror. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Marvel movie fans, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and superhero movies that are very predictable, corny and formulaic.

Paul Rudd and Jonathan Majors in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Photo by Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios)

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is a quantum mess. It’s bad enough that it recycles tired clichés of Marvel movies. This uneven superhero movie also rips off 1977’s “Star Wars” in many ways. Jonathan Majors’ standout performance can’t save this substandard spectacle. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is supposed to be the start of Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The movie will no doubt make blockbuster money, as all MCU movies have done so far. But in terms of creativity, this disappointing film is a stumble right out of the gate for the MCU’s Phase 5.

One of the biggest problems with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is how it awkwardly balances comedy with action. The jokes are the most juvenile, tackiest and least funny so far in the “Ant-Man” movie series, which began with 2015’s “Ant-Man” and continued with 2018’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Peyton Reed is the director of all three movies, which makes his creative choices even more baffling for “Quantumania,” which has a drastically different tone (and lower quality as a result) than the first two “Ant-Man” movies.

When writer/director Taika Waititi directed 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok” (the third “Thor” movie of the MCU), he radically changed the tone of the “Thor” movie series to make it fit his signature comedic style: goofy and slightly offbeat. Waititi did the same for 2022’s “Thor: Love and Thunder,” to less well-received results. But it doesn’t explain why the third “Ant-Man” movie has gone so far off-course when it’s had the same director for the first three “Ant-Man” movies.

Much of the blame for why “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has turned into a hodgepodge of bad jokes, sci-fi rehashes and superhero triteness has to with the movie’s screenplay, which is the feature-film debut of Jeff Loveness. Loveness’ previous writing experience is for shows such as the Adult Swim animated series “Rick and Morty,” the ABC variety talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” the 2012 Primetime Emmy Awards, the 2016 Primetime Emmy Awards and the 2017 Academy Awards, with these particular award shows all hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. All of these TV shows require a different skill set than what’s required to write an entertaining superhero movie. Unfortunately, hiring a TV writer with no experience in writing movies turned out to be a huge mistake for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and Marvel Studios.

In “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” the story begins right after the events of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd), a former petty criminal also known as Ant-Man (whose superpower is being able to change the height of his body by wearing a special superhero suit), is a happily retired superhero living in his hometown in San Francisco. Scott has cashed in on his superhero fame by writing a memoir titled “Look Out for the Little Guy!,” where he talks about his superhero experiences and what they have taught him about life.

The movie shows Scott reading excerpts from his book at a book signing, but a few people there still mistake him for the more famous Spider-Man. Scott tells the small audience at this book signing, “From now on, the only job I want is to be a dad.” However, the movie unrealistically shows that middle-aged Scott, in his superhero “retirement,” has chosen to take a low-paying job as a customer service employee at a local Baskin-Robbins store. He has been named Employee of the Century because of his celebrity status as Ant-Man.

It’s really the movie’s obvious brand placement for Baskin-Robbins, but viewers are given the weak explanation that Scott took the job because he loves ice cream. It all looks very awkward and fake. The movie’s overload of Baskin-Robbins brand promotion is extremely annoying. There’s even a scene where a Scott Lang look-alike named Jack, who’s a Baskin-Robbins employee, gets in on the fight action. It’s all so crass and stupid.

Get used to seeing a lot of “look-alikes” in this movie, because much of it takes place in an alternate universe where clones of people and clones of creatures can show up randomly. Scott is trying to reconnect with his 18-year-old daughter Cassandra “Cassie” Lang (played by Kathryn Newton), who was raised primarily by Scott’s ex-wife while Scott was off doing other things, such as being a criminal-turned-superhero. Cassie has turned into a social justice warrior who’s involved in civil protests.

In the beginning of the movie, Cassie has landed in the San Francisco County Jail, because she was arrested for shrinking a police car because the police were trying to clear out an illegal homeless camp. Scott and his intelligent and sassy girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (played by Evangeline Lilly), also known as superhero The Wasp (she can turn into a wasp mutant and can also shrink her body height), have arrived at the jail to retrieve Cassie. It’s how Scott finds out to his dismay that Cassie is also an aspiring scientist who invented her own shrinkage suit. She hasn’t given herself a superhero name though.

Scott thinks Cassie is too young to get involved in superhero antics. Cassie thinks Scott has become too complacent and thinks he should care more about making the world a better place. Hope and Cassie have bonded with each other because Hope is now the leader of the Pym Van Dyne Foundation, which uses Pym Particle (the body morphing invention used by Ant-Man and The Wasp) for humanitarian causes. Of course, it’s already been revealed in the “Quantumania” trailer that Scott will literally be sucked back into superhero activities, whether he likes it or not.

Hope’s parents are scientists Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) and Janet Van Dyne (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), who were the original Ant-Man and The Wasp. As the movie over-explains and over-repeats in pedestrian dialogue, Janet was trapped in an alternative universe called the Quantum Realm for 30 years and doesn’t like to talk about what she experienced there. Janet returned to Earth when Hank rescued her from the Quantum Realm, as shown in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”

However, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” makes a big misstep by giving away in an opening scene that Janet actually was acquainted with the movie’s chief villain: Kang the Conequeror (played by Majors) while she was in the Quantum Realm, where Janet and Kang are seen escaping an attack from a giant insect-like creature. The movie should have left it a mystery until the right moment to show that Janet already knew this villain. Instead, this part of the plot is revealed too early in the film.

At any rate, Scott finds out that Hank, Janet, Hope and Cassie have been studying ant science. Hope and Cassie in particular want to use this science to explore the Quantum Realm, but Janet has no interest in going back there. Janet won’t say why, but she will eventually make a confession later in the movie.

Janet describes the Quantum Realm as a “place with no time and space. It’s a secret universe beneath ours.” To Janet’s horror, Cassie announces to Janet, Scott, Hank and Hope (while they are all in the scientific lab) that Cassie has been secretly sending signals to the Quantum Realm. Janet frantically tries to turn off the signal machine.

And faster than you can say “inferior Marvel movie sequel,” all five of them are sucked into the Quantum Realm, which looks like a half-baked “Star Wars” universe. For much the first third of the movie, Scott and Cassie are separated from Janet, Hank and Hope. Scott and Cassie spend a lot of time bickering over how much Cassie might or might not be ready to use her superhero suit. (Too late. We already know she will.)

Janet, Hank and Hope spend much of their time talking in vague tones about a mysterious “he” and “him” leader who has wreaked havoc on the Quantum Realm. Anyone can easily figure out that the “he” and “him” is Kang the Conqueror. There’s no reason to make him sound like “Harry Potter” villain Voldemort, also known in the “Harry Potter” series as He Who Shall Not Be Named. It’s yet another way that “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” takes ideas from other sci-fi/fantasy franchises.

Reed says in the production notes for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” where he got some of the visual influences for the movie: “We pulled together a lot of visual inspiration—everything from electron microscope photography to heavy metal magazine images from the ’70s and ’80s. I collected all of these images from old science-fiction paperback book covers—artists like John Harris, Paul Laird, Richard M. Powers. Those paintings were evocative and really moody. We liked that feel and tone for the look of the Quantum Realm.”

Reed curiously didn’t mention “Star Wars,” which is undoubtedly the biggest influence on “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” The Quantum Realm’s terrain looks like a desert in some areas and looks like a crater-filled planet in other areas. The desert scenes look too much like the desert realm of Tatooine in “Star Wars,” while the hooded costumes worn by the Quantum Realm residents look an awful lot like the costumes worn by Tusken Raiders from “Star Wars.”

And if the “Star Wars” similarities for the production design and costume design weren’t enough, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” also imitates the Mos Eisley cantina scene in “Star Wars,” but doesn’t make it nearly as fun and interesting to watch. Hank, Janet and Hope end up in a place called Axia Restaurant, which is basically a “Star Wars” cantina look-alike filled with unusual-looking creatures. There’s no memorable music at the Axia Restaurant, like there was in the Mos Eisley cantina. Christophe Beck’s musical score for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is serviceable and unremarkable.

It’s at Axia Restaurant where Hope and Hank meet the smirking Lord Kylar (played by Bill Murray) for the first time. Janet already knows Lord Kylar, who says he is neither a human nor a machine. Lord Kylar, who is the governor of the Axia community, hints that he and Janet used to be lovers when she was in the Quantum Realm.

“I had needs,” Janet tells Hank and Hope in a somewhat defensive and uncomfortable tone. Hope then has to hear Hank talk about an ex-girlfriend. And she acts like a prudish teen who doesn’t want to think about her parents having love lives before they met each other. This is the type of time-wasting dialogue that’s supposed to pass as “comedy” in the movie.

Even though Murray shares top billing for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” his role in the movie is just a cameo that lasts for less than 15 minutes. It’s ineffective and misguided casting because he’s not convincing as this fictional character. All viewers will think is that this is Murray in a space-alien costume playing a version of himself.

As for the other inhabitants of the Quantum Realm, it’s a random mix of beings who look like humans and those who are very non-human in appearance, including a lot of jellyfish-like creatures that float around in space. As soon as Scott and Cassie arrive in the Quantum Realm, they are force-fed a red ooze by a creature named Veb (voiced by David Dastmalchian), because this red ooze will help these humans understand the language of the Quantum Realm residents. Dastmalchian had the role of Kurt (a member of Scott’s posse) in the first two “Ant-Man” movies. Veb is an underdeveloped character that is meant to be comedic, but Veb’s jokes fall very flat.

The Quantum Realm residents predictably greet these newcomers from Earth with reactions that range from curiosity to hostility. Jentorra (played by Katy O’Brian) is an anti-Kang freedom fighter who scowls a lot and has to learn to trust these Earth heroes to be her allies. Xolum (played by James Cutler, also known as Jamie Andrew Cutler) is a loyal soldier and totally generic sidekick of Jentorra.

Quaz (played by William Jackson Harper) is a psychic/telepath, whose only purpose in the movie is to make people uncomfortable by reading their thoughts and saying their thoughts out loud. His revelations are supposed to be amusing, but they’re not really all that funny. Randall Park has a small and non-essential role as FBI agent Jimmy Woo.

Corey Stoll returns as “Ant-Man” villain Darren Cross, also known as Yellowjacket, who has now been shrunken by Kang into a subatomic lackey with an oversized head known as M.O.D.O.K., which stands for Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing. M.O.D.O.K. looks like a floating head and delivers some of the few genuinely comedic moments in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Various characters in the movie have horrified reactions to seeing Darren look so drastically different as M.O.D.O.K., but this gag is repeated too much and loses its impact by the middle of the movie.

As for Kang, Majors’ performance is the only one that brings a certain gravitas to the rampant foolishness and smarm that stink up “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Majors brings a combination of menace and melancholy to his role, but it’s wasted in a movie that is hell-bent on trying to be more like Waititi’s “Thor” movies. The rest of the cast members’ performances aren’t bad, but they’re not special either. Kang’s soldiers are Quantumnauts, which are as anonymous and soulless as the mostly CGI creations that they are.

Unfortunately, the big showdown fight scene is lot more montonous and unimaginative than it should have been. It ends abruptly and in a way that has been done already (and done much better) in many other sci-fi/fantasy/action movies. As for the movie’s visual effects, it’s a shame that a movie with this big budget can make visual effects look so cheap and shoddy. There are scenes that make it obvious where the “blue screens” and “green screens” were.

A mid-credits scene and end-credits scene basically show the return of a major character from the movie. The end-credits scene is a nod to the Disney+ series “Loki.” As an example of how “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has a sitcom tone to it, the movie uses John Sebastian’s 1976 hit “Welcome Back” (the theme from the sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter”) as bookends to the movie. A big-budget superhero movie should not look like a second-rate sitcom, which is what “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has turned out to be.

Marvel Studios will release “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” in U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023.

Review: ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,’ starring Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta Mejía, Winston Duke and Martin Freeman

November 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Letitia Wright in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Some language in French and Yucatec with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Earth, the superhero action film “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” features a racially diverse cast of characters (black, Latino and white) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: After the death of King T’Challa, the fictional African nation of Wakanda becomes under siege from various factions, including the secret underwater kingdom of Talokan, that want Wakanda’s help in obtaining the precious metal vibranium. 

Culture Audience: “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Black Panther” franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and superhero movies that include multiculturalism issues.

Tenoch Huerta Mejía in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

In more ways than one, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” shows how healing from a tragedy can turn into a triumph. This top-notch sequel to 2018’s “Black Panther” is an epic story of grief, loyalty, greed and the resilience of the human spirit. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” should more than satisfy fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and will inspire repeat viewings. Do people need to see “Black Panther” before seeing “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”? No, but it certainly helps, especially in understanding the backgrounds of the characters who have the most poignant moments in this sequel.

Directed by Ryan Coogler (who co-wrote the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” screenplay with Joe Robert Cole), “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” puts the women of the fictional African nation of Wakanda in the front and center of a story that also pays respectful tribute to Wakanda’s deceased King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman in 2018’s “Black Panther.” Coogler directed and co-wrote (with Cole) the first “Black Panther” movie, which helps in keeping a consistent tone for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

The beginning of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” shows King T’Challa’s younger sister Princess Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) frantically trying to find a medical solution to save T’Challa, who is dying from an unnamed illness. (Boseman tragically died of colon cancer in 2020. He was 43.) All of Shuri’s efforts don’t work, and T’Challa passes away.

The people of Wakanda have an elaborate funeral for T’Challa that includes mourning his death and celebrating his life. Everyone is dressed in white for this event. At the end of the funeral, T’Challa’s casket floats up into the sky. As explained in the first “Black Panther” movie and in Marvel’s “Black Panther” comic books, Wakanda is a self-sufficient nation that is somewhat of a utopia and where supernatural things can occur. Wakanda is protected by an all-female army called the Dora Milaje.

One year after T’Challa’s death, Shuri and her mother Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) are grieving, but Shuri has had a more diffcult time trying to move on with her life. Shuri is a genius scientist who blames herself for not being able to find a medical cure that could have saved T’Challa. Much of Shuri’s storyline in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” has to do with Shuri’s grief and other traumatic things she experiences in the movie.

Meanwhile, Queen Ramonda has to contend with pressure from different entities that want Wakanda’s help in finding vibranium, a rare metal that has the power to harness kinetic energy. An early scene in the movie shows a regal and confident Ramonda at a United Nations meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, one year after T’Challa’s death. During this meeting with world leaders, Ramonda is told that the United States is disappointed that Wakanda has not shared resources in the quest to find vibranium.

However, Wakanda (a self-sufficient nation that is somewhat of a utopia) has a policy not to get involved in other nations’ politics, and Ramonda reiterates that fact. She also has members of Dora Milaje bring in some captives: several men who tried to invade one of Wakanda’s member facilities that handles vibranium. A flashback shows how members of the Dora Milaje captured these invaders. Ramonda’s sternly tells the assembled officials that she knows that a member state of the United Nations was probably behind this attack, and this capture serves as an “olive branch” warning for this attack not to happen on Wakanda again.

Meanwhile, a U.S. ship in the Atlantic Ocean has been looking for vibranium underwater. The ship then experiences something unexpected and bizarre. Crew members of the ship seem to go into a daze and start jumping off of the ship to their death. And then, a group of blue-skinned people rise out of the ocean and attack the ship. The attackers’ leader is dressed like a Mayan king and has wings on his feet that allow him to fly. Viewers later find out that his name is Namor (played Tenoch Huerta Mejía), and he’s the ruler of Talokan, a hidden nation under the sea.

One evening, back in Wakanda, Ramonda and Shuri have a heart-to-heart talk on a beach. Ramonda is concerned about Shuri’s emotional well-being because Shuri seems to be deeply depressed. Shuri tries to brush off her mother’s concerns. Ramonda says she has a secret about T’Challa that she wants to tell Shuri. But just as she’s about to tell Shuri, Namor appears out of the water.

Namor is not there to pay a friendly visit. He essentially tells Ramonda and Shuri that Talokan needs Wakanda’s help to defend themselves from extinction and to get vibranium. If Wakanda refuses to help, Talokan will declare war on the world, and Wakanda will be Talokan’s first target. A stunned Ramonda tells Namor that Wakanda does not get involved in other people’s wars and refuses to give in to his demand. Namor leaves and ominously says that he will return in one week.

Meanwhile, CIA operative Everett K. Ross (played by Martin Freeman) reprises his role from 2018’s “Black Panther.” Everett is an ally to Wakanda but he gets into conflicts about it with higher-ranking agent Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who is pressuring Wakanda to cooperate with the U.S. government to find vibranium. Valentina (who communicates with a brittle, sarcastic tone) has another, more personal connection to Everett that is revealed in the movie.

Also reprising their roles from “Blank Panther” are Okoye (played by Danai Gurira), the courageous leader of the Dora Milaje; Ayo (played by Florence Kasumba), a powerful enforcer of the Dora Milaje; M’Baku (played by Winston Duke), the leader of Jabariland, Wakanda’s isolated region known for its snow and mountains; and Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o), who is the best spy in Wakanda’s history and T’Challa’s former love partner. New to the Dora Milaje team is Aneka (played by Michaela Coel), a high-ranking member.

During the course of the story, Shuri and Okoye travel to Haiti, where viewers find out that Nakia has been living for the past six years. In Haiti, Nakia has been working as a teacher of children in elementary school. Shuri and Okoye have to plead with Nakia to come back to Wakanda to help them, but Nakia is very reluctant to go back. Why did Nakia leave Wakanda? And why is Nakia reluctant to go back? Those questions are answered in the movie.

Wakanda also has another ally, who finds herself involved in this brewing war through no choice of her own. Her name is Riri Williams (played by Dominique Thorne), a brilliant 19-year-old MIT student and aspiring scientist. Riri and Shuri are thrown together in circumstances where they have to learn to work together. Riri is sometimes overwhelmed by the danger that comes her way, but she can be counted on to come up with helpful ideas. She has a sassy personality that is the comic relief in the movie.

Meanwhile, Namor has been assembling his own troops to prepare for war. His two main sidekicks are Talokan’s strongest warrior Attuma (played by Alex Livinalli) and Talokan’s most fearless warrior Namora (played by Mabel Cadena), who have unwavering loyalty to Talokan and their leader, Namor. At one point in the movie, viewers find out more about Talokan and Namor’s backstory to explain why he is on such a brutal revenge mission.

“Black Panther” won Academy Awards for its production design (led by Hannah Beachler) and its costume design (led by Ruth E. Carter), with Beachler and Carter both leading the same teams for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” The production design for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is even more elaborate and awe-inspiring, particularly in how Talokan was designed. (It looks like an underwater Mayan paradise inspired by Atlantis.) The costume design for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is also Oscar-worthy, although many of the Dora Milaje costumes are understandably the same or similar to as they were in “Black Panther.”

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” has better visual effects than “Black Panther.” The cinematography is also an improvement over the first “Black Panther” movie, particularly when it comes to the scenes in Talokan and some of the camera angles during the fight scenes. Every action sequence looks believable, given the characters’ superpowers. But all of these dazzling components to the film would be wasted if the story wasn’t compelling and the acting performances weren’t up to par.

Shuri becomes the heart and soul of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” as she comes to terms with T’Challa’s death; faces doubts and moral dilemmas about where he should put her loyalties; and sometimes clashes with her strong-willed mother Ramonda on decision to make about Wakanda’s future. Wright gives a standout performance in having to convey a wide myriad of emotions of someone who is the heir to the throne but has inner and exterior conflicts about her leadership, while living in the shadow of T’Challa and his legacy.

Bassett is also noteworthy in her performance as Romanda, who has to find a way to reconcile her pain with a possible new direction for Wakanda. Huerta Mejía a gives solid performance as the movie’s villain, who is alternately stoic and filled with rage. Namor isn’t the most fearsome villain of the MCU, but his backstory will make viewers see that underneath his anger is a lot of personal pain and pride for his people.

Because of the real-life death of Boseman, there are expected tearjerking moments when the movie shows flashbacks of T’Challa. There’s also the brief return of another major character from the first “Black Panther” movie, with the character appearing to Shuri in a vision. A mid-credits scene (there is no end-credits scene) in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” shines a bright light of hope for the future of Wakanda, but it’s with a bittersweet tone that T’Challa is immensely beloved and will always be missed.

Marvel Studios will release “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in U.S. cinemas on November 11, 2022.

Review: ‘Thank God’ (2022), starring Ajay Devgn and Sidharth Malhotra

October 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sid Malhotra in “Thank God” (Photo courtesy of T-Series Films)

“Thank God” (2022)

Directed by Indra Kumar

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2018, in India and in heaven, the comedy/drama/fantasy film “Thank God” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After getting into a car accident that leaves him unconscious and near death, a selfish real-estate agent’s spirit is transported to heaven, where he must pass a series of tests to determine if he will go to heaven or hell after he dies.

Culture Audience: “Thank God” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Ajay Devgn and Sidharth Malhotra and stories about the afterlife, but this movie is neither clever nor interesting.

Ajay Devgn (center) and Sid Malhotra (far right) in “Thank God” (Photo courtesy of T-Series Films)

“Thank God” is a fantasy film about the afterlife that puts schmaltz over substance. Much of the movie is set in heaven, but there’s nothing heavenly about the cloying manipulation and gimmicks in this feeble and clumsily constructed story. The movie crams in some very silly plot twists that further ruin what could have been an intriguing story about life after death and redemption.

Directed by Indra Kumar, “Thank God” is a remake of the 2009 Danish comedy film “Sorte Kugler” (which means “what goes around” in Danish) and follows the same basic concept, but “Thank God” changes the deity characters to those from the Hindu religion. Aakash Kaushik and Madhur Sharma co-wrote the unimaginative “Thank God” adapted screenplay. The movie has scenes that take place in India and a location described in the movie as heaven.

In the beginning of “Thank God,” which takes place in 2018, Ayaan Kapoor (played by Sid Malhotra) is a 33-year-old real-estate agent who has fallen on hard times. He used to be a hotshot, successful agent. But he lost his fortune due to the Indian government’s demonetization of currency. Ayaan is now in debt to 16 crores, which is about $140,000 U.S. dollars in 2018.

Ayaan wants to sell his house, which has not yet found a buyer. In the meantime, Ayaan and his wife Ruhi Kapoor (played by Rakul Preet Singh) and their daughter Pihu Kapoor (played by Kiara Khanna), who’s about 4 or 5 years old, have moved into the house owned by Ruhi’s family until Ayaan can get back to the financial status that he used to have. Ayaan and Ruhi (who is a police officer) had a whirlwind, romantic courtship. But lately, the marriage has been strained because of Ayaan’s financial problems and because of his arrogant and workaholic ways.

Ayaan’s money problems have not humbled him or made him re-evaluate his life. He is still the same conceited real-estate agent who makes his work a higher priority than his family. In some ways, Ayaan has become even more ruthless, self-centered and ill-tempered than before his financial crisis, since he’s determined to never lose his fortune again. As an example of how cold-hearted Ayaan is, when he walks by a poor, elderly woman begging for money on the street, he doesn’t just ignore her. He’s very rude to her when refusing to give her any money.

During a real-estate deal that Ayaan hopes to close, a married couple is close to buying a house that Ayaan is selling. The spouses tell Ayaan that they are buying the house for their adopted son Chiku (who’s about 5 or 6 years old), so that the Chiku can inherit it when he becomes an adult. Chiku is waiting outside the house when Ayaan congratulates him on having wonderful adoptive parents.

Chiku begins crying because he tells Ayaan that he didn’t know that he was adopted. A panicked Ayaan doesn’t want Chiku to tell the parents that Ayaan disclosed this secret to Chiku, so he locks Chicku in the house’s bathroom and plans to keep Chiku in there until the parents sign the paperwork to close the deal. However, the parents notice that Chiku is missing, and they start to look for him. Ayaan acts like he doesn’t know anything about the child’s disappearance.

Meanwhile, Chiku has snuck out of the bathroom window and goes in the room where his parents and Ayaan are talking. Chiku starts wailing again and tells his parents everything that happened. Needless to say, the parents get angry and don’t do the deal with Ayaan. This is the type of comedic scene that could have been funny, but the substandard acting in the movie just makes everything seem so silly and trite.

Ayaan has a real-estate deal in his not-too-distant past that also brought unhappiness, for different reasons. A couple named Mr. and Mrs. Gaikwad bought a bungalow for 150 million rupees (about $1.8 million U.S. dollars in 2018), but the spouses are now been forced to sell the home because of financial problems. Ayaan wants to buy the bungalow for himself and his family, knowing that Mr. and Mrs. Gaiwad will be losing their home to him. Ayaan’s decision on how to deal with the couple’s problem comes back to haunt him.

In the meantime, Ayaan is upset that he lost out on this most recent real-estate deal because of his extreme way of trying to silence an innocent child. Aayan calls Ruhi on hs phone while he’s driving to complain about losing the deal and to let her know that he won’t be able to attend the Parent Teachers Association meeting for their daughter Pihu. Aayan is holding his phone in one hand while he’s driving. And you know what that means: He gets into a car accident when he takes his eyes off the road and crashes into another car.

The next thing that Ayaan knows, he’s been transported to a mystical-looking place that can best be described as a floating amphitheater, with spectators who are dressed all in white. Ayaan is escorted to a stage in the middle of this amphiteater. Ayaan’s guide to this stage is someone calling himself YD (played by Mahesh Balraj), also known as Yamdhoot, who is a Yamaduta, a Hindu messenger of death. YD introduces a confused Ayaan to someone named CG (played by Ajay Devgn), who is supposed to be the Hindu deity Chitragupta.

CG explains to Ayaan that Ayaan is in heaven, and Ayaan’s unconscious body is currently on Earth, where Ayaan is in a hospital undergoing an operation for the next five hours because of his car accident. CG shows Ayaan a vision of Ayaan in the operating room. In the meantime, CG says that Ayaan will have to play the Game of Life to determine if Ayaan will go to heaven or go to hell if he dies in the hospital.

Ayaan refuses to play this game at first, but CG shows Ayaan a preview of what life in hell looks like. (The movie has very outdated-looking and unconvincing visual effects.) Ayaan quickly changes his mind when he sees the terrifying existence he would have in hell. At the same time, Ayaan’s hubris makes him think that whatever game he plays, he’s going to win.

In this game, Ayaan has to take several challenges based on each of his biggest flaws. Two see-through cylinders (each about 10 feet tall) are placed on the stage. If Ayaan loses a challenge, the spectators throw black balls into the cylinders. If Ayaan wins a challenge, the spectators throw white balls into the cylinders. Ayaan will lose the game if both cylinders overflow with black balls.

The six challenges based on Ayaan’s personality flaws are essentially variations of Christianity’s seven deadly sins, except for the sin of sloth, which doesn’t apply to workaholic Ayaan. The six rounds that Ayaan goes through to complete the game have to do with his anger, greed, jealousy, pride, lust and deception. In each round, Ayaan is put in a simulated reality scenario, and he has to decide what to do when a particular personality flaw is tested.

For example, in the round where his anger is tested, Ayaan is stuck in an elevator with an irritating, talkative man who keeps doing things to delay the elevator from moving. In the round where Ayaan’s jealousy is tested, CG reveals to the crowd that Ayaan wanted to become a police officer when Ayaan was a child, so Ayaan is secretly jealous that his wife Ruhi is a police officer who recently got a job promotion. In this challenge, Ayaan is given a chance to be a police officer during an armed robbery of bank, where the bank robber is holding hostages.

“Thank God” aims to impart serious messages about ethics and morality, but the comedy is awkwardly placed and cheapens all of the movie’s moralistic preaching. The slapstick comedy just isn’t very clever. And all of the cast members turn in performances that range from mediocre to embarrassingly exaggerated. Nora Fatehi has a supporting role as Reema, a gold-digging temptress who sets out to seduce Ayaan in his “lust” challenge round, which is just an excuse to have the movie’s most extravagant song-and-dance sequence.

The movie becomes more and more ridiculous with sudden plot twists that look like the filmmakers didn’t really know how to end the movie and just threw in lot of ideas to try to make the conclusion look impactful. It all just looks like a jumbled heap of mushy stereotypes instead of a cohesive story. The last 15 minutes of the film are particularly sloppy.

Several movies have already covered existential topics of humanity that ask these questions: “What happens to people after they die?” and “Do the actions of people when they’re alive affect what happens to people after death?” Most religious teachings have some basis in trying to answer these questions.

Because many films have covered these well-worn topics, “Thank God” had an opportunity to present a unique and intriguing angle to these topics. Instead, “Thank God” took the laziest route, by serving up a stale story that doesn’t really entertain audiences but just insults audiences by pandering to over-used and predictable clichés. If any viewers who believe in a god decide to watch the horrific “Thank God” until the very end, they might be thinking at the end of the movie: “Thank God this mess is finally over.”

T-Series Films released “Thank God” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on October 25, 2022.

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