Review: ‘The Green Knight,’ starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris and Ralph Ineson

July 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dev Patel and Sean Harris in “The Green Knight” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Green Knight”

Directed by David Lowery

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unspecified ancient time in England, the fantasy horror film “The Green Knight” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Indians) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: King Arthur’s adventure-seeking nephew Gawain volunteers to take a life-threatening challenge from the Green Knight, and Gawain encounters many obstacles and temptations along the way.

Culture Audience: “The Green Knight” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an atmospheric and heady reimagining of the King Arthur legends.

Ralph Ineson (forefront) in “The Green Knight” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Green Knight” brings an unconventional horror spin on the King Arthur legends by putting more emphasis on the human mind and spirit experiencing terror rather than on elaborate and bloody physical battles. People who are expecting “The Green Knight” to be a fast-paced action film might be disappointed by the movie’s slow pacing. However, viewers who are patient enough to go on this “head trip” of a movie will find a lot to marvel and ponder in this cinematic retelling of ancient literature.

Written and directed by David Lowery (who has a tendency to make deliberately paced films with complicated protagonists), “The Green Knight” is told in chapters, with each chapter title appearing on the screen. “The Green Knight” is a filmed adaptation of an anonymously written chivalric romance called “Gawain and the Green Knight,” which was published in the 14th century. Do viewers have to know this story or any Arthurian legends before seeing “The Green Knight”? No, but it helps.

“The Green Knight” begins during a Christmas season and ends one year later. In the opening of the movie, rebellious and stubborn knight Gawain (played by Dev Patel) has spent the night before Christmas getting drunk and being with his lover Helen (played by Anais Rizzo), who is a commoner. When Gawain comes home, his nameless mother (played by Sarita Choudhury) asks Gawain where he was all night. Gawain lies and says that he was attending Mass. His mother, who smells the liquor on him, replies sarcastically, “Have you been drinking the sacrament all night?”

Gawain’s mother is the sister of the king (played by Sean Harris), who rules over the kingdom with his queen wife (played Kate Dickie). Although these ruling royals do not have names in this movie, all indications are that the king is the legendary King Arthur. Gawain might have lived a carefree lifestyle as the nephew of a king, but that will soon change in this story.

On Christmas Day, the king, queen, the Knights of the Round Table (including Gawain) and other assorted people have gathered for a formal court meeting. The king summons Gawain to sit beside him on the throne and remarks that it’s the first time that he’s given this privileged invitation to Gawain. The king asks that Gawain give him a very specific Christmas gift: Gawain must tell a tale about himself.

No sooner does the king make this request when the Green Knight (played by Ralph Ineson) appears on horseback in the court. In this movie, the Green Knight doesn’t look completely human, but more like a cross between a human and a tree. The Green Knight, who tests the characters of men, has arrived to deliver a challenge.

The written message that the Green Knight delivers upon his arrival is read by the queen, and the voice that comes out of her mouth is a deep and eerie man’s voice, as if the Green Knight is reading it himself. It’s one of many spooky touches to the film that Lowery adds to ensure that viewers know that this isn’t a typical knight movie. Get used to seeing a lot of cinematography drenched in mist when watching “The Green Knight.”

The Green Knight’s challenge is simple but one that would strike fear in the heart of the average person. The Green Knight dares any knight to behead the Green Knight. And in return, the Green Knight will behead his killer exactly one year later, at the Green Knight’s Green Chapel. Gawain is the only person to voluntarily step forward and accept this challenge.

Why would anyone take this dare? The king whispers to Gawain, “Remember it’s only a game,” as he gives Gawain a sword to use for the beheading. The Green Knight lays down his axe in a sign of surrender. Gawain beheads the Green Knight, who gets up, picks up his own head, and then chuckles, “One year hence,” as he gallops away on his horse, leaving his axe behind.

The movie then fast-forwards to nearly a year later. Gawain is on a mission to find the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, where they agreed to meet for the promised beheading. Along the way, Gawain encounters various dangers and complications that could impede his journey. And all the while, viewers (even those who’ve read the book) will be wondering if Gawain really will be beheaded, or if his life will be spared if he sees the Green Knight again.

Gawain meets several new people in his travels, including a thieving, nameless scavenger (played by Barry Keoghan); a red-haired trauma victim in a long white nightgown named Winifred (played by Erin Kellyman); and a gregarious unnamed lord (played by Joel Edgerton) and his seductive wife Essel (played by Alicia Vikander), also described in the film credits as The Lay. An intelligent red fox ends up accompanying Gawain and becomes his companion for part of his trek.

The lord and his lady live in a castle with a mute, unnamed elderly woman, who is always blindfolded. (No explanation is given on who this woman is, and Gawain doesn’t ask.) The couple invites Gawain to spend the night in their home on December 21, just a few days before Gawain is supposed to make the Christmas deadline to meet up with the Green Knight. What happens in the home is a turning point in the movie, which makes some big changes from the original source material.

“The Green Knight” takes admirable risks in not following the conventional tropes found in movies about a knight on an adventure. There are no massive battleground scenes, no damsel in distress who’s the knight’s love interest, no kingdom whose leadership is in jeopardy. And although “The Green Knight” has many elements of a horror movie (including some bloody gore), the real fear in this movie is Gawain’s dread of holding up his end of the bargain. His integrity is at stake, as well as his life.

The movie has some strikingly haunting visuals that are times psychedelic. In a memorable sequence, Gawain encounters giant nude, androgynous people (who are the size of skyscrapers) while trying to find the Green Chapel. Gawain tries to talk to one of these giant people as they walk past him, but communication is difficult, and they can’t really understand each other. It’s a very hallucinogenic and effective scene.

“The Green Knight” also doesn’t shy away from references to brutality toward women, in an era where women were treated like property. When Gawain first meets Winifred, she mentions that a lord tried to rape her and beheaded her when she resisted. Gawain is initially confused because Winifred looks like a person who is alive, not a ghost. However, the way Winifred manifests herself in this story—whether she’s alive, dead or somewhere in between—is on her own terms, as if she’s taken back the power that was stolen from her.

Patel’s depiction of Gawain is as a flawed but well-intentioned hero. It’s an understated role where he rises to the occasion of expressing a wide range of emotions without distracting melodrama and while still portraying a character who must present a stoic demeanor to strangers. The other characters in “The Green Knight” are somewhat two-dimensional and/or have very limited screen time.

However, Edgerton’s portrayal of the lord and Vikander’s portrayal of his wife Essel are intriguing and make enough of an impact to suggest that this couple could easily have an entire movie about their lives together. But make no mistake: The humanity of “The Green Knight” resonates mostly because of Patel’s layered performance, which never lets viewers forget that Gawain is a human being who can falter, not as an unrealistic knight who will always put fear aside to rise to the occasion.

Some of the visuals in “The Green Knight” have themes of Christianity versus paganism, or humans versus the environment. Although there’s violence in the movie, it’s not gratuitous. Lowery is the type of filmmaker who takes his time in immersing viewers in the movie’s unique atmosphere instead of rushing from scene to scene and dialogue to dialogue. And there are no gimmicky jump scares.

Many other horror stories rely on the premise that murder victims don’t know when they’re going to die. “The Green Knight” skillfully presents a different type of horror: Someone who volunteered to die at a pre-determined date. Gawain spends most of this treacherous journey by himself, as he reflects on his own mortality, as well as his own morality.

In its clever way, “The Green Knight” is an artistically creative statement of how it’s human nature for people not to want to think about their own deaths. People who have to confront their own deaths usually have to face another fear: reflecting on their lives and holding themselves accountable for their misdeeds and mistakes.

A24 will release “The Green Knight” in U.S. cinemas on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Jungle Cruise,’ starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti

July 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dwyane Johnson and Emily Blunt in “Jungle Cruise” (Photo by Frank Masi/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Jungle Cruise”

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 1912, in Brazil and England, the action-adventure film “Jungle Cruise” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American Asian and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A sassy researcher and her fussy botanist brother, who are both from England, enlist the help of a wisecracking American skipper of a ramshackle cruise boat to go to a Brazilian jungle to find a magical tree which has a petal with the power to save lives.

Culture Audience: “Jungle Cruise” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of any Disney adventure films, but might not hold much interest to people who’ve seen better family-friendly adventure films that take place mostly in a jungle.

Jack Whitehall, Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson in “Jungle Cruise” (Photo by Frank Masi/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Overstuffed with generic villains and too rambling for its own good, “Jungle Cruise” offers nothing new or exciting to people who’ve seen higher-quality and more unique adventure films with a jungle at the center of the action. It’s a bland misfire that borrows heavily from 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and 1951’s “The African Queen.” Viewers already know how a movie like “Jungle Cruise” is going to end, so “Jungle Cruise” needed to have other elements to make it stand out from similar movies that have a wisecracking male hero and his adventurous love interest who wants to be treated as his equal. Unfortunately, “Jungle Cruise” is stuck in a rut of mediocrity that will make this movie forgettable soon after watching it.

At a total running time of 127 minutes, “Jungle Cruise” over-indulges in characters and scenes that weren’t needed for the movie. Children under the age of 8 and people with very short attention spans might get bored or irritated by the unnecessary convolutions to the plot, which just weigh the story down more than stagnant muck in a jungle swamp. Don’t be surprised if some parts of the movie will make you want to go to sleep.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Jungle Cruise” was written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa and Michael Green. The extraneous plot contrivances seem entirely designed to stretch out the movie’s running time, as if the writers were afraid that that sticking to a simple concept wouldn’t work. In addition, too many parts of the movie seem forced and very fake, such as the romance between the male and female protagonists.

There are also some heavy-handed references to sexism and feminism that are repeated to irksome levels, as if the “Jungle Cruise” filmmakers think viewers are too dimwitted to notice the first three times these same references are in the movie. A running commentary in “Jungle Cruise” is that some of the men can’t believe that the female protagonist is wearing pants. The male protagonist even starts calling her “Pants” as a nickname. It’s a tired joke that wears very thin quickly. And the “feminism” messages in “Jungle Cruise” come across as extremely phony when this movie’s cast members who get top billing are several men but only one woman.

“Jungle Cruise” takes place in 1912, but there are flashbacks throughout the story to previous centuries. The movie opens with a voiceover explanation about the ancient legend that serves as the catalyst for this story. (The musical score during this intro uses an instrumental version of Metallica’s 1991 ballad “Nothing Else Matters,” which is kind of distracting for viewers who know this song.)

In the Legend of the Tears of the Moon, a magical tree called Tears of the Moon exists in the Amazon jungle. This tree has a petal that can cure any illness and break any curse. Over centuries, many explorers sought to find this petal. One of these explorers was a Spanish conquistador from the 1500s named Don Lope de Aguirre (played by Edgar Ramírez), also known as Aguirre, who got injured during his exploration and was found by the guardians of the tree.

After these guardians nursed Aguirre back to health, he demanded that the guardians give him a sacred arrowhead, which is believed to be the key to finding the Tears of the Moon. Aguirre and his conquistadors attacked the guardians, and the jungle fought back. (And yes, there are predictable scenes of trees coming to life and using their branches to tie up people.) As a result, Aguirre was cursed and held captive by the jungle trees for eternity.

In London in 1912, botanist MacGregor Houghton (played by Jack Whitehall) is making a presentation pitch to an all-male group of high-society members in a museum lecture hall. He’s reading a speech from index cards that were written by his much-smarter sister Dr. Lily Houghton (played by Emily Blunt), a researcher who is watching nervously from the balcony. MacGregor wants to convince this group of elites that the Legend of the Tears of the Moon is real, so that they can invest in a trip that MacGregor and Lily want to take to the Amazon jungle to find this magical tree.

MacGregor is fairly unskilled at public speaking (or he didn’t take the time to rehearse his speech), because on the index cards, where Lily wrote in parentheses “pause for dramatic effect,” he actually reads out loud the words “pause for dramatic effect.” MacGregor’s speech is not well-received, to put it mildly. He gets a resounding “no” from the group when requesting funding for the exploration trip.

As McGregor verbally flounders and gets flustered on stage, Lily sneaks off into an off-limits room to find the sacred arrowhead that supposedly will lead whoever possesses it to the Tears of the Moon tree. She pries open a crate, sees the arrowhead and steals it. But before Lily can leave undetected, she runs into a museum official named Sir James Hobbs-Coddington (played by Andy Nyman), a stern and greedy bureaucrat.

He’s about to secretly sell the arrowhead to a visiting German royal called Prince Joachim (played by Jesse Plemons), who sees that Lily has the arrowhead and demands that she hand it over. A predictable chase ensues in the room with some unrealistic choreography involving a ladder that leads to Lily hanging out of a window where she could fall and die. Prince Joachim has her cornered and tells Lily that if she hands over the arrowhead, he will rescue her.

Lily gives Prince Joachim a small box that she says has the arrowhead, but he pushes her off the building anyway. Just then, a double-decker bus with an open top drives by, and Lily lands in the bus. Inside the building, Prince Joachim sees that what’s inside the box isn’t the arrowhead but a duck-hunting decoy shaped like a toucan. Meanwhile, MacGregor gets kicked out of the lecture hall with perfect timing to be outside in the same place as Lily when she landed. MacGregor and Lily make their getaway on the bus. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

You know the rest: Lily and MacGregor find a boat navigator who can take them to the Porto Vehlo, Brazil, where their Amazon jungle adventure will begin. He’s a skipper named Frank Wolff (played by Dwayne Johnson), who makes a meager living as a tour guide to visitors on his run-down steamer boat La Quila. One of Frank’s identifying qualities is that he constantly likes to tell jokes with bad puns. People will either find it charming or annoying.

For example, while ferrying a group of unlucky tourists who have to listen to his bad jokes, Frank points out a pair of toucans and says, “Only two can play.” Frank’s “wink and nudge” tone is: “Get it? The words ‘two can’ rhyme with ‘toucan.'”

He tells another groan-inducing pun joke to the people on his boat: “I used to work in an orange juice factory, but I got canned. I couldn’t concentrate. Yeah, they put the squeeze on me too.” A young girl on the boat tour voices what a lot of viewers will be thinking about Frank and his cheesy jokes: “Make him stop!”

“Jungle Cruise” is very self-aware that the jokes are silly, but after a while it does get very tiresome and comes across as lazy screenwriting not to have anything else about Frank’s personality that’s memorable. In fact, one of the reasons why “Jungle Cruise” is so disappointing is that none of the characters in this movie has an outstanding personality. You know a movie is bad when it has three villains/antagonists, and they’re just watered-down versions of many other movie villains.

The most obvious villain is Prince Joachim, who spouts cliché lines and does everything a stereotypical villain does but twirl his moustache. Plemons struggles with having a believable German accent in this role. It’s like he’s trying to do a parody of a Christoph Waltz villain, but it doesn’t land very well because Prince Joachim’s dialogue is so witless. Prince Joachim doesn’t come across as cunning or dangerous as much as he comes across as a spoiled and stupid royal who wants his way.

Another villain is Aguirre, who shows up later in the movie. The “Jungle Cruise” filmmakers wouldn’t have taken all that time in the beginning of the movie to tell viewers who Aguirre is without him making an appearance. Aguirre could’ve had an interesting personality and story arc, but he mostly just growls his words and gets into fights.

A third villain, who’s in the movie for less than 10 minutes, is Nilo (played by Paul Giamatti, speaking in a questionable Italian accent), a rival riverboat tour operator who is after Frank for debts that Frank owes to Nilo. If Frank doesn’t pay up, Nilo will get Frank’s boat. Nilo is probably the movie’s most useless character that has a well-known actor in the role. Most people who see “Jungle Cruise” won’t remember who the Nilo character is and what he does for a living.

There’s a time-wasting sequence where Frank impersonates Nilo when he first meets Lily, who’s looking to hire a boat navigator. She soon finds out who the real Nilo is, so her first impression of Frank is that he’s a liar and a con artist. The expected bickering between Lily and Frank ensues, which we all know will eventually lead to them feeling romantically attracted to each other.

MacGregor is a high-maintenance dandy who’s upset that he can’t take many of his possessions—such as a large wardrobe of clothes and tennis rackets—with him on Frank’s boat. Frank’s way of dealing with this issue of MacGregor’s extra luggage is to throw away the luggage in the water. How rude. Later in the movie, it’s implied but not said directly that MacGregor is a semi-closeted gay man. MacGregor talks about how grateful he is that Lily is his sister, because she protects him from being persecuted.

Frank has a pet leopard named Proxima, which is introduced in the movie in a very dubious way: Frank has trained the leopard to scare people away in a restaurant. How is that supposed to be funny? The visual effects for this CGI leopard are not very convincing. It looks every inch like the computer-generated animal that it is.

In fact, all of the visual effects in “Jungle Cruise” are very ho-hum or look bogus enough to be distracting to the movie. The hair and makeup are overdone for Lily, who looks too polished in certain action scenes, where realistically her makeup would’ve sweated off of her face, and her hair would be lot more disheveled.

As for the “jungle adventure,” Frank, Lily and MacGregor have the predictable experiences with jungle tribes, as well as chase scenes with Prince Joachim and his henchmen. There’s also the “eccentric exotic person” who seems to be in every jungle movie. In “Jungle Cruise,” this character is a tribe leader named Trader Sam (played by Veronica Falcón), who becomes an ally to these adventurers. And there are more bad pun jokes from Frank.

But when it’s revealed that Frank has a secret identity, that makes the movie go off the rails. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Frank’s secret identity meant that he grew up in a country where English is not the primary language. However, Frank has a very American accent throughout the movie. This discrepancy can be explained by Frank living enough of his adult life in the U.S. that he now has an American accent.

But the movie’s tone gets a little too dark for a family film when Frank says that he wants to die. (And it’s not a joke.) It puts a weird damper on the rest of the “adventure,” because it’s an unnecessary death wish for the hero of the story to have, after it’s made obvious that he has romantic feelings for Lily. (And yes, they’ve already kissed each other at this point.) Apparently, no one told Frank that telling a potential lover that you want to die is not the way to romance someone.

Anyway, we all know that this “death wish” is a very manipulative part of the story just to create unnecessary drama. After all, why kill off the hero when there are potential “Jungle Cruise” sequels to be made? Do the filmmakers really think viewers are that stupid?

The chemistry between Johnson and Blunt isn’t convincing enough to make Frank and Lily look like they could be in a real long-lasting relationship. Sparring partners in arguments? Yes. But as romantic partners? No. “Jungle Cruise” tries very hard to make it look like Frank and Lily are a great couple. But after this trip is over, it’s hard to imagine that Frank and Lily would enjoy each other’s company and have a lot to talk about in their everyday lives.

In “Jungle Cruise,” Johnson and Blunt do versions of characters that they’ve already played in other movies. There’s nothing fresh or intriguing about their “Jungle Cruise” performances. Johnson just isn’t very good at portraying someone from an era that happened before he was born. The way he talks and his mannerisms are better suited for roles that take place in his contemporary time period.

Everything about “Jungle Cruise” (which is inspired by the Jungle Cruise theme park ride at Disneyland and Disney World) is supposed to be fun, original and adventurous. Instead, too much of it looks and sounds over-calculated and ripped off from other movies. (And the hackneyed “Jungle Cruise” musical score by James Newton Howard is overbearing at times.)

There’s a pivotal scene in “Jungle Cruise” where an entire jungle lights up in purple, but it looks like it was copied from a pivotal scene in Pixar’s 2017 Oscar-winning film “Coco.” Simply put: “Jungle Cruise” takes no bold or creative risks when it could have. “Jungle Cruise” is more like “Jungle Snooze.”

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Jungle Cruise” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on July 30, 2021. 

Review: ‘Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins,’ starring Henry Golding

July 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Golding and Takehiro Hira in “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Skydance)

“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins”

Directed by Robert Schwentke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan and briefly in Washington state and Los Angeles, the fantasy action flick “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” features a predominantly Asian cast (with some white people and African Americans) portraying a heroic ancient Japanese clan called Arashikage and the story’s villains.

Culture Clash: Members of Arashikage battle against villains from a group called Cobra, who want to take over the world.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of people who are fans of the “G.I. Joe” games and franchise, “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching mindless action flicks that don’t offer anything new or exciting to the genre.

Peter Mensah, Iko Uwais, Haruka Abe, Henry Golding and Andrew Koji in “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Skydance)

The “G.I. Joe” movies never had a reputation for being well-made action classics. “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” won’t do anything to change that reputation. It’s a frequently dull parade of sloppily filmed action clichés and no-talent acting by some of the movie’s cast members.

No one is expecting this movie to be an Oscar-caliber film. But there should be a reasonable expectation that the action scenes will be memorable and exciting and the characters will be engaging. Instead, “Snake Eyes: G.I . Joe Origins” (directed by Robert Schwentke) follows the same, lazy formula of forgettable B-movies about people who use martial arts skills in battles of good versus evil. B-movies have just a small fraction of the reported $88 million production budget that “Snake Eyes” had, but in many ways, “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” doesn’t look like money well-spent.

The movie opens with an origin story cliché of a male hero in an action movie: He becomes an orphan as a child. It’s 20 years ago, in a heavily wooded area of Washington state, where a young Snake Eyes (played by Max Archibald), who’s about 11 or 12 years old and apparently doesn’t have a regular name, and his unnamed father (played by Steven Allerick) are hiding in the woods. Snake Eyes’ father doesn’t want to alarm his son, so he makes it look like they’re on some kind of adventure. (Snake Eyes’ mother is not seen or mentioned in the story.)

Father and son go to a safe house, where Snake Eyes’ father tells Snake Eyes to lock himself into a room. “Do not move, no matter what happens.” But something does happen: A ruthless villain named Mr. Augustine (played by Samuel Finzi) shows up with two thugs. Mr. Augustin rolls a pair of dice, which each end face up with a “number one”, also known as a “snake eyes” total.

Mr. Augustine and his goons rough up the father, and Snake Eyes runs out of the room to come to his father’s defense. Snake Eyes’ father is shot and killed, and Snake Eyes runs away into the woods. Before Mr. Augustine and his henchmen leave, they burn down the house.

Twenty years later, Snake Eyes (played by Henry Golding) is (cliché alert) an emotionally damaged loner living on the edge of society. He’s a drifter somewhere on the West Coast of the United States. Snake Eyes has made it his mission in life to find his father’s murderer, and kill him for revenge. Snake Eyes apparently doesn’t do much else with his life but get into brawls with strangers.

In this particular moment when viewers first see the adult Snake Eyes, he is in a brutal fight with several men, and he’s able to take on all of them, even though he’s outnumbered. (Get used to this type of unrealistic spectacle, because this movie has a lot of them.) There’s someone who’s watching this fight who’s very impressed with Snake Eyes’ fighting skills. His name is Kenta Takanura (played by Takehiro Hira), who recruits Snake Eyes to work for him. “I could use a guy like you,” Kenta tells Snake Eyes.

The next thing you know, Snake Eyes is at the Port of Los Angeles four weeks later. He’s at a warehouse filled with an all-male crew of workers who are hiding guns in large gutted fish. Snake Eyes gets suspicious over this obvious illegal activity, so Kenta tests Snake Eyes to see what kind of loyalty he has. Kenta orders Snake Eyes to shoot and kill Kenta’s cousin Tommy (played by Andrew Koji), who is also a worker at the warehouse, but Snake Eyes refuses to do it.

Instead, Snake Eyes and Tommy fight off several men in the warehouse, and the two escape by trying to drive off in a truck. However, the warehouse workers, who apparently are secret ninjas too, attack the truck by plunging several swords through the truck’s roof and windows while Snake Eyes and Tommy are inside. Apparently, none of these ninja villains thought to use the swords on the truck’s tires.

This is the type of ridiculous fight scene that litters “Snake Eyes” with mind-numbing repetition of the heroes getting out of seemingly “impossible” situations, even though they’re outnumbered and surrounded. Cops from the Los Angeles Police Department show up at the scene of the truck attack, but then the movie inexplicably cuts to Snake Eyes waking up on a luxury private plane with Tommy.

What happened after the cops showed up? Was anyone arrested? The movie doesn’t reveal any of that information, so viewers will have to assume that everything worked out for Tommy and Snake Eyes, because now they’re hanging out on a private plane as if they’re jetset adventurers. The plane is not a ramshackle aircraft: It’s first-class, with luxury amenities and staffed with attractive female flight attendants. Who’s paying for all it?

Snake Eyes is about to find out. The plane is headed to Japan, where Tommy reveals that he’s a member of a heroic ancient Japanese clan called Arashikage. Tommy is grateful that Snake Eyes saved his life, so he invites Snake Eyes to consider joining Arashikage. The leader of Arashikage is Himiko (played by Eri Ishida), a no-nonsense and traditional elderly woman who will decide if Snake Eyes can become a member of the clan.

And you know what that means: More busy-looking, logic-defying fights so that Snake Eyes can prove his worth. He has to complete three different “challenges of the warrior” before Himiko can approve Snake Eyes to Arashikage. Not surprisingly, the third and final challenge is supposed to be the hardest.

“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” is one of the worst-lit and wobbliest action movies you might see in recent memory. For a movie that’s not set in outer space or a location underneath the ground, the lighting is way too dark in many scenes, even when the scenes are during the day. Maybe all this dark lighting and shaky camera work (from cinematographer Bojan Bazelli) are so viewers won’t notice how mediocre the fight choreography is.

One of the few scenes in the movie that’s well-lit is at a visually striking location where there are hundreds of lighted Japanese lamps on display. It’s one of the best set designs for this overall unimpressive movie. Good set designs are wasted though when the story isn’t written well. Evan Spiliotopoulos, Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel wrote the screenplay for “Snake Eyes: G.I . Joe Origins.”

All of the movie’s characters, including Snake Eyes, are very generic. The actors are stuck with playing two-dimensional characters, with only Snake Eyes having anything that can be called a backstory. This is a pure action film: There are no distracting love stories or even a hint that these characters have personal lives. Kenta and Tommy are cousins who’ve become enemies, but their family dynamics and family history are mostly ignored in the movie.

Other characters who interact with Snake Eyes include three people who are tasked with supervising Snake Eyes in his challenges: Blind Master (played by Peter Mensah), Hard Master (played by Iko Uwais) and Akiki (played by Haruka Abe), who is Arashikage’s head of security. Akiki is skeptical of a lot of Snake Eyes’ abilities and belief, so Akiki and Snakes inevitably disagree with each other. It’s a bit of a stretch to describe their conflicts as “personality conflicts,” because you have to have a personality in the first place, and these characters have none.

Samara Weaving plays an Arashikage ally called Scarlett, but she’s not in the movie as much as a lot of viewers might think she is. There’s a female villain called Baroness (played by Úrsula Corberó), who displays the stiffest acting out of all the principal cast members. It’s hard to take a villain seriously when the person playing the villain has acting that’s so bad, it’s a distraction. Instead of the Baroness, she should’ve been called the Boringness.

And what about Snake Eyes’ quest to avenge the death of his father? The movie doesn’t forget about that. This revenge subplot is handled in a very predictable way, if you know before watching “Snake Eyes” that it’s been rated a family-friendly movie for people over the age of 12. The most obvous sign that the movie doesn’t too heavy with any violence is because there’s a lot of fighting with swords and other weapons, but there’s hardly any blood in sight.

A few of the fight scenes end too abruptly, which are signs of careless screenwriting and editing. For example, there’s a scene where Snake Eyes is trapped somewhere with attackers, and someone in Arashikage swoops in to come to his rescue. But viewers never get to see the rescue. Instead, the next scene just cuts to Snake Eyes and his rescuer back at Arashikage headquarters, as if nothing happened.

The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to throw in a few surprise curveballs, by showing one or two characters who have “fluid alliances.” But it just comes across as phony and not the shocking twist that this movie needed to liven up this formulaic story. The characters are so underwritten that viewers won’t feel like they know any of them well enough to get a sense of what the characters want to do with their lives besides join in on a fight when needed.

And if viewers are expecting an awe-inspiring mega-weapon in the movie, forget it. There’s a glowing red gem (about the size of small vase) that has the power to make people burst into flames. For a movie that cost $88 million to make, it’s kind of pathetic that’s the best they could come up with for the story’s most-coveted deadly weapon.

The visual effects in “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” aren’t going to be nominated for any awards. In a film called “Snake Eyes,” there are inevitable snakes in multiple action scenes. In this movie, they’re giant anacondas. But the suspense in these scenes almost becomes laughable, when Snake Eyes closes his eyes and uses a meditation technique where the meditation energy will supposedly make the attackers peaceful and willing to back away. If you want to believe that giant anacondas can tap into an inner Zen in the middle of an attack, go right ahead.

Viewers will feel like closing their eyes for a different reason: The movie is so tedious that it could put some people to sleep. You could fall asleep in the middle of the film and still know exactly what’s going happen by the end of the film. And it does. It’s all just a set-up for a sequel.

Paramount Pictures will release “Snake Eyes: G,.I. Joe Origins” in U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021.

Review: ‘Black Widow’ (2021), starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and Ray Winstone

June 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour and Florence Pugh in “Black Widow” (Photo by Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios)

“Black Widow” (2021)

Directed by Cate Shortland

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway and Russia and briefly in Ohio, Hungary and Morocco, the superhero action film “Black Widow” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asians) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: Russian American superhero Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, battles an evil nemesis from her past named Dreykov, who has sent an assassin named Taskmaster to kill anyone who gets in the way of Dreykov’s goal of world domination through mind control.

Culture Audience: “Black Widow” will appeal primarily to people who already know a lot about what’s going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Scarlett Johansson (pictured at right) in “Black Widow” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

If you’re not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), then “Black Widow” might be too confusing for long stretches of the movie. For everyone else, “Black Widow” offers a satisfactory but not particularly outstanding chapter to the MCU. The best parts of the movie are the scenes showing the interpersonal dynamics between an estranged foster family that reunites, because the movie’s visual effects and villains aren’t as compelling as other MCU movies with the Black Widow character.

Directed by Cate Shortland and written by Eric Pearson, “Black Widow” takes place primarily in 2016, in the period of time between 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” Viewers who haven’t seen or don’t know anything about “Captain America: Civil War” before seeing “Black Widow” will feel like they’ve stepped into a world that has passed them by, because there are several key plot developments in “Captain America: Civil War” that are necessary to know in order to fully appreciate “Black Widow.”

“Black Widow” is strictly a movie for MCU fans, because it assumes that people watching this movie know about have or have seen “Captain America: Civil War” and the other MCU movies leading up to it. “Black Widow” is not the movie for you if you don’t know the answers to these questions before watching the movie: “What is S.H.I.E.L.D.?” “What is Hydra?” “Who else is in the Avengers?”

Likewise, if you don’t know that Avengers superhero Black Widow, also known as Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlett Johansson), died at the end of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” (it’s really not spoiler information at this point), then the end-credits scene in “Black Widow” won’t make much sense. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is in the “Black Widow” end-credits scene, which makes a direct reference to Black Widow’s death and who Black Widow was with when she died, because it’s a likely revenge plot for a Marvel series on Disney+ or a MCU sequel. The “Black Widow” end-credits scene takes place at the gravestone of Natasha Romanoff, so anyone who sees “Black Widow” who didn’t know that she died will have that part of “Avengers: Endgame” spoiled for them.

If you know absolutely nothing about the MCU and Black Widow (whose first MCU appearance was in 2010’s “Iron Man 2”), then here’s what “Black Widow” does fairly well: It shows more of her backstory, in terms of how she was raised at a certain point in her childhood and why she got separated from her biological family and her foster family. The highlights of “Black Widow” are what happens when she reunites with the foster family she had for three years when she was a child.

Each of these family members has gone on to be involved in shady dealings of the Russian government. It’s an often-contentious, sometimes poignant and occasionally humorous reunion. Their up-and-down interactions speak to the love/hate feelings that people have for past or present loved ones. And that’s the humanity that makes “Black Widow” more than just a bunch of action scenes in a big-budget superhero movie.

“Black Widow” opens with a scene taking place in Ohio in 1995. Alexei Shostakov (played by David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (played by Rachel Weisz) are a Russian immigrant couple raising two girls on a rural farm. The older girl, who’s 11 years old, is a young Natasha Romanoff (played by Ever Anderson), while the younger girl is Yelena Belova (played by Violet McGraw), who’s 6 years old. Why do they all have different last names? Because they’re not biologically related to each other, but they have been living together as a family for three years.

Life seems to be “normal” for this makeshift family when a day comes that the Alexei and Melina have been dreading: The family will be separated by the Russian government. Some military-looking operatives invade the home one night, but Alexei and Melina have already planned their escape. Melina pilots a small plane with Natasha and Yelena as the passengers, while Alexei tries to keep the home invaders away from the plane, by shooting at the invaders with a rifle.

The plan to escape ultimately fails. Melina is shot but not gravely wounded. A terrified but quick-thinking Natasha takes over in piloting the plane. However, this family of four eventually couldn’t evade caputure, even though Natasha pulls a gun on the military men tasked with separating the family. Alexei hands over a mysterious computer disc to a man named General Dreykov (played by Ray Winstone), who is the one in charge of this home invasion. Meanwhile, the girls are drugged and taken away from the only parents they’ve known up to this point.

The movie then fast forwards to 2016. Natasha is in Norway, and is now a fugitive running from U.S. general Thaddeus Ross (played by William Hurt), because she’s has been accused of assaulting the king of Wakanda. (That’s a reference to the African nation of “Black Panther,” in case you didn’t know.) Natasha is also in violation of the Sokovia Accords, a set of regulations for people with superpowers, especially people working for government agencies. Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America, is also a fugitive, although he does not make an appearance in this “Black Widow” movie.

Natasha has been hiding out in a trailer somewhere in rural Norway. Several times in the movie, Natasha will make a reference to the falling out that the superhero group the Avengers had in “Captain America: Civil War.” As her trusted friend Mason (played by O-T Fagbenle) tells her as he hands her a stack of fake IDs to use, “I hear the Avengers are getting divorced.” Any viewers expecting any of the other Avengers to make a surprise appearance in “Black Widow” will be disappointed. Mason also gives Natasha a box of unopened mail that he says came from the Budapest safe house where she previously stayed.

“Black Widow” follows the typical superhero movie trope of a villain wanting to gain possession of an object that will help the villain take over the world. In this movie, it’s explained in a somewhat convoluted way that Dreykov and his cronies have been capturing female orphans and other vulnerable girls. The captured girls are held in a Red Room torture facility in Russia, where the girls are forced to be in a spy program.

In the Red Room, the victims undergo chemical treatments that alter their brain and allow Dreykov to have mind control over them. All of the victims’ reproduction organs are removed, and they grow up to become trained assassins called Widows, who do Dreykov’s bidding. Depending on how much their brains have been manipulated, the Widows have varying degress of memories of their lives before the Red Room.

Natasha and Yelena both spent time in the Red Room, but the movie has no flashbacks to this painful period of time in their lives. However, it’s revealed in conversations that Natasha was brainwashed but able to escape from the Red Room and never underwent the chemical treatments to the brain. Natasha’s spy life in America eventually led her to join the Avengers. Yelena wasn’t so lucky: She got the Red Room’s brain altering chemical treatment, which leaves her vulnerable to Dreykov’s mind control.

It’s why Yelena is seen in Morocco fighting an operative named Oksana (played by Michelle Lee), who is stabbed by Yelena in an outdoor street battle. Before Oksana dies, she takes a capsule and sprays Yelena with a mysterious red gas. Yelena seems to come out of a trance, and Yelena is soon reported as a deserter. It’s later revealed that this red gas is an antidote to Dreykov’s mind control. And that’s why he wants to get all of this antidote that exists in the world.

Somehow, Natasha has a stash of this antidote, so Dreykov sends a mysterious assassin named the Taskmaster after her to get this stash. The Taskmaster is completely covered in armor and doesn’t speak. Therefore, viewers will be guessing who’s really inside the armor. Is it a human being? A robot? Something else? The identity of the Taskmaster is eventually revealed in the last third of the movie.

Because Natasha currently feels all alone in the world, her emotions are raw when she has a tension-filled reunion with an adult Yelena (played Florence Pugh) when they see each other at that safehouse in Budapest. They have a big brawl that leads to an uneasy truce when they find out that they both want to get revenge on Dreykov because he separated their family. Natasha and Yelena also want to defeat Dreykov because they want to stop what’s going on in the Red Room.

Up until Natasha and Yelena reunited, Natasha assumed that Natasha had killed Dreykov in a building explosion that Natasha caused shortly before she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. (S.H.I.E.L.D. is an acronym for the spy/counter-intelligence/superhero-affiliated agency Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.) But when Yelena asks Natasha if she actually saw Dreykov’s dead body, Natasha replies, “There was no body left to check.”

Dreykov’s daughter Antonia (played by Ryan Kiera), who was about 9 or 10 years old at the time, was also in the building when it exploded. And that’s why Dreykov has an extra-personal grudge against Natasha. A flashback scene shows that Natasha knew that Antonia was in the building when Natasha gave the go-ahead for the building to be detonated. The way Natasha describes it to Yelena, Antonia was “collateral damage.”

This cold and calculating side to Natasha is frequently displayed in the story to contrast with Yelena being hotheaded and impulsive. If Yelena is like fire, then Natasha is like ice. The personality differences between these two women can result in their frequent conflicts with each other. But other times, the contrasts between Yelena and Natasha can work to their benefit when they have to team up for a shared goal.

And even though these two women haven’t lived as sisters in 16 years, there’s still some leftover sibling rivalry. Yelena calls Natasha a “poser” because of the crouching stance that Black Widow is known for before she goes in on an attack. Yelena also mocks the way that Natasha whips her hair around during a fight, as if she’s doing a photo shoot. This “poser” insult becomes a recurring joke in the movie.

There’s also a tinge of jealousy in Yelena’s teasing of Natasha. At one point in the movie, Yelena says in an envious tone to Natasha: “We are both trained killers, except I’m not the one on the cover of a magazine. I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.”

In another part of the conversation, Yelena explains the differences between what she experienced in the Red Room and what Natasha experienced: “What you experienced was psychological conditioning. [With what I experienced], I’m talking about chemically altering brain functions—they’re two completely different things.” Yelena says what it feels like to have the chemical alterations to the brain: “You’re fully conscious but you don’t know which part is you.”

Natasha is the one who brings up the idea of going to the Red Room and killing Dreykov once and for all. Yelena replies, “That sounds like a shitload of work.” Natasha says with a smirk, “It could be fun though.”

And where have Alexei and Melina been since they last saw Natasha and Yelena? Alexei has been in a Russian gulag, where he has been fuming over all the glory and notoriety that Captain America has gotten all over the world. That’s because Alexei has a superhero alter ego named Red Guardian, whose superhero career was cut short when Dreykov betrayed Alexei and made sure that Alexei was sent to prison. Needless to say, Alexei is very bitter about it.

Melina has being working as a scientist, so those skills come in handy when Melina, Alexei, Natasha and Yelena eventually reunite. This “family reunion” is not a surprise, since it’s been in “Black Widow” trailers and is a big selling point for the movie. The initial awkwardness of the reunion—and some of the sarcastic wisecracks that ensue—bring much of the movie’s comic relief.

“Black Widow” has the expected high-energy chase and fight scenes, including a far-fetched sequence of Natasha and Yelena helping Alexei escape from prison. The movie’s visual effects are hit and miss. There’s a big action sequence that takes place in the snow that is one of the standouts. But there are a few scenes that involve explosions where the fire looks too fake.

Even though Black Widow is a superhero, she’s not immune to getting fire burns. And yet, there are too many moments where she’s right in the thick of explosions, and she doesn’t get the serious fire burns that someone would get in real life. Some of the movie’s more dramatic scenes have cinematography that’s drenched in psychedelic red, which viewers will either think looks great or annoying.

Alexei and Melina are kind of like the MCU version of “The Honeymooners” couple Ralph Kramden and Alice Kramden. Alexei is a lot of bluster and ego, while Melina is his “been there, done that” calmer counterpart. There’s a comedic scene where Alexei tries to impress his reunited family, by putting on his old Red Guardian costume, but due to his weight gain since he last wore it, he has a hard time fitting into the costume.

On a more serious note, there’s a scene with Alexei, Natasha and Yelena in a heliocopter where Alexei makes a crude comment to Yelena by asking her if she’s being so uptight because she’s menstruating. Yelena reminds Alexei that she doesn’t menstruate because her reproductive organs were removed in the Red Room. Yelena then gives a detailed description of what reproductive organs were removed, until a very uncomfortable Alexei tells them to stop talking about it. Yelena then says impishly that she was just about to talk about fallopian tubes.

Although this scene has a sarcastic tone to it, it’s a not-so-subtle commentary on the gender politics that are part of this movie’s storyline. The Red Room is an obvious metaphor for a toxic patriarchy where a male villain is responsible for literally ripping away reproductive rights. And throughout “Black Widow,” the women are the ones who make the best and bravest decisions. Alexei has his heroic moments too, but he’s often outsmarted and outshined by the women in his life.

And if weren’t obvious enough in the movie’s trailers, there’s no doubt when watching all of “Black Widow” that this movie is a launching pad for Yelena, who’s clearly going to be a big part of the MCU. Pugh tends to be a scene stealer in all of her movies, and “Black Widow” is no exception, since Yelena brings a lot of relatable strengths and flaws to this character. Johansson’s Natasha/Black Widow is the ice queen in charge, but some of her emotional ice is melted in effective scenes where she finds out the truth about her biological family and how she ended up in the Red Room.

Most of the actors depicting the characters who are supposed to have Russian accents aren’t actually Russian in real life. Johansson and Harbour are American, while Pugh, Weisz and Winstone are British. Ukrainian French actress Olga Kurylenko is in the movie, but she’s in a role that is supposed to be among the plot twists. Out of all the non-Russian actors who have Russian accents in the movie, most are good but not excellent at sounding Russian, except for Winstone who definitely needed more Russian dialect training.

Shortland’s direction of “Black Widow” strikes a mostly well-paced balance between action, drama and touches of comedy. The movie’s biggest flaws are in how little regard it has for viewers who might be new to the MCU and who will have no idea what the characters are talking about for a great deal of “Black Widow.” In other words, “Black Widow” is definitely not a stand-alone MCU movie. Just like a web that a black widow spider can weave, the movie’s a little too tangled up in other MCU storylines and is best enjoyed by people who’ve already seen most if not all the other MCU movies that have Black Widow.

Disney’s Marvel Studios will release “Black Widow” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on July 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Mortal Kombat’ (2021), starring Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han and Joe Taslim

April 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim in “Mortal Kombat” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Mortal Kombat” (2021)

Directed by Simon McQuoid

Some language in Chinese and Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: The fantasy action flick “Mortal Kombat” features a racially diverse cast (Asian, white and African American) portraying humans, mutants and monsters in various realms of the universe.

Culture Clash: Fighters in Earthrealm and Outworld face off in the ultimate universe showdown called Mortal Kombat.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of people who are fans of the “Mortal Kombat” video games and franchise, this “Mortal Kombat” movie reboot will appeal primarily to people who want to see bloody action films and don’t care about terrible dialogue and flimsy storylines.

Josh Lawson and Jessica McNamee in “Mortal Kombat” (Photo Mark Rogers/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The 2021 movie reboot of “Mortal Kombat” should please fans of the video game who want to see an action flick that stays true to the video game’s bloody violence. However, compared to the 1995 “Mortal Kombat” movie, what hasn’t changed is the train wreck of stiff acting, embarrassingly bad dialogue and a stale plot. Thanks to improvements in technology, the visual effects are unsurprisingly better in the 2021 “Mortal Kombat” than they were in the 1995 “Mortal Kombat.” The reboot’s fight choreography is also superior to its predecessor. But these fight scenes aren’t necessarily all that suspenseful or thrilling, because everything is very hollow and predictable.

Directed by Simon McQuoid (in his feature-film directorial debut), the 2021 version of “Mortal Kombat” is one of those movies where death can be meaningless and very fake. There are at least three characters in the movie who are seen “dying” in the film, but then they come back to life with little or no explanation. It just reeks of the filmmakers needing to fill up the movie with more scenes with these characters to stretch out the already very thin plot. After all, you can’t have the big group showdown at the end if half of the main characters are dead.

Just like in the 1995 version of “Mortal Kombat,” the story is centered on a major battle called Mortal Kombat, which pits elite fighters against each other from different parts of the universe. Earthrealm and Outworld are once again the two places whose warriors are going head-to-head in Mortal Kombat. There are many returning characters and a few new characters to this “Mortal Kombat” movie.

The returning hero characters are Lord Raiden (played by Tadanobu Asano), who acts as a mentor/leader to the Earthrealm fighters; Liu Kang (played by Ludi Lin), a former Shaolin monk; Sonya Blade (played by Jessica McNamee), an American Special Forces officer; and Jackson “Jax” Briggs (played by Mehcad Brooks), Sonya’s military partner. Making his debut in a “Mortal Kombat” live-action film is Kung Lao (played by Max Huang), Liu Kang’s cousin who is a descendant of a legendary former Mortal Kombat champion named the Great Kung Lao.

The returning villain characters are Shang Tsung (played by Chin Han), a demon sorcerer who is the leader of the Outworld fighters; Bi-Han/Sub-Zero (played by Joe Taslim), who has the power to cause ice storms and to kill people by putting them in deep freezes; and Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson), the four-armed monster. The character of Reptile makes an appearance in a visual manifestation that’s different from what’s in the “Mortal Kombat” animated films.

In the group of Earthrealm fighters, there’s always someone who’s new to learning about the legends and history of Mortal Kombat while on this journey. In the 2021 version of “Mortal Kombat,” this character is an American mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighter named Cole Young (played by Lewis Tan), who is a former champ on a losing streak when he finds out that he’s been chosen for Mortal Kombat. (In the 1995 “Mortal Kombat” movie, the character who was ignorant about Mortal Kombat’s history was American movie action star Johnny Cage, played by Linden Ashby.)

Also new to the 2021 “Mortal Kombat” movie reboot are Cole’s wife Allison, nicknamed Ali (played by Laura Brent), and their daughter Emily (played by Matilda Kimber), who’s about 11 or 12 years old. The characters of Ali and Emily are awkwardly placed throughout the movie because they only have “damsel in distress” or “cheerleader” roles in relation to Cole. For example, in the middle of a Mortal Kombat fight in another part of the universe, a villain could suddenly appear on Earth to possibly cause harm to Ali and Emily, just to remind viewers that Ali and Emily exist while Cole is off fighting in Mortal Kombat.

It’s shown in the beginning of the movie how Bi-Han/Sub-Zero and Japanese warrior Hanzo Hashashi (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), also known as Scorpion, became enemies in 1617. That’s when Hanzo was living with his wife Harumi (played by Yukiko Shinohara), pre-teen son Satoshi/Jubei (played by Ren Miyagawa) and baby daughter (played by Mia Hall) in Japan. Bi-han and his thugs invaded Hanzo’s home, and you can easily figure out the rest. In the present day, Sub-Zero comes to Earth and goes on a rampage because he’s been sent by Shang Tsung to murder the rare people on Earth who have been chosen to fight in Mortal Kombat.

The heroic Earthrealm people who do battle in this version of “Mortal Kombat” also have a reluctant allegiance with an obnoxious Australian mercenary named Kano (played by Josh Lawson), who spews dumb jokes almost as often as he spews curse words. Kano was also in the 1995 “Mortal Kombat” movie, but in the 2021 version of the movie, Kano spends more time with the heroes than with the villains.

The Earthrealm people need Kano as a guide to Raiden’s temple so that they can train for Mortal Kombat. Sonya has kidnapped Kano and kept him prisoner in her hideout when Cole arrives and he’s introduced to Kano. (The movie doesn’t show the kidnapping.)

Kano only promises to lead them to Raiden’s temple if he’s paid $3 million. Sonya makes the deal, but smirks when she privately confides in Cole that she doesn’t really have the money. And it’s right then and there that viewers can predict what Kano will do later when he finds out that he won’t be getting paid.

The 2021 version of “Mortal Kombat” has a half-Tarkatan, half-Edenian fighter named Mileena (played by Sisi Stringer), who is on Shang Tsung’s team. Her villain superpowers include the ability to teleport and using her detachable jaw with a ferocious set of teeth. And speaking of deadly teeth, the vampire Nitara (played by Mel Jarnson) is also in the movie but doesn’t have enough screen time. Two of Shang Tsung’s other underlings are Kabal (played by Daniel Nelson) and Reiko (played by Nathan Jones).

As a result of all these additional characters that weren’t in the 1995 “Mortal Kombat” movie, this 2021 version of “Mortal Kombat” over-relies on showing simultaneous fight scenes with the heroes in various locations having individual face-offs with villains. These fights aren’t shown by using split-screen editing but by jumping back and forth between fight scenes that are going on at the same time. After a while, these simultaneous fight scenes actually become monotonous. It’s like someone with a short attention span speaking, but not being able to concentrate on one thing at a time, and in the end, having nothing substantial to say.

The 2021 “Mortal Kombat” movie screenplay (written by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham) is filled with cringeworthy conversations. The chief culprit is motormouth bully Kano, who can’t stop insulting people and yammering about how great he thinks he is. But his non-stop ego posturing is made worse by the writers’ failed attempts to make Kano sarcastically funny. In one scene, Kato tries to ridicule Kung Lao, who wears trousers resembling parachute pants, by calling him MC Hammer, who was famous for wearing parachute pants. That outdated joke might have worked in 1995, but not now.

And in another scene, Kano gets into a heated argument with Liu Kang and Kung Lao during a group dinner. Liu lectures Kano about Kung Lao: “He is here to save you because you cannot save yourself. You’re like an aggressive little bunny—soft and useless—angry, mentally and physically. You should be on your knees to this man.” Kano’s reply: “Sit down, shut up, and pass me a fucking egg roll!”

If you start to get bored or confused by this tangled mishmash of characters in the first 15 minutes of the movie, then “Mortal Kombat” probably isn’t for you. It’s the type of movie that was made for die-hard fans of the video games who already know all the backstories and worldbuilding of this franchise. The 2021 version of “Mortal Kombat” doesn’t take a “less is more” approach. And that means, compared to the 1995 “Mortal Kombat movie, “more is a mess.”

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Mortal Kombat” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on April 23, 2021. The movie was released in several other countries from April 8 to April 21, 2021.

Review: ‘Enhanced’ (2021), starring Alanna Bale, George Tchortov, Chris Mark and Adrian Holmes

April 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alanna Bale in “Enhanced” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Enhanced” (2021)

Directed by James Mark

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city, the sci-fi action film “Enhanced” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and black people) portraying mutants and humans.

Culture Clash: An elite military squad is tasked with rounding up and imprisoning mutants who have deadly powers, while a “super mutant” is looking for more mutants to absorb their energy so he can take over the world.

Culture Audience: “Enhanced″ will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching derivative and forgettable sci-fi movies.

Patrick Sabongui, George Tchortov and Eric Hicks in “Enhanced” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The filmmakers of “Enhanced” should have titled this movie “Flimsy X-Men Ripoff” if they wanted more truth in advertising. It’s a formulaic and mindless flick about mutants being hunted by humans. The visual effects are weak, most of the acting is mediocre-to-terrible, and the action scenes are just filler as one scene clumsily lumbers to the next.

Directed by James Mark, “Enhanced” has almost no suspense because it’s obvious which characters will survive in this “humans versus mutants” war that is going on in an unnamed city in Canada. How do viewers know who’s going to survive until the end of the movie? Time and time again, there are two characters in the movie who could easily be killed when they’re cornered by the “enemy,” but these two characters inexplicably are allowed to get away. It’s all so that movie can drag along to its very predictable conclusion.

“Enhanced” (which has the title “Mutant Outcasts” in Germany) was written by “Enhanced” director Mark, Matthew Nayman and Peter Van Horne. And having three writers for this lackluster and unimaginative screenplay just makes “Enhanced” look worse, because three minds were clearly not better than one in this case. There’s almost nothing that’s original in this movie, which recycles ideas from other, much-better movies about persecuted mutants. By the way, the humans in this movie have a very bland name for the mutants: The mutants are called “subjects.”

“Enhanced” begins with an elite military squad hunting down a mutant named Joseph or Joe (played by Patrick Sabongui), who works as a janitor in an office building. Leading this squad into action is George Shepherd (played by George Tchortov), who is the type of generic “alpha male” who’s supposed to be the story’s hero. George’s closest sidekick in the squad is Scott Cromwell (played by Eric Hicks), who is more laid-back than “take charge” George. Scott, George and some other members of the squad ambush Joseph while he’s doing some janitorial work when the office is closed for the night.

This is the type of bad dialogue in the film. George tells Joseph that they know his real name isn’t Joseph, and that Joseph’s number is 78-934BRAVO. Apparently, he’s escaped from a secret prison that the government has for mutants. Joseph, or whatever his name really is, shouts to the squad: “I’m not going back there! I haven’t hurt anyone!”

Joseph’s eyes turn a glowing blue (it’s how the movie shows the mutants unleashing their powers) and replies in desperation, “You don’t understand! They did this to me!” George says, “Joseph, this is your last chance.” Joseph answers, “No, this is your last chance!”

Joseph runs away and ends up using his mutant powers to burst onto the rooftop of the building. But the squad is right behind him, and Joseph is cornered and captured. He’s taken back to the secret prison, which is is shown later on to be just a space with several glass-enclosed rooms. It looks more like a modern office building than a prison.

Usually in movies like this, the mutants would be held captive so that the government can do secret research on them. But no, not in this dimwitted movie. These mutants are just being held captive until the government can figure out what to do with them. Taxpayer money down the drain.

Meanwhile, there’s a mutant named Anna (played by Alanna Bale) in her late teens or early 20s who ends up being one of the hunted. She works as a mechanic in an auto body shop owned by her boss Danny (played by Jeffrey R. Smith), who doesn’t know that she’s a mutant. For example, he doesn’t notice when Anna uses her mutant superpowers to do things like unscrew major auto parts with her bare hands when it would take tools and a lot of human strength to do it.

Danny is targeted for extortion by some local thugs, who gang up and assault him one day at the auto shop while Anna is there too. You know what happens next. Anna uses her mutant superpowers to kill the thugs, but it’s not enough to protect Danny, who has been shot during this brawl. Anna makes a phone call for emergency help. As Danny lies seriously injured on the floor, he asks Anna, “What are you?” She doesn’t give an answer because she’s already out the door as a fugitive on her bicycle.

During her time on the run, Anna meets a guy named Eli (played by Michael Joseph Delaney), who’s a stereotypical nerdy researcher who always seems to be in movies like this one. The researcher fulfills the role of explaining all the “secrets” that they’ve uncovered in their research. When Eli first meets Anna, he already knows that she’s a mutant. However, Anna doesn’t trust Eli at first because she think he’s another human who wants her to be locked up.

Eli has found out that there’s a “super mutant” on the loose who’s been killing other mutants to absorb their energy. This “super mutant” can sense other mutants’ presence and track them down like he’s got some inner mutant GPS system or psychic ability or some other nonsense that’s explained in the movie. And guess who finds out about the secret prison filled with mutants?

This “super mutant” has the very unremarkable name of David (played by Chris Mark), and he’s an extremely dull villain with no personality. Glaring into the camera doesn’t count as having a personality. Chris Mark’s performance as David is so lifeless that you almost wonder if he thought he was playing a zombie, not a mutant. The actor shouldn’t get all the blame because the director didn’t cast this movie very well and should have given better direction to the cast members.

Meanwhile, George clashes with his supervisor Captain Williams (played by Adrian Holmes) over something, so George ends up going “rogue.” It’s not a spoiler to reveal this information, because how else would it explain why George and Anna work together when they inevitably cross each other’s paths? And let’s not forget about Eli, who has to play the role of the “computer/technology expert” so that someone can conveniently tap into secret computer networks when needed.

Bale gives the best performance in the cast, but that’s not saying much when her Anna character, just like everyone else in the movie, is as two-dimensional as a cartoon character. Don’t expect any of this movie’s characters to have interesting stories about their lives. And the fight scenes aren’t very impressive when you consider that certain people could be easily killed during certain fights, but they aren’t killed because the movie obviously wants these characters to survive.

Mutant villain David has the ability to regenerate when he’s wounded, but the movie isn’t consistent in showing this ability in some of David’s fight scenes. This movie is called “Enhanced” because the mutants have enhanced physical powers. But the movie is so woefully lacking in originality that the quality of the movie is diminished to being creatively bankrupt.

Vertical Entertainment released “Enhanced” in the U.S. on digital and VOD on March 26, 2021. The movie was released in Brazil in 2019.

Review: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Julian Dennison and Demián Bichir

March 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Godzilla and King Kong in “Godzilla vs. Kong” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

“Godzilla vs. Kong”

Directed by Adam Wingard

Culture Representation: Taking place in various other parts of the world, the action flick “Godzilla vs. Kong” features a racially diverse cast (white people, African Americans, Asians and Latinos) who are part of the scientific community, corporate business or are underage students.

Culture Clash: Gigantic monster enemies Godzilla and King Kong cross paths, while some greedy corporate people want to exploit the monsters’ power sources in order to make deadly weapons.

Culture Audience: “Godzilla vs. Kong” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “Godzilla” and “King Kong” movies and don’t care if the story is badly written, sloppily directed and populated with hollow human characters.

Alexander Skarsgård, Rebecca Hall and Kaylee Hottle in “Godzilla vs. Kong” (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

The tedious and atrociously made train wreck that is “Godzilla vs. Kong” probably will please people who have extremely low standards for action flicks. But considering that several superhero movies have proven that action movies can be entertaining spectacles with distinct and memorable characters, there’s really no excuse for why “Godzilla vs. Kong” stinks more than any toxic excrement that can be expelled from these fictional monsters’ bodies. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is the epitome of a “cash grab” film that lazily exploits the nostalgic brand names of beloved creature feature films. In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the filmmakers do almost nothing to create intriguing characters that can exist in a cinematic art form.

Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein, “Godzilla vs. Kong” takes an annoying amount of time building up to the inevitable fight scenes described in the movie’s title. The filmmakers inexplicably overstuffed the movie with a lot of characters that barely do anything except act egotistical (if they’re the villains) or look anxious (if they’re the heroes). The human characters who are involved in the most action and decision making in the movie are reduced to spouting idiotic dialogue that makes the monsters in the movie look more intelligent.

Yes, it’s another movie about a creature that threatens to destroy the world, while humans think they can stop the destruction in time, and the greedy ones think they can get rich off of this crisis. That’s pretty much the plot of every movie about Godzilla, King Kong or other giant monster. Pitting two supersized titan monsters against each other should raise the stakes even higher, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” fails in delivering an enjoyable story and has an ending that falls very flat. The movie’s visual effects from Luma Pictures are adequate but not outstanding.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” begins with King Kong living in a biodome on Skull Island, where he is being observed by scientists for research. Leading the team of scientists is Dr. Ilene Andrews (played by Rebecca Hall), who is a single mother to an adopted deaf/mute daughter named Jia (played by Kaylee Hottle), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Apparently, Ilene cares more about her research than the safety of her underage daughter. Jia is allowed to be in many completely dangerous situations that would be more than enough for child protective services to get involved.

But dumb movies like “Godzilla vs. Kong” pander to the lowest common denominator by showcasing people with horrific parenting skills and acting as if nothing is wrong with it. And if that means making it look like kids should be allowed to be in the line of fire and actively fighting these monstrous and deadly creatures, then so be it. Kaylee and some of the other underage characters in “Godzilla vs. Kong” are portrayed as having uncanny knowledge and skills that the adults don’t possess. It’s just more pandering to a kiddie audience or people with a child’s mentality.

The movie (which was filmed in Hawaii and Australia) jumps all over the place in a haphazard manner, but here are the main locations in the film:

  • Skull Island, where King Kong lives until he’s brought out of hiding for reasons explained in the movie. It’s also where Ilene and her daughter Jia live until they decide to travel to wherever Kong will be relocated.
  • Apex Cybernetics, a high-tech corporation in Pensacola, Florida, is involved in cybertechnology related to military defense weapons. The CEO of Apex is a typical money-hungry villain named Walter Simmons (played by Demián Bichir), who has a conniving daughter named Maya Simmons (played by Eiza González), who wants to take over the business someday. Walter’s loyal right-hand henchman is Apex chief technology officer Ren Serizawa (played by Shun Oguri). Apex also has an engineer named Bernie Hayes (played by Brian Tyree Henry), who ends up becoming a whistleblower.
  • Monarch Relief Camp, also in Pensacola, is the temporary home of refugees who were displaced by the destruction caused in the 2019 movie “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” It’s where divorced dad Mark Russell (played by Kyle Chandler), a former Monarch animal behavior and communication specialist, works to help refugees. Mark has a headstrong and independent teenage daughter named Madison (played by Millie Bobby Brown), who wants to follow in his footsteps as scientist who studies animals.
  • Denham University of Theoretical Science is a think tank in Philadelphia where the workaholic and underappreciated Dr. Nathan Lind (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is working on a top-secret theory/experiment. Aren’t they all in movies like this one?
  • Hong Kong, where some of the characters in the story take a rocket, because apparently it’s not enough just to have transportation by planes, ships, trains or automobiles.
  • Tokyo, because you shouldn’t have a Godzilla movie without Godzilla fighting in Tokyo.
  • Hollow Earth, a place somewhere below the earth’s surface that was discovered in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” This location also plays a major role in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” King Kong somehow got access to a javelin (it’s never explained how), and like an Olympic champ, he throws it at the sky while he’s on Skull Island. The javelin pierces the biodome ceiling, so that’s how King Kong finds out that the world he’s been living in has been hermetically sealed.

You know what that means. King Kong becomes restless because he knows he belongs somewhere else. It isn’t long before Ilene and the rest of the scientists find out that King Kong has literally cracked their carefully constructed façade.

Ilene comments about King Kong to a co-worker named Ben (played by Chris Chalk): “The habitat is not going to hold him much longer.” Ben replies, “We need to think about off-site solutions.” Ilene then says, “The island is the one thing that’s kept him isolated. If he leaves, Godzilla will come for him. There can’t be two alpha titans.” Oh yes, there can, or else this movie wouldn’t exist.

The decision is made to move Kong out of Skull Island. King Kong is tranquilized and strapped to a cargo ship. And you just know that tranquilizer is going to eventually wear off. Somehow, Kong’s energy is sensed by Godzilla, who comes out of hibernation from deep in the ocean. Godzilla goes on a rampage in trying to find Kong. It’s all just filler until these two creatures face off against one another.

What does this have to do with Apex? The company has discovered a subterranean ecosystem that’s as “fast as any ocean light.” It has an energy life force that Apex wants to find in order to make a weapon that will defeat Godzilla.

Nathan, a former Monarch employee, says that he tried and failed to find the mysterious Hollow Earth entry. He believes in genetic memory, a theory that says all titans share a common impulse to return to their evolutionary source. Nathan wants to tag along with Ilene and her crew to find the power source that’s in Hollow Earth.

But since “Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t interested in keeping things simple with only essential characters, there are more people who want to get to Hollow Earth too. There are the Apex villains, of course. And then there’s a motley trio that’s meant to be the movie’s comic relief but they end up saying a lot of corny lines and getting into stereotypical slapstick predicaments.

This trio consists of Apex engineer Bernie, who’s decided he’s going to expose Apex’s dastardly plans; teenage Madison, who apparently skips school so she can save the world in “Godzilla” movies; and her schoolmate Josh Valentine (played by Julian Dennison), who’s the type of character that Dennison is known to play in movies: a sarcastic brat. Josh is also the clownish “klutz” of the group who’s prone to be more terrified than the others. Meanwhile, Bernie sometimes acts like he’s uttering lines that were rejected from a bad stand-up comedy act.

How did Bernie get mixed up with these kids? Bernie is the host of a podcast called the Titan Trade Podcast, where he spouts “insider” conspiracy theories about Apex but doesn’t reveal his true identity. Even though Bernie’s voice and his irritating motormouth personality would be recognizable to his Apex co-workers on this podcast (Bernie makes no effort to disguise his voice), the movie wants people to believe that Bernie’s been able to keep his podcast identity a secret while he’s spilling confidential company information to the world.

“Something bad is going in here,” Bernie warns in one of his podcast episodes. He says that he’s going to download evidence of a “vast” corporate conspiracy. “It’s more than a leak. It’s a flood,” he adds. “And this flood is going to wash away all of Apex’s lies.” And with that announcement, Bernie essentially tells the world that he’s a company whistleblower, without thinking that the company could possibly catch on to his exposé plan before he actually does it. So dumb.

Madison listens to the podcast and essentially drags a reluctant Josh along when they meet Bernie. Madison uses Josh because he has a car and she doesn’t. As if to put an emphasis on how Bernie is the “out of touch” adult in this trio, he has a very outdated flip phone that he uses a lot in the movie. It might be some type of weird irony that a guy who works as an engineer at a highly advanced tech company doesn’t even have a smartphone, but it just makes Bernie look even more dimwitted, considering all the benefits of a smartphone that he would need on this mission.

Because “Godzilla vs. Kong” is meant to be a family-friendly film, there are the obligatory sappy moments to make it look like this isn’t just a movie with fights and explosions. Jia has an emotional bond with King Kong that’s intended to tug at people’s heartstrings, because somehow she’s taught him sign language without her mother knowing. Ilene eventually finds out, but you have to wonder how much of neglectful parent Ilene must be if she let her daughter spend enough time alone with King Kong that Ilene didn’t know that Jia has now become King Kong’s personal American Sign Language tutor. Kids these days.

And while this awful movie whips around from place to place like a flea in search of a mangy dog, somehow the filmmakers forgot to have any meaningful story arc for Madison’s father Mark (who was a protagonist in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”), who is completely sidelined in “Godzilla vs. Kong.” The parents in this movie are insultingly portrayed as incapable of making truly effective decisions unless the kids show them the right way.

There’s nothing wrong with precocious kid characters, but not at the expense of making the adults with years of scientific knowledge look clueless next to kids who haven’t even graduated from high school yet. The movie completely undervalues and dismisses the life experiences of adults whenever the kid characters are in the same scene. It’s why “Godzilla vs. Kong” has the mentality of video game or a cartoon instead of a live-action movie.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” doesn’t even bother giving the villains anything memorable about their personalities, which is what all worthwhile “good vs. evil” stories are supposed to do. Heroes often have bland, interchangeable personalities, but villains are the ones who are supposed to get the biggest audience reactions in these stories. And audiences like to see some of the clever ways that villains make mischief. None of that happens in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

There could have been so much improvement to the movie’s lackluster human interactions if the villains were compelling. Walter is very generic, Ren doesn’t talk much, and Maya is a completely unnecessary character. All of the actors in “Godzilla vs. Kong” give performances like they know they’re in a movie where they don’t have to show much acting talent and it’s all about the paychecks they’re getting.

As for the Godzilla vs. King Kong fight scenes that come too late in the movie, they are extremely predictable but at least better than the witless dialogue that the audience has to endure whenever the movie’s scenes focus only on the humans. In order for a monster movie to have the most impact, viewers should care not just about the fight scenes but also about the people whose lives are in danger. And in that regard, “Godzilla vs. Kong” stomps out a lot of humanity to distract viewers with CGI action that isn’t even that great in the first place.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Godzilla vs. Kong” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on March 31, 2021. The movie was released in several countries outside of the U.S. on March 25 and March 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League,’ starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill

March 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (Photo courtesy of HBO Max/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League”

Directed by Zack Snyder

Culture Representation: Set in several fictional DC Comics places such as Gotham, Metropolis, Central City and Atlantis, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians), ranging from superheroes to regular citizens to villains.

Culture Clash: An all-star group of superheroes called Justice League gather to do battle against evil entities that want to take over the universe.

Culture Audience: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of epic superhero movies that have a dark and brooding tone.

Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (Photo courtesy of HBO Max/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a four-hour superhero movie that can be summed up in four words: “definitely worth the wait.” Also unofficially known as “The Snyder Cut,” this extravaganza is the director’s cut of 2017’s “Justice League,” an all-star superhero movie that was panned by many fans and critics. Even though Snyder was the only director credited for “Justice League,” it’s a fairly well-known fact that after Snyder couldn’t complete the film because his 20-year-old daughter Autumn committed suicide, writer/director Joss Whedon stepped in to finish the movie. Whedon made some big changes from Snyder’s original vision of “Justice League.” (There’s a dedication to Autumn that says “For Autumn” at the end of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.”) The “Justice League” that was released in 2017 had a lot of wisecracking jokes, and the violence and language were toned down to a more family-friendly version of the movie.

Since the release of “Justice League” in 2017, fans of DC Comics movies demanded that Warner Bros. Pictures “release The Snyder Cut” of the film. And due to popular demand, Snyder was able to make the “Justice League” movie he originally intended to make. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is part of HBO Max’s lineup of original content.

As promised, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is a darker and more violent version of the 2017 “Justice League” movie, but it also has a lot more emotional depth and gives room for more character development and intriguing possibilities within the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” was written by Chris Terrio, with Snyder, Terrio and Will Beall credited for the story concept. Terrio and Whedon were credited screenwriters for “Justice League.”

Does “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” live up to the hype? Mostly yes. The scenes with the main characters are of higher quality and are more riveting than in the original “Justice League.” The action scenes are more realistic. The overall pacing and tone of the story are also marked improvements from the 2017 version of “Justice League.” However, the reason for the cameo appearance of The Joker (played by Jared Leto) in the movie’s epilogue isn’t what it first appears to be, so some fans might be disappointed. And the appearance of Ryan Choi/Atom (played by Ryan Zheng) is very brief (less than two minutes), and he doesn’t talk in the movie.

Many people watching “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” have already seen “Justice League,” so there’s no need to rehash the plot of “Justice League.” This review will consist primarily of the content in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” that was not in “Justice League.” For those who have not seen “Justice League,” the basic summary is that an all-star group of superheroes have assembled to battle an evil villain that wants to take over the universe by gathering three mystical Mother Boxes, which are living machines that have enough energy to cause widespread destruction.

The superheroes are Batman/Bruce Wayne (played by Ben Affleck), Superman/Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (played by Gal Gadot), Cyborg/Victor Stone (played by Ray Fisher), The Flash/Barry Allen (played by Ezra Miller) and Aquaman/Arthur Curry (played by Jason Momoa)—all seen together in a live-action movie for the first time in “Justice League.” The villain is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), but “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” features the first movie appearances of two arch villains that have more power and authority than Steppenwolf: DeSaad (voiced by Peter Guinness) and the supreme villain Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter).

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is divided into chapters with these titles:

  • Part 1 – “Don’t Count On It, Batman”
  • Part 2 – “Age of Heroes”
  • Part 3 – “Beloved Mother, Beloved Son”
  • Part 4 – “Change Machine”
  • Part 5 – “All the King’s Horses”
  • Part 6 – “Something Darker”
  • Epilogue

In “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” Steppenwolf is more of a sniveling lackey than he was in “Justice League,” because there are multiple scenes of him acting subservient to DeSaad. Steppenwolf is still aggressive against his foes, while DeSaad is sinister and imperious, and Darkseid is fearsome and unforgiving. In a new scene between DeSaad and Steppenwolf, DeSaad scolds Steppenwolf for betraying the Great One and Steppenwolf’s own family. Steppenwolf replies with regret, “I saw my mistake!”

When Bruce goes to Iceland to recruit Arthur, their confrontation is a little more violent and Bruce flashes a wad of cash to entice Arthur to join Justice League. This scene is extended to show some Icelandic women singing on the seashore after Arthur declines Bruce’s offer, Arthur takes off his sweater, and swims away. One of the women picks up Arthur’s sweater and smells it, not in a salacious way, but as a way to give her comfort.

Back in Metropolis, there’s previously unseen footage of Daily Planet newspaper reporter Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) getting coffee for a local cop. It becomes clear that this was a routine for her, since she’s seen doing this again in the scene where she finds out that Superman has come back to life. It gives some depth to Lois trying to have a normal routine after the death of her fiancé Clark Kent/Superman. It’s mentioned in the movie that Lois took a leave of absence from the Daily Planet after Clark died.

And there’s an extended scene of Wonder Woman fighting off terrorists in a government building. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” has less shots of Wonder Woman fighting in slow motion and more shots of her speeded up while she’s fighting. And in the terrorist scene, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” puts more more emphasis on Wonder Woman saving a group of visiting schoolkids (who are about 10 or 11 years old) and their teachers, who are taken hostage during this fight.

After Wonder Woman defeats the terrorists, she says to a frightened girl: “Are you okay, princess?” The girl replies, “Can I be you someday?” Wonder Woman answers, “You can be anything you want to be.”

Victor Stone/Cyborg gets the most backstory in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” Viewers will see the car accident that led to his scientist father Silas Stone (played by Joe Morton) deciding to save Victor’s life by using the Mother Box on Earth to turn Victor into Cyborg. The love/hate relationship that Victor has with his father is given more emotional gravitas in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” Viewers see in the movie that even before the car accident, there was tension between Silas and Victor because of Silas’ workaholic ways. There are also never-before-seen scenes with Victor’s mother Dr. Elinore Stone (played by Karen Bryson), who died in the car crash.

And speaking of car crashes, there’s an added scene of Barry Allen /The Flash applying for a job as a dog walker at a pet store called Central Bark. Before he walks into the store, he locks eyes with passerby Iris West (played by Kiersey Clemons), in the way that people do when they have mutual attraction to each other. Iris gets into her car to drive off, but a truck driver (who was distracted by reaching for a hamburger he dropped on the floor of the vehicle) slams into Iris’ car, and Barry rescues her.

During this rescue, Barry grabs a hot dog wiener from a food vendor cart that was smashed in the accident and gets back to the pet store in time to feed the wiener to the dogs. Barry then quips to the store manager, “Do I start on Monday?” It’s an example of the touches of humor that the movie has, to show it isn’t completely dark and gloomy. By the way, this car accident/rescue scene is the only appearance of Iris in the movie.

“Justice League” got a lot of criticism for the movie’s corny dialogue that many viewers thought cheapened what should have been a more serious tone to the movie. And even the parts of “Justice League” that were supposed to be comedic were slammed by fans and critics for not being very funny. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” removes a few of the most cringeworthy lines that “Justice League” had.

For example, in the “Justice League” scene where Barry/The Flash and Victor/Cyborg are digging up Superman’s grave, Barry makes an awkward attempt to bond with Victor by extending his hand in a fist bump toward Victor, but Victor doesn’t return the gesture. Barry then makes a remark that the timing might be off and the fist bump might be too racially charged for the moment. These lines are completely cut from “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” but the movie still has The Flash/Cyborg fist bump after the group showdown battle with Steppenwolf.

The gravedigging scene in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is changed to Barry saying to Victor: “Wonder Woman: Do you think she’d go for a younger guy?” Victor replies, “She’s 5,000 years old, Barry. Every guy is a younger guy.”

Another removal from “Justice League” are some words that Lois utters when she and a resurrected Superman are reunited, and he takes her to a corn field on the Kent family farm. In the original “Justice League” Lois tells him, “You smell good.” And he replies, “Did I not before?” In “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” Lois’ line is changed to “You spoke.” And Superman gives the same reply, “Did I not before?”

But make no mistake: Even though “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” has some dialogue that’s intended to be funny, the movie definitely has a heavier and edgier tone than “Justice League.” Aquaman still does some joyous whooping and hollering during the fight scenes with Steppenwolf, but it’s toned down in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” so he doesn’t sound so much like a happy guy at a frat party. And these superheroes say occasional curse words that wouldn’t make the cut in a movie that’s intended for people all ages.

Even the music that plays during the end credits reflects this more somber and more reflective tone. In “Justice League,” the music playing over the end credits was Gary Clark Jr.’s bluesy-rock, upbeat version of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” In “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” the music that plays over the end credits is Allison Crowe’s raw and soulful version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which is a song that’s often played at funerals in tribute to someone.

In “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” there’s a lot more screen time devoted to showing the aftermath of death and how the loved ones left behind are grieving, including extended scenes of how Superman’s adoptive mother Martha Kent (played by Diane Lane) and Lois are dealing with Clark/Superman’s death. Arthur/Aquaman keeps going back to the deep ocean to spend time with the preserved body of his father. Victor visits the gravesite of his mother. And then later, Victor goes to the gravesites of his mother and his father, who was killed when a STAR Labs building exploded. Wonder Woman and Aquaman discuss a past war between the Amazons and the Atlanteans and how there are still lingering repercussions of that destruction.

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” also delivers more details on what happened in the STAR Labs building during the part of the movie where Superman was resurrected and Steppenwolf stole the Mother Box that was hidden by humans on Earth. This new scene gives more context and shows that Steppenwolf did not get the Mother Box so easily. Victor made a decision that cost him his life, while certain members of Justice League were inside the building soon after the Mother Box was taken.

There are also extended scenes with Mera (played by Amber Heard), Nuidis Vulko (played by Willem Dafoe), Alfred Pennyworth (played by Jeremy Irons) and Deathstroke (played by Joe Manganiello). And the epic battle with Steppenwolf toward the end is truly a spectacle to behold. Viewers will see DeSaad’s and Darkseid’s reactions to this fight. The movie’s epilogue includes a conversation between Bruce and Martian Manhunter that strongly indicates that fans should look for Martian Manhunter to play a major role in another DCEU movie. Simply put: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is mostly a triumph and can easily be considered one the the best DCEU movies of all time.

HBO Max will premiere “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” on March 18, 2021.

Review: ‘A Writer’s Odyssey,’ starring Lei Jiayin, Yang Mi and Dong Zijiang

February 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lei Jiayin in “A Writer’s Odyssey” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“A Writer’s Odyssey”

Directed by Lu Yang

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, the fantasy/action film “A Writer’s Odyssey” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A desperate man, who’s been searching for his missing daughter for the past six years, gets caught up in a murder plot and an alternate world that are connected to what a young novelist is writing for his latest book.

Culture Audience: “A Writer’s Odyssey” will appeal primarily to people who like immersive, eye-catching action films that have twist-filled plot developments.

Yang Mi in “A Writer’s Odyssey” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

It’s not just the graphic violence that makes the fantasy/action film “A Writer’s Odyssey” geared to adults. At the core of a movie is a time-traveling mystery that is wrapped up and eventually unraveled in layers, making it a somewhat convoluted story that very young children will have a hard time understanding. But the movie is worth a watch for anyone who’s up for a story that examines issues of grief and revenge, while taking viewers on a frenetic ride in this otherworldly enigma.

To fully understand “A Writer’s Odyssey” (directed by Yang Lu), it helps to know in advance that the movie switches back and forth between two different worlds. In the “real world,” a disillusioned and bitter man named Guan Ning has been on an unrelenting quest to find his daughter Tangerine, who disappeared six years earlier when she was 6 years old. Meanwhile, a young author named Kongwen Lu (played by Dong Zijian) has been writing the latest book in his fantasy novel series, which follows a heroic teenager who is also named Kongwen.

Kongwen Lu’s writing come to life in the movie, and it’s all presented as an “alternate world,” where monsters exist, there are armies of robot-looking mutants, and humans look and act like warriors—or at least potential warriors. In this “alternate world,” whatever Kongwen Lu writes happens on screen. But there comes a point in the movie where what happens in the “alternate world” has an effect on people in the “real world” and vice versa.

“A Writer’s Odyssey” opens up with a thrilling action scene that introduces Guan Ning as the protagonist who finds himself unexpectedly caught between these two worlds. He’s lying in wait in a mountainous area and throws a rock at the windowshield of a freight truck driving below on a winding road. The rock breaks the window, which causes the truck to crash. There are two men sitting in the front of the truck, and they suffer minor injuries.

While the driver is briefly unconscious, Guan Ning shouts to the other man about his missing daughter Tangerine: “Six years ago in Liaoyuan, you kidnapped her. Where is she?” Guan Ning and the thug end up fighting. The driver then regains his consciousness and hits Guan Ning with a pipe.

Guan Ning runs to the back of the truck, opens the door, and sees several children locked in cages, but Tangerine is not one of them. The kids in the cages all look to be about 6 to 8 years old, while Tangerine would be about 12. And the next thing you know, police arrive, the two thugs run off, and Guan Ning is arrested for suspected kidnapping and child trafficking. He protests and says he’s an innocent father who’s looking for his daughter.

In another big fight scene, Guan Ning manages to escape from the back of the police squad car. He runs to the nearest car on the street. It’s a black car that has a mysterious woman dressed in black leather in the driver’s seat. Even though Guan Ning has never met her before, she knows who he is. Her name is Tu Ling (played by Yang Mi), and she tells Guan Ning: “You’re our valued business partner.”

Tu Ling also tells Guan Ning that she knows that his life revolves around finding his missing daughter. She comments that she also knows that he used to be a banker, but after Tangerine disappeared, he quit his job, sold his house, and divorced his wife. Guan Ning is suspicious of Tu Ling, who offers to hide Guan Ning from the police if he will do some favors for her.

Guan Ning is reluctant, but then Guan Ning says that she has information that could lead to him finding his daughter. And so, Guan Ning goes with Tu Ling, who takes him further down a rabbit hole of secrets and lies. It’s enough to say that whenever a mysterious stranger makes an offer that’s too good to be true, it usually is.

Tu Ling has a ruthless boss named Li Mu who has a murderous agenda that’s eventually revealed. Meanwhile, the alternate world created by Kongwen Lu begins to collide more with the real world until it becomes obvious that there’s a power struggle going on that involves the supernatural. Meanwhile, Guan Ning is forced to make a decision that could mean the difference between sparing someone’s life and Guan Ning getting killed, or killing someone else and saving his own life.

All of the actors do moderately good jobs in their performances, but Lei Jiayin has to show the widest range of emotions. There are some predictable flashback scenes of Guan Ningin in happier times with Tangerine, with these scenes blatantly tugging at viewers’ heartstrings. The mystery behind her disappearance isn’t handled in a completely predictable way, which makes “A Writer’s Odyssey” more than a typical fantasy/action flick.

“A Writer’s Odyssey” is based on Xuetao Shuang’s book “Assassinate a Novelist.” There are seven people credited with writing the movie’s screenplay: Xuetao Shuang, director Yang Lu, Shu Chen, Xiaocao Liu, Haiyan Qin, Lu Yang and Yang Yu. With all these screenwriters for the movie, the plot sometimes seems overstuffed with ideas and bloated by “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. And the total running time for the movie (130 minutes) is a little too long.

It’s obvious that a great deal of this movie’s budget was spent on visual effects, which are intricate and sometimes stunning but won’t be winning any awards. The violence is often bloody and cruel, while the choreography works very well in most of the action scenes. At times, “A Writer’s Odyssey” looks like a big-budget video game, but the movie has more humanity than a video game in handling the mystery at the center of the story. Underneath the brutal fight scenes and dazzling visual effects is a story of how a parent’s love for a child can lead someone to go to extreme and desperate actions.

CMC Pictures released “A Writer’s Odyssey” in select U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021, the same day that it was also released in mainland China, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Singapore.

Review: ‘Iron Mask,’ starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Flemyng and Jackie Chan

January 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan in “Iron Mask” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Iron Mask”

Directed by Oleg Stepchenko

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, Russia and China, the action-adventure film “Iron Mask” has a cast of white people and Asians representing the working-class, royalty and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An adventurer teams up with a princess disguised as a teenage boy to rescue the princess’ imprisoned father and save a magical dragon that has been taken over by an evil witch and her group of wizards.

Culture Audience: “Iron Mask” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching nonsensical and poorly acted action flicks.

Jason Flemyng, Anna Churina and Xingtong Yao in “Iron Mask” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Iron Mask” is one of those movies that’s so horrendous, it’s like an insulting parody of a bad movie. “Iron Mask” (sloppily directed by Oleg Stepchenko, who co-wrote the insipid screenplay with Alexey A. Petrukhin) looks like it has a budget that was spent mostly on the production design (some of the set designs are fairly elaborate); the often-tacky visual effects; and the salaries of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan, who get top billing. However, these two past-their-prime action stars are each in “Iron Mask” for less than 20 minutes of this two-hour muddled mess of a film. That skimpy screen time should be enough of an indication how much of a shameless ripoff “Iron Mask” is to mislead viewers into thinking that Schwarzenegger and Chan are the central characters in the movie. They’re not.

In reality, “Iron Mask” is a bloated slog of terrible acting and time-wasting scenes where there are pointless fights that all lead to a predictable and very cheesy ending. It’s the kind of dreck that, if people have the patience to watch the whole thing without falling asleep, they’ll forget almost everything about the movie not long after watching it. It’s not only mind-numbingly bad, but it’s also very boring.

You know how movies look where people speak in another language but their voices are overdubbed with another language? “Iron Mask” (whose convoluted story takes place mostly in England, Russia and China) is that type of movie. It has an international cast, and there are scenes where it’s obvious that people spoke another language when filming the movie but then it was overdubbed in English for release in English-speaking countries. The weird thing is that the audio doesn’t quite synch up well throughout the entire movie, so it looks like even the actors who speak English have overdubbing. That’s how carelessly the film was made.

“Iron Mask” was previously titled “The Mystery of the Dragon Seal,” which is a more appealing title, but it still doesn’t change how badly this movie was made. Here’s the gist of the plot, as it’s explained in the beginning of the film with voiceover narration that’s supposed to sound mystical: In a land far, far away, there lived a creature called the Great Dragon, whose eyelashes went deep into the ground and came up as plants that were made into tea. (Try not to laugh at the ludicrousness of this concept.) The land where the dragon lives is supposed to be an alternate fantasy version of China.

Humans called white wizards were entrusted with the tea. The dragon has a special white seal, which the dragon gave to two white wizards whom the dragon trusted the most: a man named Master (played by Chan) and his princess daughter named Cheng Lan (played by Xingtong Yao). But since movies like this need villains, it’s explained that some of the wizards got greedy, went to the dark side, and called themselves black wizards. These black wizards aligned with an evil witch (played by Li Ma), who led them in an army that took control of the dragon so they could steal all the tea and sell it for their own financial gain.

The witch and the black wizards stopped trimming the dragon’s eyelashes, so the dragon’s eyes became too heavy, and the dragon fell into a deep sleep. The white wizards fought to free the dragon, but they were defeated by the black wizards. As a result, Master and his daughter Cheng Lan were imprisoned on opposite sides of Europe.

Master ends up in the Tower Grey Prison in England, while Cheng Lan ends up in a prison in Russia. Schwarzenegger’s role in the film is a little out-of-place and bizarre. He plays James Hook (as in pirate Captain James Hook, albeit with Schwarzenegger’s heavy German accent), who acts as a prison warden for the Tower Grey Prison, but he’s decked out the whole time in a red and white pirate suit. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

Meanwhile, the story’s main character is a Brit named Jonathan Green (played by Jason Flemyng), who is shown being chased off the estate of a nobleman called Lord Dudley (played by Charles Dance), who is very upset with Jonathan. Why? Because Lord Dudley doesn’t want Jonathan to be with his daughter Miss Dudley (played by Anna Churina), a somewhat prissy heiress who’s in love with Jonathan.

The movie doesn’t make it clear if Miss Dudley and Jonathan are married or not. The “miss” title in her name implies that she’s not married, but then later in the movie, she refers to Jonathan as her “husband.” Whatever their marital status, Jonathan and Miss Dudley have a son together, who’s about 4 or 5 years old, so Lord Dudley can’t get rid of Jonathan that easily.

After being banished from the Dudley estate, Jonathan travels to Russia, where he saw an ancient creature with countless eyes called Viy, which has the ability to read minds. There are also Russians called Cossacks who can turn into creatures. It’s just an excuse to pile on some visual effects that don’t do much to improve this poorly written story.

Jonathan ends up in a Russian prison, and there’s a silly plot development involving a messenger pigeon that leads to Jonathan taking it upon himself to rescuing Master and Cheng Lan; saving the Great Dragon; defeating the villains led by the witch; and going back to England to reunite with Miss Dudley and their son so they can all live happily ever after. Jonathan is released from the prison by Peter the Great, also known as Iron Mask (played by Yuri Kolokolnikov), who’s kind of a useless and annoying character, even though the movie’s title was named for him. Rutger Hauer (who died in 2019) has a much smaller and forgettable role as an ambassador character.

As you can imagine, this loopy saga involves a lot of globetrotting, and there are huge portions of the film that take place on a pirate ship (cue the swashbuckling) and on battle fields. And presumably to appeal to kids, the movie has a creature that looks like a cute blue stuffed toy monkey with wings. This CGI-created creature tags along with Jonathan when he goes to rescue Cheng Lan while they travel by carriage and are confronted by a gang of thieves.

For her protection, Cheng Lan has disguised herself as a teenage boy. It’s not a convincing disguise, but she manages to fool Jonathan for most of the story anyway. Miss Dudley hears that Jonathan has gone to rescue a beautiful princess, and she gets jealous. So there’s a dumb subplot of Miss Dudley flouncing off to Russia to try to track down her man.

Miss Dudley ends up disguising herself briefly as a male pirate to get on board a ship that’s bound for China. Just like Cheng Lan, Miss Dudley also looks very unconvincing “disguised” as someone of the opposite sex. The movie can’t even get it right when it dresses up women up in drag. Whatever this fantasy world is in “Iron Mask,” it’s clear that it’s a world where the “good” women aren’t taken seriously as men are taken seriously, when it comes to being strong leaders and fighters, so the women have to disguise themselves as men to get things done. However, the movie has no problem making the chief villain a woman who doesn’t disguise herself as a man.

There’s also some underlying sexism when James Hook comments on an elderly man who died in the Tower Grey Prison: “At least he died happy,” and adds an explanation for why this man died happy: “As far as I know, he hasn’t seen a woman in 30 years.”

James Hook and Master have an inevitable fight scene where there’s more crappy dialogue that’s fails miserably at being funny. While the two adversaries are fighting with swords, James Hook’s hair gets cut off, while Master’s long beard gets shortened. Master tells Hook, “You look better this way.” Hook comments to Master on his new look: “You look younger.” Master replies, “Do I?” And then they resume fighting.

Cheesy jokes aside, “Iron Mask” looks like a movie made by people who wanted to waste millions in production money to make a live-action version of a very badly conceived cartoon. The characters are bland and unappealing. And the actors seem to know it too, because there’s no real enthusiasm or sincerity in their performances. And the amateurish direction gives the impression that a robot could’ve done a better job directing this movie. There are bad movies that are sometimes fun to watch, but “Iron Mask” is just a cringeworthy chore to watch.

Lionsgate released “Iron Mask” on digital and VOD on November 20, 2020, and on Blu-ray and DVD on November 24, 2020.

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