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

July 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“Thor: Love and Thunder”

Directed by Taika Waititi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Jurassic World Dominion,’ starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, DeWanda Wise and Mamoudou Athie

June 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Isabella Sermon and DeWanda Wise in “Jurassic World Dominion” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Jurassic World Dominion”

Directed by Colin Trevorrow

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and briefly in Malta, the sci-fi/action film “Jurassic World Dominion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Latinos and Asians) portraying scientists, business people and animal advocates involved in some way with the interaction of the dinosaur population that was first seen in 1993’s “Jurassic Park.”

Culture Clash: As dinosaurs and humans co-exist on Earth, swarms of giant locusts are eating crops and killing off Earth’s population, while a group of scientists and other people race against time to save the world. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Jurassic” franchise fans, “Jurassic World Dominion” will appeal to fans of the stars of the movie, as well as viewers who will tolerate a mediocre and jumbled story to see some familiar faces.

Beta and Blue in “Jurassic World Dominion” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Bloated and with a scatterbrained plot, “Jurassic World Dominion” is a disappointing, overstuffed mess with too many awkward jokes and not enough dinosaur action. Bringing back original “Jurassic Park” cast members will just remind viewers how superior the first “Jurassic Park” movie is to this “Jurassic World” sequel. Colin Trevorrow directed and co-wrote 2015’s “Jurassic World,” a spinoff to the “Jurassic Park” series that began with 1993’s “Jurassic Park.”

Trevorrow was set to direct 2018’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” but he was replaced by J.A. Bayona, although Trevorrow co-wrote the “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” screenplay. Trevorrow returned as a director of the “Jurassic” franchise by helming “Jurassic World Dominion,” which he co-wrote with Emily Carmichael. Unfortunately, it seems like the “Jurassic World Dominion” filmmakers couldn’t stick to an uncomplicated plot, because the movie (which is too long, at 146 minutes) goes off on some distracting and unwelcome tangents.

“Jurassic World Dominion” picks up four years after the destruction of the Central American island of Isla Nublar, the sanctuary-like domain of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs co-exist with humans all over the world—a prediction come true by Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum), who was shown at the end of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” testifying before the U.S. Senate that Earth would have dinosaurs and humans being able co-exist peacefully. But there would be no “Jurassic World Dominion” if things ended that simply.

The main cause of all of Earth’s problems in “Jurassic World Dominion” (as with most of the other “Jurassic” movies) comes down to one thing: human greed. And there’s yet another evil businessman who’s at the root of it. One of the more frustrating things about “Jurassic World Dominion” is that it lazily recycles and copies too many other things from previous “Jurassic” movies.

The beginning of “Jurassic Dominion” features a news report explaining that, once again, a black market has emerged for captured dinosaurs. As a result, the U.S. government has awarded the global rights to collect the world’s dinosaurs to a biotech company called Biosyn, which is located in the Dolomite Mountains valley. Not only is Biosyn now in charge of collecting all the dinosaurs on Earth but this mysterious company is also in the business of trying to eradicate world hunger by creating crops immune to pests and diseases.

Try not to laugh at the idea that one company has been given control over the world’s dinosaurs and possibly the world’s food supply chain. (The movie makes no mention whatsoever of what the United Nations would have to say about it, because apparently, the United States makes decisions for the entire world.) But “Jurassic Park Dominion” viewers are supposed to believe this flimsy premise, because it’s the basis of all of the conflicts in this movie.

With one company having this much power, corruption is inevitable. And the movie reveals early on who the chief villain is, which should surprise no one: Biosyn CEO Lewis Dodgson (played by Campbell Scott), who has several subordinates, but he’s really presented unrealistically as the only villain mastermind. Meanwhile, there’s a whole slew of heroes who zigzag around the world and eventually join forces for the predictable “we have save the world” part of the story.

“Jurassic World Dominion” is so disjointed and so caught up in introducing a new subplot every 20 minutes, it ends up being too jumbled for its own good. The beginning of the movie re-introduces former Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt) and dinosaur rescue advocate Claire Dearing (played Bryce Dallas Howard), who are now officially a couple, after trying to deny that they wanted to be a couple for the previous two “Jurassic World” movies.

Owen and Claire are living in isolation the Sierra Nevada Mountains and raising 15-year-old Maisie Lockwood (played Isabella Sermon), the orphaned daughter of Benjamin Lockwood (played by James Cromwell), the co-founder of Jurassic Park. Benjamin’s fate is show in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” which is why Owen and Claire are now Maisie’s guardians. As shown in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (mild spoiler alert) Benjamin’s daughter Charlotte died an untimely death, so in his grief, he controversially used Charlotte’s DNA to clone another daughter, who is Maisie, whom Benjamin presented to the world as his granddaughter.

This “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” plot reveal is talked about multiple times in “Jurassic World Dominion,” because Maisie knows she was cloned from her dead mother Charlotte’s DNA. Maisie is now in hiding with Owen and Claire, who both don’t want her to be captured by the U.S. government for experiments. This is all information that viewers need to know within the first 15 minutes of watching “Jurassic World Dominion.” It’s an example of how badly the movie is written for people who might not know anything about “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.”

An early scene in “Jurassic World Dominion” shows that Claire (who is part of the Dinosaur Protection Group) has been fanatically rescuing dinosaurs from illegal breeders. The scene depicts one such recue at an illegal breeding farm in Nevada. Two of Claire’s dinosaur rescue colleagues—systems analyst Franklin Webb (played by Justice Smith) and paleo-veterinarian Dr. Zia Rodriguez (played by Daniella Pineda)—are with her on this successful mission, but they start to question Claire’s recklessness in putting them in increasing danger. Franklin’s and Zia’s appearances in the movie are really just filler.

Owen and Claire refuse to let Maisie interact with any other people except Owen and Claire. And now, teenage Maisie is starting to resent this control and is beginning to rebel. Expect to see several scenes of Maisie shouting, pouting and being resentful to Owen and Claire. But before Owen and Claire have much time to deal with Maisie wanting more freedom, this family has another more pressing problem: a dinosaur kidnapping.

One of the stars of the previous two “Jurassic World” movies was a female Velociraptor named Blue, who was rescued and adopted by Owen and Claire. Blue (one of the last-known Velociraptors on Earth) conceived a child on her own and gave birth to this child, which is named Beta. And now, Beta has been stolen by poachers, led by a shaggy-haired lowlife named Rainn Delacourt (played by Scott Haze), who works for the most obvious person possible. And then, Maisie gets kidnapped too. A sassy former U.S. Air Force pilot named Kayla Watts (played by DeWanda Wise) has been hired to transport Maisie by private plane during this kidnapping.

But wait, there’s more: Swarms of giant locusts have been causing terror on Earth, by killing people and eating essential food crops. And these giant locusts, which are rapidly spreading across the world, are only eating food crops that were not engineered by Biosyn. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it’s not a coincidence. But apparently, only a few people on Earth have figured out that it’s not a coincidence. And in this idiotic movie, that small group of people will to have to be the ones to save the world.

Meanwhile, original “Jurassic Park” characters Dr. Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern) are shoehorned into a clumsy plot where they reunite with Ian, who now works for Biosyn. Before that happens, paleobotanist Ellie meets up with paleontologist Alan, who is now living in Utah and making money offering paleontological digs for tourists. It’s a reunion scene that should be entertaining to watch, but it just looks so forced and uncomfortably written.

Alan has had a crush on Ellie for years—so much so, that he has a photo of her on his wall. He quickly hides the photo when Ellie suddenly shows up to visit him. Ellie is now divorced with college-age children. Alan is a bachelor who’s happy to hear Ellie is now single and available. And you know what that means later in the movie.

Ian has invited Ellie and Alan to Biosyn, where he is now the company’s in-house philosopher. It’s just an excuse for the movie to have Ian act like a New Age eccentric. Later in the movie, Ian makes this creepy statement: “I had a dog once. It humped my leg so much, I got a callous on my shin bone.” That’s an example of the awful dialogue in “Jurassic World Dominion.”

Biosyn’s head of communications Ramsay Cole (played by Mamoudou Athie) is open about his hero worship of Ian. Ramsay also professes his loyalty to Rasmay’s Biosyn CEO boss Lewis. Ramsay becomes the official Biosyn tour guide for visitors Ellie and Alan, who are both suspicious of Lewis. “Jurassic” movie franchise recurring character Dr. Henry Wu (played by BD Wong), who works for Biosyn as a genetic engineer, is in the movie for less than 15 minutes, where he spends most of his screen time looking stressed-out and worried.

With the reunion of old characters and the introduction of new characters, “Jurassic World Dominion” keeps throwing different subplots into the mix to separate the characters and then eventually bring them back together. There’s an unnecessary detour to Malta, featuring a cameo from Barry Sembène (played by Omar Sy), who was a dinosaur trainer in 2015’s “Jurassic World” movie. Barry’s only purpose in “Jurassic World Dominion” is to tell people that Malta is a gateway for people involved in illegal dinosaur trafficking, and so he can show Claire and Owen what an underground dinosaur fight club looks like.

And what about the dinosaurs in this story? They’re not in the movie as much as some viewers might expect. The dinosaur action scenes are not very terrifying at all. You never feel like the “heroes” are in any real danger. And when you see the lack of serious injuries at the end of the film, considering all the physical attacks that the characters experienced, it all just adds to the movie’s phoniness.

None of the acting in “Jurassic World Dominion” is special, because the cast members are just going through the motions reciting the often-silly dialogue that they have to say. (Expect to see plenty of cringeworthy comments from Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm character. ) “Jurassic World Dominion” is ultimately a “Jurassic” movie where the dinosaurs have lost a lot of edge, and the human drama is entirely toothless.

Universal Pictures will release “Jurassic World: Dominion” in U.S. cinemas on June 10, 2022. The movie was released in other countries first, beginning June 1 in Mexico and South Korea, and June 2 in Argentina, Brazil and Peru.

Review: ‘Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,’ starring Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, David Oyelowo and the voices of James Corden, Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Aimee Horne and Lennie James

June 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

David Oyelowo, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson with Cotton-Tail (voiced by Aimee Horne), Flopsy (voiced by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voiced by Elizabeth Debecki), Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) and Benjamin Bunny (voiced by Colin Moody) in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway”

Directed by Will Gluck

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of England, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” features a cast of characters representing humans (mostly white, with a few black and Asian people) and animals in working-class and middle-class environments.

Culture Clash: While on a family trip to London, Peter Rabbit separates himself from the rest of the group and falls in with a gang of thieving animals.

Culture Audience: “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” will appeal primarily to people looking for lightweight, family-friendly animated entertainment.

Barnabas (voiced by Lennie James), Samuel Whiskers (voiced by Rupert Degas), Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden), Mittens (voiced by Hayley Atwell) and Tom Kitten (voiced by Damon Herriman) in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Just like the hyper rabbit who’s the title character, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” hops all over the place, as Peter Rabbit becomes more restless about seeing the world outside of his home. This wandering spirit mostly works well in this affable sequel. And fortunately, people don’t have to see 2018’s “Peter Rabbit” movie to understand or enjoy this follow-up movie. The movies are based on the beloved Beatrix Potter children’s book series.

“Peter Rabbit” director/co-writer/producer Will Gluck returned to direct, co-write and produce “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” but he changed screenwriting collaborators. The “Peter Rabbit” screenplay was co-written by Rob Lieber, while Patrick Burleigh co-wrote the screenplay for “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.” The results are a much more frenetically paced, travel-oriented film that stuffs in a “race against time” plot development the last 10 minutes of the movie.

This “race against time” plot development could have worked as the plot of an entire film instead of being rushed in at the end. It seems like the filmmakers tried to incorporate several different plot ideas into the same movie instead of sticking to just one. For the most part, it works, especially if viewers have short attention spans. But other times, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” seems as if there are three different movies in one film.

One part of the movie is about the mischievous Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) running away from his family and befriending a gang of thieving animals. Another part of the movie is about Peter going home, missing his new friends, and recruiting his rabbit relatives and some animal pals to go back and help the gang of thieves with a big heist. And another part of the film involves a big rescue mission that won’t be revealed in this review. And there’s an over-arching theme about not changing your identity to please other people.

Because of all these different story ideas going on in the same movie, “Peter Rabbit 2” increases the energy level from the first “Peter Rabbit” movie, but sometimes to the detriment of staying focused. It’s not a perfect film. However, it’s good enough to bring some lighthearted chuckles while watching the antics of these precocious talking animals and how they interact with each other and with humans.

There are also some sly meta-references that poke fun at certain members of the cast and the “adventure story” aspect of this sequel. Some adult viewers might get the jokes. For example, Corden is somewhat of a divisive personality in real life. Some people adore him, while others think he’s extremely annoying. In “Peter Rabbit 2,” Peter asks certain animals more than once if they think his voice is annoying. It’s a question that Corden could be asking about his likability in real life.

And in other parts of the movie, there are several mentions of trying to make the “Peter Rabbit” books series more appealing to a wider audience by having the rabbits dress differently and having them embark on different adventures in various locations—even outer space. It seem like a wink and a nod to the pressures the “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” filmmakers must have felt to make this sequel more exciting than its predecessor. As such, Peter and his animal group experience more adventures outside the comfort of their country home in Windermere, England.

In the first “Peter Rabbit” movie, the plot centered mainly on Peter’s battles with members of the McGregor family who hate rabbits and other animals that might disrupt their garden where Peter and other animals like to play. First, there was crabby Old Mr. McGregor (played by Sam Neill), who died of a heart attack near the beginning of the movie. His nephew Thomas McGregor (played by Domhnall Gleeson), another cranky loner, inherited his deceased uncle’s house that’s next door to the house of an illustrative artist named Bea (played by Rose Byrne), a pleasant and gentle nurturer who loves the animals on the property.

Bea is especially fond of a family of five orphaned rabbits that she treats as if they’re her own children. The rabbits are Peter; his three sisters—insecure Flopsy Rabbit (voiced by Margot Robbie); practical Mopsy Rabbit (voiced by Elizabeth Debicki); and cynical Cotton-Tail Rabbit (voiced by Aimee Horne, who replaced Daisy Ridley)—and their older cousin Benjamin Bunny (voiced by Colin Moody), who likes to give wise advice. The rabbits think and talk like humans. But ironically, Thomas, not Bea, can hear the rabbits talk. (Flopsy is the voiceover narrator for these movies.)

The first “Peter Rabbit” movie ends the way that you expect it would. By the end of the movie, Thomas and Bea have fallen in love, Thomas has quit his sales job at Harrod’s, and he has fulfilled his dream of opening up a children’s shop that sells toys and books. Thomas has reached a tentative truce with Peter, with the agreement that Peter won’t touch Thomas’ cherished crop of tomatoes. This is information that’s mentioned at the beginning of “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.” Therefore, people who didn’t see the first “Peter Rabbit” movie and want to get the full backstory probably should see “Peter Rabbit” before watching “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.”

“Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” begins with Bea and Thomas getting married. They work together in the shop, and Thomas has been an independent publisher for Bea’s first “Peter Rabbit” book about Peter Rabbit and his family. The book, which is a hit, has caught the attention of a smooth-talking wheeler dealer named Nigel Basil-Jones (played by David Oyelowo), an executive at a major book publisher. Nigel comes into the shop one day and tells a delighted Bea that he wants to sign her to a multi-book deal that will significantly increase distribution and profits for her “Peter Rabbit” book series.

There’s just one problem: Nigel and his team of sycophantic executives think that the “Peter Rabbit” book series should be more appealing to modern audiences. Suggestions are made to change the rabbits’ wardrobe to T-shirts and jeans. And the executives want the rabbits to have adventures in other places besides the yard of their home.

Bea is excited about this possible contract and seems willing to make these changes, while Thomas and Cotton-Tail are more skeptical. Bea doesn’t want the changes to be too drastic, but she’s willing to compromise. Nigel can also be very persuasive. There’s a running joke in the movie that people can’t look into Nigel’s eyes for too long because his eyes have almost a hypnotic effect on people.

The first time that Bea and Thomas meet with Nigel in London, the spouses take their rabbit family with them by train. During Thomas and Bea’s meeting with Nigel (with the rabbits also in attendance), Nigel suggests that each of the rabbits should have nicknames that would make the rabbits’ personalities more marketable. For Benjamin, the suggested nickname is The Wise One. Cotton-Tail’s suggested nickname is The Firecracker. Identical twins Flopsy and Mopsy’s suggested nickname is The Dynamic Duo.

And for Peter, Nigel can’t decide between the nickname The Mischief Maker or The Bad Seed. Peter is insulted by both names, especially The Bad Seed, because he doesn’t think he’s bad. And he doesn’t want to be portrayed as a villain in Bea’s “Peter Rabbit” books.

Peter sneaks off from the meeting to sulk and spend time by himself. He wanders into the seedier areas of the city to the sound of Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” playing on the movie’s soundtrack. It’s in this part of the city that Peter meets a rabbit who’s about the same age as Peter’s father would be if Peter’s father were still alive.

This older rabbit’s name is Barnabas (voiced by Lennie James), who is a mischief maker and a longtime thief. After causing a ruckus at an outdoor grocery stand, Barnabas and Peter run away and hide in various places, including a mailbox and a recycling bin.

During their conversations where they get to know each other, Peter tells Barnabas about his family’s up-and-down history with the McGregors. Based on this information, Barnabas then tells Peter that he knew Peter’s father. An instant connection is then formed between Peter and Barnabas. Barnabas is an old roughneck who seems to have a soft spot for Peter and seems to want to be Peter’s father figure/mentor.

Barnabas also introduces Peter to the animals who are the other members of Barnabas’ gang of thieves: a cat named Tom Kitten (voiced by Damon Herriman); Tom’s sister Mittens (voiced by Hayley Atwell); and a rat named Samuel Whiskers (voiced by Rupert Degas). There’s a misadventure involving a pet store called Piperson’s Pets, which has animal catchers roaming the streets, looking for stray animals to capture and sell.

The rest of the movie could have been spent on Peter being a runaway and his family trying to find him. However, it would be too divisive to audiences to have Peter separated from his family for most of the movie. Instead, Bea and Thomas find Peter, and he goes home with the rest of the family.

At home, Peter is still thinking about Barnabas, who was like an instant surrogate father to Peter and seemed to accept Peter for who he is. Peter longs to see Barnabas again and to continue to get Barnabas’ approval. And so, Peter hatches a plan to convince his family and some animal neighbors to help Barnabas and his gang on a major famer’s market heist, with dried fuit being the biggest prized possession for the thieves.

The rest of “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” shows what happens to those plans. Peter’s rabbit family members go along for the ride. Also recruited for this big heist are characters from the first “Peter Rabbit” movie: a hedgehog named Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (voiced by Sia); a pig named Pigling Bland (voiced by Ewen Leslie); a deer named Felix D’eer (voiced by Christian Gazal) who freezes at the sight of lights; a duck named Jemima Puddle-Duck (voiced by Byrne); and a badger named Tommy Brock (voiced by Sam Neill).

The neurotic JW Rooster III (voiced by Jack Andrew), with his now-older children, make recurring appearances, with the running joke that rooster thinks that the day can’t start unless he crows correctly. With all these animal characters, the humans in the story could be overshadowed. However, there’s enough of a balance and a reminder that these domesticated animals, for all of their rebellion, still rely on humans to get their food.

The comedy in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” isn’t a laugh a minute. There’s a lot of predictable slapstick, of course, with Peter usually finding himself in trouble in one way or another. Thomas is still gangly and awkward, so he’s the human character who’s the most likely to be the butt of the slapstick jokes. Cotton-Tail brings some laughs with her ongoing pessimistic sarcasm.

“Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” also has a recurring gag where Cotton-Tail over-indulges in eating candy, gets very hyperactive from a sugar high, and then her energy level crashes and burns. A joke that doesn’t work as well is Flopsy’s decision to call herself Lavoratory because she’s tired of her identity being so intwined with her identical twin Mopsy. This decision doesn’t last, but it’s a little disappointing that the filmmakers would make one the narrator of the movie call herself a toilet and that she wasn’t smart enough to know what a lavoratory was in the first place.

The movie’s soundtrack has the same rock/pop tone as the first “Peter Rabbit” movie, with prominent placement of tunes from the 1990s and 2010s. Supergrass’ 1995 hit “Alright” seems to be the unofficial theme song for the movie, since it’s played more than once in key scenes. Gluck’s direction moves the film along at a brisk but occasionally uneven pace, since the last 10 minutes of the movie really look like the narrative of the story went on fast-forward.

The movie’s visual effects that combine live action with animation continue to look seamless, thanks to the good work of visual effects company Animal Logic, which also did the visual effects for the first “Peter Rabbit” film. Will this movie win any major awards? No. Just like the visual effects, acting and everything else in the movie “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” fulfills its purpose of providing satisfactory entertainment for people of many age groups, but the work isn’t so outstanding that people will think that it’s the best of the best.

Columbia Pictures will release “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” in U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Blackbird’ (2020), starring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus and Anson Boon

September 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rainn Wilson, Sam Neill, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, Susan Sarandon and Anson Boon in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Blackbird” (2020)

Directed by Roger Michell

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut, the dramatic film “Blackbird” features an all-white cast of characters representing the upper-middle class.

Culture Clash: Long-simmering resentments cause conflicts during a family gathering for a terminally ill woman who wants to die by euthanasia.

Culture Audience: “Blackbird” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about family issues.

Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Should people with a terminal disease decide when and how they want to die? It’s an ethical dilemma that has already been decided by Lily Walker, the matriarch of a well-to-do American family. Lily has multiple sclerosis and she wants her doctor husband Paul to give her a lethal dose of medication before her health further declines. The dramatic film “Blackbird” (directed by Roger Michell) is about the family gathering at Lily and Paul’s beach house in the final days that Lily has decided that she’s going to live.

“Blackbird” is a remake of the 2014 Danish film “Silent Heart,” which was written by Christian Torpe, who adapted the movie from his “Silent Heart” novel. Torpe also wrote the screenplay for “Blackbird,” which is a random title for the movie since there’s no blackbird or reference to a blackbird in the story. What’s more important is that it’s a solidly written, well-acted story that isn’t really Oscar-worthy, but it will tug at people’s heartstrings and trigger emotions because there are moments that might remind viewers of their own families.

In “Blackbird” (which takes place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut), Lily (played by Susan Sarandon) has already come to terms with how she wants to die. Her attitude, while not exactly jubilant, is rather matter-of-fact and often jokingly sarcastic about her impending death. Lily’s husband Paul (played by Sam Neill) is trying to go about life as “normally” as possible while trying not to let it show too much how much of a heavy emotional burden he has to administer the lethal dose of medication that has been ordered specifically for the euthanasia.

Lily wants to die on her own terms because she’s losing the use of her muscles, while her medical diagnosis is that it will only be a matter of months when she will have to use a feeding tube to eat. The beginning of the movie shows members of Lily and Paul’s immediately family, as well as Lily’s longtime British best friend Liz (played by Lindsay Duncan), gathering at Lily and Paul’s home to say their goodbyes.

The family members who have gathered for this bittersweet reunion include Lily and Paul’s two daughters who are total opposites. Elder daughter Jennifer, or Jen (played by Kate Winslet), is a judgmental control freak who likes her life to be well-planned and orderly—and it bothers her if other people’s lives aren’t in order too. Younger daughter Anna (played by Mia Wasikowska) has a very messy life, including jumping around from job to job and being treated for bipolar disorder. It should come as no surprise that Jen and Anna don’t get along very well and have been estranged for years.

Trying not to get in the middle of this sibling feud are their respective love partners: Jen’s mild-mannered and nerdy husband Michael (played Rainn Wilson) and Anna’s on-again/off-again partner Chris (played by Bex Taylor-Klaus), who appears to be nonbinary. (Taylor-Klaus is nonbinary in real life.) Also at this family reunion is Jen and Michael’s teenage son Jonathan (played by Anson Boon), who’s going through that teenage phase where he’s easily embarrassed and irritated by things his parents say and do. Jonathan (who is about 16 or 17 years old) is a well-behaved, academically talented student, but he wants to be an actor, which is a career choice that he knows his parents won’t like.

The movie does not show how Lily and Paul told their loved ones the news about Lily’s planned euthanasia, but by the time the group has gathered at the house, they all know about it, except for Jonathan. Paul eventually takes Jonathan aside for a private talk to break the news to him. Jonathan is shocked, but he’s willing to accept whatever Lily wants because he loves and respects his grandmother. In fact, Lily is the first person in the family whom Jonathan tells that he wants to be an actor. She encourages him to pursue this goal.

But since this is a drama about a family reunion, it isn’t long before the family friction starts. Jen and Anna haven’t seen each other in some years. While they’re alone together, Jen expresses disappointment that Anna wasn’t at their father’s birthday and at Jonathan’s school recital, even though Jen sent several reminders. Anna said she was too busy and really wanted to be there. However, it’s pretty obvious to observant viewers from Anna’s tone of voice and body language that Anna has been avoiding family gatherings because she doesn’t want to be around Jen.

Jen isn’t shy about expressing her disapproval of Anna being unable to settle on a professional career. (It’s not really stated what Jen does with her life, which makes her morally superior attitude even more insufferable.) When she asks Anna how her dance program is going, Anna tells Jen that she’s dropped out of the program. Jen then scolds Anna for not completing the program, as well as Anna giving up on past attempts to train for jobs in yoga therapy, acupuncture and quilting. These were programs that their parents paid for, so Jen tries to make Anna feel guilty by implying that her parents are wasting their money on Anna.

Jen then proceeds to annoy Anna even more when she admonishes Anna for bringing Chris to this intimate and sensitive family reunion, because Jen had asked Anna not to invite Chris. Anna tells Jen that if Jen can bring her husband Michael to this reunion, then Anna can bring Chris. Anna angrily says to Jen, “Chris happens to my husband.” Jen replies, “Are you sure you’re even gay?”

Jen’s apparent homophobia isn’t the only reason why she doesn’t approve of Anna and Chris’ relationship. Anna and Chris (who are dating but don’t live together) have had a rocky romance, and Jen thinks Chris is a lower-class person who isn’t a good fit for their family. Unfortunately, as Jen is telling Anna about how Chris isn’t worthy of being part of their family, Chris walks into the room and overhears this part of the conversation, and then walks out of the room embarrassed.

And as if Jen couldn’t be more condescending and insulting, she tells Anna: “Can you give Mom this whole weekend and not have it revolve around you, Anna?” At this point, Anna has had enough of Jen’s lectures and explodes: “Can you quit being a fucking bitch?”

Of course, there are more arguments that take place, as is typical for movies about family reunions. Most of the conflicts revolve around Anna and Jen. Anna confides in Chris that she secretly plans to prevent Lily’s euthanasia by calling 911 to report a suicide attempt. Why? Because Anna doesn’t want Lily to die and she wants to spend more time with her mother to make up for time that they spent apart.

And since this is a movie about family reunions, it has the usual trope about secrets being revealed. One thing that’s not a secret is that Liz used to date Paul, before Paul ever met Lily. What is a secret, which Liz and Lily (who used to be free-spirited hippies) discuss while they walk on the beach together, is that back in the early ’70s, they made a drunken attempt to become lesbian lovers, but it didn’t work out. They have a laugh about it all these years later.

The family has gathered in November, close to Thanksgiving, but one of Lily’s last wishes is that they have their Christmas celebration early. She asks Paul to make the Christmas dinner and Michael to go outside and cut down a small tree that will be used for Christmas decorations. This family dinner, where Lily gives everyone a personal gift from her, is one of the best scenes in the movie. Sensitive viewers should have tissues on hand for this tearjerking moment.

With this high caliber of talent in the cast, it’s no surprise that the acting in the movie is top-notch. It’s a story that could easily be adapted into a play, since most of the action takes place inside the house. The beach setting (the movie was actually filmed in Chichester, England, not Connecticut) is lovely, but it’s not very essential to the story.

As good as the acting is in the movie, “Blackbird” doesn’t quite have what it takes to be a movie worthy of a lot of prestigious awards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the movie, but so much of the “family reunion when someone is dying” aspect has been done before in a familiar manner in other movies, that there’s nothing extraordinary about the way that “Blackbird” tells this type of story. It’s not exactly like a formulaic “disease of the week TV movie,” but the character development is lacking in some ways.

The men in the movie are written as incomplete sketches who mostly react to what the strong-willed women in the family (Lily and Jen) want. Paul essentially admits that he’s just carrying out Lily’s demands, when he tells Liz in a private conversation that people who decide to die by euthanasia are rarely insane or depressed, but they are “deeply controlling.” Jonathan isn’t quite a man yet, but his personality is also fairly generic. He shows typical signs of teen rebellion to both of his parents, but he’s willing to please his beloved grandmother Lily.

The conflicts between Jen and Anna suck up a lot of the emotions in the story, which leaves little room for viewers to really get to know Paul and Michael and what they are feeling. Anna and Jen’s love/hate relationship with each other often leaves Chris feeling like a helpless outsider, since Chris has been dating Anna off and on for about three years, and the issues between Anna and Jen have been going on much longer than that. Lily’s unconditional acceptance of Chris goes a long way in how Jen eventually warms up to Chris. There’s a very good scene that Chris and Jen have together where they confront the awkward family tension that has existed between them.

“Blackbird” isn’t a perfect film, but it realistically raises issues that will make people think about what they would do if someone in their family chose euthanasia as a way to die. How much time would be enough time to prepare the family? What grudges can or can’t be resolved before the loved one dies? And what if someone in the family objects to the euthanasia and wants to stop it, even if it means getting family members into legal trouble? There are no easy answers to these questions, but “Blackbird” is a compelling look at how a fictional family deals with these very real and emotionally complicated dilemmas.

Screen Media Films, in association with Fathom Events, released “Blackbird” in select U.S. cinemas for two nights of previews on September 14 and September 15, 2020. The movie expands to more U.S. cinemas and is available on VOD on September 18, 2020.

Review: ‘Ride Like a Girl,’ starring Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill and Stevie Payne

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Teresa Palmer in “Ride Like a Girl” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Ride Like a Girl”

Directed by Rachel Griffiths

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia and inspired by a true story, “Ride Like a Girl” has an all-white cast of characters from the middle-class and upper-class who are involved in the sport of horse racing.

Culture Clash: Horse-racing jockey Michelle Payne fights sexism, and she clashes with her father over how long she’ll stay in this dangerous sport.

Culture Audience: “Ride Like a Girl” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in formulaic movies about horse racing or women overcoming obstacles in a male-dominated industry.

Teresa Palmer and Sam Neill in “Ride Like a Girl” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

There’s a certain formula that movies follow about women overcoming obstacles in a male-dominated world. The sports drama “Ride Like a Girl” (which is inspired by a true story) follows the formula almost to a fault. Feisty heroine? Check. Sexist villains? Check. An against-all-odds victory? Check.

Under the capable-but-unoriginal direction of Rachel Griffiths (who’s best known as a former co-star of the HBO TV series “Six Feet Under”), “Ride Like a Girl” tells the real-life story of horse-racing jockey Michelle Payne, played by Teresa Palmer in the movie. In 2015, at the age of 30, Payne became the first female jockey to win at the annual Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious thoroughbred horse race, which has been around since 1861.

Even if you’ve never heard of Michelle Payne and what she accomplished, it’s clear from the first 10 minutes of this movie how the story is going to be presented and how it’s going to end. It has the same sort of tone and pacing like many other “underdog” sports movies that have come before it. That’s not to say that “Ride Like a Girl” is boring or poorly executed. It’s just completely predictable.

The movie begins with a documentary-type voiceover (that doesn’t appear for the rest of the film) telling viewers that Michelle was born into a large family (she’s the youngest of 10 kids), and her mother died in a car accident when Michelle was only 10 months old. Her father, Paddy Payne (played by Sam Neill), is completely immersed in the world of horse racing, since he’s been both a jockey and a trainer. Some of his children have also become jockeys.

As a child, Michelle became an avid follower of horse races. Since it’s her family business, it’s no surprise that when she’s old enough, she wants to become a jockey too, just like some of her older siblings. The movie shows that as a teenager in high school, Michelle was so obsessed with horse racing, that she would excuse herself from class so that she could sit in a bathroom stall and listen to horse races on a portable device. (She gets caught in the act by an inquisitive nun at the Catholic school that Michelle attends.)

Because Michelle has such a large family, director Griffiths and “Ride Like a Girl” screenwriters Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie wisely didn’t try to give all of them a back story. Instead, the two siblings of Michelle who get the most screen time are Stevie Payne (who plays himself), who happens to have Down syndrome, and Cathy Payne (played by Sophia Forrest), who is close to Michelle’s age and is also a jockey. Michelle has the closest bond with Stevie, who’s her most loyal supporter. She promises Stevie that one day they’ll have their own facility to train race horses.

Paddy trains Michelle as a jockey, and she has natural and gifted abilities in the sport. She’s also usually the only female jockey in a race. Because of the overwhelming sexism in the industry, the rare female jockeys who exist are regulated to races in the minor leagues. Michelle has bigger ambitions than that. She wants to race in the Melbourne Cup and win.

But tragedy strikes the family when Michelle’s older sister Brigid (played by Anneliese Apps), who was the second woman to become a professional jockey in Australia, dies from an accidental fall from a horse. It’s the most common way that jockeys die on the job, and the tragedy has long-lasting effects on the Payne family. Paddy immediately discourages Michelle from continuing her dreams of being a jockey, but she defies his wishes and continues without his help or support.

The rest of the movie shows Michelle overcoming a number of obstacles—such as sexist men who don’t want her competing in races, numerous falls from horses, and several broken-bone injuries—that should come as no surprise to viewers. There isn’t one particular person who’s made out to be the chief villain in this story. Rather, the movie portrays several of the horse owners, fellow jockeys and others in horse racing as being part of an overall culture of sexism. Michelle is frequently excluded and treated like a second-class person, compared to the male jockeys who get privileges that she doesn’t.

Not all of the men in horse racing are portrayed as sexist. There’s a horse-racing associate named Darren Weir (played by Sullivan Stapleton), who works with many of the horse owners and who’s quietly supportive of Michelle. While hanging out at the race tracks, Darren seems to show up at the right time to give words of encouragement and advice to Michelle. The way that Darren smirks at Michelle somewhat hints that he might want to date her, but the movie doesn’t veer off in the direction of having a contrived romance.

In fact, Michelle doesn’t have any love life in this movie. For the purposes of this story, it’s entirely believable that she doesn’t show any interest in dating anyone because she’s so focused/obsessed with the sport of horse racing and being the best in her field. It also makes sense that she wouldn’t get romantically involved with anyone in her line of work because it would undermine her efforts to be taken seriously. There’s a telling scene where she’s in a gym hot tub with fellow jockeys, in what appears to be a gathering after a horse race. This scene demonstrates that she’s trying to be “one of the boys,” but her discomfort is clearly shown in her face and other body language, as she stays in a corner of the hot tub and turns away so they won’t stare at her swimsuit-clad body.

The movie also shows some of the other ways that being a woman in a male-dominated sport had an effect on Michelle’s personal life. In one scene, she gets an opportunity to compete in an important race that takes place on the same day as her sister Cathy’s wedding. Cathy has given up being a jockey to get married and start a family, and she encourages Michelle to start thinking about doing the same thing. (Michelle’s not interested.)

In order to compete in this race, the horse owner tells Michelle that she has to weigh 50 kilograms. The race is the next day, and Michelle weighs 53 kilograms. She promises the horse owner that she can lose three kilograms in one day. The movie shows how she goes through extremes to lose the weight (fasting; rigorous exercising wearing heavy clothes so she can sweat off the kilograms; wrapping her body in cellophane), in addition to her race-against-time to make it to the wedding.

Whether or not this happened in real life, it’s used to dramatic effect. What the movie doesn’t really address (and possibly glosses over) is how much pressure the real Michelle Payne and other female jockeys might feel to be a certain weight and if it puts them in danger of getting eating disorders.

A big part of the movie is about how Michelle’s choice to continue as a jockey led her to being estranged from her father, who annoyingly calls her “little girl,” even after Michelle has become a teenager and adult. Viewers can see that Paddy has stopped supporting Michelle’s jockey dreams because he’s afraid of another one of his children dying from horse racing. But it’s also implied in the movie that Paddy wouldn’t have been so adamant about Michelle quitting horse racing if she were one of his sons.

Michelle runs into some other obstacles, such as when she’s suspended for 20 race meets after a judge has blamed her for causing another jockey to fall from his horse during a race. She vehemently protests the decision and claims that she did nothing wrong. Meanwhile, Michelle has bonded with a thoroughbred called Prince of Penzance, who is her favorite horse by far. But the horse’s owner has doubts that Michelle, after coming back from another serious injury, has what it takes to race the horse in the Melbourne Cup.

As Michelle Payne, Palmer does a credible job with her performance, which solidly carries the whole movie. Her scenes with Neill (who’s also very good as Michelle’s father Paddy) have the most emotional resonance. Not many people can relate to being a jockey, but a lot of people can relate to the family dynamics in the movie. “Ride Like a Girl” is absolutely an inspiring film, but compared to 1944’s “National Velvet,” it just won’t be considered a classic.

Saban Films released “Ride Like a Girl” in select New York City and Los Angeles theaters, as well as on digital and VOD, on March 13, 2020. The movie was already released in Australia in 2019.

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