Review: ‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,’ starring Owen Teague, Freya Allan, Kevin Durand, Peter Macon and William H. Macy

May 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

Owen Teague, Freya Allan and Peter Macon in “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes”

Directed by Wes Ball

Culture Representation: Taking place on Earth, 300 years after the events of the movie “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the sci-fi/action film “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” features a cast of characters who are apes and humans.

Culture Clash: A group of apes team up with a human to try to defeat an evil dictatorial ape that wants to take over the world. 

Culture Audience: “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise and sci-fi action films where most of the characters are not human.

Travis Jeffery, Owen Teague and Lydia Peckham in “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

After a slow start, “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” turns into a familiar “good versus evil” sci-fi adventure story with the expected battles. It’s not the best “Planet of the Apes” movie, but it’s not the worst either. The action sequences and how the apes are portrayed should please fans of this franchise. The movie’s biggest flaw is how underdeveloped the human characters are.

Directed by Wes Ball and written by Josh Friedman, “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is a spinoff/continuation of the trilogy that began with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (directed by Rupert Wyatt), and continued with 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (directed by Matt Reeves) and 2017’s “War for the Planet of the Apes” (directed by Reeves). The hero ape at the center of this trilogy was Caesar (played by Andy Serkis), who became a legendary leader. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” takes place on Earth, 300 years after the event of “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

Do viewers need to see this trilogy before seeing “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes”? Probably. That’s because Caesar is mentioned so many times in “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” he’s an unseen character in the movie. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” has a captioned introduction explaining that a virus has caused apes to be superior to humans. Caesar was a brave leader of apes who “stood up for his kind,” but he also believed in a world where it’s possible for apes and humans to peacefully co-exist, even if many humans try to dominate or destroy apes.

In “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” (which was filmed in New South Wales, Australia), humans are almost extinct from Earth. The “good apes” at the center of the story are from the Eagle Clan. These apes believe that they can communicate to eagles through a special ape-singing skills. The apes in the Eagle Clan look for eagle eggs to take and possible bond with when the eagles hatch from the eggs. The Eagle Clan has a rule that if eagle eggs are found in a nest, at least one egg has to be left behind in the nest.

The movie opens during one of these egg-hunting trips to show three young adult ape friends who are hunting together: earnest and intelligent Noa (played by Owen Teague); Noa’s strong-willed love interest Soona (played by Lydia Peckham); and Noa’s daredevil best friend Anaya (played by Travis Jeffery). The Eagle Clan lives in peaceful harmony with each other.

In the beginning of the story, Noa is hesitant and insecure about some things in his life. Noa doesn’t think his eagle-singing skills are up to the level of many other apes in the Eagle Clan. Noa’s parents are supportive, but his father thinks Noa should be more confident.

One day, the Eagle Clan is brutally invaded by an army of apes led by an evil dictator named Proximus Caesar (played by Kevin Durand), who orders that the Clan’s village be burned, and the surviving Eagle Clan members are forced into enslavement. In the chaos and mayhem, Caesar escapes. When he returns to the devastated and burned-out village, his family and friends are missing.

Naturally, Caesar goes on a mission to find his loved ones. Along the way, he meets a wise warrior orangutan named Raka (played by Peter Macon) and a mysterious woman, whom Caesar and Raka name Nova (played by Freya Allan), but she later reveals that her name is Mae. Nova/Mae pretends to be mute for much of the story until (to no one’s surprise), she admits she can talk. Nova/Mae says her deceased mother taught her to pretend to be mute for her own protection because intelligent humans are seen as a threat to apes.

Another human in “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is Trevathan (played by William H. Macy), who is being held as a prisoner by Proximus Caesar, so that Proximus Caesar can learn all he can about human inventions and knowledge. Trevathan doesn’t have “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” get a meaningful sense of who he really is.

Noa is a little suspicious of Nova/Mae at first, but Raka believes in Caesar’s philosophies and urges Noa to give Nova/Mae a chance to prove her trustworthiness. Nova/Mae is supposed to be enigmatic, but perhaps she’s a little too mysterious because her personality is somewhat dull, even if her action sequences are among the best in the movie. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” never explains why Nova/Mae runs around in a tank top and jeans, while other humans in the story wear loin cloth outfits.

As for the ape characters, Teague and Macon stand out for their respective performances of Noa and Raka, who develop a protégé/mentor type of relationship. However, all the other ape characters with significant speaking roles, including villain Proximus Caesar, are a little too generic and predictable. The love story between Noa and Soona is a quite tepid. Most of the dialogue in the film is simplistic. These highly intelligent apes should have more interesting conversations.

The action sequences and visual effects in the movie are hit-and-miss but certainly aren’t terrible. Most of all, the story is formulaic but not necessarily in a bad way. The movie has no mid-credits scene or end-credits scene but has the expected ending that guarantees a sequel, since “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is conceived as the first movie in a trilogy. “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” doesn’t offer any real surprises, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of comfort food for people who are fans of the franchise.

20th Century Studios will release “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” in U.S. cinemas on May 10, 2024, with a sneak preview in U.S. cinemas on May 8, 2024.

Review: ‘Villains Inc.’ (2024), starring Mallory Everton, Colin Mochrie, Jason Gray and Billy Mann

April 20, 2024

by Carla Hay

Colin Mochrie, Mallory Everton and Jason Gray in “Villains Inc.” (Photo courtesy of Purdie Distribution)

“Villains Inc.” (2024)

Directed by Jeremy Warner

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi/fantasy/comedy film “Villains Inc.” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Three bumbling villains and an “intern” who’s under “techno hypnosis” try to take over the world with a convoluted plan. 

Culture Audience: “Villains Inc.” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching silly, low-budget comedies that are easily forgotten.

Trey Warner in “Villains Inc.” (Photo courtesy of Purdie Distribution)

Incoherent and unappealing, “Villains Inc.” looks like an amateur sketch comedy idea stretched into a messy feature-length movie. It’s a witless story about irksome villains and a shallow superhero who are as incompetent as this film. Don’t try to make sense of what you’re watching in “Villains Inc.,” because even the characters in the movie don’t really know what they’re doing.

Directed by Jeremy Warner, “Villains Inc.” (formerly titled “Villains Incorporated”) was co-written by Warner, Jason Gray and Matt Moen, who all have small and inconsequential acting roles in the movie. The story in “Villains” is so convoluted yet empty, it’s like watching people getting lost in a maze that they made for themselves. What makes everything worse is that “Villains Inc.” has a very off-putting smug tone, as if the filmmakers think the movie is funnier than it really is.

“Villains Inc.” is about three villains who think they are underappreciated for being “lowly” assistant villains to their more powerful boss. They don’t want to be overshadowed and want the fame and power they think they deserve. And so, these three misfit villains decide to team up and take over the world. Along the way, they enlist the help of an “intern,” whose mind is controlled by “techno hypnotism.” It sounds like a potentially good idea for a madcap comedy, but the way the story is told in this movie, it just becomes time-wasting, frequently dull garbage.

“Villains Inc.” takes place in an unnamed U.S. state but was actually filmed in Utah. A scene early on in the movie shows that the U.S. Constitution in this story has added a 28th Amendment that makes superpowers a human right. There is nothing in “Villains Inc.” that comes close to being an entertaining story about people with superpowers.

The leader of this villainous trio is talkative and annoying Beatrix Bennington (played by Mallory Everton), who comes up with a nonsensical plan for world domination. Beatrix wants to open a chain of stores called Killer Petco, where pets will be sold to the world’s most powerful villains. The pets will be secretly trained to kill their villain owners. Through fine-print clauses on the Killer Petco sales contracts, the dead villains’ assets will be inherited by Beatrix and her cohorts.

Beatrix’s sidekicks are dimwitted Harold (played by Colin Mochrie) and pessimistic Cain (played by Jason Gray), who is the one most likely to doubt that Beatrix’s plans will succeed. The movie’s opening scenes shows that Beatrix, Harold and Cain feel liberated after they watch their boss Winter General (played by Gabe Casdorph) die in a fight with a lunkhead Superman-like character named Captain Justice (played by Trey Warner), who pops in and out of the story at inexplicable moments.

Beatrix, Harold and Cain try unsuccessfully to profit from their boss’ death by attempting to gain access to his power and wealth. Instead, this bungling trio is forced to do tasks assigned to them by a villain employment agency, where they interact with a sassy unnamed agent (played by GloZell Green), who thinks Beatrix, Harold and Cain are idiots. Some of the tasks the trio is forced to do include poison testing, holding up target practice signs, and being night security guards, electricians and lab technicians.

There are moronic scenes where Beatrix goes through a villain “tryout” course and lies about having superpowers. Whether or not her lie gets exposed is supposed to be a big part of the story. Beatrix, Harold and Cain eventually cross paths with the aforementioned intern: a naïve flunky named Alex (played by Billy Mann), who becomes available after his previous villain boss Megadeath (played by Matthew Meese) is killed.

There are almost no laugh-out-loud moments in “Villains Inc.,” which careens from scene to scene with not much interesting happening. Everton gives a committed performance where she tries to be funny in every scene that she’s in, but the other cast members just go through the motions with unimpressive performances. The people who might enjoy this dreadful film the most are people who are too intoxicated to care what they’re watching.

Purdie Distribution released “Villains Inc.” in select U.S. cinemas on April 19, 2024.

Review: ‘Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,’ starring Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Dan Stevens, Kaylee Hottle, Alex Ferns and Fala Chen

March 28, 2024

by Carla Hay

Godzilla and Kong in “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire”

Directed by Adam Wingard

Culture Representation: Taking place in various places on Earth, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” features a racially diverse cast of human characters (white, African American and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy, in addition to the movie having fictional animal characters.

Culture Clash: Giant monsters Godzilla and Kong team up to fight a common enemy: a giant ape called Skar King, a brutal ruler of an oppressive society in Hollow Earth. 

Culture Audience: “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Godzilla and King Kong franchise and adrenaline-packed and entertaining action movies about giant monsters.

Dan Stevens, Rebecca Hall and Kaylee Hottle in “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” (Photo by Daniel McFadden/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Better and bolder than its predecessor, “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” delivers what viewers can expect to see when two titan monsters team up against a common enemy. There are less human characters who are irritating and more spectacular action. Be prepared to wait for the epic showdown scene when Godzilla and Kong finally join forces. The movie builds up to this moment with the right amount of anticipation and suspense. It’s worth the wait.

Directed by Adam Wingard, “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” is a direct sequel to 2021’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” a bombastic action flick that had too many annoying humans and a lot of bad dialogue than significantly lowered the quality of the movie. “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” has a new screenwriting team (Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett and Jeremy Slater) that made a huge improvement in the story’s narrative, structure and character development, compared to “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which was directed by Wingard and written by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein.

In “Godzilla x Kong,” mutant dinosaur Godzilla is living above ground and still causing destruction. One of the intentionally amusing things in the movie is that when Godzilla is in Rome, he sleeps in the Colosseum. There are other world-famous landmarks in the movie that are the settings of some of the movie’s intense action scenes, such as the pyramids in Egypt. The scientists observing Godzilla notice that he has gone to a nuclear power plant to inhale the fumes, as if he’s gearing up for battle.

Meanwhile, giant ape Kong is living in his domain in an area in the middle of the Earth called Hollow Earth. Something seems to be disturbing him too. A signal seems to be interfering with Hollow Earth, which is under the scientific observation of the Monarch Hollow Earth Station in Barbados, as first seen in “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Dr. Ilene Andrews (played by Rebecca Hall) is the lead scientist.

Ilene’s adopted daughter Jia (played by Kaylee Hottle), who happens to be deaf, is mourning the genocide of her indigenous Iwi tribe of people, who worship and are protectors of Kong and others in his species. Later in the movie, an Iwi queen (played by Fala Chen) has some answers to questions about Jia’s heritage and Iwi legacy. Jia is causing concern at her school because she’s been making disturbing drawings in class on pieces of paper and on her desk. Jia tells Ilene, “I think I’m going crazy.” It turns out that Jia has been sensing certain signals that are interfering with Hollow Earth.

Ilene and Jia then go on an expedition to Hollow Earth with wisecracking Monarch veterinarian Trapper (played by Dan Stevens), hot-tempered pilot Mikael (played by Alex Ferns) and talkative podcaster Bernie (played by Brian Tyree Henry), who begs to be taken along for the ride. Ilene and Jia are the most level-headed people in this motley crew. What these expeditioners find in Hollow Earth changes the entire trajectory of the story.

Kong also has a new companion in Hollow Earth: a young monster ape named Suko, who has a child-like personality. Although they both get off to a rough start by clashing with each other, Kong develops a paternal relationship to Suko as they spend more time together, and they protect each other. This movie shows more of Kong’s vulnerable emotions than in “Godzilla vs. Kong.” The performances by the cast members are serviceable. Let’s face it: People see these Godzilla and Kong movies for the monsters more than the humans.

Kong and Suko both come across a formidable enemy: Skar King, an evil giant ape who has enslaved hundreds of other giant apes. Skar King has control of a mutant dinosaur named Shimo with freezing powers. Skar King uses Shimo in battles and to keep the enslaved apes in fear. There’s also a legendary creature from Godzilla lore (hint: the creature is female and has wings) that is also an important part of the story.

“Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” also has a lot to say about family—whether the family is biological or found—and how being part of a family has a profound effect on the characters in the movie. (There are no mid-credits or end-credits scenes in the film.) The only main drawback to “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” is that the visual effects for Suko look too fake. However, the rest of the film is an entertaining ride that has the right blend of relatable emotions and thrilling action for the human and non-human characters.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” in U.S. cinemas on March 29, 2024.

Review: ‘Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya,’ starring Shahid Kapoor and Kriti Sanon

March 11, 2024

by Carla Hay

Shahid Kapoor and Kriti Sanon in “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films and Nirvana Cinemas)

“Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya”

Directed by Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sahy

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and in the United States, the sci-fi comedy film “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” features a predominantly Indian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A robotics engineer, who works for his aunt’s company, finds out that the woman he has fallen in love with is a robot that was programmed by his aunt to seduce him. 

Culture Audience: “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and silly romantic comedies.

Dimple Kapadia in “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films and Nirvana Cinemas)

“Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” is an overly long, repetitive movie that not only does not justify being 143 minutes, but the film also does not justify its entire existence. This unimaginative comedy relies too much on clichés about a guy falling in love with a “perfect female,” who happens to be a robot. This vapid movie becomes increasingly foolish until it becomes a very bad joke on viewers expecting it to get better.

Written and directed by Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sahy, “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” (which means “got s tangled n your words” in Hindi) runs its weak slapstick jokes into the ground very early and then repeats them to irritating levels. Viewers who watch this onslaught of terrible filmmaking will be subjected to watching people in the movie act even worse than their bad dialogue. About the only thing that this time-wasting movie can brag about is that it has pretty scenery and physically attractive leading cast members.

In “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” (which takes place mostly in Mumbai, India), playboy bachelor Aryan Agnihotri (played by Shahid Kapoor) is a robotics engineer who works for Robotex, a company owned by his aunt Urmila Shukla (played by Dimple Kapadia), who is demanding and impatient. Two of Aryan’s co-workers are flirtatious Myra (played by Amisha Thakur) and married man Monty (played by Ashish Verma), who gives Aryan simplistic relationship advice, such as “Everything is a compromise.”

“Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” is so inept and repetitive in its storytelling, it opens with a scene that’s a too-early foreshadowing of the rest of the story. In this first scene, Aryan’s family has arranged a marriage for him that he does not want. When he meets his bride-to-be for the first time, she is wearing a long veil over her face. And he finds out that she’s a robot that malfunctions. But surprise! It’s just a nightmare that Aryan had.

In reality, Aryan’s parents are very worried that he isn’t married yet. When Urmila reminds him that Aryan’s parents are eager to see him settle down and get married, Aryan reminds Urmila that she didn’t get married until she was 40 years old, and she got divorced six months later. Aryan will soon find out that Urmila is more of a meddler in his love life than she appears to be.

One day, Urmila tells Aryan to go to the United States on business. He stays at a luxury villa that the company uses for high-ranking visiting employees. Aryan is greeted at the villa by a woman named Sifra (played by Kriti Sanon), who tells him that she works for Urmila and has been tasked with taking care of all of Aryan’s needs during his stay. Aryan is immediately attracted to Sifra, who seems to seems to “have it all,” in terms of looks, intelligence and personality. Aryan and Sifra become lovers after some flirtations and romantic dates.

The trailer for “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” already reveals about 80% of the movie’s very thin plot: Aryan finds out that Sifra is a robot made by Robotex. Her name is actually spelled SIFRA, an acronym for Super Intelligent Female Robot Automation. And she was programmed by Urmila to seduce Aryan as an experiment to see if a human being could fall in love with a robot. When Aryan asks SIFRA how she can so respond so well to his needs, SIFRA says that she can expertly read people’s facial expressions and body language and react accordingly.

What’s a playboy bachelor to do when his family is pressuring him to get married and he’s found his “ideal woman,” but she’s a robot? In a moronic movie like “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya,” he takes her home to meet his family, introduces her as a girlfriend he’s in a serious relationship with, and then he proposes to her, as they plan a wedding that the family wants to happen as soon as possible. The majority of “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” is about Aryan trying to keep it a secret from his family that SIFRA is a robot.

“Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” fills up some of its time with stereotypical musical numbers that have forgettable music and generic lyrics. Aryan’s family is a predictable clan that is usually found in romantic comedies: large, loud and intrusive. These squawking family members include Aryan’s father Jai Singh Agnihotri (played by Dharmendra); Aryan’s mother Sharmila Agnihotri (played by Anubha Fatehpuria); Aryna’s teenage sister Tim Tim (played by Maahi Raj Jain); and assorted grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins of Aryan.

As the wedding of Aryan and SIFRA approaches, “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” becomes a pile-on of ludicrous “close-call” scenarios that usually involve whether or not SIFRA’s battery is charged enough for her to function, or how much memory she has. The worst part of the movie is in the last half-hour when it really goes off the rails with violence. And there’s a misogynistic tone to the plot, because it revolves around objectifying the main female character. An over-used gag in “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” is showing what happens when SIFRA malfunctions, but this dreadfully unfunny movie is nothing but a giant malfunction.

FunAsia Films and Nirvana Cinemas released “Teri Baaton Mein Aisa Uljha Jiya” in U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024, the same day that the movie was released in India.

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

February 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“Dune: Part Two”

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Altered Reality’ (2024), starring Tobin Bell, Charles Agron, Alyona Khmara, Krista Dane Hoffman, Ed Asner and Lance Henriksen

February 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

Charles Agron and Lance Henriksen in “Altered Reality” (Photo courtesy of K Street Pictures)

“Altered Reality” (2024)

Directed by Don E. FauntLeRoy

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi/drama film “Altered Reality” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asian and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A medical research executive, whose daughter has been kidnapped and murdered, discovers a way to go back in time and change events. 

Culture Audience: “Altered Reality” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching time-traveling movies, no matter how incoherent and poorly made they are.

Krista Dane Hoffman and Alyona Khmara in “Altered Reality” (Photo courtesy of K Street Pictures)

Plagued by a disjointed screenplay, horrible acting and unfocused direction, “Altered Reality” is a muddled drama about time traveling and a mystery of a murdered girl. The movie concludes with an unimaginative ending that looks rushed and tacked-on, in order to pander to what the filmmakers think would be the most crowd-pleasing outcome. The only altered reality is the filmmakers thinking this low-quality film is any good.

Directed by Don E. FauntLeRoy and written by Charles Agron, “Altered Reality” takes place in an unnamed U.S. city. (The movie was actually filmed in Georgia.) It begins by showing a girl, who’s about 5 or 6 years old, sitting by herself and a table in a wooded area near her house, as she is making some drawings. Someone dressed entirely in black, including a hooded sweatshirt, appears to be stalking her.

Viewers soon find out that the girl’s name is Katy Cook (played by Quincy Faler), and she has been kidnapped by this stalker. “Altered Reality” tells the sequence of events in a very jumbled way, but viewers who are paying attention will see what led up to this kidnapping. It’s also revealed in the “Altered Reality” trailer that Katy was murdered.

Katy’s parents are a business executive named Oliver Cook (played by Agron) and a homemaker named Caroline Cook (played by Alyona Khmara), who were experiencing some marital problems even before Katy was abducted. Oliver is the owner and leader of a medical research company that is developing medication that can cure terminal illnesses. He is a workaholic who spends a lot of time away from home.

Oliver’s workaholic ways have put a strain on his marriage to Caroline and his relationship with Katy. Caroline feels neglected, and she suspects that Oliver has been cheating on her, because she notices that he gets calls and text messages on his phone from women she doesn’t know. It’s also mentioned at one point that Katy has been feeling depressed because she thinks Oliver doesn’t love her.

On the day that Katy disappeared, Oliver had promised that he would go bike riding with Katy. But instead, he backed out of that promise and was celebrating at a party with work colleagues because his company has had a major breakthrough in its research. Clinical trial results have shown that the company’s medication has cured all 5,000 people with terminal illnesses who were part of the most recent clinical trial.

In a meeting that previously took place between Oliver, the company’s cynical attorney Cooper Mason (played by Tobin Bell) and two other people named Dr. Ross (played by Demi Castro) and Spencer Ross (played by Kamran Shaikh), Oliver finds out that the medication (which comes in the form of pills) can be sold for $50,000 per pill. The company is expected to make billions of dollars after it goes public. Oliver and Cooper are understandably ecstatic, as Oliver tells Cooper how Oliver plans to spend some of these probable riches.

At the same time that Oliver was celebrating this business success at a party, Katy had been kidnapped. Caroline feels guilty because she had been looking after Katy but had taken her eyes off of Katy for only a few minutes. Caroline frantically tried to reach Oliver by phone many times after Katy went missing, but he ignored her messages because he was too busy partying with his colleagues.

Oliver eventually gets Caroline’s messages and rushes home. But it’s too late. Katy has disappeared, and there are no clues about who kidnapped her and why. The movie shows that nine months later, Katy kidnapping is still a mystery, with no progress in the case, although Oliver eventually finds out that Katy has been murdered.

In the nine months since the kidnapping, Oliver has become very wealthy because of his company’s “miracle drug.” However, Oliver and Caroline are heartbroken and feel guilty over the disappearance of Katy and have not given up hope of finding her. The marriage of Caroline and Oliver has been unraveling because Oliver has been coping with his grief by spending even more time away from home than he did before Katy’s kidnapping.

One of the things that Oliver did after he became rich is buy a bed-and-breakfast resort called Spring Manor, a place that has happy memories for him because he has been going there every year since he was a child. Oliver continued the tradition after he became a husband and father. His attorney Cooper advised that Oliver should not buy Spring Manor, which Cooper described as “a bottomless pit of repair bills,” but the sentimental value of Spring Manor had too much appeal to Cooper, so he bought the property anyway.

The Spring Manor parts of the plot are among the weakest links in an already poorly constructed screenplay. At Spring Manor, Oliver has been friendly for years with the manor’s elderly custodian Jack (played by Lance Henriksen), who is obviously a ghost, as viewers see when Jack shows an ability to vanish and appear suddenly. Oliver is so unobservant, he doesn’t think it’s strange that Jack appears out of nowhere like a ghost.

Jack also claims to have known Oliver’s ancestors who died hundreds of years ago. Oliver marvels out loud to Jack about how Jack has looked the same the entire time that Oliver has known Jack. “How do you do it?” Oliver asks Jack about why Oliver doesn’t seem to get older. Jack replies, “I see a lot of strange things here.” Oliver says, “It’s the energy of this place.”

As soon as these things are revealed, you just know that Jack has some secrets that have to do with Oliver’s ancestors, and there will be a time-traveling element that centers on Spring Manor. The cinematography lighting turns brown in the time-traveling scenes. It’s all so hokey and predictable. The musical score by Andrew Morgan Smith is trying to evoke noirish thrillers from the 1950s, but it sounds very out-of-place in a movie that takes place mostly in the 2020s.

One day, Oliver and Jack are having a private conversation outside at Spring Manor. Jack takes out a pill bottle after Oliver says he has a headache, and he gives Oliver a pill. Jack tells Oliver to take the pill only after Oliver finds out what the ingredients are. Oliver says he’s had these headaches for a while—and the reason why he has these headaches is the most obvious reason when Oliver predictably finds out that he can time travel. It takes an awfully long time in the movie (after two-thirds of the movie have passed) before he discovers this time-traveling ability.

After Oliver gets this pill from Jack, there’s trouble in the Cook household when Oliver comes home to find out that a woman (whose face isn’t on camera in this scene) is in the living room, is claiming to be Oliver’s mistress, and has exposed their alleged affair to Caroline. This self-described mistress shows Caroline proof on her phone that Oliver has been cheating on Caroline. Caroline is devastated and immediately tells Oliver that she wants a divorce. This scene is shown early in the movie’s jumbled timeline, and the scene is revisited much later to reveal the identity of this “mistress.” This identity reveal is also no surprise.

Oliver is so distraught over Caroline wanting a divorce, he becomes suicidal. Before he goes somewhere with the intent to hang himself, he stops off at a strip club and gives a wad of cash to a stripper named Brittany, whose stage name is Vixen (played by Kayla Adams), and he tells her to use to money for the future college education of Brittany’s underage daughter. Oliver met Brittany on the night he went to this strip club with Cooper and Cooper’s date Alex Parker (played by Krista Dane Hoffman, also known as Krista Dane King), a seductive fashion executive who happens to know Caroline casually because they’re in the same yoga class.

All of these storylines and subplots are shown or explained in a very messy way in “Altered Reality,” which clumsily mishandles flashbacks with sloppily edited scenes that take place in the present day. There’s also a pivotal plot development involving someone from the past named Kate (played by Kate Reilly), who has a personal connection to certain people in the story. Ed Asner shares top billing in “Altered Reality,” but his screen time in the movie (as Jack’s family member Mike Wilson) consists of less than five minutes.

As the writer, star and one of the producers of “Altered Reality,” Agron looks like he made a vanity project, because his acting performance is among the worst in a movie filled with bad acting. The movie tries to blend several different story ideas into one big concept, but it just doesn’t work, like pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit. Even without all the plot holes and unanswered questions, “Altered Reality” is a very dull movie that’s supposed to be a sci-fi thriller but is really just a sci-fi clunker.

K Street Pictures released “Altered Reality” in select U.S. cinemas on February 16, 2024.

Review: ‘Madame Web,’ starring Dakota Johnson, Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, Celeste O’Connor, Tahar Rahim, Emma Roberts and Adam Scott

February 13, 2024

by Carla Hay

Celeste O’Connor, Dakota Johnson, Isabela Merced and Sydney Sweeney in “Madame Web” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Madame Web”

Directed by SJ Clarkson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2003 (with brief flashbacks to 1973), in New York City and in the Amazon jungle of Peru, the superhero action film “Madame Web” (based on Marvel Comics characters) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) portraying superheroes and regular human beings.

Culture Clash: A fire-department paramedic, who grew up as an orphan, finds out that she has spider-related psychic abilities that came from her mother’s mysterious death, and she helps protect three teenage girls who are being hunted by the man who killed her mother. 

Culture Audience: “Madame Web” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Dakota Johnson and movies based on Marvel Comics, but the movie is an idiotic mess, by any standard of bad superhero movies.

Tahar Rahim (center) in “Madame Web” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Madame Web” and “The Marvels” are the “Dumb and Dumber” of female-led Marvel Comics superhero movies. After the triumphs of “Black Widow” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” it’s a travesty that “Madame Web” is a low point in wannabe feminist superhero films. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of “Madame Web” is that it is an unintentional comedy, because there is so much idiotic filmmaking on display, it’s laughable. Other people who won’t find it so funny will be cringing at “Madame Web,” which is an embarrassment for everyone involved in making this brain-dead film.

Directed by SJ Clarkson, “Madame Web” was co-written by Clarkson, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker. “Madame Web” will get inevitable comparisons to 2023’s “The Marvels” because these two flops are obvious attempts to build a franchise around two separate groups of female superheroes. (See 2021’s “Black Widow” and 2022’s “Black Panther Wakanda Forever” for Marvel Comics-based, female-led superhero movies that are done right.) Whereas the story in “The Marvels” was overly ambitious and got tangled up in doing too many things in too many places, “Madame Web” tries to keep the story simple, but in doing so just exposes even more rapidly that it’s a mind-numbing, stupid mess.

“Madame Web” begins in 1973, in the Amazon jungles of Peru. An American scientist named Constance Webb (played by Kerry Bishé) is looking for a rare spider that has the potential to cure hundreds of diseases. Accompanying her on this expedition is an American named Ezekiel Sims (played by Tahar Rahim), whom Constance has hired to be her guide. Constance also happens to be about eight or nine months pregnant.

Ezekiel is over-eager for Constance to find this spider. His impatience should’ve been a big red flag to Constance that Ezekiel has ulterior motives. However, Constance is too preoccupied with finding this spider to notice. When she does find the spider, Ezekiel shoots her, steals the spider, and runs away.

Constance doesn’t die immedately. She is unconscious when she is saved by two tree-crawling and tree-hopping “spider men” of Peru (who basically look like acrobats with painted red skin), who bring her to a swampy area, put a spider on her chest, and deliver Constance’s baby, which is a girl. The spider on Constance’s chest was no ordinary spider. It bit Constance before the baby was delivered, so whatever type of venom the spider had has now been transferred into the blood of the baby.

Constance doesn’t survive, but her baby does, and the baby does not cry at all after being born. One of the Peruvian jungle dwellers who delivered the baby is named Santiago (played by José María Yazpik), who states solemnly to this newborn that she will eventually come back to this jungle to find him for answers to her questions. And when she does, Santiago adds, “I will be here for her.”

The movie then fast-forwards to 2003 in New York City. Constance’s baby is now a jaded 30-year-old bachelorette named Cassandra “Cassie” Webb (played by Dakota Johnson), who works as a paramedic for the Fire Department of New York. It’s mentioned in the movie that Cassie grew up as an orphan in the foster care system. Her biological father is never mentioned in the movie.

Cassie’s best friend is her paramedic co-worker Ben Parker (played by Adam Scott), who is also never-married with no children. Cassie and Ben, as they announce during their dull dialogue, don’t like the idea of “the family thing,” although Ben has been recently dating a special woman, and the relationship is getting serious. Ben won’t share any details about this relationship with Cassie, probably because he knows that bitter spinster Cassie will be jealous.

How do we know that Cassie is bitter about family love? When she saves a woman from a car accident and is at the hospital, the woman’s son (who’s about 8 or 9 years old) gives her a drawing that he made as a gift for saving his mother’s life. Cassie coldly asks Ben what she’s supposed to do with this gift since she doesn’t want it. Ben tells her she should just throw it in the garbage when the kid isn’t there.

It isn’t long before Cassie finds out that she has psychic abilities where she can see events that happen in the future. She discovers this clairvoyance after falling into the Atlantic Ocean while rescuing a man trapped in a car near a bridge. Ben rescues Cassie in a very sloppily staged scene, which is when she first finds out that she can see into the future.

Mike Epps has a very small and brief role as a paramedic supervisor named O’Neil, whose fate does not come as a surprise, since his character wasn’t useful to the overall story. Emma Roberts has a supporting role as Mary Parker, the pregnant wife of Ben’s brother Richard, who is never seen in the movie because he’s away working in Mumbai. Mary is eight months pregnant, and her pregnancy is used for exactly what you think it will be used for in a “race against” time scene later in the movie.

Meanwhile, Ezekiel (who is some type of scientist) was bitten by the spider that he stole, so now he has the ability to poison people just by touching them and holding them long enough. (Don’t ask.) After meeting an opera concertgoer whom he took home for a one-night stand, Ezekiel wakes up from a cold-sweat nightmare and tells her that he keeps dreaming of three teenage girls who want to kill him. His nightmarish visions show that all three girls are dressed as spider superheroes.

Ezekiel enlists the help of a technology expert named Amaria (played by Zosia Mamet) to find these three teenagers, because (as Ezekiel hilariously announces repeatedly in the movie), he wants to kill them before they can kill him. Amaria is only seen working for Ezekiel in a room with hi-tech equipment, such as surveillance cameras that are apparently everywhere in the New York City area.

“Their faces have been taunting me for years,” Ezekiel comments to Amaria about these teen tormenters. “Find them, and I’ll pay you a fortune.” Ezekiel tells Amaria several times that he will kill her if she doesn’t do what he wants. It’s later mentioned in the movie that Ezekiel thinks he’s going to be killed because he was cursed for stealing the spider.

The identities of the three teenagers are Julia Cornwall (played by Sydney Sweeney), a nervous people-pleaser; Mattie Franklin (played by Celeste O’Connor), a rebellious rich kid; and Anya Corazon (played by Isabela Merced), a level-headed undocumented immigrant. All three have encountered Cassie before they formally meet. Julia’s stepmother was a patient rescued earlier in the movie by Cassie, and Julia saw Cassie at the hospital. While skateboarding on a busy street, Mattie was nearly hit by a paramedic ambulance that Cassie had been driving on the way to the accident. Anya lives in the same apartment building as Cassie.

The rest of “Madame Web” is one ridiculous scenario after another where Casse tries to save Julia, Mattie and Anya from being murdered by Ezekiel, because Cassie had a psychic vision that it would happen when all them are on the same train. By rescuing these three teens and putting them in the woods to hide them, Cassie becomes a kidnapping suspect. Cassie spends much of the movie acting like a stern boarding school headmistress to these confused and bickering teenagers.

The acting in “Madame Webb” ranges from mediocre to bad, with Rahim’s stiff performance being the worst. Rahim’s wooden acting and questionable American accent (he’s French in real life) further sink the quality of this already low-quality superhero movie. The action sequences are flashy but empty. And don’t bother sticking around for a mid-credits or end-credits scene, because there is none.

The movie’s soundtrack choices sound like the filmmakers were thinking, “What songs would feminists and teenage girls be listening to in 2003?” The answer, according to “Madame Web”: Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” The movie’s very “on the nose” soundtrack is in stark contrast to the rest of “Madame Webb,” which misses the mark in almost every single way.

Columbia Pictures will release “Madame Web” in U.S. cinemas on February14, 2024.

Review: ‘Hanu-Man,’ starring Teja Sajja, Amritha Aiyer, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Samuthirakani, Vinay Rai and Vennela Kishore

February 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Teja Sajja in “Hanu-Man” (Photo courtesy of PrimeShow Entertainment)

“Hanu-Man”

Directed by Prasanth Varma

Telugu with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Hanu-Man” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A petty thief becomes an unlikely superhero who battles with a supervillain over a gem that give the hero his superpowers.

Culture Audience: “Hanu-Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of superhero movies and don’t mind watching a movie that’s more than two-and-a-half hours long.

Vinay Rai in “Hanu-Man” (Photo courtesy of PrimeShow Entertainment)

“Hanu-Man” is an epic superhero film whose minor flaws are outshone by an engaging story and some stunning visuals. The movie has plot developments that are more unexpected than others. It’s a crowd-pleasing movie that’s obviously conceived as a franchise.

Written and directed by Prasanth Varma, “Hanu-Man” (which takes place in India) begins where most superhero movies usually don’t begin: by showing the origin story of the movie’s chief villain. The opening scene takes place in the Saurashtra region in 1998. A boy named Michael and his best fried Siri, who are both about 11 or 12 years old, are role-playing as a superhero on the roof of a building.

Michael, who is wearing a cape, jumps off of the building and injures himself. Later, when Michael is recovering from his injuries at home, his father yells at Michael for being reckless and for having an obsession with superheroes and comic books. (Michael’s bedroom wall is plastered with superhero artwork and posters.) Michael’s father punishes him with some physical abuse and forbids Michael from reading any more comic books.

Later, Michael and Siri have a private conversation where Michael mentions that all of the most famous superheroes—such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man—have parents who died when the superheroes were children. The next scene shows Michael secretly killing his parents by setting their house on fire while the parents are trapped inside.

The movie then fast-forwards to Michael (played by Vinay Rai) in his 30s. He has become a superhero vigilante called Mega Man. Michael and Siri (who is now an accomplished scientist) are still best friends. Siri is Michael’s sidekick and does whatever Michael tells him to do. Siri knows about Michael’s secret superhero alter ego because Siri is the one who came up with the inventions that helped Michael become a superhero. Just like Batman, Michael is a human being who doesn’t have superpowers but he has a powerful superhero suit and an arsenal of high-tech gadgets and weapons that he uses for his vigilante activities.

Meanwhile, in the fictional hamlet of Anjanadri, a petty thief named Hanumanthu (played by Teja Sajja) has a best friend named Kasi (played by Getup Srinu), who is sometimes his partner in crime. Hanumanthu’s older sister Anjamma (played by Varalaxmi Sarathkumar) worries about Hanumanthu and wishes that he would turn his life around and become a respectable citizen. Anjamma is engaged to be married. Ner wedding becomes a pivotal point in the story.

Hanumanthu has a crush on an attractive and outspoken doctor named Meenakshi (played by Amritha Aiyer), who has vivid memories of a superhero being her rescuer/protector when she was a child. Meeakshi frequently clashes with Anjanadri’s leader Gajapathi (played by Raj Deepak Shetty), who rules Anjanadri like a dictator. Meeakshi wants the village to be more of a democracy.

The feud between Meeakshi and Gajapathi escalates to a point where Gajapathi sends a gang of masked thieves to rob and attack Meeakshi. Hanumanthu comes to Meeakshi’s rescue during the attack but he’s seriously wounded and falls into a sea nearby. He finds a glowing gem in the sea and is able to go back home.

During his recovery, Hanumanthu finds out that the gem has given him superpowers (such as extraordinary strength and agility), but only when he is in possession of the gem and when the gem is exposed to sunlight. It isn’t long before Hanumanthu and Gajapathi face off in a fight, where Hanumanthu’s new superpowers come in handy. Because Hanumanthu doesn’t want people to know that his superpowers come from this gem, he hides the gem in a mask that he wears in public when he’s using the superpowers.

And what about Michael? He’s been injured in a fight, so his Mega Man activities have been halted until he can fully recover. However, through a viral video that he sees on social media, Michael finds out about Hanumanthu’s exceptional strength and decides he has to find out what is the source of Hanumanthu’s strength. It doesn’t take long for Michael and Siri to arrive in Anjanadri.

“Hanu-Man” has a lot of thrilling acting scenes with mostly convincing visuals. When the visuals don’t look believable, it’s only a temporary distraction. Overall, the cinematography is very effective at immersing viewers into this world. The acting performances are adequate and not as good as the actual story.

Even though Michael is the movie’s chief villain, “Hanu-Man” has a lot to say about resisting political oppression in the conflicts with Gajapathi. Can this power-hungry tyrant be reedeemed? Michael also represents the corruption that can happen when people pursue power at any cost. It’s a tried-and-true theme for superhero stories, but “Hanu-Man” handles it with style and crowd-pleasing entertainment.

PrimeShow Entertainment released “Hanu-Man” in select U.S. cinemas on January 12, 2024, the same day the movie was released in India.

Review: ‘I.S.S.,’ starring Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbæk

January 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ariana DeBose in “I.S.S.” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“I.S.S.”

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Some language in Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in outer space, the sci-fi drama film “I.S.S.” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one multiracial person) portraying astronauts from the United States and Russia.

Culture Clash: While on the International Space Station in outer space, three American astronauts and three Russian astronauts find out that an apocalyptic war is happening on Earth between the United States and Russia. 

Culture Audience: “I.S.S.” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ariana DeBose and sci-fi thrillers about astronauts dealing with a crisis in outer space.

Masha Mashkova, John Gallagher Jr. and Costa Ronin in “I.S.S.” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

With a low budget and a simple concept, “I.S.S.” has no aspirations to be a classic sci-fi thriller. After a slow start, “I.S.S.” gets more interesting when it’s about personal and national loyalty dilemmas among Russian and American astronauts stuck on a ship in outer space during an unexpected war between their respective nations. Because this is a science-fiction movie, some suspension of disbelief is required. There’s enough tension to keep viewers interested in seeing what will happen next, although the movie could have had a much stronger ending.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Nick Shafir, “I.S.S.” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. “I.S.S.” is the feature-film debut for screenwriter Shafir, whose approach to this subject matter is very easy to understand but might be too trite for some viewers. The movie’s entire story takes place in outer space but was actually filmed in North Carolina. The year that the story takes place is not mentioned.

The title “I.S.S.” is an acronym for International Space Station. As explained in captions during the movie’s introduction: “The International Space Station (ISS) served as a symbol of the United States and Russian collaboration after the Cold War. The ISS is primarily used as a research facility, where the crew makes advancements in medicine, technology and space exploration. Today, both American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts are living on board the ISS.”

There are only six people in the movie’s entire cast of characters, who are evenly split among Americans and Russians. The Americans are commander Gordon Barrett (played by Chris Messina), emotionally reserved Kira Foster (played by Ariana DeBose) and talkative Christian Campbell (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who is a divorced father with two underage daughters. The Russians are efficient Alexey Pulov (played by Pilou Asbæk), his emotionally aloof brother Nicholai Pulov (played by Costa Ronin) and fun-loving Weronika Vetrov (played by Masha Mashkova), who sometimes goes by the nickname Nika.

Here’s where some suspension of disbelief is necessary for this movie: The first thing that some viewers might ask themselves is: “Why would Russia and the United States only have three astronauts each for such an important ISS mission?” The answer: “Because ‘I.S.S.’ is a low-budget movie.” The movie depicts all six of these space travelers as being confined to a certain part of the station, which is intended to make the movie’s interior settings look claustrophobic.

Kira is the story’s main protagonist. Kira and Alexey are both biological engineers working on a “top secret” project for their respective countries. They both share a workspace. Kira uses mice for her lab experiments. Observant viewers will notice how these mice are parallel symbols of what eventually happens to the humans in the story.

Near the beginning of the movie, Kira and Christian are by themselves, until the other four space travelers join them. Gordon introduces Alexey, Nicholai and Weronika to his colleagues. Everyone is friendly and in good spirits. The Russians begin playing the Scorpions’ 1990 hit song “Wind of Change” and begin singing along.

Alexey mentions how much an anthem the song is for Russians who were affected by the Cold War ending. However, all six of the space travelers agree that ISS is not the place where they want to talk about politics. All of this camaraderie and good cheer do not last when these ISS explorers find out something terrible: While looking down on Earth, they see large glowing spots, indicating that nuclear weapons have been detonated.

Soon after that, the ship loses all communication with Earth, except for some text messages that Gordon first sees on a computer screen in the station: “The ISS has been deemed a priority foothold. All U.S. citizens are to abort all order and experiments. You new objective is to take control of the ISS.” (This information was already revealed in the movie’s trailer.)

After some initial confusion, the Americans deduce that Russia must have attacked the United States, and an apocalyptic war is happening on Earth. Do the Russians on board the ship know this information? And will the Americans stay loyal to their Russian comrades on the ship, or will the Americans follow U.S. government orders and bring the apparent war inside the ship?

The answers to these questions are really what hold “I.S.S.” together, because most of the characters in the movie do not enough character development for viewers to feel like they really know these characters by the end of the movie. Very little is told the personal lives of these ISS travelers. The Russians in the movie have no backstories at all.

In a candid conversation with Gordon, Kira tells him the reason why she became a biological engineer. She says it’s because when she was a child, her terminally ill father died because he was on a waiting list for an organ transplant. Kira comments, “I made it my goal to find an easier way to manufacture what people needed.”

Kira also tells Gordon that she’s a lesbian or queer woman who wants to remain single and focused on work for now, because her ex-fiancée cheated on her and Kira is not ready to get in another love relationship. Later, it’s revealed that Gordon and Weronika have been having a flirtation or casual fling, which has no major bearing on the movie’s plot. As for Alexey and Nicholai, “I.S.S.” missed an opportunity to tell an interesting story about these two family members who are working together.

“I.S.S.” skimps on the details about what the personal stakes are for the people on the ISS to get back home safely to loved ones. However, the movie does reveal certain other information about why it’s very urgent for the ISS inhabitants to get back to Earth, against the odds and at great risk during the destruction that is happening on Earth. The question then becomes: “Who out of these six people will survive when they inevitably turn against each other?”

“I.S.S.” has competent acting for a story that occasionally stumbles with some of the science- fiction aspects that don’t always look convincing. The visual effects are solid, considering the movie’s low budget. There’s a predictability to some of the action scenes, but “I.S.S.” will keep viewers guessing (up until a certain point) about who on the ship is being honest and who is not. The movie’s ending won’t satisfy viewers who want clearly defined answers, but the ending is meant to show that there are no easy answers when it comes to human nature and being in outer space during an apocalyptic war on Earth.

Bleecker Street released “I.S.S.” in U.S. cinemas on January 19, 2024.

Review: ‘Godzilla Minus One,’ starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Yuki Yamada, Munetaka Aoki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Sakura Ando and Kuranosuke Sasaki

December 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Godzilla in “Godzilla Minus One” (Photo courtesy of Toho International)

“Godzilla Minus One”

“Godzilla Minus One Minus Color”*

Directed by Takashi Yamazaki

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1945 to 1947, the sci-fi/action film “Godzilla Minus One” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former World War II military fighter pilot joins forces with a motley crew to fight the ocean-dwelling monster Godzilla. 

Culture Audience: “Godzilla” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Godzilla” franchise and crowd-pleasing action flicks about giant monsters.

Ryunosuke Kamiki in “Godzilla Minus One” (Photo courtesy of Toho International)

“Godzilla Minus One” is a welcome return to retro Godzilla filmmaking that puts more emphasis on character development, instead of the overblown visual effects and annoying characters than can be found in Hollywood versions of Godzilla movies. And the movie achieved this excellence with only a reported $15 million production budget, which is a small fraction of the budget of a typical Hollywood “Godzilla” movie.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, “Godzilla Minus One” takes place in Japan, from 1945 to 1947. The movie has subtle and not-to-subtle symbolism of the effects that the atomic bomb had on Japan. The monster Godzilla, in its original iteration, was meant to be a symbol of fear of the type of massive destruction that can come from an atomic bomb or other type of nuclear bomb.

“Godzilla Minus One” doesn’t tease viewers or play coy in showing the monster, since Godzilla appears and kills people in the very first scene of the movie, within five minutes of the movie starting. “Godzilla Minus One” begins in 1945 (toward the end of World War II), at the Odo Island Airfield. Before Godzilla appears, a young fighter pilot named Kōichi Shikishima (played by Ryunosuke Kamiki) first notices that something is very wrong, because there’s a lot of dead fish in the ocean.

Everyone at the airfield dies because of Godzilla’s attack, except Kōichi and a Navy Air Service technician named Sōsaku Tachibana (played by Munetaka Aoki), who blames Kōichi for the massacre because Kōichi froze and didn’t shoot at Godzilla from his plane when he had the chance. Sōsaku thinks that Kōichi could have used his pilot skills to fight Godzilla, but it’s somewhat unfair blame because Kōichi had been knocked unconscious during the attack. Still, Kōichi feel guilty for all of the deaths and has post-traumatic stress disorder.

After returning home to Tokyo, Kōichi (who has no siblings) finds out that his parents died in an air raid bombing that killed thousands of people. A neighbor named Sumiko Ōta (played by Sakura Ando) tells him the tragic news. In her grief, Sumiko verbally lashes out at Kōichi (who was a kamikaze pilot), by scolding him for being a disgrace to Japan. Sumiko says that if he had done his kamikaze pilot job properly, he would have died for his country.

Kōichi has a secret that he tells to only a few people: When he was a kamikaze fighter pilot, and he knew that Japan was coming close to being defeated in World War II, he pretended that there was a malfunction in his plane, in order to temporarily get out of fighting in the war. He was at Odo Island Airfield to get his “malfunctioning” plane “fixed” when Godzilla attacked. The war ended shortly after this attack.

There is chaos in the streets of Tokyo, where one day Kōichi sees a woman, who’s about the same age as he is (mid-to-late 20s), frantically running away from some men who are calling her a thief. She’s carrying a baby, whom she quickly hands to Kōichi before running away. A shocked Kōichi spends quite some time looking for the woman, who comes out of hiding in a nearby alley when she sees that he is alone.

The woman says her name is Noriko Ōishi (played by Minami Hamabe), and the baby is a girl named Akiko. Noriko explains that Akiko is not her biological child. The baby was given to Akiko during an air raid attack by a dying female stranger, whom Noriko assumes is Akiko’s mother.

Noriko doesn’t know the woman’s name and has decided to take care of Akiko. Noriko also says that her own parents were killed in the air raid bombings and she has nowhere to live. Kōichi is a kind person and invites Noriko and Akiko to live with him. Noriko has an outspoken and independent streak.

By March 1946, the relationship between Kōichi and Noriko has blossomed into romantic love, but they are reluctant to express their true feelings to each other. They have settled into a happy domestic life as an unmarried platonic couple and are raising Akiko (played by Sae Nagatani) together. Their living arrangement is unusual, but not unexpected in an area devastated by war and where many people have formed familial bonds with people who aren’t biologically related to them, after their own biological family members died in the war.

Kōichi works as a minesweeper, while Noriko has an office job. Noriko is worried about the dangerous nature of Kōichi’s job, but he assures her that he probably won’t get killed from being a minesweeper. Their neighbor Sumiko, who is no longer angry at Kōichi, sometimes helps take care of Akiko. Kōichi is kind to Akiko, but when she becomes old enough to speak, he doesn’t want her to call him “daddy” or “father.” He repeatedly tells Akiko that he’s not her father, and she looks sad every time he says that, because Kōichi is the only father she has ever known.

In his minesweeper job, Kōichi works with three other men on a ramshackle wooden boat called Shinsei Maru. The three other men are a former Navy engineer named Kenji Noda (played by Hidetaka Yoshioka), who is logical and even-tempered; boat captain Yōji Akitsu (played by Kuranosuke Sasaki), who is commanding and has a somewhat stubborn personality; and junior crew member Shirō Mizushima (played by Yuki Yamada), who has an eager-to-learn personality and wants the respect of his more experienced colleagues.

Since this is a Godzilla movie, it’s only a matter of time before Godzilla makes another appearance to attack. Without going into too many details, it’s enough to say that by 1947, Kōichi finds himself in the Pacific Ocean fighting Godzilla with his colleagues, as already shown in the movie’s trailer. Kenji has come up with a plan to destroy Godzilla. But will this plan work?

A former Navy air service technician named Sōsaku Tachibana (played by Munetaka Aoki) has a pivotal role in the fighter planes that are used in the intense battles against Godzilla. It should come as no surprise that Kōichi would eventually use his fighter pilot skills instead of being stuck on a boat firing cannons. The action in the movie is easy to predict but still thrilling to watch.

“Godzilla Minus One” also makes the most of its relatively small budget with convincing visual effects and sound design. In addition to writing and directing “Godzilla Minus One,” Yamazaki co-led the movie’s visual effects department with Kiyoko Shibuya. This is a Godzilla movie where viewers can feel as terrified as the characters in the movie. The pacing and editing of the movie in the battle scenes also add to the suspense.

Visual effects and action scenes are empty without engaging characters. No one is going to win any major awards for acting in “Godzilla Minus One,” but the movie does a very good job at showing the emotional stakes that the principal characters have in the story. Like many of the characters in the movie, Kōichi and Noriko lost their families to a massacre. Kōichi and Noriko have created a unique family of their own that viewers will be rooting for to survive and stay together. Godzilla is the namesake and star attraction for this franchise, but the best Godzilla movies are the one that have human characters whom viewers care about the most.

*January 26, 2024 Update: Review of “Godzilla Minus One Minus Color”

“Godzilla Minus One Minus Color” is the same movie as “Godzilla Minus One,” but in black and white instead of color. On the plus side, the black-and-white imagery makes the movie look more like the 1940s time period in which the story takes place. However, iconic hue images, such as Godzilla’s glowing blue spine, aren’t there. The heart of the story remains, which is why it’s still an impressive monster movie. But the color version is a more immersive experience that makes Godzilla slightly more terrifying.

Seeing the movie in black and white makes it look like a time capsule, almost like a documentary. The psychological effect on viewers is that Godzilla looks like a monster stuck in a past century. Seeing the movie in color makes it look more convincing that Godzilla is a monster that could live for centuries and could be part of the present day. And that’s why the ending is more effective when seeing the movie is color.

Toho International released “Godzilla Minus One” in U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023, with a sneak preview on November 29, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on October 18, 2023. A black-and-white version of “Godzilla Minus One,” titled “Godzilla Minus One Minus Color,” will be released in Japan on January 12, 2024, and in the U.S. on January 26, 2024.

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