Thor: Love and Thunder

Posted on July 7, 2022 at 8:10 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, action, language, partial nudity and some suggestive material
Profanity: S-words, mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, characters injured, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 8, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 26, 2022

Copyright 2022 Disney
Taika Watiti’s sly, understated. offbeat humor is a great match for Thor, a superhero who is literally a god with a post British accent. Thor could come across as stiff and stuffy if not for the combination of Watiti and Chris Hemsworth, who has the rare ability to be effortlessly hilarious while still being a completely believable superhero god. I’ve often said that superhero movies are made or lost based on the villains, not the heroes. On that basis, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is less successful. But it is so much fun along the way, and often genially goofy, two words that don’t usually apply to superhero movies, that it is satisfyingly entertaining.

The last time we saw Thor he was looking more like The Big Lebowski than a god of Asgard and his planet had been destroyed. He pulled himself together for “Avengers: Endgame” and New Asgard is now up and running under the rule of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Thor spends his days in quiet contemplation until he is called upon to save the world again, which he does with brio and then returns to his solitude. Asgard is a quaint little town by the water and has become a favorite tourist destination. One popular attraction is the re-enactment of some of the highlights of Asgardian history, with performers played by Matt Damon and Luke Hemsworth plus two I won’t spoil).

Meanwhile, Thor’s ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has Stage 4 cancer. And somehow she is called to or by the legendary Mjolnir, the once-shattered hammer that has re-assembled itself like the silvery guy in “Terminator 2.” This makes her into Thor, apparently in addition to, not instead of the Thor who was named by his father, Odin. One of the most endearingly goofy elements of the film is the way original Thor’s new weapon, the axe called Stormbreaker, is sensitive and a bit worried about its predecessor returning. Original Thor is better at sharing his feelings with his weapons than he is with human beings. I predict that Brene Brown will be using clips from this movie to illustrate future lectures about the importance of vulnerability.

And then, the bad guy. Christian Bale plays Gorr, who we first see as a devoted acolyte in a destroyed world. He has lost everything, including his daughter, but believes in the salvation and afterlife his religion has promised. When he learns that his god cares nothing for humans and there is no eternal life he grabs the Necrosword and the combination of grief, anger, betrayal, and the sword’s magic turns him into something of a Terminator of his own (though looking more like zombie Voldemort), with just one imperative — killing all the gods.

The action scenes are great fun and there are a lot of delightful small details you might miss the first time through, but is it the humor, the characters, and the warmth of their connection that stand out. Watiti returns as Thor’s sidekick Korg, his quiet, tentative voice an amusing counterpart to his enormous rock body. In the vast assemblage of gods, Russell Crowe appears as a lightning bolt-throwing Zeus. Thompson and Portman have great chemistry and Hemsworth is as good at comedy as he is at looking like a Norse god, which is as good as it gets. Korg tells us that coming out of his depression, Thor went from dad bod to god bod. It is good to see him here going from sad guy to, well, you’ll see.

NOTE: Stay through the end of the credits to see two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this movie has many s-words and extended peril and comic-book style action violence with many characters injured, cancer treatment, and a sad death. There is also a brief flash of rear nudity.

Family questions: What would you choose for your catch phrase? How do you make sure you don’t wall off your feelings after being hurt?

If you like this, try: the other “Thor” movies and Watiti’s “What We Do in the Shadows” film and television series

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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted on May 3, 2022 at 11:27 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening images, action, intense sequences of violence, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language, s-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugged drinks
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, scary monsters, zombie, disturbing and grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 6, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
The year of the multi-verses continues with the latest Marvel entry, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by master of horror Sam Raimi (and with a special cameo by Raimi’s favorite actor, Bruce Campbell). As the MCU continues to evolve and expand, this movie builds not just on all of the Marvel movies that have come before. There are references to Thanos turning half the population to dust and to the most recent Spider-Man movie (where Strange played a key role). It also helps a lot to have seen the television series “Wandavision,” with Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, a sometime Avenger with, even by Avenger standards, extraordinary powers. She can create almost anything and in that series, her response to the tragic loss of her love, Vision, was to create an entire world, in part inspired by the videos of American television series she saw as a child in fictional Communist Bloc country Sokovia, where she and Vision lived in sit-com suburbia.

It begins in medias res, a battle with a very big monster who seems to be made of electrified spaghetti. There is a teenage girl and a choice, something that would destroy her but save the world, at least until the next monster. Doctor Strange, the famously hyper-rational, often arrogant surgeon-turned sorcerer with the greying temples and magical cloak, has to decide. What will he do? What should he do?

He makes a choice and then he wakes up. It was a dream. Or maybe it was not. He will learn that it was a peak into the multiverse, the parallel versions of our world we got a glimpse of in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” when two other Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) and a handful of their villains joined together in our world. There is a way to physically enter the other verses and there is a way to “dream-walk,” to inhabit another verse’s version of you and substitute your thoughts and emotions. And that teenager, America Chavez (a terrifically natural Xochitl Gomez of “The Babysitter’s Club”) shows up with the key to some of that verse-hopping.

Strange seeks out Wanda to ask for her help. They walk through her peaceful grove of apple blossoms and he tells her they smell “real.” She assures him they are, that she is done with world-building. The meaning of “real” is a theme of the film as the different versions of the characters in the multi-verses present different ideas of reality, including free food and a verse where everyone is paint, plus some surprising switches in roles, personalities, hair color and style (Strange with a ponytail?), and destinies. And there are monsters, including a very cool one that looks like a gigantic corrugated octopus with a head that’s one enormous eyeball, like a spider-y band member from The Residents.

That’s as spoiler-y as I want to get. So I will stick to some general comments. Cumberbatch makes Strange vivid, layered, even a little bit vulnerable, and the interactions with the woman he loves, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and America have a nice symmetry that helps us see Strange work through his options, both for fighting the villain and for moving forward in his own life. The visual design is wonderfully imaginative, each verse filled with enthralling details. The action scenes are well staged, Raimi brings a tingly horror twinge to the mood, and Danny Elfman’s music is everything you want a superhero soundtrack to be. It feels good to be back in the IMAX MCU.

What keeps it under the level of the best of these films, though, is what has been an increasing issue in superhero movies. The powers are not clearly defined, so the stakes are not clearly defined. It is not enough to say it’s about the fate of the world or even the fate of America (the person, though of course the country, too). It feels like too many times that we’ve been told that someone has ultimate power, and then someone comes along with more ultimate power. (I did think it was very funny when we saw the Infinity Stones carelessly tossed into a low-level bureaucrat’s desk drawer in the “Loki” series.) I’m not saying every superhero has to be Superman, with his abilities and vulnerability clearly defined. But this film’s search for two artifacts as the keys to resolving the conflict are a distraction from the level of mythic existential conflict this movie tries for. It is a particularly weak moment when Strange, whose power comes from intensive training, resorts to the old “just figure out how to use your power in the next nano-second.” The special effects are state-of-the-art but there’s only so much they can do with characters who just shoot electricity at each other.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this is at the upper edge of a PG-13 with some strong language (s-words) and extensive comic book/fantasy peril and violence with some disturbing and graphic images, including a disintegrating zombie. Characters are drugged.

Family discussion: Is it ever right to sacrifice one person to save many? (Look up “The Trolly Problem.”) What does it mean to always want to be the one holding the knife?

If you like this, try: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “Another Earth”

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Morbius

Posted on March 31, 2022 at 11:57 am

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some frightening images, intense sequences of violence, and brief Strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Mind and body-altering medication
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, vampires, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2022
Date Released to DVD: June 13, 2022
Copyright 2022 Sony

More like “Bore”-bius, amirite?

Sorry, couldn’t help it. I don’t know if it was the absence of Marvel MCU mastermind Kevin Feige (this movie comes from Sony, which has the rights to Spider-Man and the characters from his comics) or if they’re just digging down so deep into the MCU to find new IP, I mean new characters to develop and have run out of all the good ones, or both. But whatever the reason, “Morbius,” with Jared Leto is something no superhero movie should ever be — dull. The action scenes are poorly staged and the special effects are awful. Plus, it spends much too much time on the origin story somehow without ever making us connect to the title character.

Leto plays Michael Morbius, an only-in-comics character who is severely disabled and a genius. And, of course, something of a renegade. He is so dazzlingly brilliant that he is the youngest scientist ever to win a Nobel Prize, but such a rapscallion that he waits until he is wearing white tie at the ceremony to tell the King of Sweden he is turning it down. He is in a furious race against time to find a cure for his debilitating genetic disorder. The funding for his rogue lab comes from the childhood friend played as an adult by Matt Smith (“Dr. Who,” “The Crown”). They met in a residential treatment facility run by kind-hearted doctor Emil Nikols (Jared Harris). When they first meet, young Michael dubs the new arrival Milo, though his name is Lucien, to indicate that he is just another in an endless line of young patients who die so quickly it is not worth learning their names. Nevertheless, they become friends and he continues to be known as Milo.

Their shared problem is some blood-related thing, so Morbius comes up with the idea that one way to cure it could be to combine his DNA with the DNA of the only animal that lives solely on blood, the vampire bat. What could go wrong?

This experiment is unethical, illegal, and extremely expensive. So, with Milo footing the bill, Morbius and his beautiful colleague Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) try the DNA mixture out on a cargo ship in international waters. Think of it as his version of a radioactive spider bite except that (1) he does it on purpose and (2) vampire bats have qualities that are generally considered to be problematic, starting with an unquenchable thirst for blood.

So Morbius is an anti-hero, which means we have to have an all-out bad guy so he will be not so bad by comparison. The film expects us, like the FBI agents played by woefully underused Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal that the first few murders did not matter because the people killed were not good guys, and it is only when a nice single mom gets all of the blood sucked out of her that we should care about who did it. Michael feels bad about what he did and is a scientist and wants to stop even worse things from happening, so we’re supposed to be on his side. The scientific discovery he should be focusing on is how much crime a white guy in a hoodie can get away with.

Even those who come to superhero movies just for the fights and special effects will be disappointed. The CGI is primarily used to make the faces of the two vampires go back and forth from skeletal to normal, plus some meaningless dust trails that their superpowers somehow manifest. Many scenes have drab lighting that for want of a less vampiric word, sucks the life out of the story. Matt Smith is a brief bright spot but Leto spends most of his time trying to look soulful. He says that despite the poor reviews, he’s committed to a sequel. Please, no MORE-bious.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for extra scenes.

Parents should know that this film has extended comic-book style peril and violence, including vampires, with some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use mind- and body-altering medication and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Milo/Lucien and Michael respond to the treatment differently? Why did Michael reject the Nobel?

If you like this, try: The Spider-Man movies

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Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted on December 14, 2021 at 12:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed, very sad death, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021
Date Released to DVD: April 11, 2022

Copyright Sony 2021
Spider-Man: No Way Home” is everything a comic book movie should be, filled with excitement, heart, humor, and details to delight the fans. There were audible gasps of joy and more than a few tears in the audience when I saw it, and some of them were mine.

It is tough to say much more without spoilers, but I am going to try. I recommend that you see the movie before reading the rest of the review, though, if you want the delight of all of the surprises. Then come back here and see what I have to say to find out if you agree.

It takes off where “Spider-Man: Far From Home” left us, with the public revelation that Spider-Man is high school student Peter Parker. Now, helicopters are hovering outside of the apartment Peter (Tom Holland) shares with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Blowhard J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) is a Limbaugh/O’Reilly-style media personality who calls Spider-Man a terrorist and vigilante, leading to public protests. Aunt May, Spidey’s best friend and “chair guy,” Ned (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) are all being harassed. Almost as painful, his high school teacher has set up something of a shrine and the principal tries to reassure him by telling him he is welcome to swing through the halls or crawl on the ceiling.

Peter cannot live his life or help anyone else in this situation, so he goes to one of the other Avengers for help: Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). What he needs is a way to make everyone forget they know his secret identity. Strange agrees to help, but Peter interrupts the spell and something goes wrong.

Spoiler alert, last warning: this opens up a portal to the multi-verse, and that lets in some of the classic Spidey villains, including my all-time favorite, Doc Oct (Alfred Molina). There is also an appearance by my least favorite Spider-Man villain, but this film gives him a vastly better role. This leads to some show-stopping confrontations, staged with exceptional dynamism, pacing, and even wit. There are some very funny moments when the super-villains refer to each other as “a brilliant scientist” and when they compare notes. “You fell into something? I fell into something!”

There are more delicious meta-moments, but it is all anchored by real emotion. Peter is a teenager, so the anguish of college applications and the drama of first love are as wrenching as the battles with supervillains to save the planet. Just as the previous entry upended the usual structure of the superhero/supervillain conflict, this one remixes it again, raising the fundamental question about what it is we want or should want from those battles, but cleverly letting us have it both ways. Peter’s mentor, Tony Stark, is gone, and so the person he seeks help from is Dr. Strange. Like Stark, he is arrogant and impatient but not unmoved by Peter and he provides some critical (in both senses of the word) direction, ordering Peter, Ned, and MJ to “Scooby-Doo this s**t.” If it glosses quickly over the actual problem-solving (requiring chemical stuff and mechanical stuff and computer stuff) it’s fine because we would not want to watch that for too long when there are action scenes ahead and they are bangers.

Peter gets some guidance and support from an unexpected source that adds to the humor and to the emotional heft of the story, touching on love, loss, chance, and regret and, as they say in “The Good Place,” what we owe each other. What Marvel/Sony/Columbia owes the audience is a terrific comic book movie, and they have delivered.

NOTE: Stay all the way through the credits for TWO extra scenes.

Parents should know that this film features extended superhero/fantasy peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there is a very sad death and discussion of loss and regret. There is some strong language and a kiss.

Family discussion: Was Aunt May right about second chances? What was the most important thing Peter learned from his counterparts?

If you like this, try: the entire Spidey-verse of movies, including the three each for Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield and the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

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Eternals

Posted on October 31, 2021 at 9:39 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, brief sexuality, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended superhero peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, scary monsters, weapons, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Exceptionally diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 14, 2022

Copyright Marvel Studios 2021
I’m sorry to tell you The Eternals is a mess. I’m sorry because I like Marvel movies and I like the writer/director Chloé Zhao and I wanted to love it.

I did almost love parts of it, but other parts are truly disappointing which is why it is a mess. At least that is better than being bad. I’m not sure anyone could have made it work. It is like calling up the Low-A baseball team to play in a World Series game, leaving us all sitting there in an enormous Major League Baseball stadium watching a team that is just not up to that kind of attention. It might have been nice to see these second-tier Marvel characters in a lower-key, lower-budget setting instead of the massive, time and place-hopping heavily CGI’d epic that keeps threatening to overshadow the characters as we try to remember which one has which powers and how they all relate to each other.

It does not help that we have spent 26 films over 14 years to get to know the most powerful superheroes on the planet (in the MCU’s version) and we are now told that there’s another bunch of superheroes we have not seen before who are even more powerful. The reason we have not seen them before is they’re in theory not allowed to interfere with human matters. They have been on earth since its earlier beginning with just one job, to fight some monsters called, not very imaginatively, deviants. They look like they’ve been made out of flexible steel pipes. They were sent by a God-like Celestial called Arishem. We see them at different points in human history, fighting deviants, learning to use their powers, bickering, and occasionally interfering in human affairs by helping out with some advanced technology.

In the present day, the group has split up, so, like “Avengers: Endgame” there is a long getting-the-band-back-together section, but in this case we don’t have a 20+ movie investment in the characters so it is more about providing an opportunity to introduce the Eternals and provide some comic relief. That welcome respite comes from newly-buff Kumail Nanjiani, who has become a Bollywood movie star (his dance number is a treat).

There are so many characters and so many powers and so many run-ins and conflicts and shifts that there simply is not room to go into them, so I’m going to summarize some of the film’s strengths and weaknesses instead of trying to recap even the basics of the characters and storyline.

Strength: the cast is excellent and it is a delight to see this group of first-rate performers, one of the most diverse in any film in any category, doing their best and having fun. Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie is Thena, an Eternal who sometimes has a breakdown and starts attacking the others instead of the divergents. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has a powerful punch, but he spends centuries caring for Thena and their scenes together are touching. Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians” plays a sometime leader of the group with grace.

Weakness: there are too many characters, even for a movie that is more than 2 1/2 hours long (including the TWO credit sequences).

Strength: the cinematography is beautiful. Some people will disagree, but I thought the delicate gold filigree-like effects indicating the Eternals’ powers are lovely.

Weakness: The specifics and distinctions of the various powers are not as clear as they should be, and the same goes for the creatures they are fighting. We need a clearer idea of the stakes to understand the fight scenes.

Weakness: Speaking of stakes, the perameters of the Eternals’ mission it fuzzy as well. They’re not supposed to interfere with the affairs of humans. Except kind of sometimes.

Strength: The diversity of the characters was outstanding. It was organic, never artificial, and added enormously to the storyline.

Conclusion: It’s too long. It doesn’t hold together. Its actors are stronger than their characters. It looks lovely.

Parents should know that this movie has extended fantasy/superhero peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and references to real-life events like the bombing of Hiroshima. There is some strong language and an explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Which of the Eternals do you like the best? Which powers would you like to have? What should you know before following someone’s instructions?

If you like this, try: the comics and the other Marvel movies

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