Dakota Johnson in Madame Web

Madame Web

Posted on February 13, 2024 at 7:06 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence/action and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action style peril and violence, crashes, explosions, poison, guns, fire, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Copyright Sony 2024

When EMT Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) introduces her colleague as Ben Parker (Adam Scott) as Ben Parker, your spidey sense better be tingling or this movie is going to be a slog. Not that this origin story of Marvel superhero Madame Web is just another Spider-Man variation. It’s way different. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, and Madame Web is bitten by a natural but imaginary with magic powers spider. Got it?

Cassie (short for Cassandra, which should tingle your spidey-sense, too) is a loner. Once she delivers a patient to the hospital, She cares very much for Ben Parker and for their boss, O’Neil (the always instantly-appealing Mike Epps) but she does not want to spend much time with anyone outside of work. Cassie’s mother died in Peru, where she was researching a rare species of spider with peptides that could have healing powers for humans, and Cassie, who grew up in foster care, has always felt abandoned, even rejected, by the mother who was so reckless in exploring the wilds of South America when she was eight months pregnant.

We know there is more to the story than that. We saw her mother (Kerry Bishe), betrayed by her assistant, Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), shoot her and steal the spider she has worked so hard to find. As she dies, a member of a spider-enhanced tribe thought by most people to be a legend appears, and he is able to deliver her baby before she dies.

Trailer

Cassie and Ben rescue a man from an overturned car hanging over the side of a bridge, but the car flips into the water with Cassie inside. Ben rescues her, but while under water her heart stopped, and the experience has triggered in her a power it will take a while for her to understand; she can see a few moments into the future, enough for her to make a difference and prevent disaster.

Meanwhile, Sims is having his own visions of the future, where he will be murdered by three young women with spidery superpowers. He is determined to prevent this by killing them, when they are still teenagers. He gets access to government databases and cameras and hires tech whiz and morally bankrupt Amaria (Zosia Mamet in a thankless role that consists of peering intently into screens and saying yes to Sims’ demands) to find the girls. She does get to wear elegant necklaces while she’s doing it, though.

Somehow, Cassie and the three girls, who do not know each other, end up on the same train and when Cassie sees visions of Sims killing them she gets them off the train and away from him. Keeping them away from him takes up most of the rest of the movie and unsurprisingly that means chases and explosions and at least two vehicles crashing through buildings. The girls are played by the exceptionally talented and sadly underused Isabela Merced, Sydney Sweeny, and Celeste O’Connor.

It’s not an awful movie but it is not very good. The origin story spends too much time on the origin, with Cassie getting used to her powers, which involves a detour to Peru that slows down the pacing. What we really want is more time with Cassie and the girls. If it’s going to be an origin story, let’s get their origins, too. There’s an irresponsibility and lack of even the most limited consequences to the mayhem that goes beyond the usual suspension of disbelief we grant a comic book movie. The dialogue is pedestrian, occasionally laughable, and the references to the Spider-Man universe or one of the Spider-Man universes are clumsy. And what should be the strongest part of any superhero movie, the villain, here is the weakest. Sims, who at times sounds like his dialogue has been dubbed by someone else, is just not that interesting. If you could see ahead like Madame Web, you might fix your future by waiting to see this on streaming.

Parents should know that this movie has extended comic book-style peril and violence with guns, poison, chases, crashes, fire, and explosions. Characters use some strong language and there are sexual references and situations as well as two scenes of childbirth or labor.

Family discussion: How did what Cassie learned about her mother change the way she thought about herself? What did Julia, Anya, and Mattie have in common? What superpower would you like to have?

If you like this, try: the “Spider-Man” movies and the Madame Web comics

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Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 3

Posted on May 3, 2023 at 11:56 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action/comic book-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 5, 2023
Date Released to DVD: July 31, 2023

Copyright Disney 2023
I guess it makes sense. Not the movie. Not even close. But the form = content notion that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” the third in the series, is, like its characters a mess but a lovable and entertaining mess. By now it feels like it’s our mess. So, even though I couldn’t help imagining what Honest Trailers and Pitch Meeting are going to have so say about the very convoluted to the point of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding last 40 minutes or so and it’s well over two hours run time, I enjoyed it.

We already know something about the history of some of the characters. Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) had an earth mother and an alien father and was taken from earth at age 8 by an intergalactic group of rogues and thieves called The Ravagers. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) were stolen from their families when their planets were annihilated by Thanos and then tortured and mutilated to turn them into assassins. But we don’t know much about Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the tree-guy voiced by Vin Diesel.

In this chapter, we go back to Rocket’s origin story. Like Thanos’ adopted daughters and Wolverine and I’m sure lots of other fictional characters, he was operated on by a megalomaniacal villain trying to “perfect” the world. He is The High Evolutionary, played by Chukwudi Iwuji. He has already created worlds and destroyed them for not living up to his exacting standards of perfection. One of his worlds we saw briefly in the last GothG movie, with Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, leader of a world of spectacularly beautiful golden-hued creatures. In this film, he threatens to destroy that world unless Ayesha’s son, Warlock (Will Poulter), brings him Rocket. While the High Evolutionary is obsessed with the “improvements” he inflicts, somehow Rocket has gifts of intellect that the High Evolutionary did not create for him and he wants to understand and either copy that or destroy it.

The High Evolutionary’s experiments on Rocket and other animals were mechanical, replacing body parts with metal, so that they look Like the mutilated toys in Syd’s room in the first “Toy Story.” But it is in the adjoining cages that he finds his first family, led by the warm-hearted otter named Lylla. Rocket, using that exceptional capacity for engineering we have observed in the earlier films, manages to escape (including piloting a ship even though he has never even seen one before, much less been exposed to outer space or really anything outside of his prison).

This time, then, the Guardians are not saving the galaxy. At the beginning of the film they seem happily settled in Knowwhere with Cosmo the Soviet wonder dog, Mantis, the anntena-ed empath (Pom Klementieff), and former Ravager Kraglin (Sean Gunn). They have opened a bar. But the one doing all the drinking is Peter, who is still trying to drown his grief over the loss of Gamora. Nothing can get him to stop until Rocket is attacked. He is gravely injured and in order to save him the Guardians will need to retrieve a code to unlock a mechanism that prevents the necessary surgery and just 48 hours to do it. The Ravagers also get involved, and they now include a different version of Gamora brought back from the past who has no memory of her relationship with Peter.

There’s a hint of “Mission Impossible.” They’re even told that if they are caught, they will not be acknowledged as acting on behalf of the ruling body. And there’s a Zune vintage music player retrieved at the end of Vol 2 to follow the mix-tapes from the first two movies with some new songs for the soundtrack.

As noted, it does get messy. The group of misfit toys go off in different directions and it is hard to keep track of who is doing what where. A increasing problem with the Marvel movies is the way they keep using the stakes The High Evolutionary and Warlock have powers of near god-like magnitude. What can the Guardians do? It gets muddled. The High Evolutionary can do just about anything including creating and destroying worlds, but somehow cannot fight back from an attack with claws. There is a significant element to the story about the essential value of living beings who might not be considered “higher” life forms….until that is undermined later on. I said it was messy. As Peter said in the first one, “Something good, something bad? Bit of both.”

NOTE: Stay through the credits for two extra scenes

Parents should know that this film has extended peril and comic book/action-style violence with sometimes graphic and disturbing images. Characters are injured and killed. The film includes strong language, drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: Why is having a name so important? What does the name High Evolutionary mean and what does he think it means to be “perfect?” Why was the distinction about “higher forms” significant?

If you like this, try: the other “Guardians” movies

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Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Posted on February 14, 2023 at 5:57 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School

What I’ve always loved about the “Ant-Man” movies, aside from the ever-lovable Paul Rudd in the title role, is the slightly hand-made quality, in contrast to the high-tech, hight-gloss, high-CGI aesthetic of the rest of the MCU. The opening of the second film in the series sets the tone. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), under house arrest following the parole violation of saving the world with the Avengers, has created a cardboard thrill ride for his daughter, Cassie. The Ant-Man series had some goofy humor with Scott’s relationship with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale), the cop who can’t decide whether to arrest him or befriend him (Randall Park), and with the discursive stories from his friend and colleague Luis (Michael Peña). The production design truly set the stage with more lived-in spaces than in the other Marvel movies.

Not so much this time. Of course, this is a Marvel movie and there are imaginative and exciting action sequences, especially as Scott develops his use of his powers. It has a nice mix of comedy and action, with characters we are invested in, not just as individuals but in the way they are connected to each other.

As the title tells us, this movie takes place in the least hand-made setting imaginable, the quantum realm. As wonderfully imaginative as it is, suggesting a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland, the Pastoral Symphony section of Disney’s “Fantasia,” the wildest anime creatures of Hayao Miyazaki, and video games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, plus last year’s “Strange World,” there is a pristine quality that removes much of the distinctive charm we expect from Ant-Man. Plus, talk about the forest and the trees. There is just so much detail here, with the endless settings and characters so overwhelming that they make it hard to keep track of what is going on. It’s not enough that a character’s head looks like a stalk of broccoli. Someone has to say, “His head looks like broccoli.” And then we don’t have much to do with him again. There’s a lot to see and much of it is enticing, but not enough of it relates to anything that relates to the stakes, the abilities or vulnerabilities of the good guys or characteristics that would help us understand who they are and how they behave. The issue of understanding each others’ language is handled briskly but other properties are not developed or explored.

The title says it all because the story is more about the place than about what happens there. After a brief prologue, with John Sebastian’s theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter” on the soundtrack, we hear from Scott about how lucky he feels. He is an Avenger, universally loved for saving the world, even if that means people always ask him for photos (with their dogs!) and they don’t always remember which insect superhero he is. His daughter is doing well, he and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are happily in love and she is out saving the world with wonderful programs to help people who need housing or other kinds of support. Scott has written a new book about his life, and enjoys appearing at book-readings.

But it turns out Cassie (Kathryn Newton of “Freaky,” excellent in the role) has been stirring up trouble by appearing at protests and experimenting with a probe into the quantum realm. Before Janet (Michele Pfeiffer), who spent 30 years there and has refused to give any details, can stop her, Scott, Casssie, Hope, Janet, and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are all sucked into the quantum realm, and that is where they stay for almost all of the rest of the film.

There is a long stretch where we meet an assortment of colorful characters. Some of them are fun, including a goofy return from one of the earlier films. It is always good to see William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”) as a frustrated telepath who is way over hearing all of the disgusting thoughts of everyone around him and a jell-o-like character very interested in how many “holes” humanoids have in their bodies and what goes into and out of them. A major star appears for a few minutes for no real purpose.

There’s a very “Star Wars”-ish vibe with the diverse good guys wearing rough cloth and carrying spears and the homogenous and faceless bad guys with the high tech weapons that somehow are not very accurate as the armor-less good guys seem to have no problem dodging the bullets.

As I have often said, superhero movies rise and fall on the quality of the bad guy, who has to be evil enough to be a serious threat but not omni-powerful enough to make it impossible to defeat him. With Thanos gone, the Marvel character Kang the Conqueror has been refashioned in his image. Free of the reality-based limits of time and space, Kang’s calculus about wiping out whole universes is for him just straightening the pictures on the wall — except that it turns out there is a strong element of revenge behind his decisions about who and what needs to be wiped out.

Jonathan Majors, who we’ll be seeing as the antagonist in another huge franchise series in a few weeks, “Creed III,” makes Kang intriguing as he shifts from vulnerable and companionable to canny negotiations to imperious orders to white-hot fury. But it also makes him so all over the place that it is hard to invest in the battles. It does not help that the other side is so complicated that we do not attach to most of the new characters, and characters we love, including Woo and Luis and, worst of all, Hope, are pushed to the side.

“There’s always room to grow,” Scott tells his readers, and those reassuring words come back to inspire the good guys later on. But in this case, taking Ant-Man out of the smaller world of the first two films shows that all that room may not be what this story needs.

NOTE: Stay through the end credits for two extra scenes, one tying the next chapter to some favorite Marvel characters.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and violence with some disturbing images. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: How should Scott have responded to Kang’s threat? Why didn’t Janet tell anyone about her experience?

If you like this, try: the other “Ant-Man” and MCU movies

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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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