Cry Macho

Long in the tooth and slow in the gait, Clint Eastwood still has enough star power to wipe most other performers off the screen. This 91 year old national treasure keeps working and making the cinema world a better place as a result. While “Cry Macho” may not be up to the standards of his greatest films, it is certainly entertaining enough and it speaks to issues that seem contemporary, even though the film is set forty years ago. 

Many Eastwood films have featured him in the role of mentor to a younger character. “Gran Torino” was all about a cross cultural lampooning and deconstruction of supposed “toxic masculinity”, so it is not really a surprise that this film treads familiar ground. Clint’s character Mike Milo, is a used up man, without much to look forward to except release from this world. When his estranged friend and former employer played by Dwight Yoakam enlists him to go to Mexico City and essentially kidnap his 13 year old son from the Mother that he has divorced, Mike sees red flags but also a chance to find some purpose to his continued existence.  

There are a couple obvious problems that I want to discuss early and get out of the way. The dialogue in the two set up scenes is not good and the performances by the two leads live down to that quality. The film starts to feel like it is just conveniently setting up the road trip for us without bothering to make the characters that inspire it feel believable. The “antagonists” in the movie are the kid’s Mother and her boyfriends and entourage. They are also not very believable, in fact there is one moment that may cause a spit take from the audience. But…once Clint and the kid connect, the picture is on much steadier grounds and the characters begin to feel more as if this is a story worth telling. Young Eduardo Minett is a slightly more natural actor than his counterpart in “Gran Torino” was, but both performances feel a little amateurish. The character of Rafo does start to grow on us, in spite of some adolescent faults that are irritating early on. 

The connection between the man and the boy is of course the main point of the story, but there are some surprising detours along the way, including some time spent in a small Mexican town and the people of that town. In particular, the two fugitives, find a stronger familial bond then they have experienced in a long time. This interlude is the strongest part of the story and will make you want to forget what has been set up and instead settle down with the possibilities that are now presented to the man and boy.  Eastwood’s directing style which has always focused more on character than cinematic flamboyance, seems a perfect match for this section of the movie. There is some gentle humor and only a little tension during these sequences. Once they hit the road again, there is an opportunity for Clint to do some basic action that is still acceptable for his age.  The tension in his film “The Mule” from a couple of years ago was mirrored almost exactly when a couple of federal Mexican police pull over the two and we get some sly dialogue that apes the earlier film.

Admittedly, Clint may be a decade past where he could pull this off without difficulty. Still I think his performance here works. The romantic elements of the picture have little to do with sexual attraction and instead focus on the sorts of qualities that people really should be looking for in one another. There is a conundrum built into the mission when we get a plot point revel later in the story. Mike will not be able to resolve it, but he has prepared young Rafo well enough to be able to figure his way out of the issue when it comes up, sometime after our movie ends.

The film will have to make due with an older audience because the things that draw in the typical movie crowd these days are largely missing from this. No real gunfights, barely any fisticuffs, no action scenes per se and a romantic relationship between characters that could be their grandparents. This may be a film that works with Warner’s HBO Max/Day and date simultaneous release. I hope older audiences will go out to see the movie, but if you can’t bring yourself to do that, click the watch button and enjoy an efficient little drama that starts off shaky but finishes well. 

Jungle Cruise

A year ago when this was originally due, I was really looking forward to it. Somehow the extra year weaned me off of anticipation, the exact opposite of “Dune” and “No Time to Die”. So this movie, which has been out for six weeks was almost gone from my radar, but then I noticed that it seemed to be hanging around for a lot more time than most new releases. I had a blank spot in my afternoon and going to a movie is my default action. When I saw this was still playing and it was available as a matinee, I found the requisite enthusiasm to venture out. I am really glad I did, it was a completely enjoyable experience. 


Most of the time, Dwayne Johnson has not let me down. There are not stars that can guarantee a movie opening, not anymore. The closest we have are Tom Cruise and the former “Rock”, so maybe there is still a little hope for Hollywood in the star system. Julia Roberts was once one of those actors who could open even a bad movie, for me, Emily Blunt is the female star most likely to get me into a theater. It is not the combination of the two stars however that make this film a “want to see”, it is the premise. Disney has had varying degrees of success turning theme park attractions into film franchises.  We are still getting “Pirates” movies, but no one is clamoring for another “Country Bears”. “Jungle Cruise” just feels like it out to be a Saturday adventure film. The Disney ride at the park is inspired by “The African Queen” and “King Solomon’s Mine”. It always felt like a live action Tarzan film. Translating it to a theatrical film is mostly successful but you have to keep the context in mind. This is a Saturday Seial brought to life, it should not be looked at as anything else. 


As I was watching it, a dozen other films came to mind. I mentioned “The African Queen”, the boat in the ride and this feature is based on the boat from that film. The search for a lost treasure of course brings up a lot of films, but “Jungle Cruise” feels very much like the Brendan Frasier “Mummy” movies of the 1990s. There are moments cribbed from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” which itself cribbed from a thousand other films. When the cursed conquistadors showed up, I caught Disney stealing from their own theme park movie series and I began to wonder if Johnny Depp was going to show up. He doesn’t, but a half dozen similar ideas crop up. Dwayne Johnson plays Captain Frank Wolff, who is full of scams to keep his business going. The opening section includes a tourist cruise that gives the Rock a chance to do the kinds of puns that fill the tour at Disneyland. If I’d ever wanted to work at the Magic Kingdom, it would have been as one of the boat captains on the Jungle Cruise attraction. The corny quips are not as frequent in the rest of the film but there is a nice call back at the conclusion of the film.

The adventure is mostly light hearted but there are some deaths that occur that might bother the little kids. Nothing is too graphic but some sympathetic characters get sacrificed to elevate a sense of danger. My only film making criticism is that the movie does feel a little long. The story could have been tightened and maybe a couple of the big CGI scenes could be shortened substantially. As a live action cartoon style adventure however, I think it hits the right notes. There are a couple of places where the modern sensibilities wisely sidestep some of the cultural land mines that were present in the old ride, but only one thing seemed to be particularly woke, and it is so subtle that most kids won’t notice it.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has done several films I have enjoyed, including, the Liam Neeson trifecta of “Unknown“, “Non-Stop“, and “Run All Night“. My favorite of his films however is the Jaws inspired “The Shallows“.  He is currently finishing up another Dwayne Johnson picture “Black Adam”, It’s a DCEU film which is scary, but it does stem from the “Shazam” stories so maybe it will work, we will see. Meanwhile, Jungle Cruise is still sailing, so hop on board, but be sure to bring a big bag of popcorn, because that is the only nutrition you’ll get on the expedition, most of this is the cotton candy that you crave in the summertime. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I don’t know all the comic book characters in the Marvel comics, because I stopped reading comics in 1969. I have nothing against them, I just developed other interests. Fans of the comics however will be burdened by their expectations with the introduction of each new character in a big screen adaptation of the comic. I both benefit and suffer because of my detachment. I benefit by not having preconceived notions about how a character should be played, what stories to be told and I don’t have the artwork from the comics haunting my brain and forcing unfavorable comparisons. I suffer because I miss out on the anticipation of a new character. I don’t have a ready data base of knowledge to draw upon when trying to figure out who is who in a new film. So which of these two sides do I prefer? It’s simple, I like my ignorance because it fuels my joy of discovery. This week, I got to discover a Comic Book hero that I suspect I will enjoy for a long time. This movie surprised me in all the good ways a movie should.

Moving into Phase Four of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was going to be a challenge for me. Most of the characters I was long familiar with were being retired from active film service. I knew that new storylines and characters were coming, I just was not sure how I would respond to them. When Doctor Strange showed up in the MCU, I did not think I would care much for that type of story. It did not take long for me to take to it with enthusiasm. I felt the same way going into this film. I thought it might be OK, and I would live with being a little underwhelmed. It is so great to say I went the other way. This was a blast, the character has great potential, and the world building in this was not so convoluted that I rejected it out of hand. When taken on it’s own out of context, it is pretty darn great. 

There are comic fans who grow weary of origin stories, but I am not one of those. I enjoy discovering the background of a superhero, learning about their human weaknesses as well as their strengths. If you create a rich environment and colorful characters to go with the hero, so much the better. Shang Chi starts in the past, travels to different dimensions, operates in familiar contemporary environments and then takes us back to those magical dimensions that we started off with. This film also manages to accomplish something a lot of comic book movies fail at, creating an interesting climax for the final battle of the movie. We were given enough information to know that we should dread something that is coming, but it was not belabored and when it arrives, there are still surprises for us and some tension as a result. 

I’m not sure I would love a whole comedy show by Awkwafina, but I have been given enough of her in movies the last few years that I appreciate the dose level she is providing at the moment. Whenever she is on screen, expect a little injection of fun. When she gets some opportunity to act she has been solid (The Farewell), and in this movie, she gets to be more than the comic relief. There are a bunch of wonderful actors that I am not familiar with because they appear primarily in television shows or in Asian language films. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as the powerful and evil Xu Wenwu was appropriately conflicted, he is more tunnel visioned than bad in this story. Simu Liu was great as the lead, he is not simply an iron fisted warrior, but presented as a complete character with a sense of humor and a young man’s foolishness. Michelle Yeoh, provides an elegant touch with aging beauty and wisdom to go with her character’s stern demeanor and family traditions. 

Because there are some connections to earlier MCU films, it would be a spoiler to reveal too many appearances by other actors. I will say that the presence of one character in particular helps redeem his storyline in an earlier film, and makes this one the sort of fun movie we have expected from Marvel since the first “Iron Man”. So even though the earlier MCU films have played out their plots, there are still strings to be tugged on, and doing so has lead not to the unraveling of an intricate piece of knitting, but rather it reveals some hidden gems that we will get to explore more. It’s great when a movie is so much more than you expected, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of those. 

Free Guy

Officially, my favorite phrase from the above preview is “Not Streaming August 13”. I know that will not be popular with some people who because of their local restrictions or personal anxiety about Covid-19, are unable/willing to go to a theatrical presentation. I on the other hand want the Cinema platform to survive, and if the studios cannibalize their audience with day and date streaming, that experience will become the horseback riding weekend of the future. You know, people going retro for a few hours but doing so on very rare occasions. My second favorite line was “Fox Firesale” because this was a Fox film that Disney acquired when they purchased Fox and it has a specialty Label, “20th Century Studios” (let’s see how long that lasts). 


Repeatedly delayed, not because of quality but in trying to get to a date where the audience will show up, “Free Guy” is an absolute delight and for my money, one of the better pictures this year. I know it will go down like cotton candy or bubblegum flavored ice cream, but there is a little more to it than just the empty calories of CGI action fun and Ryan Reynold’s arch humor. There is a moral question that the characters in this story face. It may seem far fetched to think so, but A.I. is all around us , and the future is here. This film is a bit like “Her” , only instead of worrying about the effect of A.I. on the human race, it turns it around and wonders what responsibility humans would have to an A.I. creation. It is much less grim than the Kubrick/Spielberg A.I., but some of those themes are present. At least enough so the movie is not just jokes about video games. “Ready Player One”, “The Lego Movie” and “The Truman show, all have similar plot elements that mix reality with fantasy, and this film does it through the portal of  Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing games like Grand Theft Auto. 


I’ve said it before, I am not a comic book guy. So imagine how distant I am from the video game industry that now dwarfs my beloved film world. Most kids in the next generation will more quickly recognize characters form “Fortnite” than they will classic film characters. The last video based game I played was “Space Invaders” and that was a arcade version, I know next to nothing about the on-line gaming community, despite having a “Twitch” account. I do however know some of the routines from other mass culture and I did not really have a problem with most of the references. Several people appear on screen who I think are probably YouTube Gamer celebrities, This is another place where I can see my time as a member of the culture is limited.  I am sure there were some things that got by me because I am a newb, but I still enjoyed the film anyway.


Ryan Reynolds has cornered the market on sly, insider humor touched by both naivete and sadistic comic book violence. “Deadpool” is a character that he breathed life into after first sucking it out in an early form of the character.  He has also been the voice of gentle characters in animated movies and a sweet romantic partner in Rom-Coms. His voice and demeanor make the contrasting events feel more outsized without having to exaggerate every thing about the performance (ok, except for Deadpool). He has no writing credit on this film but he is a producer, and the film only moved forward when he got together with director Shawn Levy. The nice guy in the blue shirt is his persona to a tea. Hell, even when Deadpool is being a dick, he still speaks in mostly polite tones. I don’t know Jodie Comer but I thought she was just great in the two roles that she plays. Taika Waititi was fun, but not his usual oddball self, I thought this part could have been done by any number of actors, they don’t really get the best value out of having him in the film. Lil Rey Howery was funny as heck in “Get Out” and here he is funny with a little bit of heart.  


Because we know from the beginning that we are watching a video game, the elaborate visuals will seem less impressive because they are merely being used as background for the story. It’s a good looking movie, but I suspect it would be an above average looking video game, and the drama is lessened al little bit, even though the comedy is ramped up as a result. I will say this was one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in a theatre this year. It was a little deeper than I expected but it was also funnier than I had hoped. It worked out for me, my guess is that it will do the same for you. A completely satisfying dessert that also serves as the main course. 

Pick a Date.

The Suicide Squad (2021)

“The” so as not to confuse it with it’s predecessor. The Suicide Squad seems to have a much greater division of opinions than the first one. Where it succeeds the most is by incorporating the humor of writer director James Gunn, who is responsible for the two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films in the MCU. This time out, Gunn is operating in the DCEU and he scrapes the bottom of the barrel, purposefully, to dreg up characters with which to play. The reason that this is a good idea is simple, a lot of them are going to die and you don’t want to be too attached. This may be a bit of a spoiler, which I always try to limit, but it does come in the first ten minutes of the movie; the team we see being assembled is wiped out and we discover in a do over sequence that a parallel team was deployed on the same mission. 

It’s no surprise that Harley Quinn does survive and joins in the second mission. Margot Robie was the breakout star of the previous film and has already had her own starring feature released to the audience. I think her character works best in limited doses and that is what we get here. She certainly has lots to do but is not on screen the whole time. Gunn instead focuses on the strangely matched characters on the second team and the horrible things they do as they try to accomplish the same mission. When you have a character called “King Shark” and he is basically a shark on legs, you can imagine very easily the kind of mayhem that will follow. That character is also the strongest of the squad and he is capable of ripping a human being in half with is hands, which he does. The powers that some of these characters have are a little silly, until you see them in action. Ratcatcher 2 and Polka Dot man were the standouts from my perspective. 

Sometimes it feels like Gunn is just going for the most grotesque image or idea he can think of that will shock and delight us at the same time. It does get a little tiresome at times and there is some repetition. On the other hand, there are plenty of surprise visuals that are simply silly fun and I think would get lost if he pulled in the reins too much. So it is a bit of a double edged sword. Speaking of silly fun, I again don’t want to spoil anything but the ultimate big bad in the story is why they changed the ending of “Watchmen”. The tone would just not have worked in that film the way it does here.

As a movie onto itself, “The Suicide Squad” can function pretty well. I don’t think it would fit in to have any of the DC mainstream heroes cross paths with this group. In the 2016 film, “Batman” had a small role. There is a passing reference to “Superman” in this film, but that is the extent of the connection. My suggestion to the makers of the DC films, is to refrain from doing all the team up Justice League type stories and stick to the stand alone films for a while. They seem to work better and you won’t have to worry about timelines or multiverses or any of the other strategies that the MCU is now having to deploy. 

There are a few surprises about the characters who survive at the end. Expect TV series follow ups and insertion into other films for these villain/hero types. I will say that I enjoyed immensely, the shot to the face that one of the first team characters takes. The actor is not someone I care for much and his character was reprehensible enough that you may find yourself cheering for the wrong side at times. There is a great moment for Viola Davis to shine in her part as the cold blooded architect of the Suicide Squad concept, and then there is a comeuppance from an unlikely source that seems to have delighted everyone. Her character, Amanda Waller, has been the true  villain in both films, so that moment felt earned

The Green Knight

What appears to be a fantasy adventure from the trailer above, is actually a slow moving meditative visual poem. That seems like it would be appropriate given the source material, but a theatrical film requires a few things to meet an audiences expectations. “The Green Knight” lacks those essential ingredients. That does not mean it is a worthless enterprise, but it will test the patience of most viewers and it will still frustrate those who are committed to experiencing it as it is meant by the director. 


David Lowery has made three films I have reviewed on this site before: “Pete’s Dragon“, “A Ghost Story” and “The Old Man and the Gun“. I found value in all three but not much entertainment in one of them, “A Ghost Story”, unfortunately, that is the film in Lowery’s catalogue that feels the most like “The Green Knight”. Pacing is a legitimate tool for story telling. A slow burn toward an action scene or a pause for the irony of a joke to set in can make a film better. However, when the pace feels like a slog, and the audience begins to notice that the story is not moving so much as lumbering, pacing may defeat the film’s ability to hold an audience’s attention. I think that is the case here. 
There are several scenes that are beautifully shot, but you start to notice the shot more than the story. One sequence in particular stood out for me. As Sir Gawain, Dev Patel’s central character, encounters a group of giants, the film seems to stop merely to acknowledge the fact that we are seeing giants. They do not advance the plot and in fact, there is a moment of confusion as the only other character who accompanies Gawain on his whole journey, dissuades him from following up with the giants. We never discover why, and it is just another incident but not an event that happens on the journey to confront the Green Knight.


Patel is an interesting choice for the part of Gawain. I’m sure that somewhere there is a diversity driven audience that is pleased to see a person of color in this kind of film. There may have been a time when that seemed to be a breakthrough, but for me that time is long passed. The color of a character may be important in some stories, but in this and so many other films, why should it matter? To me, the question is whetehre the actor has the characteristics to sell us on the part they are playing. Patel is brash when he needs to be and subdued when it feels appropriate. The quality of humbleness, which is a characteristic of a knight is tested by the script rather than Patel’s performance. It is easy to project onto his face the fear, confusion and dread that the audience must go through. The problems with the film have to do with things other than the casting and work of the actors.


Although the story has the components of a narrative heroes journey, it never feels that way. Each incident or event feels independent of the next. There are some call backs toward the end of the piece which try to tie some components of the story together, but it does not really succeed at doing so. There are several instances where the audience point of view is that of the protagonist, and then the perspective shifts and we get an outside view of events. This could also potentially be a time loop film since we are told the same story in two completely different ways on more than one occasion. Does Gawain need to die to meet his expectations? Is he a good man or a fallen one? How best confront your own doubts? The fact that the film asks the questions and then provides multiple answers instead of suggesting a single vision is infuriating at the end. 


We had a good discussion of this film on the Lambcast and you can listen to it here:

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/lambcast/episodes/2021-08-02T13_29_30-07_00

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Old

You know the routine by now. If we are getting a horror thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, there will be a slow build up, a series of crisis moments, and then a twist reveal to finish things off. Sometimes it works great, and other times it is a disaster. This one falls a little bit in the middle of the bottom half of his work. The twist you can see coming from ten minutes in, so there is not really a great surprise, the part of the movie that works is the emotional component, not the shocks and horror. 


At a luxury resort, several guests find themselves on a secluded private beach that they cannot escape from and that seems to be aging them at a rapid pace. No if you are paying attention in that first ten minutes, you will notice something about the guests, and that is where the twist gets spoiled. Shyamalan has been better at hiding the reveal in plain sight in the past but this one is not subtle enough to escape our attention. By the end of the film, everything will be revealed and suddenly you will have a lot more questions. 


The characters in the movie are fine. Those of you who worry about stories focusing on kids in movies, don’t fret. The children here are not annoying, in fact we get just enough of them to appreciate them as people before the horror elements start. Obviously, the location produces the opposite of a fountain of youth. Accelerated aging creates conundrums for the group of people on the beach, most of which will become clear as time marches on. Being on the short side of sixty, I was most frightened by the impact that the process had on a persons mental capacity. Children turning into adults over the course of a few hours is disturbing, but watching someone lose themselves and any sense of control was another. Rufus Sewell spends half the film trying to remember the name of a movie. OMG how may times have I struggled with something like that in the last couple of years? That is scary. 


One thing I do appreciate about M.Night and his movies is that he does not overdo the gore element. There is death, and it is not pretty in any way, but we are spared witnessing up close, the deaths that might be the most physically traumatic. There is one sequence near the end where that is not the case, and it was likely done for shock effect because in a horror film, most people are not going to be satisfied watching someone lay down and simply not get up again. Gael García Bernal is a little stiff as the father of the main family. Perhaps it is because he is acting in a language that is not his first. That would be the case with others in the film as well but they come across a lot more naturally in the end. Vicki Krieps is his wife and although her part is written in a self conscious manner, she never comes across that way, unlike Nikki Amuka-Bird, who is written as a parody of her profession. The kids , since they go through the greatest physical changes, are played by four actors each and the casting team did a good job matching up looks and other physical characteristics. 

So, the film is an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone”, but instead of it being filled out with special effects and gore, we get psychobabble and make up. If you are looking for a heartwarming horror movie, this might be your cup of tea. Apparently nothing addresses martial discord like having to face your own mortality. I think the rules of the story are a little inconsistent and that we get some scenes that are probably not necessary. The characters don’t seem to act the way you might expect them to, and maybe that is a good thing. Ken Leung’s character does an exposition dump every time he is on screen, but the real weakness of the storytelling is the Deus ex Machina conclusion of the film. The little touches that connect earlier parts of the movie to the exit are fine, but the resolution for some of the characters does seem a little arbitrary. If “the Happening” and “Lady in the Water” are Shyamalan’s worst, then this is closer to “The Village”. It is an interesting premise that doesn’t go very far in the direction of horror, or any other dramatic destination either. You can think about it, but don’t spend too much time doing so, the time you lose is probably move valuable elsewhere.

Dune 2021 Trailer Preview Screening

Tonight I was lucky enough to see a special preview of the new Dune trailer. Tickets were reserved through the Facebook site for the Dune movie. We went down an hour early and we were glad that we did because there was a long line when we got there. Having followed the directions I knew that I was not supposed to bring in any electronic devices. It turns out that they weren’t collecting them after all so well other people around me took some pictures posted on Facebook, Instagram, and assorted other sites I sat on my hands patiently waiting for the show to start.
Everybody was surprised to discover that in addition to the trailer, which would be shown at the end of the presentation, we were going to get a chance to see the first 10 minutes of the movie. There was an audible gasp from the audience and people seemed quite excited. Once the film started excitement grew, this movie is going to be incredible. Last year when the trailer dropped for the film that was supposed to open in November, I was generally pleased but I was not inspired by what I saw. That first trailer seem to emphasize characters and a little bit of the action. You saw a little bit of the planet and that was it. This this material covered the first 10 minutes of the movie and then a 5 to 10 minutes segments that will probably be about Midway, that features the worm attack on a spice harvester. So we saw 2 long sequences that featured some spectacular special effects, amazing costumes, and unbelievable visuals and some solid acting.

The director Denis Villeneuve spoke on screen about his enthusiasm for the project and he introduced and spoke with composer Hans Zimmer, who talked about inventing instruments for the score to suggest an alien environment. The sounds that we heard we’re pretty amazing and they definitely are distinctive and different from other kinds of Science Fiction films. So this 30-minute presentation included the first 10 minutes of the film a long sequence that’s filled with action and special effects, and while they were talking about the music we saw several clips from other segments of the movie. This film is simply going to rock. You will be overwhelmed with a creativity that the director and other filmmakers have brought to this project.

I have high hopes for the movie success because the enthusiastic response of the audience and the number of people who showed up for this. We arrived an hour early and there were a hundred people in line in front of us, by the time they let us end they were another hundred people behind us. That’s not for a screening of the movie folks that’s for a screening of the trailer and some promo material. At the conclusion of the film as the audience was filing out we were all offered a miniature version of the IMAX movie poster. This was an AMC IMAX theater that we saw the preview in. The size of the screen is impressive although it is one of those IMAX presentations it is not really seven stories tall. Anyone who sees this movie for the first time streaming on their home television is crazy. You will want to see this with an audience, you will want to be part of an experience, you will miss the size of the screen no matter how big your home theater is. 

Black Widow

Here is my take on this long delayed film, I will try to explain why but I am not sure I can articulate it as clearly as I would want. Black Widow is an entertaining, mid-level MCU film. It left me unmoved by the events but I can live the action scenes and over all story. There is very little connecting it to the Avengers, except the presence of Natasha, Scarlett Johansson, and the fact that she is an Avenger. All of the other characters are new to us and although there is an attempt to develop character for all of them, some of it is a bit rushed.

For those of you dying to know, this takes place between “Civil War” and “Infinity War”. While hiding out after thwarting Secretary Ross’s attempt to arrest her, the Black Widow is lead by to her origins by a mysterious package that shows up in her effects. Several chase scenes and hand to hand combat sequences later, we get a clearer explanation of what is going on. The totality of the Budapest story that she and Clint made reference to back in “The Avengers”, is not revealed, but there is enough detail to understand why she has regrets and feels that there is so much “red” on her ledger. 

Maybe the reason I had difficulty connecting to this emotionally is that the secondary characters are all new. There is one, a fixer that Agent Romanoff has used before, who is treated as a longtime ally and associate. This is the first time in any of the films he has been referred to. He is not really given a backstory but the character is represented to us as one we should appreciate without knowing anything more, and that does not quite work for me. The movie starts with a flashback story to 1995 and we see a family coming together for dinner and suddenly taking flight from pursuing dark forces. Maybe the fact that we are being asked to sympathize with a Soviet Sleeper Cell, operating in Ohio, which is killing pursuing FBI agents, just does not sit well with me. This is a Post Cold War world, but those of us who lived through that war may have a hard time deleting the suspicions that we have. The character of the Red Guardian is slipped into this segment only vaguely, and when he returns to the story, we have to build another relationship.

The one new relationship that works well is that of Natasha to her supposed sister Yelena, played by Florence Pugh. The combat ready reunion was a bit much but it does establish the creds for this character as well as the other Black Widow zombies that the villain is creating. Pugh does great with her action sequences and is a believable female badass who can get the job done and stand toe to toe with Natasha. I enjoyed their banter a great deal, and they need more time together to make this the key relationship of the story. Unfortunately, there is a Mother Figure, Father Figure and villain who also need time with the main hero and that makes the plot points feel a little repetitive and it sucks up a lot of time. 

Look, I know this is a comic book movie, and maybe I’m overthinking it a bit, but it needs some explanation. How did this Soviet Era Program continue, go private, and remain hidden? How was it funded? There is technology here that the Avengers would be envious of, but there is no Tony Stark or Russian version of S.H.I.E.L.D. visible. It feels like a 1970s Bond film with a secret lair that would be impossible to keep a secret. Maybe that’s why the movie that gets interrupted on Natasha’s TV is “Moonraker”. It’s a subtle attempt to nudge us more toward the fantasy world that exists outside of the MCU and use that to justify some shortcuts.

Hawkeye and Black Widow are master assassins, and they took on a job twenty years prior to this story. How is it that they could botch up their mission so much as to leave their actual target alive, much less the collateral damage that goes along with it. There is no explanation of why that happened, even after we have witnessed an explosion that is immense and would have killed any other character in this universe, except for those from space. It feels like lazy writing. There are three screenwriters credited, one was at least partially responsible for Thor Ragnarok, but also episodes of WandaVision and Agent Carter. Maybe the styles just don’t mesh well or the fertilizer is showing and too much of what we are getting is set up for future projects. 

David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are able to play both young and older versions of themselves with only slight assistance from CGI. Harbour is doing comic riffs with a Russian accent and that is funny. The Prison escape is fun to look at but it does little to advance the plot, it was merely an obstacle that gives the two women a chance to run an elaborate action sequence and have some comic relief along the way. I like Ray Winstone as an actor but his part in this is underwritten and it consists almost entirely of monologuing with the heroine. 

I was happy to see the film finally open. I was thrilled to see that the theater was sold out and that people are going out to the movies. I was surprised by the number of people who have already forgotten that MCU films tend to have stingers at the end of the credits and lot of folks left before the last scene. I was just not blown away by the film. I will certainly see it again, but if you are looking for a ranking in the MCU, put this at the top of the bottom quarter of the films. I liked them all but let’s keep some perspective, they can’t all be the greatest thing since Ironman. 

F9 The Fast Saga

I have been a sometimes fan of the series. I have never seen 2,3, or4 and only half of 5. 6,7, and 8 as well as Hobbs and Shaw are in my back pocket. Frankly, there is nothing to say about this except it is stupid, but I enjoyed watching the stupidity.

The substitution of Jon Cena for Dwayne Johnson allows Vin Diesel to be the focus of the film, and that’s fine. There are a couple dozen secondary characters that some people seem to like but all seem to me to be replaceable at any time. OK, maybe Tyrece Gibson as the main comic relief would be a little tough to replace, but otherwise, they are cardboard cutouts being moved around the set pieces.

Most of the film is made up of one outlandish chase, race, or fistfight punctuated with some flashbacks that explain most of what is happening. Don’t worry about following that, just keep your eyes on the screen for the next impossible stunt, physics defying escape or miraculous moment of self awareness. This film goes full meta, acknowledging how silly it is and even nearly saying “we are a movie”.

There is no sense in analyzing any of it, or critiquing the story. this series jumped the shark years ago, it’s now just a question of what the next shark is. I may be in spoiler territory here, but don’t worry, it was going to come out somewhere anyway, this is the “Moonraker” of the series. They make a bunch of corny jokes, and go to space. I’m only surprised that Roger Moore did not show up with his laser equipped Space Shuttle to help out.

F9 was the subject of this week’s Lambcast, and we spent an hour just laughing at all the idiotic coincidences, resurrections, and tropes these films wallow in. I will post a link here when the podcast is live, I will credit Mark Hofmeyer, for coming up with my favorite title for a movie next time. “Fast Ten Your Seatbelts”. That’s better writing than anything in this pile of stuff that is instantly disposable, but fun while you are disposing of it.