Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

I suspect this will be one of the most controversial films in the MCU. We will do our best to avoid spoilers but there is one element that is revealed in the first ten minutes that is unavoidable if we are to have an intelligent discussion of the flaws of this film. If you have to wait until you see the movie to discover the villain, then you have not seen a trailer and you should stop reading now and come back next week after you have seen the movie. 

This second film in the Doctor Strange centric universe does some damage to the story arc of a major character who has been an Avenger and the subject of their own Disney Plus spinoff show. It may be a plot thread that is consistent with the comic books that the character originated in, but it is a complete reversal of the character’s journey in the steaming television series.Wanda Maximoff is a character that we have suffered with and who managed her grief , ultimately learning to live with it in a mature manner after the events of “WandaVision”. This movie throws out most of the character development of that show and it keeps only the concept of the children that Wanda invented. Somehow, the Scarlet Witch takes over and becomes obsessed with a problem that Wanda has already managed. This makes Wanda the major antagonist of the film, and for people who feel her pain and the steps she has gone through up to this point, it feels like a betrayal. 

Writer Michael Waldron, who did a terrific job with the “Hawkeye” series, has fumbled the ball with this film and some of the lazy writing is evident in the most obvious of places. Taking a character who can manufacture a world that Doctor Strange feels is “so real”, make the most annoying slip possible to accidentally reveal her intentions is the most basic example of that laziness. Later in the story, the wisest beings in one of the multiverse worlds, are completely blind to the threat that the Scarlet Witch presents, which makes what happens satisfying in a way that is also cheap. Wanda’s character is also so focused on the selfish goal that she is pursuing, she ignores all of the sacrifice made by others, including her lost love, and it is as if the grieving process never took place at all. Her inability to look at reason, and to think that the absence of killing everyone is a measured choice, just seems silly.

Having said this, I still want to say I enjoyed the film for what it is on it’s own, rather than for it’s place in the extended MCU. Doctor Strange and Wanda are like a different version of magical wizards Harry Potter and Voldemort. They cast spells at one another, they find ways to trick each other to gain the upper hand, and it is always about the fact that it has to be these two characters who face off. Replace wands with the fling rings and magic shields, and you get the picture. They even stage a sequence that will remind you of the battle of Hogwarts. That is not a bad thing, but it is derivative and another example of the lazy writing. Regardless of those points, I did like the last act, and even though you can see the resolution coming, it still works.

Director Sam Rami was chosen for this project for a pretty obvious reason, that final act. You could easily think you had stumbled onto the sequel to “Army of Darkness”. The Doctor Strange in the final showdown is an extended version of a comic book character that Rami created for his 1990 film, and it is just as cool as an outake from “The Evil Dead”. There are deadites but there is no chain saw. In the one consistency in telling the story, there is a consequence to using the “Book of the Dead”, I’m sorry, the “Darkhold”, but you do have to wait for the final moment of the main film to see it. 

There are spectacular visuals everywhere you look. In visiting some of the other Universes, we get clever twists on our own world, and there are nods to some of the elements of the comic book cosmos as well. Blink and you might miss a reference to another Multiverse Marvel film that will be coming out later this year. I think red means go is another lazy plot transition, but it does justify some of the actions that Steven Strange commits in that world. The actors are all good, although Michael Stuhlbarg is even more wasted as a presence than he was in the origin story. Elizabeth Olsen gets a wide range of deviousness to play, Benedict Wong continues to be an MVP in the films he is in, and Rachel McAdams does have something to do in the film, but I can’t say too much. There is a fun piece of fan service with the Illuminati, serving as a alternative universe set of Avengers, and I was was surprised by the characters and cast and would not dream of saying more. 

So having dissed the storytelling and praised the technical accomplishments, let me say that some people will enjoy the heck out of the movie, I know I did, but not for the reasons you might want to enjoy the movie for. I did not see the Delta 33 but I’m sure it was there. I did however see his other trademark and enjoyed it immensely. Rami fans will know what I mean, and you want to stick around for the end of the credits to get the final stinger. 

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

This is the longest I have gone between seeing a new film in a theater and having a post for it here on the blog. You think for a guy who is retired, I’d have plenty of time for the content I post here, but my life is never as simple as I think it is going to be. For instance, on the Lambcast, of which I am the host, I had my friend and previous cohost Jay Cluitt of Deep Blue Sea: The Podcast, host in my place, because I was in California for the TCM Film Festival the weekend this opened. The podcast records on Sunday, I could not start editing it until Tuesday, and I wanted to get the post up on time, so I edited the podcast before seeing the movie myself. The guests and Jay were pretty good about not giving too much away, but I did have to hum to myself in a couple of places while still trying to make the recording presentable.

It has been a week since I saw the movie and I am happy to say that if I had been on the podcast, my reaction would have mirrored the other guests. “Massive Talent” is one of the most meta, self aware projects you can imagine, while still being sincere and a real movie. It is not all jokes about Nicholas Cage and his eccentricities, which he seems willing to acknowledge, it is also a buddy picture and an action adventure film. The action adventure part is not as effective as it could be because director, Tom Gormican, is no Michael Bay. The stunts and action remain in a lower budget range and they are a little too much by the numbers, but the relationship material sings.

Cage is terrific, playing a fictionalized version of himself and mocking some of his own predilections as an actor. His esoteric delivery style mixed with his true skill at dramatics helps keep this from flying off the rails as a simple parody film. He underplays the scenes with the Hollywood types and hams it up with the gangsters that the film has him get mixed up in. Pedro Pascal is hilarious as the super-fan Javi, a rich guy willing to go to any length to get Nic Cage to do a movie he has written out of love for the actor. Their relationship is the core of the picture and it is developed pretty well. The scenes of them bonding are well thought out, and then they are subverted by a couple of film tropes that are obvious but fun. There are a lot of chase scenes, and there are a couple of misunderstandings that could have come out of any 1970s sitcom. The most out of place but still fun example is a sequence where the pair have dropped acid and are operating a vehicle and living with a huge amount of paranoia.

The family issues that the screen writer/director and his collaborator tack on to the movie feel a bit off. They seem to miss some of the humorous elements of Cage’s real life family history and instead create a fictional conflict that is merely a convivence for the action plot that takes over in the second half. That was probably going to be necessary for Cage to sign on for in the first place, Five marriages seems like it would be fertile ground for some humor, especially the one relationship with the only child of the greatest entertainer to ever touch the stage. My guess is that Cage would be less light hearted about those issues than the professional ups and downs he has faced.

Here is a link to the Lambcast I mentioned earlier. I agree with everyone.

TCM Film Festival Day Four

 It’s always a bit sad when you reach the last day of the festival. Even though you might have a full slate of events to attend, the knowledge that it is all coming to an end sometimes hangs over you. That’s one reason to start the day off with something that you know is going to get you going on the right foot. I’d watched “Paper Moon” just a couple of months ago, when Director Peter Bogdanovich had passed away. My film salute that weekend also included “The Last Picture Show”.  It was just five years ago that he attended the festival to talk about “What’s Up Doc?”, the second of a trio of films that had made him the hottest director in Hollywood. “Paper Moon” was the third film in this string of hits and it won nine year old Tatum O’Neal the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

“Paper Moon” is a terrific film that is hugely entertaining, and it had the bonus of being a film my daughter had yet to see. It is my pleasure to have introduced it to her and to say that it was her favorite film of the festival,  what a great surprise and joy. TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Louise Stratten about Bogdanovich and his career. She was his former wife, longtime collaborator and friend to the end of his life. She is also the sister of the late Dorothy Stratten, who Bogdanovich fell in love with before she was murdered by her husband. 

She spoke very highly of Bogdanovich and is trying to carry on his legacy with some film projects. Ben had recently spent a great deal of time talking with the director for the TCM Podcast 

The Plot Thickens“. It is worth your time to listen, especially if you are a lover of older films. 

After our first film of the day, we zipped upstairs to get inline for “Fly by Night”, a comic thriller that I had never heard of before. Alas, we had a high queue number and it did not look promising for us to get in. We went over to the adjacent line to get a queue number for “High Noon” as a backup. Sure enough, with about seven people in front of us, we were informed that “Fly by Night” was full, so we zipped over and got seats in the back for the Gary Cooper Classic Western. 

So maybe it wasn’t our first choice, after all we have both seen it numerous times before, but it certainly deserves a showcase at the festival. We were Ok with the substitute and then we got something we did not expect and which was one of the highlights of the festival for us. Country Music star Marty Stuart was doing the introduction and he was fantastic. He expressed all the themes that the film was about and talked about how engaging the music was. He got so wrapped up in the energy of the tune that is the theme, he practically played it out by slapping his chest, like Matthew McConaughey in the “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
Of all the introductions of films at the festival, his was the most moving and generous and I felt really lucky to have been locked out of the other film. In addition to Mr. Stuart, we were introduced to Gary Cooper’s daughter Maria Cooper Janis who had some stories of her own to tell about the film and her father. 

We had checked out of the hotel, but our luggage was with the bell captain and the lobby was available for the festival guests, so we took a brief break for a light snack in the lobby before our final film of the weekend. Amanda’s friend Kili was meeting us for dinner at 6 pm and then taking us to her house for the evening before we got on our flight home Monday morning. 

The Academy Award winning best picture of 1973 was the ensemble comedy classic “The Sting“. This was a nice pairing with “Paper Moon” since both center on con artists during the depression era, but they are vastly different stories with divergent tones. This film was an audience favorite in 1973 and it was delighting everyone who was here to experience it in the Big House at the Chinese Theater complex. 

This is a complex story about con artists and criminals and it requires that you pay attention. There are a dozen great character actors in the film, and I can only guess that Strother Martin was not available, because director George Roy Hill used him in both “Butch and Sundance” and “Slap Shot” which he made before and after this film, and there are a couple of roles that he would have been great in. 

The discussion of the film took place after the movie and that was the first time at this year’s gathering, in which the feature preceded the discussion. The guests though were great. We got two of the surviving producers of the film, and the screenwriter of the movie. All of them won the Academy Awards for this picture. The missing producer for the film was Julia Phillips, the first woman to win an Academy Award for Producing the Best Picture winner. 

Tony Bill, David S. Ward, Michael Phillips with Ben Mankiewicz

They talked about the casting issues and adapting the book to a workable screenplay. One story that they mentioned was that Robert Shaw’s limp in the film was a result of an accident he had and instead of recasting the part, it simply became part of the character. Shaw got the part because the originally cast Richard Boone, mercurially vanished after being offered the part and no one knew how to get a hold of him. 

And so we say farewell to another TCM Film Festival. It was a blast. See you next year.

TCM Film Festival Day Three

Saturday at the film festival would be our busiest day this year. First in the lineup was the Cary Grant Sophia Loren comedy, “Houseboat”. I have a vague recollection of seeing this on TV as a kid, but in truth, I don’t remember it at all. I’m not sure if Amanda had seen a Sophia Loren film, but she is a Cary Grant fan and this was playing in the big house so it seemed to be a good way to start the day. The host told stories about the affair that Grant and Loren had had on their previous picture together and how this film was made at an awkward time in their relationship as Grant was willing to leave his wife and marry Loren, and she fell in love with and married another man. The child actors were cute but a little wooden, and the slapstick elements sometimes overshadow whatever story there is here. 

It was not until the film was over that I prompted Amanda to identify the actor who played Al, Grant’s friend who was rude to Loren in a dinner scene on the boat. When she realized it was Mayor Vaughn she was amused by how young he was in this film. 

It was early for us and she had stayed up to visit her sister, so I did not give her too much grief about not recognizing an actor from her favorite film. We skipped the popcorn and coke and decided to snack at some of the later screenings rather than first show of the day.

The next program we went to was up the hill at the American Legion Theater, and we felt like we had plenty of time to get there, but there was a surprisingly long queue when we arrived but it was still not going to be an issue for us, we would get in. Thank goodness because it was my most anticipated program of the weekend. “The Flame and the Arrow” is a Burt Lancaster adventure film that mimics much of “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, and it is filled with the kinds of athletic stunts that Lancaster had done in his seven years in the circus. 

The reason that this event was anticipated by me was that this was the presentation that would feature a talk by Ben Burtt and Craig Barron, two tech wizards who have delighted me in the past with their explanations of the effects for “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, “Gunga Din”, “War of the Worlds”, and more. Their presentation early on focused on the stunt work created by Lancaster and his Circus partner and actor Nick Cravat. They showed some great behind the scenes clips and a couple of home movies to illustrate the athleticism of the two. They also detailed the matte work used to create the illusion that the setting was grander than it actually is, including some mountains and castle shots. 

This was a project that Lancaster wanted to do so he could make use of his gymnastic skills. It was also a more comic adventure film and when Jack Warner stopped by the set during a shooting sequence that featured some tomfoolery, he was upset that he was getting the Marx Brothers rather than Errol Flynn.  

There was a major difference in this Barron/Burtt presentation from earlier Festival Programs they had done, they had a guest that they included. Gordon Gebert was a child actor who had a substantial part in the film, and now he is a architecture professor in his 70s, but still sharp and able to recall details of making the film.

Mr. Gebert also appeared in the classic “Holiday Affair” with Robert Mitchum. He pointed out a few places where the magic of Hollywood placed him in peril, when he was actually quite safe. He also did a little retconning of a brief smile that appears on his face in the film, suggesting that he was actually plotting his capture the whole time thus the smile is not incongruent. 

The film is a beautiful technicolor work that was being presented  in 35 mm and it looked grand.

One of the classifications that the programs at the festival get listed in is “Discoveries”. We decided that since the pass level we had chosen for this year featured a picture from a film in the Discoveries category, we should go to see it. 

“A Man Called Adam” is a film I never heard of before and it was something of a box office success, but it is understandable how it might get lost in the years since it was released. It is a film with a civil rights theme, that was overshadowed in subsequent years for bigger hits that milked the same territory. With rapid changes in race relations over the next couple of decades, a film that was not an Academy Award winner, and did not feature the star power of Spenser Tracy, Sidney Pointier, Katharine Hepburn or Rod Steiger, could be misplaced.

Donal Bogle, is an author of nine books on African Americans in the entertainment world and he gave a splendid but brief talk about the history of the film and the participation of Sammy Davis Jr. and Cicely Tyson in the film. The movie itself focuses on jazz music and it does a nice job with the musical sequences. Sammy was great in the part but his character is written as being an ass, and it gets tiresome after a while, especially when the plot begins to repeat the same notes over again. I’m glad we saw it, but it was not special enough to me to be counted as a highlight of the festival, in spite of it’s pedigree. 

Next we did something that others apparently do on a regular basis, but it was our first time. We went to a film for the program and left before the movie. The problem was that “The Hustler” was not scheduled to end until 8:45, and that would make us late for the program we wanted to see at 9:15. So we popped in and listened to Piper Laurie for twenty minutes as she and Eddie Muller talked about her career but particularly her involvement with “The Hustler”. I was unfamiliar with how many films she had made prior to that movie, and it was nicely shown in a film clip tribute, how she was trying to break out of the kinds of parts she had been stuck in. There was going to be a much deeper conversation in a Club TCM Interview, but we had something scheduled against that, and once more had to make difficult choices. So we saw this interview, had some dinner, went up to the room to change and wash up, before the final program of the day.

“Diner” is a film I saw initially because my friend Rick Rollino had recommended it so highly, back in 1982. It is a precursor to Seinfeld because it is basically about nothing. Six friends have some conversations at the diner, one of them is planning a wedding, one is struggling through a young marriage, and the others are in college or trying to avoid going to work or school. It is an ensemble piece that featured several young actors on the brink of very successful careers. 

TCM Host Dave Karger interviewed the four guests, we were missing only Daniel Stern and Mickey Rourke from the main cast. Ellen Barkin was the closest there was to a meaningful female character and it would have been nice to have her included but it really was something of a boy’s club from the start. 

Kevin Bacon and Tim Day had some stories to tell, but Karger seemed to be under the impression there was an Animal House style living situation when they shot the film and it was clear that that was not the case. Bacon had appeared in some films and had just decided to forgo a long term contract on the soap opera, “The Guiding Light”. This was Daly’s first film role.

Paul Reiser was a comedian at the time and had no clear explanation how he ended up being cast. He felt it was a little bit of an accident, and when he asked about the movie, he was told it was a story about five friends and he would be the sixth. He told a story about his manager calling him after reading the script and asking about his character. When Reiser told him the character’s name, his manager said, “yeah, you’re not in this movie”, because his character had no lines. Director Barry Levinson allowed a lot of improvisation on the shoot and Reiser is in the movie with a lot more to say, all of which he largely created himself. As

the comedian of the group, he had a lot of punchlines about other cast members stories as the discussion went along, and it was clear he was having a great time talking about the movie and his friends. By the way, his look on “The Kominsky Method” is clearly a result of hair and make-up, he was not nearly as schlumpy on the stage this evening as his character in that TV show.  

I know that Steve Guttenberg has been the subject of derision in the past few years, as a result of a stunt where he appeared naked in Central Park. It looks though as if he is the best preserved of the group and he has retained a youthful exuberance that came across on the program. Although he steered off course several times, he was well aware of it and usually returned to the question Karger was asking, but he always wanted to get in an extra comment or piece of information and they were all welcome. 

Just two other things about the day. We rode up in the shuttle to the “Diner” presentation and it was not a time saver, but it was a comfortable ride rather than a long walk. The line at the Legion Theater was long, but everyone was friendly and we had a nice time visiting with a woman from the Valley in the bar and on the line. Several people also complimented me on my Errol Flynn T-Shirt, which did please me because I got it for the purpose of wearing at the festival. 

TCM Film Festival Day Two

I had a complicated time trying to get the tablet I brought with me to the festival, to interface with the blog site and allow me to both write and post pictures. The brief E.T. Post took longer than it should have, so I finally decided to just push the coverage until after I was home. 

Day Two of the Festival started with my favorite Disney film and a conversation with a key animator who is the subject of his own documentary. Floyd Norman is an amazingly spry 86 year old, who broke color barriers and became a favorite of the old man “Walt Disney” himself. 

The Venue for the event was the El Capitan Theater, across the street from the Chinese Theater, and right next door to where Jimmy Kimmel films his nightly show. The theater was only used this one time at the festival this year, and if you have not been here before you are missing a real piece of Hollywood Showmanship. In addition to being restored to a beautiful condition, this nearly 100 year old movie palace features an organist playing a pipe organ on stage, primarily Disney film tunes.

Mr. Norman was interviewed by film critic and scholar Leonard Maltin who himself is the recipient of this year’s Robert Osborne Award at the Festival. 

You can hear a brief excerpt of their conversation on this Sound Cloud Link.

After the discussion, the theater gets set for the movie by darkening and then this happens:

The film itself was just as great as when I first saw it in 1967. Most of the songs are by the Sherman Brothers and they are hysterical. Having had Buzzards dancing around over roadkill in front of our place in Texas, I have a new appreciation for the animated moptops who show up in the climax of the film. In the old days, before home video, we revisited the movie by playing the LP  soundtrack over and ove, so all of the songs are in my head from more than fifty years ago. 

This year, Amanda and I decided to add more of the Club TCM talks to our itinerary and that lead us back to the Roosevelt for a fun presentation by animation historian Mark McCray.  Looney Tunes in Hollywood featured clips of celebrities from the Golden Age who appeared in cartoons of the time. The combination of clips was entertaining and the talk was very informative and fun. 

We then got in line to see “Pride of the Marines” a John Garfield film about a real war hero who loses his sight in battle and almost loses his faith in the world as well. This was a project that Garfield championed and he reportedly said this was his favorite role of his career. It would be perfectly understandable if that were true because Garfield is excellent and although the movie has some rough edges, it is a stirring combat film as well as a tribute to those who returned from the war with some pretty heavy burdens. 

The presentation before the film was given by Jim Beaver, a favorite character actor from today, and also a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp. We were in the second row for this screening and we were very happy to see “Bobby” give his talk about Garfield, the subject of a Book that Beaver authored. 

We headed back to Club TCM for our next event, which was a conversation about Actress Doris Day. We had skipped the screening of “The Pajama Game” but we got a chance to hear stories from several of Doris Day’s friends, some of whom contributed to a photobook that was available for signing after the event. 

Eddie Muller hosted the four women as they shared memories and told their personal stories about becoming friends with Miss Day. All of them were charming and I was happy to recognize actress Jackie Joseph, from the original “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Gremlins”. She had worked on Day’s last film and Television projects. 

Amanda has a Moment with Jackie Joseph

There were several other programs we might have seen, but as luck would have it, my other daughter was able to come down to Hollywood for the evening and she brought Cheesecake from Canter’s Deli. We spent the rest of the evening having room service dinner and visiting with Allison. 

Everything Everywhere All At Once

It won’t take long for the “WTF” phrase to come out of your mouth when you are watching this film. “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is basically a psychotic breakdown that we enter into in the middle. You will spend a good deal of the opening act trying to catch up with the premise, and also trying to catch your breath from a lot of laughter. While it may not all turn out to be coherent, by the end it makes enough sense for you to accept the wild ride you have been on, but you will also question the reality of the resolution of the story.

Six years ago, the two writer/directors of this film, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collaborated on the similarly weird “Swiss Army Man“, a film that put me off several times but then pulled me back in over and over. In much the same way, there were times when I would get frustrated with the quirky dialogue or odd actions of the characters, and I would start to think about why it was manipulative or a contrivance. Usually, just when I hit the point that I was ready to dismiss the movie as simply being a visual showpiece, something would show up to make me interested again. My love for “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension” , reminded me several times that what at first may be off putting, can quickly become essential. I have no idea why the IRS has an award that is basically a butt plug, but I also have no idea what that watermelon is doing there.

This is a showpiece for actress Michelle Yeoh, who has been killing it in Asian based martial arts films for years, and continues to do good dramatic work as well. This film gives her a chance to do both things really well in a lot of different situations. She also has impeccable comic timing, delivering a droll line or cryptic word at just the right moment. Ke Huy Quan, who was “Short Round” in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, is now a middle aged man who gets a very solid role that he handles extremely well. Sometimes he is the sweet natured version of Yeoh’s Evelyn’ husband. In other universes, he is smooth and successful, manic and committed and a bad ass. Also, a shout out to 92 year old James Hong who gets a chance to bring his A game to a movie for more than just a brief scene. 

The premise takes the idea of a multiverse and mashes it together with some strange technology and a Matrix-like like adversary. There is a turn in the story when suddenly, the plot seems like it is much more about a mother/daughter relationship than the meaning of the universe. There is a lot of repetition on some of these philosophical quests, and sometimes the action scenarios seem to be a bit long as well. The fakeout ending of the film about two thirds of the way through, is going to catch a lot of people unaware, because the concept does feel played out at that point. The last third of the film has some funny moments but it did feel dragged out.  

There is so much inventive film technique in the movie that you can be a little overwhelmed by it. Overlaid images, split screen, time lapse, quick edits, near subliminal moments and wire work in slo-motion, as well as dozens of other tools I can’t begin to name. “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is certain to delight film fans but it may frustrate narrative purists to some degree. I will say that it has the best use of Rocks and Raccoons since Guardians of the Galaxy. Have fun, don’t try too hard to figure out what the hell is going on and what it all means. And when Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Leigh Curtis get hot dog fingers, try not to lose your mustard. 

Jesus Christ Superstar (2022 Visit)

The above clip is not the trailer for this movie, but rather the opening Overture sequence. I decided to share this because when seeing the film again last night, it brought chills to me in my seat and made me so happy that we had made plans to see this film in a theater on easter Sunday. This is my daughter’s favorite musical, and we have watched it every year since she was in high school and maybe even before that, I can’t quite remember. Two years ago, at the start of the Pandemic, she was already living in Texas and I was still packing up the house at easter time. We did a simultaneous watch on physical media and shared through Facebook Live. This was much better.

There have of course been multiple performers of the parts in numerous productions over the years, but it does not seem to me that anyone else could be as definitive as the two leads in this filmed version of the Broadway rock opera. In the 1980 book “The Golden Turkey Awards” by Harry and Michael Medved, Ted Neely won the award for The Worst Performance by an Actor as Jesus Christ for his role in the film adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. This is maybe the most unjust slight I have heard from film critics. Neely was tremendous in the role and the rampage at the temple and his performance in the Gethsemane number matches the vocal performance extremely well. Because Carl Anderson was so dynamic, Neely may be seen by some as a Jesús secondary to Judas. The play/album/concept was written to be from Judas’ perspective, but I feel that Jesus comes through very effectively because of Neely’s performance. The rest of the world seems to agree with me because Neely has played the role for over fifty years on stage in dozens of tours.

Carl Anderson as Judas has a voice that comes right out of 1973. He sounds soulful with a rough edge and could easily have been an R n B singer with any of the great seventies soul bands. Both he and Neely come from a theatrical background and their performances reflect that the roles they are playing are to be sung. 

Norman Jewison, who has made multiple Academy Award Nominated Best Pictures (one was also a winner) worked closely with choreographer Robert Iscove to get the exuberant dance scenes to pop in a non stage setting. The use of wipes, dutch angles, freeze frames all integrated creatively with the setting makes the film much more elaborate than any version of the stage play. I think the set, which mostly consists of natural rock formations and ancient ruins, was used really effectively. There is a terrific long shot of several columns that dancers move out from behind in a synchronized move that reveals them in the background that I particularly admired. The sensibility of the era was clearly based in the hippy culture, in spite of the traditional Christian story. The costumes and dances all reflect the times more accurately than a series of pictures of “Jesus People” would have. 

I like the rock themes that Andrew Lloyd Webber twists into Broadway show tunes, and the lyrics of Tim Rice are reasonably respectful of the story that is being told. The final shot of the cross on the his in the sunset comes complete with a shepard walking through the backlight in the foreground. That was an unplanned mistake that offeres a slight spiritual coda to the whole show. I can hardly wait till next year. 

Father Stu

This was a film that was not on my radar, and although it features two actors I have enjoyed immensely over the years, I had no plans to see it. Other members of the family however think differently and so we went to Saturday afternoon screening, with several people behind us who were advancing in age a bit faster than I, and we all enjoyed an inspiring story for a couple of hours. I doubt that I will ever see this again, but there was nothing wrong with it, it just was very obvious what it was. 

Mark Wahlberg plays Stuart Long, a ne’er do well boxer who at an age when most boxers have already retired, decides that he can make it in the movies and he heads to California to be a star. As a recruiting film for the Catholic faith, this is an interesting story of how a man finds his calling through adversity. Stu is not a religious zealot, but a man changed by the world he encounters and the spiritual feeling he gets in recovering from a major trauma. The juxtaposition of Stu’s life before and after this experience, is the stuff that these kinds of inspirational movies thrive on. This just happens to be a grittier, down and dirty story when it comes to Stu’s language and behavior. The charm that let him skip through life early on, slipping past the disasters his family lived through, is not enough to get him what he thinks he wants. His spiritual choice has to come from a different place and this story tries to show that to us, warts and all.

Catholic dogma on redemption and baptism are heavily interspersed with the biographical elements of Father Stu’s story after he has come to a realization of his calling. For dramatic purposes, the story includes another acolyte with doubts about his calling, and some unflattering economic assessment by the church itself.  I can’t say how accurate Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Stu’s long absent father is, but Gibson and Wahlberg are very good together and Jackie Weaver as Stu’s conflicted mother is both infuriating and endearing. I was pleased to see Malcolm McDowell in a non-sinister role, I always enjoy seeing him on screen. 

The only flaw in the film is that it is not very surprising. It is sincere in it’s message and it wants to be inspirational. I found it admirable but I was rarely moved by the events in Father Stu’s life, I was mostly just interested in what was happening at the moment. If a movie like this does not grab your heart, it is not doing completely what it intends. I wanted to understand more about the paths that Stu was following, but the film is so tied into the biopic structure, that I never felt involved with the spiritual elements the way I should have been. 

As a drama with some comedic elements, it worked well enough that I was glad I saw it. As a spiritual film designed for an Easter Holiday emotional magnet, it missed the mark. I’m glad there there are Father Stu characters in the world and that these stories get told, for the faithful it may be enough, but for the audience, we need a little more. 


I am not a Michael Bay hater, there are plenty out there who can take up that mantle, but I understand why some people find his style intolerable, it’s because of movies like this. “Ambulance” is an action chase film, that takes every camera trick you can imagine and inserts it into every scene in the movie, for no reason other than to try to convince you that you are watching something exciting. Sometimes it works, when we can see all the cars in a chase at once, or when we switch to an aerial view occasionally, but often it is simply distracting and annoying. Every sequence set inside the ambulance does not really need to be highlighted with ten different camera angles and constant shaky cam photography. One in a while, a static shot of the details would make us focus on the event, rather than how it is being shot.

At times Bay appears to be parodying himself. The characters actually reference “The Rock” and “Bad Boys” so the film is self aware that it is just an action piece of entertainment, not to be taken too seriously. I would be ok with that if the plot made a little more sense.  This is a movie based on a Danish film that was only 80 minutes long, somehow they manage to add an extra hour to that, and I suspect you can pick out a series of plot complications that make up that extra time. The paramedic performing surgery directed by two doctors on the golf course using Face Time, would be one of those additions. The gang cartel connection would be another. This film finds several ridiculous concepts and strings them together to fill in story. 

“Ambulance” looks like it is going to start as a heist film, but we mostly see the after effects of an escape and  that is probably a good thing. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Danny, is supposed to be a world class bank robber but he has hired the biggest bunch of goons to help him carry off the film, you wonder who he used in all the other crimes he is supposed to have committed, where are they? Some of the guys look like standard Black Ops Mercenaries, and some look like hippie recruited off the street. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays his adopted brother Will and he is supposedly not a criminal but a war hero. As a driver he is dragooned to replace some other clown at the last minute and you can see that this is just a justification to get a “good” brother “bad” brother story which does not feel at all organic.L

In the poster title of the film, they draw attention to the location of the movie by highlighting two letters in the title

“AMBULANCE”, so if you like movies set in L.A., you should like this right? Well, as a sixty year former resident of the city, this movie continues to make the same mistakes a hundred other films have made. Twenty minutes of driving at high speeds in downtown, leaving destruction in your wake, will not result in your finding clear roads in the same area you drive to five minutes later. Tourists will be disappointed to learn that the airport is not ten minutes from the civic center. Oh, and the biggest laugh of the film is the reference the lead S.I.S. captain makes to “rush hour starting in 45 minutes”. In Southern California, there has not been a distinct rush hour for three decades, it is pretty much 24/7 bumper to bumper on all the roads that get referred to in the film. If you want the film to be about a car chase in L.A., you factor that in, there are car chases on the local news there once a week and they are more compelling than the stuff that happens here. 

The best parts of the film are the credits, which only last a couple of minutes. If only Hollywood would steal that concept and leave the visual mayhem to Bay for the movies he makes. Eiza González as the EMT that gets caught up in the story is fine, but she is asked to do the impossible, play a rational character in an irrational scenario. 

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

If you have been following recently, you will not be surprised to see that I am a fan of the Harry Potter films. In the past month I have seen three of them on the big screen, and I was happy to get the opportunity to write about them since I had not yet started blogging when they first arrived. The Wizarding World is an umbrella label that Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling have coined to cover an expanded universe of materials, including this second series of films that are basically a prequel to the original stories. The first in the series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them“, was a welcome addition to the fantasy world and id a great job at setting up a new set of characters. The follow up film, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is another case altogether. While it had the requisite visuals, it lacked the spark of the first film, misused some of the characters that had been created, and was basically a series of exposition dumps that were hard to keep track of and boring to begin with. “The Secrets of Dumbledore” needs to pull the series back from the brink of self destruction, and it largely does that.

This movie is not as narratively strong as the first film was, but it is a lot better at keeping us involved and it uses the characters pretty well. Ever since the back story of Dumbledore and Grindelwald in the last of the Potter Books, it has been believed that there was a love story gone wrong there. This film confirms that in the stories, and as a side note has created problems for the studio as a result. Apparently the Chinese market is not ready to accept a gay subplot in a western made film, so references to that aspect are being trimmed for that market. There is a little bit of hypocrisy here because of the attitudes of Hollywood to stateside policies. but as an economic decision it is inevitable. The film needs as big a market as possible to justify what they have invested in and to be able to pursue more films. 

There are two or three course corrections her in this story that help put the series back on proper footing. The most important of which is that there is plot not just narrative. We know the objective of our antagonist (although the background on why Grindelwald is motivated in this direction is very murky. Power! seems to be all that is there). Jude Law as Albus Dumledore is much more a part of what is happening in the film.  Newt Scamander is more engaging in this story than in the last one, where his character was the dullest thing in a dull movie. He is used expeditiously as one of the main characters, rather than as the lead character. That helps keep the story from becoming tiresome. Eddie Redmayne continues to mumble and remain understated, but at least his characters brother is around to translate on a regular basis, and he has a couple of charming scenes that do play off of his character, rather than just inserting his character into a scene where the personality does not match up. If he were on his own in a scene confronting the International Wizards Confederation, it would be a disaster, but fortunately, his brother Theseus, is more articulate, and a new witch “Lally” is around to fill in gaps. This new character is a welcome addition to the film and fills in where the moping drudge of Leta Lestrange would have dragged the film down more. Katherine Waterston must not be available for shooting most of the time, this would have been a part that she could have played, but she only shows up in a couple of inserts and right at coda. 

The biggest miscarriages of the second film were the misuse of  Queenie and Jacob. The way Queenie gets drawn into Grindelwald’s circle is not convincing, and Jacob was barely noticeable last time out. Queenie is still a little out of place but at least we can see why she was needed in the camp of the dark wizard. Her character is conflicted in this story and that is exactly the way they needed to go. Having stumbled with her, J.K. Rowling and returning co screenwriter Steve Kloves, find a way to at least use their mistake and get out of it by the end. Jacob Kowalski, the Muggle/No Maj, played by Dan Fogler, is the most entertaining character in the films and his charm has been completely restored in this story. He and Redmayne play off of one another really well, and he gets to be included in the plot in a way that makes sense, not just as a tag a long character. The scene where he interacts with the students at Hogwarts is delightful. 

The series is titled “Fantastic Beasts” so it is perfectly acceptable to have the fantasy creatures play a part in the story. Their presence was overdone in “The Crimes of Grindelwald”, but there is just enough in this film to make them relevant without becoming obnoxious. There is a mythical creature with the power to see the future and the decency of a person, the Qilin is charmingly visualized but be ready for a horrifying moment early on in the film, it was disturbing. Newt gets a chance to return to his quirky persona in a prison break scene set in a black site which is a German Wizard’s prison, along the lines of Azkaban, but even more gruesome. In spite of the grim setting, there is a very humorous element that reminds us that we are watching something that should be fun, and this scene reaches for that goal and achieves it.

There are still problems with the narrative. Most of these would have been solved if Rowling had written full books for each of the films, and then adapted the stories so they could be coherent. Because there is not a literary history to fill in details, certain things just have to be taken as a given, and that does not always work. Holes in the plotline are rushed. Grindelwald goes from loathed fugitive to favorite for political office, almost instantaneously. The current head of the International Wizard Confederation is a character with inconsistent actions, and looks substantially like Mads Mickelson who is playing Grindelwald, and that suggests some collusion as well. The Credence plot line is resolved with the least annoying retcon possible, but the whole family connection was a mistake in the first place. 

I don’t know that this film can keep the franchise going. The theatrical revenues will be affected by changes since Covid, as well as the missteps of the prior film. There are still plot lines that could be followed up on, but if it ends with this entry, the conclusion is satisfactory. I’d still enjoy seeing more of the characters, and I would be interested in the timeline and the way it gets integrated into actual history, but that might be a landmine that Rowling should take a lot more time to figure out. The film is largely successful and I would keep following the plot, I’m just not sure it will do enough to expand the audience back to Potter sized proportions.