Movie Lists: The Joker

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joker 2019 - 2

The joke’s on you, Joker!

So says Adam West’s Batman to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s campy TV series BATMAN.

The release of JOKER (2019), a superior standalone film about the origin of the infamous Batman villain the Joker that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck aka the Joker, no doubt will re-open the conversation as to who made the best onscreen Joker.

So, with that in mind, welcome back to Movie Lists, that column that looks at lists of odds and ends in the movies. Up today, you got it: the Joker.

 

BATMAN (1966)

The Joker: Cesar Romero

joker - cesar romero

 

This movie was based on the ultra successful campy TV series from the 1960s starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. It featured four supervillains: the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker. It was originally intended to be released before the TV show aired, but the series was rushed into production and premiered ahead of time. As a result, the movie premiered in theaters the summer after the end of Season 1 of the series.

Like he did in the TV series, Cesar Romero, like his fellow actors in their fellow supervillain roles, played the Joker strictly for laughs. There was no rhyme or reason or any attempt to make the character real or threatening. And since it was in the 1960s, and since Adam West was hysterically funny as Batman, who unlike his counterparts the villains, played it straight, which made it all the more comical, the fact that Batman didn’t realize he was funny, it all worked. Remarkably well. And the humor still holds up today.

For more than twenty years, Cesar Romero, in all his campy hilarity, defined the role.

Until 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.

 

BATMAN (1989)

The Joker: Jack Nicholson

joker - jack nicholson

The most controversial thing about Tim Burton’s BATMAN was his casting of Michael Keaton, who up until that point was only known for his comedic roles, as Batman. Yet Keaton silenced critics with a very effective performance.

Jack Nicholson did not share this problem. After all, he was Jack Nicholson, one of the most respected actors at the time. For many, the fact that he was playing the Joker was the main reason to see this one.

I’ve always liked Tim Burton’s BATMAN, although truth be told, it hasn’t held up that well to the test of time. When it came out, since the movie world had only known Adam West’s campy Batman, it was considered an extremely dark and serious take on the character. Yet, watched today, it comes off as much campier than it did back in 1989.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Nicholson blew away any notion that Cesar Romero would remain the definitive Joker. Nicholson’s Joker was a much darker take on the character, although once more, watched today, he seems much more cartoonish and campy.

That being said, I really enjoyed Nicholson as the Joker, and I enjoyed the way director Tim Burton framed the character, adding a lot of references to the Phantom of the Opera, especially the 1925 Lon Chaney silent version. The scenes near the end with the Joker leading Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) up the tower are clearly reminiscent of similar scenes where Lon Chaney’s Phantom led Christine into the depths of his underground lair.

Again, for nearly twenty years, Jack Nicholson was the gold standard for the Joker.

Until Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The Joker: Heath Ledger

joker - heath ledger

The big news with THE DARK KNIGHT was that Heath Ledger died just before the release of the movie, and as a result, because of his amazing performance, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Ledger’s performance as the Joker truly is phenomenal. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my favorite superhero movie of all time, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a major reason why

The film really is about chaos and anarchy, and we see it personified by the Joker who will stop at nothing just to create chaos, and he’s so good at it. The only reason he ultimately fails isn’t because of Batman, but because he misjudges the dark side of human nature. People aren’t as bad as he thought they were.

Hands down, Heath Ledger was and remains the best onscreen Joker. However, here in 2019, he just received his biggest competition.

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

The Joker: Jared Leto

jokwe - jared leto

Jared Leto’s performance in the flawed DC movie SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) didn’t really work for me. It’s not entirely Leto’s fault, as SUICIDE SQUAD, a DC tale about villains rather than heroes, isn’t all that good. The reason to see it is Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. She steals the show. Leto as the Joker does not.

 

JOKER (2019)

The Joker: Joaquin Phoenix

joker-2019

The best part about JOKER is it’s not really a comic book movie. It plays more like a Martin Scorsese film as it tells its story about Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from mental illness, who regardless of the fact that he only wants to make people laugh, is continually beat upon until he can’t take it anymore. And when he rises up he’s less a supervillain than the face of a movement, and since he’s spent his whole life wanting to be noticed, he finds that he likes this new self.

Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Arthur Fleck here, and he gives the most sympathetic onscreen portrayal of the Joker yet. He will make you understand and believe how someone could become the Joker, and how the Joker could in fact be a real person. We’ve come a long way since the days of Cesar Romero.

By a hair, I still prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, since that film was insanely riveting, thanks mostly to Ledger. Joaquin Phoenix’s work in JOKER is entirely different from Ledger’s. JOKER is not a superhero movie. It’s a tragic violent drama, and as such works on an entirely different level. One day I may find myself preferring Phoenix over Ledger. That day is not today, but that doesn’t take away from Phoenix’s masterful performance.

It’s interesting to note that Cesar Romero almost wasn’t the first Joker. J. Carrol Naish almost played him in the serial BATMAN from 1943, which  was the first time Batman appeared on the big screen. The villain was originally going to be the Joker, but since it was 1943, he was changed to a Japanese villain, Dr. Daka, and was played by J. Carroll Naish. Some traces of the Joker still remain, as Daka’s hideout is located inside a carnival.

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed this list of actors who have played the Joker in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

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RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (2019) – Latest Rambo Movie Shallow Revenge Flick

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The story told in RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (2019) is so threadbare it isn’t funny. One can easily imagine the words “last blood” from the title referring to the last ounce of originality the screenwriters could squeeze from this tired Rambo trope.

Admittedly, I’m not a Rambo fan. I’ve always preferred Sylvester Stallone’s other iconic role, Rocky Balboa, more. I liked the original film FIRST BLOOD (1982) well enough, but the rest of the Rambo movies I could take or leave.

But this isn’t the reason I didn’t like RAMBO: LAST BLOOD. After all, I’m a Sylvester Stallone fan, and I like most of his movies, even those that most critics don’t. But I don’t like all his movies. I’ll be adding RAMBO: LAST BLOOD to that short list of Stallone films I could live without.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD, the fifth film in the Rambo series, tells a very simple story. Former Green Beret and Vietnam Vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is now living a quiet life on his ranch raising horses. When his grandniece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) goes to Mexico in search of her father who abandoned his family years ago, she runs afoul of a Mexican human trafficking cartel. When Rambo receives word that his niece is missing, he immediately goes to Mexico to find her and bring her back, and when things go from bad to worse, he changes his mission to one of pure revenge. And that’s it folks. That’s all she wrote.

Now, I like “revenge moves” as much as the next guy, but this one, like I said, it’s so threadbare it basically just goes through the motions and never resonates on any emotional level other than in a “by-the-numbers” way.

There are two main reasons for this lack of emotional connection. The first is the characters are all flat and uninteresting.

Sure, you’ve got Stallone, and yes it’s certainly fun to see him back on the big screen playing Rambo again. I actually enjoyed the opening act to this film where we see Rambo living his quiet life on his ranch, enjoying his time with his niece, doing his best to provide for her. And admittedly Stallone is fun to watch later when he singlehandedly takes on the gang of bad guys, but that’s really all this movie has to offer, and simply put, that’s not enough.

Yvette Monreal is fine as Rambo’s niece Gabrielle, but she’s really not in the film all that much. Gabrielle becomes a victim much too quickly, and she stays that way. We barely get to know her, both before she’s abducted and later. We don’t really get to see her dealing with the horrific situation she’s been thrust into, nor does she get the chance to fight back.

This one is all about Rambo, and Rambo only. No one else gets to help out.

And the two main villains here, brothers Victor Martinez (Oscar Jaenada) and Hugo Martinez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) aren’t developed at all. They’re baddies and they do bad things and lead a gang of undesirables who brutalize and traffic young women, so yes, they’re the villains here. But they have zero screen presence, so you can’t even enjoy feeling good when Rambo serves them up their comeuppance.

Then there’s the young woman Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega)  who saves Rambo at one point and looks as if she’s setting up to be an integral supporting character, and then she promptly disappears from the proceedings. So much for that.

Yup, RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is pretty much a one man show: Rambo, Rambo, and more Rambo.

The other reason this one doesn’t work is that it never moves beyond its simple revenge tale.  For example, the fact that the story takes place in Mexico means nothing. It could have taken place anywhere. The screenplay by Matthew Cirulnick and Sylvester Stallone takes no advantage of the setting at all.

When Rambo bursts onto the scene to rescue his niece, he finds other girls as well in harm’s way, but neither the story nor Rambo is interested in these girls. They’re on their own, I guess. Rambo just wants his niece and that’s it.

Also, the film makes little effort to make the notion that Rambo challenging an entire mini army on his own is believable. First of all, initially they kick the living stuffing out of him, and it’s a stretch that they decide to let him live. And then later, when he returns to exact his ultimate revenge, the film enters HOME ALONE territory with Rambo utilizing numerous booby traps to do in his opponents. Not that I doubt Rambo’s skills, but the film did little to make them believable here.

About the only stamp director Adrian Grunberg puts on this movie is its excessive gruesome violence. He gives us lots of close-ups of knives carving into flesh, bones being pulled out of bodies and broken, fingers jamming into bloody wounds, and the kicker, at the end of the film, when Rambo says “I’m going to rip your heart out” he doesn’t mean it figuratively.

I like action films, and I don’t mind gory films, but there needs to be a reason for excessive gore, meaning that it needs to be integral to the story. RAMBO: LAST BLOOD should have been a story where this kind of violence was justified. I mean, Rambo’s avenging his niece, and what happened to her was horrifying and tragic, but the film almost unbelievably fails to show us much about these things.  Now, I’m  not arguing for an even more graphic movie, but I’m talking about the human side of the story, the emotional horrors felt by his niece, and by him. These things the film never explores.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is a very shallow movie. It has at its core a famous cinematic character, John Rambo, played by the actor who has always portrayed this character, Sylvester Stallone, but he’s placed here in a story that doesn’t go any deeper than Rambo taking on the bad guys who hurt his niece.

And even that simple story could have still worked here had care been taken to create three-dimensional characters and more emotionally harrowing situations.

Instead, we’re left with RAMBO MEETS HOME ALONE as he singlehandedly makes short work of generic bad guys who are as brainless as they are heartless.

Literally.

—END—

 

 

 

 

IN THE SHADOWS: PATRIC KNOWLES

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patric knowles - frankenstein meets the wolf man

Patric Knowles as Dr. Frank Mannering, putting the finishing touches on the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi) in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies, those folks who while not playing the lead in the movies, graced the film nonetheless in smaller roles, quite often making as much of an impact as the actors on top.

Up today it’s Patric Knowles, and if you’re a fan of Universal horror, you know who he is, based on two key performances in THE WOLF MAN (1941) and its sequel FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

Here’s a partial look at Knowles’  127 screen credits:

MEN OF TOMORROW (1932) – Kwowles’ first screen appearance.

THE POISONED DIAMOND (1933) – Jack Dane – Knowles’ first screen credit.

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936) – Captain Perry Vickers – co-stars with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in this war tale based on the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who would go on to direct, among other things, CASABLANCA (1942). Cast also includes David Niven, Nigel Bruce, and J. Carrol Naish.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) – Will Scarlett- co-stars in this classic adventure, also by director Michael Curtiz, again starring Errol Flynn, as Robin Hood, and Olivia De Havilland, as Maid Marian. Cast also includes Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Una O’Connor.

ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939) – Dudley Horn – co-stars with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the third THIN MAN movie, another fun entry in the classic mystery/comedy series.

THE WOLF MAN (1941) – Frank Andrews –  the first genre credit for Patric Knowles, and he struck gold as the THE WOLF MAN (1941) is arguably the best werewolf movie ever made and is also on the short list for the best Universal monster movie ever made. It also features one of the strongest casts ever assembled for a Universal monster movie: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Warren William.

While THE WOLF MAN belongs to Lon Chaney Jr. in his signature role as Larry Talbot/aka The Wolf Man, and features dominating performances by Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya, and even Evelyn Ankers, the entire cast is very good, including Patric Knowles in a small role as Frank Andrews.

Nonetheless, Andrews is integral to the plot as he works as the gamekeeper at the Talbot estate, and he’s engaged to be married to Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who just so happens to also be the object of affection of one Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.). As a woman who’s engaged to be married, she has no business spending time with Larry, yet she agrees to take that moonlit walk with him, and she’s with him the night he’s bitten by a werewolf.

Unfortunately, there’s just not a whole lot of things for Knowles to do in THE WOLF MAN, although his character Frank Andrews does appear in one of the more memorable non-werewolf scenes in the film, where, at a carnival, he, Gwen, and Larry are playing a target shooting game, and Larry, flustered when he sees a wolf target, misses the shot, and then Frank hits it dead center. I’ve always thought this moment should have foreshadowed that Frank would be responsible for the demise of the wolf man, but that’s not how the film plays out.

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. Rx (1942) – Private Detective Jerry Church – Knowles plays the lead here, a detective trying to solve the case of a serial killer who sets his sights on mobsters. Also starring Lionel Atwill, Anne Gwynne, and Samuel S. Hinds. Church’s partner here, Detective Sergeant Sweeney, is played by one Shemp Howard!

MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET (1942) – Dupin – Again plays the lead role in this mystery based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Also stars Maria Ouspenskaya and KING KONG’s Frank Reicher.

WHO DONE IT? (1942) – Jimmy Turner- co-stars in this Abbott and Costello comedy where Bud and Lou try to solve a murder at a radio station.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) – Dr. Frank Mannering – stars in this WOLF MAN sequel, also a sequel to THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), where he plays a different role from the one he played in THE WOLF MAN (1941). Here he plays Dr. Frank Mannering, a doctor who tries to help Larry Talbot but later focuses his energies on restoring the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi) back to his full strength. As such, Mannering becomes the first movie scientist not named Frankenstein to revive the Monster. He wouldn’t be the last.

Probably my favorite Patric Knowles role. He takes what should have been a standard mundane role and makes Dr. Frank Mannering a rather real character.

HIT THE ICE (1943) – Dr. Bill Elliot – more shenanigans with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

TARZAN’S SAVAGE FURY (1952) – Edwards – plays the villain to Lex Barker’s Tarzan in this jungle adventure.

FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958) – Josef Cartier – co-stars with Joseph Cotten and George Sanders in this science fiction adventure based on the novels by Jules Verne.

CHISUM (1970) – Henry Tunstall – supporting role in this John Wayne western. Also stars Forrest Tucker, Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Bruce Cabot, Richard Jaeckel, Lynda Day George, and John Agar.

TERROR IN THE WAX MUSEUM (1973) – Mr. Southcott – Knowles’ next to last genre credit is in this atmospheric wax museum thriller that is ultimately done in by low-production values. Has a fun cast, which includes Ray Milland, Elsa Lanchester, Maurice Evans, and John Carradine.

ARNOLD (1973) – Douglas Whitehead – Knowles last movie is in this horror comedy which also starred Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester, Victor Buono, and Jamie Farr.

Patric Knowles enjoyed a long and productive career. And while he was more than a character actor, often playing the lead in many of his films, for horror fans, he’s best remembered for two quality supporting roles in two of Universal’s better horror movies, THE WOLF MAN (1941), and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

Patric Knowles died on December 23, 1995 from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 84.

I hope you enjoyed today’s edition of IN THE SHADOWS and join me again next time when I look at the career of another character actor.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW (2019) – Amiable Action Comedy Fast and— Fluffy.

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Hobbs-Shaw

In the interest of full disclosure, I have never seen a FAST AND FURIOUS movie.

Until now, that is.

Way back when the first THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001) came out I just wasn’t that interested, but then they kept coming, and word of mouth and critical reviews said they were getting better and better. But still I resisted, mostly because I hadn’t seen the previous films, but I’m guessing at some point I’ll sit down and eventually start watching these.

Anyway, after eight FAST AND FURIOUS movies, here comes the series’ first “spinoff,” FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW, a tale featuring characters who appeared in prior movies but who weren’t part of the main core of the cast. I mainly wanted to check this one out because I like the three principal leads, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, and Idris Elba. My expectations were low, but I figured, it might be fun to watch some mindless action scenes featuring these generally entertaining actors.

And I was right.  The action and the dialogue is all very fast, though not so furious. A more apt title for this one would be fast and funny, because really, from beginning to end, this one is played for laughs. I didn’t take any of it seriously, and that was okay.

The plot involves a deadly virus that could wipe out the population of the world, just like that! Yikes!  A former spy (Vanessa Kirby) steals the virus, and a super-charged baddie named Brixton (Idris Elba) will stop at nothing to steal it back. Good guy Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is charged with saving the day, and he’s paired with former villain turned hero Shaw (Jason Statham) because the former spy who stole the virus happens to be Shaw’s sister.

Trouble is, Hobbs and Shaw hate each other and refuse to work together, but work together they do, which sets the stage for plenty of banter and one-upmanship throughout.

If you like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, you’ll enjoy this movie because the two actors are likable throughout and do share a fun chemistry together.  Their banter while not hilarious is certainly comical and amusing. There’s a good-natured amiable vibe all through the movie, even though its plot is about a potentially catastrophic virus, and that’s because the film is about as believable as a wrestling match.

Director David Leitch fills this one with exciting action scenes and chases, especially one near the end involving a helicopter and a bunch of cars. Again, fun, but not believable, which for me, pretty much kept this one from being anything special. Technically, it looks great, but it’s all fluff. Leitch also directed DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Speaking of which, Ryan Reynolds is also in the cast, and he gets to ham it up in a couple of scenes. These bits are okay but not overly funny.

The screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce has fun with its Hobbs and Shaw banter but that’s about it. Morgan has written a bunch of other FAST AND FURIOUS movies, and Pearce wrote HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) which I enjoyed a lot.

While Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham don’t disappoint, Idris Elba doesn’t fare as well. Elba doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, and his villain in spite of his superpower enhancements is pretty one-dimensional. Elba deserves better.

Vanessa Kirby is very good as Shaw’s sister Hattie, a kick-ass character who can hold her own against the likes of Hobbs and Shaw, although she’s clearly a secondary character here, unfortunately.

As I said, Ryan Reynolds shows up for a couple of scenes, as do Kevin Hart and Helen Mirren. None of these folks make much of an impact.

I liked HOBBS & SHAW well enough, but it’s all fluff, and other than its agreeable leads and well-choreographed action sequences, there’s not a whole lot going on. I’m a story guy, and this one’s story is pretty sparse, which for me, kept this one from being anything special.

It’s not riveting, there’s no edge of your seat excitement, and there’s no intrigue. Instead, there’s playful banter and sanitized action sequences that are mostly played for laughs.

Fast, yes. Furious, not so much.

—END—

PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956)

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creature walks among us

Hey, good lookin!

Huh, me? Are you talking to me?

If you are, you best mean what you say. The Gill Man is not known for having thick scales—er, skin.  And yes that is the Gill Man in the photo above, otherwise known as the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

We all know the iconic look of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, one of Universal’s classic monsters, but in the photo above, that ain’t it!  And that’s because in the third and final Creature movie, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956),  a group of scientists perform surgery on the creature, in a misguided attempt to make him more human.

There are three Creature From the Black Lagoon movies. The first and the best, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), was followed by two sequels, which while not as good as the original, were highly entertaining in their own right, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956).

The most memorable part of the third film is that the Creature’s look changes in the second half of the film, as seen in the photo above, and that’s because evil scientist William Barton (Jeff Morrow) attempts to change the Gill Man into an air breather for reasons which never make much sense, but that’s okay. After all, he’s an evil scientist. He’s not supposed to make sense.

The surgery also seems to give the Creature some bulk, and that’s because after the surgery, the gill man was played by the very large Don Megowan. And if you want to see Megowan without the Gil Man make-up you can check out the neat chiller THE WEREWOLF (1956) in which Megowan played the hero, the town sheriff. Anyway, this new gill man on land is a hulking figure who appears much more monstrous in size than when we saw him underwater.

I like all three CREATURE movies, and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US is probably my least favorite of the three, mostly because I prefer the classic underwater Creature. That being said, the on-land Creature is certainly scary looking, and I wouldn’t want to bump into him while walking along the beach at night, that’s for sure!

And while the Creature never perishes on-screen, it’s assumed that he finally dies at the end of THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, because the film ends with the Creature returning to the ocean, only now he doesn’t have gills anymore, and so most likely he will drown.

Then again, the Creature is not stupid. For all we know, rather than drowning, he simply turned around and came back ashore.

But where did he go afterwards, you ask?

For the answer to that question, let’s turn to the fictional side of this otherwise nonfiction article:

There are a number of theories. Rumor has it that he settled in the woods of North America and started the Bigfoot craze. Others believe he went on to enjoy a successful career as a Hollywood stuntman. And still others believe he simply settled down and opened his own seafood restaurant, Gillman’s Fish and Chips Shack.

Whatever his fate, he was never seen on the big screen again, and that’s no fiction!

—END—

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) – Tom Holland and Zendaya Save Marvel Film from Mediocrity

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Welcome to the post-AVENGERS Marvel Cinematic Universe!

(Although, technically, this film is being called the final chapter of the latest phase of the Marvel cinematic universe, which is a lot of Marvel geek talk to me. As far as I’m concerned, the post-Avengers universe has begun!)

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) wrapped up the story arc not only for the Marvel Avengers movies but also for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Beginning with IRON MAN (2008), and continuing with movies about Captain America, Thor, and eventually the Avengers films which brought all these heroes together, Marvel built an ongoing and thoroughly entertaining story arc which permeated these movies and drove them forward above and beyond their standalone movie plots.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME ended that arc, and SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) is the first Marvel movie to come after the epic conclusion, which makes it the opening chapter in the next phase of the MCU (although, again, purists are lumping this with the previous film).

And that’s because SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME leans heavily on the events from AVENGERS: ENDGAME, specifically on Tony Stark/Iron Man, who was Peter Parker’s mentor. In fact, Stark’s influence is so prevalent here this film could have been called SPIDER-MAN: THE GHOST OF TONY STARK. He’s everywhere in this movie, from being the subject of conversations, to being on posters and billboards, to providing the technology which is instrumental to the plot of this movie.

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME opens with a memorial and tribute to the fallen heroes from AVENGERS: ENDGAME, but don’t expect a gloomy and depressing Spider-Man movie. SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is anything but, as its script is light and spunky and a lot of fun. For instance, the opening tribute turns out to be produced by two high school students, and it quickly turns humorous.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has a dilemma. He was handpicked by Tony Stark to be the next Avenger, but he’s only in high school, and he’s much more interested in going on a trip to Europe with his classmates and trying to work up the nerve to ask MJ (Zendaya) out on a date than saving the world, which is why he ignores calls from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

However, Fury is not a man to be denied, and he eventually tracks down Peter in Europe and fills him in on the latest threat to the world, and once more, it’s an otherworldly threat. It seems the Elementals—earth, wind, water, and fire— giant weather-related creatures which wreak havoc everywhere, have arrived on Earth from an alternate universe.

But so has another superhero, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) who shows up to help Spider-Man take on these monstrous baddies. He also becomes Peter Parker’s new mentor.

And that basically is the plot of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. In all honesty, it’s not terribly exciting, and by far this main plot is the weakest part of the movie. I could give a care. I was much more interested in Peter Parker’s relationship with MJ, and also with the pressure he was feeling from being handpicked as Tony Stark’s successor.

There’s also a plot twist midway through this one, which reminded me a lot of the plot twist in IRON MAN 3 (2013). I didn’t like that plot twist, but it wasn’t enough to ruin IRON MAN 3 for me, a film I generally liked. It’s the same here. The plot twist did little for me, but it didn’t really impact the movie all that much. Of course, it’s only a twist for those viewers who don’t read the comics.

While the plot is weak, the main characters are not. Tom Holland is back as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and once more he nails the role. I’m a big fan of the Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies, and for nostalgic reasons, he probably remains my favorite movie Spider-Man, but Tom Holland definitely makes the role his own, and he’s certainly superior to Andrew Garfield’s take on the role.

Holland looks like a high school student, and his youthful exuberance and angst are second to none. One knock I have against this movie, though, is he enjoys far more success here as Peter Parker than as Spider-Man. I felt the film needed more Spider-Man.

Zendaya is excellent as MJ, reprising the role she introduced in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And she and Holland have a wonderful chemistry together. My favorite part of this movie was their story and watching them together on-screen.

Jake Gyllenhaal was pretty mediocre as Mysterio. For an actor as talented as Gyllenhaal, the role really didn’t give him a lot do. Michael Keaton, by contrast, fared much better as the villainous Vulture in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

Samuel L. Jackson is always fun to watch as Nick Fury, and that remains true here. He’s accompanied once again by Agent Maria Hill, once more played by Cobie Smulders.

Jon Favreau gets lots of screen time as Happy Hogan, a mainstay from the Iron Man movies, who’s not not only trying to look after Peter Parker for Tony Stark but also wooing Peter’s Aunt May, played again by the lovely Marissa Tomei. Both these actors enjoy fun and lively scenes.

Jacob Batalon is back as Peter’s best buddy Ned, as is Angourie Rice as classmate Betty Brant.

The screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers works best when focusing on Peter Parker’s personal story. The main superhero plot is mostly a dud, and the Elementals make for rather boring villains. The intriguing character is supposed to be Mysterio, but he’s not really that enthralling.

The best parts of the movie involve Peter Parker’s exploits with MJ, and his dealing with the pressure put on him by Tony Stark.

The humor also works well. In spite of the lackluster main plot, the film is lively and fun and moves along at a fast clip, with one engaging scene after another, and that’s because the Elementals never really become the driving force of the movie. In a way, this is not a good thing for a superhero movie, but SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME easily overcomes this because of the dynamic between Peter Parker and MJ.

Director Jon Watts, who also directed SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, keeps the pace quick and the characters engaging, although none of the action scenes really resonate until the film’s climax. The final battle is very good, and it involves lots of deadly drones and makes for a rather exciting conclusion.

And yes, since this is a Marvel movie, there are after-credit scenes, both in the middle of the end credits and at the very end, and both these scenes reveal important plot points, so you want to stay till the end.

I had fun watching SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, which comes as no surprise, as I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Superhero movies. That being said, I liked the previous installment SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING better, because I liked the plot of that film more, and it benefitted from having Robert Downey Jr. in the cast as Iron Man as well as Michael Keaton as the villain, the Vulture. That’s some major superstar power absent from this film.

Still, Tom Holland is incredibly agreeable to watch as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Zendaya is equally as captivating as MJ. They’re enough to carry this movie and lift it above its mediocre main plot.

At the end of the day, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is several notches below the best of the Marvel movies, but it’s still a Marvel movie, which makes it a lot of fun and well worth a trip to the theater.

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DARK PHOENIX (2019) – More Superficial Than Superhero

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There’s more superficial than superhero in DARK PHOENIX (2019), the latest Marvel X-Men movie to hit the theaters.

When 20th Century Fox rebooted its X-MEN franchise with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) that film not only instantly became one of my favorite X-MEN movies but also one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies, period. A major reason for this was the casting of James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. These two actors shared some strong chemistry together and lifted FIRST CLASS to its status as a superior superhero movie.

With apologies to Jennifer Lawrence, who has also appeared in these movies as Raven/Mystique, McAvoy and Fassbender have continued to be the best part of these X-Men reboots, and so even though DARK PHOENIX opened to dreadful reviews, knowing that McAvoy and Fassbender were back, I still trekked to the theater to catch this one.

And while I can certainly understand why this one opened to such negative reviews, it wasn’t all bad. It’s just not very good.

DARK PHOENIX tells a story that fans of the X-Men comics know very well, the story of Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix. This story was also told in the previous X-Men series, in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Fans didn’t like how the Phoenix story was handled in that movie, and I doubt they’re going to like how it’s handled here.

In DARK PHOENIX, it’s 1992, and the X-Men are enjoying happy times as they are universally perceived as heroes, and a jubilant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) spends his time giving speeches and has access to a personal phone line to the President of the United States. Life is good.

But during a daunting space rescue, where a crew of X-Men attempt to extract the endangered crew of a space shuttle, a strange space phenomenon, a beastly looking cloud of light, which is threatening the shuttle descends upon the scene, and it’s up to Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to stop it. She does, but it nearly kills her, and when she returns alive and well, she is given the nickname “Phoenix” as she seemingly has risen from the dead.

But all is not well, as Jean begins to exhibit some weird behaviors and unleash powers she doesn’t seem able to control. She’s suddenly out there doing things that are giving the X-Men a bad name. Further complicating matters, a group of space aliens who we know virtually nothing about led by Vux (Jessica Chastain) want the power which Jean possesses.

With the X-Men reeling, as there is lots of in-fighting over what is perceived as Charles Xavier’s mishandling of Jean Grey, the glory days for these mutant heroes comes to an end. Looking for help, Jean seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who’s living in the desert with his own band of mutant rebels. And once Magneto learns the truth about Jean and what she has done, he’s not interested in helping her but in killing her.

It’s up to Charles Xavier, who refuses to give up on Jean, to save her, but he’ll have to contend with Magneto, the space aliens, the military, and his own renegade mutants to do it.

This plot actually sounds better than it is, and that’s because the story as told in the movie is kind of all over the place. There were parts that I liked, but taken as a whole this one never becomes a unified story that works.

The screenplay by writer/director Simon Kinberg was far too superficial to be successful. Plot points are glossed over, conversations are banal, the dialogue trite, and the characterizations are without depth.

We learn little about the villainous aliens, and their scenes in this one are sporadic and dull. Speaking of dull, that’s how the X-men come off in this movie. Jean Grey/Phoenix really isn’t all that interesting, and her story isn’t given much depth at all. Jennifer Lawrence does very little as Raven/Mystique. Her role isn’t much more than an extended cameo, and she gets some of the worst lines in the movie.

I like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but his dialogue here isn’t any better. Michael Fassbender doesn’t show up as Magneto until halfway through the movie, and James McAvoy seems to be stuck saying the same things as Charles Xavier throughout. He sounds like a broken record.

Jessica Chastain is wasted as alien Vuk, a villain with no characterization, back story, or screen presence.

And while Tye Sheridan plays Cyclops, Alexandra Ship plays Storm, Evan Peters plays Quicksilver, and Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Nightcrawler, none of these folks make much of an impact.

Director Simon Kinberg also struggles to make this one cinematic. There’s hardly a memorable scene here, visually or otherwise.

There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention to detail. There’s an entire plot of in-fighting with the X-Men, reminiscent of what the Avengers went through in CAPTAIN AMERICA; CIVIL WAR (2016) but the two films aren’t even on the same page when it comes to quality. CIVIL WAR got down and dirty, got right into its characters’ faces, and as a result the audience knew exactly where each character stood and felt their pain.

Not so here with DARK PHOENIX. We know where the characters stand because they say so, but we never feel it. That’s a big difference. Very little of what happens in DARK PHOENIX resonates.

So, what did I like about DARK PHOENIX? Well, it still stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, and so even with the weak dialogue, the two actors are enjoyable to watch, and I did enjoy their performances here, although hands down DARK PHOENIX is the weakest of their X-MEN collaborations.

I also like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but unfortunately, the women don’t fare as well. I didn’t really enjoy Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, as unlike McAvoy and Fassbender, she was  unable to overcome the bad dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through her brief stint as Raven/Mystique, and Jessica Chastain is reduced to being robotic as villain Vuk.

While the initial space shuttle rescue was blah, the climactic battle aboard a speeding train at least had some pop.

But nothing in DARK PHOENIX really sticks. Things happen, but moments later they’re forgotten.

This may be the end of this class of X-Men. Disney, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, has bought 20th Century Fox, and rumor has it they will once more reboot the X-Men series and incorporate it into the MCU.

And while this isn’t the best ending of the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender led series, I’ve enjoyed the ride. It’s too bad that their final film wasn’t better.

Unless of course, they, like the Phoenix, survive the buyout and rise once again as Professor X and Magneto.

I for one wouldn’t mind that at all.

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