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Movie Review

Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The informal definition of “meta” (according to Merriam-Webster.com) is “showing or suggesting an explicit awareness of itself or oneself as a member of its category: cleverly self-referential.” No term better describes Nicolas Cage’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. And while it is directed by Tom Gormican, from a screenplay by Gormican and Kevin Etten, Cage is the sole reason. 

Nicolas Cage plays Nicolas Cage—or, at least, a version of Cage. Here, he is a larger-than-life star with a larger-than-life ego. It is hard to say whether this reflects or distorts the actual Cage. However, Cage, one of the busiest and most enigmatic actors, offers a delightful “meta” performance.

Nicolas Cage in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films

The Cage on display in The Unbearable Weight is an ego-centric star just on the cusp of decline. Frantically pursuing a role, he auditions in front of a restaurant as the director attempts to get into his car. There is more than a whiff of desperation as Cage does everything but beg for the part in the upcoming film.

Driven by fiscal problems (he is in arrears to the tune of $600,000 for the apartment he rents), he agrees to attend the birthday party of billionaire playboy Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), being held on Javi’s compound in Mallorca, Spain. 

While there, CIA agents Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (Ike Barinholtz) approach Cage. They inform him that Javi is an arms dealer who has kidnapped a politician’s daughter to drive him out of an upcoming election. The agents enlist the reluctant Cage to aid with the recovery mission.

The plot veers to Hollywood blockbuster. While initially elements nod towards something heightened and outrageous, in the end it is a buddy comedy between Cage and Pascal. There is an attempt to satirize (at least spoof) the genre, but mostly it lands in safe territory. There are funny moments (the wall scene spoiled by every trailer; a viewing of Paddington 2), but many situations seem forced (an acid-tripping scene; the sedative bit).

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is at its best when delving into Cage’s psyche and simultaneously mammoth and fragile ego. Several times he is confronted by his younger self. Regrettably, there are only three of these moments, and we are left wondering if there were not more that ended up cut because they were (once again) too “meta.” 

Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films

Cage’s ability to put himself in the crosshairs of his own pretension make for the strongest fodder. He often speaks of his acting process—“nouveau shamanic”—and his desire to make a “character-driven adult film.” He struggles with the difference between actor and movie star, perpetually obsessing over his choices. He is not so much oblivious to his daughter, Addy (Lily Sheen), as his energy is misplaced, mistaking his own likes for sharing. His fractious but not unloving relationship with his estranged wife, Olivia (Sharon Horgan), highlights his inability to look beyond his career. He is where doubt and narcissism implode.

Both Sheen and Horgan give fine, understated performances, but they are minor characters on this broader stage. Neil Patrick Harris appears briefly as Cage’s agent, a character that barely has one dimension. The same is true of Alessandra Mastronardi as Gabriela, Javi’s faithful assistant. Paco León, as Javi’s cousin Lucas, is a by-the-numbers hoodlum. Haddish and Barinholtz hit the right notes but have very little to play.

Pascal makes the perfect fanboy who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the minutiae of Cage’s career, complete with a trophy room (also spoiled by the trailers). While Javi is eager for Cage to star in the screenplay he has written, the burgeoning bromance drives the character. The plot creaks in fits and starts, and an unfortunate plot twist softens the entire nature of the relationship. But Pascal and Cage have real chemistry and make the more conventional stretches watchable.

The film is an uneasy mix of comedy, abduction thriller, and meta-exploration. If the creators had leaned more into the last (think Being John Malkovich), the result would have been both engaging and surprising. But, in the end, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent delivers an entertaining parody that does not quite live it up to its greater potential. One suspects that they had a bigger concept and lost their way. Or perhaps, they got spooked thinking that just like the discussion of film within the film, something more esoteric would not play to a general audience. Or, even a greater heresy, sell. 

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

Alexander Skarsgard and Anya Taylor-Joy star in a scene from the movie "The Northman." Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Writer-director Robert Eggers made his feature debut with the slow-burn horror film The Witch (starring Anya Taylor-Joy). He followed this up with the slow-burn horror fantasy The Lighthouse. While audiences had mixed reactions, he received critical acclaim for both. His newest work, The Northman, is his most accessible and certainly most commercial. 

The story begins in 985 AD. Young Prince Amleth’s (Oscar Novak) father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), returns from battle and is murdered by his half-brother, the bastard Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir takes the throne and abducts Aurvandill’s queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). 

If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, there is no surprise as it draws from the same source as Hamlet. Shakespeare derived his play from the legend of Amleth, preserved by the 13th-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in Gesta Danorum and retold in the 16th century by François de Belleforest.

And while the two works share DNA, tonally and stylistically, they are opposing forces. The Northman is a film of great violence and fewer words. Eggers relies on strong and effective visuals rather than dialogue to tell his story. The screenplay (written in collaboration with the Icelandic poet, novelist, and lyricist Sjón) presents a universe of blood and blood oaths, visions and vengeance. Amleth repeats, “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” This litany becomes the watch cry of the adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), whose sole purpose is to right this wrong. 

After witnessing his father’s murder,  Amleth flees. Vikings find the boy and raise him as a berserker. Years later, following a brutal Viking attack in the land of Rus, a seeress (Björk) tells the now grown Amleth he will soon have his revenge. Amleth learns that soon after the betrayal, Fjölnir was ousted. Amleth has himself branded a slave and sent to his uncle’s pastoral exile. 

While being transported, he connects with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic sorceress also captured in Rus. They form an alliance that becomes a bond. Eventually, she tells him, “You have the strength to break their bones; I have the cunning to break their minds.” On the Icelandic farm, Amleth discovers that his mother became Fjölnir’s wife and bore him a son, Gunnar (Elliot Rose).

The Northman is steeped in death—by arrow, axe, spear, knife, and sword. The savagery extends to slaughter, rape, and slavery. Eggers never shies from the perpetual devastation, embracing the primal existence. His hero is not the indecisive Hamlet but a warrior with a monomaniacal purpose.

Cinematically, the film is compelling and moves along, but always at the same brisk pace, both the film’s strength and weakness. The Northman never becomes “more than.” The characters never surprise because their actions alone define them, no less but no more. As they must live moment to moment, they are not individuals of nuance or subtlety, reflecting this unyielding world.

The cast uniformly delivers, but there are few complicated arcs because there is no subtext. The exception to this is Kidman’s queen, whose revelations shock Amleth. Kidman gives an unbridled and ferocious performance. 

Skarsgård manages to find different if limited shades, but Amleth’s almost unwavering focus does not provide a great number of opportunities. He states later in the story, “Hate is all I have ever known. I wish I could be free of it.” Taylor-Joy (best known for her outstanding performance in The Queen’s Gambit) mines the limited role for as much variety as possible. 

There are a few odd elements in an otherwise consistent realm. The accents seem to be rooted in some “once-upon-an-oldie-timey.” The CGI ravens that rescue Amleth seem out of step with Eggers’ hyper-reality. And in a world of dirt and mud, Olga manages to keep her nearly white dress and blonde tresses immaculate. While this could be symbolic, it is jarring.

Eggers’s attention to detail is the driving force that climaxes with a sword fight on the side of a volcano. Whether he is showing an attack, a close-up of a brooding Skarsgård calculating his next step, or drug-induced prophecies, Eggers offers a raw and brutal world in this predictable but powerful film. 

Rated R, The Northman is now playing in local theaters.

A scene from 'Fantastic Beasts 3' Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2011, the Harry Potter franchise concluded with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II. The eight films have grossed over $7.7 billion. So, for this reason alone, it was no surprise when a new series was announced.

In 2016, Potter creator J.K. Rowling penned the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, launching a proposed five-movie arc. Directed by David Yates, the uninspired film was followed by the disastrous mess, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (reviewed in this paper in December 2018).

Now Yates has returned for his third film, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. This time, Rowling has collaborated with writer Steve Kloves. Perhaps it is the addition of the Academy Award-nominated Kloves, but the newest chapter is a vast improvement over its predecessors.

The film opens in 1932, with Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) present for the birth of a Qilin, a magical creature that sees into the soul. Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Madds Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp) has dispatched his acolytes to capture the animal he then murders and reanimates. But, unbeknownst to Grindelwald, the mother had given birth to twins, the second of which Scamander hides in his enchanted suitcase.

The thrust of the action centers on Grindelwald’s campaign for world domination by running for Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards. Future Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) has rallied the forces of good to thwart the evil wizard. These include Newt’s brother and Head of the Auror Office, Theseus (Callum Turner); charms professor Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (Jessica Williams); French wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who goes undercover; and No-Maj (the American equivalent of Muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), WWI veteran, baker, and Newt’s friend.

The film begins as a muddle with characters paraded through and multiple threads touched upon but not clarified. Eventually, the plot focuses first on Grindelwald’s acquittal of criminal charges and then on his full-on crusade. His followers are a rabid mob and always on the brink of violence. His rhetoric is the elevation of purebloods and absolute rule over the non-magical (later taken up by Lord Voldemort).

It is no coincidence that much of the film takes place in 1930s Germany. It is not difficult to draw the parallels between Grindelwald and Hitler, his followers and the citizens of that country, and his closest servants, trenchcoated agents suggesting Gestapo. The images are chilling and effective, making the magical world less fantasy, and the heroes need to triumph all the stronger. (There are also more than thinly veiled nods towards recent politics.)

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore offers glimpses of the better known Potterverse. Several scenes take place at Hogwarts and the Hog’s Head, the tavern run by Albus’s brother, Aberforth (Richard Coyle). An important plotline involves the Dumbeldore family, connecting them to Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Even transfiguration teacher Minerva McGonagall (Fiona Glascott) makes a cameo. The filmmakers are smartly connecting the better-known canon with this burgeoning prequel universe.

Most of the characterizations are broad strokes as the narrative is story driven. However, overall, the performances are strong. Law easily creates a Dumbledore that is knowing and in control, suggesting the Dumbledore he will eventually become. But he also brings shadows of doubt, pain, and regret, enriching the man behind the magic. Mikkelsen makes the villain both cruel and charismatic. The creators did not pull punches on the romantic history between the two, allowing their relationship to inform all their scenes.

Fogler is once again a true delight as Kowalski, a human navigating the wizarding world. Williams’ Lally shows strength and grounding but also mines the role for humor. Turner’s Theseus represents the government agent who understands the big picture, somehow managing to be both stiff and self-aware. Miller brings the right amount of pain and danger to Credence. The weakest link is Redmayne, whose Newt remains a string of stutters and mutterings as if he was more concerned with being precious than present.

The highest praise goes to Stuart Craig and Neil Lamont for the extraordinary production design. Colleen Atwood’s costumes smartly lean towards a dark reality, eschewing the more fanciful dress seen in the Potter films. In addition, the visual and special effects (created by hundreds of artists and craftspeople) are first-rate, whether animating the magic or producing truly fantastic CGI beasts (ranging from the adorable to the horrifying).

The Secrets of Dumbledore breathes life into a series that had neither focus nor purpose before this entry. Hopefully, the production team will build on the film’s integrity and bring Fantastic Beasts to a powerful and welcomed resolution.

Rated PG-13, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is now playing in local theaters.

Photo courtesy of A24

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The famous opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina could also apply to the chaos and vexation that emanates from Everything Everywhere All at Once, the twisty science fiction black comedy from writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as “Daniels”).

Photo courtesy of A24

The film opens with Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) struggling to get ready for an IRS audit while the family prepares for a Chinese New Year party. Her kind but mostly ineffectual husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), does all he can to calm her, but his eagerness to please is more of a hindrance. Adding to the familial strife, Waymond has just served Evelyn with divorce papers, which barely registers with his overwhelmed spouse.

Evelyn’s father, Gong Gong (James Hong), for whom Evelyn has been a life-long disappointment, has arrived from China to live with them. Her conflicted daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), tries to get the family to accept her girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel). Finally, they are confronted with Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), the IRS inspector who embodies the worst elements of bureaucracy.

There is enough here to generate a domestic drama of complexity and interest. However, Everything Everywhere All at Once is an exploration of multi-universe theory. As Evelyn and Waymond ride the elevator to their IRS meeting, Waymond shifts to his Alpha/alternate self, explaining that the Alpha Evelyn is dead and only this version of Evelyn can save the multiverse. The entire structure of parallel existence is threatened by Jobu Tupaki, Alpha Waymond and Alpha Evelyn’s daughter. Jobu Tupaki experiences all universes simultaneously and can verse-jump and manipulate matter.

What fascinates is this Evelyn is the worst of all the Evelyns. Alpha Waymond tells her she has made every wrong choice and bad decision. But ironically, since she is the least gifted, she has the greatest capacity for change. Drawing on her many selves, she begins to own not just the powers of these different incarnations, but she becomes more connected to herself in “the present.”

The film presents a range of universes during the brisk (if slightly long) two hours and fifteen minutes. Evelyn’s many faces included a martial arts film star, an opera singer, a chef, and more. Some are glimpsed; others are revisited multiple times. From each, she gains not just skills but understanding.

Photo courtesy of A24

Along the way, the filmmakers present well-known sci-fi tropes, dramatic and emotional encounters, and a plethora of action sequences. But added to the mix are outrageous concepts, including a world where the inhabitants have hotdogs for fingers. The mispronunciation of Ratatouille results in a story focused on a cook and raccoon and the most nihilistic and heart-warming encounter between two rocks on a planet with no life. The extreme absurdity somehow plays winningly into the overall chaos.

Jobu Tupaki’s manifestation of oblivion is a black hole that she refers to as the Everything on a Bagel. The idea is that evil is when nothing matters.

The uniformly strong cast adeptly portrays various versions of themselves. And while they play the story straight, their comedic timing appropriately shines. Yeoh anchors the film in her pain and triumph, facing her foes and her inner demons, sliding from one manifestation to another.

Quan’s alternating between the self-actualized Alpha Waymond and the Thurber-esque husband is seamless. Hsu manages to embody the stressed, frustrated daughter and the manipulative destroyer and allows elements of both personalities to inform the other. Hong easily goes from the vaguely unaware grandfather to an almost militant leader. The always wonderful Curtis brings depth to the most extreme characters.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is an artistic triumph, due in no small part to Larkin Seiple’s peripatetic, vivid cinematography. Jason Kisvarday’s production design, along with Shirley Kurata’s costume design, create a range of unique worlds, from the pedestrian reality to the wildly inventive.

The smallest decision creates a new branch in time; a missed chance affects the course of both the individual and the entire world. Deftly harnessing the concept of infinite parallel universes, Everything Everywhere All at Once’s heart suggests every choice is an opportunity. But more than that, as Alpha Waymond states: “We are useless alone.” The final message of connection rises above all else. Don’t miss the chance to take this very meta, often bizarre, but finally uplifting journey.

Rated R, Everything Everywhere All at Once is now playing in local theaters.

Jared Leto as Dr. Michael Morbius in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

There are good superhero pictures. There are memorable vampire films. Some movies fall under guilty pleasures — entertainment for the sake of fun. Then there is Morbius which manages to get almost everything wrong.

Morbius, the Living Vampire, first appeared in Marvel Comics’ The Amazing Spider-Man (issue #101; October 1971). Due to a failed experiment intended to cure a rare blood disease, the former biochemist, Michael Morbius, was imbued with vampire-like abilities. While he became one of Spider-Man’s antagonists, he was also an adversary of Blade, the vampire hunter. (Originally, Morbius was to appear in Blade (1998) but was cut.)

Morbius follows a similar origin story. A prologue in a private clinic in Greece shows genius ten-year-old Michael Morbius (Charlie Shotwell) joined by the younger Lucien (Joseph Esson), whom he dubs Milo. The boys share the same blood illness that requires constant infusions. They form a deep and lasting connection.

Twenty-five years later, Michael (Jared Leto) is now a successful scientist who has just declined the Nobel Prize. He has now received funding to develop a treatment using vampire bats, and he creates a lab on a private vessel in international waters. Unfortunately, the remedy causes him to have vampiric characteristics, and he murders the entire crew. 

He escapes the vessel and returns to New York. Endowed with new powers (strength, speed, reflexes, and super-hearing), he struggles with a bloodlust he staves off with the serum. However, the efficacy and duration become shorter. The now wealthy Milo (Matt Smith) discovers that Michael has found a cure but becomes furious when Michael refuses to share it. Incensed, Milo goes rogue. Meanwhile, FBI agents Simon Stroud (Tyrese Gibson) and Al Rodriguez (Al Madrigal) investigate Morbius’ victims.

While there is nothing original about the plot, in the right hands, the story is potentially engaging. However, Daniel Espinosa’s uninspired direction of Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama’s inept script make for an anemically leaden, mostly unwatchable hour and a half. 

The dialogue is an insult to clichés. “You get to live, and I get to die,” says Milo. To which Michael responds, “It’s a cure. Forget me, brother.” Later, Morbius says, “Where is the brother I used to have?” Even better is his statement: “I’m starting to get hungry. You don’t want to see me when I’m hungry.” But the nadir is given to Rodriguez, who, looking at one of the victims, is forced to deliver with a straight face: “Those puncture wounds … do they look like fang marks to you?”

Even if The Batman’s noirish cinematography is not to your taste, there is a commitment to style. Here, Oliver Wood provides a murky atmosphere. The desaturation creates a dullness that reflects the film’s lack of energy. When Morbius isn’t drinking his artificial plasma from what looks like Sunny D pouches, there is action, but it feels pedestrian and predictable. The extended fights are not so much by the numbers as they are just numb. Worst of all, the visual effects are bizarre, bargain basement, and just plain annoying. However, it’s a good day to be a CGI bat.

Jared Leto is surprisingly bland in a role that calls for grand strokes. Even when declaring, “I brought this into the world — it’s up to me to take it out,” he lacks passion, running the gamut from A to … well, A. Michael is not so much a mad scientist as a mildly peeved one. He growls and snarls when transformed into the beast, but the ferocity is just above an irritated puppy. 

Matt Smith, best known as the eleventh Dr. Who, has quirky fun with the antagonist, but the homoerotic connection between Michael and Milo is underdeveloped. While the writers hint around the edges (the Spartan reference “We are the few against the many” has multiple levels), they pull punches by introducing a pallid love interest for Michael with scientist Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona, drastically underused). Poor Gibson and Madrigal have little screen time and even less to do. (Maybe they’ve been spared.)

The epilogue more than hints at a future crossover into the Spider-Verse. Michael Keaton appears in a cameo in the credits as Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. The Vulture. It speaks volumes that ninety seconds in the credits have generated more interest than the ninety minutes of film. 

Sadly, Morbius is not a traditional vampire tale, so it cannot be vanquished by stake, sunlight, or holy water. Morbius says, “It’s not a curse. It’s a gift.” Sorry. You got that reversed.

Rated PG-13, Morbius is now playing in local theaters.

A scene from 'I Am Here'. Photo courtesy of @Micha Serraf/ Sanktuary Films

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The opening of Jordy Sank’s documentary I Am Here is a montage of news reports from recent anti-Semitic events. It is a visual and emotional assault, with the ever-present and always disturbing swastika. From this, he cuts to a disc jockey at a Jewish radio station talking about Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal’s response to a hateful attack from a Holocaust denier. In Blumenthal’s letter, she offers to meet with the author. She wants to answer hate with a connection. 

I Am Here is an account of Blumenthal’s life. Celebrating her 98th birthday in Cape Town, South Africa, surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and friends, she relates her story. 

A scene from ‘I Am Here’. Photo courtesy of @Micha Serraf/ Sanktuary Films

Born in Warsaw, she was 18 years old when World War II broke out in 1939. She lost 23 family members—“dear souls”—sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. She, her father, and her niece, Roma, went into hiding, but following the Ghetto uprising, the three were deported to Majdanek. She witnessed her father struck down by a guard—which was the last time she saw him. In 1943, she and Roma were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau (where she was tattooed prisoner 48632) and finally ended in Bergen-Belsen before liberation. 

Blumenthal shares her harrowing journey with passion and raw honesty. Speaking of things that she had held inside for years, her details evoke deep pain. She remembers the smell of burning feathers in the destruction of the Ghetto. She tells of the room in which they were held before deportation. At night, guards would come and take young girls and rape them. 

The camps’ horrors are told in vivid, clear detail. She relates of nearly being gassed but getting a reprieve because the quota of five hundred exterminations had been filled. She describes the hanging of a prisoner after an escape attempt. At one point, Roma was contemplating suicide by throwing herself on the electrified fence. When they arrived in Bergen-Belsen, the camp had become nothing more than a charnel house, with the dead and dying everywhere. But even in this nightmare, she states: “I never lost hope, even in the darkest times of my life.”

She believes it was neither luck nor chance but God that helped her survive. Even in her tenth decade, she shows joy, light, and appreciation for all she has. She strives to bond with people, making visits, going on Facebook, and talking to her niece, who lives in New York. She believes that we must “make friends and show kindness.”

Her post-war life led her to Paris, then Palestine, where she met her South African husband, Isaac. They wed after only knowing each other for thirteen days. After that, they moved to Johannesburg, where they opened a business and raised a family. Her married life is shown in a wealth of home movies.

A scene from ‘I Am Here’. Photo courtesy of @Micha Serraf/ Sanktuary Films

Juxtaposed with her history are clips of her current life: spending time with family, swimming, walking, and even making the Sabbath challah. References to “no food must be wasted” and “the plate must be cleared,” as well as a certain frugality (the use of one tea bag to make multiple cups), are presented with humor tinged with the shadow of one who went without.

What separates I Am Here from similar documentaries is the 2D animation. Created by Greg Bakker, the rough cartoons enhance the narrative with muted colors and stilted movement. These sections are more effective and affecting than the standard archival photos and stock footage that are employed elsewhere in the film. These moving illustrations create haunting images.

At the behest of her husband’s family, Blumenthal had her tattoo removed, an unusual and disturbing request, essentially eradicating her experience. She claimed the resulting scar was from a freak car accident. For years, she did not tell her children about her suffering “because the open wounds were still bleeding.” And yet, the adult children speak of her waking up screaming from nightmares. Blumenthal said that these terrible dreams were of the Nazis taking her children. Unfortunately, these questions and ramifications are not fully addressed. The letter from the beginning of the film is never mentioned again.

Blumenthal touches on some of the things that still haunt her. When speaking of her lost family, she muses, “Every person has a grave to go to. I have none. Not even ashes.” She admits that she had trouble mixing with people after the War for they did not know what she went through. She had to build a family to find a new world.

I Am Here offers a portrait of survival but a celebration of life. Blumenthal demonstrates gratitude for the family “next to her now” and “who can hear her when she laughs or cries.” People come to her for blessings as they see her as a source of positivity. She fears that what happened could happen again, and “we should not forget.” But her final message is “We must love people around us. Love everybody” — a powerful statement from a remarkable person.

Rated PG-13, I Am Here is now playing in local theaters.

Zoë Kravitz and Robert Pattinson in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Batman first appeared on screen in the 1940s serials Batman and Batman and Robin. His next appearance was in the high camp television series, where Adam West fought a rogues’ gallery of villains played by beloved Hollywood character actors. In 1989, he resurfaced in the Tim Burton Batman, with Michael Keaton in the title role and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Three sequels of descending quality followed. 

Robert Pattinson as Batman in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Director Christopher Nolan rebooted the franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins and Christian Bale donning cape and cowl. The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises followed in 2008 and 2012. Ben Affleck became the most recent Batman, taking on Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017). Throughout the Caped Crusader’s history, he was seen in various animated incarnations, ranging from the tame Saturday morning cartoons to the challenging Batman: The Killing Joke.

After several false starts with Affleck helming as actor, director, and co-author, The Batman has reached the screen with a different vision. Matt Reeves took an alternate approach, co-writing the screenplay with Peter Craig. Leaving behind Affleck’s action-driven script, Reeves explores Batman in a real-world environment. 

If it’s always sunny in Philadelphia, it’s always raining in Gotham. Undoubtedly, this cinematic Batman is the darkest. And while the Dark Knight rises, the sun does not. Gotham is a world of shadows, a city of chaos and utter corruption. A perpetual sense of disease permeates every corner of a world devoid of safety.

The plot centers around Edward Nashton (Paul DanPaul Dano, channeling the Zodiac Killer), a.k.a. The Riddler, who is eliminating people he feels have abused their power. The film opens with the murder of the mayor who was stepping out on his wife with a woman connected to the Iceberg Lounge, run by underworld mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). 

Falcone’s number two is thug Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot (unrecognizable Colin Farrell), nicknamed “the Penguin.” The missing woman’s roommate is lounge server Selina Kyle (a phenomenal Zoë Kravitz), a burglar and drug dealer, who is—or will become—Catwoman. Throughout the slightly bloated three hours of playing time, skeletons come to light, including an unsavory history of Bruce Wayne’s parents and a connection to an orphanage where Nashton was raised.

Zoë Kravitz and Robert Pattinson
in a scene from the film.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

For the most part, Batman’s communication style has been a monotone growl. As played by Robert Pattinson, Batman maintains a gravelly, tight-lipped demeanor. But he introduces an underlying neurotic intensity, reflecting that he is only two years into his crime-fighting career. Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is not the millionaire playboy living in splendor. Instead, he broods in a decaying Gothic manor worthy of Miss Havisham. 

In addition, Bruce is trapped in a codependent relationship with antagonistic butler Alfred (Andy Serkis, given not enough screen time). Alfred reminds him that he is ignoring his responsibilities. This original approach works, giving depth and insight into the struggle of maintaining two separate existences.

While Batman has often been on the perimeters of society, here he is a true outcast. The police—infested with crooked dealings—see him as a freak. His sole ally is Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, in a first-rate, definitive interpretation), who truly understands his value.

“Fear is a tool,” states this Batman. “They think I’m hiding in the shadows, but I am the shadows.” His motto is straightforward: “I am vengeance.” Part of him believes Gotham is beyond saving—“maybe it’s eating itself.” With monomaniacal drive, he tries to eradicate the criminal element on all levels to exorcise his demons. He has not yet found a more altruistic drive.

The Batman draws on multiple sources from the comic book but eschews the whimsical villainy for true horror. The Riddler is ridding Gotham of those he feels have betrayed the people. He is “unmasking this cesspool of a city,” a distorted reflection of Batman’s mission. Gone are the green tights with a question mark emblem. Instead, he is a sadistic serial killer cut in the Seven vein, often enacting crimes that call to mind Saw’s Jigsaw. While never fully seen, the vicious murders are suggested clearly. He does not have henchman but instead online followers. This is a timely and more frightening proposition, especially in the film’s finale.

Farrell’s Penguin little resembles anything in the Batman canon. Absent are the traditional umbrella, top hat, monocle, and cigarette. Instead, buried under a fat suit and layers of prosthetics, Farrell’s hoodlum is a plotting opportunist. Perhaps closest to expectations is Kravitz’s conflicted and complicated Catwoman, generating heat and danger.

The Batman focuses on the idea that choices have consequences, and responsibility must go beyond vengeance. In the end, Reeves aims for nobility in the final message. Batman embraces survival to transform. He will endure not for payback but to make the world a better place. He acknowledges that there will be people who will take advantage of Gotham’s vulnerability. But, for him, it must be about not dwelling solely in darkness. Whether this is an earned, uplifting coda or just pulling punches from the film’s true grit is left to the individual viewer. Either way, a forthcoming sequel will find a Batman with a higher purpose, continuing those steps into the light.

Rated PG-13, The Batman is now playing in local theaters.

Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/ Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The works of prolific writer Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) included plays for legendary actor Sarah Bernhardt and Les Romanesques (1894), the inspiration for the musical The Fantasticks (1960). But his most enduring work is Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). Rostand based his drama on the life of French novelist, playwright, and duelist Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655).

Haley Bennett as Roxanne and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Christian in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In the play, nobleman Cyrano is a cadet in the French Army. Articulate and talented, bold and brash, Cyrano has an exceptionally large nose. His extraordinary proboscis prevents him from expressing his love for his beautiful cousin, Roxanne, fearing his ugliness would cause her to reject him. So instead, he aids the handsome Christian Neuvillette in his courtship of Roxanne.

The first production opened on December 27, 1897, and starred Benoît-Constant Coquelin, who went on to play the role over four hundred times. Subsequent productions were mounted across the globe.

The longest-running Broadway production starred Walter Hampden, in a translation by Brian Hooker; his adaptation became the standard until the 1980s. The best-known Cyrano was José Ferrer, who received a Tony and an Academy Award for his portrayal. Other stars and other translators have since put their enduring impression on the story. Anthony Burgess turned his 1970 adaptation into the libretto for the musical Cyrano (1973), for which Christopher Plummer won a Tony. Steve Martin’s modern screenplay Roxanne (1987) earned him accolades as a writer and actor. 

The story of the selfless soldier with the large nose and eloquent soul has touched audiences on stage and screen for over a century. The newest incarnation, the musical Cyrano, is directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina, Darkest Hour, Pan) from a screenplay by Erica Schmidt, based on her 2018 stage adaptation for the off-Broadway production presented by The New Group. 

Haley Bennett stars as Roxanne and Peter Dinklage as Cyrano in Joe Wright’s
CYRANO
A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film
Photo credit: Peter Mountain
© 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Starring Peter Dinklage, the production features music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner (of the band The National). Rather than focusing on an exceptionally large nose, it is Dinklage’s diminutive size that sets him apart.

The plot of the Rostand remains, with Cyrano in love with Roxanne, but, afraid of rejection, he pours his heart and words into writing and coaching another man to win her heart: “I will make you eloquent while you make me handsome.” 

But the tone is dark and raw, set in a gritty world. The sense of unrest, of a country at war, permeates the entire film. From the opening scene to the last moments, the unease reflects the restlessness of the story’s protagonist. Instead of the Cyrano beloved of his fellow soldiers and connected in the community, Dinklage is a figure of isolation. 

With the absence of comradery, the loneliness creates a deeper poignancy. He says wryly, “I am living proof that God has a sick sense of humor.” But the depth of his pain is present. His yearning and struggle with unrequited love are heartbreaking, never too far from the surface. “My fate is to love her from afar.” Dinklage’s performance is nuanced, subtle, and honest.

However, taken as a whole, the film is uneven. The dialogue is a mix of occasional rhyming (that seems to disappear), genuinely eloquent free verse, and jarring anachronisms. Many classic speeches are gone, often feeling like Hamlet without “To be or not to be ….” The absence of Rostand’s whimsy and warmth are replaced with a harsher edge that serves some but not all the film. 

Humor is rare. Oddly, one of the first lines, delivered by Roxanne’s duenna Monica Dolan), is one of the lone quips: “Children need love; adults need money.” But these flashes are rare.

Haley Bennett’s Roxanne is not a fluttering ingenue but as self-actualized as a woman of the era could be. She is best when paired with Dinklage, especially in the pastry shop that neatly bookends their final encounter. Wright directed the first scene in sharp cuts emphasizing the dynamic relationship. 

Kelvin Harrison, Jr., makes for a likable, if too aware, Christian. Christian and Cyrano should be a study in contrast, with the former tongue-tied and awkward; he is never allowed to commit to the character’s social clumsiness. Ben Mendelsohn’s De Guiche is predatory, going from storybook villain to full-on monster. Bashir Salahuddin’s Le Bret is marginalized. Le Bret is meant to be Cyrano’s confidante and confessor; here, he is reduced to a few small scenes. 

Haley Bennett in a scene from ‘Cyrano’. Photo courtesy of MGM

But the largest flaw is the unnecessary and intrusive score. Sounding quasi-Broadway pop, it consistently detracts from the flow of both the action and the passion. Musical construction is designed to transition into song when the characters’ emotions become too large for dialogue. In Cyrano, it seems the opposite. The energy rises only to be arrested by generic tunes and painfully prosaic lyrics. 

Vocally, Harrison, Jr., has the strongest voice. Dinklage has a pleasant rumble, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen and Bennett is pleasant if unremarkable. An entire song is given over to the soldiers before battle. For some reason, the composers have opted for a Country-and-Western sound.

The designs are lavish, with a well-deserved costume Oscar nomination (Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran). Jeff and Rick Kuperman’s choreography is intriguing if puzzling. The film is violent, with brutal sword fighting ending in death. Cyrano even sets fire to one of his attackers.

But ultimately, Cyrano belongs to Dinklage, and he shines. He says of Roxanne: “Even her imperfections are perfect.” The same could be said of Dinklage.

Rated PG-13, Cyrano is now playing in local theaters.

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Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Romantic comedies cover a broad spectrum. Whether classics, such as It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, or The Shop Around the Corner or contemporary favorites, like When Harry Met Sally, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Love Actually, most viewers have their personal favorites. 

On the low end are unwatchable travesties, usually humorless and coarse (thank you, Holidates, for ruining an entire year’s worth of celebrations). The majority play somewhere between, floating in that B-/C+ range on the bell curve. They are watchable but by-the-numbers predictable or just fail to reach their potential. Marry Me, now playing in theatres and streaming on Peacock, is guilty of both. 

Singing superstar Katalina “Kat” Valdez (Jennifer Lopez) is poised to marry the younger Bastian (Maluma) in a spectacular event. The combination concert and ceremony will play to five thousand “guests” and twenty million watching from around the world. It will also unveil the titular duet. Just before she is about to enter and take her vows, an online news source posts video of Bastian carrying on with Kat’s assistant. After a speech about “love is a lie,” Kat selects an unwitting audience member to be her husband. He is math teacher Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson), who happens to be holding his daughter Lou’s (Chloe Coleman) “Marry Me” sign. He comes onstage, marries her, and the story begins. 

The premise is ridiculous, but there is an opportunity for both humor and insight if one embraces the idea. The opening shows preparations for a celebrity wedding in all its excess, both the over-the-top production and the media coverage. How much more interesting would the film have been to continue this path, emphasizing the misplaced values and the constant internet hype? Instead, the story becomes painfully predictable. 

Kat’s people convince Gilbert to continue in the faux marriage so she can “change the narrative.” Because he is such a good guy—the windbreaker is a dead giveaway—he agrees. But, of course, they fall in love. She takes him to openings; she teaches his mathalon students to dance. It is all precious and precocious. 

The supporting cast is reduced to ciphers, with Sarah Silverman playing Gilbert’s best friend, a school guidance counselor, who is the “kooky sidekick.” John Bradley (interesting in the execrable Moonfall) and Michelle Buteau play Kat’s considerate handlers. But they are given so little character, they function more to move things along, reminding Kat that she has a photoshoot or a plane to catch. The banality of their performances is no fault of theirs. Maluma, a gifted singer, is given the caricature Latin lothario. Coleman does well enough as Gilbert’s daughter, caught between divorced parents and trying to fit in her new school.

But the film’s sole reason is Lopez and Wilson, and, unfortunately, they seem uncomfortable much of the time. Lopez is saddled with the worst of it; she is the star who is lonely in the crowd. Lopez is a charismatic performer, which shines through when she is allowed to sing. Here, she engages fully, and these are the brighter spots. Wilson is trying to channel an everyman but just comes across as clueless (projected through his use of a flip phone). 

There is not so much a lack of chemistry as no fusion. Kat and Gilbert are quickly too comfortable yet remain distant, mouthing speeches that are a patchwork of cliches. It is as if someone has cut up Hallmark cards and pasted them together as a script. In this case, the someones are John Rogers, Tami Sagher, and Harper Dill, who penned the pedestrian screenplay (based on a graphic novel by Bobby Crosby). Director Kat Coiro fails to bring any originality or point of view.

Many obvious moments will either satisfy expectations or just annoy. The whimsical challenge: Kat will attempt to function without assistants; Gilbert will go on social media. (The arc lasts all of three minutes and then is forgotten.) The requisite surprise birthday gift:  A visit to a childhood amusement park. The romantic date:  They chaperone the school dance. The build-up to consummation: It might be the first time in fifty years that anyone has been inspired by Robert Goulet’s “If Ever I Would Leave You.” The final obstacles involve the Grammy Awards and the big math event, lacking stakes and tension. So much for conflict, contrast, and texture.

One of the major missed opportunities is mentioned in passing. Kat is “north of thirty-five.” Far more interesting would have been incorporating the fears of a not-young-star in a youth-centric culture. Lopez would have brought both depth and dimension to this element.

Ultimately, it comes down to what you want. If you hope for wit and originality, Marry Me does not deliver. But, if you can accept a bland if not unpleasant movie, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

Rated PG-13, Marry Me is playing in local theaters and streaming on Peacock.

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Hallie Berry and Patrick Wilson in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Did you ever stop to think that the “disaster” in “disaster movie” could have two meanings? You’ll have plenty of time to contemplate this during the two-hour running time (one hundred and twenty minutes (twelve thousand seconds)) that Moonfall takes to grind through its machinations.

Roland Emmerich directed, co-wrote, and produced Moonfall. His other science-fiction films include Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and Independence Day: Resurgence (2016). So, Emmerich is the guilty party.

On a 2011 Space Shuttle mission, a mysterious black swarm kills an astronaut. A fellow crewmember, Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), is accused of negligence, blamed for the death, and fired. The other crewmember, Jo Fowler (Halle Berry), was unconscious when the attack occurred. 

Fast forward ten years. Harper, now divorced, is on the verge of eviction from his seedy apartment. Fowler (also divorced) holds the position of NASA’s Deputy Director. Conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) discovers that the moon’s orbit has shifted, bringing it closer to the earth. Failing to get Harper to listen, he goes public on social media. “Moon panic” and looting ensue. A failed attempt to investigate the moon situation leads to the exposure of the black swarms that attacked ten years earlier.

A scene from ‘Moonfall.’ Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

An hour into the film, Harper, Fowler, and Houseman venture out on a space shuttle taken from a museum; they are off to save the world. Spoiler Alert. In a convoluted explanation, everything comes back to rogue Artificial Intelligence destroying a civilization that colonized earth. The moon is a megastructure built by the aliens. (A fun drinking game would involve imbibing on this oft-repeated word. If you don’t want to wait for the myriad recurrences, say it to yourself ten times before going to the movie and take a nap instead.)

Meanwhile, on earth, a subplot involves Harper’s semi-delinquent son, Sonny (Charlie Plummer), rescuing his mother (Carolina Bartczak) and her new family, as well as Fowler’s son. They are trying to get to a Colorado bunker where Fowler’s ex-husband (Eme Ikwuakor), an Air Force four-star general, is holed up with the keys to the about-to-be-released nuclear weapons. Sonny outdrives a tsunami in an amazing feat of auto-heroics, possibly the greatest plug in Lexus history. He is also involved with a preposterous rescue involving the moon’s gravity saving the day.

Science fiction movies have been built on less but have triumphed in style, special effects, and an appeal to a sense of wonder. Moonfall manages to tick no boxes. What is not CGI looks like cardboard models. The same is true for most of the performances. 

Academy Award-winner Halle Berry is truly an exceptional actor and rarely disappoints; here, the headline should be “Halle Berry Cashes a Paycheck.” Patrick Wilson usually does not lack charm, but he comes across as a low-rent Captain Kirk meets Hans Solo. 

John Bradley (best known for his role as Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones)gives the most interesting performance as the backward Houseman (attached to his mother and his cat Fuzz Aldrin). But, today, something is disturbing in the conspiracy theorist as the voice of reason. Donald Sutherland’s minute-and-a-half of screen time is a minute-and-a-half of screen time. (Beneath Berry’s headline should be “So does Donald Sutherland.”) Often, the performances seem one beat away from Airplane. We wait for Wilson to turn to the other two and say, “And don’t call me Shirley.” Alas, he does not.

Movies like this can be entertaining. Unfortunately, Moonfall is not so much fun as unintentionally funny. With lines as painful as “I work for the American people,” “The sand on the hourglass is dropping quickly for all of us,” “I hope the moon holds together at least for a little while,” “I didn’t come this far to fail,” “I hate to tell you this, but we’re running out of time,” and (multiple times) “I’ve got a plan,” the script is cobbled together from The Big Book of Movie Cliches. A personal favorite is “If the earth gets a second chance, I think we deserve one too.” The pseudo-scientific jargon does not help the situation. 

Moonfall makes us yearn for the integrity of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), in which a cannon propelled capsule lands in the eye of an annoyed moon. 

No words can truly describe the Moonfall’s final moments. They must be seen to be believed. Or better, not. Among the film’s promotional taglines is “Earth … We have a problem.” Yup. With deep gravitas, Harper says, “Save the moon. Save the earth.” Perhaps it should have been, “Save your money.”

Rated PG-13, Moonfall is now playing in local theaters.