Don’t doubt the mind and might of an 18th century Comanche tribe healing woman or the power of the seventh installment in the Predator movie franchise – a prequel, no less – to surprise with dexterity and delight. Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey (B+) turns out to be a corker of an action film set in the Northern Great Plains with fierce actress Amber Midthunder making an indelible impression as Naru, a skilled medic, warrior and tracker protecting her tribe against a highly evolved alien. Although the menace of the sometimes transparent antagonist is absurd as ever, Midthunder (accompanied by an incredibly cute dog) is wholly convincing in her oneupmanship. Trachtenberg skillfully plays with pace and suspense and keeps his eyes squarely on the central clash of Naru and the Predator, a heat-seeking hot pursuit. His tight plotting and action sequences pay off again and again, as grizzly bears and fur trappers emerge in the great wide open of the film’s gorgeous landscape. The film boils to a stunning denouement and closes the chapter of what could easily be just a great self-contained movie for those who haven’t followed the series. This installment is also notable for its representation of Indigenous Americans, with insightful themes about how a close-knit community intersects with a hearty helping of sci-fi horror on the side.
Director David Leitch builds a better mousetrap out of the snatch-and-grab genre on a modern-day Orient express in the Tokyo-set anything-goes action yarn Bullet Train (B). Fond homages to Kill Bill and The Warriors abound as a rogues’ gallery of antiheroes assembles aboard a speeding locomotive with vengeance embedded in its steam-pipe ethos. With unusual chronology and flashes of back story, it becomes clearer why the ensemble is aboard the vehicle. Brad Pitt is the zen protagonist imbued with super-chill talents of snark and imaginative stunt choreography in equal doses; it’s fun to watch a reformed assassin in progress as he quietly observes the folly of his ways to Sandra Bullock in an earpiece while clashing with the cavalcade of obstacles in his way. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Tyree Henry are among the most amusing denizens of the whistle-stop whirling dervish, a droll duo with killer banter. As an elder with manga and martial arts magnetism, Hiroyuki Sanada is another effective standout in the star-studded cast. Leitch unleashes a blood splattered bubblegum hued environment with endless invention, the kind that surprises, delights and sometimes wears out its welcome. Overall it’s gonzo action-packed fun, though, with surprises around every turn.
Director Taika Waititi’s building blocks for his latest Marvel entry include three parts Airplane! style quips and playful pratfalls, three parts romantic comedy and four parts solemn action. It’s a wonder Thor: Love and Thunder (B-) works as well as it does in spurts even though it doesn’t really hang together in a cohesive way. Chris Hemsworth is amusing and swashbuckling as the central hero, although there’s never any real action stakes as he and colleagues march through perfunctory episodes. This installment is largely about the god of thunder regaining his emotional mojo. Natalie Portman returns as a love interest with new powers and an occasionally resonant backstory; she’s good enough to warrant a bit more. As new villain Gorr The God Butcher, Christian Bale is acting in a whole different universe, menacing and maniacal under macabre prosthetics. There’s also an amusing series of sequences involving a convention of deities. The film is often a clever lark, largely inconsequential and a missed opportunity for even more fearless and frolicking fun. This one doesn’t throw down the gauntlet with quite the precision or focus necessary.
The outer space curse plaguing Disney from infinity to The Black Hole, Treasure Planet, John Carter, Mars Needs Moms and beyond has not yet been lifted. Director /co-writer Angus MacLane’s Toy Story prequel/ spinoff Lightyear (C+) stays largely grounded on an uninspiring planet and surrounds its bland titular space ranger protagonist with dubious sidekicks. It’s a missed opportunity given the daffy high jinks and emotional arcs present among Buzz’s creative fellow playthings, and the ingenuity just doesn’t carry through in this cosmos-set adventure. The story surrounds the famed space hero making amends for an unforced error, and alas the series of action set pieces and encounters with vapid villains following his fall from grace simply don’t rise to the occasion. There are several clever bursts, a cute cat from outer space and a few requisite Pixar moments of melodrama. But the film largely feels like a moribund money grab and missed opportunity never approaching the operatic canvas or ambition possible with the great wide yonder at its fingertips. Nobody’s getting a Woody over this one.
Suspend your disbelief and strap yourself in for an unexpected stunt spectacular with equally epic heart. S.S. Rajamouli’s go-for-broke bromantic adventure RRR: Rise Roar Revolt (A-) is the breakneck tale of two intertwined freedom fighters on a mission to save a little girl and discover the bounds of brotherhood and loyalty before ultimately liberating the nation of India from British Raj rule in the 1920s. Viewers must excuse some goofy special effects and cartoonish performances from some of the imperial villains and perhaps learn to relish a touch of tonal shifting and delirious dance breaks while exploring this wonderland of spicy cinematic bonbons. It’s an imaginary account of two real-life Indian revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, played with absolute relish by Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. respectively, and a deliriously inventive gonzo action showcase with parkour and pull-ups, a truckful of wild animals attacking a crowd, a defiant mid-flogging song that incites a riot and so much spectacular more. The fictional friendship between two superheroes has hints of Hindu mythology and fervent nationalism, underscored with rousing M.M. Keeravani music. The kinetic emotional arch as the protagonists emerge from strangers to brothers-in-arms ushers in an elaborate series of escapades with shades of Braveheart, Ben-Hur, Face/Off and Indiana Jones (there’s even a role for that series’ Allison Doody as a bloodthirsty baddie). Chances are you won’t see a more joyful set of performances, more delirious derring-do and a more exciting parade of panache on the screen anytime soon.
Brace your favorite wing-mates for some breathtaking ground-hugging film flights in Joseph Kosinski’s precision-guided Top Gun: Maverick (A-). The long-awaited sequel works as both a nifty nostalgia trip and also as a fully developed story in its own right, with vivid visual and emotional appeal. Set nearly four decades after the original film, this follow-up traces the arc of Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” as he returns to the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, where the brash captain must confront his past as he trains a group of younger fighter pilots, among them the son of his deceased best friend Goose. The movie is emotionally grounded with fine performances by the fully-committed Cruise, a tormented Miles Teller, an appealing Jennifer Connelly and a charismatic Glen Powell. The film soars most in its action sequences with spectacularly rendered flight maneuvers, aerial dogfights and surprise stunts deepening the adventure elements. More than the original movie, this follow-up is buoyed by clear-eyed storytelling with less reliance on catchphrases, montages and stylistic cover-ups to a sometimes simplistic core. It builds on the franchise’s might and mythology and further cements Cruise’s power as the stuff of legend. A little overstuffed with underdeveloped characters, the film still hits its dramatic beats with dexterity. As far as Hollywood blockbusters go, viewers will be hard-pressed to find a more cohesive combination of high-flying and heart.
For its singularly violent vision and attention to authentic detail, this historical epic gets a mighty round of polar ice claps. A revenge tale told with impeccable craft, The Northman (B), directed and co-written by Robert Eggers, has dreamy scope and scale but a plot that’s a touch basic. Alexander Skarsgård is in beast mode with an intense physical performance as a man of few words, a descendent of royalty hiding out in a Viking gang ready to pounce into a binge of avenging against his wronged parents (a superb Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman). Between grisly saxon smackdowns, there’s a rather prolonged period of waiting in which Eggers must tread some murky maelstrom water. It takes a pillage of pulpy possibilities as the auteur throws in signature supernatural elements and supporting bits from some of his quirky past cast members such as Willem Dafoe and Anya Taylor-Joy. Claes Bang is also a menacing antagonist. Essentially every primary character gets a really good scream into the camera, and it appears the director just told them to give it their most primal. The divergent panoply of accents, however, owe more to the House of Gucci than the Norse code. Ultimately, fans of ribald historical action will dig this adventure through lands of fjords and volcanoes. The cinematography and art direction, especially in nighttime attacks and a few climactic fights, is stunning to behold. Eggers and acclaimed writer Sjón plum some intriguing legend and lore, as there’s a lot to unpack on this journey.
This is the ultimate film fantasia for channel surfers, with something pretty, punchy or profound to discover with each push of a button. The writing and directing duo known as Daniels have crafted their choose your own adventure inspired epic Everything Everywhere All At Once (B+) as one of the most complex and absurdist mind-trips set to screen. A blissful Michelle Yeoh plays a woman being audited by the IRS who realizes she has the power to exist in multiple universes and must thwart a familiar antagonist hell-bent on destroying them all. Aside from the creators’ meticulously crafted vision, which at times is too much of a good thing, Yeoh is a revelation, alternately summoning physical comedy, familial empathy and martial arts skills like they are hard wired in the game console of her acting brain. Helping her process all the new data is former Goonie Ke Huy Quan, who showcases fancy footwork in one of the film’s big choreographed action sequences and is great fun in a spry ensemble featuring Stephanie Hsu, Harry Shum Jr. and James Hong. Jamie Lee Curtis is also on hand as a quirky clerk with some outrageous pratfalls and unusual talents of her own. Center-punched for stylized fight sequences, ornate set pieces and everyday domestic drama, Yeoh is masterful maneuvering the demands of the black comedy and sci-fi elements alike. The Daniels are gleeful in throwing in every madcap notion, and Yeoh catches each of their creative impulses like juggling balls to keep aloft. The audacity of it all and the pacing ultimately weigh the film down a bit, but it’s hard to argue viewers have seen anything like this before.
Although largely a by-the-books action comedy, Aaron and Adam Nee’s The Lost City (B) is handsomely produced and features Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum each doing what they do best. It’s a lot like Romancing the Stone with a novelist who gets embroiled in one of the types of exotic anthropological excursions ripped from her own fiction. Bullock is appealing in both her physical humor pratfalls (she performs several sequences while tied to a chair and many in a glittery jumpsuit) and in her authorial interplay with Tatum’s dim witted character who is cover model of her elevated bodice rippers and unexpected co-adventurer. Daniel Radcliffe feels like he’s cameoing in a different movie as a caricatured villain whose best sequence involves a whirlwind of charcuterie; meanwhile Brad Pitt is a delight in his brief sequences as a charming mercenary, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph also hilariously steals her scenes as a publicist at wit’s end. This movie handily delivers on its populist fun and sometimes transcends its formula, even as its pacing sometimes misses the mark. Both the leads utter some pretty funny lines under their breath that hopefully won’t be missed in all the activity. Bullock’s character finally gets out of the house, which is an apt metaphor for movie audiences seeking escapism amidst the almost post-pandemic zeitgeist.
Shawn Levy’s The Adam Project (C+) starts with a pretty lively premise – suppose you time traveled for an adventure with your younger self – and spends most of its duration squandering its novel notion. Ryan Reynolds delivers his typical brashness with grumpy quips, with pint-sized Walker Scobell as his tween self a little too intermittently sarcastic and wide-eyed to collect much goodwill. Zoe Saldaña is sufficiently emotive as a love interest and gets a few moments to strut her action chops. Catherine Keener is woefully miscast as an arbitrary villain. Mark Ruffalo doesn’t get much to do as the protagonist’s dad, and Jennifer Garner barely registers as the mom. The special effects are subpar and most of the action sequences shoehorned and cribbed from better properties. A couple of emotional sequences almost redeem the rote reels, but this movie is little more than a perfectly average and uninspiring way to spend two hours.
A contemporary tale of political intrigue, a serial crime spree mystery and a noirish adaptation of comic book legend blend spectacularly in The Batman (A), assuredly directed by Matt Reeves. Similar in style and tone to Seven and L.A. Confidential, with twisty themes and commentary on urban decay and perverse forms of achieving justice, this superhero drama is dead serious to the core. This bacchanal of cinematic delights includes transfixing production design, purposeful action, wondrous gadgetry, stunning cinematography and a triumphant score to herald the latest movie series epoch with Robert Pattinson as a brave and brooding Batman/Bruce Wayne. A political assassination sets the dense narrative into motion, with Pattinson’s protagonist juggling several layers of intrigue to cut through corruption and discover unsettling truths. No mere retelling of the origin story, this installment charts unconventional courses into unexpected places. Pattinson proves to be a grim and winning hero with impeccable acting ability. Zoë Kravitz as an avenging spy Cat Woman, Paul Dano as a cunning crackpot Riddler and Colin Farrell (unrecognizable under makeup) as an old-school gangster Penguin all lend dynamic supporting turns, and Jeffrey Wright and John Turturro are also wonderful in less showy ensemble roles. Reeves creates a lived-in universe of pulpy nightclubs, sprawling cathedrals, sinister lairs and sky-high vistas for epic action sequences and showdowns and continuously raises the stakes of his widescreen canvas. Many topical themes are unusually prescient, yet the stirring central storyline never falters. The sheer notion at all points that anything could happen makes it continually watchable despite a considerable running time. This sets a new high watermark for the genre and is sure to thrill both hardcore fans and discerning general movie audiences who don’t have to know backstory to enjoy a propulsive path forward.
If a movie consistently protests its own existence, believe it. Lana Wachowski’s Matrix: Resurrections (D+), the misguided fourth installment in the groundbreaking sci-fi action series, presents within its storyline several meta constructs about why a follow-up to the trilogy should occur in the first place. Then the director exhumes the bones of the franchise’s previous efforts and attempts to justify continued tinkering with its themes of technology and identity with extremely mixed results. It all makes for a rather existential take on an already trippy narrative. To find out if his reality is a physical or mental construct, video game programmer Mr. Anderson (a.k.a. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves) must re-enter the film’s alternate universe, now stronger, more secure and far more dangerous than ever before. The film’s action sequences, new characters both human and cyborg, makeup and visual effects are all subpar compared to the previous trilogy of films. The only element of this episode with intrigue is the return of Carrie-Ann Moss in a new form that may or may not be her former character Trinity. Neo and Trinity’s love story overcomes many of the film’s oddities and obstacles and provides the film’s singular flickers of fascination. Otherwise much of the movie is moribund and obligatory, a folly of a follow-up.