Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)

There’s a nearly thirty minute series of cutaways in his overlong new stunt spectacular in which Tom Cruise is seen winding through mountains on a motorcycle towards his inevitable jump from a mountain onto a train; if only that level of coordination had been reserved for story and script! Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One (B) is a sturdy entry in the cat and mouse action series with exciting sequences and set pieces, the addition of an intriguing new character in the form of actress Hayley Atwell and a timely menace – an artificial intelligence platform. Clunky exposition doesn’t get any better when the dialogue is shared like a hot potato among everyone gathered in a scene, but a viewer would get drunk if imbibing a shot every time the mansplaining by committee motif gets trotted out by the screenwriters. The whole enterprise feels like warmed-over James Bond without many flashes of romantic intrigue or humor, but the practical effects are rendered with grit and grace. It’s the speeding locomotive finale (not just the prolonged jump onto it) that cinches the deal this is a stunt show best seen on a big screen. Simon Pegg is consistently amusing, and Pom Klementieff is an enjoyable physical threat in this packed ensemble. Esai Morales isn’t given much to do as the big bad, but the story’s overall series of threats feel real throughout. This is part one of a two-part story and works admirably as a standalone film as well. 

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023)

This is the Never Say Never Again of the Indy franchise with a curious sense not everything is up to peak creativity, and perhaps the filmmakers should have heeded the final three words of that creed. James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (C+), chronicling the raiders of a steampunk timepiece with rumored time travel powers, showcases the famed professor/archaeologist with both a murky de-aged CGI uncanny valley of the kings effect as well as an unflattering portrait of the character’s creaky old age circa 1969. At no point is Harrison Ford’s performance credible: the young version is imbued with an old voice and recycled dead-eyed Polar expressions, and what’s on the senior menu doesn’t look capable of throwing those frequent punches at aging Nazis. The filmmakers are constantly futzing with their own rattly dials, as episodic spurts of action are often punctuated with sequences of insipid boredom, even in exotic ports of call ranging from Morocco to Sicily. Three prominent women are featured in the cast, and as Indy’s greedy goddaughter Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the one of those whose character doesn’t connect much at all; in fact, she makes “Willie Scott” look better and better in retrospect. Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t get to vamp much as the villain either. It takes well into the mid point of the film to establish some of the emotional resonance and playfulness needed to propel any interest. Some final reel wild swings (thankfully not with monkeys this time around) actually worked because at least it felt like something novel was finally happening. Some of the practical effects including chases through twisty African marketplaces and advancing through tomb passageways are better than expected; the cinematography and production design sometimes hit their marks. Mangold does well enough to crack that whip Steven Spielberg brandished for four previous installments in an uphill battle to credibly close the series. It’s far from an embarrassment but doesn’t fully fire on all cylinders, and the elegiac elements involved in themes of recapturing youthful glory feel almost accidental. The humor and high adventure of the series’ first three films is simply not matched here, making it ever so clear it’s time to hang up that hat.

Movie Review: Bottoms (2023)

The brazen style and balls-out swagger of Emma Seligman’s Bottoms (C) earns the surreal comedy about marginalized young people some nifty novelty points, but the freshness of this brisk tale of two high school lesbians (Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri) who set up a fight club as a guise to hook up with the popular cheerleaders wears off lickety-split. The compelling central duo at the film’s center certainly wins some deserved laughs with droll, deadpan and raunchy dialogue as well as heartfelt empathy, milking all they can from the outrageous premise and their characters’ plights. Havana Rose Liu and Kaia Gerber also bring spirit to the enterprise as would-be paramours, as do Nicholas Galitzine as an absurdist jock archetype and Marshawn Lynch as an aloof teacher who becomes an unwitting club sponsor. The rules of the film’s arch universe are loosely defined and keep viewers at bay from fully immersing. Although billed as a satire, the send-up doesn’t necessarily hit its targets with consistency, which is disappointing with as many topical issues to plumb. This one-note dark comedy wants to be Heathers or even But I’m a Cheerleader and doesn’t quite get there. 

Feature Story: Walt Disney + Egypt – “I’m Ready for My Close Up, Mr. Mouse!” 

What global trek features exclusive curated experiences such as sunsets and river cruises right out of the movies, a parade of magical moments at iconic locations and “fast pass” style close-up access to some of the most treasured places in the collective imagination? It’s the Adventures by Disney packaged vacation to Egypt; and even in the blazing hot off-season for the part African, part Asian nation, the Disney-enhanced destination was a peak experience.

Egypt has not only been a worldwide travel destination because of its rich history and wonderful people, but its mystique has been a constant subject through the lens of cinema in classics such as The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra and Death on the Nile and in modern adventures such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jumper and The Mummy. Now, a company equally famous for its movies and television – including the recent streaming hit series Moon Knight – and for its renowned brand of hospitality is rolling out the red carpet for Egyptian adventures curated by Disney.

On a nearly 10-day journey, my fellow tour guests and I bore witness to the cradle of civilization via hieroglyphics ranging from watermarked textures in the formerly submerged Temple of Isis to full vibrant color in the unearthed Valley of the Kings, all with the gracious and reflective accompaniment of Egyptologist Amal Elfar.

The first days in Cairo alone constituted a trip of a lifetime as our intrepid Adventures by Disney guides sweet and sentimental Kareem Elsaid from Cairo and crafty and cunning Kevin Collinge from Arizona took our group of 37 travelers (mostly adults and a few thoughtful teens) to the Egyptian Museum, the Giza Complex – home of the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx, the Citadel of Salah ad-Din and the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (incidentally one of the sites in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X).

I thought the trip might reach its high point too early when we were granted access to climb on both the outside of and inside the tombs within a mighty Pyramid and to mingle at the paws of the Sphinx, both zones not available for access to the general touring public. But the treasured memories of the desert certainly didn’t stop there, and Kareem and Kev kept spirits high with a combination of wisdom and wit rivaling Disney’s Blue Genie in the “friend like me” department.

This trip was all about awakening the senses, including accommodations in the well-appointed Ritz-Carlton Nile adjacent to a museum of the nation’s most exquisite antiquities. Our trio of curators helped our group get comfortable bartering with local merchants at the colorful Khan El Khalili market, where we bought authentic garb as well as “white elephant” gifts for an end-of-voyage exchange. Fanciful candies, camel plushes and regal mementos from the labyrinthine bazaars filled our totes as our guides helped us separate gift from grift. We alternately feasted on exotic pigeon dishes and pistachio pastries along with more traditional meat kabobs and rice, and we even got to try our hand at frying up our own falafel during a cooking demonstration.

Next up for our group was a plane flight to the beautiful city of Aswan for a luxury cruise excursion aboard the M/S Tulip and satellite felucca boats (think Disney’s Jungle Cruise!) which led us to destinations such as splendid sunset dining at the imperial Old Cataract Hotel where Agatha Christie penned exotic mysteries such as Death on the Nile (now made into a movie twice) and the city of Luxor, home to the temple complexes at Karnak where pharaohs once reigned at the height of their power. Guests instantly see why this area is characterized as the world’s largest open-air museum, and VIP nighttime access to illuminated temples was among the trip’s most dazzling experiences.

The twin temples of Ramesses II and Nefertari at Abu Simbel were a highlight, with grand sculptures carved into mountains. Another spectacular site was the Valley of the Kings, with its choose-your-own-adventure of resplendent illustrated vaults, included a chance to view King Tut in his resting place among additional exhumed history. The Disney guides helped us beat the heat and crowds by arriving just a smidge early and providing us with multicolored parasols. 

The final days of the trip included a restful wind-down at the all-inclusive Coral Sea Imperial Sensatori Resort in Sharm El-Sheik, located between the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea. There we enjoyed buffet meals, swimming, soccer and water polo, spa treatments, beach time, a coral reef snorkeling excursion and a Bedouin style beach party to recap and reflect on the trip. 

In addition to the academic learnings throughout our journey, there was a true sense of camaraderie, with adventure guides staging fun pictures and snapping photos and footage on our phones any time we wished. There were frequent restroom breaks, with Disney picking up all the tabs for local tips in Egyptian pounds; and government officials ensured we were perpetually safe with an armed guard protecting our party throughout our stay. 

If you opt to go on this marvelous trip, pack hats and sunscreen, long pants for one mosque visit and generally comfortable shirts and shorts for all other times. The Disney crew kept us constantly refreshed with bottled water and electrolytes.

Tie-ins to Disney iconography were subtle on the trip, with the live-action middle east-set Aladdin played in the background during an orientation session and low-key instrumental tunes from the studio’s film catalogue piped in on the charter bus in Cairo. There were also collectible pins (like in the theme parks!) marking each day of the journey. Mostly, though, the curators of the itinerary allowed the wonders of the Egyptian world to simply speak for themselves.

There you have it: the country made famous in motion pictures now brought to life in vibrant Technicolor by the company known for making magical and memorable moments come to life. The complexity and specificity of the trip made Adventures by Disney the best option to see this majestic country.

To book Adventures by Disney to Egypt or other exotic locales, contact my spectacular neighbor in the Town at Trilith, Alston Causey, who has inside access to adventures on the horizon. You can reach Alston via his website here:

Movie Review: The Blackening (2023)

This movie was staid when it should have slayed. An intriguing premise devolves into just a bunch of running scared in Tim Story’s horror satire The Blackening (D). The film follows a group of Black friends on a Juneteenth holiday weekend who encounter masked murderers while staying at a cabin in the woods. At the film’s core is a mysterious board game that turns players against one another in a type of racial roulette, but most of the plot is just actors running from room to room screaming. Grace Byers and Melvin Gregg are among the accomplished standouts in the ensemble. Among those who stand out for all the wrong reasons, Jermaine Fowler gives a stupendously misguided performance, jawdropping in its caricature. Story shows scant skill in helming this type of horror movie, with no cleverness to the kills or pacing for the scares. There’s more mystery and suspense in any given Scooby-Doo episode. What could have been a sly play on tropes or an intellectual dissection of the role race plays in these kinds of movies is largely squandered. In terms of dignity of daring, nobody gets out of this one alive.

Movie Review: Asteroid City (2023)

Existential and terrestrial, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (C-) also proves a quite inert affair within its lovely and meticulous menagerie of production design and between its fussy and overcomplicated bookends. It’s fitting there’s a subplot about aliens, as most actors in Anderson’s ensemble appear to only mimic the way earthly humans actually act and speak. The best thing about the film is its stylized use of whimsical color and imaginative set pieces amidst a widescreen panorama; there’s no mistaking in every genus and species and frame of the picture that it’s an Anderson film. Framed with an obtuse artifice of putting on a theatrical play, the central act of cinema revolves around denizens gathered in a remote desert town for an astronomy and invention convention circa 1955. The characters engage in conversations and quirks, but there’s little narrative thrust or storytelling propulsion governing the work. Vintage Altman it’s not. Much of this mawkish enterprise feels like Anderson bringing a Pinterest mood board to life. Someone must have vociferously complimented him in kindergarten show and tell, as adult Anderson shows great relish cataloguing collections of items and actors. No performer stands out much in this deadpan diorama; Jason Schwartzman as a dad and war photographer is the closest thing to a protagonist, and even his character goes largely undeveloped. The kid actors get a few funny bits, and many of Anderson’s regulars – from Jeffrey Wright to Tilda Swinton – get some droll moments in the spotlight. It’s all pretty stargazing but doesn’t add up to much. 

Movie Review: No Hard Feelings (2023)

A sweet story of unconventional friendship disguised as a raunchy comedy, Gene Stupntisky’s No Hard Feelings (B) pairs movie luminary Jennifer Lawrence with rising Broadway star Andrew Barth Feldman as characters meeting under unusual circumstances and creating quite a bond. The young man’s wealthy parents (an amusing if underused Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) want to bring their son out of his shell and turn to a down-on-her-luck thirtysomething Uber driver and bartender to help him lose his virginity and inhibition. Set in the coastal hamlet of Montauk, the film traces the misadventures triggered by an absurd premise, and both Lawrence and Feldman prove deft physical actors for the comedic chemistry of the occasion. There are moments of wit and pathos amidst a bunch of adult gags, although it never gets as weird or wild as it could. It’s nice to see Lawrence getting loose and limber in this kind of loopy role after some of her more dramatic turns. This is a breezy, funny lark.

Movie Review: Elemental (2023)

Ironically, Peter Sohn’s Elemental (C-), in which the animated characters are allegorical and anthropomorphic elements of nature, is virtually chemistry-free. The story follows fiery, hot-tempered Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) and go-with-the-flow liquid character Wade (Mamoudou Athie), who fall in love while helping avert a crisis in their murky metropolis. The two central characters in this misguided romcom are generally inert from their meet-not-so-cute opening moments until the point when their story is finally and mercifully extinguished. For a film as high-concept as this, the story, dialogue and voice acting are all quite basic; and attempted parallels to real-life don’t really land. Unlike WALL-E or Zootopia, for instance, there’s little discernible sense of time, place or genre. Frequent flashbacks simply prolong a tale that’s already treading water, and supporting characters lumber along rather aimlessly against hastily conceived backdrops lacking zest. Admirably, it’s one of the few Disney-Pixar movies which doesn’t rely on a pedigreed voice cast (save for a ho-hum Catherine O’Hara) for an immediate connection, but nobody in the ensemble adds any vocal vibrancy to this periodic tableau of mediocrity. After a largely charmless series of uninspiring episodes, there are a few mild sparks in the final act but not enough to give this not-so-golden-age entry any atomic weight.

Movie Review: The Flash (2023)

A speed trap of half-baked time travel comedy and junky action sequences surrounding a phantom zone menace, Andrés Muschietti’s The Flash (C) runs around in more circles than a Lazy Susan dishing out a smorgasbord of DC multiverse morsels with limited entertainment value. At the center of this carousel of excess are two performances by Ezra Miller, and a little of this eccentric actor goes a long way. Reversing time to save his mom’s life, the titular sprinting action hero opens up portals of paradox that produce a doubting doppelgänger plus an encounter with an underused original cinematic Batman Michael Keaton, who along with Sasha Calle as Supergirl must battle Michael Shannon’s General Zod, whose character is given virtually nothing to do. Despite some funny opening moments involving slow cooking and an aerial ballet of super saving, the schtick gets old fast, and the retread plot lines give way to a bitter after-haste taste. The visual effects are uniformly second-rate, and the two quipping Barrys’ vaudeville act collapses and careens toward a desperate parade of cameos in the final reel. There are more guest stars and CGI characters than a caravan to The Love Boat by way of The Polar Express could accommodate. Muschietti eschews solemnity for all-out stoner comedy, and perhaps, for some, even a glimmer of fun in the generally grim DC Universe can feel like finding renewed life in the fast lane.

Movie Review: Past Lives (2023)

Premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2023 and opening in Atlanta in June.

Some famous Irish troubadours once declared humanity must stridently walk on, emboldened with “all that you can’t leave behind,” and a new movie rummages through the lived-in baggage we tote to each stage of our existence. A story of Seoul mates who may also be soul mates provides the profound connection at the center of Korean-Canadian writer/director Celine Song’s memorable and melancholy debut drama Past Lives (A). Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, played as adults by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, are separated after Nora’s family leaves South Korea to immigrate to Toronto. Decades later, they reunite for several fateful days in her adopted hometown of New York City as they confront love, longing and the choices that impact their destinies. In a way the movie posits we are all immigrants or refugees from a stomping ground in our past where we came of age and where our self-concepts imprinted. Lee and Yoo are phenomenal in the crucial roles, exhibiting an incredible bond even as they share very few sequences together IRL. Both affecting actor John Magaro who humorously gets meta over pillow talk and NYC play crucial supporting roles; Manhattan looks like a dream lensed by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. Song frames the story with splendid grace and intimacy; her screenplay and directorial choices prove both instantly absorbing and universally resonant. Christopher Bear and Dan Rossen’s lovely music underscores this delicate and sensitive tale gorgeously told. Many of the notions explored in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and John Carney’s Once get a fresh examination here. You’ll believe the Korean concept of In-Yun, that who we are today is a version of who we were in our past lives, is indeed working its quiet machinations on the film’s characters. The film will undoubtedly spark conversations we all wish we were having.

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)

This is why they call it Marvel! First-time directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson helm the immersive animated comic book “canon” ball, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (A), showcasing kinetic storytelling and sheer audacity at the service of a creative and emotional spectacular. The co-directors’ vibrant, kaleidoscopic and sometimes psychedelic visual palette upstages the Oscar-winning original film with more than a half dozen animation styles, countless incarnations of the iconic title character and a pristine web of heart and humor. Grounded teen Miles/Spider-Man (Shameick Moore, pitch perfect) and Gwen/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld, emotive and brilliant) embark on a mind-trip fighting villain The Spot (a wry Jason Schwartzman) and traversing the multiverse where they meet a new team of Spider-People, known as the Spider-Society, led by Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (an imposing Oscar Isaac). A series of adventurous encounters significantly raise the stakes before the inevitable cliffhanger to the trilogy’s next installment. From the get-go of its cold open prologue, the film commands immediate attention and is surprisingly shape-shifting in nearly every frame, jolting viewers with enough artistic fluidity, wily spirit and imagination to fill infinite worlds. The ensemble’s excellent voice cast includes Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez as the central teen’s concerned parents who elevate the family story and emotional stakes of the characters with finesse. Daniel Kaluuya, Karan Soni and Issa Rae are whimsical standouts in a robust voice cast with the returning talent of fan favorite Jake Johnson, whose Peter Parker sports a surprise sidekick. The attention to detail in various alternating cityscapes is staggeringly impressive and keeps an already propulsive plot hopping. Also, kudos to music writer Daniel Pemberton dropping a considerable beat to accompany this rollercoaster ride. Indeed this middle chapter in this inventive trilogy is a feast for comic book and animation lovers and proves that even IP can have an IQ.

Movie Review: The Little Mermaid (2023)

Who would have guessed the mystifying problem with Rob Marshall’s live action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (B-) would be subpar animated visual content? Seemingly rendered in a murky millpond leagues away from where James Cameron toiled twelve years on his recent underwater opus, Marshall’s nautical nightmare of unsure blue hues and realistic looking talking sea creatures threatens to sink this ship before it even starts. Parting the waters of this production design debacle is a stunningly watchable fresh-faced pair in the lead performances as star-crossed lovers: the instantly endearing Halle Bailey in gorgeous voice as spirited mermaid Ariel and Jonah Hauer-King as earnest intrepid explorer Prince Eric. Together this dreamy duo could enchant viewers with a charm offensive against a blank backdrop and frankly probably should have. Sequences set in the ocean left much of the cast, including a cerebral Javier Bardem as King Triton, floundering. The story feels oddly like a submerged Bachelorette season: Thirst trap induced longing for life on land prompts the titular heroine to make a Faustian deal with villainous sea witch Ursula (a committed but CGI compromised Melissa McCarthy) to sprout human gams, and fortunately the sequences set on land are the sweet fantasia here. The musical numbers are a mixed bag with “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl” and the new “Wild Unchartered Waters” as standouts, but Oscar winner “Under the Sea” feels like a throwaway, and the less said of a final act sing-speak by a squawking Awkwafina the better. Sure the kitchen scene antics of “Les Poissons” have been excised, but a house of horrors embodied by uncanny valley crab Sebastian, fish Flounder and seagull Scuttle is an omnipresent trilogy of terror. When the movie does more than skim the surface and anchors its fortunes to the central romance with some modern-day thematic resonance, the film featuring curious choices and excellent voices finally begins to stand on its own two feet.

Click here for Stephen’s review of the 1989 animated movie.

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