Happy Star Wars Day 2022 + The Avengers Turns 10!

Happy Star Wars Day, everyone! May the Fourth be with you and all that!

Yes, today (May 4th) is the fan holiday in which we celebrate all things Star Wars. The good, the bad, and the Jar-Jar.

Star Wars has seen a lot of ups and downs over the years, but its place in pop culture history has long-since been solidified. It’s the movie world’s most indelible mythology, and has won over our hearts so strongly that it endures even passed its most egregious mistakes (“Somehow Palpatine returned…“).

Happy Star Wars Day you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herders! May the Fourth be with you!

“The ultimate counterargument to people who say the prequels had the best fights. Ugh.”

Today also marks the ten-year anniversary of the release of Marvel’s The Avengers! Yes, much like Palpatine’s return, somehow it’s been a full decade since The Avengers was released. Man, I feel old…

Back in 2012, there had been no big superhero crossover movies. Marvel had been slowly building up to it since 2008, when Iron Man kicked off the MCU. We all take it for granted now (and perhaps even Marvel itself does), but in 2012, seeing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and the B-Team of Black Widow and Hawkeye come together for the first time was magical.

One could even argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe peaked with the first Avengers film. The “Battle for New York” is still probably the best battle sequence in the entire mega-franchise. While later Avengers movies would tread darker, more serious territory, 2012’s The Avengers was a pure fun delight that remains as entertaining now as it was ten years ago, long after the initial hype has died off (something not a lot of MCU films can boast).

I remember, on this day ten years ago, I actually saw The Avengers twice! I saw it at one theater with one group, and then immediately went to another theater and saw it with a different group. I can’t say I’ve done that with a whole lot of movies.

“Back when Loki was interesting. Man, this movie really is old!”

The Avengers also proved to be one of the most influential films of recent memory, with every studio under the sun trying to construct their own “Cinematic Universes” in an attempt to replicate what Marvel accomplished with The Avengers (though only Legendary’s Godzilla and Kong-fueled “MonsterVerse” has somewhat succeeded). It’s the kind of influence I’m sure James Cameron wished Avatar had.

The MCU has gone a lot of places in the past ten years, with bigger crossovers and larger storylines. But some of that “pure fun” of The Avengers has been lost along the way. Sure, the MCU films are still mostly good (Eternals was a glaring exception. And Loki was kind of a “jump the shark” moment for me). But as the MCU has grown bigger it’s also become a bit too in love with itself, and at times cynical (again, Loki basically said every MCU event before itself was meaningless. Way to pay off fan investment). And the standalone stories are kind of giving way to everything being about the overarching plot, as if Thanos never left.

But in 2012, it was just six super heroes banding together, in a movie that had all the unadulterated enthusiasm as a kid playing with their action figures. And it was good.

Happy tenth anniversary, Avengers! And one more time, May the Fourth be with you!

My Month in Movies: April 2022

I guess I have another “My Month in Movies” left in the tank. Despite my saying these things aren’t going to be monthly, I’ve ended up doing them almost every month since I started doing them last October (for movies I watched in September). The only exception was February. Seeing as Uncharted was the only movie I watched during that whole month, I guess it makes sense I skipped it.

Still, I don’t expect to continue to make these kinds of posts regularly (I say that now). I still have movies and games from last year I’ve been meaning to review but still haven’t. I should really get to those soon. But, this month had a bit of a theme going, so I figured I’d make another My Month in Movies for the occasion.

That theme was video game movies! Although I watched a few films outside of the category, I watched six video game movies in April, and I couldn’t resist writing about them.

In total, I watched nine movies in April of 2022. Again, movies marked with an asterisk are ones I watched for the very first time.

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Sonic the Hedgehog 2*

The Last Blockbuster

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore*

Double Dragon

The Bad Guys*

Mortal Kombat (1995)

Street Fighter

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

So again, you could say video game movies were the name of the… game! Ho ho! It’s just unfortunate that I didn’t get around to watching Mortal Kombat Annihilation or the 2021 Mortal Kombat reboot as I originally planned. Maybe I’ll do another video game movie-themed post in the near future as an excuse to watch them.

I know, I know, video game movies don’t exactly have the best reputation. But as I’ve stated in the past, the earlier entries in the sub-genre are like guilty pleasures. They tended to be dumb and goofy, but they were so bad they were entertaining. It was probably in the 2000s when video game movies became unspeakably bad. But, as I mentioned in my reviews for the Sonic movies and as I’ll soon mention here, video game movies have now found a way to be genuinely good.

My first movie this month was a re-watch of 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog, AKA the last big movie before the pandemic (seriously). I love this movie. It has its problems, but I kind of don’t really care. It’s a fun movie that pays respect to the video game series (something not a lot of video game movies have done), and it gives Jim Carrey an excuse to be the most manic he’s been since the 90s. And as Dr. Robotnik, one of my all-time favorite video game characters, no less!

Sure, the structure can be a little flimsy at times, and the movie really jumps through hoops to try to explain why Sonic needs help from his human friend Tom Wachowski (James Marsden). But again, if I’m watching a movie based on Sonic the Hedgehog and starring Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, I mostly care that the movie is fun. And 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog is just that, fun.

And let’s all be grateful that the filmmakers and studio decided to redesign Sonic after that horrifying first trailer. Otherwise the film wouldn’t have worked (can’t really make a kids’ movie based on a classic video game character if that character gave kids nightmares), and we probably wouldn’t have gotten its superior sequel without the change.

Also, something to note: in my original review for Sonic the Hedgehog, I mentioned the only piece of music from the games that made it into the film’s score were a few renditions of the iconic Green Hill Zone theme. But that’s inaccurate. There’s one other musical number lifted from the games, as the film begins with the opening theme from Sonic Mania! That’s a really nice touch!

My next movie was logically Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Boy, this film did not disappoint! It’s a bigger, better sequel, pays even more loving homage to the games, features Tails and Knuckles, and Jim Carrey looks like Robotnik this time around (minus the round belly. Though word is Jim Carrey has wanted to portray a game-accurate Robotnik since the first film. Maybe by the time Sonic 3 rolls around Jim Carrey will go full Eggman with a fat suit). Yes, it can get goofy at times, but that’s hardly an unforgivable sin.

The simple fact is that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is some of the purest fun I’ve had in a movie in years. I think it’d be fun even if you didn’t know the games. But this is a movie that really cares about going the extra mile for the adults who grew up with Sonic the Hedgehog, and the kids who are growing up with Sonic the Hedgehog. Something like that is becoming pretty rare in this day and age.

Perhaps in retrospect my only real disappointment (besides the mid-credits tease) is that, unlike the first movie, I don’t think any of the music from the games made it into the film’s score. That’s doubly a bummer given how awesome that snippet of Emerald Hill Zone from the film’s teaser was.

Next up we take a break from video game movies and go into movie movies. Or movie documentaries. Or video rental documentaries. I’m talking about The Last Blockbuster, okay!

The Last Blockbuster was released in 2020, and chronicles how Blockbuster Video went from being a brand as big as McDonald’s to going broke and dwindling down to a single store (in Bend, Oregon). It’s a fun, nostalgic documentary that showcases some of the boneheaded business decisions Blockbuster made over the years (like not buying Netflix early on when they had the chance, and that illogical “no more late fees” thing). It really makes me miss the days of going to Blockbuster to rent a movie (or video game) every week. Hell, it makes me miss the days when I ordered movies in the mail from Netflix!

In the days before the internet, I discovered a number of games just by scrolling through Blockbuster shelves (I must have rented Brave Fencer Musashi at least a half dozen times before actually buying it). It’s kind of a shame we can’t have anything like that anymore. Damn internet.

The Last Blockbuster is definitely a fun watch, though I do wish it found a greater variety of film buffs to interview on the subject (a minute of Kevin Smith is too much Kevin Smith for me).

Going from Blockbuster and back into a movie theater, my next movie was Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. Boy, are the subtitles for this series goofy.

I’ve actually been meaning to review this one, so I won’t say too much here. In short, I think The Secrets of Dumbledore is an improvement over its predecessor The Crimes of Grindlewald (seriously, those titles!), but it still fails to capture the magic of the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore feels like a big dose of course correction after the bungling second installment, but hasn’t elevated Fantastic Beasts to where I think it could be. But maybe now that it’s been pointed in the right direction and with two installments to go, maybe it can find greatness before the end.

I then dipped my toes back into the video game movie pool with Double Dragon from 1994. It’s uhhh… It’s no Sonic the Hedgehog.

I didn’t put an asterisk next to Double Dragon at the beginning of this post because I have technically seen it once before. But this may as well have been the first time because the previous time I watched it was when it was in theaters, and I would have been five at the time, given the film’s late ’94 release. So this viewing was basically like watching Double Dragon for the first time, and is most likely the longest gap in between my first and second viewings of a movie (not that I, or anyone else, could keep track of such a statistic).

This is a bad movie. It has some ironic entertainment, but unlike the other video game movies I would watch later in the month, Double Dragon is more guilty than pleasure.

I admit, I don’t have the deepest history with the Double Dragon video games, but I seem to remember them taking place in essentially an 80s-style setting, filled with martial arts and street gangs of a Karate Kid fashion. I guess the movie has street gangs and an approximation of martial arts, but it also takes place in the “future” of 2007, where a massive earthquake has devastated Los Angeles, giving the film a kind of post-apocalyptic setting. Also the bad guy uses a machine to mutate the gang members working for him into grotesque monstrosities, with the character Abobo from the game being one such creature.

I admit I haven’t played all of the Double Dragon games, but were any of them like this?

Although Robert “The T-1000” Patrick has some fun as the villain, Double Dragon ultimately stumbles. It’s neither a good adaptation or a fun martial arts movie on its own.

Switching back to movie theaters, I saw Dreamworks Animation’s The Bad Guys. I already reviewed The Bad Guys, which was a lot of fun. Its story may not tread very original ground, but the animation is daring and creative. Definitely one to watch if you want something visually unique, or just a fun and humorous riff on gangster and heist movies.

For the final three movies of the month, we go back to the early days of video game adaptations. The first of these was Mortal Kombat from 1995.

Although video game movies have had a very rough history from the beginning, they had at least one gold nugget (okay, bronze) in their early years in the form of Mortal Kombat.

While Mortal Kombat may not be a technically great movie or anything, it was far ahead of other video game movies in that it gave fans want they came to see: this is very much a Mortal Kombat movie. And it’s fun.

All the characters from the original game make an appearance, and they fight. Like, a lot! Seriously, a good chunk of the middle act literally zips from one fight scene to the next. The fighting is cheesy and over-the-top, but in an entertaining way. Some fans lament that the violent “fatalities” weren’t present in the movie. But given how the series became too reliant on the violence later on, I feel like the movie’s relatively tame violence makes it stand out in the franchise. I also like how they decided to make Raiden, the god of thunder and lightning, the funny character of the film in addition to being the mentor.

The big complaint, of course, is how Mortal Kombat’s (incredibly abrupt) ending undoes the whole point of the movie. The whole premise is that the good guys have to win the Mortal Kombat tournament to prevent the emperor of Outworld from invading Earth. Spoiler alert (for a twenty-seven-year-old movie), the good guys win the tournament. But then the emperor comes through a portal to Earth in the last seconds of the film anyway. If you know the stories of the games, this does play into the sequel. But given that the emperor’s sudden appearance is unexplained in the movie, it comes across as a big middle finger to the plot. Yes, it’s eventually explained in Mortal Kombat Annihilation, but maybe the emperor’s emergence itself should have been saved for the sequel to give the first film a proper ending.

Mortal Kombat is a silly movie, but very much a Mortal Kombat movie. In a time when so many video game movies couldn’t even get that right, that was enough. And it’s still goofy fun.

“Unironically a magnificent final shot.”

Next up we have Street Fighter! Talk about a guilty pleasure! People use the term “so bad it’s good” a bit too liberally, but I think it’s a very apt description for the Street Fighter movie. It’s so bad, but so glorious.

Street Fighter is basically a cheesy military action movie combined with a cheesy martial arts movie, and it stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Guile and the late Raul Julia as M. Bison.

The film has some notable deviations from the source material, such as Guile being the main character, while Ryu and Ken are bumbling comic relief. I don’t mind that too much, since they basically just swapped the generic guy wearing a gi as the main character in favor of the generic military character (personally, I always thought Chun-Li should have been the main character of the series since she stands out far more). There’s also the infamous change of Zangief being a bad guy (an idea that Wreck-It Ralph would unknowingly accept as fact), but he does go good by the end. But overall, it’s a decently faithful adaptation of Street Fighter II. Certainly a better adaptation than the anime movie, and more entertaining too.

Of course, you can’t talk about the Street Fighter movie without mentioning that it was one of Raul Julia’s last film roles. Sadly, Julia’s health had been in decline, and accepted the role of M. Bison because his kids were fans of Street Fighter and wanted to give them something to enjoy as one of his last roles (an incredibly classy act on his part). But his health rapidly declined after production began, which greatly affected the physical training for the actors (they often didn’t even get to practice for their fight scenes until right before they shot them), which probably explains why the fights are nothing special. Raul Julia would sadly pass away not long after the movie was complete, with the film dedicated to his memory.

Raul Julia really gave it his all though. He knew exactly what kind of movie he was in and made the absolute best of it, hamming M. Bisom up to high heaven and creating a gloriously cheesy villain.

The rest of the film is also cheesy fun, with Jean-Claude Van Damme being an ironic highlight (and Ming-Na Wen as Chun-Li being a more genuine one). Capcom themselves clearly thought the movie was entertaining, sneaking in sly references to the movie in some of their games (like Chun-Li being a news reporter in Mega Man 9). Hell, the film even gave Ken his last name, Masters.

Street Fighter was released in theaters less than two months after Double Dragon, so it must have been something like a palette cleanser to video game fans back in 1994. Today, if you want to indulge in some “so bad it’s good” fun, Street Fighter is one of the best options. As is my final movie of the month…

I ended the month with the video game movie that started it all, Super Mario Bros. from 1993. Like Street Fighter, I consider Super Mario Bros. to be one of my great guilty pleasures, and a movie that’s so bad it’s good. Although Street Fighter probably has more genuinely praise-worthy elements, I still put Super Mario Bros. in the same boat because it is such a weird, surreal movie that it really does have to be seen to be believed.

Again, the Super Mario Bros. movie is a bad movie, but it is fascinating to behold. You may honestly ask yourself “what the hell am I watching?” when viewing it.

The film’s first slip-up was, of course, the fact that it’s live-action. How anyone could look at the Super Mario Bros. games, and decide live-action made any kind of sense for the series, I will surely never know. It’s perhaps no surprise then, that the film’s second great mistake is that it has virtually nothing to do with the games other than some of the character names (the film uses the Super Mario Bros. theme music during the opening title in what may be the most cruel tease in cinema history).

Granted, I stand by my past claims that early video game movies have a pretty decent excuse for their less-than ideal quality in that the video games of the time were so different from movies that adapting them for the silver screen would be difficult. And Super Mario Bros. was the first theatrical video game movie adaptation (there was a straight-to-video Mario anime in Japan previously), so it’s understandable that sailing such uncharted waters would be a difficult task for the movie. Now, I’m not excusing the Super Mario Bros. movie of its faults, but at least given the circumstances of the time, they make sense.

Some people complain about casting the late, great British actor Bob Hoskins as Mario and the Colombian actor John Leguizamo as Luigi, since the Mario Brothers are, you know, Italian. But honestly, Mario is such a cartoony character that I hardly think it matters (I also don’t mind Chris Pratt voicing Mario in the upcoming animated film). I’m more offended by the fact that they didn’t give Luigi a mustache. Plus, I think both actors do a fine job despite the rest of the movie, with Bob Hoskins in particular doing a great job at portraying a more realistic take on Mario as a plumber from Brooklyn. Though the fact that the film focuses so intensely on Mario’s occupation – which is little more than a tidbit in the video games – is telling of how poorly the movie understood the material.

“Pictured: Bowser and some Goombas. No, seriously.”

Oh yeah, and the film’s version of Bowser is President Koopa, portrayed by Dennis Hopper. The Goombas are really tall guys with tiny lizard heads for some reason. The film also uses the name Daisy for the princess (Princess Daisy having only appeared in Super Mario Land at the time), I suppose because the name Peach (or Toadstool) wasn’t realistic enough in a movie as grounded in reality as this. By the way, did I mention that the premise of the film is that the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs actually created a parallel universe where the dinosaurs evolved into humanoid beings, and Koopa wants the missing piece of the meteorite to merge the dimensions? So that’s fine, but the name Princess Toadstool is going too far.

Perhaps the most hilarious changes from the games are the little things, like how the Mario Bros. wear special shoes to allow them to jump high (because that really needed an explanation) or how, instead of overalls, the brothers Mario wind up wearing jumpsuits with color patterns that approximate their famous attire. Like, why couldn’t they even get the overalls right?

Even if you can somehow ignore the absolute mishandling of the Mario franchise, this movie would still be a weird fever dream of cinema. And yet, I can’t look away…

Alright, I’ve rambled long enough. Let’s dish out the usual awards so I can move on to some proper reviews (and maybe watch Street Fighter again).

Best Movie I Watched All Month *And* Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Go ahead and hate me, but I love these Sonic movies. The first one was a delightful surprise, being a legitimately good family movie that happens to star Sonic the Hedgehog. But the sequel is a full-fledged Sonic the Hedgehog movie, and the best video game movie yet made.

Obviously, Sonic 2 had a more difficult time winning over critics (but the reception was mostly positive). The fact the film is based on a video game probably had a lot of ‘professional’ critics making up their mind right off the bat, unfortunately. But for people who enjoy a little thing called “fun,” Sonic the Hedgehog 2 delivers that in droves.

Sonic 2 is terrific fun. Doubly so if you’re a fan of the source material (probably something else that turned most critics away. Can’t have fans being happy). It’s truer to the classic games than the Sonic games themselves have been in a very long time (with the exception of Sonic Mania). Who would have thought that the movie adaptations would be the best thing to happen to Sega’s flagship franchise in years?

Plus, it’s just nice to have this type of movie that has a tone, sense of humor and action scenes that don’t just ape the same stuff Marvel has been doing for a decade and a half (although the finale may come a bit close). And yes, I gave it a more glowing review than Spider-Man: No Way Home. I don’t regret that one bit.

Go ahead and hate me for praising this kids’ movie based on a video game. But it’s honest to goodness some of the most fun I’ve had with a movie in a long time.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Double Dragon

Whereas Sonic the Hedgehog 2 took video game movies to new heights, Double Dragon was something of an early low. It lacks the bungling insanity of Super Mario Bros. and doesn’t begin to compare to the glorious cheesiness of Street Fighter. So while those movies are the good kind of bad, Double Dragon isn’t so lucky.

I’ve seen worse movies (this is hardly even the worst movie to “win” in this category in the handful of months I’ve done these), and video game movies themselves would get much worse during the 2000s. But it’s safe to say that Double Dragon is pretty bad, and has less of the guilty pleasure factor of its contemporary video game movies.

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Super Mario Bros. and/or Street Fighter

“This is actually a good movie poster.”

Super Mario Bros. is a hilarious disaster of a movie. As I said, being the first (Hollywood) movie to adapt a video game was already an uphill battle, but Super Mario Bros. also had a slew of other production problems besides that. It’s really no wonder it ended up a mess. The fact that it seemed to actively avoid any semblance of faithfulness to the games it was adapting only adds a slew of other issues.

And yet, the film is so bonkers I can’t help but get a kick out of it. There are so many bizarre details in this movie: Like when the cop in the dinosaur world is questioning the Mario brothers, there’s a woman rubbing her high heel on the cop’s shoulder the whole time. What the hell is that about? There’s also the running gag of Koopa waiting for a pizza he ordered, which ultimately has no payoff.

Some people try to claim that, if you removed the Super Mario name from the equation, that this wouldn’t be too bad of a movie. But I disagree. As a fan of the Super Mario series, I think the film’s utter ineptitude at capturing even the most basic elements of the games (again, the Mario brothers don’t even have overalls) gives the picture a kind of pitiable charm akin to The Room. It’s a bad movie, but you root for it nonetheless. Take away the “Mario” element and it’s simply a bad movie.

With that said, it is obvious why Nintendo was reluctant to let anyone make another movie based on their games for the longest time (though there was an Animal Crossing anime film in 2006 which has strangely never been released outside of Japan). Nintendo didn’t let Hollywood anywhere near their franchises until Detective Pikachu in 2019. And now we have a brand-new Super Mario Bros. movie finally on the way. Although the fact that it’s being made by Illumination has me skeptical (and I hate that Seth Rogen is Donkey Kong), I’m still excited for it. Here’s hoping it learns a thing or two from the Sonic movies (and that may be the only time Mario needs to learn anything from Sonic).

Finally, how can the Street Fighter movie not put a smile on someone’s face? It is the epitome of dumb fun.

The whole movie is one big, goofy ride. Littered with cheesy dialogue and cheesier action, not to mention Jean-Claude Van Damme struggling to deliver his lines. But it’s the efforts of Raul Julia that ascend Street Fighter to glorious ridiculousness.

Double Dragon may have been squeezed in the middle of them, but it really was fitting that Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter were among the earliest video game movies. It’s just appropriate that two games of such iconic stature would be adapted before any others. You can complain about their execution all you want, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way than have Mario and Street Fighter be the first video game movie adaptations.

These movies really are two sides of the same coin. Take that as you will.


That’s all folks!

I’ve rambled quite long enough (again). So let’s put this one in the books and call it a day. I don’t know if I’ll write another “My Month in Movies” soon. But I said that before and I’ve done a few since then, so I guess we’ll see. As always, I hope you had a fun read.

Take care!

The Bad Guys Review

The Bad Guys is the latest film from Dreamworks Animation, based on a series of children’s graphic novels by Australian author Aaron Blabey. While Dreamworks Animation has a tendency to greenlight seemingly any idea that enters their doorway just to see what sticks, the good thing is that every now and again one does stick. The Bad Guys is thankfully one of those ones that sticks! Though the story is nothing groundbreaking for animated features, its terrific animation and art direction, and zany sense of humor elevate it.

The Bad Guys tells the story of a group of, well, bad guys: Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson) and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), a band of thieves who continue to pull off big heists and elude the authorities.

When new governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) insults the Bad Guys on the local news, Wolf decides to pull their biggest heist to cement their legacy. A local philanthropist, a guinea pig named Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), is going to be awarded the Golden Dolphin for his countless charitable deeds. So Wolf and the gang plan to sneak into the gala and steal the Dolphin as their biggest score to date.

During the heist, Wolf inadvertently saves an old woman from falling down some stairs (he was trying to grab her purse), with the woman’s praises thereafter warming Wolf’s heart. Distracted, Wolf accidently blows the operation, and the Bad Guys are finally caught. But Wolf manages to charm his way out of jail time by appealing to Professor Marmalade’s good nature, with Governor Foxington agreeing to let Marmalade train the Bad Guys to become “the Good Guys.” Wolf explains to the gang know that it’s all part of the ultimate con, to pretend to go good as a cover as to remain bad and steal the Dolphin, much to the delight of the rest of the group (except Snake, the “baddest” of the bunch, who is hesitant with the idea). But remembering how good he felt when helping the old woman, Wolf begins to wonder if a life of bad is the life he actually wants.

Although the story has its charms, it does kind of feel like we’ve gone through a time machine back to the early 2010s, when the idea of “bad guys going good” was pretty common in animated features. Despicable Me, Wreck-It Ralph and Dreamworks’ own Megamind were all variations on the premise (Wreck-It Ralph being the one that’s stood tall against the test of time). Heck, you could even argue that Shrek kind of had a similar setup all the way back in 2001. Point being, The Bad Guys’s plot isn’t exactly sailing uncharted waters, but it makes up for a lack of originality in its story in other areas.

First and foremost is the animation. Rather than going the traditional route of CG animation or Dreamworks’ usual character designs, The Bad Guys merges CG characters with hand-drawn sensibilities (a trait also recently seen in Pixar’s Turning Red) and seems to be drawing from a wide range of influences. There’s obviously a very cartoony, Looney Tunes vibe, but also with a dash of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball or Dr. Slump. It’s a terrific film to look at, with a fluidity and zaniness to the character’s movements that evokes the best slapstick animation. I especially like the human police chief Misty Luggins (Alex Borstein), who kind of looks like Wreck-It Ralph, and stomps and punches around the place as she pursues the Bad Guys.

Another highlight is the film’s sense of humor. Not only does The Bad Guys boast some great cartoonish antics and gags, but also some fun spoofs on gangster and heist films. Nothing too upfront (thankfully), but there’s some fun homages that are subtle enough to make them cleverer than if they did the Shrek approach of obvious parody (Tarantino’s filmography and the Oceans films seem like favorite targets for the film). What’s impressive is that The Bad Guys never feels like a kids’ movie trying to win over the older crowd. It simply delivers the humor inherent in its story and characters, which should appeal to audiences of any age. It feels natural and works seamlessly.

There are admittedly some pacing issues in the film’s middle act, with some major aspects of the plot kind of rushing by in order for the film to make another twist or turn in the story. In all honesty, these twists are mostly fun, though the biggest ones are probably also the most obvious. It would be nice if the film had a slightly longer running time, so that these twists didn’t come at the expense of what was previously being built up. But it’s ultimately a small price to pay for how entertaining The Bad Guys otherwise is.

The Bad Guys is the kind of movie that I think any audience will have fun with. It’s exciting, funny, action-packed, well-acted and visually inspired. It may not be among the deeper animated films of recent memory, and it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of, say, a Pixar movie. But not every animated film has to. Sometimes a fun, entertaining movie is more than enough. And The Bad Guys delivers just that.

7

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Review

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the best video game movie ever made. I know, that’s not exactly a high hurdle to jump, but rest assured it was intended as a compliment without a hint of irony.

The past few years have seen video game movies give more of an effort to be, y’know, good. 2019’s Detective Pikachu, and 2021’s Mortal Kombat reboot were both solid movies that, despite their flaws, were enjoyable and paid respect to their source material. Although the Uncharted movie released just a few months ago may have missed the mark, it still at least gave an effort. The best of this recent resurgence of video game movies was 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog, which – along with the original 1995 Mortal Kombat film – was probably one of the top two video game movies. But Sonic the Hedgehog 2 betters its predecessor both as a movie, and as a love letter to the video games that inspired it, creating the first great video game movie.

Some film snobs may take offense to that statement. But as someone who can appreciate the value of a little thing called fun, I will happily tell you that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 delivers just that, and in spades. It’s great fun. Tremendous fun.

The story here is that the titular Sonic the Hedgehog (Ben Schwartz) has settled into his new home in the small town of Green Hills, Montana with Sherrif Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter). Trying to find his place in the world, Sonic has been doing some moonlighting as a crime-fighter, but is a bit reckless and sloppy at it. Tom thinks Sonic needs to learn to be more responsible before he can become a hero, and leaves Sonic in charge of the house as a test in responsibility, while he and Maddie go to Hawaii for Maddie’s sister’s wedding.

Naturally, this is when things go wrong. Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey) has managed to escape his isolation on the mushroom planet with the help of Knuckles the Echidna (Idris Elba). Knuckles wishes to retrieve the Master Emerald – an artifact of infinite power once protected by the Echidnas – to honor the legacy of his tribe, and believes Sonic knows of the Emerald and its location. Robotnik, of course, is merely using Knuckles to claim the Emerald for himself (with revenge on Sonic being a nice bonus).

While Knuckles’ strength and Robotnik’s intelligence are too much for Sonic to handle alone, the blue hedgehog gets a partner of his own in the form of Miles “Tails” Prower (Colleen O’Shaughnessey), a two-tailed fox who idolizes Sonic after tracking the events of the first film. And so the race to find the Master Emerald is on, pitting Sonic and Tails against Knuckles and Dr. Robotnik.

As any longtime Sonic fan could tell you, despite the film being called Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the plot is actually based on the video games Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. There are some alterations that may upset overly literal fans (Knuckles trying to find the Master Emerald as opposed to already being its guardian, for example), but the movie can’t be exactly the same as the games. As someone whose formative years coincided with those of the Sonic franchise, I was constantly delighted by Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s faithfulness to the video games (which doesn’t simply feel like fanservice, but a genuine love for the series itself).

While I really enjoy the first Sonic film, it does in retrospect feel like it compromised a bit, playing like a 90s-style family comedy with Sonic, Robotnik and a few elements of the series sprinkled throughout. But now that it proved a success, it really feels like the gloves are off for this sequel, and it’s allowed to be a full-blooded, true blue Sonic the Hedgehog movie. Not only do we have the additions of Knuckles and Tails (the latter admittedly showed up mid-credits in the first film), and Jim Carrey actually looking like Robotnik now (as opposed to Jim Carrey with a mustache), but you also have the storyline from the games, and countless references, winks and nods to the series throughout. And not just references to the games, but even the old cartoons and comic books as well.

“The front for Dr. Robotnik’s continued operations is a coffee shop called “The Mean Bean.” Now THAT is a reference.”

The funny thing is that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is, in many ways, truer to the video games than the games themselves have been for a very long time (exception being Sonic Mania). This is particularly true of the four core characters of the franchise: Sonic himself is wonderfully realized both in animation (we’ve come a long way from that first trailer for the original movie) and in Schwartz’s vocals, while Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik (my favorite movie villain of the past few years) is still a show-stealer. The addition of Tails (and O’Shaughnessey) adds some extra heart to the proceedings. And importantly, I feel like the film (and Idris Elba) have redeemed Knuckles as a character, resurrecting his badass strength and determination (while still bringing humor out of his naivety) after the games demoted him to the bumbling doofus of the series once Shadow the Hedgehog pointlessly stole his role as Sonic’s rival two decades ago.

That’s not to say that Sonic 2 is exclusively for the hardcore crowd, and left fans of the first movie out in the cold. Something I greatly appreciated about Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was how it performs a balancing act between being a fantasy adventure more in line with the games and still having the family comedy vibe of the first film.

I was concerned that the newfound fanservice may have meant the characters introduced in the first film would be swept under the rug and awkwardly forgotten. But if anything, those characters now feel more important to the overall Sonic mythology. Characters like Maddie’s sister Rachel (Natasha Rothwell), Green Hills’ dimwitted deputy Wade Whipple (Adam Pally) and Robotnik’s thankless assistant Stone (Lee Majdoub) now have bigger parts in the story. And while Tails is now at his rightful place by Sonic’s side, Tom and Maddie play a new role in the story as Sonic’s surrogate parents.

This is where Sonic the Hedgehog 2 actually surprised me. In the first film, Tom basically played an older brother role to Sonic, trying to keep the hedgehog’s juvenile antics in check. But now Sonic has to learn to be more responsible, as he’s now playing the role of big brother to Tails. Not only does this lead to some genuinely heartwarming moments, but it also cleverly builds on the characters, their relationships, and what they learned in the first film. Wow. I can honestly say I didn’t expect Sonic 2 to be the kind of sequel that would connect and grow the narrative of the first film. So that was a pleasant surprise.

I admit, there are a few moments where the film does lose some of its balance with its aforementioned two halves, which results in some pacing issues (including one scene that resolves a subplot that goes on a bit long, entertaining though the scene may be). But for the most part, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 succeeds in being both an organic follow-up to the original film while also being a more faithful adaptation of the games.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 retains the sense of humor of the first movie (including some nice callbacks to that film’s best gags without simply repeating them), which apparently hasn’t sat well with some fans (who probably take the series a little too seriously). But I personally find it to be good family comedy that reminds me of the old Sonic cartoons from my youth. I’d rather see the Sonic series be intentionally goofy like these movies over unintentionally hilarious like the more “serious” and cinematic games in the series ended up being. And it’s just nice to see a blockbuster in this day and age that doesn’t simply use the same brand of humor that Marvel has been utilizing for way too long now.

It isn’t all jokes though. While Sonic 2 shares its predecessor’s humor, it completely outshines it with action sequences. Again, the first Sonic film felt a little restrained, which was echoed in its action scenes. They were fun, but small-scale and sparse. Sonic the Hedgehog 2, however, seems to (once again) take inspiration from the games for its action set pieces, resulting in a more satisfying action movie. Though the finale may feel a bit too close to that of a Marvel movie (so Sonic avoided that pitfall in one area, but not another).

There’s a lot to love about Sonic the Hedgehog 2, even if you aren’t overly familiar with the games. But it does feel – more so than any video game movie before it – like it rewards fans of the franchise. This may sound like the biggest cliche, but watching Sonic the Hedgehog 2 honestly made me feel like a kid again. Not just because of the (often deep cut) callbacks and references, but because of its honest-to-goodness love of the series it’s adapting. A lot of franchises these days are suffering because the people behind the camera are using said franchises to promote themselves, as opposed to coming from a place of love for the material. So it’s nice to see a series give back to its fans for a change, instead of taking from them.

I will admit (without spoiling anything), the mid-credits teaser has me a bit concerned for the future direction of these Sonic movies (as does Jim Carrey’s talks of possible retirement, since he’s now as vital to these movies as Dr. Robotnik himself is to the series as a whole). But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

For now, let’s all appreciate this moment, and enjoy Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The first great video game movie.

8

My Month in Movies (March 2022)

Here we are again!

I know I said I wasn’t going to do another one of these for a while, but I changed my mind, I guess. Another “My Month in Movies” bit. It gave me another opportunity to praise Turning Red some more. In the illustrious words of Doctor Emmett Brown, “what the hell?”

I didn’t watch a whole lot of movies this month. Only eight. On the plus side, that gives me all the more reason to try to make this edition of My Month in Movies a bit shorter. Allow me to pull myself away from Elden Ring and Kirby and the Forgotten Land for a few minutes and let’s hop to it!

I watched the following eight movies during March 2022 (movies with asterisks are ones I watched for the very first time).

Sleepless in Seattle

You’ve Got Mail

When Harry Met Sally

The Kid (1921)*

Free Guy

Finding Nemo

Turning Red*

The Batman*

No real theme this month. Though the first three films share some DNA, and two of them are Pixar films.

Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally were all romantic comedies written by the late Nora Ephron, while the first two were also directed by her (When Harry Met Sally was of course directed by Rob Reiner). All three of which have Meg Ryan as the female lead, while the first two have Tom Hanks as the male lead (When Harry Met Sally has Billy Crystal instead, which seems really weird for a romantic comedy, but it’s considered one of the most influential examples of the genre so, hey, what do I know?).

Although this type of movie definitely differs from my usual interest (there’s no wizards in this movie?!), I actually genuinely enjoy all three of them. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have great chemistry, and Billy Crystal adds some sharp wit and adlibbed humor to When Harry Met Sally (although at times the character’s know-it-all attitude can be a bit much). Call them cheesy all you want, they’re entertaining movies. I do have to laugh at You’ve Got Mail’s dated computer/internet references though (hey, it was 1998).

After that I watched the classic 1921 silent film, The Kid, starring Charlie Chaplin in his iconic role of “the Tramp” (it meant something different back then!), one of the most influential characters in cinema history. The entertainment value has held up really well (Charlie Chaplin was basically a living cartoon character), as has some of the film’s more poignant scenes, though there are some uncomfortable moments early on when the Tramp finds an abandoned baby boy and contemplates leaving him on the street or in a sewer grate for a brief moment. Yikes…

Overall, a really good movie though. The Tramp ends up raising the kid, but because he’s poor he’s looked down on as being unfit to do so. So there’s some commentary in there as well. But it’s the genius slapstick that really makes it standout.

Entering more modern territory, I watched Free Guy again! I already reviewed this one, but it’s the 2021 film where Ryan Reynolds plays a video game NPC who becomes self-aware and begins to realize he’s in a video game. To my pleasant surprise, I found I enjoyed it even more this second time around. It was probably the funniest movie I saw last year, except maybe The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. It’s a lot of fun. Though I still wish it gave its references to real games like Mega Man, Portal and Half-Life the same pomp and circumstance it gives its movie shoutouts…

Next up was Finding Nemo, one of the most important movies to come out of the 2000s. I like to think of Finding Nemo as the movie that made Pixar, well, Pixar. Sure, Toy Story was revolutionary, Toy Story 2 was basically perfect, and Monsters, Inc. was charming to high heaven (also, A Bug’s Life was there), but I think Finding Nemo solidified Pixar’s place in animation history. It – and later, The Incredibles – were the Pixar movies that became pop culture phenomenon, and that everyone could quote by heart (I remember people making plenty of references to them in online games back in the day). Although it may not be my favorite Pixar movie, I do feel very grateful to Finding Nemo. I think its influence came at a time when most animation studios were banking off the cynicism and dated parodies spawned by Shrek (it was a dark time). Thankfully, Finding Nemo’s influence ultimately won the war, resulting in the far more thoughtful, sincere and insightful animated films we’ve seen in the 2010s to today.

Pixar’s classic about a clownfish searching the entire ocean for his son remains a classic. Its (strangely underrated) sequel is almost just as good.

Now we get to Pixar’s most recent feature, Turning Red! I also reviewed this one recently, and suffice to say, I loved it! I think it’s the best movie Pixar has made in the past few years. And the best Pixar movie that wasn’t helmed by one of the studio’s original team of filmmakers. That’s actually a pretty big feat, since it seems like animation studios in particular can have a hard time finding the right new blood to carry their mantle (even Studio Ghibli hit some road bumps with their younger directors… although now with that said, Whisper of the Heart – the first theatrical Ghibli film not by Miyazaki or Takahata – is pretty amazing. But now I’m getting sidetracked).

What makes Turning Red work so well is that it has a voice of its own, while still retaining the heart that Pixar is renowned for. It doesn’t simply try to mimic Pixar’s past but does something new with the Pixar legacy. And it’s great fun!

Finally, I managed to see The Batman in theaters. Like The Suicide Squad last year, The Batman continues the weird, modern trend of throwing the word “the” into the title of a previous movie for a sequel/reboot. I don’t get it. But the movie itself was surprisingly good.

I know it’s become popular on the internet to claim Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are “overrated” or whatever, but I still hold them as the benchmark for Batman/DC films (the first two, anyway, although I think The Dark Knight Rises is better than it often gets credit for). Although I don’t think The Batman reaches those heights, it probably is the best non-Nolan Batman film. For one thing, Batman doesn’t blatantly kill people like he did in Batman V. Superman, so right away that’s a bonus.

Robert Pattinson made a great Batman (and Bruce Wayne, for the five-ish minutes he appeared as the Dark Knight’s alter ego), and he was complimented by Zoë Kravitz Catwoman. I also like how the film really emphasized the detective aspect of Batman more so than past films, and that it went the route of Batman Begins by having a small handful of different villains, the best of which was an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as the Penguin.

I do, however, have mixed feelings about its version of the Riddler. He just doesn’t really seem like the Riddler. I get that they wanted a more gritty and less ridiculous movie (so no Jim Carrey), and in some respects the character worked. But I don’t know, something felt off. Maybe it was the fact that he was a conspiracy theorist who was somehow actually right about things, or maybe it was the weird way he was dead serious for much of the film, and then delivers an out-of-nowhere joke late in the movie. Or maybe it was that he was basically the Joker. But I have mixed feelings on this Riddler. Maybe I’ll actually review The Batman soon and delve into it more.

Also, I do have to say (minor spoiler, but I think we all saw this coming), I’m actually kind of bummed that the film teases the Joker as the next villain. I know, he’s Batman’s archnemesis and one of the most iconic villains of all time, yadda yadda yadda. But given that we just had an entire movie dedicated to the Joker in 2019, as well as Heath Ledger’s acclaimed take on the character in The Dark Knight, it kind of feels like we should start giving other Batman villains the time to shine. Sure, this film has Riddler, but a Riddler who is suspiciously Joker-esque. And it hypes up Joker for the sequel in the end anyway (which Batman Begins already did). Wouldn’t it be cool if Scarecrow or Two-Face could get that kind of hype for once? I don’t know, maybe it’s just the ludicrous amount of Batman continuities we have going on in movies and TV over the past few years, but I kind of want to see another villain in the role of big bad for once. You can only reboot a franchise so many times in a few short years before certain characters start to lose their mystique and, well, there it is.

But, overall, I actually thought The Batman was very good. Again, let’s wait for a proper review before I delve deeper.

Anyway, on to the awards!

Best Movie I Watched All Month *AND* Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Turning Red

This is the first time since I’ve written these things that the same movie won my “Movie of the Month” and “Best Movie I Watched for the First Time” honors. So I figured I’d lump ’em together, rather than writing this twice. Or something.

Turning Red is simply an utter delight. It’s the funniest movie Pixar has ever made, and their most delightfully weird as well. It’s basically a reimagined coming-of-age story, about a weird, awkward kid entering puberty and facing the changes that come with it. But in the case of Meilin Lee, that also means transforming into a giant red panda when she gets too excited.

There’s also a delightful (and rare) specificity to it: It’s set during 2002, when the boy band craze was still strong. It’s about a Chinese family living in Toronto, and the culture shock that comes with it. It just feels so unique to see an animated film that’s this specific with the story and setting.

On the surface, Turning Red is the most chaotic and hyperactive Pixar movie (and it’s funny as hell for it). But look deeper and you’ll find an incredibly smart, witty, insightful movie about growing up and embracing change. It’s a beautiful story, brought to equally beautiful life with some of Pixar’s best, most stylized animation to date.

If Turning Red (and director Domee Shi) represent the future of Pixar, well then Pixar’s future is in safe and secure hands.

Seriously, don’t be surprised if I bring this movie up a lot going forward. I can’t get enough of it.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: N/A

Sorry folks, nothing to really hate on this month. True, not all the movies I watched were equals, but I still think they’re all good movies. As such, it would feel wrong to label any of them as the “worst” and give them the same dishonor I’ve given to such schlock as Netflix’s Bright and Jaws: The Revenge. Sorry.

The Guilty Pleasure Award: You’ve Got Mail (I guess)

I mean, I feel guilty about calling this a guilty pleasure. But I guess there are some cheesy moments, and as previously mentioned, the 1998 “computer talk” definitely dates the movie. But I think it’s a sweet rom-com. So sue me. And don’t tell me you don’t get just a little choked up at the end. Excuse me, I have something in my eye!


That’s all folks! Like I said, not a whole lot of movies this month, and I had been wanting to make these My Month in Movies shorter anyway. But as usual, I hope you had a fun read, that you were maybe mildly entertained, or gained interest in any of these movies.

As usual, take care, stay safe, and may we all have a good month ahead of us.

Turning Red Review

Turning Red is a Pixar movie quite unlike any other that has come before it. The feature film debut for director Domee Shi (who previously directed the 2018 short “Bao”), Turning Red takes the emotional core of Pixar films, and combines it with a coming-of-age story about puberty, culture clash, and a love letter to the early 2000s. The end result at once feels like a personal story on Shi’s part, as well as Pixar’s funniest and weirdest film to date.

Uniquely set during 2002, Turning Red tells the story of Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year-old Chinese girl living in Toronto, Canada. Mei is obsessed with the boy band 4Town, an obsession she shares with her friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park). But Mei is rarely able to see her friends anymore, as she helps her strict mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), in running the family temple. That is when she isn’t working hard to get straight As to keep her mother happy. The fact that Ming disapproves of Mei’s friends and musical interests makes things all the more difficult, to say nothing of Mei’s growing interest in boys.

Ming discovers that Mei has developed a crush on an older boy, leading to a particularly embarrassing situation for Mei. This proves too much for her to handle, and the next morning, Mei awakes to find she has transformed into a giant red panda! Calming her emotions transforms her back into her human self (now sporting red hair), but whenever Mei gets too excited, she transforms back into the red panda.

It turns out that Mei’s family has a spiritual connection to red pandas, and every female member of her family goes through the transformation when they reach a certain age. There is a ritual that can be performed to seal away the red panda spirit, but it can only be done during a Red Moon, the next of which is still a month away. In the meantime, Mei will have to try to keep her emotions in check if she doesn’t want to unleash the panda and cause a ruckus. But that’s much easier said than done when going through puberty and always trying to be perfect for an overbearing mother. To further complicate things, 4Town will be having a concert in Toronto a week before the ritual!

The plot may sound silly, but it’s in the best way possible. Turning Red has a lot of fun not just in the scenario of Mei’s transformation, but also in its setting. I think this is the first Pixar film to directly mention its time period (The Incredibles was vaguely set in the 1960s, while some others were in the non-specific present day of their release). And boy, does Turning Red love to flaunt its love of the early 2000s! Not only is its depiction of boy band culture equal parts homage and spoof, but Mei also carries a Tamagotchi, we get glimpses of VHS tapes and DVDs, and we even get to hear a snippet of The Cha Cha Slide by DJ Casper. Suffice to say Turning Red has a lot of fun reveling in its nostalgia for the time. It’s so 2002 that the only things missing are references to Playstation 2 and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

Something else you’ve probably deduced from the plot synopsis is that Mei’s transformation occurring the same time she’s hitting puberty is certainly no coincidence. In fact, the first time Mei transforms into the panda she hides from her parents, who mistakenly believe Mei has just had her first period. The film is wonderfully honest and unapologetic with such subjects. It’s as much about Mei’s body changing in a natural way as it is about her changing in a supernatural way. And it works so effortlessly you wonder why past children’s films have been so skittish to tackle such subjects (it should be noted that Turning Red never actually uses words such as “period” while still making the subject overt which, as Seinfeld taught us, makes things all the funnier).

It’s also fun to see a Pixar movie focus on a clash of cultures. Mei is fully respectful to her Chinese heritage and traditions, but her love of boy bands and the youth culture of Toronto baffles her mother, creating a bigger rift between the two.

I’ve heard some people say these elements “don’t feel like a Pixar movie.” But that’s exactly what I love about Turning Red. It feels so different from anything else Pixar has made while (crucially) still retaining the heart and emotion the studio’s storytelling is known for. If anything, the differences Turning Red makes to Pixar’s norms is the greatest testament to the quality of Pixar movies that we’ve seen in quite some time. Turning Red is proud to be a Pixar film, but it’s also rebellious and unafraid to do its own thing within the Pixar canon.

This is seen in the animation itself. Turning Red retains the top-notch computer animation of Pixar but fuses it with anime influences and additional hand-drawn effects to make it look unique among its Pixar peers. Pixar’s characters have never been more exaggerated or expressive than they are in Turning Red, which leads to some great visual comedy. The character designs themselves are simple, but fun and memorable. The whole movie just pops with color. It’s a constant visual delight.

Turning Red is the most fun and original Pixar movie in quite some time. Domee Shi seems to have infused the film with her own personal experiences and humor, which gives the film a unique tone and overall feel among Pixar features. This is, after all, the only Pixar film in which The Simpsons is referenced, and in which the characters say words like “crap.” Where it falls in the echelon of Pixar greats is beside the point, because Turning Red is so busy doing its own thing that it’s basically in its own, separate category.

I was gutted when Disney announced Turning Red would be the third Pixar film in a row to be skipping theaters and heading straight to Disney+. I would have loved to have seen it on the big screen. On the plus side, being on Disney’s streaming service will make repeat viewings that much easier. And this is the kind of movie you’ll want to watch over and over again.

Turning Red is sweet, emotional, hilarious (I’ve never laughed harder at a Pixar movie), sometimes surreal and always charming. It’s Pixar’s best film of the last few years. It’s so much fun.

My Month in Movies (January 2022)

Looks like I’m doing “My Month in Movies” again. I feel I watched enough movies in the first month of 2022 to warrant another one. And the movies mostly followed the specific theme of ‘fantasy’ – which I like to think is something of a speciality of mine – so it made sense. Even more specifically, I rewatched the entire Harry Potter series again (Fantastic Beasts and all), partly because Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (what a title) comes out in a couple of months, and partly because I started the year watching that retrospective special on the Harry Potter movies’ twentieth anniversary on HBO Max, so I was feeling nostalgic for them. I’m glad I did, because I feel it rekindled my interest in the series, and even gave me new appreciation for it. I would like to review all of the Harry Potter movies someday, and perhaps sooner still make a ranking of them. But I have so many backlogged things I want to write as it is, so for now, they can be a part of this My Month in Movies.

Because ‘My Month in Movies’ has gotten ridiculously long in the past, I’m going to try and keep things as short and simple as possible. And due to the aforementioned backlog of reviews and other things, I don’t plan on doing another My Month in Movies for February or March. But then again, I only decided to write this one for January after I watched the entire Harry Potter series, so who knows. I’ll write them when I write them, I guess.

Enough intros and wasting time. Here are the eighteen movies I watched in January of 2022, in chronological order of when I watched them. Movies with asterisks next to them are ones I watched for the very first time.

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts*

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald

The BFG*

Bram Stoker’s Dracula*

Hook

It Follows

Labyrinth

Wild Wild West*

The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild*


So yeah, ‘fantasy’ was definitely the name of the game this month. There are a couple of horror movies in there, but both would still ultimately fall under fantasy in one way or another (many people consider fantasy, horror and science fiction to be like different branches of the same tree. But I’d argue that fantasy is the tree itself, considering it supersedes the other two in terms of concept whenever it’s joined together with them. For example, when science-fiction dabbles into fantasy, it becomes science-fantasy. But when fantasy dabbles in science fiction, it’s still fantasy). You could even argue that Wild Wild West and The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild could be considered variations of fantasy.

My month/year in movies began with Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts. You could argue it isn’t actually a movie, but it’s feature length and certainly entertaining, so I’m counting it here. A lovely look back on twenty years of Harry Potter movies. I was actually surprised how emotional I got during it. I’ve taken some jabs at Harry Potter here and there in the past, namely because people often (and strangely) compared it to The Lord of the Rings back in the day. And well, that was always a losing battle. But deep down I’ve always loved Harry Potter, despite some narrative shortcomings. And this 20 year retrospective reminded me of why I love it. It was great that the Harry Potter books got kids reading again (there have been other popular book series for children and young adults since, none of which are as indelible). And then you have the movies giving a generation of audiences a gateway to imagination and magic (figurative and literal, in this case).

I definitely have to appreciate the magic and world-building of the Harry Potter series, which feels all the more unique in retrospect now that movies aren’t allowed to have magic anymore (if Harry Potter took place in the MCU, every time someone casted a spell they’d have to stop and explain how it “wasn’t really magic, but a really advanced science”). The series is sometimes too loose with its rules, with magic seemingly changing for plot convenience. But for the most part, it’s well done and imaginative. And again, I’ll take it over the alternative of over-explaining fantasy elements or being embarrassed by them (again, I’m looking at you, MCU).

Something the 20th anniversary special really brought to my attention is how the Harry Potter series appropriately matures as it goes on. It’s maybe the only movie series in which you see its main stars grow up throughout it. Obviously I was aware of that, but I never really gave it much thought until watching the special. The fact that they were able to adapt all seven books (into eight movies) with the same cast over the course of a decade is quite the unique achievement.

The first two Harry Potter features, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, feel more like kids’ movies than the others. Both were directed by Chris Columbus (he did Home Alone, among others), whose work with the series I feel is under appreciated. Some applaud the first two movies in the series as being the most faithful to the books, while others feel the series hadn’t yet found its voice, and that they’re too long given they’re targeted at a younger audience. I think both movies are pretty great, even if it’s obvious the three leads hadn’t quite meshed into the roles yet (which is forgivable, given their ages at the time). They’re great fantasy-adventure movies for kids that are equally entertaining for adults. I think Chris Columbus set a great tone for the start of the series. And we can’t forget the score by John Williams! Because having done Star Wars and Spielberg’s filmography wasn’t enough, John Williams also gave us the music to Harry Potter as well. What a legend.

The third film in the series, Prisoner of Azkaban, is often regarded as the best of the lot, and rightfully so. Azkaban isn’t simply a great Harry Potter movie or a great fantasy movie. It’s a great movie, period. It’s more grown up than its two predecessors, but still retains their more playful spirit (something some of the sequels lack). It also has perhaps the most self-contained story, and certainly the most character-driven one. It ended up being the only Harry Potter film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and the last one to feature music by John Williams.

Goblet of Fire is the first notable dip in the series, but it certainly isn’t bad. Admittedly, some of that dip is simply because Azkaban was so good. But it also feels like most of Goblet’s story is just padding to get to the ending, when the evil Lord Voldemort is resurrected. It’s hard to explain, but the ending of the film feels like the start of a new series (which I guess makes sense, since Voldemort’s resurrection marks the biggest tonal and narrative shift in the series). It doesn’t really feel like an ending to the story of the rest of the movie. And I always found it a bit weird how, after the elaborate plots Voldemort attempted to be resurrected in Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, he just has one of his minions perform a dark ritual to successfully be brought back. Seems like he could have saved himself some trouble by jumping straight into that. Goblet was the only Harry Potter film directed by Mike Newell before David Yates took over the rest of the series (which continues to this day with the Fantastic Beasts movies).

Order of the Phoenix is probably the Harry Potter movie I’ve seen the most times (except maybe Sorcerer’s Stone), although I don’t really know why. It’s a good movie, but I think it only occasionally reaches the same heights as the first three. I guess, with Voldemort back, the story had to change. I just don’t think the change is always for the better (perhaps it’s no coincidence that I and many others hold Azkaban in such high regard and it also happens to be the most Voldemort-free entry?). It’s still a fun movie, and gives us the franchise’s most gloriously hatable character in the form of Dolores Umbridge. With David Yates’ grip on the series starting here, Phoenix set the tone for the rest of the films to follow.

Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate story in the series. I never read the book for this one, which is sometimes considered the best book in the series. The movie seems to have a rockier reputation, and again, I tend to agree. Before my current run-through of the Harry Potter movies, I had only seen Half-Blood Prince once, back when it was in theaters. At the time, I would have said it was my least favorite Harry Potter movie, but now it’s a toss-up between it and Goblet of Fire (unless we count the Fantastic Beasts movies, in which case we all know The Crimes of Grindlewald takes the dubious crown with ease). Like Goblet of Fire, it’s not a bad movie, it just feels like something is missing. There are some great, key moments for the franchise here. But on the whole, it just isn’t as memorable as some of the other movies in the series. I also never really bought into the Hermione/Ron romance (something which J.K. Rowling herself regrets), and that enters the forefront here. Said romance also seems oddly placed given the severity of everything else going on (or maybe it’s just because I’m a predominantly asexual individual so teen romance is lost on me). Again, not a bad movie, but the series can do better.

Somewhat annoyingly, Harry Potter started that trend we saw in the early 2010s of a franchise finale being split into two movies with Deathly Hallows (technically, The Hobbit started the trend when it was set to be split in two a while beforehand, despite being released after both Deathly Hallows. Though The Hobbit was ultimately spread too thin with three movies). In all fairness, at least Harry Potter was a big enough franchise that splitting its finale felt warranted.

Deathly Hallows: Part 1 set the stage for a big, epic finale. And for the most part, it succeeds. I think my two big issues with Deathly Hallows are that some of the notable character deaths happen off-screen (apparently these same deaths happened off-page in the book, so this is on Rowling), and that I think the whole storyline with Voldemort’s Horcruxes (cursed objects that contain pieces of his soul thus leaving him immortal) needed to be a little more spread out. The first Horcrux is taken care of all the way back in Chamber of Secrets, which makes sense and gives that story even more importance. But then when Harry and Dumbledore find another Horcrux in Half-Blood Prince, it needlessly turns out to be a fake, so a good deal of Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is dealing with that same Horcrux. It seems like the one Harry and Dumbledore found in Half-Blood Prince should have just been the real thing and destroyed then and there so the story could move on to the rest of the Horcruxes.

Anyway, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a highly entertaining movie that fittingly feels like a big deal, even when watching it today. But I think that Part 2 is even better.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is one of the best franchise closers in movie history. The sense of drama and urgency feels well earned, the emotion is strong, and it all boils down to an appropriately epic finale. And it has the best music in the series since John Williams left it behind. This is another great movie. Not nearly as standalone as Azkaban, nor does it have that film’s hard to describe ‘dreamlike’ quality. But because it’s such a satisfying end to the series, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 might be my second favorite Harry Potter movie (guess we’ll see when I finally decide to rank the series). I have a lingering complaint from Part 1 with the continuing trend of off-screen character deaths (for some of them I understand it. Harry can’t be present for every character death. But some of the more important characters’ deaths make it feel like Rowling started killing them off just to do it, since they happen off-screen). Though my complaint that’s unique to Part 2 is that – and I admit this may seem weird – there’s not a whole lot that happens after the final battle and before the epilogue. Basically, I think there needed to be more ending. Not necessarily a better ending, since I feel the ending is fine. Just more of it.

People love to joke that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has multiple endings. But I never took issue with any of them. They all gave an appropriate sense of finality to one of cinema’s great franchises. And I think Harry Potter could have done something similar. I would have liked to have seen more of the characters in detail after the final battle and before the epilogue. This is a series that earned the “never-ending endings” treatment. So it’s a shame it doesn’t get it. Otherwise, a great movie, and a prime example of how to close out a movie series.

Now we move on to the Fantastic Beasts series, a prequel/spinoff of Harry Potter exclusive to the world of movies (okay, there was a book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” but from what I gather it was more like a guide of fictional animals within the Harry Potter universe, as opposed to the story we see in the movie series). Prequels released after a beloved franchise has wrapped up don’t exactly have the best track record. And well, Fantastic Beasts hasn’t exactly done a great job at bucking that trend.

Okay, so the first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is okay. It doesn’t do anything really great, but it’s fun and introduces us to some entertaining new characters like Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and the Muggle/No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the first non-magic main character in the series (something that proves to be a lot of fun) as well as the first American actor/main character in the franchise.

Fantastic Beasts is a solidly enjoyable movie that is at once nostalgic for the Harry Potter of yesteryear, while also showing audiences different aspects of that world. And in a move I like, it introduces us to some creatures in the Wizarding World that are actually cute! One of my ongoing issues with Harry Potter was how ugly all the creatures of its world were, so it was nice that Fantastic Beasts showed us some cute ones. Fantastic Beasts is nothing special, but it’s a fun movie.

The same can’t be said about the sequel, the awkwardly-titled Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald. This movie is such a mess that it (as well as the whole Johnny Depp controversy) derailed the series for a good few years. Although it’s annoying that this sequel resurrects a character who seemingly died in the first Fantastic Beasts movie, it otherwise starts out alright. But things quickly go off the rails as the movie devolves into an undying barrage of exposition, which leaves the second half of the film feeling more like the appendices of a book than an actual movie. We also can’t forget the introduction of a character who seems destined to be important to the series going forward, only for the movie to kill them off before everything is said and done. One of the main characters ends up siding with the villain in the most random heel turn ever. And the movie ends on a cliffhanger that is also one of the most annoying retcons to an established story I can recall (I suppose it is possible this can be undone in the upcoming installments, but we’ll see). Some even argue that the series entered into the “more serious” territory too soon with the second entry, considering there are still three more to go.

The Crimes of Grindlewald has some entertainment value, and it’s fun that we finally get to see Nicolas Flamel (the titular sorcerer/philosopher behind the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone). But boy, does it lose its way by the end. Here’s hoping that The Secrets of Dumbledore gets the series back on track.

As an added bonus, I also watched all four episodes of that game show Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses that aired in December of 2021, hosted by Dame Helen Mirren (I guess because she was just about the only notable English actor not to appear in the Harry Potter movies). I was surprised to hear the game show didn’t have too fond of a reception, as I found it to be pretty fun (though I did have some issues with the structure of the contest). I don’t know if a second season is planned, but I hope it happens.

And now we finally move on from Harry Potter.

Next up was the BFG, the 2016 Steven Spielberg movie based on the Road Dahl book, about a little girl who befriends a Big Friendly Giant (BFG). I intended to see this in theaters back in the day, but never got around to it. Apparently I’m not the only one, because the film was a box office bomb. That’s a shame, because the movie was actually pretty good. It’s certainly not among Spielberg’s best films or anything, and it takes a while to get going, but it ultimately charmed me. Considering this was Spielberg’s first movie to be released by Disney, you would think that combination would have put more butts in the seats. Alas, fairy tales such as this just don’t sell unless they’re made directly by Disney Animation. The BFG may not be a Spielberg or Disney great, but it’s a good family movie that deserves a little more attention.

Now we take a total 180 with Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the 1996 film Jack… and also The Godfather (I’ve been waiting to use that for a while). This is the Dracula movie where Gary Oldman plays the iconic vampire. And the one where Dracula has the butt/boob shaped hair. What? He does!

Anyway, the film is considered one of the more faithful adaptations of Dracula, hence Bram Stoker’s name in the title. Some people love this movie, others less so. I think it’s worth a watch for fans of Dracula and horror, and the film looks good. But if I’m going to be honest, some scenes are kind of unintentionally hilarious. And well, even the film’s defenders can’t deny that Keanu Reeve’s English accent makes Dick Van Dyke seem like a full-blooded Englishman.

One thing’s for sure, the theme music to Bram Stoker’s Dracula is amazing! So menacing and foreboding. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve probably heard the theme music. It’s so effective as villainous music that many other works have used it, ranging from an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars to the original teaser for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. And though I can’t confirm it, I think Super Mario Galaxy’s rendition of Super Mario Bros. 3’s Airship theme was inspired by the theme of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Damn, this music is good!

Speaking of good music, my next movie was Hook. Oh boy, does the soundtrack to Hook kick ass!

For those unfamiliar, Hook is a 1991 Steven Spielberg movie that has a rather amazing premise: What if Peter Pan grew up?

The film stars the late, great Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan (perfect casting there), who has forgotten his past and now goes by Peter Banning. But when Captain Hook (memorably portrayed by Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps Peter’s children, Peter has to rediscover who he really is to take down his old foe and rescue his kids.

There seem to be two different opinions when it comes to Hook: There’s the more critical crowd who consider it one of Spielberg’s weakest movies (a sentiment shared by Spielberg himself), and those who grew up watching it on VHS who adore it. As is often the case with two such extreme opposing viewpoints, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think Hook is a better movie than it gets credit for, but no doubt it takes more than one serious dip once Peter makes his way back to Neverland. And even the film’s aforementioned amazing premise of a grown up Peter Pan gets a little squandered in the latter half as it devolves into a simple retelling of Peter Pan.

But the one thing that can’t be denied is that the soundtrack is phenomenal! It’s a Spielberg movie, which of course means John Williams was the composer. With John Williams, you expect good music, but the soundtrack to Hook goes above and beyond the call of duty. It’s up there with Star Wars and Jurassic Park as one of John Williams’ best scores. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s so good!

Importantly, the music to Hook played a roll in inspiring the soundtrack to Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, AKA the best video game soundtrack. For that alone we should be eternally grateful.

Going back to horror with It Follows from 2014. Whereas Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a horror film with a great premise and so-so execution, It Follows has a concept that sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud or write it out, but the end result is actually very effective.

It Follows is a horror film about an unnamed entity that – true to the title – follows its prey until It catches up to them and kills them. But the premise is a bit more interesting because of the rules of how the entity, or “It” works.

“It” only stalks one person at any given time, and whoever is the current victim of “It” can pass “It” on to someone else by (and here’s where it may sound silly) having sex with them. But should “It” catch up to its current victim and kill them, it will go back to its previous target and keep going down the line. “It” has no definitive form, instead taking on the appearance of different people, and is only visible to its current and previous targets. But its victims have some advantages against “It.” Notably, “It” is incredibly slow, only capable of moving at waking speed. So even though “It” is aware of the location of its current target at all times, it can be outran in individual moments. “It” also is only an unstoppable killing machine if it catches its victim, otherwise it still has trouble opening locked doors or breaking through windows. Finally, even though it disguises itself as other people, because it has the singular goal of killing its current target and can only move at one speed, it’s pretty easy to pick out from a crowd.

Again, it all sounds a bit wonky when you explain it, but that makes it all the more impressive that the film manages to pull off the concept into a genuinely chilling horror film.

Next up was Labryinth, directed by Jim Henson and executive produced by George Lucas. This is a fun movie that’s often lumped together with Henson’s previous film The Dark Crystal, due to both films being fantasy worlds filled with crazy creatures brought to life by Henson’s signature puppets. In the past, I would have said Labyrinth was the better of the two movies since its smaller scope was more attainable with what Henson had to work with, though the excellent 2019 Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has somewhat retroactively made the mythology of the original Dark Crystal film feel stronger (then Netflix, in their “infinite wisdom” decided to cancel Age of Resistance after one season). So it’s hard to say which of the two movies I prefer, but like the original Dark Crystal, Labyrinth is a good and fun movie that I still think could have been done better, given the talent involved.

The movie of course features two prominent human actors, which differentiates it from the exclusively-puppet Dark Crystal. Jennifer Connelly portrays Sarah Williams, a teenager who traverses the titular labyrinth to save her little brother from Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie).

As always with Jim Henson films, the movie is a technical marvel with how they brought everything to life, and for that alone is worth watching. But I do think Labyrinth is one of those fantasy films that feels like its concept could have been greater in execution. Imagine a Jim Henson movie with a story that could match the technical craftsmanship and artistry of it? That would be amazing! Though I guess we did get that with Age of Resistance, just in the form of a series instead of a movie (shame Netflix didn’t give it a proper chance).

Next in line was Wild Wild West, that western/steampunk movie starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline from 1999 that you probably only know about because the theme song outlived the movie. This is a bad, dumb movie. But the kind of bad, dumb movie I can at least get a kick out of. The film at least has some inventiveness with its steampunk creations. Again, it’s dumb. But whatever.

Finally, I watched the newest Ice Age film, The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild, which was released on Disney+ at the end of the month. I admit I still haven’t seen the fourth or fifth Ice Age movies in their entirety yet, but the first three were adequately entertaining. Nothing special, like Pixar. But nothing snarky and cynical, like Dreamworks. Also, I just realized I typed “the fourth and fifth Ice Age movies.” Why are there so many of them?!

The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild is the first Ice Age film since Disney bought 20th Century Fox and dissolved Blue Sky Studios (the animation studio behind the Ice Age films). So the animation was outsourced here, and boy does it show! This movie looks more like the kind of straight-to-DVD CG you would see in the early 2000s, not the latest installment of a multi-billion dollar (really) movie franchise. And aside from Simon Pegg returning as Buck Wild himself, all of the original cast has been replaced, and you can hear the difference right away. It also doesn’t have much in the way of story (but then again, none of the Ice Age sequels did). Perhaps worst of all, despite being named after Buck Wild – who was introduced in the third Ice Age movie and was probably my favorite character in the series – the film seems to focus more of its time on returning Ice Age characters Crash and Eddie. So why even make a spinoff movie about Buck Wild if it isn’t even really about him?

Also mysteriously missing is Scrat the saber-toothed squirrel, whose side antics to get/store an acorn were often more entertaining than the main stories of the Ice Age features. Apparently there was some legal trouble involving that character, and Disney couldn’t get ahold of him during the Fox acquisition or something. How weird is that?

One good thing I can say about The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild is that Simon Pegg’s voice acting is great. He’s one of the few mainstream actors who is willing to make his voice unrecognizable when doing voice over work (Benedict Cumberbatch is the other one that immediately comes to mind). Lest we forget Simon Pegg was Unkar Plutt (the “One Quarter Portion Guy”) from The Force Awakens and the SkekSis Chamberlain in the aforementioned Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

I do have to ask, why is the movie called The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild? After twenty years and six movies they suddenly decide to add a “the” to the franchise title?

Let’s wrap this up with the usual awards. Though because I’ve already rambled way more than I intended to when I started writing this, let’s keep things short.

Best Movie I Watched All Month: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I suppose the fact that I watched every Harry Potter film this past month and am naming Prisoner of Azkaban as the best movie I watched this past month, I just gave away the ending of my eventual Harry Potter movie ranking. Oh well.

While a few of the Harry Potter movies are great, Prisoner of Azkaban is the one I’ve always thought was a great film full-stop. Harry Potter fan or not.

Azkaban is more mature than the first two installments, but still retains their sense of magic and wonder (something the later Harry Potter stories somewhat lost, as they focused more on how evil Voldemort is than they did the magic of the world of these stories). It’s the entry that best focuses on Harry, Hermione and (to a lesser extent) Ron develop as characters. It also gives us a kind of standalone story that can be appreciated on its own merits outside of the overall series more so than the other entries. And it introduces us to at least two of the best characters in the series in the forms of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). It’s also uniquely the only Harry Potter story in which the main villain isn’t Voldemort, but one of his minions, Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), a baddie who sadly seems largely forgotten about in later installments.

Prisoner of Azkaban is also the most visually captivating Potter movie, with lots of saturated lighting in the daytime sequences, and an eerie fogginess at night. It reminds me of a Team Ico game in a way. Azkaban feels more subdued than past and future Harry Potter movies visually, but somehow that brings out the magic of the series all the more. The whole movie has a kind of dreamlike quality about it. I can’t really explain it.

Sure, the time travel aspect is a little wonky, but it’s one of those “small price to pay” kind of things with how great of a movie Prisoner of Azkaban is on the whole. This is to Harry Potter what Spider-Man 2 is to Marvel in that it’s a great movie even without taking the franchise into consideration. It’s the movie lover’s Harry Potter.

But let’s save some of the gushing for when I actually review and/or rank the Harry Potter movies.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild

This was actually a toss-up between Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald (which I initially thought was guaranteed this “honor”), Wild Wild West and The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild (or TIAAOBW, for short). Grindlewald almost singlehandedly halted the Harry Potter spinoff franchise, but I suppose it has some merit, and with three sequels still to come, the series may be able to salvage itself. Wild Wild West is a bad movie, but again, it’s dumb fun. It’s hard to pick on something too much when it knows exactly how dumb it is.

But in the case of The Ice Age Adv… you know, let’s just call it Buck Wild.

In the case of Buck Wild, it felt like it took a series that has already overstayed its welcome, and stripped it of the few things fans of the series had left to enjoy (animation quality, the voice acting, Scrat, etc.). Outside of Simon Pegg’s vocal work, this is bottom of the barrel, cash-grab animation. If you have a Disney+ subscription, watch any of the countless infinitely better animated offerings on the service instead.

Best Movie I Watched for the First Time this Month: Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts

“Mrs. Puff…I think I cheated.”

Does this count as a movie? A documentary? I never know with these kinds of specials. So my claiming that Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is the best movie I watched for the first time this month may be a bit dubious. But whatever, I greatly enjoyed it.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, I think this is a must watch. Even if you’re not totally engrossed in the franchise but have an interest in pop culture phenomenons, I also think this is a must watch. It’s a detailed look back at one of cinema’s (and literature’s) most successful franchises, gives insight into the series and the making of it. And thankfully, the special’s feature length runtime means it gives plenty of attention to each individual installment in the series.

It’s a very insightful, fun special. I’m not even sorry that I’m cheating by selecting it.

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Hook

Hook could have, and should have, been a better movie than it is. But it’s still better than its critics say. It’s a good time that may lose its magic as it goes, but it’s still a fun movie.

Most importantly, the music is sublime!


That’s all folks!

What did I say at the beginning of this? “I’m going to try to keep this as short and simple as possible?” Well, mission failed there!

I don’t know why these keep ending up being so long. I have so many other things to write, I need to start focusing on those instead. I still haven’t reviewed Luca, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Ron’s Gone Wrong or Encanto. And let’s not even get into all the video games I’ve been meaning to review…

So, let’s see this as the last My Month in Movies for a while. I enjoy writing these, but they’re taking away too much of my writing time that I should be spending elsewhere. So until I catch up a little bit on all of those other things, let’s put My Month in Movies on hold for a while.

At any rate, I hope you had some fun reading all this. I also hope you found any of it even the slightest bit interesting. And most importantly, I hope you’re having a good and happy 2022 so far.

Take care.

The 2021 Christmas Special/Seven Year Anniversary Celebration

It’s Christmas again! Already…

Before we get into anything else: Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Merry Festivus! Happy Life Day! Happy Rusev Day! Happy/Merry everybody!

Whatever holiday(s) you celebrate, I hope you have a great one filled with happiness, joy, and lots of good food!

Happy holidays to all!

With all the holiday greetings and well wishes out of the way, Christmas Day also marks the anniversary of when I launched Wizard Dojo (well, when I first posted content to it, which is what I would say actually constitutes the launch of something). It’s a double celebration here at the Dojo!

Being both Christmas Day and the anniversary of this site, it’s time once again for the annual Wizard Dojo Christmas Special! Because Wizard Dojo is actually just one long, elaborate Christmas movie in disguise… like Die Hard!

So without further ado, let’s get on with this Christmas Special!


Chapter 1: Ranking the Spider-Man Films

There have been no less than nine theatrically released Spider-Man films ever since Spidey’s first big screen outing back in 2002. I figured now is as good of a time as any to rank all of the Spider-Man features. After all, Spider-Man is kind of like Christmas when you think about it: Spidey wears a red suit, like Santa Claus. The way he swings around New York is kind of/sort of like how Santa flies around on his sleigh on Christmas Eve. And the way Peter Parker builds his web shooters is kind of like how Santa’s elves build the toys…

Okay, it’s not like Christmas at all (unlike Die Hard). But the newest Spider-Man movie, No Way Home, came out recently, and the festive atmosphere of Christmas has me feeling celebratory, so why not?

Oh, and keep in mind that I’m just counting the Spider-Man movies themselves here, and not the Avengers movies in which Spider-Man appears, or Spider-Man adjacent movies like Venom.

With that out of the way, here’s my ranking of the Spider-Man movies!

9: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

That “Amazing” in the title is more than a little ironic, as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is regularly cited as the weakest Spider-Man movie (as it is here). It’s doubly ironic in that the original ‘Spider-Man 2’ was already amazing.

The second and ultimately final iteration of the Andrew Garfield-starring Spider-Man films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 perhaps has more merit than it gets credit for (it’s certainly better than some other Marvel movies, like Eternals or the later X-Men films). But it does ultimately succumb to its desire of wanting to be everything.

Not satisfied with simply being a Spider-Man sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wanted to kickstart its own Cinematic Universe to compete with what Marvel had accomplished with the MCU (remember that Spidey was still strictly under Sony’s control at this time). So what we get is a movie that’s trying to tell its own story while simultaneously setting up an entire series of sequels all at once.

You thought Spider-Man 3 was overstuffed with three villains? The Amazing Spider-Man 2 not only packs on the villains, but also hints at others, tries setting up potential sequels and spinoffs for them (there were plans for a Sinister Six movie, among others), and features a lingering mystery involving the fate of Peter Parker’s parents (which remains unsolved). All this while still trying to give Peter Parker a meaningful character arc involving his girlfriend, Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone).

It’s just too much, and the film crumbles under all that weight. Sony got greedy and sacrificed their Spider-Man sequel just to play catch up with Marvel. But Marvel took its time setting up its shared universe of characters, they started with standalone movies (something I wish they’d go back to) before they brought their characters together. By fast-tracking their planned Cinematic Universe, Sony killed it before it even began. It’s a shame, because the Amazing Spider-Man series had potential.

At the very least, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 gave us a Russian Paul Giamatti inside of a robotic rhinoceros. That’s something to be grateful for.

8: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a technically well-made movie. So why do I rank it so low on this list? Because its technical polish doesn’t translate to its creativity. The Amazing Spider-Man served as a good launching pad for a reboot to the series (though we know how it ultimately ended up. See above), but it does so by simply going through the motions.

Released ten years after the original Spider-Man (which was Spider-Man’s origin story), and five years after Spider-Man 3 (which heavily focused on part of Spider-Man’s origin story due to an annoying retcon). Audiences just didn’t want to sit through Spider-Man’s origin story again. Give Uncle Ben a break, will ya?

This is the film that introduced us to Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, and to be fair, he’s great in the role (he looks more the part than Tobey Maguire and is less annoying than Tom Holland’s Peter Parker). And it’s his performance, and his chemistry with Emma Stone, that most separates this film from what came before it (that, and I suppose the fact that its villain is a lizard-man). But the film’s darker and more gritty tone haven’t aged as well as the more colorful Sam Raimi-directed films. The fact that Spider-Man was rebooted yet again (and added into the biggest movie franchise in history in the process) five years later, leaving its lingering plot threads to drift in limbo, also hasn’t helped The Amazing Spider-Man stand the test of time.

It’s a shame, because I actually really liked The Amazing Spider-Man when I first saw it. Perhaps if it hadn’t felt the need to show us Spider-Man’s origin story in detail after the 2002 film already did it so well, it may have been able to build more of an identity of its own.

7: Spider-Man 3 (2007)

It pains me to rank one of the Sam Raimi films this low on the list. But Spider-Man 3 was the first instance of the series feeling the need to include as many villains as humanly possible at the expense of storytelling coherence. Spider-Man 3 was such a downgrade in quality that it resulted in the end of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series, and “Spider-Man 4” never saw the light of day.

To be fair, it was Sony who forced Raimi’s hand to include Venom into the movie, resulting in one villain too many. Harry Osborne had already been set up to take over his father’s mantle of the Green Goblin in Spider-Man 2, and Raimi wanted the Sandman, as he liked the idea of a small-time crook being turned into the main villain, as well as believing he’d be impressive visually. But Sony wanted Venom, so we got him too.

On the subject of fairness, Raimi’s hands weren’t entirely clean, either. It was his decision that Sandman should be revealed as Uncle Ben’s real killer, even though that whole story seemed nicely wrapped up in the first movie. And you know you’re in trouble whenever a movie retcons something like that (“that guy wasn’t the real killer, this guy is!”). Though once again, in the spirit of fairness, at least Raimi only did so because he wanted the film to be themed around forgiveness. I just wish he’d had found a better means to do so.

Suffice to say, the film is a bit cluttered. It has too many elements in too many places. If even just one of them had been cut (let’s just say, oh I don’t know, Venom, for instance), perhaps Spider-Man 3 could have found a better focus and been a better movie.

There was once a time when I’d tell you that Spider-Man 3 was one of my most hated movies. Though a few years ago, when I watched it again for the first time since it was in theaters, I realized it isn’t that bad. I mean, Spider-Man 3 can’t hold a candle to its two predecessors, and I think the massive downgrade in quality from Spider-Man 2 may have been why I was extra critical of it initially. But it still has its good points.

Though it doesn’t resonate nearly as strongly as the first two films, Spider-Man 3 still has something of a beating heart to it. Sam Raimi and company still tried to give the film meaning. As messy as the end result may have been, that’s still something more than I can say about most superhero movies that have been released since. Spider-Man 3 actually had something to it (albeit it often got lost in the shuffle) and wasn’t just about hyping the next string of movies in the Marvel pipeline.

A bit of a mess. But its own mess.

6: Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

Spider-Man: Far From Home was the second Spider-Man film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the third Spider-Man film released in as many years (following its predecessor in 2017 and the animated Into the Spider-Verse in 2018). You would think Far From Home would have suffered a bit from Spider-Fatigue, but for the most part, it’s still a solid entry in the series. It featured a decently fun villain in Mysterio, took the action out of New York and into various locations in Europe, and had some good action scenes. Far From Home was fun, if maybe not groundbreaking. In other words, it sure was an MCU feature.

Still, there are some things holding Far From Home back from reaching the same heights as other Spider-Man films. Notably, with the film being the first MCU feature released after Avengers: Endgame, you would think that Far from Home would respectfully acknowledge the events of Infinity War and Endgame, given the gravity of – oh, I don’t know – Thanos wiping out half of all life in the universe for five years before the Avengers travelled through time to bring everyone back! But you’d be wrong.

Instead, Far From Home plays up the whole thing as one big punchline. Aunt May laughs off the fact that while she disappeared from existence for five years, someone else was living in her apartment. A kid in Peter’s school also jokes that his younger brother became his older brother during the time he was snapped away by Thanos. Maybe a few jokes about it would be fine, but Far From Home seems to exclusively reference the drama of Endgame as a joke. Considering Endgame was the culmination of everything in the MCU up to that point, and Far From Home was the first MCU film released afterwards, its utter disregard towards Endgame basically devalues the entire MCU franchise. It’s like a big middle finger to anyone who invested in the series. And sadly, this element of writing off the past seems to have become a common trait in the MCU since.

At least the sacrifice of Tony Stark is made important! Because of course it is. Tony Stark was all over Spider-Man: Homecoming, just to hit home the fact that Spider-Man was in the MCU now. So Far From Home is sure to let everyone know how impactful the loss of Tony Stark was, to the point that Peter Parker never even brings up Uncle Ben! Uncle Ben wasn’t Tony Stark, why should he be remembered? But Spidey still manages to snag plenty of new gadgets from Stark Industries in Far From Home. Because Tony Stark!

Okay, I won’t keep going on. Simply put, the film’s overemphasis on pointing out that it takes place in the MCU at the expense of Spider-Man’s own mythology, while simultaneously treating the MCU’s history as a joke, is a bit of a problem. But if you can dig past that, Spider-Man: Far From Home does deliver an entertaining movie.

5: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Five years after the Andrew Garfield era started (and only three years after The Amazing Spider-Man 2), the Spider-Man franchise was rebooted yet again! This time, Sony and Marvel worked out their differences (they would have more later, and work them out again), meaning that Spider-Man could now join the MCU! Sony’s planned Spider-Man universe didn’t pan out, so I guess it’s a case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

The good news is that Marvel knew no one wanted to see Spider-Man’s origin story again, so they skipped it entirely, and introduced this newest version of Spider-Man in a previous film (Captain America: Civil War) for good measure. So for once, we could just get right into things.

The bad news is that Marvel and Sony were way too excited to let people know that Spider-Man was now in the MCU, with Tony Stark being all over Homecoming (I can’t remember a single advertisement that didn’t put Iron Man front and center). And sadly, Marvel and Sony seemed to think that “skipping” Spider-Man’s origin story meant ignoring it outright. Uncle Ben’s death is still (supposedly) a pinnacle moment in the life of the MCU’s Peter Parker, but you’d never know it from watching Homecoming. Who has time to remember a lost loved one when Tony Stark’s in town?! Yahoo! MCU!

Okay, I’m sorry. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good movie. But I do think sacrificing Spider-Man’s own mythology for the sake of the MCU is a big problem in the Tom Holland-era Spider-Man films, and not one that grew bigger over time. It was there right out the gate with Homecoming. Still, I guess being overly enthusiastic about being in the MCU is better than an MCU movie making fun of the MCU (like Far From Home).

Other than the film’s obsession with reminding audiences that Spider-Man is now a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Homecoming has a lot to love about it. While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker can be pretty annoying at times, the actor definitely looks the part, and makes for a fun Spider-Man. The action scenes are, once again, very exciting. And perhaps most notably, Spider-Man: Homecoming gives us one of the few MCU villains who could be described as ‘interesting.’

Adrian Toomes, AKA ‘The Vulture,’ wonderfully portrayed by Michael Keaton, seemed to have taken inspiration from the Raimi-era villains. A hardworking man who (rightfully) has a grudge after his salvage company are sent out of business by the government and (*sigh*) Tony Stark. Michael Keaton plays Toomes as a likable, blue-collar man just trying to set things right the only way he feels he can. That’s the kind of villain the MCU could certainly use more of. I’m getting pretty tired of evil rich guys who have the same powers as the hero…

Spider-Man: Homecoming may not be perfect, but it remains one of the MCU’s most fun and lighthearted installments. And everyone loves Michael Keaton.

“Franchise the damn thing!”

4: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Okay, there may be a recency bias here seeing as this movie was just released. Or it could even be a nostalgic bias, seeing as this film brings back so many faces from Spidey’s cinematic past. Whatever the case may be, I’m ranking No Way Home above Homecoming for the time being. I guess we’ll see how I feel they compare later.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is so recent, that I feel I don’t have much else to say that I didn’t already say in my review at the moment. But here’s a quick refresher…

The good: It’s magic just to see Alfred Molina Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe Green Goblin again. Lots of great action scenes. A few good emotional bits. A truckload of fanservice for the MCU, the Amazing Spider-Man films and the Sam Raimi trilogy.

The bad: The film makes too many cynical jokes at the expense of past Spider-Man films. Dr. Strange fills the role of “overbearing Avengers presence” left over by Tony Stark. The classic villains are made out to be easy pickings for MCU Spidey and Dr. Strange unless they team up. J. Jonah Jameson has been turned into a one-note villain. Mr. Ditkovitch didn’t make a return appearance.

A very fun movie fueled by fanservice and nostalgia, if maybe not the most heartfelt Spider-Man film.

3: Spider-Man (2002)

Nearly every list that ranks a particular franchise has that point where the quality of work within that franchise ramps up considerably. For this list, this is that moment.

The original 2002 Spider-Man feature is still a treat. Although X-Men beat it to theaters by two years, it’s Spider-Man that created the blueprint for the entire superhero genre. It may be easy to forget in this day and age, when the all-encompassing MCU seems to grow bigger and bigger, swallowing other franchises in its wake. But back in 2002, Spider-Man – and Spider-Man alone – was a huge deal. No Cinematic Universe required.

Spider-Man made superheroes mainstream. It was the first film to make over one-hundred million dollars on its opening weekend, and it became a talking point not just for comic book nerds, but people who had never read a comic book in their life. Kids and adults alike ate it up.

Perhaps Spider-Man’s initial success and continuing legacy can be attributed to how Sam Raimi gave the film a heart. This wasn’t simply an origin story where the hero gets his powers (though it is that too), but also a story about love, loss, and responsibility.

Tobey Maguire made his version of Peter Parker a loveable dweeb: goofy, awkward, somewhat naive. Later Peter Parkers Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland seemed to be cast to turn the character into something of a heartthrob. But Tobey Maguire’s version is nerd incarnate, giving him a more underdog quality.

To compliment the film’s relatable hero, we were given a sympathetic villain in Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), whose descent into the Green Goblin is equal parts tragic and terrifying. He’s the father of Peter’s best friend, and even becomes something of a father figure to Peter, as well. But a desperate attempt to save his company by rushing an experiment – using himself as a test subject – results in his personality being split a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Norman Osborne remains, but the evil Goblin can take over at any moment. Willem Dafoe plays the double role with a brilliance similar to what Andy Serkis would give Gollum a few months later in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

In what is perhaps the best bonus possible, Spider-Man even gave us the greatest comic relief in superhero movie history in J. Jonah Jameson. The bombastic newspaperman was brought to life so flawlessly by J.K. Simmons that Marvel had to bring him back for the role in the MCU, because they knew no one else could match his performance.

We may all laugh at Spider-Man’s origin story by this point, but the 2002 film got it so right. Peter Parker gains his superhuman abilities after being bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, and at first uses his newfound abilities to win some money and impress the girl next door, Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). But a petty money squabble leads Peter Parker to let a crook get away, a crook who later shoots Uncle Ben (before Spider-Man 3 retconned the shooter, anyway). Peter holds Uncle Ben’s hand as he passes. No overly long, dramatic speech is necessary. Uncle Ben (memorably played by the late Cliff Robertson) simply shows joy that he can look at a loved one before he passes. With his uncle’s teaching of “with great power comes great responsibility” resonating in his heart, Peter Parker decides to use his powers for the sake of others.

It’s beautifully told, and the emotion is earnest in a way that seems lost on the MCU.

Sure, 2002’s Spider-Man has its share of cheesy moments: the upside-down kiss, Green Goblin’s costume, the wrestling scene… But if anything, those cheesy moments only add to that aforementioned earnestness. Spider-Man is telling the story it needs to tell, and if that entails some awkwardness, then so be it. Personally, I find the cheesiness of the Sam Raimi films to be much less eye-rolling than the forced “applaud here” moments of the MCU.

In 2002, no multiverses needed saving. No one was wiping out half of all life in the universe. There was just Peter Parker growing into Spider-Man fighting Norman Osborne, who had fallen into becoming the Green Goblin. And it was great.

Spider-Man may not be the highest ranked movie on this list. But y’know, it’s something of a classic itself.

2: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

“Inventive” may not be the word you’d use to describe the superhero movies of today, but it’s an apt term when describing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Boasting animation that looks like a comic book come to life and a story that plays with the Spider-Man mythology, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the surprise hit of 2018, becoming one of the most acclaimed superhero films of all time.

Into the Spider-Verse shifts the focus to Miles Morales, who becomes the Spider-Man of his world. When Kingpin activates a portal that starts bringing in people from different universes, Miles has to team up with various other Spider-People from across the multiverse to save the day. Miles’ team includes an out-of-shape Peter Parker, Gwen Stacey from a world where her and Peter’s roles were reversed, a monochromatic Spider-Man out of film noir, an anime girl version of Peter Parker, and a cartoon pig.

The film is as fun and varied as its oddball lineup of characters, with its story unfolding – rather uniquely – from the perspective of its main characters, rather than letting the audience in on most of the details ahead of time. Though perhaps as a consequence of this, Kingpin himself – despite having a pretty good story to him – ends up getting a little shortchanged in the film.

In a time when every superhero movie under the sun seems hellbent on building up towards a string of other superhero movies down the road, Into the Spider-Verse was a breath of fresh air. Here was a new take on Spider-Man, no Cinematic Universe was needed. Into the Spider-Verse worked so well as a standalone movie, that I don’t know if its upcoming sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, can actually match it. The fact that the sequel includes a “Part 1” in the title is also a bit disappointing. I’m all for sequels, but it’s a shame that today’s sequels can’t just be their own movie anymore. They always have to hype up something else on the horizon. Being excited for Across the Spider-Verse isn’t enough these days. You have to be excited for the movies that come after it before it’s even released…

I guess we’ll see how that all ends up. But even if the sequels don’t live up to the original, Into the Spider-Verse will have still left us with one of the most original and definitive movies in the superhero genre.

1: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Into the Spider-Verse may be the most original Spider-Man movie, but make no mistake about it, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is still, quite simply, the best.

The Amazing Spider-Man took a nosedive with its second entry, and the MCU Spider-Man films can feel kind of interchangeable (the fact that No Way Home needed to bring back old faces to feel distinct is telling). But 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was a case of a sequel taking everything that was good about the first installment and improving on them in every way. It’s one of the best sequels of all time.

The emotion is better. The drama is better. The action is better. The humor is better. And with all due respect to the Green Goblin, even the villain is better.

With Peter Parker’s personal life suffering due to his duties as Spider-Man, he begins to wonder if the city still needs its web-slinging hero anymore. Meanwhile, Dr. Otto Octavius becomes Peter’s mentor, only to turn to a life of crime once a would-be revolutionary experiment ends in tragedy.

This is a key factor to Spider-Man 2’s enduring appeal: On one hand, it is about Spider-Man’s battles against Doctor Octopus. But even more so, it’s a movie about the inner struggles of Peter Parker and Otto Octavius. Even after all these years, it’s still the single most character-driven Marvel film. But if it’s superhero action you’re looking for, Spider-Man 2 has that covered as well, featuring a number of memorable action scenes, notably its iconic train sequence. Though that’s just one of many, many standout moments created by Spider-Man 2.

Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was a likable dweeb in the first movie, but here he becomes a true hero. And Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock – whose mechanical arms make him a perfect foil for Spider-Man – is a tragic, sympathetic villain with a depth that no Marvel movie since has been able to grasp. The supporting players all get their chance to shine as well, and add even more emotion to the film (the scene where Peter Parker tells Aunt May the events leading up to Uncle Ben’s death being another high point). Not to mention J.K. Simmons is at his best as Jameson.

It all comes down to the characters, really. Everything we loved about them the first time around is brought back in full force, with some great new additions as well. Doc Ock is the obvious newcomer, sure. But even characters like Mr. Ditkovitch – Peter Parker’s stingy landlord – leave an impression. And of course, we have the inspiring scene where the people of New York stand up to Doctor Octopus to defend Spider-Man (this was something of a theme in the Raimi era, with something similar happening in the first film as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, Spider-Man 3 lacked such a scene). Even the random citizens were important here in Spider-Man 2.

Yes, it’s true, Spider-Man 2 has its cheesy elements (though perhaps not to the same level as the first film). But again, I almost feel like they add to its appeal in retrospect. Spider-Man 2 is sincere and upfront, warts and all. It’s as genuine and heartfelt as any superhero movie ever made.

There have been many, many, many movies based on Marvel comics in the nearly eighteen years since its release, but not one of them has made me care as much as Spider-Man 2.

Simply the best.


Chapter 2: The Best of Wizard Dojo in 2021

2021 was not exactly the most productive year for Wizard Dojo. Although January got off to a decent start (I reviewed the entire Oddworld series… although a new entry was released a little while later and I still need to review that), things quickly fell silent. From February through May, I only wrote four posts (all movie reviews), with May being the first month in this site’s seven year history where I didn’t post anything whatsoever. And here we are, nearing the end of the year, and I’ve only reviewed nine videogames in all of 2021…five of which were the aforementioned Oddworld titles in January. I haven’t done right by video games this year, so I guess I should focus more of the Dojo on gaming in 2022. Catch up on the games I played but failed to review this year. Fingers crossed I can catch up to my backlogged game reviews.

With all this said, I still like to think I provided some quality content (by my standards) to Wizard Dojo this year. I certainly wrote about plenty of movies. So now, here’s some quick access to the best of what I wrote in 2021!

Video Game Reviews (might as well post them all here)

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysey

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus

Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysey

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath

Oddworld: New ‘N Tasty

New Pokemon Snap

Magical Drop 2

Dr. Mario (NES)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES)

Movie Reviews (Let’s pick 10, besides Spider-Man: No Way Home since I posted a link to that above)

Soul

Raya and the Last Dragon

Mortal Kombat (2021)

Space Jam: A New Legacy

The Suicide Squad (2021)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Eternals

Home Sweet Home Alone

8-Bit Christmas

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

The Best of the Rest (Things I wrote that aren’t directly reviews)

The 1000th Blog! – In which I celebrate my 1,000 blog milestone here on Wizard Dojo*. Also includes my ranking of the Paper Mario series.

*Technically, I removed some old filler blogs a while back, and the 1,000th post was the 1,000th not including those removed. And I deleted a further few filler posts of old afterwards. So I guess technically it isn’t the 1,oooth blog anymore. But come on, I’m over 1,000 again. Just let me celebrate. I’ll try not to delete any more past content.

Super Smash Bros. Has Lost its Heart – In which I write about how the Super Smash Bros. series has betrayed what made it so fun and memorable in the first place, with its overemphasis on third-party characters, hype and pandering to eSports at the expense of its own identity.

The Beauty of Ghostbusters 2’s Optimism – In which I write about how Ghostbusters 2’s hopeful, positive message makes it a much better sequel than it gets credit for.

My Month in Movies (September 2021) and My Month in Movies (October 2021) – In which I wrote about the many movies I watched in those months.

I also wrote no less than ten anniversary posts for various movies and videogames. In chronological order…

Sonic the Hedgehog Turns 30! (And Nintendo 64 Turns 25!)

Donkey Kong and Mario Turn 40!

Spirited Away Turns 20!

Super Nintendo Turns 30 (in North America)

Ten Years of Dark Souls

Pikmin Turns 20!

Xbox Turns 20!

Nintendo Wii Turns 15!

Beauty and the Beast Turns 30!

The Lord of the Rings Turns 20!

And now we meet somewhere in the middle, because I posted two movie reviews on the tenth anniversary of their respective movies: Rango and The Adventures of Tintin. But now we’re getting back into review territory.

And perhaps my favorite thing I wrote this past year…

Top 10 Nintendo 64 Games to Play Today – in which I list the most timeless Nintendo 64 games.

Whether you read any of these back when they were posted or not, I hope you have some fun reading them.


Chapter 3 & 4: My Months in Movies (November and December 2021)

Following suit with my previous ‘My Month in Movies’ post, I figured I’d write about what I watched during the last two months of 2021. Sure, December isn’t quite done yet, and I could still watch another movie or two before year’s end. But come on, it’s Christmas!

Because my last ‘My Month in Movies’ post ended up being so long, I will sadly keep things shorter here (seeing as I had other things to post on this Christmas blog). So here I’ll list the movies, and then go straight into the awards. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity to write about some of these movies in more detail sooner rather than later. As before, movies are listed in chronological order of when I watched them, and those with an asterisk are movies I watched for the very first time.

Now let’s get started!

My Month in Movies: November 2021

Movies watched

Hitchcock*

Jumanji

Ghostbusters 2

Marvel’s Eternals*

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Ron’s Gone Wrong*

Home Sweet Home Alone*

Dr. No

Die Hard

Home Alone

Castle in the Sky

Ghostbusters: Afterlife*

Die Hard 2

8-Bit Christmas*

Encanto*

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Best Movie(s) I Watched All Month: Castle in the Sky and Die Hard

Alright, I’m going to cheat right out the gate and select two movies as the best I watched in November. My reason is simple: they both put up strong arguments to being the best live-action (Die Hard) and animated (Castle in the Sky) action movies of all time. So why not just celebrate both? Also, I know if I just picked Castle in the Sky, my best movies of every month so far would definitely show some favoritism (and having favorite directors or movies or anything is considered taboo these days for some reason).

Castle in the Sky, the first film released by Studio Ghibli (though the third feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki), is one of the most influential animated films ever made. Not only did it kickstart the world’s greatest animation studio, but it continues to influence movies, animation, television and video games to this day. Hell, with the exception of Star Wars, I’m having trouble thinking of a movie that has had as big of an influence on video games as Castle in the Sky. Everything from The Legend of Zelda (most overtly in Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild), Skies of Arcadia, Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy have drawn from it. Even the storyline of Sonic & Knuckles was directly lifted from Castle in the Sky (as a bonus, Dr. Robotnik’s entire character design was largely based on a character from the film).

Even without its impact, Castle in the Sky is such an incredible film. It’s probably Miyazaki’s most straightforward tale, but it’s a perfectly structured adventure film brimming with the director’s unrivaled imagination. Two kids, Pazu and Sheeta, go on an adventure to find Laputa, the titular castle in the sky. A band of pirates, lead by the elderly yet energetic Dola (one of Miyazaki’s best characters), are also out to find the castle and its countless treasures. But a bigger threat looms in the form of the military, under the command of the mysterious Colonel Muska.

Again, it’s a simple adventure story, but flawlessly crafted, and the world it created has proven influential for a reason (the city of Laputa itself is perhaps second only to the bathhouse in Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away as the most indelible place in animation). The action set pieces utilize animation to send them over the top of what you would expect. They’re so exciting, in fact, that it’s a mystery Miyazaki never really tackled another full-on action-adventure film after this. A classic.

I feel like I don’t even need to introduce Die Hard. It’s one of the most iconic action movies of all time. It deserves mention alongside the likes of Terminator 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the greatest works of art in the genre (I would also add Speed to that running). And yes, it’s also one of the best Christmas movies of all time.

Taking place on Christmas Eve, New York police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting Los Angeles to reconnect with his estranged wife. He visits her at her place of business, the Nakatomi Corporation. But things quickly go south when a band of terrorists, lead by Hans Gruber (the late, great Alan Rickman) take over the building. John McClane then has to figure out a way to use what resources he has to take out the bad guys one by one if he wants to save the hostages.

Again, a simple premise, but perfectly executed. Besides how well made and exciting the action sequences are, there are a few key areas that make Die Hard stand out from other action movies: One of them is John McClane himself, a much more human and vulnerable action hero. Released in the late 1980s, Die Hard purposefully made John McClane contrast the seemingly invincible heroes of the genre played by Schwarzenegger and Stallone that dominated the decade. Sure, John McClane still survives things he probably wouldn’t in real life, but just barely. Notably, he just happened to take his shoes off right before the terrorists showed up, so his feet end up in a bad, bloody way before the end of things.

There’s also Hans Gruber, debatably the best villain in any action movie. He has a charisma and cunning about him that make him so much more memorable than other villains in the genre. We can’t forget Officer Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), John’s only ally outside of the building, who has an interesting story of his own. Then there’s the Nakatomi building itself. Setting all of the action inside one location proved to be a stroke of genius, and gives the film a strong sense of place.

Die Hard’s 90s sequels are also exceptional action flicks (I still haven’t seen the 2007 and 2013 entries), though they lack a number of the qualities that make the original still feel so unique. Al Powell is reduced to a cameo in the second film, never appearing again thereafter. Hans Gruber was never topped in the villain department. The scope grew, at the expense of a singular, iconic location. And John McClane slowly became the indestructible action hero he once defied. They’re solid sequels, sure. But the original Die Hard is the action classic.

And also a Christmas classic.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Eternals

I already wrote a review for Eternals, so mercifully I don’t have to delve too deeply into this mess again.

Suffice to say, it’s the worst entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No contest.

It’s a boring slog with a pessimistic attitude. It has an undeserved sense of self-importance. It conveniently retcons elements of the MCU’s world-building to try and make itself make sense. It’s… uhhh. Yeah.

Look, if you want to know more about why I don’t like it – and you don’t want to scroll all the way back up this wall of text for the last link – I’ll post the link again here.

On the plus side, Spider-Man: No Way Home seems to have brought audience attention right back to the MCU. So thankfully Eternals is already looking like a memory. A bad memory, but still.

Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Encanto (Ron’s Gone Wrong is a very close second)

One of my bad habits this year was seeing a number of great animated films and then not writing about them, such as Luca and The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. I have no idea why. On that subject, here are two other great animated films that were released this year that I still have yet to review: Disney’s Encanto and Ron’s Gone Wrong! Mayhaps I’ll catch up on these animated movie reviews before I start dedicating Wizard Dojo’s 2022 to video games.

Anyway, Encanto is yet another winner in Disney’s current hot streak of animation. Say what you want about Disney’s live-action output, but their animated films have never been better than they are now. I’d be ostracized from my generation for saying that. But with due respect to the ‘Disney Renaissance’ of the 90s, most of those movies were largely the same. The modern Disney era – whether you think it began with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, a year before that with Bolt, or the year after with Tangled – has provided an array of movies with a depth and variety that Disney has never seen before. It’s now also probably the longest hot streak in the studio’s history, so there’s that too.

Encanto tells a beautiful and heartfelt story about family, as Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), an ordinary girl in an extraordinary family, must figure out why her superpowered siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and mother are losing their magical powers.

It’s beautifully animated and has a great selection of songs (which I almost hate to admit, given they were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. But as Moana proved, Disney seems to be able to bring out a more creative side to him and it doesn’t all sound the same). A joy to the senses.

Bafflingly, Encanto was a box office disappointment. That breaks my heart. But now that the film is readily available on Disney+, hopefully it will find the audience it deserves.

Encanto is very worthy to hold the distinction of being Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 60th film.

While we’re here, let’s go ahead and give Ron’s Gone Wrong the “Pleasant Surprise of the Year” award. Seriously, “pleasant surprise” may be the best way to describe this movie. It was barely advertised, and those advertisements didn’t exactly look promising. I went to see it more out of curiosity than anything, but ended up seeing a sweet, emotional, wonderful movie.

Yes, it may look like a Big Hero 6 clone on the surface (but would that be so bad?), and its themes of an overreliance on technology and social media were already done relatively recently by The Mitchells Vs. the Machines. But Ron’s Gone Wrong has an identity of its own and ends up being a touching tale about friendship and loneliness.

Just writing about it now, I want to watch Ron’s Gone Wrong again. It’s currently available on both Disney+ and HBO Max. So if you have time for a movie, give this overlooked gem a watch. You’ll be glad you did.

Now seriously, why haven’t I reviewed these yet? I reviewed that piece of crap Eternals fast enough after I saw it, why not these actually great movies? There must be something wrong with me. Go ahead and call me ‘Scott’s Gone Wrong.’

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

I honestly had real trouble thinking about what would take my “Guilty Pleasure Award” for November, and not just because I didn’t watch any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. I really just don’t think I watched anything that fits that bill. I thought maybe the Bill & Ted movies – of which I hold the unpopular opinion that Bogus Journey is way better than Excellent Adventure – but no. I genuinely like them. I also thought about Home Sweet Home Alone, which I reviewed already and found to be mediocre and unmemorable, but harmless entertainment that was better than the other post-Macauley Culkin Home Alone movies.

In the end, I decided to go with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Even now, I don’t know if it really qualifies as a guilty pleasure. I find it to be thoroughly entertaining.

I decided to go with it for one specific reason: Home Alone 2 is basically Home Alone 1. It’s the very definition of a copy-and-paste sequel. However, if any sequel could get away with being so similar to the original, I suppose it would be Home Alone. It is, after all, just a story about a kid being left home alone on Christmas and outsmarting a duo of bumbling burglars. It isn’t exactly aiming for a deep, rich narrative. Sometimes, it’s okay to just have fun.

Home Alone 2 does have a couple of distinctions from its predecessor. The first difference is in its setting (It is called Lost in New York, after all), with Kevin McCallister now staying at the Plaza Hotel as opposed to his actual home. The second difference is that the film adds some secondary antagonists in the form of the hotel’s staff, with the concierge being played by Tim Curry (always a huge bonus).

Otherwise, Home Alone 2 is basically more of the same: the setup of Kevin being separated from his family. Kevin enjoying his time alone, before he inevitably begins to miss his family. Kevin is fearful of a local (this time it’s a Pidgeon Lady in the park), only to befriend them later. And he sets up a series of elaborate booby traps to defeat burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), who are also somehow in New York at the same exact time as Kevin ended up there by accident. But, as an added plus, the booby trap sequence here is longer and more brutal than the first movie, and is perhaps the best example of cartoon violence being done in live-action.

So yeah, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York may as well be called Home Alone Again: But in New York. But what it lacks in narrative creativity it makes up for in sheer entertainment. And I don’t really feel guilty about it.

My Month in Movies: December 2021

Movies watched

West Side Story (1961)*

My Neighbor Totoro

Being the Ricardos*

Spider-Man: No Way Home*

The Santa Clause

The Santa Clause 2

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause

Jingle All the Way

It’s a Wonderful Life

Best Movie I Watched All Month: My Neighbor Totoro

December may have been my slowest month of movie watching since I started doing these ‘My Month in Movies’ things, but it wouldn’t have mattered how many movies I watched, the crown was guaranteed to go to Totoro.

I say that with the utmost respect to It’s a Wonderful Life – truly one of the best movies ever made -but if there’s one movie I can think of that’s even more life affirming than It’s a Wonderful Life, surely it’s My Neighbor Totoro.

Hayao Miyazaki’s quiet tale about childhood, nature and life really is a one of a kind film. Truthfully, Miyazaki could have retired after Totoro and he’d still be the greatest filmmaker in animation. The fact that he continued to create so many classics afterward is nothing short of inspiring. One of those subsequent films, Spirited Away, is Totoro’s only equal as my all-time favorite film, animated or otherwise.

My Neighbor Totoro is the story about two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, as they move to a new house to be close to their ailing mother, who is being treated at a hospital. But their new house comes with a surprise, as just beyond it rests a giant camphor tree, which is the home of Totoro. The girls soon discover the animal-like spirit, and have many adventures together.

Totoro was Miyazaki’s follow-up to Castle in the Sky, which may be the most overt display of the director’s versatility. Going from the spectacle and set pieces of Laputa into the ethereal beauty of Totoro was something else. And none of Miyazaki’s artistry was lost in the transition.

My Neighbor Totoro remains Miyazaki’s most iconic film, with its titular character becoming the face of Studio Ghibli (adorning the opening of every film from the studio thereafter). It’s been said that young children in Japan believe in Totoro in a similar way to how children believe in Santa Claus (something which Miyazaki’s colleague and mentor; the late, great Isao Takahata, claimed was Miyazaki’s greatest achievement). Its reputation couldn’t be more deserved. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle and sweet movie I’ve ever seen. A masterpiece.

And let’s give a special shoutout to It’s a Wonderful Life. Because, well, we’re talking about It’s a Wonderful Life here! Famed director Steven Spielberg recently revealed It’s a Wonderful Life to be his favorite movie, and I’m not about to argue that. It deserves all the praise it’s received over the decades. If you tell me you can watch It’s a Wonderful Life without getting choked up and misty-eyed, well then, you’re probably either lying or a robot.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause

“Find someone who looks at you the way Jack Frost looks at Santa when he’s about to trick Santa into using a magic snow globe to inadvertently wish he had never become Santa so they both travel back in time and Jack Frost steals Santa’s job.”

Wow. Going from talking about My Neighbor Totoro and It’s a Wonderful Life to talking about The Santa Clause 3. Wow. Just… Wow.

1994’s The Santa Clause is actually one of my favorite Christmas movies. The tale of Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) becoming Santa after the former Father Christmas falls off his roof is unique in that it works as both a kids’ movie and a more complicated one for adults. It’s genuinely a really good Christmas movie.

The 2002 sequel, The Santa Clause 2, is definitely aimed more at youngsters. It doesn’t deal with the same complexities of adulthood as the original, but it works in its own way. It’s another guilty pleasure of mine (and would take that award for December, if not for another Christmas movie). And it’s got Tim Allen in a second role as a human-sized toy Santa who takes over the North Pole and becomes a dictator. So that’s fun.

But The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. Ouch. You thought The Santa Clause 2 was juvenile? It looks like Breaking Bad compared to its successor!

The Santa Clause 3 is basically about Jack Frost (Martin Short) plotting to take over the North Pole, already recycling the second movie. Also, Santa and Mrs. Claus are expecting a baby, so Santa brings his in-laws to the North Pole to visit, claiming he works at a toy factory in Canada to keep his status as Santa Claus a secret (he claims the elves are small Canadians, as one does). It’s silly.

None of the more grown up elements of the original are intact, nor does the film feel the need to give children a fun, coherent story like the second movie. Instead we just kind of get a series of hyperactive things happening, and Martin Short running around in a funny costume saying things (admittedly some of which are funny: “Did you just call me skillful and delicious?”). Did I even get into the time travel aspect of it yet? Yeah, Jack Frost and Santa go back in time to the events of the first movie and change history, so kind of like a Back to the Future Part II thing (but that’s giving Santa Clause 3 way too much credit).

Still, at least I can laugh at The Santa Clause 3. That’s more than can be said of Eternals.

Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Being the Ricardos

I saw the original West Side Story for the first time this month (I still need to see the new Spielberg one), and it was good. I also saw Spider-Man: No Way Home, and it was good. Maybe it’s because I’m more used to superheroes and musicals than I am biopics, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t aware of this movie until some friends invited me to tag along with them to see it and thus I was pleasantly surprised, but I’m going to give this honor to Being the Ricardos for the time being.

Being the Ricardos is the latest in a long line of biopics to be released in recent years. I admit I’ve only seen a few of them, but I really enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks and The Founder. While Being the Ricardos isn’t quite as fun as those movies, I still found it to be a good time.

Ricardos focuses on the inner workings of the production of I Love Lucy, during a particularly turbulent week for the show’s filming (with some additional flashbacks stretching the scope of the film’s story). It has a stellar cast, with Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball, Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, and my man J.K. Simmons as William Frawley. The cast may not necessarily look like the people they’re portraying (then again, Tom Hanks doesn’t look like Walt Disney, either), but the film has fun with transforming the actors to look more like the I Love Lucy cast in the moments in recreates scenes from the iconic show.

It’s got all the drama you would expect from a biopic, but of course a movie about I Love Lucy has to have some humor involved, and Being the Ricardos includes some genuinely funny bits. It may be a bit Oscar bait-y, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable all the same.

The film was simultaneously released in theaters and Amazon Prime, so I may have to watch this one again at home soon. I repeat, it’s got J.K. Simmons as William Frawley as Fred Mertz! Need I say more?

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Jingle All the Way

Is Jingle All the Way the best bad Christmas movie? I definitely think it makes a strong case.

The weirdly specific sub-genre of “take an action star and put them in a family comedy” was everywhere in the 90s, and even shows up today every now and again. I would say I don’t know why they keep trying, since there hasn’t been a good movie produced by the combination of action star and family comedy (that I can think of, anyway. Unless Last Action Hero counts). But then I remember how gloriously stupid Jingle All the Way is, and suddenly the genre makes sense.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger himself – the action star of the 80s and 90s – Jingle All the Way is a movie about a dad named Howard Langston trying to make up for his failings as a father by getting his son the toy of his dreams for Christmas. The problem is he forgot to get the hot-selling toy (a superhero named Turbo Man) ahead of time, and now that it’s Christmas Eve, it’s going to be impossible to find! It doesn’t help that he keeps running into a troublesome mailman named Myron (Sinbad) who’s after the same toy.

Using last minute Christmas shopping as the premise for a Christmas comedy actually isn’t a bad idea. It’s the kind of thing we’ve all been through, and that a movie could exaggerate for comedic effect. The problem (great thing?) is that Jingle All the Way exaggerates it so much, that the film ends up being completely bonkers.

Howard has to literally fight his way through a mall to get a raffle ball, gets tangled up with a group of Santa Claus conmen, and in one of the most ludicrous finales ever conceived by mankind, Howard becomes Turbo Man himself for a Christmas parade (complete with working jetpack), where he does battle against Myron, who dons the costume of Turbo Man’s nemesis. Oh yeah, all this while Harold’s pervy neighbor (the late Phil Hartman) keeps trying to put the moves of Harold’s wife. You know, kids’ movie stuff.

The movie is completely ridiculous. It’s dumb, goofy, and makes cosmic leaps in logic. Yet I find it impossible not to give Jingle All the Way at least one annual viewing towards Christmastime. It’s dumb fun. But the emphasis is on fun.

There are a number of good Christmas movies to watch around the holidays, but if you just want to have something you can have fun with and laugh at, Jingle All the Way has you covered.

I mean, how could you not be entertained by a movie that includes Arnold Schwarzenegger screaming the words “Put that cookie down! Now!”


Chapter 5: The Last One

I apologize that I once again have to cut my Christmas special short, chapter-wise (though the word count here is among my highest to date). Remember when I used to do eight chapters to these things? And that was not counting these ending parts which now are one of the numbered chapters. It’s kind of like how in Banjo-Kazooie, the final boss level was considered its own separate entity outside of the nine proper levels, but then Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Tooie included the final boss stage as part of their level count to try to hide the fact that they had less levels.

My point is that hopefully next year I can get started on my Christmas post earlier and do something extra special with it. I love Christmas. I made sure my site would celebrate its anniversary on Christmas Day for a reason (and not just because it would be easy to remember). So here’s hoping that I can eventually make these Christmas posts everything they should be.

At any rate, I hope you had a good time reading this. But more importantly, I hope you had a Merry Christmas, or happy Hannukah, or happy Kwanza! Happy everybody! Happy holidays to all!

I’ll see you in 2022… And by ‘see you’ I mean I’ll write some stuff here and maybe some people will stumble on it by sheer accident and decide to read it if they have nothing better to do.

Merry Christmas!

Spider-Man: No Way Home Review

Spider-Man: No Way Home is the third installment of the Spider-Man sub-series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It seems the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has had a strong influence on the direction of the MCU’s Spider-Man, with No Way Home introducing a multiverse into the series. While the whole multiverse concept is done to death these days (and often feels like a cheap means to “change up” a series and its characters), No Way Home at least uses the concept in a fun way to connect itself to the pre-MCU Spider-Man films (AKA the better Spider-Man films, at least in regard to the original Sam Raimi-directed features). While the merging together of different Spider-Man adaptations provides an entertaining feature filled with fanservice that I think is a step up from the previous Tom Holland-era Spider-Man flicks, No Way Home can feel a bit overstuffed at times, and it doesn’t always do right by the characters it brings back from yesteryear.

Taking place shortly after the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home, No Way Home sees the aftermath of Peter Parker having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Having been framed for the death of Mysterio, Parker becomes public enemy number one, with his worldwide infamy not only affecting his life, but also those close to him: his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).

With his life in shambles, and his loved ones suffering as a consequence, Peter Parker turns to his fellow Avenger Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to find a way he can get his life back to normal (I guess if you know a wizard, that’d be the person to turn to for answers). Strange says he can perform a spell that will undo the world’s knowledge of Peter Parker’s identity (in a scene I’m sure you’ve seen a hundred times in the trailer). But because Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is annoying and intrusive, he keeps bothering Dr. Strange during the spell, and the magic is botched. Not only does the spell fail to erase the world’s knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity, but it also starts summoning people from other universes who are aware of Spider-Man’s identity in their world. Namely, it starts bringing in Spider-Man’s foes from other worlds: Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Dr. Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), Flint Marco/The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx).

With all these villains on the loose, Dr. Strange instructs Peter Parker to help him collect these villains in order to send them back to their own worlds, as their continued presence in this world threatens the fabric of reality. But after learning of the sad fates that await each of his foes in their own world, Peter Parker starts to have second thoughts about his mission (though Sandman got off pretty easy in Spider-Man 3, if you remember).

The plot is a little… wonky, for lack of a better word. I love the idea of bringing back these past villains, particularly because the Sam Raimi era antagonists (the first two, anyway) were much better written than any baddie in the MCU (their inclusion here is basically Marvel’s way of admitting “yeah, we can’t do better villains than that. So just bring them back in our movie.”). But the setup of resurrecting these villains just feels kind of clunky. It gives off the impression that the filmmakers saw Into the Spider-Verse, and wanted to use a similar multiverse setup, and then had the idea to use that as a launching pad to connect the film to pre-MCU Spidey films and bring back the classic villains (an admittedly fun idea). But then they suddenly remembered they had that cliffhanger from Far From Home that they needed to address, and then scrambled to find a way to connect that cliffhanger with their multiverse/returning villains idea. And because these MCU Spider-Man movies love shoehorning in another Avengers hero, they decided to use Dr. Strange – a wizard – as an easy means to link their new concept and lingering plot thread together (because the MCU only acknowledges magic when it’s a convenient plot device).

“I gotta say, I’m getting really tired of Spider-Man being gifted with all these gadgets and gizmos from other Avengers. As if Spider-Man needs anything other than being Spider-Man to be cool.”

So the premise is weak. But at least it gives us a chance to revisit all these memorable foes of yesteryear, with the highlights of course being Willem Dafoe’s Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock (the latter of which I’ll still say is hands down the best villain in any Marvel movie). On the downside, No Way Home seems to take delight in poking fun of these characters and their movies as much as it pays homage to them, because of course the MCU just has to undercut anything serious or heartfelt with a snide remark or two.

The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, as campy as they could get at times, never felt the need to belittle their own stories for the sake of jokes. That might explain why I still remember them so fondly, whereas the MCU films have much less of an identity of their own (that, and the MCU’s constant need to hype up future movies at the expense of the story at hand). The Sam Raimi films could be cheesy, but they were honest and genuine in a way that even the best MCU films are not. Even Spider-Man 3, as messy as it was, was at least its own mess.

I mention this because, by bringing in characters from the past Spider-Man films, No Way Home inadvertently exposes the MCU for its over manufactured nature. We’ve seen this same Green Goblin and this same Doc Ock in other movies that had heart. No Way Home acknowledges that these villains have more to them than meets the eye, but it’s tough to say whether or not No Way Home has anything more to itself. Just as Green Goblin and Doc Ock are displaced from their time and place in the film’s story, they’re also displaced as complex villains from more genuine superhero movies who now find themselves in an increasingly pandering “cinematic universe” (fun though it may be). The films Green Goblin and Doc Ock came from had something to say. The MCU is always hyping what’s on the horizon, rarely taking the time to say much.

Annoyingly, the film makes the returning villains out to be not much of a threat on their own – being quickly beaten or outsmarted by MCU’s Spidey and Dr. Strange – and only banded together do the bad guys prove dangerous to the MCU heroes (because the MCU is childish like that and NO ONE CAN BE STRONGER THAN ITS CHARACTERS!). It’s just kind of weird how the film wants us to delight in the nostalgia these characters provide, only to undermine it by enforcing the idea that these characters aren’t as good as the new ones (a concerning trend in the MCU as of late). There are ways to make a current story feel more important without stepping all over the past. Maybe by caring more about the present and less about hyping the future? Just a suggestion.

I guess I shouldn’t say it’s all hype this time around. No Way Home gives a solid effort and has some strong emotional moments, but it still ultimately succumbs to some MCU-ness that takes some of that away. At least Tony Stark’s overbearing presence is no longer casting a shadow on these Spider-Man films, though you could say Dr. Strange simply takes over that role, conveniently just in time to build hype for his upcoming sequel.

“Dr. Strange knocking the soul out of Spider-Man… it’s almost symbolic of Strange’s role in the movie itself.”

Okay, I’m sounding pretty negative. But I suppose most of my complaints are more towards the MCU as a whole, and how it affects No Way Home, than they are with No Way Home itself. On the positive side of things, No Way Home brings fun back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Eternals saw fit to be an excruciating bore.

Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn’t skimp on the action scenes, and though they can’t quite match those of the recent Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the action scenes here are more visually distinct from most of those in the MCU. An early encounter against Doctor Octopus on a freeway over a bridge is a notable highlight (due in no small part that Doc Ock’s conceptually simple power of having mechanical arms on his back provides a visually perfect supervillain). A duel between Spidey and mentor Dr. Strange also delivers a visual spectacle (especially since it seems to unapologetically turn to the video game Portal for inspiration). And of course, No Way Home features plenty of great fanservice moments, perhaps more so than any other MCU film (Endgame be damned), seeing as it gives so many blatant callbacks to the original Spider-Man trilogy and the Amazing Spider-Man films in addition to the usual MCU fare. Again, some of the references are deprecating, which is disappointing. But when No Way Home pays proper respects to past movies, damn, it’s satisfying. Without spoiling anything, one moment in particular is probably the most touching piece of nostalgia/fanservice I’ve seen in a long time, and honestly gave me a lump in my throat. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s probably not the moment you’re thinking of. Or that other one. Or that other one. But it was special to me.

“The perfect Spider-Man villain doesn’t exi…”

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a very entertaining movie, even with its faults. It provides the crowd pleasing fun you’d expect from the MCU, and even has moments that pack an emotional punch. Simply seeing Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe back as Dock Ock and Green Goblin (and to a lesser extent, the other villains) is an utter joy. But it’s a shame the setup to it all feels a bit forced. It has plenty of merit, but Spider-Man: No Way Home can’t help but feel a bit cluttered, and the overarching MCU is starting to negatively affect the individual stories within it (I’m really not spoiling much by saying the end-credits sequence here is literally a trailer for the Doctor Strange sequel). As big as the MCU has become, it would do well for itself to learn from the movies that No Way Home borrows from.

“And the rest!”

I think my point can be summed up by the character of J. Jonah Jameson. While I couldn’t be happier that Marvel brought back the great J.K. Simmons to portray Jameson in the MCU (making him something of the “connective tissue” between Spider-Man’s cinematic past and present), the MCU version of the character is purely antagonistic. He’s a corrupt newsman who spreads misinformation and fearmongering. While the real-world parallels are timely, they come at the expense of the character himself, who’s now a one-note villain. Compare him to the Jameson of Sam Raimi’s trilogy: he was still a biased newspaperman who let his emotions get the best of him, but there was more to him than that. In the 2002 film, Jameson was loud, bombastic, and was out to smear the good name of Spider-Man, the hero we were meant to cheer for. But as soon as Green Goblin attacked Jameson in his office demanding to know “who takes the pictures of Spider-Man” for Jameson’s paper, without missing a beat, Jameson wouldn’t surrender Peter Parker’s name to the Goblin. The same character who up until that point was depicted as antagonistic comic relief was suddenly willing to risk his life to save someone he barely knew.

“The perfect comic book movie casting doesn’t exi…”

That’s the kind of character element that continues to make the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films so memorable. And it’s something the MCU is sorely lacking. Spider-Man: No Way Home tries to replicate that by bringing back the classic villains and the stories they entail. But it only seems to half-understand what it has on its hands. Either that, or it’s place in the MCU only makes it able to half-realize it.

To this day, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 is not only my favorite Spider-Man movie (sorry Into the Spider-Verse), but my favorite Marvel movie. And possibly one of my favorite movies outright. It had its faults and its cheesy moments, but damn it all, it had heart! Suffice to say, I don’t think Spider-Man: No Way Home poses any threat to displacing Spider-Man 2 as my favorite Marvel/Spider-Man movie. But in a way, No Way Home reminded me why I love Spider-Man 2 so much. I suppose that’s a victory in its own right.

7

The Lord of the Rings Turns 20!

“A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”

November had more than a few anniversaries to make us feel old, but now it’s December’s turn! Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in theater. That’s right, the first installment in cinema’s greatest trilogy first hit the big screen on December 19th 2001.

Wow, twenty years… On one hand, it really does feel like a distant and ever so fond memory, seeing Fellowship of the Ring in theaters for the first time. On the other hand, it’s so vivid in my mind it feels like it wasn’t long ago at all.

“I’ve certainly gotten good mileage out of this gif, haven’t I?”

The Lord of the Rings trilogy made fantasy mainstream (okay, Harry Potter also helped, but J.K. Rowling’s imagination was never on Tolkien’s level). It helped change the way movies are made, and revolutionized visual effects in a way similar to Star Wars, Roger Rabbit or Jurassic Park before it, and in a way I don’t think we’ve seen since.

Peter Jackson’s films proved to be perfect adaptations of Tolkien’s work. I know some purists would hate me for saying that, given the changes Jackson did make to the material. But keeping in mind that books and movies are different artforms, I feel those changes were necessary and complimentary to bringing Middle-Earth to life on screen. So yes, they are “perfect adaptations” in that sense. I honestly can’t imagine the Lord of the Rings films being any better. Both individually and as a collective trilogy, they easily rank highly among my all-time favorites, and may even be my favorite films that aren’t animated.

The Lord of the Rings films were (and are) so great, in fact, that even the Academy Awards, who are so averse to fantasy and seemingly allergic to imagination, couldn’t refrain from lavishing the trilogy with awards!

The quest to destroy the One Ring, an epic journey that has yet to be matched in cinema, first began two decades ago. And in those years, the trilogy hasn’t lost any of its luster or mystique. Peter Jackson’s later adaptation of The Hobbit couldn’t hope to match what was accomplished with The Lord of the Rings, though personally I think the Hobbit films are much, much better than they get credit for (they’re certainly better than other spinoff movie series we’ve seen, such as the Star Wars prequels and sequels, or the Fantastic Beasts movies). But it’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy that’s undoubtedly a timeless classic.

Come to think of it, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Spirited Away all celebrated their twentieth anniversaries this year. I think it’s safe to say that 2001 was easily the most impactful and influential year for fantasy films.

Happy twentieth anniversary, Lord of the Rings!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dedicate the next few days to watching the extended editions.