Monday, April 24, 2023

Kung Fu Panda - Series Retrospective (DreamWorks Animation Retrospective #3)

Expectations can be an extremely fickle thing when it comes to film. Sometimes there are films that folks are incredibly eager to see but ultimately end up disappointing them. Conversely, there are films that many people don’t expect a lot out of going in but, to their surprise, end up being way better than they anticipated. Case in point, as Rhode Island Movie Corner continues its series of retrospectives on the various films produced by DreamWorks Animation, today we’re tackling a franchise that is quite arguably one of the best examples of how you should never judge a book by its cover, the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. While it’s been nearly one and a half decades since the release of the original Kung Fu Panda in 2008, I still vaguely remember the overall uncertainty surrounding its release, especially since, in retrospect, this was right around the time when DreamWorks’ reputation for relying heavily on pop culture references was very much in full effect. But when it finally hit theaters, it did incredibly well with both critics and audiences to the point where it could very well be argued that it was one of the initial catalysts behind DreamWorks’ efforts to evolve as an animation studio. Thus, Kung Fu Panda promptly became another one of DreamWorks’ major franchises, with its three films collectively grossing nearly $2 billion worldwide; and as fate would have it, a fourth installment was recently confirmed for a 2024 release. So, with that in mind, let’s tag along with Po, the Mighty Dragon Warrior, and the Furious Five as we tackle the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. Skadoosh!

(Disclaimer: New verse, same as the first! For those who haven’t checked out my previous DreamWorks retrospectives, I’m only covering DreamWorks’ feature film output and won’t be going over any of the non-theatrical projects that their franchises have spawned; specifically, their numerous TV series spin-offs. In today’s case, this includes the franchise’s most recent installment, Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight, which debuted on Netflix this past summer and saw the one and only Jack Black reprise his role as the series’ main protagonist Po, which is notable because this was the first Kung Fu Panda TV series that Black was directly involved with (in the franchise’s previous televised outings, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness and Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny, Po was voiced by voice actor Mick Wingert).)


As noted in the intro, the original Kung Fu Panda was something that caught quite a lot of people by surprise back when it first came out in 2008. With a title that, admittedly, sounds incredibly goofy on paper and the fact that, at that time, a good chunk of DreamWorks films outside of the first two Shrek films weren’t doing too well with critics, it’s not that hard to imagine that a lot of folks probably figured that this would end up being another underwhelming release from the studio. And yet, when it came out, it was quite arguably DreamWorks’ most successful in-house release (not counting their collaborations with Aardman, which earned them a second Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2005 thanks to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) since Shrek 2. The reviews for it were excellent, it scored over $631 million at the worldwide box-office, and despite some controversy over claims of alleged vote rigging, it even managed to upset Pixar’s critically acclaimed Wall-E by winning that year’s Annie Award for Best Animated Film. Simply put, it was a hit, and when you watch the film even after all these years, it’s easy to see why. For starters, co-directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne and their team clearly went above and beyond to honor the Chinese roots that thoroughly shaped this film’s premise in practically every possible aspect of its production. From some beautifully animated segments that pay homage to the staples of Chinese artistry (i.e., shadow puppetry) to the utterly incredible action sequences that were seen as a game-changer when it came to staging fight choreography in Western Animation, Kung Fu Panda is an animated film that visually and artistically holds its own against some of the most iconic live-action martial arts films of all-time.  

But it also helps that the film is buoyed by a familiar yet effective underdog story in which main protagonist Po must prove himself to everyone who doesn’t believe that he is the mythical ‘Dragon Warrior’, the most powerful kung-fu master in the land. Po, as excellently voiced by everyone’s favorite fun-loving rockstar Jack Black, is a naturally sympathetic protagonist, thus making his classic hero’s journey a satisfying one to watch. In fact, Black’s casting even helped to steer Po away from the more jerkish persona that he was originally given during the early stages of production. Black is then joined by a considerably star-studded supporting cast, including Dustin Hoffman as the stern Master Shifu, who’s begrudgingly forced to try and teach Po kung-fu, Ian McShane as Shifu’s former protégé turned arch nemesis Tai Lung, and the quintet of Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Lucy Liu (Viper), Seth Rogen (Mantis), David Cross (Crane), and Jackie Chan (Monkey) as Shifu’s students, the famous Furious Five. With all this in mind, let’s return to what I said before about how a title like Kung Fu Panda may have seemed like a completely ridiculous idea when you first hear it because, at the end of the day, this film’s greatest accomplishment is that it proves to be far more than what its title suggests. In other words, as much as it does maintain the usual comedic sensibilities of a DreamWorks film, it also takes its plot seriously and neatly mixes in some highly effective emotional moments amidst all the wacky antics of a panda learning the art of kung-fu. It was, in a way, the antithesis of what a lot of DreamWorks films were like at the time, thus signaling a bold new era for the studio.

Rating: 4.5/5

KUNG FU PANDA 2 (2011)

The second installment of the Kung Fu Panda series proved to be a considerably significant release as a result of who was directing it. For this film, directorial duties shifted to the original film’s head of story (and director of its opening 2-D sequence), Jennifer Yuh Nelson. In doing so, Nelson became the first female director to have sole directorial credit on an animated film for a major studio and the first Asian-American to do so as well. And thanks to Kung Fu Panda 2 being another financial hit for DreamWorks, managing to surpass the first film’s worldwide total by earning over $665 million worldwide, that made it the highest-grossing film directed by a woman at that time. Sure, this record would be surpassed just two years later by Frozen earning over $1 billion, but since Disney Animation’s Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee shared directorial duties with Chris Buck on that film, Nelson would retain the record as a solo director for a few more years until 2017 when Patty Jenkins directed Wonder Woman ($822 million). But perhaps most notably of all, while Kung Fu Panda 2 technically has a lower score than its predecessor on Rotten Tomatoes (an 80% compared to the original’s 87%), I have seen many people proclaim this to be yet another example of a superior DreamWorks sequel following in the footsteps of Shrek 2 and the second and third Madagascar films. And while this may have been the first time that I’ve ever seen this film… I must say that I would have to agree.

Like the original, Kung Fu Panda 2 boasts incredible action sequences, and thanks in large part to the fast-break style that DreamWorks was beginning to adopt at that time as evident from films like Madagascar 3, that gives this film’s action sequences an even greater kinetic energy. But aside from maintaining the original’s brilliantly choreographed action and solid sense of humor, Kung Fu Panda 2 also delivers on some terrific emotional poignancy, arguably more so than the first film. As part of the main plot of Po and the Furious Five taking on the sinister peacock warlord Lord Shen, the film also begins to delve into Po’s backstory, showing that he was seemingly the only survivor of a full-on massacre of pandas initiated by Shen, who was told that he would be defeated by ‘a warrior of black of white’. Thus, Po was separated from his parents (both of whom presumed dead) and taken in by kindly noodle shop owner Mr. Ping. In short, because of Shen’s pivotal role in this turn of events (as well as his collection of powerful cannons that can straight-up kill off kung-fu masters), the wannabe despot, as excellently voiced by Gary Oldman, is a truly formidable and intimidating main antagonist. And so, with all that in mind, it’s easy to see why Kung Fu Panda 2 is, indeed, considered by many to be a superior sequel as it takes everything that was great about its predecessor and amplifies it all even further, thus resulting in an all-around crowd pleaser that cemented its franchise’s premier status.    

Rating: 5/5!

KUNG FU PANDA 3 (2016)

At the end of Kung Fu Panda 2, it is revealed that Po’s real father, Li Shan, did, in fact, survive Lord Shen’s massacre. Thus, in Kung Fu Panda 3, Po finally reunites with his long-lost dad (originally voiced by Fred Tatasciore in the second film but now voiced by Bryan Cranston in what is ironically his second-straight appearance in a DreamWorks threequel after Madagascar 3), who has been residing in a secret village full of pandas ever since that fateful day. At the same time, though, Po and company now find themselves dealing with their most dangerous opponent yet; Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons), a warrior from the Spirit Realm and former colleague of the late Master Oogway who has been hunting the masters of kung-fu for their chi as revenge against Oogway for sending him to the Spirit Realm a long time ago. Jennifer Yuh Nelson returned to direct this third installment, but to help ensure that it would be finished on time, she did have a co-director in longtime DreamWorks animator/story artist Alessandro Carloni. This was also one of the many DreamWorks projects at that time that the one and only Guillermo Del Toro was involved with, as he also had producing credits on films like Puss in Boots and Rise of the Guardians and would go on to create the Tales of Arcadia trilogy of TV shows that DreamWorks developed for Netflix. And as you might have guessed, Kung Fu Panda 3 was another critical and commercial success; while it may not have made over $600 million worldwide like both of its predecessors, it still did quite well for itself with over $521 million.

Critically, the film had the franchise’s second highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an 86% score though, from what I’ve seen, there have been some who feel that it doesn’t quite reach the same exact highs of Kung Fu Panda 2, which most likely stems from one key development. Tonally speaking, Kung Fu Panda 3 is, surprisingly, a much different kind of film compared to its predecessors as it is by far the most comedic-driven entry in the franchise. Whether it’s the running gag of Kai getting frustrated by the fact that no one knows who he is or the various side characters that Po meets at the secret panda village (each of whom has their own little quirk that comes into play during the final battle), Kung Fu Panda 3 explicitly relies more on its humor than any of its dramatic moments. As such, one could arguably describe this as the animated equivalent of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, especially because of how the MCU has often been called out for how it has consistently maintained that narrative approach throughout its run. And yet, as anyone familiar with my love of the MCU may have guessed, it goes without saying that I don’t have any major issues with this film’s decision to take that same kind of route. After all, as I’ve often argued with MCU films, just because a film is primarily comedic in nature doesn’t mean that it can’t deliver any high-quality emotional moments, and thanks in large part to the whole plot of Po reuniting with his father, Kung Fu Panda 3 still delivers some solid bits of emotional poignancy while also boasting the best animation out of any film in the series with its beautiful landscapes, vibrant color palette, and sharp and fluent character animation. Thus, while I do understand why some may find this film’s more lighthearted nature to be something of a step back for this franchise, that doesn’t stop Kung Fu Panda 3 from being another charming and entertaining animated film that presents an all-around satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

Rating: 4.5/5

And so, that concludes Rhode Island Movie Corner’s Retrospective on the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. Next time on the DreamWorks Retrospective series, we finally come to the franchise that I’m sure a lot of you folks have been waiting for, How to Train Your Dragon.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Favorite Films of Summer 2022 - As Voted by YOU!!!

Well, folks, another year of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s Annual End of Summer Fan Poll has come and gone, and as always, I couldn’t be happier with the results. As such, I’d like to start by thanking everyone who participated in this year’s event as well as anyone who helped to share it around on social media. Those who partake in the latter are particularly instrumental in giving this annual event of ours some attention, especially given that, to be perfectly blunt, I’m mainly just a freelance film critic who has been self-publishing my reviews/retrospectives/etc. on this site for the past decade. Case in point, some of you might have noticed that I extended the voting period for this year’s poll an extra day due to a special request from my older brother Chris, whose busy schedule kept him from partaking in the voting process before the end of my initial September 1st cutoff date. Had he not messaged me, this year’s poll would’ve ended with only 40 votes, and while it would’ve been the lowest turnout in this event’s history, it also wouldn’t have bothered me that much because, at the very least, I always hope to achieve a minimum of 40 votes every year because I feel like that’s a good round number for this sort of thing. Thanks to that one extra day of voting, what would’ve originally ended up being an event-low… turned into a record-shattering turnout of 119 (!!!) votes! This is the first year that our annual poll has managed to attract over 100 responses which, as you might have guessed, is a development that delights me to no end. Once again, I express nothing but gratitude to everyone who helped us reach this significant milestone. And so, with all that out of the way, let’s not waste any more time, folks, as we’ve got fourteen films to talk about today. Without further ado, these are the films that earned your many, many votes as your favorite films from the 2022 summer season.



We start things off with a film that, technically, was primarily a streaming release via Netflix. On paper, this may seem like an instant disqualification from being considered for this event given that I only focus on theatrical releases, but this film did see a brief theatrical release the week before it hit the service, which is something that Netflix has done before for other films such as Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, and the Shawn Levy directed Ryan Reynolds vehicle The Adam Project. This is also something that I can personally vouch for as a Team Member at the Universal Orlando resort as our on-site Cinemark theater has screened all these films on the big screen. And really, even if I didn’t have that sort of proof, it shouldn’t be that surprising that this got some form of theatrical release given that it’s the latest from the directorial duo of brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who, of course, are best known at this point for their work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where they’ve been responsible for some of its greatest outings like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Endgame. After a brief detour into arthouse territory with last year’s crime drama Cherry, the Russo brothers return to the genre that they’ve largely been known for in recent years with an adaptation of author Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel of the same name, the first of what is currently a 12-book series. Ryan Gosling headlines the film as the titular ‘Gray Man’ Court Gentry AKA Sierra Six, a long-time CIA assassin who, after his latest operation results in him taking out a former Sierra agent, is forced to go on the run after the rogue agent, Sierra Four, provides him with a bunch of information that exposes the corrupt business dealings of some of his CIA superiors.

What follows is, admittedly, an incredibly straightforward action-thriller plot that hits all the usual narrative beats that you’d expect from a story in which a highly trained government agent is targeted by his own organization when he uncovers its corrupt secrets. Whether it’s the gradual reveals of the main protagonist’s dark past or the use of some of his closest allies as bait (in this instance, his first handler and his medically afflicted niece), you’ve undoubtedly seen this kind of story play out before in other films and TV shows. Despite this, however, the film never drags at any point and gives plenty of opportunities for the Russos to display their talents when it comes to directing top-notch action sequences. And while the formulaic plot doesn’t give the film’s stacked ensemble cast a lot to work with, said cast is still quite strong, with Ryan Gosling headlining the film as well as someone as charismatic as Ryan Gosling can while being backed by solid supporting players such as Ana de Armas as Dani Miranda, the lone CIA agent who ends up teaming up with Six, and Billy Bob Thornton as his longtime handler Fitzroy. Ultimately, though, the biggest star of the show is Chris Evans in a delightfully against-type performance as Lloyd Hansen, the downright psychopathic mercenary who’s brought in to kill Six. In short, while it’s by no means the best project that either the Russos or longtime MCU screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have ever worked on, The Gray Man is still a largely well-tuned action flick. As such, it’s easy to see why this is being primed up to become a major franchise for Netflix, with both a sequel and spin-off (the latter being developed by Deadpool and Zombieland co-writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese) in the works.


At the time of this post’s publication, we are a little more than a week away from the release of one of the superhero genre’s most talked-about installments in recent years, Black Adam, the long-awaited live-action debut of the DC Universe’s infamous anti-hero and longtime rival of Shazam, which Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has been attached to for years. As it turns out, though, this wasn’t the only DC project that Johnson and his production team would work on as they also developed an animated film that would undoubtedly appeal to those who are arguably a bit too young for the darker and far more intense affair that Black Adam is shaping up to be. Directed by Jared Stern (best known for his work as a writer and creative consultant for the Warner Bros. produced LEGO films), DC League of Super-Pets is based around the Legion of Super-Pets, a squad of superpowered pets who are owned by members of the Justice League. Johnson, of course, headlines the project as Superman’s loyal canine Krypto the Superdog, who teams up with a bunch of rescues from an animal shelter who have all been given superpowers thanks to a batch of orange kryptonite to rescue Superman and the Justice League from a trap set by Lex Luthor and a diabolical guinea pig named Lulu. While the film didn’t make a lot of noise at the box office, only grossing about $199 million on a $90 million budget, it fared relatively well with critics and I think it’s safe to say that it must’ve performed even better with audiences. Plus, from what I’ve heard, it’s also quite nice that the film serves as a lovely tribute to the powerful and heartfelt bonds that can be formed between a pet and its owner.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the part about this film having a post-credits scene where none other than Black Adam makes an appearance along with his dog Anubis; both of whom are, as you’ve probably guessed, voiced by Dwayne Johnson.



Here we have the latest adaptation of one of the many works of legendary author Stephen King. The source material in question is King’s 1980 novel Firestarter, which follows a father and daughter, Andy and Charlie McGee, who find themselves targeted by a government group known as ‘The Shop’ that seeks to control the latter’s pyrokinetic abilities. This story was originally adapted to the big screen in 1984 in a film that was notable for being one of the earliest leading roles for Drew Barrymore as Charlie after her breakout debut in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It ultimately proved to be a dud with critics (King himself wasn’t too pleased with it either), but at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some out there who consider it to be a cult classic of its era. As for the new remake, it was produced by one of the leading forces behind the modern era of the horror genre, Blumhouse Productions, with Ryan Kiera Armstrong starring as Charlie and Zac Efron as her father Andy. It also notably featured a score composed by the legendary John Carpenter, working alongside his son Cody and frequent collaborator Daniel Davies as they’ve been doing for the past few years on projects such as the recent trilogy of Halloween films. Despite all this, however, this new take on Firestarter didn’t fare any better than the 1984 film did with critics; in fact, many argued that it was even worse by comparison. If anything, though, while it only did around $15 million at the box office, it did, apparently, get some sort of financial boost when it was paired with, ironically enough, the next film that we’ll be talking about during its opening weekend as part of a drive-in theater double feature.


Billed as not only the finale to the Jurassic World trilogy but also the entire Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World: Dominion saw the original Jurassic World’s director Colin Trevorrow return to close out the trilogy after J.A. Bayona stepped in to direct 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom due in large part to Trevorrow’s commitment at the time to Star Wars: Episode IX. And practically from the moment that it was announced, it was clear that Dominion was being set up to be the very definition of a film franchise’s ‘grand finale’, especially once it was revealed that the film would see the return of the original Jurassic Park’s lead trio of Sam Neill’s Alan Grant, Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler, and Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm. Goldblum had already made a brief cameo in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, but as for Neill and Dern, this was the first time that either of them had appeared in this series since Jurassic Park III back in 2001. But upon the film’s release, we once again found ourselves dealing with what has very much been the recurring trend for this franchise where, despite being the pop-cultural juggernaut that it is, it has never been able to match the same level of critical acclaim as the original Jurassic Park from 1993 with any of its sequels. In fact, Dominion ended up attracting some of the worst reviews of any film in the franchise with a series-low 29% score on Rotten Tomatoes, but as usual, this didn’t stop it from being another big hit at the box office. At the time of this post’s publication, it has just recently passed the same $1 billion mark that both of its predecessors reached.

Apart from the usual recurring criticisms that these films have faced regarding logistical gaps in their plots and questionable decisions made by their characters, it’s safe to say that one of the most talked-about ‘shortcomings’ of Dominion is how, despite bearing the Jurassic Park/World pedigree, it is surprisingly light on dinosaur-related set pieces. Instead, more time is spent on the film’s main plot of a sinister conspiracy orchestrated by Biosyn, the longtime genetics rival of John Hammond’s defunct company InGen, to unleash a plague of prehistoric locusts upon the world that will give them control of the global food supply market. And bear in mind, this film boasts the longest runtime of any film in the series at 146 minutes long, so it’s truly saying something when a Jurassic film is severely lacking in the main thing that people come to them to see, dinosaurs. At the very least, though, the action set pieces that are in this film (whether they have a dinosaur or not) are well-handled, with Trevorrow doing a nice job of upping his visual game when compared to the more sterile visual palette of the first Jurassic World. And if anything, it’s nice to see the return of the trio of Grant, Ellie, and Malcolm in a way that lets them play a prominent role in the plot instead of just being a bunch of cameos while also working quite well alongside World’s lead duo of Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.

At the end of the day, it’s clear that there are two distinct camps when it comes to one’s thoughts on the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World franchise. Obviously, there are quite a lot of folks out there who feel that this series peaked with Steven Spielberg’s 1993 original and hasn’t managed to recapture the same kind of cinematic magic ever since. But at the same time, there are also clearly folks out there who, even if they don’t think that any of the sequels are as good as the original, still like a decent number of them. I believe that this is a major reason why this series continues to be one of the most prominent film franchises of all time regardless of how poorly most of its films have fared with critics. They’ve certainly done well in this annual poll of ours, as the first Jurassic World was the third-place winner of 2015 with four votes total. The same, admittedly, can’t be said for Fallen Kingdom, which didn’t get any votes in the 2018 poll, but that uneventful showing was very much redeemed by Dominion’s solid turnout in this year’s poll, and for the most part, I think it’s easy to see why. As someone who’s on the side of ‘those who’ve liked if not necessarily loved most of the sequels’, Dominion is obviously far from being the franchise’s best outing but still has enough enjoyable moments in it to be a decently entertaining summer blockbuster. If anything, I give this film a lot of credit for how it managed to be one of the first big Hollywood productions that was able to overcome all the newfound complications that spawned from the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.



2010 saw the debut of Downton Abbey, a 1910’s/1920’s British period drama created by veteran screenwriter Julian Fellowes that followed the daily escapades of the aristocratic Crawley family, who reside in their luxurious Yorkshire estate that the show takes its name from. First debuting on the U.K.’s ITV network, the show was an immediate smash hit with both critics and audiences and proceeded to gain even more attention once it made its American debut the following year on PBS. In other words, it’s safe to say that it promptly became one of the most well-known shows of its time; think of it as the precursor to current hit period dramas such as The Crown and Bridgerton. With all this success under its belt, the series transitioned to the big screen in 2019 with a Downton Abbey film, and even though it had been four years since the show had ended in 2015, it proved to be a considerable critical and commercial hit. Thus, not long after Fellowes had completed work on the first season of The Gilded Age, it was confirmed that a sequel would be in the works, titled Downton Abbey: A New Era. In this film, the Crawley family simultaneously deals with a filmmaker’s use of their estate for a silent film and the mysterious revelation that the Dowager Countess of Grantham was gifted a South France villa by a recently deceased old flame of hers. With practically all the key members of the show’s massive ensemble cast reprising their roles, A New Era was widely touted as a satisfying bit of fan service that may not have reinvented the wheel but gave its fans exactly what they wanted.


Scott Derrickson may have backed out of directing the sequel to Doctor Strange, but by all accounts, this was ultimately for the best as it gave him and his longtime writing partner C. Robert Cargill the perfect opportunity to move ahead on a project that they’d been working on for years. Thus, instead of Derrickson and Cargill’s second go-around with the Master of the Mystic Arts, we got a 1970’s-set supernatural horror-thriller out of them in The Black Phone, an adaptation of the 2004 short story of the same name, first published in the 2005 short story collection 20th Century Ghosts by author Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King. Ethan Hawke, who had previously collaborated with Derrickson and Cargill in 2012’s Sinister, stars as ‘The Grabber’, a mysterious masked serial killer who has abducted multiple children from a small Denver neighborhood. His latest victim, a teenage boy named Finney, ends up being contacted by the spirits of the Grabber’s previous victims from the allegedly broken black phone in his basement cell, who then proceed to instruct him on how to escape. Despite only opening at the #4 spot at the box office during its opening weekend, The Black Phone went on to earn over $161 million worldwide, an excellent turnout for a film with a modest $16-18 million budget. And in a year that has given us a bunch of acclaimed horror films such as Ti West’s X and Jordan Peele’s Nope, The Black Phone was another one of the genre’s big hits. While some critics felt that it didn’t fully deliver on its horror elements, it was seen as a highly faithful adaptation of its source material that was fully bolstered by strong lead performances from not only the always reliable Ethan Hawke but also its young stars Mason Thames as Finney and Madeleine McGraw as his sister Gwen, who also seeks to help her brother after having psychic dreams about his predicament. In short, this was very much a success story for all involved, and just like when Edgar Wright gave us Baby Driver as his first film after leaving the first Ant-Man, Scott Derrickson proved that he wouldn’t be completely waylaid by an unrealized stint in the MCU.


While Pixar has continued to be one of the most prolific studios in the world of animation with a vast array of animated masterpieces that span nearly four decades of the studio’s existence, it can very well be argued that the Toy Story franchise still stands as their most iconic endeavor. After all, the original Toy Story from 1995 was the film that made them a household name and almost single-handedly revolutionized the art of computer-animated films. Since then, every mainline installment of the franchise has been a massive critical and commercial success, with the third and fourth films both securing Best Animated Feature Oscars and over $1 billion runs at the box office; 2010’s Toy Story 3 even managed to become only the third animated film in history to secure a Best Picture nomination. Simply put, the adventures of a bunch of toys who come to life when their owners aren’t around have become undeniable staples of the pop cultural zeitgeist, especially thanks in large part to their lovable cast of characters that are headlined, of course, by the dynamic duo of Woody the pull-string cowboy doll and Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger. And yet, while Woody has undoubtedly been the franchise’s main protagonist, Buzz has arguably been its biggest ‘mascot’ given all the pieces of spin-off media that he’s headlined, from the various Toy Story video games (including the widely beloved video game adaptation of Toy Story 2) to a series of hugely popular dark rides at various Disney theme parks. And in 2000, just one year after the release of Toy Story 2, Buzz would end up becoming the star of his own TV series spin-off (a first for a Pixar property), Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.

Developed by Walt Disney Animation’s television division and the duo of Mark McCorkle and Bob Schooley (who would go on to create another hit Disney animated series, Kim Possible), the show was largely a result of the television studio’s highly successful batch of productions in the ’90s and the rise of Disney’s direct-to-video market. During Toy Story 2’s transition from a non-Pixar produced direct-to-video sequel to a theatrical release directly developed in-house, McCorkle, Schooley, and Disney Afternoon mainstay Tad Stones crafted a spin-off series focusing on the ‘real’ Buzz Lightyear and his crew of fellow Space Rangers as they battled the evil Emperor Zurg. The result was a show that proved to be solidly popular with audiences to the point where, nowadays, many are surprised that it hasn’t yet been put on Disney+. It first debuted with a direct-to-video feature-length film, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins, and while Buzz was voiced by Patrick Warburton in the show, Tim Allen returned to reprise his role from the Toy Story films for the home video release. And while the film and show were traditionally animated, Pixar provided a computer-animated opening sequence for the film that was directed by Pixar animator Angus McLane. In 2022, McLane made his solo directorial debut (after previously co-directing 2016’s Finding Dory with Andrew Stanton) with a unique new take on everyone’s favorite Space Ranger, simply titled Lightyear.

Lightyear is presented as the in-universe feature film that would inspire the Buzz Lightyear toy line that, of course, spawned the Buzz toy that the Toy Story gang’s original owner Andy would get for his birthday in the first film. How does the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command series factor into this, you ask? Well, as McLane has put it, it’s now seen as the animated spin-off to the ‘live-action’ Lightyear film. Admittedly, this explanation caused quite a bit of confusion amongst audiences when the project was first announced due to all the crazy semantics behind it, but at the end of the day, I’d argue that it’s not as big of an issue as the internet made it out to be. However, the internet proved to have some other issues with this film upon its release; while not critically panned, it did face the same criticism that affected other ‘notoriously lesser-received’ Pixar films for not exactly having the most refined of screenplays. But as anyone who’s followed me on this site for several years knows, I’m not bound to the same ultra-high expectations that most of the internet has for all future Pixar films. Sure, Lightyear is, admittedly, a considerably straight-forward sci-fi adventure and ‘origin’ story for Buzz, but that’s not always a bad thing as this is still a highly entertaining film full of exciting action sequences, Pixar’s trademark gorgeous animation and a bunch of fun call-backs to various Buzz-related scenes and quotes from the Toy Story films. Plus, just because this is your standard tale of an established soldier who’s forced to work with a bunch of inexperienced rookies to save the day, that doesn’t mean that it lacks any of those classic Pixar tearjerker moments, such as when Buzz views the final video message given to him by his longtime friend Alisha Hawthorne before she dies.

Despite all the immense pressure that clearly must’ve come from having to take over Tim Allen’s most iconic animated role, Chris Evans is a fantastic fit as this film’s interpretation of Buzz Lightyear as he brings the same level of charisma here that he brought to the role of Captain America in the MCU. Keke Palmer, meanwhile, is equally terrific as Buzz’s main ally Izzy, Alisha’s granddaughter, who faces her own personal struggles in her efforts to become a Space Ranger just like her grandmother. They’re then backed by some incredibly entertaining supporting players such as Taika Waititi as their crew’s inexperienced yet happy-go-lucky recruit Mo, Dale Soules as the crotchety parolee (and demolitions expert) Darby, and of course, the film’s best character, Buzz’s loyal robotic cat companion Sox (voiced by Pixar regular Peter Sohn). Heck, I was even fine with this film’s big twist revolving around its version of Buzz’s arch-nemesis Zurg, who’s revealed to be an older Buzz from an alternate timeline… which, I’m aware, is a debate that I’m very much in the minority on. Were folks just mad that this film didn’t maintain the gag from Toy Story 2 in which a Zurg toy tells the other Buzz Lightyear toy that tags along with Andy’s Buzz and the gang that he’s his father? Because if so… I don’t even recall the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command series retaining what was primarily just a homage to the iconic Darth Vader reveal scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Whatever the case, Lightyear is yet another fine addition to Pixar’s legendary filmography that truly didn’t deserve to become another one of its box-office bombs, especially because of all the lame conservative outcry that occurred over a moment in the film where Alisha shares a kiss with her wife Kiko.



First published in 2018, author Delia Owens’ murder mystery novel Where the Crawdads Sing, which follows a young self-raised woman from the marshlands of North Carolina named Kya who is accused of murdering her ex-boyfriend Chase, proved to be a big hit with audiences. The book has sold over 15 million copies as of this year and has maintained a spot on the New York Times’ Best-Seller List for the past three and a half years. Much of that success came from it being recognized by the official book club of Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine; as you might have guessed, this then naturally resulted in Witherspoon and her team securing its film rights. Backed by all that (plus the benefit of having Taylor Swift record a single for the soundtrack, ‘Carolina’), the film adaptation ended up being just as big of a financial hit as its source material, grossing over $135 million worldwide on its modest $24 million budget. Critics were a lot more split on it, however, with several feeling that it suffered from an uneven tone as it shifted between being a murder mystery and a romantic drama. And yet, that clearly did nothing to dissuade fans of the book from showing their support for the film, and despite its mixed critical reception, lead actress Daisy Edgar-Jones earned rave reviews for her performance as Kya. In short, there’s no denying all the hype that this adaptation generated.



No matter how much it may be the utter bane of many folks’ existence, there’s no denying that the Despicable Me franchise has been an unstoppable juggernaut in the world of animation. Not only was it responsible for immediately turning its production company, Illumination, into a genuine box-office rival to the likes of Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks, but since every installment of the series has been a massive financial hit, it currently stands as the highest-grossing animated film franchise of all-time. And so, after being absent from the big screen for half a decade, this year saw the return of Universal and Illumination’s biggest cash cow with Minions: The Rise of Gru, a follow-up to the 2015 spin-off/prequel Minions, which focused solely on the franchise’s titular collection of goofy yellow banana-loving henchmen in the time before they found their ideal leader, Gru. But as you can undoubtedly guess from the title of this sequel (that’s also technically still a prequel since Gru is only eleven here), this film gives the series’ main protagonist (once again voiced by Steve Carell) a more prominent role as the young wannabe supervillain crosses paths with a legendary supervillain group known as the Vicious 6. And to the surprise of no one, Minions: The Rise of Gru has been one of the highest-grossing films of the year, currently running at over $928 million worldwide. Critically, the film ended up being on par with the first two Despicable Me films rather than the duo of Minions and Despicable Me 3, with the consensus being that, above all, this series continues to successfully appeal to its target audience. Thus, with a fourth Despicable Me film on the way for a 2024 release, it’s safe to say that this series is still going strong over a decade since its initial debut.



For the past decade, one of the most popular animated sitcoms in a field dominated by the likes of The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park has been Bob’s Burgers. Created by Loren Bouchard (co-creator of Adult Swim’s Home Movies), the series follows the titular Bob Belcher and his family (his wife Linda, their two daughters Tina and Louise, and their son Gene) as they go about their daily lives running their family’s burger joint. With several awards under its belt (including two Primetime Emmys) and a considerable fan following, Bob’s Burgers has very much become a prominent staple of the pop cultural zeitgeist, and sure enough, the show continues to run strong to this day, having just recently concluded its 12th season with a 13th on the way. And if that wasn’t enough, Bob’s Burgers fans were given an extra treat this summer as the series followed in the footsteps of another Fox animated series, The Simpsons, by getting its own theatrically released film. In The Bob’s Burgers Movie, the Belcher family works to save their restaurant from being shut down when a massive sinkhole forms right in front of it. Sadly, the film didn’t do too hot at the box office, only grossing around $34.2 million on a $38 million budget. However, that didn’t stop it from attracting strong reviews from both critics and audiences. Sure, there was some debate regarding the overall necessity of it being a theatrical release (or, in other words, to paraphrase an observation made by Homer Simpson in The Simpsons Movie, why pay for something that you already watch for free on TV?), but regardless of all that, many agreed that the series’ strong writing and well-developed characters were successfully carried over to the film, resulting in an undeniable crowd-pleaser for its fans.  


Ever since the release of the first Thor back in 2011, the titular Asgardian God of Thunder has been a mainstay of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, forming one-third of the series’ equivalent to the DC Universe’s Trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman alongside Iron Man and Captain America. Despite this, however, Thor’s arguably had the rockiest run of any main protagonist of the MCU when it comes to the overall reception of his solo outings. While the first Thor was a solid critical and commercial hit, it’s not exactly seen as one of the MCU’s best films nowadays. The same can be said for its 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World… which, in part due to its rather troubled production, is widely seen as one of the MCU’s weakest films if not the absolute ‘worst’. This, along with Chris Hemsworth’s growing disillusionment with the role at the time, left Thor’s future in the MCU rather uncertain by the end of Phase 2; thankfully, that changed once Phase 3 rolled around and we got Thor’s third solo outing, 2017’s Thor: Ragnarök. At a time when Marvel Studios was beginning to recruit some of its most unique choices for directors, Ragnarök saw them bring in Taika Waititi, best known for his quirky comedies such as 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows. And under his direction, Thor: Ragnarök was the first of the MCU’s Thor films to truly embrace the wackier parts of its cosmic source material, resulting in one of the most visually striking and downright hilarious installments of the MCU that instantly became one of its best-received releases. So, naturally, this then led to Waititi being brought back to direct the fourth Thor film, Thor: Love and Thunder, thus making Thor the first MCU protagonist to headline four solo films (not counting, of course, his appearances in other films, whether as a brief cameo or part of the Avengers films).

All this, along with the reveal that the film would see the return of Thor’s ex-girlfriend Jane Foster, taking on her newly minted role from the comics as being worthy of wielding Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir and becoming his female counterpart AKA the Mighty Thor, seemed to poise Love and Thunder as yet another runaway hit for the MCU. And yet… that wasn’t exactly the case when the film hit theaters. It wasn’t downright panned or anything and it obviously did well at the box office like every other MCU film has done (currently standing at around $760 million worldwide), but unlike the largely critically acclaimed Ragnarök, Love and Thunder was surprisingly far more polarizing amongst critics and audiences to the point where, I’ll just say it, some folks out there seemed particularly enraged by it. Its 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is the lowest ‘Fresh’ score that any MCU film has gotten to date (only surpassing the franchise’s first Rotten-rated film, last year’s Eternals (47%)) and is even lower than The Dark World’s 66% rating. This has straight-up led to some debate over whether the MCU has been starting to lose its touch given the mixed reception that some of its Phase 4 films have been getting… which, to be perfectly frank, is an argument that I strongly disagree with given the high marks that films like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Spider-Man: No Way Home have gotten. And, of course, there are all the new MCU shows that have come out on Disney+, which have arguably fared even better with critics and audiences; simply put, the MCU clearly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon no matter how much its biggest critics want it to die off.

But to go back to Thor: Love and Thunder, I’m utterly baffled as to why this film is being treated like it’s some sort of plague upon the superhero genre and why someone as lovably goofy as Taika Waititi has suddenly become so hated online to the point where some jackasses tried to destroy his career by digging up old tweets a la the whole situation with James Gunn a few years ago that temporarily got him fired from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Well, okay, to be perfectly blunt, I do know why this film has gotten so much flak as it has everything to do with the light-hearted tone and atmosphere that Waititi has brought to his two Thor films. But when I say that I don’t get it, I truly mean that because, to be clear, this was one of the main reasons why Ragnarök was such a big hit… and yet, in Love and Thunder’s case, it’s now being argued that this ruins the film because it diminishes the impact of its big emotional moments. However, both these films have several instances that firmly disprove what I feel to be one of the biggest myths surrounding Waititi as a filmmaker; the argument that he’s incapable of producing highly effective emotional moments. In Ragnarök, this included scenes like Thor and Loki’s last moments with their father Odin before he dies and the scene where Thor expresses his disappointment at how Loki ultimately became his foe rather than his greatest ally, which Loki reacts to in a solemn manner rather than delivering one of his usual snarky retorts. That latter scene is one of my favorite emotional moments in the entire MCU and is often overlooked because everyone focuses on what comes right after that, Thor and Loki’s ‘Get Help’ routine.

As for Love and Thunder, yes, I’ll fully admit that it is quite arguably the MCU’s most light-hearted installment to date thanks in large part to, of course, Taika Waititi’s style of direction. However, that doesn’t mean that this film lacks the kind of strong emotional moments that the franchise has always been known for, and in this instance, that mainly comes via its handling of the storyline of Jane Foster’s losing battle with cancer, something that not even her newfound powers as the Mighty Thor can stop. Every sequence that addresses Jane’s cancer is treated with the utmost respect and it all culminates in the film’s devastating finale in which Jane finally succumbs to it but did so on her own terms by joining Thor in the fight against Gorr the God Butcher to help save the kidnapped children of Asgard. This then results in Thor convincing Gorr to give up his plan to kill all the gods, instead using the powers of Eternity to revive his lost daughter, Love. And once Gorr dies as well from the effects of his cursed weapon, the Necrosword, Thor agrees to look after Love, having finally begun to figure out his lot in life in a finale that, in a refreshing turn of events, didn’t end up being your typical superhero/supervillain fight. Plus, to make this whole ending even more touching, Love is played by Chris Hemsworth’s daughter India, while Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, and Taika Waititi’s children all have minor cameos in the film as Asgardian children. All this, at the end of the day, helps me to sum up why I strongly believe that this film has gotten way too much of a bad rap.

I’ll fully concede that Thor: Love and Thunder is far from being the MCU’s most visually polished or narratively-sound installment; however, I’d also argue that the film makes up for all of that by being one of the MCU’s most personal endeavors. I already mentioned the fact that the kids of both the film’s director and its stars all appear in it, but because of its uncynical atmosphere and considerable number of heartwarming moments, this is a film whose heart is very much in the right place as an undeniable labor of love. Hell, it’s even in the damn title of the film, LOVE and Thunder. And so, because of that, I can forgive the fact that this film often feels like an improv-driven buddy/romantic comedy that seemingly goes along without much of a purpose because, for one thing, it does have a purpose (and a sweet one at that). As for its strong emphasis on its humor, as someone who loved Ragnarök because of all the great comedic touches that Taika Waititi brought to it, this didn’t bother me in the slightest. Instead, I’m just left wondering yet again why some folks have a completely irrational hatred for the implementation of humor in the superhero genre because I’d argue that, without it, you’re left with a dour and soulless film that’s the exact opposite of what this genre should be (I’m looking at you, Snyder Cut…). Whatever the case, Thor: Love and Thunder is precisely the kind of fun and easy-going superhero film that I always love to see from the MCU; as Thor himself would put it, it’s another “classic Thor adventure”!



As I alluded to earlier when I discussed The Black Phone, Scott Derrickson, by all accounts, seemed primed and ready to direct the follow-up to the first Doctor Strange when it was officially announced in 2019. And if that wasn’t enough, that initial reveal became even more enticing when it was announced that it would be the MCU’s first proper horror film, which was very much fitting given Derrickson’s extensive history with the genre. But then, right at the start of 2020, Derrickson ended up backing out of the project due to creative differences with the Marvel Studios team, reportedly due to them not being completely onboard with some of the more radical ideas that he had in mind for it. Thankfully, this didn’t end up completely hindering either party as Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill finally had the opportunity to develop their adaptation of The Black Phone while Marvel quickly found a replacement who would naturally maintain the horror route that they were going for in Sam Raimi. Obviously, Raimi is no stranger to the horror genre thanks in large part to his iconic trilogy of Evil Dead films, but at the same time, he’s also, of course, no stranger to the superhero genre either as he was a major factor behind its big revival in the early 2000’s thanks to his trilogy of Spider-Man films. Plus, to make this development even more ironic, Spider-Man 2 included a nod to the Master of the Mystic Arts 12 years before he ever debuted on the big screen in a scene where J. Jonah Jameson’s assistant Hoffman name-drops Dr. Strange as a possible name for the film’s main antagonist, Doc Ock, which Jameson likes but then immediately notes that “it’s taken”.

Right off the bat, one of the best things about this film is how it is very much a Sam Raimi-directed MCU film. No matter how much flak the MCU has gotten over the years for allegedly never letting its directors display their full creative talents, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a prime example of the antithesis of that argument as it’s full of Raimi’s directorial trademarks. Thus, you get everything from his wacky and creative camera tricks (including a whole bunch of POV shots) to having his go-to collaborator Bruce Campbell appear in a cameo that, naturally, results in Campbell beating himself up. Raimi even gets to flex his horror muscles in ways that you wouldn’t expect from a film from the largely family-friendly (and Disney-backed) MCU with some of its utterly brutal character deaths. Through it all, though, Raimi, just like when he made the Spider-Man films, also does a great job of balancing the film’s most intense moments with the kind of fun and light-hearted spectacle that the MCU has always been known for. In other words, as much as this is, indeed, the MCU’s first true ‘horror’ film, it still has all the classic MCU trademarks such as all the great bits of humorous banter between characters and some incredibly stunning visuals, the latter of which being something that the Doctor Strange films have always excelled at thanks to its characters’ magical abilities. And given this film’s Multiverse of Madness subtitle, it goes without saying that it certainly takes full advantage of its premise when it comes to highlighting all the unique alternate universes that the characters end up visiting, doing so in a way that makes it more than just simple fanservice.

However, at the same time, I’d argue that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness doesn’t rely on the concept of the multiverse as extensively as last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. Nothing against that film, for the record, but in its case, the multiverse was arguably the most integral part of its plot, hence the highly anticipated appearances of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s versions of Spider-Man and their respective villains. And sure, the same can be said for Multiverse of Madness in a lot of places, including its own line of cameos ranging from the genuinely unexpected like Anson Mount returning to play Black Bolt after the disastrous Inhumans series (albeit an alternate universe Black Bolt but the point still stands…) to ones that fans have been wanting to see for a long time such as John Krasinski as the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards AKA Mr. Fantastic. But whereas Maguire and Garfield ended up playing significant roles in No Way Home’s finale, the cameos in Doctor Strange are just that, cameos. As a result, it could be argued that the multiverse is used more as the setting for the events of the film rather than its most significant driving force. And in this instance, I’d argue that this is a good thing because it doesn’t take away from all the big character beats in this film, including the big reveal of its main antagonist; none other than the Scarlet Witch herself, Wanda.

Yes, the longtime Avenger becomes Multiverse of Madness’ main antagonist as it’s revealed that she seeks the powers of multiverse-jumping teenager America Chavez to travel to a universe where she can be with her two sons, Billy and Tommy, who, in the main universe, were only part of the elaborate hex that she created during the events of WandaVision. However, I think it’s safe to say that this ended up being the most controversial aspect of the film because, simply put, many of Wanda’s diehard fans didn’t take too kindly to this development, especially in the wake of, as I just alluded to, her standout turn in WandaVision. And yet, at the risk of pissing those folks off, this was ultimately the best route to take and one that made sense given what we’ve seen from Wanda in previous MCU films and shows (most notably, her takeover of the town of Westview and how much it negatively affected its residents even though it wasn’t an intentionally malicious act on her part). Plus, because Wanda has had a lot of great character development these past few years… technically, that automatically makes her one of the MCU’s best antagonists because she’s arguably its best example yet of a villain who may be committing horrible actions but does so with a sympathetic motive bolstered by all the devastating tragedies that she’s endured. Thus, by the end of the film, Wanda does finally realize how far she’s gone when she displays her dark side right in front of the Earth-838 versions of Billy and Tommy and willingly sacrifices* herself to destroy the artifact that was corrupting her, the Darkhold, but not before being assured by her Earth-838 counterpart that Billy and Tommy will be all right.

(*EDITOR’S NOTE: I use the term ‘sacrifice’ loosely here because, as is often the case with the world of comic book superheroes, it’s not completely clear if the destruction of the Darkhold’s eternal shrine, Mount Wundagore, truly resulted in her demise…)

But while Wanda’s heel turn obviously takes up a good chunk of the film’s focus, that doesn’t mean that it forgets to be a Doctor Strange film first and foremost, and sure enough, the MCU’s resident Master of the Mystic Arts gets some great character beats of his own; in fact, they’re arguably some of the best that he’s ever had in this entire franchise. In Strange’s case, much of his character growth revolves around him finally gaining the courage to move on from his most devastating losses that have often left him disconnected from his friends and family, such as when he recounts the tragedy of his sister Donna’s death when she drowned in a frozen lake when they were kids to his Darkhold-corrupted variant. This also includes him coming to terms with his failed relationship with his longtime girlfriend Christine Palmer, who marries another man at the beginning of the film. After spending a lot of time working alongside the Christine of Earth-838, whose relationship with that universe’s Strange also went downhill, Strange tells her that “he loves her in every universe” and that he’s never been able to admit something like that before because he’s scared of losing the people that he cares about the most, resulting in Christine encouraging him to “face his fears” before they go their separate ways. It’s also nice that Rachel McAdams got a lot more to do this time around as Christine instead of just being the passive love interest that she was in the first film. As for the rest of the main cast, newcomer Xochitl Gomez makes one hell of a great first impression as the wholly sympathetic America Chavez while Benedict Wong continues to be one of the MCU’s best supporting players from both a comedic and badass perspective as the newly minted Sorcerer Supreme, Wong.

Upon its release, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness became yet another financial hit for the MCU. Undoubtedly banking on all the hype surrounding Sam Raimi’s hiring as its director (plus, I’d argue, the benefit of having its teaser trailer serve as the billion-dollar grossing Spider-Man: No Way Home’s post-credit sequence), the film has grossed over $955 million worldwide, easily making it the highest-grossing film of Raimi’s career. But to go back to what I said when I first introduced this film, it did attract some polarizing reactions amongst critics and audiences the same way that Thor: Love and Thunder did. Granted, I wouldn’t say that this was ‘as polarizing’ as Love and Thunder as it did relatively well with critics but believe me when I say that I have seen the same kind of surprisingly hostile reactions directed toward this film for reasons that can range from the decision to make Wanda the villain to those who let their expectations get the better of them when it comes to this film’s cameos. Ultimately, though, I’d argue that this film’s consistent subversion of expectations is one of the biggest reasons why it very much succeeds at everything that it’s trying to be, whether it’s a fun little adventure across the MCU multiverse (complete with a whole bunch of fun cameos) or a classic Sam Raimi horror film that’s full of dark and disturbing imagery… but also a hilariously morbid sense of humor.



While he may only have a couple of directorial credits to his name, Baz Luhrmann is undoubtedly one of the most unique filmmakers in the industry thanks in large part to his distinct directorial style, from his lavish visuals to the extensive soundtracks that run throughout his work. As a result, this has produced films that, while sometimes polarizing amongst critics and audiences, are easily some of the most talked-about releases of their time, whether it’s his Oscar-winning jukebox musical Moulin Rouge or his ambitious adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The same can very much be said for his latest endeavor, a biopic covering the life and career of one of the most iconic performers of all time, the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. But as Luhrmann has gone on record stating, he didn’t just want to do a standard Elvis biopic; thus, while the film does cover Elvis’ rise to fame and the events that led to his tragic death at just 42, it's also a portrait of America in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, highlighting both the cultural landscape that created Elvis and the cultural landscape that he himself created. In doing so, it could even be argued that the film is willing to address one of the most prominent long-standing controversies surrounding Elvis; how he was heavily influenced by African American music but, in his rise to fame, arguably left the very musicians who paved the way for his success historically overlooked. To be clear, though, that doesn’t mean that this is intended to be a deconstruction of Elvis’ legacy. The only reason why I bring up that controversy at all is because I’m well aware that there are plenty of folks out there who aren’t as enamored by Elvis as the rest of the world.

Regardless of your views on the man himself, however, the film does succeed in conveying how devastating the tragedy behind Elvis’ decline was because, at the end of the day, he was an all-around affable young man with unmistakable potential as a performer who got royally screwed over by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, every step of the way. It’s a true emotional rollercoaster to go from the satisfying moments in which Elvis manages to defy the demands of the Colonel and flex his talents… only to then have those brief moments of gratification immediately upended by the Colonel’s latest scheme. As such, Elvis does come off as a very sympathetic figure here and a lot of this is thanks to who’s playing him. As pretty much everyone else has already said, Austin Butler utterly kills it in the title role, perfectly embodying the spirit of Elvis without ever falling into the trap of being nothing more than an imitation of the man. And while your mileage may vary a lot more when it comes to Tom Hanks’ over-the-top performance as Colonel Parker, it’s still very much in line with Luhrmann’s flashier style of directing and Hanks, as you’d expect, has an undeniable screen presence. Thus, apart from a few minor issues such as it being perhaps a bit too overlong at nearly three hours long and a surprisingly limited supporting role for Olivia DeJonge as Elvis’ wife Priscilla, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a thoroughly engaging cinematic portrait of an indisputable American icon.



Let’s flashback for a moment to the start of this year; at that time, if you were to tell me that Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited sequel to 1986’s era-defining box-office sensation Top Gun, would end up becoming the biggest film of 2022, I’ll admit that I would’ve been rather skeptical about that. That’s nothing against the film, for the record, as Tom Cruise’s undeniable star power would’ve surely helped it do excellently at the box office regardless of how it would fare with critics and audiences; however, I think it’s safe to say that up until its release, we are all severely underestimating how truly big of a hit it would ultimately be. Whereas the original Top Gun rests extremely close to the Fresh/Rotten threshold on Rotten Tomatoes with a 58% rating, Top Gun: Maverick boasts a 96% rating on the site, easily making it one of the best-reviewed films of the summer. And if that wasn’t enough, it also managed to become the first film of the year to reach the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office. That, especially, is an impressive feat seeing how, at this point, the only films that tend to reach that milestone are superhero films, animated films, and live-action Disney remakes; you usually don’t see that happening for legacy sequels that were released nearly four decades after their predecessors. Currently standing at around $1.47 billion, it’s among the Top 5 highest-grossing films of all time domestically and just shy of the Top 10 highest-grossing films worldwide. In short, it’s an all-around success story for everyone involved, including director Joseph Kosinski, who’s come a long way since he made his directorial debut in 2010 with another long-overdue sequel to an 80’s classic, Tron: Legacy.

But if you’re someone like me who, admittedly, took a long time to get around to seeing this film (for reasons that I won’t be getting into today…), it only takes a single viewing to see exactly why it has become such a phenomenon. For starters, it goes without saying that thanks in large part to Tom Cruise’s well-established preference for doing practically filmed action sequences, Top Gun: Maverick’s air combat sequences are incredible, expanding upon the terrific flight sequences of the original Top Gun with all the benefits of modern-day technology headlined, of course, by the extensive use of IMAX cameras. But aside from that, Top Gun: Maverick also surpasses its predecessor from a writing standpoint by boasting a story with stronger emotional poignancy. Don’t get me wrong, the original Top Gun had its fair share of solid emotional moments, namely revolving around the death of Maverick’s wingman Goose, but Maverick expands upon that in several ways. Whether it’s major plot points such as Maverick’s struggle to confront his strained relationship with Goose’s son Bradley AKA Rooster (and the urgency he feels in ensuring that Rooster doesn’t succumb to the same fate as his father) or the context behind the singular sequence in which Val Kilmer reprises his role as Iceman that respectfully works around Kilmer’s real-life battle with throat cancer, Top Gun: Maverick has a surprisingly consistent emotional throughline running throughout. In other words, whereas the original Top Gun was more focused on its air combat sequences, Top Gun: Maverick, while still working with a relatively straightforward plot, does a better job of balancing its story with its set pieces.

It's also worth noting that the film manages to pull all this off… even though it could very well be argued that there are several instances in which this film often feels like a modern-day remake of the original Top Gun. Whether it’s a nearly shot-for-shot recreation of the original’s opening sequence (complete with, of course, the use of Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’) or a scene involving the main characters partaking in a beachside sport (football in this instance instead of volleyball), there are several sequences in this film that clearly mirror all the key moments from its predecessor. But like I said before, the fact that this film does a better job of balancing its story and characters with its jaw-dropping set-pieces helps to alleviate the potential shortcoming of it being accused of being nothing more than a rehash of everything that came before it. And while this is a case like the original film where most of the supporting cast outside of Maverick and Rooster are given generally straightforward bits of character development to work with, the film boasts an excellent ensemble cast nevertheless. Tom Cruise naturally headlines the film the same way that he’s done in all his big action films as he easily slips back into his iconic role of Maverick while Miles Teller is equally terrific in the role of Rooster. They’re then backed by solid supporting turns from the likes of Jennifer Connelly, who is, admittedly, a standard love interest for Cruise as Maverick’s old flame Penny Benjamin but does have great chemistry with him, Val Kilmer in his brief yet poignant appearance as Iceman, and Rooster’s fellow Top Gun recruits such as Glen Powell as ‘Hangman’, this film’s Iceman to Rooster’s Maverick.

And so, in conclusion, to return to the topic of explaining why this film became the biggest hit of the year… well, the answer is quite simple, really. From the moment its marketing campaign went into full swing, Top Gun: Maverick was fully advertised as a definitive cinematic experience. In other words, this was a film that was meant to be seen on the biggest screens possible with a full and wholly engaged crowd. It is, after all, one of the main reasons why the film was consistently pushed back from its original 2019 release date aside from various factors ranging from Joseph Kosinski and his team needing more time to work on the action sequences to, of course, COVID pushing everything back. And while there were several times when the film was on the brink of being sold off to a streaming service just like all the other films from the past few years that had to go this route because of the pandemic, this potential development was always shot down by Cruise, who was firmly dedicated to maintaining its status as a theatrical release. But again, if you’re like me and you didn’t get to see this in a theater, that’s not an absolute dealbreaker as the film more than holds its own as both a technical masterpiece and a superior sequel that, even when it reuses certain narrative elements from its predecessor, uses them in a stronger manner that elicits some surprisingly effective emotional moments. In short, Top Gun: Maverick is the very definition of a classic summer blockbuster, and given all its success, it’s not surprising in the slightest that it ended up being this year’s grand champion.

And so, that concludes the 2022 edition of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s Annual End of Summer Fan Poll. Once again, I want to thank everyone who participated in this year’s event, thus giving us what has easily been our biggest year yet. With all that in mind, I look forward to seeing what next year’s event will bring, especially given all the big releases that will be hitting theaters next summer from the continuing adventures of Marvel icons such as Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, and the Guardians of the Galaxy to the latest installments of well-established franchises such as Indiana Jones and Fast and the Furious. Heck, maybe Tom Cruise will end up leading the pack for the second year in a row with the next Mission Impossible film; for all we know, Top Gun: Maverick’s utter dominance this year could end up having a positive impact on Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part I’s run at the box-office. Only time will tell…

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Announcing the Start of this Year's Edition of Rhode Island Movie Corner's Annual End of Summer Fan Poll

As we near the end of this summer season, it’s time once again, folks, for a tried-and-true Rhode Island Movie Corner tradition. Yes, as those who’ve followed this site for several years know, I run a poll at the end of every summer that invites you all to vote for your favorite film from the past four months of the year. And after a few weeks of these open polls, I then proceed to write an extensive post that covers every film that earned a vote during the event, occasionally fulfilling my original hope of getting to do something along the lines of a ranked list for the most popular films (though, to be clear, that’s only happened a few times). What started out as, to be perfectly honest, an easy way for me to produce some new content for this site during a rather uneventful September back in 2014 has now gone on to become a full-on staple of Rhode Island Movie Corner… except, of course, for one year. Yes, in 2020, I had to nix that year’s End of Summer Fan Poll for… well, obvious reasons. But thankfully, when 2021 rolled around and we began to slowly but surely recover from the initial stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic, I relaunched this annual event and it was another all-around success for the site. And so, with all that out of the way, it’s time to launch the 9th annual rendition (though, thanks to the cancellation of the 2020 poll, I guess that, technically, this is the 8th edition) of our End of Summer Fan Poll.

For those who are new to this site, here’s how it’ll all go down. The link that you’ll come to below will lead you to a poll that I’ve set up on the survey-creating website Survio. There, you’ll be asked a single question; what was your favorite film from this summer? To all you newcomers out there, I must warn you in advance that there will be quite a lot of options to choose from as I basically cover as many of the summer’s wide releases as I possibly can when assembling the list of possible options. Admittedly, I do miss a few films here and there but that’s where the write-in section comes in if your favorite film isn’t listed amongst the available choices. Now, last year, given the fact that COVID was still enough of a major issue that it resulted in not many people going out to the theater at that time, I allowed the following loophole in which votes for that year’s edition of the poll would be legitimately counted for films that were watched at home on the grounds that they were also released in theaters. After all, several 2021 films were released that way, simultaneously running in theaters and on their studios’ respective streaming services; some Disney films were released as ‘Premier Access’ titles on Disney+ and Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 theatrical slate saw month-long releases on HBO Max.

While COVID is still very much an issue here in 2022, the simultaneous theatrical/streaming practice has not been utilized as prominently as it was last year for various reasons… including, for example, the fact that A LOT of filmmakers weren’t too happy about the way that Warner Bros. addressed it. All this, as a result, put me in quite a bit of a pickle for this year’s End of Summer Fan Poll because, as always, I want to keep this focused solely on theatrical releases. And so, with that in mind, I’ve decided that the loophole that I set up for last year’s event where I allowed votes for films that were seen at home won’t be emphasized as much for this year’s poll but will still be somewhat in play. In other words, I’ll still allow votes for films that were seen at home via On-Demand and streaming services but the films in question must have been released in theaters between the months of May and August. That said, though, I will allow some exceptions in the write-in section for films that weren’t initially released during the summer but were still in theaters by then. Thus, if you haven’t been to the theater this summer for various reasons that are most likely COVID-related, don’t let that discourage you from participating in this event; just be aware, though, that I will be monitoring the write-in responses closely to maintain the whole ‘theatrical releases only’ rule. Voting starts today, August 18th, and will run until September 1st, with the climactic results post being published shortly thereafter.

Click here to be directed to this year's poll!!

But before we conclude today’s introductory post, we must do what we always do and reflect upon this event’s past winners. That’s right, it’s time once again for…



The inaugural edition of our annual End of Summer Fan Poll attracted forty-three votes and notably ended in a three-way tie with the top films attracting five votes apiece. That year’s winners included the adaptation of author John Green’s tearjerker romance novel The Fault in Our Stars, a rare example of a ‘superior’ comedic sequel in 22 Jump Street, and the first outing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s resident ‘bunch of a-holes’, the Guardians of the Galaxy.


While the forty-seven votes in the 2015 poll went to a wide range of films (20, to be precise), there was one undisputed champion. Earning more than double the votes of that year’s pair of runners-up with ten in total, George Miller’s kinetic action masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road firmly asserted its status as one of the most highly acclaimed summer blockbusters of the decade.


Fifty-eight votes came in for the 2016 edition of our annual poll, which ended in what I’ve always described as a ‘fascinating’ two-way tie. On one side, you had an undeniable frontrunner in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s thrilling and emotional Phase Three kick-starter, Captain America: Civil War. But on the other side, an unexpected champion emerged in the raunchy R-rated comedy Bad Moms, starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn as a trio of overworked moms who decide to spend a day without any maternal responsibilities.


For the second straight year in a row, we attracted fifty-eight votes and this year’s event notably set a record for the number of films featured in its final write-up with twenty-two films getting some form of recognition. It was also the first year where the results yielded a proper Top 5 list of winners, with the top prize going to Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk, which proved to be one of the most well-regarded outings of Nolan’s prestigious directorial career.


The 2018 edition of this poll admittedly saw a downturn in the number of votes at just forty-four in total, but that year’s winner set an event record with twelve votes as the top honors went to Spike Lee’s undeniably relevant crime drama BlacKkKlansman, the true story of former Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.


2019 was easily our best year ever for this poll in terms of votes with a whopping eighty-nine responses. That year’s Top 3 finalists each managed to earn at least ten votes apiece, with the winner ultimately topping BlacKkKlansman’s record-setting numbers from the previous year’s event with nineteen votes directed its way. And given its status as the grand finale of the Infinity Saga and the fact that, for nearly two whole years, it became the highest-grossing film of all time, it wasn’t too surprising to see Avengers: Endgame take the #1 spot.


The winner of the 2020 edition of the End of Summer Fan Poll was a notable one… and that’s because there wasn’t one that year thanks to COVID.


Thankfully, our annual poll returned with a vengeance last year, garnering sixty-nine votes in a triumphant comeback that saw Disney’s Cruella, the highly entertaining and unique new spin on one of Disney’s most iconic villainesses, Cruella de Vil, take home top honors with sixteen votes.


What film will be crowned the 2022 champion of Rhode Island Movie Corner’s Annual End of Summer Fan Poll? Stay tuned!