Friday 18 August 2023

Blue Beetle (Movie Review)

As the DCEU prepares to end its run with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom later this year, one might rightfully wonder if it is even worth investing in yet another last-minute entry. But yet here we are with Blue Beetle, a comparatively lesser-known character from the DC pantheon of superheroes. Originally scheduled to make its debut on HBO Max, the movie has been cleverly positioned by James Gunn as the first and possibly only character to make the jump from the older cinematic universe into the rebooted one. But does the new film give any meaningful glimpse at what we can expect from the DCU or was it merely a marketing ploy to get some butts in seats?

The film stars Xolo MaridueƱa as Jaime Reyes, a young man who inadvertently gets hold of an ancient alien artifact called the Scarab. This would end up transforming him into the titular Blue Beetle, an androidlike being that is highly skilled in combat and capable of a number of superhuman feats. But when the original finders of the Scarab come knocking, seeking to weaponize his newfound abilities and profit off of them, Jaime will have to do whatever it takes to ensure that the other members of his close-knit family don't wound up as collateral damage.

Heading into Blue Beetle, my expectations were about as low as they could get. Not only was the movie coming in the wake of a number of high-profile DC flops, but the overall quality of the films in the DCEU had been hit or miss as well. The marketing leading up to its release had also done nothing to get me on board. For all intents and purposes, the film looked like yet another generic superhero origin story with little to offer beyond hitting an arbitrary diversity quota. And while there is nothing wrong with studios endeavoring to have more diversity in their films, I still feel the films themselves and the stories they tell need to be able to stand on their own in terms of providing entertainment value.

And in terms of pure entertainment value, Blue Beetle ranks on the lower end of the scale. Right off the bat, we are introduced to a pair of villains that are about as cookie-cutter as they come. Susan Sarandon in particular comes across as villainous for the sake of being villainous with hardly any nuances to her performance. They might as well have given her a mustache to twirl around with the way that the character was written and portrayed. The same can be said for most of the cast members. Xolo was adequate in the role of Jaime and George Lopez was about as obnoxious as I felt he was in the trailers. He did manage to garner the most laughs from the crowd in my screening, so your mileage may vary.

The story in the movie itself is what I would refer to as aggressively okay. It ticks all the boxes one would expect from a superhero origin story but doesn't attempt to do much more than that. It offers very little in the way of surprises and a lot of its plot points were heavily telegraphed in overtly obvious ways. Perhaps some of this can be linked to its adherence to the source material but since I have never read the actual comic books the movie is based upon, I can only speculate. What I know for sure is that for someone who was not a preexisting fan, I came out of the movie feeling just as indifferent as I was going in.

There is still some fun to be had in Blue Beetle, of course, don't get me wrong. It has the right amount of set-piece moments and laughs to keep most people engaged. But the jokes that landed are few and far between and the action, while largely serviceable, fails to reach the heights of some of its predecessors or offer anything we haven't already seen before. The only thing that truly attempts to help the movie stand out was a late revelation made regarding the past of one of its two main antagonists. Unfortunately, this comes a bit too late into the movie and my brain had all but already checked out by that point.

Blue Beetle is a superhero origin story that barely manages to get off the ground. That it exists in a very strange middle ground between cinematic universes only further adds to the confusion regarding its wider significance. Whether or not we see any more of this iteration of the character would ultimately depend on how well it performs over the course of its theatrical run. But I honestly think it should have stayed as the direct-to-streaming movie it was originally intended to be as the final product simply does not do nearly enough to justify the price of admission.

Friday 11 August 2023

Heart of Stone (Movie Review)

The Netflix content machine is still chugging along like the well-oiled train that it aspires to be. And as anyone who has tried to browse through its massive catalog of movies could attest, its Netflix Originals in particular are pretty much hit or miss with varying levels of quality and entertainment value. But every now and then, you get a genuine diamond in the muck, a film that is so great that it helps justify your continued subscription to the streaming service. Unfortunately, Heart of Stone is not that movie.

The film stars Gal Gadot as Rachel Stone, an MI6 agent with very little experience in the field. But unbeknownst to her teammates, she is actually far more skilled than her resume would let on. She is in fact a double agent also working for the Charter, a secret organization with the sole purpose of helping other agencies and world governments to keep the peace. But when the complex computer system that makes their clandestine operations possible falls into the wrong hands, Rachel will have to go rogue in her pursuit of the people responsible.

With a plot that sounds like a hodgepodge of Mission: Impossible story beats, Heart of Stone can't help but feel derivative by design. The fact that it is coming from the very same production company responsible for Dead Reckoning Part One only goes further to highlight that its writers might have been pulling from the very same well of ideas. This is not to say that that other movie would score any points for originality. After all, it was the seventh entry in a series that appears to have done it all at this point, a fact that is currently being reflected in its less-than-solid box office performance.

But even in the realm of derivative spy thrillers, Heart of Stone still manages to sink toward the very bottom of the barrel. This is primarily because it is a movie that feels like it could have been cobbled together by the very same AI at the heart of its narrative. It tries to tick a number of arbitrary boxes, like having a strong, female protagonist to root for in the person of Gal Gadot, a generic villain with a mysterious past that ties into the central conflict, as well as a quippy sidekick to bring in some levity. You know, the way that most modern action movies on Netflix would.

Except it doesn't endeavor to do anything more than the very bare minimum in each of those areas which results in a bland, uninspired movie-watching experience that barely manages to register or pass as entertainment. Add to that the fact that the movie often veers into full-blown campiness in the area of its characterization, with intelligence agents that lack intelligence and an overall ensemble that is driven by some of the most wooden performances I have seen all year, and you start to get an idea of just how poorly executed most of it feels. Even the music and song choices that fill out its soundtrack feel played out with its mix of forgettable pop songs and cookie-cutter compositions, none of which ever quite manage to elevate the on-screen action.

Heart of Stone is Mission: Impossible at home. And unlike those other films which at least sought to push the boundaries for action movies within the constraints of their fairly formulaic trappings, this one seems content with merely adding to the sludge of Netflix Originals created to pad out its library. Perhaps it could have been salvaged if the filmmakers had opted to lean into its corny dialogue and inherent campiness and turned it into a fun, B-movie-styled parody of the genre. But as it currently stands, the movie lacks any kind of heart or soul and I can't recommend it as anything more than something to pass the time with on a slow Saturday afternoon.