Ian Thomas Malone

Movie Reviews Archive

Monday

14

November 2022

0

COMMENTS

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse presents a corporate-approved perspective on an American icon

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It would impossible to overstate the cultural significance of Mickey Mouse. The greatest modern example of the commodification of art into product, Mickey has spent the past hundred years reinventing himself as a Rorschach test for whatever capitalism needs him to be. Mickey is everything, everywhere, all at once. 

The Disney+ documentary Mickey: The Story of a Mouse chronicles the mouse’s rise from mere cartoon short to a monolithic leviathan, occasionally with a keen sense of self-awareness. Born out of a loss to Walt Disney, who saw the rights to his initial creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit snatched away by the clutches of capitalism he would eventually learn to wield for himself, Mickey was a cultural force straight from the get-go. The documentary does a fabulous job explaining Disney’s early technical prowess, one of the first to bring sound to cartoons.

Director Jeff Malmberg does a good job bouncing between Mickey’s storied history, and the present day he continues to dominate. Mickey superfans will undoubtedly love the behind-the-scenes glimpses into Disney’s animation studios, particularly its revered archival department. Malmberg manages to provide some perspective into Disney’s importance to shaping animation without ever diving too deep into the weeds. The documentary never loses sight of its primary objective of serving as a victory lap for Mickey’s century of innovation and excellence.

The doc does spend a bit too much of its 89-minute runtime on a rotating series of interviews from Mickey superfans stating obvious platitudes about the mouse, often carrying the aura of a Trump administration cabinet meeting. With all the beautiful archival footage and behind-the-scenes perspectives, the laymen’s perspectives on Mickey’s status as a cultural behemoth grow a little tiresome after a while. There is a certain irony in the sequence covering Walt’s time creating wartime propaganda for the U.S. military, this documentary serving a similar purpose for the house that Mickey built.

The propaganda does grow a bit tedious in the third act, when the time comes to admit fault for some of Mickey’s past depictions, particularly in blackface. Mickey has not always been everything to everyone, a shining example of Disney’s core center-right conservative leanings that the company still embodies to this day. Malmberg does not shy away from the implications of Mickey’s commodification, albeit without an iota of self-awareness for the reality that this is truer today than ever before with soaring ticket prices to Disney Parks and an incrementalist approach to inclusivity that puts Disney far behind several of its corporate peers.

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is entertaining propaganda that should appeal to Disney superfans while only superficially engaging with the realities of Mickey’s status as the bastion of American capitalism. Malmberg made a beautiful documentary, crafted with obvious love for its subject. There is little artistic merit to this work, not with the strings of Disney’s corporate overlords never far from the frame. 

Friday

11

November 2022

0

COMMENTS

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever pays tribute to Chadwick Boseman while setting its own course for the future

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The death of Chadwick Boseman left a void in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that can never be filled. The triumphs of the first Black Panther gave director Ryan Coogler an abundance of material to craft a follow-up that not only paid tribute to Boseman’s legacy, but built on the foundation he helped establish. The show must go on, not just for capitalism’s sake, but for the proletariat who were inspired by the original film’s mature themes that were far more substantive than typical Marvel fare.

Coogler’s most impressive achievement with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is his innate ability to give the narrative space to shape its own story while never losing sight of the grief at hand. The film starts off with T’Challa’s death, Shuri (Letitia Wright) unable to use her ample brilliance to save her brother’s life. A time jump moves the narrative up a year, where Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is struggling to contain the fallout of the events of Avengers: Infinity War, which revealed Wakanda’s vibranium supply to the rest of the world, America in particular uncomfortable with a world power possessing weapons out of its reach.

Phase Four has largely focused on elements of the world at large, previously unknown to the heavy hitters across the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an ocean of possibilities from the heavens or the broader multiverse. The ocean itself carries more than a few secrets, particularly with regard to one of Marvel’s oldest heroes/antiheroes/villains. Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) rules Talokan deep beneath the ocean, a civilization reliant on vibranium for basic necessities such as light itself. The comics have often pitted Wakanda and Talokan against each other, two isolated superpowers with vastly different governing ideologies.

Wakanda Forever never quite settles on a single figure to replace T’Challa’s position as the primary protagonist, instead relying on a combination of Romanda, Shuri, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) to carry the load. The ensemble dynamic works quite well for the narrative, though the mechanics of geopolitics cut quite a few corners to establish the conflict. Wright and Gurira’s chemistry does wonders for the film’s levity, delivering moments of much-needed humor. Shuri holds much of the film together, working marvelously off Namor and in some touching scenes, M’Baku (Winston Duke), building off the bonds established in the first film. Mejía is a superb Namor, embodying the underwater ruler’s signature cynicism while serving out the unenviable task of following Erik Kilmonger, the MCU’s best villain. 

Overstuffed is quickly becoming the default setting for Phase Four Marvel movies, with the last two cinematic releases spending large chunks of their runtimes meandering with uncertain senses of purposes. Coogler keeps his film focused throughout its 161-minute runtime, but the narrative does occasionally buckle under the weight of its lofty expectations. Newcomer Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) meshes instantly with the cast, largely occupying the position of Wakanda outsider that Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) possessed in the first film, but the scenes set in America felt a bit superfluous to all the other far more interesting stuff going on in the film. There’s little Coogler can do to mitigate the clunkiness that stems from the obvious setup for Williams’ upcoming Disney+ series Ironheart.

Oddly enough given its title, Wakanda never really gets its moment to shine in Wakanda Forever. Scenes shot in the country are largely limited to interior stages such as the throne room, along with a handful of sound stages that barely give a proper glimpse of the majestic cities. Absent is the sprawling beauty of the country’s landscape amply featured in both the first film and Infinity War. The special effects never quite give Talokan the same sense of awe and wonder, the cinematography unable to compensate for the film’s heavy use of green screens.

The fight scenes also leave more than a bit to be desired, an increasingly common trend across the MCU. Talokan’s beef with Wakanda is a much more interesting political discussion than a military conflict, but it wouldn’t be much of a Marvel movie without explosions. Coogler puts all the pieces together in a way that makes Wakanda Forever feel like more of an epic than its predecessor, even if the special effects don’t necessarily support that thesis.

Wakanda Forever could have easily succumbed to the weight of expectations dictated by forces outside of the artistic process. Coogler and the cast ensured that the film wouldn’t solely be defined by Boseman’s death or by obligations to set up the broader MCU. Wakanda Forever is a beautiful film that builds off its predecessor instead of merely mourning what could have been. What could have been a feature-length memorial service instead dared to rival the greatness of its predecessor. It might not surpass the quality of the first Black Panther, but Wakanda Forever is easily the best MCU film in years. 

Thursday

27

October 2022

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Dracula A.D. 1972

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Canons cannot be constructed contemporaneously, an academic construct that takes on a life of its own, even as plenty try to influence its narrative trajectory through the annals of time. Dracula A.D. 1972 was not a film crafted with careful regard to how its place in Hammer Horror lore might be viewed fifty years down the road. Few could have predicted that its leads Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would grow to become iconic figures in the broader genre, with extra attention given to the few releases where the pair appeared together. Legacy and inception serve two different masters, the latter understandably preoccupied with its present, unconcerned with how its overwhelming mediocrity might be perceived by future generations.

Dracula A.D. 1972 presents an interesting premise, taking its title character out of his accustomed period setting, at least in theory. Dracula (Lee) doesn’t really engage with the seventies at all, largely kept confined to a deconsecrated church that housed his resurrection proceedings. A group of bohemians gathered inside the decaying St. Bartolph’s Chruch, which conveniently housed the gravesite of Dracula’s iconic nemesis Lawrence Van Helsing (Cushing), to do drugs and maybe resurrect a long-dead vampire. Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), with a cringe-inducing last name that’s merely Dracula spelled backward, manages to succeed, though terrifying his hippie posse in the process. Among them is Van Helsing descendant Jessica (Stephanie Beacham), who lives with her grandfather Lorrimer (also Cushing), an occult expert.

The film largely follows the investigation of the death of Laura (Caroline Munro), killed by Dracula shortly after his resurrection. Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) enlists Lorrimer’s help to piece things together, while the hippies, unaware of Laura’s death, return to their nightclub for 1970s antics. The narrative never quite settles on a definitive lead, initially positioning Jessica as its clearest protagonist before later favoring the tandem of Lorrimer and Murray. Horror movies are not necessarily known for their character development, but the film never makes much of an effort to get its audience to care about a single one of these characters.

Much of Dracula A.D. 1972’s shortcomings can be blamed on its failure to deliver an adequate follow-up sequence to the excellent 1958 Dracula that first paired Lee and Cushing. The film opens with an interesting 1872 battle sequence between Dracula and Lawrence, hinting at an eventual showdown between Dracula and Lorrimer, that never quite comes to fruition. Lee and Cushing barely share the screen together, a shortcoming that sinks the entire experience far more than its forgivable campy aesthetics.

Lee and Cushing, two of Hammer Horror’s most iconic talents, appeared opposite each other three times in Dracula films. Dracula A.D. 1972 fails to recognize its best asset, keeping the two apart for no apparent reason, a wasted opportunity to add to the rich Hammer Horror canon. The then-modernity of the narrative could’ve aged remarkably well over time, if the film had done the basic work of crafting a passable story. Instead, the audience is handed a half-baked detective narrative spliced with some hippies, and its title character marginalized in a location sorely lacking the rich gothic beauty seen in Cushing and Lee’s original Dracula appearance.

Dracula A.D. 1972 could have been fun camp. Countless B-movies have been forgotten in time, but audiences fifty years down the road continue to engage with this turd because of its star power, hoping in vain for another showdown between two titans of the genre. The canon keeps Dracula A.D. 1972 relevant despite its tedious attempt at a narrative, lacking the confidence to elevate itself above the bare minimum required to call itself a film.

 

Saturday

22

October 2022

2

COMMENTS

Black Adam can’t overcome its atrocious screenplay

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Part of the beauty of the Justice Society of America in the nearly forty years since the genre-defining comic book crossover event “Crisis on Infinite Earths” erased their home planet Earth-2, itself largely a creation designed to differentiate older Golden Age heroes from their more modern Silver Age counterparts, was the way that the team came together to fight the good fight even as the world had largely passed them by. There’s something inherently relatable in watching more obscure, less powerful heroes battle back the tides of time and their own declining relevance. Ironically, given the frantic explosion-laden extravaganza that defines Black Adam’s attempt at a narrative, the JSA represented a quieter time for superhero storytelling.

Superhero filmmaking has come to embrace the obscure, making household names of characters such as the Peacemaker or the Guardians of the Galaxy that few people outside of diehard comic fans would have heard of just ten years ago. Characters like Black Adam and the JSA don’t completely fit under this bill, having achieved mainstream success back in the 1940s, but the idea that Shazam/Captain Marvel’s archnemesis’ live-action debut would come through a solo effort lacking Billy Batson entirely is still a bit hard to believe. The champion of Kahndaq has straddled the lines between villain and antihero for years, a fascinating, sly figure ripe for the greying morality of the post-9/11 era.

Dwayne Johnson has largely avoided villain-type roles throughout his career. His approach to Black Adam displays a puzzling amount of apprehension toward playing an antihero as well. The Kahndaq that Teth-Adam is awakened into is occupied by a force called the Intergang, which the film essentially presents as a Blackwater-type oppressive military force with an ill-defined mandate in the complex geopolitics of the Middle East. Leaning heavily into antipathy, Johnson’s best effort to sell Adam’s reluctance to rid the Intergang with a snap of the finger is the fact that he’s been asleep too long to care anymore, a lazy excuse indicative of Black Adam’s larger shortcomings as a film.

Black Adam squanders the DCEU’s meatiest moral quandary with an atrocious script hellbent on saying absolutely nothing interesting about its narrative or stacked roster of characters. It’s quite astonishing how boring this movie really is. Johnson’s wooden performance is largely a hodgepodge of the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax the Destroyer mixed with T2-era Terminator, a god with too much power that sucks the soul out of his film.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has no idea how to balance the film’s large cast of characters. The rapport between the JSA is established at breakneck speed, veterans Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) are joined by newcomers Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), an awkward team dynamic, especially in a movie serving as an origin story to a completely different character. Black Adam spends much of the film alongside his liberators, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), and brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), a bloated collection of protagonists that leaves little room for the film’s breathtakingly underwhelming villain.

The humor in the film is largely a derivative mess, Johnson stumbling over his badly written lines whenever he tries to crack a joke. Brosnan is the only actor present with an understanding of the comedy he’s expected to deliver. Hodge delivers the best performance of the film, working quite well off Johnson and Brosnan, though the film suffers from its emotional overreliance on Carter Hall in a narrative that’s supposed to be Black Adam’s moment to shine. The decent CGI is rendered moot by the lifeless fight choreography, a further waste of Johnson’s immense talents as one of the most dynamic performers in the history of professional wrestling.

The politics of Kahndaq are the film’s biggest failing. The narrative comes close to hinting that it wants to take a side against America’s propagation of the military-industrial complex, a game of footsie that it never follows through on. Further puzzling the situation is the presence of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), whose efforts in service to the exact same cause were scrutinized in last year’s The Suicide Squad. There is not much difference between Waller’s antics in that movie and the Intergang here, not that anyone working at DC appears to notice or care. After years of Zack Snyder’s Ayn Rand ramblings soiling the DCEU, it’s a little disheartening to see such a waffling from a film that clearly understands its lead’s anti-imperialist ethos.

Black Adam is a disheartening failure for the DCEU. Johnson embodies the awe and wonder Black Adam evokes, but he doesn’t do any interesting with his subject. There’s nothing at the core of this film besides tropes and plot holes, a predictable third act that unravels the film’s earlier tight pacing. The JSA is brought to life with obvious love, though clearly established with the intention of setting up their own spinoff down the road.

It’s a sad kind of train wreck to watch. Words are easy things to write. We shouldn’t live in a world where expensive blockbusters are completely undone by atrocious screenplays. Black Adam has plenty of talent and first-rate special effects, neither of which can cover up just how bad this screenplay truly is. The studio executives should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this easy layup to go completely off the rails.

Thursday

28

July 2022

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: The Man I Love

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There is a certain timelessness to the sensation of falling in love with a terrible man. Released in 1946, the film The Man I Love could have easily been released today as a commentary on the vapidity of modern romance, and the innate challenges of resisting the perfect charm even when every red flag is waving right in front of you. Sometimes the heart wants what it wants.

Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) works as a nightclub singer, with a vibrant personality and commanding charisma. Feeling a bit homesick in the big city, Petey returns home to Long Beach, California to visit her sisters, Sally (Andrea King) and Ginny (Martha Vickers). Sally works as a waitress in an Italian restaurant, perpetually harassed by Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda), whose uncle owns the establishment among other mob-connected enterprises.

Director Raoul Walsh’s feature is a train wreck of unnecessary subplots entirely redeemed by Lupino’s mesmerizing performance and the highly effective jazz score. The film has far too many characters for its 96-minute runtime, a narrative that has no idea whether it wants to be noir or a soap opera. The film sort of comes together in the second half, when Petey takes up work in one of Nicky’s nightclubs, striking up a romance with pianist San Thomas (Bruce Bennett) as she becomes embroiled in a murder.

Lupino practically makes it her singular mission to carry the narrative, pouring her heart and soul into Petey’s tortured psyche. Bennett is unremarkable as her primary love interest, though that’s also kind of the point of the film. Petey’s romance with a man who doesn’t deserve her reflects the way Lupino almost singlehandedly saved Walsh’s otherwise mediocre film. Women all too often know exactly what it’s like to have to exert additional labor value to carry the laziness of men, which is pretty much The Man I Love in a nutshell.

Walsh’s skills as a director occasionally surface throughout the film, though the frantic pacing and indecisive tone frequently hinder the experience. The Man I Love is often a tedious experience, but it’s hard to dismiss the work entirely. Walsh and Lupino work so well together that the atrocious screenplay feels almost easy to forgive.

There is a certain allure in falling for bad men, even if the act itself is not particularly defensible. Film often functions best when it depicts the innate contradictions that comprise humanity. The Man I Love is not a great movie. It is hard to even label Walsh’s narrative as a good film. Lupino deserves better, but that’s also not necessarily the primary concern. Life is not about what we deserve, but rather what we do with the cards that we were dealt. Working in a time when women received fairly mediocre roles, Lupino took that deflated ball and ran with it in a way that’s pretty inspiring all these years later.

Friday

8

July 2022

0

COMMENTS

Thor: Love and Thunder is a sloppy collection of gags thrown at a green screen

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Thor is the closest thing the MCU has to a standard-bearer in the post-Endgame era. The death of Tony Stark left behind a void that shouldn’t necessarily be filled at all, with the gigantic, interconnected universe heading in about a million different directions. Thor: Ragnarok demonstrated how much fun the Son of Asgard could have unburdened from both the weight of the Avengers and the budding continuity established in his first two solo efforts. It’s hard to think of a character better poised than Thor to thrive in the Phase 4 climate, free of most obligations to set up future films.

As the first MCU hero to earn a fourth solo outing, director Taika Waititi could have taken Thor just about anywhere in the universe. There have been over seven hundred Thor comic books, a lifetime of material to draw on. Thor: Love and Thunder puts Mjolnir in the hands of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), drawing on the 2014 “Original Sin” arc, a comic book storyline younger than Thor’s first two big-screen films. It is worth pointing out that no one working on the first Thor film in 2011 had any idea that they were setting up the Asgardian’s genius love interest as the heir apparent to his iconic hammer. Waititi doesn’t seem to know what to do with her either.

The entirety of Love and Thunder seems centered around the novelty of the idea that it might be fun to see Jane Foster as Thor. A character whose near-complete absence from the MCU since 2013, unceremoniously discarded from Ragnarok’s narrative, is now once again at the forefront, essentially as a gimmick. There is no imperative driving Love and Thunder beyond its obligations to the gods of content, an empty shell of a film covered up with endless jokes and attractive people standing in front of exceedingly bland green screens.

The plot is almost not worth mentioning. Gorr (Christian Bale) wants to kill all gods with a weapon called the Necrosword, kidnapping a bunch of kids from New Asgard to draw Thor into open battle. The fact that most of the kids were kidnapped while Thor was standing on the battlefield having idle chitchat with Jane is irrelevant to a film that treats its narrative like one big gag. Jane, dying of cancer, comes to New Asgard to seek Mjolnir, forging an unusual alliance between ex-girlfriend and ex-weapon.

Though the characters occasionally mention that kids are in danger and maybe the universe might end if Gorr succeeds in his mission, the film doesn’t really care much about any of that Each line is an opportunity for the script to ram a few more jokes in. Some of the humor is quite amusing, but after a while, it becomes clear that Waititi would rather make a romantic comedy than an action film. Bale does his best to make Gorr into a menacing villain, but there’s little he can do to change the fact that Love and Thunder doesn’t really want to have a bad guy.

The special effects are truly horrendous. Disney’s approach to green screen cinematography as of late has favored monotonic background palettes with stale lighting. One can’t help but look at its overbearing ugliness with a sense of profound sadness that filmmaking has stooped to these lows. Love and Thunder would have been better off using cardboard boxes decorated with crayons than the hideous CGI Disney tries to call state-of-the-art technology. At least there would be some artistic merit to the crayon drawings.

Waititi does do an okay job exploring the on-screen lore that Thor has built over the past decade. Brief cameos from Drs. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) remind viewers of how much the emotional core of this series has shifted since its early days. Trouble is, Thor himself has regressed as a character back to the aimlessness that defined his role in the first movie. He’s learned nothing from the events of Endgame, a film largely irrelevant to this narrative besides a pointless first-act cameo from the Guardians of the Galaxy, including a bafflingly-wooden Chris Pratt who looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. Waititi has absolutely nothing for Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to do, a tragic waste of Ragnarok’s most interesting character.

What does Love and Thunder want to be? Nothing. This is content, mandated into existence by Disney. Waititi spruced things up with some jokes and a nod to a storyline younger than this film series, wish-fulfillment akin to Marvel’s long running “What-If” series. If this is the future of the MCU, maybe Thanos wasn’t so wrong to snap his fingers. A refined output might actually bring some thought back into this content farm masquerading as a blockbuster franchise.

Monday

27

June 2022

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Double Indemnity

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Society generally does a horrible job explaining the concept of crime to children. Separating the world into a false binary of good vs. evil barely even orbits the reality of injustice. A person hardly needs a rotten soul to find themselves wrapped up in a situation far beyond any lay person’s assessment of their moral fiber.

1944 launched the film noir genre with the iconic masterpiece Double Indemnity. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a fairly hapless insurance salesman, overconfident in his own ability to sway any scenario to his own liking. Neff is quite the easy mark for Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a disgruntled housewife looking to murder her selfish husband. Neff puts up an obligatory meager resistance to the idea of committing a capital offense, before realizing that his knowledge of the insurance would prove invaluable to the success of the scheme.

Director/co-screenwriter Billy Wilder masterfully identifies the low-stakes pressure point in Neff’s character that defines his weakness as a person. Neff is not an evil man by nature. He is, however, very bored. Undervalued at work, Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) pressures him into taking a desk job viewed by Neff as a demotion beneath his skills as a salesman out in the fields.

Stanwyck plays her feminist icon with an understated sense of poise that demonstrates that while she’s firmly in command of Neff’s psyche, she hardly needed it to exert much pressure to achieve her goals. Phyllis promises the thrill of a lifetime, one that his desk job could never care to deliver. The murder isn’t the result of a battle between good and evil, but rather a natural response to a system that had no place for either Phyllis or Neff, both pawns in someone else’s game. Capitalism is the true villain of Double Indemnity.

Wilder understood an innate truth of crime thrillers. Some find satisfaction at the end of a whodunit when the killer is brought to justice, but that’s not the sum total of the appeal of the genre. Plenty seek a deeper understanding of why someone might turn away from the path of justice, to commit atrocities that make us feel uneasy to even think about.

MacMurray’s status as the “leading man” is almost an oxymoron. Stanwyck is the real driving force, but Wilder positions the two in a clever way that heightens Neff’s lingering emasculation at the hands of his boss. Neff can’t stand the uncomfortable claustrophobia of life square in the palm of capitalism’s mighty hand. The murder is not the work of an evil man, but the temper tantrum of a grown adult tired of living his life like a child, without a whiff of agency.

Noir delivers these uncomfortable truths, the layers of ugliness that often define the human experience. Crime thrillers teach us to rejoice when the bad guys are brought to justice. Noir isn’t interested in demonizing those who walk off the straight and narrow path, instead determined to present their full humanity, the kind of reality that can’t be boxed into the good vs. evil binary. Neff and Phyllis are criminals, but Wilder’s triumph lies in the way he successfully brought out the best in his characters.

Wednesday

25

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

Top Gun: Maverick demonstrates the vitality of the big screen through its devotion to practical effects

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The original Top Gun helped solidify Tom Cruise’s status as a leading actor. More than thirty years later, Hollywood tends to rely on franchises rather than its A-listers to bring fans to the theaters. Top Gun: Maverick is a marriage of two different eras of cinema, a nostalgia-laden action romp structured fueled by Cruise’s pursuit of high-octane stunts and his effortless charm.

Maverick hasn’t changed all that much since 1986. The same reputation that earned him legendary status as a pilot kept him from climbing the career ladder, stalling at the rank of captain. After a botched stunt threatened to end his career, Maverick is sent back to Top Gun to train a team for a high-stakes mission to take out a facility manufacturing enriched uranium. The complex mission parameters leave little room for error, placing a heavy burden on Maverick to select his team from the Navy’s best, among them Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his best friend Goose.

Top Gun: Maverick is an expertly paced testament to the power of practical effects. Cruise’s tireless devotion to blockbuster filmmaking bleeds through the screen in every scene, a modern cinematic marvel. The script is not exactly Dryden’s Aeneid, full of clunky jokes, but you can’t help but smile at the way Cruise pours his heart and soul into the whole production.

While Cruise is the focus of practically every scene, the supporting cast find their magic as well. Teller carries the emotional weight of Goose’s absence in every expression. Rooster’s beef with Maverick is a bit predictable, but the film finds time to give him a mini-rivalry with fellow trainee Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), reminiscent of the original Maverick/Iceman feud/angsty bromance. The rest of the trainees, including Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, and Danny Ramirez, are clearly having the time of their lives, the group possessing impeccable chemistry that makes up for their limited screen time.

The film does have a bit of a clunky romance. Jennifer Connelly plays Penelope Benjamin, a local bar owner with a long history with Maverick. Connelly and Cruise are fun to watch together, but the script does a poor job selling the idea that this plotline exists for any other reason than to give Cruise something to do when there are no planes in the air.

The beauty of director Joseph Kosinski’s feature is that everyone understands the real reason fans are in the seats. The plane sequences are unbelievably spectacular, a true sight to behold on the big screen. Much of the 131-minute runtime is spent in the air. Rarely more than two scenes go by without a plane sequence, a non-stop adrenaline rush. The crew’s dedication to top-notch action choreography is about as strong a selling point for movie theatres as can be made.

Top Gun: Maverick blows the first film out of the water. The script could have used another draft’s worth of revisions, but it’s hard to care much with the cast’s abundant heart. The film pays great homage to its predecessor without using anything for cheap nostalgia, particularly a touching scene with Val Kilmer. There are some moments played for obvious fan service, but Cruise sells them with his signature smile.

There may come a day when Cruise isn’t able to up the ante on his age-defying stunts that push filmmaking to its limits. Some actors make new films to relive their glory days. Cruise is firmly committed to the present, bringing the advances of modern technology to enhance the traditional craft. If only more actors would use their star power to push back on Hollywood’s over-reliance on CGI.

Tuesday

24

May 2022

18

COMMENTS

Ricky Gervais recycles tired grievance nonsense in the odious bore SuperNature

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There is a belief that free speech is under attack in comedy. Subjects such as transgender rights are apparently so taboo to talk about that many of the world’s highest-paid comedians spend most of their new specials saying things they’re forbidden to talk about. Ricky Gervais wants you to believe he’s been canceled for SuperNature, his new show that Netflix paid him millions of dollars to perform.

What did Netflix receive for their money and inevitable PR headache? Early in the special, Gervais returns to the subject of transgender women being rapists in public bathrooms, a topic that had started to lose its edge in 2016. For a man who talks about how comedy evolves, Gervais seems oddly stuck in the past regarding a cultural subject that even the Republican Party has lost interest in fighting, instead turning its attention to targeting mainstream medical care for trans children.

Gervais jokes that the 1%, namely his millionaire buddies are the new Rosa Parks. A thin layer of sarcasm can’t really hide the idea that he fundamentally believes this notion, that comedians are the real marginalized group. He dedicates extended riffs to the “cancellation” of renowned masturbator Louis C.K., who is so canceled that he recently won the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album earlier this year, and Kevin Hart, the A-list martyr who stepped aside from hosting the Oscars in 2018 after refusing to reiterate regret for old homophobic Tweets.

It’s not particularly complicated to see why Gervais is so fascinated by trans people and social media criticism directed at anti-LGBTQ comedians. He doesn’t really have anything else to talk about. SuperNature touches on the differences between cats and dogs, AIDS, abortion, and religion, delivering observations that aren’t particularly original even by 1990s standards. Gervais’ brand of grievance politics exists as a shallow cover-up for the staleness of his material, a Trump rally masquerading as a comedy special.

Gervais loves to frame intersectionality as an “us vs. them” equation, suggesting that LGBTQ people want to ban anti-transgender jokes as a way to drag people like him down to build themselves up. He’s right on the objective, but intellectually dishonest with regard to the motives, denying the real-world harm of a society where it’s socially acceptable to write off an entire group of people as rapists, in the complete absence of any evidence to the contrary. Gervais’ logic only works if your brain is warped enough to believe that stereotypes have never actually affected anyone.

The bitterness of Gervais’ shrill delivery obfuscates a broader truth. Gervais has no moral obligation to be a nice guy. He’s built most of his career off of being the exact opposite. Comedy can be mean-spirited. No one is asking him to stand up on stage and be anything less than the person we expect from Ricky Gervais.

There’s something fundamentally sad about a man with nothing to strive for beyond a cheap cash grab. Far from the first mainstream comedian to dedicate chunks of his act to defending C.K. or Hart, Gervais’ dull blade simply lacks the edge he thinks it wields as he stands up on stage laughing at his own jokes. For a staunch atheist, he’s pretty solely tapping into the spiritual nature of right-wing grievance with his riffs on trans people that don’t bring anything new to the table. He’s not so much trying to entertain his audience as to get them to see him as a general on the front lines, an hour-long gratification of replacement theory nonsense. With millions in the bank, Gervais might get the last laugh, but the whole ordeal is a sad sight to behold.

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Downton Abbey: A New Era is too stuck in the past to enjoy itself

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Ensemble television shows are not particularly well-suited for film as a medium. Television narratives are open-ended, with plenty of space to breathe over the course of a season. Feature-length runtimes don’t have a ton of wiggle room to balance dozens of characters on top of a movie’s usual plot mechanics. The original Downton Abbey film largely succeeded because it structured itself as an extended version of the show, allowing most of the characters to essentially perform as they might on an episode of the series, particularly its annual Christmas specials.

As its title suggests, Downton Abbey: A New Era charts a bit of a different course. The narrative mostly splits itself in half, with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) opening the great house to a film crew led by Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), and Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) leading most of the family on an expedition to the south of France to examine a villa gifted in mystery to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), herself too ill to travel. Lady Mary and company have their fun with the crew, the lead actors Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna (Laura Haddock) making quite the impression on the servants, most of whom are looking to lives beyond service.

Series creator and writer Julian Fellowes bit off far more than he could chew with the screenplay. The film’s pacing is perpetually rushed, scenes awkwardly written to accommodate characters with nothing else to do, the supporting bench overstuffed with far too many returnees. It makes obvious sense that characters introduced in the first film such as Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), now married to Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) would come back for the sequel, but Fellowes also makes time for a few recurring characters from the show that missed the previous feature.

It’s unclear how many fans were desperate for the return of Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) or Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), two characters who have no business sucking up air in a film that’s already far too bloated to accommodate the series regulars. Much time is also made for a character who isn’t even in the film, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), whose consistent unavailability makes you wonder why he was selected to be Mary’s second husband in the first place. One can’t help but wonder if it might have been a good idea to write out several of the characters rather than let their awkward presences in the narrative distract from the fun.

Fellowes recycles a few tired plotlines from the show, namely the question of infidelity and mysterious poorly defined life-threatening maladies that appear out of nowhere. Director Simon Curtis is so awkward with the camera work that he transforms one of the film’s more dramatic twists into unintended comedy. The film is far too preoccupied with subplots that don’t receive enough attention to land with any sense of meaning.

The film’s biggest crime lies with the third act’s bizarre need to serve as a kind of second finale for the TV show. The first Downton Abbey film largely succeeded through its function as a light-hearted epilogue to the show, which already spent much of its fifth and sixth seasons tying loose ends together. For whatever reason, Fellowes decided to tie many of them up again.

The constant meandering, unfortunately, hinders the film’s strong core, namely the production at Downton, a not-so-subtle nod at Highclere Castle’s own history. The film’s newcomers are an absolute joy, meshing wonderfully with the characters who aren’t fooling around in France. Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) predictably supplies much of the film’s humor, easily the best character arc among the supporting cast. A New Era finds its best moments when it actually lives up to its title and focuses on the narratives present.

The strong showing of the fresh faces creates much frustration toward the film’s preoccupation with the past. The narrative was never going to be everything to everyone, but Fellowes sure tried to set up that dynamic. Downton Abbey was a series about change. Old-guard characters were frequently reminded that change is supposed to be a good thing.

As a film, A New Era doesn’t really believe in change. Instead, the narrative tries to function as a film season of television jam-packed into one feature. It’s rather astonishing to see how much Fellowes messed up the screenplay after pulling together such a delightful film the first time around. With our current climate of remakes and reboots, it’s hard to imagine this is the last we’ve seen of Downton. Lighthearted fun should have been so easily dragged down by an unnecessary attempt at closure that will make even less sense by the time the next film inevitably rolls around.