The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Epic Marvel Studios SDCC Panel.
This past weekend at San Diego Comic Con – the largest and most popular comic con in the world by far – much was revealed. DC unveiled new looks at their two upcoming end-of-year releases, Black Adam and Shazam! Fury of the Gods (while noticeably avoiding any updated on The Flash, Joker 2, or The Batman 2), Prime Video released a new trailer for their Lord of the Rings prequel series entitled The Rings of Power, and we got a couple of teases for some 2023 releases, including a first trailer for Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and a small teaser for the highly-anticipated Keanu Reeves action vehicle John Wick: Chapter 4. But no studio nor streamer has ever been as busy at SDCC as Marvel Studios.
After the official launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008 with the releases of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, the MCU has dominated Hall H panels and D23 showcases almost every time they’ve happened. Shepherded by longtime Marvel producer Kevin Feige, their biggest and perhaps most memorable slate of reveals was back in 2015, just before the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. That film’s trailer was played (it had been leaked and then released online a week or so before), and Marvel Studios unveiled their plans for Phase 3, which included the revelation of Civil War as the third Captain America film, the introduction of Black Panther and its principle star, and an eventual culmination in the dual releases of Avengers: Infinity War Part I and Infinity War Part II – the latter would go on to become Avengers: Endgame. (The Spider-Man films were not on the slate at the time of that announcement because the Sony deal had not yet been finalized.) Since that reveal, the MCU has gone through a number of shakeups, including a change of tone for characters like Thor, the passing of one of its most beloved stars in Chadwick Boseman, and of course, a global pandemic which would fundamentally re-alter the release strategy for Phase 4, the original plans for which looked very different from what they eventually became.
To that end, before we dive into where the MCU is going, it may be helpful to take a look back at where it has been post-Infinity Saga, which ended with the Phase 3 closer, Spider-Man: Far From Home. I won’t dive into each release individually, but will list them here for those who need a little refresher. All series are marked, and anything not marked as series is a feature film. (Note that the What If…? animated series is not officially part of the MCU, but is produced by Marvel Studios as part of their release slate.)
PHRASE 4 SO FAR (RELEASE ORDER)
The only real mystery left with this previous release slate is that of Moon Knight, which was initially marketed as a limited series, but seems to have been left open for at least the possibility of a season 2 if Marvel Studios wanted to go for it, given its post-credits scene in the final episode, and several Phase 6 release date not yet having been revealed. Presumably, one of those could be a placeholder for a Moon Knight season 2, but as only three Phase 6 projects were revealed at SDCC, that confirmation or lack thereof won’t be coming for a while. With Thor: Love and Thunder in theaters right now, Phase 4 of the MCU is nearly wrapped up, with only four more projects on the way, two of which act as their own stand-alone adventures.
PHASE 4 ONWARD (RELEASE ORDER)
Though no official release date has been set for the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, it is still slated for a December release this year. The I Am Groot show, which also seems largely disconnected from the wider MCU (and wasn’t on the Phase 4 recap slate, much like the What If…? show) has been dated for an August 10 release. As far as integrated MCU projects, however, there were some significant updates. Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law series on Disney+ released a new trailer with a more detailed look at the world of superhero law, more of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk spending time with the titular character, and a tease at Daredevil (played by Charlie Cox) making a guest appearance after his MCU debut in Spider-Man: No Way Home. In a less formal reveal, the whole of Phases 4-6 was also officially dubbed to be what Marvel Studios calls The Multiverse Saga.
The biggest update, however, was one for which every MCU fan was supremely nervous: the first trailer for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Following the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman as the titular character, also known as King T’Challa, it has been an unsolvable mystery how the MCU was going to reckon with the course of real-world events in a film series where the character of T’Challa had not passed away, in fact having made a triumphant return to the land of the living in Avengers: Endgame. After the news was released during the Phase 4 reveal that Marvel Studios would not be recasting the part, many speculated as to who would take up the mantle (Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye are the leading theories), and whether Ryan Coogler and Marvel would be able to pull off a second Black Panther film that simultaneously needed to push the MCU forward in telling a Namor/Atlantis-infused story and write out its leading character with enough tact and grace that it wouldn’t feel awkward or forced for the characters within that world (a challenge which even Star Wars couldn’t quite conquer). Luckily, the new teaser does make it seem as if they actually pulled it off, with a somber but inspiring tone of bittersweet triumph, emotional farewells, and national strength for the kingdom of Wakanda. The film itself is slated for release on November 11 of this year and will act as the final project in Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Both the She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever trailers, as well as the rest of the Phase 4 release slate, can be seen below.
But while the Black Panther trailer was perhaps the biggest unveiling at SDCC this weekend as far as non-announcements go, it was not the only major revelation that Feige and Marvel Studios had to offer. There was also a closer look at Phases 5 & 6 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with some projects receiving official release dates and names, and others receiving major updates as far as release timing and progress. We’ll get to Phase 6 in a bit, but for now, let’s go over what’s been revealed about Phase 5. Those revelations included estimated dates for MCU series Echo, Loki: Season 2 (which is currently filming), Agatha: Coven of Chaos, Ironheart, and an 18-episode series order for Daredevil: Born Again, which will star Charlie Cox as the titular character and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Fisk was last seen in Marvel’s Hawkeye series). It is not known which of these shows – save for Loki – will be limited series or recurring projects. Also revealed were official release dates for films such as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3, The Marvels (which acts as the sequel to Captain Marvel and the Ms. Marvel series simultaneously), and Blade, plus the official reveals of Captain America 4 (which is called New World Order and will star Anthony Mackie as Captain America following The Falcon and the Winter Soldier series) and a Thunderbolts movie. All release dates, estimated and exact, are listed below. (*There has also been a What If…? season 2 announcement set for early 2023, but no season-of-year estimation or release date has yet been made public.)
PHASE 6 PREVIEW
Phase 6 is shrouded in shadow and secrecy, but not all things have been left mysterious. While many of the late 2024 and most 2025 release dates have been kept ambiguous as far as what projects will place where, it’s likely that many of the as-yet-undated projects will fill those spots. Projects such as the in-development and confirmed-to-be-R-rated Deadpool 3 from Shawn Levy will likely factor in here, as will (most likely) Marvel’s Armor Wars and supposedly R-rated Zombies series for Disney+. And of course, don’t be surprised to see some X-Men projects announced for this phase later on once Phase 5 is well underway, especially given some of the stories that are due to come later.
On the end of certainty, however, Marvel’s previously announced Fantastic Four movie has been selected for release on November 8, 2024. There are no details yet insofar as casting or a replacement for Jon Watts, who was picked to helm the project but left the job earlier this year, citing the need to take a break from superhero filmmaking after rounding out his own Spider-Man trilogy with No Way Home in late 2021. There was, however, another pair of announcements to make up for that lack of news which MCU fans the world over have been eagerly anticipating.
If you’re like me or a number of other MCU fans, Phase 4 has likely felt a little bit aimless to you; that’s not to say it doesn’t have a larger point or won’t fit in with the longform story it’s leading into, only that an end goal has been elusive across most of its run; there isn’t really a culmination project like The Avengers to wrap it all up and lead to the next phase, even as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever seeks to close the chapter. Phase 5 will culminate with the Thunderbolts movie, which seems like a logical endpoint for both phases, but fans have nonetheless wondered: will an Avengers movie ever happen again, and if so, when? Well, now we have an answer, and it’s a doozy. It seems that in 2025, we’re scheduled to get not one, but two Avengers films, separated by a matter of months and only two other as-yet-unannounced MCU projects.
The two films are entitled Avengers: The Kang Dynasty (slated for release on May 2, 2025) and the big reveal, Avengers: Secret Wars, which is dated for November 7, 2025. The former of these two titles will likely deal with the Marvel villain Kang the Conqueror - played by Jonathan Majors – who will appear in Ant-Man 3 and an approximation of which was already revealed in the season one finale of Loki on Disney+. The latter, titled after the beloved Secret Wars Marvel comics run, will supposedly feature the collapse of the multiverse as the MCU universe (616) collides with another, eventually causing the demise of both. These events have been teased in other MCU projects but were seemingly actually triggered in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness by an incursion caused by its title character (the mid-credits scene of that film addresses this). In theory, Secret Wars could provide Marvel Studios with the opportunity to reboot the whole of the MCU completely, allowing them to start from scratch in a way that feels like both like a finale for the current MCU and an organic start to a new version of it; in effect, it would be a true finale to the whole enterprise. Either way, only one thing is certain: Marcel the Shell had better make an appearance, toenail skis and all.
UNDATED MCU PROJECTS (ANNOUNCED)
Which of these newly-announced/newly-dated MCU projects are you most looking forward to? What did you think of the trailers for She-Hulk and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever? Let us know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Discusses Jordan Peele’s Return to the Big Screen.
In many ways, Jordan Peele is a bellwether for both the best and worst kind of movie fans. On the one hand, the now-iconic director of Get Out – the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture since 1999 – and Us, is one of the few, if not only, filmmakers able to attract large crowds to the cineplex based solely on his name and reputation as both critic and craftsman. Get Out, in particular, was lauded for its searing depiction of white liberals’ use of Black bodies to achieve their own selfish ends without regard to the damage it causes. Us, perhaps less successfully, was more about class divide and the ways in which people take up and drop causes based solely on the moment they’re in. (It’s also more focused on the horror elements than its own subtext.) Both of these films were highly praised for their cinematography, haunting storytelling, standout comedic moments, and stellar performances from majority-Black casts. People loved going out to the theater and discussing the films after the credits ended. The former of them was itself a cultural reset for the whole of the horror genre, and is oft credited with being the picturesque portrait of horror mega-producers Blumhouse’ style and mission (Jason Blum himself even said it was the “perfect Blumhouse movie”). On the other hand, many of the moviegoers Peele attracts to the big screen now come laden with an expectation that whatever he puts out must have something inherently meaningful to say, and that to not lace his scripts with social commentary or some sort of political ideology or thesis simmering underneath is akin to failing or “slipping” in his directorial efforts. It is at the crossroads between these two forces that Peele’s new film, Nope, finds both its greatest success and its most challenging disconnects.
Nope is a straight-up thriller through and through. There are no hidden messages here for viewers to parse, no underbelly for them to wade through between Oscar-season cocktail parties or campaign events. Indeed, it seems to be the first of Peele’s films to not only avoid creating anything to drum up awards season chatter in its narrative, but to actively dismantle the hope of generating it. That’s not to say that it doesn’t deserve to generate awards season chatter, only that unlike Get Out or Us, there’s nothing here that viewers can latch onto to create an “Oscar narrative,” even if that narrative is stretched to its absolute limit in terms of plausibility. This is just rock-solid thriller filmmaking bolstered by some of the best craftwork moviegoers can see on the big screen; and make no mistake, people should see this on a very big screen.
The decision to shoot with IMAX cameras by Peele and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema proves to be an ingenious one, even as much of what viewers ultimately wish to see within their lenses is kept out of frame or shrouded in shadow. The scope of the movie is one of its greatest assets; wide open spaces where anything can go wrong are often the driving force of the tension within the film. If characters need to get to one place to feel safe, and by proxy make the viewers feel safe, the best way to create tension is to separate those spaces as far apart as possible, something that Nope not only understands but continually repeats as it rachets up the intensity from moment to moment; even in its quietest scenes, the looming spectacle of whatever threat the characters face is held together by the frames of Hoytema’s lens, as well as stellar sound design which is given far more power here than even in Peele’s previous feature work. (Every shot also just looks absolutely beautiful. The score, too, though less prominent here than in films where it usually is one of the more notable elements, is utilized almost perfectly, though I would have liked to hear more of it in certain moments.)
But frames can only work as well as what’s contained within them, and Jordan Peele’s directorial efforts are most evident in the performances of yet another stellar ensemble cast, including a world-class Keke Palmer and returning (now Oscar-winner) muse Daniel Kaluuya, whom Peele directed to his first Best Actor nomination in Get Out. Kaluuya is in the film more than viewers might expect given how much of the initial marketing was focused on the Keke Palmer character, but when one has a performer as thoroughly engrossing to watch as him, why limit oneself to minimal use? Kaluuya once again, and often, draws the camera to his face and holds it there, the only true measure of his immeasurable talent being the image of his eye movements in silent moments, saying everything without a word being uttered. Other notable performances include a wonderfully wry Michael Wincott, a vulnerable-yet-commanding Steven Yeun, and supporting cast standout Brandon Perea. The star of the show, however, is the formerly noted Keke Palmer, who here stands out not only as the most charismatic and funniest of the main characters, but has the most to do in terms of what the narrative requires of her character. Palmer is already well-known for her work outside of Nope, but her performance here should rocket her into the stratosphere of the most sought-after talent Hollywood has to offer.
Where Nope begins to dip into what could be metaphor or commentary, but ultimately ends up more confusing in its inclusion than clarifying, is in its sub-narrative regarding a sitcom episode that features a monkey. The sequence is heavily tied to the Steven Yeun character, but while the sequence is arresting on its own, and frankly the most terrifying part of the film as its opening image cements that this will not be a light-hearted or comic subplot, its place in the larger narrative never seems to gel quite the way it seems to hope it will. While Yeun’s undersold and fairly brief performance is yet another in a string of successes for the actor, the inclusion of his character’s backstory seems to be its own story within the story, meant to shed light on what’s happening in the main plot but ultimately only used to reinforce a point the audience doesn’t really need to be reinforced.
On the whole, Nope may not be the cultural force Get Out was or even as tinged in commentary as Us, but it remains far better than it ever needed to be thanks to the efforts of world-class craftsmanship and dynamic performances. Jordan Peele’s thriller is one of the few in 2022 that genuinely embodies exactly what its mission is, and accomplishes that mission (for the most part) with tact and genuine excitement. It looks great, it sounds great, it’s chock-full of great performances, and it’s a perfect big-screen theater experience to round out the main portion of the summer movie season. Even as various directors have attempted to capture the same stylistic flourishes and filmmaking tricks of his trade, the truth remains for better or worse: no one makes movies like Jordan Peele.
I’m giving “Nope” an 8.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Latest from the Russo Bros. Directing Duo
What is the overriding philosophy of The Gray Man? Even almost a week after seeing the film for the first time, I can’t discern what the movie is trying to say – if anything – or what the point of it all is supposed to be. In Top Gun: Maverick, it’s to celebrate how cool aviation is. In Pacific Rim, it’s to showcase how cool robot vs. monster fights can look. In The Gray Man…see what I mean? Yes, The Gray Man is an action movie directed by the Russo Brothers (of MCU fame), so its action sequences largely stand out as its greatest asset, but beyond those set pieces, it doesn’t ultimately seem to have an identity or goal beyond “showcase the Russo Brothers outside of the MCU.” The simple spy thriller framework would work on its own, sure, but the ensemble cast is largely taking things too seriously for there not to be something more to the convoluted narrative, which features so many twists and turns, it’s a wonder the whole thing doesn’t ultimately end up being some sort of bad-movie-within-a-movie plot device. Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans are clearly having fun with what the movie actually is, but everyone else seems to be more or less in line with what the movie thinks it is. Even the incomparable Ana de Armas seems far more misdirected here than she was in No Time to Die, another a spy thriller in which she has significantly less screen-time.
You’ve heard the phrase a million times before: “turn your brain off.” Oft used in contexts wherein people shut down the analysis segment of their thoughts during a film or show in order to enjoy something purely as entertainment, the phrase has been uttered by many a moviegoer when someone within earshot complains that a certain kind of tentpole film (typically in the action genre) lacks the substance necessary for them to truly consider it good or even worth revisiting at all somewhere down the line. The Jurassic World franchise, Legendary’s Monsterverse – even some sects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – have fallen into this purview a few times, as has much of Netflix’s general slate of action cinema. And, to be sure, there are plenty of films that exist that don’t require deeper thought or further analysis beyond what’s literally happening on screen at a given time and still work quite a lot on those terms. Pacific Rim doesn’t bother to explore how the multi-national cooperation of an entire Jaeger strike force affects the overall economic state of the world, or whether the monsters coming from the Pacific floor are really just looking for a new home; it’s simply about enormous robots punching giant monsters in the face, and occasionally hitting them with a cargo ship acting as a makeshift baseball bat. Hell, even the excellent Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t exactly stand up to scrutiny when one considers the international geopolitical world in which it operates, something that it’s not-so-subtle about not addressing; then again, Top Gun has never really been about that, just skilled pilots dogfighting in fast planes. These two aforementioned films could both fit into a “turn your brain off” categorization because their very natures don’t require the viewer to think about more intricate subtexts beyond the story being told. However, what these films do have are clear stakes, a set of goals for their characters to accomplish, and motivations that allow the audience to get on board with the mission hoping to be accomplished. The Gray Man doesn’t have these – not really.
This has been an ongoing problem for Netflix with their action filmography. The action is good, often great, and easily the best part of the film, but nothing else is given as much attention due to the way that many of Netflix’s hits are algorithmically-generated to get maximum possible engagement with as little possible effort. It’s one of the reasons why they’ve decided to stop producing “vanity projects” like The Irishman or Roma in favor of quicker, slightly more expensive but ultimately higher viewer-count projects. If Netflix can keep a viewer on its service who thinks seeing a decent-if-not-great action film from a couple Avengers directors is better than going out to the theater for a movie they’re not guaranteed to like, that’s the route they’ll take. To that end, The Gray Man will likely do very well on Netflix when it hits on July 22. But beyond boosting subscriber numbers and getting Ryan Gosling back into the movie fold, it doesn’t really seem to have an end goal in mind.
The film also suffers from what seems to be the Achilles heel of the Russo Brothers outside of the MCU, if 2 for 2 can be counted as a pattern – rather than “less is more,” more is more. The Russo Bros directed the biggest movie of all time – Avengers: Endgame – to unprecedented success, and anyone who’s seen that film is more than aware of how huge an event it was. Three hours long and containing almost every callback, easter egg, reference, and tease that could fit, it is very much fits the idea of throwing everything at the screen, a “more is more” philosophy. The difference between that and The Gray Man is that Avengers is big by necessity; if you’re wrapping up a 22-film saga you’ve been building since 2008 and hoping to craft a truly proper sendoff, you don’t want to leave anything on the table. But with The Gray Man, it’s as if they can’t seem to help themselves by just taking the table with them. So much is happening all the time that any characters outside the big three (Gosling, Evans, Armas) can only operate as mouthpieces and plot drivers based on the needs of the script. Even poor Julia Butters and Billy Bob Thornton – both excellent performers with solid resumes and presumably added greatness to come – are wasted here as simple exposition dumpers and plot devices. They’re hardly characters at all.
In the end, The Gray Man may satisfy those hoping for a simple action flick with some dynamic performances and a decent sense of pace, but I grow increasingly weary of Netflix’s “more is more” style overriding what might otherwise be something fun if only as much effort were put into their scripts as was put into their bottom line. Gosling and Evans are clearly here for what the film is, but it continues to get in its own way, trying its hardest to be generic when it doesn’t have to be. If Netflix truly wants to reclaim its title as the leading subscription service for quality content of all varieties, it’s going to have to start making better content (and giving auteurs like Scorsese and Noah Baumbach their funding back).
I’m giving “The Gray Man” a 6.5/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Discusses A24’s Feature Adaptation of the Early 2010s YouTube Shorts.
Late in the year 2010 – October 16, to be exact – one video creator named Dean Fleischer-Camp uploaded to YouTube (and Vimeo) a short mockumentary-style film about a little mollusk shell named Marcel, who wore Tennis Shoes and was voiced by comic and future genre star Jenny Slate. Marcel used toenails as skis, wore lentils as hats, and drug around a piece of lint on string to have as a pet, with future openness towards having a dog join the family. The short, running 3 minutes and 22 seconds in total, quickly became a viral hit, and now sits at 32 million views. In fact, it was such a success that a second 4-minute short featuring the character was made and released one year later, with a third to follow three years after that. The two sequels didn’t quite garner as much attention as the original, however, dropping from 32 million to a rough final estimate of 11 million views for the immediate sequel, with the trilogy closer bowing out at a mere 4.6 million. Since October of 2014, Marcel the Shell has not appeared on any screens or in any other works apart from those shorts, until director Dean Fleischer-Camp dropped a feature-length adaptation/sequel to the shorts at the Telluride Film Festival in September of 2021. Its script was written by Fleischer-Camp, Jenny Slate, and Nick Paley, who all worked on the story with Elisabeth Holm. And perhaps most importantly, it was a hit. The feature was then quickly snatched up by indie powerhouse studio A24 and given a summer 2022 release, limited starting June 24, and gradually expanding in more markets until its nationwide release, which is due on July 15 of this year. Whether or not the box office will reflect people’s general nostalgia or interest in the property is anybody’s guess, but for movie fans, and especially for families, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is likely to be one of their favorite summer experiences.
While there’s not much in the filmmaking itself to surprise, subvert, or challenge audiences in terms of sheer creativity, this new feature-length adaptation of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is every bit as fun and funny as the shorts on which it is based. Jenny Slate once again excels as the titular character, her voice absolutely perfect for the sort of high-tone childlike comedy aspect of the film, but more than capable of selling its lower moments as well. And, of course, the mockumentary-style format is perfect for telling this sort of story in just this sort of way. As Marcel moves around the home, one can feel the ingenuity that went into crafting not just the character’s personality, but the ways in which his actions reflect that. (He’s also just as adorable as ever, so there’s that.) These are all things that worked before, and they work just as well – if not better – here.
What’s different this time around, what with the longer runtime and more room to breathe, is that the film is also full of aching, tugging, occasionally wrenching heart. The emotional undercurrent of Marcel’s journey to find his long-lost family after two years of separation sings with heft and gravity. There’s a pathos here about shell communities and how they came to be, and within that pathos lies an intimate story not only about Marcel seeking his literal family, but about filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp coming to grips with what’s become of his own. A24 has always been pretty good about using creative and outlandish stories to tell personal tales of grief, love, loss, pain, and all sorts of other things, but in Marcel, those personal tales are the driving force of the entire film. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On isn’t so much about the adventure aspect as it is about the reflection upon it – how long it can take, how impatient one can become, how frustrating it can be to feel so far from the goal line. Too few adventure films explore just how tiresome for their protagonists the adventure can really be, the toll it can take on whatever hope one began with, eventually leaving one resigned and burnt out. But that’s the thing about indie adventure stories, isn’t it? Whatever resignation the character feels, there is always hope that remains, and Marcel understands this without calling overt attention to it.
The one thing that can be said about Marcel in terms of having any flaws at all is that its technical presentation doesn’t do a lot to stand out from the shorts on which it’s based. In fact, the entire movie can sometimes feel as if it was constructed specifically for an online space, unlike another YouTube/comic sensation – Bo Burnham – whose movie Eighth Grade (also an A24 film) tackles the culture of the internet without ever feeling as if it may have been constructed via the internet. To that end, the filmmaking itself could have used a little more heft in terms of the ways in which some scenes are shot, but in keeping with the style of its source material, it does ground the viewer in a familiar setting, so it’s a drawback easily forgiven, and unlikely to bother anyone not actively attentive to those kinds of things.
In the end, there’s not a whole lot to say about Marcel’s latest adventure that hasn’t already been said and no corner of his world left unexplored by interested parties. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On may not be as poetic as Moonlight or as creative as Everything Everywhere All at Once, but it is every bit as worthy and reverent of the A24 logo in its opening credits as those are. (And truthfully, what movie can say the same thing about either of those other two?) This summer is chock full of huge releases from a lot of major players in the studio system, but it may be A24 who walks away the victor of the indie scene in 2022, what with that second mentioned film and this. Whatever the case, viewers would remiss to miss this one in the wake of the other three major releases this weekend. Sure, Marcel likely won’t blow your mind, but it’s more than worth whatever time you have to give it. What a lovely, heartwarming experience.
I’m giving “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” an 8.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Discusses the Latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After Marvel Studios rolled out Thor: Ragnarok in November of 2017, courtesy of director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows), the entire landscape surrounding the character changed, seemingly overnight. Gone was the self-serious, dour god with his grandiose Shakespearean aura and booming voice, and gone was the dramatic emphasis on world-ending stakes (at least in Thor’s own movies). Also gone was Jane Foster, Thor’s love interest in the first two of his solo films, and the driving force behind the plot of the second. With a striking tonal shift and Natalie Portman refusing to come back for the third film due to its fallout with original Dark World helmer Patty Jenkins, Ragnarok felt like a reset, a fresh-faced new start for both the character of Thor and for the way in which the MCU would handle most solo films going forward, at least if they weren’t already in production. Even with the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy films – which thrived on their absurdity and James Gunn’s comic sensibilities – no one knew if people would buy into a character whose entire mode of being was revamped just before he showed up for the grand finale of the whole Infinity Saga with everyone else. For any other character in the MCU, the switch would have come way too late. And yet, the gamble paid off. Not only was Ragnarok a bigger hit than the first two Thor films, it was a major hit on the critical scale, its highest praises being Chris Hemsworth’s comic timing and Taika Waititi’s heartfelt storytelling. It came the closest of any solo film apart from Captain America: Civil War to grossing $1 billion at the domestic box office (Black Panther would shatter that record only three months later). Naturally, Marvel Studios wanted Waititi back for another go-round, but unfortunately, Love and Thunder isn’t nearly as successful in its storytelling (and is likely to be less successful in its box office) as its predecessor was.
To be sure, there is a lot to like about Love and Thunder, from its design work to most of the performances. Chris Hemsworth is so much Thor now that seeing him outside of the MCU feels alien, as if those are his alternate personas whereas Thor is his real one, and it works here just as well as it always has, with great comic timing per usual. Christian Bale - easily the best part of the movie – is gripping as Gorr the God Butcherer, wringing a genuinely terrifying, nuanced performance out of a character whose screen time essentially amounts to threats of action but little else. And of course, as heavily advertised, there is the return of one Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to the franchise. Portman is definitely having a lot of fun here, and you can feel it coming through the screen (though her character’s story leaves a bit to be desired, which will be discussed in the spoiler review I may or may not forget to write). Who wouldn’t love wielding Mjolnir with biceps like those and summoning lightning from the heavens? Essentially, almost everything that worked last time – good performances, cool villain, fun side characters, uniquely styled production, solid classic rock-heavy soundtrack – works again. Even some of the jokes land in unexpected ways. But that’s not enough to carry a movie that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be or what story it wants to tell. As a matter of fact, it seems like it doesn’t know whose story it wants to tell.
As Korg narrates (which happens multiple times), we’re taken through the storylines of a few different characters, and while I won’t spoil much more than that here, a lot of time is spent with each before we have to go back to do the whole thing again with whoever’s next in line. This causes the film to feel messy, unfocused, and improperly paced. If anything, Love and Thunder isn’t quite long enough to give the necessary space to everything it wants to do. The adventure this time around has almost nothing to do with helping the characters resolve any inner conflicts – as all the best stories do – and that adventure occupies most of the runtime without ever truly coming together with what the characters are going through except by proxy or when it’s unavoidable. This is where the issue arises wherein the film doesn’t seem to know what story it’s telling, or whose.
Plot-wise, this one is already pretty thin, so any time devoted to non-plot-essential stuff has to focus on emphasizing whatever themes the movie has through its characters’ actions. The first Thor was about humility being the key ingredient in leadership, knowing that one cannot lead without first humbling themselves. Ragnarok was about a civilizations demise in the wake of their own genocidal past not only being justified but righteous and that any true nation is made up of the people within it rather than the ground they stand on (it really is a subtly deep movie). In fact, The Dark World is the least liked Thor film largely due to the fact that it’s not actually about much other than setting up what’s to come (that and its first half is genuinely boring). Love and Thunder – though it’s not setting up anything in particular – has the same problem.
There doesn’t seem to be a unifying theme or message here. What is this movie about? The question isn’t “what happens in the plot?” or “what beats does the movie hit before moving on to the next?” or even “what do the characters have to do to advance the story,” but what is this movie about? Having seen it a few days ago, I still don’t really have an answer. The film doesn’t really have an identity of its own, only one similar to its predecessor and nostalgic for its franchise beginnings. And as far as whose story this is, that sort of thing would typically arise from whose internal conflict the movie is attempting to resolve. Some would say Thor’s, but there’s not a lot of emphasis on his “figuring out who he really is,” as the marketing told us, since the conflict with Gorr takes up most of that space and doesn’t really explore that aspect of Thor’s character at all. Others may say Jane’s or even Gorr’s, but Jane doesn’t really have an internal struggle to speak of, and while Gorr does have both internal and external conflicts, they don’t really match up with each other very well.
As far as character, Love and Thunder also skews fairly close to the bones of what it needs for any interactions between them, and apart from Thor and perhaps Valkyrie, hardly any of them are given anything interesting to do. To justify bringing Jane Foster back into the fold so she can become “The Mighty Thor,” the film doesn’t really give more than a half-assed answer, and the rest of the time, she doesn’t really drive the plot forward at all. It’s as if she’s “along for the ride” but never actually gets to drive. Gorr, too, is also given almost nothing to do for most of the film, which testifies to Christian Bale being one hell of an actor, since his performance remains the best part of the movie. Even Korg and Valkyrie don’t really do a whole lot. As I’ve noted before, though, these are larger issues kept beneath a shiny surface, and that surface does look pretty nice on the whole.
All in all, the MCU’s latest entrant is a fun summer romp, tailor-made for a casual Sunday afternoon viewing, but doesn’t have much else going for it beneath the surface. Unfocused, oddly paced, and thinly plotted, its best moments can’t suffice for the fact that it doesn’t really seem to have much substance beneath its candy-coated exterior, or anything it wants to say. Even Doctor Strange 2 at least had Sam Raimi’s whacky filmmaking to keep it interesting, but this one doesn’t really make a lot of interesting choices in that vein, at least not choices that haven’t been proven to work before. It mostly succeeds on its own terms, and it’s hardly the most aimless thing or one of the worst efforts that Marvel Studios has produced thus far, but Thor: Love and Thunder will likely rank pretty low when paired with the whole of what the MCU has to offer.
I’m giving “Thor: Love and Thunder” a 6.5/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Director’s AppleTV+ Dramedy.
Cooper Raiff is moving up on independent film scene. On the one hand, many film aficionados consider him to be the next great auteur filmmaker, a true millennial’s version of a Richard Linklater with the writing sensibilities of Mike Mills. On the other hand, although many others do admit to admiring his efforts and seeing the work he does as beneficial to the scope of American popular movie culture, they also think the 25-year-old may be a little in over his head with his sophomore effort. Cha Cha Real Smooth, an AppleTV+ movie and bona fide Sundance sensation which sold to the service for $15 million in January, finds the Shithouse director operating at a larger level than with his debut (also a Sundance hit), operating with a higher budget and a more comprehensive story, if not a holistic one.
The charms of Cha Cha are simple, almost deceptively so if one’s eye isn’t trained to spot just what makes the movie so damn likeable, but nonetheless effective. Cooper Raiff’s charisma as lead character Andrew is simply undeniable as he navigates his character’s life post-college, wondering if he’ll go anywhere he actually wants to go or do anything that’s meaningful to him. He wanders around from space to space, never holding back anything in thought or practice, often to the warmth of others but occasionally to his own detriment. Early on in the film, he plans to follow his ex-girlfriend out to where she lives so he can be with her, despite not really seeming all that passionate about it. His post-school life, like many others’, has turned him into a wanderer with no real sense of what his purpose is, so he seeks it in other people, most evidently in his relationship to his younger brother. Conversely, Dakota Johnson’s Domino, a down-spirited mom with an autistic daughter, who seems to be holding so much inside with her husband absent on a case in Chicago, knows exactly what and who is most meaningful to her, and is at the point in her life where going where she wants would mean having to give part of her life up that she’s worked so hard to build and to foster as a purposeful thing. Spontaneity isn’t really in her vocabulary, nor is freedom from obligation. When the two meet at a bar mitzvah, the unlikely friendship they form feels as though the need between the two of them could blossom into something more meaningful for both, but Cha Cha isn’t especially interested in romancing you. Instead, it hopes to explore how love is far from as simple as falling into it, as much as one might want to. Wants can only take a human being so far before needs get in the way, and having the two collide for even a brief time is far more special than only ever having one or the other. Rather than being solely about finding purpose, the film also finds the beauty in releasing oneself of it.
As Andrew takes on a job as a party starter for the bar mitzvahs he attends (bar mitzvahs that Domino and her daughter also happen to be at, mostly), he takes on a second task, watching Lola – that’s Domino’s daughter – so that Domino can go out, be away, experience freedom not from obligations or responsibilities, but from purpose. Domino’s entire purpose to this point has been raising Lola, caring for Lola, ensuring Lola’s safety and happiness, so much so that she never seemed to think about doing the same things for herself. As Andrew and Lola (played by scene-stealer Vanessa Burghardt) become closer over time in one of the film’s sweetest subplots, Andrew too begins to feel closer to Domino, but that closeness isn’t reciprocated in quite the way Andrew may wish it to be, though Domino certainly isn’t averse to the closeness Andrew so clearly wants. But if Domino is the purpose Andrew seeks, it’s born of passion. Andrew being the escape from purpose that Domino needs and come to accept is born of love. This is what makes Cha Cha so special, beyond it simply being a more technically proficient film than Shithouse (it’s smoother, it feels more complete, the writing is that little bit better, etc.).
To understand the dichotomy between passion and love is not so much a challenge in practice as it is a tough thing to translate in storytelling. Writing that conflict with nuance so that no one seems the villain or the hero is such a difficult thing to do in moviemaking, especially when absent parties to the film’s main conflict – such as Domino’s husband – could so easily be made the villains or the ones our protagonist must overcome. The only thing there is to overcome in Andrew or Domino’s lives is their individual unwillingness to accept what they need unless they can get it from each other, and Cooper Raiff’s thoroughly nuanced script seems to understand near-perfectly that what each of them truly need is to pursue those needs of their own accord, not simply vicariously through other people.
Cha Cha Real Smooth may not be the strongest film of the year thus far or even the best thing AppleTV+ has ever put out, but it is proof positive that the service knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to acquisitions and that Cooper Raiff – however one feels about this film as a follow-up to Shithouse – is certainly heading in the right direction as a filmmaker. Directionally, the film does sometimes get away from him a little bit, but the writing and performances bring it all back by the end. He has all the talent he needs to eventually become one of the indie greats, and the more tools he has at his disposal, the better. It’s fairly rare to see someone so in the spirit of Linklater continue to be more than simply a pale imitation of the Dazed and Confused scribe, and Raiff’s personal spin on the stories he tells is a record I want to keep on listening to for a little while longer.
I’m giving “Cha Cha Real Smooth” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Investigates the Baz Luhrmann Biopic
There is certainly no shortage of bad music biopics gracing the streaming or VOD worlds, and no lack of terrible ideas for them coming down the pike for future releases (like who decided the white guy who wrote Bohemian Rhapsody needed to do the badly-titled Whitney Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance With Somebody? Does he only know how to name movies about artists after their own songs?). Many feared that Baz Luhrmann’s take on the rise and fall of the king of rock, one Elvis Presley, would fare a similar fate, and though I cannot in good conscience deny that Elvis is far from a good film, I also cannot discount the notion that – unlike some previously mentioned work – its approach is far more interesting than it has any right to be.
Baz Luhrmann is an interesting figure in the world of film. Whether his features have been hits or not, he’s never truly had one movie stand the test of time as an unassailable classic. Between 1996’s Romeo + Juliet and his 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby – both of which have their fans – there’s not truly been one more unifying film of his than 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, which won two Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture, but even that film has its detractors, and no one I know would say that it’s an essential classic on par with some other iconic movie musicals like The Sound of Music or Singin’ in the Rain. (Australia is simply a non-starter as far as acclaim and hardly anyone remembers Strictly Ballroom). If anything, it’s Baz Luhrmann’s one-of-a-kind stylizations that have kept him going in the movie world all these years. Even if one doesn’t typically connect with his work, one is always interested in discovering how he’ll attempt to pull off whatever he’s got coming next.
Elvis is an exhaustingly audacious and unforgettable ride, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it has more on its mind than making you feel as if you’ve just been lifted from its own version of the 50s wholesale, where a gyrating rockstar has somehow driven you into a frenzy for no reason, and by the time you realize it’s over, there’s naught left in you but the minute energy to walk out of the theater and go home. That’s not to say that there aren’t positives to be gleaned from the experience of watching it, but those positives aren’t likely to shine very brightly through what it essentially its own version of an Elvis Presley concert. Dripping in sweat, so frenzied it’s a wonder its own head is kept on straight, and entirely without remorse for the way it jostles the viewer around without reason or purpose, Elvis is exactly what one gets when Baz Luhrmann is the artist behind the lens. Much of the production makes no sense as the film actively avoids answering the question of why it was made now or made in this way, but it’s at least doing something with all the tools at its disposal, whereas most music biopics remain stuck in the age-old trick of “whole life story, no flash, end story.” Elvis is flashy. Elvis is dizzying. It’s simultaneously the fastest-moving movie you’ve ever seen and forty-seven hours long. And yet, though its stylization probably does more to help it seem good to those who don’t recognize (or don’t care about) all the familiar territory it treads, the ambitions of this film stretch so far that whatever else is stuck between its four walls can’t hope to reach anywhere near that length.
The concert sequences work about as well as any concert sequence in a biopic about Elvis would. They are the true measure of its audaciousness, its frenziedness, its endless ferocity. For most of the film, Luhrmann’s style works against it. In quieter scenes, in scenes without much going on, in sequences where we’re meant to be getting intimate with Elvis’ home life, the rapid-fire editing and odd camera angles make it so that we’re too distracted to connect with any of it, but during the concerts, it all comes together, not necessarily to bring iconic sequences to life, but to make one feel as if they’re at a crazy rock show. If anyone is the saving grace of Elvis, it’s Austin Butler as the titular star, and in these concerts, one can feel the energy he’s burning off just as much as the audience (the one in the film, that is) can. Butler is genuinely incredible here, unafraid to dip into the pool of impression when called for but never diving into its deep end. He’s every bit the human being and the character Elvis Presley was, all the good and the bad rolled into a single body that moves as the icon did and sings as the icon would. And yes, the concert sequences are where he stands out most, but it’s the quieter moments where he’s able to slow the audience down just enough to see that he's really put in the work here as a genuine performer.
If anyone threatens the draw of Elvis, however (and I can’t believe I’m actually writing this), it’s America’s Dad, Tom Hanks. Hanks plays Colonel Tom Parker, who essentially ran the show for most of the rock star’s career and though it bewilders me to say it, there is no clue as to what Tom Hanks is doing in this role or with his strange accent in this film. Hanks has played so many iconic parts, one couldn’t fit them onto a single Mt Rushmore, but Colonel Tom Parker will not likely be one of them. The accent is distracting from the start, never becoming less so, and the prosthetic makeup they use on him looks genuinely terrible. It’s not exactly a bad performance on its face, but it’s easily the most distracting thing in the film, and because the film is narrated by Parker, it’s usually front-and-center.
That’s not the end of Elvis’ flaws, however, most of which are its over-stylization and reliance on filmmaking techniques that make no sense except as just being different from most others, but one of which is that it doesn’t really seem to have anything to say other than “this is how exhaustive being part of the Elvis train was.” Much has been made in the years since Elvis’ death of his appropriation of Black culture, in particular its musical roots, and while the film doesn’t exactly shy away from the notion of Elvis having grown up around this particular kind of music, it also doesn’t do much to say whether or not it condemned his use of it without much in the way of having given credit to those he took his largest inspiration from, especially as he rose up in an era when civil rights were under even more vicious circumstances than they are now. It’s presentation without condemnation or endorsement, and while it works well enough for the story this movie is telling, those hoping for something deeper may be disappointed to find that Elvis doesn’t really have much to say at all, apart from that he was taken advantage of a lot by Parker and those around him.
Overall, the audaciousness of Elvis acts as both its savior and its ultimate downfall, much like it did for the titular musical icon, and the exhaustion one feels when the whole affair is over may only be comparable to the exhaustion fans felt after seeing Elvis Presley at his best in show. Baz Luhrmann has crafted something unwieldy, undefinable, and partly impossible to revisit in the same way one interacts with it for the first time. Austin Butler is phenomenal as Elvis, but Tom Hanks’ performance as Colonel Tom Parker is one of his most perplexing, and most of the performances from everyone else are fairly forgettable. If one has the patience for Baz Luhrmann’s wild stylizations, I’d recommend Elvis as a theater experience. But only once.
I’m giving “Elvis” a 4.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan takes a closer look at the “epic conclusion of the Jurassic Era.” Minor spoilers ahead.
On June 11, 1993, audiences were treated to the most fulfilling summer blockbuster event (without Star Wars in the title) since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, a pseudo-horror film from the same director which substituted the boogeyman for the world’s most dangerous predators that we didn’t even know enough about to realize that many were covered in feathers and sounded almost nothing like the echoing roars coming from their animatronic throats. The film – a hard one to guess, I know – was Jurassic Park, which earned almost $1 billion during its original theatrical run, and held the record for the highest-grossing film of all time until James Cameron’s Titanic released four years later. Today, articles, think pieces, rankings, reviews, and analyses continue to be fascinated by the main draw of the film: the dinosaurs.
Based on a combination of animatronics, model work, and early-development CGI, the dinos in that original film are still viewed as the most life-like ever created (though their realism has since been called into question), a towering achievement in visual effects that not only pushed the CG era forward in good and bad ways, but became the gold standard for the whole of the movie industry. To this day, the visual effects of nearly any major blockbuster with creature effects are compared to them, and four sequels later, even the film’s own franchise has been unable to capture the same magic. But what made the dinos themselves iconic – apart from the VFX – was their use in the story to teach humanity a lesson in hubris. When you unleash a monster, it’s going to do what monsters do. The dinosaurs’ presence in the film was essential to telling its story. So why is it that the supposed final film in the whole franchise seems so disinterested in its flagship creatures?
Jurassic World Dominion – directed by returning Jurassic World helmer Colin Trevorrow – picks up some time after the events of its immediate predecessor, Fallen Kingdom (directed by J.A. Bayona), with a literal plague of locusts threatening the world’s food supplies that aren’t grown by the most subtly-named big tech company ever, BioSyn. This where the returning legacy characters are brought into the fold, as the scientist who begins investigating this phenomenon is none other than Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who recruits the help of Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and eventually re-teams with Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to stop BioSyn from destroying the world’s crops. That’s the first story. The second story is that Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are now harboring the clone girl from the last film, who is kidnapped along with Blue the Velociraptor’s child, and they must launch a rescue mission to get both children back. If these sound like two ideas from two separate movies, neither of which has much to do with the other apart from simply being in the same franchise, they are. In fact, the former has almost nothing to do with anything from the previous two films. And within all of that, where are the dinosaurs? The film’s answer? “Around.”
It may be genuinely astounding to hear, but the dinosaurs themselves are actually the least important element in Jurassic World Dominion’s bloated runtime. They happen to be where many of the main characters go due to their being unleashed on the world at the end of Fallen Kingdom, but they are not the enemy, nor are they especially helpful. If anything, the creation of a “Joker-like” dinosaur in this movie is proof positive just how little thought went into the one element most people are paying to see when they go to the theater. In Dominion’s terms, the dinos are simply there because the word Jurassic appears in the title, not because they are at all essential to telling either A-plot story or to the B-plot underneath them. In fact, if one took the dinosaurs out of Dominion entirely, the main thrust of the film would not really change at all. The only times they actually matter are at the beginning, at the end, and whenever the film wants to falsify and then immediately deflate any tension it presents. Hell, even Fallen Kingdom had the guts to literally blow up the island and wring some emotion out of the moment.
This isn’t all to say that Jurassic World Dominion is an outright pile of garbage in film composition or storytelling – it’s certainly a failure, but not even the worst film in its own franchise – but in practically abandoning its flagship creature’s essence to the story in favor of concluding a story from Fallen Kingdom that no one really cared about and having to justify bringing back franchise legacy characters that have nothing to do with the main thrust of the film itself, it loses the magic of what made this all happen in the first place. Jurassic Park movies are (or should be) about how mankind reacts to the presence of dinosaurs and vice versa, but instead, Dominion’s only real showcase of them is once at the beginning, and once at the end. The rest of the time, they’re in a manmade valley that BioSyn created specifically so that they couldn’t get out into the world, which was the whole point of the last film’s conclusion. It’s never actually explored – apart from the two segments I mentioned – what dinosaurs living amongst humanity would mean to the common man or to those not directly tied to either of the two main stories, except in the film’s most effective sequence (also towards the beginning) when the manufactured locusts surround a barn with children inside. So, if the film can’t justify the presence of dinosaurs in its own narrative, what about the legacy characters it brought back? What makes Laura Dern, Sam Neill, and Jeff Goldblum so essential to concluding the franchise that they needed to be in this movie?
Legacy character fan service can be fun. In fact, it can even be one of the best parts of films that know how to both honor and build upon those legacies. In successful attempts, you get Creed, Blade Runner 2049, and most recently Top Gun: Maverick. Even in The Force Awakens, one can see how Han’s presence is not made redundant even as it is largely unnecessary (though the circumstances by which that film came about are entirely different). But in unsuccessful attempts, one is left with films like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and the film to which Dominion is most often compared to, The Rise of Skywalker. (Jury’s still out on Spider-Man: No Way Home.) These are films that use legacy characters for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to nostalgia-bait audiences into buying tickets while never doing anything interesting with those characters. They don’t grow, they don’t change, they don’t really affect the narrative at all, but they’re always brought in as some part of an “epic conclusion,” even when they don’t really matter. Dominion falls under such a curse, as it only gives Sam Neill and Laura Dern one thing to do for two-and-a-half hours, and leaves poor Jeff Goldblum (who is weirdly bad in this) to the dinos. I’m sorry, no, to the locusts.
Jurassic World Dominion isn’t the worst film in the Jurassic Park franchise (Fallen Kingdom continues to hold that distinction), but it’s certainly not doing itself any favors by extending its already overly-bloated runtime only to include stories and characters that don’t end up mattering while it flip-flops between what story it wants to tell. It’s not thrilling, interesting, subversive, or satisfactory. If anything is true of it, it’s actually the most boring one of the bunch. All this to say, a Jurassic movie can’t be a Jurassic movie without dinosaurs playing an essential part in the narrative. Dominion sees treats both them and the human legacy characters as box office punchlines.
I’m giving “Jurassic World Dominion” a 4.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Latest from Disney and Pixar.
There was a moment, back in the 2000s and towards the middle of the 2010s, that it seemed no animation studio could ever top the sheer ingenuity of Pixar. Films like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Inside Out, and Coco have become not simply some of the best offerings of the studio’s catalogue, but in the history of animated filmmaking (and let’s not forget the brilliantly tragic prologue to Up). Even more recent efforts like Soul have come close to joining those ranks. And then, of course, there’s the franchise by which Pixar came into being – the Toy Story quadrilogy. Not simply some of the greatest animated films ever made, but some of the most essential in forwarding the medium towards its greatest heights, both in storytelling and in aesthetic glory. One needs only to see the vast leap from the o.g. Pixar debut – the first-ever fully CGI animated film – to its (potentially) final offering in Toy Story 4 to observe just how far forward animation has come since 1995. Its animation is near photoreal, its storytelling much deeper and more philosophical than anything one might expect from a movie largely led by a cowboy doll and a talking spork. So why is it that Lightyear, a Pixar-made sci-fi adventure featuring one of the Toy Story series protagonists on an intergalactic mission through uncharted space and time, feels so…plain?
Billed as the movie Andy is watching in the early minutes of the original Toy Story, and the one upon which the Buzz Lightyear toy he receives in that film is based, Lightyear moves along a decent clip with the occasional fun action sequence, some fun side characters, and lots of quippy dialogue for about an hour and a half as its protagonist pushes the limits of space travel, encounters alien robots, and learns that he can’t finish his ultimate mission alone. If the film accomplishes any goal almost perfectly, it’s that it does seem like it would have been a child’s favorite movie in the mid-90s. However, by Pixar standards, the movie finds itself somewhere between “average” and “decent.” That’s not to say it’s bad – though it certainly could be better – but whether audiences have been conditioned to settle for “solid” filmmaking from what used to be the leading studio in animated innovation because of their past output is a question worth asking.
There’s no moment in Lightyear where the audience or the characters in it are truly challenged, or even asked to sit with an emotional beat for more than about thirty seconds, tops. In its lowest moments, the film almost immediately skips to whatever the next joke or plot revelation is meant to be, often seeming as if it’s afraid the audience will get bored if it doesn’t keep moving at any cost, including the cost of poignancy or genuine distress. It never slows down or sits with anything whenever things go wrong, apart from maybe twice in the entire runtime. Multiple plot points of the movie almost feels as if they were supposed to be longer, but had to be rushed through in order to keep the film under two hours. It feels as if the runtime mandated the story being told, rather than the other way around.
That method of storytelling also extends to the film’s ultimate message, which essentially boils down to “don’t be afraid to ask for help/don’t be stubborn and do your mission alone,” but the movie never really hammers that home until after the climax of the film has come and gone – a climax which raises way more questions than a movie like this has the ability to answer – the actual execution of which seems to be pointing towards an entirely different message about clinging to the past that the film has spent almost no time building toward. Although this other message does give the film’s protagonist a place to go arc-wise, it’s so brief that it never really registers until after the credits have rolled, and even then, it seems as though Disney itself refuses to learn that lesson. There’s something to be learned, but no real challenges to be overcome in learning it that can’t be resolved with a blaster.
As Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans in this iteration) moves through his own story, the film never actually challenges him in a meaningful way apart from physical difficulties; at one point, he forgets to inform his ragtag team that [redacted], and it ends up that he has to fix his mistake via another small action sequence. This largely extends to the other characters as well – all true challenges are physical, all emotional battles are clipped by more jokes (most of which don’t land). If anything, the one thing Pixar hasn’t lost is its ability to churn out fun animal side characters like Sox, a robot cat given to Buzz to ease his emotional state after his off-planet escapades rocket him through an extensive time jump. No doubt this will boost toy sales significantly, so the corporate benefits of the character are abundantly clear from the get-go, but nevertheless, when Sox is on screen, he’s always the most watchable part of the movie.
Visually, the film looks very good, but there’s not much that it’s doing differently than most other animated films. Compared to recent efforts like DreamWorks’ surprisingly charming adaptation of The Bad Guys, the animation itself feels fairly plain – at least by Pixar standards, and especially after Soul’s breathtaking lighting. That said, what’s there works well enough for most audiences, and you most likely won’t hear many complaints like mine about whether it looks interesting or just pretty good. There’s not as much space action past the first act as one might desire from a film about a space ranger, but what’s there is at least engaging to look at, if only because there’s just so much visual noise squeezed into nearly every frame.
In the end, Lightyear gets the job done, but doesn’t put up a lot of effort in getting there. As a sci-fi adventure, it’s solid enough, and kids are unlikely to get bored by it, but for anyone wanting something deeper from Pixar, it’s unlikely they’ll find anything above your run-of-the-mill, average studio animation. There’s little innovation here, but it works on the terms it sets for itself, and it does have a few moments that both kids and adults can latch onto, as well a pretty good lesson for kids to learn (however muddled the teaching of that lesson may be). I suppose the most important question one must ask themselves in the face of something like that coming from Pixar is this: is that enough?
I’m giving “Lightyear” a 6.5/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Tom Cruise-Led Sequel Aces Its Mission and Then Some.
As at-home viewing services become overloaded and tedious, as Marvel Studios is beginning to feel aimless in its constant output, as Netflix is struggling to manage the weight of expectations placed upon it and falling fast in the process, one thing becomes unmistakably clear: no streamer can handle big-budget, classic tentpole filmmaking at a level which exceeds the need for grand-scale, theatrical spaces. Some streamers have opted into using them for initial openings and preview showings, but few – if any – have truly understood the necessity of movie theaters to envelop viewers within the art they produce. Leave it to the one and only Tom Cruise to remind them all how it’s done. Enter Top Gun: Maverick.
After a multi-year, COVID-fueled delay, as well as a string of refusals from the titular star to sell the film to any streaming service that approached, the sequel to 1986’s Top Gun will finally hit theaters this Friday, and fans of the original film should be overjoyed to learn it’s a smashing success. Not simply an appropriate tribute to or emulation of Tony Scott’s source material, but an elevation of it in nearly every form, Maverick flies high over nearly everything that’s been released in theaters over the past five months. The film, though not brimming with action to the point of bursting, is teeming with top-scale filmmaking the likes of which just doesn’t occur anymore without Cruise and company in the producers chair. What action it does contain is masterful, its aerial sequences may be the best ever put to film, while its performance ooze charisma, charm, its heart beating as loud and as hard as it can. In nearly every possible sense, this is the kind of movie that movie theaters were made for. It’s not that a giant screen and big sound is the only way to enjoy it; there simply is no other answer to the question of what the definitive best way is to experience it, and make no mistake – it is an experience above all else. The final 30 minutes alone is enough to remind viewers of just how thrilling theatrical moviegoing can be under the right circumstances. It leaves one breathless in only the way a Tom Cruise-led action movie can.
Top Gun: Maverick pushes its title character to his absolute limit, not simply in terms of where his career has gone over the past 36 years, but where he aims to drive himself, physically and psychologically. He has actively refused to move ranks despite every chance to do so, consistently testing the boundaries of his own importance and those of his superiors in dangerous fashion. With every flight he takes, with every aircraft he flies, with every moment he spends in the air or on the ground, he inches himself closer and closer to the point where he may not come back from wherever he goes, partly due to his concern over whomever he’s worried may not come back from the mission this time around. There’s a beating undercurrent to this film which hinges on how Maverick reacts to and engages with Rooster (Miles Teller), whom the film tells us right away is Goose’s son (something the trailer also told us a month ago). Expectedly, Goose’s death in the original film informs a lot of what occurs between the two characters, but what’s more surprising is just how much it informs what occurs between Maverick and everyone else. Whereas the original Top Gun didn’t really have an emotional center for viewers to latch onto until the tail end – no pun intended – Maverick succeeds by making Goose its heart, and that heart pervades every decision, every moment of this film in such a way that one may mistake its success for having always been there since the beginning.
But it’s not only Maverick or Rooster that get a boost in characterization this time around. Jennifer Connelly, one of the most underutilized actresses alive given how often she nails whatever she’s given to do and how watchable she is as a screen presence, stars as Maverick’s former love interest Penny – a far cry from Top Gun’s Charlie, given how believable her connection with Maverick is in this film. As much as Top Gun: Maverick is concerned with the legacy of Maverick’s connection to Goose, Iceman, Rooster, etc, it never forgets to really hammer home that there are people who are afraid of losing him too, whom he might leave behind if he doesn’t come back home at the end of the day. That fear really hits home in this film; you believe that Cruise and Connelly had a connection before, despite never having seen it happen. You believe that Maverick’s attachment to Goose wasn’t as superficial as the original film feels on reflection. And most importantly, you believe in Maverick and his entire team from the moment they begin training to the moment the movie is over. Hangman, Payback, Coyote, Bob, Phoenix, Fanboy, and Omaha are one of the best ensemble teams assembled for a motion picture since the original Avengers lineup, and every one of them sells their mission perfectly.
If there were any improvements to be made to this movie, perhaps one more set-piece could have been added and the second act a little faster-paced, but shaving minutes off this movie would end at a count of 2-3, not 15-20 the way most films with room to trim do. It’s not quite the wall-to-wall action sensation that something like Mission: Impossible Fallout was, but it’s every bit in the vein of what a sequel to Top Gun should be, its focus more on the Navy and its pilots than on what they do. The mission may be some of the most stressful, thrillingly-edited action filmmaking this side of Mad Max: Fury Road, but there is a leadup to it that takes its time and isn’t in a hurry to keep butts in seats. The film trusts that its audience will stay on the strength of its buildup alone; it seeks to earn your attention, not to capture it straight away.
Top Gun: Maverick is proof positive that no amount of superheroes, fan service, cameos, or franchise potential is a proper stand-in for classic, big-budget tentpole filmmaking, the kind where everything you see on screen is happening for real, and the kind that is not only elevated by but necessitates theatrical moviegoing. The final 30 minutes of it are absolutely breathtaking, as tense as any action sequence of the past five years and as thrilling as being in a fighter jet likely feels. A perfect summer sequel that builds upon and improves the original’s legacy without sacrificing it in the process, and a world-class example of just how righteous Tom Cruise’s one-man fight for the theatrical experience really is, this truly is something you don’t want to miss. I can’t wait to see it again.
I’m giving “Top Gun: Maverick” a 9.1/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.