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 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 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
This review briefly touches on some of the plot setup for this film. You have been warned.
The MCU has always been a little bit self-serious. Even in the films where comedy was the primary mode of storytelling (i.e. the Guardians and Spider-Man films), one has a distinct sense that though the material is self-aware, it’s not especially zany or eager to become playful with its subject matter, particularly on the crafts side. There are no star wipes, no cuts-to-black in the middle of proceedings, and zero freeze-frame lining the walls of the most popular and easily the most successful franchise – both critically and commercially – ever committed to digital rendering. There aren’t even any transitions where one frame bleeds into another as if characters are invading the narrative to take over its main thrust. Most of it, to be frank, is fairly straightforward comic-book storytelling, as straightforward as those things can be when dealing with a purple genocidal alien and a pair of best friends who take the forms of a tree and a raccoon. Generally speaking - and apart from the Guardians films – there’s not normally a ton of risk involved in directing a Marvel Studios film, at least not in terms of an audience being jarred by one’s sense of style; that can get boring after a fashion. In all truth, the MCU needed to get a little silly to stay fresh. It needed to evolve from a mere action/comedy franchise into something more akin to a fun exploration of what kinds of MCU stories can be told. And that, by far, is the biggest strength director Sam Raimi offers in directing the newest entry to the Disney juggernaut, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
As the titular sorcerer travels the multiverse with the help of newly-introduced multiverse-hopper America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) in order to stop a fearsome evil from pursuing them and ultimately taking America’s power for its own, one can sense the Sam Raimi style bleeding into the frames from the edge until they consume the story entirely. There are multiple action sequences with genuinely silly effects – one in particular involving a classical music composition – and any number of transitions those unfamiliar with Raimi will no doubt notice as being distinct amongst the wider MCU. Raimi’s been no stranger to camp, ever since his original Evil Dead release in 1981, and it peppers Multiverse of Madness in some fairly significant ways. Another storytelling element to which Raimi is no stranger is horror; Multiverse of Madness is not a full-on horror film, but it does get significantly closer to that genre than any MCU movie has to date, though just how close Raimi was allowed to get is in question since Scott Derickson, the film’s original helmer, presumably left the project because Marvel didn’t want him to get too close to making an actual horror film. That said, certain images and moments are crafted with a horror element in mind, as is evident in certain sequences and with particular characters, especially the villains this time around.
Where the film runs into significant problems is its script, one that can’t seem to decide whose story it’s telling or how it wants to go about telling it. Whereas the initial Doctor Strange film had the benefit of being an origin story, thus only needing to set up one character, Multiverse of Madness carries the unwieldy task of not only introducing us to America Chavez, but to the multiverse at large, and all that it contains, both in its more brief appearances and its more significant layovers. That means a lot of characters and a lot of worlds to cover in a fairly short span of time, and it’s not always up to the task. Unfortunately, though the film certainly has at least a small arc for its titular hero, and he is very much in the center of the frame, the introduction of the wider MCU means that stories in which he’s involved can’t only focus on him now – even if he is, as noted, the title character. Because of all the setup involved, as well as needing to handle at least two other mainline characters’ stories, Strange feels a little bit pushed to the background in terms of development here. We know about him by film’s end almost as much as we knew at the beginning, and apart from some rudimentary introductory material, we don’t really know that much about what kind of person America Chavez is either. That said, MCU movies have bounced back from character development issues and over-bloat before – hell, even Iron Man 2 – the worst MCU movie – still coasts on the charms of Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannson.
What Multiverse of Madness may not bounce back from is in how it handles the Wanda Maximoff character, whose MCU journey has been one of the most compelling of any of her cohorts across four movies and her own Disney+ limited series (though the number of movies drops to three if one considers she only briefly appears in Avengers: Endgame). It’s not to say that the place Wanda ultimately ends up in the film makes no sense, but on the whole, it’s merely a repeat of her emotionally-driven arc from WandaVision without the necessary developments taking place to get her back to where she needs to be at the beginning of it (I’m deeply sorry if that sentence is confusing, but keeping this spoiler-free means that will occasionally happen). There is one small line during the first act that hints at what might be driving Wanda towards this point of origin, but no justification for it or demonstration of its truth beyond what we already know from that series. Elizabeth Olsen, as always, acts the hell out of whatever she’s given to do, but her function in this film is more so as a plot device than as her own distinct character, ditto America Chavez for most of the film’s runtime. Wanda begins at an endpoint here without the MCU having earned that journey for her character, and while her story in this film may make sense in a vacuum, the question of how everything connects to the wider MCU forces it to confront a near-antithesis of itself without so much as a guide to who she is or who she has been.
All in all, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does bring some of that much-needed fun back to the film side of the MCU, where nearly everything has been soaked in dour, post-Endgame dread or multiverse acknowledgement/setup, and is able to bring some of that Sam Raimi zaniness to this world with a decent amount of success, but the script for the film can’t seem to handle the weight of what it needs to accomplish in the amount of time it has to accomplish it. Everything that doesn’t work takes up a lot of the spotlight from the things that do, and despite the myriad showcases of style, some fun cameos, and a healthy dose of zany horror, this MCU entrant may end up disappointing audiences on a number of levels. Perhaps this film needed to be longer in order to accommodate everything it needed to include and flesh out some of its more significant pacing issues, but – while I won’t say I wasn’t at least a little bit let down by some of its less favorable material – for my part, it is refreshing to see the MCU dive head-first into becoming something almost entirely different than what it’s been to this point.
I’m giving “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” a 7.6/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Latest from Director Robert Eggers.
In 2015, the Sundance Film Festival awarded its Best Director prize to one Robert Eggers, whose brilliant debut feature, The Witch, had just been shown to attendees, and was due for release in February after positive word spread from advanced screenings of the film. Eggers then quickly became somewhat of a curious name in the pantheon of auteur directors – at once a name to anticipate, yet entirely unpredictable as he began an era of singularity in filmmaking not seen since the early days of Ridley Scott (think Alien, Blade Runner). In fact, it was Eggers in large part who helped to usher in the horror heyday of indie studio A24, which distributed both The Witch and his subsequent masterwork, The Lighthouse. Committed completely to authenticity by way of period detail and an emphasis on realistic language, Eggers forged a path for himself with only two indie features under his belt, the latter of which received an Oscar nomination for cinematography. Enter Focus Features, with a larger playing field and a heftier budgetary capabilities than Eggers had yet experienced as a filmmaker, ready to take on the charge of bringing The Northman to the big screen. It may well be the smartest move the studio has ever made.
First viewed, The Northman can present something of a strange beast for the viewer: a tale of blood-soaked vengeance which fails to unleash the constancy of carnage its initial trailer insinuates (though it is nonetheless violent in bursts), but nevertheless remains as much an epic as director Robert Eggers ever could have promised, both in the scope of its narrative and the larger world it inhabits. Mythos and legend are not only alluded to but literalized as raven spirits and Allfathers appear on screen to assist Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) on his quest of vengeance; yet for all the bloodshed, there are equal parts mysticism and meditation to accompany it. Truthfully, with the state of the current blockbuster landscape, dominated by superheroes and held aloft by the scepter of IP, it would not scratch hyperbole to declare it a miracle that The Northman exists at all. And to exist in the state it does, a tentpole release imbued by near-total commitment to the authenticity of even its most disparate elements, an anomaly further.
What little fails to connect from Robert Egger’s latest delve into old-world cultures and hyper-specific language is a chunk of steel dropped atop the irons of filmmaking, its weight so miniscule it cannot hope to dent the material in a meaningful fashion, but a weight nonetheless. One scene of Nordic sport and a temporary slow-down of momentum aways into the second act (plus a slightly underdeveloped love story) is offset by breathtaking imagery, the film’s reverent dissection of vengeance as Viking lifestyle – along with all that entails – and a stunningly rendered Slavic raid, the intricacy of which is seldom seen in films of this scale. Patience may be required to endure Eggers’ two-hour revenge epic, but the film trusts its audience to find the experience withing such patience. Assisting the audience in this task is the work of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, their drum-backed score echoing through the film’s soundscape as swords and shields are splintered and thrust, as spells are cast and vengeance sought.
Yet without its stars, especially those closest to the film’s burning center, The Northman would be nothing more than a glorified Game of Thrones spinoff episode. Skarsgård, who stars as the film’s titular protagonist, has gone on record many times about his journey to getting the film made, and his commitment to its existence is evident in every second of his beastly, often unhinged Amleth. He is animalistic, occasionally to an unnerving physical degree, but just as often contemplative, emotionally challenged in key moments where his vulnerability is given a chance to shine (though not quite as bright as his beastliness), often in close context to Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga, a performance that works on its own but still feels slightly off-key here. Nicole Kidman and Claes Bang, as well as an unusually imposing Ethan Hawke, fill out the supporting cast in expert fashion, while Willem Dafoe and Icelandic popstar Björk make the most of their time with naught but three scenes between them.
It can be a fool’s errand to attempt pinning down what makes Robert Eggers’ efforts in filmmaking succeed to such a high level only three films deep; perhaps it’s the commitment to authenticity, perhaps it’s the intimacy with which he tells such grandiose stories, but always, the explanation eludes those who respond to the director’s work the most. The Northman may not be an outright masterpiece, or even Eggers’ best film on the whole, but it is one of the most original and engaging true epics to hit theaters in quite some time. Those who insist Hollywood is “out of ideas” or “only ever makes sequels/reboots” would be fools to let it pass unseen. The dollar speaks in the movie world; let it sing the songs of the Valkyries.
I’m giving “The Northman” an 8.8/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Reviews the latest entry to the Wizarding World canon.
When the Fantastic Beasts series of films began, already a thinly-drawn idea spun from a concept so small within the world it inhabited that it barely affected the Harry Potter films from whence it originated, the basic conceit was a series of adventure stories centered around the travels of one Newt Scamander, a bumbling but loveable magic zoologist who traveled the world in search of magic creatures in order to document their existences. Now that this series is three films deep, however, it would seem that Newt is all but an afterthought, an obligation of having set up an entire first film around him and now being stuck with the character as controversial author J.K. Rowling’s bumbling scripts demonstrate more concern with wizarding world politics than with any of the wonder she became famous for having created.
What The Secrets of Dumbledore opts to do with the now-defunct foundation is reshape it into more of a political thriller, but the Harry Potter – and indeed Wizarding World – universe, wants to do it all in one go, rather than establish this as any sort of buildup from the jump. The foundational elements of this series have given way to something best left to mythos and backstory, that being the origins of Dumbledore and his infamous dual with the wizard Grindelwald. And in this giving, the series makes the most common mistake of any spin-off property attached to a well-beloved work: trying to be like that well-beloved work, rather than stand as its own entirely separate thing. It didn’t work for The Hobbit films when they tried to be Lord of the Rings, and it doesn’t work here.
The Secrets of Dumbledore is as dry and frankly boring as a film like it might have ever managed to be. To compare the experience, it’s like a dry chicken breast or roast; sure, there’s meat here, but no flavor, protein but nothing I would want to bite into for my next meal. I genuinely cannot remember ever sitting in a Wizarding World film and being outright bored. Though it does make some improvements on the mess that preceded it – Mads Mikkelsen is a better Grindelwald, the one ridiculous exposition scene is only two minutes long rather than eight, Jude Law gets a little bit more to do than last time, and it’s more tonally consistent – the scattershot script makes the film itself incredibly messy, bouncing from character to character as they traverse three different narratives, almost all of which feel like placeholders so they can stretch perhaps half an hour of actually interesting story to two and a half. This all-over-the-place narrative may not be quite as terribly conceived as The Crimes of Grindelwald was, but at least that film stuck to its guns and threw things at the wall; none of it stuck, but one could at least admire the audacity of its throwing arm. Secrets of Dumbledore, on the other hand, may be more consistent, but its consistency is in that rather than trying a bunch of things that don’t work, it hardly tries anything at all.
This is all before diving into the characters and performances, some of which work pretty well – as previously stated, Mads Mikkelsen and Jude Law are the best parts of the film regarding their individual efforts – and some of which couldn’t work regardless of how much of themselves the actor puts in. Eddie Redmayne is fine as Newt, but the film seems to have virtually no interest in him apart from how he serves the narrative of Dumbledore, rather than being his own character (remember, the lead character of the first movie whose story we’re supposed to have been following), ditto his brother played by Callum Turner. The problems arise when taking a closer gander towards the rest of the supporting cast. One can tell Dan Folger is a great actor as he portrays Jacob, but the character himself continues to be one of the franchise’s most inconsistent, charming and charismatic one minute, then making the dumbest decisions of anyone the next, ditto Queenie (Alison Sudol) who was one of the best parts of the first film and now feels like an afterthought, a ball to toss around whenever we need to give Jacob something to do. The strangest performance, however, belongs to Jessica Williams, whom I quite enjoyed in Booksmart, but here seems to have been directed to say every line the exact same way, sapping the character of any energy or charm she might have otherwise had. Listen to how she speaks her dialogue, almost as if she was told to do a British accent she can’t keep up, and you’ll see what I mean. (And, to state the obvious, it is not lost on me that Katherine Turner is hardly included in this movie at all after being the most vocal of the previous two films’ casts to speak out against J.K. Rowling’s notorious transphobia, and doesn’t appear in the main thrust of the film at all.)
For those attached to the Harry Potter universe and all that it entails, The Secrets of Dumbledore may contain some morsel of mediocrity that feels like success, but for those like myself who engage with this material more on the filmmaking front, that mediocrity will leave a sour taste. Improvement over poor quality is only improvement, but it will not make something good, and this film’s messiness betrays any interest an audience might have in its narrative by forcing them to wait over two hours before moving forward with it in a meaningful fashion. Perhaps the Wizarding World has one or even two more stories left to tell with these characters, in this space, but for all intents and purposes, the intrigue, the wonder, the magic is well and truly gone.
I’m giving “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” a 6.1/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
Uncharted, a new movie adaptation of a beloved action-adventure video game franchise, has been languishing in development hell for well over a decade, to the point where Mark Wahlberg (who plays Sully in the film) was, at one point, attached to play franchise lead Nathan Drake before being relegated to the main supporting cast. Several directors had hopped on to the project and then hopped off to do other things, several re-writes were done, and the actual shooting of the film finished in October of 2020. Now, in 2022, that adaptation has finally arrived, and with it some expectation that things probably wouldn’t be too praise-worthy in the final product. I mean, who knew that just over a year after filming finished, the movie’s resident Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) would be the headline character in the third-highest domestic box office grosser of all time, and thus ably proven to be able to carry a movie on his own? It would seem that turn even surprised Sony Pictures, who produced the Holland-starring Spider-Man films. Thus, the superstar ends up sharing most of his screen-time with Mark Wahlberg’s character not out of necessity, but out of, perhaps, a sense that he would need a more established, well-known anchor to help carry the scenes where he may otherwise have had to do a lot of heavy lifting (it’s happened in all three MCU Spider-Man films too).
What we’re left with in the Uncharted movie is a harmless but bland series of action set-pieces and lackluster puzzle solving, much of which set against some of the worst green-screen backdrop compositing I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time, sprinkled through a thoroughly underwhelming story that really only makes cursory nods to its source material without engaging in what almost any of it actually means or what made that source material so beloved in the first place. Essentially, it’s a cover band opening act (at a show with two opening acts) that plays the hits you know, but not nearly as good as the original artist, and the hits they’re playing aren’t really the ones you wanted to hear anyway. They’re just there for the moment while you wait for the headliner to finish setting up. Holland’s Nathan Drake feels like a diet version of games’ protagonist, meanwhile Wahlberg’s Sully can’t be bothered to feel even a little bit like the original classic side character, and the only person who walks away from the whole thing without an actively negative note on their resume is Antoni Banderas as the film’s lackluster villain. For those hankering for another adventure movie to see in theaters, that may do well enough to pass the time, but fans of the games will more than likely be either disappointed by the film’s lackluster story or resolved to feel as apathetic toward it as they already expected to be.
Video game movies have almost always fallen short of their source material, the best video game movies usually being those not adapted from gaming by informed by it, like how Scott Pilgrim vs. the World uses a lot of video game tropes to tell a fun, wild story where its most unbelievable elements are somehow plausible in the world it creates. Direct adaptations have significantly less success. Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil – these are all direct adaptations of other beloved video game franchises that don’t really work as well as they should, no matter what cool set pieces are thrown in or – in the case of the second one – no matter how bloody and violent their ratings allow them to be in order to maintain faithfulness. All this begs the question: are video games even adaptable for the silver screen?
There have been some minor successes here and there with adapting games to television; most recently Arcane, which is based on the League of Legends game, has had great success in its translation to a Netflix animated series. But movies are a whole different beast than television, and we still don’t really know whether or not the upcoming Halo adaptation for Paramount+ will yield any promising results. The tricky thing in adapting video games is always: what story is the adaptation going to tell? You can’t just re-tell the games’ stories beat for beat in live-action, no matter how acclaimed they are, because nothing will feel fresh or new to the viewer. Then again, attempting to set a story outside of the main narrative – as Uncharted does in being a prequel to the main series of games – yields significant risk of alienating the customer base most prepared to appreciate what a good adaptation can do by just not being as good as the games themselves. Unfortunately, this movie falls to the latter of those.
Uncharted isn’t especially offensive to fans of its source material, and some of it – such as the final set piece – does work to a degree, but those degrees are just barely passable in an era where streaming and television is not only best equipped to handle telling stories like it, but unbound by the constraints of a big-budget theatrical release in terms of time and pacing. Playing through these stories has always been more exciting than watching them, and unfortunately, the gap between the two storytelling mediums remains as wide as ever. Perhaps one day someone will get a big screen video game adaptation right. But it won’t be today.
I’m giving “Uncharted” a 4.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.