Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Top Gun Maverick


The end of the movie star is inevitable, headed for extinction. Maybe so, but not Tom Cruise.

I have heard it a thousand times, the age of stars is over, and then Tom Cruise releases another film and everyone has to put an asterisk next to their statement. He may be the one star that still can open a movie, at least in the right vehicle. "American Made", "The Mummy" and "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" did not light up the box office numbers, but the Mission Impossible films still open the cash registers, and this sequel, coming in 36 years after the original and two years after it was supposed to be released, sure did the trick. This is clearly a Tom Cruise movie and he is clearly the reason that it opened so well. 

This movie has received near universal praise as an entertainment, with an audiences score on Rotten Tomatoes of 99% and a critic score of 96%, it won't be too hard to figure which direction this commentary will go.  I have no intention of bucking the trend. The Lambcast this last weekend had the one poor review of the film that I have encountered, and had I been on the show, I would have disputed some of the criticisms leveled at the film, but even from someone who was not a fan, they acknowledged that it was a handsomely mounted film that probably will entertain the masses. Count me in as one of the masses. I did not think there needed to be a sequel to the film, and when I first heard that it was in production, I thought Cruise might be getting a little desperate. Nope, this is the sequel that we needed and Cruise has his confident fingerprints all over the film. 

It was a little unnerving at first because the opening moments of the movie are lifted out of the original film. The shots of the planes on board the aircraft carrier, the tech crew who participate in the launch and recovery of the planes, even the establishing shots of the carrier, are note for note. I think the sequence is updated and new but I could be wrong. The same narrative scroll appears at the beginning of both films, so maybe it is the same footage. The motorcycle footage is new, because it is the current version of Tom Cruise on the bike, although he still looks relatively the same. It does not take too long however to get to something I know is fresh. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell is now a test pilot for the military, checking out a new supersonic plane that is about to get canceled. The main reason we get this sequence is to remind us that Maverick skirts the rules, presses the limits and still manages to land on his feet. 

From the trailer of the film, it seemed like the focus would be on the tension between Maverick and the son of his dead RIO Goose. Miles Teller plays Rooster, but it is not really the death of his father that is the source of the division between the two leads. An artificial conflict has been managed for that. Speaking of conflicts, it was not clear to me why the mission in this film had to be carried out in the way it is designed, but it was extremely clear what the goal was and how it was supposed to get done. The problem that brings Maverick back to Top Gun is a logistics course, that he has to get the best pilots in the world to master. If there is one thing that feels right in the film, it is the prep and training that the pilots have to go through. The simulated conditions feel very real even when there is not a matching physical environment. All of the pilots should be able to comprehend the strategy if they have seen Star Wars because the obstacle in front of them is the same one that the X-Wing fighters were working against. When you add on top of this, the fact that the aerial shots are largely done in camera on actual planes with real g-forces, the technical excellence of what is being done is even more impressive. 

The actors work fine in their roles. Tom carries the charisma for the film, Jennifer Connelly adds an age appropriate love interest and when she smiles, the scenes warm up immensely. Teller is a doppelganger for the previously dead Goose, but he is not front and center until the last act of the film. When we get there, his interaction with Cruise is much stronger. Most of the other pilots have only minimal character, although they did seem more distinct to me than most of the secondary characters in the original film.  Although his screen time is limited, Val Kilmer gets a chance to act again and he is used in a manner that is completely in keeping with the character he played in the original. The connection between Kilmer's Iceman and Cruise's Maverick turns out to be the most enriching story arc in the movie, both because of the two characters but also because of the two actors. Maybe it is fan service but it is the kind of fan service that fans deserve and the actors earn.

Now the plot line is the main issue that might risk criticism from the naysayers. I heard it described as an act of war and something that NATO would not approve of. A preemptive strike on a rogue nations nuclear program is not unprecedented. Israel took out Iraq's early program and the U.S., Israel and others continue attacks on the programs that the Iranians are engaged in, although those have largely been clandestine rather than overtly military attacks. The U.S. has made extensive use of drone attacks on military targets, including personnel. The U.S. government has made open military attacks on Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and others in the context of terrorism, that has long been standard U.S. practice. The movie does not give us context on the mission, it only outlines the military strategy, not the diplomatic world in which the attack took place. It is quite possible that the U.S. led action in this film was authorized by a U.N. mandate, it just never comes up as part of the story. 

The truth is, that political element is superfluous to the story we are watching. This is about how a military unit prepares for a mission and carries it out. The characters are relevant to the emotional core of the story, and the ones that matter, Maverick, Iceman, Rooster and Penny, were given enough story arc to justify our caring about what happens to them. The music pumps us, the tension moments work, and the cathartic explosions, flying stunts and character ticks give us the go ahead to have a good time. So head on out to the danger zone and enjoy the need for speed. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Star Trek The Motion Picture (4K Director's Cut)


I went to see "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" on opening day at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The crowd was massive, the movie was gorgeous and our mood afterward was hopeful. The film did not play like a space war rip off of Star Wars" but rather an extended version of a cerebral episode of the original series.   There were sequences that felt long, and the special effects got more attention than the characters, but I was happy it existed, I'd waited ten years for Trek to rise from the dead and when it did, I make two or three trips to see it in theaters.

The home video market started in the early 1980s, when sell through pricing became real and the idea of owning your favorite film, not just renting it was a dream come true. Trek was one of the early franchise adopters of the sell through price, where a film was sold to a general audience rather than just video rental stores. When STTMP was available, a longer special edition was sold and it had some different
effects shots and additional scenes to tantalize us. I owned that edition on VHS and on Laser Disc, as well as a Laser Disc version of the original theatrical cut. I suppose it was my purchase of a collection of Star Trek films from the first to the fifth in a Laserdisc Box set that made me complacent about updating the films when they had subsequent releases.  

I have never seen the Director's Cut by Robert Wise from the 2001 DVD offering. I bypassed it, figuring ist was simply a remaster of the Special Edition. It was not until I saw the film last night that I saw what substantial improvements in the story had been made by the inclusion of two previously cut scenes and the trimming of other moments here and there. This 4K version is a remastering of the Director's Cut from 2001 and of course it is digitally enhanced to improve the video and the audio. 

My choices for the Fathom Event were limited, and I ended up at a theater here in the Austin Area that I had not yet been to. This was a Regal Theater and coincidentally, I had just removed the Regal App from my phone because it had been two plus years since I had used it. There were a couple of drawbacks to this location. While they did have a digital presentation, the screen was not sufficiently shielded from lighting in the theater, especially the forward Exit signs, so the image was soft at times. The theater also lacked a dynamic stereo system for the audio tracks so the presentation did not show off the technical aspects of the 4K release as dramatically as one would have hoped. [The biggest drawback of the theater is that they serve Pepsi products, resulting in my usual movie thirst going unquenched.  I'm a Coke guy.]  One thing that I did approve of however, was the traditional theater seating. No tiers, no electronic lounge chairs, just a slight sloping of the theater floor. The big advantage of this was that it enhanced the chatter between me and some other guests before the film started. Instead of being isolated from one another by the admittedly more comfortable confines of today's stadium and  lounge chairs, we felt like a group of kindred spirits revisiting an old friend on screen but also new friends in the audience. 

The film itself is vastly improved over the theatrical version. I liked the sequence where Spock weeps for Vger because he sees himself in the emptiness of pure logic and realizes that there can only be more if he moves beyond that. In the end sequence, Mr. Scott activates a self destruct protocol, which would be a very Kirk maneuver in the face of overwhelming odds to try to defend the planet Earth. You can find other places on line to explore the differences in the various versions, that's what I did. Here is one that is pretty thorough without getting too technical (The Movie Sleuth).

One of the complaints that people have made over the years is that so much time is devoted to fetishizing the Enterprise in this film. There are multiple tours of the exterior of the ship, and whenever possible, a scene is shown of the interior that is not on the bridge. I think one of the things that makes the first outside view of the Enterprise feel so long is that there is basically no dialogue for the sequence. Kirk and Scotty are in a small shuttle, traversing the immensity of the ship and they say nothing, all of the acting is done with their faces as the detailed model is explored in depth. This was a moment of fan service that might put off non-Trekkers but it was needed by the long time fans, because dammit, we had waited so long for it to become a reality.

The Special Effects of the Vger Cloud, Ship, Probes and union with humanity were beautiful back in 1979 and they continue to impress still. The slingshot warp drive effect with the sonic punch is still cool. I was struck by a moment in the film that had been done in a completely different film a few months earlier. The James Bond Space story "Moonraker" had used the idea of geosynchronous orbiting objects spreading death like a necklace around the planet. Here we had the same general idea, visualized in a way that was slightly different but did seem to be cut from the same cloth. Another 1979 parallel that I realized was that two great science fiction film scores came out this year and they were both from the same mind. Jerry Goldsmith first brought us "Alien", but finished the year with a completely different sounding score for "Star Trek", including a theme that was subsequently used for the "Next Generation" TV series and run of films. The attack on the Klingon ships is also a noteworthy motif that we will hear in subsequent adventures.  It was worth the trip to the theater just to listen to the music, even if the sound system was not optimal.  


Trekkers are glad to see their favorite crew return after a decade off. Kirk's interactions with Captain Decker start off with an uncharacteristic bite, but when the good Doctor joins the crew and moderates his old friend, the Kirk we knew seems to come back to life before our eyes. Had Spock been a pure Vulcan, we get a chance to see how his calculating nature might have diminished the character in the larger scheme of things. When his analysis of Vger's defect is complete, Spock returns as well to the character that we all fell in love with during the Original Series. Chekov has the best moments of the secondary characters, but everyone gets a spotlight here and there and it made us anticipate new adventures even more.

Although the story did seem to have elements from the television episodes, the time given to some of the philosophical questions raised was much greater and deeper in this film. I like a space battle as much as the next person, but Trek was always about more than action, it was about ideas. This is the Star Trek film that cleaves closest to the spirit of the series. It may lack the action elements that people want in a movie, but it has the soul that fans of the original love. 

"The human adventure is just beginning."

Friday, May 20, 2022



In 2015, I listed Alex Garland's debut directorial effort as my favorite film of the year. It was a provocative science fiction film that had big ideas and themes to build around. It reminded me of a lot of 70s science fiction films and the ending was a bit nihilistic. like the three Charlton Heston sci fi films of that era. I waited on his second film "Annihilation", because something in the marketing warned me that it was going to be a tough go. I watched it finally, just a few days ago and my instinct was correct. "Annihilation" is beautifully mounted and skillfully assembled, but the story feels incomplete and there is not an discernable theme to pull it together. I don't need the theme to hit me over the head but when it is so obtuse that I don't care to think about it, I believe the film maker has come up short. That brings us to his newest film, "Men". Will this be a thought provoking horror film, one that potentially says something about the title subject, or will this be an exercise in abstraction, satisfying only those who have enough imagination to impose an idea on the film? 

Let me make a couple of comparisons for you that might make my point clearer. Robert Eggers has directed two films that I have come to loathe, because of his instance that internal logic and a plot are less important than mood and exaggerated characterizations. David Lowery, made a movie that I loved, a reimagining of "Pete's Dragon", that mixed sadness with hope and a clear story. He then followed it with the acutely dense, slow and cryptic "A Ghost Story" and last years "The Green Knight", both of which have much going for them, except a point. I'm afraid that Alex Garland has joined their cult of artistic ambiguity and instead of prompting thought, his films now stimulate irritation. "Men" is a horror film that works on atmosphere in the first two acts, and then revulsion in the third, all in aid of shrugged shoulders as some might ponder what it was all about, and others ponder why they bothered.

The set up of a woman, damaged by a marriage that ended in a tragically ugly way, seeking solace in the countryside, seems perfectly fine as a starting point. There is a juxtaposition of beauty in the natural countryside with the ugliness of people she encounters in the small village and the manor house that she has leased for a few weeks.  It won't take you too long to figure out why all of the men she encounters become increasingly creepy. The subtle similarities are there for us to catch on to, and that is great, but it is not clear why her fears are manifesting in this manner. There is a very strong suggestion that all of this is a projection of her feelings about her husband and their relationship, but there are also signs and evidence that this is far from just a mental breakdown, and in fact there is a malevolence that is imposing itself on her in real life. I don't see a third way to explain what is going on and the bifurcation of sources here is never really resolved which is very deflating to the film. When a final character appears at the very end, there is another element that evokes possible meaning, but the strain that you would have to go through to get there is not worth the effort.

If there is anything to recommend the film more positively, it is the three pronged fork of Rory Kinnear, Jessie Buckley, and the special effects team that does dramatic work in the last act. Kinnear is a prolific television actor in British episodic programs. He has been best known to me as Bill Tanner, "M"'s Chief of Staff in the James Bond films of Daniel Craig. Here he manifests some startlingly different character traits, across a plethora of opportunities. It is best to let you discover those on your own if you are inclined to see the film. Jessie Buckley has captivated me since "Wild Rose" and her character here is vastly different than that role. Harper, the woman Buckley portrays, is emotionally fragile but also self sufficient and a bit stubborn. She can scream with the best of them, but she can also fight back, and in an interesting way at the end, her battle is the most passive strategy you can imagine. I'm not sure it makes sense, but she sells it. Finally, if you are a fan of body horror and creatively grotesque visual effects, the climax of the film will impress you as far as the gore facto is concerned. There is a Russian style nest of dolls sequence which will nauseate you enough to at least get an ick factor out of this horror film.

The aggressively woke title of the film, seems to mean nothing in the long run. If you were expecting a political or social commentary from the film, prepare to be disappointed. At best, the theme of one man's obsessive possessiveness , is cloudy. It might be there, or it might just be a figment of your imagination. Whoa, that's the same problem as the whole film, imagine that. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness


I suspect this will be one of the most controversial films in the MCU. We will do our best to avoid spoilers but there is one element that is revealed in the first ten minutes that is unavoidable if we are to have an intelligent discussion of the flaws of this film. If you have to wait until you see the movie to discover the villain, then you have not seen a trailer and you should stop reading now and come back next week after you have seen the movie. 

This second film in the Doctor Strange centric universe does some damage to the story arc of a major character who has been an Avenger and the subject of their own Disney Plus spinoff show. It may be a plot thread that is consistent with the comic books that the character originated in, but it is a complete reversal of the character's journey in the steaming television series.Wanda Maximoff is a character that we have suffered with and who managed her grief , ultimately learning to live with it in a mature manner after the events of "WandaVision". This movie throws out most of the character development of that show and it keeps only the concept of the children that Wanda invented. Somehow, the Scarlet Witch takes over and becomes obsessed with a problem that Wanda has already managed. This makes Wanda the major antagonist of the film, and for people who feel her pain and the steps she has gone through up to this point, it feels like a betrayal. 

Writer Michael Waldron, who did a terrific job with the "Hawkeye" series, has fumbled the ball with this film and some of the lazy writing is evident in the most obvious of places. Taking a character who can manufacture a world that Doctor Strange feels is "so real", make the most annoying slip possible to accidentally reveal her intentions is the most basic example of that laziness. Later in the story, the wisest beings in one of the multiverse worlds, are completely blind to the threat that the Scarlet Witch presents, which makes what happens satisfying in a way that is also cheap. Wanda's character is also so focused on the selfish goal that she is pursuing, she ignores all of the sacrifice made by others, including her lost love, and it is as if the grieving process never took place at all. Her inability to look at reason, and to think that the absence of killing everyone is a measured choice, just seems silly.

Having said this, I still want to say I enjoyed the film for what it is on it's own, rather than for it's place in the extended MCU. Doctor Strange and Wanda are like a different version of magical wizards Harry Potter and Voldemort. They cast spells at one another, they find ways to trick each other to gain the upper hand, and it is always about the fact that it has to be these two characters who face off. Replace wands with the fling rings and magic shields, and you get the picture. They even stage a sequence that will remind you of the battle of Hogwarts. That is not a bad thing, but it is derivative and another example of the lazy writing. Regardless of those points, I did like the last act, and even though you can see the resolution coming, it still works.

Director Sam Rami was chosen for this project for a pretty obvious reason, that final act. You could easily think you had stumbled onto the sequel to "Army of Darkness". The Doctor Strange in the final showdown is an extended version of a comic book character that Rami created for his 1990 film, and it is just as cool as an outake from "The Evil Dead". There are deadites but there is no chain saw. In the one consistency in telling the story, there is a consequence to using the "Book of the Dead", I'm sorry, the "Darkhold", but you do have to wait for the final moment of the main film to see it. 

There are spectacular visuals everywhere you look. In visiting some of the other Universes, we get clever twists on our own world, and there are nods to some of the elements of the comic book cosmos as well. Blink and you might miss a reference to another Multiverse Marvel film that will be coming out later this year. I think red means go is another lazy plot transition, but it does justify some of the actions that Steven Strange commits in that world. The actors are all good, although Michael Stuhlbarg is even more wasted as a presence than he was in the origin story. Elizabeth Olsen gets a wide range of deviousness to play, Benedict Wong continues to be an MVP in the films he is in, and Rachel McAdams does have something to do in the film, but I can't say too much. There is a fun piece of fan service with the Illuminati, serving as a alternative universe set of Avengers, and I was was surprised by the characters and cast and would not dream of saying more. 

So having dissed the storytelling and praised the technical accomplishments, let me say that some people will enjoy the heck out of the movie, I know I did, but not for the reasons you might want to enjoy the movie for. I did not see the Delta 33 but I'm sure it was there. I did however see his other trademark and enjoyed it immensely. Rami fans will know what I mean, and you want to stick around for the end of the credits to get the final stinger. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent


This is the longest I have gone between seeing a new film in a theater and having a post for it here on the blog. You think for a guy who is retired, I'd have plenty of time for the content I post here, but my life is never as simple as I think it is going to be. For instance, on the Lambcast, of which I am the host, I had my friend and previous cohost Jay Cluitt of Deep Blue Sea: The Podcast, host in my place, because I was in California for the TCM Film Festival the weekend this opened. The podcast records on Sunday, I could not start editing it until Tuesday, and I wanted to get the post up on time, so I edited the podcast before seeing the movie myself. The guests and Jay were pretty good about not giving too much away, but I did have to hum to myself in a couple of places while still trying to make the recording presentable.

It has been a week since I saw the movie and I am happy to say that if I had been on the podcast, my reaction would have mirrored the other guests. "Massive Talent" is one of the most meta, self aware projects you can imagine, while still being sincere and a real movie. It is not all jokes about Nicholas Cage and his eccentricities, which he seems willing to acknowledge, it is also a buddy picture and an action adventure film. The action adventure part is not as effective as it could be because director, Tom Gormican, is no Michael Bay. The stunts and action remain in a lower budget range and they are a little too much by the numbers, but the relationship material sings.

Cage is terrific, playing a fictionalized version of himself and mocking some of his own predilections as an actor. His esoteric delivery style mixed with his true skill at dramatics helps keep this from flying off the rails as a simple parody film. He underplays the scenes with the Hollywood types and hams it up with the gangsters that the film has him get mixed up in. Pedro Pascal is hilarious as the super-fan Javi, a rich guy willing to go to any length to get Nic Cage to do a movie he has written out of love for the actor. Their relationship is the core of the picture and it is developed pretty well. The scenes of them bonding are well thought out, and then they are subverted by a couple of film tropes that are obvious but fun. There are a lot of chase scenes, and there are a couple of misunderstandings that could have come out of any 1970s sitcom. The most out of place but still fun example is a sequence where the pair have dropped acid and are operating a vehicle and living with a huge amount of paranoia.

The family issues that the screen writer/director and his collaborator tack on to the movie feel a bit off. They seem to miss some of the humorous elements of Cage's real life family history and instead create a fictional conflict that is merely a convivence for the action plot that takes over in the second half. That was probably going to be necessary for Cage to sign on for in the first place, Five marriages seems like it would be fertile ground for some humor, especially the one relationship with the only child of the greatest entertainer to ever touch the stage. My guess is that Cage would be less light hearted about those issues than the professional ups and downs he has faced.

Here is a link to the Lambcast I mentioned earlier. I agree with everyone.

TCM Film Festival Day Four

 It's always a bit sad when you reach the last day of the festival. Even though you might have a full slate of events to attend, the knowledge that it is all coming to an end sometimes hangs over you. That's one reason to start the day off with something that you know is going to get you going on the right foot. I'd watched "Paper Moon" just a couple of months ago, when Director Peter Bogdanovich had passed away. My film salute that weekend also included "The Last Picture Show".  It was just five years ago that he attended the festival to talk about "What's Up Doc?", the second of a trio of films that had made him the hottest director in Hollywood. "Paper Moon" was the third film in this string of hits and it won nine year old Tatum O'Neal the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

"Paper Moon" is a terrific film that is hugely entertaining, and it had the bonus of being a film my daughter had yet to see. It is my pleasure to have introduced it to her and to say that it was her favorite film of the festival,  what a great surprise and joy. TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Louise Stratten about Bogdanovich and his career. She was his former wife, longtime collaborator and friend to the end of his life. She is also the sister of the late Dorothy Stratten, who Bogdanovich fell in love with before she was murdered by her husband. 

She spoke very highly of Bogdanovich and is trying to carry on his legacy with some film projects. Ben had recently spent a great deal of time talking with the director for the TCM Podcast 

"The Plot Thickens". It is worth your time to listen, especially if you are a lover of older films. 

After our first film of the day, we zipped upstairs to get inline for "Fly by Night", a comic thriller that I had never heard of before. Alas, we had a high queue number and it did not look promising for us to get in. We went over to the adjacent line to get a queue number for "High Noon" as a backup. Sure enough, with about seven people in front of us, we were informed that "Fly by Night" was full, so we zipped over and got seats in the back for the Gary Cooper Classic Western. 

So maybe it wasn't our first choice, after all we have both seen it numerous times before, but it certainly deserves a showcase at the festival. We were Ok with the substitute and then we got something we did not expect and which was one of the highlights of the festival for us. Country Music star Marty Stuart was doing the introduction and he was fantastic. He expressed all the themes that the film was about and talked about how engaging the music was. He got so wrapped up in the energy of the tune that is the theme, he practically played it out by slapping his chest, like Matthew McConaughey in the "The Wolf of Wall Street".

Of all the introductions of films at the festival, his was the most moving and generous and I felt really lucky to have been locked out of the other film. In addition to Mr. Stuart, we were introduced to Gary Cooper's daughter Maria Cooper Janis who had some stories of her own to tell about the film and her father. 

We had checked out of the hotel, but our luggage was with the bell captain and the lobby was available for the festival guests, so we took a brief break for a light snack in the lobby before our final film of the weekend. Amanda's friend Kili was meeting us for dinner at 6 pm and then taking us to her house for the evening before we got on our flight home Monday morning. 

The Academy Award winning best picture of 1973 was the ensemble comedy classic "The Sting". This was a nice pairing with "Paper Moon" since both center on con artists during the depression era, but they are vastly different stories with divergent tones. This film was an audience favorite in 1973 and it was delighting everyone who was here to experience it in the Big House at the Chinese Theater complex. 

This is a complex story about con artists and criminals and it requires that you pay attention. There are a dozen great character actors in the film, and I can only guess that Strother Martin was not available, because director George Roy Hill used him in both "Butch and Sundance" and "Slap Shot" which he made before and after this film, and there are a couple of roles that he would have been great in. 

The discussion of the film took place after the movie and that was the first time at this year's gathering, in which the feature preceded the discussion. The guests though were great. We got two of the surviving producers of the film, and the screenwriter of the movie. All of them won the Academy Awards for this picture. The missing producer for the film was Julia Phillips, the first woman to win an Academy Award for Producing the Best Picture winner. 
Tony Bill, David Ward, Michael Phillips along with Ben Mankiewicz

They talked about the casting issues and adapting the book to a workable screenplay. One story that they mentioned was that Robert Shaw's limp in the film was a result of an accident he had and instead of recasting the part, it simply became part of the character. Shaw got the part because the originally cast Richard Boone, mercurially vanished after being offered the part and no one knew how to get a hold of him. 

And so we say farewell to another TCM Film Festival. It was a blast. See you next year.