Triangle of Sadness(10/27/2022)

Winning the Palm d’Or once is an extraordinary achievement but winning it twice is… well it’s pretty hard but it’s perhaps not as rare as you might expect.  Of the 82 films to have won the award, about sixteen were directed by people who have won twice, meaning that there are about eight people in the exclusive two timers club.  Some of these people are the luminaries you would expect to be in such a class: Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Haneke, and Shōhei Imamura.  Others are less well known but make a more sense when you understand Cannes history and the tastes of European intellectuals like Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, and Emir Kusturica.  And then there are a pair of Scandanavians whose names have kind of faded over time.  There was the Swede Alf Sjöberg who’s now mostly known as a mentor for Ingmar Bergman and who partly joined the club on a technicality because the wacky jury at the first Cannes Festival decided to give out the top prize in an eleven-way tie.  More pertinently there was the Danish filmmaker Bille August, who won for back to back projects with Pelle the Conqueror and The Best Intentions.  Granted I haven’t seen either of these movies, they could actually be super deserving picks, but… they haven’t really been on the forefront of film though, especially not the second of the two.  I bring this up because there has been a new member of the double-Palme club: Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, who won in 2017 film The Square and now once again with his latest film Triangle of Sadness.  Will Östlund be another Coppola or another August?  Well let’s start by seeing if Triangle of Sadness was deserving in and of itself.

The title of Triangle of Sadness refers to a spot on the forehead leading into the nose which is said to make people look gloomy and the film’s initial point of view character, a male model named Carl (Harris Dickinson), is advised to “fix” with botox.  And from there we are given a deep dive into the world of one percenter decadence, firstly by being introduced to the dynamics between Carl and his girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who is also a model.  Their relationship does not exactly seem serious and to some extent they’re together because their relationship helps social media engagement, and as we meet them they seem to spend a lot of their time engaged in awkward and inane power struggles over nonsense.  We then follow them onto a high-end luxury cruise on a yacht captained by a reclusive captain named Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), who can often be found locked in his room drinking and listening to “The Internationale.”  Other notable passengers include a middle aged Russian named Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) who made millions selling “shit” (guano) and his eccentric wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles), a stroke victim only capable of saying one sentence over and over named Therese (Iris Berben), and other weirdos like an elderly couple who got rich selling arms.  Serving them are people like the overly upbeat manager Paula (Vicki Berlin) and a maid named Abigale (Dolly de Leon).  The cruise itself is rife with dysfunction, mostly caused by needing to cater to the stupidest whims of the passengers on board and eventually things go awry and many of these characters will deal with a role reversal as a result.

Triangle of Sadness is a film with three distinct acts marked by title cards.  The first largely serves to introduce the audience to Carl and Yaya and their awkward gender power dynamic, which is a topic that’s been there in most of Östlund’s movies and was the centerpiece of his breakout film Force Majeure.  However this seems like a somewhat odd place to start given that these two are rather minor characters in the second act of the film and are important but still not central characters in the third act.  I think Östlund highlights them because they are sort of representative of the petite bourgeoisie here and are thus among the more logical entry points for your average arthouse viewer: wealthy enough to have some idea of luxury but not really as powerful as most of the people on the boat in the second act.  That second act is where the film really goes to town on “the rich,” making them look like vapid fools who casually wield their power with no forethought for consequences even when they view themselves to be enlightened.  That also goes for the ship’s captain, who is in theory a Marxist whose aware of the inequalities that happen around him but who seems more interested in arguing about that in theory than doing anything to actually help anyone and causes plenty of destruction himself.  Think of him as an avatar for your average Twitter user. And the film is also pretty misanthropic about the poor for that matter as most of the actual lower class workers here that have actual speaking roles are either asskissers like Paula who simply enable the rich or they’re people like Abigale who prove to be every bit as corrupt as the rich are when given some power themselves.

I must say, in recent years we’ve seen a bit of an uptick in overt class conciseness in cinema, which I must say is something I have slightly mixed feelings about.  It was invigorating when Parasite gave us a parable about wealth inequality but the characters in that movie weren’t, like, getting into onscreen arguments about Marx and Lenin.  We’re also seeing this in some of the lower brow genres like horror films, where we’re now being treated to stuff like The Invitation and The Menu which also seem to offer elaborate metaphors for class warfare.  Most directly, Triangle of Sadness seems to have been beaten to the punch a bit by the HBO mini-series “The White Lotus,” which also offered a class portrait within the hospitality industry and all the power imbalances inherent in that.  Simply as a movie it’s a little hard to do much with Triangle of Sadness without engaging in its politics as it doesn’t really tell much of a logical story if you aren’t looking at the whole thing as something of a Buñuelian contrivance.  The logistics of the last act in particular do not make much sense if you apply any scrutiny to it as a literal sequence of events and its three acts really don’t flow from one to the other in a terribly smooth cinematic fashion.

I must also say that while I found the film consistently witty it wasn’t making me laugh uproariously.  The film’s widely publicized central set-piece in which many passengers get sick and start vomiting uncontrollably has a certain chaotic energy to it but at the end of the day I don’t personally find vomit inherently hilarious and I’m not sure that this is really as politically biting as it wants you to think it is beyond the fact that its bringing the rich and powerful down a peg, pretty much at random.  I would also question if mocking the one percent is even a terribly daring thing to do in this day and age.  Comparatively I feel like Östlund’s digs at upper middle class masculinity in Force Majeure and the intellectual class in The Square were much more daring and, frankly, relatable than what he’s doing here.  I can see a lot of what’s going on here speaking a lot to the black tie crowd at an event like Cannes but I must say, my own experience with people at this level of elite is kind of limited and the dynamics struck me as a bit less recognizable.  So, going back to my opening question, should this have been the movie to win Östlund his second Palme d’Or?  Nah, I’m thinking they could have just left him with the one prize for The Square and they would have been good.  But having said that, this movie was hardly an uninteresting experience, and it’s definitely one worth giving a shot to see what your mileage is with it.
***1/2 out of Five



Warning: Review contains some spoilers

When directors come back from hiatus it’s always kind of a trip.  We’re probably never going to see something as wild as Terrence Malick making a dramatic comeback after thirty years off, but from time to time we get people coming back after a decade or so and that’s the case this year with the triumphant return of the director Todd Field.  Field was never exactly being held up as the world’s greatest filmmaker but he seemed like a really promising voice in the early 2000s.  His 2001 film In The Bedroom was a pretty bold debut; a nuanced depiction of grief and aging that was a pretty challenging piece of work for someone to be making when he was only thirty seven.  He followed that up five years later with a social satire called Little Children, which was well liked but didn’t quite end up being a top-tier Oscar contender and also didn’t prove to be particularly popular.  And after that he seemed to disappear.  By all accounts this fifteen year stretch of seeming inactivity was not exactly by choice.  Field was actively in development for all sorts of different projects that, for one reason or another, he wasn’t able to get funding for.  I’m sure that if he was willing to sell out and take a more commercial project and gets more credits onto his IMDB but he seems to have held out until he had a project he really cared about.  And it seems that project finally came around this year with his new film with Cate Blanchett: Tár.

The film is set in the world of classical music and follows a woman named Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who is introduced in the beginning as being a deeply accomplished composer and orchestra conductor who’s highly respected in her field and the founder of a non-profit for the advancement of women in classical music called Accordion.  As the film begins she is about to start rehearsing a major concert with the Berlin Orchestra of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.  She’s seemingly on top of the world, but something feels off.  Her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) is clearly disgruntled, her marriage to fellow musician Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) seems oddly transactional, and there’s a looming conflict with her assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner).  But the crisis that especially seems looming is the fallout from the suicide of a former acolyte named Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote).  Tár’s reaction to learning about this seems odd and one of the first thing she tries to do in response is purge her emails about Taylor and recommend that Francesca does the same.  She’s clearly hiding something and it seems like it won’t be long until there’s quite a bit of fallout from this.

An obvious drawback of a filmmaker disappearing for fifteen years is that you kind of forget what made them so great in the first place while also not really knowing how they’ve evolved as artists or as people in the time that’s passed.  I think that’s especially true for Field given that, while both of the films he made previously were good they were not necessarily ones that begged to be watched over and over again.  I remember liking both movies but, especially in the case of Little Children, my memories of them are a little hazy so I’m perhaps not in the best place to really judge Tár in relation to Field as an auteur though from what I remember it has In the Bedroom’s interest in questions of justice and also Little Children’s interest in commenting on modern social mores but visually this feels a lot more ambitious than either of those movies, albeit in subtle ways.  Tár doesn’t really have some immediately apparent trick or gimmick to how it looks but as the film begins the camerawork is notably very controlled and often quite still, perhaps reflecting the character’s stable and managed career and lifestyle and as things move along and unravel this becomes less the case.  The movie never starts to be messy and handheld or anything but the camera and filmmaking subtly start working against Tár and the film’s sound scape starts reflecting a conflicted and perhaps slightly paranoid mind.

Tár has sometimes been talked about as a movie about “cancel culture” but it could perhaps be more accurately described as a movie about #MeToo, or perhaps it’s about both and is maybe trying to make a distinction between the two.  Early in the film there’s a lengthy scene in which Tár is teaching at Juilliard and has a slightly heated conversation with a student who for some reason has it in his head that Johann Sebastian Bach is a “dead white man” who’s too problematic to study.  She puts up a pretty smart defense of the baroque composer’s relevance, which the student doesn’t really appreciate and perhaps predictably her statements in this defense are eventually taken out of context and weaponized against her.  That is perhaps an example of the kind of silly zoomer “cancel culture” that so many columns get written about, but both the film and the characters within it view this whole exchange as relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things.  The things that really get her in trouble are much more serious breaches of trust and ethics, so in a way the film seems to be saying “don’t sweat the small stuff, “cancellation” should be reserved for the real predators.

And yet, I’m not sure the message is really that simple.  Tár is what you’d call a “glass ceiling” breaker in terms of gender and sexual identity.  She’s celebrated for this but downplays it in an interview early in the film, suggesting that with all her success she has nothing to complain about and that all the real barriers were already broken previously.  Later she even suggests re-configuring her non-profit so as to not be specifically be about helping women, ostensibly because she doesn’t think women need special help anymore, an idea she only backs down from when she’s told it could cost them donations.  This all speaks to a certain level of privilege, maybe not one entirely created by innate characteristics she was born with but perhaps a sort of survivorship bias: Lydia Tár is an elite enough talent to get past whatever gender biases exist in the world, so why shouldn’t the rest of the ladies?  That’s not an uncommon attitude amongst the nouveau riche, who maybe are maybe a bit blinded to how exceptional their own stories are and what less obvious privileges benefited them.  Of course she never comes out and expresses these sentiments so bluntly, she knows where the bread is buttered in “the modern discourse,” but her actions are not unlike the actions of powerful people who come in more traditional packages.  And I don’t think it can be dismissed that this attitude is at play in that Juilliard classroom when she excitedly defended the traditional canon and by extension the existing order.  That’s not to say that the film sides with the student who’s trying to cancel Bach, is arguments are juvenile and misguided, but given Tár’s other actions she becomes a less than ideal champion for the classics.

As to the “cancelling” of Tár herself, it is interesting in that the movie waits an awfully long time to show its hand in that regard.  The film is very much what you’d call a “character study” and it spends a lot of time bringing you into Tár’s world before it really introduces the film’s eventual conflict in earnest.  In a way this suggests that Tár’s façade is so meticulously built that it’s hidden even from us, the viewers who are ostensibly watching every moment of her life and believe she has everything so together that we don’t think twice even when she’s making hubristic mistakes like alienating an assistant who likely has a lot of dirt on her.  The film reminded me of another #MeToo themed work, Kitty Green’s The Assistant, in that it shows the revelation of malfeasance as being something of a cold and undramatic for those in vicinity of the abuser who are enabling them in very subtle ways without really thinking about what they’re doing.  And you as a viewer kind of find yourself feeling that way as you start to recontextualize some of Tár’s actions.  The aforementioned defense of Bach starts to look different, her willingness to threaten a bully who was harassing her daughter starts to feel indicative of a brutal willingness to crush her perceived enemies, and you also start to wonder what her motivations for mentoring a young cellist that she takes under her wing and starts to mentor.

The movie certainly shows the audience enough evidence to make it pretty clear that she’s guilty on some level, but much as Tár herself doesn’t really witness the consequences of her actions on her victims the film doesn’t really show this either, which is perhaps a choice that will be controversial.  By the film’s end Tár never really reckons with her own actions and it’s not clear really if she’s sorry or if she’s just sorry she got caught.  We see late in the film that she’s disgusted by more overt versions of sex trafficking, so clearly there are some limits to her depravity, and that she likely simply doesn’t see her own actions as comparable, and perhaps not without reason.  We don’t know the full extent of what she did or what shades of gray there were in these relationships that led to their downfall: did they seem like grooming to her?  Was there some truth to the actions she took against Krista Taylor that seemingly sabotaged her career or was it just pure retaliation?  The film leave enough ambiguous that you can think and wonder about these things and in the film’s final act as everything that Tár built up starts to crumble you can’t entirely help but want to salvage some of what’s being lost in her downfall.  Striver that she is, she doesn’t go down completely without a fight in much the way we still see people like Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. try to keep their careers going in unusual ways to much controversy.  Such indignities are perhaps a weak punishment given the stakes of what they are accused of but there is a tragedy to be found in genius talent being stifled and the movie has empathy for that… but it’s also clear as day that this wasn’t caused by some mistake in the culture, it was caused by Tár’s own selfishness and the only person she has to blame is herself.

****1/2 out of Five

Three Thousand Years of Longing(8/26/2022)

I didn’t expect much out of Mad Max: Fury Road, at least before the trailer dropped.  That’s partly because I had come not to expect much out of director George Miller, who had spent the previous twenty years making nothing but four children’s movies, one of which he didn’t even direct.  But Mad Max: Fury Road obliterated any expectations and became one of the most universally acclaimed films of the 2010s and at the age of seventy George Miller was being declared a visionary in a way he widely hadn’t been when he was making the previous Mad Max films and certainly not when he was making Hollywood oddities like The Witches of Eastwick.  Next thing you know Miller is getting Oscar nominations and heading up major festival juries Cannes and all eyes are on what he’s going to do next.  The path of least resistance for Miller probably would have been to rush Max Max 5 into production but before doing that he seems to have decided the time was right to do a “one of me” via his latest film, a magical realist fantasy film called Three Thousand Years of Longing.

Miller’s new film begins with its protagonist, Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), on a plane from the United Kingdom to Turkey where she intends to take part in a lecture on the power of mythology through the ages which is interrupted when she sees these strange ghostly visions.  Later that day she buys a little glass bottle at a flea market as a souvenir and the next morning she tries opening it only for it to shatter and swirling magical sands seep out of it and materialize into a humanoid form of a Djinn (Idris Elba) a mythological creature also known as a genie.  In typical genie fashion, the Djinn tells her she’s entitled to three wishes with many of the classic rules like “no wishing for other wishes” and the like.  Alithea, who is largely content with her life and weary of the old stories of genie’s granting wishes that turn into monkey’s paw curses, is hesitant to request anything.  Instead the two strike up a conversation and the Djinn begins recounting his own personal history of interacting with humans starting with his interactions with the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) up to the 1800s, albeit with some centuries lost stuck in his bottle.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is based on a short story by A. S. Byatt called “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” and it will probably not be too surprising to viewers that this comes from literary origins because there are ideas and structural elements to it that are a lot more trendy in novels than they are in movies.  The film’s flashback structure, older characters, and general magical realist trappings are the kind of ideas that tend to come to authors rather than filmmakers but George Miller does a pretty damn admirable job of trying to translate them.  The film’s highlights are obviously the flashbacks to the Djinn’s life, which tend to look at aspects of mythology and historical settings that have not been very widely used by Hollywood in the recent past (not a lot of Ottoman Empire movies).  These flashbacks are a bit more mythic than they are truly historical, it’s not 300 levels of stylization but they might not be out of place in a Tarsem movie or something.  I don’t want to give too much away but each story kind of works as its own thing while also painting the picture of the Djinn’s larger arc and they also sort of tell traditional stories about the dangers of not wishing carefully while also not making the Djinn feel malevolent.

Where the movie falls off a bit is in the film’s third act, which I don’t want to give away too much about even though it doesn’t exactly have some wildly unexpected twist or anything like that.  In short, once we finally finish all of the Djinn’s flashbacks and get up to date the film has to make a tricky pivot into “the present” and I’m not sure it finds as compelling a direction to take things at this point as what came before either visually or narratively.  But’s that’s not to say the movie totally falls on its face either and there are aspects of where it goes during that back third that I do respect quite a bit.  Beyond that your mileage with this movie will probably depend on your expectations.  There are bits here that live up to the “visionary” branding that has been attached to George Miller as of late, but it’s no Mad Max: Fury Road (nor should it be) and I wouldn’t say it’s some king of visual game changer or anything.  Context may matter a lot with how you react to the film.  The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to respectful but not entirely enthused reviews and maybe opening amidst the best of world cinema didn’t necessarily do the film any favors.  The August of 2022, in the middle of one of the longer dry spells of new films of any cultural interest we’ve had in a while, this is going to feel much more welcomed by critics but even in that context I don’t know that this is going to set the world on fire.  Despite that I can easily see this becoming quite the cult film at some point in the future and you’re going to hear a lot of people mentioning it as a bit of a gem.
**** out of Five

Thor: Love and Thunder(7/7/2022)

As sequel-crazed as Marvel has been, one thing you have to hand to them is that until now they’ve been pretty steadfast about limiting any one superhero to having no more than three solo movies.  Iron Man was super-popular but his trilogy ended way back in 2013 and while Robert Downey Jr. still showed up in all sorts of other MCU movies that was indeed the last dedicated Iron Man film.  But their stance about that clearly seems to have changed because Thor has, surprisingly, become the first of these characters to land a fourth installment, which is likely the result of a lot of factors.  For one, Thor is sort of the last of the original Avengers left standing.  I suppose The Incredible Hulk and Hawkeye are still around, but both were determined to be side characters unworthy of their own movies a long time ago.  Secondly, Chris Hemsworth has only had sporadic success outside of the world of Marvel and may be more willing to keep the checks coming than some of his former co-stars.  But I think the biggest factor is that director Taika Waititi kind of reinvented the Thor series with the character’s third film, the well-received Thor: Ragnarok, and Marvel likely felt that cutting off this new creative golden goose after one movie for arbitrary reasons would be foolish.  So Thor has returned for a Waititi helmed fourth installment: Thor: Love and Thunder.

The film picks up some weeks or months after the events of Avengers: Endgame and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been traveling the universe going on adventures with The Guardians of the Galaxy (who, despite their heavy presence in the film’s advertising, are only in it for all of five minutes).  For mostly arbitrary reasons it’s decided by his companions that it’s time for them to part ways and Thor goes following a distress beacon sent by his friend Sif (Jaimie Alexander), who warns him that a malevolent being called Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) has been murdering “Gods” with a magic sword called the Necrosword and may be coming for Asgard next.  As such, Thor teleports back to New Asgard where he finds that his former flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has somehow picked up his newly repaired Hammer and has herself become a thunder god.  Unbeknownst to him, this is because she has been afflicted with cancer and hoped the hammer would heal this and it’s not entirely clear if it is.  This reunion is less than peaceful, however, as he bumps into her in the middle of an attack by Gorr in which he kidnaps several Asgardian children and teleports him to a distant realm.  To deal with this Thor, Foster, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Korg (Taika Waititi) must devise a plan to save them.

I should say upfront that I was not expecting greatness from Thor: Love and Thunder.  Unlike the last couple of MCU movies (Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), which seemed to promise some new revelation or development in the whole MCU experiment to be revealed, this one really just advertised itself as providing something of a romp in the style of Thor: Ragnarok.  That, to me, is not a good thing.  I generally found Thor: Ragnarok’s comedic tone obnoxious, a little bit of Taika Waititi goes a long way.  Ultimately that movie was able to strike a decent enough balance between that and more conventional MCU drama and ended up just on the right side of annoying and I liked the movie overall, but it wasn’t an approach I wanted much more of out of the MCU.  Sure enough this sequel takes that style and turns the irreverence up even more, which is not what I want but even if it was I don’t think I would be satisfied by what the movie is doing because the movie is shockingly unfunny.  Don’t get me wrong there is some stuff here I’d legitimately consider clever and witty in that Taika Waititi way but it didn’t make me laugh much and surprisingly I wasn’t alone in that.  The nearly sold out opening day Marvel audience I saw the movie with, who would normally be happy to lap this stuff up, was not really audibly laughing much in the screening even at pretty obvious attempts at humor.

Oddly enough the film’s strongest element is the thing in it that’s not very comedic at all: its villain Gorr the God Butcher.  Christian Bale plays Gorr as this lanky gray man covered in strange scars and sharp teeth like a sort of cross between “God of War’s” Kratos and Gollum from Lord of the Rings.  Bale feels pretty dedicated to the role but the character also kind of feels like something out of a different movie and the movie rather botches the stakes of his evil plan.  We’re told that he’s on a quest to kill off the various Marvel versions of the mythological gods but outside of the Asgardians the MCU has not really set up what role these “gods” play in the universe.  My understanding had previously been that the Asgardians were not true gods and were in fact just advanced aliens who early humans mistook for gods, but this movie really seems to think every culture’s deities are like that and what makes them distinct from regular powerful aliens and how they continue to interact with “their people.”  Beyond that the movie’s just too busy horsing around to really explore the extent to which Gorr’s vengeance quest may be justified, and if the film really had balls it might have tried to tie that in with the Jane Foster character’s situation and whether or not “the” god was failing her in her time of need.

Really the movie has tonal inconsistencies throughout.  It feels like it was written to be a much more straightforward MCU movie and then Waititi came in after the fact feeling obligated to wedge his comedy into it whether that was appropriate for the story of not and there are pretty big swings between irreverence and themes that are actually quite dark.  When handled with care this sort of “laughing so that you don’t cry” sort of thing can work but I don’t think that’s really done correctly here at all.  Even beyond that the movie has plenty of problems unto itself.  The Guardians of the Galaxy are totally wasted in their brief appearance at the beginning of the film for example.  I also don’t think that the film’s trip to the land of the gods, complete with an extended bit with Russell Crowe playing a Marvel version of Zeus with a ludicrous Greek accent, kind of went nowhere.  There are some striking moments that stand out like an extended fight scene in black and white but whatever stakes would have been in place for that scene have been so undercut by the film’s general goofiness by that point that it feels like a waste.  The whole movie kind of feels like a waste really.  If it had managed to capture that balance that Thor: Ragnarok managed it could have been pretty fun but I think Waititi got a little high on his own supply and got it into his head that he could just wisecrack his way into everyone’s good graces but maybe he should have put more thought into it.  There is enough here to keep it from being a disaster and there have certainly been worse Marvel films but this isn’t the revitalization they needed.
**1/2 out of Five

Top Gun: Maverick(5/29/2022)

The idea of a sequel to Top Gun getting made in 2022 is in many ways something that should evoke laughter.  It’s a cheesy relic of the 80s, one that seemingly clashes with ever modern sensibility on the book no less, being dug up and brushed off in order to satiate a Hollywood that’s intent on leaving no franchise unexploited and no vein of nostalgia untapped.  And yet, the whole film world including several relatively highbrow film critics instead seemed really excited for the film and ready to embrace it whole heartedly.  Why was that?  It certainly wasn’t because of its director Joseph Kosinski, a filmmaker who also arguably bungled one “lega-sequel” with his debut film Tron: Legacy, who would have had a hard time filling the shoes of the late Tony Scott in the minds of many even if he didn’t have such a shaky track-record.  Instead this optimism mostly had to do with the film’s star and producer Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, who in the eyes of many critics is having something of a renaissance as of late, and he hasn’t done it through taking on more challenging roles or expanding his range the way other “sanced” actors like Matthew McConaughey or Michael Keaton have.  Instead he seems to have doubled and tripled down on making action movies in which he plays characters that are variations on his usual star persona, but through some combination of getting publicity for doing his own stunts and making blockbusters that are targeted at slightly older audiences he really seems to have people eating it up.  And that goodwill has of course hit something of a peak with the belated 2022 release of his sequel 35 years in the making: Top Gun: Maverick.

As Top Gun: Maverick opens with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) still a captain in the Navy (no clue how he got around the military’s Up or Out system) and acting as a test pilot for some sort of futuristic stealth fighter.  Long story short he ends up ejecting from and blowing that prototype plane up while doing something dangerous and disobedient and as is typical of this franchise is rewarded for this insubordination with a new posting by having him return to the SFTI program at Naval Air Station Miramar, AKA “Top Gun.”  This time though it’s not just about routine training: he’s there to train a squadron to go on a real life borderline suicide mission in an unnamed rogue state (that’s probably Iran) involving a high speed flight through a canyon before dropping a guided bomb on a small target (yes, this is suspiciously similar to the trench run at the end of Star Wars).  Among the pilots in the running to go on this mission is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s former co-pilot “Goose,” who died in the previous film.  Rooster resents Maverick for a variety of reasons but Maverick does think Rooster has potential as a pilot, as do the rest of the candidates, but the demands of this mission are extreme and it remains to be seen if it’s even possible.  Also Maverick starts a tangential romance with a bar owner named Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly).

I should probably say up front that I’m not a fan of the original Top Gun, a position I did not think was controversial among film critics until the hype for this movie seemed to retcon it in their eyes.  Until now that movie (which holds a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes) seemed to mostly be remembered as a jingoistic advertisement for the military that doubled as a hyper masculine power trip soaked in unintentional homoeroticism.  I re-watched the movie a little while ago and my opinion of it wasn’t really changed.  To give credit where its due, Tony Scott’s visual style was innovative in its way but to my eyes this influence was not a positive one and the act of making Hollywood films look like feature length Gillette commercials is not something to be celebrated.  As a story though I think it’s a dumb celebration of the stupidest kinds of bravado and that its protagonist is an absolute dick who is largely unredeemed of his worst instincts by the film’s end.  To be blunt “more of the same” is not what I would have wanted out of a sequel.

Is “more of the same” what I got out of Top Gun: Maverick?  Well, yes and no.  The movie that this most reminds me of in both good and bad ways is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, another “legacyquel” to a franchise that’s been dormant.  Like that movie this is pretty in touch with what series fans are looking for and is generally an audience pleasing ride but it’s also a shallow nostalgic pander-fest that practically serves as a plot point by plot point remake of the film it’s supposed to be a follow-up to.  Like the original it starts with Maverick doing something reckless which leads him to Miramar, where he conducts some training exercises while pursuing a plot-tangential romance with a local, feuds with a fellow pilot he distrusts, plays some beach sports, matures slightly after someone dies making things more real, before covering himself in glory in a real world dogfight where he and the pilot he’s feuding with come to respect each other.  Now to be fair, unlike The Force Awakens, there haven’t already been five sequels and various spinoffs of Top Gun, so this reheat does feel a tad more fresh than J.J. Abrams’ slightly less long awaited sequel does.  But on the other hand, the original Star Wars is a movie that’s really good and is ripe for further sequelization by its nature whereas Top Gun maybe isn’t.

This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimate improvements to be found in this sequel, which for the record I do consider an improvement over the first film.  Maverick is still sort of an insubordinate jackass here but he has mellowed and become more palatable with age.  The film has also of course benefited from improvements to technology and filming techniques which greatly expands on what they’re able to do with the aerial stunts and dogfight sequences.  But perhaps most importantly the fact that the film is structured around preparing for a mission does a lot for it and makes the film’s action finale feel more like something the film has been building towards rather than the random non-sequitur we got at the end of the first film.  That said, as impressive as the film’s final sequence is on some technical levels, it’s also completely ridiculous.  Even if you can set aside the fact that it’s depicting an open act of war against this unnamed country that’s probably Iran that would almost certainly spark a larger military conflict and that it’s just an entirely contrived situation that seems to have been reverse engineered in order to give these pilots a very specific set of challenges, the whole scene ends up having a second half that just dives head first into silliness in a way I find borderline indefensible.

Now, I’ve focused a lot on the negative here even though this is a movie I do basically consider to be fun watch that I essentially enjoyed, which is partly because I feel some obligation to push back on the outsized positivity that surrounds this fundamentally stupid movie.  If there is a message to be gained from the movie it’s by looking at it as a sort of allegory for Tom Cruise and his Hollywood career being as it’s about a guy who is supposed to have aged out of the position he’s in despite clearly still having the necessary skills to do his work effectively.  That’s certainly a little smarter than the first movie’s message, which basically amounted to “Tom Cruise looks cool and the military is a playground for him and his bros to play with expensive toys.”  But much as the movie is fundamentally uninterested in whether Maverick’s clear skills are being put towards a conflict that’s worth fighting I think Cruise and his fans should maybe focus a bit more on getting Cruise to put his own skills towards movies that are interesting beyond his own daredevil antics and by and large I don’t think Top Gun: Maverick is.

*** out of Five


Warning: Major Spoilers

The news coming out of the Cannes Film Festival this year felt oddly… normal.  This was the first year back after the 2020 festival was cancelled because of Covid but the festival lineup seemed to be the usual mix of world cinema.  In fact things seemed especially consistent this year; you didn’t hear about much of anything being booed but not a lot was being called a true knockout masterpiece either.  It felt like a very “solid B+” festival… but there was one movie that really got people talking and that was Titane, the new film from the French filmmaker Julia Ducournau who had previously been known for her 2016 psychological body horror film RawTitane was a movie that seemed to hit the people who saw it like a truck; everything else at the festival had seemed to fit within the usual expectations of European festival fare but this movie was a big injection of genre craziness in the proceedings and the people who saw it thought it was just one of the most outlandish things they’d ever seen and it had such an impact that it ended up scoring the festival’s highest honor: the Palm d’Or.  Of course I only know all of this by reputation, I wasn’t there and it would be a few months before I actually got a chance to see it and I took care to make sure I didn’t know much more because I got word that it was a film where I would be well served by diligently avoiding spoilers so I could be similarly bowled over by its secrets.  That said I’m going to be taking the opposite approach to this review and am instead opting to take more of a deep dive into the experience of seeing this wild-ass movie and where it works and where it doesn’t.

The movie opens with our protagonist as a little girl who is grievously injured in a car accident and ends up having major brain surgery which involves having a metal plate stuck in her head leaving a very noticeable scar on her scalp around her right ear.  We then flash forward to when this woman, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is in her late twenties/early thirties and has become employed as some sort of stripper who dances on top of automobiles at car shows.  This apparently makes her something of a celebrity and one night a creepy fan follows her out to her car to harass her and she responds to this by killing him with a hairpin, something it’s strongly implied that she’s done before.  She then goes back into the car show building after hours to take a shower and is overcome with a strange urge to go back out to the car show floor where she sees a vintage Cadillac with flame decals which inexplicably has its motor running without a driver and seems to be enticing her in its direction with its headlights.  So… she makes love to the car.  The anatomical details of this act are not made clear but you did read that right and it is literal in its meaning.  A few days later she suddenly starts experiencing symptoms of pregnancy while on a date with a fellow car stripper and is already “showing.”  For whatever reason she responds to this experience by killing the other model and suddenly realizes she has three roommates that she now also needs to kill in order to cover that up, but one gets away so now Alexia finds herself on the run lest her serial killer ways get her arrested.

Now, up to this point in the movie I was really loving it.  Ducournau is a filmmaker who makes films about characters who aren’t always what you’d call “relatable” and her films often operate on a certain logic where the world around them sort of transforms to reflect their mindsets and she seems to be taking this to a bit of an extreme by making a movie about a serial killing metal fetishist.  Agathe Rousselle, who has actually never starred in a film before, gives a wild and sensational lead performance and the film’s sex and violence is presented rather fearlessly (I’m kind of surprised the MPAA let them get away with an R).  I was very intrigued to see where it went from there but then in kind of zagged in a direction I wasn’t expected rather than zigging and I’m not sure I liked where it went.  After Alexia’s big gory three person killing spree she sees her face on a wanted poster and comes up with probably the craziest escape plan possible: she cuts her hair, intentionally breaks her nose, binds her breasts and pregnant stomach with gauze and poses as a boy who’s been reported missing for several years and is taken in by the boy’s father (Vincent Lindon.  This is where the movie started to lose me.  It may sound ridiculous to be on board with a movie where a woman is impregnated by a Cadillac only to then say “that’s a bit far-fetched” when she merely tries to con a grieving man but there’s a big difference between an outright flight of fantasy like that car reproduction and something that’s just kind of an implausible bit of human behavior.

Of course I have seen the documentary The Imposter and am familiar with the Frédéric Bourdin case but this situation is even a few notches of crazy beyond that.  Bourdin was not a wanted serial killer, never went so far as to pretend to be someone of a different gender, certainly wasn’t hiding a pregnancy the whole time (and her “binding” technique stops making sense somewhere around the second trimester), and also didn’t have a telltale scar on his scalp that no one suddenly seems to notice.  So that all seemed far-fetched but, again, this whole movie is kind of supposed to be far-fetched.  I think the bigger problem here isn’t plausibility so much as the fact that this section seemed to kind of abandon a lot about the movie I was really enjoying in that first act.  Alexia doesn’t appear to be a serial killer anymore, there’s little evidence of her metal fetish anymore, and the movie instead becomes this odd story about a sad man kind of being used by a con artist.  At a certain point I was thinking, “wait, what happened to this lady being impregnated by the presumably demonic child from the gods of flesh and steel… why are we not focusing on that?”

Slowly but surely a lot of this does get back on track.  As the film goes forward it becomes clear that this father is primarily fooled by Alexia’s ruse out of sheer grief-stricken delusion… which still doesn’t explain why she tried it in the first place, but still that is at least somewhat plausible.  Eventually the film does start coming back around to the body horror provocation it started as when the pregnancy finally “comes to term” and the final childbirth scene is among the best set-pieces you’re likely to see and the film ends on the exact right note.  At that point you can kind of see the why the film needed to take the diversion it did to get where it needs to go, but I still kind of feel like the gender-bending imposter sub-plot was a lesser diversion that brings down the overall movies a bit.  But it doesn’t bring it down too much and there’s a lot to recommend in the overall film but of course only to the right audiences.  This obviously isn’t going to be a huge crossover hit like the last Neon distributed Palm d’Or winner Parasite; it’s a movie that requires an audience that’s willing to suspend a lot of disbelief, who are amenable to genre elements, and who find extreme imagery enticing rather than repellent.  In other words it’s probably not a movie I’m going to recommend to the average family member, but it’s a bold vision that will likely be pretty influential going forward and if you are someone who seeks out provocation in their cinema it’s a must-see.

**** out of Five