Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania(2/16/2023)

In the trailer for the new Ant-Man movie there’s a joke in which the titular hero is in a coffee shop and the owner recognizes him and thanks him for being a hero… and then proceeds to misidentify him as Spider-Man.  This is perhaps a rather telling joke because Ant-Man has plainly always been something of a second tier Marvel character despite his status as an O.G. Avenger.  And by extension the Ant-Man movies are among the least beloved solo hero movies of the first three phases of the MCU, and I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion.  The first two movies are the twenty fourth and twenty second highest grossing entries of the franchise, above only some of the earliest movies from before the whole endevour snowballed and a couple of last year’s pandemic affected releases like Eternals.  That first Ant-Man in particular dropped at a point where the MCU was in a bit of a rut and also it kind of lives in the shadow of the “what could have been” scenario had Edgar Wright been allowed to make his version of the film.  Things did improve for the sequel, Ant-Man and The Wasp, however.  That was probably among the shallowest and most frivolous entries of the MCU (which is saying something) but it had a great car chase in the middle of it and a fun set of villains and was just generally a great example of MCU entertainment.  They seem to have taken a bit of a different approach with the new third entry however, as it seems to be advertised as something of a turning point that will formally introduce non-Disney+ viewers to the main nemesis of the next two phases, making this a bit more high stakes than the last two movies in the series.

Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania begins several years after the events of Avengers: Endgame and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) seems to have rested on his laurels a bit rather than actively pursuing super hero duties.  He’s written a memoir called “Look Out for the Little Guy” and spends his days promoting it but his (thanks to “the snap” now teenage) daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) is a bit more reckless and has recently been arrested while participating in a protest at a homeless encampment.  Additionally she’s been doing some experiments on the quantum realm and has been trying to map it out by sending signals directly into it, but once she tells Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) about this she’s shocked and implores her to stop, but it’s too late.  The machine starts acting strangely and suddenly sucks all five of the people in the room into a portal stranding them in the quantum realm in two separate locations.  Hank Pym (Michael Dougless), Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and Janet find themselves off in one region while Scott and Cassie are elsewere, and to the surprise of everyone but Janet they start running into people who’ve been living in the realm, revealing that it’s much more complicated than we previously thought.  However, they also come to learn that this realm is also home to Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) a super villain who Janet seems to have encountered previously.

You may have picked up on it in that plot description but this movie is kind of filled to the brim with a bunch of convoluted pseudoscience about realms and dimensions, which would be okay with me if there was a followable internal logic to it but there kind of isn’t, it really kind of feels like they’re making it up as they go.  That’s a problem because these kinds of things are starting to dominate the MCU more broadly going forward with a concept that involves both a multiverse, time travel, space travel, magic, religious afterlives, and this quantum realm all intersecting in ways that may or may not make a lot of sense.  And if someone like me who’re really earnestly trying to follow all this and put it together is confused by it I can’t imagine how the “normies” are going to take it.  That having been said, I do think this may be the kind of thing that people “turning their brains off at the door” may find less troubling as they just let themselves go along with the ride.

And there are things to enjoy here for those who are just going for the ride.  The Ant-Man movies have long been among the more comedic MCU entries and Paul Rudd remains pretty charming in the role here.  Evangeline Lilly’s The Wasp on the other hand is kind of downgraded here despite still being in the title as she’s kind of just a member of the ensemble along with Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer.  Instead this feels more like a story about Ant-Man and his daughter, who does not appear to have taken up an official superhero name but is I believe called “Stinger” in the comic books and does appear to be among the next generation of Avengers that Marvel is trying to develop.  And that relationship dynamic isn’t terrible, it mirrors a pretty real phenomenon in which parents need to explain to their socially conscious children that in life you can’t realistically be fighting injustice 24 hours a day but dialed up into the realm of super powered extremes.   I’d also say that Kang the Conqueror is a pretty successful villain, or at least that if he was a villain I thought would just be confined to this one movie and it’s story arc I’d be pretty happy with him.  This is a different Kang variant than the one we encountered in the season finale of “Loki” and is played more straightforwardly like a sort of Napoleon in exile rather than the more irreverent character we saw in that show and Johnathan Major plays him well.

What the film is less successful at doing is establishing Kang as a franchise spanning threat along the lines of Thanos.  To be fair I wasn’t exactly convinced about Thanos in his first couple appearances either, but they rather intentionally gave him relatively little screen time whereas I can already start to see myself getting sick of Kang in a movie or two.  Maybe it’s not fair to be judging things that far ahead, but the MCU kind of invites that sort of thing given how they roll these movies out so I think its fair game.  The bigger problem here though is actually the quantum realm itself, which I just generally don’t think is as fun or compelling as the film wanted it to be.  Look, building entire science fiction worlds is hard.  James Cameron spend decades conceiving every aspect of Pandora and then record setting sums of money trying to realize it.  By comparison one of these Marvel movies that get cranked out every couple of years are going to have a hard time stacking up.  They have comic books to draw on so every once in a while they’re going to be able to pull off something like Wakanda but for every one of those you have something that’s less realized than that like Talokan, which wants to give you the same sense of awe but is just not all there.  There are ways around this of course; the science fiction universe of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies is probably a bit more half-baked than it first appears largely because you’re too caught up in the main characters to care too much but that’s not really the case here.  The film tries way too hard to be a showcase for the Quantum Realm as if it were Oz or something but it doesn’t really hold together; random weirdness seems to be its defining feature and Peyton Reed keeps giving us weird off-putting stuff like a henchman that’s seemingly intentionally dumb looking.

Honestly it’s kind of odd that they chose Ant-Man as the character to use for such a consequential movie in the overall lore of the MCU, he’s… just not the go-to character for serious developments like that.  The Loki spin-off TV series was also kind of a strange place to take care of business like this so I’m not sure where their strategic thinking is in all this.  Beyond that, I don’t know, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this movie but I also think I’m a lot more forgiving of the MCU and tolerant of its convoluted nonsense than a lot of people are.  This one in particular really doesn’t feel like it will be able to hold up under much scrutiny and it’s also just crowded and over-stuffed with characters at this point.  So if you’re part of the MCU faithful you shouldn’t skip this one, in fact you kind of can’t given its place in the overall story.  If you’re a normie?  Well, you might like this, especially if you’re willing to put up some tunnel vision to ignore some of the bullshit.  What this isn’t is something resembling a respectable piece of stand alone cinema.  There are other recent MCU films like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness or the Black Panther movies that feel like they have some vision beyond Disney’s overall project, but this isn’t one of them.  It’s a movie you watch to very specifically scratch that MCU itch and very little else and if you don’t have that itch, well then this one probably isn’t for you.
*** out of Five


Knock at the Cabin(2/5/2023)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

So, I’ve recently somewhat re-evaluated the career of director M. Night Shyamalan, a guy who’s taken me on quite a journey.  You can read all about it with my most recent “Closure” article or listen to my most recent appearance on the Cinema in Seconds podcast if you want more details, but in brief the guy’s first three movies were really important to me when I was first getting into film but after his precipitous decline in quality after about the year 2004 I kind of shunned him and felt a certain sense of betrayal out of the direction his career took.  But in the last couple of years I’ve maybe come to a point where I want to give Shyamalan a bit more credit both for his longevity as an independent minded auteur in Hollywood and just as someone who’s weird eccentricities are maybe worth considering when they show in his work even if some of the movies themselves aren’t entirely well served by them.  This felt like a good time to start getting a new outlook on Shyamalan because he does seem to be on a bit of a career resurgence following the success of his movie Split and other projects like Glass and Old which seemed to find an audience even if they weren’t quite up to snuff in the ways that his earliest movies were.  And also I wanted to catch up with this reconsideration in the lead-up to his newest film, a thriller called Knock at the Cabin which seems like a pretty good vehicle both for his skills as a craftsman and his various religious preoccupations.

As the title implies, Knock at the Cabin is largely set in a remote cabin in the woods where a small family has been staying for a little while.   The family consists of two gay men, the meek lapsed catholic Eric (Jonathan Groff) and the more hot tempered Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their young adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui).  The three are enjoying themselves until one day four people led by the physically imposing Leonard (Dave Bautista) suddenly break into their house and hold them hostage.  These four do not appear to be very practiced at breaking and entering and seem to be composed of people from various walks of life and multiple regions of the country including a nurse named Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a waitress named Adriane (Abby Quinn), and an ex-con who goes by Redmond (Rupert Grint).  The four don’t seem to hold any malice towards the family and once their tied up they explain their motives: the four of them have all received visions that the world is going to end unless the four of them go on this mission and convince the family living at that cabin to make the ultimate sacrifice by having two of the three murder the other to avert the apocalypse that will end life on earth.  Obviously believing this to be insane, the family must find a way to escape from these fanatics before it’s too late.

So, I’ll just come out and say that this is almost certainly M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie since as far back as The Village.  Now, that’s really not the highest bar to clear as pretty much everything the guy made between 2006 and 2015 was a disaster and most of what he’s made since then has been middling at best.  I’m also not going to say that this means this is a complete return to form either as I certainly don’t think it’s close to being as good as his “big three” of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs but I don’t want to downplay it either because he has finally made a movie that I’m willing to recommend (for what it is) without too many reservations.  A big advantage this likely had over some of his earlier productions is that he wrote the screenplay with two collaborators and also he’s adapting a novel this time, “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Tremblay, which likely gave him a framework where he can establish his characters without giving them weird tics and also just generally have other people around to hold him back from indulging some of his stranger instincts that tend to be stilting on screen.

This is, however, absolutely a Shyamalan movie and mostly in good ways.  At its base level the film is a pretty nicely crafted thriller that establishes its characters well, gets you to care about them, and root for them through their plight.  Everything’s paced well; Shyamalan gets in some decent shots and stages his sequences quite effectively.  I don’t want to over sell this, it’s certainly not doing anything wildly out of the ordinary really and I do worry that I’m letting my low expectations for later day Shyamalan boost it a bit too much but it worked for me.  It’s also very much a Shyamalan film in that it rests on some overtly religious themes that are, uh, a little hard for me (a Dawkins-esque atheist) to get behind.  Shyamalan is not, as far as I can tell a practicing Christian.  He seems to be one of those “spiritual but not religious” types who think all religions are valid expressions of some unknowable deity.  He was once attached to make Life of Pi and while I’m glad Ang Lee was the one to ultimately make that film, it’s not hard to see its take on “god” would appeal to Shyamalan greatly.  However, he is a western filmmaker so usually when he makes these movies Christianity and specifically Catholicism is the medium of choice to explore “god.”  I’m not completely closed minded about this kind of thing: I basically embraced his film Signs, even though it’s a movie that’s kind of counter to most of my principles, but your movie better be damn good for me to go along with something like that.

Knock at the Cabin is a movie that very closely resembles Signs when it comes to religion as both are movies that are premised around god very much being real and are finally solved by the film’s central skeptic admitting that the signs of this are all there and overcoming his doubts to trust in the reality of the situation and take action accordingly.  Not exactly a message I love, but the movie certainly delivers it with some conviction.  There’s also something of a Book of Revelation cruelty to the god in question here, which does add some negative connotations to the religiosity here, and it’s also probably not a coincidence that the film put a highly sympathetic gay couple at its center in order make it clear that it’s not pushing the most intolerant kinds of Christianity.  If you can go along with that I think there’s a lot to like here.  There are a couple bits of Shyamalan-ian weirdness here and there (like the odd weapons the villains are wielding and a couple bits of questionable dialogue) but by and large the director avoids embarrassing himself like he has in some previous projects.  So, yeah, hopefully this is a sign of good things in the future for the director.  That said, “the director avoids embarrassing himself” is not exactly a quote for the poster and I do wonder if I’d be as nice to this if not for all the director’s baggage and expectations setting.
*** out of Five


[Warning: Review Contains Spoilers]

In the days leading up to the release of Nope there was a (possibly staged) kerfuffle on Twitter where a guy named Adam Ellis (@adamtotscomix) posted the Rotten Tomatoes scores for Jordan Peele’s first three films and posed the question “at what point do we declare Jordan Peele the best horror director of all time?” and Peele responded by saying “Sir, please put the phone down I beg you.”  If this moment was dreamt up by publicists it would have been well calculated, it made Peele look nicely modest while calling attention to just how enthusiastic critics have been toward Peele’s work, which is somewhat unprecedented in the horror genre.  Peele brought up John Carpenter as the true master worthy of that title, but if Rotten Tomatoes were around when he was first starting it’s very unlikely he’d have gotten scores anywhere near this high coming out of the gate.  Even as someone who wasn’t as enthusiastic about Get Out as a lot of people I’m about as excited about his work as anyone, especially after Us, which I thought really stood out as an amazing horror film and his best work to date.  I wasn’t sure how excited to be about Nope though as its secretive campaign didn’t give me a great idea where it was going and it’s jokey title seemed like a red flag.  Having actually seen the film now I’m honestly still not quite sure what to make of it.

Nope is set in an area called Agua Dulce, which is in the rural outskirts of Los Angeles County and focuses on a family business called the Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch.  This ranch specializes in training horses to be used in film production and the Haywoods themselves claim to be descendants of the jockey seen in the Eadweard Muybridge horse galloping Zoopraxiscope, giving the family a stake to having had “skin in the game” since the dawn of the movies.  This ranch has, however, fallen onto hard times.  The family patriarch Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David) has just been killed in a bizarre accident, leaving the ranch to his two adult children: Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr (Daniel Kaluuya), who is more dedicated to the work but is withdrawn and lacking in promotional skills, and the more gregarious but flakier Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer).  OJ has been having to downsize the ranch and has been selling several of his horses to a nearby tourist attraction owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) but he sees an opportunity to change the family’s prospects when he starts spotting strange things in the sky above the ranch.

Nope is a tricky movie to review as it’s a movie that has a handful of ideas in it that I think are really good, and yet I’m not really sure they all gel together as well as Peele had hoped.  Take for example a subplot about how, while he was working as a child actor, the Steven Yuen character was witness to an infamous episode in which a chimpanzee working on a sitcom went berserk and started murdering the cast of a family sitcom.  In and of itself this idea is a horrifying vignette idea, but at the end of the day it’s mere backstory for a side character who ultimately doesn’t have a lot of screen time in the movie.  So, is it meant to have some sort of thematic resonance?  I guess it’s ultimately a story about the hubris of controlling animals on set, which kind of ties into the Haywood Ranch’s family business, but the film doesn’t seem like some kind of PETA screed against animal actors and the Haywood’s don’t seem to be depicted as doing anything overly cruel.  Perhaps instead its meant to instead loop into mistakes made when dealing with the flying saucers later on, but that element is always a bit unclear and sort of comes out of nowhere.

The idea of connecting the Haywood Farm to Muybridge’s chronophotography was also a potentially interesting idea but again I’m not sure it goes much of anywhere.  To be frank I’m not sure I really share Peele’s outrage over the real jockey in this photo series having been lost to history.  Perhaps it’s my auteurist bias at play but the fact that the photographer behind this photography experiment was the name that was widely cited seems natural to me.  I am similarly not losing sleep over the fact that we don’t have detailed biographical information about the men exiting from the Lumière factory in Lyon or who engineered the train which arrived at La Ciotat Station.  Still, it’s an interesting thing to bring up, and both photography and the act of documentary filmmaking is certainly something of a running theme in the movie but what message is it ultimately shooting for with all of this?  Perhaps it’s suggesting that animal wranglers in general are an underappreciated aspect of filmmaking in much the way that horse jockey was under-appreciated?  Then is the Gordy disaster intended to represent how much things can go wrong when wranglers don’t do their job?  I guess.  The movie could in some ways seem to be oddly anti-director given how much calamity comes from someone trying to get a shot at magic hour beyond all reason, but again, that seems kind of removed from a lot of the other shenanigans going on here.

So what is the actual UFO supposed to represent?  Well, I’m not sure it’s meant to represent any one single thing necessarily.  Viewing the film as a comment on man’s attempt to control nature one could view it as something of a large scale equivalent of Gordy the chimp in that he’s sort of goaded into violence, but the movie is very unclear about exactly what the nature of that provocation is and this is generally one of the sloppiest elements of the film.  If you view the film as being more about the modern culture of surveillance and online documentation then I guess it’s a stand-in for the ultimate privacy advocate that is ultimately powerless in trying to avoid surveillance and lashing out.  If you view the film as being more about Hollywood filmmaking then maybe it’s more of a stand-in for studio heads chasing bigger and bigger spectacles even if this involves overworking people and making it harder to really achieve artistically.  Here’s a wild take: maybe the movie is an elaborate metaphor for police violence, the way it tends to affect specific geographic areas, and how you need photographic evidence before anyone believes it even exists?

That theory is probably a stretch and a half, but that’s kind of part in parcel with how all over the place this movie is.  Peele’s last movie Us arguably also had a strange plot that required you to do a lot of the work putting things together but at least with that movie the central theme of class warfare was loud and clear at least in the broad strokes.  On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing, or at least a refreshing thing.  We’re currently in the middle of a particularly braindead summer movie season where jingoistic silliness like Top Gun: Maverick has somehow landed as the critical favorite, so maybe there’s something to be said for something like this which really challenges its audience to parse its themes and come up with unique interpretations.  On the other other hand, even if you set aside all matters of interpretation I think this movie as some basic storytelling flaws.  Plot points are introduced kind of haphazardly and by the end I still don’t know that I was quite as aware of the “rules” for engaging with this UFO as I was supposed to be, which made it a bit hard to follow the film’s climactic sequence.  I also don’t think that Daniel Kaluuya’s character is very engaging protagonist and his inarticulate habit made his motivations hard to tap into.  I would also say that this only barely qualifies as a horror movie; purely as a thriller it’s nowhere near as effective as Us or even Get Out and while there clearly are ideas below its surface its sense of satire is not as cutting as either of those films.  So, I have reservations about this but I certainly wasn’t bored with it and it clearly generated a lot of food for thought so I’d definitely recommend the film.
*** 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


In 2020, about five months into pandemic induced lockdown I decided to do a little crash course in the works of one of the most important filmmakers in anime, Mamoru Hosoda.  There wasn’t any particularly topic reason to look at Hosoda’s movies in August of 2020 and I actually don’t remember why I decided to look at those movies in particular but it was a good choice because Hosoda’s work proved to be rewarding.  If you set aside Hayao Miyazaki (who’s always going into and coming out of retirement) and the title of most important voice in cinematic anime is probably a contest between Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai, who both emerged in the 2000s as makers of sentimental feature films with supernatural elements aimed towards vaguely teenage audiences.  Shinkai’s movies, like Your Name and Weathering With You have reached greater heights at the box office but Hosoda and his animators at Studio Chizu have had more of a consistent track record and even scored an Academy Award nomination for their last film Mirai.  Hosoda’s latest film, Belle, also seems to have an outside shot at scoring a place in the Best Animated Feature category in that annual slot where Gkids distributed foreign films tend to compete, though this one may be a slightly tougher sell with Academy voters than it will be with young otaku.

Belle is set in a not too distant future that’s basically just like today except there’s a new version of the internet called “U” which is like a virtual reality program where people move around as anonymous avatars… so, kind of like the “metaverse.”  The “U” is abuzz over a new user named Bell, a beautiful singer with a piercing voice who draws hundreds of thousands of followers pretty much from the day she shows up.  What these people don’t know is that “Bell” is actually Suzu Naito (Kaho Nakamura), an anonymous teenager living in rural Japan who otherwise suffers from normal awkward teenager problems.  Suzu is especially awkward because she had a difficult childhood after her mother passed away trying to save a drowning girl leaving Suzu with her distant father.  Suzu isn’t quite sure what to make of her anonymous fame but things get a lot weirder when her onscreen avatar crosses paths with a much less beloved avatar named Dragon (Takeru Satoh), who everyone is angry at because he fights dirty in combat programs and then disrupts one of Belle’s concerts, drawing the ire of an online vigilante group led by someone named Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa).  Soon Suzu/Belle becomes interested in this rather beastly individual and wonders if maybe he’s just misunderstood and starts a search to see who he really is.

This is not the first time that Mamoru Hosoda has envisioned a virtual reality version of the internet, a nearly identical device was at the center of his very well liked 2009 film Summer Wars though the concept here is a bit more expansive and trippy.  Like, the Belle avatar frequently performs by standing on top of a whale that’s floating around in cyberspace and everyone else in the movie has a weird abstract avatar form as well.  A lot of this does resonate as an elaborate metaphor for existing online behavior: Belle is basically someone who “goes viral” and doesn’t know what to do with her newfound fame, Justin is someone who uses some veneer of justice to engage in cyber bullying and doxing, and later we look at a scenario where the internet can be used to reach out to someone in need of support.  However, the internet parallels can at times be muddled as well.  For instance it’s rather unclear what exactly this beast character did to get people mad and what its real internet equivalent is. Is he a troll?  A video game cheat? Someone cringe?  It feels a bit vague.  I would also add that this theme of internet anonymity feels a touch dated.  There was a time when most online participants might have been a bit more mysterious but today most “influencers” are at least nominally using their real names and faces even if the personality they present is constructed.

The “Beauty and the Beast” metaphor here is also pretty muddled.  The movie certainly isn’t subtle about this fairy tale illusion what with Belle’s name and the fact that she finds the beast in a mysterious castle and needs to defend him against a Gaston figure.  The movie even goes so far as to directly allude to the Disney version of this tale with a scene where Belle dances with the beast in a big animated ballroom.  But there are some pretty stark differences as well, namely that *spoilers* beauty and beast in this one do not end up as lovers and the beast isn’t any kind of prince either.  Instead the film leads up to a rather strange ending involving a rescue that doesn’t make a lot of sense outside of symbolism of intention.  The whole movie operates on a very heightened and kind of teenager logic of big emotions, it does occasionally sort of call this tendency out a little but it ultimately does go for that big Makoto Shinkai style catharsis at the end.  Honestly I think Shinkai is better at that sort of thing and Hosoda already did the whole VR internet thing better with Summer Wars, so this is definitely a flawed work from him that gets lost in the multiple simultaneous metaphors.  However, I do worry that I’ve kind of buried the lead a bit here which is that the film does sport some pretty top rate widescreen anime visuals which go a pretty long way toward smoothing over some of the film’s narrative shortcomings and the film’s characters are pretty fun and likable well so it’s hard to be too angry at the movie.

*** out of Five

Spider-Man: No Way Home(12/27/2021)

I’ve had my ups and my downs with the Marvel Cinematic Universe but without exception I’ve seen every one of their movies in the theaters and while I haven’t seen all of them opening night I almost always went to see them within the first couple of days of release.  There have been a couple of exceptions, but generally speaking I’m pretty stoked to see them, especially in the last couple of years.  That has been somewhat tested this year, though not really by my choosing.  It took me six days of waiting in order to see Shang-Chi and Eternals, which probably doesn’t seem very long to normal people but for someone trying to remain in “the discourse” that’s quite the pain.  And the reason for these delays is, of course, COVID.  With the virus floating around it just seemed irresponsible to go to these movies while the crowds are too big to maintain reasonable social distancing.  Fortunately the crowds for those movies did thin out enough to slip into weekday afternoon screenings shortly after release and not have to deal with crowds that were too out of control.  That was not the case with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  The movie released right at the onset of the Omicron Varient, when you’d think people were at their most afraid to go to the movies than ever, but instead the audiences who shunned cinema-going all year suddenly decided that this was the time to absolutely pack in the theaters and every damn screening of the thing was basically sold out for the better part of ten days.  I finally got into a screening that was only about half full after its second weekend, which still doesn’t seem like the most responsible thing I’ve ever done, but it did allow me to finally stop running in fear from spoilers on the internet so I guess that’s a relief.

The film picks up right where Spider-Man: Far From Home left off: with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons).  Parker is able to dodge legal liability from the deceased Mysterio’s attempts to frame him but public opinion is divided about him and this scrutiny extends to his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).  When this notoriety affects all three of their ability to get into MIT as they had planned Parker decides to take something of a desperate action.  He visits Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks if there is some sort of sorcery that can be used to somehow solve his problem and Strange agrees but in the process of casting the spell something goes wrong and Strange needs to contain it rather than let it go through and asks Parker to leave.  On his way out he gets a hot tip that an MIT representative is on the highway heading to the airport and he swings out to the highway overpass in order to try to convince her to let MJ and Ned in but then something bizarre happens: the highway is attacked by Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)… the one we all saw in the 2004 film Spider-Man 2.  Soon it becomes apparent that Dr. Strange’s spell did have some odd side effects because it soon becomes apparent that the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and other villains from alternate Spider-Man universes have shown up in this continuity and Spider-Man will need to hustle to stop them all and send them back where they belong.

So, obviously the big novelty of this movie is that it’s using the concept of the “multi-verse” to make this a crossover with Sony’s pre-MCU Spider-Man movies, thus officially making them canon in a way.  As pure fan service that’s really cool but there are some downsides.  First and foremost three of the five movies they’re drawing characters from kind of suck.  Spider-Man 3 was plainly kind of a disaster and I didn’t like either of Andrew Gafield’s Spider-Man movies even a little.  Jamie Foxx’s Electro is a bad character, I barely even remembered what The Lizard’s deal was, and while The Sandman looked cool he does not have an arc I’m remotely attached to.  Truth be told I was never much of a fan of the Willem Dafoe Green Goblin either; I dug his performance but I always thought his costume kind of sucked, so really Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus is the only villain here that I’m unreservedly happy to have back.  The film does try to undo some of the mistakes of the past in realizing some of these characters (like getting rid of Electro’s stupid blue makeup) there’s only so much they can really do to try to make some of these characters work and that’s a problem and the way the film almost seems to pause for applause whenever some of these characters show up is kind of cringe.

I would also note that I find the magical conceits used to make these crossovers happen did not make a ton of sense to me.  Dr. Strange generally behaves in what strikes me as a fairly out of character way to be trying to do this memory erasure spell in the first place and the fact that the spell goes awry through a sort of silly comedy is a bit weak to rest a film on.  I also found Strange’s rather vague description that the spell is, and I paraphrase, “drawing people who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man into this universe” seems a bit odd given that this phenomenon is pretty selective about who it draws in: where is the Kirsten Dunst Mary Jane or the Emma Stone Gwen Stacy or the James Franco Harry Osborne or any number of other non-super villains who know Spider-Man’s identity?  There are various financial (or in the case of Franco moral) reasons these actors aren’t here and there likely wouldn’t have been a place in the movie for them anyway, but a clearer explanation for who is crossing into the universe and why would have been appreciated (and don’t get me started on how little sense the post-credits cameo makes).  Without getting too deep into spoilers I also don’t really get how the ultimate resolution to this predicament works either and how it doesn’t undo most of what Spider-Man was trying to accomplish through much of the rest of the movie.

Having said that, the Tom Holland Spider-Man universe has a pretty strong foundation to work from and it remains a pretty strong here.  The supporting cast we’ve come to enjoy (Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, etc.) has not really missed a beat and Jon Watts continues to impress behind the camera.  I have no idea if this guy can direct outside the MCU, and frankly I have a hunch that like the Russo Brothers his skills may well not translate to anything grittier, but he plainly understands the right tone for Spider-Man and knows his audience.  After a year of kind of weak MCU movies I think this did come closer to recapturing that magic audiences have come to expect from these movies and I appreciate that too, but after watching it I did feel I was a touch unsatisfied.  The film’s status as the movie that’s “saving theaters” by becoming a record-setting hit may have imbued it with an Avengers like air of importance for this franchise that it was maybe never meant to have and an event status it can’t quite live up to.  Slight resentment that I needed to compromise my health to see the damn thing may also have biased me against it just a bit.  That said I don’t think this is all a matter of context there are script issues that left me unsure about this thing and the fan service nature of its most prominent elements is ultimately kind of hollow.  I fear I’ve been more negative about this movie than I intended to be, though I also fear I’m giving it a bit of a pass on certain things out of fanboyism, it’s kind of a movie that feels a bit mood dependent in how much you’re inclined to forgive it for holes and circumstance did not have me in the most forgiving mood when I watched it.

*** out of Five