Top Gun: Maverick

Posted on May 16, 2022 at 8:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and some strong languag
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scenes in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extended intense military peril and action
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 24, 2022

Copyright 2022 Paramount
I’m happy to report that “Top Gun: Maverick” is everything a fan could hope for. It is exciting, it is endearing, it just about blows kisses at the fans, and it is guaranteed to make many new ones. You want to start right off with Kenny Loggins singing about the danger zone! You’ve got it. You want hot guys with their shirts off playing some sort of ball game on the beach! Happy to provide. You want to see Tom Cruise on his motorcycle? There it is. (No helmet though, not too happy about that.) You want to see him run very fast? Well, sorry about that. JK it’s a Tom Cruise movie, of course he is going to run and no one runs like Tom Cruise runs. You want to see some very cool and intense action in the sky, shot with lenses specifically developed for this movie? Of course you will. You want to see complex characters and believable plot lines? Oh, come on, no you don’t!

Maverick (Tom Cruise) is still the same break-the-rules hotshot he was 36 years ago. We see him working on his old plane as we hear Kenny Loggins sing. And once again (there will be a lot of “once agains” in this movie) he is in trouble for taking risks and ignoring orders. Just as before, over the objections of his commanding officer (a brief appearance by Ed Harris), he is being sent to Top Gun, the San Diego-based training facility for elite Navy fliers. He has a friend and protector fans of the original film will be glad to see again, Val Kilmer as Iceman, now an admiral.

Maverick is needed to train the best of the best of the best for an impossible real-life mission, taking out a nuclear weapons facility in the Mideast before the arrival of uranium in three weeks, when bombs would release radiation. Instead of describing the “two miracles” necessary for blowing up the construction site, I will refer you to “Star Wars: A New Hope,” because it is pretty much the same thing. I half expected one of the pilots to say, “I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home.”

The best of the best of the best have skills, but as we’ve seen, they also have a lot of ego, a lot of adrenaline, and a lot of hyper-competitive posturing. Just to make this throwback even throwback-ier, there’s a special blast from the past. Many movies have what is called a DBTA, which stands for Dead by Third Act, a character whose only role in the story is to give the main character a death to mourn and learn from. So it has to be someone we in the audience connect to as well. Goose in “Top Gun” is the quintessential DBTA. As soon as he plays “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano with his wife (Meg Ryan) and toddler son, we know he is too adorable to make it to the end of the story. That toddler son is now one of the best of the best of the best, call sign Rooster (Miles Teller), and he has a huge amount of resentment toward Maverick.

If Rooster is the new Maverick, impulsive and abrupt, then the new Iceman is the terrific Glen Powell as Hangman, careful and by the book. Maverick has to prepare the young pilots for the impossible mission while his exasperated immediate superior officer (Jon Hamm) does his best to get in the way.

The original film had a reference to some trouble Maverick got into with an admiral’s daughter named Penny. She shows up in this film as a single mom who owns the local bar and is played by Jennifer Connelly with grace and wit.

Speaking of “Star Wars,” there is also a Yoda-esque theme with Maverick stressing the importance of intuition and the human being more important than the gizmos, even a touch of the old fable of John Henry being faster than the machine. And some of the plot developments in the last half hour are near-ridiculous. That is less important than what works in the film, outstanding cinematography, editing, action, romance, terrific performances from a collection of young performers, and of course full-on movie star Tom Cruise, clearly having a blast.

Parents should know that this film has intense military action with dogfights and bombs. Characters drink and use strong language and there are sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: If you were Penny, what rules would you adopt in the bar? Are you more like Hangman or Rooster?

If you like this, try: “Top Gun” and the “Mission: Impossible” movies and check out these thoughts on the movie from an air combat expert

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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted on May 3, 2022 at 11:27 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening images, action, intense sequences of violence, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language, s-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugged drinks
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, scary monsters, zombie, disturbing and grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 6, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
The year of the multi-verses continues with the latest Marvel entry, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by master of horror Sam Raimi (and with a special cameo by Raimi’s favorite actor, Bruce Campbell). As the MCU continues to evolve and expand, this movie builds not just on all of the Marvel movies that have come before. There are references to Thanos turning half the population to dust and to the most recent Spider-Man movie (where Strange played a key role). It also helps a lot to have seen the television series “Wandavision,” with Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, a sometime Avenger with, even by Avenger standards, extraordinary powers. She can create almost anything and in that series, her response to the tragic loss of her love, Vision, was to create an entire world, in part inspired by the videos of American television series she saw as a child in fictional Communist Bloc country Sokovia, where she and Vision lived in sit-com suburbia.

It begins in medias res, a battle with a very big monster who seems to be made of electrified spaghetti. There is a teenage girl and a choice, something that would destroy her but save the world, at least until the next monster. Doctor Strange, the famously hyper-rational, often arrogant surgeon-turned sorcerer with the greying temples and magical cloak, has to decide. What will he do? What should he do?

He makes a choice and then he wakes up. It was a dream. Or maybe it was not. He will learn that it was a peak into the multiverse, the parallel versions of our world we got a glimpse of in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” when two other Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) and a handful of their villains joined together in our world. There is a way to physically enter the other verses and there is a way to “dream-walk,” to inhabit another verse’s version of you and substitute your thoughts and emotions. And that teenager, America Chavez (a terrifically natural Xochitl Gomez of “The Babysitter’s Club”) shows up with the key to some of that verse-hopping.

Strange seeks out Wanda to ask for her help. They walk through her peaceful grove of apple blossoms and he tells her they smell “real.” She assures him they are, that she is done with world-building. The meaning of “real” is a theme of the film as the different versions of the characters in the multi-verses present different ideas of reality, including free food and a verse where everyone is paint, plus some surprising switches in roles, personalities, hair color and style (Strange with a ponytail?), and destinies. And there are monsters, including a very cool one that looks like a gigantic corrugated octopus with a head that’s one enormous eyeball, like a spider-y band member from The Residents.

That’s as spoiler-y as I want to get. So I will stick to some general comments. Cumberbatch makes Strange vivid, layered, even a little bit vulnerable, and the interactions with the woman he loves, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and America have a nice symmetry that helps us see Strange work through his options, both for fighting the villain and for moving forward in his own life. The visual design is wonderfully imaginative, each verse filled with enthralling details. The action scenes are well staged, Raimi brings a tingly horror twinge to the mood, and Danny Elfman’s music is everything you want a superhero soundtrack to be. It feels good to be back in the IMAX MCU.

What keeps it under the level of the best of these films, though, is what has been an increasing issue in superhero movies. The powers are not clearly defined, so the stakes are not clearly defined. It is not enough to say it’s about the fate of the world or even the fate of America (the person, though of course the country, too). It feels like too many times that we’ve been told that someone has ultimate power, and then someone comes along with more ultimate power. (I did think it was very funny when we saw the Infinity Stones carelessly tossed into a low-level bureaucrat’s desk drawer in the “Loki” series.) I’m not saying every superhero has to be Superman, with his abilities and vulnerability clearly defined. But this film’s search for two artifacts as the keys to resolving the conflict are a distraction from the level of mythic existential conflict this movie tries for. It is a particularly weak moment when Strange, whose power comes from intensive training, resorts to the old “just figure out how to use your power in the next nano-second.” The special effects are state-of-the-art but there’s only so much they can do with characters who just shoot electricity at each other.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this is at the upper edge of a PG-13 with some strong language (s-words) and extensive comic book/fantasy peril and violence with some disturbing and graphic images, including a disintegrating zombie. Characters are drugged.

Family discussion: Is it ever right to sacrifice one person to save many? (Look up “The Trolly Problem.”) What does it mean to always want to be the one holding the knife?

If you like this, try: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “Another Earth”

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The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Posted on April 21, 2022 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language, crude sexual references
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended acton-style peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 15, 2022

copyright Lionsgate 2022
I’m not sure what it says about where we are in history that 2022 has become the year of movie meta-verses but, oh, forget it, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is a total hoot, and hilarious fun on every one of its meta-levels.

Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage is played by….Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage as a heightened (and lessened) version of himself, the best. and by that I mean most committed version of that since John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich.” The movie version of Nicolas Cage has all of his credits, a dozen of which are amusingly referenced throughout the film. And the movie version plays on news reports of Cage’s sometimes-volatile personal and financial life, with a second Nicolas Cage playing the younger version of himself and with the situation that set up the film. Movie Nicolas Cage (just referred to as Cage from now on) loses out on a big role in a film and is locked out of his hotel room for failure to pay. His 16-year-old daughter is barely speaking to him because he is so self-involved. His agent (Neil Patrick Harris) tells him he has been offered a million dollars to attend a birthday party in Mallorca. He reluctantly accepts.

At first, he something of a diva, insulting his host, Javi (a sublimely unhinged performance by Pedro Pascal). Surprisingly, it turns out that Javi is something of a kindred spirit, almost as in love with cinematic story-telling as he is. Javi’s unabashed fanship is also a solace for Cage’s bruised ego. Perhaps less surprisingly, in fact most predictably, like everyone else who strives for an encounter with a movie star, Javi has written a script.

This is when the CIA shows up (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz). Javi is an international arms dealer and they think he has kidnapped the Spanish President’s daughter. They cannot get into Javi’s compound, so they want Cage to spy for them.

The story works on many levels, as the kind of buddy story Javi wants to write, as the kind of action story they conclude they can get financing for, and above all as a knowing comedy with many references to Cage’s wide-ranging oeuvre, from “Cross 2” to “Guarding Tess,” “The Wicker Man” to “Con Air,” “Face-Off,” and “The Rock,” and to over-arching issues of the way movies tell stories and the way movies get made. Of all the Cage movies it nods to, the most foundational one is “Adaptation.,” itself a meta-movie about cinematic story-telling (and a lot of other themes), with Cage playing a version of the movie’s screenwriter and talking to himself, or close to himself, because he plays twins.

And like that film it is is very funny. Cage and Pascal have terrific chemistry and are clearly having a blast. Sharon Horgan is terrific as Cage’s ex-wife, but Barinholtz and Haddish are under-used and the mayhem is not always as effectively handled as it should be to work as action or as commentary on action. Or maybe it is commentary on the silliness of action. By that time, there are so many layers you are likely to have found at least two or three to enjoy.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong language and crude sexual references, alcohol and drug use, and extended and intense peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: Why did Nicolas Cage want to spoof himself this way? What do you learn from his conversations with his younger self? Why was it hard for him to connect to his daughter?

If you like this, try: Some of the movies referred to in this one like “Con Air,” “The Rock,” and “National Treasure” and “JCVD” with Jean-Claude van Damme spoofing himself and his films

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Ambulance

Posted on April 7, 2022 at 5:32 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for intense violence, bloody images and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong language, n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense peril and violence, guns, explosions, chases, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 8, 2022

Copyright 2022 Paramount
There’s a reason this movie is named after its mode of transportation instead of its characters. The humans in the story have less depth. It might most accurately be named “Michael Bay Movie,” a title that would convey all you need to know, which is that this is a movie about chases and explosions and shoot-outs. It’s a good thing studios do not have to certify that no vehicles were harmed in the making of the movie because the list of destroyed cars would be longer than the screenplay.

In between the chases and explosions and shoot-outs there is a thimble-full of a story. There are two brothers, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Danny’s family took in Will when they were childhood best friends. As adults, Danny followed his father into the criminal activity and Will went in the other direction, enlisting in the military. But he is struggling in civilian life. His wife needs an expensive operation that is not covered by insurance and they have a young baby. And so he goes to Danny for help.

Danny says the only way he can help is by bringing Will along on a bank robbery that is happening immediately. With no time to think, no other options for saving his wife, and Danny’s assurances that everything was under control, he agrees.

Everything was not under control. Everything goes very badly, and the only members of the bank robbery gang to survive are Danny and Will. A young police officer who came into the bank not because anything looked suspicious but to ask a pretty teller on a date, tries to capture them and Will shoots him. An ambulance arrives with an EMT named Cam (Eiza González, on the other side from her bank robber role in “Baby Driver”). Danny and Will see that an ambulance with an injured can get through the police dragnet, so they hijack it, taking Cam and Keith, the badly injured police officer, hostage.

And then, well, a lot of chases and explosions and shoot-outs. Somewhere in there are tiny moments of character, mostly not very interesting (the head cop has a very big dog, Cam has a reputation for being chilly and we find out why. the FBI man in charge (Keir O’Donnell) is younger than the LAPD guy in charge (Garret Dillahunt) so there are some generational and turf-y struggles. Olivia Stambouliah makes an impression as the LAPD surveillance expert and González manages to creat a real character amidst the mayhem. Gyllenhaal, stuck with a character whose choices and responses are increasingly difficult to parse, does get in a few good moments. I particularly like his reaction after a character sprays him with a fire extinguisher, only upset about his sweater. “It’s CASHMERE!”

The action set-pieces are staged with relish for the crashes and destruction but not the kind of style and energy we get in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. Those scenes are occasionally punctuated with Bay’s odd trademark focus on random objects. Like the police chief’s gigantic dog, they add less to the pacing and tone than Bay appears to think. Or maybe we’re just too exhausted to care.

Parents should know that this film has constant peril and action violence with many characters injured and killed and some very graphic and disturbing images. Characters use strong language and commit crimes.

Family discussion: Why did Cam go to see Lindsay? Why didn’t Keith tell the truth?

If you like this, try: “16 Blocks,” “Copshop,” and both version of “Fort Apache the Bronx”

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Morbius

Posted on March 31, 2022 at 11:57 am

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some frightening images, intense sequences of violence, and brief Strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Mind and body-altering medication
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, vampires, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2022
Copyright 2022 Sony

More like “Bore”-bius, amirite?

Sorry, couldn’t help it. I don’t know if it was the absence of Marvel MCU mastermind Kevin Feige (this movie comes from Sony, which has the rights to Spider-Man and the characters from his comics) or if they’re just digging down so deep into the MCU to find new IP, I mean new characters to develop and have run out of all the good ones, or both. But whatever the reason, “Morbius,” with Jared Leto is something no superhero movie should ever be — dull. The action scenes are poorly staged and the special effects are awful. Plus, it spends much too much time on the origin story somehow without ever making us connect to the title character.

Leto plays Michael Morbius, an only-in-comics character who is severely disabled and a genius. And, of course, something of a renegade. He is so dazzlingly brilliant that he is the youngest scientist ever to win a Nobel Prize, but such a rapscallion that he waits until he is wearing white tie at the ceremony to tell the King of Sweden he is turning it down. He is in a furious race against time to find a cure for his debilitating genetic disorder. The funding for his rogue lab comes from the childhood friend played as an adult by Matt Smith (“Dr. Who,” “The Crown”). They met in a residential treatment facility run by kind-hearted doctor Emil Nikols (Jared Harris). When they first meet, young Michael dubs the new arrival Milo, though his name is Lucien, to indicate that he is just another in an endless line of young patients who die so quickly it is not worth learning their names. Nevertheless, they become friends and he continues to be known as Milo.

Their shared problem is some blood-related thing, so Morbius comes up with the idea that one way to cure it could be to combine his DNA with the DNA of the only animal that lives solely on blood, the vampire bat. What could go wrong?

This experiment is unethical, illegal, and extremely expensive. So, with Milo footing the bill, Morbius and his beautiful colleague Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) try the DNA mixture out on a cargo ship in international waters. Think of it as his version of a radioactive spider bite except that (1) he does it on purpose and (2) vampire bats have qualities that are generally considered to be problematic, starting with an unquenchable thirst for blood.

So Morbius is an anti-hero, which means we have to have an all-out bad guy so he will be not so bad by comparison. The film expects us, like the FBI agents played by woefully underused Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal that the first few murders did not matter because the people killed were not good guys, and it is only when a nice single mom gets all of the blood sucked out of her that we should care about who did it. Michael feels bad about what he did and is a scientist and wants to stop even worse things from happening, so we’re supposed to be on his side. The scientific discovery he should be focusing on is how much crime a white guy in a hoodie can get away with.

Even those who come to superhero movies just for the fights and special effects will be disappointed. The CGI is primarily used to make the faces of the two vampires go back and forth from skeletal to normal, plus some meaningless dust trails that their superpowers somehow manifest. Many scenes have drab lighting that for want of a less vampiric word, sucks the life out of the story. Matt Smith is a brief bright spot but Leto spends most of his time trying to look soulful. He says that despite the poor reviews, he’s committed to a sequel. Please, no MORE-bious.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for extra scenes.

Parents should know that this film has extended comic-book style peril and violence, including vampires, with some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use mind- and body-altering medication and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Milo/Lucien and Michael respond to the treatment differently? Why did Michael reject the Nobel?

If you like this, try: The Spider-Man movies

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