On the Radar… (Spring Edition)
So… how about them Oscars, huh? Maybe not a good idea to build your entire ceremony on an expected outcome in case it, ya know, doesn’t happen. Probably also not a great idea to refuse an 84 year-old man’s request to give his acceptance speech over Zoom because it’s actually not unreasonable at all for someone that age to avoid traveling overseas during a still-ongoing pandemic.
Oh yeah, remember when that broke out? When the foundations of modern civilization buckled at the first sign of a public health emergency that our most powerful political leaders were woefully unprepared to deal with, forcing many people out of work and into sustained periods of physical and emotional isolation? But yes, Bill Maher, it was totally bizarre that the most celebrated movies of last year were real bummers. You’re definitely not a bitter, sheltered old rich person.
But hey, we’re getting vaccinated and maybe we can socialize normally again (maybe)! Movie theaters are even reopening (kinda). And with an awards season marked by unprecedented gains in representation and breaking of typical boring awards season “narratives” and something something andthelowestratingsinitshistory … moving on… now behind us, it’s time to look forward to the new year.
Specifically spring time! Are there any upcoming films that will emerge as serious Oscar contenders? Probably not. But also maybe? Let’s see what we’ve got to work with, first…
TOM CLANCY’S WITHOUT REMORSE – On Amazon Prime Video April 30
Directed by Stefano Sollima
Starring Michael B. Jordan, with Jamie Bell and Jodie Turner-Smith
What is it about? Adapted from a Tom Clancy novel apparently taking place in the “Ryanverse,” Navy SEAL John Clark goes on a mission of revenge against the Russian assassins who murdered his pregnant wife.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series has had a very… odd relationship with Hollywood. Nearly all of them have had the rotten luck of being released in theaters just a year or so too late for its milieu to still feel relevant to audiences at the time. Harrison Ford, the longest-running actor to play the eponymous role, starred in a grand total of two entries, and every other actor to inhabit Jack Ryan only served to highlight how uniquely charismatic and potent a leading man Ford was in a way that poor Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine could never hope to match. And after three proficient thrillers in the 1990’s, two attempts to “reboot” the series exploded on the launch pad in embarrassing fashion before settling into modest success with John Krasinski’s still-ongoing Amazon Prime streaming show.
So with their foot in the door, Amazon has apparently decided that they have a full-blown cinematic universe on their hands, and swooped in to secure the distribution rights to Without Remorse from Paramount after its original release date of Spring 2020 was delayed due to… *gestures wildly at everything*. But this doesn’t center on the CIA analyst, but instead is about longtime side character John Kelly (renamed from John Clark for… some reason), played by Michael B. Jordan in what looks to be a straightforward revenge actioner more in line with Patriot Games than the brainy cat-and-mouse thrillers Clear and Present Danger and The Hunt for Red October.
It’s hard for me to see how U.S. Navy SEAL John Clar-I mean, Kelly is any more compelling than the dozens of by-the-numbers military action heroes we see introduced to us every single year and have never reached the heights of pop culture ubiquity that they did in the 80’s (though Liam Neeson came close a decade ago). I suppose when you have one of the most electrifying leading men of his generation, you feel a little more comfortable betting on a franchise ticket no matter how shaky or seemingly out-of-date it might be.
Having said that, I am interested in the future of the macho military thriller in this day and age, as warfare is becoming increasingly remote and automated and the nationwide debate over the effects of toxic masculinity intensifies. At a certain point, we stopped thinking raunchy teen comedies where women are filmed naked without their consent were funny. I wonder if we’re nearing that same point with these jingoistic thrillers, and at a minimum, the reaction to Without Remorse could be a telling sign of where we fall on the whole subgenre right now.
FOUR GOOD DAYS – In Theaters April 30 and On Demand May 21
Directed by Rodrigo García
Starring Glenn Close, with Mila Kunis and Stephen Root
What is it about? A heroin addict enlists the help of her semi-estranged mother to keep her “clean” for four more days so she can be eligible for opioid antagonist treatment.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Oh, Glenn Close. When are you getting your Academy Award? You’re now at Peter O’Toole levels of always-a-bridesmaid status with them! But what’s this? It mightcome from the drama Four Good Days, where you will have to deal with a difficult and visibly addiction-ravaged Mila Kunis as your daughter needing to be heroin-free for one week (or four more days when we begin the story) so her body can receive a type of naltrexone that keeps her from suffering from withdrawal symptoms without feeling “high.”
Close might finally see Oscar glory for this… but I have my doubts. For one thing, this movie is directed by Rodrigo García, who yes, has directed her to a nomination before with Albert Nobbs. But Albert Nobbs was terrible. I’m sorry, I know that’s harsh, but it was seriously terrible. How do you write an entire script without establishing a single defined narrative conflict? How does such a thing even get greenlit? Anyway, the rest of his filmography is not super-inspiring, either. More distressingly, despite being such a widespread human tragedy touching the lives of millions of Americans, movies about parents struggling to get their children clean after hitting rock-bottom haven’t had such a stellar track record with either critics or audiences. Remember Beautiful Boy? Ben Is Back? Heck, remember Hillbilly Elegy? That came out just last year.
The hard truth is that the struggle to help an addict on the road to sobriety is difficult to portray cinematically. It doesn’t lend to the wild dramatic swings and aesthetic flourishes of being in the middle of drug addiction like Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream. The recovery from addiction is mostly tedious and long and frustrating, and I’m sure one day there will be a filmmaker who can convey that cinematically in a way that is compelling… maybe García will surprise me and be the one who does it.
WRATH OF MAN – In Theaters May 7
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Jason Statham, with Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, and Josh Hartnett
What is it about? A newly-hired security guard for an armored cash truck attracts an unusual number of armed heists that he suspiciously deals with swiftly and mercilessly.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Hey, another macho action thriller that’s… kind of militaristic, too? Depending on where you set the goalpasts with our militarized police and private security forces? In all seriousness, there’s something oddly comforting about a Jason Statham starring vehicle. More than any other movie star today, you know exactly what you’re going to get with them. He plays the same archetype of character in the exact same way, in films that have roughly the same tone and pacing and level of violence and even appeal to the same audience of dedicated fans (most movies starring Jason Statham – the Fast & Furious series excepted – tend to make roughly the same amount of money at the box office).
And in a sign of things “returning to normal,” it looks like he’s teaming up with the director who provided him his big breakthrough over twenty years ago in a sort of return-to-form for him as well. At least I hope that’s how we’re greeting this. Because in a sign of me getting old, I’m almost positive that the Kids These Days know British filmmaker Guy Ritchie as someone who specializes in glitzy big-budget spectacles like Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the live-action remake of Aladdin instead of the punchy, grubby British crime capers that I still associate with him because time is a cruel mistress and I’m getting closer to death with each passing moment.
So yeah. Here were are with a typical Jason Statham movie directed by a guy going back to what made him popular with heterosexual young guys (like me) at the beginning of the aughts. Sure, we’ll probably ask ourselves “Wait, so how did he know this would happen exactly as it did? And wouldn’t his whole plan fall apart if this one thing didn’t go exactly the way he was expecting and the villains weren’t all total idiots?” soon after it’s over. But hey, we’re allowed a bowl of sugary cereal every now and then, right? No one is going to remember this movie next year, no one is going to predict this getting any Oscar nominations, and that’s fine!
Also, Holt McCallany was the best actor in the ensemble of the short-lived but surprisingly good Mindhunter and it’s nice to see him again.
ABOVE SUSPICION – In Theaters May 14
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Starring Emilia Clarke, with Jack Huston and Sophie Lowe
What is it about? Apparently based on a true story, a local woman and an FBI Agent start a secret love affair in a small midwestern town.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Huh, look at that, another tenuous connection to the Jack Ryan would-be sorta-franchise: the Harrison Ford entries in that series were directed by Phillip Noyce, a very proficient director who has never been extraordinary but has always been highly competent in ratcheting tension, whether it’s a scene of two men racing to claim an electronic document in a shared file from two hilariously slow 90’s-tech computers or expertly shepherding a series of crackling action sequences in between a howler of a mid-film twist in Salt. I don’t mean that as an insult, by the way – at a time when Film Twitter keeps doing cartwheels over the most ostentatious directorial flourishes they see, with a disappointing lack of recognition for stripped-down competence in the basics of the artform, there’s something I genuinely appreciate about filmmakers like Noyce who can reliably nail down the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking and don’t ever seem to feel the need to “show off.”
This looks a bit more somber and character-driven than his usual wheelhouse, however, as poor Emilia Clarke continues to search for some avenue into a second career in feature films after her disappointing exit from Game of Thrones. Originally scheduled for a 2019 release, we’re finally getting to see the apparently true story of the first FBI Agent ever convicted of murder. How much fealty to the actual events this movie will adhere to is hard to tell from the trailer, and I’m not sure how this will play to audiences who have become accustomed to binging true crime stories just like these while scrolling their social media feeds before going to bed and could have developed some very high personal standards for the quality of good true crime stories.
Because that’s been a thing these last few years; podcasts, streaming shows, documentaries, and blogs dedicated entirely to real-life violent crimes and lurid mysteries. Yet there hasn’t been a feature film with the same kind of cultural phenomenon popularity as Serial or Tiger King. I am skeptical that Above Suspicion will be able to break through on that scale, but it will at least be an interesting preview of a nut multiple studios are almost certainly itching to crack within this decade.
THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW – On Netflix May 14
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Amy Adams, with Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, and Julianne Moore
What is it about? An agoraphobic woman can’t tell if she’s losing her mind or is being gaslighted after she witnesses her neighbor’s murder.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Oh man. Oh man oh man oh man. This movie has been through a lot. In case any of you don’t remember, the COVID-19 pandemic was the second delay of the release of Joe Wright’s troubled production of The Woman in the Window. This movie was originally supposed to be released in theaters in 2019, but was ordered to undergo extensive reshoots and rewrites following test screenings that went… not-so-well. Then the 2020 plague came along and delayed the movie again, until finally Netflix just straight up bought out the distribution rights so we can all enjoy this newest attempt to replicate the success of David Fincher’s Gone Girl by adapting a tawdry, twisty woman-in-peril airport paperback novel from the comfort of our TVs or computers.
Look, we all know stories of classic masterpieces that emerged from troubled productions and studios that originally had no faith in them. But for every one of those, there are several hundred more that were delayed and reshot and retooled and sometimes just flat-out buried because the producers rightly knew they had a clunker on their hands. The odds just aren’t in this movie’s favor, especially since every single attempt to capture Gone Girl’s thunder so far has sputtered out.
I know that’s probably disheartening to Amy Adams fans (like myself!) who were hoping this would finally be her Oscar-winning role. But I’m also a die-hard Emily Blunt fan who suffered through The Girl on the Train so I’m familiar with this exact kind of awards play. If Joe Wright proves me wrong, I will be the first in line to personally congratulate him for defying the odds and proving all of his doubters wrong. It could also, to its credit, be the kind of trashy fun tailor-made for this new era of “ironically” watching ridiculous movies and live-tweeting our reactions to you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it scenes. So even if its post-production hell is a bad omen, its weird premise and stylish excess and overbaked acting from the trailer could be a promise of a fascinating boondoggle.
It could even be a future classic on the level of – dare I dream? – Serenity. Or even The Book of Henry! And honestly, that possibility makes me strangely more excited to see it.
THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD – In Theaters and HBO Max May 14
Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Angelina Jolie, and Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little, and Aidan Gillen
What is it about? A witness to a murder is protected by a survival expert in the Montana wilderness from pursuing assassins and a forest fire.
How am I feelin’ about this one? I always find myself rooting for Angelina Jolie. She’s one of the few children of unimaginable privilege who seemed aware of it pretty early on in her life and has spent a good portion of it trying to use her power and wealth for good. And on top of that, she’s also a very talented actress and a bonafide phenomenal movie star.
So whenever she gets a starring vehicle that promises to showcase her specifically as a Capital-S Star, I find myself rooting for it, even if it otherwise looks like something I have no use for. This is especially a test of my affection of Jolie since she’s starring in what looks suspiciously very similar to a 90’s thriller set in a forest fire that bombed so badly it ended Howie Long’s Hollywood dreams practically overnight. Luckily, Angelina Jolie is more talented at acting than Howie Long.
Another thing that raises my suspicion is the director, and yes, I am aware that Wind River has a lot of fans, but it’s also a tediously grim movie about Native American suffering told almost exclusively through the perspective of concerned white people. He was also the screenwriter behind two Sicario movies, the second of which depicted convenient stereotypes and racial panic boogeymen that actually influenced xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment across the nation despite being, ya know, fictionalized nonsense.
But still… I root for Angelina Jolie. She has a star power that is nearly-unmatched among her peers. I want her movies to do well.
SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW – In Theaters May 14
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring Chris Rock, with Max Minghella and Marisol Nichols
What is it about? Two detectives investigate a series of murders that are eerily reminiscent of the gruesome legacy of the “Jigsaw Killer.”
How am I feelin’ about this one? Once upon a time, there was a horror franchise uniquely positioned to manipulate very specific cultural anxieties of the early aughts (namely, post-9/11 trauma and misdirected emotional vindictiveness) and becomes the horror franchise of that era, ushering in an explosion of copycat movies pushing new limits of onscreen gore and nerve-rending cruelty that declined in popularity almost as suddenly as the series attained it in the first place as the decade was nearing its end.
I’m not sure if “arthouse horror” is an appropriate term, but it does seem like the subsequent generation of horror fans have written off these nasty shockers that dominated theaters when I was a teen in favor of smaller-scale, more intimate, plot-heavy, outwardly “sophisticated” scares. So what do you do when you’re a die-hard fan of the most once-popular horror franchise in America, wanting to help it stage a comeback in an era that has long-since moved on from it?
Well, I guess if you’re Chris Rock, you try and reinvent and update it for that almost downright oppositional milieu, with yourself in the lead role. Which… I don’t know, might work? The “problem” with the Saw series wasn’t its extreme violence or vicious torture scenes, it was its pretentiousness and comical lack of self-awareness. You had in John Kramer, aka the Jigsaw Killer, a villain with seemingly supernatural awareness of every single action his victims will take in reaction to his sadistic Rube Goldberg contraptions, which were almost as convoluted as the soap opera canon that came to define the franchise, and to his amazing luck, his victims were always just smart enough to not panic and do something to end his “little game” before it even begins but also always moronic enough to reliably make the dumbest possible decision when an opportunity arises to needlessly prolong their own suffering. All while he droned on like a pretentious dorm room freshman about how life and death, maaaaan, are just like, whoa, and making blatantly hypocritical moral edicts. There was an entire installment of the series where he – no kidding – targets a health insurance company executive for making decisions over the worth of people’s lives based on arbitrary human faults, and no one in the film apparently noticed the outrageous thematic contradiction in that setup.
On top of that, the addled music video stylist Darren Lynn Bousman is returning to the series for the first time since Saw IV all the way back in 2007, and unlike the surprisingly-really-good-at-big-budget-spectacles Saw forerunner James Wan, I just have no use for Bousman as a director. And the script is co-written by the man who brought us Good Luck Chuck and their last attempt to reboot this series in 2017. So yeah, Chris Rock – who was apparently a major driver of this movie coming to fruition due to his love of the series – has a big lift ahead of him. Because as F. Javier Gutiérrez’s Rings demonstrated in 2017, attempts to bring back outdated horror trends from the aughts can backfire pretty embarrassingly if you have no true modern take on it.
ARMY OF THE DEAD – In Theaters and Netflix May 28
Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Dave Bautista, with Ella Purnell and Omari Hardwick
What is it about? A team of mercenaries pull off a Vegas heist in the middle of a zombie outbreak.
How am I feelin’ about this one? So are we done now, fanboys? You got your “Snyder Cut,” which wasn’t actually a cut so much as a semi-remake of a film Zack Snyder half-envisioned early on in production before having to leave the project which HBO Max presented as a “finished” four-hour beast that was never intended for wide release in theaters in any form at any point in time. But hey, you guys got it. Good for you. I truly, sincerely hope it was everything you wanted and more so we can all move on and – oh, sorry, what’s that? Now we’re demanding Warner Bros #RestoreTheSnyderverse because I’m in Hell? Awesome.
Anyway, back on Earth, where I’m sure Snyder also wants to move on, his first true post-DCEU movie is making its big debut at the end of May, and it looks like the kind of over-the-top gleeful B-movie silliness that’s honestly a breath of fresh air coming from him. Snyder is a magnificent visual craftsman whose biggest weakness has been how his keen eye for splendor and genre thrills get bogged down in morose mythologizing. To see someone like him let loose with a literal zombie apocalypse heist caper will (hopefully) free him of the urge to make a heavy-handed Christ reference or slow motion masculine flex as half-baked theme. At least until he makes his long-gestating adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
In fact, the only real connections this has to Snyder’s previous hallmarks as a director are its byzantine and long history in development hell, and the weirdly cart-before-the-horse drive to turn this thing into a multimedia franchise before the studio even knows if audiences want that in the first place. Since 2007, the script for this concept had bounced around from one creative team to the next, with no one quite sure what to do with such a quintessentially awesome twelve year-old boy concept, and then Netflix decided to go all-in on producing a spinoff film and a tie-in anime series at the same time.
Seems a little presumptuous to assume what looks like a Roger Corman horror-comedy is going to be wholly embraced as a “cinematic universe,” but then again I wondered why Legendary Entertainment kept pushing their “MonsterVerse” in seeming defiance of general audience disinterest and it looks like that’s working out for them pretty well finally, so maybe I need to just stop underestimating the effectiveness of sheer corporate willpower?
A QUIET PLACE PART II – In Theaters May 28 and Paramount+ July 12
Directed by John Krasinski
Starring Emily Blunt, with Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Djimon Hounsou
What is it about? A direct sequel to the events of the first movie, the surviving Abbott family ventures out into the post-apocalyptic world torn apart by those super-hearing alien thingies.
How am I feelin’ about this one? I have to come clean with you all – A Quiet Place has really soured in my memory since first seeing and mostly liking it in 2018. Too many plot contrivances stick out in my memory, too many weird insistences on retrograde nuclear family homogeneity as the ideal, too many amateur visual signposting mistakes like that whiteboard with “WHAT IS THEIR WEAKNESS?” spelled out in big capital letters for the audience to see. Yes, thank you for reminding us finding their weakness is something that might be on your mind, dude. It doesn’t help that the entire premise was apparently stolen wholesale from a science fiction novel called The Silence, and look, far be it from a fan of The Terminator like me to begrudge the occasional rip-off of a great idea if it’s executed well, but that combined with John Krasinski’s off-putting habit of receiving widespread adoration and millions of dollars for repackaging other people’s work doesn’t help my memory of this movie.
Remember when he did that YouTube show Some Good News last year? Which was literally just him repeating inoffensively feel-good viral stories he (or, more likely, someone he paid) found on the internet? And then he sold his show to Viacom a few months later and laid low as things got even worse and America brushed closer to fascism than at any other point in its history? That was kinda gross in hindsight, right? Even if you enjoyed or were even moved by Some Good News last year?
But setting all of that aside… what exactly are we getting with this sequel? The first one seemed to end on a pretty definitive note, with The Man Heroically Sacrificing Himself For His Family and the rest of the family discovering the alien weakness, which just ended up being the thing that I have to imagine every single person in the audience guessed it would be really early on.
So where do you go from there? What conflict could possibly present itself that “just do the earsplitting thing that incapacitated them before” wouldn’t solve? Why should we continue to care about these characters after their last cinematic outing was, by all appearances, narratively resolved?
CRUELLA – In Theaters and Disney+ May 28
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Starring Emma Stone, with Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, and Paul Walter Hauser
What is it about? The origin story of one of the most infamous Disney villains ever.
How am I feelin’ about this one? So we all know why this exists, right? We all know what Disney is aiming for, here? I’ll give you a hint: the idea for this was sort of kicking around the Disney offices for almost a decade but they never really took it seriously as a project until late 2016. Then it kicked into high priority with them driving extensive rewrites and gathering some of the most respected and experienced professionals in the industry on board with it.
Now… what movie do you think was gathering a lot of attention right around that time? Or, really, what character was clearly being positioned as a breakout Hot Topic phenomenon back in late 2016? Maybe a certain over-the-top “bad girl” who wears extravagant makeup and sexy outfits? Who is also appearing in a movie later this year?
Yeah, Warner Bros may not have created the pop culture juggernaut to match the Marvel Cinematic Universe that they aimed for with the DCEU, but they still have a few advantages in the market, and one of them is Harley Quinn. Which, let’s be real here, is what Disney is trying to replicate, and they are willing to spend hundreds of millions of their own money and attract the most respected talent in the business to stake their claim in the Bad-Girl-Who-Looks-Good-Being-Bad market. Cruella’s cast and crew boast a combined total of twenty-nine Academy Award nominations, including five wins. One of them being, of course, Academy Award-winner Emma Stone, who I have to assume sees this punk rock vamping out as more of a paid vacation than actual work, and I say go for it! Like Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnarök and Charlize Theron in Snow White & the Huntsman, playing over-the-top villainesses wearing extravagant outfits in major productions is probably embraced as a “reward” by these women after working their asses off to achieve the pinnacle of movie stardom and industry recognition.
But… this Cruella sure feels… different, from the Cruella I remember growing up: who was a bored and privileged old money heiress with no real accomplishments or interesting personality traits in the animated classic and (to a lesser extent) in the live-action remakes. Whose weird impulsive collecting of expensive furs becomes an unhealthy obsession ruining the lives of everyone caught in her orbit. Like, that was her whole deal. Being uninteresting and pampered and turning to needless cruelty and material excess to stave off that ennui was her core characteristic.
So it’s a bit weird, to see her, of all Disney villains, get a “hip” new backstory when she was originally completely unremarkable aside from her grotesque wealth as the main reason she was so villainous in the first place. Sure, it’s not as heavy a reinvention as Maleficent-As-Rape-Trauma-Allegory, I guess, but I’d argue the classic “mythology” of Cruella De Vil is a more realistic and prevalent threat that kids should be aware of: weird rich people and their irrational obsessions that no one challenges or pushes back on because they’re rich.
I’m sure Craig Gillespie and screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara will ultimately fall on the side of “Cruella Bad” on the moral equation – because really, how can you not? The woman wants to murder and skin puppies! – but they’re still going to make her compelling, with some sort of personal story and aesthetic appeal that audiences will presumably want to watch. And I have to admit to feeling a little uneasy about that. Look at all of the rich weirdoes of the world today, causing havoc and spending a fortune on their little eccentric hobbies while exploiting everyone and everything else to their heart’s content. Are any of them truly interesting? Any of their stories worth telling? Or is that what rich people just want us to believe to keep up the illusion of their insane levels of wealth and privilege not being grossly unearned and unfair?
But the outfits do look stellar. I gotta give Jenny Beavan credit for that based on the trailer and production stills alone. Mark your Costume Design predictions accordingly, folks.