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Awards Radar’s Summer Movie Preview!

In the Heights

On the Radar… (Summer Edition)

Summer! When the weather goes from bitter cold to scorching hot all of the sudden, the big spectacles open up in the hopefully not-yet-extinct theaters, and thousands of cicadas are everywhere (that happens every summer, right?). As is usually the case, most of the major awards players wait until the fall and winter months to make their pitch to general audiences, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of big releases aiming for box office success and maybe even Academy Award nominations if they’re really popular.

Which ones might break out in that regard this summer? Let’s take a look:

SPIRIT UNTAMED – In Theaters June 4

Spirit Untamed

Directed by Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torresan

Starring the voices of Eiza González, Mckenna Grace, and Jake Gyllenhaal 

What is it about? Lucky Prescott’s life is changed forever when she moves from her home in the city to a small frontier town and befriends a wild mustang named Spirit.

How am I feelin’ about this one? For those of you reading this who honestly may not have even been born when this was released in theaters, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was an enjoyable enough animated movie released nineteen years ago (nineteen!) about a Kiger Mustang stallion freed from captivity during the American Indian Wars who goes on a journey with a young man back to his Lakota village. It did a commendable job blending traditional hand-drawn with CG animation, had some of the most technically accomplished depictions of animal movement since arguably The Lion King, made the interesting choice of refusing to anthropomorphize the horses at all save for some voiceover narration, and ran at a brisk and efficient 83 minutes.

It was a decent box office success, earned respectable reviews, and was even nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature that it might have won had it not been for Spirited Away releasing in the same year and winning by what I have to assume was a landslide margin at the 75th Academy Awards. So from this, fifteen years later, DreamWorks decided to spin off an entire Netflix streaming series that I was not aware even existed until I started doing the research for this article. It’s been going on for eight seasons not including two separate spinoff series – Pony Tales and Riding Academy –that have themselves gone on for multiple seasons. And on top of that, there are several webisodes and music videos from the series uploaded to the DreamWorks TV YouTube channel! 

So it doesn’t surprise me that the film Spirit Untamed reportedly serves as a feature film adaptation of what is clearly a hit streaming series and not a direct sequel to the movie that was old enough to vote in last year’s presidential election. This will be a fully-rendered CG effort in line with the show instead of the hybrid production of the original movie. It will star series mainstays Lucky Prescott and Pru Granger in a story that appears to require some familiarity with the Netflix show to really get invested in. This kind of spinoff with no especially ambitious aesthetic style (the actual work of animation is being farmed out to a different studio entirely) catered to the very young fans of this show make me skeptical that this will be anything more than a movie with somewhat limited appeal that won’t be much of a threat for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. But if you are a fan or have children who are fans of this multimedia franchise and you’re pining to see these characters on the big screen, I imagine that won’t concern you too much.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It – In Theaters and HBO Max June 4

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Directed by Michael Chaves

Starring Vera Farmiga, with Patrick Wilson and Julian Hilliard

What is it about? Infamous paranormal grifters investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren get involved in the first crime in U.S. history when a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense.

How am I feelin’ about this one? One of the most persistent myths about film critics is that they’re biased against certain kinds of movies and resolve to hate them sight unseen due to some hidden agenda. While I can’t speak for all critics or entertainment writers or film “snobs,” I can assure you I personally never set out to dislike a movie I go out of my way to see. There are certain movies I’m more skeptical of than others, sure, and there are movies I have an uneasy feeling about as I sit down to watch them, but that’s never an outcome I desire. I was heartbroken and disappointed when my bad feeling about The Woman in the Windowwas vindicated last month. If I’m voluntarily watching a movie, I want it to be good.

But I would be lying if that attitude of mine wasn’t… severely tested at times. The Conjuring films are a chief example of this. Because I have to just come clean on this: I hate how much I enjoyed The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. I hate how genuinely scary they are, I hate their excellent craftsmanship, I hate their unexpectedly rich characterizations and dramatic arcs, I hate how good Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are in the roles of two people I loathe. And now there’s going to be a third movie promoting the shameless fraud committed by two detestable serial liars, Ed and Lorraine Warren. These con artists made a living sticking themselves into tragic crimes and spinning ridiculous supernatural explanations for them based on no credible evidence and Lorraine’s “just take my word for it” phony clairvoyance.

One real-life case they exploited was the Arne Cheyenne Johnson trial, the first U.S. criminal trial where the defendant sought to be declared Not Guilty by reason of demonic possession. He was found Guilty, obviously, and his defense was rejected on the grounds that such a claim is literally impossible to prove in a court of law. So of course in the upcoming The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, his claim was 100% true and he was possessed by a demon and the Warrens were not appalling publicity-hounds for promoting that cockamamie plea in 1981. And the trailer makes this one look just as thrilling and intense as its predecessors and I was seething the entire time I was watching it, knowing this was probably going to be another home-run installment of the series.

Having said that, it’s possible that this movie may not live up to its predecessors, due to the fact that James Wan is not returning to the director’s chair. He’s being replaced by Michael Chaves, whose last film, The Curse of La Llorona,ended up being… nearly unwatchable. Just shockingly incompetent. It’s also not easy to sustain a series of horror movies based on recurring characters, and at some point one can’t help but wonder if it’s going to run out of gas, especially since its spinoffs have been real let-downs so far.

But more likely, I predict we’re getting another effective and terrifying piece of brazen historical revisionism. God dammit…

Grace and Grit – In Theaters July 16

Grace and Grit

Directed by Sebastian Siegel

Starring Mena Suvari, with Stuart Townsend and Mariel Hemingway

What is it about? New Age Philosopher Ken Wilber and his wife Treya’s marriage is put to the ultimate test when Treya is diagnosed with breast cancer.

How am I feelin’ about this one?Before researching the upcoming releases for this article, I had never heard of Ken Wilber, a man who is apparently a major figure in philosophy and pioneer of something called “transpersonal psychotherapy.” I don’t want to make any sweeping declarations about someone I am not intimately knowledgeable about, but from what I can gather of his biography and written works, Wilber’s outlook seems to be something I just cannot fundamentally agree with. 

If The Spectrum of Consciousness and A Theory of Everything made you a happier, more spiritually fulfilled person, more power to you. But to me, the notion that you can synthesize all the acquired knowledge of economics, politics, science, and theology into a single integrated comprehensive philosophical framework explaining all of reality strikes me as absurd on its face. I have and probably always will reject the legitimacy of syncretism. It doesn’t help that a lot of his Holographic Paradigm and Eye of Spirit essays, at least to me, play a lot of weird taxonomy games, where he seems to spend a lot of effort re-defining already widely agreed-upon terms and then categorizing these new terms in ways that come off as profound but don’t actually help anyone or meaningfully expand our understanding of the subject he’s pontificating on.

Again, I am no Ken Wilber scholar, maybe I am completely wrong and I’d discover he’s actually a genius if I spent a full year digesting his work in-depth. Besides, this movie is not an exploration of his philosophy but a depiction of a very tragic and difficult five year-period of his life when his wife Treya was diagnosed with breast cancer less than a year into their marriage. She died in 1987 and he published a book about their experience called Grace and Grit, which is now being adapted for the screen by Sebastian Siegel in his feature screenwriting and directorial debut.

It stars two actors who I honestly haven’t thought of in… gosh, almost two decades? Mena Suvari – probably still best-known for playing the teenager Kevin Spacey tried to bang in American Beauty – is playing Wilber’s cancer-stricken wife having to face her own impending mortality, and Stuart Townsend – whose star in feature films seemed to have peaked with Queen of the Damned before settling into a steady career in television with a bunch of shows I’ve never seen – will be playing the prolific philosopher.

The trailer for the film looks… fine? It seems like a very sweet and sad story. I can only imagine how it must feel having to deal with a terminal illness just a few months after committing to lifetime matrimony, and that kind of hardship looks like it will be depicted with sympathy by Siegel. I can’t help but notice, though, that Suvari seems to be saddled with the most heavy emotional lifting and the core of the movie seems to hinge almost entirely on Treya while Ken sort of appears to just be hanging around the periphery sharing aphorisms while his wife slowly deteriorates. Whether that’s a case of deceptive marketing or a deliberate choice made for the film itself is something I’m curious to see.

In The Heights – In Theaters and HBO Max June 11

(Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Starring Anthony Ramos, with Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace

What is it about? The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop. The likeable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.

How am I feelin’ about this one?So here’s a mind-blowing thing to look forward to this year just as we’re all coming off of lockdown: ELEVEN movie musicals in the next six months. Eleven! And only three of them are animated features! This is astonishing coming off of several decades of them not even getting close to their heyday of the 1960’s, with Disney keeping the genre on life support since the 90’s. They were primed to make a comeback at the turn of the century with Moulin Rouge! becoming an unexpected hit and Chicago winning the Best Picture Oscar in 2003, but alas, aside from the occasional Rob Marshall mediocrity, the idea of musicals once again becoming a staple of mainstream movieplexes the way, say, superhero movies were (in the Before Time, at least…) didn’t quite materialize. That may very well change in this new decade, starting now.

Four of these upcoming musicals involve arguably Broadway’s most beloved superstar right now: Lin-Manuel Miranda. The most high-profile and anticipated of those four projects is the adaptation of his Tony Award-winning breakout hit In the Heights, directed by Jon M. Chu fresh off his Crazy Rich Asians cleaning up at the box office. You’re probably assuming that this is only happening due to the success of Miranda’s cultural phenomenon Hamilton, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but believe it or not, this was originally going to be produced by Universal Pictures a decade ago, with Kenny Ortega of High School Musical fame tapped to direct. However, the project was scrapped due to the studio’s insistence that the lead role of Nina had to go to a “bankable Latina star.” But then, five years later, Miranda found a lifeline from The Weinstein Comp-oh. Oh, no… yeah, so those revelations put the movie back into development hell until Warner Bros saw what a big deal Hamilton had become and thought to themselves “hey, what else has this guy done?”

As for how I’m feeling about this one? What can I say? I’m as excited as pretty much everyone else not irrationally terrified of Latinos and Hispanics, and I do think, barring some embarrassing fumble in the translation from the stage to the screen, it will be a crowd-pleasing hit in serious contention for some Oscar nominations. Our own Ryan McQuade loved the movie and singled out the performances of Anthony Ramos and Olga Merediz as especially deserving of recognition.

LUCA – On Disney+ June 18

Set in a beautiful seaside town on the Italian Riviera, Disney and Pixar’s “Luca” is a coming-of-age story about a boy and his newfound best friend experiencing an unforgettable summer filled with gelato, pasta and endless scooter rides. But their fun is threatened by a secret: they are sea monsters from another world. “Luca” is directed by Enrico Casarosa (“La Luna”) and produced by Andrea Warren (“Lava,” “Cars 3”). © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Directed by Enrico Casarosa

Starring the voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Maya Rudolph

What is it about? Two sea monsters disguised as humans explore the joys of land life on the Italian Riviera.

How am I feelin’ about this one?Here’s an Oscar stat that will be simultaneously completely unsurprising and still jaw-droppingly impressive: Best Animated Feature has existed as a competitive category at the Academy Awards for nineteen years, and Pixar Animation Studios has won eleven of them. For any awards season-obsessed person (which I assume is 100% of the readership of this site?), Pixar has to be considered the de-facto favorite going into any new movie year.

Their competitor in 2021 is Luca, the directorial debut of longtime Pixar storyboard artist Enrico Casarosa. It looks like a charming enough fantastical bildungsroman about two best friends who are also sea monsters with the ability to shape-shift into humans and decide to live on and explore the land. It’s hard to parse the plot of this one from the trailer, and it’s very possible that it may eschew a conventional one entirely in favor of the more freewheeling slice-of-life vignette style they applied to last year’s Soul. The director himself described the movie as “a love letter to the summers of our youth – those formative years when you’re finding yourself.”

Before you ask, yes, I did get the same Call Me By Your Name vibes from the depictions of the Italian Riviera and pretty much any movie about a hidden identity can be easily read as a metaphor for the LGBT experience, but according to Casarosa this is purely a coincidence and he said he intentionally set out to make a movie specifically about a close platonic male friendship. And I’m actually okay with that. More than okay, in fact. The push from social media to make every single non-heteronormative arc for a character or story to be an explicitly LGBT one is… problematic, to me. Elsa from the Frozen movies, for instance, could be boundary-breaking lesbian representation in a family franchise, but she can also just be a straight woman who isn’t in any hurry to marry a man. Two men can be close and loyal and emotionally intimate with each other without any romantic feelings. Not every character in these movies has to end up either with marriage to the opposite sex or a hashtag representation matters LGBT coming out resolution and no other outcome. Life is a rich tapestry of all types of intimate human connection, including platonic friendships, and if Luca succeeds at nothing else other than that, I am very much looking forward to seeing it.

F9 – In Theaters June 25

F9

Directed by Justin Lin

Starring Vin Diesel, with Michelle Rodriguez and John Cena 

What is it about? Cypher enlists the help of Dom’s younger brother to take revenge on Dom and his team.

How am I feelin’ about this one?Do you ever stop and wonder how insane it is that this series is still ongoing after twenty years? The Fast and the Furious was released in June of 2001, and was about as early aughts as one could imagine, centering on niche illegal street racing. It’s almost disorienting watching it now, like seeing old pictures of yourself in high school wearing some godawful fashion trainwreck that was considered “cool” back then. So after puttering around with some sequels sometimes starring Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and sometimes not, until Fast Five putting the franchise through a dramatic departure away from car culture and street racing and bro posturing in favor of, well, the kinds of things that most successful action franchises have: heists, gun battles, fistfights, convoluted cinematic universe lore, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

And it worked… oh boy did it work. After Fast Five, every subsequent installment has been substantially more financially successful, with Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious grossing over $1 billion worldwide. This series has survived two global recessions, the domination of the superhero genre, its initial subculture focus being hilariously out-of-date since at least 2006, and the tragic death of one of its headline stars. And now we’re getting a ninth movie (well, technically tenth because of that Hobbs & Shaw spinoff), with all its major cast members in their 40’s with the exception of Diesel himself, who is 53 years-old. Oh, and also Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren will be joining Academy Award-winner Charlize Theron.

Marveling at the unexpected longevity and success of this series has been way more interesting to me than the series itself, which I haven’t paid much attention to and can’t bring myself to get invested in no matter how many action icons they rope into it as members of Dominic Toretto’s increasingly extended and complicated family dynamics. Not one of these movies has attained a single Academy Award nomination. No, not even for Sound. And no, that bittersweet Paul Walker tribute ballad didn’t make it in Original Song. I know you’re hazily remembering that it did, but trust me, I looked it up and it didn’t. I highly doubt this one will break that trend… but hey, Han is returning! Which I guess is a big deal because he apparently “died” in one of the previous movies but as we all know death is meaningless in modern blockbusters?

ZOLA – In Theaters June 30

A24

Directed by Janicza Bravo

Starring Taylour Paige, with Riley Keough and Colman Domingo

What is it about? “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch fell out? It’s kinda long but full of suspense…”

How am I feelin’ about this one? Now here is a strange and potentially even watershed inspiration for a feature-length movie in the history of the cinematic medium; one adapted not from a book, or a TV show, or an older movie, or an existing IP, but from a Twitter thread. In fact, it’s often credited as the first thread of its kind on the social media platform, where a stripper details over the course of 148 tweets meeting a fellow dancer and going on a cross-country trip through various gentlemen’s clubs before getting inadvertently caught up in a violent pimp’s prostitution ring.

Now, the fractured and colloquialism-heavy delivery method of social media stories are much harder to adequately adapt to a feature film than one would think at first, which is why most movies that try to replicate Gen-Z communication methods have been mostly… not super-positive. The most critically successful movie “about” the social media age is still arguably The Social Network, and David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin didn’t even try to simulate the “feeling” of Facebook’s seismic shift of interpersonal interaction and media consumption so much as the feeling of a David Fincher movie written by Aaron Sorkin. 

Janicza Bravo, in her feature debut, appears to be embracing the riskiness of wrapping her narrative up in the social media aesthetics of the platform that made this story an unexpected phenomenon, at least if its trailer is any indication. As to whether or not the Academy will embrace it is anyone’s guess, since its unexpected run of interesting and unusual Best Picture winners (excepting Green Book of course) belies a still very old voting body that may not be comfortable with such an aggressively Gen Z film just yet. And this also depicts sex workers in a way that doesn’t appear to be exclusively grinding misery, and that’s also not a thing the Academy is comfortable honoring.

But it may not matter in the long run. For what it’s worth, according to our own Joey Magidson, the result is a home run regardless of “Oscar potential,” with him voicing effusive praise for its high energy, creative style, intelligent dissection of our constantly-online life, and the performances of Paige, Keough, and Domingo.

THE FOREVER PURGE – In Theaters July 2

The Forever Purge

Directed by Everardo Gout

Starring Cassidy Freeman, with Ana de la Reguera and Will Patton

What is it about? Following the presidential elections from the last year and abolition of the Purge, a Mexican couple escaping from a drug cartel is stranded on a Texas ranch. There, they will be at the mercy of a group of outsiders who plan to unlawfully continue their own Purge, and turn against the couple to eliminate them.

How am I feelin’ about this one? So…when are we going to be done with these? When is this going to run its course? Does anyone even care about this franchise (good god, this thing is a franchise) still? I have yet to meet anyone who has any real investment in The Purge movies these days. I can’t even find someone who liked the first movie, which I always thought had to be a requirement to sustain a fanbase for so long. 

So apparently the fascist political party calling themselves the New Founding Fathers of America just sort of accepted their election loss to Senator Roan at the end of The Purge: Election Year? What a quaint and adorably optimistic vision of the future in America… anyway, she went ahead with her campaign promise to end the Purge so now a bunch of violent gangs who look like they’re supposed to be an allegory for the Proud Boys or something decide to make up their own Purge that doesn’t end after one night and set their sights on an immigrant family.

At least I think that’s what this movie is about? I dunno, it’s hard to tell if there still is an annual Purge based on the information presented in the trailer. Maybe President Roan decided ineffectual gestures toward “bipartisanship” were more important than actually doing anything substantive? There are so many plot holes and leaps of logic and bland ham-fisted attempts at polemic messaging that I can’t bring myself to care where or how this fits into the nonsense mythology of a series of movies that just want so badly to be a commentary on The World We Live In™.

This is very unlikely to be an awards contender; I’m not even sure if it’s going to be exceptionally popular. Mainly I just wanted to make sure you all were aware that they’re still making these movies and they are, hilariously, promising that this will be the “final” installment, as if that word has any meaning whatsoever in the realm of long-running horror franchises.

BLACK WIDOW – In Theaters and Disney+ (with Premier Access) July 9

Disney

Directed by Cate Shortland

Starring Scarlett Johansson, with Florence Pugh and David Harbour 

What is it about? Set sometime after the events of Civil War but clearly before her death in Endgame, Natasha Romanoff has to confront her dark past and something about a conspiracy, probably.

How am I feelin’ about this one? So over a full decade after her introduction in Iron Man 2, four years after freakin’ Warner Bros beat Marvel to the punch with the first major solo female superhero movie of the “cinematic universe” era, two years after the MCU’s own first solo girlboss endeavor ended up introducing a completely new character (and the enemy of weird hard-right online fanboys), and about a year-and-a-half after she died in Avengers: Endgame (for real died, not lol j/k death-isn’t-real dead), finally, we are getting a Black Widow movie centered on the eponymous superspy assassin played by Scarlett Johansson.

I have made it no secret in recent months that I’ve been burning out on these Marvel movies and always thought of Endgame as a perfect excuse for me to take a nice clean break away from this all-consuming, omnipresent multimedia franchise. I didn’t watch a single episode of WandaVision or The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, and I see no reason to see a movie about a character whose fate I already know going in. What possible reason could this film offer to entice me to see-oh, what’s that? Rachel Weisz is in this movie? And Florence Pugh? Well, I mean, in that case…

Okay, so snark aside, there are a few reasons even Marvel burnouts like myself might want to give this one a shot. At least if its trailer is an accurate indicator of what we can reasonably expect this time around. There are some things, like its flat digital in-house cinematography and CGI rubbery bodies flying through the air and moving in ways real bodies don’t, that are part-and-parcel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But unlike any other installment of this massive franchise, this movie centers on not one, not two, but three female protagonists, with the only major male character being David Harbour as the comic relief. Even better is how the movie seems to have stakes no higher than whatever is going on between these three disillusioned superspy women on a more intimate level, and in fact, due to where in the greater MCU timeline this is set, almost has to have smaller-than-the-whole-entire-world stakes this time around. This leaves open a really hopeful possibility that we’ll get something refreshingly more personal and emotion-driven than a bunch of costumed heroes fighting yet another laser beam in the sky.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, and the Disney conglomerate that will eventually own the entire world has also stamped out budding filmmaker Cate Shortland’s penchant for quietly effective female-led character dramas and Black Widow will just be another empty, noisy, veiled teaser for some other Disney+ streaming series. But I am willing to extend this one the benefit of a doubt.

OLD – In Theaters July 23

Old

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Starring Gael García Bernal, with Vicky Krieps and Thomasin McKenzie

What is it about? A family on a tropical holiday discover that the secluded beach where they are relaxing for a few hours is somehow causing them to age rapidly.

How am I feelin’ about this one? You know what I’ve been enjoying lately, almost in spite of itself? This new M. Night Shyamalan comeback. Seriously, it’s inspiring! Here was a man who made history as one of the youngest Best Director nominees ever and the first nominee of Indian descent, who was hailed by Newsweek in 2004 as “the next Spielberg,” whose star crashed and burned in a heaping pile of increasing pretentiousness and a desperate attempt to strike the same tWiSt EnDiNg magic that made The Sixth Sense such a cultural phenomenon, turning his denouement surprises into a tiresome gimmick with increasingly diminishing returns. And then, after suffering the most humiliating critical and financial failure of his career – the transparent Will and Jayden Smith vanity project After Earth – he does something really interesting: he went back to basics and rebuilt his career from the ashes.

And he didn’t try to copy his first rise to prominence, either (because really, how could he?). His comeback vehicle was… a cheap found footage horror movie. Then he decided to make another grubby shocker that was also a stealth sequel to Unbreakable on an unfathomably low budget for a major theatrical release and then follow that up with full on sequel called Glass that was… well, terrible, but also a box office hit, taking in almost $250 million worldwide despite being a continuation of a nearly two decade-old movie.

There’s something oddly admirable about this, to me. He’s not like so many has-been artists who keep clinging to the thing that made them successful in the first place and refuse to evolve and keep blaming everyone but themselves for no longer being relevant. It’s almost as if hitting that rock bottom in 2013 forced him to take stock of his career and he came to the very sensible conclusion that hey, maybe he was never the next Spielberg and trying to be him has been the problem all along. Maybe he should lean into the luridness of the old sci-fi horror stories he grew up on. Maybe he should stop doing massively-budgeted epic movies since that isn’t something all successful filmmaker have to transition to when they become popular. And lo and behold, M. Night Shyamalan is back, and weirder than ever.

So here we are, with a horror thriller that feels right in his 2.0 wheelhouse, reflected in its enigmatic and creepy trailer. A vacationing couple bring their kids along to a secluded beach and everything seems nice and relaxing… until their toddler children suddenly become teenagers in a matter of minutes. And Gael García Bernal (!) and Vicky Krieps (!!!) are starting to look more like grandparents than parents. There’s flashes of mysterious clues and flat-out body horror and it all just looks so good and enticing and nasty in a B-movie fun kind of way.

JUNGLE CRUISE – In Theaters July 23

Dwayne Johnson as Frank and Emily Blunt as Lily in JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo by Frank Masi. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring Emily Blunt, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jack Whitehall

What is it about? A salty riverboat captain reluctantly agrees to escort a scientist and her brother on a mission deep into the jungle to find the Tree of Life against a competing German expedition.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I don’t know if I have ever mentioned this before, but I am a big proponent of rip-offs and want them to make a comeback in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. I’m completely serious – I am sick and tired of these “reboots” and “remakes” leaning heavily on Baby Boomer cultural darlings that were themselves just slightly altered versions of older pulp stories from the Greatest Generation’s childhoods. The earliest issues of Batman comics were flat-out plagiarized from The Shadow stories. George Lucas settled for making what would become Star Wars after he failed to secure the rights to remake Flash Gordon. Indiana Joneswas Steven Spielberg’s love letter to the old pulp adventure stories he grew up on and he cribbed liberally from Doc Savage serials in making Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and The Last Crusade. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon declared about his magnum opus “I didn’t steal Alien from ‘anybody.’ I stole it from everybody!”

So even though Disney’s upcoming adventure film Jungle Cruise is technically an adaptation of one of their theme park rides (no doubt an attempt to strike a franchise ticket out of one of them after the Pirates of the Caribbean gravy train has seemingly run out of steam), it is, above all other things, a shameless rip-off of an Oscar-winning classic about a brother-sister duo who team up with a crusty old boat captain in order to go on a journey through a treacherous river, with the main conflict being the prim and proper woman butting heads with the coarse skipper throughout their perilous adventure. I am of course describing The African Queen, a delightful adventure yarn that netted screen legend Humphrey Bogart the only competitive Academy Award of his career.

And this movie looks like it’s going to trace exactly the same basic plot outline, minus the supernatural elements. This time, Emily Blunt fills in the Katherine Hepburn role of barely tolerating Dwayne Johnson’s abrasive roughneck personality as they trek through the jungle on a rickety passenger vessel. Apparently Jesse Plemons is playing a competing expedition and he has repeatedly stated this character is the hammiest ham he’s ever hammed. So that should be fun to watch. Despite filling in a niche of a classical all-ages-appropriate adventure matinée that I have been desperate to see a return of, there are two elements that are concerning. The first is the rather dodgy CGI, which looks really bad for a movie of this scale. Yes, visual effects are a notoriously labor and time-intensive process and they often aren’t finished until well into post-production… but principal photography wrapped on this one two-and-a-half years ago.

Also, I should mention Jack Whitehall playing Emily Blunt’s brother who was originally supposed to be Disney’s “first” out gay character. Originally. Rumor has it that there were extensive reshoots entirely for his character when test screenings complained that his portrayal of a gay man was too campy and stereotypical. Even by the standards of Disney’s infuriating habit of half-assed queerbaiting, that’s not a good look. Hopefully that last-minute character turnaround doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb in the final cut.

STILLWATER – In Theaters July 30

Stillwater

Directed by Tom McCarthy

Starring Matt Damon, with Abigail Breslin and Camille Cottin

What is it about? A beleaguered lawyer works to exonerate his estranged daughter accused of murder.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Forgive me for expressing what I am sure is an unforgivable level of naïveté about an industry I’ve been writing about for almost a full decade, but I just can’t help it in this case: Tom McCarthy… what’s going on with him? I always just sort of assumed that anyone who directed the Academy Award winner for Best Picture, even ones that don’t also win Best Director (just look at Barry Jenkins), could write their own ticket in Tinseltown for at least a few years. Or until they really crashed and burned spectacularly. Right? Even if you directed a Best Picture nominee that didn’t end up winning, that should give you a level of clout to do whatever you wanted in the immediate aftermath? Darren Aronofsky had been wanting to direct a dark and violent big budget epic about the Noah’s Ark story for many years and couldn’t get it off the ground until Black Swan was nominated for a bunch of Oscars and won Best Lead Actress for Natalie Portman.

So after Spotlight became the little-movie-that-could, I just felt it went without saying that McCarthy could now make whatever he wanted a reality between 2016 and now. Something he really cares about but has been nursing for a long time while paying his dues with quietly effective small-scale character dramas and one vomitous Adam Sandler vehicle. But no, after that huge boost to his visibility and clout, he went on to write the screenplay for Christopher Robin and contribute to one of the dozens of rewrites on that Nutcracker movie. Then he directed the grating, mean-spirited family film [sic] Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. And I… just… 

Did McCarthy want to spend his Oscar capital on these movies? Was he just burned out on the exhausting awards season tidal wave of 2015-2016 and opted to keep his head down with some mercenary work for a while? Whatever the case, it looks like he’s directing the first serious drama of his career after Spotlight, and I don’t know what to make of it. The general setup seems to be that of a legal thriller, but the trailer is bizarrely cut and presented in a way that makes it feel more in the vein of Taken. The premise appears at first glance like a roman à clef of the infamous Amanda Knox case, but it doesn’t take place in Italy and neither Knox’s father nor stepfather were major figures in her harrowing story.

Also, there’s this scene about 130 seconds into the trailer:

You sound very American right now!”

“GOOD! I AM!”

And just… ugh. Are we really releasing a movie about the tough strong manly ‘Murican Mayun up against the scary-but-obviously-inferior ferners in the year of our lord 2021? Right after we embarrassed ourselves in front of the whole world by bungling a major health crisis and a murder of one of our own citizens by a police officer that motivated the entire world to march for justice and a change to our blatantly racist system of law enforcement? But sure, Dadbod Matt Damon, please tell us all about the flaws of France’s 1994 Code Pénal.

I don’t know, folks. I want to believe. But my spider sense is picking up not-good vibes from this. Fingers crossed I’m wrong…

THE GREEN KNIGHT – In Theaters July 30

A24

Directed by David Lowery

Starring Dev Patel, with Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton

What is it about? Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s headstrong nephew, embarks on a quest to confront a gigantic green-skinned stranger.

How am I feelin’ about this one? And to swerve in the complete opposite of how my spider-sense is operating this season, here we arrive at the movie I am arguably most excited for this summer. David Lowery is a filmmaker I’ve been keeping a close eye on, as he’s someone who consistently makes “almost great” movies. He is an ambitious, idiosyncratic, visually striking filmmaker, always going for little surprises in where he takes his material. Every single one of them, from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to Pete’s Dragon to A Ghost Story to The Old Man & the Gun, are really good but never quite the masterpiece I truly feel he has in him. 

We might finally be getting that capital-G Great movie from him now, with The Green Knight. Right off the bat, kudos to him for adapting an ancient Arthurian legend for his fantasy epic instead of a brand-name IP created after World War II. There are so many exciting epic tales in human history going back centuries, Hollywood! Use them! What’s especially enticing about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is that it hits that sweet spot of being short enough to not need massive exposition or a long runtime, while also leaving enough breathing room in its basic story outline to… expand a little. Which, if the gorgeous and evocative trailer is anything to go by, is exactly what Lowery did here.

In fact, this might be the perfect canvas for him, since his most persistent struggles have been with communicating character and subtext. Those attempts from him have always, in the past, ended up muddled or misjudged. That may not be a problem with a classic tale of Arthurian Knights, medieval chivalry, and good old classic romance. These present basic Manichean situations, dialogue, characters, and narratives to draw their emotional resonance from, and please understand that I do not bring this up to denigrate Lowery’s cinematic talents, but to highlight how particularly well-suited he is for this particular story and setting that only appear to be easy to pull off until you realize how few filmmakers actually have.

I mean… just go ahead and watch that trailer and randomly pause it. What are the odds you landed on a gorgeous shot that could be framed and hung in your bedroom? Pretty good odds, and how many upcoming films this year can you say can pull that off in their trailers? Not only does it have breathtaking lighting and production values, but The Green Knight boasts a unique visual sensibility. We’ve seen plenty of sword-and-sorcery movies set in medieval times, but none that quite look like this. Nor have we seen a knight of King Arthur’s round table who looks like this.

Oh yeah, that’s another really cool element of this movie; the role of the virtuous knight Sir Gawain will be played by Gujarati Indian actor Dev Patel, whose transformation from “that dorky teenager from Slumdog Millionaire” to “bonafide thirst trap sex symbol” has been pretty striking, and now has the opportunity to prove himself as a leading man in a large-scale epic.

It is possible that expectations may be set too high. It’s possible that this will be yet another “almost-great” movie from Lowery. But I sense we’re in for a treat.

Associate Writer at

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a U.S. Navy veteran and current Washington, D.C. bean-counter who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a U.S. Navy veteran and current Washington, D.C. bean-counter who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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