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On the Radar… (Spring Edition)

Springtime is here! And so is war in Ukraine. And more pandemic awesomeness but with fewer resources and preparedness to deal with the predicted surge because I guess governments have all decided that they can just… declare diseases to be over? Okay, sure. And did you say seven hours are missing? Cool, cool.

So now that the worst Academy Awards ceremony of my lifetime has concluded, and until the whole ordeal that sullied the public perception of one of the most universally-beloved movie stars of the 21st century is sorted out (no, they are not going to “revoke” his Academy Award) we’ll just have to tide ourselves over with the upcoming releases of the spring! Starting with…

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE – In Theaters April 15

Warner Bros.

Directed by David Yates

Starring Jude Law, with Mads Mikkelsen and Eddie Redmayne

What is it about? Billionaire author continues to cynically milk her one successful franchise over a decade past its sell-by date by cramming together boring characters doing a bunch of stuff long before the story we actually cared about happens.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Was my plot synopsis “biased?” Am I communicating my disinterest in this movie too flagrantly? Well, fine, I guess I am. But can you really blame me? Who the hell is actually looking forward to this, the sequel to one of the most broken – fundamentally, objectively, dramaturgically nonfunctional – movies released by a major studio in the 21st century? Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is so lacking in anything even remotely approaching narrative momentum or meaningful stakes that it makes The Rise of Skywalker look like an exemplar of economical plotting. There were barely any humans in Grindelwald who could be reasonably described as “characters” so much as nondescript exposition delivery vehicles sprinting from one under-lit setpiece to the next, vaguely hurtling to a baffling climax involving a bunch of people standing around a drab room round-robin-style shouting pieces of another character’s convoluted backstory at each other before everything abruptly… I don’t want to say “ends.” Let’s just say stops.

It’s the kind of movie that fails so irrefutably in the 101 basics of storytelling that it should have ended the careers of director David Yates and producer David Heyman as the shepherds of this multi-billion-dollar franchise on the spot, and screenwriter J.K. Rowling should have faced a backlash from fans that would have made Late Aughts George Lucas say “Whoa, buddy… I’m grateful that I’m not in your shoes.” But apparently, this inexcusably defective product from a moneyed studio somehow managed to suck up $654 million worldwide at the box office in 2018. Which, yes, made it the lowest-grossing installment of this godforsaken “Wizarding World” franchise, but is still quite a lot of money. That was more than what Ant-Man and the Wasp, Ready Player One, and Ralph Breaks the Internet managed.

So we’re getting another one… though not without one major hiccup. The COVID-19 pandemic of course delayed principal photography, but no, I’m talking about the matter of Johnny Depp, who was fired (yes, proactively fired; it was not a “mutual decision”) because of that whole losing a libel case against a British tabloid that didn’t pull its punches in depicting his then-relationship with Amber Heard as extremely abusive and toxic. But hey, at least the “pay-or-play” clause in his contract meant he walked away with $16 million regardless. Mads Mikkelsen, coming off of his deserved Academy Award nomination for Another Round, will be the third actor to step into the shoes of incoherent and uninteresting villain Gellert Grindelwald, who we’re told is evil because he believes in a new world order where wizards are deemed inherently superior to Muggles (and… stopping the Holocaust? I think?), even though that hateful philosophy is entirely in keeping with the mindset expressed by this franchise’s creator.

So my question to “Wizarding World” fans just weeks away from the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is… what’s it going to take? How bad does an installment in a long-running film series have to be before you bail out? It’s not like they’ve learned the right lessons from how derelict the last one was; all of the same creative heads are still in charge, and the trailer isn’t promising anything different other than a higher volume of shameless fan-service (More Hogwarts! Jacob becomes a wizard!).

How many more of these hack jobs are you going to tolerate before you finally decide enough is enough?

THE DUKE – In Theaters April 22

Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by Roger Michell

Starring Jim Broadbent, with Helen Mirren and Fionn Whitehead

What is it about? In 1961, Kempton Bunton, a 60 year old taxi driver, steals Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.

How am I feelin’ about this one? There’s a kind of film out there that I like to call “grandparent movies.” Movies that you know for a fact your grandparents – who still need help understanding how Facebook works and admire Barack Obama for being “surprisingly articulate” – will love. They’re nice, completely inoffensive, sweet little movies that you know grandma and grandpa will walk out of the theater saying “Well, that was lovely” before never talking about it again.

The Duke, a based-on-a-true-story heist dramedy, looks like an ideal grandparent movie. It stars the always charming Academy Award-winning British actor Jim Broadbent being a bumbling but lovable doting British chum just doing his best, paired up with Academy Award-winning Helen Mirren as his exasperated but supportive wife dealing with the fact that he’s just stolen the priceless painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington and holding it for ransom in exchange for exempting all pensioners in the U.K. from having to pay for a TV license.

This is apparently a thing that happened, though the noble aims of the real Kempton Bunton are in some dispute. No matter, though; it’s obvious from the trailer that this movie’s target audience isn’t looking for a strictly-accurate true-crime saga, but a pleasant lark about an endearing old codger pulling off a Robin Hood-style theft for the greater good:

And that target audience is grandma and grandpa, and though I doubt I’ll actively seek out this movie myself, I now know exactly what to recommend to them when I talk to them later this month.

I guess I should also address the elephant in the room: this is the final film from director Roger Mitchell, as it was the last project he completed before his death last September. I’m not the right person to eulogize the late filmmaker, as I personally was not a fan of most of his work (and in fact would readily declare Hyde Park on Hudson the worst movie ever made about a U.S. President), but he was liked and respected by everyone who worked with him, and I offer my sincere condolences to his surviving friends and family. Hopefully, this will be remembered as a fine swan song for him.

THE NORTHMAN – In Theaters April 22

Focus Features

Directed by Robert Eggers

Starring Alexander Skarsgård, with Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicole Kidman

What is it about? “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”

How am I feelin’ about this one? Now… behold!

So I’m not the biggest fan of filmmaker Robert Eggers. I found The VVitch far too try-hard in its musty horror tricks and The Lighthouse a fun but pretty insubstantial psychodrama at heart. I root for the guy; he’s an ace at building up atmospheric aural and visual spaces, but so far, his thematic content and the ways he articulates them have been pretty rote to me. But still, he’s got real talent behind the camera, and maybe one day he’ll…

Oh. Damn. That looked… really cool. So yeah, most of us have already seen The Northman’s intense trailer and were understandably impressed by its visual splendor and exciting setpieces. Including me! Also, look at the absolutely stacked cast Eggers has attracted to this project: Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, legendary Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson, The Square’s Claes Bang, and… and was that Björk I saw briefly?! Either they all saw something in this script that motivated them to drop everything and dive headfirst into this project, or Eggers has already developed a stellar reputation among actors after just two modestly-budgeted features.

But could it actually be the script? The premise looks like just a riff on Macbeth – man swears vengeance against the uncle who killed his father and married his mother. Which is not a bad thing, in of itself. A movie can do a hell of a lot worse than using Shakespeare as a blueprint for its story. But that does lead to the question of what unique “hook” Eggers is hoping to hang his most ambitious project on. Though according to test screenings, the movie’s plot may be more complicated than the trailer suggests, with one audience feedback card reading “You need to have a master’s degree in Viking history to understand, like, anything in this movie.” I also feel like the accents, especially from Taylor-Joy, are… a bit wobbly.

Has Eggers delivered something that will make me a full-on devotee of his? Or will I once again find myself baffled as to what the big deal is with his latest? And will this movie’s arresting visuals make it a player for awards later on in the year? Only one way to find out. Joey sees it in a few days, so stay tuned.

THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT – In Theaters April 22

Lionsgate

Directed by Tom Gormican

Starring Nicolas Cage, with Pedro Pascal and Sharon Horgan

What is it about? Academy Award-winning actor Nicolas Cage begrudgingly accepts a $1 million offer to attend the birthday of a billionaire super fan.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Ah, Nicolas Cage. The internet has not been kind to you. For some reason, a lot of younger cinephiles seem to be under the belief that you’re a bad actor simply because you’ve had to say “yes” to a bunch of disreputable projects to pay off the massive debt and back taxes you’re accrued through your dinosaur bone collecting

But as you demonstrated with Pig just last year, you are, in fact, a fantastic actor. Anyone who remembers your Academy Award-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas (one of the most deserving of that decade), your Academy Award-nominated performance in Adaptation, and your work in Raising Arizona, Face/Off, Matchstick Men, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and Mandy shouldn’t need too much convincing to agree with me on this, but I would also assert that the dedication you display in straight-to-the-bargain-bin trash like Left Behind and Bangkok Dangerous are also a commendable reflection on your professionalism. But don’t take my word for it:

I guess it only makes sense for Cage, shortly after enjoying some of the best reviews and accolades of his acting career in nearly two decades, is going to have a bit of fun with a meta-commentary on his unique screen persona. In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Nicolas Cage plays… Nicolas Cage, in a very silly-looking farce comedy where it looks like he’s forced to appear at a wealthy mogul’s birthday party, and then finds out he’s a superfan, and then he’s conscripted into undercover work… maybe? It doesn’t look like the story matters all that much, so much as an excuse for this once-maligned actor enjoying a resurgence in appreciation to indulge in his most memorable characters. When Joey sees this one next week, we may get a hint as to just how much fun audiences will have as well.

I would not be one to predict any Academy attention for him or this movie, though. It’s hard enough getting them to recognize comedies at all, let alone ones with no other ambition higher than “hey, Nic Cage is actually awesome!” Maybe a Golden Globe nomination, if that wretched organization still exists next year…

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS – In Theaters May 6

Disney

Directed by Sam Raimi

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, with Elizabeth Olsen and Benedict Wong

What is it about? Following the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home and the first season of Loki, Dr. Stephen Strange, with the help of both old and new mystical allies, travels into the multiverse to face a mysterious new adversary.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Has any trailer for an MCU movie ever advertised its director as prominently as this one did? If there was, I do not recall it. “From Sam Raimi?” I have to admit, that’s pretty neat. His return to helming a comic book movie should be trumpeted like that. This man was the genre nerd filmmaker icon of his generation. His announcement as the director of the first big-budget live-action Spider-Man movie at the start of the new millennium was seen as a major coup for comic book fans everywhere: “finally, one of these movies will be directed by one of us!”

After being the scapegoat for the studio-micromanaged-to-death Spider-Man 3, he then went back to the camp horror pictures that first put him on the map; directing the hilarious Drag Me To Hell in 2009 and producing The Possession, Murder of a Cat, Don’t Breathe, Nightbooks, Umma (which is in theaters now) and the Evil Dead and Poltergeist remakes. For him to return to the superhero arena, in what looks to be the most horror-tinged feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since… I guess Thor: The Dark World, is a gift to producer Kevin Feige.

I mean, sure, he probably wasn’t allowed to stray too far from the in-house Marvel aesthetic, and the expected reshoots and studio interference were still part of the mix, but it looks like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness continues Marvel’s willingness to allow their bulletproof brand name to be a safety net nowadays, allowing at least a few more idiosyncrasies in their Phase Four. Granted, the results haven’t been an unqualified success, but as I’ve said before, there is no way this franchise won’t eventually bore us all to death if they don’t take a least some risks from time to time that don’t always work out.

That’s not to say I’m as interested in this one as I was for Eternals. For one thing, Benedict Cumberbatch always struck me as a rather anemic performer in this role, and coming off a career-best Oscar-nominated turn in The Power of the Dog, the contrast will likely be even more jarring. But more concerning is how… overstuffed this looks, plot and character-wise. The MCU continuity is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with, and I have this sinking feeling that the main purpose of this film will just be to “set up” future movies, especially since we’re leaning in even more on the “multiverse” concept that feels like it’s just going to degrade the stakes of a series that never did very well in this department, as well as up the blatant fan service even more. Hopefully I’m wrong.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK – In Theaters May 27 and on Paramount+ July 11

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Starring Tom Cruise, with Miles Teller and Jennifer Connelly

What is it about? After more than thirty years of service as one of the Navy’s top aviators, “Maverick” is where he belongs, pushing the envelope as a courageous test pilot and dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him.

How am I feelin’ about this one? First of all, let’s just get this out of the way: Pete “Maverick” Mitchell continuing to fly U.S. Navy fighter jets over three decades after the events of the first movie as a full-bird Captain is pretty much an impossible scenario in the real world. The plot synopsis explains this away as his character “dodging” opportunities to advance (which literally requires no active effort beyond submitting a “Don’t Pick Me” letter to the selection board), but he almost certainly would have been grounded by the time he made it to Commander. Even if he successfully applied for a High-Year Tenure waiver (because in the military, with very few exceptions, your career track is “Up Or Out”), he would not have been presented with a single billet for an officer of his seniority and rank that would allow him to fly jets, especially if he had developed a widespread reputation for unpredictability and recklessness.

But… like, whatever. It’s not as if the first Top Gun was celebrated for its accurate depiction of naval aviator career progression. It existed purely to communicate a single idea, which is objectively, factually correct: fighter jets are fuckin’ awesome. And boy oh boy, does it look like director Joseph “Please stop reminding me how awful de-aged Jeff Bridges looked in my directorial debut” Kosinski understood the assignment if the trailer is anything to go by. Look at them jets go! Listen to that sound! WWWWWHHHHHHHHOOOOOOOSSSSSSHHHHH! So kewl! Get ready for another uptick in applications from teenage boys, United States Naval Academy!

No, I don’t honestly expect this to be an Oscar contender for anything like Best Picture, but its guaranteed-to-be-loud-and-immersive-and-awesome sound almost certainly will be. The first one’s sound work was nominated as well but didn’t win (losing to Platoon and Aliens back when the category was split into two). What did win, though, was Best Original Song for its corny power ballad “Take My Breath Away” from Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock. Is there a song contender for this sequel? Apparently, yes – the rumor is that Lady Gaga, before she was even tapped for her Oscar-nominated performance in House of Gucci, wrote and recorded a title track for this movie, so we can safely assume it will at least be submitted for consideration.

Another open question mark is… well, will this one boast the same homoerotic undertones as the first film? For those of you who don’t remember, there were a lot of scenes in Top Gun with serious… “tension” between “rivals” Maverick and Ice Man:

But of course, that was back in the 80’s, when opportunities for women in military aviation were technically available (Aviation Officer Candidate School first allowed women to attend in 1976 and the first female aviator to be carrier-qualified was Lynn Spruill in 1979) but still pretty nascent and depictions of homosexuality in movies had to be very closeted. But now we’re in a different era, where three women naval aviators are serving as Rear Admirals right now, everyone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum can serve openly, and a movie where the homosexual subtext rises to the level of just… text, can be nominated for twelve Academy Awards. The gay subtext of the first Top Gun was one of the most unexpectedly interesting things about a, let’s be honest, pretty dumb popcorn movie, so I’m hoping screenwriters Ehren KrugerEric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie (oof, three writers on this project?) try to resolve that with a different kind of sly subtext.

MEN – In Theaters May 20

A24

Directed by Alex Garland

Starring Jessie Buckley, with Rory Kinnear and Paapa Essiedu

What is it about? A young woman goes on a solo vacation in the English countryside after the death of her ex-husband.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Remember when I expressed a mix of excitement and anxiety over the likely next generation of horror movies moving away from the “elevated horror” that dominated the previous decade and leaning more into camp and salaciousness? Well, I should stress that just because this new era of horror is on the horizon doesn’t mean horror movies with Deep Themes and Metaphors are going extinct any time soon. Case in point is Alex Garland’s upcoming feature Men, featuring Academy Award nominee Jessie Buckley (damn, that feels good to type!) as a woman in some… dreamworld? Post-apocalyptic future? Not entirely clear from the trailer. All we can really glean from it is that she’s isolated in some idyllic country house after her husband took his own life and all the men around her are acting really weird and threatening.

I should stress that I don’t think these kinds of serious, high-minded horror movies that exploded in the wake of Black Swan are, in of themselves, bad or not worth watching. In fact, there are several that I still love to this day – The BabadookIt FollowsUnder the SkinUnder the Shadow, and especially Get Out are unqualified bangers. But then I have to slog through The VVitch, or It Comes At Night, or Midsommar, and I just wish the genre would lighten the hell up.

I don’t know where Men will fall on that scale; I liked Ex Machina and Annihilation but didn’t find either of them earth-shattering, and while I know full well that the filmmakers don’t have any control over marketing, the tiresome boilerplate A24 materials don’t do this one any favors. Though at a minimum, I can feel relatively confident in knowing we’ll be seeing some lush, colorful, memorable imagery and modestly-budgeted visual effects flexed for all their worth and looking better than films with ten times the budget.

As for Oscar potential… come on, you know the drill. After Natalie Portman’s victory over a decade ago, who else from these movies has made it? Scarlett Johansson in Under the SkinEssie Davis in The BabadookToni Collette in Hereditary, and Lupita Nyong’o in Us all received praise for their acting, including awards, and none of them were even nominated for Best Lead Actress. Frankly, it’s a miracle that she was recognized for The Lost Daughter and there’s a very real chance that will be the only nomination of her entire career. Sorry to throw a wet blanket on that hope, but we need to be brutally realistic.

What do you think? Am I too pessimistic about Buckley’s Oscar chances this year? Is there anything better-suited to adolescent fantasies than fighter jets? Will we finally be free of Jared Leto’s attempts to make us accept him as a movie star? Let me know in the comments.

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a veteran 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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