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On the Radar… (Summer Edition)

And now we reach the heart of what Dan and Jordan would call the “dreamy creamy summer!” The summer blockbusters are trickling back into theaters because we’re all still clinging to the comforting myth that COVID-19 will go away if we just wish it away hard enough, Tom Cruise is dominating the box office to a degree that is literally unprecedented in his nearly four decade-long career, and my social media algorithms are still shoving gross and weird Depp v Heard trial clips at me despite repeatedly telling them I don’t want to see that crap. Awesome. Look forward to even more TikTok summaries of what will likely be a years-long appeals process! Thanks, Zuckerberg!

Am I going to stay this cranky throughout this season’s preview? Luckily no, but we’ll get to the exciting prospects soon. Until then… 

JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION – In Theaters June 10

Universal Pictures

Directed by Colin Trevorrow

Starring Chris Pratt, with Bryce Dallas Howard and the original cast of the first Jurassic Park because of course they are

What is it about? I dunno, man, it looks like dinosaurs are now all over the world? I guess that’s kinda neat? Whatever.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I talked about this in a comment when the trailer first premiered, but I think it bears repeating because it’s illustrative of our cultural stasis right now:

Imagine you’re a child in 1964. The most popular movies at that time are Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady – glossy, big-budget, extravagantly-produced, feel-good musicals. Then, twenty-nine years later, as an adult with children of your own, you take them to see Jurassic Park. It’s awesome. So different from what you grew up with. Your kids love it. They have a cultural phenomenon that is theirs. Now, imagine those children growing up into adults twenty-nine years later, with their own kids, and what do they have to look forward to, twenty-nine years later? Another Jurassic Park, this time called Jurassic World Dominion, with 69 year-old Jeff Goldblum and 74 year-old Sam Neill, cynically pushing nostalgia buttons and padlocking American pop culture into the same spot it was a full generation ago, but with a cloying sense of po-faced majesty as if “Cool, Dinosaurs!” needs to be revered like the Sistine Chapel or something.

Does no one else find this unbelievably depressing? Do young people these days actually, truly care about the “Wizarding World?” Or Indiana Jones? Or Star Wars? I understand these were important to a lot of adults during their formative years (including mine), and we should preserve the original works for posterity’s sake, but what is the point of making endless sequels and prequels and canonical table-setters to these long-ago-resolved stories? Why are we pretending Zoomers are eagerly anticipating the continuing adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi doing stuff in between the actual main story that was already wrapped up a long time ago? I know this is purely anecdotal, but it sure seems like the debates raging on Film Twitter right now regarding that show are almost exclusively between middle-aged fans picking apart the canonical minutiae of a story they should have moved on from.

So no, I’m not thrilled by the upcoming release of Jurassic World Dominion. I don’t want to see my nostalgia exploited by another studio freezing our pop culture in carbonite to keep my generation in a state of permanent adolescence. Joey has been warmer on this series than I’ve been and even he found this latest installment to be way Too Much. Of everything. Personally, I just hope this really is the last time we keep going back to this well and sucking it dry. Dinosaurs are inherently awesome and don’t need to be sold on this one brand name well past its sell-by date.

LIGHTYEAR – In Theaters June 17

Pixar

Directed by Angus MacLane

Starring the voices of Chris Evans, with Keke Palmer and Dale Soules

What is it about? The fictional origin story of Buzz Lightyear, the character who inspired the action figure in the Toy Story films.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Speaking of cynically pushing nostalgia buttons… okay, maybe this isn’t quite as cynical as Jurassic World Dominion since enough time has passed between the release of Toy Story 3 which definitely totally was the final movie in the series because why would Pixar be stupid enough to artificially extend it past that to reintroduce one of Pixar’s most iconic characters in a new milieu.

The trailer for this movie is… oddly serious in a way that feels very bizarre to me, since the whole running joke about Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story trilogy was that he was a parody of the kind of cheap, cynical cash-grab barely-veiled toy commercials that dominated Saturday morning cartoons in the 1980’s. You all understand that, right? Like… the whole point of Buzz Lightyear – and why Woody resented him so much at first – is that unlike him, he was not a special childhood object at all. The entire existential crisis the toy Buzz goes through is, by several orders of magnitude, more interesting than any of the stupid meaningless nonsense in his fictional character biography. They even went one step further in Toy Story 2, showing us that the 1950’s Woody’s Roundup show had lasting cultural value and influence and was eventually taken over by the more disposable entertainment that Buzz Lightyear represented.

So here we are, I guess, now doing a complete 180° with an origin story/franchise reboot Lightyear trying to get us to feel all emotional and choked up with the help of David Bowie’s “Starman.” I mean… it does possess a level of visual craftsmanship from Pixar that I haven’t seen in a long time, especially the lighting. And Chris Evans is a pretty decent approximation of the kind of voice actor who would have totally been hired for that character in the world of the Toy Story movies. Maybe Pixar is deciding to reintroduce a completely new version of the character for this generation of young people to embrace in a way very different from how I did when I was a child… and that’s okay. I think. Hopefully, the movie lives up to that hope I’m nursing.

ELVIS – In Theaters June 24

Warner Bros.

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Starring Austin Butler, with Tom Hanks and Olivia DeJonge

What is it about? Chronicles the life and career of rock-and-roll legend Elvis Presley.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Why? Why keep making these kinds of musical biopics? Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story should have killed this genre on the spot back in 2007. After that movie so thoroughly skewered the formula of these movies, we should have never seen another one again. Ever. And the even more frustrating thing is, that very same year, Todd Haynes showed us all how to make a movie about a famous music icon and still make it feel fresh and interesting!

The trailer for Elvis almost begs its viewers to imagine Tim Meadows sagely intoning, “Give him a minute, son… Elvis Presley needs to think about his entire life before he plays.” I root for Baz Luhrmann, but sometimes he does not make that easy, especially when I’m seeing clips of its star (and possible newest member of the Harkonnen Dynasty), Austin Butler, alongside buried-under-a-mound-of-cartoon-makeup Tom Hanks acting like they’re in two completely different movies.

On the other hand:

Lisa Marie Presley on Twitter: “However, that being said, I do want to take a moment to let you know that I’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s movie “Elvis” twice now. Let me tell you that it is nothing short of spectacular. Absolutely exquisite. Austin Butler channeled and embodied my father’s heart & soul beautifully. / Twitter”

However, that being said, I do want to take a moment to let you know that I’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s movie “Elvis” twice now. Let me tell you that it is nothing short of spectacular. Absolutely exquisite. Austin Butler channeled and embodied my father’s heart & soul beautifully.

I am in no way suggesting that approval from the surviving family members of a biopic’s subject is the be-all-end-all of that biopic’s quality. Selma received no support from Martin Luther King, Jr’s surviving family and I maintain that it is a stone-cold masterpiece. But it might be a sign that Butler has indeed gone beyond simple boring mimicry to capture something deeper in his portrayal of the rock ‘n roll legend. Whether or not he’ll be an Oscar contender depends entirely on the popularity of the movie at the box office; sadly, the fact that Rami Malek won the Best Lead Actor Oscar for the detestable Bohemian Rhapsody while Taron Egerton wasn’t even nominated for the across-the-board superior Rocketman is all the proof you need that genuine quality has nothing to do with a musical biopic’s awards prospects. But we shall see where this specific one falls soon enough…

THE BLACK PHONE – In Theaters June 24

Universal Pictures

Directed by Scott Derrickson

Starring Ethan Hawke, with Mason Thames and Jeremy Davies

What is it about? After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I’m not the biggest fan of Scott Derrickson, I must admit. I found The Exorcism of Emily Rose to be a deeply cynical courtroom drama trying to inject ambiguity into a clear-cut case of negligent homicide (Requiem is a far superior version of the exact same story by literally every metric and I recommend everyone watch that, instead), his remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still was nearly unwatchable, and his seemingly best-regarded movie, Sinister, I found mostly… frustrating. To enjoy the few genuinely unsettling and sometimes even outright scary moments, I had to suffer through long stretches of underlit, boring, dour scenes of Ethan Hawke wearing exactly one sweater playing supernatural idiot detective in a laughably spacious house for a supposedly “struggling writer.”

The most creative spark I’ve ever seen from him, weirdly, was Doctor Strange, which visually was sometimes too derivative of Inception and had some of the same energy beam fights that a lot of these Marvel movies devolve into… but I still point to its climax as one of the few ever in a Marvel movie that makes actually clever use of its setting and the stakes established, as opposed to the same old climaxes that nearly always bookend these films. Then again, it’s impossible to tell which aesthetic flourishes were from the director and which ones were formed in committee, so who knows if I should even give him credit for that?

So I’m not sure what to make of The Black Phone, which relies on the kind of lurid serial killer hoo-ha that I’ve grown tired of but injects a pretty clever twist on what the killer’s newest captive has on his side. Apparently, the broken phone in his prison can be used to communicate with this killer’s previous victims, and they guide him through their failed attempts to escape as a means to help him perhaps survive this time. Also, something about a neighborhood girl who is a psychic? The trailer doesn’t make it super-clear.

So we’ve got a director I have never really liked all that much, helming a horror movie on the same scale as a beloved classic I just can’t understand the love for, with a premise so nifty I’m surprised it’s never been tried before, starring an actor I usually love in teeth-gnashing villain mode. This could be a pleasant surprise, honestly.

THOR: LOVE & THUNDER – In Theaters July 8

Marvel Studios

Directed by Taika Waititi

Starring Chris Hemsworth, with Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson

What is it about? Thor reunites with Valkyrie, Korg, and his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster to fight the threat of Gorr, The God Butcher.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Oh hey, speaking of most Marvel movies being tired and rote and muddled these days…

… look, if you’re excited for Thor: Love and Thunder, more power to you. I hope you have fun. For the rest of you, can you please reassure me that I’m not crazy when I say “Phase IV” is really cluttered and insipid above and beyond even the lowest depths of what the “Phase II” wheel-spinning sequels sunk to? What is even happening, anymore? Why should I care about any of this? Where is all of this going? I now have to keep track of multiverses and split timelines and alternate versions of the same character because… actually, I have no idea since this stuff makes the stakes of these movies essentially meaningless. Why? Who cares? 

So I guess if this trailer is anything to go by, Thor is zipping around space with the Guardians of the Galaxy and having adventures and will be bantering a lot with Star Lord because they both essentially have the exact same personalities at this point and then eventually they have to stop a villain named Gorr the God-Butcher from doing… something, though I’m not sure how intimidating he could possibly be after our titular character went toe-to-toe with Thanos twice. Oh, and hey, Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman is returning not just as Jane Foster. No no, a star of her pedigree is not going to settle for being a mere love interest if she’s returning to the Marvel content-generation machine. No, she turns out to be the new Thor this time! And for some reason, Film Twitter was collectively all excited over how HaWt she looked and how horny they were for a “jacked” Portman, which was a really baffling reaction considering how prudish and sex-negative these people are in virtually every other circumstance with the movies.

Seriously, not a week goes by where I don’t see someone on that blasted hellsite whine about “pointless” sex scenes in movies and how they totally shouldn’t exist because they distract from the plot… but the sight of Natalie Portman – an actress who once filmed a cunnilingus scene with Mila Kunis and had explicitly sexually-charged conversations with Jude Law and Clive Owen – with a little more muscle wearing a silly superhero costume, that’s different? That’s what gets you all hot and bothered?

My generation is insane… anyway like I said, I don’t know what the stakes are even supposed to be in this cinematic universe post-Endgame and I’m struggling to still care, but I do think that the makeup effects on Christian Bale, in his first post-Batman superhero movie role, are genuinely impressive and aesthetically striking and could actually be a contender for the Makeup & Hairstyling Oscar next year.

NOPE – In Theaters July 22

Universal Pictures

Directed by Jordan Peele

Starring Daniel Kaluuya, with Keke Palmer and Steven Yeun

What is it about? Residents of an isolated town in California, among them ranch owners James and Jill Haywood, witness a mysterious and abnormal event.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Ah, and now we come to an upcoming summer release that I am truly, genuinely, unreservedly excited for. I mean, sure, Us was an imperfect movie that didn’t completely come together in the end, but it did boast a barn-burner of a dual leading performance from Lupita Nyong’o that pretty much everyone agreed was far more deserving of an Oscar before Renée Zellweger even finished her acceptance speech for a movie that I can guarantee you no one will ever watch again outside of Oscar completionism.

Plus, Jordan Peele wrote and directed Get Out. The movie that became such a cultural phenomenon, cable news pundits started casually debating whether or not Kanye West was in “the sunken place” when he started going full MAGA without worrying that viewers would be confused about what they were referring to. The movie that perfectly blended tongue-in-cheek satire of white upper-class performative post-Obama progressivism while sapping the identities and personalities of black Americans with gripping suspense and terrifying stakes. Even if he never reaches that high again, Peele has more than earned enough goodwill from me to extend my interest in all of his upcoming projects.

Especially since he keeps making original projects! You don’t think Warner Bros and Disney haven’t approached him with a Brinks truck full of money to adapt some new comic book superhero story or a live-action version of one of Disney Renaissance classics? I don’t blame directors like Barry Jenkins and Emerald Fennell for taking the money and running with a hired gun studio project, but that Peele hasn’t taken this path yet is nothing short of miraculous.

So what is his newest project, hilariously titled Nope, even about? I… I think aliens? That’s what it looks like based on the tantalizing clips provided in its provocative and intriguing trailer. Which is another thing I’m excited about; I do not know what I’m going to get when I see this thing. I don’t know if it’s going to be more comedy or straight horror or something else entirely. Peele is one of the few living filmmakers still around who understands the value of surprise.

So what do you hope will surprise you this summer? Any surprise Oscar contenders you think will emerge from the next two months? Let us 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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