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On the Radar… (September Edition)

Netflix

Fall, officially the best season! No ifs, ands, or buts about it anymore. As we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere and cook our planet alive, the thought of the weather cooling down and the trees taking on different shades of amber and brownish colors will become a lot more appealing to us for… let me just check my notes, oh yes! Ever. 

And if you’re a visitor of this site, you’ll also be looking forward to the fall season because that’s when the few remaining studios that haven’t been shut down and liquidated in the midst of some new merger bring out their big awards season heavy-hitters! Well… some of them. September is kind of a weird month in that it seems like studios like to release their “gambles” that they’re not 100% sure will reach wide appeal. How do I feel about the betting odds of the major releases in September? Let’s take a look…

HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL. – In Theaters and Peacock September 2

Focus Features

Directed by Adamma Ebo

Starring Regina King, with Sterling K. Brown and Nicole Beharie

What is it about? In the aftermath of a huge scandal, Trinitie Childs, the first lady of a prominent Southern Baptist Mega Church, attempts to help her pastor-husband, Lee-Curtis Childs, rebuild their congregation.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Already, there are two things going for Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. that put it on my good side: Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall. These two are the kinds of actors I always, and I do mean always, am overjoyed to see onscreen. Hall has never not been a delightful comedienne with a warmth that elevates even the worst movies (well… okay, maybe not Shaft because c’mon, she’s only human). And Brown has never been less than exceptional in everything I’ve ever seen him in and should have been a Best Supporting Actor nominee for Waves.

They’re not only starring in but also are among the jarringly long list of producers of this comedy mockumentary about a down-and-out evangelical couple trying to rebuild their megachurch empire after it collapsed in scandal. This will be the feature writing and directorial debut of Adamma Ebo, whose screenplay was adapted from her and her identical twin sister Adanne’s short film of the same title and has been a hot ticket item as far back as 2019 before getting picked up by Pinky Promise, a production company that specifically seeks out and finances up-and-coming filmmakers.

So far, so good! We haven’t had a decent organized religion satire in a while, and this Sundance hit wa-hang on… as in, the Sundance Film Festival? *Sigh* Darn, I knew this was too good to be true. This is the cursed film festival that sometimes surprises me with breakout hits that end up being something truly worthwhile but more often than not disappoints me with pseudo-indie mediocrities over and over and over. To make matters worse, Matt Passantino wasn’t that enthused at his screening, expressing frustration over the film’s lack of focus or true satirical bite.

Hall and Brown alone have garnered enough goodwill from me to still approach this one with optimism… but it’s a cautious optimism. If Matt ends up being in the minority, maybe it could surprise as that Lone Screenplay nominee that pops up from time to time?

PINOCCHIO – On Disney+ September 8

Disney

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Starring Tom Hanks, with the voices of Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

What is it about? An ugly and cynically re-skinning of one of the high points of American animation.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I would never lie to you, dear reader. When Awards Radar promises to be “objective” and “thoughtful,” that means I have to disclose any kind of really strong debilitating bias overcoming my analytical mind, and so it goes with Disney’s next attempt to remake their animated classics as a live action cash-in to squeeze more money out of us.

Because this isn’t just any animated classic of theirs; Pinocchio is one of the animated classics. It is arguably the best of the five stone-cold masterpieces Walt Disney’s then-fledgling film studio put out between 1937 and 1941, and a high watermark for traditional cel animation. Truly, very few animated movies since have ever matched its tactility, depth, and texture in every background, and no animated movie that I’ve encountered has been able to surpass it in effects animation, despite all of the advances in technology in the nearly eight decades since its release. All of these sublime visuals are tied to one of the most emotionally potent feature films in the studio’s history, with many scenes packing uncompromising levels of sadness or tension that would never be allowed in The House That Walt Built these days. It is a phenomenal achievement on every level that forever demolishes the notion that animated features aren’t “real movies.”

So, for Disney to take something as special as Pinocchio and run it through their bland rehash meat grinder is deeply offensive to me, on an almost primal level. Forgetting for a minute all the pedantic script changes attempting to bring the canon up to modern sensibilities but just ends up muddying the narratives that were perfectly functional on their own, these remakes have all looked like ass. Okay, maybe David Lowery’s semi-remake of Pete’s Dragon looked alright, though it’s worth noting that that one is the least-beholden to the original version. But Dumbo? Beauty and the Beast? Mulan? Hideous, stilted, drab. Every one of them, especially in relation to their animated counterparts.

As Lewis pointed out on Twitter, these two shots convey the exact same scene in The Lion King:

So no, I don’t have any interest in seeing this abomination, which as far as I’m concerned is the cinematic equivalent of spitting on their own legacy. I don’t hold out hope that director Robert Zemeckis will be able to salvage something watchable here, especially since his decision twenty years ago to make championing Uncanny Valley mo-cap technology his #1 priority as a filmmaker.

Everything about this depresses me, and its awfully telling that they’re not even trying to roll it out in theaters.

CLERKS III – In Theaters September 13

Lionsgate

Directed by Kevin Smith

Starring Brian O’Halloran, with Jeff Anderson and Rosario Dawson

What is it about? Dante, Elias, and Jay and Silent Bob are enlisted by Randal after a heart attack to make a movie about the convenience store that started it all.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I’m… probably the wrong person to be previewing this. Those of you who’ve read my work for a while now know that I am no fan of Kevin Smith, either as a writer or director. It frustrates me to no end how one of the defining figures of the independent film boom of the early 1990’s steadfastly refused to evolve for most of his filmmaking career, displaying a shockingly consistent carelessness in his visual regime while being weirdly defensive in the face of negative criticism towards movies that he himself doesn’t think very highly of. I can forgive ungainly shots, flat acting, and repetitive conversations about sex and nerd culture ephemera from a first-time filmmaker making a movie for only $27,000. Less so when he makes a horror feature twenty years later with over 100x the budget and the filmmaking is just as slack and the humor just as strained as his debut. Even as a public figure, his personality annoyed me to no end, often adopting a phony half-self-deprecating attitude about his weight and the frivolity (but never the quality, interesting) of his movies while also making passive-aggressive assertions about how awesome and cool he is and then not understanding why most of his industry friends from the 90’s no longer wants anything to do with him.

However. It does seem like a very scary event in his life has changed him, at least as a person. In case you forgot, he nearly died in the Glendale Adventist Medical Center after suffering a severe heart attack in 2018. He spoke a lot about his fear of death in his standup comedy tours, but according to him, just before he was about to go under for a surgery he knew he had a very slim chance of surviving, he felt at peace having lived a full life with a wife and child he loved. Since then, he’s been noticeably different in his public appearances. He’s a little more humble, less hucksterish, a better listener, and seems to have finally moved on from obsessing over his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure sexual positions.

Which brings us to Clerks III. Yes, it’s another entry in the “View Askewniverse,” but it’s also possibly going to be Smith’s Pain and Glory; a from-the-heart treatise on growing old and finding a new outlet to make peace with that fact. As much as I dislike almost all of his movies, I can’t deny that he has been a tremendously impactful figure to a generation of men who came of age in the 90’s rebelling against the social conservatism of the 80’s while also struggling to accept womens’ sexual agency running up against their insecurities and religious upbringing.

Like him or not (and I still fall on the “not” side of that equation), Smith is an important cultural figure, and for him to make Clerks III at this particular time in his life should, at a minimum, make for a very interesting movie-watching experience. Look for Joey’s review in a few days, as well as interviews with Smith and the cast.

THE WOMAN KING – In Theaters September 16

Sony Pictures

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Starring Viola Davis, with Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Lashana Lynch

What is it about? A historical epic inspired by the true events that happened in The Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I feel like I “should” be way more excited for this movie in theory than I am in reality. I have long been frustrated at how Anglocentric most historical epics have been from Hollywood, when there is an entire continent of war and revolution and heroism that seemingly no one is interested in depicting on the screen. I adore Love & Basketball, and of course I’ll watch Viola Davis in anything. Yes, even if it’s a stupid Hunger Games prequel.

And yet… that trailer really didn’t sell me on The Woman King at all. I don’t know if it’s the anachronistic music track giving the whole thing an uncomfortable hashtag girlboss vibe or the relatively flat staging of the action scenes that reminded me of The Old Guard, but something just feels “off” about this in a way I wish I could articulate better.

I want to be so wrong about my lack of real enthusiasm for this. I want The Woman King to blow me away and open doors for Prince-Blythewood. I want producer Maria Bello (yes, really) to be rewarded for never giving up on this passion project of hers, and for a whole slew of below-the-line nods to follow her. Hopefully I will be later this month.

DON’T WORRY DARLING – In Theaters September 23

Warner Bros.

Directed by Olivia Wilde

Starring Florence Pugh, with Harry Styles and Chris Pine

What is it about? A 1950s housewife living with her husband in a utopian experimental community begins to worry that his glamorous company may be hiding disturbing secrets.

How am I feelin’ about this one? So is this our new Maligned Woman Of The Moment? We got tired of torturing Amber Heard so now we’re moving on to putting Olivia Wilde “in her place?” We just love inventing the calculating, sinister woman who perfectly orchestrates a frame job of a Nice Guy™, don’t we? We just can’t get enough of picking apart, with a fine-toothed comb, every minor discrepancy and mistake made by the Maligned Woman Of The Moment to “prove” she’s smart enough to put her master manipulation plan in motion but dumb enough to reveal she’s deceptive because her eyes moved weird when she told her side of the story once and Nancy Grace says that’s the sign of a sociopath.

We saw this with Amy Fisher, with Anita Hill, with Monica Lewinsky, with Courtney Love, with Jessica Hahn, with Shannon Faulkner, so now Olivia Wilde must be put in the stocks for daring to harm a powerful man’s career. Oh dear, her account of how and why she fired Shia LaBeouf may not have been totally accurate in all the details, so that means ShE’s A LiAr and he was wronged! Sure, let’s ignore that LaBeouf has had a long documented history of being a trash dude with poor impulse control and zero artistic integrity who treats women like shit. Oh, and if we want to talk about liars, remember how Honey Boy was this raw and brutally honest roman à clef from LaBeouf about his abusive father? Yeah, turns out that was all made up. He dragged his own dad’s reputation through the dirt to sell a movie. I don’t know Wilde, maybe she’s a saint, maybe she’s awful. She’s admittedly not the most graceful navigator of the press junket. But I’ve seen too many of these bleak misogynistic spectacles play out to believe what the internet has already decided. 

Anyway, now that I’m all worked up, how am I feeling about Don’t Worry Darling? I… I don’t know, honestly. I liked Booksmart, but I didn’t love it, and the fact that the premise relied on believing two seniors from the same public high school – one of whom wasn’t even the Valedictorian or the Salutatorian – would be accepted into Yale suggested that its writer and director may be a bit out-of-touch with the vast majority of her audience. Also, while a lot of people, including our own Joey Magidson, believe the always-lovely Florence Pugh may be a dark horse contender for her role as the suspicion-wracked heroine, her male co-star and boy band sensation Harry Styles is looking like, well…

What can I say but YIKES

I feel like, when all is said and done, and the same grifters playing amateur detective over Wilde’s evil scheme disappear like all cowardly grifters do, Don’t Worry Darling will end up much like Booksmart: a fun, clever, engaging little matinée that won’t be without its flaws, but also delivers on the genre goodies we paid to see in the first place and will likely feature at least one performance that’s a home run. Hey, in this moviemaking landscape, I’ll take it.

BLONDE – On Netflix September 28

Netflix

Directed by Andrew Dominik

Starring Ana de Armas, with Bobby Cannavale and Sara Paxton

What is it about? A fictionalized chronicle of the inner life of Marilyn Monroe.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Finally, a movie about Marilyn Monroe! She’s a cultural icon who hasn’t received significant attention at all from Hollywood or from historians, and I think we’re long overdue to explore how the most iconic sex symbol of Hollywood’s Golden Age was actually really sad inside and exploited by the men around her. Much like how Pablo Larraín finally exposed the never-before-discussed “hidden” life of the late Diana, Princess of Wales for the first time!

Okay, so sarcasm aside (because I genuinely do want to at least end this piece on an optimistic note), do I see potential in Blonde? Oddly, I think I do. Which surprises me, since, along with the already done-to-death and ethically dubious premise of dissecting someone who very clearly didn’t feel comfortable being such an obsessed-over public figure, is also being hit with an NC-17 rating (which I feel all but guarantees we’ll be seeing at least one incredibly depressing depiction of explicit sexual violence) but also is directed by someone beloved by a lot of cinephiles… but not by me.

But the trailer gave me a glimmer of hope:

The first thing that piqued my interest was how its star, Ana de Armas, does not even try to sound like Marilyn Monroe. That’s counterintuitive, but I truly believe some of the most stultifying, tiresome performances are the note-perfect biopic mimicry stunts that regularly win Oscars these days. But the only portrayals of real people in movies that truly seem to stand the test of time as performances in of themselves are the ones where the actor is searching for more than just “nailing” an impersonation. Tom Hanks doesn’t look or sound anything like Fred Rogers three years ago. James Cagney didn’t look or sound much like the real George M. Cohan in 1942. Diane Keaton looked nothing like Louise Bryant in 1981. But I would put up those fuller, richer performances against the empty surface-level mimicry in Judy, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Darkest Hour any day of the week. It suggests de Armas is going for something surprising, here.

Also, it looks to be a visual knockout, blending soft-focus black-and-white with hypersaturated colors and a series of snazzy disorienting shots. It honestly reminds me a little of Elvis, which I enjoyed way more than I expected to, precisely because of its deranged visual splendor and sprawling ambition. For Andrew Dominik, of all people, to motivate me to compare him to Baz Luhrmann gives me hope that this may not only not be another typical Famous Person Oscar-Baiting Biopic, but will actually be a truly unique film.

What do you think? Do you see something I don’t in The Woman King? Will my hope for Blonde be vindicated? Which movie are you most excited to see this month? Sound off in the comments.

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Written by Robert Hamer

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