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On the Radar… (Beginning of the Year Edition)

Well, folks, 2023 is upon us! I know we’re all still focused on the Oscar race ramping up and Kevin McCarthy’s embarrassing attempts to try to become the next Speaker of the House, but between now and The Big Night, we will have quite a few interesting releases to keep an eye on. Will any of them be contenders for the 96th Academy Awards? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth watching and talking about.

Take, for example…

M3GAN – In Theaters January 6

Directed by Gerard Johnstone

Starring Allison Williams, with Violet McGraw and the voice of Jenna Davis

What is it about? A robotics engineer at a toy company builds a life-like doll that begins to take on a life of its own.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Here’s a concept that probably should have come to fruition a few years earlier (or at least before that Child’s Play reboot no one asked for). You’ve got the same “killer doll” concept that has defined Don Mancini’s entire career but with the added bonus of an advanced, constantly-learning, personalized A.I. to bring it more in line with modern anxieties. Something else I assumed would be flourishing more than it actually has: the career of Allison Williams. Shockingly, she has only been in two other movies between this and what I assumed was going to be her big breakout in the Oscar-winning smash hit Get Out. I have no idea why she hasn’t been cast in multiple feature films to the degree that Florence Pugh and Anya Taylor-Joy have, but her television / streaming career has been at least more fruitful for her.

Still, though, I’m not sure if I’m all that interested in yet another thriller about a scary A.I. that takes on a mind of its own and that mind wants to kill meatbags. Ignoring for a minute that Joey Magidson wasn’t all that jazzed on this movie, you all realize that the odds of A.I. taking on a kind of sentience that will motivate it to maliciously stalk and murder us are basically nil, right? Artificial intelligence, though it is often indistinguishable from magic to us non-tech-savvy laymen, is really no different from any other machine we use. It won’t do anything we don’t program it to do. When facial recognition software produces racially disparate false positives, that’s not because the software is racist, it’s because the algorithms were programmed by people with racial biases that they weaved – however unintentionally – into the code. If A.I. does kill us, it will be because it misinterprets a command we give it in a way that is actively harmful.

Anyway, the screenplay was written by a woman named Akela Cooper, who also wrote… hang on, let me check… okay the solid B-thriller Hell Fest, and… oh my god…

Okay, forget everything I just wrote. I am definitely seeing this on opening night!

KNOCK AT THE CABIN – In Theaters February 3

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Starring Dave Bautista, with Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge

What is it about? While vacationing, a girl and her parents are taken hostage by armed strangers who demand that the family make a choice to avert the apocalypse.

How am I feelin’ about this one? The Schlocky Shyamalanaissance continues! Okay, so I wasn’t the biggest fan of Old, but I still prefer him in this smaller, nastier niche after being thrown in Director Jail for the failure of After Earth. This next film – which is apparently the second part of a two-picture package deal he signed with Universal – does stay in that more grungy register. At least if it’s staying true to the supposedly violent novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, which this is adapting. 

The premise is a corker: a married couple and their adopted daughter head to a secluded cabin in the middle of the woods for some rest and relaxation, and then are suddenly taken hostage by a cult of just four people who tell them they have to “make a horrible decision” to prevent the literal end of the world. I dig this setup because it subverts one of the most tired tropes in mainstream cinema these days: making the fate of the entire planet or even the whole universe the stakes. Too many writers lean on this out of a very mistaken assumption that everyone of course cares about all life on Earth, so if that’s under threat, it’s an easy shortcut to getting them emotionally invested in their story. But we intuitively know that’s just not true; we know that the life on the Earth in the story is not the same as the life on our Earth in the real world. We still need the story to give us a reason to care. If you think I’m being cynical, recall the number of natural disasters or distant wars leaving thousands of people you don’t know dead in a country an entire ocean away from you. Do you feel viscerally devastated whenever you hear about those stories on the news? Or do you think “Man, that’s awful” and go about your day? Heck, think of the millions of Americans who still fail to understand why we should care about the war in Ukraine, something that carries serious and immediate consequences for everyone in the NATO alliance. What in the world would make the average moviegoer care about, say, the entropy doomsday device of Christopher Nolan’s world?

Here, the end of the world is still at stake, but the setting and character conflicts are way more intimate than in like-minded films. There are only seven named characters on the IMDb cast list, and I wouldn’t be surprised if 80% of the movie takes place entirely within that cabin. So the incongruity between what’s being threatened and what’s being done to confront it will, at least, be fascinating to watch unfold.

I’m also very excited to see Dave Bautista flex his dramatic chops a little more. Yes, yes, he’s very funny in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but there’s something in his face that really lends itself to a sort of… authoritative pensiveness. Like in his small but memorable role in Blade Runner 2049, which was, in fact, the very performance that convinced Shyamalan to cast him as the villain (hero?) Leonard. Hot take, maybe, but here goes: I predict he, not Dwayne Johnson, has the greatest likelihood of making history as the first former professional wrestler to win an Academy Award for acting.

MAGIC MIKE’S LAST DANCE – In Theaters February 10

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Starring Channing Tatum, with Salma Hayek and Gavin Spokes

What is it about? Hoping for one last hurrah, Mike heads to London with a wealthy socialite who lures him with an offer he can’t refuse – and an agenda all her own.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Definitely was not expecting the surprisingly thoughtful, engaging, character-driven drama Magic Mike would be the launching pad for a trilogy of films with entirely different milieus and directorial mindsets. Yet here we are, but instead of a small Tampa strip club or a large Myrtle Beach male revue convention, Mike is putting on some kind of… sexy stage musical? I mean, I’m not complaining. I could definitely go for a backstage musical dance movie next month, and one that continues the themes of being attuned to women’s wants and needs that this series has become famous for would seem to be a natural fit.

Based on the trailer, it appears that our titular himbo is putting on this stage show in partnership – and romance – with Salma Hayek, and, like, right there is a perfect example of how these movies strive to give women something they want while telling men something they need to hear. There is a fifteen-year age gap between her and Tatum, and though that age discrepancy would be laughably modest to someone like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, for the male lead to be that much younger than the female lead is downright revelatory in Hollywood even now. Not only that, but several scenes in the trailer alone show him encouraging her and respecting her as the driving force of this stage production. 

So I’m pretty confident in predicting that this will be a big hit among women just like Magic Mike XXL was, but will it be an awards hit? Probably not. The first Magic Mike was a hit with both audiences and critics, but it didn’t even manage a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the imminently deserving Matthew McConaughey. The Academy is not quite as dominated by insecure old white men who bristle at unashamed sexual expression as they were a decade ago, but they haven’t changed that much.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania – In Theaters February 17

Directed by Peyton Reed

Starring Paul Rudd, with Michelle Pfeiffer and That Anti-Vax Pro-Trucker Convoy Weirdo

What is it about? The gang goes on a new adventure exploring the Quantum Realm that pushes their limits and pits them against Kang the Conqueror.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Okay, I know I’m the site’s resident Marvel Basher™, so take this with a grain of salt. But I can’t be the only one who feels the visual presentation of this looks really conspicuously… unconvincing, right? I’m not a fool; I know most movies, even ones you don’t think use visual effects at all, use a lot of digital and green screen postproduction cosmetic work. But while I am totally immersed in the nearly-as-CGI-heavy environments of Dune, that image above looks like… well… a bunch of actors standing in front of a green screen. I can’t even try to suspend my disbelief when I’m looking at something that is so obviously just “painted” on.

Which raises the question: why? Why does the CGI of older Marvel movies like the first Iron Man look so much better and more tactile than the PS4-level cutscenes we’ve been subjected to since Endgame? It all comes down to time, money, and labor. I’m hoping it’s not news to anyone reading this article that visual effects artists in Hollywood these days are increasingly overworked, underpaid, and given impossible and constantly-changing edicts from indecisive studio executives who see CGI as a crutch instead of a tool (just look at what happens when you have producers who actually respect and clearly communicate with their vfx teams). But let’s be clear: it’s getting worse. And we are seeing the consequences of these unacceptable working conditions in real-time, with Disney movies in particular being the worst offenders.

So, moving on from my visual impressions… I mean, whatever. They’re in the Quantum Realm, they have to get out, and they’re probably going to do something with Kang the Conqueror that will set him up as the next Thanos during… I guess this one kicks off Phase Five? Because it’s just so important that we have it drilled into our heads these “multiverses” that are going to be hyped up as hugely consequential and then end up not all that consequential after it’s over?

If you’re still into these movies, more power to you. It’s getting harder for me to not only feign interest in any of these movies, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that they represent everything that is going wrong with the industry.

CREED III – In Theaters March 3

Directed by…

And Starring Michael B. Jordan, with Tessa Thompson and Jonathan Majors

What is it about? After dominating the boxing world, Adonis has been thriving in his career and family life. When a childhood friend and former boxing prodigy resurfaces, the face-off between former friends is more than just a fight.

How am I feelin’ about this one? And now we hit an interesting milestone for one of the longest-running still-ongoing movie franchises: for the first time since his debut in Rocky 47 years ago, Rocky Balboa will not be making an in-person appearance in the eighth installment of the series. The now-76-year-old Sylvester Stallone is still one of the credited producers on the project, and his iconic boxer is mentioned early in the trailer, but the “Italian Stallion” is not an onscreen character in Adonis Creed’s third round.

And without its flagship character, Michael B. Jordan is not only returning to go into the ring alone, but he’s also stepping into the director’s chair for the first time in his career. It’s not always easy to tell who will succeed and who won’t whenever an actor makes that kind of leap, and there’s always a risk of turning one’s directorial debut into a vanity project if they’re also the star, as Jordan is here. I still maintain that he was the true Best Lead Actor of 2015 for his first outing playing arguably his most well-known character so far, and if he’s taking inspiration from Ryan Coogler, this could be a knockout debut from him behind the camera as well as in front of it.

The question now remains if there’s any kind of story to continue to tell. The first Creed was a sterling example of blending the classic Rocky “formula” with modern sensibilities, resulting in what is possibly the gold standard for this still-ongoing trend of “legacyquels.” But Creed II was a noticeable step down in quality on nearly every front, in particular being hobbled by a premise that came off as pandering fan fiction rather than a focused, engaging sports drama. And now, Adonis is at the top. He’s rich, he’s the reigning champ, he’s married to Bianca, and has a kid. But now he’s being challenged by a former childhood friend who wants his shot at the spotlight after a long stint in prison… and the latter character is the bad guy? It just seems weird that this movie is inviting audiences to root for the rich and famous reigning champ against the rags-to-title-shot underdog. 

Just my 2¢.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4 – In Theaters March 24

Directed by Chad Stahelski

Starring Keanu Reeves, with Donnie Yen and Laurence Fishburne

What is it about? John Wick. Guns. Swords. Complicated Assassin Secret Society Stuff. Whaddya need, a road map?

How am I feelin’ about this one? Look at that picture up there. Doesn’t it look amazing? I mean, it might not have looked that amazing once upon a time, but today? In our current era of assembly-line desaturated, colorless, flat, boring, choppily-edited, forgettable sludge having the audacity to call themselves “action movies,” that one image stands out. Look at the depth-of-field. Look at the sharp contrast between the pitch blacks and the bright whites. Look at the little splashes of color that give this cold office space some off-kilter personality.

Now look at these images in motion:

It’s just so nice to see at least a few pure spectacles out there actually give careful consideration to spatial coherence, and color, and dramatic lighting, and those things that we used to go to see these movies for. I could express frustration that this series looks to be concluding on sort of a ho-hum “Final Confrontation With A Boss Who’s Never Been Mentioned, Before” note, since the suspense from these sequels, for me at least, came from the seemingly insurmountable scale and reach of this assassination syndicate our titular retired hitman faces off against. I’m of the unpopular opinion that the first John Wick is actually the weakest installment of the series because of how comprehensible and manageable his enemies were. I could also gripe at the seeming reconciliation between John and Winston, because positioning them as adversaries was potentially the most interesting development of this installment.

I could complain about those things. But I won’t, because it doesn’t matter. Because the thing that matters most is looking damned cool at all times. So far, I see no reason to believe it will fail to at least hit that one essential target.

Which movies are you most interested in seeing before the Oscars? Let us know in the comments after several rounds of balloting that end in embarrassment.

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Joey Magidson
Admin
1 month ago
Reply to  Robert Hamer

It lasted way longer than anyone could have expected…

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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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