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On the Radar… (Fall Edition)

So… “Barbenheimer” sure was a thing, huh? Like, a genuine grassroots consumer phenomenon we haven’t seen in a long time. I don’t have a lot more to add to the aftermath commentary except:

1) Hahaha, our favorite special boy just cannot stop whining about Barbie, and

2) I’ve heard some actors and writers discouraging WGA and SAG-AFTRA members from promoting Barbie and Oppenheimer, claiming that they’re tantamount to “crossing the picket line,” even though neither union has made any kind of public statement concurring with that opinion. While I sort of understand the sentiment, I think those concerns are ultimately misguided and, in fact, attempting any kind of “soft boycott” of these two movies specifically are counterproductive to the interests of film performers and writers fighting for a fair deal. These are not the kinds of movies that aid the goals of soulless studio executives who want to monopolize and commodify every aspect of the film industry at the expense of creative professionals. Both Barbie and Oppenheimer were directed by filmmakers who have expressed nothing but the utmost respect for the writers and actors on strike right now.

Of the movies Christopher Nolan has directed, he has written or co-written all but one of them. He has developed a sterling reputation among actors, which is why he was able to convince bonafide movie stars like Robert Downey, Jr. and Matt Damon to accept pay cuts and Oscar-winning actors like Gary Oldman and Casey Affleck to play one-scene cameo roles for his latest film. Greta Gerwig, meanwhile, not only wrote/co-wrote all three of her solo directorial efforts, but she’s still a working actress. She has proven her chops directing a small indie, a mid-sized drama, and now a large-scaled brand-name blockbuster, and all three of them became profitable through word-of-mouth on the qualities of their acting and storytelling. Not cynical franchise strong-arming. Not tired nostalgia-baiting.

By promoting these two films, and vaulting them over the CGI-slathered, script-by-committee, cynical assembly-line detritus that audiences are growing sick of, we’re signaling to the studio executives what they’re missing out on. Which reminds me, what else could they be missing out on by continuing to deny writers and actors the ability to make a decent living off their labor? Let’s take a look…


Directed by André Øvredal

Starring Corey Hawkins, with Aisling Franciosi and Liam Cunningham

What is it about? Adapted from a single chapter of Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula, strange and horrifying events befall the doomed crew of a merchant vessel as they attempt to survive the ocean voyage from Transylvania to London, stalked each night by a merciless presence onboard.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I mentioned this in an earlier discussion I had with Joey about his most anticipated horror releases of this year, but expanding on those thoughts a bit, The Last Voyage of the Demeter is very enticing to me for the sole reason of what it’s adapting. Rather than try to tackle the entirety of Bram Stoker’s iconic horror novel – and honestly, after Francis Ford Coppola made his mark on the material, why would you even bother? – screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz decided to make a shorter, more affordable “bottle thriller” adapting “The Captain’s Log,” which is just one chapter in the book where the eponymous vampire stows away aboard a merchant ship and kills everyone onboard before it reaches its destination. Uh… spoiler alert for a 126-year-old novel, I guess?

This is such a good idea in general. Imagine how much easier some of these “Middle Earth” or “Wizarding World” movies would be to produce and make a profit off of if the people adapting them felt free to put together more proficient, succinct adaptations of self-contained stories within them rather than try to lay down budgets rivaling the GDP of some small island nations to create massive bloated “sagas” with end-of-the-whole-entire-world stakes and franchise FOMO? But I guess I’m just a stupid normie and not a smart Hollywood executive because it took a few decades to see this project through when it was first shopped around during the George W. Bush Administration. Robert Schwentke, Marcus Nispel, Stefan Ruzowitzky, David Slade, and Neil Marshall were all attached to multiple iterations of various rewritten versions of this script before dropping out in favor of other projects and this just kept being passed along like a hot potato to another producer/script doctor to see if they could get it off the ground. And, as it usually goes with screenwriters trying to make their way through the system, Shut had to keep chugging along through this, punching up work-for-hire (hmm, second time I’ve used that phrase in just this one article…) scripts until his one for Escape Room became an unexpected hit. Meanwhile, Olkewicz found his own success as one of the producers of Lights Out, and so from there apparently worked up enough influence to persuade Amblin Partners to actually see this through.

André Øvredal has the honor of being tapped to direct the movie for realsies this time, and he’s a solid choice. No, he’s never directed anything as mind-blowing as The Descent, but he’s certainly had a more consistent output relative to Neil Marshall after The Descent. The Autopsy of Jane Doe and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark were pretty decent horror efforts, and the trailer showcases a promising monster movie in the vein of a sort of Victorian-themed Alien.

I’m rooting for this to succeed, if for no other reason than it might motivate some other reasonably-sized adaptations of classic horror novels.

BLUE BEETLE – In Theaters August 18

Directed by Angel Manuel Soto

Starring Xolo Maridueña, with Adriana Barraza and Damián Alcázar

What is it about? A young man is chosen to become a symbiotic host to the Scarab, an ancient alien biotechnological relic that grants him a powerful exoskeleton armor.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I come to bury Blue Beetle, truly. Not out of any animosity towards the property itself; though the “Blue Beetle” character is actually one of the oldest superheroes in existence, first appearing under the auspices of Charlton Comics way back in 1939 before they were bought out by D.C. Comics in 1983, the Jaime Reyes iteration of the character is just one of D.C.’s many, many, many, many attempts to replicate the teenage superhero archetype that made Spider-Man the most popular character owned by the only serious competitor they have ever faced in the postwar era. And as far as those characters go, he’s… perfectly fine.

Nor does it have to do with anyone attached to the project on the creative end. I have not seen Charm City Kings (and won’t ever be able to, because it has been completely removed from the HBO Max library despite being literally the only platform it was made available on), but I am sure Angel Manuel Soto is a talented filmmaker who did his job as well as he could here, under the circumstances. Same with the cast, especially Best Supporting Actress nominee Adriana Barraza, who I am very happy to see is still getting steady work in mainstream films.

No, I come to bury this movie because it looks like the most soul-crushingly formulaic, tedious, mercenary hanger-on to this still-ongoing superhero glut imaginable, with a C-list character who almost certainly only got his own solo feature greenlit because someone at Warner Bros. Discovery realized how much he resembles both Spider-Man and Iron Man. The trailer only confirms my suspicions, spelling out seemingly the entire plot of the movie in just over three minutes.

Having said all that… I do feel like kind of a bully dumping on a film that really isn’t all that offensive at first glance and looks destined for a truly godawful fate through no fault of its own. First of all, it was originally conceived of and produced under the expectation that it would be a continuation of the now-defunct D.C. Extended Universe. It was then briefly considered for a streaming-only release before being moved to a 2023 theatrical release after James Gunn kinda-sorta-maybe decided to possibly consider it the potential first entry in his new D.C. Universe project in a way that isn’t entirely clear. And will probably backpedal on that noncommittal statement with the encouragement of his business partner Peter Safran, if the absolutely dismal box office projections from the expert forecasters at BoxOfficePro are anything to go by. If this movie only ends up making $55 million during its entire theatrical run, under half its reported production budget, that would be an embarrassing bomb only saved by the history-making financial black hole that The Flash ended up being earlier this year. And that’s best-case scenario according to projections. That’s on the high end. Keep in mind that “Barbenheimer” has given general audiences a taste of actually creative, ambitious pop cinema that has something to say. I don’t think they’re going to have quite the appetite for assembly-line superhero gruel so soon after that experience.

So is there any point in me, or frankly anyone, kicking this poor cursed production while it’s down? It just seems wrong, somehow, to complain about something that is almost certainly going to be a setback for those involved in the production for reasons outside of their control, for a movie most people will forget about in a year. And that’s never fun to witness.

GRAN TURISMO – In Theaters August 11 August 25

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Starring Archie Madekwe, with David Harbour and Orlando Bloom

What is it about? The true story of Jann Mardenborough, a Gran Turismo player whose gaming skills won a series of Nissan-sponsored video game competitions and eventually led him to become an actual professional race car driver.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Not content to let Mattel hoard all the glory for greenlighting unconventional adaptations of their best-selling products, Sony Interactive Entertainment has finally decided to license the best-selling video game franchise in PlayStation history into a biopic of sorts. It also doubles as a sneaky advertisement for the video games themselves, see if you can spot it:

From the man himself in the video: “I started playing Gran Turismo on the PlayStation, and when I was 19, I remembered seeing it on a normal TV advert: GT Academy, the chance to become a professional racing driver for Nissan. I didn’t have any experience driving anything, and then eight months later I’m driving this car at 140 miles an hour.”

Yeah, it’s an underdog story, one of those unconventional rise-to-the-top tales we love so much. But it’s also a pretty clever way to promote the one thing that Gran Turismo has consistently billed itself as throughout multiple generations of console gaming hardware: a hyper-realistic motorsports simulation. Gran Turismo is not the only racecar driving video game series on the market, but how many professional racecar drivers can say they got their start from playing the Need for Speed or Forza Motorsport games? Exactly: none. Now, I’m almost positive that this movie is going to be a slightly oversimplified telling of his rise to the professional racing circuit that omits some other advantages and lucky breaks Jann probably had, but whatever, that’s inevitable with these kinds of inspirational sports biopics. And when it comes to selling video games, it hardly matters. Because now, PlayStation can sell the next Gran Turismo game, however tacitly, off of the fantasy that you too can be a professional racecar driver if you are really good at these hyper-realistic racing games. Don’t laugh: this is an actual psychological phenomenon that modern advertisers have perfected.

In other news, hey, Neill Blomkamp is still getting steady work! I’m actually sort of amazed that he was able to secure a mainstream gig like this, considering how… rough his post-District 9 output has been. After audiences largely ignored and critics, including our own Joey, excoriated his previous horror effort Demonic, I assumed he was going to have to climb out of Director Jail via a low-budget comeback the way M. Night Shyamalan did. Then again, maybe he is in Director Jail and is approaching this as a sort of work-for-hire penance to get back in the good graces of the mainstream film industry? Either way, I hope this helps right his career track.

A HAUNTING IN VENICE – In Theaters September 15

Directed by …

… and starring Kenneth Branagh, with Jamie Dornan and Michelle Yeoh

What is it about? Hercule Poirot, now retired, must solve the murder of a guest at a séance.

How am I feelin’ about this one? What I had originally hoped would be an ongoing series of self-contained mystery features starring the world’s second-most popular fictional detective is looking more and more likely to close out with this installment as the conclusion of an informal “trilogy” of period detective movies best-known for its director and star’s pretty epic mustache and trailers with hilariously inappropriate contemporary pop music stingers. Reactions to Death on the Nile were not positive around here but it still made a decent enough profit at the end of its theatrical run. But, as it goes during a strike of this magnitude, the odds of a middling film series like this (no offense, but it just isn’t all that terrible or spectacular in either direction) being able to survive the waves of release and production delays that have been going on seem pretty unfavorable at this point. Just my prediction, and I certainly wouldn’t mind being proven wrong in the future.

This possible final outing of Branagh’s Hercule Poirot and his epic mustache is being heavily marketed not only as a horror-themed mystery, but also one that tips into the supernatural. I have never read Hallowe’en Party, the Agatha Christie novel this movie is based on, but considering how the appeal of Poirot has long been his reliably entertaining habit of logically deducing the truth among a cast of characters insisting on less rational explanations, I’ll be surprised if he comes to the conclusion that ghosts are real or something.

I’m sure this will be fun. These movies usually are, unfortunate (alleged) cannibalistic sexual predator castings notwithstanding. But not only am I no longer going to fool myself into believing these Poirot films will be anything more than a fun-but-forgettable lark, I don’t even think it’s necessary to champion their existence on principle, either. Call it another consequence of “Barbenheimer,” I suppose. We recently saw the viability of a “movie for grownups” get a massive shot in the arm, and I feel like we can be a little more discerning in our diet of mainstream movies for adults in the immediate future.

I’m sure I’ll have a decently good time watching this, as I did watching Murder on the Orient Express. But I have lost the urge to be defensive of what it supposedly represents.

DUMB MONEY – In Theaters September 22

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Starring Paul Dano, with Seth Rogen and America Ferrera

What is it about? The true story of how amateur investors from the WallStreetBets Subreddit successfully short-squeezed major hedge funds that had bet on GameStop shares falling.

How am I feelin’ about this one? So, before I get into my feelings about this movie, and how I believe it will pan out both as a film and as an Oscar contender, I guess I should lay some groundwork in case you were not aware of or maybe forgot about this stranger-than-fiction stock market tale:

Back in 2019, social media investment influencer Keith Gill, aka “RoaringKitty” on YouTube and “DeepFuckingValue” on Reddit, started to make some waves online with a strange contention: GameStop, the declining videogame brick-and-mortar retailer, was actually not destined for bankruptcy and annihilation as a natural consequence of the American economy shifting more and more aggressively towards online retail spaces, but would, in fact, show an unexpected degree of resilience during this macroeconomic shift and turn out to be a successful long-term investment. He put his money where his mouth was, too; purchasing tens of thousands of dollars-worth of GameStop “call options” (basically just a higher-risk-higher-reward aggressive portfolio strategy that can result in you either making a ton of money or losing a ton of money, with very little room to achieve anything in between). To be fair, this was not a completely insane thing for an investor like Keith Gill to do. After all, at the time he was making this bet, newly-hired CEO Ryan Cohen was, to his credit, making some major decisions that gave the beleaguered store chain a slim-but-not-impossible chance of shifting successfully away from reliance on physical locations and being more of an e-commerce player. Sometimes, these companies seemingly headed for extinction do turn themselves aroundmost of them do not. If you’re an investor betting on the comeback while everyone else is assuming there’s no hope, you can make quite a lot of money.

Which is what Keith Gill and the folks at WallStreetBets were counting on when they defied the shorting of GameStop by major investment firms in January 2021. Most of you, even if you are literally solely movie nerds like the rest of us at Awards Radar with no deep fiscal knowledge, are probably at least vaguely aware of what “shorting” a stock means thanks to Adam McKay: it’s a way to make money on a stock you predict will go down when everyone else thinks it will go up by temporarily borrowing shares in a company from a third party, selling those shares on the open market when the price is high, and then buying those shares back when the share prices go down, giving them back to the third party lender, and pocketing the difference you made in the exchange. Individuals do this and so do massive hedge funds. But there are some risks with this maneuver. If you are in the process of shorting a stock and the price of the stock goes up against your prediction, for example, then you have to choose between either just letting that stock keep going in the hope that it goes down again and possibly lose even more money, or you can try to buy it back quickly to minimize your losses.

But if there are a lot of other investors out there who also shorted that same stock, and also are closing their positions to minimize their losses, the resulting explosion of activity around that stock creates added demand for the stock, which drives the price up even further and creates a vicious cycle. This is what is called a “short squeeze,” and from this phenomenon, emerged an unprecedented short squeeze that metastasized into a sort of stock market David vs. Goliath national story where some casual investors on the internet, many of whom were teenagers when the 2007-2008 financial crisis ruined their families, united to induce a panic from the big shot investment firms they (very justifiably) blame for that ruin, weaponizing a declining company that a lot of Millennials see as a nostalgic symbol of their lost youth to do so. More people bought in, the price drove up from $5 a share to nearly $500 a share within a month, arrogant Wall Street jerks lost a ton of money, and then…

… well, I don’t want to spoil what happens next, because I have a feeling Craig Gillespie of I, Tonya and Lars and the Real Girl would rather depict it his way because it forms the crux of his thesis that Wall Street is rigged and the meritocratic assumptions that the stock market sells us is a bald-faced lie. Which sort of lends to my skepticism of this movie’s prospects as both an Oscar contender and a significant cultural shot-across-the-bow against the financial services and investment banking sectors of the economy: is this really a message anyone is… not already well-aware of? Didn’t The Big Short basically tell us the same thing? In a very similar FunnyorDie-style glib explainer comedy scaffolding as the trailer for Dumb Money?

Also, the last time Craig Gillespie was in the director’s chair for a theatrical feature was Cruella. Which, in case you forgot, actually went with the “dalmatians killed her parents” origin story:

I mean… really.

SAW X – In Theaters September 29

Directed by Kevin Greutert

Starring Tobin Bell, with Shawnee Smith and Synnøve Macody Lund

What is it about? Set between the events of the first Saw and Saw II, a still-alive but sick and desperate John Kramer travels to Mexico for a risky and experimental medical procedure in hopes of a miracle cure for his cancer.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Yikes, sorry, I think I messed something up. This article is only covering upcoming releases from August to September and obviously a new Saw movie is going to be released on Hallowe-oh, huh. Never mind. The next installment of the infamous self-inflicted-torture-as-redemption series is indeed coming to theaters a full month before its traditional release date of the Halloween weekend. Man, this SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike is motivating some really unexpected release date shifts.

Look, I have never made it a secret that I despise this entire franchise. So why would I even bother to preview this at all? Well, I think the premise of this particular installment reveals two interesting things about the state of not only this franchise, but also modern movie franchises in general.

The first interesting thing is how it has been seventeen years since John Kramer for-real died at the end of Saw III. And in a rare tip of my cap to Leigh Whannell, Patrick Melton, and Marcus Dunstan, they never resurrected or retconned this for the remainder of their time writing the sequels in the mainline continuity. Nor did any of the filmmakers who tried their hand at extending the series after Saw 3D. Not only that, but they dug their heels in and opened Saw IV with a prolonged autopsy scene just to reassure their fans that yep, the eponymous Jigsaw killer is 100%, for real, permanently dead. That is a whole hell of a lot more integrity than the Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, that is for sure. But this created a bit of a problem, because they just offed their most popular character and, by extension, arguably most talented actor. Knowing this, and knowing they would not be able to fill that hole they just blew into their cash cow, they have had to spend the rest of the series trying to find ways to keep Tobin Bell in these movies without “cheating,” through extended flashbacks and parallel prequel plotlines and revisiting the events of the first three movies so frequently that nowadays you need a recap as voluminous as The Silmarillion just to comprehend what has happened and who it happened to and when. All to keep up John Kramer’s screen time despite canonically dying roughly a month after actor Jacob Tremblay was born.

I’m sure they regret that decision, since they have to spend a large chunk of their marketing for this movie telling people that this takes place after the very first movie but before the events of the second installment (which is why Shawnee Smith is coming back as well, as the last stinger of the trailer teased) but I understand why they made it: Bell was 64 years-old at the time Saw III was released. Which I know is not that old by today’s standards, but during a time when Jerry Orbach and Dudley Moore then-recently passed away at the ages of 69 and 66, respectively, and when septuagenarian movie stars were announcing their retirements, it does not surprise me if the higher-ups at Lionsgate were putting the pressure on the franchise shepherds at the time to prepare a definitive exit for their elderly titular killer so that they could test the waters with a younger “successor” in future installments. The problem with that plan is that they settled on Costas Mandylor to portray the successor, who is a decent enough actor… but he ain’t Tobin Bell.

The other, more interesting problem they did not anticipate is that Bell himself is still healthy and relatively spry as an octogenarian. Which I think is something that a lot of Baby Boomer and Gen X filmmakers did not anticipate twenty years ago. Lifespans and geriatric health have improved dramatically over the last thirty years (setting aside that worldwide once-in-a-century pandemic, of course), which is how Harrison Ford can still headline big-budget action movies and how Tobin Bell can credibly lead a movie where his character should be, canonically, twenty years younger than him. I think this trend is going to develop into a subtle but very influential change in how film performers approach multi-film commitments.

What do you think, folks? Does the Saw franchise depend entirely on Tobin Bell to survive? Did you ride that GameStop short squeeze wave when it was happening? Do you think I’m wrong and we will see Kenneth Branagh’s epically mustachioed Hercule Poirot again in the future? Let us know in the comments.


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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for now-retired Awards Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now spends his time obsessing over movies and weird pop culture rabbit holes.

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 somewhat unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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