Movie Review ~ Top Gun: Maverick

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When he finds himself training a detachment of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission the likes of which no living pilot has ever seen, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell faces an uncertain future while confronting the ghosts of his past, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Ed Harris, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Danny Ramirez, Monica Barbaro, Manny Jacinto, Val Kilmer
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review:  I think it’s safe to say that we’ve had our share of star movies over the past several years. You know what I’m talking about, too. Films that are the real draw more than any living, breathing actor or actress appearing in the picture. It’s like a long-running Broadway show in that, at a certain point, it doesn’t matter who is playing the leading role; it all depends on if the audience is willing to pay out money to see the machine at work. A seemingly endless stream of Marvel, DC Comics, franchise, and known content have clogged up theaters even before the pandemic, and now that’s all audiences want to spend their money on. It takes a bold movie with hot word of mouth (like the ongoing box office smash Everything Everywhere All at Once) to break through the noise. And it takes a movie star.

If anyone could bust through that wall of sound, it’s going to be an actor that’s been literally trying to break the sound barrier for years. Superstar Tom Cruise has had his fair share of bad press during his career and especially over the past half-decade, but what he continues to deliver is a breathlessly impressive supply of limit-pushing adventures that put the capital “C” in Cinema and remind you why you pay that extra fee to watch movies on the most giant screen you can find. His Mission: Impossible films have morphed from the kitschy fun of the original to mind-boggling action epics. Last onscreen in 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, with a two-part capper to his Ethan Hunt character from that series starting in 2023, Cruise is sliding back into theaters with a film that has been finished for a few years but has been delayed due to the pandemic. 

For a while, it felt like a sequel to the bombastic classic 1986 film Top Gun would never see a theatrical release. Already coming off to some like a stretch project thirty years too late, Cruise made it a point to let detractors know he’d been approached for a follow-up on multiple occasions, but it wasn’t until now that a script came together that felt right. With better technology and the opportunity to have actors trained to fly the jets (and film themselves as well!), Cruise could give fans a second chapter that would be worth waiting for. No one could have expected how long the wait would be, though. Intended for release in July 2019 (yes, 2019), it was bumped back for a myriad of reasons along the way. The important thing is that Cruise held out to keep Top Gun: Maverick from being a victim of the studio’s wave of pandemic straight-to-streaming offloads…and we should be forever grateful.

Thirty years into his career in the U.S. Navy, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise, Rock of Ages) has remained a test pilot, passing up promotions to stay airborne and avoid the dreaded desk job of senior officers. Currently working on a hypersonic test jet at the film’s start, when he breaks protocol and is targeted by a commanding officer for permanent grounding, he’s called back to familiar territory at San Diego’s Top Gun training program. His skills are needed to oversee a new mission carried out by an elite group of the best recent graduates, many of whom weren’t even born when he was in their shoes. One of the pilots, Rooster (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now), isn’t thrilled to see Maverick onsite due to their complicated family history. Fans of the original will make the connection (and it’s no spoiler), but I’ll let screenwriters Ehren Kruger (Dumbo), Erin Warren Singer (Only the Brave), and frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) connect the dots while you watch.

Rekindling a romance with old flame Penny (a barely-there character from the original and the substitute for Kelly McGillis, who, like Meg Ryan, sadly doesn’t return for the sequel, though other familiar faces do), Maverick balances questioning the need for stability at his age with, well, feeling the need for speed. You can guess what wins most of the time, but credit Cruise and Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) as Penny for creating a mature, age-appropriate relationship that is allowed to take center stage believably and often without a lot of dialogue. Connelly is so good (and eternally, impossibly beautiful) at conveying whole paragraphs with just an eye movement, that she makes one of the best Cruise love interests I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s the kind of non-mushy romantic involvement that even audiences coming for full-throttle action won’t mind pausing for.

Not that the film doesn’t have the pulse-pounding, nail-biting action to keep you alternately on the edge of your seat or pushed back gripping your armrests. Making good use of the IMAX cameras it was filmed on and incredible cinematography seamlessly blending the actual flying from any green screen, it’s as realistic an action-adventure as you’ll see this side of a documentary or Navy-approved training video. Credit to Cruise and the actors for going the distance and putting in the work to make it look accurate. Working with a mission more in-depth than the first film could have brought more complex challenges to keeping engagement, but it’s an easy-to-follow film with easy-to-root for high stakes.

Like an authentic ’80s summer sweltering blockbuster, it has a power anthem from Lady Gaga with a needle drop at a perfect position. It was a fantastic move to have its theme weaved into the score throughout. I still like the Oscar-winning Giorgio Moroder/Berlin song from the first film best, but I am glad Gaga and Hans Zimmer didn’t simply remake that classic. Gaga has a serious chance to win another songwriting Oscar for her fist-raising barn burner that rounds out one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at the movies in my recent memory. If you’ve been waiting weeks, months, or years (?) to head back to the theater…Top Gun: Maverick is the film to break your fast. See it on an IMAX screen as big as you can find with a great sound system and you’ll get the full impact. Waiting until streaming will not do at all. Top Gun: Maverick is a must-see in general, but you can’t miss it in the movie theater.

Welcome to Summer 2022.

Movie Review ~ No Exit (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: During a blizzard and stranded at an isolated highway rest stop in the mountains, a college student discovers a kidnapped child hidden in a car belonging to one of the people inside.
Stars: Havana Rose Liu, Dale Dickey, Danny Ramirez, David Rysdahl, Mila Harris, Dennis Haysbert
Director: Damien Power
Rated: R
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  A few short weeks ago, Oscar-nominated director Kenneth Branagh (Belfast) took us on his second Agatha Christie excursion with the decently received remake of Death on the Nile. I’d read the book and seen previous adaptations, so the developments didn’t shock me much, but it did make me crave for another film that offered up a game of “guess the psycho” where I could participate. It turns out I didn’t have to wait long for my turn because 20th Century Studios and Hulu are releasing No Exit, an adaptation of Taylor Adams’s popular 2018 novel. I’d gotten about halfway through the trailer for this snowbound film but had to turn it off, so I didn’t have anything spoiled too much, but what I did see promised a tight thriller.

Thankfully, this is a case of getting what you expected because No Exit is one of those films you remember from back in the day. The kind you’d see with friends on a Friday night at your local theater, enjoy, but almost totally forget all the details of by the time Monday rolled around. That’s not a knock against director Damien Power’s well-directed suspense yarn, and it’s high praise from me because these are the kinds of films I’m downright starving for right about now. Studios and streaming services seem opposed to making this popcorn entertainment, but it’s how the best kind of loyal audiences was fed and nurtured twenty years ago. They kept the box office going during the doldrum months between peak movie season, which is when many of these genre films were often dumped into theaters and quickly turned into hits the production companies desperately needed. The rise of at-home entertainment and focus on franchise meant these mid-budget thrillers got sent packing, but lately I’m seeing a nice resurgence of these, along with audience support.  

I’m going to walk back slightly what I just said in that earlier paragraph about No Exit coming off like a film you’d expect because I didn’t want to imply it’s predictable in the least. Sure, there are moments in the story of Darby, a troubled young woman at an isolated, locked-down recovery center that feel like you know what will happen next. More often than not, however, there’s a hairpin turn in the adaptation from Ant-Man and the Wasp screenwriters Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari you didn’t see coming because you were already distracted by another dangerous twist on your other side. When Darby (Havana Rose Liu, The Sky Is Everywhere) receives a phone call that her mother has suffered a trauma and might not survive, she breaks out of the facility, steals a car, and hits the road hoping to make it to the hospital before it’s too late. She wasn’t counting on a winter storm to consume her route, though.

Re-directed by a highway patrol officer to a rest stop in the woods off the highway, Darby is the fifth person arriving to wait out the storm until the roads are cleared. Traveling married couple Sandi (Dale Dickey, Palm Springs) and Ed (Dennis Haysbert, Far From Heaven) have some parental instinct to make sure she’s ok but mostly keep to themselves while the strange Lars (David Rysdahl, Nine Days) busies himself with a deck of playing cards. Ash (Danny Ramirez, Valley Girl) is asleep on the bench, and there is no Wi-Fi connection inside the building that is undergoing renovations. When Darby steps out in the bitter cold to try and snag a signal, she finds a kidnapping victim in one of the vehicles…but doesn’t know who owns which car. 

The Christie vibe existing in No Exit kicks in right about here as Darby now has four suspects to size up, three of which could be allies and one of whom is a kidnapper biding their time so they can be on their way. Don’t be discouraged if it’s revealed earlier than you might expect who owns the van because it’s the tip of an iceberg that goes deeper than you’ll know. It’s compact fun watching the events unfold, almost as if in real-time and nearly all through the eyes of the ever-present and always captivating Liu. Rarely off-screen for long, Liu has a lot of the movie to carry on her own without much dialogue. Still, she powers through it with a ferocity that’s intriguing to develop over 90 minutes. I also always enjoy seeing Dickey show up anywhere because her choice of roles tends toward the unexpected, and Haysbert continues to be a dependable force onscreen. As the two young men holed up in the visitor’s center, Ramirez and Rysdahl might be the perfect red herrings, or maybe they’re demented killers, but neither actor shows their cards, even during a breathless get-to-know-you card game.

One thing that did take me off guard, and at times out of No Exit completely, was the high amount of shocking violence. It’s far more viscerally gory and cruel than I was expecting, and Power doesn’t hold back with a handful of scenes that get hard to watch because of their brutality. I pegged this one to be a bit more of the sleepover-friendly variety, but it’s been pitched for adult-oriented members of the genre fandom. Think of it as a lark that the new breed of Scream community activists might enjoy. Thankfully, while it isn’t an outright excuse, the violence does have a point and nicely ties into the final act’s arc. Not every movie in this type of niche can say the same.

Streaming Review ~ The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (Episode 1)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the events of ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ Sam Wilson/Falcon and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier team up in a global adventure that tests their abilities — and their patience

Stars: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Daniel Brühl, Emily VanCamp, Adepero Oduye, Wyatt Russell, Danny Ramirez, Miki Ishikawa, Desmond Chiam

Director: Kari Skogland

Running Length: 48 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  With the release of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, a lot of loose ends were tied up for a number of our A-List stars that had reached the end of their contracts.  Namely, Robert Downey, Jr.’s power source as Iron Man finally ran out and Chris Evans as Captain America decided it was time to put down his shield and enjoy life, letting time take its turn with him.  Other stars are retreating back to their own established franchise films (Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Thor, The Incredible Hulk) or starting their own (Black Widow) but what about the other Avengers that might be considered the ‘B’ team?  Well, there might not be a movie for them but there could be a Disney+ show that would work…

Viewers have already experienced WandaVision, the surprisingly winning nine-episode series that premiered in January on Disney’s subscription streaming service and became 2021’s first watercooler hit, attracting a diverse audience of established fans and newcomers lured in by the shows intriguing premise.  Less Marvel-ey, at least at first, than what many had come to expect, the series featured the bereaved Wanda Maximoff creating an insular world where her true love and sentient being Vision could remain alive.  Taking over an innocuous town and turning them into unwitting participants in an ever-changing world modeled after television sitcoms, Wanda can’t keep the outside world, or evil magic, out of her sphere for long.  Eventually drawing out her powers as the Scarlet Witch, the series would drop the clever in favor of clamor, drowning out what was interesting week-to-week with more standard efficiencies that were a means to an end for future Marvel properties.

Mere weeks after WandaVision wrapped up its run comes the premiere of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier on March 19 (the same weekend Zack Snyder’s Justice League comes out…oh, the timing!) and the first of its six episodes were screened for critics before the release.  If the first episode is any indication, there’s a new formula afoot in the Marvel Television Universe and it’s heavy on the emotional fallout experienced by the Avengers after they return to their “regular” lives.  While it starts with a thrilling action set piece that wouldn’t have been out of place (with a bit more polish in the effects and editing department) in a big-screen Avengers adventure, Episode 1 switches gears fairly rapidly and slows down the pace significantly for the remainder of the 40-minute run time.

The good news is that the Marvel group and experienced TV director Kari Skogland have assembled a cast that I think is going to be worth tuning in for every week.  Though in this first episode we don’t get to meet the full roster that’s credited in the well designed but gargantuanly long closing credits, we at least get our first introduction to Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave) as Falcon/Sam Wilson’s (Anthony Mackie, Love the Coopers) Louisiana-based sister Sarah.  Running the family fishing boat and trying to make ends meet, Sarah is a good reality check for Sam and I hope remains a key player over the next several episodes.  We also get a sense of where Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan, Endings, Beginnings) is, mentally, after returning from his exile and beginning to make amends to those he either hurt or empowered as a Hydra weapon.

I would have liked to see one more episode before making a full review call on this one because aside from a few hints at a possible anarchist enemy that may become a larger threat to the two men and a further challenge that hits closer to home for Sam, there’s not a lot of information given out in this first episode.  Like WandaVision, it’s slickly made and doesn’t feel like it’s a television show attempting to be something bigger but I do wonder what they’ll be able to accomplish with less episodes in which to tell their story and even more characters to introduce over the coming weeks.  Not that it matters…if fans went crazy for the quirkiness of WandaVision I think they’re going to find some comfort in the familiarity of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

The Silver Bullet ~ Top Gun: Maverick

Synopsis: A follow-up to the 1986 hit brings back Naval Aviator Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and will deal with the rise of unmanned drones and pilots becoming a thing of the past.

Release Date: June 26, 2020

Thoughts: Has it really been 33 years since Tom Cruise cemented his rising superstar status with the blockbuster release of Top Gun?  Inspiring countless imitators (including Cruise himself) and launching a million slow dances to the Oscar-winning theme song, the movie is firmly in our cultural lexicon and holds up quite nicely.  So you could hear some groans across the U.S. of A. when it was announced Cruise would be returning in the long rumored sequel.  For someone with as good as track record as Cruise has with starring in successful non-franchise fare, why occupy his time between Mission: Impossible sequels with another sequel to a previous role?  Teaming with his Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski and looping in an excellent roster of supporting players, from the looks of this first trailer for Top Gun: Maverick Cruise clearly knew what he was doing and I’m sorry I doubted him in the first place.  This sneak peak at the high-flying action film releasing almost 12 months from now stirs the kind of nostalgic summer excitement within me that doesn’t get a jolt that often.  Fingers crossed it’s more than just a retread of the original.