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 ~ I Want You Back

The Facts:

Synopsis: Newly dumped thirty-somethings Peter and Emma team up to sabotage their exes’ new relationships and win them back for good.
Stars: Charlie Day, Jenny Slate, Scott Eastwood, Manny Jacinto, Clark Backo, Gina Rodriguez, Mason Gooding, Dylan Gelula, Jami Gertz, Isabel May, Luke David Blumm
Director: Jason Orley
Rated: R
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With Valentine’s Day racing toward us, many will be looking for that perfect movie to mark the day, one that matches with the mood they feel best fits the situation. Some may feel drawn to the weepy romance of true love lost, others prefer a madcap comedy that sends lovebirds on the run from a rogue they’ve crossed paths with, or maybe your kind of movie has nothing to do with Cupid’s biggest day of the year. February 14th might be the time you decide you finally need to check Lawrence of Arabia or Cujo off your list. Whatever your target is, libraries, theaters, and streaming services have you well covered. 

As is typical whenever a holiday is near, there’s even last-ditch effort fresh content making a play for your attention, and I Want You Back is one of those movies, and I think it’s one worth considering. Available for free to Amazon Prime Members, this Amazon Studios production features a familiar-sounding set-up that manages to rise above recognizable cliches based almost solely on the striking appeal of its two stars. While the new Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson film Marry Me is opening in theaters and PeacockTV, this easy-to-like production should find a sizable audience who spot it on the Prime Video homepage.

Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger get the awkward stuff out of the way first, with Emma (Jenny Slate, On the Rocks) and Peter (Charlie Day, Vacation) getting dumped by the respective partners, much to their total shock. Peter’s long-time girlfriend Anne (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire) is an elementary teacher longing to pursue her passion for acting but feeling like it’s Peter’s lack of ambition which is the main factor holding her back. Personal trainer Noah (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) has tired of his years pushing Emma to figure out what she wants to do with her life and has met someone new, a pastry chef (Clark Backo, No Running) who has her own bakery. Neither dumpee takes the split very well, and that’s how both find each other nursing their wounds in the stairwell of the generic office complex where both work generic 9-5 jobs.

Realizing quickly they are bonded when it comes to being broken up with most egregiously, Emma and Peter make a pact to support one another through this challenging time. It’s an arrangement that morphs into a plan to block their exes from being happy with their new partners. So, Peter will befriend Noah and, through that bro-ship, remind him what he gave up. Emma will, in turn, ingratiate herself with Anne’s drama teacher boyfriend (Manny Jacinto, Bad Times at the El Royale) by working on his production of Little Shop of Horrors and seduce him away. 

Going into the film, I didn’t think it would be possible to hold my interest for nearly two hours because these movies always tend to end in the same way. The question is always then how will the script keep the ones we know are meant to be together apart just long enough for them to conclude it’s not someone else they want but the person closest to them all along? That lack of suspense can make everything that happens between the first meeting and walk into the sunset feel like filler if you don’t have the right combination of actors, but director Jason Orley (The Intern) has found gold in Slate and Day. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been Day’s biggest fan so far in his film career. While I know he carries a dedicated fan base from his long run with TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Day’s raspy-voiced chirp hadn’t won me over quite yet. The opposite was true of Slate, who I came into the evening enjoying quite a lot. In a strange reversal, I found Day to be the stronger of the two and responsible for more of the heavy lifting and feeling more comfortable with it. We know that Emma has issues around being serious, but a little too much of that acidity can wear an audience down.   Day applies the right amount of bite to his feelings on their situation, making his journey as detailed but allowing audiences to continue to empathize with his broken heart. 

Helping everything along are a few inspired moments of comedy supplied by both stars. Even Day’s typical nervous uncomfortable banter comes across as well-tuned to the character he’s playing, and Slate takes that and plays off it nicely. Not to be outdone, Slate gets a surreal sequence when she finds herself stepping in at a last-minute technical rehearsal of the junior high musical she’s faked her way into working on. The hilarious image of her singing a duet with a boy half her height and not nearly old enough to drive is one that will stay with me (in a good way) for some time.

Where I Want You Back cuts some corners are the supporting players. It’s not an issue with the actors, but how the exes are written. It’s much easier to root for Emma and Peter to wise up and see they don’t need the people who dumped them if the characters are sour, and that’s mostly how Aptaker and Berger have sketched them. Anne lacks faith in Peter and projects her lack of drive on him, which then causes him to question his own goals. Did Emma need Noah to remind her she hasn’t done much with her life, or did she need a supportive partner that walked alongside her? It’s bad enough in movies when one character is blinded by a love that has long since burned out, but here we have two. At least Rodriguez and Eastwood soften some of those coarser edges. Eastwood has a strong showing here, and it’s one of his best screen roles so far in a career that hasn’t been as dependable as his famous father.

I know that not everyone embraces Valentine’s Day as the happiest of holidays, and maybe it is one of those days that’s been craftily promoted through the years by the greeting card companies. There is a way to take back the day, and that’s through making Valentine’s Day about you more than any commercial product. If you find yourself single, celebrate “you.” Those with significant others should have something up their sleeve. I’m not saying that surprising them with a movie night on the couch with I Want You Back wouldn’t earn major brownie points…but a brownie couldn’t hurt either.

I Want You Back will be available on Prime Video
Friday, February 11

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.