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 ~ Val

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The Facts:

Synopsis: For over 40 years Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood’s most mercurial and/or misunderstood actors has been documenting his own life and craft through thousands of hours of film and video. This raw, wildly original and unflinching documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled, sometimes hilarious look at what it means to be an artist and a complex man.

Stars: Val Kilmer, Jack Kilmer

Director: Ting Poo, Leo Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  In addition to keeping you updated with the latest and greatest (and not so greatest) films that received a streaming release during the year-long lockdown, I also found time to do a lot of reading.  Most of the time it was those easy beach read thrillers or whatever was being adapted into an upcoming film, but I never can resist a good celebrity memoir.  One of the most entertaining selections I came across during this entire period was “I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir” by Val Kilmer, giving a greater insight into an actor that up until that point I had always believed to be exactly what the Hollywood insiders said he was.  Difficult to work with, arrogant, demanding, and pretentious were all words that came to mind when I heard Kilmer’s name and his recent spate of acting roles (in already dreadful films like The Snowman and Paydirt) didn’t do much to make me think I should give him a second thought.

That book changed my opinion of the actor, doing more for explaining the man underneath it all than the usual superstar autobiography.  On the heels of that book comes Val, a documentary being released for a limited run in theaters now before debuting on Amazon Prime in early August.  With an even more focused magnifying glass, audiences can witness firsthand the path the Los Angeles-born actor took to his stardom and see through an incredible amount of personal home movies and on-set videos he recorded the unvarnished side of moviemaking.  At the same time, Kilmer’s struggle with health issues related to a throat cancer diagnosis in 2015 make for a striking comparison with the ruggedly handsome man featured early on in his career.

Val actually opens with some onset horsing around with actors on the set of Top Gun and you almost can’t believe that film is nearly 35 years old at this point.  So many of the men on that set were at the start of their careers and even Kilmer was just coming off his first real feature film (1984’s Top Secret!), having already made his Broadway debut (alongside Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon who Kilmer captures mooning the camera) upon his graduation from Julliard.  It’s surreal watching brief clips of the red carpet premiere and opening night party for Top Gun, with the likes of Tom Cruise and others dancing the night away in their chic ’80s evening wear. After Top Gun, Kilmer’s star continued to rise, although he kept running up against roadblocks of his own making when challenging directors and producers that wanted Kilmer to be less of an actor and more of a silent commodity.  As the years went by, the leading roles in major projects dwindled as less directors (and a few costars) wanted to be involved in Kilmer’s often extreme approach to his method.

Kilmer’s full commitment was ingrained on him from an early age, growing up on a ranch formerly owned by Roy Rogers.  One of three sons born to parents that would later divorce, the family suffered an early tragedy that would haunt them, and especially Kilmer, for years to come and it would be this influence that would often propel Kilmer to go to edge.  You can say a lot of things about Kilmer’s choice in projects and roles but you can’t ever say he doesn’t commit 140% when he does sign up.  Throughout Val we see several projects that obviously were key films to him for one reason or another (Tombstone, The Doors, The Island of Dr. Moreau) where he went the extra mile to get it right or defend his choices.

With the throat cancer treated but leaving his voice severely impaired, Kilmer now speaks with the aid of a medical device and while his adult son Jack narrates the majority of the film using his dad’s words, Kilmer himself speaks often as well. It’s these ‘unscripted’ moments that Jack isn’t ready when the documentary is quite reflective.  Kilmer is open about his past mistakes and the way he approached the people he loved and the friends he came to know, and it’s not born out of a man that has come to the front step of death’s door and has regrets.  It’s from a person that reached a point in his life where he’s let go of a lot of the stones that have burdened him unnecessarily and watching that release in someone clearly exhausted is cathartic even for the viewer.  Knowing much of the footage shot wasn’t meant to be seen by the public at large makes it feel more genuine and less showy.

I think fans of Kilmer will be greatly moved by this documentary on his life and current journey toward peace – it reinforces that Kilmer has always had good intentions in his work but simply played the Hollywood game a bit too aggressively. Then he was dealt a raw hand by the system and by fate. Those that had perhaps written him off (full admission: like I had before I read his book) would do well to view Val for its raw and all-access unmasking of a complicated man that is more relatable than we might think. 

Movie Review ~ Paydirt


The Facts
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Synopsis: A parolee teams up with his old crew determined to find a buried bag of cash stolen five years ago from a DEA bust gone bad, while being tracked by a retired Sheriff.

Stars: Luke Goss, Val Kilmer, Mike Hatton, Mercedes Kilmer, Paul Sloan, Mirtha Michelle, Veronika Bozeman, Murielle Telio, Nick Vallelonga

Director: Christian Sesma

Rated: R

Running Length: 81 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When is a movie not a movie?  I found myself asking that question quite a lot throughout the 80 l-o-n-g minutes that constituted the running length of the new crime thriller Paydirt because there’s so little there there that I almost wondered what anyone thought they were doing while filming was going on.  I mean, it’s clear the actors were enjoying the sun-drenched location shooting throughout California in those pre-COVID days and I’ll admit to some Midwestern landlocked jealousy at the lovely sights captured.  In that respect, writer/director Christian Sesma earns a small dose of horn toots for making the film visually pleasing even though nearly everything else about it is uniformly terrible.

When I say uniformly terrible, I mean it literally because in the opening shot we see supposed police officers in hilariously ill-fitting attire that look straight up from Costume Rentals-R-Us.  They’re there to make a bust initiated by Sheriff Tucker (Val Kilmer, The Snowman) acting on a tip in hopes of making a large drug bust and taking down Damien Brooks aka The Brit (Luke Goss, Blade II) at the same time.  When the strike goes awry and cops end up dead, Tucker is disgraced and Brooks heads to jail for five years.  Jumping forward in time to Brooks getting released, he is watched over by a pretty parole officer (Mirtha Michelle, Fast & Furious) while simultaneously trying to gather members of his gang back together and find a stash of cash that belonged to a drug kingpin…who’s also interested in finding it now that Brooks is a free man.

All of this has the makings of your standard crime caper and that’s totally fine, I’d definitely watch a movie like that.  The trouble with Paydirt is that Sesma’s script is so devoid of any interesting characters or fresh developments on the traditional formula that it winds up being an hour and a half you’ll spend wondering why you didn’t just give Oceans 11 another watch.  It wastes potentially cleverly arranged criss-crosses in favor of being so straight-forward they might as well show the final scene at the beginning and spare you the trouble.  If that wasn’t bad enough, audiences have to sit through several awkward scenes between Kilmer and his real-life daughter Mercedes (who earns an “introducing” credit via nepotism and nepotism alone) that have zero bearing on anything else in the film.  Coming off more like rehearsal exercises that would have been included as DVD extras back in the day, these father-daughter scenes are really something to behold.

You want more about the plot?  Well, it’s so convoluted that I don’t think I could tell you what the movie ultimately was about or who wound up being the good guys and gals.  The winding roads Sesma sends us on are handled with such ham-fisted contrivances that at a certain point I’d imagine viewers will either give up or, if you’re like me and required to finish what you started, simply hunker down and get through it.  If you stick with it, you’ll have to soldier through Sesma’s insistence on pushing forward with aggravating characters like Mike Hatton’s The Brain, a nebbish schmuck that’s always the source of trouble for the gang, Paul Sloan as The Brawn who seems to only be around to give The Brain someone to play off of, and Nick Vallelonga playing The Don, a casino manager that gives Brooks a job that makes his parole officer happy.  Strangely, all three men were involved with Green Book in one way or another, with Vallelonga taking home two Oscars – one for screenplay and the other for producing the film!

The only characters I was the least bit interested in were The Babe (Murielle Telio, The Nice Guys) and The Badass (Veronika Bozeman) because not only did the actresses exhibit chemistry with each other and anyone they came in contact with but I found myself imagining how much better a movie centered on them would have been.  They definitely seem to have more of a commanding presence than leading man Goss who appears at times to have just been woken up to say his few lines before dozing back off to dreamland.  He looks like the audience feels: bored.  It’s hard to say anything negative about Kilmer at this stage, the actor filmed his role while recovering from throat cancer which led to his dialogue being dubbed in post-production…and not very well.  To know the kind of movies/roles Kilmer came from and now seeing him in dreck like this is sad indeed.

Paydirt is the movie equivalent of a speedbump you hit going 90 on a deserted highway, quickly runover and quickly forgotten.  Aside from the two performances mentioned and a rather funky on brand end credits song by local Coachella band Giselle Woo & The Night Owls, this is as skippable a film as I’ve seen in a long time.  Everyone here has been in a better movie and will (hopefully, fingers crossed) be in a better one down the line.

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.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Snowman

The Facts:

Synopsis: Detective Harry Hole investigates the disappearance of a woman whose pink scarf is found wrapped around an ominous-looking snowman

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jonas Karlsson, Toby Jones, Chloë Sevigny, Val Kilmer, James D’Arcy, J.K. Simmons

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Whoa…it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a movie this bad from the get-go. Yes, The Snowman is unquestionably as terrible as you’ve heard it is and it’s likely going to wind up the worst movie released theatrically in 2017. That the film is even getting a wide release is a bit of a miracle and one has to give major chutzpah props to Universal Studios for daring to send out this not even half-baked lame thriller. What’s especially depressing is that so many talented (and Oscar-winning!) people were involved with this both in front of and behind the camera. Collectively, someone should be made to give back one of their Oscars and I’ll leave it to the group to decide who is going to part with their little gold man. A movie this incompetently made demands a sacrifice.

Based on Jo Nesbø’s international bestseller but evidentially substantially changed by the three screenwriters attributed to the script, The Snowman starts on the wrong foot and never recovers. Not that it attempts to, jumping right into introducing boozy Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave) in Oslo as he stumbles back to the police force after a drunken bender. There’s little in the way of character introduction of any kind, the movie just happens to find recognizable faces along the way and incorporates them into the story when convenient.

There’s Rebecca Ferguson (Life) as, I think, a visiting detective with a secret agenda that still takes on local cases, such as the one with the missing woman that unites her with Harry. This investigation leads them to a possible serial killer who, Ferguson hilariously concludes, is triggered “by the falling snow”. Possible suspects include a suspicious husband of the missing woman (James D’Arcy, Cloud Atlas), a creepy doctor (David Denick, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and wealthy land developer played by J.K. Simmons (Patriots Day). Simmons is just one of the cast sporting a disastrous British accent, though the entire action takes place in Norway. Are these all just a specific band of ex-pats with a killer in their midst? Nah, all the signs and newspapers are in English…even the police station features no Norwegian signage.

I’ve always said I couldn’t get enough of Chloë Sevigny (Lovelace) but she’s playing twins here and it turns out…one Sevigny is more than enough. Then there’s the mysterious case of the nearly unrecognizable Val Kilmer seen only in flashback as a detective in neighboring Bergen. Looking shockingly sickly (the actor recently survived a throat tumor) and clearly dubbed, his performance is off the rails and just another piece of a puzzle that is just not meant to fit together. I can’t even go there with Charlotte Gainsbourg (Samba) as Fassbender’s old girlfriend, especially after witnessing a clothed sex scene between the two that’s as awkwardly uncomfortable to watch as seeing a lab rat trying to mate with a St. Bernard.

Director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) has popped up in interviews saying that 15% of the script wound up not being filmed and that does not surprise me in the least. It at least explains how Oscar-winner and longtime Martin Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker (Cape Fear) managed to piece together a movie that makes almost entirely no sense. There are no scene transitions or establishing shots so it is impossible to determine where the characters are in relation to not only the plot but each other. There’s one sequence cut so poorly that you think two actors are in the same room but are in fact miles away from each other. Ferguson’s hair changes color several times, about as many times as Fassbender’s hair gets longer then shorter from one moment to the next. While Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Into the Woods) captures some of the gloomier Norwegian vistas with a bit of flair, the visuals are weighed down heavily by the sterile production design from Maria Djurkovic and Tatiana Macdonald (Oscar nominees themselves for The Imitation Game) that heavily favors latte colored IKEA furnishings.

A competent creative team has crafted a truly incompetent film here, even the finale is botched with the suggestion of a sequel so laughably inserted that your heart aches for the Universal Studios executive that must have pleaded for it to be incorporated just in case.  I’m usually not a fan of audiences talking during a movie but as the film progressed the chatter became louder and louder as everyone began to question what in the actual hell was going on. This is terrible filmmaking, an embarrassment for every single person above and below the line.  While it’s bound to be mentioned in the same breath as other Scandinavian-set thrillers, it not even fit to be included in the belch that follows that breath.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Snowman

Synopsis: Detective Harry Hole investigates the disappearance of a woman whose pink scarf is found wrapped around an ominous-looking snowman

Release Date:  October 20, 2017

Thoughts: With the popularity of Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s series of novels following Detective Harry Hole (yikes, a most unfortunate name), it was merely a matter of time before the hardened investigator appeared onscreen.  I’m intrigued to see Michael Fassbender (Prometheus) signed on to what could be yet another lucrative franchise, lately he’s seemed to be making a lot of interesting indie choices.  What could have attracted him to such commercial fare?  Probably it’s the money but maybe there’s promise in this mystery which also stars Rebecca Ferguson (Life), J.K. Simmons (The Accountant), and Chloë Sevigny (Lovelace).  A big screen adaptation of Nesbø’s novel Headhunters made for fun fare a few years back and with these procedural serial killer flick on the decline, let’s hope The Snowman doesn’t melt at the box office.