Saturday, May 28, 2022

Cruise Control: TOP GUN: MAVERICK

The secret sauce of Top Gun’s appeal is that it’s hard and soft, mechanical and sentimental, gear-headed and soft-hearted. There’s militarism and macho posturing among students at a Naval flight academy, with as much attention to glistening bodies as the planes’ chassis. But it is balanced out with a cocky young pilot’s attempts at wooing a woman out of his range, and his wing-mate’s loving relationship with a doting wife and son. Sure, a mysterious Other is out there, and the military needs to train these men to fight it. But there’s the homeland to be tended in the meantime, too. Tony Scott made this movie of fast planes and smirking retorts drip with montage and soft rock, an extended advertisement for itself. But the sneaky romantic core is surely what made it popular. And embracing that is what makes the long-awaited sequel Top Gun: Maverick even better. This time around, director Joseph Kosinski—whose great resume is a perfect preparation for the task, with a belated and much-improved sequel to an 80s favorite, Tron: Legacy; a Tom Cruise action spectacle, Oblivion; and a men-at-dangerous-work, process-oriented tearjerker Only the Brave—precisely calibrates the requirements and delivers a movie that’s muscular, delicate, and relentlessly, manipulatively satisfying.

The 36-year gap between the original and this sequel has necessitate a more mature approach. I’m glad they didn’t try to claim Cruise’s hotshot pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still a youthful paragon of gleaming, arrogant precociousness. That was the typical Cruise role at the beginning of his stardom, but Maverick finds him willing to admit to his age. Much like the Mission: Impossibles’ later entries really took off once Cruise was willing to make his hero small in the frame, a perpetual underdog just scraping by in, well, impossible tasks, this sequel finds Maverick at the other end of a long career. We hear that, after graduating Top Gun, he served overseas multiple times, and is now working as a test pilot for experimental planes. He also still bristles at authority, which means he remains a Captain after all these years. He knows he needs to placate the brass (Ed Harris, Jon Hamm) just enough to keep him in the cockpit of really cool, really fast planes. But he’s also enough of a hotshot to want to push the limits wherever he can. This brings him back to Top Gun as an instructor, a punishment, perhaps, for one more clash with a direct order, or salvation, perhaps, on the part of an old friend (Val Kilmer) who sticks up for him one more time. Is there still room for a hero like Maverick, in a program for a kind of air combat that’s less a pressing issue in a world of drones and insurgencies? And does he have what it takes, not merely to prove himself, but to prepare the best-of-the-best for a dangerous mission that’d be certain suicide if they can’t master his techniques?

This allows for a movie that’s a more relaxed and gentle story about fathers and mentors and hoping to make up for old mistakes and prove one’s relevance to a new generation. (The movie’s definitely self-aware there.) The youthful energy of the first picture is now off to the sides, and centered on others. Throughout it leans on Cruise’s age by letting him play something like a normal person instead of a gleaming hero. He’s surrounded by younger trainees, including one (Miles Teller) who is the son of a fallen character from the original. This complicates the emotional valances of the training. Cruise wants to help these students survive by teaching them to pull off nearly-impossible maneuvers—tight, vertiginous dives and steep, face-melting climbs. But his understanding of the costs of this job, and this mission, makes him reluctant to put them in danger at all. He feels like he owes it to his late friend’s son. But here’s a movie about making things right from your past, and finding people to help along the way. It’s most expressive in the warm middle-aged romance on the margins, as Maverick reconnects with an old fling, an admiral’s daughter who is now a glowing, bar-owning, single mother (Jennifer Connelly). This is just one more way the movie sets up cliche and diverges into unexpected heart. What in the previous film would be a quick flirt is now a slow smolder, and where the lovemaking montage should be is instead a montage of small talk. How sweet. Later, as he sneaks out, the woman’s teen daughter stares down the old man and, right when you think she’d snark, instead says, “Don’t break her heart again.”

Because the movie so genuinely believes in the emotions of these cardboard types, it sells the stakes. It builds setups and pays them off with aplomb. The training sequences, shot in convincing aerial stunts, are a beguiling mechanical spectacle. And even if the ultimate mission is geopolitically preposterous, it’s still a gripping and tense spectacle of planes and missiles for an extended action climax. It comes down to a militaristic fantasy of faceless bad guys from a nameless country to whom consequence-free violence can be committed without larger global complications. (This is the way it has to be for our global film marketplace, but recall the original was similarly cagey; they both have all the specificity of a recruitment ad.) But because the picture is so elegantly manipulative, with its gooey warm sentiment powering the interpersonal dynamics, and the hard-charging dogfights and explosions of the finale so muscularly deployed and crisply cut, that it’s hard not to get swept up in its concussive artifice. All that and a soaring power-ballad pounding over the end credits, too? That’s the perfect combination of hard and soft for which you go to a movie like this.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022


I prefer movies that plainly recycle old ideas to ones that pretend they’re smarter than that impulse while doing it all the same. Take Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, a noisy, flashy, smirking experience that’s ostensibly satirical about the reboot cycle in which we’ve been caught, but is ultimately far emptier than if it just did a remake of the 90s cartoon. The premise is that, in modern day Hollywood, Disney’s animated chipmunks, Chip and Dale, are washed up actors whose glory days in the afternoon sitcom of the title are long behind them. Though they squeaked with the chirping voices of their ilk at the time, now we learn they have the wisecracking tenors of John Mulaney and Andy Samberg. Lo and behold, they get pulled into a detective story when one of their old co-stars is the latest cartoon mysteriously kidnapped. The police on the case, a claymation chief (J.K. Simmons) and his human woman partner (KiKi Layne), imply the animated rodents could help them ferret out some clues. And so the pair dust off their show’s skills for sneaking and rescuing, putting them to the test in their real world. They spelunk through a broad showbiz world, and end up bumping elbows with a handful of winking cameos from brands past and present. Jabs are made, mostly at Disney’s competition, from the weird off-brand dollar-store knockoff cartoons to some particularly nasty remarks directed toward the Paw Patrol. Alas, the mystery itself remains pretty stupid, goosed with creepy sight gags involving erasing beloved characters, is solved quickly, and then just leaves us with a bunch of hurrying around that wears out its welcome before the characters can get to the next clue.

The obvious unflattering point of comparison is Robert Zemeckis’ classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That clever noir revival was chockablock with classic characters in a story that played fair by its genre and its references. It was an actual serious mystery engaged with ideas about the state of studio Hollywood and the history of Los Angeles. It was a toon Chinatown, and every bit as inventive and imaginative and endlessly creative as one would need to be to pull it off, down to the beautifully world-weary Bob Hoskins performance as the live-action man reluctantly pulled into a web of civic and cartoon corruption. That’s better than the only thing on Rescue Rangers’ mind, other than its flat formulaic sleuthing. All it says is, gee, reboots sure are everywhere these days, and sometimes trends in animation are kinda silly. Oh, and friendship is important. It isn’t a modern family film without that. But all the above only gets you so far.

Director Akiva Schaffer, whose previous film with his Lonely Island compatriots was the incisive goof on modern celebrity culture Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, has only a few good gags here. The blending of hand-drawn and CG styles is sometimes appealing, and the parade of winking references is stuffed with surprise appearances by corporate-approved specters from other properties. (The funniest has to be Tim Robinson voicing a rival studio’s infamously poorly-designed character of recent years—so badly received in its first trailer that that film ended up delayed several months to refurbish him.) But the movie is too stupid to even realize that it’d be funnier if it acknowledged Chip and Dale’s 90s show was itself a reboot of the characters from classic Disney shorts. This movie puts them in elementary school together in the 80s, a lazier hit of nostalgia than the deeper, smarter idea so close and yet so far. (It also forgets the movie Return to Neverland happened, which fumbles the villain’s backstory.) That’s what the whole thing’s like, though. It’s a loud, violent, cynical ploy to seem smart, when it’s just a sparkle of borrowed ingenuity that’s cramped and shallow.

After all that mania for naught, the sedate and undemanding Downton Abbey: A New Era is almost welcome. This second feature film extension to the popular soapy British drama is just another jumbo-sized episode stretched out across the big screen. The show’s perspective is still all off—an early-20th-century vision of the idle rich ambling around a palatial estate while their grateful admiring servants busy themselves keeping things running, the two halves joined by mutual appreciation and a penchant for interpersonal dramas that rarely cross the streams. But there’s something seductive to the surface that suggests such a lack of class struggle is possible. This new movie finds the rich folk boating off to the south of France at the behest of a mysterious figure from their matriarch’s past, while a few stay behind to help the help keep track of a film crew that’s paying to use Downton for a month. The two plots toggle back and forth, and the whole thing is done in a bland TV style. A character walks in and makes a pronouncement. Reactions. Establishing shot. More pronouncements. And so on. It’s all a bit tedious.

At least Downton 2 is exceedingly pleasant boredom. One can doze lightly, rousing oneself on occasion to appreciate the comfortable sets, glamorous costumes, and plummy accents. All involved feel quite at home in the proceedings, as they should, especially fan favorite Maggie Smith’s cranky and regal old lady, who gets a truly great final line here. The rest feels cobbled together from borrowed bits, even its own. The characters behave more or less as you’d expect given the circumstances. The French villa is a nice enough postcard landscape. The film crew’s silent movie is suddenly changed to a talkie mid-production, leading to complications that are nothing less than Singin’ in the Rain bits played straighter. Because the whole thing is entirely overfamiliar, there’s nothing much demanding or involving about the watch, which adds to the enjoyable nothing of it all. Maybe people who’ve actually seen the show will feel more satisfaction in it. Weirdly, the closest comparisons to these movies are the original Star Trek films, a TV series continuing in theaters as an excuse to keep a chummy cast and cozy setting rolling along to fans’ delights. If that’s the case, this one’s the Wrath of Kahn to the first’s Motion Picture—now a smaller, more contained picture, concerned mostly with tending the past and explaining its own self-contained plot. It starts mid-stream with new conflicts rising, and ends with a funeral. Bring on Downton Abbey III: The Search for [Spoiler].

A better bit of Hollywood recycling lately is The Valet. It’s a charming-enough high-concept relationship comedy that’s amusing and involving enough on its own that it took me almost twenty minutes to realize it’s loosely based on a fun French farce of the same name from 2006. How’s that for a refurbish? The movie’s about a celebrity (Samara Weaving) having an affair with a married billionaire (Max Greenfield). The couple is photographed by paparazzi, but, lucky for them, a valet (Eugenio Derbez) is in the frame. To deflect suspicion, the glamorous star gets the valet to pretend to be her boyfriend. Easier said than done. The whole thing’s sitcom bright, and, though the antics could be more farcical, the production settles into an easy rhythm. It takes its time characterizing its players, and actually engages with the inherent issues of class and race and Los Angeles’ varied neighborhoods in a low-key perceptive way. And this lets the modest charms rise to the surface. Derbez, especially, is able to play a kind of sturdy decency which allows for a character who we never suspect is doing this for an ulterior motive. Of course he’s confused at first. But soon enough he genuinely wants to help this poor woman, and, when asked how much he’d like to be paid, he offers a sum that’s exactly the amount his ex-wife needs to finish her degree. Nice guy! This decency allows potentially cruel moments—a fancy restaurant full of patrons who assume he’s the waiter—to be pulled off with graceful cleverness. The movie never pushes overmuch on any of its sociological interests—though commentary on discrimination and gentrification are threaded naturally throughout. Instead, it allows the strengths of the performers to guide the scenes to mushy, warm sentiment and a gentle understanding of human fallibility. So it’s less a farce and more a cozy sitcom, but that’s still a perfectly comfortable time at the movies. And that’s not exactly an easy thing to pull off.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Period Piece: HAPPENING

Let’s start with the title. In France it’s L’Événement, most directly translated as The Event. That thunks down with a vague sturdiness, a noun—singular, direct, simple, immovable, object. For English-speaking release the title becomes Happening. Shorn of the article it takes on a doubled meaning. On the one hand, it could still play the noun: an occurrence, or the act of occurring. On the other, it could play a verb: to occur, to become, to chance. Now it’s something in the process of happening—not distant past, but inescapably present. In any case, here’s a movie about a young woman and what happens to her, and through her. It’s a movie set in the past, but told in a sharp, unblinking present tense. Fittingly, it’s about a literature student, who might appreciate the deceptively complicated title of her story, and the tension its telling wrings from tenses.

But what is the event, the happening, of the title? Is it the one-night stand that happens before the film begins? Is it the pregnancy that unluckily resulted from this first-time, one-time affair? Is it when she discovers her period is three weeks late? Is it when she seeks to quietly find a way to procure an abortion? Or is it what ultimately becomes of her? The movie is set in 1963, a time when abortion was not only illegal in France, but carried with it a potential punishment for the woman who would seek one. A knowledgeable, slightly older woman tells our lead that, worst case, she should hope the hospital will mark it down as a miscarriage. Otherwise, if the doctor writes “abortion,” she’ll go to prison. With these the stakes, it is no wonder there’s extra unease in this girl. Anamaria Vartolomei plays her with timid confidence, her big expressive eyes darting, watering, glowering, haunted. She’s struggling to find a way to avoid letting one mistake—one event, one happening—determine the course of her life. She checks her body—examines herself, feels unknowable to herself, out of control as what she once saw as her future possibilities threaten to slip away.

We see her studious potential—speaking capably in class, and hoping to be a teacher or a writer or both. We see her hanging out with friends or meekly eying cute guys at a dance club pounding early-60s rock. And all throughout, there’s that growing sense of dread within her. You can almost see the walls of her potential futures shrink and foreclose as possible solutions and choices are closed off. One doctor flat out tells her: “you have no choice.” You can’t even talk about this option. A friend to whom she timidly asks a hypothetical—what if you go too far and become pregnant?—quickly brushes her off. Don’t even joke about that. Another doctor offers her an injection that’ll encourage menstruation. (Why it doesn’t work is a grim surprise.) All along, she’s drawn inevitably to an underground solution—hoping against hope for a name or a number that’ll get her an off-the-record procedure. If that can’t work out, she just might have to take matters into her own hands. The movie counts up the weeks since her last period—a looming deadline underlined by the film’s anxious plucked-strings score.

Here’s a movie whose value is not in the general shape of the story—abortion testimonies aren’t uncommon—but in the great specificities it brings. (In centering so richly this one young person’s experience, it’s the retro Gallic cousin to the great, expertly empathetic modern American indie Never Rarely Sometimes Always.) Too often, in contemplating a time when abortion was illegal—and, oh, how sad to watch this movie from Spring 2022 in the United States, where we are on the precipice of being thrown back into that uncertain, dangerous state by those who prioritize a potential life over a present one—we drape these stories in euphemism and buzzwords. Here, instead, is an experience, an undeniable dilemma and personal decision made all the worse by the cold cruelties of the state denying this woman that choice. It’s far more dangerous that way. Not that the people in charge care. Here’s a movie that looks and looks and looks. (No coincidence, surely, that one scene finds these literary students decide a particular author’s prose is “all about the gaze.”) It has a pinprick precision and minimalism of a tight short story, or a memory. The value is in its willingness to see and recognize.

Sparse and simple, the movie sketches side characters in a moment, builds out emotional terrains with a glance, or a telling, lingering, observant extra frame. Writer-director Audrey Diwan keeps her camera tight on Vartolomei’s face, body, legs, shoulders. She sees the weight and the worry, the gravity and the concern, as the girl pokes and prods at her possibilities, and stares at herself in the mirror with growing discomfort. The movie may play some standard tricks of the usual sad, small character piece, but its focus is strong, and admirable, and wholly compelling. It is aesthetically circumspect—unafraid to be unblinking, but restrained enough to tilt and pan to preserve some dignity amidst its harrowing and revealing long takes of exposure. And it’s narratively narrow. The story has little room for asides, and the ensemble exists as a variety sampler of ways the silence shrouding what should be a legal and accessible procedure manifests in interpersonal interactions, how an unwillingness to look at this happening can leave so many endangered in the dark. This movie is a little window of light into this darkness—and perhaps its most upsetting idea is the slow realization that we’re watching something of a best-case scenario given the circumstances. She has no other choice.

Saturday, May 7, 2022


The thing about telling a story in a multiverse is, if you’re not careful, one can start to feel that if anything is possible nothing matters. That’s a dangerous feeling to let loose in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is already starting to feel like so many cliffhangers and time travels and parallel universes leading nowhere. And so it is with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the latest MCU chapter that’s rolled off the factory line with all the usual interlocking elements and pre-fab parts. It’s a sequel to the first Strange, which introduced us to the Benedict Cumberbatch wizard superhero in charge of calediscospic reality-bending spells. (That one had some novelty to its light show spectacle, but stuck pretty safely to a basic origin story form.) The new movie has to also follow up on Avengers: Endgame’s series’ breaking Thanos snap, Spider-Man: No Way Home’s cheap cavalcade of cameos, and WandaVision’s largely successful sitcom pastiche that exploded out into the same old same old. It has elaborate CG action and smirking quips and endless self-referentiality as it ties up loose ends from other projects while teasing new ones for future projects. It’s another corporate comic book widget in the cross-promotional machine. It continues its newly adapted innovation in colliding action figures together with the ability to hop around through possible worlds to do whatever. When we see infinite possibilities across infinite worlds, guided there by super-powered magic that can do whatever the plot decides, it can start to feel limiting. Why care about the fate of the world when it’s all so up for grabs?

The knock on these pictures is that they’ve gotten so samey in look and tone, guided by bland aesthetics and timid stylists. The few slightly more distinctive works still get sanded down around the margins to fit into the whole project’s approach. Even blurring between cinematic universes with the last Spider-Man just felt like more of the same. To judge them on a critical level starts to seem like a useless task of making small comparisons and slight contrasts. I kinda like some; I really don’t others. Some have better action; others have funnier supporting parts. Whatever. Maybe the reason the trailers and end credit teaser scenes get the bulk of the press is that even the good ones are constantly promising the really good stuff is coming up next. That is not not the case with our journey into the multiverse of madness, but at least it actually uses its conceit to justify getting an actual director with a style and vision and tone all his own to control the chaos. And they actually let him do it some of the time! It makes for a sprightlier, wigglier, more distinctive puzzle piece in the larger overall picture, even if in the end I was still asking, “Is that all there is?”

It has Sam Raimi in the director’s chair, the beloved cult filmmaker behind the Evil Dead horror pictures—gonzo gore goofs, later echoed in his masterpiece, Drag Me to Hell. He became the creative force behind the first Spider-Man movies in the early aughts. Those are largely great because he knows how to give weight to effects and stage images iconographically with memorable staging. That also gives emotional heft to genre characterizations. Peter Parker’s plight is never more moving than when Raimi stages his connection and separation from those in his life and those he’s trying to save. Think of some of those images: the upside-down kiss in the rain; the lonely walk away in the graveyard; the crowd catching the wounded hero on the train. Raimi knows how to do this sort of thing well, and right away Doctor Strange 2 feels like the work of someone who’s in that sort of control. The camera moves decisively; the characters stand in the frame with dimension; the fluid expression of action makes each gesture pop. It’s actually appealing to the eye. As the movie goes on, Strange enters the Multiverse where there are multiple versions of several characters, some weird filigrees of comic book nonsense, and cockeyed jolts of absurdity and violence. Sure, when anything can happen, nothing much matters—but Raimi’s allowed to slip loose from canon and just mess around. It’s still a big empty bauble of nothing, but at least it’s more engaging in the moment from sheer do-it-cause-we-can nothing.

Screenwriter Michael Waldron (whose Loki is one of the high points in recent MCU projects) lays just enough track for Raimi’s inventiveness. It starts with a nightmarish introduction, then proceeds to a bittersweet wedding from which Strange must leave to fight a giant tentacled eyeball and save a multiverse-hopping teenager. At this point I was feeling pretty good; Strange’s melancholy is poignant, and then he swoops down the concrete canyons in shots that carry the same velocity as Maguire’s Spidey. The action makes some clever use of powers—portals and conjurings and the like—before kickstarting its plot by settling into a groove that makes light use of turgid dialogue sequences as mere pretense to hop around. Turns out the teenager is a new character imported from the comics, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), with an uncontrollable universe-puncturing punch. She’s instantly lovable—both underdog, lost and without an understanding of her powers, and overdog, knowing more about universe-traveling than Strange. That gives them a fun dynamic, and it holds the anything-goes plotting together.

The whole thing is a scotch-taped jumble of spectacles and sequences with these characters bopped around. But Raimi shapes their plights with unusual angles, jack-in-the-box surprises, and rug-pulling under cameos. It invites a multiverse of possibilities and then just messes around, with consequences loose. There are unbelievable moments of fantasy violence—people, including some Big Names, skewered or shredded or halved or exploded—and squiggly cartoonish nastiness—gibbering undead, plucked retinas, snapped necks, and extra eyeballs. That’s fun as far as that goes. But, really, what we’re looking at is a fun Raimi movie constantly swallowed up or upstaged by the generic Marvelisms around it. I’m so exhausted with movies whose motivations come floating in from other movies, and are not resolved by the end but paused instead. And the ways in which fan-favorite characters like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Wong) are used to close off and/or tie in to other entries are transparently cramping their fullest utility here. The strong current of personality running through the filmmaking is almost enough to divert attention from these typical grating elements in the moment. It’s only when the end credits start, and you can sit there thinking back over the events of the movie, that dissatisfaction fully settles in. Was that really all there was? Fittingly, the last line: “It’s over!”

Tuesday, May 3, 2022


The moment that indisputably made Liam Neeson an action star is the phone call in 2009’s Taken. That junky, xenophobic little action thriller, lifted entirely by the spectacle of a prestige actor slumming it, has that one great memorable moment in which the star commands total attention and gravitas. He’s playing a special agent whose teenage daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers while on vacation in Paris. He gets one of the abductors on the phone and, in a low growl, says those infamous words:

"I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I         don't have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a         very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now         that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

Remembered as an ultimate steely action movie threat of promised retribution—a short speech and statement of purpose—it, more than anything else, opened the doors for Neeson’s next fifteen years of action movies. He was immediately able to play dozens of tough old guys who still know how to muster up the ability to kick in some teeth and survive chases and shootouts. But watch the scene again and notice that it also taps into what the best of those pictures find: his sadness. You can see the fear and doubt on his face, the deliberate weighing of words that are as much about talking himself into action as they are scaring the bad guy. He takes one heavy pause, a slow blink, as he steels himself for what he hopes won’t have to come next. He’s tired, but determined. When he asks the villain to “let [his] daughter go now,” you really feel that he hopes that will be the end of it.

It’s because Neeson is so tall, broad-shouldered, and has a voice so paradoxically soft-spoken while in a gravely tenor, that he makes obvious sense as a heavy threat. He speaks softly and carries a big stick, moving with a slow but inexorable gait laden with potential violence. But it’s that sadness in his eyes, the ways his brow and chin draw down with a resting reluctance, that make him so sympathetic, too. In the best thrillers of this stretch of his career, like A Walk Among the Tombstones or The Grey or Non-Stop or Run All Night, he’s played alcoholics, disgraced cops or retiring robbers, suicidal workingmen, grieving fathers, and sullen widowers. (And that this string of melancholy action pictures began shortly after the sudden death of his wife adds an extra layer to the downbeat mood.) In each, the power comes, not merely from the action itself—though it can be quite well done—but from the mournful weight to the violence. You can feel it, because he’s so clearly affected by it. He enters the pictures sad, and the dutiful action unspools cautiously, reluctantly, forcefully. The spectacle adds weariness to his stance, and his slow-speed pursuit of justice. Or is it simply something to numb the pain and stave off the end?

This was exciting at first—an injection of soulfulness into what could be routine genre elements care of a star finding new corners of his persona. But the last couple years have seen Neeson’s action movies themselves feeling sadder and more tired. (Hey, aren’t we all?) In The Marksman, he’s a rancher on the southwestern border who protects an undocumented teenager who crosses the border onto his property, hunted by cartel guys and border agents. The reluctant protector is written as a flat Clint Eastwood type. In fact, he’s so creaky and terse one imagines that part was written for Eastwood. (Writer-director Robert Lorenz has worked with Clint as a producer, and his only prior directorial effort was the elderly Eastwood vehicle Trouble with the Curve. You do the math.) Neeson inhabits the role uneasily, but gets off some good semi-earnest sentimentality in the part, and is given some functional suspense sequences. But the movie’s entirely muddled on a political level, and the story isn’t good enough to call that ambiguity, or distract from its incoherent messaging. Neeson can’t save this one. But he’s on some better ground in writer-director Mark Williams’ Honest Thief, which at least has a clever conceit. In this one, he’s a prolific mysterious bank robber who’s fallen in love, and so decides to turn himself in, but the government agents to whom he confesses steal his enormous cash pile and set him up for a fall. That’s neat, and the movie’s eccentric ensemble of quirky bit parts goes a long way to keeping it from falling too flat, but the plot is executed with a sluggish trudge that takes a long time going where we always think it will.

Neeson then re-teamed with Williams for Blacklight, a movie that also has a healthy distrust of law enforcement. In this one, Neeson’s an FBI fixer who is drawn into a larger understanding of a conspiracy to murder a progressive politician. He then has to help stop them before they hurt more people. In the opening scene, an Ocasio-Cortez kinda-sorta lookalike is killed in a hit-and-run, and soon an investigative journalist and a whistleblower are imperiled by nefarious Deep State death squads led by a sneering agent (Aidan Quinn) who casually talks about quashing protestors. (This one squirmingly feels the tenor of the times in spots.) The whole thing’s at once too hyperbolic and too chintzy, full of nearly provocative ideas for which it loses nerve, cavernous nowheres where the plot’s detail and dimension should be, and the Neeson character is almost superfluous to the plot’s mechanics. The picture wants pseudo-70’s paranoid style, but is shot in an overlit textureless digital smear in Melbourne doubling unconvincingly for D.C. I wish its style and substance was as wild as its ambitions. But at least those movies are not as perilously thin as Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Ice Road, in which Neeson’s ice road trucker gets entangled in some shady shenanigans. There’s nothing real or convincing about anything, from character to location to action. And it even has Laurence Fishburne around loaning just part of his natural gravitas to the proceedings!When they can’t make a truck chase across a frozen river exciting, you know the movie’s gone wrong.

It’s starting to feel like the Neeson: Action Star project is just about out of steam. The feeling is all through his latest, Martin Campbell’s Memory. Though it has such a good idea for him to play, that makes it all the more disappointing it’s just another middling thriller built from off-the-shelf parts. (And from a director who successfully rebooted James Bond twice! Alas…) Here Neeson’s a veteran hitman succumbing to Alzheimers. What a frightening prospect! There’s a chilling moment in the middle of the picture where the guy’s refused to follow through on an assassination of a 13-year-old girl. That night, he has a nightmare in which he kills her. The next morning, her death is reported on the news. Wait, he thinks, did I? Or didn’t I? The movie plays on the terrible ambiguity, but only for a moment. Turns out he didn’t, so he spends the rest of the movie fighting his slipping mind as a supporting character to the larger investigation carried out by a detective played by a stringy-haired, slumped-shouldered Guy Pearce. The sheer tonnage of routine shoe-leather and rote shootings weigh down the potentially clever ideas at its center, and bury the actors—even Monica Bellucci as a dastardly real estate mogul—in a blandly developed conspiracy that’s too-easily unraveled for us in the audience. Once that’s sorted, then it’s just a glum matter of hoping the characters can figure it out in time.

As thrillers of this ilk have been diminishing returns for Neeson, his most satisfying movie of the past few years is a straight drama: Ordinary Love. The story it tells is ordinary, and it is tender plain-spoken simplicity that gives it power. Here’s a movie about an aging couple (Neeson paired with Lesley Manville). They’re comfortable with each other, so much that even their slight tensions and disagreements can be shrugged off. They go for walks. They grocery shop. They watch TV. They trade chores. There’s an unspoken absence. The mantle photos show a daughter they don’t mention for quite a while. You get the sense she’s dead before they ever make reference to her grave. Like any couple of this sort, they’ve accumulated quite the history, and it sits unspoken on their shoulders, weighing in on every exchange. This makes a fatal diagnosis a cruel puncture to their clearly hard-won comfort. The movie follows matter-of-factly the aftermath of this diagnosis as a course of treatment is decided upon and inevitable emotional and interpersonal struggles arrive from heavy potential outcomes hanging over their heads. The screenplay from playwright Owen McCafferty gives these actors space to explore the ideas inherent in this situation, with Manville providing such a heartrending quivering in her stiff upper lip, and Neeson’s facility with grief and sadness is refined in a film of pinprick specificity. Somehow he’s looped back around to this sort of picture being the refreshing change of pace. How satisfying to see a picture so small, so plain, and yet carrying a lifetime of feeling.

Stargazing: THE LOST CITY

Hey, it’s another sign of life for an endangered genre at the multiplex: an original romantic comedy. It’s an old-fashioned treasure hunt adventure, too. Three in one! The Lost City is a rare breed indeed, an original—in that it rips off its inspirations instead of remaking or rebooting or existing in the same cinematic universe as them—star-driven picture that coasts entirely on the charm of its leads. It stars Sandra Bullock, a beloved actress who made it big with romantic comedies returning to the genre after more than a decade away, as a beloved author who made it big with romance novels returning to publish after many years away. Neat trick, that. Unfortunately the comparison isn’t mined for much, as the movie’s instead interested in tromping through some familiar motions. The author’s popular series is best known for a cover model (Channing Tatum). When their joint book tour is quickly interrupted by a villainous billionaire (Daniel Radcliffe) kidnapping her thinking she can help him find buried treasure on a remote tropical island, the handsome lunk hopes to rescue her and prove he’s more than a pretty face.

Thus, we get Bullock and Tatum—also a welcome sight, having just returned to our screens with Dog a few weeks ago—traipsing through the jungle together. It’s Romancing the Stone with a blander coat of paint. The writer thinks highly of her cleverness, and the model is always a step behind but trying so admirably to think things through. He’s just slow on the uptake, and she’s slow to realize she’s falling for him. That old thing. Though the stars shine brightly, proving all over again why they were so appealing in the first place, the project’s way too blandly directed and formulaically scripted to ever really get off the ground. Car chases and shootouts hit their marks, and the banter is slathered on with a first-draft brush—then augmented with tons of off-screen ADR, the last refuge of filmmakers who’ve discovered far too late their scenes need more lines that almost sound like jokes. That’s all pretty pro-forma stuff, but the pretty island scenery and predictable melting of affections through a scampering adventure really do work at some basic level, if only for the charming Movie Stars enjoying the chance to do that increasingly rare thing.

A potentially far richer Movie Star text of a high-concept comedy is The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Too bad it stays shallow. It stars Nicolas Cage as Nicolas Cage. He plays an actor who once won an Academy Award and starred in action blockbusters, but now a couple decades later fears he’s making nothing much of note. Does the actual Cage think that of his lesser direct-to-video efforts of late? (He still gets the occasional wild pitch lead in a hallucinogenic horror movie like Mandy or a taciturn indie drama like Pig.) The film makes some effort to be about the idea of Cage more than the true man himself. His wife (Sharon Horgan) and daughter (Lily Sheen) in the picture are nothing like his real-life family. And his professional frustrations seem to be responding more to a tabloid image than anything real. (He’s fittingly haunted by a waxy de-aged ghost of his younger self.) But of course, if any actor would play a loose self-portrait balancing image maintenance with gentle self-critique it would be Cage. After all, he’s the one who describes his own process leading to wild and unpredictable performances in everything from Moonstruck to Face/Off as “experimenting with what I would like to call Western Kabuki or more Baroque or operatic style of film performance. Break free from the naturalism…” As for if he goes over the top, he once said: “You tell me where the top is and I’ll tell you whether or not I’m over it.”

The movie has a fun hook anyway, even if it eventually loses the fun. Cage is hired to attend the birthday party of a Spanish oligarch (Pedro Pascal). Once there he discovers he’s fast friends with the guy. Too bad, then, that the CIA recruits the actor to spy on his host. The movie’s then bifurcated between pleasant and appealing buddy comedy—Cage humbly cedes most of the charm to Pascal’s giddy enthusiasms, while he provides the thawing reaction shots and sweet-natured stumbling—and a painfully generic action picture. The bad guys are stock types, the chases and explosions are flat, and the mystery is a stop-and-start nothing. Whole subplots are dropped or elided at times, too, with some comic relief suddenly turning up dead and others disappearing for large swaths of run time. This is almost certainly a movie hacked apart at some point in its development. It leans way too hard on its meta winks without going all the way into speculative loop-de-loops a la Being John Malkovich’s head-spinning. Why quote the great Con Air theme song in the opening scene if not bringing it back in a rousing encore by the end? And why make a movie in love with Cage movies without engaging in what makes them great? Or what makes any movie great, for that matter? Early on it has a character disparage being “forced” to watch silent classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as it gave them “anxiety” to dislike it, and it’s later a sign of character growth when another learns to love Paddington 2 without much reasoning. This results in an oddly small movie, so in love with its star’s willingness to play himself that it forgets to do anything with that willingness. It needed someone behind the camera who’d be as willing to go hurtling over the top with him.