Monthly Archives: May 2023
Powerfully forgettable except for its time-wasting twists and erasure of stakes, Hypnotic is an action thriller that feels out of time from the 1990s. In this movie’s universe there are a clandestine group of “hypnotics,” people with genetic powers that can manipulate others to do whatever they want. Ben Affleck plays a detective who is also searching for his abducted daughter and the case is mixed up with uncovering the secrets behind hypnotics and a mysterious and devious man (William Fichtner) who commands people to kill themselves. This should be a fun movie from its premise, Affleck chasing after killer physics like Scanners. It’s written and directed by Robert Rodriguez based on a script he’s been dying to make since the early 2000s. The problem with Hypnotic is that it wastes so much of its structure on playing into the expected, and once that happens it more or less invalidates the first hour of the movie. Once they introduce the concept of hypnotics erasing their own memories and placing triggers to remember key things, it’s not so hard to determine where the ultimate twist is heading. It leads to some serious wheel spinning from its plot, and then the end relies upon a standoff where one side is so all-powerful that there is no real danger. Therefore the emphasis of this movie hinges on the “wow” factor of its twist with little else to keep your waning attention. I suppose the appeal for Rodriguez from a directing standpoint were the sequences where the hypnotics are altering perception, watching the world bend onto itself in trippy Inception-style visuals. I wish there was more of this. The problem with Hypnotic is how unremarkable it is and how inevitable it will be forgotten (with or without your own psychic powers).
Nate’s Grade: C
Who exactly could get that excited about a movie about selling a shoe? Apparently, plenty of critics and audiences judging by the success of Air, the dramatization of the eventual formation and presentation for the first Air Jordan sneaker. It’s Amazon’s first original movie that they’ve given a theatrical release since 2019’s Late Night, and it proved a moderate success for a mid-range adult drama before debuting on its streaming service. I was intrigued by the creative pedigree, as I’ve been an ardent fan of Ben Affleck as a director, and the uniformly strong critical reviews, but I kept thinking, “It’s just a shoe.” It was hard for me to imagine getting that drawn into a drama about a bunch of guys trying to get Michael Jordan’s endorsement. I just couldn’t see the movie in this scenario. Now that I’ve actually watched Air, I can credit it as a well-written and well-acted movie about passionate people putting forward a presentation. That’s the movie, and while entertaining, it’s still hard for me to understand all the fuss.
It’s 1984 and Nike isn’t the market-leading trend-setting company that we think of today. They dominated the running world but few if any saw them as hip. They were struggling behind Adidas and Converse in popularity and cultural cache, and CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) had tasked his basketball head of operations Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) with snagging endorsements from the new NBA rookies. Sonny wants to go all-in on just one athlete, a special case that Sonny thinks can revolutionize the game, and one that could propel Nike to the next level. But first he’ll have to convince Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), that this smaller company with its smaller reach is going to be the best fit for her son’s potential future earnings.
This is still a movie about a shoe, but it’s really a movie about people who are good at their jobs and trying to change a paradigm of thinking and the Way Things Are Done. I’ve seen it said that Air is “Moneyball for sneakerheads,” and that’s an apt comparison. It’s about a bunch of smart guys fighting for clout, a group of underdogs going up against the entrenched winners, but it’s really about passionate people trying to get others to recognize their passion. So it’s scene after scene of Sonny trying to break through and get others to understand why his way of thinking is going to be the best. It’s also structured entirely around the big presentation with the Jordans, with each stop at a competing shoe company as its own act break. It makes the movie feel very streamlined and focused. It allows moments for minor characters to get their own moment, to make it seem like there’s a larger world behind every scene. It makes the team feel more filled out, and as each person and artist comes together, it’s reminiscent of movies in general, about various talents coming together to put on a big show. With our hindsight already locked in before the opening credits, it’s got to be the journey that matters here, because we know the eventual coupling, so Air has to justify why the before time could be captivating. It’s engaging because it’s a story built upon underdogs and smart people getting to flex their smarts.
Of course, it’s also not too difficult to make someone look smart with the power of hindsight. This was one of the more maddening features of Aaron Sorkin’s frustrating HBO series, The Newsroom. The focus was on a TV show on a cable news network but it existed in our universe, covering the big stories from the recent past. Rather than providing insight into the struggles of journalists trying to break big stories and follow their leads, Sorkin’s show was his turn to rewrite the news, showing how the foolish journalists should have covered these major events. It was his condescending attempt to tell professionals how they should have done their jobs. However, he had the extreme benefit of 18 months or so of hindsight and seeing what was important and what was less so, which just made his critiques all the more condescending (“Why don’t you know all the things that I know from the future, stupid present people?”). I could do this myself, writing a story about a guy in the 1930s talking down to these people hoarding their gold and how they should, instead, invest in a burgeoning computer industry. It’s not hard to look smart when you have history already in your pocket. This is also the case with Sonny in Air, who says over and over how special Michael Jordan is, and we know this too with our personal hindsight, so it makes him look transcendent. However, there could be any number of guys in history that had a similar hunch about Sam Bowie, the player picked one spot ahead of Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft and whose career was cut short by rampant leg injuries. That could have happened to Jordan too. Sometimes the greatest athletes are the recipients of just horrible luck (look at Bo Jackson, a modern-day Greek God who could have been an all-timer in two sports).
Where Air glides is with its snappy dialogue and attention to its supporting cast, thanks to debut screenwriter Alex Convery. Despite my reservations on the subject matter, this is proof that a good writer can make any story compelling as long as they channel into the right universal elements. A movie about selling a shoe to a future billionaire becomes an underdog story and one about a group of middle-aged guys trying to live out their dreams by picking the right player to become their vicarious capitalistic dream. The side characters played by Chris Messina as a foul-mouthed agent, and Jason Batemen as an exec who mostly just wants to spend more time with his kids following a divorce, and Matthew Maher (Our Flag Means Death) as a lonely shoe designer, are welcomed and I enjoyed spending time with them all before the big decision. It’s pleasurable just to sit and listen to the conversational banter. If you can find a way to make characters debating the particulars of their industry and make it interesting regardless of industry, then that’s the sign of a good writer. There’s plenty of conflict thrumming throughout, like Sonny pushing to spend his entire department’s budget on one player rather than spreading the risk around, and the climax involves whether or not a billion-dollar company is willing to split some of its earnings with the athlete they’re making mega-million from. It was a first-of-its-kind deal that changed the industry, giving athletes more leverage and direct money for the use of their likenesses, and considering how integral Jordan was to the explosion of the NBA’s popularity, it was money well spent.
There’s no distinct directing flair from Affleck, as I think he recognizes the strengths of this script and how best to utilize them, which is to support his actors and give them space. The most noticeable directing feature is the repeated use of period-appropriate songs and archival footage, which might explain the movie’s staggering reported $90 million budget (for a shoe movie?). Affleck keeps things moving at a light-hearted tone but knows when to slow things down too.
Air is an amusing drama with good performances and good writing and direction that understands how best to hone both of those selling points. It’s very streamlined while still feeling developed, and it manages to make a decades-old shoe deal feel interesting in 2023. I enjoyed it but I would have enjoyed this cast in just about anything, and I feel like the screenwriter and Affleck as a director have better stories on their docket waiting. It’s an enjoyable and intelligent drama with crackling good dialogue. It’s a solid movie but I guess I won’t ever understand the adoration it received, and that’s fine. Air proves you can indeed tell a compelling movie about a shoe deal. There you have it. Now back to that chicken/egg dilemma.
Nate’s Grade: B
Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania (2023)
Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has had a bumpy ride, coming after the significant climax of 2019’s Avengers Endgame and releases shifting thanks to COVID, with plenty of think pieces and pundits waiting to seize upon the possible decline of the MCU’s box-office and pop-culture dominance. This was still a phase with several enjoyable blockbusters with stars of old (Black Widow, Loki, Black Panther 2, Spider-Man No Way Home) and stars of new (Shang-Chi, Ms. Marvel), but it’s been defined by movies and series that have not engendered the same level of passion with fans and audiences, and left many questioning whether audiences are finally suffering from dreaded Marvel Fatigue. I cannot say, because even movies people were so-so on have generated tons of money, and it’s not like I even have to travel far in the past for a good-to-great Marvel movie with Wakanda Forever last November. However, after the muddled response to a third Ant-Man movie, as well as a bland Shazam sequel within weeks, then the old media narrative reignites the Marvel Fatigue question. I think the better question is aimed at the studio and whether we’re entering into Marvel Complacency.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is trying to live a normal life, at least for a superhero that helped save the world. His adult daughter Cassie (recast as Kathryn Newton) is a social activist and a burgeoning scientific genius, and with the help of her grandad, Hank (Michael Douglas), they’ve developed a way to communicate into the Quantum Realm, the metaphysical world of subspace where Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) was lost for decades. The entire family gets sucked into the Quantum Realm and separated, fighting to make their way in a strange new land. Among all the unorthodox beings is Kang (Jonathan Chambers), a banished interdimensional conqueror. He’s looking to break free of his prison and thinks Scott can be persuaded to help under the right pressure.
Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania is blatantly weird and shapeless, which allows for some of the most silly character designs in the MCU yet, and it also adds up to so precious little. From a character standpoint, we get minimal forward progress, which is strange considering Scott was deprived of years from his daughter, missing out on her growing up into an adult. When you have a villain who can manipulate space and time, and this scenario, wouldn’t you think that the ultimate appeal would be to regain that lost time? Maybe Scott feels like this older Cassie is a version of his daughter he doesn’t recognize, and he misses the innocence of her younger self, and therefore he wishes to experience those moments he had missed. Mysteriously, this doesn’t factor in at all with Ant-Man 3. I suppose it’s referenced in vague terms, but you would think the thematic heft of this movie would revolve around lessons learned about thinking in the past, of trying to recapture what is gone, of moving onward and trying to be present for those we love, you know, something meaningful for the characters besides victory. Nope, as far as Cassie is concerned, she serves two story purposes: 1) being a plot device for how we got into this crazy world, and 2) being a damsel in distress. Kang’s threats to withhold Cassie or harm her are the motivating factor for him to collaborate with the villain. How truly underwhelming. I did enjoy a sequence where a plethora of Scotts across multiple timelines come to work together with a common goal, with every one of the many Scott’s love for Cassie being their top ambition.
As for the universe existing between space, the Quantum Verse of our title, it’s the highlight of the movie, so if the characters and their personal conflicts aren’t hitting for you, like me, then at least there’s some fun diversions to be had with every new locale and introduction. There’s an enjoyable sense of discovery like a new alien world where the possibilities seem endless. The strange quirks were my favorite. I adored the exuberant goo creature Veb (David Dastmalchian) fascinated by other creatures having orifices. There’s also a mind reader played by William Jackson Harper, who was comically brilliant on The Good Place, and just repeating the same lazy joke here about people’s minds being gross. There’s even Bill Freakin’ Murray as a lord. I enjoyed how many of the new characters, many of them strange aliens, had prior relationships with Janet, and her hand-waving it away explaining that over thirty years she had certain needs. This subplot itself could have been given more. time, with Janet having to deflect Hank’s sexual inadequacies in the face of so many virile lovers (“How can I compete with a guy with broccoli for a head?”). I think this reunited couple confronting their discomfort would be far more entertaining than yet another massive CGI face-off with thousands of soulless robots. There are interesting moments and characters in this strange new world, but they’re all so fleeting, meant to be a goofy supporting character or cameo or simply a one-off joke and not what matters.
Like Multiverse of Madness and Love and Thunder, this feels very much like a table-setting MCU movie, meant to move the pieces along and set up other movies, chiefly the next Thanos-level big bad with Kang, first portrayed in Loki’s season one finale in 2021. I found this character version underwhelming. Part of this is that Kang’s first appearance was so memorable, spirited, anarchic, but also subversive, going against the audience expectations of what the final confrontation with the puppetmaster was going to involve. With Ant-Man 3, this version of Kang is an overly serious, well-poised castoff in a secondary Shakespeare play, which would work if the screenplay gave the guy anything interesting or memorable or even really threatening to play. He’s just another authoritarian who speaks in grand speeches of their greatness and then proves not to live up to his much-hyped billing. I worry that the next few years of the MCU will feature a rotating set of Kangs to topple with every film, which will make the villain feel less overwhelming and powerful and more like a reoccurring Scooby Doo villain (“I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddlin’ heroes, and YOUR ANTS!”). This isn’t to say that Majors (Creed III) gives a poor performance. It’s just so stubbornly stern and shouty and rather boring in comparison to He Who Remains from his Loki appearance. Note to Marvel: given the serious charges that have surfaced against Majors, if you do wish to recast the role, a character who is different in many universes should be a pretty easy explanation for any change.
Is Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania the beginning of the end of the country’s love affair with the MCU? Well… probably not. Just three months later, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 hit it big, so maybe it’s less fatigue with big screen superhero escapades and more fatigue with mediocre movies. Maybe the public won’t be so forgiving of less-than-stellar efforts, but at this point the MCU in a moving train and some movies seem to get caught in the churning wheels of “progress.” After thirty movies and counting, some of the novelty is gone, that means just delivering the same old won’t deliver the same old results. Too much of Ant-Man 3 feels like the characters are inhabiting a large and empty sound stage. The visuals are murky and gunky and less than inspiring, and while some of the special effects are occasionally dodgy, they aren’t the travesty that others have made them out to be (though MODOK is… something, I suppose). It’s such a dank-looking movie that it feels like somebody put the light settings on power saving. There were things I enjoyed but most of Quantumania left me indifferent, and that’s the feeling I got from the cast and crew as well. I dearly missed Michael Pena’s Luis, who should have gone along for the ride just for his commentary for all the weirdness. At this point, you’re along for the MCU ride or not, and this won’t deter your 15-year investment, but coasting on its laurels will also not satisfy anyone. Not every MCU entry will be great, but they can at least try harder.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Peter Pan & Wendy (2023)
I’m not a big fan of the Peter Pan story. I think it has some meaty themes but the world of Neverland was never that interesting and I always found the characters to be more annoying and flimsy than enchanting and diverting. It also doesn’t help that there have been dozens and dozens of Pan adaptations; by existing in the public domain, one is guaranteed every few years, like 2015’s disastrous Pan by director Joe Wright (Cyrano) and 2020’s Wendy, the long-awaited follow-up from director Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). The only aspect that had me even remotely intrigued in Disney’s new live-action version was the creative team behind it. Director/co-writer David Lowery is better known for sumptuous and deeply humanist indies like The Green Knight and Ain’t Them Body Saints, plus having Rooney Mara eat an entire pie for ten minutes of A Ghost Story (thus fulfilling my requirement to mention this baffling moment whenever the opportunity arises). He also happened to make the 2016 live-action remake for Pete’s Dragon, which was soulful and heartwarming and excellent. It’s in fact my favorite of all the recent Disney remakes and proof of what great artists can do when given enough creative latitude, from the parent studio as well as general audiences and their expectations. I think the overriding Disney demands won out, as Peter Pan & Wendy is a rather bland update that every so often gives a glimpse of a more introspective, thoughtful, and possibly better Pan.
You probably know the story already, as we follow the Darling children from their home in London all the way to the magical fantasy island of Neverland thanks to immortal child and would-be lovable scamp, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony). The kids can forever be kids on adventures with the fellow Lost Boys, battling against pirates led by Captain Hook (Jude Law). Except Wendy (Ever Anderson) starts to wonder whether growing up might be a necessity.
Considering the original Disney animated movie was released in the 1950s, there have been more than a few updates to modernize this tale, which have predictably riled the easily triggered culture warriors always looking for their next outrage. The offensive minority representation has obviously been altered, with actual indigenous actors portraying indigenous roles (no Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in this go-round), and we have a brown-skinned Peter and Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi), and the Lost Boys includes girls too in a throwaway explanation that’s entirely credible. Wendy also gets more empowered and has much more influence in the end events. I cannot understand the mentality of anyone that gets this upset over the skin color of fictional characters when it doesn’t alter the story. Who cares what the race of the actress playing Tinkerbell is, she’s a fairy. Why can’t there be darker-skinned fairies, hobbits, and mermaids? There are some exceptions; if Superman was played by a black actor, the world would view this overpowered alien in a completely different light, and that demands to be explored. However, most stories in a fantasy or sci-fi setting are not dependent on specific ethnicity, so why care? Of course, when the Tinkerbell character is such a waste, used solely for wordless reaction shots, it doesn’t matter what the race of the actress is when the character is this inconsequential.
One change I did like was bringing more of a personal fidelity between Peter and Captain Hook, beginning as close friends before falling out. The role of Hook has usually been modeled as an analogue for the Darling’s disapproving father and played by the same actor for the obvious parallels (in this iteration, Alan Tudyk). With Lowery’s version, Hook began as simply James, a Lost Boy who was Peter’s BFF until James started to miss his mother. This cherishing of the past rather than out-rightly rejecting it caused a wedge between the two friends, and James returned home only to eventually return back to Neverland as a grown man. I don’t know if the adult James was seeking out the comfort of his old friend and the familiar or if he was seeking out Peter for the sake of vengeance, blaming him for the years of time he lost and missing the death of his mother. Perhaps Peter’s harsh rejection of his grieving friend sent him into a tailspin. This painful past, when it starts to break through the cracks of family spectacle, can be captivating. Characters who are unable to articulate their loss but they feel it, as if there’s something just below the surface that they know isn’t right in all these redundant clashes. Can these characters even die? There are several that come back from certain demise. There are exchanges where Peter and Hook feel like they’re on auto-pilot, mechanically giving into the demands of a universe keeping its players in tidy and conforming roles. There’s a slight danger when the movie hits these little bumps, like characters becoming aware of more than what they’re used to. It’s like they’re breaking free of the Matrix to briefly realize how they’re being manipulated by fate before succumbing back to it.
These occasional philosophical glimpses are what kept me going, hoping that somehow the movie would rise above its familiarity into something different and more exciting. I don’t mean adult or darker, though there are clear horror routes one could take with the story of Peter Pan. Pete’s Dragon wasn’t a particularly complex story by any means but it channeled a clear and heartfelt tone and vision, and was executed at a high level to be appealing to all ages. I was hoping for something the same here, but the muck of the Peter Pan expectations ultimately gets the best of Lowery and his team. I liked the idea that Wendy may not be the first Wendy to be lured to Neverland to be the house mother for these wayward children. I liked the idea that Peter Pan could be the real villain of this realm, holding children hostage more or less through their rejection of growing up, and how resentful and remorseful that can make someone when they are cut out of their former life. I liked the idea of James/Hook possibly maybe even being a distant relative of the Darlings and what that could do for their relationship and perspectives meeting. I liked the idea of characters falling into patterns but not able to comprehend why they’re being manipulated. There’s a more penetrating movie here just on the peripheral and it pokes through but only occasionally. It’s frustrating to watch because it feels like uncovering artifacts of an older, more arresting screenplay that has, over the course of numerous rewrites and studio intervention, been diluted. The Peter Pan movie we get in 2023 is fine with some diverting visuals, but it’s a shadow of what could have been had Lowery been allowed to explore more of his creative impulses.
The movie is not without its charms and beauty, and for 106 minutes you can watch it without investing too much of your emotions. Law (Fantastic Beasts) is easily the best part of the movie, really enjoying the snarl of his over-the-top villain but finding opportunities for nuance to showcase his lingering vulnerabilities. Hook comes across like a bigger kid hurt and lashing out, and there’s tragedy to that that Law is able to tap while also playing into the foppish and slapstick comedy. I adored Jim Gaffigan (Linoleum) as Smee and was amused that he becomes the moral center for the pirates, speaking out when he fears they’re crossing a line. The natural scenery has a luscious storybook quality to it, and the mossy ruins made me think of Lowery’s Green Knight and its many visual pleasures. I enjoyed the presentation and physics of a below deck sword fight while the ship is rotating in the air. It made me think of Inception’s famous gravity-defying hallway fight, in a good way. I enjoyed how active the cinematography was, swooping and swirling with the energy of a child radically at play, and the montages of characters feeling the full power of happy memories had a downright ethereal quality of demonstrating a fuller life.
If you’re hungry for a live-action Peter Pan movie, then try the 2003 version with a deliciously maniacal Jason Isaacs (Mass) as Captain Hook. If you’re looking for a Peter Pan that goes beyond the bounds of the same old story, try Steven Spielberg’s Hook, a touchstone of many Millennial childhoods. Or check out the 1922 silent era Peter Pan. There is no shortage of Pan adaptations to choose from, so there’s a Pan for every occasion, and I’m sure there will be fans of this new live-action update as well. I found it a little too bland. It’s certainly better than the recent Pinocchio, but that itself is not reason enough to watch this. Peter Pan & Wendy offers too little to distinguish it from its predecessors, so it becomes yet another Pan adaptation that fails to fully take flight.
Nate’s Grade: C+
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