REVIEW: “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022)

It was a Saturday morning in May of 1986. My brother and I were sitting in our living room floor watching MTV (back when they actually played music videos). Whichever classic veejay was manning the waves introduced the poppy, guitar-driven “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins from the “Top Gun” motion picture soundtrack. As was customary, the video featured lots of footage from the movie which happened to grab my father’s attention.

“Top Gun” came out during a time when my dad was really into fighter planes. He watched shows about them, read about them, and put together detailed model kits by the dozens. When he got a glimpse of the “Danger Zone” video, my brother and I didn’t have to do much convincing. A couple hours later, our family was heading to the nearest theater to see what would be the highest-grossing film of 1986.

Directed by Tony Scott and starring Tom Cruise, “Top Gun” was very much a movie of the 80s, to the point that younger audiences may have a hard time embracing it in the same way many of us did 36 years ago. But as silly as it can be at times, I’ve always loved it. The cast, the music, the breathtaking aerial action sequences – it all clicks for me in a way that goes beyond simple nostalgia.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Talks of a sequel began in earnest in 2010 and a first-draft of the script was completed in 2012. But following Scott’s death the project was shelved. Five years later, a new script was written with Joseph Kosinski hired to direct and Cruise back in the cockpit and producing. But one big question remained, would this be yet another shameless Hollywood cash grab or did Cruise and company have a meaningful next chapter to Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s story to tell?

Well, “Top Gun: Maverick” certainly embraces nostalgia, and there are callbacks that will leave fans giddy. I mean it opens identically to the 1986 movie – on the deck of an aircraft carrier with Harold Faltermeyer’s classic “Top Gun Anthem” leading straight into Loggins’ “Danger Zone”. Fan service? Perhaps. Yet it’s such a pitch-perfect and smile-inducing way to kick things off.

But “Maverick” is a lot more than callbacks and fan service. It has a lot more on its mind than rehashing old scenes and retreading past storylines (something I feared). In fact, there’s an unexpectedly strong emotional current that runs throughout the story. And its trio of writers (Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie) use many of those familiar past connections in surprisingly poignant and heartfelt ways.

Over three decades after the events of “Top Gun”, Cruise’s Maverick lives in an old air hanger where he spends his spare time tinkering on an vintage P-51 Mustang. He has deliberately dodged numerous promotions much to the chagrin of his superiors. Instead he serves as a Navy test pilot for a hypersonic scramjet program. But at the urging of Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), Maverick is called back to Top Gun, an elite training program for the Navy’s top pilots – “the best of the best”.

Maverick is tasked with training a group of Top Gun graduates for a dangerous mission. An unnamed rogue nation has an underground uranium enrichment facility that poses a major security threat for the world. It’s nestled deep in a canyon and surrounded by surface-to-air missile installations. To make matters worse, the generic enemy possesses state-of-the-art fifth-generation fighters. That means Maverick’s pilots will have to sneak in undetected and get out before the enemy aircraft can engage them.

But there’s some personal tension when Maverick discovers one of his young pilots is Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his late best friend Goose, who still blames Maverick for his father’s death. To make matters worse, Maverick has Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) breathing down his neck. The one ray of light comes with Jennifer Connelly’s character Penny Benjamin (keen fans of the first film may remember that name). She’s an old flame who runs a beachside bar called The Hard Deck. It’s not a particularly meaty role for Connelly, but she’s a really good and grounding presence.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Of course there are also the signature aerial sequences – jaw-dropping and custom-made for the big screen. The newer technology gives the filmmakers opportunities to do some exciting things and Cruise pushes it and himself to the extreme. It shines brightest in the final 30 minutes which features some of the best aerial fighter footage ever put on screen. See it in the theater. You won’t regret it.

But everything comes back to Maverick who is the story’s centerpiece. He’s more mature and not as impulsive, but he’s still pushing his limits. More, he’s still haunted by the death of Goose and his guilt won’t allow him to forgive himself. It’s a superb performance from Cruise who takes all of those factors (plus some) into account and gives us a Maverick who still has that same rebellious cool, but has a much deeper level of humanity.

If there is a complaint, it might be in the new pilots. None of the performances are bad. But other than Rooster, none of them have much depth. And a couple simply fit the models of pilots from the first film. Also, the unnamed enemy threat feels hollow (marketing was clearly a consideration). Yet there are so many fantastic moments that energize the movie, both kinetically and emotionally. Some scenes are exhilarating while others will bring a tear or two. And they’re all woven into a story that really surprised me. And that gets back to my above question about “Top Gun: Maverick” – was there a meaningful next chapter to be told? The answer turns out to be is a resounding “Yes”!

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Takedown” (2022)

Hot of the success of their streaming series “Lupin”, Netflix brings the show’s director Louis Leterrier and star Omar Sy back together in the new feature film “The Takedown”. It’s the sequel to 2012’s “On the Other Side of the Tracks”, a French action-comedy about two mismatched police detectives from drastically different backgrounds who are forced to work together to solve a high-profile murder.

Just like its predecessor, “The Takedown” pulls inspiration from the buddy-cop movies of the late 80s and 90s while injecting hard-to-miss racial and class commentary into its storyline. And much like its predecessor, “The Takedown” sticks so close to that familiar and well-worn formula that you pretty much know how everything is going to play out. The only thing new are the comical bumps in the road our heroes face on the way to its predictable ending.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Penned by Stéphane Kazandjian, the story may be a sequel, but it’s written in a way that requires no real knowledge of the previous movie or the characters (that’s a good thing considering the first film’s tiny release here in the States). It’s all built on the shoulders of the two main characters played by the endlessly charismatic Omar Sy and the slyly comical Laurent Lafitte. The two reprise their roles and reignite their characters weird relationship for a new(ish) adventure.

The street-smart bad boy Ousmane (Sy) is a single father who has recently been promoted to head of the Paris Crimes Division. He is a good cop and you would think he was given his new position due to his stellar police work. Instead, the division is looking for a way to freshen up their tarnished image, especially with Paris’ minority communities. So what better way than to make a black cop the face of their new (and utterly shameless) PR campaign. Not only that, they assign a social media tag-along to follow Ousmana and upload his exploits to the web. As I said, shameless.

François (Lafitte), on the other hand, has been demoted to the 12th district, something he tries to sell as an “enriching” experience and a chance to “return to fundamentals“. François is an oblivious narcissist who’s actually a decent cop. But his self-anointed ladies-man vanity keeps him on the lower rung of the opportunity ladder. It also makes him the butt-end of some admittedly funny barbs hurled his way by his colleagues.

The two unexpectedly reunite after a body is found severed in half near the Paris train station. Their case leads them to the Provinces where François’ pigment privilege helps him to fit in while Ousmane has a tougher time navigating the not-so-welcoming locals. They do find an area ally in Alice (Izïa Higelin) who gives them the social and political lay of the land. But when both François and Ousmane take a liking to her, it rekindles an old rivalry between them. Meanwhile their investigation puts them on the trail of a white supremacist group with some pretty powerful leaders.

While Sy and Lafitte have the comedic chemistry to keep things entertaining, they’re trapped in a story that slowly starts to lose its energy the further it goes. Aside from being about 20 minutes too long, the script’s attempts at social commentary starts funny but gets so on-the-nose that it’s hard to take any message it may have to heart. And look, Sy and Lafitte are really good together. But it’s simply impossible for me to buy that their characters could ever co-exist together much less be friends. I would like to think that François’ casual racism would get much more of a response than an occasional disapproving look Ousmane.

Louis Leterrier has an interesting catalog of serviceable studio movies that includes “The Transporter” (the good one), the underrated “Clash of the Titans” remake, the MCU’s second film “The Incredible Hulk”, the surprise hit “Now You See Me”, and he’s set for next year’s “Fast X”. It’s hard to say where “The Takedown” fits in. Leterrier has a clear eye for banter-driven action in the vein of “Lethal Weapon” and he certainly has the two leads. But its hard to get past the script which never fully sells us on its characters or its social message. “The Takedown” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

RETRO REVIEW: “Thelma & Louise”

Ridley Scott’s acclaimed road-trip crime movie “Thelma & Louise” came out 31 years ago this month. And after watching it again for the first time in well over a decade, I was blown away by how well it still holds up. With its strong female-driven story, “Thelma & Louise” still resonates today. And while it’s characterization of men can still be over-the-top to the point of cartoonish, that’s kinda the point in a movie about women taking charge of their own fate in such a male-dominated society.

“Thelma & Louise” came out on March 24, 1991 and was a hit both critically and commercially. It would go on to earn six Academy Award nominations including two Best Actress nods for its stars, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. Ridley Scott was also nominated for directing. The movie’s lone Oscar win was for its screenplay written by Callie Khouri. It was Khouri’s first feature film script. What a way to make a splash.

“Thelma & Louise” was followed by some controversy at the time. It faced several accusations from those calling the movie “anti-male” for its depictions of men. But again, the movie is a parable with a very important point to make. And focusing on the movie’s sometimes exaggerated portrayal of men instead of the message being conveyed is doing it a disservice. And it’s not like every single male presence in the film is decidedly negative. I like what Khouri said in response to the controversy, “If you think it’s anti-male, you’re identifying with the wrong character.”

The story centers around two best friends from Arkansas stuck in their dreary mundane lives. Louise (Susan Sarandon) is a waitress who’s tired waiting for her on-again, off-again boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen) to commit. Thelma (Geena Davis) is a housewife married to a slimeball car salesman named Darryl (a hilariously despicable Christopher McDonald). Louise has planned a weekend fishing trip just for the two friends, but Thelma is scared to bring it up to her self-obsessed husband. After yet another Darryl tantrum, Thelma decides she doesn’t need his permission. She leaves him a note next to his TV dinner and calls Louise.

The two pack their bags and head out in Louise’s 1966 Thunderbird convertible for a road-trip that will change their lives. It begins when they stop to stretch their legs at a roadside honky-tonk where Thelma catches the eye of the overly flirty Harlan (Timothy Carhart). But what starts as a few drinks and some dancing ends up with Harlan beating and attempting to rape Thelma in the parking lot. Louise finds them and shoots Harlan dead with a pistol Thelma swiped from Darryl’s bedside drawer.

Thelma wants to go directly to the police, but the cynical Louise (for reasons that become clearer later in the movie) doesn’t think the cops will believe them, especially since the entire club saw Thelma and Harlan all over each other on the dance floor. So they go on the run, driving into Oklahoma and plotting a route to Mexico that doesn’t include Texas. Why not Texas you ask? That too becomes clearer as the story progresses.

A good on-the-lam movie needs a good pursuer and “Thelma & Louise” has one in Harvey Keitel. He plays Hal Slocumb, an Arkansas State Police detective with a heart. He’s genuinely concerned about Thelma and Louise and does his best to find them and bring them in before things get out of hand. Keitel has such a natural charisma and he’s such a nice fit here.

And of course there’s Brad Pitt in the supporting role that put him on the map. He plays a gentlemanly and good-looking young cowboy named J.D. who hitches a ride with Thelma and Louise as they’re crossing Oklahoma. It’s not a particularly great performance, but I don’t think it’s the performance that earned him the most attention (if you get what I mean).

Still, without question the stars are Sarandon and Davis. Flipping gender roles for a road-trip buddy movie was certainly significant. But this isn’t simply a case of two women simply mimicking what men have done in similar movies. Sarandon and Davis make for a spirited duo and they bring personality, grit, and humor their roles. And they really get to have fun once the second half kicks in. “We’re fugitives now. Let’s start behaving like that.”

While there is a real weight to the story itself, the two leads, Khouri’s straight-shooting script, and Ridley Scott’s stellar direction gives it room to be funny, warm, and even a little crazy. Some of the male caricatures are a little too goofy (see the chauvinistic truck driver who wears out his welcome after his second appearance). And the ending, though unquestionably iconic, has never fully felt right to me. I really like the choice and I even like the freeze-frame. But the quick fade to white ends things on such a hurried note. We’re seeing credits before the weight of what has happened can really set in. Still, it wraps things up in the most fitting way, and it gives the movie the kind of final punch that people are still talking about today.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Twin” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Creepy children have become a stalwart in horror movies. They’ve pretty much overtaken zombies, vampires, and the like as the genre’s go-to source of scares. The latest film to tap into this deep well is the Shudder Original “The Twin”. But there is more to this surprisingly rich and layered chiller than meets the eye. In fact, Finnish director Taneli Mustonen’s film may be a horror movie, but it pulls from a variety of influences.

Teresa Palmer plays Rachel, a mother in mourning after her young son Nathan is tragically killed in a car accident. Struggling to cope, Rachel and her husband Anthony (Steven Cree) move from the States to his family’s old home place in northern Finland. They bring along their son and Nathan’s twin brother Elliot (Tristan Ruggeri) who’s dealing with the loss in his own way.

Grief lies at the core of “The Twin”, and by making this a horror movie, Mustonen (who also co-wrote the script along with Aleksi Hyvärinen) is able to use the genre’s diversity to dig into the various facets of the theme. As a result we get a film that is equal part psychological and supernatural. There’s even a taste of old-fashioned folk horror that really comes into view during the third act.

Image Courtesy of Shudder

Rachel’s hope is that she and her family can move past their devastation and make a fresh start in the tranquil Finnish countryside. But (of course) those hopes slowly unravel. It starts with Elliot who spends his time playing with Nathan’s old toys and even asks to have an extra bed put in his room for his deceased brother. Rachel feels sympathy and goes along with it, feeling Elliot needs the time and space to come to terms in his own way. Anthony feels it’s hindering Elliot’s ability to get past the tragedy. That husband-wife tension only intensifies throughout the film.

Adding to the growing sense of unease are the fittingly creepy locals who take a special interest in the young family. A ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ party introduces the folk horror element which festers into something unexpected (I’ll let you find out for yourself). A wild card in the story comes in the form of an eccentric village outcast named Helen (Barbara Marten). She’s considered a crackpot by the townsfolk and Anthony. But she issues a dire yet vague warning to Rachel – “Your son has made a wish, and it has been granted.”

Terrifying dreams, eerie visions, Elliot’s startling behavior – it all factors in as Mustonen patiently feeds us bits of his slow-boiling mystery. And while I eventually began to suspect where the story might be heading, the movie never fully tips its hand. Unfortunately not everything comes together in the end, and there were some holes in the story that I just couldn’t fill. But kudos to Mustonen. Even if it’s not entirely seamless, “The Twin” kept me interested and engaged. “The Twin” hits select theaters, VOD, and will be streaming exclusively on Shudder beginning today (May 6th).

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Topside” (2022)

For New Yorkers, the new film “Topside” may cover some pretty familiar ground. But this cutting drama from the filmmaking duo of Celine Held and Logan George has a lot for the rest of us to chew on and it should open the eyes and touch the hearts of anyone with a soul. Held and George both co-wrote and co-directed this hard-hitting indie with Held also starring in one of the film’s two lead roles.

“Topside” actually premiered way back in 2020 at the Venice Film Festival and now is finally set for its release here in the States. The movie brings to mind a number of other terrific independent films from the past several years. It’s kinda like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” but minus the fantasy element. It’s a bit like “Room” but without the hostage angle. Yet it’s also very much its own thing, and it has a powerful real-world story to tell.

The movie opens with a quote that stayed in the back of my mind for the duration of the movie. It’s from Jennifer Toth’s 1993 book “The Mole People: Life In The Tunnels Beneath New York City”. It reads “J.C. told me initially that his community had no children. After a moment he added, ‘We have adults as young as five.’” It doesn’t take long for the quote’s relevance to be realized.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Much of the film’s first act is spent on setting up its world. Held and George do a great job visualizing the subterranean homeless community living deep underneath the concrete jungle of New York City. In a dark deserted dead-end section of the subway system, a small group has made homes out of shipping pallets, sheets of tin, and tarp. It’s in this world where we meet 5-year-old Little (played by the remarkable young actress Zhaila Farmer).

“Topside” is mostly told from Little’s unique perspective. Early on we watch her innocently soaking up the few rays of sun beaming through a couple of gaps in the concrete above. It’s all she’s ever seen of the outside world. She’s never been “topside”. Her mother Nikki (wonderfully played by Held) tells her she has to wait for her wings to grow. It’s one of several made-up stories Nikki tells her daughter in order to shield her from their real-life situation.

Nikki is very well aware of their condition. She slips away while Little sleeps and goes topside to get what money and supplies she can. We get the sense that Nikki’s time above is more complicated than she lets on, but it isn’t until later that the film really shows where desperation has led this single mother. While Nikki is gone, Little is looked after by a fellow dweller named John (Fatlip). He’s a mysterious character but buried within his short temper is genuine concern for Little.

While Nikki and Little seem settled into their circumstances, we know that it’s doomed. Glimpses of trespassing notices and warnings to evacuate go unheeded by the community and sets up what’s to come. And it comes to a head early one morning when a group of city workers surprise the community with strict orders to leave. Knowing she’ll loose her daughter to Social Services if they’re caught, Nikki takes Little and runs.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

As everything she has told her daughter about the topside crumbles under the weight of reality, Nikki frantically scrambles to shield and protect Little despite having no money, no food, and no place to go. In the meantime Nikki’s above-ground connections begin painting a clearer picture of this loving yet troubled mother. Interestingly, the movie doesn’t get lost in Nikki’s backstory or explaining how she ended up in the situation she’s in. It stays fully focused in the present. That willingness to stay centered in the here-and-now is a key reason the story packs such a punch.

As the mother and daughter flee, the movie takes a heart-shattering turn. Nikki escapes topside, exposing Little to the real world for the very first time. The young child’s fear is palpable as she’s overwhelmed by the city’s blinding lights and assaultive collection of sounds. DP Lowell A. Meyer’s visceral camerawork is constantly shooting from the little girl’s point-of-view, conveying a real sense of terror and anxiety. It’s harrowing stuff.

“Topside” embodies everything I love about independent cinema. It tells a fiercely intimate story without any obligations to studio guidelines or genre expectations. It features an unflinching authenticity that comes through the fantastic cinematography, the moving script, its crisp editing, and two phenomenal performances from Held and Farmer. At times it plays like a hellish thriller. But that’s a testament to the film’s ability to draw us closer to the uncomfortable themes it’s dealing with. And while it can be troubling and hard to watch, it’s also honest and straightforward, which is exactly what this kind of material needs. “Topside” premieres Friday in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

None of the countless attempts at remaking, rebooting, or following the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have been able to hold a candle to the original. I say that because I hold Hooper’s ‘74 film in such high regard. It’s a horror movie that I still vividly remember seeing for the first time. It would have been in the mid-1980s on a VHS tape rented from one of my hometown video rental shops. I remember being unnerved from the very start as a young John Laroquette, with the tension-soaked seriousness of an investigative reporter, warns us about the events we are about to see. I remember the queasy whine of a photographer’s flashbulbs as he or she shoots a gruesome crime scene. Within seconds Hooper had me in his clutches and kept me there all the way through. I can’t say the same for the other “Chainsaw” movies.

Directed by David Blue Garcia and written for the screen by Chris Thomas Devlin, this new “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” caught my attention by framing itself as a direct sequel to Hooper’s original. The problem is it doesn’t resemble the original in any way – not in style, not in tone, and certainly not in story. In fact there’s practically no connecting tissue whatsoever other than a madman with a chainsaw who wears a mask of human flesh and the pointless inclusion of Sally Hardesty, the lone survivor of the first film (she was originally played by the late Marilyn Burns but here by Olwen Fouéré).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Set nearly 50 years after the events of the first film, “Chainsaw” 2022 follows a group of four twentysomethings who we’re supposed to believe are fledgling entrepreneurs. A wacky business venture takes them to the dried-up Texas town of Harlow (which looks more like a studio lot than an actual place). If I understand it correctly (because the movie isn’t much for details), the bank reclaimed all of Harlow’s properties. Melody (Sarah Yarkin) and Dante (Jacob Latimore) acquired the properties and are scheduled to host a group of investors to come tour the place. They’ll then auction off parts of the town to the highest bidders who will then bring in businesses and rebuild Harlow in their own idealistic image.

While waiting on the tour bus full of investors to arrive, Melody, her troubled sister Lila (Elsie Fisher), Dante, and his girlfriend Ruth (Nell Hudson) begin exploring the deserted town. While checking out an old orphanage, they’re surprised to learn that not all of the townsfolk have left. More specifically, a sickly old lady and her hulking son who for some reason wears a butcher’s apron and always has his face conveniently obscured by shadows.

As you can probably guess, the woman’s son is indeed the brutally terrifying Leatherface and things quickly turn nasty. But don’t expect anything in terms of backstory. Garcia and Devlin don’t tell us anything about who this woman is, how she and Leatherface came together, or what they’re doing in Harlow. They’re just there. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if this was just another tired reboot. But when you tout your movie as a direct sequel, questions like this are inevitable. Yet they’re all but ignored by a film that’s far more interested in showering its audience in blood and guts.

Full disclosure: I’m not a crusader against gore, especially in slasher movies where it’s more of a celebrated trope rather than something taken seriously. This new “Chainsaw” goes full-on slasher and is loaded with enough grisly carnage to make gorehounds giddy. And if I were to praise one element of the movie as a legitimate strength, it would be the wickedly creative ways they devise for Leatherface to kill his faceless rabble of victims.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Here’s the problem, Hooper’s original was raw and harrowing, but it wasn’t a slasher film. Yes, it thrusts the viewer into a macabre world marked by its unsettling indifference to human suffering. But it relied on building discomfort and a persistent sense of dread rather than graphic bloodshed. It’s a much different story with this “sequel”. Creative carnage is all it has which is yet another way it feels at odds with the 1974 film it claims to follow.

Other than a handful of cool Easter eggs, there’s not much else worth mentioning. I can’t praise the story which is too shallow to be a standalone horror movie much less a sequel to a revered classic. I certainly can’t praise the bland and flavorless characters, none worse than Sally Hardesty who’s shamelessly thrown into a couple of scenes just so they can call this a sequel. But in reality this iteration is nothing more than a hollow forgettable disappointment. One that borrows the name “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, but has no real resemblance to the movie that made that title famous. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2 STARS