The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 6/21/22;
Lionsgate;
Comedy;
Box Office $20.3 million;
$29.96 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $42.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and violence.
Stars Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Tiffany Haddish, Sharon Horgan, Paco León, Neil Patrick Harris, Lily Sheen, Alessandra Mastronardi, Ike Barinholtz.

All hail Nicolas Cage.

Throughout a four-decade career, the iconic movie star has accumulated an enduring list of memorable roles by stamping each character with his unique blend of quirky charm and searing intensity, be it in comedy, drama or action.

In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage takes on the role he was born to play — himself.

The hugely entertaining film provides a meta commentary on Cage’s career, telling the story of an aging star, haunted by his past successes, who finds himself creatively refueled by the unlikeliest of circumstances.

As Cage proclaims several times in the film, “I’m back. Not that I went anywhere.”

The premise flows primarily from Cage’s public perception the past few years, taking on countless direct-to-video projects to pay off some financial hardships, while his more-eccentric performances became the stuff of meme legend.

Cage himself was unsurprisingly wary of the project, as he notes in the film’s behind-the-scenes materials, until he realized how much fun it could be to portray the younger embodiment of his self-image.

The film finds Cage playing a fictionalized version of himself, vowing to quit Hollywood after losing out on another role he really wanted, and failing to gain the respect of his teenage daughter (one of the main deviations from reality, as real-life Cage has two sons). Cage frequently has visions of his younger self, Nicky (also played by Cage with some de-aging CGI based on his Wild at Heart days), who taunts him for his failures.

Desperate for cash, he accepts a personal appearance gig for $1 million to hang out at a villa in Majorca for a billionaire’s birthday party.

Cage discovers his new patron, Javi (Pedro Pascal) is a huge fan, and the pair grow closer through a shared love of cinema. But it turns out the CIA suspects Javi of being the mastermind of a huge international criminal enterprise, and they recruit Cage with the hopes of using the actor to learn the whereabouts of the kidnapped daughter of a Catalan presidential candidate.

To learn the details, Cage proposes working with Javi on a new screenplay, and at this point Unbearable Weight’s fourth walls all but fold in on themselves as the film channels some of Cage’s quintessential movies and morphs through a variety of genres.

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The Blu-ray includes two deleted scenes that total about five minutes. The first is a bit of fluff about Javi’s Wifi password. But the second is practically a short film of its own — a four-minute battle between Cage and Nicky through several Cage films re-created in the style of the 1920 German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is mentioned throughout the movie by Cage as one of his favorite films.

The deleted scenes are available with optional commentary by writer-director Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten. The pair also provides an informative commentary track for the movie as a whole, usually alternating between stories of Cage’s contributions to the story and how COVID protocols affected the production schedule.

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The Blu-ray also offers about a half-hour of behind-the-scenes featurettes. The seven-minute “The Mind” delves into the creative process behind the film; the four-and-a-half-minute “Everybody Needs a Javi” spotlights the creation of Pascal’s character; the seven-minute “Second-Act Action” looks at the film’s action sequences in its latter half; the four-and-a-half-minute “Nick, Nicky and Sergio” deals with Cage portraying three versions of himself, while the five-minute “Glimmers of a Bygone Cage” shows some of the visual effects and film techniques used to create Nicky.

On the humorous side, “Cages 5 and Up” is a two-minute reel of a bunch of kids “auditioning” to play Nic Cage.

Finally, the Blu-ray offers a 16-minute clip from a Q&A of the cast and filmmakers at the SXSW Film Festival, though the discussion mostly veers into feting Cage.

The Book of Boba Fett

STREAMING REVIEW:  

Disney+;
Sci-Fi;
Not Rated.
Stars Temuera Morrison, Ming-Na Wen, Pedro Pascal, Matt Berry, David Pasquesi, Jennifer Beals.

Answering some questions while raising others, “The Book of Boba Fett” is an oddly structured mini-series centered on what was once one of the more mysterious characters in “Star Wars” lore.

First appearing more than 40 years ago as little more than a bounty hunter with a cool costume, Boba Fett didn’t get much of a backstory until the 2002 prequel Attack of the Clones, which established that he himself was a clone of another bounty hunter, Jango Fett, played by Temuera Morrison. Boba had seemingly been killed off in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, eaten by the Sarlacc Pit while working for Jabba the Hutt, though it was widely assumed he survived, popping up again in countless comic books and novels. The first live-action confirmation of his survival came in 2020 when he showed up on “The Mandalorian,” played by Morrison, and ended up assisting the title character there in exchange for recovering his armor.

“Book of Boba Fett” picks up following Fett’s actions in the post-credit scene of “Mandalorian” season two, in which he takes over Jabba’s criminal empire.

In his own show, he must learn to navigate the tricky political dunes of Tatooine in order to maintain his power, a task he comes to discover he may be ill-suited for, despite the help of master assassin Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen).

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The seven-episode season plays heavily on the tropes of Westerns, while also touching upon gangster movies, as Fett must make deals with local power brokers and learn whom he can trust.

Early episodes use a flashback structure to divide the storyline between Fett’s present, which takes place about five to six years after Return of the Jedi, and what happened to him after escaping the Sarlacc.

After finally depicting Boba’s escape from the Sarlacc, the show reveals that his armor was stolen by Jawas, and Fett himself was captured by Tusken Raiders (the tribal “sand people” of the original 1977 film). He eventually comes to learn their ways, assisting them in a skirmish with an offworld syndicate that is running illicit substances through their territory.

The show mostly plays as an excuse to pile on fan-friendly references to other aspects of “Star Wars” up to and including two episodes (five and six) that barely feature Boba at all and mostly continue the storyline of The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal).

The end result is a show that offers a number of great “Star Wars” moments, but may otherwise leave viewers wishing for something edgier and more substantive.

Wonder Woman 1984

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner;
Action;
Box Office $46.1 million;
$28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $44.95 UHD BD;
$35.99 3D BD Warner Archive;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of action and violence.
Stars Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal.

The 2017 Wonder Woman movie is pretty commonly regarded as the best of the otherwise mediocre DC Comics shared movie universe. The sequel might have some fans wondering if the first one was a fluke.

Probably not. But while Wonder Woman 1984 unmistakably shares the DNA of the original, it certainly isn’t a retread.

Taking place in a stereotypical movie version of 1984, 65 years after the World War I setting of the first one, the film finds the ageless Diana (Gal Gadot) now working in the antiquities wing of the Smithsonian while going out as Wonder Woman on a lark to stop local crimes. One, a jewelry heist, uncovers a black market smuggling ring that brings Diana into contact with an ancient stone inscribed with the power to grant wishes by an ancient trickster god of lies (one who isn’t Loki, since he plays for the other team).

Diana’s wish is for the return of her lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and sure enough he pops up in a way that raises some questions the movie isn’t interested in answering.

However, the stone attracts the attention of Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a con man selling shares in a phony oil company. He wants the power to wish himself into greatness, but as we are told in a flashback prologue set during Diana’s time as a young girl participating in the Amazonian sports of Themiscyra, “greatness is not what you think.”

Diana’s attempts to stop him put her at odds with a co-worker named Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a wallflower whose wish to be more like Diana inadvertently imbues her with superpowers she’s now unwilling to give up on her path to becoming the supervillain Cheetah. However, tying such a seminal Wonder Woman villain’s origins to this story almost seems like a waste.

On the flip side, Diana discovers the price of her wish is the gradual decline of her own abilities, and as the wishing power spreads, plunging the world into chaos, she is forced to make the difficult decision most movie superheroes have to make at some point: love or duty.

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The film is visually dazzling and offers some moments that will make any superhero movie fan smile, and Wonder Woman fans in particular. For example, the film finds a neat way to work in the invisible jet that isn’t just a transparent plastic model with a doll in it.

But the film runs a bit long at two-and-a-half hours, and the over-reliance on wishes as the central plot device gets rather tedious after a while.

Even in a universe where magic is already established — Diana is the daughter of the Greek god Zeus, after all — the presentation of the wishes being granted just seems a step beyond the plausible since the movie only pays the slightest lip-service to how they are supposed to work. In a screenplay underlined by progressive misunderstandings of Reagan-era politics, the wishes serve whatever basic story points the writers require, and stand up to little scrutiny beyond that.

Which is all a means of saying the individual elements of the story as assembled don’t quite result in a completely satisfying whole. The two-villain team up is practically a superhero sequel tradition at this point, even when their pairing doesn’t seem to make sense. Tonally this type of plot wouldn’t seem too out of place in the 1970s “Wonder Woman” TV show (which, fittingly, is teased in the Blu-ray bonus materials).

The 1980s setting would seem to suggest the story is intended as a screed against the kind of selfishness and greed that are often attributed to the ’80s but are pretty universally present in any time period. But, really, the film’s message of honest work over shortcuts to achievement, and not expecting everything you want to just be handed to you, is an easy one to embrace.

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Since we’ve seen present-day Diana in Batman v Superman and Justice League, a sequel set before those films could have been a story about what brought her back to dabble in superheroism before retreating from humanity’s problems again before BvS. As it stands, WW84 doesn’t necessarily knock against the established DC movie timeline per se, but the two “Wonder Woman” movies definitely stand on their own apart from the greater franchise.

It’s especially hard to reconcile the plot of WW84 with the 2017 Justice League team-up movie, particularly the theatrical cut. It fits in a bit more with Zack Snyder’s Justice League director’s cut, but not by much. (One can only imagine what a teenage Bruce Wayne would have wished for.)

While some of its logical issues are hard to ignore, Wonder Woman 1984 does play better on multiple viewings, mostly because it’s easy enough with Blu-ray and digital copies to just go to the few good scenes. And really, whatever problems the movie has are almost an afterthought to the pure joy of a mid-credits cameo that should serve as the basis of a third film.

Wonder Woman 1984 played in theaters and streamed on HBO Max through Jan. 24, after which it was available exclusively in theaters until hitting PVOD a month before its traditional home video run.

The Blu-ray edition of Warner’s latest “Wonder Woman” adventure includes more than 90 minutes of bonus materials, consisting of a number of detailed behind-the-scenes featurettes and a few fun extras for the fans.

The best is the aforementioned 1970s tie-in, presenting footage from WW84 in the style of the 1970s “Wonder Woman” TV series, complete with the original theme song and animated transitions — and it’s also the first time we get to see Gadot do the classic “Wonder Woman spin.”

Among the other amusing extras are a six-and-a-half-minute gag reel and the raw minute-and-a-half footage from Max Lord’s in-movie “Black Gold” infomercial.

A couple more focus on the teaming of Gadot and Wiig: There’s a five-minute video about them starring together, which leads to a minute-long clip of the pair goofing around on set in the form of a “Saturday Night Live”-style video sketch (no doubt Wiig’s comedy background contributed to this one).

The primary making-of documentary runs 36 minutes and gives a good overview of the production. Tying into this are two “Scene Study” featurettes: a five-minute video focused on the opening mall rescue scene and six-minutes exploring the Middle East truck chase. The most notable aspect to these videos is how dedicated the crew was to re-creating the 1980s — building out several levels of a vintage mall with fully stocked stores, and using old-school practical stunt-work with a minimal reliance on CGI.

The rest of the footage deals with the making of the scenes at the amazonian island. There’s a 21-minute “Meet the Amazons” virtual panel from DC Fandome featuring discussions with director Patty Jenkins and a number of the women and stunt performers who played Amazonian warriors participating in the elaborate games sequences that open the film. Rounding out the presentation is an 11-minute profile of actress Lilly Aspell, who reprises her role as the pre-teen Diana from the 2017 film. The featurette includes some cute audition footage of the enthusiastic Aspell from 2015, showing off how well she makes for a younger version of Gadot.

Originally published as a streaming review Dec. 28, 2020.

The Mandalorian: Season 2

STREAMING REVIEW:

Disney+;
Sci-Fi;
Not rated.
Stars Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Temuera Morrison, Ming-Na Wen, Katee Sackhoff, Mercedes Varnado, Rosario Dawson, Timothy Olyphant, Bill Burr, Carl Weathers, Horatio Sanz, Giancarlo Esposito.

The eight episodes of the second season of “The Mandalorian” offer the kind of “Star Wars” moments the franchise’s fans have been clamoring to see for decades.

Series creator Jon Favreau and executive producer Dave Filoni are drawing from nearly all aspects of “Star Wars” lore for inspiration — not just the original trilogy, but also the prequels and animated spinoffs as well.

Instead of trying to reinvent the universe the way the sequel trilogy seemed to be trying to do, “The Mandalorian” unmistakably wants to play in George Lucas’ sandbox. The episodes have all the fun and joy of what it’s like to play with “Star Wars” toys as a kid, and imagine all the adventures possible in that galaxy far, far away.

It’s not fan service. It’s fantastic.

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Picking up from last season, bounty hunter Din Djarin, the Mandalorian of the title, embarks on his quest to return to the Jedi the child everyone refers to as “Baby Yoda” (whose name is finally revealed to be Grogu). But doing so will require a great deal of compromise and sacrifice. Along the way he encounters Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), a Mandalorian from the “Clone Wars” and “Rebels” animated shows who desires to reclaim her home planet from the chaos of the Empire’s wrath. She leads Mando to another animated character brought into live-action, the former Jedi Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), who needs his help to free a village from a warlord in one of the season’s standout episodes.

Another great episode sees the return of Bill Burr, who has to help Mando on a mission to locate the menacing Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito). Their infiltration of an Imperial base leads to some of the tensest moments on the show, culminating in the “Star Wars” version of the great basement shootout from Inglourious Basterds.

And if that weren’t enough, we get the return of Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), last seen being swallowed by the Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi. Not only did he survive, but he’s finally living up to the potential for badassery only hinted at in his limited screen time in the movies but which has nonetheless made him a fan favorite since his introduction.

The season also has a few more surprises in store, leading to one of the most emotional and satisfying finales a fan could hope for.

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There have been some grumblings about the wide variance in running times of the episodes — ranging from barely more than a half-hour to more than 50 minutes. But this just demonstrates the creative advantages of posting content to an ad-free streaming service as opposed to needing to fill a set run time to account for a time slot and advertising. The show’s creators are telling the stories they want to tell, and they are using the time they need to tell them. No more, no less. And the results speak for themselves.

 

The Mandalorian: Chapter 1

STREAMING REVIEW:

Disney+;
Sci-Fi;
Stars Pedro Pascal, Carl Weathers, Nick Nolte, Werner Herzog, Omid Abtahi, Taika Waititi, Horatio Sanz, Brian Posehn.

This is a great start for a series that promises to inject some of the old-school excitement back into the “Star Wars” brand that seems to have leaked out a bit from fan reactions to Disney’s movie efforts.

Executive producers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are throwbacks to the pre-Disney days of Lucasfilm, having worked on the “Clone Wars” animated series, and have a solid grasp on “Star Wars” canon. So much so that many fans believe they should have been given the reins to the continuing movie franchise instead of the divisive J.J. Abrams and his penchant for mystery-box storytelling and visual splendor over substance.

The first episode comes rife with references to classic “Star Wars,” including a few nods to the infamously bad 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special.

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With its focus on the seedy underbelly of the “Star Wars” universe and the bounty hunters who operate within it, the show feels a bit like a Clint Eastwood Western, centered on the mysterious, masked and unnamed Mandalorian, who is just trying to make ends meet with the meager bounties that come his way. The “space Western” vibe brings to mind Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” itself heavily influenced by “Star Wars.”

For those who don’t know, the Mandalorians in canon are a proud warrior race whose planet has been hit hard by war over the centuries. Set shortly after the fall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi, the show implies that clusters of downtrodden Mandos have spread like refugees across the galaxy seeking to reclaim their heritage where they can.

As such, for his latest job the Mandalorian takes a payment of rare Beskar steel, the powerful alloy used to construct the legendary Mandalorian armor (which fans will recognize as similar to the armor worn by Boba Fett).

The Mandalorian’s mission here, after being hired by a former Imperial functionary (played by Werner Herzog), is to recover someone from a mercenary stronghold. The identity of the target is but one of many surprises this show no doubt has in store for us.

Along the way, he encountered the bounty hunting droid IG-11 (voiced by Taika Waititi), and the pair join forces for a fantastic fight sequence that most fans will equate to an approximation of a team-up of classic trilogy characters Boba Fett and IG-88). And for longtime fans with any familiarity with the expanded “Star Wars” universe, it’s just great to see the bounty hunters in action.