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Monday, 16 May 2022 14:55

‘Firestarter’ a lukewarm remake

Written by Allen Adams

Stephen King is having a … well, what exactly? It’s hard to call it a moment when it feels like we’ve been watching a steady stream of adaptations of his work for years now. And you can’t really call it a Renaissance or a comeback, if only because his popularity never really waned in any real way.

Anyway – whatever it is, he sure is having it.

The latest adaptation (or re-adaptation) is “Firestarter,” based on King’s 1980 novel. This new film – directed by Keith Thomas from a screenplay by Scott Teems – is the second cinematic adaptation of the work, following the 1984 version that, among other things, helped catapult young Drew Barrymore into superstardom. With Jason Blum’s Blumhouse productions on board, you might expect a leap forward in quality; they do have a knack for solid horror offerings.

Unfortunately, this new version instead fails to capture the spirit of the source material, leaving the viewer with a film that – ironically – lacks heat. There’s a flatness to the proceedings that undercuts the possibilities inherent to King’s work; parts of the film feel rushed and/or unfinished, with those cohesion-lacking moments impacting the rest of the film.

It’s not a BAD film – I’d argue that it’s better than the 1984 version, though that might be damning it with faint praise – but neither is it a particularly good one. Instead, we get something that feels disposable and unnecessary; if you’re not going to try and do anything new, why bother with a remake at all?

Correction: if you’re not going to try and do anything AT ALL, why bother?

Monday, 16 May 2022 14:53

Back to school – ‘Senior Year’

Written by Allen Adams

For some, the time they spent in high school is a highlight of their lives. They look back on those days with fondness and nostalgia, rose-colored memories of what it meant to be young with the whole world in front of them.

Now imagine if that person had the last few weeks of that experience snatched away from them by circumstance, only to be given the opportunity to make up for lost time many years later.

That’s more or less the premise of “Senior Year,” the new Rebel Wilson-starring Netflix comedy. Directed by Alex Hardcastle and featuring three credited screenwriters, the film is the story of a young woman who winds up in a 20-year coma after an accident, only to wake up and want nothing more than to finish the triumphant high school career she was mere weeks from completing two decades earlier.

So yeah – adult woman with teenager brain goes back to high school. Honestly, seems like an idea with potential, but alas, said potential is never realized. Instead, we’re left with a film that consistently and constantly plucks the lowest-hanging fruit; the whole thing is packed with lazy jokes and more than a few inherent ethical questions that no one involved seems all that interested in acknowledging, instead choosing to ignore anything but the path of least resistance.

There are a few flashes here and there, where you can see the good movie that might have been made. However, they are VERY few, resulting in a film that never quite manages to live up to its central conceit.

Look, I’m with you – we 100% did not need yet another cinematic riff on “Cinderella.” There are plenty of those, whether we’re talking direct or indirect, and after the abysmal jukebox musical version that Amazon Studios gave us last year, one would have hoped we’d get a bit of a reprieve.

We did not.

So as you might imagine, I was not particularly excited to check out the new Disney+ film “Sneakerella.” The notion of a gender-swapped sneaker-culture-based adaptation sounded frankly exhausting, but I sat down and fired it up anyway.

As it turns out, it’s better than I expected. Not a great movie, mind you, but not bad. Not bad at all. And when it comes to adaptations of this classic fairy tale, not bad is actually pretty darned good. Driven by a charming young cast and some decent musical numbers, “Sneakerella” manages to put a genuinely interesting spin on the beloved story.

It’s not all good, of course – the film has its share of issues – but as far as efforts toward inclusive storytelling go, director Elizabeth Rosenbaum and company make something that feels reasonably progressive in its outlook. The standard clichés still very much apply, but all in all, there’s more good than bad here.

What if the biggest franchise in the history of cinema was given carte blanche to do (and undo) whatever they wanted in the name of storytelling?

That’s essentially what happened with the Marvel Cinematic Universe once the concept of the multiverse was introduced. Basically, the MCU can now do anything and everything it chooses to any character, all with the knowledge that, should they so choose, they can simply handwave it away with one sentence about another universe.

The latest entry in the series (number 28, but who’s counting?) is “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by the legendary Sam Raimi from a script by Michael Waldron. It’s an effort to go deeper into the implications of the aforementioned multiverse and the impact that can be had on it by those who possess both the willingness and the capability to cross from universe to universe.

It’s a sequel to 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” of course, but it also connects directly with an assortment of other MCU properties from both the film and television realms. The film features more horror and horror-adjacent action than other MCU films while also embracing moments of genuine slapstick, both of which are Raimi hallmarks.

However, this is a movie that lost its original writer/director Scott Derrickson midstream … and there are spots where you can definitely see the seams, particularly in the film’s front half. It is busy and a bit confusing at times. And while it’s always advisable to be caught up with previous offerings when you go in, you almost have to have seen a couple of things – “Wandavision” most prominently – to fully understand what’s going on.

Still, the pros outweigh the cons. Benedict Cumberbatch has the snarky charm cranked up, there are a ton of cameos and Easter eggs and Sam Raimi gets to show off the uniquely skewed style and aesthetic that made him famous. It’s a Marvel movie infused with cosmic (and comic) horrors, a combination that results in an engaging, albeit uneven superhero adventure.

Few times are as turbulent in a young person’s life as the transition from adolescence to adulthood. At least, that’s what the lion’s share of pop culture from the past few decades would have us believe.

As such, we’ve come to expect certain specific beats when those stories unfold onscreen. We have seen minor variations on the same themes so many times that they’re essentially baked into the way we process these types of films. Even when we don’t know what’s coming, we know what’s coming.

Writer/director Sofia Alvarez doesn’t reinvent the wheel in her new film “Along for the Ride,” adapted from the 2009 Sarah Dessen novel of the same name. There’s a lot that will ring familiar, particularly at the center of the film; you’ve seen this movie before. However, Alvarez finds enough differences on the periphery to give the film a pleasant charm and keep you from experiencing too much teen romance déjà vu.

It's not a complex movie or a challenging one, but there’s some entertainment value here. The obstacles are mild and the triumphs are mundane, but the overall effect is a soothing 100-or-so minutes of low-stakes high school romance. Not much happens, but that’s OK – there’s value in just hanging out.

When it comes to film criticism, I tend more toward populism. That isn’t to say that I fail to appreciate truly great cinematic art, but that I’m not a particularly snobbish moviegoer. Basically, my attitude is that aiming a film at a wide audience shouldn’t necessarily mean that it is somehow less-than as a creative endeavor.

But we all have our limits.

Unlike some of my critical peers, I won’t dismiss an animated kids’ movie out of hand. Even if the intended viewership might not be particularly worldly or sophisticated, the film in question might still have something to offer. It might not be great art, but there is value to be found in almost any children’s movie.

But then you see something like “Marmaduke” and are confronted with the reality of that “almost.”

The new Netflix animated offering is one of the laziest, lowest-common-denominator kids’ movies that I have ever encountered outside a convenience store’s VHS bargain bin. The animation is choppy and aesthetically unpleasant, the narrative is nonsensical and incoherent and the tone is all over the place. If the intent was to make a film that allowed four-year-olds to feel intellectually superior to those who made it, then bravo. Well done. If the intent was literally anything else, then we’re looking at a spectacular failure.

My money is on the latter.

Monday, 02 May 2022 11:45

‘Memory’ lame

Written by Allen Adams

Few things give me movie critic déjà vu quite like reviewing a Liam Neeson geriaction movie. Most of the time, it feels like if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. Mostly because if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that I dislike these movies. Though I should be clear, I don’t exactly like them either. It’s more of a fascination, the idea that these movies, despite being the very definition of formulaic, somehow keep getting financed and distributed in movie theaters nationwide.

The latest in the seemingly unending line of movies where Liam Neeson seeks vengeance and/or justice is “Memory,” directed by Martin Campbell; the screenplay was adapted by Dario Scardapane from the 2003 Belgian film “The Memory of a Killer.” Neeson’s a bad guy this time, although in these circumstances, he’s on the right side ethically, if not necessarily legally.

He’s a guy with a certain set of skills who is thrust into a situation that spirals out of his control. He uses his talents to protect himself, yes, but also to do right by a powerless person who has suffered at the hands of someone at the elite levels of money and power.

(Seriously – how many times have you seen this movie?)

But while I’ll concede that this movie is superior to other recent entries on Neeson’s old-man CV (like “Blacklight,” which you’ll be shocked to be reminded came out less than three months ago – or at least, I was shocked), it’s still not anything like a good movie. There’s a basic competence at work here, both behind and in front of the camera, but the paint-by-numbers plotting and the unsavory subject matter make it tough to give this film anything more than a shoulder shrug.

Telling stories about real people is a complicated business. Transitioning reality to the silver screen involves all manner of delicacy (assuming the filmmakers are interested in maintaining a clear and truthful relationship to that reality). And as the people portrayed become more complicated, the overall levels of complexity grow exponentially.

Harry Haft was a light heavyweight boxer who had a brief run as a pro in the late 1940s; his overall record was 13-8 and his most notable bout was his last, a fight with none other than Rocky Marciano himself. Looking at that snippet of a life, one might wonder why anyone would give this guy the biopic treatment.

But Harry Haft was a survivor of Auschwitz. A Polish Jew, Harry survived because he was willing to fight. Specifically, he fought against his fellow prisoners for the amusement of the Nazi officers … and for the right to live another day. It was that experience that landed him in the boxing ring after the war.

“The Survivor” – currently available on HBO Max – is Harry Haft’s story. Or rather, stories. Indeed, the film offers us a glimpse at Haft’s journey from all sides. We’re given an up-close look at the brutal calculus of self-preservation in the face of a relentlessly cruel and callous adversary. We’re also allowed to get a sense of the aftermath of those horrible calculations, of what it means to live after others have died. And we’re presented with the aftermath’s aftermath, a look at how difficult and even impossible it may be to move forward when bearing the weight of those choices.

Directed by Barry Levinson from a script by Justine Juell Gillmer (based on the work of Alan Scott Haft, Harry’s son), “The Survivor” is a powerful and surprisingly dense film, one that manages to pack a lot of punches (literal and figurative) into its 129 minutes. It is a well-crafted and powerful film, one anchored by an utterly transformative lead performance by Ben Foster; its large budget and high production values in many ways belie its challenging nature. It is an incredibly compelling viewing experience, even as many parts of it prove rather difficult to watch.

Monday, 02 May 2022 11:36

‘Crush’ a charming teen romance

Written by Allen Adams

I love a love story. Always have. And it doesn’t really matter who is falling in love or where; so long as the tale is well told, I am happy to come along on a romantic journey.

What has been particularly, well, lovely to see is the steady growth of LGBTQ+ love stories. More and more, these relationships and the people in them are getting to see themselves reflected in popular culture, whether it’s in movies, books or TV shows. And as that growth continues, we’re slowly approaching the point where these stories don’t have to be defined by the types of relationship at their center.

Take “Crush,” the new film currently streaming on Hulu. Directed by Sammi Cohen from a script by Kristin King and Casey Rackham, “Crush” is a sweet and slightly raucous high school rom-com. It is funny and thoughtful, driven by compelling characters brought to life by strong performances. It is about falling for someone and then falling for someone else and not knowing what to do, all through a lens of teenage self-consciousness. It’s about friends and friendship and the mistakes we make when in pursuit of what we want … or what we THINK we want.

And yes, many of the characters in this film identify as queer, but that isn’t what the movie is ABOUT. The story being told here is universal, the feelings felt by these characters are ones that will ring familiar to anyone who has ever been in love, been in high school or been in love WHILE being in high school.

Self-awareness is a relative rarity in Hollywood. The idea that a movie star can recognize their own tics and foibles – or even acknowledge the possibility that such things might exist – is utterly foreign to the vast majority of stars. Even among the handful that seem like they might have an inkling, there’s a feeling of deliberateness beneath the veneer for most of them, as though through this acknowledgement, they might be able to somehow further their own ends.

And then there’s Nicolas Cage.

Cage seems to be perfectly comfortable discussing the off-the-rails oddity of his acting career. He’s done plenty of prestigious fare and given some genuinely brilliant performances. He’s also made a staggering number of films that are bad and/or inexplicable. He’s a noted eccentric, but none of it seems like a put-on. He is aware of who he is and is comfortable with that knowledge … and comfortable with us knowing.

So it should come as no surprise that Cage would eventually lead a project like “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” a surreal, bizarre and wildly funny film directed by Tom Gormican (who also co-wrote the script with Kevin Etten). It’s an opportunity for Cage to, well … go full Cage, playing a hyperstylized version of himself at the center of a layered metanarrative that explores the many facets of creative artistry and the difficulties of maintaining one’s own identity when one’s life and livelihood revolve around adopting other personae.

The result is an inventive and often-hilarious film, one that allows Cage to bring together the disparate aspects of his career and varied extremity of his “massive talent” into a singular performance that is as strange and funny as anything he has ever done. And thanks to a plot laden with its own self-referential metastructures and a capable supporting cast willing and able to play along, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is not just an interesting exercise, but a great movie.

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