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I dig M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Not all of them – he’s definitely got a couple of real stinkers in there – but for the most part, I’ve liked the films that he’s made. Frankly, there’s something refreshing about the dude and his work; he is clearly someone who makes movies that he likes and doesn’t really worry all that much about anything else. And thanks to the ongoing cultural impact of “The Sixth Sense,” he has enough creative capital to keep doing what he does.

Plus, he’s kind of on a pretty good run.

Since his sort-of-comeback with 2015’s “The Visit,” Shyamalan has reinvigorated his career, putting the previous decade or so – in which he became something of a punchline – in the rearview. That film, plus the double dip of 2016’s excellent “Split” and 2019’s I-liked-it-more-than-many “Glass” along with his work on TV shows like “Wayward Pines” and “Servant,” have him back in the conversation, albeit not quite at his turn-of-the-century heights.

His latest is “Old.” It’s a bit of an outlier for him; he directed and wrote the screenplay, as per usual, but this time, it’s an adaptation – a French graphic novel titled “Sandcastle.” But it’s the sort of supernaturally-tinged story we’ve learned to expect from him, with the same brand of ludicrous/intriguing elevator pitch description.

To wit: What if people went to a beach that made them age their entire lives in just a few hours?

I know, I know – it sounds goofy. And I suppose it is. But it is also precisely the sort of premise with which a filmmaker like Shyamalan can have some fun. It’s not perfect – things get clunky here and there and there’s one particular plot development that is actively icky – but the things that Shyamalan does well, he does REALLY well … and they’re on display here.

Monday, 26 July 2021 12:23

Solid ‘Snake Eyes’ a decent reboot debut

Written by Allen Adams

As someone who was a child in the mid-1980s, I am VERY familiar with G.I. Joe. I collected the action figures and other toys. I watched the cartoons (which were essentially half-hour ads for the action figures and toys) and read the comic books (ditto). Was it a thinly-veiled celebration of American imperialism and military superiority? Absolutely! They were still cool.

That connection means that I am 100 percent the target audience for Hollywood’s ongoing efforts to craft a G.I. Joe Cinematic Universe (GIJCU). Previous efforts like “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (2009) and its 2013 sequel “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” weren’t what any right-minded moviegoer would call good, but even in their badness, my younger self felt validated.

The latest effort to get the GIJCU up and running is “Snake Eyes.” Previously titled “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe: Origins,” because of course it was, it serves as an origin story for one of the most beloved of all G.I. Joe characters, as well as introducing us to a handful of other character stalwarts. Directed by Robert Schwentke from a screenplay written by the trio of Evan Spiliotopoulos, Anna Waterhouse and the so-perfectly-named-I’m-not-positive-he’s-real Joe Shrapnel, the film serves as a reboot and reintroduction into the franchise.

And it’s actually … OK? Maybe even pretty good, if you tilt your head and squint?

It’s nothing spectacular, but compared to the low-rent cartoonishness of the previous efforts, it’s decent. The performances are surprisingly compelling, and while the action sequences are a bit uneven, the truth is that if you’re going to reboot this sort of franchise, you could do a lot worse than what they’ve done with “Snake Eyes.”

The constant churn of Netflix, forever turning out project after project, is such that one can never be sure of the quality (or lack thereof) of a given movie. It also means that it can be very difficult to know exactly what one is getting into when they sit down to watch. That said, the churn also results in a wide array of different sorts of movies, running the genre gamut and offering unique opportunities.

“Gunpowder Milkshake” currently streaming on the service, is just such a unique opportunity. The film, directed by Navot Pushapado from a script he co-wrote with Ehud Laveski, is a stylized pastiche of a movie, riddled with homages to an assortment of action and action-adjacent offerings that came before. Some of those nods are overt – the influence of the “John Wick” franchise is all over this movie – while others are a bit more subtle (though that’s likely the last time you’re going to hear anyone use the word “subtle” in reference to this film.

It’s part action thriller, part mother-daughter drama, rife with high-octane set pieces interspersed with moments of fraught emotion. Driven by an exceptional cast and an over-the-top aesthetic, it’s a film whose strengths far outstrip its flaws, resulting in a lurid and loony good time at the movies.

There’s something almost sad about watching a film’s ending set the table for a sequel that – if what you’ve just watched is any indication – almost certainly won’t wind up happening. You’ve sat through the 100ish minutes and are left to sympathize with the sure-to-be-dashed sequel dreams of the filmmakers before ultimately walking away and promptly forgetting about it.

However, “almost certainly” is not “certainly.” Know how I know? Because “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” exists.

This sequel was transparently set up by the ending of 2019’s “Escape Room” (to the ultimate detriment of that film, to be honest); while the first installment didn’t really earn this continuation via quality, it was relatively successful at the box office – and money talks.

Director Adam Robitel is back for round two, as are a couple of the first film’s stars. But really, they could have simply brought everybody back and taken another go, because it’s largely more of the same.

An unnecessary sequel – fine. I get the desire to return to that well. However, if you’re going to make a sequel to a movie that itself was underwhelming, perhaps the right move is to make that sequel … better? Or at least different? Instead, this is basically a rehash; they’ve turned the dial up a little, but otherwise, it’s more of the same.

The past couple of months have seen a slow and uneven return to movie theaters. Films that were delayed or otherwise impacted by the pandemic are gradually returning, filling the country’s big screens with the outsized sequels and franchise fare that many have spent the past year-plus anticipating.

We watched a battle of the monsters when King Kong fought Godzilla. We held our breaths as Emily Blunt took on alien invaders in near-silence. Chris Rock was in a “Saw” movie and Emma Stone gave us a Cruella de Vil origin story. We even got to see Vin Diesel get faster and furiouser than ever alongside his franchise family and a smattering of movie stars. But even with all that, it was hard to say that the moviegoing experience was truly, fully back … until now.

That’s right - the MCU is on the big screen, baby!

“Black Widow,” the ostensible first installment in the MCU’s Phase Four, has landed, both in theaters and via premium access on Disney+. Directed by Cate Shortland from Eric Pearson’s screenplay, the film centers on the titular Black Widow and her doings during the period between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”

It’s an interesting choice, taking a leap back chronologically with the leadoff film of the newest phase. And some of the narrative wind has been knocked from its sails due to the pandemic delays – Marvel’s three MCU-connected TV shows were supposed to follow this film; instead, they came first. Those looking for big advances to the overarching MCU narrative will likely come away slightly disappointed; the nature of this film means that major revelations are unlikely. However, when judged on its own merits, “Black Widow” is solid action-adventure; not top-tier Marvel, but far from the worst.

Remember when Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement?

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t, if for no other reason than the fact that he never actually, you know, stopped making stuff. He said 2013’s “Side Effects” would be his last, but he almost immediately helmed a number of TV projects along with directing Off-Broadway and some fascinating recuts on his website.

Since returning to feature filmmaking with 2017’s “Logan Lucky,” Soderbergh has spent the past few years cementing his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most progressive and experimental mainstream filmmakers. He’s been unafraid to try different methods of filming (such as making 2018’s “Unsane” entirely on an iPhone) and distribution models (self-distribution and fully embracing streaming services).

That tradition continues with his latest, the period heist/caper movie “No Sudden Move,” currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s a convoluted thriller featuring a typically dynamite Soderbergh ensemble cast, all of it presented through the skewed lens of the director’s unique perspective. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its own narrative complexity, the film largely holds up thanks to the considerable talents of those both behind and in front of the camera.

Creating compelling science fiction isn’t easy. At its heart, it’s a genre of ideas – the best sci-fi is that which finds ways to explore those ideas through the building of interesting worlds and populating those worlds with engaging characters. That’s when sci-fi is most successful.

However, it can be very easy to get caught up in the trappings of the genre; too many filmmakers choose to repurpose that which has already been successful, assuming that these pieces can be reassembled into something new.

And often, when they do that, the end result is something like “The Tomorrow War,” a film that is new, yes, but feels all too familiar.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, the film – directed by Chris McKay from a script by Zach Dean – wraps itself in all-too-familiar tropes, feeling at times almost like a pastiche of influences from other, better sci-fi movies. Every piece of it is something that you’ve seen somewhere else before, and while sci-fi is a genre driven by seminal works of the past, you still need to bring something new to the table … and this movie doesn’t.

That’s not to say that the movie has nothing to offer – there are certainly moments – but ultimately, it’s kind of a tonal mess, one that unevenly stitches together its disparate inspirations while also largely squandering a decidedly talented cast.

One of the tricky aspects of being a movie critic is finding the balance between one’s personal (and idiosyncratic) tastes and a broader sensibility. You have to find that sweet spot where you’re addressing the work through your own personal lens while also acknowledging that lens’s subjectivity. You must recognize your own positive and negative biases as you judge the film on its merits.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I’m not entirely sure how to review the new Netflix animated film “America: The Motion Picture.”

The film – directed by Matt Thompson, written by Dave Callaham and produced by, among others, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – is a reimagining of the American revolution by way of wave after wave of anachronisms and alternate history, all steeped in adult-oriented juvenile humor. It’s an effort to parody and mock a certain kind of jingoistic action fare even as it follows much the same blueprint.

Not a successful effort, mind you. But an effort.

This is a ridiculous movie, one that readily crosses the line into abject stupidity throughout. It’s the kind of film that wears its idiocy as a badge of honor, proudly pandering to the lowest common denominator with gross-out gags, sexual innuendo and dopey one-liners. Whatever relatively high-minded ideas the filmmakers may have had are quickly buried in a seemingly unending avalanche of curse word-laden scatological juvenilia.

Here’s the thing, though: I enjoyed it. I don’t feel great about the fact that I enjoyed it. And my enjoyment is separate from the relative quality of the film, which again, has a lot of problems and will likely prove off-putting to many.

Monday, 28 June 2021 12:08

Even faster and furiouser – ‘F9’

Written by Allen Adams

I don’t want to be accused of burying the lead here, so I’ll just say this now: “F9” is a big, loud bunch of hot nonsense. The plot is transparently thin and peppered with holes at its best and utterly incoherent at worst. The performances are broadly winking and cartoonish. The action sequences gleefully defy even the most basic understanding of how physics work. It is candy-colored chaos, littered with CGI explosions and one-liners of varying effectiveness.

And I enjoyed myself very much.

Look, I love well-crafted sophisticated filmmaking as much as the next guy. I love complex characters working through engaging narratives, with ever word and deed sporting some sort of discernible motivation. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t also find joy within the confines of the car chase cash register that is the “F&F” franchise.

This latest installment – tenth in the series if you count “Hobbes & Shaw,” which I absolutely do – continues the ever-increasing bats—ttery that has marked the series for years now. You don’t need me to point out the bizarreness of a little film about street racing developing into a blockbuster monolith packed with action and espionage and an ongoing cavalcade of movie stars, but it’s hard to write about any of these films without at least acknowledging that truth. Justin Lin, who made his name by directing entries three through six in the franchise, returns to the helm for this entry.

I cannot in good conscience tell you that this movie is good. It is not. However, there is no denying this movie is great fun to watch. You’ve probably heard films described as something where you just “need to turn off your brain.” Suffice it to say, you might want to get ready to flip that switch. Sure, you’ll likely find yourself chuckling and shaking your head at the physically impossible action set pieces or the wildly improbable twists and turns in the narrative. Frankly, there’s a lot here that feels not just incoherent, but almost willfully stupid. And yet – there’s just something about it.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a genuine affection for old man action movies. There’s something so compelling about watching a creaky-kneed geriatric hobble his way across the screen, gratefully giving way to stunt performers when things get a little too active. I know that sounds derogatory (and maybe it is, a little) but that doesn’t change the fact that I for-real dig it.

Of course, the king of geriatric action (geriaction?) is my man Liam Neeson. His “Taken” franchise really kicked off the boom times of the subgenre, though I should note that I don’t count the aging action stars as part of it – your Schwarzeneggers, your Stallones, your Willises. And while Neeson’s definitely lost a step or two since that first “Taken” outing, he’s still out there getting after it (and getting those checks).

His latest foray into old man action is “The Ice Road,” a Netflix offering written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh. This time, Neeson plays an over-the-road truck driver who is pressed into service to save a bunch of trapped miners before it’s too late, only there are outside forces conspiring to stop him from doing that.

It’s the sort of paint-by-numbers action-thriller that makes up the entirety of Neeson’s workload these days – one that is decidedly lacking in both action and thrills. He does his gruff Everyman thing, trying to convey world-weariness even as his only clear motivation is cashing his check. It is purely disposable, a movie designed for folks of a certain age to fall asleep in front of.

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