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Monday, 27 June 2022 14:52

Hail to the King – ‘Elvis’

Written by Allen Adams

There are few mainstream filmmakers who offer the degree of stylistic audacity that you get from Baz Luhrmann. The Australian director has made a career our of crafting visually arresting films that luxuriate in their own aesthetic extremity.

So I suppose it only makes sense that he would tackle the King.

“Elvis” is the latest project from the Aussie auteur. Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner, Luhrmann has imprinted his own vision on the story of one Elvis Presley. Powered by the standard over-the-top visuals – particularly at the onset – and driven by an electrifying performance from Austin Butler as the man himself, the movie offers a look at the man who would become a myth. All of it through the lens of the man who helped him get there even as he helped himself, the promoter Colonel Tom Parker (brought to life by Tom Hanks).

Call it “The King and the Kingmaker.”

It is a dazzling spectacle, to be sure – fitting the larger-than-life subject at its center – but it is also a look at the complicated and often toxic dynamic between the rock and roll icon and the carny-turned-music promoter who ostensibly assisted him on his rise to the top.

Monday, 27 June 2022 14:50

Answer ‘The Black Phone’ if you dare

Written by Allen Adams

It’s always a thrill when those whose work you admire have new projects coming. It’s a chance to experience again the quality that these individuals and/or entities bring to the table. And when they start combining forces, you cross your fingers that the resultant increase will be exponential rather than geometric.

Turns out, we’re all in luck when it comes to the new film “The Black Phone.”

First of all, it’s based on a short story by Joe Hill. Source material: check. Next, the film is directed by Scott Derrickson, from a script he co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill. Filmmakers: check. And the whole thing is brought to you by Jason Blum and the folks at Blumhouse. Production team: check.

Add it all up and you’re looking at a project that appears, at least on paper, to be poised to give you that exponentially expansive quality. That said, movies aren’t just what’s on paper – in the end, the execution has to be there. Is it?

Oh brother, you better believe it.

“The Black Phone” is a marvelous work of throwback horror, a film that blends a ‘70s B-movie vibe with a modern sensibility. That combination results in a wonderfully spooky creepfest, a film that uses elements of the supernatural to evoke scares that remain firmly rooted in reality. It’s rare for a horror movie to pull off “less is more” while also finding moments to go big; this one makes it look easy. It is unsettling, unrelenting … and unforgettable.

I’m on the record as considering myself a teenaged boy at heart in many ways. Even as I careen through middle age, I remain enamored of the lowbrow humor that tickled my fancy during my high school days. And I maintain real affection for the cultural content that delivered said lowbrow humor to me back then.

So you can imagine my delight upon learning that Beavis and Butt-Head were coming back.

Filmmaker/animator Mike Judge has created some wonderful work over the years – long-running animated series like “King of the Hill” and weirdly funny (and occasionally shockingly predictive) films like “Office Space” and “Idiocracy.” But as far as I’m concerned, nothing tops “Beavis and Butt-Head.”

The animated show – an MTV staple back when that actually meant something – featuring two moronic metalheads alternating between commenting on music videos and getting up to idiotic nonsense was exactly the kind of hilarious stupidity that teenaged me wanted. Call me unsophisticated if you like, but I was there for it.

And I am here for “Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe.”

This latest iteration of the two giggling idiots – now streaming on Paramount+ – sees them brought into the modern world, unleashing their own brand of oblivious selfishness and primal desire onto a society far different than the one they never really understood in the first place. Dudes like these two were already on the verge of anachronistic in their heyday – how could they possibly be translated into our current place?

Time travel, of course!

Monday, 20 June 2022 15:40

To infinity … and beyond! ‘Lightyear’

Written by Allen Adams

Sometimes, a project just sounds questionable on its face. You hear the pitch and, for whatever reason, you’re left wondering just who gave this idea the go-ahead. It sounds ridiculous, yet scores of decision-makers said yes.

In this case, those yeses led to “Lightyear.”

Did we really need an origin story for Buzz Lightyear from “Toy Story”? Specifically, an origin story for the character on whom the toy was based? It all seems so silly. That being said, this IS Pixar we’re talking about – this is not an outfit that is known for misfires. They’ve got a couple of hiccups on their resume, but for the most part, the work they do is generally both critically and commercially successful.

So a high floor is standard for Pixar. But just what kind of ceiling are we talking about? Again, this is weirdly high-concept – “Lightyear” is ostensibly young Andy’s favorite movie, the one that served as the inspiration for the toy Buzz Lightyear – so it’s obviously a bit more overtly meta than what we usually get from the studio. But the big question remains: Is it good?

And the answer is yes. It is good. Quite good, actually.

What we get from “Lightyear” is a legitimately solid space adventure, one with a compelling story, some good jokes and a few surprises. It’s a good-looking movie, of course (we’d expect nothing less from Pixar), and it has plenty of heart (ditto). It’s a bit more grown-up than the studio’s regular fare, but certainly suitable for all audiences. And as always, be prepared for an instance or two of emotional impact.

Adventure, excitement, humor and pathos – you know … Pixar.

It has never been easier to create. It used to be that access to the necessary tools to make movies was out of reach to most, but now, technological advances have largely democratized that access. However, just because you can make something doesn’t mean you have the means to ensure it is seen. If anything, this new level of access just means that there’s a whole lot more noise from which you have to separate the signal of quality work.

On the other hand, there’s someone like Cooper Raiff, who seems to have basically sprung forth fully formed as a filmmaker. He’s still young, but hey – when you’re in your mid-20s and have already crushed Sundance twice, you’re doing something right.

Raiff’s latest triumph is “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” currently available for streaming on Apple TV+; the streamer bought the distribution rights for the film out of Sundance (where it won the Audience Award) for $15 million. Raiff wrote and directed and, oh yeah, stars in the film, the story of an aimless recent college graduate whose side hustle hyping up bar mitzvahs leads him into some unconventional relationships.

Equal parts sweet and sharp, it’s a well-crafted portrait of a young man trying to figure out just what it is he wants from the world even as he struggles. He’s adrift and looking for some kind, any kind of connection. It is funny and poignant, radiant with goofball energy and offbeat sincerity, a compelling look at what happens next when you don’t know what happens next.

Look, dinosaurs are cool. We can all agree on that. Movies about dinosaurs, however … that’s a bit more complicated.

Back in 1993, “Jurassic Park” completely altered the cinematic landscape, showing a generation of moviegoers what was possible. Now, some three decades later, the fifth sequel to that film – third in the legacyquel “Jurassic World” trilogy – shows us that over time, magic always fades … even if the magic is dinosaur-shaped.

“Jurassic World Dominion” is … fine. Perhaps a little less than fine. Colin Trevorrow is back behind the camera, directing from a script (such as it is) he co-wrote with Emily Carmichael. It is a big effects-laden movie that isn’t all that concerned with character development or narrative cohesion, instead opting to throw a bunch of locations and dinosaurs at the wall, mix in some nostalgia casting and call it a day.

The plot – such as it is – is both overstuffed and riddled with holes; don’t worry if there are stretches where you’re not sure what is happening or why – it seems as though perhaps the filmmakers were in the same boat. Still, it’s better than the previous installment. Largely because it would have to have actively tried to be worse, but hey – better is better.

And again – dinosaurs. There are a LOT of dinosaurs. Just an absolute s—t-ton of dinosaurs, which is always going to be pretty cool, regardless of the comprehensibility of the story that surrounds them. So even if the movie as a whole isn’t good (and it isn’t, not really), it doesn’t matter, because it definitely delivers on the dinosaurs, and hey – if you’re not down for various flavors of dino-action, then what are we even doing here?

While things have certainly gotten better in recent years, there’s still a relative dearth in LGTBQ+ representation in films in general and romantic comedies in particular. Sure, a bit of that could be chalked up to the downtick in rom-coms in general, but still – there are laughs to be mined from all forms of love.

So it’s nice to see when a film comes along that gets it right, offering a humorous look at a different kind of love story – one that proves representative of not only same-sex relationships, but also of Asian-Americans as well.

“Fire Island” – currently streaming on Hulu – is just such a film. Directed by Andrew Ahn from a screenplay by Joel Kim Booster (who also stars), it’s the story of a group of friends who head to the iconic gay party locale Fire Island for their annual week-long sojourn and the connections they make while there, both with others and among themselves.

Inspired by Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” – and you better believe Ms. Austen’s influences are ALL OVER this thing in the best ways – it is a delightful story of friendship and love, one that alternates between coarseness and charm, equal parts salty and sweet.

Monday, 06 June 2022 14:54

Don’t bother catching ‘Interceptor’

Written by Allen Adams

There’s no disputing that the proliferation of streaming services has led to a serious uptick in the quantity of movie offerings. However, it is also tough to argue that the quality of those offerings has kept pace. That isn’t to say that all streaming originals are bad – far from it – but the truth is that “more” has not meant “better.”

Netflix is the most responsible for this content churn, releasing multiple new films on a weekly basis. And while a handful of those movies go on to be celebrated critical successes, the vast majority are disposable at best and outright bad at worst.

The new film “Interceptor” leans more toward the latter category than the former. Directed by Matthew Reilly from a script he co-wrote with Stuart Beattie, it is a small-cast military thriller that unfortunately falls short on the delivery of thrills. There’s a bit of a throwback vibe to the proceedings – if you haunted video stores in the late 1980s, you probably saw quite a few movies that bore a lot of similarities to this one – but those whispers of the past never get to the point of actually being fun.

Instead, we’re given a generic point-to-point action movie, one whose plot mechanics make less and less sense as we proceed and whose action sequences – ostensibly the reason we’re here in the first place – prove to be largely bland and uninteresting.

It’s no surprise that, in a cinematic landscape increasingly defined by IP-driven franchises, studios reach farther back into the past to mine content. Where once it seemed as if an idea was past its prime in a matter of months, these days, it’s not uncommon to get sequels that come a decade or more after their predecessors.

But what if a sequel arrived nearly four decades after the film that came before? Could a movie coming that much later possibly have anything like the impact of the original? It seems unlikely, but hey – when you introduce Tom Cruise into the equation, anything is possible.

The long-anticipated “Top Gun: Maverick” has finally arrived in movie theaters, more than three years after its initially-scheduled release and some 37 years after the release of “Top Gun.” It is a movie that seemed fated to fall short, based on a flawed-but-beloved jingoistic action classic and delayed multiple years due to circumstances both planned (extensive reshoots) and unplanned (COVID shutdowns). We’ve been waiting so long – how could it meet the inevitably-inflated expectations?

Reader, not only does it meet those expectations – it exceeds them. This movie is better than the one that inspired it, and not by a little. It is superior in terms of action, of emotional investment, of performance … just the better film, across the board.

I’m as surprised as you are.

That isn’t to say I though the movie would be bad – I didn’t. And I was definitely someone who came of age at the right time to have real affection for the original “Top Gun,” flaws and all. So I was poised to have a good time with this one. It’s just that I assumed that’s all it would be – an engaging-enough exercise in nostalgia that would be enjoyable in the moment but otherwise shoulder-shruggy.

Instead, what I got was far better than that, an exercise in top-tier action filmmaking that blends practical stunt work with CGI as well as anything we’ve seen before. Sure, some of the issues that marred the original are still here – the unabashed military self-celebration foremost among them – but thanks to a strong ensemble and a Tom Cruise capital-MS Movie Star performance, “TG:M” still manages to find an emotional resonance, exploring what it means to realize the obsolescence that comes with age and the difficulties that come with seeing change looming, even if it hasn’t yet arrived.

It’s no secret that I love it when things get meta.

I’m a huge fan of self-reference, particularly when that awareness is used as an entry point to satirize and/or deconstruct. I dig it in books, I dig it in TV shows, I dig it in movies.

Take the new movie “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers,” currently streaming on Disney+. Now, I was a touch older than the intended audience for the original TV show and its Disney Afternoon cohort, but I also had a younger sister, which gave me all the excuse I needed to watch. And watch I did.

So when I heard that we were going to get a movie – one directed by Akiva Schaffer and starring John Mulaney and Andy Samberg, no less – I was intrigued. Particularly when it became clear that this was intended as much for adult fans of the original as for today’s younger audiences, using the characters of the show as a jumping off point for a meta comedy about the rigors of fame and the entertainment-industrial complex.

Seriously – what’s not to like?

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