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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.

Monday, 28 June 2021 12:03

‘False Positive’ a derivative delivery

Written by Allen Adams

Baby horror has long been a vital subgenre beneath the horror umbrella. The possibilities that come with the fundamental mysteries of pregnancy and giving birth are myriad. You can do demonic possession or supernatural rituals or weird science, all with a body horror underpinning that comes part and parcel with the whole situation.

Of course, these movies aren’t always good.

Take “False Positive,” newly streaming on Hulu. I had high hopes for this one, honestly. Ilana Glazer stars and co-wrote the script with director John Lee. Both of them have some legitimately weird credits to their name. Throw in Justin Theroux and Pierce Brosnan as co-stars and you’ve got my attention.

Unfortunately, while the film starts with some real promise, it never quite gets to where we want it to be. Instead, it devolves into a muddled mishmash of dream sequences and “What is real?” psychodrama that never finds its footing after the strong start. Too many decisions make little or no sense; there’s never any sense behind why people are behaving the way that they are. We’re left with a confusing and ultimately unsatisfying film that never quite decides what it wants to be. Again, there are moments of strength, but not nearly enough of them.

Monday, 28 June 2021 12:00

‘Good on Paper’ an aptly-titled rom-com

Written by Allen Adams

A major key to the ongoing success of Netflix is their ability to find and exploit market inefficiencies, an ability that applies to both the business side of the operation AND the production side.

Take romantic comedies, for instance. Rom-coms once ruled the box office, but have largely fallen off in the face of an increased reliance upon IP-based CGI-driven franchise fare. However, plenty of rom-com aficionados (I count myself among their number) are still out there. Netflix, seeing that underserved audience, set loose their algorithms and whatnot and began churning out romantic comedies. Not all of them were good and a lot of them were bad, but they still scratched that itch.

A more recent trend has been the notion of somehow deconstructing the rom-com, making different sorts of films using that genre as a template. And again – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

“Good on Paper,” the latest Netflix rom-com, is the streamer’s latest effort at that sort of spin. Directed by Kimmy Gatewood from a script written by comedian Iliza Schlesinger (who also stars), it’s ostensibly based on true events from Schlesinger’s life. It’s a clear effort to find a darker angle on the traditional romantic comedy.

A clear effort, but not a successful one.

The film suffers from an inability to settle on precisely what kind of movie it wants to be, which is really too bad; if “Good on Paper” committed more fully to going in either direction – either more thoroughly embracing the shadows or going in a more traditional rom-com direction – it would have been far better. Instead, it’s a clumsy and intermittently watchable film, one that squanders a great deal of potential.

There are any number of reasons that one might want to heap praise on Pixar. The studio has been producing exceptional work for almost three decades now, redefining the possibilities of American animated filmmaking along the way. Many of the films they’ve made over the years have become legitimate modern classics, iconic movies beloved by audiences and critics alike. Pixar films are fun and funny, packed with jokes and references aimed at every level of the audience.

Now, this success can be a double-edged sword. Because the studio has proven itself capable of crafting these wonderful works – arguable masterpieces, in fact – they can also find their efforts being viewed as somehow disappointing if they offer up a film that is merely very good. It’s not really fair (save in the case of the two “Cars” sequels, which, by all means, be disappointed).

Some people will argue that the latest Pixar offering – “Luca,” directed by Enrico Casarosa currently available for streaming on Disney+ - is minor Pixar. And those people won’t be wrong. However, what we need to remember is that even a lower-tier Pixar film is almost certainly a legitimately good film (again, leaving aside the aforementioned “Cars” movies).

That’s definitely the case with “Luca,” which is a charming and touching coming-of-age tale about fitting in and making friends and learning to accept yourself for who you are. It doesn’t have the full depth of emotional complexity that we often see from the studio – though you’ll still have plenty of feels – and it certainly seems more directly kid-oriented than some of the more layered Pixar offerings, but so what? It’s still a delightful movie experience, one that might even prove to resonate a little more fully with younger audiences than some of the more celebrated adult-conscious fare.

Expanding one’s horizons is usually a good thing. Getting out of a comfort zone and trying something new can be a rewarding journey. It’s the sort of experience that can prove refreshing to one’s creative spirit.

A perfect example of said horizon expansion is when a noted comedian or comedic actor opts to make the leap into a more dramatic role. There’s something admirable about someone who is willing to take their talents in one sphere and explore whether those talents transfer to another. Now, it doesn’t always work, of course, so it’s an interesting crapshoot of sorts.

“Fatherhood,” newly streaming on Netflix, is the latest entry in the “comedic actors tackling dramatic roles” canon. Starring Kevin Hart, it’s a movie about the struggles of a single father dealing with grief and loss while also trying to ensure the best possible life for his child. Directed by Paul Weitz from a script he co-wrote with Dana Stevens, the film is based on Matthew Logelin’s 2011 memoir “Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love.”

While there’s no denying that the film is a touch formulaic, it definitely has a surprising heart. And a surprising Hart, as far as that goes – he leads a solid cast with a performance that is considerably deeper, subtler and more nuanced than you might expect from him. Honestly, the film’s plot and narrative beats won’t surprise you, but the emotional impact just might.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021 22:12

‘In The Heights’ flies high

Written by Allen Adams

Full disclosure: I love a movie musical.

I love the big production numbers and over-the-top performances. I love storytelling through song and watching scores of extras dance in unison. I love the way that a three-minute song can do the emotional heavy lifting of a half-hour’s worth of dialogue.

So I was always going to dig “In the Heights,” the Jon M. Chu-directed film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s iconic musical of the same name, currently in theaters and available via streaming on HBO Max. Sure, I had a few minor misgivings – the film had passed through multiple hands on its way to the screen, which is rarely a positive sign – but with Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hughes both onboard, I figured at the very least, we were looking at a high floor.

But as it turns out, the title is indicative of a lot more than just the neighborhood in which it is set, because by God, this movie SOARS.

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