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Everything old is new again.

That’s the attitude we’ve been seeing from the folks at Disney over the past few years. Leaving aside the omnipresent churn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve also been witness to the company’s ever-increasing tendency to find ways to revisit and recycle pieces from the vast store of intellectual property they’ve amassed over the decades.

For instance, the trend of crafting live-action(ish) remakes of beloved animated classics. From “Cinderella” to “Beauty and the Beast” to “Aladdin” to “The Lion King,” the back half of the 2010s was littered with these remakes. Some were good, some were … less good. But they all made truckloads of money at the box office, and so the hits keep on coming.

An outgrowth of that trend saw movies like “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Maleficent” and its kind-of-terrible sequel. Those films weren’t remakes per se, but rather attempts at reimagining and retconning a classic Disney character. Again, not necessarily creative triumphs, but largely commercial ones.

It’s that outgrowth that has given us “Cruella,” Disney’s gritty prequel treatment of Cruella de Vil that is currently available both in theaters and at home via Disney+ Premium Access. With an absolutely stacked cast led by Emma Stone as the titular Cruella, it’s an effort to backfill the story of a character who is, quite frankly, one of the most cartoonishly evil in the Disney rogues’ gallery of cartoon evil.

And it’s … kind of good? Almost unexpectedly so?

It’s a super-stylish period piece that attempts to show us how Cruella became the unrepentant force of sinisterness that we see in “101 Dalmatians,” painting the titular character as a wounded young person who grew up seeking to find avenues to express her fashion passions and the door-kicking proto-punk rock path she took to finally get there … as well as revenge on those who wronged her along the way. It features a great aesthetic and some great performances; while the screenplay definitely has its issues, the overall effort is largely a successful one.

Tuesday, 01 June 2021 09:58

‘Plan B’ gets an A

Written by Allen Adams

Despite the fact that my teen years are a distant memory, I still have a soft spot in my heart for teen comedies. In particular, I love a good buddy comedy; give me all the curse words and gross outs and what have you, but as long as we have engaging relationships at the center, I’m in.

Now, the majority of these films are male-driven, though that tendency is gradually changing – we’ve seen a handful of really good teen comedies centered around female friendship in recent years and we can only hope that the trend continues.

“Plan B,” a film marking the directorial debut of Natalie Morales and currently streaming on Hulu, certainly does its part to explore the potential hilarity and heart that comes with pairing teen girls and sending them on an up-all-night adventure.

Featuring plenty of foul language and outlandish situations – not to mention an absolutely dynamite central pairing – “Plan B” takes the standard teen romp formula and injects it with some real stakes. This isn’t about getting drunk or high (though they do that) or finding the right party (though they do that too) or hooking up (yep – you guessed it); it’s about what it means to deal with the consequences of our actions without much help from anyone except your always-game best friend.

Monday, 24 May 2021 15:39

You’ll enjoy the ride with ‘Drunk Bus’

Written by Allen Adams

Stories about finding one’s way are always going to be appealing because they’re nigh-universal in their relatability. Who among us hasn’t gone through a period where they felt stuck and didn’t know what to do going forward? We’ve all been there.

Now, that doesn’t mean that these stories are always GOOD. If they get too navel-gazey, they can often disappear up their own … behinds … in an insufferable ouroboros of fart-sniffing pretension. If they stay on the surface, they lack insight and ultimately feel pointless.

But when they strike the right balance, engage with honesty and humor and (perhaps most importantly) don’t take themselves too seriously, you wind up with some real gems.

“Drunk Bus” is one such gem.

Directed by John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke from a script by Chris Molinaro, it’s the story of a young man stuck in neutral, driving the nightly bus loop surrounding the college campus from which he graduated a few years earlier. It’s the tale of a late bloomer, one struggling to escape the ties that bind him to the past even as he hesitates to engage with the future.

It’s also a story of unexpected friendship, wherein a bold and bright free spirit enters the picture and pushes our hero to find forward motion, though that push is not without its own issues. But really, deep down, it’s about those times in our lives when we don’t necessarily know what we want, yet feel confident that what we have isn’t it.

Starting with the revolutionary work of George Romero, the movie zombie has long been used as a sort of thematic cipher. The nature of the monster allows for a filmmaker to project their viewpoint regarding a particular cultural or societal issue; horror films are often about more than just the horror, with zombie movies serving as the most flexible palette for the expression of ideas.

Then again, sometimes a zombie movie is just a zombie movie.

While I’m not going to sit here and say that Zack Snyder DIDN’T have some sort of larger commentary in mind when he made “Army of the Dead,” currently in theaters and streaming on Netflix, it sure does seem like he just wanted to throw some hot zombie action onscreen and see what happened.

And that’s OK.

Basically, Snyder has grafted a heist movie onto his zombie movie to mixed-but-largely-positive results. There’s plenty of gore and viscera splattering all over the place. The heist side of things is reasonably heist-y. And Snyder shows a degree of self-awareness, embracing and sometimes winking at his well-known filmmaking tics. It’s got its issues – primarily its length and some unnecessary narrative/character convolution – and it lacks some of the pop of Snyder’s previous zombie feature, 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” (his feature debut, no less!), but it is ultimately a successful genre mashup that works more often than it doesn’t.

Monday, 17 May 2021 11:28

‘Spiral’ spins its wheels

Written by Allen Adams

Sure, I’ll ask the question: did we really need another “Saw” movie?

It shouldn’t be a surprise, really – we live in a world of sequels and reboots and franchises, and with the horror genre being one of the few generally reliable box office draws, it makes sense that we’d see a horror film or three kicking off what appears to be a wider reopening of movie theaters.

But the truth is that while these movies have been undeniable commercial successes – even the “Jigsaw” reboot from a couple of years ago did nine figures at the box office – the transgressive nature of the earlier installments has definitely been backlined in favor of more and gorier action. So it was interesting to see the latest incarnation at least make the effort to try and say something beyond “Look how gross this is!”

“Spiral: From the Book of Saw” is effectively the first spinoff from the series. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (his fourth go at the series) from a script by Josh Stoolberg and Peter Goldfinger, the film adds some unanticipated star power with star Chris Rock (who also executive produced) and tries to use its still-effective gory torture devices to say something about the wider world – in this case, police corruption and by extension systemic racism.

No, you’re not going to get a lot of nuanced commentary from a “Saw” movie – no one is showing up to one of these to get a lecture on world affairs; they’re here to see people die in horrible ways – but at least it allows the film to feel like it’s about something, rather than just an excuse for inventive torture devices.

But the truth is that while the filmmakers seem well-intentioned, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. While there are some solid performances here – Rock in particular is quite good – the story is scattered and haphazard, with questionable decisions regarding the pacing. The result is a horror movie with plenty of gore that is never fully able to articulate what it wants to convey.

As someone with a genuine affection for the genre, I’ve enjoyed seeing the evolution of the Western for the modern day. The most successful of these neo-Westerns are the ones that are able to maintain the frontier sensibilities of the classics within a more present-day framework.

Among the foremost practitioners of the neo-Western – and perhaps the best and striking that delicate balance – is Taylor Sheridan, the writer-director behind such projects as “Wind River,” “Hell or High Water” and the TV western “Yellowstone.”

Sheridan’s latest – a project that he both directed and co-wrote – is “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” adapted from Michael Kortya’s 2014 novel of the same name. It’s a great example of how the neo-Western vibe doesn’t necessarily rely on the tropes of the genre. There are no cowboys here, but the tone and attitude of the characters and the narrative surrounding them can be traced directly back to the classic Westerns of the ’60s and ‘70s.

It’s a lushly-filmed thriller, one that takes full advantage of the natural majesty in which it was filmed. And it features a top-notch cast, led by Angelina Jolie. But while there’s no denying the propulsive nature of the story, there’s some muddiness to the proceedings that prevent the film from reaching its full potential. Still, it’s a hell of a watch, and truthfully? That’s more than enough.

Movies don’t always work. There are a million potential reasons why, but that’s the simple truth: sometimes, films fail.

On the surface, something like “The Woman in the Window,” newly streaming on Netflix, looks like a candidate for solid success. It’s got talent behind the camera in director Joe Wright and a wildly overqualified cast led by Amy Adams. It’s based on a best-selling book adapted by the excellent Tracy Letts (who also makes an uncredited appearance in the film).

But look closer and it all starts to crumble.

This was a film that was supposed to come out nearly two years ago – in October of 2019 – before terrible test screenings lead to re-edits, pushing the release to May of 2020 (and we all know how that worked out). After that further delay, the studio sold the rights to Netflix and here we are.

After watching it, well … I’m just curious as to how bad it was BEFORE the fixes.

This kind of “woman in distress” thriller has seen a bit of a renaissance in recent years, courtesy of authors like Gillian Flynn. But this one – penned pseudonymously by noted fabulist Daniel Mallory – has none of the propulsive power of that novel. And as for the film adaptations? Let’s just say the window should have stayed closed.

I grew up on “Sesame Street.”

Obviously, I’m hardly alone in that. Generations of children spent large chunks of their formative years engaging with that unique blend of education and entertainment that sprang onto the public television airwaves in the late 1960s. Honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone out there without at least a passing awareness of “Sesame Street.”

That kind of pervasive cultural omnipresence is a thing of the past now, with ever-increasing striation and stratification greatly reducing the potential footprint of any creative content. Still, there’s no doubt that “Sesame Street” remains an important touchstone for millions of people.

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” a new documentary about the show, attempts to break down the origins of what would become a phenomenon. It’s a look into how the project came to be and features interviews – both new and archival – with some of the primary figures responsible for making it all happen.

Now, this film could easily have coasted on the nostalgia wave inspired in so many of us by the mere mention of the show. And one could argue that by ending the story when it does – with the passing of Jim Henson – it avoids some of the thornier aspects of the show’s later years. However, this is not a viewing of the show’s history through a rose-colored prism – the film treats those first two decades honestly, the deep-dive ethos of director Marilyn Agrelo focusing on embracing the positive and not-so-positive aspects alike.

No one gets Jason Statham quite like Guy Ritchie. And vice versa.

From the very beginnings of their mutually beneficial collaborative efforts, the two have proven deft at understanding and embracing the talents of the other. But it has been a long time since their last outing together – 2005’s “Revolver” – and a lot has changed, with both men venturing more fully into the realm of the blockbuster.

They’ve teamed up once more on the new film “Wrath of Man,” based on the 2004 French film “Le Convoyeur.” It’s a Ritchie specialty, featuring assorted lowlifes and criminals and their behaviors of varying degrees of amorality. It’s an action thriller content to lean far more heavily on the former rather than the latter, sitting back and letting its action star lead do what he does best.

Watching this movie, you wouldn’t guess that it had been 15-plus years since Statham and Ritchie worked together. But the energy and sensibility that they shared is still going strong – it’s not the best work either’s ever done, but it is a solid entry into the filmography of both.

Being out in the world can be difficult. So often, we find ourselves wanting nothing more than to forget about what’s out there and bury ourselves into the insular realms that we have built for ourselves. Some believe that all the connection we need can be found within our own four walls.

But what if the ones we love want more? And what if we’re forced by circumstance to venture forth and engage, even if it’s the last thing we want to do?

“The Outside Story” offers answers to those questions. Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski – his feature debut in both capacities – and starring Brian Tyree Henry, it’s a quirky and intimate look at urban life reflected through the eyes of an introvert who is forced by circumstance to engage with his immediate surroundings in a way he never has before.

Driven by thoughtful, grounded performances, it’s a story of what it means to be a part of the world. It’s about what can happen – both good and bad – when we are forced out of our comfort zones. We can struggle against it or fully embrace it, but either way, we will be changed by the act of engagement.

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