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.

We can’t control what art resonates with us.

Even when we see something and recognize its intrinsic artistic value, we can’t make ourselves feel a certain way about it. We like what we like and that’s all there is to it. And sometimes, even when the thing we’re watching should resonate, it doesn’t always.

Take “The Northman,” the new film from writer/director Robert Eggers. By all accounts, I should LOVE this movie. It’s “Hamlet” with Vikings, for God’s sake. The production values are first-rate and Eggers is a visual stylist par excellence. The performers are clearly invested, with plenty of top-tier action sequences and a healthy helping of line-blurring magical and magical-adjacent stuff. We are planted squarely in my wheelhouse.

And yet … it didn’t click for me as fully as I would have thought.

It’s not a huge surprise, honestly; the previous two Eggers outings – “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” – are films that on paper should have been right up my alley, yet for whatever reason left me just the slightest bit cold.

Again, I need to note that I acknowledge the quality of these films in a vacuum, as well as the tremendous amount of skill necessary to make them. By all practical measures, they are excellent films, beautifully shot with a clear and vivid vision and featuring committed performances. They are good movies that nevertheless did not connect with me.

So it is with “The Northman,” a stark and violent tale of palace intrigue by way of ninth-century Vikings. There is a bleak beauty to the aesthetic, one that is simultaneously washed out and vivid. The cast is absolutely stacked. Alexander Skarsgard gives a brutal and balletic lead turn, leading the way in a tale of one man’s quest for vengeance against the man who killed his father and usurped the throne.

Like I said – I should love this movie. And there’s a good chance that you will.

Monday, 25 April 2022 15:12

‘The Bad Guys’ is really good

Written by Allen Adams

One of the biggest obstacles faced by animated filmmakers – specifically, those making family-friendly features – is finding ways to make their work appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Those efforts don’t always work out – we’ve all seen animated fare that tries to pack in a bit too much winking and nodding for the adults in the room, to the detriment of the experience of the actual target audience. Even Pixar, whose work is easily the best at walking that line, occasionally loses the thread.

Other times, the powers that be don’t even bother, instead choosing to pack their film with low-hanging fruit and banking on the fact that, in the end, their bottom line isn’t going to change appreciably whether grown-ups like their movie or not.

Like I said – it’s hard. But it can be done.

“The Bad Guys,” the new film from the folks at DreamWorks, largely manages to walk that fine line. Directed by longtime animator and first-time feature director Pierre Perifel from an Etan Cohen screenplay loosely adapted on the Aaron Blabey-penned children’s book series of the same name, the film captures that broad appeal, providing plenty of kid-friendly gags and jokes while also offering adults a few winks and a surprisingly solid heist movie framework to enjoy.

I’ll confess that I had lowish expectations for this one, if only because of the marketing deluge of the past few weeks; I tend to equate those massive pushes with a publicity team that doesn’t have a lot of faith in their film. Instead, what I got was a funny, charming film that managed to provide moments both sophisticated and sophomoric while, yes, appealing to all ages.

A movie comes along that is accompanied with massive amounts of hype. Maybe it’s a critical darling, maybe it’s a commercial blockbuster, maybe it’s something in the middle, but one thing is clear – people are singing its praises early and often. And loudly.

As a rule, these films tend to be excellent offerings, though perhaps not quite clearing the exceedingly high bar that has been set for them by the discourse. Occasionally, they prove to be something of a disappointment, leaving you wondering what so many people saw in them.

But every once in a while, you get something that actually manages to outperform your already massive expectations. You get a film that is somehow even better than the people shouting its quality from the rooftops have led you to believe. You get a movie that is unlike anything you’ve seen before in the very best of ways.

You get “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

The film – written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the filmmaking team known collectively as Daniels – is a phantasmagoric experience, a genre-blending adventure that digs into the collective human experience and celebrates the underlying possibilities that unfold with every decision that we make. It is incredibly smart and wildly entertaining, packed with humor and action and heartfelt emotion.

This is the sort of movie that essentially dares you to describe it. It is a roiling tumult of narrative complexity and naked feeling, swirled together into a visually stunning mélange that again – and I can’t stress this enough – is unlike anything you’ve seen before. It is vibrant and vivid and unabashedly weird, powered by the bizarre beauty of its aesthetic and some utterly captivating performances.

It’s tough to deny the pop cultural impact that the Harry Potter books had on an entire generation, one that grew up alongside that plucky wizard and his friends as they did battle against evil. The subsequent movies only added to the cachet, all while making well over seven billion dollars (yes, with a B) over the course of eight movies.

Hollywood doesn’t walk away from that cash cow.

And so we get the “Fantastic Beasts” series, a kinda-sorta prequel franchise that is based on an ancillary connection to the beloved Potterverse. The first one was fine, the second one was borderline incomprehensible … and now there is another.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” – directed by David Yates from a screenplay by Steve Kloves and Potter creator J.K. Rowling – is yet another effort to wring even more money from the Wizarding World writ large. Despite the controversial departure of Johnny Depp – who played big bad Grindelwald in the first two films – and the continued presence of Rowling and her controversial views, this movie happened.

It's admittedly better than the previous entry – an EXTREMELY low bar to clear – but it still is somewhat lacking in narrative cohesion. The already-muddled mythology is rendered even more difficult to follow by the fractured storyline of this film. That said, there are some good performances here and it’s a fairly solid film in terms of aesthetics (at least until the underwhelming climax). Ultimately, however, it’s a reminder that perhaps the Wizarding World would have been better off ending with Harry Potter’s final adventures.

Monday, 18 April 2022 15:43

‘Choose or Die’ should have pressed reset

Written by Allen Adams

Movies based on video games have a checkered history at the box office; they have traditionally not been known for their quality. Hollywood continues to struggle to find the secret sauce in converting characters and narratives from one medium to the other.

Movies ABOUT video games are something of a different animal – think “Tron” or “The Last Starfighter” or even “Ready Player One.” These are films that use video games as the foundation for the stories themselves, rather than the IP around which the story is built.

A new film that falls into that latter category is “Choose or Die,” currently streaming on Netflix. Directed by first-timer Toby Meakins from a screenplay by Simon Allen, it’s a horror film whose central conceit revolves around an obscure 1980s video game unearthed by a player hoping to solve it and get their hands on an unclaimed cash prize connected to said solution. But the game is cursed, capable of altering the player’s reality with horrifying results.

If you’re like me, that previous paragraph probably has you intrigued. It’s a compelling conceit for a film. Unfortunately, the execution isn’t quite up to snuff. “Choose or Die” can’t quite hold together, coming apart in the back half after a strong start – the third act in particular falls flat, never managing to give us the level of payoff promised by the film’s solid beginning.

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