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You never quite know what you’re going to get with a Charlie Kaufman project. Well … that’s not ENTIRELY true. You know that you’re going to get something unconventional and bizarre and challenging, but you don’t know what specific flavor of unconventional/bizarre/challenging you’re going to get.

Kaufman’s latest is “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” a film he both directed and adapted from the Iain Reid novel of the same name. It is typically atypical, a difficult-to-define work of psychological not-quite-horror that is unsettling to watch even while requiring the viewer’s close attention.

The film is marked by the fluidity and flexibility we’ve come to expect from Kaufman; even while watching, one can never be quite sure what they are watching. Reality and fantasy blur together, reveling in the active and deliberate narrative inconsistency while also painting a compelling portrait of a relationship that is not at all what it seems to be. It is smart and well-crafted and unrelentingly weird – classic Kaufman.

Friday, 04 September 2020 23:47

Crouching ‘Mulan,’ hidden dragon

Written by Allen Adams

It’s tough to argue against the live-action remake strategy that Disney has trotted out over the past five years or so. By presenting live retellings of their beloved animated fare, Big Mouse is able to double down on the value derived from those properties while also introducing (or reintroducing) them to a new audience. Economically, it totally makes sense.

Artistically? Your mileage may vary. But whether you view these films as viable extensions of the originals or little more than cash grabs, there’s no fighting it – they’re here to stay.

The latest in line is “Mulan,” a live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated film. Originally scheduled as a summertime tentpole release for the studio, the film was made available for streaming to Disney+ subscribers, albeit for an additional charge of $30. This move makes it an interesting test case as far as what may happen with movies moving forward; in truth, this movie’s reception and receipts could prove definitional to film’s commercial future.

As for the movie itself? Pretty solid, actually. Director Niki Caro does a good job capturing the epic scale of the thing; her choices evoke the vastness of the proceedings with a deft clarity. The action sequences are on point – there’s an elevated kung-fu movie vibe to the fight scenes that works nicely. The emotional beats are all properly hit and the performances are uniformly strong. All in all, a really good movie.

Wednesday, 02 September 2020 16:01

Time is (not) on my side – ‘Tenet’

Written by Allen Adams

Christopher Nolan has clout. And he’s unafraid to use it.

It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about Nolan’s position as the last bastion of original idea-driven blockbuster filmmaking. Yes, the cinematic landscape is defined by the ebb and flow of franchises now. Hell, Nolan understands that better than anyone – he did his franchise turn with Batman, after all, though those films are obviously superhero outliers. But he’s the guy who can get a nine-figure check to direct his own non-IP script.

He’s at it again with “Tenet,” currently in theaters. I’ll be real with you – I’m not at all sure how to talk about this movie to people who haven’t already seen it. But hey, that’s the gig, right?

There’s obviously a lot of baggage here. Nolan’s insistence that the film be experienced in a theater turned it into a bellwether, leaving it to assume the burden of expectation with regard to theatrical reopenings writ large. That pressure can’t help but inform the way audiences experience the film. Add to that the outsized expectations that always accompany the filmmaker’s work and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment.

Thankfully, Nolan’s skill is such that he largely manages to sidestep that potential letdown. “Tenet” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is the sort of meticulously-constructed blockbuster that we’ve come to expect from the director. It is massive in scope, a challenging puzzle box of a film that works both as pure spectacle and as something a bit more thoughtful. The complexities of the plot skate right up to the edge of confusion, but anyone sitting down to watch a Nolan movie should probably expect some sort of chronological convolution.

And boy, do we ever get some of that.

Thursday, 27 August 2020 18:32

Party on, dudes! ‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’

Written by Allen Adams

One of the many unfortunate side effects of 21st century cinema’s affinity for franchises is the occasional appearance of the years-later sequel. These movies continue stories on which the book had closed a decade or more in the past. They are almost always bad ideas across the board, woeful misfires that fail to capture or even understand what made their predecessors so beloved in the first place.

Note that I said “almost always,” because it is possible for one of these films to actually prove to be a worthwhile continuation, a new chapter that both expands upon and embraces the legacy of the movie or movies that came before.

“Bill & Ted Face the Music” is just such a chapter. Reuniting Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as the titular duo, the film captures the essence of what made these characters resonate 30 years ago while also allowing them to tell a different kind of story, a story of adulthood and the pressures of expectations and the challenges that come in a life that lacks balance … even as they remain in many ways the same amiably goofy dudes that they’ve always been.

It’s also a story of family and what it means to live up to a legacy, of how the next generation’s ideas about the world are impacted by those who came before, but not always bound by them. It’s about the frustration of having a path dictated for you and the disappointment when it proves too difficult to properly follow. It is weird and hilarious and moving, sweetly and unapologetically strange.

Full disclosure: I dig talking animal movies. Always have. Do I recognize that these movies are often not good? Reader, I do. And I don’t care. Give me animals relating their thoughts and I will almost certainly watch.

“The One and Only Ivan,” the new film currently streaming on Disney+, is actually one of the better examples of the genre I’ve seen recently. The field has largely been crowded with dogs feeling feelings (a subgenre I particularly dig), so it was nice to watch a different animal having feelings – namely the titular Ivan, a silverback gorilla.

Based on the 2013 children’s novel of the same name, this story is a charming and occasionally dark story of a small-time animal circus based in a mall. It’s a story about the value of friendship, the importance of self-expression and what it means to be free. It’s also a bunch of CGI animals talking to each other (though not to the humans) and engaging in friendly banter while coming to terms with what it is that they really want – and what they might be willing to do to get it.

Sunday, 23 August 2020 17:21

Ho-hum ‘The Sleepover’ more of a sleepwalk

Written by Allen Adams

If you’re looking to make a kid-friendly action movie, you’re limited in many ways. Ultimately, this means that there are only a handful of basic ideas that are feasible. Filmmakers take one of these concepts, slap some cosmetic changes onto it and call it a movie.

One of the go-tos for kiddie action is “Parents have a secret and kids are the only ones who can save them.” We’ve seen it a million times.

Better make it a million and one.

“The Sleepover,” a new original movie from Netflix currently streaming on the service, is the latest to throw a coat of paint and a few accessories onto that baseline idea and let her rip. Now, there’s a certain base level of competence that comes with Netflix films, so this film’s floor is pretty high. Unfortunately, it’s rare that the company’s originals far exceed that base level, so the ceiling is fairly low.

And so we get “The Sleepover,” a reasonably-executed and largely soulless collection of dopey kid jokes and slightly-off adult banter featuring a couple of decent action sequences. The story is thin and the film features a couple of actors you recognize giving inoffensive performances; basically, it’s the exact kind of disposable cinema we largely expect from Netflix.

Monday, 17 August 2020 12:18

Netflix’s ‘Project Power’ a super start

Written by Allen Adams

Everyone knows that superhero movies are big business these days. The MCU and DCEU have both proven to be massive moneymakers, bringing in billions of dollars for the studios. What we sometimes forget, however, is that these films are being built on a foundation of source material that runs decades deep. That depth provides a wealth of ready-made narrative and loads of context.

As you might imagine, these means that creating movies based on more limited or obscure source material can result in varying degrees of success. And when you start talking about wholly original ideas, with no IP serving to shore them up structurally, well – you’ve got a task ahead of you.

Netflix has offered up just such an idea with their new movie “Project Power.” Specifically – what if there was a pill you could take that would give you superpowers for five minutes? But there’s a catch: you won’t know what your power will be until you take the pill … and there’s a chance you might just explode.

“Project Power” is a big-budget action-adventure that, while liberally borrowing from other sources, still manages to be more or less its own thing. Sure, it’s a touch derivative in spots, but it also has a couple of top-tier talents heading the call list (Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an up-and-coming directing team at the helm (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman). It’s not a wheel reinvention; this movie hits the beats we’ve come to expect from superhero cinema and does so in a familiar way. However, there’s just enough different here to make things interesting not just for the average viewer, but for the hardcore Marvel and DC stans as well.

Monday, 17 August 2020 11:13

‘Magic Camp’ abracada-blah

Written by Allen Adams

There was a time that Disney was an absolute dynamo with regard to making family-friendly live-action fare. The 1960s and ‘70s were marked with scores of light, forgettable films aimed at kids, movies that were simple, disposable entertainment.

Once the animation renaissance of the ‘90s hit, those live-action offerings largely vanished. Big Mouse’s annual entry into the cartoon arena proved wildly lucrative, so the studio largely eschewed the sorts of Dean Jones- or young Kurt Russell-led films that they had spent 20-plus years churning out.

In a way, the Disney+ movie “Magic Camp” is something of a throwback to those die-cut assembly line films with a distinct Disney Channel Original Movie flavor profile. It’s got a cast featuring a couple of notable actors and a handful of generally adorable kids in a narrowly focused summer camp setting. It’s a familiar formula revolving around familiar characters; there’s a distinct feeling of boxes being checked throughout.

That said, one imagines that young viewers will find a lot to like about this movie. There’s a good deal of silliness and some simple story arcs involving both kids and adults that will prove accessible. Again, there’s nothing particularly exciting about this movie, but there are worse ways for your child to spend a couple of hours.

As the brilliant Scottish poet Robbie Burns once said (apologies for the English paraphrasing), “The best laid plans of mice and men/Go oft awry.” It’s a sentiment that rings true across all avenues – and the movie business is no exception.

For instance, say you had a film. You had three talented actors leading the cast, including an Oscar winner and a couple of legitimate movie stars. You had a rising young director and a screenwriter adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the screen. All of this folded into a period piece with a striking setting. You’d think that it was poised to be a great film, yes?

Alas, in the case of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the sum total falls short. Despite the presence of the brilliant Mark Rylance and bold turns from the likes of Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, despite the presence of director Ciro Guerra, despite J.M Coetzee’s adaptation of his own 2003 novel of the same name, the film can’t scale the heights to which it so clearly aspires.

It’s a story of isolation and empire, a cautionary tale about colonialism that can never fully get out of its own way. There’s no denying the quality of performances or the stunning backdrop against which they are set, but the film simply never generates any kind of momentum, limping along through most of its 114 minutes without ever presenting a sense of dramatic urgency. All the pieces are there for a great film, only they’re assembled into something that is just OK.

Friday, 07 August 2020 11:53

‘An American Pickle’ a pretty big dill

Written by Allen Adams

The American immigrant experience has been a subject of some truly great art over the years. Incredible books and films have spring from the exploration of what it means for people to come to this country in pursuit of a better life, as well as what happens in the course of that pursuit.

But to my knowledge, none have ever told that story through the lens of accidental pickle preservation. Until now.

“An American Pickle,” currently streaming on HBO Max, is a comedy that brings the early 20th century immigrant experience into the present day … by dropping someone into a pickle barrel for a hundred years. Yes, it’s as absurd as it sounds, broad and weird and a lot of fun.

Starring Seth Rogen as both a turn-of-the-century immigrant and a modern-day Brooklyn app developer, the film mines big laughs out of its bizarre premise (though it perhaps doesn’t dig as it deep as it could). It’s a twist on the classic fish out of water trope, giving us a look at our current world through the eyes of the past.

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