What does it mean to be a pop culture punchline? Specifically, how does an artist deal with the idea that their creative output is sneered at and viewed as somehow lesser by those “in the know” while also being consumed and enjoyed by a significant fandom?

Let’s hear it from a primary source – Kenny G.

“Listening to Kenny G,” a documentary from filmmaker Penny Lane, is the latest installment of HBO’s ongoing “Music Box” series of music-related docs. It’s a surprisingly compelling dive into what it means to be Kenny G, the best-selling instrumental artist of all time and the bane of many a jazzhead’s overwrought aesthetic.

Over the course of 97 minutes, we’re given insight from both sides of the Kenny G debate – a debate that remains surprisingly polarizing considering how long the saxophonist has been part of the pop culture firmament.

Monday, 29 November 2021 15:47

‘House of Gucci’ a campy, chaotic cyclone

Written by Allen Adams

I love it when a filmmaker takes a big swing. It’s immensely satisfying to watch and realize in real time that what is happening on the screen is the result of multiple wild decisions, all made with the intent of making the movie in question as much … itself … as possible.

And when you get to see a filmmaker take TWO such swings in the span of just a couple of months, well – I’m here for it.

So it is with Ridley Scott, whose latest is “House of Gucci,” the frankly bonkers dramatization of the somehow-even-MORE-bonkers true story behind the battle for control of the Gucci fashion dynasty. Based on the 2001 book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed” by Sarah Gay Forden, it goes deep into the bizarre machinations that led to the dissolution of familial command of the company.

(This follows Scott’s equally ambitious and (almost) equally weird, yet tonally and thematically distinct “The Last Duel,” which came out mere weeks ago following a lengthy COVID delay.)

But where “The Last Duel” was self-serious, “House of Gucci” is high camp, a telenovela run through Google Translate multiple times and ultimately landing in some sort of feverish linguistic no-man’s-land, ostensibly Italian but lacking any sort of consistency from character to character. It is over the top in a bizarre but incredibly watchable way – it’s as though different actors are performing in different movies, only to have the whole thing thrown together.

It is, to be frank, a train wreck. A delightful and oft-mesmerizing train wreck, yes, but very much off the rails.

Monday, 29 November 2021 15:44

‘Encanto’ offers magical family fun

Written by Allen Adams

Sixty films.

That’s the number reached by Disney Animation Studios with the release of their latest film “Encanto.” It’s a staggering figure, even when you take into consideration how long they’ve been in the business of making movies. From 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” until now, Disney has been creating animated wonder.

It’s literally generational – for over eight decades, families have been coming together to experience the magic of Disney animation. Kids who grew up on these movies have in turn shared them with their kids, who in turn would grow up to share them with their kids.

And so it’s appropriate that this latest entry would focus so thoroughly on those notions. Magic and family and the magic of family. That’s “Encanto.”

The film – directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard from a screenplay co-written by Bush and Charise Castro Smith, with original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda – is a captivating exploration of what it means to be a family and the importance of maintaining those connections no matter what obstacles might arise, all refracted through a lens of magical realism.

It is charming and sweet; warm, feel-good family fun of the sort that we’ve come to expect from Disney. And while it might be on the slighter side, there’s no denying that viewers young and old will be swept up into this wondrous world – there will be plenty of laughs and yes, perhaps a few tears as well.

Revisiting the things that we love comes with risk. How do we continue the stories we cherish in a way that is loyal to the original while also adding something meaningful? It’s a delicate tightrope walk, to be sure, a balancing act that far too many creators and artists have failed to execute.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” After all, I love the Ghostbusters. I love the 1984 original. I love the 1989 sequel. Hell, I’m even in the minority that enjoyed the 2016 reboot, for its flaws. But the idea of making a direct sequel to those films over three decades later seemed … ambitious? Complicated? Risky?

Well, I’m happy to report that my concerns were largely unfounded. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” – directed by Jason Reitman from a script by Reitman and Gil Kenan – is a delightful experience, one that stays true to the spirit (see what I did there?) of the original. It’s a fun and funny and at times surprisingly poignant dip back into this world, a world where the consequences of long-ago actions have rippling consequences to this day.

It’s not perfect – there are those who have argued that the third act leans a little too far into the fan service lane and I don’t think they’re entirely wrong – but the truth is that this film treats the legacy of the franchise with love and respect. No surprise, considering that Reitman’s father Ivan was behind the camera for the original, but it’s worth noting.

Monday, 22 November 2021 15:09

Will Smith serves up an ace in ‘King Richard’

Written by Allen Adams

The difficult sports parent is a character with whom many of us are all too familiar. We’ve seen it play out time and time again, men and women (but mostly men) pushing their kids to the brink and beyond in an effort to propel them to athletic greatness. These are the parents who turn their children into cautionary tales rather than champions.

But sometimes, the story is a bit more complicated than we’re led to believe.

Richard Williams is the father of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time. Many people viewed him as harsh and demanding, a loudmouth who took too much credit for the athletic brilliance of his daughters. And the media at the time certainly had no problem painting him with that brush.

But in the new film “King Richard” – currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max – we’re given a much more nuanced look at the man, with Will Smith playing the titular role. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green from a screenplay by Zach Baylin, it’s a look at the early days of the ascendance of the Williams sisters by way of their father, whose unorthodox methods and attitudes rubbed people the wrong way even as he remained fiercely devoted to the belief that his daughters’ success didn’t have to come at the expense of some semblance of normalcy.

Call it a sports movie about fathers and daughters or call it a family drama revolving around sports, it doesn’t matter. Anchored by one of the best performances of Smith’s career, it is a compelling and challenging look at one man’s unconventional efforts to drive his children to greatness and his willingness to do whatever it took to get them there.

As someone who studied theatre in the mid-1990s, I couldn’t help but be aware of the work of Jonathan Larson. Specifically, his musical “Rent” would be come an important part of my (and everyone that I knew) collegiate experience. It was the first musical with which I ever genuinely identified, capturing my attention – and my heart – in a way that no such work ever had before. Or has since, as far as that goes.

I didn’t come to experience Larson’s previous work, the semi-autobiographical one-man (more or less) musical monologue “Tick, Tick … Boom!” until years later. I was older, though no wiser – closer to the age that Larson was when he creatively exploded – and engaged with it in a more “mature” way.

A film version of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to me at that time. How would you even do it? How would that work? Particularly when you take into account the tragic and abrupt end to Larson’s life.

Happily, Lin-Manuel Miranda had some ideas.

Miranda makes his feature film directorial debut with this screen adaptation of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” Adapted by Steven Levenson, it is an adoring and energetic love letter from one theatremaker to another – there’s a clear and obvious reverence at work here – that goes a long way toward capturing the kinetic and sonic excellence of Larson’s work.

It’s also a sincere appreciation for the difficulties that can come from devotion to the act of creation. The single-mindedness required for genuine brilliance often causes ripple effects throughout the rest of the creator’s life, impacting all aspects of their world in what too frequently turns out to be a negative way. That dichotomy – the rush of creation versus the struggles of reality – is front and center here, presented romantically, yes, but also with a touch of melancholy.

For many people, just the term “Black Friday” is enough to give them the shivers. Whether they’re put-upon retail workers thrust into the breach or the exhausted shoppers single-mindedly devoted to doorbusters and deals, hearing those words together makes them break out into a cold sweat.

Now imagine that, only with alien zombie monsters.

That’s the gist of “Black Friday,” a new horror comedy written by Andy Grekoviak and directed by Casey Tebo. It’s the story of a motley crew of retail workers at a big-box toy store who must face down a mysterious alien menace that transforms all who come into contact with it into monstrous zombie-like creatures. With little to defend themselves but their own wits (such as they are), the group is forced to confront these monsters while also dealing with their own dysfunctional dynamic.

Gleefully gross with over-the-top practical effects, the film is a goofy, blood-spattered romp through a world where not even the approaching end of the world is enough to shift priorities away from the accumulation of profit. Well, not immediately anyway.

Sometimes, all you want is a big dumb action movie. You’re not interested in IP-driven blockbusters or massive franchises or any of that. You don’t want to worry about how this movie is impacted by what you’ve seen and/or how it will impact what you’re going to see. You just want explosions and movie stars and gunfights and quips and car chases and general big-budget tomfoolery.

That said … be careful what you wish for.

See, “Red Notice” – currently streaming on Netflix – has all of those things. It’s got an A-list trio at the top of the call sheet – The Rock, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot. It has a huge budget – reportedly coming in at $200 million. It is an original idea, from a script penned by Rawson Marshall Thurber, who also directs the movie. Things blow up. There’s a heist AND a prison break. The Rock is strong and Ryan Reynolds is snarky and Gal Gadot is sexy. Fistfights and gunfire and explosions, double- and triple-crosses. It’s all in there.

It just doesn’t really work.

“Red Notice” is made up of a lot of pieces that should fit together, but don’t. There’s a flatness to it all that is prevalent to the point of distraction, with a vague feeling of disconnect permeating the entire film. The performances come off as a bit shoulder-shruggy, with everyone coasting on their preexisting personae; it feels surprisingly phoned-in in a lot of spots. The action sequences are so-so, with a couple of solid ones surrounded by some duds. The twists are telegraphed and characterizations are thin to the point of nonexistence. Rarely has such a big-time action film felt so sedentary.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that intrigues me for reasons that I can’t quite articulate. These tend to be films that are very much not for me – stylistically, tonally, demographically, you name it. I am not the intended audience, and yet I find myself genuinely curious to see them.

So it is with “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

I have zero connection with the source material – a series of children’s books by Norman Bridwell – and the general look of the thing seemed kind of meh. The titular Big Red Dog’s CGI rendering looked a bit off. I’m no hater of kiddie flicks, but this one seemed a bit blasé. The director hadn’t made a feature since an “Alvin & the Chipmunks” sequel six years ago.

And yet, I still wanted to see it, for reasons that I myself still don’t quite understand.

As it turns out, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” – which did a simultaneous release in theaters and on streaming via Paramount+ – manages to be quite entertaining despite the fact that I was pretty much justified in my concerns. It does have a so-so look, with the occasional unsettling venture into the uncanny valley. The messaging is standard-issue kid movie stuff. The direction was workmanlike at best and the story makes very little sense if you think about it for even a moment.

I still had fun. Do I feel great about that fact? Not particularly. But I did. And while you may not, I’m betting your kids will.

Remember when “Home Alone” was the biggest box office success of the early ‘90s?

It’s easy to forget, what with its nigh-ubiquity on the airwaves during the holiday season, but when the Chris Columbus-helmed, Macauley Culkin-led film hit screens back in mid-November of 1990, it was a massive hit. Like, nearly half-a-billion worldwide box office massive. It spawned a couple of sequels, etc. You know the drill.

So it only makes sense that, in this era of reboots and remakes, prequels and sequels, that we’d be revisiting that particular piece of intellectual property.

And so we get “Home Sweet Home Alone,” streaming exclusively on Disney+. Technically, the film – directed by Dan Mazer – is a sequel, with a couple of very deliberate nods to the original, but in terms of the way it feels, it’s more of a remake, with a slightly different set of circumstances overlaid atop the same story beats with which we are all familiar.

It doesn’t really work.

Now, it isn’t terrible – the sheer talent of the cast ensures a fairly high floor – but the film itself can’t really push beyond that baseline level of performance competency. The elements of the experience that aren’t utterly rehashed feel bloated and padded, a series of plot points intended to get us to the slapstick lunacy that also seem to meander toward their destination with little to no urgency. The end result is a movie that labors toward a payoff that ultimately isn’t really worth the time spend to get there.

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