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“Who ARE all these people?”

That was what I muttered to myself as I entered the first screening of “Angel Has Fallen” at my local cinema. It was just after 1 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon in late summer, the sort of stretch for which people bail on work to go for a hike or to the beach or something, but … this? The third movie in an increasingly-ludicrous series in which talking mayonnaise wad Gerard Butler has to save the day despite overwhelming odds against him? This is how you’re going to spend your day? Me, I have to be here – what’s your excuse?

Who ARE all these people?

Whoever they are, they got to see a movie that, while far from good, did manage to at least improve upon its execrable (and kind of racist) “London Has Fallen,” the follow-up to “Olympus Has Fallen,” best known as the “Deep Impact” to the “Armageddon” of the Channing Tatum/Jamie Foxx team-up “White House Down.”

“Angel Has Fallen” is happy to lean into the assorted tropes and clichés of the genre, featuring a convoluted narrative packed with inexplicable decision-making, totally telegraphed betrayals and meaningless technobabble jargon to go along with loads of grim grimaces and steely glares. It’s not good – never good – but it’s better. A low bar, but there you have it.

Published in Movies

Creating a cinematic franchise from scratch is HARD. If it wasn’t, studios wouldn’t be falling all over themselves in an effort to find preexisting intellectual properties to convert to the big screen.

And yet, that’s precisely what has happened with the “John Wick” series, which just saw its third installment – “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” – hit movie theaters nationwide. With this latest offering, the biggest and brashest of the series thus far, star Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stehelski have ensured that the creep of sequel fatigue will have to wait once again.

This new film embraces everything that made the two previous films such a success; the intricate, intimate fight scenes, the sweeping action set pieces, the meticulously constructed mythology, the kinetic hyperstylized aesthetic – it’s all here. And while it’s all much, MUCH bigger, it all scales up comfortably; the smaller moments aren’t lost. If anything, they’re accentuated even more by their massive surroundings.

In short, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” kicks ass in every way you expect … and a few that you don’t.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 20 February 2019 13:53

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ fights the good fight

Considering the popularity of sci-fi/fantasy fare, you’d think that Hollywood would be better at adapting Japanese anime and manga for American audiences. However, whether it’s a cultural divide or an aesthetic difference or what have you, the undeniable appeal of those properties usually winds up getting lost in translation.

So when I started seeing ads for “Alita: Battle Angel,” I was skeptical. Based on Yukito Kushiro’s popular “Gunnm” manga from the early 1990s, it’s the sort of complex, thematically dense work that Hollywood has traditionally screwed up. Why would this time be any different?

But then I looked closer. It’s a marvelous collection of talent. You’ve got Robert Rodriguez, one of the best “genre” filmmakers of his generation, directing. Rodriguez also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Laeta Kalogridis and James Cameron – yes, that James Cameron – who also served as producer and has been moving this project forward for the better part of two decades. Oh, and there’s also an incredibly talented cast featuring far more Oscar winners and nominees than you might have anticipated for a seemingly straightforward sci-fi shoot-‘em-up.

Does it live up to that pedigree? Maybe not quite; there are some clarity issues regarding the storytelling and a few uncanny valley concerns regarding the CGI. However, there’s no disputing the vivid visual nature of the film; there are dynamic set pieces scattered throughout. And the performers all treat the material with due respect, resulting in nuanced and complex performances beyond the standard genre fare.

Published in Movies

Few franchises see the sort of gap between critical and commercial success that you get with the “Transformers” movies. The Michael Bay-led series has seen increasingly negative responses from critics, even while raking in massive dollars at the global box office. One would be forgiven for assuming that this pattern would continue.

Instead, out of nowhere, we get “Bumblebee.” It’s unheard of for a big-budget franchise like this to take a quantum leap forward in terms of quality – particularly when you’re half-a-dozen movies in – but that is the case here. This 1980s-set prequel manages to capture the energy, the gleeful spirit of the source material in a way that none of the previous iterations have.

It’s FUN, you see. And that fun comes from the respect given the audience – respect that reflects why they love the material in the first place.

“Bumblebee” is smart and sweet, blending the CGI-heavy action with a smaller, more intimate, more personal narrative that gives the movie a whiff of early Spielberg and the nostalgic bite and something like “The Iron Giant,” if perhaps not quite up to the emotional heights reached by those works.

Published in Movies

Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” of crime novels – “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” – are among the most popular books of the 21st century, selling tens of millions of copies.

The books were made into films by the Swedish production company Yellow Bird; with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander (the titular Girl), they proved wildly popular. So popular that an American adaptation of the first book was made in 2011, directed by David Fincher and starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig.

However, plans for adaptations of the second and third books fell through. Instead, what we get it “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” based on the fourth book in the series, the first written by David Lagercrantz. This installment – directed by Fede Alvarez and starring Claire Foy as Salander – is an effort to continue the story set forth so brilliantly by Larsson.

Said effort is futile.

While there are moments where we’re reminded of the visceral power of Larsson’s story and Lisbeth’s character, too much nuance has been lost. Where once Salander was a relatable, complex person, this new narrative has rendered her largely inert, a collection of traumas dressed like a Hot Topic bargain bin and possessed of computer acumen indistinguishable from wizardry. There’s no reason to emotionally connect with her – even when the filmmakers unabashedly demand it.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 15 August 2018 12:40

Shark weak – ‘The Meg’

After nearly a decade of reviewing movies, I’ve learned that some of the best cinematic experiences come from sitting down with simple expectations and having those expectations met. When you know what you want to get from a movie and then get exactly that, well – you’ve won.

However, that also means that when those simple expectations AREN’T met, you’re even more disappointed than you might otherwise be in a less-than-stellar film.

This brings us to “The Meg,” a movie that would seem to have it all: Jason Statham, a giant shark, a … well, that’s it, I suppose. Jason Statham and a giant shark. Those six words would almost seem like a guarantee of a goofy good time at the movies - ludicrous CGI and over-the-top action sequences and shark-pun-laden one-liners galore.

But while all of those things are there, “The Meg” never quite rises up to become even the sum of its parts, instead wandering along in a disjointed and haphazard progression, unable to decide whether to take itself seriously or to throw the metaphorical elbow to our ribs and hence arriving in a weird tonal limbo where we’re not sure how we’re supposed to react. Are we laughing? Are we tense? We don’t know … and neither does the movie.

Published in Movies

In today’s franchise-driven cinematic climate, the focus has shifted from performer to property. The notion of a “movie star” – at least in the way we’ve traditionally considered the term – is becoming increasingly anachronistic. But they’re not all gone yet. There are a few who can still legitimately bear the mantle of movie star.

Denzel Washington is one of the few. His latest is “The Equalizer 2,” which sees him reteaming with director Antoine Fuqua for a sequel to their 2014 old-guy-action extravaganza. It’s Denzel’s first sequel, which is surprising. What isn’t surprising is that it doesn’t live up to the pulpy thrills of the original, falling prey to the law of diminishing returns. Still, it’s Denzel, so while the movie might not be great, it’s extremely watchable thanks to the inescapable charismatic magnetism of its star.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 20 March 2018 16:48

Ordeals and Croft – ‘Tomb Raider’

There has never been a genuinely good movie based on a video game. Not a particularly spicy take, but an accurate one. That’s not to say there has never been an enjoyable video game; tastes are tastes and there are plenty of ways to have a little fun.

Still, filmmakers have long struggled to translate the stories of video games – driven as they are by the agency and sense of utility of the player – into traditional big-screen narratives.

With the latest entry into the genre – a remake of “Tomb Raider” – that struggle continues, though it comes as close to success as any of the films that preceded it. Yes, there are plenty of ways in which it doesn’t work, but there are more ways in which it does than any video game-based movie we’ve seen.

Published in Movies

Action film might not be good, but you’ll have a good time

Published in Movies

It’s easy to feel like Hollywood has run out of ideas. The constant churn of remakes and reboots, the recycling and repurposing … everything old is old again. It’s not always a bad thing – sometimes these projects breathe new life into a worthwhile concept.

But sometimes you get “Death Wish.”

Published in Movies
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