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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.

Published in Movies

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.

Published in Movies

It is a longstanding tradition in the film distribution world that January serves as a bit of a dumping ground for those movies that, for whatever reason, haven’t lived up to expectations. They’re finished products in which no one really has much faith.

There’s a reason they call it Dumpuary.

Of course, given the current ever-shifting circumstances of the pandemic, the box office situation is all the more tenuous. Throw in the carryover of recent hits and the expanded release of award contenders and you’ve got a landscape where new theatrical offerings are of … questionable quality.

Offerings like “The King’s Daughter.”

This staggering oddball comes to us courtesy of journeyman director Sean McNamara; the script was written by Barry Berman and James Schmaus, adapted from Vonda N. McIntyre’s 1997 novel “The Moon and the Sun.” It is ostensibly a fantasy adventure, though there’s fairly little adventure and the true fantasy is imagining a world in which you didn’t go see this movie.

There’s a jarring unevenness to this movie, with shots of real-life locations awkwardly juxtaposed with badly-rendered backdrops and iffy CGI. There are some good performers here, but there’s a weird vibe – it’s as though everyone involved could tell that they were participating in a disaster-in-the-making.

Seriously – this thing finished filming back in 2014 and is only just now seeing release. That tells you everything you need to know about how the people involved felt about it.

Published in Movies

I love being surprised at the movies. In this day of franchise fodder and omnipresent trailers, it can sometimes be tough to go into a film with little in the way of preconception. So when the opportunity arises, it can be really rewarding.

Writer-director David Lowery’s new film “The Green Knight” was just such a rewarding experience for me. It’s based on the 14th century chivalric romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” but beyond that and the knowledge that the wonderful Dev Patel stars, all I knew was what I half-remembered from having read the original text some 30 years ago. So I didn’t really know what was coming.

What I got was a sumptuous visual feast, an aesthetic wonder; it’s truly beautiful to look at. The central performance is exquisite, which is key – anything less than excellence from your lead and this film simply collapses under its own weight. That’s mostly because it is also one of the most actively weird mainstream releases I’ve seen in some time – and that’s a good thing.

It is a fantastic and strange tale of a man set upon a journey he doesn’t fully understand, victimized by his own hubris even as he ventures through a world that is steadily shifting around him. It is a story of the difference between responsibility and obligation, between honor and shame, all playing out through the eyes of a lone knight on a quest whose seeming purpose slowly crumbles with each step forward.

Published in Movies

There’s wonder in water.

Whether we’re gazing across a mirror-smooth lake or bouncing over crashing ocean waves or simply skipping stones across a swiftly moving stream, we find wonder in water. There’s a quiet power to it, an energy that is as undeniable as it is indefinable. There is joy and knowledge and yes, there is magic.

Maine author Ellen Booraem offers up some of that wonder in her new book “River Magic” (Dial Books, $16.99), her latest offering for younger readers. This fantasy tale – aimed at readers 10-12, but accessible to readers on either side of that range – is a story of what happens when magic intrudes on real life. It’s a story about grief and loss and the many ways – some healthy, some not so much – that we deal with those feelings.

It’s also about thunder mages and dragons, a story of inadvertent adventure that celebrates the meaning of family and friendship even as it offers wild weirdness aplenty.

Published in Buzz

I dig unreliable narrators.

Few storytelling devices delight me as much – and none more so. That added layer of ambiguity, that feeling of being unable to fully trust the very person serving as the window into the narrative … it adds a dimension that I find irresistible.

Irresistible, I should say, if (and this is a BIG if) it is executed skillfully. Obviously, stories are better when they’re well-told, but a poorly-drawn unreliable narrator is as regrettable as a sharply-hewn one is wonderful. Good can be great, but bad can be truly abysmal – and the margin for error is razor-thin.

We get one of the good ones in Susanna Clarke’s new novel “Piranesi” (Bloomsbury, $27) – her first since 2004’s acclaimed “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” The titular character more than rises to the occasion, sharing the story of the impossible place in which he lives in a manner that is both overtly and subtly untrustworthy. And when you put that in the sort of lush and vividly-realized fantastical setting that Clarke creates, well … you’ve got something pretty special.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 11 March 2020 13:21

Fractured fairy tale – ‘Onward’

Obviously, I love Pixar movies. I’m a human being with feelings and a soul, so of course I dig the work of the acclaimed animation studio. That being said, I also have to accept that because they have set the bar so very high, there will be occasions in which they fail to clear it.

So it is with their latest offering “Onward,” a film that, were it to come from any other studio, would likely be hailed as great work, but because it bears the Pixar name, it feels just the slightest bit underwhelming.

Make no mistake – “underwhelming” is by no means the same as “bad” – this is actually a charming and fun film. The concept is interesting enough, the vocal performances are typically strong and the execution is quite good. Jokes are made and heartstrings are tugged. All the usual pieces are here. It just doesn’t quite ascend to the level of accomplishment that we’ve come to expect from the studio.

Published in Movies

One of the great joys of my job as a critic is the moment of discovery, that indefinable instant when the realization washes over you that a chosen book is even better and more interesting than you’d hoped. I’ve gotten pretty good at curating what makes it from the pile to the page, but sometimes, I get more than I bargained for – in a good way.

I had just such a moment of discovery with Tessa Gratton’s latest book “Lady Hotspur” (Tor, $29.99). It was a book that I had heard a little bit about and was intrigued. Gender-swapped fantasy-flavored loose reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” certainly sounded like it could be my jam, so I started reading.

What I got was a high fantasy tale of love and loss, of the big wounds of warfare and the quiet cuts of palace intrigue. Set in the same world as Gratton’s earlier “The Queens of Innis Lear,” this new book expands upon that foundation, finding ways to both broaden and narrow the scope. It’s a beautiful and intricate landscape across which compelling characters stride. It’s smart and sweet and occasionally savage … and a heck of a read.

Published in Style

When “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” came out a couple of years ago, I was as surprised as anyone when it turned out to actually be pretty good. Who’d have thought a two-decades-later sort-of-sequel to a mid-90s kids movie would turn out to be both entertaining and WILDLY lucrative?

Well, having the Rock doesn’t hurt.

After that film did just shy of a billion dollars at the global box office, it was obviously going to get a sequel of its own. That sequel has arrived, as “Jumanji: The Next Level” has hit theaters.

And guess what? This one’s pretty good too. Not as good as the last one, perhaps, but solid. One assumes it will also make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Published in Movies

Writing is hard. Writing WELL is even harder. There are some writers who devote their lives to honing their specific craft, to finding ways to excel in their chosen niche. Some write fiction, some write nonfiction. Some lean toward the literary, while others revel in genre. Some are reporters and journalists. Some write essays or memoirs or comic book arcs. A person who is able to do any one of those things well is worthy of celebration.

Ta-Nehisi Coates does ALL OF IT.

The National Book Award winner and Macarthur Genius Grant recipient has made his first foray into the realm of fiction (leaving aside his magnificent Marvel turns on Black Panther and Captain America books); his newest work is “The Water Dancer” (One World, $28), a heartbreakingly powerful work of historical fiction and magical realism. It’s a fictionalized exploration of one young man’s struggle with (and against) the peculiar institution that remains our country’s greatest shame.

It’s also a story about the magic of memory and the power of stories, a look at how our pasts can shape our futures and how words can change the world. It’s a tale of love lost and rediscovered, all under the looming shadow of slavery. Freedom – real freedom – comes with costs both expected and surprising, but there are many who are willing to pay all that and more.

Published in Style
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