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There are few directors who have had as thorough an impact on 21st century genre filmmaking as James Wan. While I personally run a bit hot-and-cold with Mr. Wan’s oeuvre, there’s no denying that he has played a big role in defining genre over the past couple of decades.

Horror’s the big one, obviously – this is the dude who directed the first “Saw” movie and helped shepherd the first couple of installments of both the “Insidious” and “Conjuring” film series. That trio alone would place him as one of the creative movers and shakers in the industry.

But then you take into account that he ALSO helmed “Aquaman” for the DCEU (and is also leading the sequel) and directed the seventh “Fast & Furious” movie and you’re looking at a guy with serious influence.

Wan’s latest film is “Malignant,” currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. It’s a return to his roots of sorts, the kind of visceral and gnarly blood-and-guts horror that isn’t overly concerned with laying the groundwork for future films or continuing the stories of past ones. Instead, we get a gory and weird horror tale that delights in its own strangeness, the kind of movie that engages in gleefully in-the-moment deconstruction of its influences.

That strangeness is amplified exponentially with an absolutely nutso third-act reveal that pushes us fully into the realm of Cronenbergian body horror, resulting in a movie that, while perhaps not traditionally scary, manages to evoke some emotional churn in its own gross, bizarre, kind of absurd way. All in all, this movie is bonkers.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 25 August 2021 11:40

Tanks for the memories – ‘Reminiscence’

Among the many joys that come with genre filmmaking is the possibility of overlap. All the available commonalities allow intrepid (and even not-so-intrepid) filmmakers to design their own stylistic and thematic Venn diagrams, putting together projects that combine tropes and other elements from a variety of narrative and aesthetic sources. In general, the flexibility of genre usually translates.

This is the process that gives us “space horror” and “urban fantasy” and any number of other weird and wonderful combo platters.

The new film “Reminiscence,” currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, is an example of a particularly effective genre blend – sci-fi noir, or tech noir. The film – written and directed by Lisa Joy and starring Hugh Jackman – follows in the footsteps of filmmakers like Ridley Scott and James Cameron and Terry Gilliam, bringing the shadowy grit of film noir into a future world of bleeding edge technology.

Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as successful as those films. It has a talented cast and the premise and setting are intriguing enough, but “Reminiscence” can’t quite stay out of its own way, getting bogged down in the details of a not-quite-coherent romantic mystery even as it tosses out and then promptly abandons a number of interesting ideas. The end result is a film that leaves you remembering other, better films and wondering about what might have been – oddly ironic for a story where the toxicity of nostalgia is a central tenet.

Published in Movies

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.

That’s the attitude that the powers that be at Warner Brothers have taken with regard to DC’s team of villains-turned-reluctant-heroes known as the Suicide Squad. We first met this collection of reprobates in 2016 via director David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad.” Now, thanks to James Gunn, we have “The Suicide Squad.”

It’s tough to suss out how exactly to refer to this new iteration. It’s not quite a sequel and not quite a reboot, featuring a handful of returning characters and a slew of new ones; it’s not like the events of the previous film didn’t happen, but neither do we spend any time reinvestigating them. Call it Schrödinger’s Sequel – it both is and is not.

But whether or not “The Suicide Squad” is a sequel, one thing is for certain: it’s better. A LOT better.

With a combination of gleeful gore, compelling characters and a wicked sense of humor, this is easily one of the best offerings from the DCEU to date; “The Suicide Squad” manages to find ways to hold onto the grimdark ethos of DC’s cinematic slate while also embracing how fun comic book movies can be. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but few filmmakers – if any – are better equipped to strike it than James Gunn.

Published in Movies

Remember when Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement?

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t, if for no other reason than the fact that he never actually, you know, stopped making stuff. He said 2013’s “Side Effects” would be his last, but he almost immediately helmed a number of TV projects along with directing Off-Broadway and some fascinating recuts on his website.

Since returning to feature filmmaking with 2017’s “Logan Lucky,” Soderbergh has spent the past few years cementing his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most progressive and experimental mainstream filmmakers. He’s been unafraid to try different methods of filming (such as making 2018’s “Unsane” entirely on an iPhone) and distribution models (self-distribution and fully embracing streaming services).

That tradition continues with his latest, the period heist/caper movie “No Sudden Move,” currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s a convoluted thriller featuring a typically dynamite Soderbergh ensemble cast, all of it presented through the skewed lens of the director’s unique perspective. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its own narrative complexity, the film largely holds up thanks to the considerable talents of those both behind and in front of the camera.

Published in Movies

As someone with a genuine affection for the genre, I’ve enjoyed seeing the evolution of the Western for the modern day. The most successful of these neo-Westerns are the ones that are able to maintain the frontier sensibilities of the classics within a more present-day framework.

Among the foremost practitioners of the neo-Western – and perhaps the best and striking that delicate balance – is Taylor Sheridan, the writer-director behind such projects as “Wind River,” “Hell or High Water” and the TV western “Yellowstone.”

Sheridan’s latest – a project that he both directed and co-wrote – is “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” adapted from Michael Kortya’s 2014 novel of the same name. It’s a great example of how the neo-Western vibe doesn’t necessarily rely on the tropes of the genre. There are no cowboys here, but the tone and attitude of the characters and the narrative surrounding them can be traced directly back to the classic Westerns of the ’60s and ‘70s.

It’s a lushly-filmed thriller, one that takes full advantage of the natural majesty in which it was filmed. And it features a top-notch cast, led by Angelina Jolie. But while there’s no denying the propulsive nature of the story, there’s some muddiness to the proceedings that prevent the film from reaching its full potential. Still, it’s a hell of a watch, and truthfully? That’s more than enough.

Published in Movies

If 21st century cinema has taught us anything, it’s that everything old is new again. We’ve watched as IP-driven blockbusters and nostalgia-trip remakes have dominated the box office over the past couple of decades.

Hollywood is a flat circle. We should never be surprised when a property from the past gets a shine-up and gets released onto a new generation of unsuspecting moviegoers.

So it is with “Mortal Kombat,” currently in theaters and available for streaming via HBO Max. Based on the iconic video game series of the same name and directed by first-timer Simon McQuoid, the film tries to breathe new cinematic life into the characters that have proved so popular for nearly three decades.

Tries and … sort of succeeds? But not really?

It’s a good faith effort, to be sure, but while we do get some narrative expansion, it proves to be awfully muddy and convoluted in ways that detract from the fundamental appeal of “Mortal Kombat.” By attempting to graft new characters and situations onto the already-extant foundation, we’re left with a film that can’t seem to get out of its own way. Yes, there’s some first-rate magical martial arts action – and a pleasantly surprising amount of visceral gore – but the clunkiness of the story development effectively caps the film’s potential.

Published in Movies

Justice for the Justice League!

Specifically, for director Zack Snyder’s vision of the team – a vision that was undeniably disrupted by the circumstances surrounding 2017’s “Justice League.” When personal issues led to Snyder’s walking away from the project during post-production, replacement director Joss Whedon wound up putting his own very distinct stamp on the proceedings … for better or worse.

Mostly worse, as it turns out.

But now, in what is a first in the vast and varied world of big-budget superhero cinema, we’ve been given a chance to experience something far closer to Snyder’s original intent – a do-over. Thanks in no small part to massive internet outcry from fans, the powers that be at HBO gave the keys back to Snyder (as well as a hefty budget, around $70 million) to turn the film back toward his original intent, retrofitting and reshooting and ultimately restoring Snyder’s vision.

The end result is “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” a four-hour extravaganza that far outshines the film that came before it. It’s better. A lot better. Now, if you want to argue that it’s bloated and unnecessary, I won’t fight you. Think a dangerous precedent has been sent regarding the power potential of dedicated fandoms, no matter how potentially toxic? Could be. None of that changes the fact that this new film, as overwrought and overproduced as it may be, is a significant improvement.

It’s got many of the usual issues that dog Snyder’s work – the washed-out color palette, the ubiquitous slo-mo, the jittery, hard-to-follow battle scenes – but even those concerns are lesser here than they’ve been in previous films. And the storytelling gains – particularly when it comes to certain character arcs – more than offset all of that.

For me, it boils down to this. I basically shrugged my shoulders at “Justice League” in 2017. I genuinely enjoyed “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” … and I really wasn’t sure that I would.

Published in Movies

Abbott and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. Martin and Lewis. Lemmon and Matthau. Farley and Spade. Ferrell and Reilly. The history of cinema is rife with comic duos, esteemed teams that have done great things to advance the art of the laugh. Some were dedicated double acts, others came together through circumstance, but all brought us joy.

So it is with Tom & Jerry. The animated cat-and-mouse pairing has been delighting audiences since their debut in 1940 with their trademark slapstick mayhem. But now, they’re taking a trip into the third dimension.

“Tom & Jerry” is a live-action/animated hybrid film directed by Tim Story from a screenplay by Kevin Costello. It brings the iconic duo into the real world, folding together the outsized violence of the original shorts with an ostensibly real setting.

Now, you might wonder if characters whose body of work consists almost entirely of shorts can translate to a full-length feature. The answer is … sort of? While the Tom and Jerry dynamic remains intact and still largely works, the truth is that the kinetic explosiveness of their interactions simply can’t be sustained for 101 minutes. And while everyone in the human cast is doing their best, it doesn’t always click.

All that being said, kids are almost certainly going to dig this film, even if they might want a little more cat-and-mouse. And parents – particularly parents with fond memories of these characters – may well find things to like as well. Not a spectacular success, sure, but far from terrible.

Published in Movies

Denzel Washington is a movie star. One of the few we still have, really.

This doesn’t mean that every movie he makes is automatically some sort of commercial and/or critical success. He can usually open a movie – well, as much as anyone can outside the realm of blockbuster IP – and he’s almost always good, but the films themselves are a little more inconsistent.

“The Little Things” – currently in theaters and available on HBO Max – is a prime example of that variability. It’s a period crime thriller (though as an aside, calling a movie set in 1990 “period” has me feeling my age) – red meat for Denzel – with a couple of Oscar-winning co-stars in Rami Malek and noted weirdo Jared Leto. That certainly looks like a formula for success.

Unfortunately, while director John Lee Hancock did an admirable job in eliciting good performances and evoking an engaging atmosphere, screenwriter John Lee Hancock failed to rise to the occasion, leading to a story that feels formulaic, disjointed and a little derivative. For me, the pros slightly outweigh the cons, but your mileage may vary.

Published in Movies

Brace yourselves, folks – the onslaught of pandemic cinema is fast approaching. We’re going to see a wealth of films a) made during the lockdown, b) made about the lockdown or c) both. Some of these movies might well prove to be exceptional pieces of work, but rest assured that a lot of them are going to be, well … not.

“Locked Down,” the new film directed by Doug Liman and starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, lands closerto that latter category. Currently available on HBO Max, it’s the kind of throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks movie that doesn’t always work; toss in the limiting factors of pandemic production and you’re looking at a project that was already hamstrung before shooting started.

I mean, who thought it was a good idea to make a lockdown-centric movie mashup of romantic comedy, relationship drama and heist movie? Rumor has it that screenwriter Steven Knight wrote the script on a dare. It definitely shows. Now, it’s not all bad – the truth is that there are some solid ideas here and the leads are certainly talented enough. Unfortunately, the disparate elements never get properly blended, leaving us with a clunky three-into-one vibe that will prove frustrating to those who see the very real potential here.

Published in Movies
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