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Nostalgia is big business when it comes to entertainment. And perhaps nowhere is that nostalgia as keenly felt as it is within the movie industry. Now more than ever, studios are seeking to cash in on our feelings about what has come before, monetizing our memories and generally profiting on the past.

That’s not to say that it’s always a bad thing. Some perfectly enjoyable works have sprung from that desire, even if those works themselves sprung from the pursuit of profit. It’s not ideal, perhaps, but there’s still joy to be found.

Take “8-Bit Christmas,” a new film currently streaming on HBO Max. Directed by Michael Dowse from a screenplay by Kevin Jakubowski (who adapted his own novel of the same name), it’s the story of a young man in Chicago in the late 1980s and his all-consuming Christmastime quest to get his hands on the one thing that will make his life truly complete:

A Nintendo Entertainment System.

It’s a film that will undeniably ring familiar – you’ve seen just about all of this before, in some way, shape or form – but when you’re talking about this kind of holiday fare, the familiarity is the point. There’s something warm and comforting about these readily recognizable beats – sure, you won’t be surprised, but you’ll probably be charmed.

Published in Tekk

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.

Published in Movies

Some things are better left alone.

Now, I’m not one to wring my hands and clutch my pearls over Hollywood’s current IP-driven phase. I don’t hate the franchises and sequels and reboots and remakes; certainly not to the same degree as some of my critical peers. It’s not often great cinema, but people (and I include myself there) like what they like.

But sometimes, we get an idea that really seems like a mistake.

“The Many Saints of Newark” – currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max – is an attempt at crafting a prequel to “The Sopranos,” the seminal HBO drama that in many ways redefined what the television medium could do over the course of its six seasons. That series – still considered to be one of the greatest TV shows ever – followed the mobster Tony Soprano through the violence and vulnerability of his complicated life. It remains insightful and enthralling and utterly brilliant, even now.

So did we REALLY need a prequel?

Look, a lot of the behind-the-scenes people involved with “The Sopranos” are here; series creator David Chase wrote the script along with Lawrence Konner and the film’s director Alan Taylor spent serious time behind the camera on the show. There are some wildly talented performers in the cast as well. But there seems to be an absence of focus, a desire to try and tell too many different stories all at once. You probably think this film is a Tony Soprano origin story – I certainly did – but while that’s part of the picture, it is just that – a part. And perhaps not even the main part at that.

Published in Movies
Monday, 20 September 2021 14:51

The many ages of man – ‘Cry Macho’

For the most part, filmmaking is a young person’s game. The amount of energy required – creative, physical and otherwise – is staggering; it’s no surprise that most directors fade into film history in their later years.

Clint Eastwood is not most directors.

Say what you will about his late career output – let’s just call it “uneven” – but this is a guy who set the record for oldest director to win an Oscar 17 YEARS AGO and is still very much at it at age 91. Hell, he’s more prolific than the vast majority of his peers, producing more work than filmmakers less than half his age; dude’s made 14 films since that 2004 Oscar win, with eight of them just in the last decade.

His latest is “Cry Macho,” currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Eastwood also stars in this story – adapted by Nick Schenk from N. Richard Nash’s novel of the same name – of an aging horse trainer and former rodeo rider who winds up enlisted to retrieve his boss’s son from Mexico and bring him back to the States, only to find himself slowly drawn to the possibilities presented by this journey.

It’s a surprisingly sentimental period piece, a movie that has more to say about the intersection of masculinity and emotion than you might expect from a filmmaker like Eastwood. The film does a good job of taking advantage of the bleak beauty of the setting, but some of that impact is sapped by the combination of some weak writing and a well-intentioned but stiff lead turn from Eastwood.

Published in Movies

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
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