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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
Wednesday, 20 February 2019 13:50

Love actually – ‘Isn’t It Romantic’

While the heyday of the romantic comedy has passed, there’s no disputing that the genre is still a significant part of the cinematic whole. Sure, there aren’t as many big-screen rom-coms as there once were, but the folks at Netflix have embraced them in a big way.

Suffice it to say, rom-coms aren’t going anywhere.

That’s why even though it might feel like a bit of a late arrival, “Isn’t It Romantic” still works. Yes, the sorts of films being targeted aren’t necessarily at the forefront of the cultural consciousness like they once were, but there’s no doubt that the tropes of the form still serve as prominent pop shorthand.

It doesn’t quite have the satiric bite that you might expect – largely because of a readily apparent affection for the source material. Basically, this movie tries to have it both ways, attempting to subvert conventions while at the same time embracing them. And while it isn’t wholly successful in that effort, the end result is still a solidly entertaining movie.

Published in Movies

Leave it to Steven Soderbergh to make a sports movie with hardly any sports action in it.

The auteur’s latest offering is “High Flying Bird,” released direct to streaming via Netflix. It’s the story of the game behind the game in the world of professional basketball as one agent, in an effort to do right by his client during a lockout by the owners, threatens to upend the entire model and throw the league into chaos – and one could argue that he’s right not just in economic terms, but ethical as well.

Soderbergh’s malleable ideas with regards to what it means to be an upper-echelon filmmaker in the 21st century continue on their merry way with this one. Following experiments both successful (shooting last year’s “Unsane” exclusively via iPhone) and not-so-much (the self-distribution effort to sidestep the system with 2017’s “Logan Lucky”), he’s keeping what works – the iPhone – and tweaking what doesn’t by letting Netflix wrangle the eyeballs.

The end result works – not surprising considering you’ve got Soderbergh directing a script from Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s an insightful look behind the curtain of pro sports that feels genuine, a compelling illustration of how the sausage is made.

Published in Sports

It took all of one weekend for it to be clear that there would be a sequel to 2014’s “The Lego Movie.” It was embraced by audiences of all ages and made just an absolute crapload of money – almost $470 million all told – so making another was a no-brainer.

The danger, however, is that capturing that kind of lightning in a bottle twice isn’t easy. There were elements of the original that simply could not be replicated – would a sequel still be able to resonate with audiences?

Ultimately, “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” is able to answer that question with a “yes.” The sequel – directed by Mike Mitchell, although Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (who directed the first film) did the screenplay – shares a sensibility with the original; while it doesn’t quite manage the same degree of emotional resonance, the jokes come fast and furious and the cast is as top-notch as ever.

Published in Movies

Eventually, we’re all going to have to come to terms with the end of the “Liam Neeson avenges a relative after something bad happens to him/her” subgenre of films. As much as we might want to think he can do it forever, the truth is that Neeson will have to stop someday.

But today is not that day.

“Cold Pursuit” – an American adaptation of the 2014 Norwegian film “Kraftidioten” (“In Order of Disappearance”) – is the latest entry into Neeson’s old guy action oeuvre. He’s done planes and trains, so it was only a matter of time before we got to snowplows. Yes, really. It’s the story of a simple man who vows to determine the truth behind the loss of a loved one; his quest leads him to take up arms against a variety of bad guys, even though it might well wind up costing him everything – including his humanity.

Published in Movies
Friday, 08 February 2019 13:04

Mind over matter – ‘What Men Want’

It seems like every other weekend sees another big-screen remake landing at the box office; while that’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. And the truth is that many if not most of those projects are cynical attempts to cash in on an audience’s fond memories. An equal number are creatively bankrupt as well. But this isn’t a binary, some sort of good/bad all or nothing. There’s ample gray area.

Not all remakes are created equal.

Take “What Men Want,” a remake of 2000’s Mel Gibson-fronted “What Women Want.” This new film – directed by Adam Shankman and starring Taraji P. Henson – reverses the gender roles but leaves everything else more or less the same. The end result is a movie that is a bit wobbly on its feet and more than a little uneven, but manages to engage the audience and pull off a couple of laughs.

Published in Movies

Cinematic reunions are rarer than you think. While there are a few Coen-esque or Andersonian (Wes or Paul Thomas, take your pick) stables of performers out there, the truth is that these sorts of filmmaking teams don’t turn up all that often.

That relative rarity is a big part of what makes the new film “Velvet Buzzsaw” so intriguing. Writer/director Dan Gilroy has brought back the two stars of his 2014 offering “Nightcrawler” – Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo – for this one, a genre-bending story of creeping horror set amidst the backdrop of the contemporary art world.

Combining elements of satire and social commentary with horror tropes and a gleefully needling deflation of the self-indulgent self-seriousness of the high-end artistic realm, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a film that is undeniably itself. The component parts don’t always mesh as well as they might, but the overall experience is an engaging one that will appeal to a weirdly disparate audience.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 03 February 2019 18:25

‘Miss Bala’ mostly misfires

By now, we’ve grown accustomed to unconventional action movie leads. The past decade-plus has illustrated that action heroes are no longer one-size-fits-all. So I wasn’t all that surprised to see that Gina Rodriguez was getting a swing at heading up her own shoot-em-up.

Sure, Rodriguez is best known as the titular Jane in TV’s “Jane the Virgin,” but she has shown flashes of action aptitude in movies like “Annihilation.” It makes sense that she’d get a shot. It’s just too bad that said shot wildly misses the target.

“Miss Bala” – a remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name – is a story of a woman who gets swept up into a fight that she had nothing to with, a battle between cartels and corrupt police and unfeeling governments. Forced into the middle of a war she never wanted to fight, she has no choice but to do whatever it takes to survive.

Unfortunately, while the movie has a striking look and a handful of genuinely engaging sequences, the vast majority of the narrative is confusing and convoluted. Subplots are introduced and discarded at seeming random, with little consistency regarding what should be considered important. It is chaotic and melodramatic, a feature-length telenovela with explosions (not a compliment, though I can see how it might read as one).

Published in Movies
Monday, 28 January 2019 15:19

Fish out of water – ‘Serenity’

Usually, our feelings about movies are fairly easy to work out. We liked it or we didn’t like it. We got it or we didn’t get it. And we’re usually able to see why someone else might like or dislike a film even if our own feelings are opposing. Obviously, there’s plenty of gray area, but for the majority of movies, it’s a binary situation – “good” or “bad.”

But every once in a while, you get a movie that is so inexplicable, so bizarrely conceived, so bats—t crazy that the binary is out the window. It isn’t “good,” it isn’t “bad,” it’s “what in God’s name did I just watch?”

“Serenity” very much falls into that third category.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself “Really? I saw the trailer for that movie and it looked pretty straightforward to me.” And you’d be right, as far as that goes. The trailer DOES make it all look pretty straightforward. But rest assured – it is not. At all.

For its first half, “Serenity” is nothing special, a sort of beach noir thriller. The pieces are a little ill-fitting, but it’s all fairly conventional. Meanwhile, the second half of the movie hinges on a Shyamalan-on-acid twist, one of the weirdest narrative turns I’ve seen in a mainstream movie in years. Maybe ever.

Published in Movies

The box office has grown increasingly stratified in recent years, with films fitting firmly into established pigeonholes with the expectation of appealing to this or that specific audience and making X number of dollars. Superhero movies and animated epics and action tentpoles and low-budget horror/thriller – that’s most of what we see at the theater these days.

So when a film like “The Kid Who Would Be King” comes around, it’s worth noting. This is a live-action, family-friendly movie, a movie for kids starring kids; we don’t see many of those anymore.

And here’s the thing: it’s good.

It is a charming, thoughtful throwback courtesy of writer/director Joe Cornish (in his first directorial since 2011’s excellent “Attack the Block”), capturing a 21st century version of what one might call the “Amblin vibe,” named after the Steven Spielberg production company that was responsible for many of the best family films. It’s well-made, with a story built around a retelling of Arthurian legend while ALSO being a wonderful tale of friendship … and it’s the most downright optimistic movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Published in Movies
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