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Hollywood success can be a double-edged sword. Prominent performers often find themselves pigeonholed by their initial triumphs; the rationale seems to be that if you prove capable of a particular style or type of role, then there’s no reason to ask you to do anything different.

Melissa McCarthy built her career on a certain style of broad comedy, brilliantly combining physicality and coarseness in 2011’s “Bridesmaids,” only to repeat variations on that theme more or less constantly for the next half-dozen years (the odd “St. Vincent” notwithstanding).

So it’s refreshing to see her tackle something completely different in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” It’s the true story of a struggling writer who harnessed her talent for biography into an ever-widening scheme involving the forgery of letters written by literary greats. It is a bleak, sad portrait of talent undone by self-doubt and false bravado, darkly funny with surprising moments of poignancy.

Published in Movies

Rudyard Kipling’s classic 1894 novel “The Jungle Book” has served as the inspiration for a number of films over the years. Like any good source material, it has come to the attention of multiple filmmakers looking to tell their own version of the story.

Generally, we’ve seen a new movie about once every generation. Since the early 1940s, audiences have gotten a new version of Mowgli and his jungle brethren every 20-25 years. The iconic Disney animation hit in 1967; another live-action version swung through in 1994.

But then, “The Jungle Book” fell victim to the dreaded Hollywood disease known to some as ADIMMS (Armageddon/Deep Impact Multiple Movie Syndrome); two too-similar movies released too close together. There was Disney’s CGI-laden remake in 2016, replete with an all-star voice cast and directed by Jon Favreau.

And now there’s “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” courtesy of Netflix. The streaming giant meant for this big-budget outing – a motion-capture extravaganza filled with famous voices and directed by mo-cap maestro Andy Serkis – to be a theatrical release. But circumstances (including the massive success of the Disney film from just two years prior) led to a shift in plans – a very limited big-screen turn followed by a quick turnaround to home availability.

It’s certainly a darker look for the material than we usually see. But despite that darkness – or perhaps because of it – Serkis and company lose track of the story’s soul. “Mowgli” looks great, but looks aren’t everything. It’s a beautiful package without much inside.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 05 December 2018 15:06

Great performances drive ‘Green Book’

On first glance, you might think that “Green Book” is fairly typical awards bait. It’s a movie about an unlikely relationship crossing racial divides in the 1960s, a story that can’t help but accrue nominations if it’s executed with the least bit of skill and finesse.

This film feels very much like a throwback, a movie inspired by real-life events that is content to be driven by the immense talent of its lead performers. And while one can argue that its treatment of race is simplistic in spots, it still offers up a few challenges. It is thoughtful and funny and heartbreaking; a hell of a compelling and emotionally engaging story.

Published in Movies

Finding new ways to tell the same story is one of the biggest obstacles to clear in filmmaking. There are only so many stories, but infinite ways in which to tell them. Horror cinema is particularly vulnerable to that kind of repetition.

Take exorcism movies, for example. Every one since “The Exorcist” plays out in more or less the same way, hitting the same beats. Some do it well, others not so much, but either way, you’ve pretty much seen it before.

“The Possession of Hannah Grace” initially seems like it might actually give you something different. It even starts to give it once or twice. But ultimately, it simply shrugs off the possibilities presented by its twist on the story and settles into the same old tumbledown pile of tropes. It’s a little different, yes - but not nearly different enough.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 28 November 2018 14:07

‘Creed II’ an exceptional rematch

The success of 2015’s “Creed” was surprising in a lot of ways. The notion of creating a torch-passing sequel to the “Rocky” franchise seemed like a reach. And yet, thanks to the talents of writer/director Ryan Coogler and great performances from Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson and a shockingly nuanced turn courtesy of Sylvester Stallone, it turned out to be an outstanding film.

After that film’s success, of course we were going to get a sequel to the sequel, which brings us to “Creed II.”

It’s not the same behind-the-camera team – Coogler is gone, replaced by Steven Caple Jr., while the screenplay was co-written by Juel Taylor and Stallone from a story by Cheo Coker and Sacha Penn – but the on-screen talent remains, with Jordan, Thompson and Stallone all returning. And while this new movie doesn’t quite ascend to the same level as the first film, “Creed II” is an excellent movie in its own right, finding ways to ground its titular character in life’s realities while also presenting him with a terrifying new foe.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 28 November 2018 14:04

‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ really connects

In a cinematic landscape featuring more animated offerings than ever before, it’s tough to find ways to stand out. But even in a crowded field, Disney stands ears-and-shoulders above the competition.

Even leaving aside the fact that Pixar is a Disney concern, Walt Disney Animation has had a heck of a run over the past half-decade or so. Yes, things were a little underwhelming in the earlier part of the 21st century, but there’s no arguing the quality of the studio’s recent run – “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), “Frozen” (2013), “Big Hero 6” (2014), “Zootopia” (2016) and “Moana” (2016) were all hugely successful both commercially and critically; “Frozen” and “Zootopia” even won Oscars.

The latest offering – the first sequel in this new wave – is “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” A sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph,” it melds the retro charm of the original’s characters with an updated, more modern setting. The combination of old and new is an undeniable success; not only are there some delightful jokes and clever pop culture nods, there’s a surprising depth to the emotions explored. Funny gags AND genuine connection – we’re talking top-tier animated fare.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 28 November 2018 14:00

New ‘Robin Hood’ wildly off-target

There are few characters that have had as many different Hollywood love affairs as Robin Hood. The legendary outlaw with the “rob from the rich, give to the poor” ethos has been featured on the big screen since the medium’s beginnings – his first cinematic appearance was in “Robin Hood and His Merry Men” back in 1908. Over the subsequent century-plus, the character has turned up scores of times on screens large and small alike.

Which begs the question: did we NEED another Robin Hood movie?

The answer, if we’re going by the Otto Bathurst-directed, Taron Egerton-starring “Robin Hood,” is a resounding “no.” It’s a clunky, uneven effort at reimagining the character; the narrative defies logic and the action defies physics. Efforts to be edgy feel tryhard and condescending. The end result is a jarring mess of a movie, a joyless slog that feels like nothing else so much as a waste of your time.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 20 November 2018 11:52

‘Widows’ an engaging, atypical thriller

What happens when an Academy Award-winning director teams up with a bestselling novelist-turned-screenwriter to make an unexpected and unconventional heist movie?

“Widows” happens.

Director Steve McQueen isn’t necessarily the guy you’d think of when it comes to gritty gangster noir fare, but this film – which he also co-wrote alongside “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn – is all that and more. It’s a tense thriller, yes, but it’s also a work of feminist empowerment. And oh yeah, it has something to say about the American political system as well.

It’s a beautifully-crafted film, aesthetically stylish and narratively surprising, featuring a peak-of-his-powers filmmaker assembling an incredibly talented ensemble to create a movie that, while hauntingly familiar in some respects, is still something you’ve never really seen before.

Published in Movies

I’ll admit to having been a little skeptical when I first heard about the continuation of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter-centric fictional universe. That story felt like it had been thoroughly told – did we really need to find new angles to explore?

And so I was surprised to find “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” such a charming, engaging film. Yes, it was a little overproduced and a little convoluted and less focused than it ought to have been, but it was still fun, which is all that really matters with movies like this.

But after seeing the second installment, I fear my initial instinct may ultimately be proven right after all.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 14 November 2018 12:44

‘The Grinch’ a ho-hum holiday hater

Let’s be honest – we probably didn’t need another movie about the Grinch.

There’s no disputing that the chartreuse Christmas-hater is one of the most memorable characters of the many created by Dr. Seuss. The book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” was instantly beloved upon its 1957 publication, of course. And the 1966 animated special of the same name – featuring the vocal talents of horror legend Boris Karloff as both the narrator and the Grinch – has been an iconic part of the holiday season for half a century. Even the inferior live-action version from 2000, directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey, has developed an inexplicably affectionate following.

And yet, with all of that, we’ve still gotten another one.

“The Grinch” is different in that it features 3D animation, embracing the house style of producing studio Illumination (home to the “Despicable Me” franchise, among others); it’s Illumination’s second Seussian go-round after 2012’s “The Lorax.” But that’s more or less ALL that’s different; the film treads familiar territory, following in the footsteps of the films that came before. It’s all pleasant enough – and will undoubtedly crush at the holiday box office – but it doesn’t bring anything to the table that justifies revisiting an already-cherished tale.

Published in Movies
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