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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
Monday, 01 March 2021 12:42

The complicated greatness of ‘Pele’

There are many levels of greatness in the sports world. And there are many ways in which that greatness can be defined – and many ways to disagree with those definitions. For many, sports fandom is defined by such arguments.

But there are a handful of performers whose excellence is so profound, so paradigm-shifting, that they exist on a tier of their own. Icons of sport. All-timers. Legends. Players that redefine what we believe is possible.

Players like Pele.

“Pele,” the new documentary directed by Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn, takes a look at the Brazilian soccer legend. Specifically, it’s an exploration of Pele’s four World Cups. While we get some of his early life, as well as some current perspective, the vast majority of the film concerns itself with the period from 1958-1970, a dozen years over the course of which Pele became the greatest soccer player that the world had ever seen.

Published in Sports

At the top, fine art is big business.

One can argue about the ethical, moral and other ramifications that come with putting a price tag on creative work, but regardless of argument, there’s no disputing that the world of high-end art is one that is driven as much by economics as by aesthetics.

And any time there’s that kind of money involved, you can bet that there will bad actors seeking to cash in.

“Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art” is a documentary devoted to relating the tale of the largest known art fraud case in United States history. Over the course of decades, dozens of forged works of art were moved through a famed New York City gallery. These paintings – ostensibly by noted Abstract Expressionists – would be sold to unsuspecting patrons for a total of over $80 million.

Written and directed by Barry Avrich, “Made You Look” – currently streaming on Netflix – walks the viewer through the long-running scam, introducing us to many of the principals along the way, as well as an assortment of experts. He paints a picture (sorry) of the vagaries of the art world, illustrating just what can go wrong when something that seems too good to be true is taken at face value – even if that face is an undeniably beautiful one.

Published in Style
Monday, 22 February 2021 14:17

Hit the road with ‘Nomadland’

It’s always intriguing to watch a movie that blurs the lines between fiction and truth. Now, I’m not talking about “based on” or “inspired by” films – though one could argue that they partake in their own line blurring – but rather films that fold together the real and the fictional. Films that evoke that cinema verité vibe without being true documentaries.

That sort of vague and vaguely-explained categorization – it’s tough to articulate, but you know it when you see it – precisely and perfectly encapsulates Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland.” The film – written, directed, edited and produced by Zhao – is adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.”

It’s a story about the road-roaming lifestyle adopted by an increasing number of people – older, middle-class folks – who have been forced out of their homes and into a nomadic lifestyle by the unfortunate realities of late-stage capitalism. The companies for whom they spent years working are gone, their homes and savings destroyed by the mortgage and banking crises. To survive, they move into vans and RVs and follow seasonal work – Amazon distribution centers and campgrounds and national parks and the like – gradually becoming part of the ever-growing subculture.

It also – aside from a pair of incredible actors (Frances McDormand and David Strathairn) at its center – is populated almost wholly by people playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, actual livers of the nomadic lifestyle.

That bringing together of the fictional and the factual is what pushes Zhao’s film into the realm of greatness, an intimate epic of the American west as experienced by those who have been left behind by one or more of this country’s 21st century economic collapses and rebirths. It is quiet and expansive all at once, a film enamored of the broad openness of the landscape while gently acknowledging how easy it is for individual lives to get lost in the vastness that is America.

Published in Adventure
Monday, 22 February 2021 14:14

‘Blithe Spirit’ a spirited adaptation

There’s a certain amount of pressure that comes with reimagining a beloved classic. Not only are you expected to do right by the extant fans of the work, but you must also find a way to update and accelerate the work so that it might find purchase with those who have no connection to the source material.

It’s a highwire act that many filmmakers have tried to navigate. Many have tried … and many have failed. Of particular note is the attempt to revisit a work that has already engaged in a shift from stage to screen. At that point, you’re dealing not just with a play that needs to be adapted, but a preexisting film version as well – doubly difficult.

It’s a difficulty that crops up from time to time in “Blithe Spirit,” the latest attempt to bring that classic Noel Coward play to life on the big screen. It’s directed by Edward Hall, with three credited screenwriters on the adaptation in Nick Moorcraft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth, and features a star-studded cast that includes the likes of Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann and the immortal Judi Dench.

It’s a perfectly fine film. Better than I expected actually, though ultimately, it doesn’t live up to its pedigree either in terms of source material or of ensemble. Some of the subtler aspects are lost in the transition to film, but it must be said that the story benefits greatly from the ability to more fully utilize the setting (or settings). Not as great as it could have been, but maybe not as bad as some would have you believe, either.

Published in Style

There are few cinematic tightropes that are trickier to walk than dark comedy. While finding humor in the shadows is something that many of us do, representing that humor effectively on screen is extremely hit or miss. When it hits, you get something that is both screamingly funny and weirdly unsettling. When it misses, you just get the latter.

“I Care A Lot” hits.

The film – written and directed by J Blakeson and currently streaming on Netflix – mines a lot of laughs from a decidedly grim foundation. It takes a special kind of commitment to the bit to look at the clearly broken and often unseemly world of professional guardianship and think “Now THAT is hilarious,” but Blakeson and company manage to do it.

It certainly helps that the director has an absolutely peak-of-her-powers Rosamund Pike on which to hang that narrative. The sheer force of her performance brings more than enough fuel to keep this particular fire burning, even as we delve deeper into the unsavory nature of the world in which her character operates.

It’s rare to find a movie in which no one is a good person. It’s even rarer for such a movie to work. And yet, even though there’s no one to root for, the laughs keep coming. Sure, those laughs are born of the more cynical parts of ourselves, but hey – even if you feel bad for laughing, you still laughed.

Published in Movies

Superheroes have spent the past decade-plus as the primary cinematic currency of the land. Whether you enjoy those films or not, you can’t deny their primacy in the movie world. And while the main beneficiaries of that primacy are the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, there are other, less obvious projects that are adopting their own super-angles.

Take Disney’s “Flora & Ulysses,” currently available on Disney+. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s 2013 children’s novel, the film – directed by Lena Khan from a screenplay by Brad Copeland – takes a very different, much … smaller leap into the superhero realm. How small?

How about the size of a squirrel?

That’s the deal – a 10-year-old girl teamed up with a superpowered squirrel, all in the context of a story about the struggles of family and fitting in. It sounds ridiculous – because it is – but it’s no less engaging because of it. Frankly, it’s charming and quite sweet. Plus, it has a wildly overqualified cast, resulting in a movie that is significantly better than the tossed-off throwaway project that it easily could have been.

Published in Movies

There are a lot of challenges that come with making a movie inspired by a true story. One of the biggest is dealing with the simple fact that many of those who are watching already know how the story ends. Finding ways to build dramatic tension into a narrative whose conclusion by definition isn’t a surprise demands a lot of a filmmaker.

So it is with “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the new film directed by Shaka King from a screenplay he co-wrote with Will Berson. It’s the story of the rapid rise and tragic, too-soon death of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and one of the iconic Black cultural figures of the 1960s. Feared by the authorities and celebrated by the people, Hampton was a polarizing figure, hated by the establishment and beloved by the counterculture … and the powers that be wanted him out of the picture.

This is a story about anger, both the righteous kind and the fearful kind. It’s a look at the revolutionary attitudes of the era, writ large thanks to the oratorical and rhetorical gifts of the young Hampton, and the willingness of law enforcement to bend and even break the laws they purported to serve to get rid of him. And it’s the story of the man who sold Fred Hampton out. It is a challenging and provocative movie – one that deserves every bit of attention it is almost certainly going to receive throughout the upcoming awards season.

Published in Movies

Is it weird that there have been enough time loop movies recently for it to kind of feel like we’re in a time loop? And I say this as someone who digs the subgenre almost universally. Seriously – gimme an unstuck-in-time protagonist trying to solve their personal repetitive infinity and I am here for it.

The big daddy of them all is “Groundhog Day,” obviously, borne aloft by the brilliance of Bill Murray and Andie McDowell and Harold Ramis and – let’s be real – the delightful Stephen Tobolowsky. It’s the grandaddy of them all, the OG.

Is it weird that there have been enough time loop movies recently for it to kind of feel like we’re in a time loop? And I say this as someone who digs the subgenre almost universally. Seriously – gimme an unstuck-in-time protagonist trying to solve their personal repetitive infinity and I am here for it.

Of course, our most recent entry into the canon was the excellent “Palm Springs,” which set Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti loose in a delightfully loopy love story. It’s the freshest and most timely effort we’ve seen in ages.

Is it weird that there have been enough time loop movies recently for it to kind of feel like we’re in a time loop? And I say this as someone who digs the subgenre almost universally. Seriously – gimme an unstuck-in-time protagonist trying to solve their personal repetitive infinity and I am here for it.

Thank you – I’ll be here all week.

That dumb bit is in service of “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” currently streaming via Amazon Prime Video. The film – directed by Ian Samuels from a screenplay that Lev Grossman adapted from his own short story – is yet another riff on the time loop trope, adding a high school love story into the mix that gives it a little distance from some of the more well-known entries into the genre (entries that the film itself is unafraid to reference to humorous effect).

Now, this movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The filmmakers have a clear understanding of what makes these types of narratives work; they lean into the repetition and embrace the comedic possibilities therein. I’ll grant that such an approach limits the film’s ceiling, but it also assures a high floor. This leaves us with a movie that, while not necessarily great, is a pretty good viewing experience.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 14 February 2021 18:51

‘Young Hearts’ can be broken

There’s an urgency to the love between teenagers that is never really replicated in adulthood. The newness of it all – not just the specific relationships, but just love in general – makes everything feel outsized and overwrought. The knob is turned to 11 and then snapped off.

Often, when adults seek to evoke those early romances – particularly in YA or YA-adjacent fare – they succumb to the temptation to add variables to the equation. Sometimes, they go with elements of the supernatural. Other times, they introduce drastic health issues. However it is done, the intent is always to contribute more obstacles to the situation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

So when you get a story that is just a sweet, simple story of young love, it almost feels daring.

That’s the new film “Young Hearts,” co-directed by Sarah and Zachary Ray Sherman from a screenplay penned by the former. It’s a sincere love story, devoid of high-concept flourishes; it’s just about the connections between teenagers and the ways in which those connections can change due to forces internal and external alike.

At its (very large) heart, this movie is about reminding us that high school romance is innocent, yes, but it also comes with its own difficulties. Dealing with those difficulties is part of the adolescent experience – an experience portrayed wonderfully here.

Published in Movies
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