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Genre storytelling has long offered a flexible path for those wishing to speak to greater truths. Often, these are people whose ideas or very identities have been marginalized, making it all the more difficult for their ideologies to be taken seriously – or even addressed at all – by the mainstream.

Genre work – be it literature or film or TV – is a way in. The outsized nature of science fiction or fantasy or horror allows room for social and cultural commentary to exist in the margins – a Trojan Horsing of sorts, utilizing tropes to reflect larger concepts in a manner that demands interpretation even while working effectively.

But in recent years, as some of those marginalized figures start making inroads higher up the cultural food chain, we’re getting more of their insights on textual levels as well as subtextual.

Take “Candyman,” the new film from director Nia DaCosta, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peele (Peele also served as executive producer of the project). It’s a decades-later direct sequel to the 1992 film of the same name.

The sequel is plenty scary, of course, well-crafted and striking a balance between atmospheric scares and visceral gore. But it is also able to address the same central tenet of the original film – this idea that the focused anger and fear of a community can manifest in ways that negatively impact that community, living on long after the original players are gone – in a much more overt way. This is still social commentary wrapped in the trappings of a horror movie, but this time, there’s considerably more freedom regarding how that commentary is conveyed.

Stories, even urban legends, have power; the more they’re told, the more they’re believed … and the more they’re believed, the more power they ultimately carry.

Published in Movies

Sometimes, we sit down in hopes of being challenged. We seek out art that causes us to ask questions and engage with larger ideas. We watch or we listen or we read in hopes of learning something new, or at least a new way of looking at something we already understand (or think we do). These are powerful artistic experiences, addressing something at our core.

Other times, we just want to escape. Maybe you want to laugh, maybe you want to be frightened, maybe you want a bunch of explosions. You’re not here for fundamental truths. You’re here for fart jokes and fistfights and jump scares.

Both experiences have real value. We want what we want when we want it – and that’s OK.

“Vacation Friends,” newly streaming on Hulu, is very much the latter sort of film. Directed by Clay Tarver from a screenplay Tarver co-wrote with Tom & Tim Mullen, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the comedy is a coarse trifle, a movie built solely around outrageous situations – getting into them, getting out of them, you know the drill.

There are a handful of charming moments here where things threaten to develop some sort of meaningful underpinning – bits where deeper themes of adult friendship and loyalty and the like bob briefly to the surface – but those are quickly drowned out by the nonsense.

It’s fun. Dumb fun. Unchallenging fun. But fun. And sometimes, that’s all you’re looking for.

Published in Movies

There’s a universality to certain stories that ensures that every generation gets its own versions of them. These fundamental narratives can be adapted and shaped to the time in which they are told; the evolve as the culture around them does.

George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” has become one of those universal stories in the century-plus since it first landed in 1913. The tale of one upper-class person shaping another, lower-class person to fit appropriately into the former’s world is one that has been told again and again. The former (almost always a man) brings the latter (almost always a woman) into their own social stratum – often at the expense of the latter’s dignity and/or personal identity.

1999’s “She’s All That” was the high school rom-com version of that tale for late 20th century moviegoers, a film that landed in the midst of a spate of teen-oriented cinematic fare. The BMOC takes a wager in which he is to turn the school’s lowliest of the social low into the prom queen and hijinks ensue.

Now imagine that, only gender-flipped.

Published in Movies

I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been writing about movies for well over a decade at this point, with a fairly well-rounded history of cinematic consumption before that. I have experienced a LOT of films – good, bad and mediocre.

One of the greatest joys that spring from watching movies is the simple fact that, until they start, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Oh, you might have some idea, whether it is from trailers or reviews or word of mouth, but YOUR experience, well – you don’t know until it happens. So I’m no stranger to being surprised by what I see on the screen.

But there’s a very real chance that I have NEVER been as surprised as I was by “Annette.”

The film, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video after a brief limited theatrical run, is one of the most enjoyably jarring movie experiences I’ve had in recent memory. “Annette” is directed by Leos Carax, making his first feature since 2012’s acclaimed “Holy Motors,” with a story by Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers behind indie pop darlings Sparks (the brothers also handle the film’s weird and exceptional music).

As a rule, I make an effort to keep my head clear going into a movie – the less I know, the better. Again – the joy of that leap into the unknown … and boy oh boy, was this the unknown.

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

Another week, another Netflix original.

While the streamer’s commitment to providing a steady supply of original content is admirable, the combination of constant churn and a vague sense of algorithmic generation, there’s no disputing that the level of quality is … uneven, to say the least, even if the quantity is largely delivered as promised.

Their latest entry is “Sweet Girl,” a revenge thriller starring Jason Momoa. This story of a man pursuing vengeance against the pharmaceutical company that he holds responsible for the death of his wife is your run-of-the-mill passable, largely forgettable action offering … right up until a late twist that turns the whole thing into something altogether more bonkers, altering not just the remainder of the film, but everything we’ve seen before.

Now, that’s not to say that this makes any of this what you’d call “good” – the film is too across-the-board workmanlike for that – but it certainly turns what initially seems like a time-filling watch into something you’ll at least remember beyond the end credits.

Published in Movies

When it comes to movies, we all have our biases. Even those of us who try to maintain objectivity are subject to expectation, the ebb and flow of personal taste. Those biases can come into play even before we see a film; often, we’re steered in one direction or another through early marketing or criticism or what have you.

But when those expectations are subverted, well – let’s just say that it can be nice to be surprised.

Which brings me to “Free Guy,” the new Ryan Reynolds-led video game-inspired action movie. Conceptually, I had doubts. The trailers I had seen seemed fine, just OK. And the truth is that while I sometimes enjoy the winking meta-energy of Reynolds, I don’t always … and this one felt like a “don’t always.”

Man, was I wrong.

The film – directed by Shawn Levy from a screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zakk Penn – is a clever and funny action-adventure. The high concept is handled deftly and the majority of the jokes land. It is winkingly self-aware without being smug. The action sequences are suitably bonkers. And Reynolds himself manages to convey a level of sincerity that feels both genuine and just a touch subversive. It’s smarter than it looks, with a surprisingly sharp edge at times. Just a great time at the movies.

Published in Movies

Biopics are actually pretty easy to make. Take your standard music biopic, for example. You’ve got a prominent figure who has lived a life in the spotlight, one with already extant stakes and needle drops just waiting to happen. Telling the story of someone when there’s a built-in audience ready to hear it? Yeah – easy.

Making a GOOD biopic, well … that’s another story.

Now, the line can be a bit blurry. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there in the music biopic sphere, but sometimes that mediocrity can be elevated into something more – more engaging, more impactful – if both the central figure and the person playing them are compelling enough.

Take “Respect,” the new Aretha Franklin biopic directed by Liesl Tommy from a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson. In many ways, it epitomizes the formulaic nature of the genre – beat by beat, it seems to evoke all of the cliches that come with making this sort of film. There’s a paint-by-numbers quality to the proceedings; even the aspects of the story with which we are not familiar are rendered in an extremely familiar way.

And then there’s Jennifer Hudson.

Hudson offers up a legitimately incredible performance as Franklin. She embodies and evokes the Queen of Soul with a fiery, flawed majesty that is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. We all know that Hudson can sing, of course (though the justice she does to some Aretha classics impresses and surprises nevertheless), but it’s her work as the woman rather than the singer that makes this a transcendent turn. Her efforts explode outward from the so-so framework by which she has been surrounded – she’s unforgettable in an otherwise forgettable film.

Published in Movies

Sometimes, you look at someone on screen and think “That person has it. They’re going to be a huge star.” There’s just an indefinable … something. Presence. Charisma. Whatever you want to call it.

That said, having “it” isn’t always enough.

Take the new Netflix thriller “Beckett,” for instance. John David Washington is an actor who has that something, that elusive star quality (even if he doesn’t always know how to properly wield it). But while that energy is certainly present in this film, it can’t make up for the thin narrative and assorted odd thematic and tonal choices scattered throughout. He’s able to keep the movie from being outright bad, but he can’t pull it up to the level of being good.

There’s a decent supporting cast, but they’re stuck in the slog as well, plodding their way through the unevenly paced proceedings. Everyone in the ensemble is doing what they can, but they’re ultimately undermined by Ferdinando Filomarino’s uninspired direction and Kevin Rice’s threadbare and derivative screenplay.

Published in Movies

There are two kinds of documentaries about famous people – those made from an outside perspective and those made from an inner one.

Outside perspective docs are driven by talking head interviews and other interactions, making an effort to gain insight into a person by engaging with those who knew them. Inner perspective docs are built around the subject’s own perspective, finding their insights via their own introspection.

“Val,” the new documentary about actor Val Kilmer, falls very much into the latter camp. The film, directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, features Kilmer looking back over the course of his life and career. The actor, whose recent dealings with throat cancer have left him with a tube in his throat and immense difficulty with speaking and being understood, has apparently spent much of his life with a video camera in his hand. The result is a wealth of archival footage – we’re talking everything from childhood on up – that offers a unique and wide-ranging perspective on the life that he has lived.

Interspersed with that archival footage are scenes that follow Kilmer as he lives now – engaging with his kids (his son Jack serves as the film’s narrator, speaking Val’s words) and dealing with the realities of his condition.

“Val” is an interesting dichotomy, a film that manages to somehow be equal parts self-aware and self-mythologizing; the juxtaposition of the person he was and the person he is results in a film that is compelling, darkly funny and – at times – deeply sad.

Published in Style
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