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Wednesday, 15 August 2018 12:37

‘Dog Days’ more bark than bite

August is an interesting month when it comes to the movies. It’s a landing spot for films that maybe don’t quite fit the now-traditional IP blockbuster mode, but don’t make sense in the fall, but are also too good for the January-February wasteland.

In many ways, “Dog Days” epitomizes a certain type of August movie. It’s an ensemble comedy that isn’t unceasingly raunchy or packed with big stars, one driven more by the uncynical central conceit that dogs make our lives better.

Despite the subversive comedy bona fides of director Ken Marino (of “The State” fame), “Dog Days” seems content to coast on moments of sentimental cuteness and easy jokes. It’s basically one of those Garry Marshall holiday-themed movies, only with more dogs and a less famous cast.

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Nostalgia is a powerful thing. To some extent, the entertainment landscape has always been sculpted by our fondness for memories of the past. But nostalgia’s power has grown exponentially in the internet age; today’s popular culture is powered by our love for what came before.

So it makes sense that a movie like “Christopher Robin” would appear at this moment in time. And when you take into account the general air of cynicism that permeates our discourse, the idea of a gentle remembrance of something pure and beloved from our youth sounds pretty darned nice.

And that’s what this latest Disney offering is – nice. It isn’t anything spectacular. It’s just nice. It’s a chance to visit with Winnie the Pooh and Piglet and Tigger and the rest of the A.A. Milne gang in a slightly different manner. Yes, it’s about what it means to grow up and put away childish things, but mostly, it’s about checking in with some old friends.

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The past decade or so has seen a real glut of films based on young adult novels – particularly those of the dystopian sci-fi persuasion. It makes sense – when “The Hunger Games” blew up, every Hollywood studio out there wanted to get a piece of that bleakly futuristic pie.

Only there was a problem – not all of those properties made for great movies … or even good ones. Hence, we got a downward spiral of diminishing returns. There were a couple of franchises marked by increasingly inane installments and a handful of attempts at series that were abandoned following major flopping at the box office.

I can’t say for certain that we’ve reached the bottom of that spiral, but “The Darkest Minds” has to have brought us awfully close.

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Come with me, won’t you? Come with me to a simpler time. To 1996, when sequels were considered mildly profitable punchlines and the idea of constructing massive cinematic franchises was largely contained to the Spielbergs and Lucases of the world.

That was the year we got “Mission: Impossible,” an adaptation of the 1960s television show of the same name. It was a Tom Cruise action vehicle that did well both commercially and critically and that could have been that. A pair of sequels that caught top-tier directorial talents either after their prime (John Woo for MI2 in 2000) or before it (J.J. Abrams for MI3 in 2006) made it seem like maybe we should stop.

Instead, the franchise has carried forward with three of the best action movies of the past decade. This unlikely wellspring has given us “Ghost Protocol,” “Rogue Nation” and the latest installment “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” … which might be the best one we’ve seen so far. It once again relies on coherent, well-executed action set pieces, a few moments of winking dialogue and – most importantly - Cruise’s complete willingness to hurl himself headlong into harm’s way if it might allow him to win our love.

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The notion of superheroes as kid stuff has largely fallen by the wayside thanks to the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the less-massive-but-still-pretty-huge success of the DC Extended Universe. These are movies that young people can enjoy, but they are very much made for adults; the DC side especially leans into that aspect of the genre.

But there’s still a lot of kid-friendly fun to be had with superheroes. The animated TV series “Teen Titans Go!” – a staple on the Cartoon Network for the past five years – is a non-canonical DC property aimed at lighthearted fun and parodic takes on comic book tropes.

And now there’s a movie.

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It’s rare for movies to really surprise us anymore. Oh, there are the plot twists and turns that will sometimes catch us off guard. We anticipate a bad movie and get a good one or vice versa, that’s unexpected. But for a movie to legitimately SURPRISE us, to be something far more than we ever could have prepared for, well … that’s an uncommon treat.

“Sorry to Bother You” – written and directed by hip-hop activist Boots Riley – wasn’t really on my radar before a few weeks ago. What little I initially gleaned was that it was a sort of workplace comedy with something to say about race and class. But then the murmurs started. People whose opinions I trusted – critics and friends alike – were talking about this film. Talking about it in hushed and reverent tones while still keeping everything very close to the vest. My interest piqued, I went to see it for myself.

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I love me a movie musical. My deep and abiding affection for the joy and wonder of the genre is well-documented. So it should come as no surprise that I was interested in checking out “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again,” the sequel to 2008’s blockbuster hit “Mamma Mia.”

But here’s the thing – I had never SEEN “Mamma Mia.” This despite not just the aforementioned movie musical love, but an actorly crush on Meryl Streep AND a long-standing affinity for the music of ABBA! It makes zero sense that I would not have seen that film. And so, I rectified that fact before taking in the sequel.

You don’t need me to tell you about the first film, but I can tell you that “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” stays largely true to the unabashedly dorky spirit of its predecessor, packed with impromptu musical numbers and hammy scenery chewing and the inarguably outstanding music of ABBA. It also makes the unusual choice of serving as both a sequel AND a prequel to the original, roughly splitting the story between the two timelines. It is campy, winking and just delightful.

Published in Movies

In today’s franchise-driven cinematic climate, the focus has shifted from performer to property. The notion of a “movie star” – at least in the way we’ve traditionally considered the term – is becoming increasingly anachronistic. But they’re not all gone yet. There are a few who can still legitimately bear the mantle of movie star.

Denzel Washington is one of the few. His latest is “The Equalizer 2,” which sees him reteaming with director Antoine Fuqua for a sequel to their 2014 old-guy-action extravaganza. It’s Denzel’s first sequel, which is surprising. What isn’t surprising is that it doesn’t live up to the pulpy thrills of the original, falling prey to the law of diminishing returns. Still, it’s Denzel, so while the movie might not be great, it’s extremely watchable thanks to the inescapable charismatic magnetism of its star.

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There’s something comforting about known quantities when it comes to the cinema. Going to the movies with a confident understanding of precisely the experience you’re going to have can be kind of nice.

So it is with summer CGI-explosion fest “Skyscraper,” a simplistically-titled vehicle for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who by The Maine Edge fiat will continue to be called The Rock and there’s nothing any of you can do to stop me) that is formulaic and predictable and jam-packed with action clichés both general and Rock-specific.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not a good movie, mind you, but if your expectations are tempered by the knowledge of both the film’s star and its title, you will almost certainly have a good time.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 17 July 2018 15:50

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

We live in a world filled with sharp divides. So many lines that see so many people on either side. Common ground and understanding are in short supply. But there’s at least one thing on which the vast majority of us can agree.

Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers was a good man and his neighborhood was a good place. No matter how you feel about literally anything else in the world, you are almost certainly onboard with that sentiment.

He’s the subject of director Morgan Neville’s new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It details the life of Fred Rogers through an exploration of his iconic children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and interviews with many of the people who knew him best both personally and professionally – although it rapidly becomes clear that knowing Mr. Rogers in any capacity meant knowing him personally.

Published in Movies
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