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One of the joys of awards season is the opportunity to not just see excellent films, but to see films that are excellent in ways that you hadn’t anticipated.

Take “The Favourite,” for instance. It’s a period piece set in the court of England’s Queen Anne in the early 18th century; it tells the story of two women battling to curry favor with her. There are phenomenally talented performers in those three leads and excellent actors up and down the roster. Sounds pretty straightforward, no?

But then you learn that the director is noted weirdo auteur Yorgos Lanthimos and that the central conflict has a healthy amount of psychosexual manipulation and a little slapstick anachronism to accompany the palace intrigue and things are DEFINITELY not straightforward anymore. Excellent, for sure, but not straightforward.

“The Favourite” is an odd amalgamation, a sex farce in costume drama’s clothing … and it works wonderfully. It is sumptuously filmed and audaciously performed, an utterly fearless and unapologetically strange film. It is a cracked-mirror Merchant-Ivory production, a great piece of cinema that arrives at that greatness via paths both conventional and surprising.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 06 January 2019 16:11

Room for improvement - ‘Escape Room’

It’s no secret that January has long served as a bit of a dumping ground for Hollywood. Yes, this is the time when many award-contending films go into wider distribution, but as far as new releases January is where studios tend to offload their biggest mistakes and misfires.

However, a movie can still be entertaining even when it isn’t very good.

Take “Escape Room,” for example. It’s a formulaic and predictable horror thriller that absolutely deserves its early January release date. That being said, it’s got an interesting concept with which it proves willing to have some fun, at least initially. Sure, the movie’s back end devolves into illogic and nonsense, but that’s OK. As long as you set the bar nice and low, there’s no reason for you to not have a good time.

Published in Movies
Saturday, 29 December 2018 21:53

The absurdity of venality – ‘Vice’

If you were to make a list of real-life political figures who might make a good subject for a biopic packed with satiric elements, pitch-black humor and a liberal sprinkling of absurdism, former Vice President Dick Cheney would probably sit pretty low on it.

And yet, that’s precisely what writer/director Adam McKay has done with his new movie “Vice.” The filmmaker’s follow-up to 2015’s “The Big Short,” his biting and surprisingly impactful riff on the housing crisis of the late-00s, takes on one of the most powerful and influential – for better or worse (mostly worse) – men to hold the office of Vice President.

With a virtuoso performance from Christian Bale as Cheney and an absolutely dynamite ensemble cast, McKay treats Cheney’s calculated rise through the ranks culminating in a consolidation of political power never before seen in the office of the VP. And he does it with a depth of intelligence and razor-sharp wit, bringing together stock footage and fourth-wall-breaking internal commentary with a more-or-less straightforward look at the biographical details; the end result is one of the most thought-provoking and challenging films of the year. Not to mention one of the best.

Published in Movies
Friday, 28 December 2018 13:53

‘Holmes & Watson’ doesn’t have a clue

Saying that someone “makes it look easy” is a solid compliment. You’re implying that the person in question is so good at what they do that it looks effortless. It’s a nice thing to say.

Here’s the thing, though – oftentimes, a LOT of work goes into that perceived ease. And if that work doesn’t get done and done well, what once looked easy can quickly turn Sisyphean.

You could get “Holmes & Watson.”

Published in Movies
Sunday, 23 December 2018 00:06

‘Aquaman’ works swimmingly

It’s no secret that DC is trailing Marvel significantly when it comes to their respective cinematic universes. Marvel has turned the MCU into a content-churning, money-printing machine, while DC’s process has been a good deal less smooth. Marvel is celebrated, DC is denigrated.

It appears that DC might be learning their lesson, though. While many of their early efforts at developing their shared universe have focused on the bleak grimdarkness that the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films convinced them that they needed, later films have shown glimpses of something resembling fun.

And while no one is going to mistake “Aquaman” for the cream of the MCU crop – or even last year’s excellent “Wonder Woman” – there’s no question that the movie marks a sizable step in the right direction. This movie is big and loud and unashamed of either; a collection of one-liners and guitar licks, a veritable smorgasbord of wide-ranging action, nonsensical cinematic physics and weirdly vivid settings. It definitely makes a splash.

Published in Movies

Few franchises see the sort of gap between critical and commercial success that you get with the “Transformers” movies. The Michael Bay-led series has seen increasingly negative responses from critics, even while raking in massive dollars at the global box office. One would be forgiven for assuming that this pattern would continue.

Instead, out of nowhere, we get “Bumblebee.” It’s unheard of for a big-budget franchise like this to take a quantum leap forward in terms of quality – particularly when you’re half-a-dozen movies in – but that is the case here. This 1980s-set prequel manages to capture the energy, the gleeful spirit of the source material in a way that none of the previous iterations have.

It’s FUN, you see. And that fun comes from the respect given the audience – respect that reflects why they love the material in the first place.

“Bumblebee” is smart and sweet, blending the CGI-heavy action with a smaller, more intimate, more personal narrative that gives the movie a whiff of early Spielberg and the nostalgic bite and something like “The Iron Giant,” if perhaps not quite up to the emotional heights reached by those works.

Published in Movies
Saturday, 22 December 2018 12:11

Nanny nostalgia – ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

On its surface, it would appear to be the most unnecessary sequel in a cinematic landscape already littered with unnecessary sequels. The mere idea seems to epitomize the monetization of nostalgia. Its title sounds more like a punchline than an actual movie.

Despite how we might feel about its existence, there’s no getting around it: beloved magical nanny Mary Poppins has returned in Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns.” And yet, even with the perceived strikes against it, the filmmakers have managed to make a decent film. Better than decent, in fact – this movie is actually pretty good.

Obviously, it doesn’t measure up to the original – no movie could, and it would be ridiculous to expect otherwise. There are stretches where it doesn’t quite click. However, for the most part, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a light and lovely story, a chance to spend a little more time with an iconic character. And it’s generally time well-spent.

Published in Movies

There’s nothing quite like having your expectations greatly exceeded – particularly when they were high to begin with. It’s a rare thing, to experience a piece of culture – a movie, a book, a play – anticipating excellence, only to discover that you vastly underestimated the possibilities.

And it just happened. With “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

This movie offers up a story boldly told, one filled with humor and heart and more web-slinging than you ever dared dream. Smart and beautifully rendered, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” takes full advantage of the benefits derived from working in the animated realm, packed with vivid colors and action unfettered by “realism.”

It’s not just a great comic book movie – it might be one of the best.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 19 December 2018 13:35

The ‘Mortal Engines’ that couldn’t

Every once in a while, I’ll see a movie that indicates to me that the YA dystopia film adaptation boom is coming to a close. In terms of critical and/or commercial performance – not to mention general quality – it will just cry out rock bottom. And yet, we keep getting more big-budget dart throws as studios desperately grasp for the next “Hunger Games.”

But few of those shots-in-the-dark have failed even close to as spectacularly as “Mortal Engines.” This film – based on the Peter Reeve book series of the same name – was supposed to be a jumping-off point for a new franchise. Instead, it might be the biggest bomb of the year.

It’s a clanking, overwrought piece of stylized junk. The effects work is uneven, the narrative is simplistic and riddled with holes and the performances are indifferent at best and distractingly terrible at worst. This movie traffics in every cliché and overused trope in the YA sphere – and does so while completely lacking awareness. It clanks and crunches and generally disappoints; it is as poorly-oiled a machine as you’re likely to find.

Published in Movies

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
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