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There are some stories that should be told over and over again. These are the stories that are a part of the fabric of who we are as a society, stories that represent the pinnacle of human capability in a tangible, visceral way.

The story of the moon landing is one such story. No matter how often the story is told and retold, no matter how many times it is referenced directly or obliquely in popular culture, it isn’t enough. It will never be enough. It’s a story we should keep telling with every increase in our capability to tell it.

“First Man” – directed by Damien Chazelle and adapted by Josh Singer from James R. Hansen’s “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” – stars Ryan Gosling as that titular astronaut and relates his story as he walks the path that inexorably draws him toward space. It’s a portrait of the quiet aptitude and stoic readiness that made Neil Armstrong an ideal candidate for this leap into the unknown; it also examines the impacts of this journey (positive and negative alike) on those around him – particularly his family and his NASA compatriots.

Published in Movies

As someone who considers himself a reasonably savvy moviegoer, I like to think that I’m not bad at discerning what the deal is going to be with a movie before I see it. That’s not to say that I think I have every plot point or aesthetic choice nailed down; I just mean that I’m good at predicting some general qualities from limited information.

Good, but far from perfect.

For instance, I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to get from “Bad Times at the El Royale” despite the fact that the publicity run-up wasn’t particularly thorough. The thing is written and directed by Drew Goddard, after all – he’s a prolific writer and producer, but the last time we got the writer/director double-dip, he gave us the exceptional meta-horror “The Cabin in the Woods.” I figured I was going to get something similar to that movie, a noir/neo-noir deconstruction-cum-parody.

But rather than a comment on a genre, Goddard – along with a fantastic ensemble cast – gives us a particularly well-executed example of that genre, one tinged with Goddard’s weirdo sensibilities and unique aesthetic sense. It twists and turns with abandon and is utterly remorseless in the sacrifices it makes in order to advance the narrative. It’s brutal and visceral and darkly funny – not quite what I expected, but a hell of a time nonetheless.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 10 October 2018 12:11

‘A Star is Born’ burns bright

Predicting the relative success of a film, whether commercially or critically, is no easy feat. Sometimes, all the pieces are there for a hit, only for the final product to fall short. Other times, what looks like an abject disaster proves to be a runaway smash.

And then there are those movies that you can’t quite get a read on.

“A Star is Born” was one such film for me. I love Bradley Cooper as an actor – I think he’s got real talent – but how was he going to be in his directorial debut? Especially when he would be directing himself? And Lady Gaga is an undeniable musical powerhouse, but could she transcend her persona enough to create a character that felt real? Would the movie elicit genuine pathos … or simply come off as pathetic?

After seeing the movie, let’s check those boxes. First, Cooper displayed far more directorial talent than I would have expected from any first-timer, let alone someone directing himself. Second, Gaga is absolutely captivating in this role, exposed and vulnerable in a way we rarely see her. And finally – pathos. Wave after wave of elicited emotion … and every feeling is well-earned.

The story is simple and compelling. The performances are raw and heartfelt. The aesthetic is honest and the music is spectacular. It uplifts and undercuts with equal abandon. It is a fantastic movie experience the likes of which we don’t often see anymore – one that will almost certainly reap rewards come awards season.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 10 October 2018 12:08

‘Venom’ an uninspired antihero

As the superhero industrial complex continues to grow in Hollywood, we can expect to start seeing more material featuring secondary and tertiary comic book characters. The studios have churned through the A-list characters and many of the B-listers – it’s inevitable that they’re going to keep reaching.

Now, one could certainly argue that noted Spider-Man foe Venom isn’t a deep cut – he has been one of Spidey’s primary antagonists ever since he first made the scene 30 years ago. He has had connections to other heroes and villains and a fair number of stand-alone outings over the years, but he remains indelibly connected to Spider-Man.

And yet, it the new film “Venom,” there’s not a Spider-Man to be seen. And while that absence isn’t the only reason the movie fails to pass muster, it’s a significant one. The movie is a tonal mish-mash, one that seems happy to outright refuse to decide what kind of film it wants to be. Add to that the fact that the character has long been defined by a sort of reactionary emptiness and you get a movie that offers flashes of quality, but largely collapses beneath its own indecisiveness.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 03 October 2018 12:48

‘Smallfoot’ has a big heart

It’s always nice when a movie surprises you.

Most of the time, you can generate a fairly accurate idea about a film simply by paying attention. All it takes is a couple of trailers, maybe a press tour interview or two, and you can form a good picture of what you’re going to get.

Most of the time … but not ALL the time.

“Smallfoot” is an animated offering, the second to be released by Sony through Warner Brothers Animation (2016’s “Storks” was the first). By all appearances, this was going to be a pretty straightforward and goofy bit of kiddie fare, with recognizable voice talent, decent 3D animation and a handful of not-bad songs. And it is that – but it’s also a little bit more.

Just beneath the surface of this story about a young Yeti’s quest to prove the existence of the mythical Smallfoot is a surprisingly sophisticated allegory about the consequences of conformity and the importance of questioning authority. Oh, and the songs are catchy too.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 03 October 2018 12:46

‘Night School’ flunks out

Love him or hate him, you know pretty much what you’re getting with Kevin Hart. His movies are built on a foundation of fast-talking shtick as he inevitably plays someone thrust into circumstances beyond his control due to his past failings.

The problem is that the shtick – never particularly robust to begin with – is definitely wearing thin.

So we have “Night School,” a largely unfunny lowbrow comedy that proves unable to come up with more than a handful of decent jokes despite sporting a frankly-unbelievable six credited screenwriters. Not even the presence of Tiffany Haddish and a not-at-all-bad supporting ensemble is enough to make this movie clear what is a decidedly low bar.

Published in Movies

I’m not sure when exactly “family-friendly” became code for “condescending and/or milquetoast,” but that’s pretty much where we are as far as Hollywood is concerned. The truth is that there are plenty of ways to make a movie for younger audiences that engages with them in a manner that treats them with respect – folks like Steven Spielberg did it all the time in the 1980s.

So when word of “The House with a Clock in its Walls” came out, I was cautiously optimistic. The original source material – a 1973 YA magic mystery by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey that was the first of a dozen in the series – had the requisite spookiness. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company is prominently involved. The cast – led by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett – is strong.

But there were questions – and the biggest involved the man sitting in the director’s chair. Eli Roth built his career on brutal, bloody genre fare – the choice to hand what is essentially a movie for kids over to the dude who made “Hostel” is an odd one. It seemed like a jarring, unconventional marriage unlikely to succeed.

Instead, it turned out to be an ideal pairing, with Roth bringing his visceral sensibility to the PG-realm with nary a hiccup, resulting in a children’s movie that isn’t afraid to spend some time in the shadows and bring genuine scares to the screen.

Published in Movies
Monday, 24 September 2018 12:53

This is bus - 'Life Itself'

There’s nothing wrong with a film trying to play on your emotions. Oftentimes, our whole purpose in going to the movies is to feel. The cinema is inherently manipulative, whether we’re talking visually, emotionally or what have you. I have no problem with a movie pushing my emotional buttons.

But that evocation needs to be earned. If it isn’t, you’re left with something shallow and unsatisfying. When we’re constantly aware of the buttons being pushed, it all begins to feel a bit cynical.

It begins to feel like Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself.”

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 19 September 2018 11:21

To catch ‘The Predator’

When Hollywood isn’t rebooting or remaking, it’s sequel-izing – even if the previous entry is years or even decades in the past. The successful efforts are fairly few and far between, but the wave of IP filmmaking doesn’t appear to have crested yet.

And so we get another “Predator” movie.

“The Predator” is the fourth standalone film in the franchise, following “Predator” (1987), “Predator 2” (1990) and “Predators” (2010) – please note that we’re not including the two crossover films with the “Alien” universe. Shane Black – who is not only one of the best action screenwriters of the past 25 years and a heck of a director, but actually played a small part in “Predator” back in 1987 – is the ideal man to bring this franchise back, someone with a clear affection for and understanding of the source material. Black directs from a script he co-wrote with Fred Dekker.

Set in the present day, it’s the story of a soldier whose chance encounter with an alien in the jungle leads to a fight to save himself and everyone he cares about from a gruesome (and I do mean GRUESOME) death. It is packed with gags and gore, a throwback sort of action movie that feels like it would fit right into the heyday of the original. It’s a flawed film, to be sure, but action fans will have a hell of a time.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 19 September 2018 11:19

Grant yourself ‘A Simple Favor’

When I first saw a trailer for “A Simple Favor,” I was intrigued. Sure, I figured it was basically going to be another “Gone Girl” knockoff – I wasn’t familiar with the 2017 Darcey Bell book of the same name or anything, but it all seemed pretty clear how this was going to go. I assumed I had it all figured out.

But you know what they say about when you assume.

I should have been suspicious. Paul Feig – best known for making sitcoms and Melissa McCarthy-led comedies – was in the director’s chair. The odd couple pairing of Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick as the leads. Still, I went into the theater expecting an entertaining, albeit fairly formulaic thriller.

Instead, I got something else. “A Simple Favor” definitely has “Gone Girl” in its DNA, but Feig has reflected the standard “Lost Woman” thriller through the skewed lens of his own absurd-leaning sensibility. The result is a movie riddled with twists and turns, filled with weird secrets and outlandish choices. It is somehow deadly serious and rather silly at the same time, with neither tone undermining the other. And it sure is fun to watch.

Published in Movies
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