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There are a lot of cautionary tales out there regarding the aftermath of child stardom in the entertainment industry. So many times, the Hollywood machine sucks them dry, chews them up and spits them out. Maybe they become punchlines. Maybe they become cautionary tales. Or maybe they just fade away, forgotten.

But what’s the view like from the inside?

That’s the perspective of the new Hulu documentary “Kid 90.” Specifically, it’s the perspective of Soleil Moon Frye, who rose to fame in the mid-1980s as the titular moppet in NBC’s hit series “Punky Brewster.” See, as it turns out, Frye spent much of her adolescence with a video camera in hand, recording the world around her throughout her teen years and into her 20s – and she kept all of it.

Published in Movies
Monday, 08 March 2021 15:58

2 Coming 2 America

Sequels are always hit-or-miss propositions. Even film franchises, where sequels are baked into the equation, can struggle with making sequels work. But what about those sequels to films that clearly were not intended to have sequels? How do you go back and continue a story that already had a satisfactory conclusion?

Well, now you can find out, thanks to Eddie Murphy.

“Coming 2 America” is the direct sequel to 1988’s “Coming to America,” Murphy’s absolute all-timer of a comedy. Directed by Craig Brewer, this new film offers a 33-years-later look at these characters; just about everyone from the cast of the first film is back, along with a few high-profile additions.

It’s an exercise in nostalgia, for sure – one that perhaps isn’t as successful as it hoped to be. I enjoyed myself well enough, but I’ll concede that my own personal affection for the original film likely impacted my experience with this new offering. That said, it has plenty of issues – the narrative loses coherence in spots and gets clunky in others; too often, everyone seems content to say “Hey! Remember this?” (and some of the characters haven’t aged particularly well).

Published in Movies
Monday, 08 March 2021 15:55

Make mine ‘Moxie’

My affection for coming-of-age stories is well-documented. I love tales of young people coming into their own and discovering themselves, growing up and finding what they’re meant to find.

These stories present their own particular brand of obstacles, however – making a good coming-of-age movie is really hard. Things can easily get bogged down, with nuance eliminated and important feelings trivialized – I love a love story, but coming of age is about far more than a first kiss (though that notion might surprise some filmmakers).

“Moxie,” the new Netflix film directed by Amy Poehler from a screenplay adapted by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer from Jennifer Mathieu’s 2015 novel of the same name, tells the story of a teenaged girl who is inspired to take action against the toxic culture of her high school by the music, writings and activist attitudes of her mother’s own high school experience.

All in all, it’s a decent effort. Shaggy and a little lumpy and perhaps a touch reductive, but it’s got more pros than cons. It’s a good-faith effort to show young women trying to effect change in the world, and while it occasionally gets a little glib or too try-hard (and the third-act wrap-up is a bit much), the filmmakers obviously sought to celebrate that effort.

Published in Movies

So there sure have been a lot of time loop movies lately, huh?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m as big a fan as anyone of the “Groundhog Day, but also this” genre. But at this point, you have to bring something new to the table; it’s all familiar now, so what else you got?

Movies like Hulu’s “Boss Level,” directed by Joe Carnahan and starring Frank Grillo, usually need that extra push to become something other than disposable. This action-driven time looper never does get around to breaking new ground, so its ceiling is on the low side. However, through gleefully nonsensical action sequences and a fresh-out-of-f—ks performance from Frank Grillo in the lead, it actually gets pretty close to that ceiling.

It’s a movie that does have some fun with its premise, offering a number of sharp action sequences and a few decent gags (including a couple that are a little … squishy). The cast is having a good time and no one is expecting you to think too hard. Again – you’ve seen it all before, but there are definitely worse ways to kill a couple of hours.

Published in Movies

There are a lot of ways in which movies can surprise us. Sometimes it is subtle – a film is funnier or more dramatic than we expected. Sometimes, it’s a little more overt – a stunt cast cameo or a third act twist. But the vast majority of these surprises involve what a movie is.

But what about when the surprise springs from what a movie isn’t?

That’s what I got when I finally, after spending a full year hearing about its excellence from various trusted sources since its debut at Sundance in January of 2020, got to watch “Minari,” the brilliant film written and directed by Lee Isaac Cheung. Now, these sources who sung the film’s praises steered clear of spoilers – what I heard was that it was great, not why it was great.

We all have our biases, conscious and otherwise. And when I heard that “Minari” centered around a Korean family moving to Arkansas in the 1980s, I made some assumptions about what the film would be about, assumptions that involved othering born of the racist attitudes of that place and time.

Instead, what I got was a moving family drama, a film that explored the complexities that come with being bound by blood and how cultural expectations can challenge the choices people make. It is a film about love and obligation, of the responsibilities and burdens we bear toward those who matter most to us. It is about differences, yes, but also acceptance, all in service of trying to do right by the ones who mean the most to us.

Published in Movies

What does it mean to take on the role of an icon?

It’s one of the fundamental challenges of a biopic – how to invoke the spirit and sensibility of a famous figure in a manner that avoids caricature. The best of these performances aren’t impressions or impersonations, but rather honest appraisals of the person being portrayed, built on actual character rather than a few plucked characteristics.

It’s worth noting that sometimes in biopics, the skill and subtlety of the central performance far outshines the rest of the film. The movie becomes less about the story and more about the person to whom the story is happening. That doesn’t mean the film is bad, necessarily – just that it doesn’t fully live up to the actor at its core.

Such is the case with “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” directed by Lee Daniels from a screenplay adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks from part of Johann Hari’s 2015 book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” It’s a film with issues – tonal inconsistency, uneven direction, a somewhat meandering narrative and odd aesthetic choices.

And yet, many of the film’s sins are forgiven due to the sheer incandescence of Andra Day’s performance as the titular Billie Holiday. Even during stretches when the movie isn’t entirely working, Day NEVER stops working. She is absolutely magnetic onscreen, thrilling to watch. And when she starts to sing? Forget about it. Day papers over a lot of the film’s issues through sheer power of performance.

Published in Movies

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
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