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I’m on record as being a big proponent of coming of age stories. For whatever reason, I find tales of young people crossing the various Rubicons that come with growing up to be endlessly fascinating. There’s a universality to them; while the details may change, the fundamental underpinnings are simple and constant.

That said, while I personally enjoy them all, there’s no denying that, as with any genre, there are good ones and bad ones.

My guess was that “Big Time Adolescence,” the new film streaming on Hulu, would trend more toward the latter category. Instead, the feature debut from writer/directory Jason Foley surprised me. It’s a thoughtful and heartfelt meditation on the connections we make when we’re young and the people with whom we choose to make them … not to mention the relative wisdom (or lack thereof) inherent to those choices. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it also manages to avoid the saccharine pitfalls that often undermine these kinds of stories.

Published in Movies
Friday, 20 March 2020 16:30

Food for thought - ‘The Platform’

Sometimes, films choose to utilize subtlety when it comes to presenting underlying messages and themes. They gently and delicately weave their ideas into the fabric of the story, leaving the viewers to work things out for themselves.

Other times, films are brutally overt with their messaging. These are films that wield their meanings with loud impunity, performing their ideological surgery with an axe as opposed to a scalpel. They are conceptual blunt force trauma.

“The Platform” – Spanish title “El Hoyo” – is new to streaming on Netflix; the film marks the feature debut of director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia. It’s a bleak and compelling piece of genre fare, one that uses its limited but undeniably effective dystopian setting to deliver some far-from-subtle thoughts on the nature of class divide and a powerful condemnation of the top-down economic model that dominates the world today.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 18 March 2020 12:20

The most dangerous game – ‘The Hunt’

It’s nice when movies have something to say.

Don’t get me wrong – I love turning off my brain and watching stuff blow up for a couple of hours as much as the next guy. However, there’s something inherently engaging about films that try to use the medium to explore larger concepts. If stuff blows up while they do so, so much the better.

There’s a long history of genre filmmakers finding ways to use their platforms to address social and cultural ideas – science fiction and fantasy, horror and thrillers and so on – in ways both subtler and more overt than can be done in more traditional films. When it’s done well, you get absolute classics – films that challenge the status quo and say something while also embracing the pulpiness of their genre roots.

When it’s done less well, you get movies like “The Hunt.”

The Blumhouse-produced film – directed by Craig Zobel from a script co-written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof – is a cross-genre effort to explore and satirize the current political divide and level of ideological discourse by way of elevated B-movie trappings. Basically, the deal is that the liberal elite is hunting vocal conservatives for sport, with all the societal and classist issues that that concept entails.

“The Hunt” has already generated controversy – the film’s opening date was pushed from September to March due to a combination of real-life circumstances and angry rhetoric – but the truth is that the vitriol would have been better-served elsewhere, because even though the baseline concept is one that might merit offense, the truth is that the film simply doesn’t commit enough to its ideals to be anything other than an incoherent jumble. Thematically, tonally, stylistically – it lacks consistency in every respect.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 18 March 2020 12:18

‘Bloodshot’ a complete misfire

One of the things that we’ve learned as various studios try to construct their own cinematic universes in the wake of the massive success of the MCU? It’s hard to do – much harder than Marvel makes it look.

That doesn’t mean folks are going to stop trying.

The Vin Diesel vehicle “Bloodshot” is intended to serve as the jumping-off point for yet another cinematic universe – this one built on the IP of Valiant Comics. It’s a rich source of material, albeit one far less familiar to the layperson than the works of either Marvel or DC; Sony is counting on a better outcome than what they got with their efforts to make Spider-Man a going concern.

Alas, it’s not looking good.

Leaving aside the very real logistical issues that have sprung from the global situation with the coronavirus, the truth is that this movie just isn’t very good. There’s a lack of energy to the proceedings that undercuts any effort to excite the viewer about the movie they are watching, let alone future films that might come along. With iffy effects work, sloppy screenwriting, pedestrian direction and a particularly leaden performance from Diesel, “Bloodshot” simply misses the mark.

Published in Movies

There’s nothing quite like a sports movie, is there? Especially an inspirational sports movie. We love to see an underdog overcome tremendous odds to scrap his/her/their way to success, battling for every step and learning important lessons along the way.

“The Way Back,” directed by Gavin O’Conner from a script he co-wrote alongside Brad Ingelsby, checks a lot of those boxes; it’s the story of a once-great basketball player, long removed from the game, returning to his high school alma mater and taking the reins of their struggling basketball team. Perfect (albeit familiar) fodder for sports movie inspiration, right?

But there’s another level here, one that can’t help but color the story being told.

The film stars Ben Affleck, whose personal struggles have been part of the larger narrative surrounding him for some time now. One could argue that some of those struggles are reflected in the story being told on-screen; that inherent understanding results in some of the best work we’ve seen from him in years.

Published in Sports
Wednesday, 11 March 2020 13:21

Fractured fairy tale – ‘Onward’

Obviously, I love Pixar movies. I’m a human being with feelings and a soul, so of course I dig the work of the acclaimed animation studio. That being said, I also have to accept that because they have set the bar so very high, there will be occasions in which they fail to clear it.

So it is with their latest offering “Onward,” a film that, were it to come from any other studio, would likely be hailed as great work, but because it bears the Pixar name, it feels just the slightest bit underwhelming.

Make no mistake – “underwhelming” is by no means the same as “bad” – this is actually a charming and fun film. The concept is interesting enough, the vocal performances are typically strong and the execution is quite good. Jokes are made and heartstrings are tugged. All the usual pieces are here. It just doesn’t quite ascend to the level of accomplishment that we’ve come to expect from the studio.

Published in Movies

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. John Wayne and John Ford. Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott. Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Kurt Russell and John Carpenter. Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder.

The history of Hollywood is littered with actor/director pairings that became ongoing, marriages between filmmaker and star that led to long-term cinematic relationships. These pairings often – but definitely not always – lead to exceptional and memorable projects.

While the partnership between Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg might not have the same legendary heft carried by the names on that previous list, it’s tough to argue that they haven’t been both prolific and successful (commercially, anyway – critically is a different story).

Their latest collaboration is “Spenser Confidential,” a Netflix original film loosely based on the novel “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins and the 1980s TV show “Spencer: For Hire,” both featuring characters created by Robert B. Parker. Wahlberg plays the titular Spenser, an ex-cop and ex-con looking to get his life back together, only to get swept up into a vast conspiracy.

It’s a throwback movie, one reminiscent of the Reagan-era action thrillers from which it draws its inspiration. While the plot is thin and convoluted and most of the characters are more accurately described as caricatures, that nostalgia vibe is enough to make the movie a mildly enjoyable experience – though no one is going to mistake it as “good,” per se.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 11 March 2020 13:11

Austen powers – ‘Emma.’

One never knows what to expect with literary adaptations. Guiding a story from page to screen is tricky business, packed with pitfalls both anticipated and unexpected. The degree of difficulty runs even higher when you’re dealing with a work that is both beloved in its original form AND has already been made into a well-received film.

This begs the question: why adapt Jane Austen’s “Emma” again?

That question is answered by first-time feature director Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma.” Working from a script adapted by Eleanor Catton, this latest incarnation of the tale offers a quirky, period take on the classic, bringing an unexpected aesthetic to bear alongside relatively straightforward storytelling.

(Note: Part of that quirkiness is the title itself – the period in “Emma.” is intended to indicate that the film is a period piece. It’s a fun bit of self-aware metatextual goofiness. That said, going forward, I’ll refer to the title sans period, just for clarity and logistical ease.)

Featuring the talented Anya Taylor-Joy in the titular role, this latest incarnation of the story captures the spirited satire of the original while also freely indulging in a rampant tweeness that suits the story’s soul surprisingly well. It’s a smart and sharp film, clever and sweet and just strange enough – a take on the tale that will both satisfy longtime Austenites and serve as a worthwhile introduction to the work.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 03 March 2020 12:41

Out of sight – ‘The Invisible Man’

It’s one of the most traditional truisms in horror cinema: sometimes the biggest scares come from what you don’t see.

“The Invisible Man” – written and directed by Leigh Whannell – takes that notion to heart both literally and figuratively. It is a daring and inspired take on the classic tale, one that captures the unsettling energy of the classic character while also viewing it through a different lens. That shift in perspective – from the terrorizer to the terrorized – results in a thought-provoking and compelling experience.

This film marks the first revisiting of Universal’s classic movie monsters since the aborted “Dark Universe” experiment began and ended with 2017’s abysmal “The Mummy.” The studio pivoted to a different idea, one that focuses more on the characters rather than worrying about a shared universe. It’s a smart play, made all the smarter by teaming up with genre producer extraordinaire Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions.

In the end, what we get is a film guided by an auteur’s singular vision and headlined by an absolutely dynamite lead performer. It is smart and evocative and scary as hell.

(Note: There’s a real chance that survivors of abuse will find many aspects of this movie triggering. Be aware.)

Published in Movies

I spend a lot of time at the movies. I see quite a few good ones and plenty of bad ones, but it’s relatively rare for me to see an utterly inexplicable one, a movie that begs the question “Why does this exist?”

“Impractical Jokers: The Movie” had me asking myself that very question.

Full disclosure: I have only the most passing of passing familiarity with the television show that inspired the film, a series built entirely around four meatheads from Staten Island making each other behave like morons in front of an unsuspecting public (and a bunch of hidden cameras). You might think that such source material would prove insufficient fodder for a feature film.

And you would be correct.

“Impractical Jokers: The Movie” is a poorly-constructed excuse to string together a handful of the group’s hidden camera pranks. The story – such as it is – exists solely to get us from bit to bit. The narrative makes no sense and the central quartet are completely out of their depth any time they’re expected to act; they’re painful to watch, frankly. Even the pranks, the whole raison d’etre for this waste of time, feel perfunctory.

Published in Movies
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