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We’ve all heard the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” While it might not be true in all cases, it is certainly true in the case of “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” the latest offering from animation stalwart Illumination.

And you know? That’s OK.

Sure, one can look at “The Secret Life of Pets 2” as a tossed-off and somewhat cynical attempt to cash in on the surprisingly significant success of the first film (seriously – the first “TSLOP” did over $875 million at the global box office). You wouldn’t even necessarily be wrong to do so. But if there’s one thing that Illumination knows how to do, it’s to make you feel all right about handing over your cash.

This isn’t a great movie by any stretch – what story it has feels stitched together from a handful of discarded ideas and deemed good enough, all of it serving as a framework on which to hang the same kid-friendly pet-themed jokes and sight gags that we saw in the first film. However, that can often be enough – the kids in my screening certainly enjoyed it well enough.

Published in Music

Few cinematic subgenres are as predictable as the musical biopic. We’ve grown accustomed to watching the lives of famous musicians broken down into beats that have been repeated so many times as to become rote – it’s a sort of rock-and-roll lifestyle shorthand. We know how these goes.

That said, that formulaicness hasn’t necessarily prevented these films from succeeding both critically and commercially. Heck, last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” made $900 million at the box office and netted Rami Malek a Best Actor Oscar for playing Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.

After that kind of run, it’s no surprise that Hollywood would return to the well again, this time with “Rocketman” starring Taron Egerton as Elton John. What is surprising is this: “Rocketman” is a better movie than “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Egerton’s performance as Elton John is better than Malek’s as Freddie Mercury.

Seriously. The movie won’t do nearly the same box office numbers and Egerton won’t get a sniff of the awards-show attention that Malek received, but that doesn’t change the fact that both are better.

They’re better because “Rocketman” – directed by Dexter Fletcher (the same guy who cleaned up Bryan Singer’s mess on “Bohemian Rhapsody”) – leans into the inherent weirdness of rock stardom in a way we don’t often see, embracing the flamboyance of its subject through a liberal dusting of full-blown musical numbers and magical realism. When you’re telling the story of a provocatively stylish and over-the-top icon, you’ve got to do it in a provocatively stylish and over-the-top fashion.

(Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if in a movie about a singer, your lead performer, you know … sings.)

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 04 June 2019 16:09

Say yes to ‘Always Be My Maybe’

While I would argue that reports of the demise of the romantic comedy have been greatly exaggerated, it’s tough to deny that things have changed with regards to that particular genre.

Movie studios aren’t as interested in investing in mid-budget standalone films anymore. It’s all about massive tentpole franchises with a smattering of awards bait and a handful of mini- and microbudget niche offerings. Rom-coms aren’t really big box office anymore.

But Netflix doesn’t need you to make your way to the movie theater. They just need you to click a couple of buttons on your remote. They need your eyeballs. And they have discovered that an effective avenue to procure those eyeballs is the romantic comedy.

The streaming service’s latest – and arguably best – entry into that arena is “Always Be My Maybe,” starring Ali Wong and Randall Park. It’s from a script co-written by Wong and Park, along with Michael Golamko; the film is directed by Nahnatchka Khan, best known for her work on TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”

“Always Be My Maybe” is not a wheel reinvention; all of the people involved clearly have a sense for how rom-coms work and are unconcerned with change for the sake of change. Instead, the film revolves around subverting tropes – sometimes subtly, other times not so much – while still existing within the standard stylistic framework of the genre.

Published in Movies

There’s something joyful about giant monster movies. They inspire a kind of glee, a sense of childlike wonder in the viewer. Sometimes, it can be nice to go to the movies and get swept away by sheer, unwavering bigness. Even when it is dorky and/or shoddy and/or low-rent, the sense of scale is always there.

Godzilla movies and their ilk have been the foundation of that particular niche. And in this current climate of cinematic universes, it’s no surprise that Hollywood has decided to shoehorn everyone’s favorite gigantic radioactive lizard into a franchise of his own.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is a follow-up to 2014’s “Godzilla.” Those movies – along with 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” – are the beginnings of what I’m going to go ahead and call the BAMCU (Big-Ass Monster Cinematic Universe). This latest installment is the one where the multi-film world-building begins in earnest, the one that strives to develop the connective tissue necessary to tie these blockbusters together.

But while “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” offers up a fair amount of monster-on-monster action and updated versions of some classic Toho creatures, it can’t quite deliver on the connectivity side of things. Balancing the stakes – skyscraper-sized reptiles shooting lasers at each other versus human beings trying to save both their families and the world – was always going to be a tricky task … and it’s a task that director Michael Dougherty and his team never quite manage.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 29 May 2019 11:47

A ho-hum new world – ‘Aladdin’

We can all agree that Disney more or less rules the cinematic landscape at this point, yes? We don’t have to like it, but there’s no denying the company’s omnipresence on our screens. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars movies have definitely filled the coffers to overflowing, but those films are far from the only moneymakers in Big Mouse’s stable.

Another high-impact trend for Disney is the onslaught of live-action remakes of their beloved animated films. They’ve been having success with that formula for a few years now, but 2019 sees them really pushing the envelope.

The latest is “Aladdin,” a remake of the beloved 1992 animated film. It’s perhaps the boldest maneuver yet, considering the iconic nature of both the movie as a whole and of the performance by Robin Williams as the Genie in particular. Basically, we’re left to wonder why (hint: the answer is money – it’s always about the money).

This new film – directed by Guy Ritchie (I’m as surprised as you are) and featuring Will Smith assuming the bright blue mantle of geniedom – had the look of an utter disaster early on. And while it turned out to be considerably better than that, it only succeeded in being … OK. Not terrible. Not great. Just OK. And that bland meh-ness is maybe the worst place it could have landed; we’re left with a movie that is almost defined by how unnecessary it feels.

(Of course, it also did nine figures at the box office opening weekend, so what do I know?)

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 29 May 2019 11:44

Bad (Super)boy – ‘Brightburn’

Sometimes, it takes a while for me to warm up to the idea of a film. I’ll hear about it, maybe see a trailer or two, and then experience a gradual build in interest. Other times, all I need is one sentence.

A sentence like “It’s Superman’s origin story, only if he was evil.”

That’s the single-sentence synopsis of “Brightburn,” a super-horror movie directed by David Yarovesky from a script by brothers Brian and Mark Gunn (their other, more famous brother James – no stranger to superheroes – produced the film). It’s a far darker exploration of the superhero mythos than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in recent years, a bleaker (and better-executed) take than even Zack Snyder’s generally-reviled take on the DCEU.

By introducing elements such as body horror and moral corruption into the usually-sanitized realm of the superhero, “Brightburn” offers a very different – and often unsettling – look at the spandex-clad world-savers that have dominated the box office over the past decade.

Published in Movies

I’m an unabashed fan of teen comedies. From John Hughes on down, I have always loved stories of teenagers doing teenager stuff. I particularly love coming-of-age stories, whether they’re emotionally grounded stories of tentative steps into adulthood or broad “last night before graduation” raunchfests.

When I initially learned about the new film “Booksmart,” I got the impression it would be the latter. And it is – but it’s also the former. It is heartfelt and thoughtful in ways that will ring true to anyone who is (or ever was) a teenager, capturing the challenges faced by a certain kind of student as they prepare to move forward from high school. But it is ALSO a foul-mouthed and unapologetically weird comedy, packed with high-minded jokes and lowbrow gags alike.

Seriously – however good you think this movie is, it’s almost certainly better.

Published in Movies

Creating a cinematic franchise from scratch is HARD. If it wasn’t, studios wouldn’t be falling all over themselves in an effort to find preexisting intellectual properties to convert to the big screen.

And yet, that’s precisely what has happened with the “John Wick” series, which just saw its third installment – “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” – hit movie theaters nationwide. With this latest offering, the biggest and brashest of the series thus far, star Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stehelski have ensured that the creep of sequel fatigue will have to wait once again.

This new film embraces everything that made the two previous films such a success; the intricate, intimate fight scenes, the sweeping action set pieces, the meticulously constructed mythology, the kinetic hyperstylized aesthetic – it’s all here. And while it’s all much, MUCH bigger, it all scales up comfortably; the smaller moments aren’t lost. If anything, they’re accentuated even more by their massive surroundings.

In short, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” kicks ass in every way you expect … and a few that you don’t.

Published in Movies

Full disclosure: I love dogs. Love love LOVE dogs. I love the teeny tiny puppers and the big thick doggos and all the adorable floofs out there.

Being the font of canine adoration that I am, it’s clear that I fit squarely into the target demographic of “A Dog’s Journey,” the sequel to 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose.” It’s the story of one good boy’s spirit as he lives multiple lives, all of them focused on doing right by the one he is sworn to watch over – a duty whose subject changes in this sequel.

(It’s worth noting that while there’s no in-movie connection between these two movies and “A Dog’s Way Home” from earlier this year, all three films are based on novels by the writer W. Bruce Cameron, so don’t be shocked by tonal or thematic similarities.)

It’s a chance to follow one dog’s devoted spirit seek endlessly to track down the person that they are meant to protect, no matter what. It isn’t always easy, but a good dog will do whatever it takes. And since they’re ALL good dogs, well … they’re going to make it happen.

Published in Movies

One of the realities of growing older is accepting the fact that pop culture is no longer aimed at you. To paraphrase the proto-creepster philosopher David Wooderson, we keep getting older, but the target demographic of the zeitgeist stays the same age.

It’s less noticeable at the movies, for the most part – the massive monocultural events shooting for four-quadrant appeal don’t much care how old I am – but there are still moments that remind me of the gaps in my pop cultural history.

This brings us to “Pokémon Detective Pikachu.” I will be the first to admit that I have only a passing familiarity with the world of Pokémon, mostly through younger relatives and a brief dalliance with the AR game “Pokémon Go” a couple of years back. How would I review a movie built so thoroughly on preexisting characters and contexts? A story steeped in decades of intricate mythology and scores of previous incarnations?

Pretty easily, as it turns out.

I had a legitimately good time watching “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” despite my rudimentary understanding of the Pokémon phenomenon as a whole. Yes, I was definitely lost with regards to a lot of the specifics – my fellow audience members laughed and cheered for reasons that I didn’t fully understand – but in the general sense, it was still a lot of fun. It’s a family-friendly adventure film with solid performances, a few strong action sequences and a shockingly good aesthetic (the overlay of CGI onto live-action was seriously some of the best I’ve seen).

Published in Movies
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