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Wednesday, 02 September 2020 16:01

Time is (not) on my side – ‘Tenet’

Christopher Nolan has clout. And he’s unafraid to use it.

It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about Nolan’s position as the last bastion of original idea-driven blockbuster filmmaking. Yes, the cinematic landscape is defined by the ebb and flow of franchises now. Hell, Nolan understands that better than anyone – he did his franchise turn with Batman, after all, though those films are obviously superhero outliers. But he’s the guy who can get a nine-figure check to direct his own non-IP script.

He’s at it again with “Tenet,” currently in theaters. I’ll be real with you – I’m not at all sure how to talk about this movie to people who haven’t already seen it. But hey, that’s the gig, right?

There’s obviously a lot of baggage here. Nolan’s insistence that the film be experienced in a theater turned it into a bellwether, leaving it to assume the burden of expectation with regard to theatrical reopenings writ large. That pressure can’t help but inform the way audiences experience the film. Add to that the outsized expectations that always accompany the filmmaker’s work and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment.

Thankfully, Nolan’s skill is such that he largely manages to sidestep that potential letdown. “Tenet” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is the sort of meticulously-constructed blockbuster that we’ve come to expect from the director. It is massive in scope, a challenging puzzle box of a film that works both as pure spectacle and as something a bit more thoughtful. The complexities of the plot skate right up to the edge of confusion, but anyone sitting down to watch a Nolan movie should probably expect some sort of chronological convolution.

And boy, do we ever get some of that.

Published in Movies

One of the many things that we lost to the pandemic this year was the 2020 Olympic Games. Set to take place in Tokyo this summer, the event has been moved to 2021. It’s easy to forget, however, that losing the Olympics means losing more than just those Games.

Specifically, we also are deprived of the Paralympic Games, an event that is not only a way to celebrate differently-abled athletes on the global stage, but is actually the third-largest sporting event in the world.

“Rising Phoenix,” a documentary by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui currently streaming on Netflix, is an in-depth look at the Paralympic Games through the eyes of its organizers and its competitors. It is a heartfelt and inspirational journey through the history of the Games, both in terms of how it came to be and what it means to those who participate.

Watching the best in the world do what they do is always compelling. Compounding that excellence with the remarkable fortitude that comes with overcoming additional hurdles to reach that apex is exponentially more so. This is a remarkable portrait of some remarkable athletes, a film that celebrates the multitude of ways in which someone can excel in the world of sport.

It should also be noted that “Rising Phoenix” is an absolutely stunning film to look at. These athletes are presented in ways that reflect their outsized talent and determination, with images reminiscent of superhero origin stories or renderings that recall statuary representing Greek gods. This bold aesthetic, matched with incredible footage of both competition and training, allows these athletes and their accomplishments the larger-than-life appearance that they warrant.

Published in Sports
Monday, 31 August 2020 13:55

‘The Binge’ is not worthy

Sometimes, genre mixing works beautifully in movies. Bringing together seeming disparate influences to create something new can be exciting as well as entertaining. In the right hands and with the right ideas, such mashups can prove to be real winners. But when those efforts go awry, you’re often left with misfires that are significantly less than the sum of their genre parts.

Basically, you’re left with movies like “The Binge.”

This weird mélange of raunchy teen comedy and “The Purge” is currently streaming on Hulu. Directed by Jeremy Garelick from a screenplay by Jordan VanDina, “The Binge” is an at-times pantingly obvious effort to riff on the latter using the trappings of the former. Unfortunately, the pieces never quite fit together properly – the film is neither funny enough nor Purge-y enough to effectively land.

It’s unfortunate, really. It’s relatively easy to see some potential in the foundational concepts here, but the filmmakers never manage to realize that potential. There are a handful of amusing moments, though those are born more of incredulity than genuine humor. Ultimately, it’s a disposable entry into the “best night ever” subgenre of teen comedy that will almost immediately be remanded to the dustbin, a forgettable shoulder-shrug of a film.

Published in Buzz

For many people, some of their most beloved memories are of amusement parks and the rides available there. Whether we’re talking about Disney World or the local carnival or anything in between, there’s a joy that comes from the combination of fun and fear that springs from a well-made ride.

But if the ride ISN’T well-made? Well, that’s where legends are born.

“Class Action Park,” a documentary by Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges currently streaming on HBO Max, tells the story of Action Park, a notoriously wild and unsafe amusement park that operated in New Jersey from the late 1970s into the mid-90s. The film explores the park’s origins and the unsupervised dangers that turned it into both THE summer destination for New Jersey teens and the subject of numerous lawsuits for injuries and even death.

Combining (frankly terrifying) archival footage with interviews with those who worked at and/or enjoyed Action Park during its heyday, the film – narrated by John Hodgman – paints a vivid and occasionally shocking portrait of what happens when you allow hordes of teenagers to run rampant on a collection of poorly-engineered rides with inexperienced employees and zero accountability.

Published in Adventure

One of the many unfortunate side effects of 21st century cinema’s affinity for franchises is the occasional appearance of the years-later sequel. These movies continue stories on which the book had closed a decade or more in the past. They are almost always bad ideas across the board, woeful misfires that fail to capture or even understand what made their predecessors so beloved in the first place.

Note that I said “almost always,” because it is possible for one of these films to actually prove to be a worthwhile continuation, a new chapter that both expands upon and embraces the legacy of the movie or movies that came before.

“Bill & Ted Face the Music” is just such a chapter. Reuniting Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as the titular duo, the film captures the essence of what made these characters resonate 30 years ago while also allowing them to tell a different kind of story, a story of adulthood and the pressures of expectations and the challenges that come in a life that lacks balance … even as they remain in many ways the same amiably goofy dudes that they’ve always been.

It’s also a story of family and what it means to live up to a legacy, of how the next generation’s ideas about the world are impacted by those who came before, but not always bound by them. It’s about the frustration of having a path dictated for you and the disappointment when it proves too difficult to properly follow. It is weird and hilarious and moving, sweetly and unapologetically strange.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 23 August 2020 20:18

Power to truth – ‘Tesla’

When we hear a movie described as a biopic, we have a general idea of what that means. Sure, the actual timeframe covered varies – some do snapshots, others go full cradle-to-grave – but the beats that are hit along the way rarely do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s the story of a real person, so a degree of structural familiarity makes sense.

However, sometimes you get a biopic that is not at all what you’re expecting. A biopic like “Tesla.”

The film, written and directed by Michael Almereyda, is a biopic in the sense that it tells the story of famed inventor Nikola Tesla – played by Ethan Hawke – from his early days working for Thomas Edison through his time of up-and-down prominence in the overlapping worlds of science and industry. We see the high points and the low as he seeks to make his mark on the world.

Stylistically, however, it is something altogether different. Whether it’s a motif of stage-like projected backdrops or moments of striking anachronism or a meta sense of razor-sharp self-awareness or any of a handful of aesthetic choices, “Tesla” doesn’t look or feel quite like any biopic you’ve ever seen. And with a narrative structure offering its own sense of fracture, the film is as weird and watchable as it is unexpected.

Published in Tekk

Full disclosure: I dig talking animal movies. Always have. Do I recognize that these movies are often not good? Reader, I do. And I don’t care. Give me animals relating their thoughts and I will almost certainly watch.

“The One and Only Ivan,” the new film currently streaming on Disney+, is actually one of the better examples of the genre I’ve seen recently. The field has largely been crowded with dogs feeling feelings (a subgenre I particularly dig), so it was nice to watch a different animal having feelings – namely the titular Ivan, a silverback gorilla.

Based on the 2013 children’s novel of the same name, this story is a charming and occasionally dark story of a small-time animal circus based in a mall. It’s a story about the value of friendship, the importance of self-expression and what it means to be free. It’s also a bunch of CGI animals talking to each other (though not to the humans) and engaging in friendly banter while coming to terms with what it is that they really want – and what they might be willing to do to get it.

Published in Movies

If you’re looking to make a kid-friendly action movie, you’re limited in many ways. Ultimately, this means that there are only a handful of basic ideas that are feasible. Filmmakers take one of these concepts, slap some cosmetic changes onto it and call it a movie.

One of the go-tos for kiddie action is “Parents have a secret and kids are the only ones who can save them.” We’ve seen it a million times.

Better make it a million and one.

“The Sleepover,” a new original movie from Netflix currently streaming on the service, is the latest to throw a coat of paint and a few accessories onto that baseline idea and let her rip. Now, there’s a certain base level of competence that comes with Netflix films, so this film’s floor is pretty high. Unfortunately, it’s rare that the company’s originals far exceed that base level, so the ceiling is fairly low.

And so we get “The Sleepover,” a reasonably-executed and largely soulless collection of dopey kid jokes and slightly-off adult banter featuring a couple of decent action sequences. The story is thin and the film features a couple of actors you recognize giving inoffensive performances; basically, it’s the exact kind of disposable cinema we largely expect from Netflix.

Published in Movies

For over 80 years, the American Legion has been the driving force behind Boys State, a nationwide program aimed at helping high school students gain a greater understanding of the political process. Annually, teenagers descend on college campuses in every state of the union, where they have a hand in creating their own governmental system over the course of a week, with campaigns and elected officials and the whole nine yards.

The documentary “Boys State,” directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, is currently available for streaming in Apple TV+. The film premiered at Sundance, where it won the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize. It’s a look at the 2018 edition of Texas Boys State, following a handful of young men as they make their way through the weeklong process. We meet boys from different walks of life, with different ideologies and inclinations, as they navigate the vagaries of Boys State.

It is one of the most compelling pieces of documentary filmmaking we’ve seen in some time. The portrait that it paints is of a group of young people who are reflections of the greater political climate that surrounds them. It is a movie that moves from sweet inspirational moments to unexpected gut punches, illustrative of the wildly swinging political pendulum in which these kids have spent their entire lives. The juxtaposition of innocent optimism and surprising cynicism makes for compelling watching; you can’t tear your eyes away from these kids, regardless of where you may fall on the ideological spectrum.

Published in Livin'

Everyone knows that superhero movies are big business these days. The MCU and DCEU have both proven to be massive moneymakers, bringing in billions of dollars for the studios. What we sometimes forget, however, is that these films are being built on a foundation of source material that runs decades deep. That depth provides a wealth of ready-made narrative and loads of context.

As you might imagine, these means that creating movies based on more limited or obscure source material can result in varying degrees of success. And when you start talking about wholly original ideas, with no IP serving to shore them up structurally, well – you’ve got a task ahead of you.

Netflix has offered up just such an idea with their new movie “Project Power.” Specifically – what if there was a pill you could take that would give you superpowers for five minutes? But there’s a catch: you won’t know what your power will be until you take the pill … and there’s a chance you might just explode.

“Project Power” is a big-budget action-adventure that, while liberally borrowing from other sources, still manages to be more or less its own thing. Sure, it’s a touch derivative in spots, but it also has a couple of top-tier talents heading the call list (Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an up-and-coming directing team at the helm (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman). It’s not a wheel reinvention; this movie hits the beats we’ve come to expect from superhero cinema and does so in a familiar way. However, there’s just enough different here to make things interesting not just for the average viewer, but for the hardcore Marvel and DC stans as well.

Published in Movies
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