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The great internet arbiter Judge John Hodgman has a saying: “Nostalgia is a toxic impulse.” While I don’t necessarily fully agree with that sentiment – I think there can be real value in reengaging with aspects of our past that we remember fondly – I also acknowledge that the tendency to get lost in our own personal pop culture ephemera-strewn memory palaces can result in some dark turns.

All this is to say that while I understand why “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was made and the thoughts and desires that led to that outcome, enabling the nostalgic impulse without any critical regard to the reasons behind the memory can result in something hollow and ultimately unsatisfactory.

As a late Gen-Xer, I’m a hair too old to have the same fondness for 1996’s “Space Jam” that many millennials carry. However, I do still carry a soft spot for the film – I mean, Michael Jordan, the Looney Tunes and a pre-folk hero Bill Murray? What’s not to like?

That said, the sequel – this one starring LeBron James – fails to achieve even the modicum of loose charm that surrounded the original, exchanging the winking self-awareness and quirkiness of the original for a seemingly unending cavalcade of product placement and self-celebratory IP exploitation.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (who replaced original director Terrence Nance a few weeks into filming) from a screenplay with no less than six credited writers, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is the unfortunate result when you attempt to recreate something whose appeal you don’t fully understand; there’s a goofball kitschiness to the original film that is lost here, the lunacy (sorry – “Loon-acy”) replaced by an overstuffed commitment to the idea that instead of using references to make jokes, the jokes ARE the references.

Published in Sports

There’s something almost sad about watching a film’s ending set the table for a sequel that – if what you’ve just watched is any indication – almost certainly won’t wind up happening. You’ve sat through the 100ish minutes and are left to sympathize with the sure-to-be-dashed sequel dreams of the filmmakers before ultimately walking away and promptly forgetting about it.

However, “almost certainly” is not “certainly.” Know how I know? Because “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” exists.

This sequel was transparently set up by the ending of 2019’s “Escape Room” (to the ultimate detriment of that film, to be honest); while the first installment didn’t really earn this continuation via quality, it was relatively successful at the box office – and money talks.

Director Adam Robitel is back for round two, as are a couple of the first film’s stars. But really, they could have simply brought everybody back and taken another go, because it’s largely more of the same.

An unnecessary sequel – fine. I get the desire to return to that well. However, if you’re going to make a sequel to a movie that itself was underwhelming, perhaps the right move is to make that sequel … better? Or at least different? Instead, this is basically a rehash; they’ve turned the dial up a little, but otherwise, it’s more of the same.

Published in Movies

The past couple of months have seen a slow and uneven return to movie theaters. Films that were delayed or otherwise impacted by the pandemic are gradually returning, filling the country’s big screens with the outsized sequels and franchise fare that many have spent the past year-plus anticipating.

We watched a battle of the monsters when King Kong fought Godzilla. We held our breaths as Emily Blunt took on alien invaders in near-silence. Chris Rock was in a “Saw” movie and Emma Stone gave us a Cruella de Vil origin story. We even got to see Vin Diesel get faster and furiouser than ever alongside his franchise family and a smattering of movie stars. But even with all that, it was hard to say that the moviegoing experience was truly, fully back … until now.

That’s right - the MCU is on the big screen, baby!

“Black Widow,” the ostensible first installment in the MCU’s Phase Four, has landed, both in theaters and via premium access on Disney+. Directed by Cate Shortland from Eric Pearson’s screenplay, the film centers on the titular Black Widow and her doings during the period between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”

It’s an interesting choice, taking a leap back chronologically with the leadoff film of the newest phase. And some of the narrative wind has been knocked from its sails due to the pandemic delays – Marvel’s three MCU-connected TV shows were supposed to follow this film; instead, they came first. Those looking for big advances to the overarching MCU narrative will likely come away slightly disappointed; the nature of this film means that major revelations are unlikely. However, when judged on its own merits, “Black Widow” is solid action-adventure; not top-tier Marvel, but far from the worst.

Published in Movies

For two decades, Anthony Bourdain was an icon. From the publication of his 1999 best-selling memoir “Kitchen Confidential” through his evolution to culinary and cultural adventurer in his television work, Bourdain brought a combination of passion, intelligence and no-bulls—t attitude to the zeitgeist. He was coarse and foul-mouthed and utterly fascinated by the world around him, capturing what he experienced with a punk rock intimacy unlike anything we’d seen before.

When he took his own life in 2018 – on location in France to film, no less – people from all over the globe mourned the loss, even as many of them were left both shocked and somehow unsurprised that this was how the end of his story played out.

Morgan Neville’s new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain” is an effort to delve deep into the mystique of the complicated figure that was Anthony Bourdain. Through a tight and thorough assemblage of archival footage and interviews, Neville finds a way in, presenting a sort of outsider’s introspection, a look within a man who was often moving far too fast to look within himself.

Through moments poignant, darkly funny and occasionally both, Neville puts together a portrait of a man whose combination of pop cultural wit and charismatic presence turned him into a star, even as he fought against the more shadowy impulses that drove him to reach the pinnacle, and perhaps ultimately, to his tragic demise.

Published in Adventure

So we’ve passed the halfway point in 2021. Movie theaters have opened back up and the blockbuster summer movies we’ve come to expect are finally making their way to the big screen, many after a delay of a year or more. Seemingly every weekend, we’re looking at a new big-budget extravaganza coming to a theater near you.

But what about the movies we’ve already seen this year?

As a rule, I don’t do midyear looks back, but considering the bifurcated nature of the movie year, it makes sense to take a quick peek at what we saw before the dividing line as opposed to after.

Let me be clear – these are not necessarily the movies I would consider the BEST (though plenty would cross over to that list), but rather my favorites. I’d wager that there are a couple on here that wouldn’t make any of the lists currently making the rounds, actually. Some of these just arrived on the scene, others are from way back in January. But hey – that’s part of the fun.

I should also note that there are a number of big-time films that I saw in 2021, but that received releases in 2020, that I decided not to include. This means that shiny award contenders and winners like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Minari” and Best Picture winner “Nomadland” are not here. Without that caveat, they would top my list.

So here we are. Check out my favorite films of 2021 so far – some good ones, a couple of great ones and one or two that are just plain weird.

(Films presented in alphabetical order)

Published in Cover Story

Remember when Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement?

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t, if for no other reason than the fact that he never actually, you know, stopped making stuff. He said 2013’s “Side Effects” would be his last, but he almost immediately helmed a number of TV projects along with directing Off-Broadway and some fascinating recuts on his website.

Since returning to feature filmmaking with 2017’s “Logan Lucky,” Soderbergh has spent the past few years cementing his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most progressive and experimental mainstream filmmakers. He’s been unafraid to try different methods of filming (such as making 2018’s “Unsane” entirely on an iPhone) and distribution models (self-distribution and fully embracing streaming services).

That tradition continues with his latest, the period heist/caper movie “No Sudden Move,” currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s a convoluted thriller featuring a typically dynamite Soderbergh ensemble cast, all of it presented through the skewed lens of the director’s unique perspective. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its own narrative complexity, the film largely holds up thanks to the considerable talents of those both behind and in front of the camera.

Published in Movies

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a music guy. For whatever reason, music had never resonated with me in the way it did so many of my otherwise like-minded peers. It wasn’t my thing. But sometimes, I’d experience something that would give me a clearer sense of that passion.

Maybe it was a song I heard at a party or at a bar. Maybe I was sitting in a theater – movie or stage. Maybe it was someone feverishly proselytizing about a band they loved that I’d never heard of. Maybe someone showed me “Stop Making Sense.” Maybe it was as simple as: “You need to hear this.”

I always cherish those moments when I have them, the gooseflesh-raising instances when music gets inside me.

“Summer of Soul” was one of those moments.

Published in Style

You can turn just about anything into a movie.

Books and plays, sure. But also songs and TV shows and comic books. Cartoons and toys. Folk tales and urban legends. All of these things have been given the cinematic treatment over the years. Adaptation to the screen is a huge part of the movie business.

But can a Twitter thread become a movie? It can if it achieves enough viral notoriety that it becomes known as simply #TheStory.

That’s what we get with “Zola,” a film inspired by a legendary 148-tweet thread posted in 2015 by a Detroit waitress and exotic dancer named A’Ziah “Zola” King and the David Kushner story for Rolling Stone that followed. Adapted to the screen by Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo, who also directed the film, it’s a surreal and darkly comic road trip to the heart of American darkness. You know – Florida.

It is a bleak and hilarious story, one whose based-in-reality bona fides strain credulity – in a good way. There’s an intensity to the tale, charged as it is with various flavors of cultural and societal mores being prodded, bent and broken. Again, we’re talking about a film – a story – that is inherently and utterly bizarre, yet wildly compelling, a fascinating glimpse of a world many of us have never experienced for ourselves.

Published in Style

Creating compelling science fiction isn’t easy. At its heart, it’s a genre of ideas – the best sci-fi is that which finds ways to explore those ideas through the building of interesting worlds and populating those worlds with engaging characters. That’s when sci-fi is most successful.

However, it can be very easy to get caught up in the trappings of the genre; too many filmmakers choose to repurpose that which has already been successful, assuming that these pieces can be reassembled into something new.

And often, when they do that, the end result is something like “The Tomorrow War,” a film that is new, yes, but feels all too familiar.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, the film – directed by Chris McKay from a script by Zach Dean – wraps itself in all-too-familiar tropes, feeling at times almost like a pastiche of influences from other, better sci-fi movies. Every piece of it is something that you’ve seen somewhere else before, and while sci-fi is a genre driven by seminal works of the past, you still need to bring something new to the table … and this movie doesn’t.

That’s not to say that the movie has nothing to offer – there are certainly moments – but ultimately, it’s kind of a tonal mess, one that unevenly stitches together its disparate inspirations while also largely squandering a decidedly talented cast.

Published in Movies

One of the tricky aspects of being a movie critic is finding the balance between one’s personal (and idiosyncratic) tastes and a broader sensibility. You have to find that sweet spot where you’re addressing the work through your own personal lens while also acknowledging that lens’s subjectivity. You must recognize your own positive and negative biases as you judge the film on its merits.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I’m not entirely sure how to review the new Netflix animated film “America: The Motion Picture.”

The film – directed by Matt Thompson, written by Dave Callaham and produced by, among others, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – is a reimagining of the American revolution by way of wave after wave of anachronisms and alternate history, all steeped in adult-oriented juvenile humor. It’s an effort to parody and mock a certain kind of jingoistic action fare even as it follows much the same blueprint.

Not a successful effort, mind you. But an effort.

This is a ridiculous movie, one that readily crosses the line into abject stupidity throughout. It’s the kind of film that wears its idiocy as a badge of honor, proudly pandering to the lowest common denominator with gross-out gags, sexual innuendo and dopey one-liners. Whatever relatively high-minded ideas the filmmakers may have had are quickly buried in a seemingly unending avalanche of curse word-laden scatological juvenilia.

Here’s the thing, though: I enjoyed it. I don’t feel great about the fact that I enjoyed it. And my enjoyment is separate from the relative quality of the film, which again, has a lot of problems and will likely prove off-putting to many.

Published in Movies
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