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Monday, 17 August 2020 11:13

‘Magic Camp’ abracada-blah

There was a time that Disney was an absolute dynamo with regard to making family-friendly live-action fare. The 1960s and ‘70s were marked with scores of light, forgettable films aimed at kids, movies that were simple, disposable entertainment.

Once the animation renaissance of the ‘90s hit, those live-action offerings largely vanished. Big Mouse’s annual entry into the cartoon arena proved wildly lucrative, so the studio largely eschewed the sorts of Dean Jones- or young Kurt Russell-led films that they had spent 20-plus years churning out.

In a way, the Disney+ movie “Magic Camp” is something of a throwback to those die-cut assembly line films with a distinct Disney Channel Original Movie flavor profile. It’s got a cast featuring a couple of notable actors and a handful of generally adorable kids in a narrowly focused summer camp setting. It’s a familiar formula revolving around familiar characters; there’s a distinct feeling of boxes being checked throughout.

That said, one imagines that young viewers will find a lot to like about this movie. There’s a good deal of silliness and some simple story arcs involving both kids and adults that will prove accessible. Again, there’s nothing particularly exciting about this movie, but there are worse ways for your child to spend a couple of hours.

Published in Movies

The movie world – much like every other aspect of our lives – was radically altered by the coronavirus pandemic starting in mid-March. Instead of sharing the cinematic experience with our fellow moviegoers, we were watching films from our homes.

But there was still plenty to watch.

While there were a handful of noteworthy movies that hit big screens in the first couple of months of the year – “The Invisible Man,” “Emma,” “The Way Back,” “Onward,” even the surprisingly solid “Bad Boys for Life” – I’ve chosen to focus on films that made their debut via streaming service or video on demand.

(Note: I went back and forth about including “Hamilton” on this list. It’s definitely one of the best things I’ve seen during all of this, but it’s not REALLY a movie. A technicality, sure, but I needed to make some cuts. Anyway, see “Hamilton” on Disney+ if you haven’t or see it again if you have.)

Sure, we haven’t yet seen the year’s scheduled blockbuster offerings (though it looks like that’s going to change in the coming months, at least to some extent), but there have still been some excellent movies to watch. From big-budget action films to indie dramas to powerful documentaries, these selections run the gamut.

And so, here are some of 2020’s best films (so far).

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Published in Cover Story

As the brilliant Scottish poet Robbie Burns once said (apologies for the English paraphrasing), “The best laid plans of mice and men/Go oft awry.” It’s a sentiment that rings true across all avenues – and the movie business is no exception.

For instance, say you had a film. You had three talented actors leading the cast, including an Oscar winner and a couple of legitimate movie stars. You had a rising young director and a screenwriter adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the screen. All of this folded into a period piece with a striking setting. You’d think that it was poised to be a great film, yes?

Alas, in the case of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the sum total falls short. Despite the presence of the brilliant Mark Rylance and bold turns from the likes of Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, despite the presence of director Ciro Guerra, despite J.M Coetzee’s adaptation of his own 2003 novel of the same name, the film can’t scale the heights to which it so clearly aspires.

It’s a story of isolation and empire, a cautionary tale about colonialism that can never fully get out of its own way. There’s no denying the quality of performances or the stunning backdrop against which they are set, but the film simply never generates any kind of momentum, limping along through most of its 114 minutes without ever presenting a sense of dramatic urgency. All the pieces are there for a great film, only they’re assembled into something that is just OK.

Published in Movies

The American immigrant experience has been a subject of some truly great art over the years. Incredible books and films have spring from the exploration of what it means for people to come to this country in pursuit of a better life, as well as what happens in the course of that pursuit.

But to my knowledge, none have ever told that story through the lens of accidental pickle preservation. Until now.

“An American Pickle,” currently streaming on HBO Max, is a comedy that brings the early 20th century immigrant experience into the present day … by dropping someone into a pickle barrel for a hundred years. Yes, it’s as absurd as it sounds, broad and weird and a lot of fun.

Starring Seth Rogen as both a turn-of-the-century immigrant and a modern-day Brooklyn app developer, the film mines big laughs out of its bizarre premise (though it perhaps doesn’t dig as it deep as it could). It’s a twist on the classic fish out of water trope, giving us a look at our current world through the eyes of the past.

Published in Movies
Thursday, 06 August 2020 12:04

Back to school – ‘I Used to Go Here’

As often stated by noted podcast judge and raconteur John Hodgman, nostalgia is a toxic impulse. We’re all guilty of it, the tendency to look back upon our pasts with rose-colored glasses when the present isn’t living up to our expectations. It serves as both distraction and excuse.

And when the opportunity arises for a more direct return, it can go terribly wrong.

So it is with “I Used to Go Here,” a new comedy written and directed by Kris Rey. Starring Gillian Jacobs, it’s a clever, cringe-y look at how the past is rarely as neat as we remember it to be, a chance for one woman to lose herself in a time of wide-eyed optimism about the future and briefly forget about the harsh truths of the now.

It’s also a movie about what it means to fail – in a job or a relationship or any endeavor really – and to come to terms with that failure, as well as a bit of a meditation on the complexity that comes with making a career out of creativity. It is heartfelt and smart and quite funny, and while it does misfire a couple of times, the pros far outstrip the cons.

Published in Movies

Every once in a while, an unanticipated confluence of circumstances results in a piece of art inadvertently becoming representative of a moment in time. That isn’t to say that the book/movie/song isn’t resonant on its own terms, but that outside factors can impact how a work is received.

“She Dies Tomorrow,” written and directed by Amy Seimetz, is just such a work. It’s a visceral and hallucinatory ride through a woman’s inexplicable epiphany regarding her own mortality and how that epiphany transforms everyone that she encounters. It is vivid and raw, a roiling collection of colorful confusion, the kind of movie that would be memorable in any environment.

But in THIS environment – in a world where a raging pandemic has left us isolated and exhausted – this film hits like a sledgehammer. This movie is an exploration of metaphysical contagion, of how fear and paranoia and sadness and fatalism can infect us. It wasn’t made with the current moment in mind, yet it could not be a more apt representation of that moment.

Published in Movies

Every four years, the world watches as its greatest athletes compete on the global stage. Elite performers from all over converge on a single place in an effort to excel in the name of Olympic gold.

But what happens to these athletes after the cheering stops? Is the price paid to reach the pinnacle too high?

That’s the fundamental question behind “The Weight of Gold,” a new documentary from HBO Sports. In it, filmmaker Brett Rapkin speaks to a number of American Olympians – both Summer and Winter – about the toll their respective quests for excellence took on them. Even the most successful among them had their share of struggles … and for too many, the tale took a tragic turn.

The film – narrated by legendary swimmer Michael Phelps (a featured interviewee and an executive producer on the project as well) – brings together new interviews and archival footage to offer a look into the sacrifices these athletes make to reach the top and the aftermath through which they must navigate after the spotlight fades.

Published in Sports

Have you ever solved a Rubik’s Cube? How long did it take you?

If it was more than a few seconds, then you probably aren’t ready for the world of competitive speedcubing. It’s a world filled with idiosyncratic characters, but there’s no disputing that these people are as devoted to perfecting their craft as any other elite performer. Watching cubing at the highest level is genuinely fascinating – their hands are a blur of speed and motion as they solve cubes in mere seconds.

“The Speed Cubers,” a documentary by Sue Kim, takes a look at two of the greatest competitive cubers ever. The Australian Feliks Demgegs, who spent close to 10 years setting records and winning championships, and the young American Max Park, a prodigy who has spent the past few years shattering many of those same records as he rockets to the top of the scene.

It’s about the unlikely friendship that sprang up between the two rivals – a friendship made all the more moving by Max’s special circumstances. While the cubing itself is certainly impressive, the pure humanity on display is even more striking. It’s a short film – just 40 minutes – but no less impactful because of its brevity.

Published in Sports

There are a handful of scientific figures whose names are common knowledge. These are the scientists who have so transcended their disciplines as to become part of the cultural fabric. It’s a short list. And if you want to talk about women on that list, well … there’s really only one, for better or worse.

Marie Curie is the first female scientist that many people ever learn about. For many, she might be the only female scientist they ever learn about. She is an iconic figure, one of just four people to win multiple Nobel Prizes, having won for both physics and chemistry.

It’s no surprise that such an icon would have her story represented on film. The latest attempt to cinematically share the legacy of Marie Curie is “Radioactive,” currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It’s an attempt to reckon with the legacy of Curie’s work, looking back on her life as a scientist while also trying to come to terms with how her discoveries have impacted the world.

It’s a noble effort, but unfortunately, it never quite coalesces. Directed by Marjane Satrapi from a screenplay by Jack Thorne (adapted from Lauren Redniss’s 2010 book of the same name), the film tries a little too hard to be “important.” All the awards season checkboxes are ticked, but the pieces simply don’t fit together in the way that they should. That’s not to imply there’s nothing here – there are some interesting filmmaking choices and Rosamund Pike is exceptional as Curie. It just doesn’t quite achieve the heights to which it transparently aspires, ultimately falling a bit short.

Published in Tekk
Monday, 27 July 2020 16:09

Shared custody – ‘Babysplitters’

Every once in a while, a movie comes along whose single-sentence description essentially dares you to watch it. These are the movies – usually indies – whose concept is so unexpected that you have no choice but to be intrigued.

For instance: Two couples, each of whom are conflicted about having children, decide to team up and have one child that they’ll share between them. Admit it – you are now VERY curious about that movie.

That movie is “Babysplitters,” a comedy written and directed by Sam Friedlander. And yes, it is a movie about two couples, split on the idea of having kids, hatching a plot to have and split a kid between them. It’s an absurd notion, sure, but one treated with a sense of genuine possibility.

On its face, it is ridiculous, but through this ludicrous plan, Friedlander and company give us a glimpse at the complex nature of relationships and what it means to want children. It isn’t always as simple as making the choice; a married couple can be possessed of two very different ideas about childrearing. Some people are more ready than others – and some people are willing to do just about anything to have a shot at parenthood.

Published in Movies
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