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We might have passed the point of no return regarding superhero cinema.

Yes, there are plenty of folks who would argue that we long ago reached cultural saturation when it comes to superhero movies. But in the aftermath of the Snyder Cut and with multiple MCU offerings on the immediate horizon – plus the wide swath of recent and forthcoming streaming series drawing from superpowered source material both well-known and obscure – well … it’s a lot, not all of it good.

And this is coming from someone who LOVES this stuff.

Netflix’s latest foray into the realm of the superheroic is “Thunder Force,” a new film written and directed by Ben Falcone and starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer. It’s an effort to play the tropes for laughs and have some fun with the foibles inherent to the genre, relying heavily on the talents of its cast to carry the day.

It doesn’t quite work out the way they might have hoped.

What so many of these filmmakers forget is that while spectacle is at the forefront with superhero films, the story still matters. Without an engaging narrative, all we’re left with is a bunch of CGI nonsense that is difficult to invest in. And no matter how hard the actors try, they can’t salvage what ultimately becomes an effort to turn 45 minutes of story into 100-plus minutes of movie.

Published in Movies
Monday, 05 April 2021 15:07

Saddle up with ‘Concrete Cowboy’

One of the great things about the world in which we live is that there’s room for all manner of interests and identities. No matter how niche and/or unlikely the pursuit, there will be others who share feelings about it.

These subcultures sometime surface in mainstream awareness, but others simply go on, whirring along beneath the zeitgeist for decades. And again, no matter how incongruous and unlikely they may sound, they are very real and very important to those whose passions they reflect.

“Concrete Cowboy,” the new Netflix film directed by Ricky Staub, is the story of one such subculture. Adapted by Staub and Dan Walser from Greg Neri’s 2011 novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” it’s the story of a multigenerational group of horse enthusiasts operating out of inner-city Philadelphia. Through their connection to horses, these people find what they need.

(It’s worth noting that several supporting roles are played by real-life members of Fletcher Street Stables, the group upon whom Neri’s novel was largely based.)

It’s also the story of a young man who is thrust into the midst of this world, left to contextualize it alongside his own sphere of understanding, introduced into it all by the father who is all but a stranger to him. But even with influences tugging from all sides, he is the one who ultimately must make the decision about the man he wants to become.

Published in Movies

Sometimes, you just know it’s going to be bad.

You settle in and start watching and within a scant few minutes, you’re made painfully aware that the next hour-and-a-half is not going to be the good time that you expected it to be. You might say that, instead, you’re going to have a bad trip.

Or a “Bad Trip,” as it were.

That’s the title of a new Netflix movie starring Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish. It’s a feature-length distillation of the weirdo cringe comedy ethos of Andre, directed by the comedian’s longtime collaborator Kitao Sakurai. Basically, it’s a collection of hidden camera stunts and pranks stitched together through a bare-bones narrative.

It’s … not great.

I’ll concede the very real possibility that this movie simply isn’t for me, that this brand of aggressive absurdism doesn’t push my humor buttons. That being said, “Bad Trip” is less a movie than a deluge of self-harm and personal space invasion that occasionally features some not-particularly good dialogue. Did I laugh? A couple of times, sure, but nearly enough to justify the time spent watching something that, when boiled down, is simply a few comedians dicking around.

Published in Movies

A huge part of being a parent boils down to one simple word: “No.”

Raising children to be functional members of society requires that the adults responsible for their well-being make clear the simple reality that we can’t always get what we want. It’s the way the world works, like it or not … and many kids lean hard toward the “not” in that equation.

This isn’t because parents and guardians LIKE saying no. The truth is that their lives would likely be easier in the short term if they eschewed the word more often, but it is the long term with which they must concern themselves. Like it or not, “no” is a part of parenting.

But what if, for just one day, it wasn’t?

That’s the central premise of “Yes Day,” a Netflix family film based on the children’s book of the same name by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. Directed by Miguel Arteta, it’s the story of one family’s adventure that takes place when the parents decide to embrace a recent parenting trend involving a single day in which they must say yes to their kids.

It’s a charming, albeit slight film; an agreeable enough hour-and-a-half that likely won’t stay with you after the credits roll. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a kids’ movie that leans into the sensibility of its target demographic. There are some fun moments and a few laughs and a lesson or two ostensibly learned, resulting in an inoffensive family-friendly offering that will go down smoothly.

Published in Movies
Monday, 08 March 2021 15:55

Make mine ‘Moxie’

My affection for coming-of-age stories is well-documented. I love tales of young people coming into their own and discovering themselves, growing up and finding what they’re meant to find.

These stories present their own particular brand of obstacles, however – making a good coming-of-age movie is really hard. Things can easily get bogged down, with nuance eliminated and important feelings trivialized – I love a love story, but coming of age is about far more than a first kiss (though that notion might surprise some filmmakers).

“Moxie,” the new Netflix film directed by Amy Poehler from a screenplay adapted by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer from Jennifer Mathieu’s 2015 novel of the same name, tells the story of a teenaged girl who is inspired to take action against the toxic culture of her high school by the music, writings and activist attitudes of her mother’s own high school experience.

All in all, it’s a decent effort. Shaggy and a little lumpy and perhaps a touch reductive, but it’s got more pros than cons. It’s a good-faith effort to show young women trying to effect change in the world, and while it occasionally gets a little glib or too try-hard (and the third-act wrap-up is a bit much), the filmmakers obviously sought to celebrate that effort.

Published in Movies

At the top, fine art is big business.

One can argue about the ethical, moral and other ramifications that come with putting a price tag on creative work, but regardless of argument, there’s no disputing that the world of high-end art is one that is driven as much by economics as by aesthetics.

And any time there’s that kind of money involved, you can bet that there will bad actors seeking to cash in.

“Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art” is a documentary devoted to relating the tale of the largest known art fraud case in United States history. Over the course of decades, dozens of forged works of art were moved through a famed New York City gallery. These paintings – ostensibly by noted Abstract Expressionists – would be sold to unsuspecting patrons for a total of over $80 million.

Written and directed by Barry Avrich, “Made You Look” – currently streaming on Netflix – walks the viewer through the long-running scam, introducing us to many of the principals along the way, as well as an assortment of experts. He paints a picture (sorry) of the vagaries of the art world, illustrating just what can go wrong when something that seems too good to be true is taken at face value – even if that face is an undeniably beautiful one.

Published in Style

There are few cinematic tightropes that are trickier to walk than dark comedy. While finding humor in the shadows is something that many of us do, representing that humor effectively on screen is extremely hit or miss. When it hits, you get something that is both screamingly funny and weirdly unsettling. When it misses, you just get the latter.

“I Care A Lot” hits.

The film – written and directed by J Blakeson and currently streaming on Netflix – mines a lot of laughs from a decidedly grim foundation. It takes a special kind of commitment to the bit to look at the clearly broken and often unseemly world of professional guardianship and think “Now THAT is hilarious,” but Blakeson and company manage to do it.

It certainly helps that the director has an absolutely peak-of-her-powers Rosamund Pike on which to hang that narrative. The sheer force of her performance brings more than enough fuel to keep this particular fire burning, even as we delve deeper into the unsavory nature of the world in which her character operates.

It’s rare to find a movie in which no one is a good person. It’s even rarer for such a movie to work. And yet, even though there’s no one to root for, the laughs keep coming. Sure, those laughs are born of the more cynical parts of ourselves, but hey – even if you feel bad for laughing, you still laughed.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 10 February 2021 13:01

Forgetting to remember – ‘Malcolm & Marie’

The deluge of pandemic movies is coming. Brace yourselves.

As we sit just shy of a year since the country shut down in the face of COVID-19, we’re starting to see some of the early fruits of cinematic pandemic pivots. These films will in many ways be defined by the circumstances of their origins – separating movies made during this time from this time will be impossible. Now, they aren’t necessarily ABOUT the pandemic, but rather shaped by the situation.

“Malcolm & Marie” is a prime example – an Amazon Prime example – of what these projects might look like. It’s a legitimate two-hander; there are literally two people that we see on screen in the entire movie. It is a legitimate single location shoot; all of the action takes place in and around one house. It is a dialogue-heavy black-and-white relationship drama, one that features two actors on the rapid rise to movie stardom in Zendaya and John David Washington. And all of it came together over the course of a couple of weeks with a twenty-person crew in an effort to keep working following the shutdown of Hollywood operations (including Levinson and Zendaya’s HBO show “Euphoria”).

But while the dense dialogue and vaguely true origins of the story prove compelling, the back-and-forth verbosity slowly starts devolving into a Hollywood-centric Albee riff – think “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” meets “The Player” – that rings false. Now, the barrels of charisma spilling all over the set courtesy of the two leads certainly help mitigate the situation; Washington and Zendaya certainly generate heat. Alas, that heat is somewhat undermined by Levinson’s affinity for speechifying; ultimately, there’s an insincere hollowness to it all – and that CAN’T be solved by presence alone, leaving the actors to their struggle.

Published in Movies

Maintaining a connection to the past is paramount to understanding the present. Knowledge of history allows us to learn from those who came before, and where we come from can often help us get to where we’re going. But just as the past informs the present, so too does the present attempt to define the past.

But the quest for that knowledge isn’t always an easy one. While many seekers will be pure of intent, there will always be those who attempt to profit or self-aggrandize, people made erstwhile gatekeepers through matters of circumstance rather than talent.

“The Dig” – directed by Simon Stone from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, adapted from the John Preston novel of the same name – is a story of history uncovered, a based-on-a-true-story tale of amateur archaeology and passions both overt and opaque that explores the bonds of shared interest and understanding that can help transcend barriers of class.

With a charming sense of understatement, a deliberate pace and some quietly compelling performances, “The Dig” is a low-key delight, a warm blanket of a movie that unhurriedly unspools with a stiff-upper-lipped sweetness. And while there’s not a lot of excitement here, the film manages to engage with its audience just fine.

Published in Movies

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I love unreliable narrators.

When handled well, an unreliable narrator can be one of the most potent storytelling devices there is. The understanding that there may be a degree of deception undertaken by the person telling the tale allows for such a wonderfully wide array of narrative explorations.

We get one such unreliable narrator in “The White Tiger,” directed by Ramin Bahrani from his own adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning 2008 novel of the same name. The film – currently streaming on Netflix – is one man’s story of striving to overcome the circumstances of his birth and the rigidly upheld mores of his culture and achieve the success he believes he deserves.

However, he is the one telling the story, leaving plenty of room on the margins for murkiness regarding the way in which things play out. That’s not to indicate untruth, but rather a flexibility of truth – we get his version of what happened, a version driven by anger at the unfairness of it all and a willingness to be ruthless in pursuit of perceived justice.

It’s a film that features a handful of very strong performances, an engaging aesthetic and some truly gripping writing. While there are a few bumps along the way, this is ultimately a movie that is thoughtful, thrilling and really quite good.

Published in Movies
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