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Wednesday, 10 August 2022 14:31

‘Invisible Things’ demands a look

Genre fiction has long been a playground for writers who want to explore complex ideas. Science fiction in particular has proven fertile for authors who seek to dig into societal and ideological norms – it’s a hell of a lot easier to address nuanced concepts when you’re operating from within this kind of fictional framework. Now, that’s not always the case – sometimes a story is basically just a story – but when it works, you can wind up with a tale of the future that offers one hell of a commentary on the present.

That’s what Mat Johnson has given us with his new book “Invisible Things” (One World, $27). Johnson embraces certain sci-fi tropes – future tech, aliens, etc. – and uses them to take a hard look at the fundamentals of human nature, as well as the societal constructs that were built so long ago as to be utterly ingrained – isms that are baked in to the point of disappearing into the firmament while remaining omnipresent.

It's a story about how people, no matter how their circumstances may be altered, will too often default to previous beliefs and behaviors. Even when offered an opportunity of complete reinvention, they cling to what they knew before. All this, by the way, contextualized by a domed city located on one of Jupiter’s moons.

Published in Style
Monday, 07 March 2022 15:46

Meat-cute – ‘Fresh’

Just like everything else, the internet has fundamentally altered the dating world. With a multitude of dating apps out there, places where you can explore just about whatever romantic niche you’d like, the possibility of discovering someone new is high. But when it comes to making and maintaining a meaningful connection, well … that possibility is considerably lower.

All in all, it can be a real meat market out there, a metaphor taken to a grisly extreme in the new film “Fresh,” currently streaming on Hulu.

Directed by Mimi Cave from a script by Lauryn Kahn, “Fresh” is a dark satire of modern-day dating marked by a bloodily over-the-top premise (that I’m going to try hard not to spoil). It is a visceral and surprising film, one that takes great pleasure in subverting your expectations at multiple turns and punching up at a few worthwhile societal targets. Smart and sharp-witted, it’s a movie that really gives you something you can chew on.

Published in Movies

You might not think that the end of the world is an appropriate backdrop for comedy, but fear not – Adam McKay has you covered.

Sure, an impending apocalypse SHOULDN’T be funny, but in the right hands, it certainly can be, and McKay has those hands, along with a willingness to embrace cultural divides and darkness in the name of plausibly bleak satiric observation.

McKay’s latest is “Don’t Look Up,” an at-times pitch-black comedy about what happens when the end of the world is coming and no one can seem to agree on what – if anything – we should do about it. The film has the same sort of sharp edges that we’ve seen in McKay’s more recent output and his fingerprints are all over it – he’s directing his own screenplay here. It also features a frankly incredible cast, an ensemble jam packed with Oscar winners and Hollywood icons; you don’t often see a bench this deep.

It is wildly funny – darkly so, but funny nevertheless – while also being deeply, bleakly plausible. It is a condemnation of current cultural discourse, a scathing takedown of American attitudes that is relentless in its disdain. It is a relevant and resonant reflection of where we are and where we could be going, delivered in a manner that elicits laughter even as it unsettles.

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
Friday, 19 March 2021 11:34

One leg at a time – ‘Slaxx’

Sometimes, you just know. You read a brief description and are instantly certain that, come what may, you will 100% be seeing that movie. A handful of words gives you all the motivation you require to check it out. Maybe you check out the trailer, but you already know – this movie is for you.

Take “Slaxx,” directed by Canadian filmmaker Elza Kephart and co-written by Kephart and Patricia Gomez and currently available to stream on Shudder. All it took for me to know, deep within my heart, was one descriptive sentence:

“A possessed pair of jeans is brought to life to punish the unscrupulous practices of a trendy clothing company.”

Boom. I’m in. Just like that. Give it to me.

Of course, just because the film has the sort of weirdo high-concept premise that hits me where I live doesn’t mean that it’s actually going to be, you know … good.

But that’s the thing: “Slaxx” IS good. Really good, in fact – the sort of movie that knows precisely what it is, crafted by filmmakers who understand how to maximize relatively limited resources to accomplish their goals. It is a smart, slyly subversive film, one that revels in the fundamental absurdity of its premise while also treating it with face-value seriousness. That blend of attitudes gives you a movie that is campy and gory and ridiculous and hilarious, rendered all the more effective by resisting the temptation to wink; the filmmakers trust the audience to get it in all its over-the-top lunacy.

Published in Movies

It’s always interesting when a years-later sequel pops up. The results have certainly been mixed, with the unqualified success rate for these sorts of projects being fairly low. We’ve seen some that had some moments, but for the most part, dusting off old films – particularly comedies – to try and revisit their stories hasn’t really worked.

This brings us to “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Deliver of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” – henceforth to be called simply “Borat 2” – the new project from comedic auteur Sacha Baron Cohen, currently streaming via Amazon Prime Video. The sequel to 2006’s “Borat,” this new film came to be in a vastly different American environment than its predecessor, but Cohen’s incisive and bizarre wit still plays, albeit with a different energy than before.

While it’s more successful than many other years-late sequels, it also can’t quite reach the bar of satiric absurdity set by that first film. Not that there’s any shame in that – “Borat” is a top-tier piece of social satire and transgressive comedy. The fact that this new offering even gets close is plenty impressive. Cohen holds up a mirror to American culture, but the warped reflection we see is simply an accurate depiction of who and what we are in this moment. It’s not a funhouse mirror, folks. We’re the funhouse.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 18 March 2020 12:20

The most dangerous game – ‘The Hunt’

It’s nice when movies have something to say.

Don’t get me wrong – I love turning off my brain and watching stuff blow up for a couple of hours as much as the next guy. However, there’s something inherently engaging about films that try to use the medium to explore larger concepts. If stuff blows up while they do so, so much the better.

There’s a long history of genre filmmakers finding ways to use their platforms to address social and cultural ideas – science fiction and fantasy, horror and thrillers and so on – in ways both subtler and more overt than can be done in more traditional films. When it’s done well, you get absolute classics – films that challenge the status quo and say something while also embracing the pulpiness of their genre roots.

When it’s done less well, you get movies like “The Hunt.”

The Blumhouse-produced film – directed by Craig Zobel from a script co-written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof – is a cross-genre effort to explore and satirize the current political divide and level of ideological discourse by way of elevated B-movie trappings. Basically, the deal is that the liberal elite is hunting vocal conservatives for sport, with all the societal and classist issues that that concept entails.

“The Hunt” has already generated controversy – the film’s opening date was pushed from September to March due to a combination of real-life circumstances and angry rhetoric – but the truth is that the vitriol would have been better-served elsewhere, because even though the baseline concept is one that might merit offense, the truth is that the film simply doesn’t commit enough to its ideals to be anything other than an incoherent jumble. Thematically, tonally, stylistically – it lacks consistency in every respect.

Published in Movies

Some of the best speculative fiction comes when a writer is able to extrapolate forward in a manner that is both engaging and plausible. And when that speculation leans toward the dystopian? Well – go ahead and sign me up.

That’s what Rob Hart has done with his new novel “The Warehouse” (Crown, $27); it’s an exploration of a near-future that reads like nothing so much as a darkest timeline look at the future of our society as it relates to the corporate monoliths that consume all that lies before them in their quest for ever-increasing growth.

By spinning out the trends toward ubiquity among some of our larger corporations, Hart takes us deep into the shadows cast by the cheerful bright lights of “progress.” His tale of those tangled in that all-encompassing web – those at the top and at the bottom alike – offers a satiric, chilling and bleakly funny perspective on the potential endpoint of our cultural fascination with the biggest of big business.

Published in Style
Friday, 03 May 2019 11:58

‘Long Shot’ pays off big

Lately, it might seem as though every single studio movie is either a nine-figure-budgeted franchise blockbuster or a low-overhead genre movie. And yes, there’s a lot of that kind of stuff out there. But those who have bemoaned the loss of the mid-budget studio film should take solace, for the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Sure, we see FEWER of those movies, but they’re far from over.

“Long Shot” is a perfect example of just that kind of film. A high-concept hybrid of political comedy and juvenilia, it’s a rom-com that tries to be a lot of different things and is largely successful. It’s an unconventional execution of a movie-conventional pairing between Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, lending a surprising degree of nuance to the standard mixed-attractiveness comic screen pairing.

It’s also an attempt at political satire, an effort to poke fun at the current climate. Government operations and the media both take their share of hits, and while the effort doesn’t land as well as the relationship stuff, it still manages its share of laughs. It’s a movie that is smart and profane, putting forth cleverness and crassness in equal (and often hilarious) measure.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 27 March 2019 14:12

This is ‘Us’

Horror cinema has long been a genre whose flexibility has allowed it to serve as a remarkable vehicle for the delivery of big and complex ideas. The allegorical underpinnings of horror movies allow filmmakers to spark conversations about the complicated entanglements of the world in which we live on both macro and micro levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele took advantage of horror’s flexibility and shifted the paradigm with his 2017 debut film “Get Out,” building a film that was both bitingly socially satiric and legitimately tense and scary. That movie’s wild critical (Oscar nominations for Actor, Director and Picture and a win for Original Screenplay) and commercial (over $250 million at the global box office against a budget under $5 million) success meant a whole lot of anticipation for (and pressure on) the follow-up.

And “Us” clears every bar.

Peele’s latest horror thriller delves into the tropes of home invasions and evil twins and more, using those genre touchstones as part of a meaningful conversation about social stratification and class warfare and other important issues confronting the America of today. I’ll put it this way – “Us” could easily be read as “U.S.” … and that’s certainly not a coincidence.

Published in Movies
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