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As someone who cut my teeth on the action movies of the 1980s, I have a fondness in my heart for certain highlights of the genre. However, that fondness doesn’t always extend to the increasingly tenuous and threadbare cavalcade of churned-out sequels that often followed them well into the 21st century.

“Predator” was one of those movies, an oiled-up and explosive gun show of a film that helped catapult Arnold Schwarzenegger to the top of the action heap. Of course, it was not immune to the industry’s obsession with recycling IP, leading to a handful of middling-to-bad extensions of the franchise.

So I wasn’t necessarily expecting much from “Prey,” the new film streaming on Hulu. Sure, the conceit – a prequel of sorts, set in the Great Plains of the early 1700s – was intriguing, but there’s a lot of room for this kind of revisitation to go terribly awry.

I needn’t have worried.

Director Dan Trachtenberg, working from a screenplay by Patrick Aison (the two share story credit), has created a fantastic addition to the franchise’s canon. It is a vivid and compelling story of survival against seeming insurmountable odds, one rendered all the more engaging by an absolutely outstanding lead performance from Amber Midthunder. It is smart and sharp, packed with action while also approaching this familiar story from an unfamiliar – and extremely effective – angle.

Published in Movies
Monday, 25 July 2022 14:14

Say yes to ‘Nope’

Genre movies have long been used as delivery mechanisms for larger, deeper ideas. Sure, there are plenty that are essentially entertainment for the sake of entertainment, but for many filmmakers, the trappings of genre – sci-fi, horror, noir, Western, you name it – have provided an outlet to express insights regarding the world in which we live.

One could argue that no contemporary filmmaker has embraced that ethos as fully as Jordan Peele. His latest film is “Nope,” a sci-fi/horror/comedy mashup that has a lot to say about the evolution of our relationship to the entertainment we consume (and that, one could argue, consumes us in return). It’s a clever and weird throwback of a film, one clearly enamored with the sci-fi and monster movies of the mid-20th century even as it offers thoughts on entertainment writ large, both in the present day and in its embryonic beginnings.

Of course, while big themes and big ideas are great and all, they don’t really matter if the delivery system isn’t up to par. What Peele has done with “Nope,” just as he did with his previous two efforts “Get Out” and “Us,” is package his insights in a well-made and entertaining movie. And while this newest film is perhaps a bit shaggier and more challenging to parse, there’s no denying that he is an exceptional craftsman as both a writer and a director. That craft is on full display here.

(Note: This is a difficult film to synopsize without spoilers. I will do my best, but apologies in advance if I misstep.)

Published in Movies

Sometimes, a project just sounds questionable on its face. You hear the pitch and, for whatever reason, you’re left wondering just who gave this idea the go-ahead. It sounds ridiculous, yet scores of decision-makers said yes.

In this case, those yeses led to “Lightyear.”

Did we really need an origin story for Buzz Lightyear from “Toy Story”? Specifically, an origin story for the character on whom the toy was based? It all seems so silly. That being said, this IS Pixar we’re talking about – this is not an outfit that is known for misfires. They’ve got a couple of hiccups on their resume, but for the most part, the work they do is generally both critically and commercially successful.

So a high floor is standard for Pixar. But just what kind of ceiling are we talking about? Again, this is weirdly high-concept – “Lightyear” is ostensibly young Andy’s favorite movie, the one that served as the inspiration for the toy Buzz Lightyear – so it’s obviously a bit more overtly meta than what we usually get from the studio. But the big question remains: Is it good?

And the answer is yes. It is good. Quite good, actually.

What we get from “Lightyear” is a legitimately solid space adventure, one with a compelling story, some good jokes and a few surprises. It’s a good-looking movie, of course (we’d expect nothing less from Pixar), and it has plenty of heart (ditto). It’s a bit more grown-up than the studio’s regular fare, but certainly suitable for all audiences. And as always, be prepared for an instance or two of emotional impact.

Adventure, excitement, humor and pathos – you know … Pixar.

Published in Movies

A movie comes along that is accompanied with massive amounts of hype. Maybe it’s a critical darling, maybe it’s a commercial blockbuster, maybe it’s something in the middle, but one thing is clear – people are singing its praises early and often. And loudly.

As a rule, these films tend to be excellent offerings, though perhaps not quite clearing the exceedingly high bar that has been set for them by the discourse. Occasionally, they prove to be something of a disappointment, leaving you wondering what so many people saw in them.

But every once in a while, you get something that actually manages to outperform your already massive expectations. You get a film that is somehow even better than the people shouting its quality from the rooftops have led you to believe. You get a movie that is unlike anything you’ve seen before in the very best of ways.

You get “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

The film – written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the filmmaking team known collectively as Daniels – is a phantasmagoric experience, a genre-blending adventure that digs into the collective human experience and celebrates the underlying possibilities that unfold with every decision that we make. It is incredibly smart and wildly entertaining, packed with humor and action and heartfelt emotion.

This is the sort of movie that essentially dares you to describe it. It is a roiling tumult of narrative complexity and naked feeling, swirled together into a visually stunning mélange that again – and I can’t stress this enough – is unlike anything you’ve seen before. It is vibrant and vivid and unabashedly weird, powered by the bizarre beauty of its aesthetic and some utterly captivating performances.

Published in Movies

As someone who often finds himself defending the literary merits of speculative fiction, I sometimes forget that, for all the thematic and narrative complexity that genre can evoke, it’s okay for a book’s primary aim to be entertaining the reader.

In short: sometimes you just want a thrilling, compelling yarn, one that is exciting and funny and imaginative. One where the other stuff – the “important” stuff – is still present, but still less vital to the experience than the pure story.

At the risk of damning him with faint praise, John Scalzi is one of the best around at crafting these sorts of high-concept, humorous sci-fi riffs. Best known for works like “Old Man’s War” and “Redshirts,” as well as his bestselling Interdependency trilogy, Scalzi’s latest is “The Kaiju Preservation Society” (Tor, $26.99). It’s a smart and timely and often hilarious work, a quick page-turner that fills the reader with a sense of speculative adventure even as its underlying ethos worms its way into your brain.

Plus, it has giant monsters in it.

Published in Style

I have a complicated history with Ryan Reynolds.

For a good stretch of his career, I found him to be generally insufferable. He radiated smugness, smirking and quipping his way through a series of not-terribly-interesting comedies and franchise misfires. Long story short, I didn’t care for him.

And then, well … he wore me down.

Don’t get me wrong – the aforementioned qualities are still part of the package. And he’s still making plenty of questionable films. I just find myself enjoying them more, even if (when) they’re not necessarily that great.

Which brings us to “The Adam Project,” the new big-budget Netflix offering starring Reynolds as a time traveler who inadvertently winds up partnering with his younger self (played exceptionally by newcomer Walker Scobell) in an effort to save the world from the clutches of a power-mad billionaire.

I know, I know – it sounds ridiculous. And it is. But it’s better than it sounds. The notion of setting right what once went wrong is a staple of the time travel genre; adding the coming-of-age element gives the film a flavor that makes it palatable even when the logistics of the narrative break down and we see the seams a little.

Published in Movies

There’s something to be said for filmmakers who have a gift for creating a certain type of movie. Sure, these directors and writers can and do produce work outside that area of expertise, but even as they spread their wings, there’s no doubt that they have a space in which they can become the best versions of themselves.

Roland Emmerich is one of those filmmakers.

Seriously, is there anyone out there who can hang with Emmerich when it comes to big-budget movies revolving around ludicrous, over-the-top disasters? Is there anyone else even in the conversation? I’d say not. Sure, he can do other stuff and do it fairly well, but nothing tops Emmerich when he’s placing the world in existential peril.

And so, it’s always a hoot when we get a new entry into that particular canon. His latest is “Moonfall,” which he directed from a script he co-wrote with Spenser Cohen and Harald Kloser (who also did the score). It is as deliriously dumb as the very best of his movies have been in recent years, a sci-fi action film based on a ridiculous premise and made with a nine-figure budget.

Seriously – this movie doesn’t make a lick of sense. It is packed with questionable decisions and incoherent action. There are SO MANY PLOTLINES, and just when it seems like the narrative threads are coming together, more tendrils are sent spiraling outward. Just an absolute bonkers mess.

It is lunacy and I am here for it.

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
Wednesday, 29 December 2021 12:54

‘The Matrix Resurrections’ lives on

Funny thing about art – more often than not, you get out what you put in.

Consuming a creative work, whether it be a book or a painting or a film or a play or a song, is in many ways a means of looking at oneself. The best art holds up a mirror to life, offering a reflection that is specific to the one gazing upon it.

So I suppose it makes sense that mirrors are a major motif in “The Matrix Resurrections,” the years-later sequel to the trilogy of films that began over two decades ago. This film – directed solo this time, by Lana Wachowski, from a script she co-wrote with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon – is the product of years of self-reflection, a return to a morally and philosophically complex sci-fi universe constructed on a foundation of perception versus reality and whether we can ever actually know the difference.

It is a gloriously messy film, one that tells the story that Lana Wachowski wishes to tell … and that has relatively little regard for the expectations others might hold for it. The underlying metaphor – the idea that the world we see is not necessarily the world that is – remains intact, but altered; “The Matrix Resurrections” is a movie driven not by logic, but by emotion. For all its intense action trappings, it is, at its core, a love story.

Published in Movies
Monday, 13 December 2021 13:50

No need to get close to ‘Encounter’

I’ve always loved paranoid thrillers. Movies where something sinister and paradigm-shattering is happening, but only a few people (or even just one person) know the truth? Yeah, I’m here for it.

Sure, we’re past the ‘70s-era heyday of such films, but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally get one now and then. And when these thrillers incorporate other genre elements, so much the better. Of course, all of this is predicated on the fact that the movie in question has to be, you know … good.

If it isn’t, well … that’s when you wind up with something like “Encounter.”

The film, directed by Michael Pearce from a script Pearce co-wrote with Joe Barton, is an attempt to recreate that paranoid thriller vibe within a science fiction framework. Now, that kind of genre melding has been done to great success in the past, but the truth is that this story never quite finds its footing, with an inconsistent connection to the relative reality of its premise that evokes more confusion than paranoia.

It’s too bad, because there does seem to be something here. And there’s a dynamite lead performance from Riz Ahmed. Unfortunately, that performance is largely wasted in service of a story that never quite adds up. One might argue that that narrative jumbling is a choice, but even if it is, it is a largely ineffectual one.

Published in Movies
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