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Full disclosure: I was VERY apprehensive about this movie.

As someone who bears a deep and abiding affection for the 1983 holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” I’ve always been leery about any efforts to recapture that movie’s particular quirky magic. The combination of sepia-tinged nostalgia and the verisimilitude of a certain flavor of childhood has always appealed to me.

Let’s put it this way: people like me are the reason that the film gets those 24-hour marathons on basic cable.

Bringing a grown-up Ralphie back into the fold seemed risky. Sure, it was kind of cool that they brought back as many people from that first film’s cast as possible, but even that felt a little stuntish. Why risk the associations so many of us have with the original on a decades-later sequel?

Happily, I worried for nothing, because while this new film doesn’t fully measure up to its predecessor – and really, how could it? – “A Christmas Story Christmas” (currently streaming on HBO Max) manages to strike the balance between the old and the new, creating a different, yet still familiar holiday cinematic experience.

Published in Movies

One of the longstanding truths about the realm of comic books is that death isn’t really death. With vanishingly few exceptions, the death of a Marvel or DC character tends to be more of a temporary setback than any kind of permanent loss.

Of course, that isn’t how the real world works.

When Chadwick Boseman passed away, we lost a truly gifted artist. We lost someone whose immense talents were evident in everything he did, from Jackie Robinson to James Brown to Thurgood Marshall to, yes, T’Challa, the Black Panther. An irreplaceable star in the cinematic firmament was extinguished too soon.

And yet … the show must go on.

The massive critical, commercial and cultural success of 2018’s “Black Panther” – as well as its prominent placement in the mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe write large – meant that there was always going to a sequel, but what shape could that now take? Was it possible to make a film that both respected the memory of its fallen star and carried forward the singular and general narratives? Could even a filmmaker as talented as Ryan Coogler pull this off?

The answer to those final two questions … is yes.

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is a fascinating work of popular culture. Somehow, the parties involved have crafted a superhero film that is good in all the ways that these films need to be good – big action set pieces, memorable characters, some decent laugh lines, a story that works in micro and macro contexts – yet still maintains the more sophisticated effort to explore thornier societal ideas. All that, while also being immensely respectful and reverent of Chadwick Boseman’s memory. Threading that needle would seem nigh-impossible – but Coogler does it.

Published in Movies

It’s always nice to be surprised by a movie.

Take 2020’s Netflix offering “Enola Holmes.” Based on the first in a series of YA novels by Nancy Springer, the film follows the titular girl – sister to the famed detective Sherlock Holmes – as she finds herself embroiled in a mystery she herself must solve. I went in expecting something passable, and instead was served a charming and wholesome cinematic treat. And I wasn’t alone in feeling that way – the film was well-received by critics and audiences alike.

So of course we were going to get a sequel.

“Enola Holmes 2” sees Millie Bobbie Brown return as the titular girl detective. Harry Bradbeer is back to direct, while Jack Thorne has returned to write the screenplay (though it should be noted that this new film is not a direct adaptation of any of the Springer novels). And while out heroine is a little older and a little wiser, the sense of fun that marked the pervious installment is still very much present.

Mixed in with that fun, however, is a nod to some of the very real circumstances of the time and place in which the film takes place. Now, this is a fairly glossy treatment of the bleakness endured by the lower socioeconomic classes in late 19th century London, but it does draw on real events as the core of the story it tells. A story told rather successfully, I might add.

Published in Style

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

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is absolutely packed with heroes. You can’t throw a rock without hitting an Avenger or some Avengers-adjacent superhero. There are tiers, of course – your mainstays and your supporting players and whatnot – but there’s no disputing the sheer numbers.

Here’s the big question, though: with all of those characters, all those beloved spandex-clad derring-doers on the roster – your Iron Man, your Captain America – how is it that Thor is the first one of the bunch to get to four solo outings?

“Thor: Love and Thunder” marks the fourth film to center everyone’s favorite Norse god of thunder. Directed by Taika Waititi – who also helmed the previous Thor outing, the delightful “Thor: Ragnarok” – it’s a continuation of the irreverent tone and comedic evolution of the character, even as he continues to deal with cosmos-altering entities.

It is Waititi’s unique take on the character that has led to Thor being the first to four. While Iron Man and Captain America both came in hot, each getting to three films in short order, they were also somewhat handcuffed by the larger MCU story arcs. And then, eventually, the narrative required them to move on. Thor, on the other hand, was the perfect combination of important and irrelevant, giving an auteur type like Waititi the flexibility to steer the character in a more idiosyncratic direction.

With “Ragnarok” and now “Love and Thunder,” we get films that, while still slotting into the overall MCU house style, also have plenty of their own flavor. This new film is fun and funny, with a lot of the same goofball energy that powered its predecessor, though it should be noted that those who are looking for significant advancement of the larger Phase 4 narrative may be a little disappointed – in many ways, the story told here is self-contained, with relatively little impact on the grander arc (though if we want to talk about that as a symptom of the disconnected nature of this phase thus far, there’s a real discussion to be had).

Still, that’s OK – there’s definitely more room for fun when these films aren’t as constrained by the need for greater advancement. This one isn’t quite stand-alone – the Guardians of the Galaxy are here for a minute, for example – but for the most part, “Love and Thunder” is content to be its own thing. How you feel about that will likely play a major role in your enjoyment of the experience.

Published in Movies

Look, dinosaurs are cool. We can all agree on that. Movies about dinosaurs, however … that’s a bit more complicated.

Back in 1993, “Jurassic Park” completely altered the cinematic landscape, showing a generation of moviegoers what was possible. Now, some three decades later, the fifth sequel to that film – third in the legacyquel “Jurassic World” trilogy – shows us that over time, magic always fades … even if the magic is dinosaur-shaped.

“Jurassic World Dominion” is … fine. Perhaps a little less than fine. Colin Trevorrow is back behind the camera, directing from a script (such as it is) he co-wrote with Emily Carmichael. It is a big effects-laden movie that isn’t all that concerned with character development or narrative cohesion, instead opting to throw a bunch of locations and dinosaurs at the wall, mix in some nostalgia casting and call it a day.

The plot – such as it is – is both overstuffed and riddled with holes; don’t worry if there are stretches where you’re not sure what is happening or why – it seems as though perhaps the filmmakers were in the same boat. Still, it’s better than the previous installment. Largely because it would have to have actively tried to be worse, but hey – better is better.

And again – dinosaurs. There are a LOT of dinosaurs. Just an absolute s—t-ton of dinosaurs, which is always going to be pretty cool, regardless of the comprehensibility of the story that surrounds them. So even if the movie as a whole isn’t good (and it isn’t, not really), it doesn’t matter, because it definitely delivers on the dinosaurs, and hey – if you’re not down for various flavors of dino-action, then what are we even doing here?

Published in Movies

It’s no surprise that, in a cinematic landscape increasingly defined by IP-driven franchises, studios reach farther back into the past to mine content. Where once it seemed as if an idea was past its prime in a matter of months, these days, it’s not uncommon to get sequels that come a decade or more after their predecessors.

But what if a sequel arrived nearly four decades after the film that came before? Could a movie coming that much later possibly have anything like the impact of the original? It seems unlikely, but hey – when you introduce Tom Cruise into the equation, anything is possible.

The long-anticipated “Top Gun: Maverick” has finally arrived in movie theaters, more than three years after its initially-scheduled release and some 37 years after the release of “Top Gun.” It is a movie that seemed fated to fall short, based on a flawed-but-beloved jingoistic action classic and delayed multiple years due to circumstances both planned (extensive reshoots) and unplanned (COVID shutdowns). We’ve been waiting so long – how could it meet the inevitably-inflated expectations?

Reader, not only does it meet those expectations – it exceeds them. This movie is better than the one that inspired it, and not by a little. It is superior in terms of action, of emotional investment, of performance … just the better film, across the board.

I’m as surprised as you are.

That isn’t to say I though the movie would be bad – I didn’t. And I was definitely someone who came of age at the right time to have real affection for the original “Top Gun,” flaws and all. So I was poised to have a good time with this one. It’s just that I assumed that’s all it would be – an engaging-enough exercise in nostalgia that would be enjoyable in the moment but otherwise shoulder-shruggy.

Instead, what I got was far better than that, an exercise in top-tier action filmmaking that blends practical stunt work with CGI as well as anything we’ve seen before. Sure, some of the issues that marred the original are still here – the unabashed military self-celebration foremost among them – but thanks to a strong ensemble and a Tom Cruise capital-MS Movie Star performance, “TG:M” still manages to find an emotional resonance, exploring what it means to realize the obsolescence that comes with age and the difficulties that come with seeing change looming, even if it hasn’t yet arrived.

Published in Movies

Remember when “Downton Abbey” was EVERYWHERE? It was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, likely one of the last truly quadrant-crossing zeitgeist-seizing TV experiences we’ll see, thanks to the proliferation of streaming services and the audience fragmentation born of an unceasing deluge of content.

In truth, I would have anticipated that “Downton” was done, having realized the six-seasons-and-a-movie dream. You’d think I would have learned – content is king, and this is some valuable IP we’re talking about here. It was inevitable that there would be more.

Thus, we get “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay by “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes. Let’s be clear from the get-go: no one here is the least bit interested in upending the apple cart. The folks involved – both behind the camera and in front of it – know precisely what is expected of them and they have every intention of delivering just that. There’s nothing new or challenging about this iteration. It’s pure comfort food for the PBS set.

And that’s perfectly OK. The filmmakers know what they are doing and they are unashamed to be doing it. This is low-stakes drama in historical dress, with nary a real conflict to be found; oh, there are a few plot drivers, but for the most part, everyone is generally content and has little in the way of actual problems. But the truth is that sometimes, an audience just want to look at people with fancy outfits and/or charming accents living in a giant house.

It's a different kind of drama (such as it is) this time around. “A New Era” is essentially split into two parts, with the film shifting back and forth between the plots more or less at will – there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind the moves, but it generally works. It feels like nothing so much as a two-hour-long episode of television, albeit a well-made one featuring a massive cast.

Published in Style

Full disclosure: I’m in the bag for Christopher Moore.

From the first time I read one of his books – my entry point was, as it was for so many others, the exquisite 2002 novel “Lamb” – I knew that this was an author who would resonate with me. Wildly funny, incredibly smart and unapologetically crass, Moore’s work clicked with me in a way that few authors ever had or ever would.

Seriously – think about how rare it is for a book to make you genuinely laugh out loud multiple times in the course of reading it. Moore does that for me EVERY TIME. His work is funny and weird with an at-times shockingly sharp satiric edge.

The tradition continues with “Razzmatazz” (William Morrow, $28.99), a sequel to 2018’s “Noir.” These books both celebrate and deconstruct the trope of the hard-boiled detective, starring a gentleman who consistently finds himself stumbling into situations that are both far beyond his ken and yet somehow suited to his particular set of skills.

It’s a madcap romp through post-WWII San Francisco, a comedic adventure wherein Moore explores the fundamental absurdities of the human condition. The real(ish) and surreal are practically interchangeable here, with ridiculous characters dealing with both the actions of their fellow man and influences that are far beyond mere humanity.

It gets weird, is what I’m saying.

Oh, and mixed in with all the lunacy is a surprising depth of detail regarding that particular time and place. Moore takes plenty of liberties, but the fundamental truth is there. They say you have to learn the rules to break them; well, Moore learned the landscape so he could alter it.

Published in Style

It’s tough to deny the pop cultural impact that the Harry Potter books had on an entire generation, one that grew up alongside that plucky wizard and his friends as they did battle against evil. The subsequent movies only added to the cachet, all while making well over seven billion dollars (yes, with a B) over the course of eight movies.

Hollywood doesn’t walk away from that cash cow.

And so we get the “Fantastic Beasts” series, a kinda-sorta prequel franchise that is based on an ancillary connection to the beloved Potterverse. The first one was fine, the second one was borderline incomprehensible … and now there is another.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” – directed by David Yates from a screenplay by Steve Kloves and Potter creator J.K. Rowling – is yet another effort to wring even more money from the Wizarding World writ large. Despite the controversial departure of Johnny Depp – who played big bad Grindelwald in the first two films – and the continued presence of Rowling and her controversial views, this movie happened.

It's admittedly better than the previous entry – an EXTREMELY low bar to clear – but it still is somewhat lacking in narrative cohesion. The already-muddled mythology is rendered even more difficult to follow by the fractured storyline of this film. That said, there are some good performances here and it’s a fairly solid film in terms of aesthetics (at least until the underwhelming climax). Ultimately, however, it’s a reminder that perhaps the Wizarding World would have been better off ending with Harry Potter’s final adventures.

Published in Movies
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