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Despite how it may sometimes seem, it isn’t easy building an ongoing franchise. Creating something that will hold audience interest through multiple iterations takes plenty of skill and more than a little luck. Even animated fare, which could appear to have a leg up when it comes to turning a movie into a series, doesn’t always succeed.

That’s why the “How to Train Your Dragon” films – based on the Cressida Cowell book series of the same name – are such a delight. These movies – the third of which has just been released – have proven to be quality outings, earning plenty at the box office while also being of high enough quality to satisfy the critical sphere.

This newest installment - full title: “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” – offers us the third leg of a trilogy long in the making. Like its predecessors, the film offers up a surprisingly heartfelt message wrapped in high-flying dragon action and goofy slapstick. It feels like an ending – perhaps not of the franchise as a whole, but at least of this portion of the story.

Published in Movies

It took all of one weekend for it to be clear that there would be a sequel to 2014’s “The Lego Movie.” It was embraced by audiences of all ages and made just an absolute crapload of money – almost $470 million all told – so making another was a no-brainer.

The danger, however, is that capturing that kind of lightning in a bottle twice isn’t easy. There were elements of the original that simply could not be replicated – would a sequel still be able to resonate with audiences?

Ultimately, “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” is able to answer that question with a “yes.” The sequel – directed by Mike Mitchell, although Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (who directed the first film) did the screenplay – shares a sensibility with the original; while it doesn’t quite manage the same degree of emotional resonance, the jokes come fast and furious and the cast is as top-notch as ever.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 20 January 2019 18:47

‘Glass’ more than half full

It’s always nice to be truly, genuinely surprised by a movie. It doesn’t happen all that often, so when it does, it’s a treat.

For instance, the most delightful surprise of 2016 was the ending of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split,” whose closing scene revealed it to be part of the same universe in which his 2000 film “Unbreakable” took place.

A surprise sequel? To a movie that I personally loved and whose deconstruction of the superhero predated the MCU-led super-movie explosion of the last decade or so? Yes, please.

And of course, the series – dubbed the Eastrail 177 trilogy, after the train crash that kicked off the events of “Unbreakable” – must be completed.

“Glass” marks the culmination of a decades-spanning story, one that addresses the aspirational mythologizing behind our fascination with the superhuman. It’s a chance to once again grapple with what a world of heroes and villains might actually mean – both to them and to the rest of us.

While “Glass” has its share of flaws – namely Shyamalan’s inability to fully divest himself of some of his more self-indulgent tendencies – it is still a worthwhile final installment. The ethical ambiguity of heroes and villains, the general implications scaled both small and large – those are here, albeit occasionally a bit muddied. And with some top-notch performances and a handful of sharp aesthetic choices, the movie succeeds far more than it fails.

Published in Movies
Saturday, 22 December 2018 12:11

Nanny nostalgia – ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

On its surface, it would appear to be the most unnecessary sequel in a cinematic landscape already littered with unnecessary sequels. The mere idea seems to epitomize the monetization of nostalgia. Its title sounds more like a punchline than an actual movie.

Despite how we might feel about its existence, there’s no getting around it: beloved magical nanny Mary Poppins has returned in Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns.” And yet, even with the perceived strikes against it, the filmmakers have managed to make a decent film. Better than decent, in fact – this movie is actually pretty good.

Obviously, it doesn’t measure up to the original – no movie could, and it would be ridiculous to expect otherwise. There are stretches where it doesn’t quite click. However, for the most part, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a light and lovely story, a chance to spend a little more time with an iconic character. And it’s generally time well-spent.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 28 November 2018 14:07

‘Creed II’ an exceptional rematch

The success of 2015’s “Creed” was surprising in a lot of ways. The notion of creating a torch-passing sequel to the “Rocky” franchise seemed like a reach. And yet, thanks to the talents of writer/director Ryan Coogler and great performances from Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson and a shockingly nuanced turn courtesy of Sylvester Stallone, it turned out to be an outstanding film.

After that film’s success, of course we were going to get a sequel to the sequel, which brings us to “Creed II.”

It’s not the same behind-the-camera team – Coogler is gone, replaced by Steven Caple Jr., while the screenplay was co-written by Juel Taylor and Stallone from a story by Cheo Coker and Sacha Penn – but the on-screen talent remains, with Jordan, Thompson and Stallone all returning. And while this new movie doesn’t quite ascend to the same level as the first film, “Creed II” is an excellent movie in its own right, finding ways to ground its titular character in life’s realities while also presenting him with a terrifying new foe.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 28 November 2018 14:04

‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ really connects

In a cinematic landscape featuring more animated offerings than ever before, it’s tough to find ways to stand out. But even in a crowded field, Disney stands ears-and-shoulders above the competition.

Even leaving aside the fact that Pixar is a Disney concern, Walt Disney Animation has had a heck of a run over the past half-decade or so. Yes, things were a little underwhelming in the earlier part of the 21st century, but there’s no arguing the quality of the studio’s recent run – “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), “Frozen” (2013), “Big Hero 6” (2014), “Zootopia” (2016) and “Moana” (2016) were all hugely successful both commercially and critically; “Frozen” and “Zootopia” even won Oscars.

The latest offering – the first sequel in this new wave – is “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” A sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph,” it melds the retro charm of the original’s characters with an updated, more modern setting. The combination of old and new is an undeniable success; not only are there some delightful jokes and clever pop culture nods, there’s a surprising depth to the emotions explored. Funny gags AND genuine connection – we’re talking top-tier animated fare.

Published in Movies

I’ll admit to having been a little skeptical when I first heard about the continuation of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter-centric fictional universe. That story felt like it had been thoroughly told – did we really need to find new angles to explore?

And so I was surprised to find “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” such a charming, engaging film. Yes, it was a little overproduced and a little convoluted and less focused than it ought to have been, but it was still fun, which is all that really matters with movies like this.

But after seeing the second installment, I fear my initial instinct may ultimately be proven right after all.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 23 October 2018 17:09

‘Halloween’ horrifies once again

When it comes to scary movies, you can conjure up all manner of ghouls and supernatural forces. Ghosts and monsters and gibbering creatures from beyond the dimensional veil – all of that stuff can make for solid scares.

But sometimes, all you need for good horror is a guy in a mask wielding a knife. He doesn’t have any special powers or superhuman abilities. He’s just a strong psychopath with an affinity and aptitude for stabbing.

That’s what made John Carpenter’s 1978 horror film “Halloween” such a classic. Just a dude killing people on Halloween. In a lot of ways, it was the Platonic ideal of the slasher movie. Of course, the film’s success led to sequels and reboots galore, with seven installments following the original and then a pair of Rob Zombie-helmed reimaginings.

So what was writer/director David Gordon Green going to do to set his own take on the tale apart? Well, plenty, but here are the two big ones: he got Carpenter’s blessing and then basically threw away all the convoluted canon. He flushed the ridiculous lore and made a straight-up 40-years-later sequel. That’s Green’s “Halloween.”

And you know what? We’re all the better for it.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 19 September 2018 11:21

To catch ‘The Predator’

When Hollywood isn’t rebooting or remaking, it’s sequel-izing – even if the previous entry is years or even decades in the past. The successful efforts are fairly few and far between, but the wave of IP filmmaking doesn’t appear to have crested yet.

And so we get another “Predator” movie.

“The Predator” is the fourth standalone film in the franchise, following “Predator” (1987), “Predator 2” (1990) and “Predators” (2010) – please note that we’re not including the two crossover films with the “Alien” universe. Shane Black – who is not only one of the best action screenwriters of the past 25 years and a heck of a director, but actually played a small part in “Predator” back in 1987 – is the ideal man to bring this franchise back, someone with a clear affection for and understanding of the source material. Black directs from a script he co-wrote with Fred Dekker.

Set in the present day, it’s the story of a soldier whose chance encounter with an alien in the jungle leads to a fight to save himself and everyone he cares about from a gruesome (and I do mean GRUESOME) death. It is packed with gags and gore, a throwback sort of action movie that feels like it would fit right into the heyday of the original. It’s a flawed film, to be sure, but action fans will have a hell of a time.

Published in Movies

Come with me, won’t you? Come with me to a simpler time. To 1996, when sequels were considered mildly profitable punchlines and the idea of constructing massive cinematic franchises was largely contained to the Spielbergs and Lucases of the world.

That was the year we got “Mission: Impossible,” an adaptation of the 1960s television show of the same name. It was a Tom Cruise action vehicle that did well both commercially and critically and that could have been that. A pair of sequels that caught top-tier directorial talents either after their prime (John Woo for MI2 in 2000) or before it (J.J. Abrams for MI3 in 2006) made it seem like maybe we should stop.

Instead, the franchise has carried forward with three of the best action movies of the past decade. This unlikely wellspring has given us “Ghost Protocol,” “Rogue Nation” and the latest installment “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” … which might be the best one we’ve seen so far. It once again relies on coherent, well-executed action set pieces, a few moments of winking dialogue and – most importantly - Cruise’s complete willingness to hurl himself headlong into harm’s way if it might allow him to win our love.

Published in Movies
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