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

As a general rule, video game movies tend to be bad. That’s just how it goes – Hollywood has yet to figure out a way to consistently translate video game IP to the big screen. Now, that isn’t to say that ALL video game movies are bad; there are some that are, if not necessarily good, at least OK.

“Sonic the Hedgehog” was precisely that kind of OK back in 2020. So it’s no surprise that we got a sequel – OK is practically Oscar-worthy in the context of video game movies.

Now, is the sequel as good as the first film? It is not. The story is even more scattered and the film as a whole feels overstuffed – in what world does anyone want or need a video game movie to be over two hours long? That said, it’s not as bad as it could have been, thanks to some invested performances and a few decent set pieces.

(I’ll concede that my experience may have been colored by the fact that I attended a screening with quite a few kids in the audience. Their enthusiasm absolutely contributed to my own enjoyment of the film – it’s tough to remain dour when the kiddos are constantly raising their voices in sheer delight.)

Published in Movies
Monday, 21 February 2022 16:10

‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ a cut below

It’s an IP world, folks. The cinematic landscape exists largely on a foundation of franchises, of sequels and reboots and the like. Whether we’re talking about the big screen or the small, it doesn’t matter. Sure, there are still original ideas out there, but while familiarity breeds contempt, it also breeds profit, so … here we are.

But there’s more than one way to skin a sequel.

So it is with “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the latest iteration of the grisly grindcore horror franchise; this entry marks the ninth TCM film. This Netflix offering takes its cue from another recently revisited series – “Halloween” – in that it is a direct sequel to the 1974 original only, ignoring the many sequels since and essentially opting to erase them from canon.

Unfortunately, the decision to wipe the slate clean doesn’t have a ton of impact. Instead, we get a film that feels surprisingly generic, a ho-hum slasher film that doesn’t have anything like the impact of the original. Sure, there’s some gore and a couple of intense scenes, but even with some ham-fisted efforts to loop in some bits of social and cultural commentary, it ultimately falls flat.

Published in Movies
Monday, 24 January 2022 16:11

Full ‘Scream’ ahead

Most creative work tends to be in conversation with the work that preceded it. That’s as true of filmmaking as any other artistic endeavor – true paradigm shifts independent of previous creation are exceedingly rare.

But even in that realm, horror filmmaking stands a step above. The whole genre is constructed around self-reflection, with today’s films drawing from those that came before – both figuratively and (more and more often) literally.

That said, no horror franchise has so thoroughly ventured into the meta realm as “Scream.” From the very first entry back in 1996, the series has made its bones by investing fully in its own self-referential nature.

And Ghostface is back.

The latest installment – also titled “Scream” – marks the fifth film in the franchise. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, two members of the creative collective Radio Silence, from a script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, it’s very much a continuation of the core ethos of the series; namely, the idea that the conventions of horror cinema are very much a part of the horror being played out in this particular story. The self-awareness that makes these movies so appealing is still very present.

It’s also a good bit, well … stabbier than you might anticipate. While the metahumor is still very much in play, there’s a fair amount of gore at play here. It gets bloody in ways that you might not expect from these films, but it still works; the film finds ways to stay in conversation with itself even as it digs into the conceptual and/or visceral shifts in modern horror.

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

Let’s just get this out of the way off the top - I loved “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” LOVED it.

Now, I was ALWAYS going to love it. I am fully invested in the MCU writ large as blockbuster popcorn entertainment and have been since Day 1. And I carry a deep and abiding affection for and affinity toward the character of Spider-Man, in all his many iterations. From my time as a boy reading assorted Spider-Man comics up to the present day, I ride hard for Spidey. He’s as central a figure in my own personal pop culture history as any. So this is very much a movie for me.

But here’s the thing – it’s probably a movie for you too.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is the biggest and boldest MCU entry in a year packed with them – “NWH” marks the fourth film since June – as well as being the best. It is a massive spectacle while also finding room for the smaller moments, loaded and overloaded with everything that makes the character (and the franchise) great.

It also manages not to succumb to the elements of franchise bloat and metanarrative requirements that have undermined some of Marvel’s past efforts. It’s huge but not unwieldy, fan service-y but not exclusive, epic but not crowded.

You’ve got loads of web-swinging, wall-crawling action. You’ve got quips and jokes galore. You’ve got pathos and pain and the ethical dilemmas that those things can cause. You’ve got an absolute cavalcade of familiar faces joining in on the fun.

And at the center of it all, you’ve got a kid forced to once again stand up beneath an unfair burden that circumstances have thrust upon him.

Published in Movies
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