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Genre storytelling has long offered a flexible path for those wishing to speak to greater truths. Often, these are people whose ideas or very identities have been marginalized, making it all the more difficult for their ideologies to be taken seriously – or even addressed at all – by the mainstream.

Genre work – be it literature or film or TV – is a way in. The outsized nature of science fiction or fantasy or horror allows room for social and cultural commentary to exist in the margins – a Trojan Horsing of sorts, utilizing tropes to reflect larger concepts in a manner that demands interpretation even while working effectively.

But in recent years, as some of those marginalized figures start making inroads higher up the cultural food chain, we’re getting more of their insights on textual levels as well as subtextual.

Take “Candyman,” the new film from director Nia DaCosta, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peele (Peele also served as executive producer of the project). It’s a decades-later direct sequel to the 1992 film of the same name.

The sequel is plenty scary, of course, well-crafted and striking a balance between atmospheric scares and visceral gore. But it is also able to address the same central tenet of the original film – this idea that the focused anger and fear of a community can manifest in ways that negatively impact that community, living on long after the original players are gone – in a much more overt way. This is still social commentary wrapped in the trappings of a horror movie, but this time, there’s considerably more freedom regarding how that commentary is conveyed.

Stories, even urban legends, have power; the more they’re told, the more they’re believed … and the more they’re believed, the more power they ultimately carry.

Published in Movies

There’s a universality to certain stories that ensures that every generation gets its own versions of them. These fundamental narratives can be adapted and shaped to the time in which they are told; the evolve as the culture around them does.

George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” has become one of those universal stories in the century-plus since it first landed in 1913. The tale of one upper-class person shaping another, lower-class person to fit appropriately into the former’s world is one that has been told again and again. The former (almost always a man) brings the latter (almost always a woman) into their own social stratum – often at the expense of the latter’s dignity and/or personal identity.

1999’s “She’s All That” was the high school rom-com version of that tale for late 20th century moviegoers, a film that landed in the midst of a spate of teen-oriented cinematic fare. The BMOC takes a wager in which he is to turn the school’s lowliest of the social low into the prom queen and hijinks ensue.

Now imagine that, only gender-flipped.

Published in Movies

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.

That’s the attitude that the powers that be at Warner Brothers have taken with regard to DC’s team of villains-turned-reluctant-heroes known as the Suicide Squad. We first met this collection of reprobates in 2016 via director David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad.” Now, thanks to James Gunn, we have “The Suicide Squad.”

It’s tough to suss out how exactly to refer to this new iteration. It’s not quite a sequel and not quite a reboot, featuring a handful of returning characters and a slew of new ones; it’s not like the events of the previous film didn’t happen, but neither do we spend any time reinvestigating them. Call it Schrödinger’s Sequel – it both is and is not.

But whether or not “The Suicide Squad” is a sequel, one thing is for certain: it’s better. A LOT better.

With a combination of gleeful gore, compelling characters and a wicked sense of humor, this is easily one of the best offerings from the DCEU to date; “The Suicide Squad” manages to find ways to hold onto the grimdark ethos of DC’s cinematic slate while also embracing how fun comic book movies can be. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but few filmmakers – if any – are better equipped to strike it than James Gunn.

Published in Movies

As someone who was a child in the mid-1980s, I am VERY familiar with G.I. Joe. I collected the action figures and other toys. I watched the cartoons (which were essentially half-hour ads for the action figures and toys) and read the comic books (ditto). Was it a thinly-veiled celebration of American imperialism and military superiority? Absolutely! They were still cool.

That connection means that I am 100 percent the target audience for Hollywood’s ongoing efforts to craft a G.I. Joe Cinematic Universe (GIJCU). Previous efforts like “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (2009) and its 2013 sequel “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” weren’t what any right-minded moviegoer would call good, but even in their badness, my younger self felt validated.

The latest effort to get the GIJCU up and running is “Snake Eyes.” Previously titled “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe: Origins,” because of course it was, it serves as an origin story for one of the most beloved of all G.I. Joe characters, as well as introducing us to a handful of other character stalwarts. Directed by Robert Schwentke from a screenplay written by the trio of Evan Spiliotopoulos, Anna Waterhouse and the so-perfectly-named-I’m-not-positive-he’s-real Joe Shrapnel, the film serves as a reboot and reintroduction into the franchise.

And it’s actually … OK? Maybe even pretty good, if you tilt your head and squint?

It’s nothing spectacular, but compared to the low-rent cartoonishness of the previous efforts, it’s decent. The performances are surprisingly compelling, and while the action sequences are a bit uneven, the truth is that if you’re going to reboot this sort of franchise, you could do a lot worse than what they’ve done with “Snake Eyes.”

Published in Movies

The great internet arbiter Judge John Hodgman has a saying: “Nostalgia is a toxic impulse.” While I don’t necessarily fully agree with that sentiment – I think there can be real value in reengaging with aspects of our past that we remember fondly – I also acknowledge that the tendency to get lost in our own personal pop culture ephemera-strewn memory palaces can result in some dark turns.

All this is to say that while I understand why “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was made and the thoughts and desires that led to that outcome, enabling the nostalgic impulse without any critical regard to the reasons behind the memory can result in something hollow and ultimately unsatisfactory.

As a late Gen-Xer, I’m a hair too old to have the same fondness for 1996’s “Space Jam” that many millennials carry. However, I do still carry a soft spot for the film – I mean, Michael Jordan, the Looney Tunes and a pre-folk hero Bill Murray? What’s not to like?

That said, the sequel – this one starring LeBron James – fails to achieve even the modicum of loose charm that surrounded the original, exchanging the winking self-awareness and quirkiness of the original for a seemingly unending cavalcade of product placement and self-celebratory IP exploitation.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (who replaced original director Terrence Nance a few weeks into filming) from a screenplay with no less than six credited writers, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is the unfortunate result when you attempt to recreate something whose appeal you don’t fully understand; there’s a goofball kitschiness to the original film that is lost here, the lunacy (sorry – “Loon-acy”) replaced by an overstuffed commitment to the idea that instead of using references to make jokes, the jokes ARE the references.

Published in Sports

There’s something almost sad about watching a film’s ending set the table for a sequel that – if what you’ve just watched is any indication – almost certainly won’t wind up happening. You’ve sat through the 100ish minutes and are left to sympathize with the sure-to-be-dashed sequel dreams of the filmmakers before ultimately walking away and promptly forgetting about it.

However, “almost certainly” is not “certainly.” Know how I know? Because “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” exists.

This sequel was transparently set up by the ending of 2019’s “Escape Room” (to the ultimate detriment of that film, to be honest); while the first installment didn’t really earn this continuation via quality, it was relatively successful at the box office – and money talks.

Director Adam Robitel is back for round two, as are a couple of the first film’s stars. But really, they could have simply brought everybody back and taken another go, because it’s largely more of the same.

An unnecessary sequel – fine. I get the desire to return to that well. However, if you’re going to make a sequel to a movie that itself was underwhelming, perhaps the right move is to make that sequel … better? Or at least different? Instead, this is basically a rehash; they’ve turned the dial up a little, but otherwise, it’s more of the same.

Published in Movies
Monday, 28 June 2021 12:08

Even faster and furiouser – ‘F9’

I don’t want to be accused of burying the lead here, so I’ll just say this now: “F9” is a big, loud bunch of hot nonsense. The plot is transparently thin and peppered with holes at its best and utterly incoherent at worst. The performances are broadly winking and cartoonish. The action sequences gleefully defy even the most basic understanding of how physics work. It is candy-colored chaos, littered with CGI explosions and one-liners of varying effectiveness.

And I enjoyed myself very much.

Look, I love well-crafted sophisticated filmmaking as much as the next guy. I love complex characters working through engaging narratives, with ever word and deed sporting some sort of discernible motivation. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t also find joy within the confines of the car chase cash register that is the “F&F” franchise.

This latest installment – tenth in the series if you count “Hobbes & Shaw,” which I absolutely do – continues the ever-increasing bats—ttery that has marked the series for years now. You don’t need me to point out the bizarreness of a little film about street racing developing into a blockbuster monolith packed with action and espionage and an ongoing cavalcade of movie stars, but it’s hard to write about any of these films without at least acknowledging that truth. Justin Lin, who made his name by directing entries three through six in the franchise, returns to the helm for this entry.

I cannot in good conscience tell you that this movie is good. It is not. However, there is no denying this movie is great fun to watch. You’ve probably heard films described as something where you just “need to turn off your brain.” Suffice it to say, you might want to get ready to flip that switch. Sure, you’ll likely find yourself chuckling and shaking your head at the physically impossible action set pieces or the wildly improbable twists and turns in the narrative. Frankly, there’s a lot here that feels not just incoherent, but almost willfully stupid. And yet – there’s just something about it.

Published in Movies

There’s no accounting for taste – especially in Hollywood. Concepts like “good” and “bad” are mere abstracts at the highest levels of the movie business. The quality of the product itself is secondary; all that matters is the money. And when a movie makes a lot of money, there’s a good chance we’re going to get a sequel. Even if the movie in question is kind of terrible.

Hence, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.”

This awkwardly-titled sequel to 2017’s mediocre-at-best action-comedy “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” can’t even rise to the level of the rather low bar set by its predecessor. This new offering features Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds reprising their roles as the titular hitman and bodyguard, respectively; Salma Hayek is back as well (she’s the wife). A collection of new faces appears as well, including a handful of folks who definitely should have known better.

Gotta tell you - it’s not good, folks.

That first film managed to get by on the energy of its two leads and the chemistry between them, occasionally reaching the level of store-brand “Midnight Run,” but even that sense of fun is long gone in this new entry. Instead, we get a tonally inconsistent combination of smug mugging and bloody violence that isn’t nearly as funny as it seems to think it is, presented to us alongside a confusing and borderline nonsensical plot and a bunch of rote, repetitive and generally uninteresting action sequences.

Published in Movies

When a film trots out the phrase “based on a true story,” that can mean a lot of things, from a meticulous recreation of well-documented events (albeit with some dramatic license) to a largely constructed fiction that borrows a couple of ostensibly true elements from a preexisting story. But if the “true story” in question already has a complicated relationship with veracity?

Well … then you get “The Conjuring” films.

The latest installment in the increasingly sprawling horror franchise is “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” It’s the third “Conjuring” film proper, though there have been a number of spin-off/tangentially connected movies as well. Directed by Michael Chaves from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, it’s a continuation of the supernatural adventures of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

As with any franchise, the law of diminishing returns is in play; this one is no exception. While it does feature some solid performances and a couple of decent jump scares, the truth is that this new offering doesn’t reach the level of the previous two films in the series.

Published in Movies

The cinematic landscape is littered with unnecessary sequels.

The reality is that in this time of IP franchise building, any original film that achieves box office success is almost certainly going to receive the sequel treatment, regardless of whether the story actually lends itself to continuation.

Often, that leads to sequels that bear only tangential connection to their predecessors, both in terms of commercial and critical success. To wit – they’re worse and fewer people see them.

However, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, a filmmaker is able to craft an addition to their initial story that contributes something more to the story being told while also maintaining the spirit of the original, even if that original seemingly concluded satisfactorily.

“A Quiet Place Part II” – writer-director John Krasinski’s follow-up to his excellent 2018 “A Quiet Place” – falls into that latter category. While that first film didn’t necessarily seem to cry out for a sequel, its success ensured that it would get one nevertheless. And while I think one can argue that this new film is in fact largely unnecessary, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad.

Quite the opposite, really.

Now, it doesn’t clear the high bar set by the first movie, whose surprising and innovative craftsmanship made it one of the best horror movies of recent years. But it does have plenty to offer, and with Emily Blunt to lead the cast and Krasinski steering the ship, it proves to be quite a successful film.

It’s bigger and louder than the first film – sometimes to its detriment – but it still manages to expand upon that film’s world, both in terms of the apocalyptic present day and, through flashback, the horrifying swiftness of society’s collapse beneath the weight of an attack by a seemingly invincible enemy.

Published in Movies
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