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Thursday, 05 September 2019 14:47

Send in the clowns – ‘It Chapter Two’

The next chapter has arrived: Pennywise the Dancing Clown is once again creepily cavorting across movie screens.

“It Chapter Two” concludes the cinematic diptych begun with 2017’s “It” – both films were directed by Andy Muschietti, while screenwriter Gary Dauberman handles the new installment solo after co-writing the previous film, all of it adapted from the iconic 1987 horror masterpiece of the same name by Stephen King. That creative carryover goes a long way toward building an aesthetic and tonal consistency across the two films – important in any case, but particularly vital when you have a movie whose narratives are both chronologically separate and utterly entangled.

This second installment brings to an end the story of the self-styled Losers Club, a group of childhood outcasts forced to confront an ancient evil that has poisoned their hometown of Derry. Despite believing that they had emerged victorious – and allowing themselves to compartmentalize away the trauma that came with the triumph – it seems that their foe merely slumbered, awaiting an opportunity to victimize the town anew.

“It Chapter Two” is an aesthetic triumph, one where every frame seems perfectly crafted to elicit the creepy weirdness and absurdity of the circumstances. And the ensemble is exceptional, with outstanding work from performers of all ages. However, it doesn’t quite clear the (extremely high) bar set by its predecessor – not that there’s any shame in that. The film’s pacing occasionally undermines the meticulously-conceived look and feel; the 169-minute runtime could have been trimmed to two-and-a-half hours pretty easily. It’s more tense than scary.

But again – that’s OK. Ultimately, any quibbles are minor. If this film’s biggest sin is that it isn’t quite as good as the one that came before, then you’ve still got a damned good movie – which this absolutely is.

Published in Movies

“Who ARE all these people?”

That was what I muttered to myself as I entered the first screening of “Angel Has Fallen” at my local cinema. It was just after 1 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon in late summer, the sort of stretch for which people bail on work to go for a hike or to the beach or something, but … this? The third movie in an increasingly-ludicrous series in which talking mayonnaise wad Gerard Butler has to save the day despite overwhelming odds against him? This is how you’re going to spend your day? Me, I have to be here – what’s your excuse?

Who ARE all these people?

Whoever they are, they got to see a movie that, while far from good, did manage to at least improve upon its execrable (and kind of racist) “London Has Fallen,” the follow-up to “Olympus Has Fallen,” best known as the “Deep Impact” to the “Armageddon” of the Channing Tatum/Jamie Foxx team-up “White House Down.”

“Angel Has Fallen” is happy to lean into the assorted tropes and clichés of the genre, featuring a convoluted narrative packed with inexplicable decision-making, totally telegraphed betrayals and meaningless technobabble jargon to go along with loads of grim grimaces and steely glares. It’s not good – never good – but it’s better. A low bar, but there you have it.

Published in Movies

There are a lot of pitfalls when it comes to choosing to dig into a literary series. The truth is that a lot of these series, while perfectly OK, are just that – OK. And if you’re OK with OK, well … OK. But if you’re someone who wants something more, someone who is looking for a much richer experience than you can get from the standard-issue sci-fi or fantasy series, taking the plunge can be tough.

Tom Miller’s latest is “The Philosopher’s War” (Simon & Schuster, $26.99). It’s the second installment in a series begun last year with “The Philosopher’s Flight.” It is also a book that strives for that richness of experience, one replete with interesting ideas, compelling characters and an ambitious world. And while it might not quite reach the heights to which it ultimately aspires, it still soars plenty high indeed.

Published in Buzz

Remember “The Fast and the Furious”? The movie that was about illegal street racing?

Those days are long past, of course; as things currently stand, these movies exist in a physics-defying universe of impossible stunts, ridiculous fistfights and cornball dialogue. Notice I didn’t mention plot or character development, because that is very much not what these movies are about.

And never has the franchise been as fully all-in on the nonsense as it is with this latest iteration. This new installment – the first in what will almost certainly end up being a cavalcade of spinoffs – is “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (for the sake of brevity, we’ll go ahead and just call it “Hobbs & Shaw” moving forward – no one will have any trouble remember the connection to “F&F”).

This one leaves behind Dominic Torretto and his street-racer-turned-international-superagent “family” to focus on later arrivals Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw, allowing for an expansion of the franchise into a whole new realm of lunacy.

And expand it does, offering audiences a spectacle even sillier and more outlandish than the extremely silly and outlandish stuff we’ve seen in the most recent “F&F” films. There’s no narrative cohesion to speak of and a lot of what happens doesn’t really add up, but let’s be real – you’re not coming to this movie for the story. What you ARE here for is the action – and there’s a LOT of that, with set pieces that lean into the big, dumb and ultimately loving embrace of the franchise.

It doesn’t make much sense, but hey – it doesn’t have to.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 25 June 2019 17:00

‘Toy Story 4’ plays well with others

I didn’t want “Toy Story 4.”

Yes, I understand that sequels are valuable currency in the cinematic realm these days. And no, it’s nothing against Pixar – my admiration for their work is significant and well-documented. I just remember being so innately, fundamentally satisfied with how the trilogy wrapped up that the idea of another movie felt somehow … wrong.

So it was with some trepidation that I stepped into “Toy Story 4,” trying to give the studio the benefit of the doubt while still expecting to be vaguely disappointed.

Instead, what I got was a shockingly worthwhile addition to the series, a film that moves the saga forward in a way that is both respectful of what has come before and enthusiastic about exploring new directions. It is consistently hilarious, of course, with performers old and new delivering big-time. And while it is undeniably heartfelt – prepare for things to get dusty a couple of times; you know, standard operating procedure with Pixar – it also pulls its punches just a bit, largely avoiding the grown-up-targeted emotional haymaker.

Honestly, it’s just about the best possible follow-up to a movie that seemingly needed no follow-up.

Published in Movies

As Hollywood studios continue to clamor for viable franchises to turn into nine-figure blockbusters, there are going to be … let’s call them miscalculations. For every successful series that breeds summer hits, a half-dozen very expensive failures will land on screens with a thud before quietly (and quickly) disappearing.

Unfortunately, the latest effort in that vein “Men in Black: International” – the fourth movie in the “MIB” series and the first without stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones – falls into the latter category; the new film has its moments but is largely lacking the spirit of its predecessors.

It’s not an outright failure (well, creatively speaking – the initial box office estimates do not speak well of its commercial viability), but director F. Gary Gray never quite figures out how best to utilize the clear and present chemistry of his two leads; Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are dynamite together – the MCU has proven that a couple of times – but while their dynamics are a major highlight, the relationship isn’t enough to elevate the film beyond its myriad narrative shortcomings.

Published in Movies

I was really looking forward to “Shaft.”

I have a genuine affection for the OG trilogy – 1971’s “Shaft,” 1972’s “Shaft’s Big Score!” and 1973’s “Shaft in Africa.” Between the of-the-moment aesthetic, the street-noir sensibility and the exquisite soundtracks, they are a delight to watch, ironically or otherwise. Likewise, I’m a fan of the decades-later, Samuel L. Jackson-starring 2000 sequel, also called “Shaft.”

So, the idea of returning us to the Shaft Cinematic Universe in the present day held obvious appeal for me, even though I understood that reconciling what I loved about the films with some of the more obviously dated and unenlightened aspects. All of those films are products of their times, for better or worse.

This new “Shaft” needed to do the same thing – be a product of its time. And by embracing the multi-generational aspect of the world that had been built with senses of both homage and humor, this new film – directed by Tim Story from a screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow – is able to integrate the old with the new in some ways.

Unfortunately, there are some aspects that simply have not aged well, and the world has shifted far too much for them to be rejuvenated. There was a chance to say something about how certain societal attitudes have evolved in the past half-century. Instead, we get something whose regressive aspects are far too present. The stars are game and there are a few compelling stretches, but really, this movie feels like nothing so much as a missed opportunity.

Published in Movies

Perhaps no 21st century film franchise has been as utterly uneven as the “X-Men” universe.

The first movie – “X-Men” – came out back in 2000, nearly a decade before the MCU hit the scene with “Iron Man.” By all rights, the X-Men should have been the cinematic blockbuster team well before the Avengers even showed up.

Instead, we’ve watched as the franchise has been yanked all over the map in terms of quality. The heights of the early films were undermined by 2006’s unfortunate “Last Stand” and the nigh-unwatchable 2009 standalone “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” The ship was righted thanks to the timeline-altering reboot that began with “First Class” in 2011, a good Wolverine movie (“The Wolverine”) and a capital-G Great one (“Logan”) and the introduction of Deadpool.

Alas, “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t rise to that level. Or the level below it. Or the level below that one. The truth is that one could argue that this latest installment – the last before the characters pass from 20th Century Fox into the control of the Disney machine – represents the nadir of the franchise.

It’s the second effort by the franchise to tell perhaps the most important arc in the history of the X-Men – and the second failure. This is an iconic storyline, not just for the X-Men, but for all of comicdom. And yet it is peppered with sloppy storytelling, disinterested characterizations and unclear decision-making (both on camera and behind it).

Despite extremely low expectations, “Dark Phoenix” still managed to disappoint me.

Published in Movies

We’ve all heard the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” While it might not be true in all cases, it is certainly true in the case of “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” the latest offering from animation stalwart Illumination.

And you know? That’s OK.

Sure, one can look at “The Secret Life of Pets 2” as a tossed-off and somewhat cynical attempt to cash in on the surprisingly significant success of the first film (seriously – the first “TSLOP” did over $875 million at the global box office). You wouldn’t even necessarily be wrong to do so. But if there’s one thing that Illumination knows how to do, it’s to make you feel all right about handing over your cash.

This isn’t a great movie by any stretch – what story it has feels stitched together from a handful of discarded ideas and deemed good enough, all of it serving as a framework on which to hang the same kid-friendly pet-themed jokes and sight gags that we saw in the first film. However, that can often be enough – the kids in my screening certainly enjoyed it well enough.

Published in Music

There’s something joyful about giant monster movies. They inspire a kind of glee, a sense of childlike wonder in the viewer. Sometimes, it can be nice to go to the movies and get swept away by sheer, unwavering bigness. Even when it is dorky and/or shoddy and/or low-rent, the sense of scale is always there.

Godzilla movies and their ilk have been the foundation of that particular niche. And in this current climate of cinematic universes, it’s no surprise that Hollywood has decided to shoehorn everyone’s favorite gigantic radioactive lizard into a franchise of his own.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is a follow-up to 2014’s “Godzilla.” Those movies – along with 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” – are the beginnings of what I’m going to go ahead and call the BAMCU (Big-Ass Monster Cinematic Universe). This latest installment is the one where the multi-film world-building begins in earnest, the one that strives to develop the connective tissue necessary to tie these blockbusters together.

But while “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” offers up a fair amount of monster-on-monster action and updated versions of some classic Toho creatures, it can’t quite deliver on the connectivity side of things. Balancing the stakes – skyscraper-sized reptiles shooting lasers at each other versus human beings trying to save both their families and the world – was always going to be a tricky task … and it’s a task that director Michael Dougherty and his team never quite manage.

Published in Movies
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