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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

Creating a cinematic franchise from scratch is HARD. If it wasn’t, studios wouldn’t be falling all over themselves in an effort to find preexisting intellectual properties to convert to the big screen.

And yet, that’s precisely what has happened with the “John Wick” series, which just saw its third installment – “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” – hit movie theaters nationwide. With this latest offering, the biggest and brashest of the series thus far, star Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stehelski have ensured that the creep of sequel fatigue will have to wait once again.

This new film embraces everything that made the two previous films such a success; the intricate, intimate fight scenes, the sweeping action set pieces, the meticulously constructed mythology, the kinetic hyperstylized aesthetic – it’s all here. And while it’s all much, MUCH bigger, it all scales up comfortably; the smaller moments aren’t lost. If anything, they’re accentuated even more by their massive surroundings.

In short, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” kicks ass in every way you expect … and a few that you don’t.

Published in Movies

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
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