Set in an alternative universe – similar, but far from identical to ours – where a former TV star becomes president (because he played one on a popular, long-running show), an ultra-right-wing Rupert Murdoch-clone rules the airwaves (among other media), and where a Seth Rogen-looking character (played by Seth Rogen) somehow manages to make the jump from unemployed, lefty journo to head speechwriter for a secretary of state, future presidential candidate, to one-half of an unconventional romantic couple, the Jonathan Levine-directed Long Shot asks a tremendous amount from paying audience members and down-the-road future streamers: To set aside any all reality-world doubt and embrace the sheer wish-fulfillment fantasy inherent in the overused schlub-romances-a-beauty-queen-with-brains premise. If you can buy in, if you can get past what any reasonable person would consider the equivalent of a Big Ask, then Long Shot has a semi-random assortment of party favors and weed-soaked pleasures on offer for sporadic enjoyment and/or entertainment. (more…)
Avengers: Endgame had the mammoth task of resolving a decade’s worth of intricately woven super hero storylines spanning literal galaxies, but did it deliver? Fair warning – great, stonking SPOILERS lie ahead… (more…)
Love the 80s? Who doesn’t! But what’s even better than the 80s? The 80s nostalgia merchandise! Heavily pixelated graphics, pop culture references, and the ability to transport you back in time to the 1980s where you can feel like a kid again! On Kickstarter, with 12 days left as of this article, Retro Gaming Cards! gives you just that. The feel of retro gaming with the 80s aesthetic and subtle pop culture references. A great game for friends and family who don’t want to learn a lot of complicated rules. Open the box, sit down, and start having fun with Retro Gaming Cards!
Note: Mild spoilers to follow.
It seems like an eternity ago, but just a year ago, moviegoers around the globe emerged from multiplexes stunned, shocked, and otherwise shook by Avengers: Infinity War. Ten years and 20, interconnected, universe-expanding movies didn’t prepare them for the utter and complete defeat of the Avengers and Thanos’ overwhelming victory. In a snap felt around the universe, Thanos extinguished half of all life sentient life, including many (actually, most) of the superheroes who’ve made their home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over the previous decade. Even knowing that Avengers: Infinity War was just part one of a two-part, superhero epic did little to give moviegoers a sense of hope, however small, that the MCU would be restored to balance – not Thanos’ idea of genocidal balance – but where might and right stood together on one side of the wish-fulfillment equation against cosmic forces of evil and where individual and collective heroism, super or otherwise, clearly and simply mattered. (more…)
Over the last decade, the Portland, Oregon-based Laika Studios has not only revived old-school stop-motion animation, albeit with a CG gloss as needed, it’s produced a series of startlingly high-quality films, starting with Coraline and continuing with ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, Kubo & the Two Strings, and now their latest triumph, writer-director Chris Butler’s Missing Link, a Victorian-era set fantasy-adventure that gives Laika a perfect five-for-five record. Each film has stretched and expanded the limits of labor- and time-intensive stop-motion animation while also pushing the boundaries of family-oriented storytelling. Each film mixed humor, drama, characters, and, of course, stop-motion animation into a unique whole unlike anything in cinemas over the last decade. (more…)
The road to Game of Thrones Season 8 has been hard on viewers. Taking an emotional – and to some a physical – toll. Death, despair, a cyclone of political machinations, copious amounts of violence…oh and did we mention death? Lots and lots of death! Seeing beloved characters find their demise while villainous vultures continue to find victory (*cough* Cersei *cough*) , has almost been too much to bear. One would teeter on being a real masochist to have held on for this long. But that’s GoT for you, a show that defies convention. There is nothing quite like it and there may never be again. And here we are, the beginning of the end for one of the biggest, most ambitious, ground-breaking entertainment franchises ever.
After 7 seasons of war and individual hardships, the sprawling story has dwindled itself down to but a handful of characters. The fight for the (Iron) Throne remains, but so does the threat of the Night King and the horde of white walkers. Unless differences are put aside and lasting alliances forged, the fate of Westeros hangs in the balance.
Below is a SPOILER FREE take on the premier episode. Alludes, implies, and discusses, but never spoils.
Hellboy: The Reboot proves what so many fans of Mike Mignola’s long-running comic-book series or Guillermo del Toro’s unfinished trilogy suspected and/or feared: Just because you can reboot a series, doesn’t mean you should. Just because del Toro, a master filmmaker with a singular vision, isn’t available any more doesn’t mean you replace him with Neil Marshall (Centurion, Doomsday, Descent, Dog Soldiers), a competent, journeyman director who can’t deliver anything except a bland, colorless retread of a justly loved, if truncated, two-film series. Just because you can start all over again doesn’t mean you can or should revisit the title character’s origin story, via flashback or not. Killing Nazis is fine, of course, but killing Nazis while reminding everyone sitting in a darkened movie theater of del Toro’s far superior take on the same material isn’t. And just because you promise fans that you’ll deliver a hard R-rated film doesn’t mean you should go all out on the gratuitous blood and gore – and even if you do, for the love of all things unholy, stay away from blood and gore of the CGI kind. (more…)
Let’s start off by saying that, by far, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is my favorite teen drama I’ve watched in a very long time. While it definitely leans into its younger demographic, it still tells an engaging story with interesting characters in a unique setting. For a TV show, the teens are much more teen-like than most teen drama types, actually worrying about classes and making clubs and thinking of teen solutions to teen problems (most of the time). They aren’t adults acting like college kids while we’re pretending it’s high school. They’re adults acting as high school students who act like frustrated teens. It’s honestly impressive, in the world of absurd Riverdale, Pretty Little Liars, and the like.
Now to the problematic shit. (SPOILERS galore, so be warned).
Not every blockbuster or franchise starter/wannabe can – or should – be seen through a superhero prism, but Dumbo, Tim Burton’s (Ed Wood, Mars Attacks, Edward Scissorhands) misguided remake of the 1941 Disney animated classic, certainly can be. The superhero in question can’t speak or even control his own destiny (for that, he depends on the kindness of strangers), but he can communicate except through overlarge, blue eyes, giant, floppy ears, and expressive body language. And like every superhero, he has a tragic backstory (forcible separation from his mother) that unfolds in reel time, and a unique superpower (flight) that once used purely for good and not entertainment, will help free them both from the chains of captivity. He’s also an outcast, a pariah among his own kind, the deliberate subject of ridicule, humiliation, and shame. In short, the all-CGI title character is a misfit-outsider after Burton’s own, not-yet-curdled, middle-aged heart.
Unfortunately for Burton and his audience (i.e., us), doubling the original’s thankfully brief 64-minute running time effectively means opening up Dumbo, shifting the focus from Dumbo and his plight to a circus family also beset by tragedy (the symmetrical loss of a mother and a visibly wounded war veteran) and the larger circus itself, beset less by tragedy than a sputtering post-war economy that has little room or space for their kind of old-school entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong per se in the non-Dumbo circus characters, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), the aforementioned war veteran, a one-time trick horseman and circus mainstay pre-war injury, or his two children, Milly (Nico Parker), a wannabe scientist in early 20th-century America, and her younger brother, Joe (Finley Hobbins). They make for an endearing, if remarkably well scrubbed, trio. It’s just that their individual and collective story often distracts from Dumbo’s journey from sideshow outcast to world-class entertainer and beyond. (Props for Dumbo’s surprising, surprisingly welcome pro-conservation, anti-animals-in-circuses-or-zoos message.)
And when Dumbo isn’t focused on the Farriers and their intra-personal jousts, conflicts, and reconciliations, it’s focused on the circus proper, specifically owner-ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito), a kind-hearted, well-meaning impresario who treats circus workers less as employees than an extended family. Burton and his screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, use broad strokes to introduce the circus performers, most of whom leave little if any mark. To Burton, however, the circus represents a near-socialist utopia of equals or near-equals, with only one or two mean-spirited workers who represent both the worst humanity has to offer (i.e., cruelty to animals) and function as a plot device (one callously instigates the incident that separates Dumbo from his mother, Jumbo). The real villain, V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a Trump-like venal, morally and ethically bankrupt showman, doesn’t appear until the bloated, overlong, and over-indulgent second half. He’s as bland, dull, and uninteresting a villain as any found in Disney’s animation library.
Once Dumbo switches from the shabby, worn-out environs of the picture-book circus to Vandevere’s static amusement/theme park, Dreamland, Dumbo practically stalls out. Besides Vandevere and his machinations to permanently separate Dumbo from the circus, Dumbo introduces another characters, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), an aerialist who proves crucial to the evolution of Dumbo’s high-flying act and – no surprise here – a potential surrogate mother and significant other to the Farrier children and their wounded father, respectively. She has a semi-tragic history too (because of course, everyone who’s not a villain in Dumbo does). In exchange for a career and financial stability, Colette has handed over control of her life to Vandevere. A minor-league, bald henchman, Neils Skellig (Joseph Gatt), in thrall to Vandevere for no discernible reason other than the usual villain’s need for gofers and day-to-day evildoing, and J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin), a crotchety, curmudgeonly banker who holds the financial keys to Vandevere’s future, round out the non-circus performers.
As a director, Burton’s recent career has floundered more than it has soared (to deliberately mix metaphors). His attempt to start an X-Men-inspired franchise in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children failed to generate much interest from audiences while his attempt at spectacle-free drama, Big Eyes, came and went with little fanfare despite another winning turn from Amy Adams. And while his biggest successes over the last twenty years, Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, generously filled the coffers of their respective producers/studios, they did little to discourage the argument that Burton’s best days as a filmmaker with something to say, with the equivalent of a vision beyond CGI-driven, heavily production designed filmmaking, were and will remain behind him. With the occasional moment or scene in Dumbo, all but one or two tied to the Dumbo character and his plight (Burton spends close to half of Dumbo’s running time in close-ups of Dumbo’s large, expressive eyes), he does little to convince naysayers that they’re wrong.
Moments after crimson-red clad doppelgangers invade an upper-middle-class home in Us, writer-director Jordan Peele’s fbrilliantly provocative follow-up to the Oscar-winning black comedy/social satire Get Out, they win a brief, futile struggle for control, taking a terrified nuclear family of four hostage. One of the children, frightened, shocked, and disoriented, flatly states, “They’re us.” Part of the genius of Peele’s follow-up to Get Out lies in that single word, in the doppelgangers, led by Red (Lupita Nyong’o), both looking exactly like their upper-middle-class counterparts, but sounding and acting nothing like them. They might share the same faces and forms, but there the resemblance ends. Their life experiences, material comfort, emotional support, and sunlight for Adelaide Wilson (Nyong’o) and her family, material deprivation, emotional absence, and the cold, unblinking lights of a literal subterranean existence for Red and her makeshift family, raise multiple specters in American cultural, political, and social life starkly defined by vast income inequality, white supremacy/racism, and a hollowed-out American Dream.
Before, however, we get to that pivotal home-invasion scene, Peele, an exceptionally gifted filmmaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture (especially horror, including Funny Games, The Strangers, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) deliberately seeds Us with a steady stream of clues as to the underlying meaning – or more accurately, multiple, maybe even contradictory meanings – of his second feature-length film. An old-school, cathode-ray TV plays out a long-forgotten, feel-good, ultimately empty publicity stunt, “Hands Across America,” while nearby, a VHS copy of C.H.U.D., a mid-‘80s, low-budget horror shocker thematically tuned to Us’ socio-political commentary. A young girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry) pays little attention to the TV as her parents prepare for an evening at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. There, her father’s negligence, combined with her natural curiosity, leads her to a funhouse/hall of mirrors that proclaims visitors can “Find yourself.” Adelaide does, both literally and figuratively when she comes face-to-face with her silent double. When Adelaide returns – or rather found – she’s been so heavily traumatized that she can barely speak or interact with anyone.
That childhood trauma carries over into the adult Adelaide. Wary of returning to Santa Cruz or the boardwalk, she reluctantly agrees, in large part to go along to get along with her genial, even-tempered husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), her tween daughter, Zora Wilson (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her introspective, preteen son, Jason (Evan Alex). But where she sees signs and portents of her past fears and anxieties, her family blissfully sees nothing. When Jason disappears, wandering, like his mother more than thirty years earlier, away from his family and towards the funhouse, Adelaide panics. But again and again, she allows her family and the safety and security that her family represents, to calm her mind and ease her fears, an error Adelaide and her family pay for repeatedly when Red and her clan of grunting, animalistic proto-killers make their expected appearance.
Peele lingers on the small, everyday details of Adelaide and her family’s life, sketching out their divergent personalities in necessarily broad strokes, but also avoiding turning them into stereotypes or caricatures before Red and her clan invades their home. Post-home invasion, Adelaide and her family split and reform (they’re always stronger together), letting moviegoers see and how they’ll react to the life-or-death situations embodied by Red and her clan. For Adelaide, it’s her own personal apocalypse, but Peele, a bold, audacious, and ambitious filmmaker, isn’t content with spinning out another variation of the home-invasion thriller, with or without subtext. He’s just as willing to take a bigger, broader view, both expanding Adelaide and her family’s experience and the film’s objectives as well. The red crimson overalls Red and her clan wear are intentional, not institutional. They represent more than uniformity or conformity. They represent the blood they expect to shed, but also to subconsciously associate Red and her clan with rebellion and revolt. When Red, speaking in a choked, hoarse whisper, says, “We’re Americans,” she’s not wrong. What she fails to add is that Red and her clan represents the forgotten, the invisible, and the repressed (their revolt represents “the return of the repressed”).
There’s more too, of course. More story, more thematic material, more subtext, though early on Peele, a keen observer and commentator on the African-American experience, hints at the doppelgangers representing something else, the “imposter syndrome” many people of color experience when they, like Adelaide and her family, either escape the economic deprivation of their respective biological families, embracing the privilege that comes with middle-class and upper-middle-class status: They feel like the lives they live, the lives they’ve earned, aren’t really theirs. They belong to someone else, someone better, someone who deserves all of the objects and signifiers of material and social success. A key, second half plot turn, however, suggests that Peele might have something else entirely in mind – or something in addition to the “imposter syndrome” idea – for Us and it falls along the nature-nurture divide.
It’s obvious from their second encounter as adults that Red and Adelaide if body switched, would each lead the other’s life or an approximation. Biology isn’t destiny, but environment can be. Peele also suggests, however, that environments and the circumstances they represent, can be broken and shattered, but only through violent means, violent revolt. That we initially, subsequently, and repeatedly root for Adelaide and her family to escape Red’s clutches alive says something about narrative form and our implicit biases. We’ll root for the characters a story tells us to root for, the higher the class, the better the social standing and we won’t think twice about who to root for and how hard we root for them. By the end of Us, as the smoke clears on what, at best, can be seen as a partial victory, Peele wants moviegoers to closely question our loyalties and our allegiances. We just might not like the answers.