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A fascinating short-form peek into the life and times of Ric Flair,
statistical anomaly and pro wrestling royalty. There are a million
reasons Flair shouldn't have grown into the phenomenon he became, from
his parents' disapproval to the jet crash that nearly took his life to
the hard-partying, absurdly alcohol-soaked lifestyle he embodied for
four decades. Where normal men would take the hint and move on to
another chapter of their story (or simply fall into the machine), Flair
put his head down and bowled through the adversity. He used the hard
times as motivation to come back even stronger, fuel for the
construction of a legend that, in time, supported every last one of his
outrageously boastful claims. No great reward comes without a price,
though, and Flair's was steep. His own body may have been damn near
indestructible, but that of his son, who idolized and modeled himself
after everything his father stood for (the good traits and the bad),
At just seventy-seven minutes, Nature Boy is an efficient, well-crafted documentary that screams right by and still feels like it hasn't even scratched the surface. Which should be expected, because how do you condense a forty-year career, never mind one with this many twists and turns, into slightly more than an hour? Flair, the Nature Boy himself, is startlingly frank about his years in the limelight, delivering the dirt in a pair of emotionally charged interviews that range from celebratory to confessional to tear-stained. His life has been vibrant, if not heartwarming, and when he's speaking it can be almost impossible to turn away, even if there is a certain doubt about the veracity of his claims. The way he lived, or more aptly the infamous way he spent, can make almost anything seem realistic. But as future WWE Hall of Famer Triple H reminds us in a pointed remark late in the film, he's almost as legendary a liar as he was a technician in the ring.
Gru, his family and the minions are back to make a new friend and confront a new foil. This time, the opposition is former child star Balthazar Bratt, stranded deep in the 1980s, who takes out frustrations about an ancient sitcom cancellation on jewel owners and Hollywood big-spenders alike. Played with energy by Trey Parker and swathed in a dense cloak of pop culture references, Bratt brings a fresh new dynamic to the franchise that gives this third installment just enough of a boost to feel necessary. Most of those cultural winks were completely lost on my kids, of course, but they still appreciated his silly wardrobe, fly dance-fighting moves and crafty arsenal of unlikely weapons. There's a side story with Gru's forgotten twin brother Dru (both played by Steve Carell, of course), and a sweet arc that finds Kristin Wiig's special agent Lucy seeking a relationship with the reformed villain's three girls, but those feel like slight retreads and don't have the new criminal's panache. Clearly, Illumination was having a good time with Bratt, while the other plot threads were more like obligations. It's fun, with some great bits of physical comedy and a necessary return to the heartstring-plucking of the first film, though overall it lands in somewhat shallow waters. An improvement over the underachieving Despicable Me 2, if not quite up to the original's snuff.
Luc Besson delivers a spiritual successor to The Fifth Element that's equally colorful if not half as deep. Visually rich and mesmerizing on the surface, it easily outreaches Avatar as a sci-fi fan's wet dream; a slick, breathing conceptual powerhouse to rival the cover artwork on so many pulpy, classic paperbacks. The art direction is a smooth continuation of Besson's earlier work, drawing heavily from European design and comic book artwork to set a scene that feels at once futuristically familiar and unsettlingly exotic. Designs for the various species of alien life are similarly remarkable and unrestrained, as are the wildly different habitats that have developed to house them aboard one massive, utilitarian space station. The opening scene, set inside a cross-dimensional bazaar, is a wonderful mishmash of creative world building and original twists on action movie tropes. But then it gets to the meat of the plot and... suddenly we're dealing with just another dopey laserbeam run-n-gun with a heavy, heavy emphasis on stale human characters and an over-reliance on CG. Forgive the constant comparisons, but it becomes The Fifth Element without Bruce Willis, Chris Tucker, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman or the blue girl singing opera to connect with the audience. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, wooden and flat with next to no chemistry between them, simply don't compare and the picture flails aimlessly without a firm leading presence. It's got humor in small doses and artistic vision in large ones, but without an equal narrative jab to match its creative haymakers, it falls quite short.
Set in Hong Kong, 1962, In the Mood for Love depicts a pair of quiet, introverted neighbors who discover that their spouses have been carrying on an extramarital affair. As a means of coping with this mutual heartbreak, they begin spending time together - bonding over martial arts serials and a mutual curiosity about their significant others' double lives - and are shocked to uncover the flicker of a budding romance themselves. Their sense of honor, propriety and, perhaps, a jolt of fear stands in the way, though, and the pair treads cautiously lest they commit the same sins that first brought them together. That central conundrum proves impossible, ultimately, and it's an issue the film never completely resolves despite toying with the subject for quite a while. Which, in a way, is the most relatably authentic path it could've chosen. Sometimes life is defined by what happens between those narrowly-missed connections, those epic romances that could've been but weren't. Actually reaching that conclusion is somewhat laborious, as director Wong Kar-Wai dallies about with only faint plot developments for most of the duration, but I didn't mind that so much. The marvelous cinematography, rich supporting cast and lush, detail-laden scenery provides interest where the story itself might otherwise fall short.
In the mid-19th century, a blinding snowstorm blows several crooked paths to one central location: a haberdashery in the middle of nowhere. Here, a motley gathering of bounty hunters, fugitives, lawmen and soldiers takes place, but nothing is quite as it seems. Eight may walk in, but far fewer will see the sunlight when this storm clears. Structurally, The Hateful Eight is quite similar to Tarantino's first effort, Reservoir Dogs. A wide variety of brash, violent, colorful characters, bouncing off the walls (not to mention each other) in an enclosed space while an unseen threat keeps them right where they are. Secrets abound, betrayals too, with the audience kept as much in the dark as the participants. Both are reminiscent of a one-set stage show, really, with the added benefit of cinematography. The biggest stumbling block here is setup, specifically how much of it there is before the plot feels ready to proceed. I'm a proponent of establishing things, of not rushing in with guns blazing, but this may be an extreme example. The first act alone runs for longer than many feature films, and while there's some good character stuff in that space, it surely could've achieved the same purpose in half the time or less. The auteur's infamously witty, cutting dialog is absent for this portion of the film, too, which may have contributed to that lethargy. Those who tough it out are rewarded when the pace finally quickens, leading to a typically Tarantino climax - grisly, shocking and wild - but that's awfully familiar territory. For now, this director can still deliver the goods with his back up against the wall, but the time feels nigh for an evolution. He can't answer every riddle with two barrels of lead and a wet, crimson explosion... can he?
Perspective from the street-level as a towering, rampaging monster plows straight through the heart of Manhattan. At the time this was released, we were roughly a decade past The Blair Witch Project, long enough for the found footage trope to have thoroughly played itself out. Yet in many ways this feels like a revelation, one which would collapse without that same central gimmick. Like bystander footage from a major disaster, the placement of the camera makes the chaos and mayhem of this sudden, citywide catastrophe feel completely vivid and tangible. It's like we're there with the victims; our pulse racing, our eyes widened by the dead and injured, our skin coated by the dust of so much collapsed concrete. Moments that would've certainly felt cheesy from a traditional POV, high above the action, now deliver beyond any reasonable expectation. We get to know the core characters well, their thoughts and quirks and feelings, and we mourn when they're abruptly taken from us in the confusion. It tells a desperate human story in a genre that usually struggles with such elements, and doesn't shy from the profound, lasting conclusion that everything seems to be building toward from the start. The plot does have holes, some larger than others, but given the frenetic pace and rapid developments, those are relatively easy to shake off and leave behind. I was surprised by how Cloverfield moved me today, nine years after the fact. Surely one of the most memorable, ambitious, effective films of the decade.
Ten-plus years after the fate of the Prometheus, a new venture stumbles across its remains and inadvertently sets loose the dark, dangerous secrets contained therein. Where director Ridley Scott over-indulged his cryptic, cerebral side with Prometheus, here he over-corrects that course and produces a film that seems a dash too superficial. After five Alien films (seven if you include the Predator crossovers) there's already plenty of lore to feed on, and this time Scott seems content to do precisely that, rather than adding another layer to the onion skin. It's an inessential film - apart from the final fate of the preceding crew, we learn very little - but an efficient, well-made one. I felt more attached to the human element of this cast, which was a problem with Prometheus, so their violent trials provide better tension. Danny McBride is an unusual choice for the hero, and his performance doesn't completely justify the distraction of such a familiar face, but it's not like that's uncharted territory for the franchise so I'm willing to give some leeway. Elsewhere, Michael Fassbender seems wasted in a dual role as matching cyborgs with a weakness for long, Shakespearean monologues. Strong as an action picture, with some good splashes of horror, but not nearly the all-engulfing experience one might expect from this director / subject pairing.
Emma Watson plays Mae, a twenty-something who lands her dream job at "The Circle," your not-so-subtle Apple/Google/Facebook knockoff with sinister ulterior motives. Something feels wrong about the corporate campus from the very moment she arrives, but that doesn't stop Mae from mindlessly embracing the new gig and, quickly, ascending to lofty status as a global mouthpiece for the CEO (Tom Hanks in a Steve Jobs Halloween costume) and his underhanded cronies' narrow agenda. As a protagonist, Mae is infuriatingly naive and compliant. She's the proverbial horse-led-to-water, shown the dark side of the company's aspirations and then, against all sense of reason, doubling down on her support for the new evil empire. With a little nuance and a better understanding of metaphor, this could've served as a halfway decent Twilight Zone wannabe. Instead it's heavy-handed and preachy, forced and unfocused, with a blunt approach to morality that's more after-school special than Rod Sterling hypothetical. Flat, inept and simple-minded, it trips over its own feet in a feeble attempt to hit its misguided talking points. When it was all said and done, I felt like I'd been lectured by a loud, uninformed aunt on social media. I want to pat these filmmakers on the head and then back away
A small-scale imposter / con man, making the rounds in 1950s New York, gets caught up in something much greater than his usual scam and decides to let it ride, if just to see where he winds up. In this case the answer is Italy, gorgeous vestige of the old world with just a few hints of the modern one, where he's tasked with convincing a flippant trust funder to return from a perpetual, fortune-draining holiday. That mission quickly goes by the wayside, just as soon as he realizes how much easier life is in the lap of luxury, and he merely exacerbates said money-letting as the wealthy playboy's new wingman. When things take a turn for the messy, though, his welcome worn thin and nothing to show for it but bittersweet memories, a panicked string of responses sends the entire comfortable lifestyle into a tailspin. At its root, Ripley is an example of how fear and rejection can press a normally smart, affable person over the brink into monstrosity, a surprise considering the playful tone of the first act. Matt Damon, still fresh from his breakout in 1997's Good Will Hunting, shows great versatility in the leading role (essential for such a complicated character), smoothly masking that twitch in his eye from all but the viewing audience. It's one of those films where you'll feel wrong about your rooting interest, knowing all along that the guy absolutely does not deserve a happy ending, with the final moments serving as your comeuppance.
Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson play two strangers, yin and yang of the modern world, who meet under dire circumstances and embark on a quest to live their final days as if there's no tomorrow. Which, given their diagnosis, might not be so far from the truth. It's got a good heart, but the two legendary leads don't get much script to really sink their teeth into and the trouble they find together often crosses from quaintly naive to downright unrealistic. To me, there was far more of interest in the relationship between Nicholson's grumpy, wannabe-refined old miser and his ironic, long-suffering personal assistant than between Jack and his calm, knowledgeable new travel partner. Still, it has a cute concept, some fun moments, and it moves swiftly, avoiding the typical bog-down of most films of a similar subject matter. As easygoing, feel-good and optimistic a take as you'll ever get from a movie about dying of brain cancer, it's safe, light viewing for the family audience.
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