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‘Atomic Blonde’ Looks Great But Pulls Too Many Punches

atomic

Atomic Blonde was directed by David Leitch, the stunt mastermind and co-director of the action-favorite, John Wick. Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, this is a spy film with all the right moves, but does that hold true for the story itself?

Go on…‘Atomic Blonde’ Looks Great But Pulls Too Many Punches

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‘The Fate of the Furious’ Is Both Better And Worse Than Its Predecessors

fate of the furious

The Fate of the Furious is an easy film to understand just by taking a second look at its title, which feels designed for a hashtag (F8), rather than something new or creatively crafted. This is the eighth installment of a 16-year-long franchise that has more or less stayed alive and successful by finding increasingly silly ways to escalate its rising action to a series climax that has never been hazier.

In F8, we have what many 2017 films seem destined to use as a plot device: a hero of the series (Dominic Toretto, who long slipped into Vin Diesel simply playing himself) “goes rogue” and his former teammates have to team up to try and stop him.

At this point in the franchise, the “family” almost solely consists of former enemies Dom has picked up over the years, including an indefensibly sympathetic Shaw (Jason Statham) who is wrapped up with a retcon for the last two movies, pitting Charlize Theron’s “Cipher” as the real villain all along…somehow. And her isolated master plan is at least one that generates some intense moments, including a deluge of remote controlled cars that devastate New York City.

There seems to be a clear effort from director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta ComptonItalian Job) to ground this franchise in darker subplots that make the characters feel somewhat less immortal, not just in the sense that they’ll die, but also in how death wrecks the characters. But overall, the movie’s main thrust (being a Saturday Morning Cartoon for adults) never gives way to any of the semi-serious tone that now has to reconcile with Dom’s never-ending sense of family, a theme that has certainly run its course as a passable explanation for what brings these characters together.

fate of the furious

Yet F8 also consists of some of the most exciting and entertaining set pieces in the franchise to date, including some playful development involving Shaw and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson in a bigger role than Furious 7) charming their way to what is hopefully spinoff territory, or just a retooling of the series that lets these two action heroes take the reigns. Aside from them, none of the familiar characters here are given a shred of character growth, and F8 only advances the plot of their lives in superficial ways that feel tacked on. And that’s not even mentioning the sloppy effort to replace Paul Walker with Scott Eastwood. There’s no question Furious 7 handled Walker’s tragic death with class, so it’s strange to see F8 stumble with this just two years later.

As the various family members deal with having to take down Dom, there’s no learning, application, or self-reflection to get them there. They simply do what they’ve done before; Roman wisecracks, Leti is always there for Dom, everyone drives fast, etc. It’s surprisingly weightless, even for a blockbuster franchise that has won many people over for how accessibly fun it can be, while still having enough style and shiny lights to bring you back for the next one.

If that was the only goal, then F8 does its job fine. And at times, it’s truly a spectacle that deserves to be seen on as big a screen as possible. But there’s no denying the early signs of a series that is running dangerously low on steam for the first time since 2005.

Grade: B-

Extra Credits:

  • Forgot to mention the Cuba prologue, which might actually be the movie’s best scene and one of the best street races they’ve done yet.
  • Seeing the previous movies helps quite a bit, as F8 has a lot of past characters coming back around (even Lucas Black was originally meant to have a cameo, but he had to drift out due to conflicts).
  • Yes, it’s pretty obvious that Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel hate each other in real life.
  • Kristofer Hivju (Tormund from Game of Thrones) needs to be in more movies.

Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. 

Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


Review: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ Is a Leap Forward for Stop-Motion Animation

kubo two strings review

There’s a small chance, and tragedy, you’ve never watched a Laika film, but you’ve probably heard of this Oregon-based animation studio. They’re on a winning streak of consistently remarkable stop-motion animated films, including ParaNormanCoralineBox Trolls, and now, of course, Kubo and the Two Strings. With the latter, they’ve certainly crossed new territory into becoming the Pixar of stop-motion animation, to say the least.

This is because Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the finest films of 2016, animation or otherwise. For one thing, it’s impossibly beautiful, and that’s not understating it . Blending stop-motion mechanics with subtle blink-and-you’ll-miss-it CG placement is what gives Kubo its unique flavor of both flow and visuals. Not one moment stutters, and the film treats both character and setting designs with the kind of care and detail you’d expect from Studio Ghibli’s finest films, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.

The story is a stylized epic that borrows heavily from multiple Japanese folk tales to make its original story feel more legitimate. There’s some Hero’s Journey, of course, but it’s intentionally combined with stories more rooted in Eastern storytelling, as some of them will be very familiar to Americans who love Avatar the Last Airbender, for example.

At one moment, a character focuses on a quest that feels straight out of Legend of Zelda, until the dreamlike wonder Laika has become famous for takes over with ships made of leaves, literal dream sequences, and all manner of impressive set pieces designed to astound your skeptical eyes.

kubo two strings review

The narrative opens with some profound family drama that persists throughout the film. Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson, is the son of a powerful spirit woman and a legendary samurai, two important figures of this noticeably small mythos who started out as enemies. Kubo’s grandfather, known throughout the lands as the Moon King, took one of Kubo’s eyes at birth, and now he wants the second one.

We’re not immediately privy to the Moon King’s motivations, but it’s easy to suspect that it has something to do with Kubo’s magic powers, which he inherited from his mother. He can use music to bring inanimate objects to life, his entertainment of choice being origami. This ends up being one of the most oft-used quirks of the stop-motion animation, and to great effect. Kubo’s powers are certainly a key reason why this film has as much agency as it does. There’s never a moment when Kubo has to come to terms with the supernatural, or some surprise at how the world around him works. We’re placed in the middle of Kubo’s story, and it allows for some efficient storytelling.

Later in the movie, Kubo is on the run from his masked aunts, two flying (and frightening) demons voiced by Rooney Mara.  He’s protected by one of his charms, a monkey figure brought to life and voiced by Charlize Theron, and an amnesic beetle samurai who thinks he used to be a man, voiced by Matthew McConaughey. From there, the story becomes even more akin to Legend of Zelda, with fetch quests, magical items to hunt down, and extravagant action scenes. Studios who want to make great movies out of video games should take note.

kubo two strings review

One of the best things about Kubo and the Two Strings is its gimmick-free storytelling. It’s a pure, mostly uncomplicated epic that’s still layered in a poignant message that speaks more to adults, rather than children. But a downside of this “pure” narrative is a lack of any real surprise. Savvy viewers will see the obvious twists and pivots far too early to fully appreciate them, and the film’s repetition on some of its most interesting themes dulls the effect and sours any insightful conversation you might want to have about the film after the fact. Not enough is left to interpretation, mostly because the film is overstuffed with “this is what the movie is about” dialogue.

But that’s not a problem if you’re willing to enjoy the journey more than the destination.

Grade: A-

Extra Credits:

  • Yes, Art Parkinson (AKA Rickon Stark from Game of Thrones) has more lines of dialogue in 20 minutes than the entirety of that show.
  • The voice acting was pitch-perfect, especially the decision to cast McConaughey as the blissfully unaware beetle. But would it have been such a hassle to cast more Asian voice talents for this Asian-inspired film?
  • Not as good as ParaNorman, but about as good as Coraline and definitely a step up from Box Trolls.
  • The “Don’t Blink” moments are some of my favorite movie moments in 2016. Such a creative, interactive way to tell a story on the big screen.
  • The credits sequence is a wonder. I didn’t leave until well after the projector turned off.
  • Believe it or not, this is the first time Matthew McConaughey has starred in an animated film.
  • It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this!

    Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


 

My Top 10 Movies of 2015 (So Far)

Summer is about to kickoff, so I thought it would be fun to look back on the best films of Winter and Spring 2015. There are a few films I haven’t seen this year (yet) that may sway this list, and I’ll list them at the bottom.

I’ve made a stronger effort to watch more new movies this year, and it’s certainly paid off. For the first time in my life, I actually feel equipped to evaluate which movies are worth highlighting 6 months into the year. And we’ve gotten quite a few highlights. Starting with…

# 1 Mad Max: Fury Road

top 2015 movies

This shouldn’t surprise too many people. From its opening scene, George Miller had me hooked on his crazy, post-apocalyptic nightmare made reality.

With some of the best action scenes in years, combined with furious performances from Charlize Theron (get it?) and Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road has so far made the top of my list of must-watch films in 2015.

#2 Paddington

top 2015 movies

OK, this is certainly a departure from the #1 spot, and I’m sure many of you are rolling your eyes at the fact that I’m elevating this family friendly movie all the way to #2, but hear me out.

Paddington is a kid movie done right, amidst scores of cheap remakes and strange misfires disguised as high-level (I’m looking at you, Spongebob). Simply put, Paddington has the charm, wit, and effortless script that most movies this year have chosen to skip.

#3 Ex Machina

top 2015 movies

I usually hate feeling uncomfortable during a movie, especially when it has CGI Paul Walker involved (too soon?) But Ex Machina subverts what we expect in an eery movie about artificial intelligence without insulting our intelligence.
It’s not a horror movie. It’s not a thriller. And it’s certainly not just a commentary, if at all. The mystery of what makes this movie…what it is…only makes me love it even more.

#4 What We Do In The Shadows

top 2015 movies

Technically, this superb “mockumentary” about the lives of vampires living in New Zealand came out last year, but it’s wider release didn’t kick off until January. That means I get to share the delight of this monster movie homage with all of you who haven’t managed to see it yet. Seriously though, get on that.

#5 Kingsman: The Secret Service

top 2015 movies

Speaking of homages, I wasn’t too surprised to see that this James Bond action successor ended up being one of the most fun adventures of the year. Yes, even moreso than another certain superhero flick…
I can still remember the best moments of the film, including the controversial church scene that was shot in just one take (if you can believe that). While I’m not necessarily itching for a sequel, though it would be nice, Kingsman still reigns as one of the year’s most interesting escapes.

#6 Selma

top 2015 movies

History is my weak spot. Take me to any colonial town and tell me that guy is really a smith from 1776 and you have my money. But historical biopics from any era tend to rank low on my attention span. Why watch a movie about that bridge in Selma when I can just go there?
Well, it turns out, Selma does a brilliant job of revitalizing this subject matter with faithful storytelling, a chilling script, and yes, David Oyelowo. And that’s not even mentioning the soundtrack.

#7 Avengers: Age of Ultron

top 2015 movies

It’s not as groundbreaking as the first film, but it’s still groundbreaking. Leave it to Marvel. 2015 has not yet hit us with a lot of comic book movie adventures, as Fox has saved its movie for the summer and Sony is conspicuously absent.
But even without competition, Age of Ultron is a triumph of patient buildup, electric characters, and an excellent effects budget. It’s not the dark story many of us expected and hoped for, but it had plenty of memorable moments to make it standout, even if it is just a trailer for even more exciting events to come.

#8 While We’re Young

top 2015 movies

I’ll admit I’m easily charmed by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts (despite finding Birdman a bit meh for her). So pairing these veterans with relative newcomers Adam Driver (of future Star Wars fame) and Amanda Seyfried (OK, not a newcomer, but still untested for the most part) was almost overkill.
Specifically, every scene combining these characters or a mixing and matching them was pulled off brilliantly, and it helps that the script had something pretty meaningful to say about my generation, your generation, and their generation.

#9 Unfriended

top 2015 movies

Do you believe in miracles? Unfriended was a made-for-tv movie destined for MTV reruns and live-tweets. But it ended up being transformed into a perfectly timed film that did something pretty novel and refreshing with the horror genre, while also preaching a sermon on cyber-bullying that didn’t come off as forced. Well, maybe a little.

#10 Tomorrowland

top 2015 movies

Yeah, I might get a little heat for this one. Though Tomorrowland certainly isn’t amazing overall, it happens to be one of the riskiest, gutsiest movies of the year. And a lackluster ending doesn’t do enough to eviscerate an inventive and entertaining first two acts.

Possibly great films I haven’t gotten around to yet:

I’d love to add to this list, but alas, there are just some 2015 films I haven’t had a chance to see for myself yet. Here are a few ranking high on my list of must-see:

  1. It Follows
  2. ‘71
  3. A Most Violent Year
  4. Still Alice
  5. Girlhood

I also want to point out my biggest disappointment of the year (so far): Chappie. Oh, what could have been.

If you something to add to this list, feel free to let me know in the comment discussions below. See you in another 6 months.

Thanks for reading! If you like this blog, you can subscribe for weekly updates by clicking the “Subscribe” button on the right sidebar. Or just follow me on Twitter for the latest updates – @JonNegroni

Forget a Sequel, ‘Hancock’ Should Just Be a TV Series

Remember that Will Smith movie from 2008 about a homeless superhero who’s bad at being a superhero?

Well, Hancock is likely getting its long-awaited sequel soon, despite how “meh” the original was after the first hour. In fact, I speculated on what I would love to see from a Hancock follow up two years ago, and young Jon Negroni simply argued that the hero, Hancock, deserves his own superhero team. And you know what? I stand by how fun that sounds.

HANCOCK

Except now I believe the Hancock story should be reimagined as a series, perhaps with a new cast. You can blame the success of streaming hits like Daredevil and House of Cards for getting me on the Netflix content bandwagon.

The interesting thing about Hancock is that it isn’t a superhero adaptation. It’s actually based on a story dreamed up by Vincent Ngo, a writer/producer who came up with the character of Hancock back in the mid-1990s.

Of course, stalls in development kept the film in limbo for over a decade, but this world of fallen angels being reluctant superheroes is still ripe for exploitation. And thanks to Hancock‘s somewhat bittersweet ending, a reboot/refresh sounds very appealing to fans like me.

HANCOCK

See, the movie itself was pretty fun up until the third act, when it rushed its “serious” plot with a weird twist and underpowered finale. But imagine how much more entertaining the origin of Hancock would be if it was given a full season of episodes to build up its lore with the same comedic timing and exciting action sequences.

If I was in the writer’s room, I’d prefer Ngo’s original take on the story, where Hancock has a stronger relationship with Aaron, the young son of Ray and Mary. It’s a more interesting dynamic that doesn’t need the weird sexual tension built between Hancock and Mary to drive the plot. Instead, you have a broken, lonely man with powers slowly becoming a hero alongside a kid who adores him. Now that sounds like a TV show premise worth pitching.

When you rewatch Hancock, you’ll notice that his motivations for going along with Ray’s “PR rebranding” are pretty weak when you think about it too much. Hancock suddenly decides he wants people to like him, seemingly out of nowhere. But it makes way more sense if Hancock builds a realistic friendship with Aaron, which eventually leads him to discovering the truth behind his powers.

HANCOCK

In other words: more Hancock and Aaron. Less weird love triangle stuff. Oh, and more action.

Now imagine all of that stretched out over 13 episodes of a grisly weirdo learning how to be super. And then contrast this concept with the over saturation of comic book movies and TV shows about people who fight crime because it’s the right thing to do.

You know, while Hancock just does it because shrug whatever.

I love the idea of a Hancock series, especially with a new cast and refreshed plot that can deviate from what we saw in the movie by actually including real villains (not just a bunch of bank robbers).

As for casting…well, you can decide that for yourselves in the comments.

 

Thanks for reading! If you like this blog, you can subscribe for weekly updates by clicking the “Subscribe” button on the right sidebar. Or just follow me on Twitter for the latest updates – @JonNegroni

 

Review: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

mad max fury road

I’m still processing Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m still wrapping my head around the visuals, the world-building, the bold color palette, and what everyone else in the world is talking about right now: the action.

Let’s just get this out of the way. I’ve never seen any of the previous Mad Max” films (just parts of Road Warrior). I went into Fury Road blind, though that will be remedied very soon.

Go on…Review: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Is ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ About to Become The Best Movie of 2015?

mad max fury road best movie

I knew something was up when film reviewer Chris Stuckmann awarded the fourth Mad Max movie an “A+.” And when The Dissolve gave its second ever 5 star rating to the Tom Hardy/Charlize Theron film.

Now the film is even getting praise from traditional outlets. AP is calling it a “poetic masterpiece.” Chicago Tribune claims it makes Furious 7 look like Curious George. The George Miller movie has a stunning 99% on Rotten Tomatoes at this time. I don’t think I’ve heard of this much praise about a fourth sequel since Rocky IV, not that I was even alive back then.

Go on…Is ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ About to Become The Best Movie of 2015?

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