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Pete and Elliot looking at the evening sky_zpsuk7od7he.jpg

The film is gorgeous. Often jaw-droppingly.

The first indicator that Pete’s Dragon had the potential to be something special was the hiring of David Lowery, whose previous film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a moody, slow, and Malickian drama that was critically acclaimed and underseen. I saw it just prior to seeing this, and the contrast reminded me of Spike Jonze and his masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are. I don’t know if Pete’s Dragon is as sophisticated and singular as that film, but it’s definitely just as powerful and perhaps more so for its accessibility. Though it never talks down to kids and deals with some very difficult subject matter, Pete’s Dragon maintains a safer overall approach. But I was reminded of the way Where the Wild Things Are, which to me is the gold standard for sophisticated movies about and for kids, weaves wonder and drama together into a relatively daring emotional core.

I dare you to feel nothing in the opening minutes of Pete’s Dragon. This is a movie, like the kids movies I grew up with (Land Before Time and The Neverending Story come to mind), that is unafraid to be as sad as it is happy. Whenever the movie could veer into a bouncy, safe, and condescendingly “kiddie” version of a sequence, it refrains. Lowery keeps the movie grounded even when you’re watching a giant CG dragon splashing in a stream. These scenes definitely owe a debt to How to Train Your Dragon but the association is a positive one, helping the audience to completely buy Elliot and his puppy-like behavior. This is key because where many films of this kind would under-utilize the “fantastic” elements, like big green dragons, and focus instead of human drama and safer, more familiar scenes and characterizations, Pete’s Dragon spends only the amount of time on that stuff as is needed to serve the story and its emotional, thematic beats. If anything, some characters could have used more time, but overall it’s a good thing that the film keeps its focus centered on the dragon and his boy.

SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. PLEASE SEE THIS MOVIE, THOUGH.

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StarTrekBeyond.jpg

The few shots that actually take place in space are nice.

I follow a few rules when I set out to review a movie. One of them is that I try to review the movie I’ve seen and not the movie I wish I’d seen. The big difference is that, when you go into something with expectations (sometimes very clear ones), you wind up missing the forest for the trees. On this hook can be hung a lot of unfair reactions and reviews for movies, either positive or negative. It’s a kind of easily avoidable bias and avoiding it raises the caliber of a review. Or at least that’s what I think. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway, that notion is why I’m going to get something out of the way before I dive into this review. I was hoping for a Star Trek movie that finally did something different than the plethora of action-adventure movies we already have, especially in the scifi genre. Star Wars is back, so why does Star Trek need to be so similar to it? Maybe because studios like to make money. I didn’t like this movie very much, and at least a little of that is because it consistently felt like wasted potential. But if you take away my expectation for a more wonder-driven, thoughtful third entry to this reboot franchise, what is left? Hopefully something more fair to the movie. You’ll have to let me know.

My argument is that the movie I saw (as opposed to the one I wished I’d seen) is as fundamentally flawed, shallow, and messy as the previous two. My disinterest in Wrath of Khan helped me appreciate Into Darkness more than the majority of the audience, but this time around I feel like if I were a fan of the Original Series, I’d have appreciated this movie more. It certainly panders to Original Series fans yet again, but asks way less of them (unlike Into Darkness and the ’09 movie). Because I don’t have much feel for what is meant by “it was like a movie length version of an OS episode”, I don’t have to consciously avoid the nostalgia-based bias that comes with that. For what it’s worth, I do think I’ll like this movie more as time goes on (much like ’09) where I like Into Darkness much less.  Read the rest of this entry »

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One of the many ways this franchise mimics Conan the Barbarian.

After almost ten years, here comes the third Riddick movie. I think it would be a bit of an overstatement to say this was a highly anticipated threequel but Riddick has always had a fanbase and the recent resurgence of Vin Diesel has made this movie possible for them. I count myself tentatively among the fans of Riddick, and enthusiastically among the fans of Diesel (check out that video of him singing Rihanna, it’s astonishing). I’ve also always been easier going on the much-hated Chronicles of Riddick than most people. I liked it for what it tried to be more than for what it is, I guess. The idea of a misanthropic Space Conan is one that has legs. Pitch Black didn’t have that idea coded into its DNA, but Chronicles certainly did. Riddick, the self-titled third album, remembers that idea even as it does its best to recall the more successful and more focused Pitch Black.

Part of me wishes they would have gotten the budget to do the movies they originally wanted to do. David Twohy and Vin Diesel have created a slapdash mythology around this character and they have big eyes for where it’s all going. Unfortunately, the failure of Chronicles and the non-blockbuster status of the character means the money isn’t exactly flowing for the grandiose fantasy epics they wanted to make. So we get this, a much more stripped down and raw side-story that feels like a one-shot bridge movie that self-consciously acknowledges the need to get things back on track. There are bits of monologuing in this movie that feel like they’re breaking the fourth wall, commenting indirectly about the franchise, character, and even Diesel himself. This goes together with the strange sexual psychology of the movie and its characters to elevate the subtext of Riddick to an interesting, probably unintended place.

It helps that the film is rather good. Especially the first half. It’s also much grander and more beautiful than the early trailers suggested. It’s far from the B-movie lowfi of Pitch Black and even farther from the saturated, Star Wars-lite of Chronicles. It exists somewhere between the grit and the glamor, and it feels like (visually at least), Twohy has really gotten his stride. The world-building is as slippery as ever, the character is still the sly dangerous antihero (with some soft spots) that we remember, and so on. All this is packaged in a lean, robust action movie masquerading as a creature feature. Even when it gives up on its best parts to focus on the secondary characters, Riddick keeps you engaged. When it turns into a buddy movie about honor and relying on others, you can’t help but feel like they’ve really made good with this one. Read the rest of this entry »

The use of lighting and color is one of the oddly artsy flourishes in Dredd.

There are a lot of fans out there who have no doubt been waiting for a proper filmic incarnation of Judge Dredd after the traditionally silly 90’s movie featuring none other than Sylvester Stallone. Though a comic strip character, Judge Dredd has always been an uncompromising reflection of fascist impulses in response to rampant, violent crime. With much in common with other notable violent/vigilante superheroes such as the Punisher or even Batman, the thing that sets Dredd apart is that he lives in a world where his harsh justice is state sanctioned.

Wisely, Dredd keeps thing simple and avoids both Verhoevian satire and Miller (or Nolan) style celebration of everybody’s inner fascist. Dredd is therefore free to be an unrepentant laconic badass and we are free to enjoy it without feeling weird about political or social con/subtext. Dredd is remarkably free of such elements, instead offering a solid and vaguely artistic action movie that is full of personality, black humor, and gruesome violence. Read the rest of this entry »

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