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2 (out of 4)
As a sister of the mumblecore movement, Olivia Wilde should have felt right at home while crafting her own hipster coming-of-age debut. It's something of a right of passage from Welles and Truffaut to Gerwig and Burnham. In Wilde's case a less than stellar acting career has led to a desperate appeal to the Gen-Z audience in the form of the essay in clichés known as Booksmart.
What is this genre known for? Adolescent insight, barbed one-liners, high school tomfoolery and maybe even a tear or two shed. John Hughes' multiple distillations of this formula gave the 80s a few of its intrinsic flavors but Wilde’s amendment on the tactics match neither Hughes' overrated abilities or the ingenuity of her contemporaries. Unlike the novelties of Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, The Diary of a Teenage Girl or especially and most recently Eighth Grade, Booksmart falls way shy of the creativity of its counterparts. The wisdom is weak, the situational comedy is forced and many characters do little other than secure an imagined quota of LGBTQ+ representation, a political move just as deliberately predispositioned as the rest of the film.
Booksmart wants to be the female Superbad – let the losers loosen up just as high schools ends – but that 2007 flick still holds favor because its script finds the appropriate time for each instance of silliness, satire and insight in order maintain both relative realism and homespun, inappropriate entertainment. Wilde's attempts to illustrate the newfangled quirks of present-day youth are periodically cringe-inducing and ignore any semblance of universality. Even with a hard R, Wilde's film is a soft summer comedy – Booksmart desperately yearns to shine with the luster of an underseen cult classic. It's another faux-indie wide release with an oppressively modern soundtrack (sorry but these girls don’t listen to Death Grips along with Top 40 garbage), broad gags and big comedy names in the lesser roles (Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudekis and Jessica Williams). As much as the supporting casts amuses, a few funny side characters don't outweigh the stock of stereotypes and agenda-fillers.
Leads Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever both seem typecast. The former repeats her exact role in Lady Bird albeit larger and the latter is still playing high schoolers, this time in a more comic context. Feldstein’s shtick is already stale and Dever’s improvisational chops are nonexistent. Their onscreen friendship has sweet moments but there’s no self-awareness in Wilde asking us to sympathize, not scrutinize, the most priviledged teens imaginable. There’s nothing at all revelatory about realizing rich kids get into ivy league schools regardless of their grades, which is the inciting insecurity of Feldstein's valedictorian, straight-edge protagonist. If Booksmart took place in a midwest town... well the premise would be moot but her character's shock is unrelatable and every succeeding act of their unexpected evening is contrived and unfulfilled.
If it weren’t for the fact that Booksmart has damn near unanimous praise, I wouldn’t blink an eye at a middling SXSW film. I would guess the deeply feminist slant has the liberal majority of critics on its side regardless of the film’s actual content, though I don't deny there are some inspired choices amongst the prescribed fun and feels. Wilde's work still lands without empathetic impact and its coaxing through breakneck editing and blaring needle drops is more exasperating than charming as intended.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Finally attaining the breadth of frenzied hysteria and hysterics this film series intended from the start, the third John Wick installment is an individually dynamite action picture systematically outdoing its predecessors and establishing a fresh benchmark in stunt perfectionism for today's genre enthusiasts. Of course, if you prefer sensible storytelling over violent skirmishes you most likely already don't look favorably upon Wick or any blockbusters of the same ilk.
But scrutizing plot is wasted effort in this context and anticipating narrative innovation is misguided when one's focus should be fixed on the particulars of editing, choreography, stuntwork and set design – with uncompromising action thrillers, story usually does and should fade into the aesthetics of staggering blockbuster filmmaking, assuming there’s someone proficient behind camera. When your central premise is the most unbeatable assassin returning from retirement for a cascading series of absurdly brutal scenarios and new emotional motivations, the propulsion better be one more of feeling than logic. As much as Chapter 3 doesn’t necessarily solve persisting genre clichés – one-by-one henchmen attack plans or the elasticity of movie physics – this series already sits as the modern measure of action film greatness.
The first Wick was a blistering, left-field gem, now standing as a downplayed action classic. The sequel posited impressive improvements on the finer fringe details of the assassin-verse but regrettably threw the combat switch from thrill to overkill. Parabellum lands in a firm middle-ground, reaffirming the original's brazen tongue-in-cheekiness and reverting the violence to a kinetic, outlandish fun house. The sheer amount of RPG headshots isn't as thoroughly numbing as last time and the sense of visual clarity and opulence has never been more uniformly crisp. Bourne has been forgotten and Bond has been the sight of every kind of reinvention process – only Mission: Impossible and Fast & Furious hold relevancy to the genre and each are two movies away from completion. John Wick had humble beginnings and expertly earned its cult following, critical raves and exponential box office numbers. Who knows where this crazy train ends but the views so far have been uncommonly spectacular.
Collecting the memorable antagonists from the Raid franchise – Yayan Ruhien and Cecep Arif Rahman – as merciless number twos to Zero, the deadliest fanboy on the planet (Mark Decascos), the Wick series reaffirms its genre cred and impossible niche in another martial arts/neo-noir hybrid brimming with gun-fu freak-outs and practical choreography tutorials. Ballet ties into its basic but functional themes on the harmonic relationship between art and pain – the exploration of the elegance of movement is at the core of John Wick 3, crystallizing the film and franchise within their own artistically justified heights. If lustrous final boss battles and antique knife fights bring us closer to the savage audiovisual poetry absolving us of our restrained recklessness, so be it. Chapter 4 will suitably raise the stakes, break the rules and have us laughing and/or gaping in awe once again – topping Parabellum's slew of sick opening set pieces and the algorithmically orchestrated climax will be a marvelous challenge.
2 (out of 4)
Like the Jack Sparrow of his own Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Ryan Reynolds is the recurring grace note keeping Detective Pikachu at all bearable. If it weren’t for his hapless ad-libbing, the first live-action Pokémon movie would be a true bust rather than the year's most forgettable summer flick for the whole family.
The actual narrative within the quasi-mystery of this Roger Rabbit-ripoff is pretty pitiful but Detective Pickachu thankfully doesn't rely entirely on nostalgia to secure your investment. The updated poké-politics – I suppose it is a little cramped inside those pokéballs – try to finagle the ridiculous reality of Pocket Monsters into a framework vaguely fit for live-action spaces. But nondescript lead characters in Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton, unmistakable bad guy Bill Nighy and some abysmal visual effects do not help the cause of this so-called urban fantasy. Plus no matter how many dead parents there are the film never gets even remotely emotional.
Now’s the moment to bellyache like I resemble a real fan. I grew up with Pokémon – the trading cards, the action figures, the television series and of course the video games – and had a peculiar attachment to the property. This PG movie is inspired by the 2016 game of the same name, undoubtedly placing its bets on the freshest, most susceptible generation of fans. Still, when you hope to see such fantastical delirium in a tangible setting, you'd like classic characters filling in not only the foreground but the edges as well. Favorites like Psyduck, Mr. Mime and Mewtwo are on the front lines, but the background is teeming with the most witless ideas those Japanese creators ever conceived. I could be doubly upset at the lack of an Ash Ketchum storyline but the gripes continue since Rob Letterman's film settles for a mediocre visual spirit when the bracing anime style of the original show and early films could've been cleverly converted.
But, like many mainstream blockbusters, this movie was not created with only myself in mind. Tweens and younger are probably gonna lose their minds watching Detective Pikachu. All I know is the first animated Pokémon movie from 20 years back didn’t require Pikachu to act human in order to convey the master-trainer bond with Ash. Primitive as the idea of battling is as each film in question suggests, the reverent relationship between man and the creatures of nature was always the point. Detective Pikachu has taken extraordinary effort to write its way around this crucial element of the world of Pokémon in order to have the Deadpool guy say funny things.
You’re better off watching Pokémon 3 if you want an actual story and not just placeholder plotting, weightless CGI and middling humor.
3 (out of 4)
Director Jonathan Levine has grappled with horror and hilarity from the Texas Chainsaw pastiche of All the Girls Love Mandy Lane to his exceptionally honest cancer comedy 50/50 to the rom-zom-com middleground of Warm Bodies. Long Shot is in many ways just another Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg product – much like Levine’s last film The Night Before – but damn if Rogen hasn't maintained his acclaimed affability.
The sole blemish of Long Shot, an otherwise thematically frank and well-tapered romantic comedy, is the idea that the ceaselessly stoned Jewish schlep (yet again Rogen's 'character' is barely removed from his real persona) would ever obtain the love of someone as untouchable as Charlize Theron, let alone her as Secretary of State and future president. Rogen has been paired with fine ladies over the years (Katherine Heigl, Elizabeth Banks, Rose Byrne, Amber Heard for Christ's sake) but the pairing in Long Shot sails past even Adam Sandler-tier male fantasies.
With that primary nitpick out of the way, it's safe to say Long Shot is frequently hilarious, appropriately cast (Randall Park and O'Shea Jackson Jr. continue to and should pop up in everything) and discerning enough given the usual quota of sex jokes and pop culture references. The film actually has its own take on today's politics, namely the relationship between the media, the public and the powers that be. And regarding the premise – the early stages of a successful female presidential run – this is not a feminist film; It's Her Turn is not the big ol' message. The politics lean decidedly left – Bob Odenkirk as the current president, former TV star and self-obsessed dummy should spell this out obviously enough – but Long Shot's relatively complex view of public discourse and political candor is passable for mainstream amusement.
Apart from the joint topics on journalism and government, a Seth Rogen movie means we’re getting self-deprecating humor, drug sequences, offhand ad-libbing and a fairy tale ending. All of this is true of Long Shot but, like the best Rogen vehicles, the laughs come very natural and relaxation becomes second nature. The sequence wherein Theron’s Charlotte Field negotiates a hostage situation whilst rolling on MDMA is a bit of brilliance. A forced namedrop here and there can’t spoil Long Shot's fun – Levine reminds us of all the shameless comfort you can glean from a romantic comedy worth suspending reality for.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
It Chapter Two,
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice