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Review: 'Kubo and the Two Strings' is a gorgeous and somber stop-motion fantasy

Laika's latest is their best film to-date
Review: 'Kubo and the Two Strings' is a gorgeous and somber stop-motion fantasy
Credit: Focus Feature/Laika Studios

While I think all animation is a magic trick that remains just as impressive now as the first time I saw it as a child, there are certainly levels of difficulty, and stop-motion animation is a special kind of lunacy. I’ve visited enough stop-motion sets to be awed by the skill set it requires for someone to effectively bring a character to life using such a difficult and painstaking method. It is sincerely meant then as praise when I say that I can’t imagine the single-minded pursuit of vision it took to bring Kubo and the Two Strings to life, and Travis Knight is, indeed, a madman.

Travis Knight is, like Megan Ellison, a rich kid doing something profoundly interesting with the position of privilege they found themselves in. Ellison has fascinating taste as a producer, and she’s become a sort of life raft for filmmakers who might otherwise not find a willing patron in today’s commercial climate. Knight’s lifelong fascination with stop-motion animation led him to Laika, a company that has built a very strange and lovely filmography over the course of their first decade. Coraline is a film I adore, even as I acknowledge that it is absolutely terrifying to children. You can’t call that a movie for kids because most kids can’t make it through the thing. It is pure nightmare machine to them. I really like Paranorman, a film that feels like the kind of scary that is just scary enough for young audiences, smart without pulling any punches. I’m not crazy about The Boxtrolls, but it is technically just as dazzling as their other work.

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A

Review: 'Pete's Dragon' is a beautiful fable for anyone who has ever loved a pet

Stop calling this one a remake, because it's a brand new animal
Review: 'Pete's Dragon' is a beautiful fable for anyone who has ever loved a pet
Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

One of the things you have to do if you’re going to be a film critic who wants to consistently weigh in on films of every genre and style is meet films on their own terms, and while that sounds easy, it feels like more often than ever before, I see critics who just plain reject entire styles of storytelling.

How many times have you read a variation on “I hate horror films” or “I hate superhero movies” or “I hate Westerns” from critics? I don’t understand that because I love film as a whole, and I would hate to do this professionally if I was filled with dread at every single example of a type of film that I had to see frequently. Sure, there are plenty of disappointments that stack up over the course of a year, but unless you walk in wide open to every film, you’re shutting yourself off to the thing that has kept me heading back into theaters year after year after year, movie after movie after movie: the joy of being surprised. Yet I see plenty of people opt out of treating “children’s films” seriously.

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A-

Review: 'Sausage Party' destroys the idea that American animation has to be for kids

Is it fair to call a cartoon about a talking hot dog the new 'Blazing Saddles'?
Review: 'Sausage Party' destroys the idea that American animation has to be for kids
Credit: Sony Pictures/Anapurna

Sausage Party is obviously the product of diseased minds, and I love it.

One of the things I think works best about this profoundly R-rated comedy is that it represents a very real attempt to expand the definition of what an animated studio film can be, and any time that happens, I’m interested. There have been plenty of attempts that have failed over the years, but this one is fairly sly about it. A cursory glance at the film might leave you thinking it’s just another in the endless parade of kid’s films about the inner lives of toys or pets or bugs or cars. I suspect there will be numerous parents who make the mistake of taking their kids to the film because they don’t pay attention, and I look forward to hearing the furious accounts of what happens when they realize that the hot dog reeeeeeeeeally likes to say “f**k.” By making this look like the sort of film that studios think of when they think of animation, but subverting the very nature of those movies, Sausage Party is more than funny. It’s downright revolutionary.

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B+

Review: 'Suicide Squad' won't save the world, but it just might save DC

Will Smith and Margot Robbie loom large, but Jay Hernandez also impresses
Review: 'Suicide Squad' won't save the world, but it just might save DC
Credit: Warner Bros

Suicide Squad is not the darkest mainstream superhero comic book movie ever made, nor is it even the darkest live-action film featuring Batman ever made. However, it is gleefully nihilistic, and it takes a different approach to what has become a fairly familiar story form at this point, right at the moment when it feels like superhero movies either have to evolve or die. It is very much a David Ayer film, but he’s playing with some of the biggest icons of the DC universe in a way that no one else has so far in a feature film. It suggests just how much room there is for filmmakers to think outside the box as they bring these characters to life, in part because of the ways it succeeds and because of the ways it fails.

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C

Review: 'Jason Bourne' is one trip to the franchise well too many for this spy

Matt Damon's fine, but is fine the best that this creative team can do?
Review: 'Jason Bourne' is one trip to the franchise well too many for this spy
Credit: Universal

In every movie in the Bourne series (except for Legacy), there comes that moment. You know the one. Some shadowy government scumbag is convinced they’ve got the drop on Bourne, and they’re celebrating their accomplishment only to have the phone ring or the computer screen come on just in time for Bourne to tell them that he’s looking at them through a sniper’s scope or he’s recorded them threatening to kill the President or he’s got naked pictures of them and a goat, and as they realize just how screwed they are, here comes the Moby on the soundtrack and there goes Bourne, back into the shadows until next time.

The problem is, the charm has definitely faded, and Jason Bourne proves to be one trip too many to the well, lapsing into accidental self-parody in places. There are scenes I dug and a few set-pieces that work, and there’s an overall level of intensity that I like from director Paul Greengrass. Taken as a whole, though, this is very familiar territory, and I just don’t care when the stakes are this low and the violence is this rough. It’s like beating someone with a tire iron because they didn’t cover their mouth when they sneezed. The film never really makes a compelling case for why Jason Bourne should be back in action, or what makes him heroic in any significant way at this point, and that feels like a problem.

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A

Review: 'Star Trek Beyond' is a terrific 50th anniversary salute to the series appeal

The films boldly go in the right direction for the overall series
Review: 'Star Trek Beyond' is a terrific 50th anniversary salute to the series appeal
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Star Trek Beyond is, for lack of a better description, the goods.

When I walked out of the JJ Abrams reboot in 2009, I was giddy about the potential for the series. I thought they did a terrific job casting the film, and by the time the movie ended, they were set to head out into space on their five year mission, seeking out, boldly going, and it felt like they had wiped the slate clean as storytellers so they weren’t beholden to anything anymore other than the characters.

That’s what made Star Trek Into Darkness so confounding. I think there’s great energy to the filmmaking, which I liked when I first saw it, but I’ve never seen a movie more tied in knots to try to trick an audience, and for so little payoff. The moment they decided to make a movie that hinged on Khan as a villain, they painted themselves into a narrative corner, and they never figured out how to get out of it. I thought the film was nearly impossible to review, because it was so much technical skill and so many great actors all in search of a story worth telling. It may not have helped that Roberto Orci’s own politics ended up wedged into the film’s “false flag” storyline, which might have worked if that had been the whole film, but which feels wildly out of place wrapped around the slavishly inverted Wrath Of Khan remake.

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A-

Review: 'Ghostbusters' successfully passes the torch to a new generation

I don't know if it's a lady thing or a comedy thing, but I laughed like hell
Review: 'Ghostbusters' successfully passes the torch to a new generation
Credit: Sony Pictures

If you’d told me that the worst thing about a new Ghostbusters film would be Bill Murray, I would have laughed in your face. And yet… here we are.

Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is, above all else, a real Ghostbusters movie. If you’re a fan of the 1984 original (as most comedy fans are), one of the things that’s interesting as you watch this one is the way it echoes off of that film. It is no simple remake, but neither is it a radical reinvention of the core idea. It’s simply a different riff on the same idea, with a solid dose of fan service thrown in to help make the transition from the old to the new. The script, by Feig and Katie Dippold, does some big things different, and the choices they make are intriguing. First and foremost, though, Ghostbusters is a big fat slice of silly summer entertainment, confident and sometimes quite beautiful. It is the biggest stretch Feig’s made so far as a filmmaker, embracing the technical side of things in a way he never has so far, and stuffed chock full of affection for everything that makes Ghostbusters such an enduring favorite.

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B-

Review: Low-key charming 'Secret Life Of Pets' never quite makes it off the leash

Illumination is great at the gags, but less great at making things matter beyond that
Review: Low-key charming 'Secret Life Of Pets' never quite makes it off the leash
Credit: Universal/Illumination Studios

While Illumination Studios has certainly learned many lessons from the success of Pixar, it feels to me like they have also found their own voice in the process. Yes, The Secret Life Of Pets is basically just the first Toy Story with pets instead of toys, but what has become Illumination’s signature is the sheer number of gags per minute they throw at the audience. Far more akin to Looney Tunes than Disney in the grand scheme of things, The Secret Life Of Pets takes that Toy Story template and cranks it up to a dizzying degree, and it is largely successful. The few times the film really tries to land an emotional punch, it is clear just how deeply we all carry our feelings about pets in general, because they don’t have to do much to make it effective.

Last week, I made a major life change and moved in with my girlfriend. One of the biggest adjustments of the entire relationship involves her cat, Josie. When Lisa and I first met, I confessed that I am not a cat person at all. I don’t hate them, but I’m somewhat allergic to longer-haired cats, and the one time my family owned a cat as a child, it was a miserable beast. I’ve always had better luck with dogs, although it’s been decades since I had one of those, either.

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B+

Review: This 'Tarzan' may not be the king of the jungle, but he still swings

David Yates plays this pulp hero straight and that's both a good and a bad thing
Review: This 'Tarzan' may not be the king of the jungle, but he still swings
Credit: Warner Bros

When I’m planning to review a film, I try not to read any criticism of that film until after I’ve already organized my thoughts and written and published my own piece. I don’t like having anyone else’s take in my head as I’m writing, positive or negative. I don’t want to be put into a position where I’m either defending or attacking someone else’s opinion. I want my reviews to be my active thoughts, not a reactive response to something. In the case of The Legend Of Tarzan, though, they evidently gave the east coast a one-day head-start on the rest of us. Even though I was in the middle of my move into a new apartment on Wednesday, the day I was set to see the film, I saw enough headlines go by on social media to be able to tell that people did not care for this take on the Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp hero.

Consider me the weirdo on this one, then. I liked The Legend Of Tarzan. There are things I liked about it quite a bit, and there are some things I think they fumbled a bit, but overall? I think this is about as close to right as anyone’s going to get with a modern take on Tarzan, a property that becomes more and more difficult to adapt the further we get from the story’s pulp origins. When I talked to Shane Black recently about pulp, part of what we discussed is how people almost seem embarrassed by it when it’s done straight these days. It is absolutely a product of its time and the environment in which it was published, and it serves as a record of how things were much more than it offers up any kind of vision of how things could be.

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C+

Review: The series continues to incrementally improve with 'The Purge: Election Year'

I doubt I'll ever love this series, but at least they're getting better
Review: The series continues to incrementally improve with 'The Purge: Election Year'
Credit: Universal/Blumhouse

It makes sense that James DeMonaco was the screenwriter and a co-producer on the remake of John Carpenter’s breakthrough Assault On Precinct 13. It is clear this time that the model he is chasing is the John Carpenter model, and there is a strong Escape From New York vibe to the best moments in The Purge: Election Year, a film that is far more action/thriller than overt horror.

It feels like DeMonaco has been remaking his own movie with each new chapter of The Purge, trying to refine it into the film he originally wanted to make. I think the first film is a mess, and it’s a case of a budget totally defining what something is instead of the idea being the primary consideration. They created this world with this major cultural event at the center of it, and they made an entire film set inside one family’s house. I understand why, but I don’t care. I don’t review film budgets. I don’t review how successfully something manages to create a return on an investment. I review films, and as a film, The Purge is a sort of overly-familiar home-invasion story, and not a particularly good one. The second film widened the world view just a bit, focusing on the story of Frank Grillo as “Sergeant,” a guy determined to use the annual opportunity of the Purge to right a wrong that was done to his family. And while I think The Purge: Anarchy is better than the first film, I still thought it got a lot wrong, leaning on some cheap set-ups and some obvious moves.

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B+

Review: 'The Neon Demon' offers sleek and sexy scares with a satirical twist

The director of 'Drive' puts on his best De Palma and goes a little crazy
Review: 'The Neon Demon' offers sleek and sexy scares with a satirical twist
Credit: Broad Green Pictures

There are, in every generation of filmmakers, certain archetypes that repeat themselves over and over. For example, every generation has its playful prankster, the talented visual artists who are delighted by their own ability to take beautiful pictures of horrible things.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am drawn to filmmakers who use cinema as a way of pushing buttons, and I am a fan of the outrageous and the extreme. When I saw De Palma, the new documentary about Brian De Palma and his filmography, it sent me scrambling to watch a number of his older films again. They are so familiar at this point, so well-worn, that it surprised me to see how new they still feel when I took a step back. The next day, I went to a screening of the latest film from Nicolas Winding Refn, and the back-to-back timing of the two films made me laugh. More than anything, this feels like Refn working in the genre that De Palma had largely to himself in the late ’70s and early ’80s before getting relegated to mere late-night Cinemax fodder.

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A

Review: 'Hunt For The Wilderpeople' is a charming coming-of-age adventure story

Taika Waititi keeps getting better every time he makes a movie
Review: 'Hunt For The Wilderpeople' is a charming coming-of-age adventure story
Credit: The Orchard

Taika Waititi has been quietly building his body of work as a filmmaker with a distinctive comic voice and a deadpan absurdist shooting style. Eagle vs Shark was a sweet little romantic comedy with a real voice, and What We Do In The Shadows is a laugh-out-loud deflation of film vampires from every era. With his latest film, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Waititi really comes into focus as a filmmaker, and he’s got an exceptional sense of control over some tricky material.

It helps that Sam Neill gives one of his very best performances as Hec, a grizzled old man who lives on a remote farm with Bella (Rima Te Wiata, who was delightful in Housebound). When the foster care system brings them a 12-year-old boy named Ricky (Julian Dennison), Bella is able to forge a connection to him. It’s not easy, but once Ricky starts to get comfortable, this sweet vulnerable side comes out, and Dennison does terrific work playing Ricky honestly. The film is broken into chapters, and by the start of chapter two (out of ten), Waititi has already devastated the audience and pushed Hec and Ricky together as a very unlikely duo on a big adventure.

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C

Review: Why can't we just smile and enjoy the 'Raiders' remake documentary?

Hubris, pure and simple
Review: Why can't we just smile and enjoy the 'Raiders' remake documentary?
Credit: Drafthouse Films

There are times where I don't want to write about a film because I know for a fact that publishing my review is going to end up making people I like angry at me, and this is one of those times. But even months after seeing it, I find myself struggling to make sense out of the film Raiders! The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made and the enthusiasm people have for it.

I think the film is revealing, certainly, but I wouldn't say I enjoyed it. I also wouldn't call it a celebration of anything. Whether they realize it or not, Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen have given us one of the most searing, ugly portraits of artistic hubris since Overnight. I spent a good portion of my screening at the Drafthouse feeling sick to my stomach, tied in knots by what I was watching instead of elated or moved, which is what I was sort of expecting.

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B-

Review: Dwayne Johnson gets weird in surprisingly enjoyable 'Central Intelligence'

This feel like a step up for director Rawson Marshall Thurber
Review: Dwayne Johnson gets weird in surprisingly enjoyable 'Central Intelligence'
Credit: Warner Bros/New Line/Universal

Buddy comedies are a Hollywood staple at this point, and they’re fairly easy to execute at a baseline level of competence. Sometimes it’s a script that distinguishes one, sometimes it’s the easy chemistry between the stars, and sometimes it’s a director who elevates things. In the case of Central Intelligence, several things work better than I would have suspected, and as a result, I genuinely enjoyed the movie.

Color me shocked.

First and foremost, The Rock has become one of the most reliable brands in modern movies, and, yes, I am aware that I just called him a brand. I think he’s more than “just” a movie star. He’s an overall force of personality that exists to just shine positivity and humor and good energy into the world via movies, TV, wrestling, and social media. If The Rock didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. I even love that his “real” name, Dwayne Johnson, is featured everywhere but he remains permanently, even cheerfully, The Rock. What makes him special on film is that he is more than willing to try anything, and he hands himself over to filmmakers in a completely trusting way. He will rise to whatever challenge you set before him, and so far, he’s never hit something he hasn’t been able to conquer. I love his work in Pain & Gain, for example, and could watch a whole movie of him with cocaine-jaw. I don’t think he’s made non-stop great films, but I think he finds a way to be great in everything. He attacks each new role now, and he’s got pretty great instincts.

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B+

Review: 'Finding Dory' is a slighter sequel, but with some strong Pixar work

When it connects emotionally, it is devastating
Review: 'Finding Dory' is a slighter sequel, but with some strong Pixar work
Credit: Pixar

2016 has not been particularly kind to sequels at the box office, and audiences seem to be rejecting films that were overtly created to satisfy a studio need rather than an audience want, a trend I am happy to see. Pixar has had mixed luck with their sequels, creatively speaking, but seems to recognize as a company that story should drive these decisions above everything else. Andrew Stanton’s Finding Dory, co-directed with Angus MacLane, has to be considered a victory based on how well it justifies its own existence, telling a story that is built on a solid emotional foundation and driven by new encounters with characters we genuinely adore.

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A

Review: James Wan bests his own best with 'The Conjuring 2'

James Wan is very, very good at what he does right now
Review: James Wan bests his own best with 'The Conjuring 2'
Credit: Warner Bros

At the end of James Wan’s The Conjuring, I had a big smile on my face at the thought of a studio building a smart and fun horror franchise using Ed and Lorraine Warren as the foundation, and tonight, after seeing The Conjuring 2, I am relieved to see that they got it absolutely right.

The screenplay, credited to Carey Hayes & Chad Hayes & James Wan and David Leslie Johnson, is very smart about the way it opens with a seance in the Amityville house. Amityville is where the Warrens made their reputations as paranormal investigators, so it makes sense to eventually tell that story, but it’s also been made and re-made and told a dozen different ways. Instead of making the mistake of dedicating an entire film to it, they use it to set several story threads into motion and also to show how the Warrens were constantly challenged during TV appearances and called phonies. When they were releasing the first film, I had a chance to moderate a panel at WonderCon with Lorraine Warren, and talking to her before and after the event, I was struck by just how simply and directly she believes what she says. I may not buy the story that they tell, but I believe that she believes it. That belief is what binds Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) in the film, and the strength of their marriage is their superpower in these films.

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A

Review: 'De Palma' is more than just a casual appraisal of a director's work

One of the most pleasurable sits of the summer is a two-hour interview
Review: 'De Palma' is more than just a casual appraisal of a director's work
Credit: A24

Brian De Palma taught me the value of film criticism.

The first time one of his films really registered for me actively was when Dressed To Kill was released in 1980. I was starting to get bit by the film bug at the time, still in the early days of the sickness, and there were many ways I would digest films beyond just seeing movies. For films I wasn’t allowed to see, there were still ways for me to get some sense of the movie. Mad magazine, for example. Undressed To Kill was one of the movie parodies that ran in 1980, and it was a beat for beat riff off of the real film. I knew the story and I even knew the twist, since Mad was not shy about spoilers. It was easy to feel like you’d seen the film after you read a Mad parody, and I also started reading not only novelizations, but any film criticism I could find at that point. I started checking every magazine to see if they had a film section. My parents subscribed to Time, so that was the first thing I read every week. At least once a week, we made a trip to the library, and I’d read as many movie reviews as I could during our time there.

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A-

Review: Lonely Island hits the bullseye with an easy target in 'Popstar'

A slightly uneven effort still manages to land plenty of big laughs
Review: Lonely Island hits the bullseye with an easy target in 'Popstar'
Credit: Universal Pictures

If you are excited by the prospect of a Lonely Island movie, I have good news for you. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a Lonely Island movie in every way, packed with music and jokes. At 90 minutes, it moves fast, and it offers up some laser-sharp satire. If there’s any overall problem with the film, it is that they’ve made a very specific satire of a target that is so ridiculous it almost resists parody.

It’s easy to just make the comparison to This Is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary that launched Rob Reiner’s career as a director, but Popstar is a reaction to a very different kind of film than Spinal Tap was. You have to go back and look at films like The Song Remains The Same or The Kids Are Alright to understand what the culture was that Spinal Tap targeted, while modern music documentaries have a very different aesthetic and purpose. The Justin Bieber documentary that is this film’s primary target was fascinating because it’s such an obvious attempt to create a mythology around a pop star. The Katy Perry documentary was even better at what it did, but it contained a moment that I found particularly interesting. So much of Katy Perry: Part Of Me is focused on showing what a fun and frothy person she is that including the moment where she learns that she’s getting divorced over a cell phone was almost jarring. It punctured the image completely, and for one moment in the film, we get a glimpse of this real person and her real life and some real pain, and then SNAP! We’re right back into fantasy land. There’s one moment as she’s under the stage, ready to go on, and she has to shake all of it off, that says more about what it’s like to create one of these larger-than-life personae and then have to live it even when you don’t feel like doing it than any think piece could, and it feels accidental, like it snuck through.

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B

Review: A new director brings some welcome energy and charm to 'Turtles' sequel

The characters are first and foremost in this amiable adventure
Review: A new director brings some welcome energy and charm to 'Turtles' sequel
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Dave Green’s first film, Earth To Echo, had some mighty familiar DNA. You could tell that he was a fan of ‘80s Amblin’ films and that he’d absorbed the lessons of the film on a nearly molecular level like many of the film nerd kids who grew up on those movies. More than anything, he got the relationships between the kids right in that film, and it appears he carried that skill set over to a franchise that I have very little personal fondness for, resulting in what may well be the most consistently fun live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie ever made.

It’s easy to dismiss someone’s fondness for something as pure nostalgia, but it’s also reductive and, in many cases, not why someone loves something. I may not personally be a Turtles fan, but I know enough of them (and have fathered a few of my own), so I get the appeal. Under everything else, what fans hold onto from interpretation to interpretation is the relationship between Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), and Raphael (Alan Ritchson), as well as their connection to both their best friend April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and their sensei and father-figure Splinter the Rat (Tony Shaloub). If you get that relationship right, you’re ahead of the game. Green, along with writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, takes the time to paint each of the Turtles as an individual, leaning into the things that make them different and the way those relationships work.

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C+

Review: High-fantasy 'Warcraft' can't shake game-to-movie adaptation problems

Duncan Jones obviously meant this one, but is that enough?
Review: High-fantasy 'Warcraft' can't shake game-to-movie adaptation problems
Credit: Universal/Legendary

Today I turned 46 years old.

I’m not sure if that’s too old for me to play video games. I certainly hope not, since I find them relaxing in a way that is valuable to me. Then again, I’m not sure who gets to decide if they are or aren’t appropriate, since I’m part of the first generation to be able to grow up playing games. I was there for Pong and Space Invaders and Asteroids and Pac-Man, and I was there for the first consoles at home. I’ve been a fan as long as there have been video games, and I remain a devoted fan of gaming in general even if I don’t always love the culture around it.

What I find strange is how completely and utterly I have somehow avoided World Of Warcraft. Unlike films, where I find that I’m open to pretty much anything, there are lots of games I won’t play because I just don’t like the mechanics or the genre. I remember looking at about ten minutes of gameplay for WoW online and realizing immediately that it would not be for me. I feel the same way about the Final Fantasy games and most strategy combat games, and I absolutely detest stealth games because I am, in games as in life, a big giant noisy moose. As a result of this big fat blind spot, I have no comparison to make when it comes to Warcraft as an adaptation, which puts me solidly in the majority of the audience that Legendary and Universal are hoping will show up for the film when it arrives in theaters.

There is a density to the mythology suggested by this movie that makes me feel like the hardcore are going to have a very different experience. To their credit, the filmmakers try not to dump all of the exposition on you at once. There’s no opening crawl, no immediate explanation of things. I still remember the feeling when I showed up at the theater to see Dune and they handed me a sheet full of terms and characters and history. I had read the book, so it made sense to me, but I knew right away that the film was going to tank at the box office. There’s a rule that I think filmmakers should follow when they’re trying to do this kind of giant canvass big movie: the more complicated your mythology, the less complicated your story needs to be. You can’t ask an audience to keep track of a complicated plot and a dense cast if you’re also introducing all the rules of a fictional universe that is absolutely full of rules. Warcraft errs in how much it asks the audience to juggle, and as a result, the things that the film does well (and I think there are many) are muffled somewhat.

The film both opens and closes on extremely close shots of Orc characters, completely created as digital creatures, and it’s clear that director Duncan Jones is calling his shot by doing that. He knows that in order for his film to work, you have to have some investment in these digital characters, and you have to believe that they share a world with the live-action characters played by the various humans like Dominic Cooper, Ben Foster, Ruth Negga, and Travis Fimmel. How well you feel they pulled it off may greatly influence how you feel about the film itself. I think ILM’s character work is impressive, even as I think the designs themselves simply don’t feel like they fit into the same world as the people, no matter how well the performance capture and the animation mesh to create living breathing things. At this point, I’m fascinated by films where you have a sizable ensemble of non-human characters, because I’m fascinated by the way actors manage to bring these things to life. It’s a complicated dance between the actors and the animators, between the pure imaginative side of performance and the incredibly technical side of translating that into a finished fully rendered character, and it helps that you have performers like Toby Kebbell and Terry Notary, guys who have experience doing this, working alongside performers like Robert Kazinsky and Daniel Wu and Clancy Brown who seem to have taken to it with aplomb. Special mention must be made of Anna Galvin, who plays Draka, the wife of Durotan (Kebbell), the main Orc in the story. Galvin does very physical work that sells the idea that she’s this powerful warrior creature and a mother at the same time, the kind of work you have to do if you’re going to truly make this kind of thing feel alive.

On the human side of things, the results are a little more uneven. I’m unfamiliar with Travis Fimmel from his TV work, and I know he’s got very ardent fans, so let me qualify this by saying I’m talking about this movie, and this movie alone. As Anduin Lothar, ostensibly the main hero of the film, he does his best to ground this high fantasy in recognizable human emotion, but he’s playing against the tone of the thing almost all the way through. Ben Foster fares much better because he has obviously been cast for his essential Ben Foster-ness. Compare this to when he was miscast in X-Men: The Last Stand and you can see just how much of a difference it makes when you cast someone in the right role. He plays Medivh, a Guardian, which appears to be a magic-user charged with protecting an entire world, Azeroth, as a sort of retired rock star, with a lot of swagger as the film opens. Gradually, though, the magic appears to take a toll on him, and Foster commits to it completely. I also think Paula Patton gives this movie everything she can, but she’s saddled with an unfortunate design, serving as the bridge between the live-action human beings and the fully-animated Orcs. She’s given a make-up to wear that extends two of her lower teeth, and she’s been digitally rotoscoped green. Patton is such a strong and charismatic performer that she almost makes you forget the issues, but it’s tough. I like where they ultimately leave her character, and if there’s any story I’d be curious to see continued in the sequel, it would be hers. But saying that raises the biggest problem with the movie: it is only act one of an obviously-larger story.

Again… fans of the game may be excited by the particular point in the history of the game’s lore that screenwriters Jones, Charles Leavitt, and Chris Metzen decided to use as this first film, and they may well be excited by the potential at the end of the film. I’m not opposed to the idea of world-building, but this feels particularly incomplete. Alliances are shuffled, friendships both new and old are tested, and destinies are thwarted, and it all feels like they’re just moving pieces into place for the story they’re ultimately interested in telling. Part of great storytelling is not just knowing what story you want to tell, but also knowing where that story starts and where it ends. We are living through a Golden Age Of Backstory, where there’s not a single interesting story that can’t be rendered inert by backing up to tell all the expository material in place of actual narrative. I’m waiting for the prequels-to-the-prequels trend to begin, where people “fix” all the problems with the decade-plus of unwanted prequels that Hollywood has churned out by telling stories that go back even further and over-explain things even more. I feel like as much as I like parts of Warcraft, I cannot get past the idea that this is all just a rev up to something else. When I sign on to watch a TV show like Game Of Thrones, I know I’m asking them to tell me a story that’s going to meander and take some time and that may not reveal its true focus for quite some time. But in a movie theater, the implied contract between storyteller and audience is different, and there is some sort of promise that things will come to a conclusion of sorts.

You can call your shot at the start, declaring something to be part of a trilogy, like Lord Of The Rings or Harry Potter did, but more often, movies that try to start an ongoing series over-reach, and you end up with Eragon or The Dark Is Rising. They don’t commit to calling this a trilogy, but it sure feels like one, because of how unresolved every single thing is, right down to the Moses riff they run in the film’s final moments. While I liked things about this, and was more engaged by the end of the film than I expected to be, it is unlikely we’ll be returning to Azeroth because I can’t imagine general audiences being able to make the connection they’d have to for this no-doubt-wildly-expensive prospect to pay off.

Warcraft opens in US theaters on June 10, 2016.

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B+

Review: Shane Black's 'The Nice Guys' is a raw, rough, rowdy delight

Who would have expected Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling to be the comedy duo of 2016?
Review: Shane Black's 'The Nice Guys' is a raw, rough, rowdy delight
Credit: Warner Bros

Shockingly, this is not a Christmas movie.

In every other way, though, it is a Shane Black movie, and that is reason enough to rejoice. I am more than willing to cop to the fact that part of what I like about Shane Black is that he evidently loves the exact same things I love, and for the exact same reasons. When someone’s making art that hews so closely to my ideal aesthetic, I start half-in-the-bag for the thing. I’ve written often about my love of LA detective stories, especially when set in different eras of the city’s development. Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Towne, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly… lots of guys have mined this territory to terrific effect, and I have no doubt I’ll take my own shot at it someday. What Black does here is very different than what Paul Thomas Anderson did in Inherent Vice, but it works for me just as completely as that did. The Nice Guys is set during the 1970s, and it’s the height of LA-as-a-smog-factory era, with brown skies so toxic that people have to watch the news to see if it’s safe to go outside. I visited LA in 1980, and it was a very different place than it was a mere ten years later when I moved here. Los Angeles made a serious effort to clean up the air, and it worked, and I think some people may not realize just how bad it got at a certain point.

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B-

Review: 'Money Monster' is old-fashioned issue-driven entertainment done well

Jodie Foster gets her Sidney Lumet on with this one
Review: 'Money Monster' is old-fashioned issue-driven entertainment done well
Credit: Sony Pictures

Sidney Lumet would like Money Monster quite a bit.

There was a tradition of filmmaking that seems to be on the wane these days that involved wrapping a social issue or a social injustice and wrapping it in a nice juicy dramatic situation. When done perfectly, you get 12 Angry Men or Dog Day Afternoon or Network. Lumet was so good at both understanding exactly how to frame the moral argument and knowing how to play the entertainment, and it’s a bit of a lost art now. I’ve always felt like the inelegant version of this particular type of storytelling was embodied by Stanley Kramer, who tilted more towards the message end of the equation. It’s a tough thing to get right, and Jodie Foster deserves credit for orchestrating things with a nimble wit and a relentless energy.

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D+

Review: 'Alice Through The Looking Glass' is a dazzling but hollow nightmare

Boy, these movies are not for me
Review: 'Alice Through The Looking Glass' is a dazzling but hollow nightmare
Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Well, it’s better than the first one.

That is by no means an endorsement. Instead, it’s an acknowledgment that when it comes to mainstream Hollywood trauma, few scars run as deep as Alice In Wonderland. When Tim Burton gets to Hell, this is the film that will kick off the highlights reel they screen. A near-total refutation of what makes Lewis Carroll’s enduring classic endure, that first film tested my patience in a way few Hollywood films do. I’ve said it before… to be a film critic, you need to generally love movies. You need to love the very act of walking into a theater, sitting down among a crowd of strangers, and then taking that ride when the lights go out. I’ve written before about how it’s my church, and of course, I root for that experience to be great every time it happens. That is not the case, though, and I try to be honest and clear about what happens when that experience turns out to be a bust. It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t like this.”

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B-

Review: Lots of energy and some strong performances elevate familiar 'X-Men: Apocalypse'

Is it okay if this franchise is all turning into one big blur?
Review: Lots of energy and some strong performances elevate familiar 'X-Men: Apocalypse'
Credit: 20th Century Fox

Bryan Singer’s getting downright playful these days.

Continuity is a very weird thing in the X-Men universe. Since the year 2000, when Singer’s first X-Men was released, we’ve seen them flash forward and backward in time, recasting key roles, while also keeping some of the same cast intact, leading to a series that led my eight-year-old to tell me as we were walking across the 20th Century Fox lot on Friday night, “Daddy, the X-Men movies make my brain go crazy.” You could describe X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, and X-Men: Apocalypse as a trilogy, but I don’t think these film really work like that. At this point, each movie exists as its own thing, free to either embrace or discard everything that’s come before it depending on the story they’re telling. Each of the films feels like it’s resetting the entire series, which is business-smart and narratively frustrating, and with this latest entry, it feels to me like Singer has finally settled into his role as the orchestrator of all of this chaos and he’s having fun with it now.

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B+

'Captain America: Civil War' SPOILER review: How many superheroes is too many?

A fun ride from moment to moment, but Cap gets a bit lost in his own movie
<p>Captain America: Civil War</p>

Captain America: Civil War

Credit: Marvel

A review of Captain America: Civil War — designed, like my TV episode reviews, to be read after you've seen it, which means there will be many many spoilers — coming up just as soon as you try some of my date loaf...

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A

Review: Beyonce's amazing truthbomb turns emotional lemons into 'Lemonade'

HBO and Tidal give us our first look at one of 2016's biggest pop culture moments
Review: Beyonce's amazing truthbomb turns emotional lemons into 'Lemonade'
Credit: Warner Records/Columbia Records

Is it okay for a critic to say, “I respect this work of art, and I am not fully qualified to speak to the profundity of the text?”

Because that’s where I find myself with Beyonce’s Lemonade, a remarkable visual album that she released under a cloak of complete secrecy last night. HBO made the one-hour program available twice on their channel during their free-preview-weekend, and it was also available for 24 hours via HBO Now, the app that I have. I don’t have cable, and I don’t like cable. I want the right to consume things a la carte, and anything I can do to support that media model, I do. I will pay providers for content, but I want to do it the way I want to do it. Because it was on HBO Now, I’ve been able to watch the film repeatedly, stopping it, grabbing some stills from it. It may be gone tomorrow, but for now, I’m enjoying it, and part of the enjoyment is realizing that I’m not getting everything it’s doing, and I’ll need help to get there.

I look at this film, this collaboration between Beyonce Knowles Carter and a fistful of filmmakers including Mark Romanek, Kahlil Joseph, and Melina Matsoukas, and I am overwhelmed by it. It is powerful and it is personal, and it is full of cultural touchstones that are not mine. Tonight, I’ll be reading as much as I can about how other people are reacting to it because I’m genuinely curious. I would love to have it decoded and digested by writers who share more common cultural ground with Beyonce, and I am also excited to read how other people in my own position react, people coming at it from the outside. That is one of my favorite kinds of art, art that challenges me to adopt a perspective that is not my own. I can react to it in my way, and I know that my reaction is not universal. And yet, there are things about it that I found immediately moving, immediately pulling me in

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C

Review: 'Winter's War' looks pretty, but there's no reason for a 'Hunstman' sequel

I don't get this one at all
Review: 'Winter's War' looks pretty, but there's no reason for a 'Hunstman' sequel
Credit: Universal Pictures

Last week, I rewatched Snow White And The Huntsman, and then went back to read my review of the film. I think I liked it more the first time. I found myself impatient with it on a second viewing, and while I still think there is some terrific world-building in it, I just don’t care about the story the film tells. The one thing that it most certainly did not do was make me want to see a second part of that story. None of the characters grabbed me as a viewer, and the story wasn’t left in a place that asked any questions that felt like they needed to be answered.

But this is the age of the franchise, and so any story worth telling is obviously worth telling at least twice and hopefully as a trilogy with potential ancillary spin-offs, right? Sure, the original Grimm stories were folklore collected both for their cultural and their literary value, stories with clear beginnings, middles, and conclusions, stories built largely around moral metaphors or social mores, but what really matters is sequels. It’s telling that the director this time is Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the first film’s visual effect supervisor. This is his debut feature, and I’ll say this much for him: he certainly knows how to make a film look pretty, especially when there are visual effects involved. From scene to scene, there are some beautiful images in the fantasy world where this is set, but frustratingly, it never adds up to something that comes to life. This feels like terrific production design and costuming in search of a story worth telling.

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A+

Review: The Captain America trilogy comes to an amazing close with 'Civil War'

Thematically, dramatically, and visually, this is Marvel's finest hour so far
Review: The Captain America trilogy comes to an amazing close with 'Civil War'
Credit: Marvel Studios

My first political memory is of Watergate. I was too young to truly understand what was happening, but I was aware that the President of the United States had done something wrong, and the country was upset because of it. That may be why I’ve grown up with a healthy sense of skepticism towards authority, particularly when it comes to the idea that authority is always right. I’ve never believed that, and that attitude has served me well.

Truth be told, I wish that was not the case. I wish I could believe that our elected officials have our best interests at heart. I wish I believed that all policemen truly wanted to serve and protect our entire population equally. I wish I believed that the banks were designed to help us all financially. I wish I believed that the system was set up to allow all of us the same chances in this world, and that hard work was always rewarded and that making the right moral choice meant good things would happen. It is a constant effort to teach my children about the world without allowing my own cynicism about things to bleed through, and if anything, they have given me some hope that things can and will be better for them. One of the reasons I am excited to share Captain America: Civil War with my own kids is because I think it fully embodies the struggle I've dealt with my whole life regarding my feelings about authority and government, and it does so in a way that challenges the viewer without offering up easy answers.

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B

Review: Mike Flanagan's 'Hush' is slasher fare served up lean and mean

Sometimes it's enough just to get the basic moves right
Review: Mike Flanagan's 'Hush' is slasher fare served up lean and mean
Credit: Netflix

An isolated house in the middle of the woods. A young woman on her own. A man with a mask and a knife.

Taken individually, none of those things are particularly fresh to the horror genre, but taken together under the firm directorial hand of Mike Flanagan, they add up, making Hush a worthwhile sit for horror fans of all stripes. Flanagan is a talented filmmaker who has yet to have his breakout moment. His movie Oculus played the Toronto Film Festival, and I liked it when I saw it. Overall, it got solid reviews. Last year, I saw an early screening of Before I Wake, which was supposed to come out months ago. It got delayed, and I can understand why. It’s not really a horror film, and figuring out how to sell the movie for what it really is might be difficult. I like it as well, though, and I thought it reinforced that Flanagan is coming at things in his own way.

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A-

Review: Jon Favreau's 'Jungle Book' is a rich and rewarding family fable

Eye-popping effects and simple human charm make a winning combination
Review: Jon Favreau's 'Jungle Book' is a rich and rewarding family fable
Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted to film numerous times over the years. The 1942 live-action film, which you can see via Hulu Plus if you have it, remains beautiful and mysterious even now, while the 1967 Disney animated version is one of their most iconic films. Years ago, when I was still new to Los Angeles, there was a stretch of about 18 months where my writing partner and I shared an apartment with a married couple named Dave and Laura. Laura was a preposterously sweet woman, and she had a keen affection for Disney animation. In particular, she loved Mowgli and his gangly, lanky frame, all elbows and angles. About halfway through last night’s press screening of the new Jon Favreau version, I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking about how much Laura’s going to love Neel Sethi, who stars as Mowgli, because he looks like he was plucked right off of some animator's drawing board.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about Disney’s new push to turn all of their animated films into live-action movies. It’s another way of strip-mining their own library, and the results have been wildly uneven so far. Cinderella, for example, struck me as a solid retelling of the original story, but there was nothing about Kenneth Branagh’s film that felt like live-action was essential or that illuminated the earlier Disney version of the story. It was fine, which is way more than I can say about the disturbingly ugly Alice In Wonderland that Tim Burton directed. Walking into The Jungle Book, I was worried that it would either be paint-by-numbers or that it would be a big empty style exercise, and instead, I walked away from it with one word running through my head repeatedly…

Magic.

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