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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Director Mike Flanagan believes 'Hush' is scarier when you see it at home

One of horror's rising stars discusses his latest lean and mean thriller
Director Mike Flanagan believes 'Hush' is scarier when you see it at home
Credit: HitFix

One of the things I’m hearing from you guys is that you’re concerned about the amount of video versus the amount of writing that appears here at HitFix these days, and I wanted to quickly address that concern. I am, first and foremost, a writer. The purest expression of what I do comes when it’s just me speaking directly to you guys via the written word. We work in a new media landscape, though, and video is an important part of not only keeping the site going, but building it, which is always our goal.

When we decided to stop attending junkets and doing those five minute sound bite videos, we started pushing to invite guests to our studios instead so we could sit down for a longer conversation. The results have been better across the board, and it’s because a longer conversation is always going to be a better way to get to know someone and a better showcase for their thoughts about the work they’ve done. And honestly, I feel like a video interview is better than a print one because of things like body language and nuances in tone. It's better to present the person as they are, instead of imposing an editorial voice on them.

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A

Review: Linklater nails another anthropological comedy with 'Everybody Wants Some!!'

The Austin indie titan may be our best American behavioralist
Review: Linklater nails another anthropological comedy with 'Everybody Wants Some!!'
Credit: Paramount Pictures

If I had to estimate how many times I’ve seen Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused since it was released in 1993, I’d be willing to bet it’s over three dozen by now. I adore the film, and it’s one of those movies that has grown over time for me. The more I’ve gone back to it, the longer I’ve lived with it, the more I’ve found in it. That movie has a cast that was largely unknown at the time but that has gone on to look almost overstuffed with star power. It is a remarkable ensemble, and even the kids who didn’t go on to further work or bigger stardom did work that has aged beautifully.

I never got around to seeing a trailer for this one. In fact, it almost feels like Paramount’s sneaking it out. It just premiered at SXSW, and then I got invited to a press screening and read on the invite that the film was coming out the next day. Normally when films are treated like that by a distributor, it’s because they’re no good and the studio’s looking to minimize the damage, but that’s certainly not the case. Everybody Wants Some!! (I like the double exclamation points) is a direct mirror held up to Dazed & Confused, but with 23 years of experience under Richard Linklater’s belt.

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C-

Review: 'Batman v Superman' is noisy, busy, and too overstuffed to digest

If this is ground zero for the Justice League, we're not sure we want to join
Review: 'Batman v Superman' is noisy, busy, and too overstuffed to digest
Credit: Warner Bros

I live less than two minutes from Warner Bros., and to get anywhere, I have to drive by the studio, and every single poster spot on the side of the studio, normally occupied by four different movies and four different TV shows, is currently taken by Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. From my living room window, I can see the water tower at the center of the lot, which currently features the shield-and-cowl combination logo for Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. In fact, it is impossible to look anywhere in that general direction or be in my car or be outside my house in Los Angeles without feeling like I’m being bludgeoned by the oh-so-urgent existence of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

Speaking as a fan of Man Of Steel and of Zack Snyder’s work in general, I am baffled by what I saw tonight. In one regard, it certainly feels like they delivered on the promise of that incredibly awkward and franchise-minded title. But I’m not sure how a filmmaker whose work normally speaks to me as clearly as Snyder’s does could deliver something that feels this confused, this impersonal, and this corporate. It is a confounding mess of a movie, and while there are individual sequences that I enjoyed as isolated moments, it is almost breathtakingly incoherent storytelling. Characters do what they do because the movie requires them to do it, not because they are behaving like characters at all. There’s no sense of voice to the film. I have no idea what I should think about Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman based on what I see here. They are all apparently blanks who simply exist to react without thought or purpose to whatever stimuli is presented to them. Structurally, there’s something fundamentally broken about the way this thing’s been built, and I have a feeling it’s going to take some time to really pull apart all of the mistakes that were made.

One thing’s clear: I don’t want the Justice League this movie promises.

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B+

Review: 'Pee-Wee's Big Holiday' is a gentle delight, both new and familiar

Director Paul Lee evokes earlier Pee-Wee outings while makng something fresh
Review: 'Pee-Wee's Big Holiday' is a gentle delight, both new and familiar
Credit: Netflix

A quick note: my computer finally gave up the ghost last week, and I’ve spent the past five or so days scrambling to get back up and running. I’ve never gone this long without posting at HitFix, not since we began the site, and it’s a disconcerting feeling to just watch pop culture flow by without having the tools be part of the conversation. It’s amazing how ingrained it is at this point, and even when I’m working as hard as I can, I still always feel like there’s more that I’d like to write and publish than I’m able to actually accomplish.

Case in point: I was hoping to publish this review last Friday night after my sons joined me and my girlfriend for an evening built around the Netflix premiere of Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, directed by John Lee. One of the things that excited me when they made the announcement about Lee as director is that he’s got a history of pretty wild conceptual comedy. I love his TV work. I think he’s been part of some of the most interesting and vital American comedy of the last five or ten years, working on Wonder Showzen, Inside Amy Schumer, and Broad City, among other things. There’s a whole generation of guys who helped make the really strange and vibrant TV comedy for channels like Adult Swim and Comedy Central who are making the jump to features now, and they seem hungry for it, ready and more than able.

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A

Review: 'Midnight Special' serves up a strangely beautiful parable on parenting

A very special little boy and a dangerous road trip done a different way
Review: 'Midnight Special' serves up a strangely beautiful parable on parenting
Credit: Warner Bros

A young boy who possesses strange and difficult-to-explain powers makes his way towards a mysterious rendezvous with his father doing everything he can to protect him from anyone who might stop him.

That's it. That's the basic plot of Midnight Special, and when you boil it down that far, it sounds like something familiar, something we've seen many times before. What makes the film sing is the extraordinary control exhibited by Jeff Nichols as a filmmaker at this point, especially when he's working with Michael Shannon, who has given some of his finest performances when working with Nichols.

That continues here. Michael Shannon plays Roy, and when we meet him, he's on the road with his childhood best friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and his little boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). It's not clear at first why they're running, where they're coming from, or where they're going, and Nichols does a very nice job playing with ambiguity here, definitely leaning towards the less-is-more school of storytelling. Even as the film concludes, there are plenty of questions, some of them big, some small, that are still unanswered, and it's perfectly acceptable.

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A

Review: Great performances make '10 Cloverfield Lane' a cut above most thrillers

Director Dan Trachtenberg makes an impressive debut with this closed-space thriller
Review: Great performances make '10 Cloverfield Lane' a cut above most thrillers
Credit: Paramount Pictures

If you walk into the theater expecting a direct sequel to Cloverfield, you may be disappointed, but I'd expect most audiences to be quite satisfied with the smart, character-driven thriller that is 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Economically told from the start, the film moves beautifully. This is a strong feature debut for Dan Trachtenberg, working from a script by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, and a beautiful showcase for three very good actors. It is simple, it is direct, and it is impressive. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) flees her marriage after something happens with her husband, and as she's on the road, upset, she is in a terrible car accident. When she wakes up, she is in a bunker owned by Howard (John Goodman), a farmer, who tells her that there has been some sort of attack on the surface, and they are unable to leave now. There is one other person, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) in the bunker with them. Things go badly. That's pretty much it, and yet, using that very simple template, 10 Cloverfield Lane delivers a terrific piece of entertainment, tense and smart and concise.

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F

Review: Sacha Baron Cohen hits comedy rock bottom in the awful 'Brothers Grimsby'

It's not often that someone this talented fails so completely
Review: Sacha Baron Cohen hits comedy rock bottom in the awful 'Brothers Grimsby'
Credit: Sony Pictures

Sacha Baron Cohen is a very smart, very funny man. One of the best parts of his publicity tour for The Brothers Grimsby has been hearing him give interviews out of character about his process when working on Da Ali G Show, Borat, and Bruno. The worst part of it, unfortunately, is the movie The Brothers Grimsby, which is an entirely laughless affair and easily the low point of Cohen's career so far.

No one is more shocked by my reaction to the movie than I am. I am an easy laugh. I'll admit it. I am predisposed to laughter. That's my natural state, my preferred condition. I love comedy. I love all forms of comedy. I love cerebral wordplay. I love silly physical slapstick. I love the gross. I love the esoteric. If you search through my collection, you'll find all kinds of things, and I love that. Every now and then, though, someone will take a big swing and miss completely, and it's almost fascinating to see what a total whiff The Brothers Grimsby is. From foundation to frosting, the entire thing is off, and the result is one of the most difficult sits I've had in a while. I didn't just sit without laughing; I found myself actively hating every choice, every new scene. It's miraculously bad. It is a case study in getting everything wrong, to such a degree that I have to think it's just a one-off. Nobody as talented as Cohen misses as completely as this unless they're really, really trying. Whatever else I might say about the film, I don't think Cohen was indifferent about it or phoning it in. He's trying as hard as he can here, which is part of what made me cringe.

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B-

Review: Tina Fey anchors 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' with intelligence and charm

Oh, look, Hollywood, here's what you should be doing with Tina Fey
Review: Tina Fey anchors 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' with intelligence and charm
Credit: Paramount Pictures

I'm not sure Tina Fey was meant to be a movie star.

She is, no question about it, a dazzling wit, and I think she can be very funny onstage as well. So far, though, Hollywood has not figured out what to do with Fey as a leading actress because she simply doesn't fit the cookie-cutter archetypes that so many actresses are forced to play, and it's left her in a weird place as an actress. She's obviously talented, but who's writing the roles that she could play?

As it turns out, all it takes are directors like Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and a writer like Robert Carlock, who worked with Fey on 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I like Ficarra and Requa. I don't think every film they've made is great, but they have a good eye for both character and detail. My favorite film of theirs is still I Love You, Phillip Morris, but working from the book, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days In Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, they've made something that is easy to enjoy, and it feels like it's grounded in honest observation, something that was totally missing from last fall's similarly-themed Rock The Kasbah.

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A

Review: 'Zootopia' is more rooted in the zeitgeist than typical Disney animation

An uncommonly of-the-moment movie from the studio continues a streak of success
Review: 'Zootopia' is more rooted in the zeitgeist than typical Disney animation
Credit: Walt Disney Feature Animation

One of the most interesting things about Walt Disney Feature Animation is the way it has evolved over the course of its history from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs to today. There are such distinct eras in its development, such major shifts in creative energy, such giant peaks and valleys, that even the worst moments in its history are worth study for animation fans. I wish Disney would embrace their entire history and not just their hits, because there is so much to learn from films like Song Of The South or The Black Cauldron. Right now, though, they have hit a stride that is admirable, and Zootopia is another triumph for the current version of the studio following films like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6.

First and foremost, Zootopia is a reminder of just how beautiful animated films can be. Holy cow, this thing is almost hallucinatory. Set in a world where both predator and prey have learned to live together, Zootopia itself is a city divided into impossible sectors, with Tundra Town right next to Sahara Square, both of them adjoining a rain forest area and an entire miniature city just for creatures the size of mice. It's like the most insane safari park in the world, but with walking talking animals, one of which is new to the city, pursuing her lifelong dream of being the first rabbit cop.

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D

Review: Profoundly unfunny 'Zoolander 2' faceplants on the runway

Ben Stiller swings and misses and throws the bat and poops his pants all at once
Review: Profoundly unfunny 'Zoolander 2' faceplants on the runway
Credit: Paramount Pictures

I wanted to laugh last night. Hell, I needed to laugh last night. And Zoolander 2 failed me completely.

Brutally unfunny, visually off-putting, and filled with cameos so embarrassing I am bruised from holding a cringe for a full half-hour, Zoolander 2 is every horrible decision you can make with a comedy sequel wrapped up into one nigh unbearable film.

There is a single shot in one scene of Olivia Munn, and I couldn't tell you what she was playing or what role got cut down in the final film, but that one last errant useless shot, left in instead of being totally excised with the rest of her part, sums up the way the entire film feels to me. It feels like it was thrown together in a blender and just poured into a cup indifferently, no matter what ended up blended in there. So many jokes fall so flat that it's almost impressive after a while. Characters appear and disappear randomly, and they hold the entrance of the film's villain so long that I forgot he was in the movie by the time he finally showed up.

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