Sunday, January 13, 2019

Ben Is Back Has Good Performances But Derivative Screenwriting


On a seemingly routine Christmas Eve, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) returns home to discover that her son, Ben (Lucas Hedges), has come home. Ben, the titular lead of Ben is Back,  has been away at a rehab center trying to get clean from his drug habit and now he's returned out of the blue into Holly's life. Holly is at first overjoyed just to see her son back in her life but Ben's siblings and Holly's husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), don't like this situation and want Ben to return to the rehab center. Holly proceeds to make her son a deal: he can stay with the family for the next 24 hours but she'll watch him like a hawk, he is to never leave her sight. A task already immensely difficult only increases in how arduous it is as the 24 hours march on and some figures from Ben's past re-emerge to threaten Ben and his family.

The Upside Is On The Upswing At The Domestic Box Office As It Beats Out Aquaman And Two Other Newcomers

Well well well, looks like we have the first sleeper hit of 2019. The Upside soared above pre-release box office expectations for a $19.5 million opening weekend, the second-biggest opening weekend ever for STX Films and the tenth Kevin Hart vehicle to gross over $19 million on opening weekend. This is also the first movie not from one of the seven major American studios to top the domestic box office since Lee Daniels' The Butler in August 2013 (that feature hailed from The Weinstein Company). Also worth noting that the two of the three biggest opening weekends for comedies since Daddy's Home in November 2017 belong to Kevin Hart vehicles. Between this and Christmas 2018's solid performer Second Act, STX has had back-to-back hits with the kind of mid-budget inspirational comedies that the major studios don't make very much anymore. It'll be interesting to see if their future slate involves more films in this vein while I'm also curious if Lantern Entertainment (which acquired The Upside when they bought all of the Weinstein Company assets) is emboldened to become more of a major production company after this lucrative opening weekend.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Minding the Gap Is Must-See Top-Notch Documentary Filmmaking

When director Bing Liu set out to make Minding the Gap, his primary goal seemed to be to look at the abusive childhoods that he and his two best friends had endured and how that abusive behavior had impacted their modern-day lives. It's hard to imagine that director Bing Liu ever thought, in the process of filming the everyday lives of his childhood pals, hed end up with something that has such precise build-up and tragic pay-off's that it feels like it could belong in a traditional narrative feature. In the confines of a film, these turn of events would be held back by the fact that they are, after all, fictional, just performers reading a script, whereas Minding the Gap is capturing reality itself, complete with raw revelations about the complicated lives of Bing's best friends.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Disastrous Life Itself Is Complex In Structure But Deadly Dull In The Details

Perhaps you've heard of the movie Life Itself. Maybe you saw the advertising for its September 2018 theatrical release or maybe you've only been exposed to it via ads on the Amazon Prime section of the Amazon website or there's a good chance your only exposure to Life Itself has been by hearing a loved one trying to recount its labyrinthine plot. There are many ways to be exposed to Life Itself but merely hearing about it or seeing a poster for it is nothing compared to actually watching the movie. This is a tragic trainwreck of a feature film, one that sees a murderer's row of actors get put to use on a film whose thematic substance is about as thin as roadkill on a Texas highway. 

Ralph Breaks The Internet Is An Episodic But Frequently Fun Voyage Into The World Wide Web

As Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) notes early on in Ralph Breaks The Internet, the internet is a vast place. This sprawling domain is rife with possibilities for comedy and it's easy to imagine that writing up potential internet-based plot points or gags for Ralph Breaks The Internet would be an incredibly fun exercise. Unfortunately, the excess of potential in its central concept seems to have thrown Ralph Breaks The Internet off-kilter to a degree in terms of storytelling. Frequently, the films feels like a collection of stand-alone short films chronicling the exploits of the Wreck-It Ralph protagonists exploring the wide world of the internet rather than a cohesive feature-length movie.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Escape Room Delivers Some Competent Thrills

Six strangers have all been given an invite to try out a new escape room. If they can manage to get out, they'll get $10,000. The eclectic group of individuals includes timid college student Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell), arrogant rich guy Jason Walker (Jay Ellis), stockroom worker Ben Miller (Logan Miller), veteran Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), chipper Mike Nolan (Tylor Labine) and escape room expert Danny Khan (Nik Dodani). Though Danny's gone through numerous escape rooms in the past, he's never seen anything like the one he and the other five characters must endure. The challenges here are frighteningly real and the consequences of not following all the clues properly are deadly.

Early Man Falls Short of Past Aardman Feature Films

Aardman Animation (the outfit behind Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run) have been trying to make a caveman comedy for well over a decade now. Back when they had a deal to produce films with DreamWorks Animation, one of their proposed projects was a feature called Crood Awakening that John Cleese had written the script for. Once Aardman left DreamWorks, the latter studio turned the film into The Croods while Aardman finally got around to delivering a caveman project (albeit without the involvement of John Cleese) with Early Man, which was released in the first few weeks of 2018 to underwhelming box office results.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

It Looks Like The Next Star Trek Movie Has Been Put Into Port

Yesterday, Deadline broke the news that Jessica Jones director S.J. Clarkson would be directing the debut episode of a still-untitled Game of Thrones spin-off, a project she could undertake because a schedule had opened up in her schedule due to a prior directing commitment being shelved. That prior directing commitment? The next installment of the Star Trek film series. Clarkson had been set last Spring to make her feature film directorial debut by helming a sequel to 2016's Star Trek Beyond, but the project ran into a roadblock last August when pay disputes between Paramount Pictures and stars Chris Pine and Chris Hemsworth led to the two actors walking away from the project, putting its very existence in jeopardy.

In Laman's Terms: How Did The Seven Major Movies Studios Fare At The 2018 Domestic Box Office?

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

There are seven big American movie studios (soon, we shall be back to six once 20th Century Fox gets absorbed by Disney in the coming weeks) and they all released a whole slew of movies in 2018. Today, I shall use my box office savvy mind to look at their yearly grosses from 2018 and see which ones were on a financial roll and which ones are looking to the future to improve their fortune!

Let us begin with a studio I'm sure you're all shocked is once again on top of this (small) world....

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Regina Hall Shines In Support the Girls, A Charming & Heartfelt Ode To The Underappreciated

If you read Barack Obama's list concerning his 15 favorite movies of 2018, you might have understandably wondered what Support the Girls was. Considering it got only the briefest of theatrical releases back in August, it's likely the film flew under many people's radars, though the endorsement of a former President of the United States should boost its profile nicely. Though I'm nowhere near as influential as Mr. Obama, allow me to reaffirm that Support the Girls is indeed something special and should be getting even more attention. This newest film from writer/director Andrew Bujalski is a humorous and heartfelt feature about people just trying to help other people and make it through another day.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Favourite Is A Wickedly Fun Take On Traditional Period Pieces Dramas

I am really starting to dig this trend of costume period piece movies like Phantom Thread, Colette and now The Favourite that have their period-era characters talk and act like modern warts-and-all human beings. Though they didn't pioneer this trend (why, the Comedy Central TV show Another Period has been doing this for quite some time now), it is a nice departure from the norm in cinema where the default mode of doing these films is to depict historical time periods in a sacrosanct manner that has people acting as proper as possible. That's not quite the approach taken by The Favourite, which has more in common with a Marx Brothers comedy or even, in terms of ribald dialogue, a period-era version of a raunchy Seth Rogen comedy than it does with your average Stephen Frears film.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Disobedience Upends Expectations In Welcome Ways

Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) has been left out of the loop as to the goings-on of the London-based Orthodox Jewish congregation that raised her, which means she's taken completely by surprise when she receives word that her father, a rabbi, has passed away. She now returns home to say goodbye to her now deceased father, which means she must now deal with a congregation that is immensely distrustful of her given how she's not one to just kowtow to tradition. She also must face David Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who is now married to Esti (Rachel McAdams), a lady who harbors some personal romantic feelings for Ronit that our protagonist gladly reciprocates.

Aquaman Tops The Box Office For Third Weekend In A Row As Escape Room Scores Solid Bow And Assortment of Holdovers Hold Strong

The 2019 domestic box office kicked off in fine form this weekend as the sole new wide release opened above expectations while the holdovers in the marketplace had remarkably strong holds. One of those holdovers demonstrating some box office sea legs was Aquaman, which dropped 41% this frame to add $30.7 million to its massive domestic haul that now stands at $259.7 million.  This will become the 25th superhero movie to crack $300 million domestically in no time and also seems to be on track to handily surpass $1 billion.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk Is Masterful Emotionally Resonant Filmmaking That Should Not Be Missed

Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) was only 19. Fonny Hunt was only 22. They were deeply in love in New York City in 1974 and are all set to start a life together, but then tragedy struck in the form of Fonny being arrested for a crime he did not commit. Shortly after he's arrested, Tish learns that she's pregnant with his child, a revelation that she shares with Fonny in one of the opening scenes of the new Barry Jenkins directorial effort If Beale Street Could Talk. From there, the rest of the story, which is based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel of the same name, chronicles Tish and her families attempts to try and free Fonny from his prison sentence as well as numerous flashbacks showing pivotal moments in Tish and Fonny's romance.

Getting To The Hart Of Why Kevin Hart Still Shouldn't Host The Oscars

In December 2018, Kevin Hart was picked as the host for the impending 91st Academy Awards. Shortly thereafter, a number of tweets from around 2009 to 2011 resurfaced of the comic making jokes that were basically just hateful comments about gay people (including one where he threatened physical violence against his son if he ever exhibited "gay" behavior like playing with dolls). In response to these tweets resurfacing, Hart made a social media post saying that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (which is in charge of the Academy Awards) had told him he could still host if just apologized for the posts, but that he was refusing to do so in the name of making sure not to give into "the haters". A few hours later, Hart was fired from the hosting gig, a turn of events that was accompanied by him finally apologizing for his social media posts.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Madeline's Madeline Is An Impressively Realized Surrealist Exercise That Hews Closely To Immersive Theater

In a Performances In Historical Context class I took last Fall, we learned about a form of theater storytelling known as Immersive Theater. Emerging in the 21st century, this format of theater broke away from traditional norms of stage performance to rely heavily on audience participation, allowing for the creation of a one-on-one experience between audience members and performers, while such shows also tend to incorporate social elements into the proceedings and take advantage of whatever environment the performance takes place in. Theater groups like Punchdrunk and Third Rail are probably the most famous examples of this format of theater storytelling that ensures that no two performances of any given show will be quite the same.

Year of the Month: Was The Original X-Men Really A Game-Changer For Superhero Movies?

This essay was written for The-Solute's monthly Year of the Month column, with January 2019 being dedicated to pop culture from 2000. 

At the dawn of the 21st century, movies based on Marvel Comics were not a recurring fixture of American cinema. Though now it's like saying that the sky was once colored green, it was true at the very start of 2000, with Marvel Comics having about as many box office hits based on one of their properties (the 1997 sleeper hit Blade) as Image Comics. That all changed in July 2000 when the very first live-action X-Men movie made its way to the silver screen courtesy of 20th Century Fox and director Bryan Singer. The feature managed to gross $157.2 million domestically, a sum that put it ahead of all superhero movies sans the first three post-1988 live-action Batman movies. In an era where Batman & Robin seemingly killed off the comic book movie, and the likes of Spawn and Steel weren't making the case for the subgenre's revival, X-Men proved not only did comic book movies still have life left in them but that movies based on Marvel Comics characters could make big bucks.