“Sorry to Bother You” – Boots Riley’s Brilliant Fever Dream

Boots Riley is the truth. His directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You, is one of the most bizarre cultural commentaries you will ever see. The targets of Riley’s critiques vary, from broad concepts like race relations and corporate greed, to more specific ideas like viral fame and code-switching. But the setup is simple: Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a black man in Oakland struggling to make his rent – which he owes to his very generous uncle. He’s hired for a telemarketing job, but fails to find success until he listens to a seasoned veteran: use your white voice. Armed with the pleasant, non-threatening voice of a milquetoast white man (David Cross), Cash quickly climbs the corporate ladder – and stumbles into the weirdest things along the way.

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Autobiography and Family Drama in “Lady Bird”

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a stirring coming-of-age story focusing on the relationship between a high school senior and her mother. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, but insists that everyone call her “Lady Bird”. Her relationship with her mother, played by the excellent Laurie Metcalf, is fraught with complications – just like any mother-daughter relationship. Gerwig’s story has obvious autobiographical aspects, lending the film a refreshing matter-of-fact feeling. Lady Bird is a flawed protagonist, and her mother isn’t perfect either. Still, Lady Bird grows up a lot in the last year of high school, despite all the awkward romances and familial tension. Though detractors may classify Lady Bird as a film that doesn’t take many risks, its themes are timeless, perfectly executed, and packed with realism. Lady Bird is a resounding success from a first-time director, a seemingly-effortless bit of cinematic mastery.

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“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” Is the Worst Kind of Sequel – One that Knows it Doesn’t Have to Try

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the result of “getting the band back together” when the band broke up six months ago and everyone still hates each other so they just re-mix a few songs and release a “Greatest Hits” album. Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsmen: The Secret Service was a sleeper hit when it was released in February of 2015. The film struck the perfect tone, balancing irreverence and absurdity with the clichés of the action spy genre, all the while telling a legitimately interesting story. As a critical darling, once the film broke even financially it was all but assured that a sequel would be made. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the result – a film as derivative and unimaginative as its predecessor was refreshing.

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“Spider-Man: Homecoming” Does Whatever a Spider Can to Be Unique and Fun

Though he has only a pair of independent films to his name, director Jon Watts (Clown, Cop Car) sure knows his way around a friendly neighborhood Spider-man.  The product of a team-up between Sony and Marvel Studios, Spider-man: Homecoming places the iconic webslinger in high school.  This choice dictates many aspects of the film, from the story and characters all the way down to the sense of humor and the overarching themes of growing into one’s responsibilities.  At the very least, it certainly establishes Watts’s version of Spider-man as different, which is absolutely crucial given that this is the third iteration of Peter Parker in the last 15 years.

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Music Breathes Beautiful Chaos into “Baby Driver”

Very early in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, as Doc (Kevin Spacey) sketches out the plans to a heist on a chalkboard, he explains to his crew that the driver “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) has tinnitus and chooses to drown out the constant hum by listening to music.  Once he’s done with the obvious exposition, he puts down the chalk and exclaims, “Wow, I drew this entire map while explaining that.  I’d say that’s pretty fucking impressive!”  Thus Wright places his tongue firmly in-cheek, and we immediately understand the tone of the film:  weird, energetic, and not taking itself too seriously.

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“Captain Underpants – The First Epic Movie” Embraces Anti-Authority Silliness

George and Harold are two fourth graders with a penchant for potty humor, hanging out in their treehouse, and creating their own comic books.  The cream of their crop is Captain Underpants, a broad knock-off of Superman, right down to his exoplanetary origin story, bizarre mishmash of superpowers, and proclivity for dressing in – you guessed it – underpants.  George and Harold are just a little more to-the-point with their superhero.

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The Hilarious “Mindhorn” Blends Crime with Irreverence and Dry British Wit

Are you re-watching episodes of QI and startling yourself with how often you remember the answers?  Do you have a VPN set up to watch 8 Out of 10 Cats?  Are you slightly angry that my previous question didn’t conclude with “Does Countdown”?  This hackneyed rhetoric is just a way for me to say that if you enjoy British comedy, then Sean Foley’s Mindhorn is definitely for you.  Even if you’re not crazy about the Brits and their particular brand of whimsy, you’re likely to find something to enjoy in this weird little farce.

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“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – Definitely a Chapter from the Same Book

Guardians of the Galaxy was always the most overtly comedic franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and Vol. 2 follows in those footsteps.  Most films in the MCU employ humor, but none are governed by the success of references, call-backs, meta-humor, and jokes quite like Guardians.  As a result, one’s appreciation for this sequel is going to be heavily dependent on whether or not these attempts at humor land.  If you feel like some of the jokes are a little forced, are over-reliant on pop culture reference, or attempt to recreate similar gags from the original, then you’re going to find Vol. 2 a little derivative and strained.  Otherwise, you’ll have a good time.

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“Free Fire” Attempts Farce, Ends Up Boring and Haphazard

In a strange paradox, executing a proper farce demands preternatural planning.  Stray but a little from the knife’s edge, and the tone can spiral out of control as the conflicting elements of the film separate like a broken sauce.  Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire suffers such a fate, though it isn’t for lack of effort or a gripping central idea.  The film tries to position some idiosyncratic characters in a bottle, shake everything up, and let them shoot guns at each other for 75 minutes, but too many of these elements are just a bit off the mark.  The characters and the performances mostly hit, and the inciting event feels reasonable, but the organization and the length of the fight strains comprehension and ends up being to repetitive to hold the spectator’s interest.  Free Fire does a better job than most genre-bending farces, but ultimately it just feels too boring for a movie centered around a free-for-all firefight.

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Fight for Your Dreams: “Your Name.” and the Winding Path to Now

Is there anything in life more enigmatic than the haphazard paths that lead us into the another’ arms?  Makoto Shinkai’s anime Your Name. (Kimi no na wa) explores these paths by way of a fantastical body-swap comedy.  But, there is a genuine seriousness at the heart of the film that coalesces romance, connectivity, memory, and identity into a cohesive story about time, space, and the hidden strings that surround us all.  Your Name. sports a lavish animation style, energetic soundtrack, and intelligent use of imagery and metaphor, all of which contribute to an absolutely breathtaking experience.   Shinkai’s film amazes constantly, and is right at home alongside other pinnacles of this oft-celebrated style.

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Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” and the Torture of Dishonesty

There is a superficial idea championed by some movies that dishonesty sells.  Heist films like Hell or High Water or Ocean’s Eleven suggest that a caper can handsomely reward the protagonist, if it’s properly executed.  White lies can tell a person, “exactly what they need to hear” as a plot contrivance for furthering a character’s confidence, like Neo in The Matrix.  And even films that deride dishonesty often do so by showcasing the extreme fall that accompanies an ill-gotten rise, even though the character doesn’t necessarily need to consider their lies to be a transgression at all;  think The Wolf of Wall Street, Catch Me if You Can, or other examples of hubris-infused justice.  Rare is the film that showcases the psychological destruction that a lie can wreak on a person’s life.  Tim Burton’s Big Eyes is a fascinating exploration of precisely that idea.

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“Slow West” – A Sparse Shakespearean Western Film

John Maclean’s sparse Western film strikes a gorgeous balance between the untamed beauty and the cold indifference of the American frontier.  The characters are drawn broadly and have archetypal motivations, the sense of humor is dry and dark, and the ultimate tone of the story is tragic.  Slow West takes care to unveil its secrets with a practiced pacing, and always knows when to kick up the excitement or introduce some weirdness to keep the spectator’s attention.  Though the film clocks in at under 90 minutes, it boasts the full package of powerful performances, spectacular cinematography, and a patient slow-burn story that will leave any film fan enthralled.

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