With its second season, Cobra Kai does two things most viewers might not expect from a straight-to-YouTube Karate Kid sequel: it delivers stakes as high as Game of Thrones’, and it establishes Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) as one of the most fascinating and complicated characters since the likes of Walter White.
First: this is a spoiler review, so we’re going to get into some season-long reveals here. If you want a spoiler-free review, I wrote up the first two episodes out of SXSW here.
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The Curse of La Llorona opens in Mexico in 1673, as we meet the weeping woman of the title in her, shall we say, better days. The film introduces us to the Latin American legend, in which a scorned woman drowns her children in a river and then becomes overtaken by grief and guilt. It’s an affecting way to begin a movie. It’s also the last time The Curse of La Llorona works on almost any level.
We jump forward 300 years to Los Angeles in 1973, and you might be asking yourself why this movie is set in the ’70s. There’s no real thematic reason for it, and it’s so stylistically bland as to take minimal advantage of such an aesthetically interesting decade. No, The Curse of La Llorona is set in 1973 merely so we can have one throwaway scene connecting this film to the Conjuring universe in the most perfunctory way possible. Tony Amendola’s Father Perez shows up for a hot minute, reminisces about a doll, we get a black-and-white flashback to Annabelle, and BOOM, you’ve got yourself a Conjuring movie.
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With the opening credits of Body at Brighton Rock, writer/director Roxanne Benjamin tells us exactly what kind of movie we’re getting into. A bright yellow, jagged bubble-cursive firmly recalls R.L Stine’s Fear Street series, or any Christopher Pike book published from 1985 to 1999, as fresh-faced park ranger Wendy (Karina Fontes) sprints to work, listening to Oingo Boingo on her headphones.
Wendy’s a bit older than YA and Body at Brighton Rock isn’t set in the ‘80s, but there’s a very Pike/Stine mood here that Benjamin sustains with a sure hand and plenty of style. Wendy’s the kind of heroine that will annoy audiences, because Hollywood perpetuates this stubborn myth that all of our leading ladies have to be hyper-competent and unfailingly tough. Wendy’s always tardy, a little clumsy, a little goofy, and her best work friends (Emily Althaus and Brodie Reed) refer to her as “an indoor kid,” though she happens to work at a decidedly outdoor job. When she volunteers to survey a trail normally reserved for the more experienced of her co-workers, no one thinks she can do it. Read More »
Viewers who were hoping to see Daniel-San crane kicking through Miyagi-do in the first season of Cobra Kai may have been disappointed. The YouTube original series from Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald wisely saved their most crowd-pleasing moments for the beginning of Season Two, after viewers were already in the bag. Season One of the Karate Kid sequel, set 34 years after the original film, focused instead on Daniel’s rival Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) as he climbs out of a decades-long run of bad luck and worse decisions and re-opens the infamous Cobra Kai dojo. On the other side of the San Fernando Valley, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is a happy husband and father and owner of a very successful car sales empire. But the season ends with Daniel’s determination to open a dojo of his own to combat Cobra Kai’s dominance – and just in time for the return of Johnny’s bad-news sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove).
It’s a clever move. After having earned accolades on the strength of its original story in the first season, Cobra Kai finally makes with the crane kicks in the opening episodes of Season Two, picking that low-hanging fruit and giving fans what they’ve been clamoring for since the beginning. The first two episodes of the sophomore season are such a good time, tossing around entertaining melodrama and heartwarming Miyagi nods in equal measure. Read More »
This isn’t quite a review, because what we saw at last night’s SXSW screening of Stuber wasn’t quite a finished film. But the work-in-progress print of Michael Dowse’s action buddy comedy felt finished enough to establish that stars Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani have the best possible comedic chemistry. Listen up, Oscars 2020. Read More »
“I want to be what intimidates me.”
Riley Stearns (Faults) returns to SXSW with a super dark, incisive comedy that asks at what point in the process of toughening up and besting our bullies do we become precisely what we fear. The Art of Self-Defense follows Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a nervous little accountant who tiptoes through life trying not to offend anyone. He’s the kind of unobjectionable wimp who passes his free time by listening to French lesson books on tape and jerking it to photocopied pictures of boobs (The Art of Self-Defense appears to be very low-key set in a pre-Internet and pre-Audible age, though it’s never too showy about its period setting). But when Casey is randomly, brutally attacked by a group of motorcyclists, he takes up karate in order to feel safe and strong.
There are some impossible to ignore plot comparisons to Fight Club here: the dojo is led by an enigmatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and populated with worshipful men who hang onto his every word. Casey finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the culture of the dojo, irrevocably affecting every other aspect of his life. And then there’s Imogen Poots’ Anna, the dojo’s one daunting woman, who represents Casey’s inauguration, foil and redeemer in this macho new life.
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Joe Hill‘s NOS4A2 is a dense, twisty, unlikely tale, so it feels exactly right that the pilot episode of AMC’s adaptation should be so stubbornly unwilling to explain itself to viewers unfamiliar with the source material. Nothing is spelled out here; nothing is synopsized or tidily introduced. Unlike so many pilots – that act as a string of bite-sized quotes built in service of future “Previously on…” segments – NOS4A2 is interested only in telling this story at its own pace, with an admirable confidence that the audience will eventually catch up to where it’s going.
But even for those new to the world of Christmasland, to Charlie Manx and his Rolls-Royce Wraith, this first episode is deeply compelling, hooking viewers on an emotional, visceral level well before the plot fully reveals itself.
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“The book was better.”
Even without context, those four words almost work as a manifest truth, one I have immortalized on a lapel pin and engraved on my heart. The book, by virtue of its being a story’s inception point, the very first version of a narrative where nothing’s cut for time and no grand ideas are scuttled for budget, is almost always better than any of its adaptations. And when the SyFy network first announced they’d be adapting Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, the show felt destined to become one more example of this truism. How could SyFy, with its mediocre budget and (at the time) critically undistinguished reputation, do justice to Grossman’s dark, fantastical treatise on suffering and selfhood?
The answer: with panache.
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Kid horror has to be one of the most thankless subgenres in film. Very few horror films aimed toward children succeed at the box office, and they’re rarely distinguished by critical regard or earn the initial respect of MPAA-obsessed genre fans, often having to build a cult audience over the course of years or even decades.
So it’s something of a noble endeavor for a filmmaker to embrace the kid horror label in the absence of popularity, critical acceptance and financial gain. It feels like a labor of love, an act of true inspiration, even if high-maintenance horror fans call it selling out.
Eli Roth – whose previous outings like Hostel and Green Inferno have earned extremely vigorous R-ratings – is taking on that tricky endeavor with his latest, the Amblin Entertainment adaptation of John Bellairs‘ The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Why do it?
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With its eighth and final episode, Sharp Objects concludes this gorgeous, complicated story about feminine trauma, rage and love. Despite their nearly equitable screentime, the men in this story never really mattered, did they? In the end, it was never Alan, or Richard, or Vickery, or John Keene who were the answer to the questions Sharp Objects asked. No, this is a women’s tragedy, one that began with the unseen Joya and ends with Amma, a generations-long calamity about the ways that we hurt each other – or the ways that we hurt ourselves to keep others safe. Read More »