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  • ‘A Star is Born’ burns bright
    ‘A Star is Born’ burns bright

    Predicting the relative success of a film, whether commercially or critically, is no easy feat. Sometimes, all the pieces are there for a hit, only for the final product to fall short. Other times, what looks like an abject disaster proves to be a runaway smash.

    And then there are those movies that you can’t quite get a read on.

    “A Star is Born” was one such film for me. I love Bradley Cooper as an actor – I think he’s got real talent – but how was he going to be in his directorial debut? Especially when he would be directing himself? And Lady Gaga is an undeniable musical powerhouse, but could she transcend her persona enough to create a character that felt real? Would the movie elicit genuine pathos … or simply come off as pathetic?

    After seeing the movie, let’s check those boxes. First, Cooper displayed far more directorial talent than I would have expected from any first-timer, let alone someone directing himself. Second, Gaga is absolutely captivating in this role, exposed and vulnerable in a way we rarely see her. And finally – pathos. Wave after wave of elicited emotion … and every feeling is well-earned.

    The story is simple and compelling. The performances are raw and heartfelt. The aesthetic is honest and the music is spectacular. It uplifts and undercuts with equal abandon. It is a fantastic movie experience the likes of which we don’t often see anymore – one that will almost certainly reap rewards come awards season.

  • ‘Venom’ an uninspired antihero
    ‘Venom’ an uninspired antihero

    As the superhero industrial complex continues to grow in Hollywood, we can expect to start seeing more material featuring secondary and tertiary comic book characters. The studios have churned through the A-list characters and many of the B-listers – it’s inevitable that they’re going to keep reaching.

    Now, one could certainly argue that noted Spider-Man foe Venom isn’t a deep cut – he has been one of Spidey’s primary antagonists ever since he first made the scene 30 years ago. He has had connections to other heroes and villains and a fair number of stand-alone outings over the years, but he remains indelibly connected to Spider-Man.

    And yet, it the new film “Venom,” there’s not a Spider-Man to be seen. And while that absence isn’t the only reason the movie fails to pass muster, it’s a significant one. The movie is a tonal mish-mash, one that seems happy to outright refuse to decide what kind of film it wants to be. Add to that the fact that the character has long been defined by a sort of reactionary emptiness and you get a movie that offers flashes of quality, but largely collapses beneath its own indecisiveness.

  • ‘Smallfoot’ has a big heart
    ‘Smallfoot’ has a big heart

    It’s always nice when a movie surprises you.

    Most of the time, you can generate a fairly accurate idea about a film simply by paying attention. All it takes is a couple of trailers, maybe a press tour interview or two, and you can form a good picture of what you’re going to get.

    Most of the time … but not ALL the time.

    “Smallfoot” is an animated offering, the second to be released by Sony through Warner Brothers Animation (2016’s “Storks” was the first). By all appearances, this was going to be a pretty straightforward and goofy bit of kiddie fare, with recognizable voice talent, decent 3D animation and a handful of not-bad songs. And it is that – but it’s also a little bit more.

    Just beneath the surface of this story about a young Yeti’s quest to prove the existence of the mythical Smallfoot is a surprisingly sophisticated allegory about the consequences of conformity and the importance of questioning authority. Oh, and the songs are catchy too.

  • ‘Night School’ flunks out
    ‘Night School’ flunks out

    Love him or hate him, you know pretty much what you’re getting with Kevin Hart. His movies are built on a foundation of fast-talking shtick as he inevitably plays someone thrust into circumstances beyond his control due to his past failings.

    The problem is that the shtick – never particularly robust to begin with – is definitely wearing thin.

    So we have “Night School,” a largely unfunny lowbrow comedy that proves unable to come up with more than a handful of decent jokes despite sporting a frankly-unbelievable six credited screenwriters. Not even the presence of Tiffany Haddish and a not-at-all-bad supporting ensemble is enough to make this movie clear what is a decidedly low bar.

  • ‘The House with a Clock in its Walls’ ticks all the boxes
    ‘The House with a Clock in its Walls’ ticks all the boxes

    I’m not sure when exactly “family-friendly” became code for “condescending and/or milquetoast,” but that’s pretty much where we are as far as Hollywood is concerned. The truth is that there are plenty of ways to make a movie for younger audiences that engages with them in a manner that treats them with respect – folks like Steven Spielberg did it all the time in the 1980s.

    So when word of “The House with a Clock in its Walls” came out, I was cautiously optimistic. The original source material – a 1973 YA magic mystery by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey that was the first of a dozen in the series – had the requisite spookiness. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company is prominently involved. The cast – led by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett – is strong.

    But there were questions – and the biggest involved the man sitting in the director’s chair. Eli Roth built his career on brutal, bloody genre fare – the choice to hand what is essentially a movie for kids over to the dude who made “Hostel” is an odd one. It seemed like a jarring, unconventional marriage unlikely to succeed.

    Instead, it turned out to be an ideal pairing, with Roth bringing his visceral sensibility to the PG-realm with nary a hiccup, resulting in a children’s movie that isn’t afraid to spend some time in the shadows and bring genuine scares to the screen.

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