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Wednesday, 15 January 2020 14:11

War is hell – ‘1917’

Written by Allen Adams

I’m always a little suspicious when I hear a movie being lauded as a “technical achievement.” Not because I don’t value the technical aspects of filmmaking – quite the opposite, actually. It’s more that I worry that a film relies on technique over narrative, rather than letting each elevate the other. It doesn’t matter how beautifully a film is made if we don’t care about the tale being told.

“1917,” directed by Sam Mendes from a script he co-wrote alongside Krysty Wilson-Cairns, was that movie. I’d been hearing for months about the film’s aesthetic and cinematographic ambition, the fact that the entire thing was constructed to look like a single unbroken take. Impressive, sure, but if we aren’t engaged by the story and the characters … who cares?

Turns out I needn’t have worried, because while yes, it is an incredible technical achievement that elicits legitimate awe in spots, it is also a compelling story, as we follow along on a seemingly impossible mission laid at the feet of young men who can’t possibly be prepared for such demands, yet ultimately venture forth in an effort to do what’s right.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020 14:09

Depth charge - ‘Underwater’

Written by Allen Adams

The ocean can be scary.

Specifically, the deep ocean. We’re talking Mariana Trench deep. Challenger Deep deep. Miles down where the pressure is so intense that only particular brands of strange and strong life can exist. In many ways, the ocean floor is as alien to mankind as the moon. Perhaps more so.

As such, it makes sense that such a place would inspire some sci-fi/horror storytelling. The latest offering in that vein is “Underwater,” directed by William Eubank and starring Kristen Stewart. One might suspect that it’s your usual mid-January fare, but don’t be fooled by the release date – it isn’t a great movie, but there’s enough here to warrant a look from sci-fi fans.

There are shades of other, better films here – classics like “The Abyss” and the very obvious influence of the first two “Alien” movies – and “Underwater” occasionally wanders into the realm of the derivative. Still, the film is stylistically interesting, and Stewart is surprisingly engaging in a role that’s a bit of a departure for her. Again, not great, but not terrible either.

Tuesday, 07 January 2020 12:43

Sandler sparkles in ‘Uncut Gems’

Written by Allen Adams

It’s easy to poke fun at Adam Sandler. His output in recent years has been largely of the “working vacation with my friends” variety, comedies that are basic and kind of lazy. Oh, and not particularly funny. Sandler has found a formula that works for him; the dude works only as hard as he has to, contenting himself with good enough.

Of course, it’s ALSO easy to forget that when Sandler is given the right material and given a proper push, he can be brilliant. It’s been a while, but we’ve finally got another great performance to add to the list.

“Uncut Gems,” directed by filmmaking brothers Josh and Bennie Safdie from a script written by the Safdies and Ronald Brownstein, is a visceral and gritty drama, a moment-in-time period piece set all the way back in the bygone time of 2012. It is a character study of a man with little character, a self-absorbed degenerate who can’t help but succumb to his own baser impulses. It is a brutal, ugly story, driven by a collection of terrible people, few of whom possess any kind of truly redeeming qualities.

Tuesday, 07 January 2020 12:42

Holding a grudge against ‘The Grudge’

Written by Allen Adams

It’s never a good sign when a movie is released in early January. Traditionally, that stretch of the calendar is reserved for the films that, for whatever reason, studios have decided to abandon. They’re done, so they might as well be released; however, they drop with little fanfare, abandoned to fend for themselves against the remaining December blockbusters and the expanded releases of late-season prestige fare.

On a related note, I saw “The Grudge.”

This film – a remake of the 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle of the same name, which was itself a remake of Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 original – is the epitome of an early January release. It’s an unnecessary remake of a mid-00s ripoff of an excellent Japanese horror film; a copy of a copy of a copy means we’re losing a little coherence.

Or a lot of coherence, because there certainly isn’t much in this new movie, written and directed by the much-better-than-this Nicholas Pesce. The story exists only to prop up a bunch of stitched-together jump scares. There’s little in the way of thoughtfulness, just a formulaic paint-by-numbers meander through the narrative; there’s an attempt to disguise the rudimentary nature of the plot via back-and-forth timeline jumping, but that only serves to further obscure any possibility of the audience engaging.

This isn’t going to be my usual movie review.

As you undoubtedly know, “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker” has landed in theaters, purporting to mark the end of the saga begun over 40 years ago. A saga that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Seriously - the first movie I ever saw (or at least, the first movie of which I have any memory of seeing) is “The Empires Strikes Back.” We were at the drive-in on outer Hammond Street; I was four years old, curled up under the rear windshield, half-dozing due to the lateness of the hour, yet unwilling to allow my eyes to remain closed as this marvelous thing unfolded before my eyes.

In the decades since, I have devoted considerable energies to the consumption of “Star Wars.” I watched the films of the original trilogy countless times on VHS. I paid multiple visits to theaters when the remastered versions returned to the big screen. I saw the prequels and convinced myself they were good even when in my heart I knew. And I’ve experienced with delight the recent reintroduction of new films.

Years of my life, shared with these people and places. And I’m hardly alone – there are millions of us out there, each with our own very specific connection to the Star Wars saga. So many people, all with a deep-seated devotion to the story; our feelings might be similar, but all are unique.

The uniqueness of those individual connections are a big part of why the response to “The Rise of Skywalker” – and really, to all the post-prequel films to some extent – has been so scattered. The truth is that we all bring our own feelings to the table when it comes to “Star Wars.” There’s no way for a piece of popular art to elicit the desired response from all those who seek it – it’s simply impossible.

Monday, 23 December 2019 22:25

Who let the ‘Cats’ out?

Written by Allen Adams

Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie that captures your attention for all the wrong reasons. You find yourself questioning what possible series of increasingly poor decisions would lead to a world in which this movie came to be. You’re asking fundamental questions like “How?” and – perhaps more importantly – “Why?”

Those are the feelings that bubbled up from deep inside most reasonable people upon first viewing the trailer for “Cats,” director Tom Hooper’s star-studded adaptation of the (somewhat bewilderingly) beloved Broadway musical. Watching CGI-blended cat/human monstrosities gambol and cavort across the screen for just those few moments raised far more questions than any piece of art could ever answer.

Here’s the thing – that ain’t even the half of it.

“Cats” is a tortured fever dream of a film, the sort of nightmarish cinematic experience that feels like the unholy offspring of a coked-up studio executive notes session and a dark ritual intended to summon forth the Elder Gods. I walked out of this movie expecting my phone to ring, with a voice on the other end speak-singing a semi-melodic song informing me that I would die in seven days.

We are all cursed. We are all damned. We are all Cats.

Monday, 23 December 2019 22:23

‘Bombshell’ not quite a dud

Written by Allen Adams

With the cultural pervasiveness that came from the #MeToo movement, it was only a matter of time before we started seeing cinematic representations of those narratives.

“Bombshell,” directed by Jay Roach from a screenplay by Charles Randolph, is one such movie. A dramatization of the story of sexual harassment behind the scenes at Fox News, the film stars Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie and Nicole Kidman, each of whom portrays a woman impacted by the behind-the-scenes actions of men in power.

Unfortunately, while the performances are undeniably excellent across the board, the framework in which those performances exist is somewhat lacking. There’s a thinness to the proceedings that undermines the overall experience, with motivational and behavioral questions left unanswered in a manner that renders the film rather unsatisfying.

 

With Netflix out here throwing blank checks at cinematic auteurs, asking nothing of these filmmakers but for them to be themselves, there’s no disputing that we’re seeing some pretty incredible things spring forth from that creative freedom.

Martin Scorsese gave us “The Irishman,” a late-career masterpiece that many might not have expected Marty had left in him. Alfonso Cuaron made the beautiful and haunting semi-autobiography that was “Roma,” Noah Baumbach got to Baumbach in front of exponentially more eyeballs than ever before with “Marriage Story.” The list goes on.

However, “incredible” doesn’t always mean “good.”

This brings us to “6 Underground,” the film that is what happens when the auteur with the blank check is noted explosion fetishist Michael Bay. It is a loud, smug, barely comprehensible wad of action movie; the vibe is as though the entire thing was conceptualized on a cocktail napkin at whatever place exists on the spectrum between a Hooters and a strip club. Oh, and the lead is Ryan Reynolds playing Ryan Reynolds.

In this case, “incredible” basically means “I do not find it credible that such a movie like this exists.” By that definition, holy crap is this movie incredible.

When “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” came out a couple of years ago, I was as surprised as anyone when it turned out to actually be pretty good. Who’d have thought a two-decades-later sort-of-sequel to a mid-90s kids movie would turn out to be both entertaining and WILDLY lucrative?

Well, having the Rock doesn’t hurt.

After that film did just shy of a billion dollars at the global box office, it was obviously going to get a sequel of its own. That sequel has arrived, as “Jumanji: The Next Level” has hit theaters.

And guess what? This one’s pretty good too. Not as good as the last one, perhaps, but solid. One assumes it will also make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019 13:26

Guilty until proven innocent – ‘Richard Jewell’

Written by Allen Adams

Telling true stories via movies has always been complicated. On the one hand, when one hears those words – “true story” – one has certain expectations that the events portrayed actually happened. On the other hand, the telling of stories should allow for some creative flexibility for the storyteller – these are dramatizations, not documentaries.

A movie like Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is an apt representation of the myriad gray areas that come with representing real people and their stories on screen. The story of the titular Jewell – the security guard who discovered a pipe bomb during the Atlanta Olympics and saved hundreds, only to become a very public person of interest regarding the planting of that same bomb – is a complicated one; he was a very flawed man who was treated very badly largely because of those same flaws.

Jewell is the sort of man to whom Eastwood gravitates and the sort of uniquely American story that he greatly enjoys telling. It’s also problematic in its way, with some challenging the veracity of certain portrayals. It’s an incomplete portrait of an imperfect man.

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