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Tuesday, 19 November 2019 11:57

Race to the top – ‘Ford v. Ferrari’

Written by Allen Adams

One of the complaints surrounding awards shows like the Oscars in recent years is the fact that often, the movies up for these honors aren’t necessarily movies that a lot of people have seen. They are critical darlings, but that acclaim only sometimes translates to significant commercial success.

“Ford v Ferrari” is that relative rarity, a film intended to win both at the ballot box and the box office. It’s pure Oscar bait, but with a big-budget sensibility – no surprise considering we’re talking about Disney here. It’s a sports movie and a biopic – the story of Ford Motor Company’s efforts to usurp Ferrari’s place atop the racing world back in the 1960s – with two no-doubt movie stars heading up the cast.

This kind of movie was once a mainstay of mainstream Hollywood. Now, it’s an unexpected treat. And it is a treat – you’ve got a talented and flexible studio director in James Mangold, with A-listers Matt Damon and Christian Bale taking turns driving. Just like the race cars produced by its namesakes, “Ford v. Ferrari” is sleek and fast; a powerful and expensive machine.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019 11:55

‘Charlie’s Angels’ get their wings

Written by Allen Adams

Did we really need another “Charlie’s Angels” movie?

It’s not surprising, really; the basic concept is certainly ripe for revisiting in this current era of IP-driven franchise-building. And in case you’re wondering, yes – this new film is intended as a sequel of sorts to the two “Charlie’s Angels” films from 15 years ago, rather than a reboot.

But the question remains: why?

That said, the actual result is better than it has any right to be. Not great, but OK. It’s probably safe to assume that much of the credit for that has to go to Elizabeth Banks, who not only directed the film but also makes her feature debut as a screenwriter. Oh, and she’s in it as well. So yeah – this is very much an Elizabeth Banks joint.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019 11:53

Pros and cons – ‘The Good Liar’

Written by Allen Adams

In a world full of franchises and IP-driven cinematic entertainment, certain types of films have fallen out of favor with the biggest studios. That’s not a judgment so much as a simple statement of fact.

And it’s too bad, because if Hollywood allowed itself to keep an open mind, we might get more efforts like the new dramatic thriller “The Good Liar.” It’s a movie whose tight, taut tone is brought forth by the talented likes of director Bill Condon behind the camera and the delightful central pairing of Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren. Films like this – films interested in neither billion-dollar box office or scads of awards attention – are thinner on the ground than ever.

It’s not a perfect movie – things get more than a little convoluted at times and the pacing has moments where it lags a bit – but its relatively minor issues are more than overcome by McKellan and Mirren, who are cinematic treasures and are clearly enjoying themselves immensely. When you’ve got that kind of charm and charisma on display, the rest more or less takes care of itself.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019 12:46

‘Doctor Sleep’ shines on

Written by Allen Adams

It seems like every week sees the announcement of another screen adaptation of a Stephen King work. Hollywood has always had an affinity for King, but the proliferation of outlets has brought more and more content creators to the nigh-endless font of material that is the erstwhile Master of Horror.

But “Doctor Sleep” is a little different. The 2013 book is a sequel to King’s classic novel “The Shining,” a look at whatever happened to little Danny Torrance in the aftermath of his ordeal at the Overlook Hotel. King’s relationship with Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining” is notoriously fraught; in some ways, “Doctor Sleep” was a years-later reaction to that film.

Obviously, this makes the idea of adapting “Doctor Sleep” to the screen a tricky proposition. But few are as uniquely suited to strike the proper balance as Mike Flanagan, who both directed and wrote the screenplay for the film. Flanagan’s horror bona fides are legit, but more than that, he wrote and directed one of the best King adaptations of recent years; “Gerald’s Game” was a book that seemed almost unfilmable, yet Flanagan turned it into a powerful and effective film.

Turning his eye onto “Doctor Sleep,” Flanagan’s stated goal was to do proper service to King’s book while also finding ways to pay homage to Kubrick’s iconic film. It would seem to be a Herculean task … and yet Flanagan managed to pull it off. Being all things to all people rarely works, yet here we are – a film that is true to both the spirit of the book being adapted and of the film being remembered.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019 12:44

‘Midway’ tries to fight the good fight

Written by Allen Adams

The Battle of Midway is considered one of the major turning points in World War II. The victory by U.S. forces over the Japanese Navy prevented Japan from taking control of the Pacific Ocean and bringing devastation to America’s west coast. The United States was outnumbered and outgunned, but thanks to the bravery of the men in the fight and the brilliance of those plotting the course, they emerged victorious.

It’s an obvious choice to receive the cinematic treatment. Indeed, the battle was the namesake of a star-studded 1976 film. Now, over 40 years after that film and over 70 since the battle itself, moviegoers are getting another look at that historic fight on the big screen.

Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

Director Roland Emmerich, whose name has become a kind of shorthand for big-budget Hollywood films that are heavy on the explosions and light on the … everything else, brings us “Midway.” While he certainly understands the spectacle that comes with war movies, he doesn’t quite capture the subtler aspects of the story the way one might hope.

It’s not that the film is bad, per se – it’s just a bit heavy-handed, both in terms of the CGI battle scenes and the interpersonal relationships. To his credit, Emmerich has assembled a talented cast that is able to somewhat alleviate the issues with both his direction and Wes Tooke’s screenplay, lending the proceedings a depth that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The end result is a moviegoing experience that is fine, but no more than that.

It’s a story that warrants telling; it’s just too bad that it isn’t better told.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019 12:42

‘Playing with Fire’ a lukewarm family film

Written by Allen Adams

Let’s be clear from the start: John Cena is not The Rock. Nor will he ever be The Rock, no matter how hard he, WWE and/or Hollywood try to make it be so.

And that’s OK. Cena has his own (admittedly limited) charms, both in terms of personality and performance acumen. He’s never going to be the entertainment force that is Dwayne Johnson.

Movies like “Playing with Fire” are an excellent illustration of that truth. While The Rock had his share of kid-friendly outings early in his film career, it was clear even at the time that something larger was looming. Cena simply doesn’t have the same sort of raw charisma.

This isn’t a criticism, really – though it may sound like one. Cena’s performative talents may lag behind his fellow wrestler-turned-actor, but he also has plenty to offer in his own right. He’s got a gift for using his imposing physicality to his benefit, as well as a legitimately good sense of comedic timing and a genuine earnestness – all of which work well in a movie like this one.

Tuesday, 05 November 2019 12:31

Days of future past – ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

Written by Allen Adams

There’s something appealing about a fresh start.

That’s as true in Hollywood as anywhere else. Studios love their long-running franchises, embracing the sureties that come with an ongoing concern. But they also love reinvention, returning to a property after a time to start all over again.

But you don’t often see both.

That’s basically what you get with the latest installment in the “Terminator” franchise. This new entry – “Terminator: Dark Fate” – is the sixth film in the franchise. However, it is ALSO a reboot, as it is intended as a direct sequel to 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Essentially, this means that the three films that preceded this new one – “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003), “Terminator Salvation” (2009) and “Terminator Genisys” (2015) – have been erased from franchise canon.

In many ways, “Dark Fate” offers a return to the spirit of those earlier films – films that were largely superior to the misguided franchise fodder that followed. It’s a simpler, pared-down story, one that avoids being bogged down by convoluted, tangled mythology resulting from multiple movies jammed with time travel.

By taking us back to that still-relatively-clean initial timeline, “Dark Fate” can bring us back into contact with the world that drew us in in the first place. This new film doesn’t quite scale the heights of those earliest entries – though creator James Cameron’s fingerprints are all over it (which is a good thing) – but the streamlining of the experience is welcome. Add to that some strong performances and a director who gets what makes the franchise tick and you’ve got a movie that certainly outstrips the mediocre trio of films that preceded it.

Tuesday, 05 November 2019 12:30

‘Harriet’ tells tale of an American icon

Written by Allen Adams

As we get deeper into fall, we find ourselves rapidly approaching awards season. This is when we’re going to start seeing an onslaught of prestige films, movies that merit a different sort of critical attention than the big-budget blockbusters of the summertime.

Biopics are particularly well-suited to the prestige game. They offer actors the opportunity to bring to life a real person, someone culturally important. They offer filmmakers a chance to tell a true and meaningful story in a manner that allows them to put their own personal stamp upon it. Sometimes, they become the primary way through which the world knows this person or people.

“Harriet” is the latest example of just such a biopic. It’s the story of Harriet Tubman, legendary conductor on the Underground Railroad and true American hero. It’s precisely the sort of movie that expects to generate some awards chatter. And it will – but likely less than the folks behind it may have hoped. Call it a hunch, but I feel like this is one of those attention-worthy projects that will fall through the cracks a little.

That’s not a condemnation – “Harriet” is quite a good film. It’s a nice-looking historical drama; the period aesthetic is exceptional. And the performances, led by Cynthia Erivo in the titular role, are good-to-great almost across the board. Director Kasi Lemmons – who co-wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard – endows the project with her passion and talent. There’s a lot to like, and again, I won’t be surprised if it gets some attention.

I just won’t be surprised if it doesn’t, either. There’s a sense of familiarity here – the style, the choices, the narrative beats – that may breed just a little bit of contempt among awards voters. And that little bit could very well make the difference when nominations start landing.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019 10:41

‘Black and Blue’ a meandering misfire

Written by Allen Adams

There’s something admirable about a filmmaker wanting to tackle larger social issues through their craft. Making a movie that offers salient commentary on the world is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and almost always springs from good intentions.

But the leap from intention to execution can be tricky … and you’re not always going to stick the landing.

And that’s the story of “Black and Blue” in a nutshell. Director Deon Taylor has a history of incorporating a message into his entertainments, with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, this time it doesn’t quite land. He’s a skillful filmmaker and he’s working with a talented cast, but he’s ultimately unable to present his ideas with the nuance necessary to make them work.

Reducing big ideas to manageable size is vital in these situations, but you also must be careful not to oversimplify. In their efforts to strike the balance, the filmmakers went too far, rendering complicated issues in a manner that borders on the ham-handed. A noble effort, but one that never quite gels.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019 10:39

‘Countdown’ lacks app-titude

Written by Allen Adams

Horror films have long served as a reflection of society’s real-life fears. Seeing the things that scare us outsized and twisted on the big screen can give us a different perspective on that which we fear.

The ubiquity of the internet and the various concerns it inspires have led to a wealth of horror movies built on a foundation of those (often well-founded) fears. Whether it’s the addictive qualities, the social disconnect, the constant surveillance and lack of privacy or any one of a dozen other things, there’s plenty of scary stuff about the internet.

And when you’ve got scary stuff, you’ll eventually get scary movies. Or at least, movies that TRY to be scary.

The latest iteration of the “internet is evil” horror subgenre is “Countdown,” a nonsensical supernatural thriller whose basic conceit seems to be that ignoring the terms of service will kill you. It’s a slapdash attempt to mine the internet for scares, throwing a filter over the standard “evil curse” narrative and calling it a day. It meanders and flails, jumbling together a mess of clichés and assorted tropes without ever committing to anything consistent. In fact, the only thing consistent about this movie is its unrelenting stupidity.

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