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Monday, 21 September 2020 15:05

Coal country noir – ‘The Devil All the Time’

Written by Allen Adams

The relationships that exist between people – and the motivations that drive them – are often the best fodder for storytelling. The reasons we do the things we do and the people for whom we do them can be the purest distillation of our character.

Novelist Donald Ray Pollock has a knack for evoking the dark side of that equation; his books are packed with the brutality and evil that people do even while feeling utterly justified in doing them.

That sense of physical and emotional violence is omnipresent in “The Devil All the Time,” an adaptation of Pollock’s 2011 novel of the same name. Directed by Antonio Campos from a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Paulo, the film is set in midcentury West Virginia and Ohio and follows a sprawling collection of different characters through narratives whose connections – both overt and subtle – constantly ebb and flow toward one another.

It’s a story of sin, of the evil that even the pious are capable of if they can convince themselves of the righteousness of their acts. It’s a striking representation of the time and place, to be sure, while also featuring an incredible collection of talent in the cast. But that unrelenting representation of the dark side of human nature, the ongoing parade of terrible people doing terrible things for terrible reasons – it’s a lot. The bleakly entangled constancy of sex and violence and power and religion is frankly exhausting, though the excellent performances and quality filmmaking make it worth the undertaking nevertheless.

Genre filmmaking has long been used as a tool for social commentary. The trappings of sci-fi or horror or what have you give cover for filmmakers to deliver messaging that might be met with more resistance other arenas of expression. The extrapolation and/or exaggeration of typical mores can say a lot about the world.

“Antebellum” – currently available via VOD – certainly TRIES to say something, though whether it is ultimately successful is debatable. The movie, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaking duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, attempts to bring together the past and present of racism and white supremacist ideas in service of a horror story. Unfortunately, using real-life horrors as the basis for fictional ones requires a delicacy and sophistication that “Antebellum” can’t quite manage.

It’s a well-made film, with good performances. It just doesn’t deliver on the underlying ideas; instead, it reads as using historical atrocities as simple horror fodder, largely content to stay on the surface of the overt rather than diving fully into the ideological depths. This means that “Antebellum” feels more exploitative than it ought; it seems unlikely that that was the intent, but it rings wrong regardless.

Sunday, 20 September 2020 14:25

‘Alive’ a bloody, brutal horror offering

Written by Allen Adams

Memory – both its presence and its absence – has long been a central theme of the horror genre. Remembering past trauma can be truly terrifying, but so too is knowing of said trauma without being able to remember it. Amnesia offers a great deal of scary narrative possibility.

The new film “Alive,” directed by Rob Grant from a script cowritten by Chuck McCue and Maine native Jules Vincent, offers up a grisly exploration of just how that lack of memory can make a horrifying situation – one steeped in gory intensity and stirred by a wonderfully unhinged performance from Angus Macfadyen – all the more frightening.

The small cast – the majority of the film features just three actors – allows for the development of an intimacy that intensifies the impact of the gruesome actions we’re witnessing, as well as lending itself to the claustrophobic nature of the setting. And their relative anonymity – names are nebulous to the degree that they exist – offers a canvas onto which we can project ourselves.

So much of Hollywood is driven by spectacle. There’s a bigger-is-better ethos at work that drives more and more of the industry with each passing year, often crowding out some of the less flashy fare. Yet one could argue that movies work even more effectively as a medium for delivering smaller, more intimate stories. Bigger might be better, but sometimes, smaller is superb.

Take “Blackbird,” the new film directed by Roger Michell. A remake of the 2014 Dutch film “Silent Heart,” “Blackbird” is the story of an ailing matriarch bringing her family together for one final celebration of their lives together before her death – a death that she intends to be entirely on her own terms.

Featuring an absolutely stacked cast, “Blackbird” is a heartfelt meditation on the familial complexities that come with death and a look at how an impending loss can impact our choices. It’s a movie about choices and wrestling with the consequences of those choices and how, in the end, we must allow people to make those choices for themselves.

Monday, 14 September 2020 17:04

Wisdom born of pain – ‘I Am Woman’

Written by Allen Adams

Biopics – particularly music biopics – can be difficult to pull off. Telling the stories of iconic figures is always tricky, but when you introduce a level of performance into the mix, well … it doesn’t always go the way you’d want. I tend to be more into “slice of life” biopics than “cradle to grave” – the truth is that most of the time, the beginning and the end don’t necessarily contribute significantly to the tale being told.

“I Am Woman,” the new biopic of singer Helen Reddy, falls into the former category (though the slice is pretty hefty, traversing the mid-1960s and moving well into the ‘80s). Directed by Unjoo Moon from a screenplay by Emma Jensen, it focuses on the heyday of the iconic singer, from her early struggles through her meteoric rise and on to the inevitable tumble.

It’s a charming, albeit formulaic film, hitting all the standard beats that we’ve come to expect from the genre. That’s not meant to be dismissive, though – it’s a formula because it works if it’s executed properly. And this one is, dipping in and out of the timeline as the story of a woman who was more than the song that came to define her.

Monday, 14 September 2020 13:26

You’ve got a friend in TV – ‘Rent-A-Pal’

Written by Allen Adams

It’s tough to argue against the superiority of streaming services and the like versus the old days of physical video rentals. The vast selection and ease of use are certainly huge plusses. That said, there’s something that we’ve lost with the disappearance of the Blockbusters of the world.

Specifically, that evening stroll through the aisles to browse through the lurid and garish covers that marked the many low-rent horror offerings. There was something delightful about examining the over-the-top box art, knowing full well that the contents would be barely reflected (if at all) by those images, and picking one up anyway.

Those kinds of lo-fi thrills are a bit tougher to come by these days, which is why it is such a joy to discover a movie like “Rent-A-Pal,” currently available through VOD outlets. It’s a throwback, a period piece set in 1990 that is wonderfully evocative of that specific time and place. Written and directed by Jon Stevenson, it’s a retro thriller that digs into the power of loneliness and the lengths to which we will go in order to alleviate that feeling of isolation.

It’s a film that wears its influences – narrative, aesthetic and otherwise – proudly, with a look and feel that perfectly captures that classic video store seediness while also providing a much more compelling and competently-made product.

You never quite know what you’re going to get with a Charlie Kaufman project. Well … that’s not ENTIRELY true. You know that you’re going to get something unconventional and bizarre and challenging, but you don’t know what specific flavor of unconventional/bizarre/challenging you’re going to get.

Kaufman’s latest is “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” a film he both directed and adapted from the Iain Reid novel of the same name. It is typically atypical, a difficult-to-define work of psychological not-quite-horror that is unsettling to watch even while requiring the viewer’s close attention.

The film is marked by the fluidity and flexibility we’ve come to expect from Kaufman; even while watching, one can never be quite sure what they are watching. Reality and fantasy blur together, reveling in the active and deliberate narrative inconsistency while also painting a compelling portrait of a relationship that is not at all what it seems to be. It is smart and well-crafted and unrelentingly weird – classic Kaufman.

Friday, 04 September 2020 23:47

Crouching ‘Mulan,’ hidden dragon

Written by Allen Adams

It’s tough to argue against the live-action remake strategy that Disney has trotted out over the past five years or so. By presenting live retellings of their beloved animated fare, Big Mouse is able to double down on the value derived from those properties while also introducing (or reintroducing) them to a new audience. Economically, it totally makes sense.

Artistically? Your mileage may vary. But whether you view these films as viable extensions of the originals or little more than cash grabs, there’s no fighting it – they’re here to stay.

The latest in line is “Mulan,” a live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated film. Originally scheduled as a summertime tentpole release for the studio, the film was made available for streaming to Disney+ subscribers, albeit for an additional charge of $30. This move makes it an interesting test case as far as what may happen with movies moving forward; in truth, this movie’s reception and receipts could prove definitional to film’s commercial future.

As for the movie itself? Pretty solid, actually. Director Niki Caro does a good job capturing the epic scale of the thing; her choices evoke the vastness of the proceedings with a deft clarity. The action sequences are on point – there’s an elevated kung-fu movie vibe to the fight scenes that works nicely. The emotional beats are all properly hit and the performances are uniformly strong. All in all, a really good movie.

Wednesday, 02 September 2020 16:01

Time is (not) on my side – ‘Tenet’

Written by Allen Adams

Christopher Nolan has clout. And he’s unafraid to use it.

It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about Nolan’s position as the last bastion of original idea-driven blockbuster filmmaking. Yes, the cinematic landscape is defined by the ebb and flow of franchises now. Hell, Nolan understands that better than anyone – he did his franchise turn with Batman, after all, though those films are obviously superhero outliers. But he’s the guy who can get a nine-figure check to direct his own non-IP script.

He’s at it again with “Tenet,” currently in theaters. I’ll be real with you – I’m not at all sure how to talk about this movie to people who haven’t already seen it. But hey, that’s the gig, right?

There’s obviously a lot of baggage here. Nolan’s insistence that the film be experienced in a theater turned it into a bellwether, leaving it to assume the burden of expectation with regard to theatrical reopenings writ large. That pressure can’t help but inform the way audiences experience the film. Add to that the outsized expectations that always accompany the filmmaker’s work and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment.

Thankfully, Nolan’s skill is such that he largely manages to sidestep that potential letdown. “Tenet” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is the sort of meticulously-constructed blockbuster that we’ve come to expect from the director. It is massive in scope, a challenging puzzle box of a film that works both as pure spectacle and as something a bit more thoughtful. The complexities of the plot skate right up to the edge of confusion, but anyone sitting down to watch a Nolan movie should probably expect some sort of chronological convolution.

And boy, do we ever get some of that.

Thursday, 27 August 2020 18:32

Party on, dudes! ‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’

Written by Allen Adams

One of the many unfortunate side effects of 21st century cinema’s affinity for franchises is the occasional appearance of the years-later sequel. These movies continue stories on which the book had closed a decade or more in the past. They are almost always bad ideas across the board, woeful misfires that fail to capture or even understand what made their predecessors so beloved in the first place.

Note that I said “almost always,” because it is possible for one of these films to actually prove to be a worthwhile continuation, a new chapter that both expands upon and embraces the legacy of the movie or movies that came before.

“Bill & Ted Face the Music” is just such a chapter. Reuniting Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as the titular duo, the film captures the essence of what made these characters resonate 30 years ago while also allowing them to tell a different kind of story, a story of adulthood and the pressures of expectations and the challenges that come in a life that lacks balance … even as they remain in many ways the same amiably goofy dudes that they’ve always been.

It’s also a story of family and what it means to live up to a legacy, of how the next generation’s ideas about the world are impacted by those who came before, but not always bound by them. It’s about the frustration of having a path dictated for you and the disappointment when it proves too difficult to properly follow. It is weird and hilarious and moving, sweetly and unapologetically strange.

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