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Monday, 18 October 2021 11:42

He said, he said, she said – ‘The Last Duel’

Written by Allen Adams

Often – perhaps too often – we are wont to romanticize the past. We look back at the events of history through rose-colored lenses that focus on the grandiose and filter out many of the more unsavory elements.

The age of chivalry, for instance. We tend to celebrate the heroic and heraldic whilst utterly ignoring the bleak realities of that time for anyone who lived outside the sphere of knights and noblemen. The crushing poverty, the endless warfare, the lack of agency for anyone outside the elite – these truths are absent from the familiar tales of derring-do.

“The Last Duel” – directed by Ridley Scott and based on the 2004 book of the same name by Eric Jager – attempts to delve deeper and address that time and place with a little more honesty. Jager’s book, which is based on a true story, is adapted for the screen by some rather notable writers: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who wrote the script alongside Nicole Holofcener.

Damon and Affleck star, as do Adam Driver and Jodie Comer, in this multi-faceted tale of what happens when a woman of this era accuses a man of rape. Told from multiple perspectives, it’s an effort to deconstruct the uneven power dynamics of the time, its historicity inviting comparisons and contrasts to present-day circumstances. The film sprawls across the screen, asking the audience to view the proceedings through the eyes of three different narrators, each of whom with their own beliefs regarding how the story played out.

I’ll be honest with you – I’ve never really been much of a music guy. I simply don’t feel the same connection to music that so many people do. It’s not that I don’t like music, mind you. I just don’t need it in the way that true musicophiles do.

That said, I definitely dig a good music documentary. Even without that visceral, cellular-level type connection to the music, the stories behind the music – the people and places and influences that brought that music to life – remain fascinating to me.

As you might imagine, the new Todd Haynes documentary “The Velvet Underground” – currently streaming on Apple TV+ - fits the bill perfectly. To have someone like Haynes, a filmmaker with an idiosyncratic eye and an obvious adoration of music that permeates his filmography, take on one of the most influential rock bands of all time? What kind of wonderful result could we expect?

An apt one, as it turns out, a perfect marriage of documentarian and subject. Haynes proves to be just the right person to capture the frenetic bohemian energy of not just The Velvet Underground, but of their surroundings. The pieces will be familiar, but the whole into which they have been assembled is unlike any music documentary you’ve seen before. In many ways, this film is an experience – an evocative reflection of the band’s place in the cultural zeitgeist.

Monday, 18 October 2021 11:34

‘Halloween Kills’ more trick than treat

Written by Allen Adams

Even in a Hollywood landscape constructed atop a foundation of IP-driven franchises and remakes, there are few rabbit holes as deep as the one surrounding the current iteration of “Halloween.”

The John Carpenter original is one of the classics of the horror genre; its success gave birth to a lengthy list of sequels of rapidly-diminishing quality. We got a Rob Zombie effort at rebooting, resulting in a couple of movies of middling quality. And then, in 2018, we got yet another reinvention of the franchise with David Gordon Green and Danny McBride leading the way – an effort to wipe the slate clean of the confusing and convoluted lore and reenergize the franchise. It was an effort that mostly worked.

However, the sequel to THAT movie – “Halloween Kills” – doesn’t achieve the same manner of success, instead opting to lean into over-the-top gore and an added selection of legacy characters from the franchise’s early days. And while there’s some meat on that particular nostalgic bone, Green and the rest of the filmmaking team never quite figure out how to most effectively gnaw it.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s joy to be derived from the sheer splatter factor here, as well as some moments of dark levity. It’s just that this is very obviously a middle movie, and when you already know the next movie is coming, it’s hard to make any sort of real narrative progress; it occasionally feints at some greater themes, but can’t really deliver on the follow through. In the end, what you get is largely a placeholder, a movie that exists largely because you can’t get from point A to point C without a point B. It’s fine for what it is, but ultimately, it proves disposable.

From the moment he exploded onto screens in 1962’s “Dr. No,” James Bond – 007 – has cast a suave and swaggering shadow across the cinematic landscape.

It doesn’t matter that multiple actors have played the role. It doesn’t matter that there’s little to no consistency or constancy to the timeline – some events carry forward, others are forgotten. Over the course of decades, we’ve watched assorted Bonds ply their craft. They thwart elaborate plots with even more elaborate gadget-driven schemes, saving the world and inevitably falling into bed with one or more beautiful women.

That’s it. That’s the job. Or at least, it was.

Things changed when Daniel Craig assumed the mantle. For the first time, Bond was more than an unstoppable heavily-armed lothario in a tuxedo. Craig lent a heretofore unseen gravitas to the character, creating someone who actually dealt with the consequences of his actions, both bad and good. There was no more wiping clean of the slate – Bond’s deeds had lasting impact.

“No Time to Die” is Craig’s fifth – and final – outing as James Bond, and as far as sendoffs go, well … he certainly could have done a lot worse. It is very much a Bond movie, with all of the globetrotting intrigue and wild action set pieces that label entails, but it is also a surprisingly engaging character study of a man forced to confront the inexorable passage of time. Craig’s Bond is a flawed Bond – and arguably, the best of the lot.

Cary Joji Fukunaga helms this latest installment, taking the reins from Sam Mendes, who directed the previous two Bond films; Fukunaga also shares screenplay credit with three other writers. It is jam-packed with the sorts of extended action and convoluted plotting that marks most of the franchise’s offerings. One could argue that it is overstuffed – the runtime is a gargantuan 163 minutes – but considering that it doubles as a farewell to its lead actor, I’d say that it deserves to take as much time as it likes.

Monday, 11 October 2021 13:34

Crime and punishment – ‘South of Heaven’

Written by Allen Adams

I’m a big fan of actors pushing their own personal envelopes. I like it when comedic actors go the dramatic route and I like it when actors known for their dramatic chops venture into the realm of comedy. As a firm believer that a good actor is a good actor, it’s nice to see performers stretch themselves.

Take Jason Sudeikis. He made his bones as a comic performer, taking a turn as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” and following that with a number of film comedies. But it’s his recent work as the titular character “Ted Lasso” – a comedy, yes, but one with dramatic underpinnings – that has really shown the breadth of his performance potential. The dude has what it takes.

In the new film “South of Heaven,” directed by Aharon Keshales and co-written by Keshales, Navot Paspushado and Kai Mark, Sudeikis is given the opportunity to take things in a much more extreme direction. What we have here is a bizarro Texas noir, a story populated by ex-cons and current criminals, all of it driven by one man’s singular desire to do right by the woman he loves.

While there’s plenty to like here, the film is tonally inconsistent to a distracting degree, veering wildly from dramatic intensity to romance to sitcom-adjacent banter – the sort of movie that relies on a steady stream of coincidence to keep moving forward. The performances – led by Sudeikis – are legitimately strong, but the unsteady narrative foundation undermines them. It’s a dark movie that can’t quite embrace its own darkness – at least, not until the end, when things get particularly nuts in an unexpected way.

Horror movies have always had an odd relationship with morality. From the earliest adaptions of gothic horror, the genre has always had a touch (or more than a touch) of judgment and victim-blaming, an underlying implication that these people are getting what they deserve.

Never was that inherent idea more apparent than during the slasher craze of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with wave after wave of boozing, promiscuous teenagers falling beneath the various blades wielded by an assortment of maniacs.

But times change. And so do sins.

“There’s Someone Inside Your House” – currently streaming on Netflix – is very much a throwback to that ‘80s slasher vibe. Directed by Patrick Brice from a screenplay by Henry Gayden (adapted from the 2017 Stephanie Perkins novel of the same name), the film is an attempt to evoke those classic horror tropes while updating attitudes for 21st century social mores.

There’s a down-and-dirty viscerality to the film that definitely captures the grimy, bloody energy of its inspirations. And it’s an interesting idea, trying to marry the evolution of teen morality to an old-school approach. It isn’t always fully successful in its execution, but it’s a gruesomely good faith effort at capturing bad faith behaviors even as it collapses a bit beneath the weight of its own logistical inconsistency in the third act.

I’ll be the first to admit that much of the current cinematic landscape leaves a lot to be desired. Formulaic blockbusters laden with CGI, too-similar stories being told again and again. And I assume it’s challenging for an actor who is serious about their craft to treat them, well … seriously.

That said, there’s nothing worse than watching a famous actor go through the motions in one of these films, clearly there for a check and trying their damnedest to appear above it all. You can’t always pick up the full “I’m too good for this” vibe, but when it’s there, it’s a downer.

But there’s a flip side. The flip side is when actors who are wildly talented and incredibly devoted to their work gleefully embrace the madness and go for it. That’s when you can see real joy, these performers who understand that what they do is about play and that every character, no matter how seemingly strange or nonsensical, can shine so long as that character is treated with respect.

Tom Hardy is an incredibly talented actor. He is also, by every indication, a strange dude. But one thing you can say for certain – no matter what the situation, Hardy is ready to give everything he has. And in his new movie “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” he has clearly been told to go big.

And he. Goes. Big.

The film – a sequel to 2018’s “Venom” – is directed by Andy Serkis from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel (it’s worth noting that Hardy has a story credit). It’s a glorious mess of a movie, a slapdash mélange of buddy comedy and superhero CGI and weird body horror that absolutely should not work … and yet it does. Well, kind of. It’s an uneven experience, one where the story sometimes gets lost in the noise. But hey – the noise is a hell of a lot of fun.

Some things are better left alone.

Now, I’m not one to wring my hands and clutch my pearls over Hollywood’s current IP-driven phase. I don’t hate the franchises and sequels and reboots and remakes; certainly not to the same degree as some of my critical peers. It’s not often great cinema, but people (and I include myself there) like what they like.

But sometimes, we get an idea that really seems like a mistake.

“The Many Saints of Newark” – currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max – is an attempt at crafting a prequel to “The Sopranos,” the seminal HBO drama that in many ways redefined what the television medium could do over the course of its six seasons. That series – still considered to be one of the greatest TV shows ever – followed the mobster Tony Soprano through the violence and vulnerability of his complicated life. It remains insightful and enthralling and utterly brilliant, even now.

So did we REALLY need a prequel?

Look, a lot of the behind-the-scenes people involved with “The Sopranos” are here; series creator David Chase wrote the script along with Lawrence Konner and the film’s director Alan Taylor spent serious time behind the camera on the show. There are some wildly talented performers in the cast as well. But there seems to be an absence of focus, a desire to try and tell too many different stories all at once. You probably think this film is a Tony Soprano origin story – I certainly did – but while that’s part of the picture, it is just that – a part. And perhaps not even the main part at that.

Monday, 04 October 2021 14:04

‘The Guilty’ answers the call

Written by Allen Adams

Limitations can make for fascinating filmmaking. Whether the obstacles spring from outside forces or are self-imposed, it’s often quite interesting seeing how filmmakers overcome them.

Stories that are set in a singular space, for example – narratives that require our protagonist (and often ONLY our protagonist) to be confined to one place by circumstance. The inherent stasis to such a setting presents all manner of challenges – to the director, to the writer, to the actor(s). When those challenges are suitably and fully met, the result can be brilliant.

Alas, the new Netflix film “The Guilty” doesn’t quite get there. The pieces are certainly in place – Antoine Fuqua directed, Nick Pizzolatto penned the script and Jake Gyllenhaal is our lead – but they don’t all fit together in precisely the right way. That’s not to indicate the film is bad, by the way – it isn’t – but that it hits a few bumps along the way.

A remake of a 2018 Danish film of the same name, “The Guilty” is a story of a disgraced police officer stuck on a dispatch desk as he awaits judgment on his questionable acts. A 911 call from a woman claiming to be abducted sends him into a frenzy, pulling out all the stops as he tries to help this woman, even while the qualities and flaws that led him to this place continue to roil and bubble – and erupt.

Friday, 01 October 2021 15:40

‘The Addams Family 2’ hits the road

Written by Allen Adams

You never know what will have pop cultural staying power. For every bit of creative content that maintains a place in the consciousness, hundreds upon hundreds more disappear into the scrap heap of zeitgeist detritus.

It seems unlikely that Charles Addams knew what he had birthed when the first images of his macabre “Addams Family” graced the pages of The New Yorker back in 1938. But those darkly humorous pieces led to a popular television show, which in turn led to a popular series of films, then to another TV show and a Broadway musical and now an animated film franchise.

The latest iteration of the creepy, kooky titular family is “The Addams Family 2,” a sequel to 2019’s “The Addams Family.” These animated films aim to strike the balance between kid-friendliness and staying true to the spirit of the source material. As to how successful they are, well … your mileage may vary.

There’s a lot to like here – the voice cast is outstanding and the character design nicely evokes the original cartoons without being derivative. That said, the script leaves something to be desired, with a relative dearth of narrative action padded by musical numbers that, while cute enough, feel kind of incongruous. Still, it has its charms – enough to make it worth your time.

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