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Monday, 27 September 2021 15:14

Stylish ‘The Card Counter’ shuffles up and deals

Written by Allen Adams

I’ve got a long-standing fascination with movies about gamblers and gambling. The combination of inherent insular tension and a tendency toward morally complex and ethically flexible characters results in films that hit me just right. Doesn’t matter if the story is meant to be redemptive or if we’re just spending time in this world or if we’re living somewhere in between – I’m here for it.

“The Card Counter,” the latest from auteur writer/director Paul Schrader, definitely exists in that nebulous middle ground. It’s a character study of a professional gambler who attempts to find some small degree of atonement for his past sins, only to wind up drawn back into darkness.

It’s also a throwback, evoking the spirit of ‘70s New Hollywood – unsurprising since that’s the era in which Schrader cut his screenwriting teeth. It is aesthetically distinctive and meticulously paced, telling the sort of small-scale yet sweeping story at which he excels. And by placing a talent as significant as Oscar Isaac at its center, Schrader ensures that the narrative is in supremely capable hands.

Monday, 27 September 2021 15:11

Dear ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

Written by Allen Adams

Dear “Dear Evan Hansen,”

It turns out that this wasn’t an amazing movie after all. It isn’t going to be an amazing adaptation that will capture the imaginations of viewers, even those who adore the original stage musical version. Nor will it prove to be the financial windfall that is almost certainly its raison d’etre.

And why is that?

Oh, I know. Because there’s Ben Platt. Ben Platt, who won the Tony for originating the titular role back in the middle of the 2010s. Ben Platt, who absolutely should have known better, who should have had the self-awareness to recognize that an unmistakably adult man in his late 20s cannot plausibly play a high school student on screen. Maybe if I had a preexisting relationship with this musical, I could move past that, but since I don’t, all I see is a bordering-on-sociopathic narrative playing out with an energy that feels both maudlin and parodic.

I wish that this experience had been different. I wish that I could focus on the aspects of it that worked – for instance, the music is undeniably lovely – but instead, I am trapped in the uncanny valley of pretending Ben Platt is a teenager. I wish that director Stephen Chbosky had proven successful in his attempt to marry his own specific style of angsty teenage drama to the broad spectacle of musical theatre … but he did not. Instead, we got an obvious attempt to ground the story in some kind of realism, despite the fact that a) the narrative is too fundamentally broken to treat realistically, and b) dramatic intimacy is fundamentally undermined by the constant breaking into song.

Monday, 27 September 2021 15:08

‘The Starling’ is for the birds

Written by Allen Adams

There’s nothing inherently wrong with tonal variance in a film. In the right circumstances, that can allow for a wider net to be cast with regard to the themes and ideas explored. A well-executed balance of laughter and tears can result in something greater than the sum of its parts.

If it ISN’T well-executed, however, you might be left with an ineffectual mishmash.

Such is the case with the new Netflix drama “The Starling.” The film – which is directed by Theodore Melfi and stars Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd – never seems able to find any kind of tonal consistency, punctuating its family drama intentions with moments of avian-flavored slapstick. Again, it’s not that such vacillation CAN’T work, but here, it definitely doesn’t.

That isn’t to say that the participants aren’t acting in good faith. In truth, McCarthy and O’Dowd – as well as a number of supporting players – are putting forward solid efforts. It’s just that the script and the overall lack of emotional coherence undermines those efforts, resulting in something that comes off like a Lifetime movie crossed with a Looney Tunes short.

Monday, 20 September 2021 14:51

The many ages of man – ‘Cry Macho’

Written by Allen Adams

For the most part, filmmaking is a young person’s game. The amount of energy required – creative, physical and otherwise – is staggering; it’s no surprise that most directors fade into film history in their later years.

Clint Eastwood is not most directors.

Say what you will about his late career output – let’s just call it “uneven” – but this is a guy who set the record for oldest director to win an Oscar 17 YEARS AGO and is still very much at it at age 91. Hell, he’s more prolific than the vast majority of his peers, producing more work than filmmakers less than half his age; dude’s made 14 films since that 2004 Oscar win, with eight of them just in the last decade.

His latest is “Cry Macho,” currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Eastwood also stars in this story – adapted by Nick Schenk from N. Richard Nash’s novel of the same name – of an aging horse trainer and former rodeo rider who winds up enlisted to retrieve his boss’s son from Mexico and bring him back to the States, only to find himself slowly drawn to the possibilities presented by this journey.

It’s a surprisingly sentimental period piece, a movie that has more to say about the intersection of masculinity and emotion than you might expect from a filmmaker like Eastwood. The film does a good job of taking advantage of the bleak beauty of the setting, but some of that impact is sapped by the combination of some weak writing and a well-intentioned but stiff lead turn from Eastwood.

We all have our pop cultural comfort foods, the movies and music and books in which we delight even as we tacitly understand that they are not necessarily what others would deem great art. There’s a lot of stuff out there that might not capture the imagination of the majority, yet has an indelibly major impact on a select population.

Of course, “great” is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

For instance, I’m not going to sit here and try and convince anyone that “Copshop,” the new film from grimy, crime-y writer/director Joe Carnahan, is great cinema. But I also can’t deny that I had a great time. It is a pulpy throwback of a movie, built on a foundation of ‘70s exploitation that will ring familiar to those who haunted certain aisles in their local video stores once upon a time.

And it is a hoot.

There’s something admirable about creative projects that are unabashedly themselves, and that’s the vibe you get from “Copshop.” The premise is ludicrous, the violence is over the top and characters are hard-boiled cartoons. But with everyone in on the joke, it stops being a joke – the people involved engage with just the right amount of seriousness, giving us a movie that is low-rent and ludicrous and legitimately entertaining.

Monday, 20 September 2021 14:46

‘Nightbooks’ offers kid-friendly scares

Written by Allen Adams

I’ve always been a fan of movies aimed at kids. I loved them when I was young, sure, but even as I’ve grown older, I’ve maintained an affection for them. Granted, there’s a LOT of variance with regard to quality (and a bad movie is a bad movie, no matter its target audience), but unless they’re REALLY bad, I usually find something engaging about them.

Still, one could argue that kid-oriented cinema has moved in the direction of more safe offerings in recent years. Looking back at the live-action children’s fare of my youth, I see a degree of intensity that is largely lacking today. Now, that isn’t to say all those movies were good – there were plenty of clunkers back then as well – but they seemed a bit more willing to push the audience.

“Nightbooks,” the new Netflix film, is a bit of a throwback in that way. Adapted from J.A. White’s YA novel of the same name and directed by David Yarovesky, it’s the story of a boy who is captured by a witch and forced to tell her scary stories each night or else be killed. The “Hansel & Gretel” parallels are overt, and there’s more than a little Scheherazade thrown into the mix. It’s definitely on the darker side for a kids’ movie, for sure. And when you throw in the fact that horror legend Sam Raimi is a producer, well … you know you’re in for something different.

Different … and pretty good.

We’re all familiar with the notion of coupons. Whether they’re bits of paper clipped from the weekend newspaper or codes procured from some website or another, coupons are a significant part of our consumer culture. Everyone recognizes that tiny thrill that comes with paying less.

But when couponing is pushed to its extremes, things can get a bit … strange. Shoppers developing methods to maximize savings, winding up with rooms filled with groceries and other goods, all in pursuit of that thrill.

And some people are willing to go even farther.

“Queenpins,” the new film by writer/director team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, draws its inspiration from a real story of coupons run amok, an international scheme that made its masterminds millions of dollars, all from exploiting those seemingly innocuous slips of paper.

It’s a heist story, a caper story, yes – but it’s also a story about the lengths to which we will go in order to feel empowered, to feel as though we have some agency in the direction our lives take. It’s a charming and occasionally goofy story about female friendship wrapped in a pink-collar criminal enterprise, led by a dynamic and talented cast.

Monday, 13 September 2021 14:58

‘Malignant’ bloody, bizarre and bloody bizarre

Written by Allen Adams

There are few directors who have had as thorough an impact on 21st century genre filmmaking as James Wan. While I personally run a bit hot-and-cold with Mr. Wan’s oeuvre, there’s no denying that he has played a big role in defining genre over the past couple of decades.

Horror’s the big one, obviously – this is the dude who directed the first “Saw” movie and helped shepherd the first couple of installments of both the “Insidious” and “Conjuring” film series. That trio alone would place him as one of the creative movers and shakers in the industry.

But then you take into account that he ALSO helmed “Aquaman” for the DCEU (and is also leading the sequel) and directed the seventh “Fast & Furious” movie and you’re looking at a guy with serious influence.

Wan’s latest film is “Malignant,” currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. It’s a return to his roots of sorts, the kind of visceral and gnarly blood-and-guts horror that isn’t overly concerned with laying the groundwork for future films or continuing the stories of past ones. Instead, we get a gory and weird horror tale that delights in its own strangeness, the kind of movie that engages in gleefully in-the-moment deconstruction of its influences.

That strangeness is amplified exponentially with an absolutely nutso third-act reveal that pushes us fully into the realm of Cronenbergian body horror, resulting in a movie that, while perhaps not traditionally scary, manages to evoke some emotional churn in its own gross, bizarre, kind of absurd way. All in all, this movie is bonkers.

It’s tough to refute the notion that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the most significant segment of the cinematic landscape over the past 15 or so years. The MCU is omnipresent, as close to a fully shared movie experience as anything.

But time waits for no one. Not even superheroes.

The characters who have served as the foundation of the MCU – as well as the actors who play them – are moving on. The shift was always inevitable, but now, in Phase Four, things are really starting to snowball.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” – directed by Destin Daniel Cretton – reads as a bit of a departure for the powers that be at Marvel. This is a character that is arguably the most obscure yet to receive a headlining film of their own, a character that is fundamentally different in many ways – both overt and subtle – than those that have come before.

It’s a bold choice – and an effective one.

This film tries to do something we haven’t seen before from the MCU. Yes, the Marvel formula is still in effect, but it is being applied in a novel way. We’ve seen these movies riff on other genres – space operas and paranoid thrillers and war movies – but this is the first time we’ve ventured toward the realm of Eastern action cinema. This is a Marvel movie that both stars and is directed by people of Asian descent.

Do you want to see an MCU kung fu movie? Because that’s what this is. And it works.

Monday, 06 September 2021 13:58

‘Cinderella’ a musical misfire

Written by Allen Adams

Every time we see another remake/reboot/reimagining of a classic tale, it begs the question: is this necessary?

Look, I’m not naïve – I recognize the nature of the business, with the familiarity of IP ruling the day. Even so, you have to wonder whether what we’re getting is something that people actually want to watch. Are people clamoring to see some vague variation on a story they’ve seen a thousand times before?

The folks behind the new “Cinderella” – currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video – seem to think so. As to whether they’re right, well … I have my doubts.

This new version of the classic fairy tale is directed and adapted for the screen by Kay Cannon, best known as the writer of all three films in the “Pitch Perfect” series. Basically, it’s the story you know with a few feints at feminine empowerment and a whole bunch of pop songs that have been put through the musical theatre wringer. It’s OK for what it is, but the truth is that it’s basically a mediocre jukebox musical and not much else.

This is a story that feels polished to within an inch of its life, to where there’s almost nothing there, all style and no substance, despite its best efforts to have you believe otherwise. It’s like a gift, gloriously sparkly and beribboned, festooned with all manner of decorative accents, but when you open the box … there’s nothing inside.

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