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As the brilliant Scottish poet Robbie Burns once said (apologies for the English paraphrasing), “The best laid plans of mice and men/Go oft awry.” It’s a sentiment that rings true across all avenues – and the movie business is no exception.

For instance, say you had a film. You had three talented actors leading the cast, including an Oscar winner and a couple of legitimate movie stars. You had a rising young director and a screenwriter adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the screen. All of this folded into a period piece with a striking setting. You’d think that it was poised to be a great film, yes?

Alas, in the case of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the sum total falls short. Despite the presence of the brilliant Mark Rylance and bold turns from the likes of Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, despite the presence of director Ciro Guerra, despite J.M Coetzee’s adaptation of his own 2003 novel of the same name, the film can’t scale the heights to which it so clearly aspires.

It’s a story of isolation and empire, a cautionary tale about colonialism that can never fully get out of its own way. There’s no denying the quality of performances or the stunning backdrop against which they are set, but the film simply never generates any kind of momentum, limping along through most of its 114 minutes without ever presenting a sense of dramatic urgency. All the pieces are there for a great film, only they’re assembled into something that is just OK.

Friday, 07 August 2020 11:53

‘An American Pickle’ a pretty big dill

Written by Allen Adams

The American immigrant experience has been a subject of some truly great art over the years. Incredible books and films have spring from the exploration of what it means for people to come to this country in pursuit of a better life, as well as what happens in the course of that pursuit.

But to my knowledge, none have ever told that story through the lens of accidental pickle preservation. Until now.

“An American Pickle,” currently streaming on HBO Max, is a comedy that brings the early 20th century immigrant experience into the present day … by dropping someone into a pickle barrel for a hundred years. Yes, it’s as absurd as it sounds, broad and weird and a lot of fun.

Starring Seth Rogen as both a turn-of-the-century immigrant and a modern-day Brooklyn app developer, the film mines big laughs out of its bizarre premise (though it perhaps doesn’t dig as it deep as it could). It’s a twist on the classic fish out of water trope, giving us a look at our current world through the eyes of the past.

Thursday, 06 August 2020 12:04

Back to school – ‘I Used to Go Here’

Written by Allen Adams

As often stated by noted podcast judge and raconteur John Hodgman, nostalgia is a toxic impulse. We’re all guilty of it, the tendency to look back upon our pasts with rose-colored glasses when the present isn’t living up to our expectations. It serves as both distraction and excuse.

And when the opportunity arises for a more direct return, it can go terribly wrong.

So it is with “I Used to Go Here,” a new comedy written and directed by Kris Rey. Starring Gillian Jacobs, it’s a clever, cringe-y look at how the past is rarely as neat as we remember it to be, a chance for one woman to lose herself in a time of wide-eyed optimism about the future and briefly forget about the harsh truths of the now.

It’s also a movie about what it means to fail – in a job or a relationship or any endeavor really – and to come to terms with that failure, as well as a bit of a meditation on the complexity that comes with making a career out of creativity. It is heartfelt and smart and quite funny, and while it does misfire a couple of times, the pros far outstrip the cons.

Monday, 03 August 2020 13:37

Death becomes her – ‘She Dies Tomorrow’

Written by Allen Adams

Every once in a while, an unanticipated confluence of circumstances results in a piece of art inadvertently becoming representative of a moment in time. That isn’t to say that the book/movie/song isn’t resonant on its own terms, but that outside factors can impact how a work is received.

“She Dies Tomorrow,” written and directed by Amy Seimetz, is just such a work. It’s a visceral and hallucinatory ride through a woman’s inexplicable epiphany regarding her own mortality and how that epiphany transforms everyone that she encounters. It is vivid and raw, a roiling collection of colorful confusion, the kind of movie that would be memorable in any environment.

But in THIS environment – in a world where a raging pandemic has left us isolated and exhausted – this film hits like a sledgehammer. This movie is an exploration of metaphysical contagion, of how fear and paranoia and sadness and fatalism can infect us. It wasn’t made with the current moment in mind, yet it could not be a more apt representation of that moment.

Monday, 27 July 2020 16:09

Shared custody – ‘Babysplitters’

Written by Allen Adams

Every once in a while, a movie comes along whose single-sentence description essentially dares you to watch it. These are the movies – usually indies – whose concept is so unexpected that you have no choice but to be intrigued.

For instance: Two couples, each of whom are conflicted about having children, decide to team up and have one child that they’ll share between them. Admit it – you are now VERY curious about that movie.

That movie is “Babysplitters,” a comedy written and directed by Sam Friedlander. And yes, it is a movie about two couples, split on the idea of having kids, hatching a plot to have and split a kid between them. It’s an absurd notion, sure, but one treated with a sense of genuine possibility.

On its face, it is ridiculous, but through this ludicrous plan, Friedlander and company give us a glimpse at the complex nature of relationships and what it means to want children. It isn’t always as simple as making the choice; a married couple can be possessed of two very different ideas about childrearing. Some people are more ready than others – and some people are willing to do just about anything to have a shot at parenthood.

When you hear that a movie has been on the shelf for an extended period, you’d be forgiven for having some doubts regarding its quality.

“Animal Crackers,” an animated film from Blue Dream Studios, might raise some of those questions. The movie – adapted from a graphic novel by Scott Christian Sava – was a collaborative effort between American and Chinese companies and was actually released in China a couple of years ago. However, numerous attempts at domestic distribution fell through in the subsequent years, with Netflix finally taking the reins and releasing it on their service.

It’s too bad, because this film doesn’t deserve the stigma that comes with its lengthy remove. It might not be great, but it’s plenty good enough to have received a theatrical release here. There are a lot of quality pieces here – an exceptional cast, some great music – and while the animation is a bit low-rent and the story is meh, I’ve sat through much worse films that received far more attention.

Sunday, 19 July 2020 22:51

Norway out – ‘The Sunlit Night’

Written by Allen Adams

What do you do when the muse abandons you? How do you get your art back on track when things are stalled? To what lengths would you be willing to travel to escape stagnation and experience revivification?

“The Sunlit Night,” directed by David Wnendt from a screenplay by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight (adapted from her own novel of the same name), takes a look at how one artist attempts to answer these questions. It’s an exploration of the ramifications of allowing our callings to define us at the expense of all else – and what happens when we’re forced to address any shortcomings in that regard.

Set against the stunningly beautiful desolation of an isolated Norwegian island – a place where the sun never sets, populated by an odd collection of strange and quirky characters – it’s one woman’s journey to rekindle her creative fires and rediscovering her ability to connect. It’s a sweet, albeit slight story, one greatly elevated by a strong central performance by Jenny Slate and some absolutely stunning scenery.

When I first heard that Hulu was going to be airing a documentary about Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip-hop improv troupe co-founded by Lin-Manuel Miranda and other notables in the mid-2000s, I knew that I had to review the film. I’m not going to say that I’m UNIQUELY suited, but I’d guess that few share these three qualifications:

  1.     I have been a film critic for a dozen years
  2.     I have been an improvisor for over a decade
  3.     I have won the “Downtown with Rich Kimball” Downtown Throwdown rap battle – twice.

So yeah – you could say that this one is in my wheelhouse.

“We are Freestyle Love Supreme” hit the streaming service on July 17 – it was originally scheduled to debut in early June but was postponed. Directed by Andrew Fried, it’s the story of the titular improv group, featuring footage filmed over the course of 15 years and the usual talking head-style interviews; we watch as the fresh-faced kids of the early aughts grow into men. Some of the troupe’s members go on to staggering amounts of professional success, but even those who don’t become household names are clearly wildly talented.

It’s about the show, yes – we get plenty of insight into what kind of show FLS puts on, as well as a sense of just how gifted the players are – but it’s also a look at their growth and evolution. We meet them as recent college grads just looking to have some fun with their friends; by the time we close, we’re watching a years-later sold-out reunion run on Broadway. We get to see the love and respect these people carry for one another and how this goofy little group has impacted their lives over the years.

Friday, 17 July 2020 13:39

Close encounters – ‘Skyman’

Written by Allen Adams

Daniel Myrick knows a thing or two about portraying a fictional story as something real. As one half of the duo that made 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” and fundamentally altered the course of horror cinema, he has some experience with presenting fiction as reality.

His new movie “Skyman” isn’t quite the same thing – styled as a full-on faux documentary rather than found footage – but it does capture some of the same energy. It’s a look at a man whose life has been spent chasing an obsession, springing from an encounter with an alien that took place in his childhood. The time since has been spent quietly trying to make sense of that moment, even as most people around him express wary skepticism. It’s about the ideas that take hold of us and simply refuse to let go. It’s about what happens when the world views as false something you absolutely know to be true.

And with a cast of relative unknowns and a documentarian’s stylings, “Skyman” reads as the real thing (or close enough to allow us to embrace the conceit anyway).

Sunday, 12 July 2020 16:28

‘Greyhound’ wages war on the water

Written by Allen Adams

Many of our greatest stories have revolved around warfare. From the great epics of the ancient Greeks thousands of years ago to the continued proliferation of war movies today, the tragedies and triumphs of the battlefield have been major subjects of our storytelling since we first began telling them.

We’ve already seen one strong entry into the war movie canon this year with Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” but we can add another to the list courtesy of “Greyhound,” currently available on Apple TV+. The film – directed by Aaron Schneider from a screenplay adapted by Tom Hanks (who also stars) from the C.S. Forester novel “The Good Shepherd” – is a throwback of sorts, an ode to the WWII films of the past, telling the tale of the men tasked with protecting trans-Atlantic convoys in the empty stretches too far from shore for air support.

It’s a sharply-paced, engaging war movie, one that finds interesting ways to juxtapose the vast and harsh expanse of the ocean with the nigh-claustrophobic confines within a warship. It also captures the pressures that land on the shoulders of those in command, pressures that are exponentially heightened by the simple fact that the enemy is often invisible. That air of dread and anticipation – and the heroism that it takes to stand strong and fight anyway – permeates the film.

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