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Tuesday, 26 May 2020 14:12

Crimes of the heart – ‘The Lovebirds’

Written by Allen Adams

When the central relationship of your movie – particularly if it’s a rom-com – really pops, it can make up for considerable shortcomings in other respects. If there’s genuine chemistry in that dynamic, then viewers will forgive a lot.

There’s no denying that Kumail Najiani and Issa Rae have that easy chemistry in “The Lovebirds.” Directed by Michael Showalter (who also directed Nanjiani in the excellent “The Big Sick”) from a script written by Aaron Abrams and Brendon Gall, it’s the story of a couple who, in the midst of what may be the end of their relationship, wind up entangled in a complex and weird mystery.

As far as this sort of action-adjacent rom-com goes, “The Lovebirds” is pretty familiar stuff. We’ve more or less seen this structure with these beats before – there’s nothing new here. But it still works, thanks to what Nanjiani and Rae bring to the table. Their energy elevates the movie to a significant degree, turning something that could have been generically forgettable into a worthwhile watch.

Monday, 18 May 2020 14:21

‘Scoob!’ a doggone good time

Written by Allen Adams

Full disclosure: it is difficult for me to be objective with regards to Scooby Doo. I have had a deep-seated love for all things Hanna-Barbera since I was a kid; those characters are all beloved parts of my childhood pop culture consumption.

That being said, I was unsure how to feel about “Scoob!” The latest attempt to bring the character to the big screen – now available for rent or purchase via VOD – was an unabashed update, an origin story that I wasn’t at all sure that I needed or wanted. Of course, no IP is safe in the current cinematic landscape, so an update/reboot was all but assured.

Surprisingly, “Scoob!” is … not that bad. It’s an engaging enough take on the source material, making an effort to stay true to the spirit of the original. There’s a whiff of the formulaic here, but everything is executed with good faith effort. It’s certainly not going to alienate nostalgic fans, while also having a shot and bringing new ones into the fold.

Sometimes, you have a movie experience that is unlike any that you’ve ever had before. It’s not about whether the movie is good or bad – we’re talking about something that can’t be so simply defined. We’re talking about a movie that is bad-good or good-bad, a wildly uneven project featuring elements both excellent and execrable.

We’re talking, ladies and gentlemen, about “Capone.”

“Capone” transcends the very idea of good and bad. The passion project of writer/director Josh Trank is such a jarringly weird viewing experience that it’s hard to use general terms in describing its quality. The storytelling choices are often vividly unpleasant and the narrative flow is inconsistent – all of which is exacerbated by a needle-pinning performance from Tom Hardy in the titular role.

This is a film that fails to work in a multitude of ways, yet remains eminently watchable. Granted, it’s peek-through-the-fingers watchable at times, but watchable nevertheless. “Capone” is a roadside accident of a movie – unfortunate and potentially gruesome, yet still oddly fascinating to look at.

Sometimes, you just know.

When you’ve been reviewing movies for as long as I have, you start to have pretty good instincts with regards to what kind of film you’re getting even before you sit down to watch it. That isn’t to say that movies are incapable of surprising me – that’s not the case at all – but the reality is that experience gives you the ability to make some fairly accurate educated guesses.

All this is to say that I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into with Netflix’s “The Wrong Missy,” the new Netflix original from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company. In truth, all you really need to hear is “David Spade vehicle” to have a general sense of what you’re in for.

However, it’s difficult to articulate just how off-the-rails terrible this movie actually is. Casting David Spade as anything resembling a romantic lead is a mistake on its face, but when you incorporate the lackluster script, disinterested direction and a checklist of the Sandler formula playbook, you’re left with a movie driven by sheer cringe and little else. It is dumb, generally unpleasant and woefully unfunny.

Monday, 11 May 2020 15:05

Into the woods – ‘Blood and Money’

Written by Allen Adams

Maine-made movies are a relative rarity.

It’s surprising, really – in a state with an abundant variety of natural beauty ranging from coastlines to mountains to forests, you’d think more filmmakers would take advantage. Of course, there are a number of reasons we don’t see movies made here – some economic, some logistical – but even so, you’d expect a little more frequency, though the truth is that many people may simply not understand the true breadth of opportunity here.

John Barr understands.

The Maine native and film industry veteran has made his directorial debut with “Blood and Money,” set and filmed in Maine and available on VOD on May 15. The thriller – also written by Barr – takes advantage of the verdant and untamed forests found in the norther parts of the state, constructing a tale of taut tension about a lone man battling his demons and fighting for his life.

Tom Berenger stars, bringing his well-earned gravitas to almost every single frame of the film. His stoic quietude matches the looming intensity of the winter forest through which he makes his way; it’s a good match, one that is served well by the gentle pacing of the narrative and the sere serenity of the setting.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is an unexpected blend of various things that you like, a mélange of your specific combination of interests. Of course, these great tastes may or may not taste great together – that’s up to the talents involved.

Strangely enough, “How to Build a Girl” - currently available on VOD - is just such a blend, and while it isn’t a perfect combination, it is definitely a winning one.

The film – directed by Coky Giedroyc from a screenplay that author Caitlan Moran adapted from her own novel of the same name – checks a lot of boxes for me. Coming of age story? Check. Period piece set in the ‘90s? Check. Culture critic for a protagonist? Check. Hell, it even manages to check the box of “featuring music from the extremely brief period when I gave a crap about music.”

Like I said – a LOT of boxes.

It helps that it is incredibly earnest and packed with charm, driven by a lead performance from Beanie Feldstein that is yet another indicator of just how sincerely talented she is as an actor. It might get a little shaggy and ring overly familiar at times, but the quality of work put forth by everyone involved pushes it beyond mere formula. It is genuine and disarming and unabashed – a story of the difference between becoming the person you think you want to be and the person you’re actually meant to be.

Thursday, 07 May 2020 16:29

Dennehy shines in the intimate ‘Driveways’

Written by Allen Adams

Bigger isn’t always better.

It’s easy to forget in a world where cinematic bombast is all the rage, but less can still be more. There is still plenty of room in the moviesphere for smaller, more intimate fare. Films that rely on story without spectacle. Films that explore the tiny moments of regular people.

“Driveways,” directed by Andrew Ahn from a screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and starring the late, great Brian Dennehy in one of his final roles, giving a typically outstanding performance (that might low-key be one of his very best). It’s a movie built on the unexpected connections that can develop between people due to chance factors of proximity and circumstance. It’s a story about the idea of family and how it can mean different things to different people.

And again – less is more. This isn’t a showy film, but rather a sincere one. That sincerity lends an air of verisimilitude to these relationships, making it easy to empathize. “Driveways” embraces its intimacy and unap0logetically wears its heart on its sleeve – much to its ultimate benefit.

One of my favorite romantic comedy techniques is the adaptation of and/or inspiration by a classic work. This is particularly prolific in the teen-targeted sector, because let’s be honest, love stories tend to be a young person’s game. Granted, quality source material is hardly a guarantee of a quality film, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

The latest example of the literary classic-turned-YA rom-com “The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu and newly streaming on Netflix. It definitely lands on the inspired by side of things, but it wears that particular influence – namely, Edmund Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” – loudly and proudly.

Granted, it takes the classic secret correspondence-driven love triangle and gives it a decidedly original flair, gender-flipping our erstwhile epistle-writer and lending the entire proceedings a cloak of LGBTQ+ friendliness that serves to make the story feel both of the moment and widely accessible.

It doesn’t hurt that Wu is a gifted filmmaker with a particular talent for language; she’s got a real ear for witty and romantic dialogue. And she has an outstanding trio of young actors at the film’s center. All the pieces are there for a lovely little movie – and “The Half of It” delivers.

It isn’t easy to tell old stories in new ways.

Tackling genre fare is tricky business; it’s no longer enough to simply follow in the footsteps of those who came before you. You have to use that template to do something different, and when you’re talking about treading a trail as well-worn as that of the zombie movie, well … you’d better bring something special to the table.

That’s what makes “Blood Quantum,” the second feature from Canadian writer/director Jeff Barnaby now streaming on Shudder, so interesting. It’s a marriage of B-movie viscera and social commentary that captures an energy reminiscent of the work of the best-known names in the genre, though the execution perhaps doesn’t quite ascend to the same heights.

Even with that degree of unevenness, however, “Blood Quantum” is a success. It spatters and sprays the screen with buckets upon buckets of blood, unleashing some solid (and unsettling) practical effects work. And it offers a thoughtful, if occasionally on the nose exploration of colonialism and its impact on Canada’s indigenous peoples.

If all that has you thinking about George Romero, rest assured that you’re not alone.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020 16:10

Be a man – ‘Man Camp’

Written by Allen Adams

What does it mean to be a man?

Popular culture has mined a lot of humor from the exploration of that question. The notion of masculinity – particularly when pushed to its extremes – is ripe for parody and satire. There’s nothing wrong with the traditional concept of the masculine, though there’s certainly an argument that said traditionalism is old-fashioned to say the least.

But yeah – if you can find a way to embrace those expectations while also subverting them, you’re well on your way to getting some laughs.

“Man Camp,” a comedy directed by Nate Bakke from a script written by Daniel Cummings, Scott Kruse and Josh Long (the first two also star), digs into this oft-explored territory. It’s the tale of three young men whose lives have been defined by the too-soon loss of their manliest-of-manly-men father and their efforts to come to terms with the possibilities of finally moving on.

With a new man entering their mother’s life after so many years, the brothers take it upon themselves to put this suitor through a gauntlet of sorts, forcing him to prove himself worthy via the setting of the brothers’ annual tradition of gathering at camp to celebrate the memory of their father. It’s a funny, sometimes crude look at how we define manhood … and how that definition can change as we become men ourselves.

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