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One of the things that I’ve learned from being part of the larger critical discourse surrounding movies is that I generally align with the consensus view of my peers. That’s not to say I’m in lockstep with the crowd – we all have our differences – but a lot of the time, we’re in the same neighborhood.

Not always, though.

Take the new Netflix film “Hillbilly Elegy,” directed by Ron Howard from a script by Vanessa Taylor adapted from J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name. This story of a young man’s connection to his Kentucky roots and how those roots impact his current circumstances as a student at Yale Law School has been largely panned by critics, with many viewing it as a transparent awards grab lacking in soul and substance.

I respectfully disagree.

I’m not calling this a perfect movie by any stretch – it has its share of issues to be sure. But it is a much better movie than it has been deemed by critics, a story of poverty and its generational impacts that at least tries to address the emotional, social and economic realities that come from being poor. It isn’t always successful, but even the misplaced efforts merit a degree of credit.

Monday, 30 November 2020 14:50

Family ties, family secrets – ‘Uncle Frank’

Written by Allen Adams

There are few tighter bindings than family ties. No matter how we might try to escape them, no matter how we might want and need to separate ourselves from them, for so many of us, they are unavoidable. But while these ties are ostensibly spun from love, there’s an undeniable toxicity inherent to many of them.

“Uncle Frank,” the new film from writer/director Alan Ball, offers an illustration of how deeply those toxic waters can flow, even as those who seek to escape prove unable to extract themselves from the unrelenting riptide of familial dynamics; it shows just how much of ourselves we’re willing to hide in order to find some sort of connection with the ones who raised us.

With a titular character living a double life – closeted with his South Carolina kin, out and proud in New York City – we see what happens when the oft-avoided cultural clash between those two worlds is no longer so easily dismissed, as well as when a naïve young member of the family inadvertently discovers the truth about her beloved uncle. It’s about small-town social mores in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a snapshot of what it means to be true to yourself – including the consequences.

Monday, 30 November 2020 14:47

‘Superintelligence’ not too bright

Written by Allen Adams

Creative collaborations between couples can be a wonderful thing. Two people taking advantage of their personal connection to enhance their creative work has vast potential. We’ve seen it a million times at the movies – think Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach or Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, with one member of the pairing in front of the camera and the other behind.

Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone have this sort of collaborative relationship. Their latest team-up – their fourth with McCarthy starring and Falcone directing – is “Superintelligence,” currently streaming on HBO Max. However, this particular pairing, while robust in quantity, doesn’t quite live up to some of the others as far as quality is concerned.

This new film, the story of a newly self-aware AI deciding to use the most average person in the world to determine the ultimate fate of humanity, is a fairly lukewarm effort. The characterizations are thin and the story is needlessly convoluted, and while there are a handful of decent jokes and moments of physical comedy, the majority of the humor is built on a rickety foundation of pop culture references and overlong bits. McCarthy’s charm keeps it from completely collapsing, but her talents aren’t enough to fully salvage the experience.

Monday, 23 November 2020 16:48

Mommy fearest - ‘Run’

Written by Allen Adams

Most of us have a pretty good understanding of the power of a mother’s love. Heaven knows we’ve seen it portrayed enough times on page, stage and screen. The majority of the time, we’re given a sense of not just the power, but the purity of that power. A mother’s love is meaningful and unconditional.

But when that love turns toxic, when it becomes all-consuming? That’s when we bear witness to the darkness, for there can be no light without shadow.

“Run,” the new movie from Hulu, offers us a look at that toxic darkness. Directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty, the talented filmmaker behind 2018’s excellent “Searching,” this is a chilling and emotionally charged dive into the circumstances of one mother’s love and how fear and delusion can twist that relationship into something dark and hurtful.

We’ve seen variations on the “mother from hell” formula before, but few have achieved this level of genuine scares. Sure, there are a couple of moments that threaten to teeter over the edge into camp – always a concern with these kinds of movies – but Chaganty’s steady hand and a pair of dynamite performances keep things on the rails. That barely-restrained sense of impending lunacy contributes greatly to what is ultimately a top-notch viewing experience.

Monday, 23 November 2020 16:45

‘Vanguard’ falls behind

Written by Allen Adams

I’ve been a fan of Jackie Chan for a quarter-century. Ever since his “Rumble in the Bronx” hit U.S. theaters back in 1995, I’ve been enamored of his brand of self-deprecating action cinema, combining martial arts master with outlandish stunts and over-the-top physical comedy. He and frequent collaborator Stanley Tong didn’t invent the slapstick kung fu sensibility, but I’d argue that they perfected it.

The latest collaboration between the two is “Vanguard,” and while it doesn’t ascend to the heights of their most successful team-ups, it has enough of the stuff you expect to make it an entertaining experience. It has the outlandish action you expect, whether you’re looking for gunfights, car chases or hand-to-hand combat. In terms of the story being told, well … the action’s pretty good.

That’s the thing, though – you’re not turning up for a Tong-Chan joint to experience the story. You want to see some hot kung fu action and wildly dangerous stunts, and in that respect, “Vanguard” delivers.

Monday, 23 November 2020 16:42

The Bro-lympiad – ‘Buddy Games’

Written by Allen Adams

We all want different things from movies at different times. Sometimes, we want works of cinematic sophistication, beautifully shot and exquisitely performed. At these times, we want to see masterpieces and magnum opuses.

Other times, however, we want something different. We want lighthearted idiocy and dick jokes. We want dudes and bros being dudes and bros. We want coarse language and coarser behavior, movies that appeal to the teenage boy in us.

I’ll give you one guess as to which category applies to the new movie “Buddy Games.”

The film – the directorial debut of actor Josh Duhamel, who is also co-wrote the script and stars – is a goofy and implausible ode to arrested development, an unapologetically raunchy look at male friendship and the ties that bind men to one another, as well as the devotion of a certain masculine mindset to maintaining a connection to the glory days.

While the film does have some things going for it – especially a strong cast that is happily along for the increasingly outlandish ride – those things can’t overcome the myriad obstacles presented by what it lacks.

Making a holiday movie is easy. Studios large and small alike churn new ones out every year with metronomic regularity. Throw some snow and lights into your basic romance and you’re basically there.

Making a GOOD holiday movie? Well, now we’re talking about something different. Different, and decidedly more difficult. To create something beyond the bland vanilla sameness of the usual Christmas movie claptrap takes vision, effort and a willingness to move beyond the tired tropes of the genre.

Netflix’s “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” – written and directed by David E. Talbert – brings a welcome new energy to the holiday movie landscape. With an engaging story, great music and performances and some dynamite production numbers, it’s a celebratory romp of a film, one that might well find its way into many people’s regular rotation of seasonal offerings. It is energetic and original and an absolute blast, packed with the sort of excitement and fun that one expects from the best Christmas movies.

Monday, 16 November 2020 15:31

‘Chick Fight’ can’t go the distance

Written by Allen Adams

There’s a long tradition of mining the struggles of women to self-actualize for comedic purposes. Functioning in a world whose rules are stacked against you in many ways is difficult, and there’s often humor to be found in difficulty. Sometimes, this humor is subtle, but most of the time, it’s pretty overt.

“Chick Fight” definitely falls into that latter category. The comedy – directed by Paul Leyden from a script by Joseph Downey – is ostensibly about a woman’s efforts to get her life on track couched in her inadvertent membership in a fight club for women looking for ways to functionally express their more robust emotions. But while there’s potential here for a deeper dive, the filmmakers seem content to pay lip service to the fundamental concerns while focusing on the broader comic aspects of the concept.

That’s not a condemnation of the movie, per se – “Chick Fight” actually has some pretty funny moments. It’s an entertaining enough watch in its way. Unfortunately, it’s tough to ignore the whiff of squandered potential; this is a movie that could have been funny AND had something of note to say. Alas, it seems far more concerned with the former than the latter.

There’s something great about being surprised by a movie.

It doesn’t happen all that often when you’re steeped in the trappings of the cinematic world, but it does happen. Movies that have flown under the radar for various reasons – or at least, flown under your particular radar – only to pop up at an opportune moment.

I’ll freely admit that I had never heard of “Le Choc du Futur” (translation: “The Shock of the Future”) when I crossed paths with it. Nor had I ever heard of Marc Collin, the French musician who was making his writing/directing debut as a feature filmmaker. But it was an official selection at SXSW and got a fair amount of positive attention, so I figured why not?

Little did I realize what I was getting. This gauzy, meandering day-in-the-life movie – the story of a young woman in late-1970s Paris coming to terms with the many looming changes in the music world – is a remarkable treat. It’s leisurely and languid, the type of film that cares far less about plot than it does about the overall vibe. Often, that sort of attitude only serves to undermine the viewing experience. Here, it enhances it.

Oh, and the music is (unsurprisingly) killer.

Monday, 16 November 2020 15:26

‘The Nest’ mostly empty

Written by Allen Adams

Crafting a good domestic drama isn’t easy. One has to balance the necessity for dramatic tension and elevated stakes with the desire to maintain a level of verisimilitude, all while being sure to tell a compelling story. All movies require a degree of investment from the viewer to be effective, but family-driven drama particularly needs that buy-in. When it all works, it makes for a fantastic film.

When it doesn’t, well … that’s when you might get something like “The Nest.”

The film – written and directed by Sean Durkin – wants to be about the escalating disintegration of a family whose entire world is built on smoke and mirrors, a phantom foundation of security whose crumbling reveals wounds and resentments both old and new. And it is – kind of. But while those elements are present, the film as a whole feels like something of an empty vessel, an interesting package with nothing inside.

In a way, it seems as though style and atmosphere were used in lieu of storytelling, rather than to enhance the story. Because while “The Nest” has some brooding and foreboding vibes, the truth is that not much actually happens. Thanks to a pair of exceptional actors in the lead and an undeniably evocative aesthetic eye, there’s engagement to be found here, but again – there’s an absence at the film’s core that I found tough to shake.

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