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Surprises are pretty rare these days when it comes to movies. So much of what we see has been relentlessly promoted, with outreach projected through algorithmic and demographic prisms. To know anything about an upcoming offering is often to know everything.

But not always.

I had heard a little bit about Derek Delgaudio’s one-man show “In & Of Itself” when it was first taking off a couple of years ago, but not much. Basically, I understood that it was a show that utilized stage magic but wasn’t ABOUT stage magic. That was it, really – no knowledge of content or tone or anything like that.

So when I learned that Hulu was airing a filmed version of the show – one directed by the same person who directed the stage show, the legendary Frank Oz – I figured I’d check it out, see some card tricks, that kind of thing.

I had no idea.

Last year, I watched and reviewed over 150 films. That’s a LOT of movies. And yet, I barely scratched the surface of what was available; last year saw hundreds of new releases that I not only didn’t see, but quite likely never even heard about. Making a movie is hard, but getting it seen is in many cases even harder.

No one understands that exponential increase in difficulty like an independent filmmaker, someone who has to constantly hustle to make even incremental advances with their projects. There are so many aspects of the movie business; the creative process is just one small facet of the overall machine.

In the documentary “Clapboard Jungle,” currently available on demand, director Justin McConnell takes the viewer on a five-year journey through the life of an indie filmmaker: namely, one Justin McConnell. Through a combination of recording his own experiences trying to get projects made and interviews with a number of successful industry folks with indie connections, McConnell seeks to break down for us just how difficult it all can be for those operating outside the traditional studio system.

Meanwhile, he also juxtaposes that difficulty with the fact that there are more films being made now than ever before. Of course, that explosive growth in content doesn’t necessarily mean a corresponding growth in audiences, resulting in circumstances where someone could watch a hundred movies in a year and not see a quarter of the new work available.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I love unreliable narrators.

When handled well, an unreliable narrator can be one of the most potent storytelling devices there is. The understanding that there may be a degree of deception undertaken by the person telling the tale allows for such a wonderfully wide array of narrative explorations.

We get one such unreliable narrator in “The White Tiger,” directed by Ramin Bahrani from his own adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning 2008 novel of the same name. The film – currently streaming on Netflix – is one man’s story of striving to overcome the circumstances of his birth and the rigidly upheld mores of his culture and achieve the success he believes he deserves.

However, he is the one telling the story, leaving plenty of room on the margins for murkiness regarding the way in which things play out. That’s not to indicate untruth, but rather a flexibility of truth – we get his version of what happened, a version driven by anger at the unfairness of it all and a willingness to be ruthless in pursuit of perceived justice.

It’s a film that features a handful of very strong performances, an engaging aesthetic and some truly gripping writing. While there are a few bumps along the way, this is ultimately a movie that is thoughtful, thrilling and really quite good.

Sometimes, you watch a movie and are satisfied. Other times, you’re disappointed. The vast majority of the time, that’s where you live. But it is the movies on the margins that tend to stick with you. To be clear, that’s on either end – a terrible movie will linger just as a brilliant one will. But when you find those films on the ends of your personal spectrum, it’s a reminder of just why we love movies in the first place.

Firmly ensconced on the brilliant end of that spectrum, you’ll find “One Night in Miami,” currently available on Amazon Prime Video.

The film marks the directorial debut of Regina King, with a screenplay that Kemp Powers adapted from his own stage play of the same name. It is an imagining of what took place when four Black icons – legends – came together in a hotel room in Miami one night in 1964. Inspired by true events, it is an exploration of responsibility, both of a man to himself and of an idol to his community. It is a powerful, emotionally charged dive into the Black experience during the civil rights battle – one that shows that there is more than one way to fight.

With a quartet of transcendent performances at its core, “One Night in Miami” is a wildly compelling and provocative piece of filmmaking, the sort of movie from which it proves almost impossible to wrench your eyes. Challenging and unapologetic, it is cinematic dynamite.

Monday, 18 January 2021 16:37

‘Outside the Wire’ offers so-so sci-fi

Written by Allen Adams

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: In a relatively near future, a human and a robot or forced to team up with the fate of the world at stake, but not all is as it seems.

Sound familiar? Then you’re well-equipped for “Outside the Wire,” a new sci-fi action film coming your way via Netflix. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom from a script co-written by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe, the film is an uneven mashup of familiar genre tropes that sports that unmistakable Netflix sheen.

Basically, if you’ve seen even one human/robot partnership movie, there aren’t likely to be many surprises for you here. “Outside the Wire” is essentially a collection of predictable plot points punctuated by action set pieces and lots of explosions, without even the headiness of ideas that make some of its spiritual predecessors conceptually engaging as well as viscerally.

Monday, 18 January 2021 16:30

‘Locked Down’ less than the sum of its parts

Written by Allen Adams

Brace yourselves, folks – the onslaught of pandemic cinema is fast approaching. We’re going to see a wealth of films a) made during the lockdown, b) made about the lockdown or c) both. Some of these movies might well prove to be exceptional pieces of work, but rest assured that a lot of them are going to be, well … not.

“Locked Down,” the new film directed by Doug Liman and starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, lands closerto that latter category. Currently available on HBO Max, it’s the kind of throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks movie that doesn’t always work; toss in the limiting factors of pandemic production and you’re looking at a project that was already hamstrung before shooting started.

I mean, who thought it was a good idea to make a lockdown-centric movie mashup of romantic comedy, relationship drama and heist movie? Rumor has it that screenwriter Steven Knight wrote the script on a dare. It definitely shows. Now, it’s not all bad – the truth is that there are some solid ideas here and the leads are certainly talented enough. Unfortunately, the disparate elements never get properly blended, leaving us with a clunky three-into-one vibe that will prove frustrating to those who see the very real potential here.

Monday, 11 January 2021 16:56

A home of one’s own – ‘Herself’

Written by Allen Adams

Stories of reinvention have always worked well on screen. There’s a real appeal to watching people, through sheer determination and a support system willing to help, turn their lives around – particularly when they’re moving away from toxic and/or dangerous circumstances.

That idea of reinvention is central to “Herself,” newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The Irish film is directed by Phyllida Lloyd from a script co-written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne (who also stars); it’s the story of a woman who escapes an abusive relationship and attempts to carve out a new life for herself and her two daughters.

It’s a small film that mines great power from its intimate nature. Featuring some excellent performances and a simple story that is alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, it’s a quietly powerful viewing experience that offers a look at just how difficult it can be to change one’s life for the better.

While a lot has been made about the separation of art and artist in recent years, the reality is that we’ve always been faced with that divide – we just have a LOT more access to the personal beliefs and actions of our artists. How effective – and how necessary – the separation can be varies from individual to individual.

It’s unfortunate that “Pieces of a Woman,” directed by Kornel Mundruczo from a script by Kata Weber, will become part of that conversation due to the recent allegations against Shia LaBeouf, who stars in the film. Not because LaBeouf’s actions are somehow overblown – if true, they certainly are not – but because this talk will overshadow what is otherwise a powerful and gutwrenching film.

The real star is Vanessa Kirby, who presents one of the most complex and nuanced portrayals of maternal grief that we’ve seen onscreen in years. Hell, maybe ever – she’s that good. And the film itself digs its fingers into your soul, unrelentingly showing the difficulties, overt and subtle alike, that come with dealing with loss. It’s a stunning achievement whose many accomplishments may be overshadowed by the brutal real-life misdeeds of one of its players.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020 11:11

A year in film failures: 2020’s worst movies

Written by Allen Adams

I reviewed a LOT of movies this year – just north of 150. This means that I saw a lot of good ones and plenty of half-decent ones.

It also means I saw quite a few bad ones.

What follows is a list of some of the worst movies I saw in 2020. Some were well-intentioned efforts that went sadly awry. Some were misguided efforts to start franchises. And some were just … bad.

I’ve got 10 here, followed by another 10 honorable mentions. The truth is that most of these could be shuffled around – the difference between, say, the eighth worse and the 13th worse is negligible – but the whole deal with lists is that at some point they end.

Here they are: 2020’s film failures.

Monday, 28 December 2020 14:53

DC loves the ‘80s – ‘Wonder Woman 1984’

Written by Allen Adams

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, superhero movies have defined the industry for well over a decade and show no signs of slowing. If anything, we’re just going to keep getting more and more of them – they’re appointment films in a business that is dying for anything that will ensure big box office receipts. Considering the faltering movie theater model, expect studios to keep pushing this kind of franchise-friendly fare.

Me? I love superhero movies. Do I recognize the more cynical motives behind them? Sure! Do I care? Not in the least!

So I was thrilled to finally see “Wonder Woman 1984.” As someone who, despite my job, is still steering clear of movie theaters, having the opportunity to see this movie in my own home via HBO Max was fantastic. Given the extended drought of superhero cinema, I was primed to dig this movie even though Marvel > DC, in my opinion.

And guess what? I dug it!

Directed by Patty Jenkins – who returned to the franchise after helming 2017’s excellent “Wonder Woman” – from a script she co-wrote with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham, “Wonder Woman 1984” is engaging enough, though it doesn’t quite capture the same lightning in a bottle energy of the previous film. There are some great set pieces, solidly charismatic lead performances and a couple of really going-for-it supporting turns – enough to make for a flawed-but-satisfying moviegoing experience.

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