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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.

Saturday, 11 July 2020 16:41

Never say die – ‘The Old Guard’

Written by Allen Adams

It takes a special kind of performer to headline an action franchise. Gone are the days when all it took was a willingness to bulk up, shoot guns and spout catchphrases; today’s action offerings trend toward the high-concept, particularly when looking to create or continue a series. And a different sort of action requires a different sort of actor.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have pegged someone like Charlize Theron as a likely action star, but following recent turns in films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde,” it is abundantly clear that she has all the requisite chops to handle her business.

Her latest entry into that realm is “The Old Guard,” currently streaming on Netflix. It’s a sharp and sometimes surprising sci-fi action offering, one clearly intended to kick off a franchise for the streamer. There’s a thoughtfulness to the film that you don’t always see in this sort of offering, along with a willingness to allow breathing room for character development (although the action set pieces are high in both quality and quantity).

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from a screenplay that Greg Rucka adapted from his own graphic novel series of the same name, “The Old Guard” is a film whose strengths are consistently complementary, finding the perfect blend of action-packed excitement and character engagement – one left wide open for future installments.

It’s rare for a movie to present an idea with such complete success as to essentially take ownership of said concept, to come up with a hook that becomes the model upon which future movies are based.

“Groundhog Day” is one of those rarities. How many times have you heard a film referred to as “‘Groundhog Day’ but X”? It has become an easy shorthand for the sort of recursive time loop story that has proven to work across all genres. Comedy, yes, but also horror, thriller, sci-fi … we’ve seen examples that run the gamut.

The newest entry into the time loop oeuvre is “Palm Springs,” currently streaming on Hulu. The Andy Samberg-starring comedy was a big hit at Sundance, with Hulu buying the film for a tidy $17.5 million (and 69 cents, which … nice). Directed by Max Barbakow from a screenplay by Andy Siara (and produced in part by Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer), the quick pitch is “‘Groundhog Day,’ but at a wedding” – and it is excellent.

It’s an engaging take on the trope, one that pushes the logistics of the premise to absurd extremes while also finding ways to explore the inevitable emotional ramifications of an eternity of repetition. It asks questions about love and the human condition, yes, but it also features great jokes and slapstick moments. All of it structured around genuine insight regarding life and its meaning.

Monday, 06 July 2020 13:13

Return to sender - ‘Desperados’

Written by Allen Adams

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Netflix has another original romantic comedy hitting their service.

The streaming giant has done significant work in their efforts to corner a variety of cinematic niche markets through the combined power of their algorithm and their checkbook. Nowhere is that focus more apparent than in the realm of rom-coms; Netflix is the undisputed industry leader as far as that genre goes. They just keep churning them out, for (sometimes) better and (usually) worse.

Their latest offering is “Desperados,” a film that is very much the latter. It is a derivative and vaguely dull film, one that seems to have simply thrown a bunch of clichés and tropes at the wall and filmed what stuck. It is a warmed-over rehash, a cover band attempting to play the hits. It’s the sort of movie that offers literally nothing that you haven’t seen before.

Watching this movie is like watching items checked off a list. Quirky female protagonist? Check. Two unreasonably supportive friends? Check. Ridiculous and easily avoided mistake made? Check. Exotic getaway setting? Check. Questionable decision making? Check. Physical injury played for laughs? Check.

You get the picture.

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