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Wednesday, 25 August 2021 11:37

So-so ‘Sweet Girl’ offers vengeance with a twist

Written by Allen Adams

Another week, another Netflix original.

While the streamer’s commitment to providing a steady supply of original content is admirable, the combination of constant churn and a vague sense of algorithmic generation, there’s no disputing that the level of quality is … uneven, to say the least, even if the quantity is largely delivered as promised.

Their latest entry is “Sweet Girl,” a revenge thriller starring Jason Momoa. This story of a man pursuing vengeance against the pharmaceutical company that he holds responsible for the death of his wife is your run-of-the-mill passable, largely forgettable action offering … right up until a late twist that turns the whole thing into something altogether more bonkers, altering not just the remainder of the film, but everything we’ve seen before.

Now, that’s not to say that this makes any of this what you’d call “good” – the film is too across-the-board workmanlike for that – but it certainly turns what initially seems like a time-filling watch into something you’ll at least remember beyond the end credits.

Monday, 16 August 2021 12:56

Hate the player, not the game – ‘Free Guy’

Written by Allen Adams

When it comes to movies, we all have our biases. Even those of us who try to maintain objectivity are subject to expectation, the ebb and flow of personal taste. Those biases can come into play even before we see a film; often, we’re steered in one direction or another through early marketing or criticism or what have you.

But when those expectations are subverted, well – let’s just say that it can be nice to be surprised.

Which brings me to “Free Guy,” the new Ryan Reynolds-led video game-inspired action movie. Conceptually, I had doubts. The trailers I had seen seemed fine, just OK. And the truth is that while I sometimes enjoy the winking meta-energy of Reynolds, I don’t always … and this one felt like a “don’t always.”

Man, was I wrong.

The film – directed by Shawn Levy from a screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zakk Penn – is a clever and funny action-adventure. The high concept is handled deftly and the majority of the jokes land. It is winkingly self-aware without being smug. The action sequences are suitably bonkers. And Reynolds himself manages to convey a level of sincerity that feels both genuine and just a touch subversive. It’s smarter than it looks, with a surprisingly sharp edge at times. Just a great time at the movies.

Biopics are actually pretty easy to make. Take your standard music biopic, for example. You’ve got a prominent figure who has lived a life in the spotlight, one with already extant stakes and needle drops just waiting to happen. Telling the story of someone when there’s a built-in audience ready to hear it? Yeah – easy.

Making a GOOD biopic, well … that’s another story.

Now, the line can be a bit blurry. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there in the music biopic sphere, but sometimes that mediocrity can be elevated into something more – more engaging, more impactful – if both the central figure and the person playing them are compelling enough.

Take “Respect,” the new Aretha Franklin biopic directed by Liesl Tommy from a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson. In many ways, it epitomizes the formulaic nature of the genre – beat by beat, it seems to evoke all of the cliches that come with making this sort of film. There’s a paint-by-numbers quality to the proceedings; even the aspects of the story with which we are not familiar are rendered in an extremely familiar way.

And then there’s Jennifer Hudson.

Hudson offers up a legitimately incredible performance as Franklin. She embodies and evokes the Queen of Soul with a fiery, flawed majesty that is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. We all know that Hudson can sing, of course (though the justice she does to some Aretha classics impresses and surprises nevertheless), but it’s her work as the woman rather than the singer that makes this a transcendent turn. Her efforts explode outward from the so-so framework by which she has been surrounded – she’s unforgettable in an otherwise forgettable film.

Sometimes, you look at someone on screen and think “That person has it. They’re going to be a huge star.” There’s just an indefinable … something. Presence. Charisma. Whatever you want to call it.

That said, having “it” isn’t always enough.

Take the new Netflix thriller “Beckett,” for instance. John David Washington is an actor who has that something, that elusive star quality (even if he doesn’t always know how to properly wield it). But while that energy is certainly present in this film, it can’t make up for the thin narrative and assorted odd thematic and tonal choices scattered throughout. He’s able to keep the movie from being outright bad, but he can’t pull it up to the level of being good.

There’s a decent supporting cast, but they’re stuck in the slog as well, plodding their way through the unevenly paced proceedings. Everyone in the ensemble is doing what they can, but they’re ultimately undermined by Ferdinando Filomarino’s uninspired direction and Kevin Rice’s threadbare and derivative screenplay.

If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.

That’s the attitude that the powers that be at Warner Brothers have taken with regard to DC’s team of villains-turned-reluctant-heroes known as the Suicide Squad. We first met this collection of reprobates in 2016 via director David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad.” Now, thanks to James Gunn, we have “The Suicide Squad.”

It’s tough to suss out how exactly to refer to this new iteration. It’s not quite a sequel and not quite a reboot, featuring a handful of returning characters and a slew of new ones; it’s not like the events of the previous film didn’t happen, but neither do we spend any time reinvestigating them. Call it Schrödinger’s Sequel – it both is and is not.

But whether or not “The Suicide Squad” is a sequel, one thing is for certain: it’s better. A LOT better.

With a combination of gleeful gore, compelling characters and a wicked sense of humor, this is easily one of the best offerings from the DCEU to date; “The Suicide Squad” manages to find ways to hold onto the grimdark ethos of DC’s cinematic slate while also embracing how fun comic book movies can be. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but few filmmakers – if any – are better equipped to strike it than James Gunn.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021 11:12

‘Vivo’ a fun, family-friendly animated musical

Written by Allen Adams

Anyone who’s paid even a little attention to popular culture in the past few years has a pretty good sense of what Lin-Manuel Miranda brings to the table. Between the filmed version of his musical triumph “Hamilton” last year and the movie adaptation of his previous work “In the Heights,” we’ve gotten a lot of Lin-Manuel.

But what if I told you you could have even more? Specifically, an animated musical about a singing kinkajou?

Yeah, I’m into it too.

“Vivo,” from Sony Animation, is currently streaming in Netflix. Directed by Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords from a screenplay by DeMicco and Quiara Alegria Hudes – not to mention original songs by Miranda – it’s a charming and heartfelt story about the lengths to which we will go to do right by the people who mean the most to us.

The animation is lovely, with some wonderful stylistic flourishes, and the narrative is sweetly simple. The film also features a strong voice cast, led by Miranda as the titular Vivo, and you only need to hear a few bars of the opening number to be VERY aware of who wrote the songs. With themes of love – both romantic and familial – and the difficulty of loss, it is a movie that offers all-ages appeal.

Monday, 02 August 2021 12:22

Welcome to the ‘Jungle Cruise’

Written by Allen Adams

Oh look – another Disney movie based on a theme park ride. It’s been a while.

From a financial perspective, making something like “Jungle Cruise” makes perfect sense. Slap the name of a familiar attraction on an action-adventure type movie, cast a charismatic movie star in the lead and watch the cash roll in. “Pirates of the Caribbean” already showed us the massive box office potential of this formula – why not give it another go? It’s going to make money.

From an artistic perspective, well … it’s going to make money.

The film, which stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, is an effort to adapt Disney’s popular ride to the big screen. Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera, it’s a familiar attempt to adapt preexisting IP into a new format in which it can be further monetized. That’s a cynical reading, obviously, but doubtless an accurate one.

As for the actual movie? It’s fine, a pleasant enough diversion; at the very least, it’s a movie that a family can watch together (though there are some moments that might prove a bit much for younger viewers – it’s rightfully rated PG-13, for whatever that’s worth). The charm and charisma of the two leads, along with other talented performers, allows for an enjoyable experience, even if things do get a little muddled by the thin plot and general CGI morass.

I love being surprised at the movies. In this day of franchise fodder and omnipresent trailers, it can sometimes be tough to go into a film with little in the way of preconception. So when the opportunity arises, it can be really rewarding.

Writer-director David Lowery’s new film “The Green Knight” was just such a rewarding experience for me. It’s based on the 14th century chivalric romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” but beyond that and the knowledge that the wonderful Dev Patel stars, all I knew was what I half-remembered from having read the original text some 30 years ago. So I didn’t really know what was coming.

What I got was a sumptuous visual feast, an aesthetic wonder; it’s truly beautiful to look at. The central performance is exquisite, which is key – anything less than excellence from your lead and this film simply collapses under its own weight. That’s mostly because it is also one of the most actively weird mainstream releases I’ve seen in some time – and that’s a good thing.

It is a fantastic and strange tale of a man set upon a journey he doesn’t fully understand, victimized by his own hubris even as he ventures through a world that is steadily shifting around him. It is a story of the difference between responsibility and obligation, between honor and shame, all playing out through the eyes of a lone knight on a quest whose seeming purpose slowly crumbles with each step forward.

Monday, 02 August 2021 12:08

‘Stillwater’ runs deep thanks to Damon

Written by Allen Adams

There are a lot of people – directors and writers and actors and designers – who need to succeed in order to make a good movie. But that success is relative – it is possible for the work of one or a few to have an outsized impact on a movie, to be great even if their surroundings don’t quite measure up.

This is a long-winded and overly verbose way of saying that the new movie “Stillwater” – directed by Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the script alongside Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bregdain and Noe Debre, and starring Matt Damon – is a so-so film that is nevertheless home to some outstanding individual work.

This story of an Oklahoma man who devotes himself to proving the innocence of his young daughter, jailed in France for a crime she claims not to have committed, drew inspiration from the real-life story of Amanda Knox, whose own salacious case of murder and wrongful conviction played out over the course of years back in the ‘00s. It’s a deep and often moving portrait of one man’s efforts to do what’s right, only to continually and thoroughly misstep … not to mention one of Matt Damon’s best performances in years.

(It should be noted that there’s an ongoing discourse surrounding “Stillwater” with regard to Knox and her feelings about having her ordeal used as fodder for the film; the parallels are fairly clear. The degree of control a person has over their own personal story becomes lessened when they move into the public eye, whether by choice or against their will. It might not be right, but it’s how it is, at least right now.)

I dig M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Not all of them – he’s definitely got a couple of real stinkers in there – but for the most part, I’ve liked the films that he’s made. Frankly, there’s something refreshing about the dude and his work; he is clearly someone who makes movies that he likes and doesn’t really worry all that much about anything else. And thanks to the ongoing cultural impact of “The Sixth Sense,” he has enough creative capital to keep doing what he does.

Plus, he’s kind of on a pretty good run.

Since his sort-of-comeback with 2015’s “The Visit,” Shyamalan has reinvigorated his career, putting the previous decade or so – in which he became something of a punchline – in the rearview. That film, plus the double dip of 2016’s excellent “Split” and 2019’s I-liked-it-more-than-many “Glass” along with his work on TV shows like “Wayward Pines” and “Servant,” have him back in the conversation, albeit not quite at his turn-of-the-century heights.

His latest is “Old.” It’s a bit of an outlier for him; he directed and wrote the screenplay, as per usual, but this time, it’s an adaptation – a French graphic novel titled “Sandcastle.” But it’s the sort of supernaturally-tinged story we’ve learned to expect from him, with the same brand of ludicrous/intriguing elevator pitch description.

To wit: What if people went to a beach that made them age their entire lives in just a few hours?

I know, I know – it sounds goofy. And I suppose it is. But it is also precisely the sort of premise with which a filmmaker like Shyamalan can have some fun. It’s not perfect – things get clunky here and there and there’s one particular plot development that is actively icky – but the things that Shyamalan does well, he does REALLY well … and they’re on display here.

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