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Monday, 14 December 2020 15:27

‘The Prom’ dances its way from stage to screen

Written by Allen Adams

We’ve seen a steady stream of movies converted into Broadway musicals in recent years to no small success. And there’s been plenty of transitioning in the other direction – the path from stage to screen has been well-traveled.

Converting musicals into movies is an interesting process. You never know if the filmmakers are going to be able to capture the essence of a musical – its spirit. Finding the right ways to convert the visceral nature of live performance onto film is always a crapshoot – one where sometimes you get “West Side Story,” sometimes you get “Cats.”

“The Prom” – currently streaming on Netflix – is the kind of movie that could be deemed nearer the former or the latter, depending on who you ask. Directed by Ryan Murphy and adapted to the screen by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin from their and Matthew Sklar’s 2018 musical of the same name, it’s a brightly-colored and broad (and dated) look at LGBTQ inclusivity and celebrity activism.

“The Prom” is driven by high-energy performances, delightful production numbers and some songs that are catchy as hell, all in service of what is ultimately intended to be a very sweet love story. Oh, and the cast is dynamite. While it has its clunky and/or heavy-handed moments and occasional missteps, it is by and large a fun and (mostly) funny take on what it means to want to help versus actually stepping up and helping.

Monday, 14 December 2020 15:20

Two Drews can't save ‘The Stand In’

Written by Allen Adams

Hollywood has a long history of actors playing multiple roles in the same film. Sometimes, it is for the sake of mining the possibilities of two (or more) people resembling one another – mistaken identities or identity swaps or the like. Other times, it’s just because Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler wants a wider runway to do whatever goofy stuff they want to do.

“The Stand In” is the latest entry into the genre. This time, it’s Drew Barrymore playing two different roles in a story about a once-famous actress and her relentlessly sunny stand in. Directed by Jamie Babbit from a screenplay by Sam Bain, it’s an effort to document the deleterious impact of fame on people, doing so by way of yet another riff on the Mark Twain classic “The Prince and the Pauper.”

Unfortunately, the film legitimately struggles to decide what sort of tone it wishes to strike. The vacillation from comedy to drama and back again is constant and almost always without warning, leaving viewers with narrative whiplash. Despite Barrymore’s willingness to go for it – and she does give it her all – that lack of consistency leaves you wondering just what the aim was. Of course, if the goal was a movie that can’t figure out if it’s “Bowfinger” or “Single White Female,” well … mission accomplished?

Monday, 07 December 2020 16:53

Write hard, aim low – ‘Mank’

Written by Allen Adams

The term “movie magic” gets bandied about pretty regularly, even in these cynical times. It is intended to evoke the sense of awe and wonder that is often born of the cinematic arts, but it should also be noted that there’s a darkness that sometimes goes hand in hand with magic – a darkness rendered all the more deeply courtesy of film’s flickering light.

“Mank” is a film that is unafraid to delve into that darkness, exploring the bleak underside of the rapid rise of early Hollywood. Directed by David Fincher from a screenplay written by his late father Jack Fincher, “Mank” is ostensibly the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the writer (or co-writer, depending on how much stock you put into early-70s Pauline Kael) of the iconic “Citizen Kane,” but in many ways, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.

“Mank” is an ode to old Hollywood, but not the sort of self-celebration we so often see from stories set in that time and place. Instead, we get a glimpse into the unseemly sleaziness that was so thoroughly shot through the industry at that time, with tyrannical studio heads and other assorted titans freely and unrelentingly taking advantage of those with even a modicum less power than they possessed. It is a story of one man’s journey from respectability to sellout to burnout to oddly noble flameout, all set against the backdrop of a time that has been cynically romanticized by an industry that loves nothing more than patting itself on the back.

Monday, 07 December 2020 16:51

The beat goes off – ‘Sound of Metal’

Written by Allen Adams

What happens to us when circumstances leave us unable to do the thing that we believe defines us? How can we recover from such a loss – particularly when that loss seemingly destroys the foundation on which the rest of our identity is built?

That question serves as the central concept in “Sound of Metal,” a new film currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Written and directed by Darius Marder, it’s the story of a heavy metal drummer who must deal with an unexpected and rapid deterioration of his hearing, a devastating blow that pushes the former addict toward a potential relapse.

It’s a powerful exploration of what it means to lose what defines us, as well as what we might do to regain that definition and ultimately achieve a redefinition. It also looks at what it means to not only need help, but to be willing to accept that help. Anchored by a transcendent lead performance and an immersive and innovative sound design, “Sound of Metal” hits hard.

There are some movies that are compulsively watchable. These are the films from which you simply cannot tear your eyes. Often, this magnetism springs from the exquisite quality of what has been made, a combination of narrative and aesthetic excellence that demands to be experienced. Sometimes, however – not frequently, but every once in a while – that watchability is born of the exact opposite. In these moments, we get a movie that, despite being an abject and utter mess, nevertheless holds your attention.

“Love, Weddings & Other Disasters” is one of those rare watchable shambles, an aptly-titled car-crash of a movie experience that practically demands to be rubbernecked.

Written and directed by Dennis Dugan – best known as a longtime collaborator with Adam Sandler – “Love, Weddings & Other Disasters” is a misguided effort to walk the well-worn path of the intersecting storyline rom-com. The best of those films connect the dots with grace and subtlety, but as you might have already surmised, that’s not what this film does. Instead, we get a series of barely-connected narratives that each play out in their own rambling fashion before a hurried and not-particularly-inspired finale that leaves the viewer wondering what the hell just happened.

Sometimes, all you want is to find a movie that everyone in the family can watch safely, a movie that will prove pleasant enough – or at least tolerable – to everyone watching. You’re not looking for cutting-edge or challenging or anything like that. Just a movie.

If that’s where you’re at, then “Godmothered” is precisely what you seek.

The new film – currently streaming on Disney+ - tells the story of a wannabe fairy godmother venturing into the world in hopes of helping someone find their happily ever after. This despite having neither sufficient training nor permission to do so. It’s the kind of light and fluffy fare that we usually get from the live-action side of Disney (non-IP edition), executed with the same efficient competence that we’ve come to expect.

Now, this adherence to the in-house rubrics and general formula is never going to result in a great movie. What it will get you is a decent movie – a category into which “Godmothered” most assuredly falls. Directed with workmanlike skill by Sharon Maguire from a vanilla script written by Kari Granlund and Melissa K. Stack, it’s a movie that provides a perfectly nice time – and that you will likely never need to watch again.

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.

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