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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.

The deluge of holiday movies is underway, with scores of new offerings coming at us over the next couple of months. You can’t fight it, so you might as well go along for the ride.

And there’s joy to be found. Sure, most of the holiday fare we see has a churned-out quality, a cookie-cutter sensibility. But so what? These types of movies are almost always intended as comfort food, nothing more. Familiar and uncomplicated. Consume them with that in mind and you’ll have a good time.

This brings us to “Operation Christmas Drop,” a Netflix original currently streaming on the service. As a holiday movie/rom-com crossover, it’s part of one of the largest holiday film subgenres, and there’s little about it that sets it apart from a dozen other movies. It is an easy-to-drink cocktail, egg nog by way of the tropics.

Everything you think is going to happen, happens. There are no surprises here, nothing the least bit challenging or provocative. What flavor there is comes from the tropical setting, but even that is just the barest hint. This movie is as bland and inoffensive as they come, something you can have on in the background during multi-generational family celebrations.

My affinity for coming of age stories is well-documented at this point. And if you can endow those stories with elements of the fantastic, well – so much the better.

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy,” directed by Martin Krejci from a script by Olivia Dufault, is one such story, a modern-day fairy tale of sorts that takes a look at the many ways we can be different … and how coming to terms with those differences is a big part of growing up. It’s whimsical and sweet while also offering up a few sinister moments – just like the best from the Brothers Grimm.

Being a kid is hard. It has always been hard. Yes, the ways in which it is hard have changed over the years, but the basic difficulty never has. Being different on top of that is a challenge – one addressed with charm and affection here. While it never delves as deep as it might, choosing instead to stay close to the surface, it still manages to feel engaging and enlightened.

Monday, 02 November 2020 17:04

Ghosts of the past made present – ‘His House’

Written by Allen Adams

There’s a turn of phrase that has been floating around out there in the zeitgeist for a few years about which I have conflicted feelings. “Elevated horror” is a term that is being used to describe movies that incorporate horror elements and tropes while ostensibly being above the genre itself.

Honestly – I don’t care for it.

Those films and filmmakers – the Ari Asters and Jordan Peeles and Robert Eggers – don’t need any qualifiers; the notion that a horror movie is somehow unable to also be an artistically impactful film is foolish on its face. I respect the desire for a shorthand, but come on – great horror is great art, full stop.

This brings us to “His House,” a new film streaming on Netflix. Written and directed by debut feature filmmaker Remi Weekes, it’s a movie that invites that sort of cinephile labeling, bringing together exceptionally executed scares with engaging ideas and social commentary. It invites it, but it doesn’t need it.

It doesn’t need it because “His House” succeeds on its merits. It is a taut, tense haunted house horror thriller, packed with unsettling images and some incredible scares. It is also a sharp and incisive deconstructive commentary on the dehumanizing nature of the refugee experience. And it is wildly effective from both perspectives. This is a bordering-on-brilliant work of horror filmmaking, marrying the trappings of the genre with nuanced messaging regarding a very complex issue.

So yeah – it’s REALLY good.

Monday, 02 November 2020 15:55

Monster Squad goals – ‘Wolfman’s Got Nards’

Written by Allen Adams

We all have movies from our childhood that we look back upon with fondness. Even films that perhaps weren’t as traditionally successful have earned spots of honor in the hearts of those who saw them at precisely the right moment in their lives. And sometimes, those films, despite being underappreciated in their time, still manage to find their audiences. It might take a longer time and result in less-than-stellar results in terms of sheer economics, but the love is there.

For many people, 1987’s “The Monster Squad” is one such film. Initially viewed as a bit of a bust upon its release, the film lingered in the corners of the cultural consciousness, winding up in heavy rotation during the nascent days of HBO and doing a brisk business in the world of video rental. The story of a group of young people thrust into circumstances where it was up to them to do battle with a collection of classic monsters became a beloved film, one that inspired a depth of fandom that no one involved with the project truly understood until years later.

It’s that story – the story of how the film became so much more than a kid-oriented commercial misfire – that serves as the central framework of the new documentary “Wolfman’s Got Nards,” a title drawn from one of the film’s most memorable lines. Written and directed by Andre Gower – who was one of the young stars of “The Monster Squad” – it’s an attempt to unpack the energetic and enthusiastic following that has grown around the movie in the decades since its initial release. Through a documentation of a screening tour of the film and a wealth of conversations with those who made “The Monster Squad” and those who love it, it’s a heartfelt look at the notion of fandom and how enough passion can keep alive something thought long since departed.

Monday, 02 November 2020 15:51

Date the halls – ‘Holidate’

Written by Allen Adams

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Netflix reigns supreme over rom-coms.

People have been bemoaning the death of the romantic comedy for some time, and at the box office, the notion had the ring of truth to it – rom-coms weren’t the big business that they once were. And if people aren’t buying, the studios stop selling.

But while rom-coms might have waned in popularity, there are still lots of folks out there who love them. And, in typical fashion, Netflix detected a market inefficiency and started churning out romantic comedies. Now, these offerings vary in overall quality (though they all have that unmistakable Netflix sheen to them), but the sheer number that we’re seeing would seem to indicate that they are being watched and watched a lot.

The latest in the queue is “Holidate,” directed by John Whitesell from a script by Tiffany Paulsen. It’s a genial and low-stakes story, revolving around the sort of vaguely-absurd-on-its-face concept that marks a lot of the genre offerings from the streaming service. It’s about two people looking for someone to share the holidays with without, you know, any of the other stuff.

The movie is charming enough, even if it does feel a bit formulaic. Of course, this isn’t a movie you watch if you’re looking to be surprised in any manner whatsoever. And there’s a real comfort to familiarity – sometimes, it’s soothing to know what you’re getting.

Monday, 26 October 2020 14:45

‘The Witches’ somewhat lacking in magic

Written by Allen Adams

The works of author Roald Dahl have long been prime fodder for the leap from page to screen. The unabashed weirdness and genuinely frightful nature of his work – not to mention the wildly inventive and colorful characters and narratives that he constructs – make these books ideal subjects for translation to visual media. They are fun, bizarre experiences whether you’re reading them or seeing them.

However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing … particularly when a story is revisited for the big screen treatment.

To wit: HBO Max is currently streaming their version of “The Witches,” directed by Robert Zemeckis. It’s an adaptation of Dahl’s 1983 novel of the same name – a novel that already received a VERY successful remake in 1990. It’s a bold choice, remaking a film that, while 30 years old, still maintains a place of high regard in the memories of many moviegoers. A bold choice … and a somewhat misguided one.

Don’t get me wrong – this new version isn’t bad. It just doesn’t land with the same spirited resonance as its predecessor. Much like Tim Burton’s stab at “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory,” this new take on “The Witches” simply feels unnecessary. It’s no one’s fault, really – everyone involved seems to be operating in good faith and really giving it their all. It’s just that there probably shouldn’t have been a project for which to give said all.

It’s always interesting when a years-later sequel pops up. The results have certainly been mixed, with the unqualified success rate for these sorts of projects being fairly low. We’ve seen some that had some moments, but for the most part, dusting off old films – particularly comedies – to try and revisit their stories hasn’t really worked.

This brings us to “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Deliver of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” – henceforth to be called simply “Borat 2” – the new project from comedic auteur Sacha Baron Cohen, currently streaming via Amazon Prime Video. The sequel to 2006’s “Borat,” this new film came to be in a vastly different American environment than its predecessor, but Cohen’s incisive and bizarre wit still plays, albeit with a different energy than before.

While it’s more successful than many other years-late sequels, it also can’t quite reach the bar of satiric absurdity set by that first film. Not that there’s any shame in that – “Borat” is a top-tier piece of social satire and transgressive comedy. The fact that this new offering even gets close is plenty impressive. Cohen holds up a mirror to American culture, but the warped reflection we see is simply an accurate depiction of who and what we are in this moment. It’s not a funhouse mirror, folks. We’re the funhouse.

Monday, 26 October 2020 12:49

‘Rebecca’ offers stylish gothic thrills

Written by Allen Adams

It takes a lot of chutzpah to remake Alfred Hitchcock.

There are a handful of acknowledged masters in the cinematic realm that pretty much everyone can agree on, filmmakers who are universally acclaimed as the very best at what they do … and Hitchcock is on that list. No one has demonstrated such mastery of the psychological thriller. Even now, nearly 50 years after his last film, he’s the maestro.

His 1940 “Rebecca” – based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name – was his first American project, a film that landed 11 Academy Award nominations and won two, including Hitchcock’s only Best Picture win.

So to tackle a movie that remakes not just any Hitchcock, but one of his best, well … like I said. Chutzpah.

Yet here we are, with Netflix producing a remake of the classic, directed by Ben Wheatley from a screenplay adaptation by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. And it’s a pretty solid effort, with a talented cast and a suitably sumptuous aesthetic. The biggest strike against it – and it is a big one – is that it was preceded by a legitimate masterpiece.

The story of a young woman who marries into a situation far more complex and shadowy than she ever could have imagined, “Rebecca” is a gothic thriller set against the lush English countryside in the heady days preceding World War II. It is a tale of the darkness within – and the fact that even those closest to us may be keeping secrets.

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