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Monday, 11 May 2020 15:05

Into the woods – ‘Blood and Money’

Written by Allen Adams

Maine-made movies are a relative rarity.

It’s surprising, really – in a state with an abundant variety of natural beauty ranging from coastlines to mountains to forests, you’d think more filmmakers would take advantage. Of course, there are a number of reasons we don’t see movies made here – some economic, some logistical – but even so, you’d expect a little more frequency, though the truth is that many people may simply not understand the true breadth of opportunity here.

John Barr understands.

The Maine native and film industry veteran has made his directorial debut with “Blood and Money,” set and filmed in Maine and available on VOD on May 15. The thriller – also written by Barr – takes advantage of the verdant and untamed forests found in the norther parts of the state, constructing a tale of taut tension about a lone man battling his demons and fighting for his life.

Tom Berenger stars, bringing his well-earned gravitas to almost every single frame of the film. His stoic quietude matches the looming intensity of the winter forest through which he makes his way; it’s a good match, one that is served well by the gentle pacing of the narrative and the sere serenity of the setting.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is an unexpected blend of various things that you like, a mélange of your specific combination of interests. Of course, these great tastes may or may not taste great together – that’s up to the talents involved.

Strangely enough, “How to Build a Girl” - currently available on VOD - is just such a blend, and while it isn’t a perfect combination, it is definitely a winning one.

The film – directed by Coky Giedroyc from a screenplay that author Caitlan Moran adapted from her own novel of the same name – checks a lot of boxes for me. Coming of age story? Check. Period piece set in the ‘90s? Check. Culture critic for a protagonist? Check. Hell, it even manages to check the box of “featuring music from the extremely brief period when I gave a crap about music.”

Like I said – a LOT of boxes.

It helps that it is incredibly earnest and packed with charm, driven by a lead performance from Beanie Feldstein that is yet another indicator of just how sincerely talented she is as an actor. It might get a little shaggy and ring overly familiar at times, but the quality of work put forth by everyone involved pushes it beyond mere formula. It is genuine and disarming and unabashed – a story of the difference between becoming the person you think you want to be and the person you’re actually meant to be.

Thursday, 07 May 2020 16:29

Dennehy shines in the intimate ‘Driveways’

Written by Allen Adams

Bigger isn’t always better.

It’s easy to forget in a world where cinematic bombast is all the rage, but less can still be more. There is still plenty of room in the moviesphere for smaller, more intimate fare. Films that rely on story without spectacle. Films that explore the tiny moments of regular people.

“Driveways,” directed by Andrew Ahn from a screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and starring the late, great Brian Dennehy in one of his final roles, giving a typically outstanding performance (that might low-key be one of his very best). It’s a movie built on the unexpected connections that can develop between people due to chance factors of proximity and circumstance. It’s a story about the idea of family and how it can mean different things to different people.

And again – less is more. This isn’t a showy film, but rather a sincere one. That sincerity lends an air of verisimilitude to these relationships, making it easy to empathize. “Driveways” embraces its intimacy and unap0logetically wears its heart on its sleeve – much to its ultimate benefit.

One of my favorite romantic comedy techniques is the adaptation of and/or inspiration by a classic work. This is particularly prolific in the teen-targeted sector, because let’s be honest, love stories tend to be a young person’s game. Granted, quality source material is hardly a guarantee of a quality film, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

The latest example of the literary classic-turned-YA rom-com “The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu and newly streaming on Netflix. It definitely lands on the inspired by side of things, but it wears that particular influence – namely, Edmund Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” – loudly and proudly.

Granted, it takes the classic secret correspondence-driven love triangle and gives it a decidedly original flair, gender-flipping our erstwhile epistle-writer and lending the entire proceedings a cloak of LGBTQ+ friendliness that serves to make the story feel both of the moment and widely accessible.

It doesn’t hurt that Wu is a gifted filmmaker with a particular talent for language; she’s got a real ear for witty and romantic dialogue. And she has an outstanding trio of young actors at the film’s center. All the pieces are there for a lovely little movie – and “The Half of It” delivers.

It isn’t easy to tell old stories in new ways.

Tackling genre fare is tricky business; it’s no longer enough to simply follow in the footsteps of those who came before you. You have to use that template to do something different, and when you’re talking about treading a trail as well-worn as that of the zombie movie, well … you’d better bring something special to the table.

That’s what makes “Blood Quantum,” the second feature from Canadian writer/director Jeff Barnaby now streaming on Shudder, so interesting. It’s a marriage of B-movie viscera and social commentary that captures an energy reminiscent of the work of the best-known names in the genre, though the execution perhaps doesn’t quite ascend to the same heights.

Even with that degree of unevenness, however, “Blood Quantum” is a success. It spatters and sprays the screen with buckets upon buckets of blood, unleashing some solid (and unsettling) practical effects work. And it offers a thoughtful, if occasionally on the nose exploration of colonialism and its impact on Canada’s indigenous peoples.

If all that has you thinking about George Romero, rest assured that you’re not alone.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020 16:10

Be a man – ‘Man Camp’

Written by Allen Adams

What does it mean to be a man?

Popular culture has mined a lot of humor from the exploration of that question. The notion of masculinity – particularly when pushed to its extremes – is ripe for parody and satire. There’s nothing wrong with the traditional concept of the masculine, though there’s certainly an argument that said traditionalism is old-fashioned to say the least.

But yeah – if you can find a way to embrace those expectations while also subverting them, you’re well on your way to getting some laughs.

“Man Camp,” a comedy directed by Nate Bakke from a script written by Daniel Cummings, Scott Kruse and Josh Long (the first two also star), digs into this oft-explored territory. It’s the tale of three young men whose lives have been defined by the too-soon loss of their manliest-of-manly-men father and their efforts to come to terms with the possibilities of finally moving on.

With a new man entering their mother’s life after so many years, the brothers take it upon themselves to put this suitor through a gauntlet of sorts, forcing him to prove himself worthy via the setting of the brothers’ annual tradition of gathering at camp to celebrate the memory of their father. It’s a funny, sometimes crude look at how we define manhood … and how that definition can change as we become men ourselves.

Monday, 27 April 2020 15:11

‘Bad Education’ shows a school for scandal

Written by Allen Adams

There are a multitude of content providers out there vying for our attention. So many services are producing original movies and TV series for our consumption that it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle. It’s a young man’s game in many respects, but don’t sleep on the OGs. There are some outlets whose histories far predate the current streaming boom and that are creating incredible content of their own.

Take HBO, for instance. While the cable giant’s most prominent original content trends toward episodic work, they are more than capable of putting forward feature efforts that are more than a match for the best of the streaming cinema.

Their latest original film is “Bad Education,” based on the real-life embezzlement scandal that rocked a Long Island school district in the early 2000s. Directed by Cory Finley from a screenplay by Mike Makowsky (adapted from a 2004 New York Magazine article titled “The Bad Superintendent”), it’s a well-crafted and exceptionally performed film, one that offers a look at one of the largest public school scandals in American history – a scandal that was first uncovered by a student journalist.

With an outstanding performance from Hugh Jackman at its heart and propelled by the so-incredible-it-must-be-true nature of its story, “Bad Education” is a wonderfully dark and absurd look at the depths to which even the most high-minded public servants can sink when faced with the temptations that can come from unreserved trust.

Sunday, 26 April 2020 17:02

‘Extraction’ executes explosive excitement

Written by Allen Adams

Everyone has their particular tastes when it comes to movies. Even those of us whose job it is to offer up opinions regarding films have our personal preferences. And while we strive for objectivity, we also recognize that when it comes down to it, we like what we like. Taste matters.

Take action movies, for instance. There are those out there who find action movies to be generally lacking in appeal, who think that watching bullets and/or fists flying simply doesn’t make for good cinema. They are entitled to their opinion.

Their wrong, wrong, wrong opinion.

“Extraction,” the latest Netflix original offering to hit the streaming service, isn’t the greatest or most original action movie you’ll see … and that’s OK. See, it’s driven by some excellent set pieces and a strong lead performance from Chris Hemsworth, which means that it’s plenty good enough. It isn’t necessary to innovate when you’re willing to embrace the essence of what has always worked.

Adapted by Joe Russo from his own graphic novel “Ciudad” and directed by longtime stunt coordinator and first-time feature director Sam Hargrave, “Extraction” adheres pretty closely to standard action tropes. However, by executing at a high level, the film manages to largely transcend formula, offering viewers a thrilling and exciting two hours of escapist action.

When we think about movies for kids, we tend to have fairly specific ideas about them in terms of their style. You hear “kids’ movie,” you probably think about bright colors and simple narratives and a general levity with regards to tone. And a lot of child-oriented stories hew closely to those criteria.

A lot, but by no means all. There’s plenty of darkness to be found in children’s stories. From the bleakness prevalent in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, there have been shadows mixed in with the sunshine.

Because here’s the thing: kids LIKE some darkness alongside the light.

The new Netflix animated film “The Willoughbys,” based on the book of the same name by Lois Lowry, very much embraces that dichotomy. While it is rife with candy-colored goofiness and silly set pieces, there are some underlying themes that are legitimately dark. The balance between the two is what makes the movie work – too much of one or the other would undermine the whole thing.

It’s a story of what it truly means to be a family, as well as of the sacrifices that can be required to do right by the people we love. It also explores the consequences that can come from thoughtless decisions regarding those loved ones. Plus, it’s a great-looking film based on strong source material and featuring an absolutely killer voice cast.

Sunday, 19 April 2020 16:55

Clique bait - ‘Selah and the Spades’

Written by Allen Adams

There are plenty of teen movies out there, comedies and dramas alike. But while the standard high school setting lends itself well to the former, it seems that if you’re looking for the latter, then something more … hallowed … is in order.

Specifically, prep school, in all of its trust-funded, ivy-walled glory. The deep pockets and deeper tradition that comes with such a setting clears the runway for more dramatic stakes. That’s not to say that regular high schools can’t host drama, nor prep schools comedies – there are plenty of examples of both – but the insularity inherent to boarding school is fallow ground for dramatics.

This brings us to “Selah and the Spades,” a new film currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The film – a debut feature from writer/director Tayarisha Poe – ventures into the shadowy world of cliques at an upscale Pennsylvania prep school. It’s a deconstruction of what it means to be a big fish in a small pond – particularly when the fish becomes big enough to endanger the delicate equilibrium.

It’s also a look at the fragility of teenage relationships, an examination of how the stresses of high achievement can fracture a young person’s sense of self. The result is a willingness to throw one’s lot in fully with a group; this allows the onus of identity definition to fall on peers … for better and for worse.

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