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Stories that spring from the dangers of distance have always fascinated us. Whether they are journeys into the wilderness, across the sea or into the heavens, the perils of separation from those who might help us should emergencies arise can make for compelling drama.

Stories of space travel have largely supplanted those of treks into the wild or over the waves; so many space stories – particularly ones that seek to hew relatively close to the realm of the plausible – revolve around the idea that help will not and cannot come. In space, you’re more or less on your own.

“Stowaway,” the new film directed by Joe Penna from a script that Penna co-wrote with Ryan Morrison, is the latest exploration of the unforgiving nature of the unknown and the emotional consequences that can come with being forced to make impossible choices.

It’s also a crackerjack space movie, one in which care has clearly been taken to maintain a degree of verisimilitude that exceeds that of all but the most meticulously-crafted near-future sci-fi. It’s a taut thriller, one that mines tension from moments that could have felt flat and/or mundane in the hands of another filmmaker.

Monday, 19 April 2021 15:09

Just another manic ‘Monday’

Written by Allen Adams

There’s a rush that comes with those first moments of attraction. The spark of electricity that courses from one person to the next, crackling with excitement and sexual anticipation – it’s often the beginning of something far greater. That’s how the movies portray it anyway.

However, just because that fire is burning from minute one does not mean that the relationship has any kind of real future. The reality is that those quick-hit connections often prove to be little more than infatuations, momentary dalliances. But how do you know if this one, this connection, is the one that is meant to be?

That’s the query at the center of “Monday,” a romantic drama directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos from a script he co-wrote with Rob Hayes. It’s a story of a passionate weekend encounter between two expatriated Americans in Greece that begins to develop into something more, though it’s unclear if that’s the right thing for either of them.

There’s plenty of heat here, plenty of fire – the sex scene-to-runtime ratio here is REALLY high – to go along with the standard relationship struggles. Sure, it’s not always clear why these people are making the choices they are making, but the truth is that the specifics don’t matter – when you’ve got two people as hot for one another as this duo, it’s all about seeing where the fires lead you.

Long gone are the days where there was a sharp and specific line of demarcation between the realms of television and movies. It wasn’t so long ago that TV stars were TV stars and movie stars were movie stars and there was little movement between the two, with the occasional ascendent TV actor making the leap to the big screen and the odd fading movie star moving heading into our living rooms. Movies were important and TV wasn’t. Simple.

Obviously, that isn’t the case anymore, with actors moving easily between the two mediums and prestige television achieving feats of storytelling the equal of any cinematic experience. And the lines blur further with the original offerings of the streaming services landing in both camps.

So if you’re going to tell me that Netflix’s latest animated film is also the pilot episode of an upcoming series – sure. That’s the way the world works now.

Thus we have “Arlo the Alligator Boy,” an animated musical film from director Ryan Crego (who also co-wrote both the script and the movie’s numerous original songs). It’s a sweet, tuneful story of a young boy (who happens to also be an alligator) searching for where in the world he fits in. It’s a search that leads him from the swamps of his adolescence to the bright lights of New York City as he undertakes a quest to find the man he believes to be his father.

The subsequent TV series designs could not be more clear – the film plays much like an extended pilot, introducing the characters who will undoubtedly populate the 20-episode season to come. But there’s no disputing that the characters are charming, the visual style is memorable and the music straight up slaps. Not a bad payoff for investing your 90 minutes.

So much of how we engage with the world around us is defined by our senses. It is only through them – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell – that we can identify what’s around us. The absence of one or more is keenly felt, but the others can still contribute to giving us a window on the world.

But what if you couldn’t trust those senses to tell you the truth? What if what you saw, heard, touched – what if those things were other than what your brain was telling you?

“Sensation,” a new science fiction thriller from writer/director Martin Grof, explores that possibility via a mystery that defies you to believe the evidence of your own eyes. It’s a challenge to the very concept of the validity of personal perception. Lofty ideas, to be sure, albeit ones that aren’t always executed quite as cleanly as one might hope.

The premise is solid and the look is appealing – there are moments of impressive visual style. Unfortunately, there’s a sense of unnecessary convolution that mars much of the film, with the filmmakers prioritizing maintaining a sense of mystery above all else … including consistent narrative coherence.

There’s something sacred about the rituals that come with saying goodbye, regardless of the culture from which you hail. No matter who you are or where you’re from, odds are that you or someone close to you has very specific ideas about what will happen when you die (logistical ideas, mind you, not metaphysical ones – we haven’t got all day).

But what happens when circumstances upend those expectations and you’re forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to fulfill them?

That’s the question that Irish filmmaker Aoife Crehan addresses in “The Last Right.” Written and directed by Crehan, it’s the story of a man whose personal journey of grief is thrown into chaos by the actions of the stranger sitting next to him on an airplane – chaos that may eventually lead him to discover the order he was always meant to experience.

It’s one of those movies that brings a lot to the table. You’ve got family secrets and dysfunction. You’ve got a little romance, plenty of situational comedy and even some heist vibes. All in service to telling a small story of what it means to follow through on a promise … even if it’s a promise you never really made.

Saturday, 10 April 2021 14:46

‘We Don’t Deserve Dogs’ a doggone good doc

Written by Allen Adams

“Every dog must have his day.” – Jonathan Swift

I love dogs. I love my dog Stella and every dog I ever had growing up. I love dogs I pass on the street. I love dogs that bark and dogs that whine and dogs that growl. I love them all, regardless of whether or not they love me back (although they usually do).

So it’s no surprise that when the opportunity was presented to me to review the new documentary “We Don’t Deserve Dogs,” directed by Matthew Salleh in collaboration with his partner Rose Tucker. It’s a voyage around the globe, looking at the various ways that dogs impact the worlds in which we live. Across borders and cultures, dogs are present, helping us by simply being the wonderful creatures that they are.

From country to country, from circumstance to circumstance, we bounce from place to place, encountering our four-legged friends in various environments. And even in those spots where the life of a dog is difficult, these wonderful creatures find ways to shine their light upon us. It is heartfelt and charming and uplifting – and don’t forget the tissues, because if you’re anything like me, you are going to need them.

We might have passed the point of no return regarding superhero cinema.

Yes, there are plenty of folks who would argue that we long ago reached cultural saturation when it comes to superhero movies. But in the aftermath of the Snyder Cut and with multiple MCU offerings on the immediate horizon – plus the wide swath of recent and forthcoming streaming series drawing from superpowered source material both well-known and obscure – well … it’s a lot, not all of it good.

And this is coming from someone who LOVES this stuff.

Netflix’s latest foray into the realm of the superheroic is “Thunder Force,” a new film written and directed by Ben Falcone and starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer. It’s an effort to play the tropes for laughs and have some fun with the foibles inherent to the genre, relying heavily on the talents of its cast to carry the day.

It doesn’t quite work out the way they might have hoped.

What so many of these filmmakers forget is that while spectacle is at the forefront with superhero films, the story still matters. Without an engaging narrative, all we’re left with is a bunch of CGI nonsense that is difficult to invest in. And no matter how hard the actors try, they can’t salvage what ultimately becomes an effort to turn 45 minutes of story into 100-plus minutes of movie.

Monday, 05 April 2021 15:07

Saddle up with ‘Concrete Cowboy’

Written by Allen Adams

One of the great things about the world in which we live is that there’s room for all manner of interests and identities. No matter how niche and/or unlikely the pursuit, there will be others who share feelings about it.

These subcultures sometime surface in mainstream awareness, but others simply go on, whirring along beneath the zeitgeist for decades. And again, no matter how incongruous and unlikely they may sound, they are very real and very important to those whose passions they reflect.

“Concrete Cowboy,” the new Netflix film directed by Ricky Staub, is the story of one such subculture. Adapted by Staub and Dan Walser from Greg Neri’s 2011 novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” it’s the story of a multigenerational group of horse enthusiasts operating out of inner-city Philadelphia. Through their connection to horses, these people find what they need.

(It’s worth noting that several supporting roles are played by real-life members of Fletcher Street Stables, the group upon whom Neri’s novel was largely based.)

It’s also the story of a young man who is thrust into the midst of this world, left to contextualize it alongside his own sphere of understanding, introduced into it all by the father who is all but a stranger to him. But even with influences tugging from all sides, he is the one who ultimately must make the decision about the man he wants to become.

Thursday, 01 April 2021 15:17

‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ a satisfying title fight

Written by Allen Adams

If you want to argue that too many of today’s blockbusters spring from blown-out franchises and IP cinematic universes, I’m not going to stop you. It’s clear that big-budget moviemaking has become almost exclusively a realm of CGI and superheroes and the like. Everything is loud and overlarge. It’s a fair point.

Counterpoint: Sometimes you just want to see giant monsters fight.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” is the fourth entry in the Warner Brothers self-styled MonsterVerse (it’s also the 36th Godzilla movie and the 12th King Kong movie, if you’re into that sort of thing), bringing together these heavyweights of giant monster cinema. Directed by Adam Wingard and currently available both in theaters and via HBO Max, it’s the sort of lumpy tentpole sequel that slots nicely into the overall development of the franchise. It’s big and a little convoluted and quite fun, albeit maybe just a little stingy with the aforementioned monster fighting.

It’s a big swing at progressing the overall universe even as it gives audiences the showdown they want. Whether those efforts at expansion prove fruitful remains to be seen – things get a little muddy and tough to follow in spots – but it’s a valiant attempt. And while some of the narrative subplots don’t work as well as others, the overall payoff is worth it.

Monday, 29 March 2021 16:04

To Paris with love – ‘French Exit’

Written by Allen Adams

Most of the time, movies are relatively straightforward. Sure, you have your odd arthouse auteurs and the like, but usually, films work in the way you expect. You go to a drama, you expect emotional impact. You see a comedy, you’re ready to laugh. You walk into a superhero movie, you get superheroes. Horror, scares. Thriller … thrills.

But every once in a while, you find a movie that gleefully upends your understanding of the world in which it operates. It doesn’t actually change anything, yet you’re left with fundamental questions about both what you’ve seen so far and what is yet to come.

That’s the kind of movie that you get with “French Exit,” a smart, engaging film directed by Azazel Jacobs from a screenplay that Patrick deWitt adapted from his own 2018 novel of the same name. It is a dry and witty comedy that takes a surreal turn, introducing strange and unexpected elements that nevertheless only serve to enhance the overall experience of the film.

With an absolutely exceptional cast led by Michelle Pfeiffer, this movie is not necessarily what you might expect it to be, but by subverting your expectations, it gives you an experience that is arguably far better than the one you thought you were getting.

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