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Monday, 11 January 2021 16:56

A home of one’s own – ‘Herself’

Written by Allen Adams

Stories of reinvention have always worked well on screen. There’s a real appeal to watching people, through sheer determination and a support system willing to help, turn their lives around – particularly when they’re moving away from toxic and/or dangerous circumstances.

That idea of reinvention is central to “Herself,” newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The Irish film is directed by Phyllida Lloyd from a script co-written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne (who also stars); it’s the story of a woman who escapes an abusive relationship and attempts to carve out a new life for herself and her two daughters.

It’s a small film that mines great power from its intimate nature. Featuring some excellent performances and a simple story that is alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, it’s a quietly powerful viewing experience that offers a look at just how difficult it can be to change one’s life for the better.

While a lot has been made about the separation of art and artist in recent years, the reality is that we’ve always been faced with that divide – we just have a LOT more access to the personal beliefs and actions of our artists. How effective – and how necessary – the separation can be varies from individual to individual.

It’s unfortunate that “Pieces of a Woman,” directed by Kornel Mundruczo from a script by Kata Weber, will become part of that conversation due to the recent allegations against Shia LaBeouf, who stars in the film. Not because LaBeouf’s actions are somehow overblown – if true, they certainly are not – but because this talk will overshadow what is otherwise a powerful and gutwrenching film.

The real star is Vanessa Kirby, who presents one of the most complex and nuanced portrayals of maternal grief that we’ve seen onscreen in years. Hell, maybe ever – she’s that good. And the film itself digs its fingers into your soul, unrelentingly showing the difficulties, overt and subtle alike, that come with dealing with loss. It’s a stunning achievement whose many accomplishments may be overshadowed by the brutal real-life misdeeds of one of its players.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020 11:11

A year in film failures: 2020’s worst movies

Written by Allen Adams

I reviewed a LOT of movies this year – just north of 150. This means that I saw a lot of good ones and plenty of half-decent ones.

It also means I saw quite a few bad ones.

What follows is a list of some of the worst movies I saw in 2020. Some were well-intentioned efforts that went sadly awry. Some were misguided efforts to start franchises. And some were just … bad.

I’ve got 10 here, followed by another 10 honorable mentions. The truth is that most of these could be shuffled around – the difference between, say, the eighth worse and the 13th worse is negligible – but the whole deal with lists is that at some point they end.

Here they are: 2020’s film failures.

Monday, 28 December 2020 14:53

DC loves the ‘80s – ‘Wonder Woman 1984’

Written by Allen Adams

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, superhero movies have defined the industry for well over a decade and show no signs of slowing. If anything, we’re just going to keep getting more and more of them – they’re appointment films in a business that is dying for anything that will ensure big box office receipts. Considering the faltering movie theater model, expect studios to keep pushing this kind of franchise-friendly fare.

Me? I love superhero movies. Do I recognize the more cynical motives behind them? Sure! Do I care? Not in the least!

So I was thrilled to finally see “Wonder Woman 1984.” As someone who, despite my job, is still steering clear of movie theaters, having the opportunity to see this movie in my own home via HBO Max was fantastic. Given the extended drought of superhero cinema, I was primed to dig this movie even though Marvel > DC, in my opinion.

And guess what? I dug it!

Directed by Patty Jenkins – who returned to the franchise after helming 2017’s excellent “Wonder Woman” – from a script she co-wrote with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham, “Wonder Woman 1984” is engaging enough, though it doesn’t quite capture the same lightning in a bottle energy of the previous film. There are some great set pieces, solidly charismatic lead performances and a couple of really going-for-it supporting turns – enough to make for a flawed-but-satisfying moviegoing experience.

Sunday, 27 December 2020 17:49

Looking up at the end – ‘The Midnight Sky’

Written by Allen Adams

The end of the world has always been a subject of fascination for storytellers. The visceral nature of apocalyptic thinking makes for high stakes that bring out the very best and very worst of humanity. Some of these endings are loud and others are quiet, but all of them show us reflections of ourselves.

“The Midnight Sky” – directed by George Clooney, who also stars – is one of the quiet ones, a film that views the end of the world from a pair of very different perspectives. Adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s excellent 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” it’s a story of isolation and desperation, a tale not of saving the world, but of accepting the fact that it cannot be saved.

Yet it also manages to be a hopeful story, one in which we see people doing what they believe to be best even as they accept the truth that their actions likely won’t matter in the end. Featuring some stylish visuals and compelling performances, “The Midnight Sky” shows us the different ways in which mankind chooses to escape the trappings of Earth by turning its gaze to the stars.

The transition from stage to screen can be hard.

No matter how good a stage play might be, no matter how brilliant the writing and writer, the shift from a live performance setting into the realm of cinema is rife with pitfalls. There are any number of things that can go awry, leaving audiences with a detached viewing experience that simply cannot compare with the one that took place in the room where it happened.

But when it works, man oh man – it WORKS.

Netflix’s new film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s play of the same name – works. It is an electrifying piece of cinema, powerful and provocative. The performances – led by Viola Davis as the titular Ma and an absolutely mesmerizing turn from the late Chadwick Boseman – are exquisite. The period aesthetic is vividly on point and the music slaps.

It’s a story of appropriation and what it means to push back against that appropriation. It’s about using whatever talents you have to force your way into the conversation, to demand a place at the table of your own, regardless of whether the world believes you deserve that spot. It is about systemic racism and cultural exploitation and the myriad ways in which one might choose to deal with those harsh realities.

I’ll admit to having had some fun at Gerard Butler’s expense over the years. He’s made some interesting choices, particularly in recent years, from the increasingly outlandish “[Something] has Fallen” series to ridiculous genre offerings like “Geostorm” and “Hunter Killer” to the outright execrable “Gods of Egypt.”

Quite the resume, no?

That being said, I’ve always derived enjoyment from these movies precisely BECAUSE they’re so flawed. Butler has carved out a niche as the guy you call to star in your nonsense movie. He’s good at it, lending an unearned gravitas to projects (I personally prefer him in his natural accent, but his generic American works just as well) that otherwise would sink unnoticed to the bottom of the VOD seas.

“Greenland” – directed by Ric Roman Waugh from a script by Chris Sparling – is a perfect example of the kind of B-movie sensibility to which Butler has hitched his wagon over the past near-decade, a straightforward end-of-the-world movie that nevertheless manages to engage on a more individualized level. It’s a film that embraces its budgetary limitations, giving us a film that is heavy on the human element rather than CGI pageantry.

Now, is it a great movie? Of course not – this is Gerard Butler we’re talking about. But it is an undeniably fun movie, one that manages to prove surprisingly moving in moments despite the general outlandishness of its plot machinations. We’ve seen a lot of apocalypses play out on the silver screen over the years, and while “Greenland” certainly isn’t the best of the bunch, it is far from the worst.

Monday, 21 December 2020 16:25

Matrimonial mayhem – ‘Sister of the Groom’

Written by Allen Adams

Wedding movies tend to be extremely hit or miss propositions.

I understand the impulse to construct a story around a wedding. There’s a lot of emotional energy built into the premise. There’s plenty of room for slapstick goofiness or straightfaced drama. It’s a reason for a lot of people – some familiar, some relative strangers – in a single place at the same time. I get why they keep happening, but the truth is that you never really know what you’re going to get.

“Sister of the Groom” – written and directed by Amy Miller Gross – generally lands on the positive end of the wedding movie spectrum, though it certainly isn’t without its faults. Thanks to some solid lead performances, a game ensemble and a lovely Long Island setting, it succeeds more than it fails, capturing not just the weird vibes that a wedding can inspire, but also an interesting investigation into how we consider the ways in which our choices impact our lives.

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?

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