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Monday, 29 August 2022 14:18

A not-so-good ‘Samaritan’

Superheroes continue to rule the cinematic roost. Whether we’re talking about the megablockbusters put forth by the Big Two or smaller fare, capes have become a constant.

Of course, when you’re talking about this sort of sheer volume of production, the level of quality is going to vary significantly. Sure, there’s a pretty high floor when it comes to stuff like the MCU and DCEU (although perhaps not as high as it once was), but still – even a superhero homer like myself has to acknowledge that some of these offerings are … not great.

The latest in that line of not-great super fare is “Samaritan,” currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It’s an odd bit of IP maneuvering, actually – the story began as a spec script, but actually became a graphic novel in 2014 before the film was ultimately made. Unfortunately, that might be the most unique aspect of the entire experience, considering the tossed-off and generally derivative nature of the final film product.

With a meandering narrative, cut-rate effects work and a lead performance from Sylvester Stallone that would kindly be referred to as disinterested, “Samaritan” seems content to simply toss a bunch of cliches and other formulaic nonsense into the hopper to be churned and blended into a bland and uninspired mess.

Published in Movies
Monday, 08 August 2022 15:01

Docudrama ‘Thirteen Lives’ dives deep

Dramatizing real-life events is always a complicated business. On the one hand, you want to stay true to the actual story as it happened. On the other, some leeway needs to be allowed for dramatic license. There are variations on this theme – “based on a true story,” “inspired by true events,” etc. – but while the facts are important, the story usually wins out.

That isn’t to say it’s a bad thing – we’ve gotten some incredible films based on real happenings – so much as to acknowledge that sometimes the narrative supersedes the truth.

“Thirteen Lives,” currently available on Amazon Prime, is one such docudrama. It tells the story of the Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand in 2018, a story that unfolded in the eyes of the world over the course of 18 days. The tale, in which a consortium of people from all over came together in an effort to rescue 12 young men and their soccer coach after they became trapped in the cave, is a harrowing one. Naturally, someone made a movie about it.

That said, you’re operating on something of a different level when that someone is Ron Howard.

Howard, working from a script penned by William Nicholson, has given the story the cinematic treatment, focusing largely on the people who worked tirelessly over the course of many days in an effort to rescue those kids. It’s an interesting move – particularly since it puts so much emphasis on the roles played by outsiders (specifically, English-speaking outsiders) – but one that makes narrative sense. It’s a taut, tense drama, one whose tension is in no way alleviated by the fact that we know how it all turns out.

Published in Style

There are few things as exciting to watch onscreen as a pairing that features legitimate chemistry. When you’ve got two actors whose connection generates real electricity, when you can feel the crackle in the air between them within the context of their interactions … it’s so compelling.

But what happens when that remarkable chemistry is dropped into a film featuring a so-so script and unexciting direction? Can that chemistry alter the fundamental formula?

Sadly, in the case of “All the Old Knives” – currently in theaters and available on Amazon Prime Video – the answer is no. Despite an absolutely dynamite lead pairing in Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton, both of whom are outstanding, the film can’t seem to get out of its own way. With muddy multiple timelines and assorted convoluted plot dynamics, the spy thriller can’t come close to living up to the bar set by its leads.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s worth seeing. Pine and Newton alone are more than worth the cost of admission. Just don’t be surprised if you wind up feeling slightly disappointed, wondering what might have been.

Published in Style

It’s always interesting to see what happens when memoirs become movies. Watching one person’s life story, rendered in their own words, transformed into something else by other artists … it’s fascinating. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. And sometimes, it REALLY doesn’t work. But when it does work, it can make for a truly engaging viewing experience.

“The Tender Bar” works. It works because it is a heartfelt and emotionally honest portrait of a childhood and young adulthood spent in very specifically realized times and places. It works because it is loving without being saccharine and funny without being condescending. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have George Clooney behind the camera and Ben Affleck in front of it.

Based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir of the same name, “The Tender Bar” is a loving look back, full of fond memories despite (or perhaps because of) the more complicated aspects of growing up. There’s a well-worn familiarity at work here – we’ve heard plenty of stories like this before – but this tale mostly manages to maintain its charm. Sure, you can argue that its narrative wanders and its tone occasionally ventures too far into the realm of the sentimental, but the people we meet make it an engaging hang nevertheless.

Published in Movies
Monday, 13 December 2021 13:50

No need to get close to ‘Encounter’

I’ve always loved paranoid thrillers. Movies where something sinister and paradigm-shattering is happening, but only a few people (or even just one person) know the truth? Yeah, I’m here for it.

Sure, we’re past the ‘70s-era heyday of such films, but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally get one now and then. And when these thrillers incorporate other genre elements, so much the better. Of course, all of this is predicated on the fact that the movie in question has to be, you know … good.

If it isn’t, well … that’s when you wind up with something like “Encounter.”

The film, directed by Michael Pearce from a script Pearce co-wrote with Joe Barton, is an attempt to recreate that paranoid thriller vibe within a science fiction framework. Now, that kind of genre melding has been done to great success in the past, but the truth is that this story never quite finds its footing, with an inconsistent connection to the relative reality of its premise that evokes more confusion than paranoia.

It’s too bad, because there does seem to be something here. And there’s a dynamite lead performance from Riz Ahmed. Unfortunately, that performance is largely wasted in service of a story that never quite adds up. One might argue that that narrative jumbling is a choice, but even if it is, it is a largely ineffectual one.

Published in Movies

I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been writing about movies for well over a decade at this point, with a fairly well-rounded history of cinematic consumption before that. I have experienced a LOT of films – good, bad and mediocre.

One of the greatest joys that spring from watching movies is the simple fact that, until they start, you don’t know what you’re going to get. Oh, you might have some idea, whether it is from trailers or reviews or word of mouth, but YOUR experience, well – you don’t know until it happens. So I’m no stranger to being surprised by what I see on the screen.

But there’s a very real chance that I have NEVER been as surprised as I was by “Annette.”

The film, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video after a brief limited theatrical run, is one of the most enjoyably jarring movie experiences I’ve had in recent memory. “Annette” is directed by Leos Carax, making his first feature since 2012’s acclaimed “Holy Motors,” with a story by Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers behind indie pop darlings Sparks (the brothers also handle the film’s weird and exceptional music).

As a rule, I make an effort to keep my head clear going into a movie – the less I know, the better. Again – the joy of that leap into the unknown … and boy oh boy, was this the unknown.

Published in Movies

I’ve never read a Tom Clancy novel. I’ve seen a few adaptations of his work and have a general sense of his fundamental airport-fiction-with-militaristic-themes vibe, but I can’t say that I have a deep familiarity with his oeuvre.

But it’s all a matter of taste – the dude has topped the NYT best-seller list 17 times and has overall sales figures in nine digits, so what do I know?

However, I have to imagine that the new film adaptation “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” doesn’t necessarily live up to the man’s legacy, even with his name right there in the title. Directed by Stefano Sollima and co-written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, the Amazon Studios original is a bit of a mess, with a convoluted plot and motivationless characters careening from set piece to set piece without a whole lot of rhyme or reason along the way.

Now, the film has Michael B. Jordan as its lead, which helps compensate for the more egregious flaws, but the reality is that as talented as he is, he’s just one actor. And even with all those muscles, he can’t lift this film out of the chaotic morass; he’s definitely an action star, but even a star’s shine can’t hide the ragged edges of this one.

Published in Movies

Creating tension – genuine tension – is one of the most difficult things to effectively do in a film. It’s about finding the right buttons to push, yes, but also about discerning the best manner in which to push them. It comes down to the choices made by the filmmaker. When those choices don’t work, the result is flat and leaves the viewer disinterested and disengaged. When they DO work, however, the sky is the limit.

The new film “7500” is very much the latter – both literally and figuratively.

The film – currently streaming and available for free on Amazon Prime Video – is the story of a pilot confronted with an attempted hijacking. Taking place almost exclusively within the confines of the cockpit of an airliner, it is a claustrophobic and taut piece, a bundle of exposed-nerve tension that is rendered all the more powerful by the limitations of its setting.

Anchored by a phenomenal performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “7500” is a story about a man being pushed to the breaking point – and beyond – by circumstances outside of his control. His survival and the survival of his passengers are reliant on his making the right choices at the right time. And thanks to the efforts of Gordon-Levitt and first-time feature writer/director Patrick Vollrath, we’re there right alongside him – muscles tensed, breath held – until the bitter end.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 19 April 2020 16:55

Clique bait - ‘Selah and the Spades’

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.

Published in Movies

Just because a town is small doesn’t mean it is lacking in shadows or secrets. With proximity comes familiarity … and familiarity breeds contempt.

That’s why small-town noir works so well – the trappings of the genre work beautifully even removed from sprawling urban landscapes. A ramshackle desert town, an isolated Midwestern farming community or a hardscrabble coastal fishing village – they’re all ripe for receiving the noir treatment.

So it is with “Blow the Man Down,” newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The movie – set in the fictional town of Easter Cove, Maine, and filmed largely on location within the state – marks the feature debut of the writing/directing team of Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy.

It’s the story of a small town and the murkiness that exists in the depths beneath the seemingly placid surface. The film explores the idea that in these small places, the divide between the person we present to the world and the person we actually are can be shockingly vast. There are plenty of secrets packed into the cracks; even the most upstanding of citizens may have unsettling skeletons in their closets. And when that veneer of respectability and gentility is cracked, true (and often unpleasant) natures are unleashed.

Published in Movies
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