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Monday, 31 August 2020 13:55

‘The Binge’ is not worthy

Sometimes, genre mixing works beautifully in movies. Bringing together seeming disparate influences to create something new can be exciting as well as entertaining. In the right hands and with the right ideas, such mashups can prove to be real winners. But when those efforts go awry, you’re often left with misfires that are significantly less than the sum of their genre parts.

Basically, you’re left with movies like “The Binge.”

This weird mélange of raunchy teen comedy and “The Purge” is currently streaming on Hulu. Directed by Jeremy Garelick from a screenplay by Jordan VanDina, “The Binge” is an at-times pantingly obvious effort to riff on the latter using the trappings of the former. Unfortunately, the pieces never quite fit together properly – the film is neither funny enough nor Purge-y enough to effectively land.

It’s unfortunate, really. It’s relatively easy to see some potential in the foundational concepts here, but the filmmakers never manage to realize that potential. There are a handful of amusing moments, though those are born more of incredulity than genuine humor. Ultimately, it’s a disposable entry into the “best night ever” subgenre of teen comedy that will almost immediately be remanded to the dustbin, a forgettable shoulder-shrug of a film.

Published in Buzz

If you’re looking to make a kid-friendly action movie, you’re limited in many ways. Ultimately, this means that there are only a handful of basic ideas that are feasible. Filmmakers take one of these concepts, slap some cosmetic changes onto it and call it a movie.

One of the go-tos for kiddie action is “Parents have a secret and kids are the only ones who can save them.” We’ve seen it a million times.

Better make it a million and one.

“The Sleepover,” a new original movie from Netflix currently streaming on the service, is the latest to throw a coat of paint and a few accessories onto that baseline idea and let her rip. Now, there’s a certain base level of competence that comes with Netflix films, so this film’s floor is pretty high. Unfortunately, it’s rare that the company’s originals far exceed that base level, so the ceiling is fairly low.

And so we get “The Sleepover,” a reasonably-executed and largely soulless collection of dopey kid jokes and slightly-off adult banter featuring a couple of decent action sequences. The story is thin and the film features a couple of actors you recognize giving inoffensive performances; basically, it’s the exact kind of disposable cinema we largely expect from Netflix.

Published in Movies
Monday, 17 August 2020 11:13

‘Magic Camp’ abracada-blah

There was a time that Disney was an absolute dynamo with regard to making family-friendly live-action fare. The 1960s and ‘70s were marked with scores of light, forgettable films aimed at kids, movies that were simple, disposable entertainment.

Once the animation renaissance of the ‘90s hit, those live-action offerings largely vanished. Big Mouse’s annual entry into the cartoon arena proved wildly lucrative, so the studio largely eschewed the sorts of Dean Jones- or young Kurt Russell-led films that they had spent 20-plus years churning out.

In a way, the Disney+ movie “Magic Camp” is something of a throwback to those die-cut assembly line films with a distinct Disney Channel Original Movie flavor profile. It’s got a cast featuring a couple of notable actors and a handful of generally adorable kids in a narrowly focused summer camp setting. It’s a familiar formula revolving around familiar characters; there’s a distinct feeling of boxes being checked throughout.

That said, one imagines that young viewers will find a lot to like about this movie. There’s a good deal of silliness and some simple story arcs involving both kids and adults that will prove accessible. Again, there’s nothing particularly exciting about this movie, but there are worse ways for your child to spend a couple of hours.

Published in Movies

The American immigrant experience has been a subject of some truly great art over the years. Incredible books and films have spring from the exploration of what it means for people to come to this country in pursuit of a better life, as well as what happens in the course of that pursuit.

But to my knowledge, none have ever told that story through the lens of accidental pickle preservation. Until now.

“An American Pickle,” currently streaming on HBO Max, is a comedy that brings the early 20th century immigrant experience into the present day … by dropping someone into a pickle barrel for a hundred years. Yes, it’s as absurd as it sounds, broad and weird and a lot of fun.

Starring Seth Rogen as both a turn-of-the-century immigrant and a modern-day Brooklyn app developer, the film mines big laughs out of its bizarre premise (though it perhaps doesn’t dig as it deep as it could). It’s a twist on the classic fish out of water trope, giving us a look at our current world through the eyes of the past.

Published in Movies
Thursday, 06 August 2020 12:04

Back to school – ‘I Used to Go Here’

As often stated by noted podcast judge and raconteur John Hodgman, nostalgia is a toxic impulse. We’re all guilty of it, the tendency to look back upon our pasts with rose-colored glasses when the present isn’t living up to our expectations. It serves as both distraction and excuse.

And when the opportunity arises for a more direct return, it can go terribly wrong.

So it is with “I Used to Go Here,” a new comedy written and directed by Kris Rey. Starring Gillian Jacobs, it’s a clever, cringe-y look at how the past is rarely as neat as we remember it to be, a chance for one woman to lose herself in a time of wide-eyed optimism about the future and briefly forget about the harsh truths of the now.

It’s also a movie about what it means to fail – in a job or a relationship or any endeavor really – and to come to terms with that failure, as well as a bit of a meditation on the complexity that comes with making a career out of creativity. It is heartfelt and smart and quite funny, and while it does misfire a couple of times, the pros far outstrip the cons.

Published in Movies
Monday, 27 July 2020 16:09

Shared custody – ‘Babysplitters’

Every once in a while, a movie comes along whose single-sentence description essentially dares you to watch it. These are the movies – usually indies – whose concept is so unexpected that you have no choice but to be intrigued.

For instance: Two couples, each of whom are conflicted about having children, decide to team up and have one child that they’ll share between them. Admit it – you are now VERY curious about that movie.

That movie is “Babysplitters,” a comedy written and directed by Sam Friedlander. And yes, it is a movie about two couples, split on the idea of having kids, hatching a plot to have and split a kid between them. It’s an absurd notion, sure, but one treated with a sense of genuine possibility.

On its face, it is ridiculous, but through this ludicrous plan, Friedlander and company give us a glimpse at the complex nature of relationships and what it means to want children. It isn’t always as simple as making the choice; a married couple can be possessed of two very different ideas about childrearing. Some people are more ready than others – and some people are willing to do just about anything to have a shot at parenthood.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 19 July 2020 22:51

Norway out – ‘The Sunlit Night’

What do you do when the muse abandons you? How do you get your art back on track when things are stalled? To what lengths would you be willing to travel to escape stagnation and experience revivification?

“The Sunlit Night,” directed by David Wnendt from a screenplay by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight (adapted from her own novel of the same name), takes a look at how one artist attempts to answer these questions. It’s an exploration of the ramifications of allowing our callings to define us at the expense of all else – and what happens when we’re forced to address any shortcomings in that regard.

Set against the stunningly beautiful desolation of an isolated Norwegian island – a place where the sun never sets, populated by an odd collection of strange and quirky characters – it’s one woman’s journey to rekindle her creative fires and rediscovering her ability to connect. It’s a sweet, albeit slight story, one greatly elevated by a strong central performance by Jenny Slate and some absolutely stunning scenery.

Published in Movies

Coming across an unexpectedly good movie is a lovely treat. The blockbusters tend to take up most of the oxygen, making it a little tougher to discover smaller, more idiosyncratic films. One of the many joys of my job is that the gig makes it just that much easier to find the less obvious gems.

“Sometimes Always Never” is no one’s idea of a blockbuster. It’s an intimate, offbeat family dramedy, the feature directorial debut of Carl Hunter, who might be best known as a member of Liverpool pop band The Farm (say what you will, but “Groovy Train” remains a bop), with a script by noted British screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce. It is smart and sweet and incredibly stylish, a mélange of retro aesthetics and family dynamics.

Again, this is not a big movie. Instead, it is constructed of intimate moments, relying on vivid visual choices and heartfelt performances to tell a simple, delicate story of what it means to love and the myriad ways in which we try to move on from loss. It is a clever and quietly, quirkily moving piece of cinema.

Published in Style

It’s rare for a movie to present an idea with such complete success as to essentially take ownership of said concept, to come up with a hook that becomes the model upon which future movies are based.

“Groundhog Day” is one of those rarities. How many times have you heard a film referred to as “‘Groundhog Day’ but X”? It has become an easy shorthand for the sort of recursive time loop story that has proven to work across all genres. Comedy, yes, but also horror, thriller, sci-fi … we’ve seen examples that run the gamut.

The newest entry into the time loop oeuvre is “Palm Springs,” currently streaming on Hulu. The Andy Samberg-starring comedy was a big hit at Sundance, with Hulu buying the film for a tidy $17.5 million (and 69 cents, which … nice). Directed by Max Barbakow from a screenplay by Andy Siara (and produced in part by Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer), the quick pitch is “‘Groundhog Day,’ but at a wedding” – and it is excellent.

It’s an engaging take on the trope, one that pushes the logistics of the premise to absurd extremes while also finding ways to explore the inevitable emotional ramifications of an eternity of repetition. It asks questions about love and the human condition, yes, but it also features great jokes and slapstick moments. All of it structured around genuine insight regarding life and its meaning.

Published in Movies
Monday, 06 July 2020 13:13

Return to sender - ‘Desperados’

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Netflix has another original romantic comedy hitting their service.

The streaming giant has done significant work in their efforts to corner a variety of cinematic niche markets through the combined power of their algorithm and their checkbook. Nowhere is that focus more apparent than in the realm of rom-coms; Netflix is the undisputed industry leader as far as that genre goes. They just keep churning them out, for (sometimes) better and (usually) worse.

Their latest offering is “Desperados,” a film that is very much the latter. It is a derivative and vaguely dull film, one that seems to have simply thrown a bunch of clichés and tropes at the wall and filmed what stuck. It is a warmed-over rehash, a cover band attempting to play the hits. It’s the sort of movie that offers literally nothing that you haven’t seen before.

Watching this movie is like watching items checked off a list. Quirky female protagonist? Check. Two unreasonably supportive friends? Check. Ridiculous and easily avoided mistake made? Check. Exotic getaway setting? Check. Questionable decision making? Check. Physical injury played for laughs? Check.

You get the picture.

Published in Movies
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