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Wednesday, 18 September 2019 09:18

Don’t hustle these ‘Hustlers’

Here’s a reminder for those of you who may have forgotten: Jennifer Lopez is legitimately good at everything. She is a talented pop singer, an excellent dancer and a gifted actress. She is a savvy businesswoman and a social media savant. She is smart as hell and still hungry after more than two decades in the spotlight.

She puts those skills on full display in her new film “Hustlers,” directed by Lorene Scafaria from a screenplay she adapted herself from a magazine article written by Jessica Pressler. It’s a movie that is equal parts heist story and female friendship narrative. Lopez unleashes the full force of her talents (not to mention her pure unbridled charisma), putting forward a performance that is nuanced and raw and serves as an absolutely magnetic foundation for what ultimately proves to be a damned good movie.

It’s an unapologetic look at what it takes to get ahead in a world where the deck is stacked against you, a story that refuses to condemn its characters for embracing the same tactics that the men of the world get rich employing. It’s a story about people who, instead of playing the hand that they were dealt, choose to change the rules to which they are expected to adhere.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 18 September 2019 09:10

Fun run – ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’

Movies don’t often surprise us anymore. That’s by design – we live in a world of massive marketing budgets and huge publicity pushes, when every major release receives multiple trailers and press junkets and the whole nine yards.

Then again, there are different kinds of surprises. There are the indie darlings that turn out to be dark horse awards contenders. There are the presumed anointed that wind up falling flat both critically and commercially. And then there are movies that surprise on a more individual level.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” falls into that third category. Specifically, it features a lead performer – in this case, Jillian Bell – known primarily for comedic work taking the turn into something with a bit more substance. That’s not to say that comedy is somehow insubstantial, only that it’s interesting to see comedic performers taking dramatic risks.

This movie is that risk for Bell, a gifted comedian who displays a degree of emotional vulnerability and honesty that is a significant departure from the work we’re accustomed to seeing from her. The comedy isn’t gone – she’s as funny as ever – but it’s coming from a genuine place, informed by real feeling. It’s a smart, sharp story that manages to balance a comedic coarseness with an underlying message that is legitimately inspirational.

Published in Movies

BANGOR – A pair of comedy legends will be landing at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

Steve Martin and Martin Short are bringing their touring show – titled “Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t” – to town on Sept. 14; the show is presented by Waterfront Concerts and the CIC. The throwback variety team-up has been through a number of iterations – including a 2018 Netflix special titled “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life” that was nominated for four Emmy Awards.

The show will feature comedic sketches and conversations with the duo, as well as plenty of music; Grammy-award winning bluegrass performers (and frequent Steve Martin collaborators) Steep Canyon Rangers will be in the house, as will pianist Jeff Babko, the longtime arranger and house band member for “Jimmy Kimmel Live” who got his start in TV on Martin Short’s talk show.

Anyone with any knowledge of comedy likely knows who these two are.

With Steve Martin, perhaps you’re familiar with his iconic, game-changing standup work in the 1970s. Or his iconic guest turns on “Saturday Night Live.” Maybe you’re a fan of his film work – everything from the lunatic absurdity of “The Jerk” or “The Man with Two Brains” to more mainstream fare like “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” or “Parenthood.” He’s also an accomplished musician, novelist and playwright, because of course he is.

With Martin Short, you might have first encountered him on the paradigm-shifting Canadian sketch show “SCTV.” He did a turn on “SNL” as well, which in turn led to films like “Innerspace” and “Three Fugitives” and “Mars Attacks!” He created the iconic character Jiminy Glick and brought him to a wide variety of stages and screens. He also hosted an eponymous syndicated talk show and, oh yeah, has a Tony.

As someone with a deep love of comedy that was formed in large part when these two were in their heyday, I have a heartfelt admiration for them both. Each of them helped shape my comedic sensibility in a very real way. While a decade-plus in this business has largely inured me to feeling starstruck, there are still occasional exceptions. This interview was one of those exceptions.

Seriously – I was talking to two of the “Three Amigos.” It’s a miracle that I was able to keep it together. But I did manage to avoid completely fanboying out. Well … mostly avoid. Judge for yourselves.

Published in Cover Story
Tuesday, 27 August 2019 18:00

Here comes ‘Ready or Not’

Blending genres effectively is one of the more difficult things a filmmaker can try to do. Putting disparate elements together in a manner that is balanced and effective isn’t easy, which is why so many efforts to do so wind up falling flat.

Horror-comedy is one of the worst offenders; for every “Evil Dead” or “Cabin in the Woods,” there are a half-dozen failed experiments littering late-night cable and the lower tiers of streaming algorithms. The real successes are few and far between.

But here’s the thing - “Ready or Not” is one of them.

Directed by the team of Matt Bettinelli-Opin and Tyler Gillett from a screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, this story of one woman’s efforts to survive the night after discovering that her new husband’s family has a dark and sinister secret – one that requires that she be dead by dawn.

It’s a sharp and subversive spin on the age-old “final girl” standard, one that embraces the tradition of the trope while simultaneously recognizing its inherent ridiculousness. It mixes over-the-top violence with self-awareness, never once losing sight of the basic absurdity underlying most horror narratives. It is bloody and funny and bloody funny.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 21 August 2019 09:56

The kids are all right - ‘Good Boys’

I was always going to like “Good Boys.”

Few comedic conventions sit as squarely in my wheelhouse as children cursing. What can I say? There will always be a part of me that remains eternally 13, just as there will always be movies that speak to that part of me. Much of the appeal is the juxtaposition against the relative innocence of childhood, of course, but I wasn’t prepared for how genuinely that innocence was going to be treated.

That sense of genuineness is what allows “Good Boys” to be something more than simply crass. There’s an underlying sweetness to it, one that focuses on the reality that no matter how much the world around them may change, there will always be certain things about being 12 years old that never will.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 06 August 2019 19:14

Mother knows worst – ‘Otherhood’

Sometimes, you know exactly what you’re going to get from a movie within the first few minutes. Occasionally, that’s a good thing. More often, it’s definitely not.

The new movie “Otherhood” – directed by Cindy Chupak from a script she co-wrote with Mark Andrus, based on the William Sutcliffe novel “Whatever Makes You Happy” – is very much an example of the latter. Despite a talented cast, the film quickly bogs down in clichés and spins its wheels, asking the viewer to bear with it even as it staggers toward an uninspired finish.

It’s another example of the algorithmically-curated content creation model of Netflix; the streaming service recognizes an audience for a type of movie – in this case, a story featuring women of a certain age dealing with their families – and proceeds to make it. Alas, actual quality doesn’t always factor into the decision.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 16 July 2019 19:31

‘Stuber’ far from five stars

Who among us doesn’t love a good buddy comedy? A movie with a dynamic central pairing that has good chemistry and good comedic timing – the sort of movie that can coast on the charisma of the foundational duo – can really be a great time. The right casting can cover for a lot of issues in terms of story and style.

“Stuber” is ALMOST such a movie.

The buddies in question are Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista – and honestly, it’s a really good match. They’re a wonderful set of contrasts, in terms of both sensibility and physicality. There’s an ease between them that makes for an engaging relationship.

Unfortunately, it isn’t enough. There’s a stylistic inconsistency on the part of director Michael Dowse – the film can’t seem to choose a tone, leading to some shifts in energy that are pretty jarring. Add to that a muddy script from Tripper Clancy and you’re left with a film that, while entertaining at points, fails to fully utilize the considerable abilities of the two performers at its center.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 18 June 2019 19:31

Don’t sleep on ‘Late Night’

As a rule, small movies struggle in the summertime. There’s only so much oxygen in the room during Hollywood’s Memorial Day-to-Labor Day promotional blitz, so it’s easy for a low-budget, non-franchise movie to get lost in the shuffle.

Most of the time, that would be the fate of a movie like “Late Night,” the Mindy Kaling-penned comedy directed by Nisha Ganatra and starring Kaling along with Emma Thompson. But this isn’t most of the time, thanks to Amazon purchasing the distribution rights at Sundance; with the power of Bezos behind it, the movie was able to elbow its way to a place at the table.

And it’s a good thing, too, because this movie is one of the funnier offerings we’ve seen thus far in 2019, a smart and sharp workplace comedy with something to say. It’s a film with bite, one willing to tell its story from a perspective we don’t often see. Toss in a killer cast and a legitimately funny script and you’ve got something special.

Published in Movies

As Hollywood studios continue to clamor for viable franchises to turn into nine-figure blockbusters, there are going to be … let’s call them miscalculations. For every successful series that breeds summer hits, a half-dozen very expensive failures will land on screens with a thud before quietly (and quickly) disappearing.

Unfortunately, the latest effort in that vein “Men in Black: International” – the fourth movie in the “MIB” series and the first without stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones – falls into the latter category; the new film has its moments but is largely lacking the spirit of its predecessors.

It’s not an outright failure (well, creatively speaking – the initial box office estimates do not speak well of its commercial viability), but director F. Gary Gray never quite figures out how best to utilize the clear and present chemistry of his two leads; Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are dynamite together – the MCU has proven that a couple of times – but while their dynamics are a major highlight, the relationship isn’t enough to elevate the film beyond its myriad narrative shortcomings.

Published in Movies

I was really looking forward to “Shaft.”

I have a genuine affection for the OG trilogy – 1971’s “Shaft,” 1972’s “Shaft’s Big Score!” and 1973’s “Shaft in Africa.” Between the of-the-moment aesthetic, the street-noir sensibility and the exquisite soundtracks, they are a delight to watch, ironically or otherwise. Likewise, I’m a fan of the decades-later, Samuel L. Jackson-starring 2000 sequel, also called “Shaft.”

So, the idea of returning us to the Shaft Cinematic Universe in the present day held obvious appeal for me, even though I understood that reconciling what I loved about the films with some of the more obviously dated and unenlightened aspects. All of those films are products of their times, for better or worse.

This new “Shaft” needed to do the same thing – be a product of its time. And by embracing the multi-generational aspect of the world that had been built with senses of both homage and humor, this new film – directed by Tim Story from a screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow – is able to integrate the old with the new in some ways.

Unfortunately, there are some aspects that simply have not aged well, and the world has shifted far too much for them to be rejuvenated. There was a chance to say something about how certain societal attitudes have evolved in the past half-century. Instead, we get something whose regressive aspects are far too present. The stars are game and there are a few compelling stretches, but really, this movie feels like nothing so much as a missed opportunity.

Published in Movies
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