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Denzel Washington is a movie star. One of the few we still have, really.

This doesn’t mean that every movie he makes is automatically some sort of commercial and/or critical success. He can usually open a movie – well, as much as anyone can outside the realm of blockbuster IP – and he’s almost always good, but the films themselves are a little more inconsistent.

“The Little Things” – currently in theaters and available on HBO Max – is a prime example of that variability. It’s a period crime thriller (though as an aside, calling a movie set in 1990 “period” has me feeling my age) – red meat for Denzel – with a couple of Oscar-winning co-stars in Rami Malek and noted weirdo Jared Leto. That certainly looks like a formula for success.

Unfortunately, while director John Lee Hancock did an admirable job in eliciting good performances and evoking an engaging atmosphere, screenwriter John Lee Hancock failed to rise to the occasion, leading to a story that feels formulaic, disjointed and a little derivative. For me, the pros slightly outweigh the cons, but your mileage may vary.

Published in Movies

I’m a huge admirer of triple threats – that is, performers with the ability to sing, dance and act at a high level. It’s a term most often foisted upon stage actors, specifically Broadway types, but it can be applied to a number of stage and screen talents.

Here’s the thing, though: Something has to be third. No one is EQUALLY gifted at singing, dancing and acting. Yes, you can be good, even great, at all three, but there has to be one that comes in last.

This brings us to Justin Timberlake, a performer of immense ability across the spectrum – a legitimate triple threat. However, I feel very comfortable saying that for JT, acting definitely comes in third.

And yet, when I watch him in “Palmer,” his new film currently streaming on Apple TV+, I wonder. Not enough to change my mind, of course, but that’s more because his singing/dancing talents are so extreme rather than any acting shortcoming. We haven’t seen Timberlake take on any kind of a serious role in years (and never anything like this one), so it’s easy to forget.

This movie – directed by Fisher Stevens from a screenplay by Cheryl Guerriero – pushes the pop star toward a darkness that is vastly unlike any of his previous efforts. It’s a heartfelt story of redemption and acceptance, one that goes to some morally murky places and is unafraid to venture into unpleasant territory. It’s about responsibility, about protecting those who need protection and how that protective instinct can grow into something more. And it’s about what happens when someone who has lost everything sees a chance to regain some of what he no longer has.

Published in Movies

Maintaining a connection to the past is paramount to understanding the present. Knowledge of history allows us to learn from those who came before, and where we come from can often help us get to where we’re going. But just as the past informs the present, so too does the present attempt to define the past.

But the quest for that knowledge isn’t always an easy one. While many seekers will be pure of intent, there will always be those who attempt to profit or self-aggrandize, people made erstwhile gatekeepers through matters of circumstance rather than talent.

“The Dig” – directed by Simon Stone from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, adapted from the John Preston novel of the same name – is a story of history uncovered, a based-on-a-true-story tale of amateur archaeology and passions both overt and opaque that explores the bonds of shared interest and understanding that can help transcend barriers of class.

With a charming sense of understatement, a deliberate pace and some quietly compelling performances, “The Dig” is a low-key delight, a warm blanket of a movie that unhurriedly unspools with a stiff-upper-lipped sweetness. And while there’s not a lot of excitement here, the film manages to engage with its audience just fine.

Published in Movies

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I love unreliable narrators.

When handled well, an unreliable narrator can be one of the most potent storytelling devices there is. The understanding that there may be a degree of deception undertaken by the person telling the tale allows for such a wonderfully wide array of narrative explorations.

We get one such unreliable narrator in “The White Tiger,” directed by Ramin Bahrani from his own adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning 2008 novel of the same name. The film – currently streaming on Netflix – is one man’s story of striving to overcome the circumstances of his birth and the rigidly upheld mores of his culture and achieve the success he believes he deserves.

However, he is the one telling the story, leaving plenty of room on the margins for murkiness regarding the way in which things play out. That’s not to indicate untruth, but rather a flexibility of truth – we get his version of what happened, a version driven by anger at the unfairness of it all and a willingness to be ruthless in pursuit of perceived justice.

It’s a film that features a handful of very strong performances, an engaging aesthetic and some truly gripping writing. While there are a few bumps along the way, this is ultimately a movie that is thoughtful, thrilling and really quite good.

Published in Movies

Sometimes, you watch a movie and are satisfied. Other times, you’re disappointed. The vast majority of the time, that’s where you live. But it is the movies on the margins that tend to stick with you. To be clear, that’s on either end – a terrible movie will linger just as a brilliant one will. But when you find those films on the ends of your personal spectrum, it’s a reminder of just why we love movies in the first place.

Firmly ensconced on the brilliant end of that spectrum, you’ll find “One Night in Miami,” currently available on Amazon Prime Video.

The film marks the directorial debut of Regina King, with a screenplay that Kemp Powers adapted from his own stage play of the same name. It is an imagining of what took place when four Black icons – legends – came together in a hotel room in Miami one night in 1964. Inspired by true events, it is an exploration of responsibility, both of a man to himself and of an idol to his community. It is a powerful, emotionally charged dive into the Black experience during the civil rights battle – one that shows that there is more than one way to fight.

With a quartet of transcendent performances at its core, “One Night in Miami” is a wildly compelling and provocative piece of filmmaking, the sort of movie from which it proves almost impossible to wrench your eyes. Challenging and unapologetic, it is cinematic dynamite.

Published in Movies
Monday, 11 January 2021 16:56

A home of one’s own – ‘Herself’

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.

Published in Movies

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.

Published in Movies

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.

Published in Movies
Monday, 07 December 2020 16:51

The beat goes off – ‘Sound of Metal’

What happens to us when circumstances leave us unable to do the thing that we believe defines us? How can we recover from such a loss – particularly when that loss seemingly destroys the foundation on which the rest of our identity is built?

That question serves as the central concept in “Sound of Metal,” a new film currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Written and directed by Darius Marder, it’s the story of a heavy metal drummer who must deal with an unexpected and rapid deterioration of his hearing, a devastating blow that pushes the former addict toward a potential relapse.

It’s a powerful exploration of what it means to lose what defines us, as well as what we might do to regain that definition and ultimately achieve a redefinition. It also looks at what it means to not only need help, but to be willing to accept that help. Anchored by a transcendent lead performance and an immersive and innovative sound design, “Sound of Metal” hits hard.

Published in Movies

One of the things that I’ve learned from being part of the larger critical discourse surrounding movies is that I generally align with the consensus view of my peers. That’s not to say I’m in lockstep with the crowd – we all have our differences – but a lot of the time, we’re in the same neighborhood.

Not always, though.

Take the new Netflix film “Hillbilly Elegy,” directed by Ron Howard from a script by Vanessa Taylor adapted from J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name. This story of a young man’s connection to his Kentucky roots and how those roots impact his current circumstances as a student at Yale Law School has been largely panned by critics, with many viewing it as a transparent awards grab lacking in soul and substance.

I respectfully disagree.

I’m not calling this a perfect movie by any stretch – it has its share of issues to be sure. But it is a much better movie than it has been deemed by critics, a story of poverty and its generational impacts that at least tries to address the emotional, social and economic realities that come from being poor. It isn’t always successful, but even the misplaced efforts merit a degree of credit.

Published in Movies
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