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Tuesday, 19 November 2019 11:57

Race to the top – ‘Ford v. Ferrari’

One of the complaints surrounding awards shows like the Oscars in recent years is the fact that often, the movies up for these honors aren’t necessarily movies that a lot of people have seen. They are critical darlings, but that acclaim only sometimes translates to significant commercial success.

“Ford v Ferrari” is that relative rarity, a film intended to win both at the ballot box and the box office. It’s pure Oscar bait, but with a big-budget sensibility – no surprise considering we’re talking about Disney here. It’s a sports movie and a biopic – the story of Ford Motor Company’s efforts to usurp Ferrari’s place atop the racing world back in the 1960s – with two no-doubt movie stars heading up the cast.

This kind of movie was once a mainstay of mainstream Hollywood. Now, it’s an unexpected treat. And it is a treat – you’ve got a talented and flexible studio director in James Mangold, with A-listers Matt Damon and Christian Bale taking turns driving. Just like the race cars produced by its namesakes, “Ford v. Ferrari” is sleek and fast; a powerful and expensive machine.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 12:44

‘Midway’ tries to fight the good fight

The Battle of Midway is considered one of the major turning points in World War II. The victory by U.S. forces over the Japanese Navy prevented Japan from taking control of the Pacific Ocean and bringing devastation to America’s west coast. The United States was outnumbered and outgunned, but thanks to the bravery of the men in the fight and the brilliance of those plotting the course, they emerged victorious.

It’s an obvious choice to receive the cinematic treatment. Indeed, the battle was the namesake of a star-studded 1976 film. Now, over 40 years after that film and over 70 since the battle itself, moviegoers are getting another look at that historic fight on the big screen.

Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

Director Roland Emmerich, whose name has become a kind of shorthand for big-budget Hollywood films that are heavy on the explosions and light on the … everything else, brings us “Midway.” While he certainly understands the spectacle that comes with war movies, he doesn’t quite capture the subtler aspects of the story the way one might hope.

It’s not that the film is bad, per se – it’s just a bit heavy-handed, both in terms of the CGI battle scenes and the interpersonal relationships. To his credit, Emmerich has assembled a talented cast that is able to somewhat alleviate the issues with both his direction and Wes Tooke’s screenplay, lending the proceedings a depth that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The end result is a moviegoing experience that is fine, but no more than that.

It’s a story that warrants telling; it’s just too bad that it isn’t better told.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 05 November 2019 12:30

‘Harriet’ tells tale of an American icon

As we get deeper into fall, we find ourselves rapidly approaching awards season. This is when we’re going to start seeing an onslaught of prestige films, movies that merit a different sort of critical attention than the big-budget blockbusters of the summertime.

Biopics are particularly well-suited to the prestige game. They offer actors the opportunity to bring to life a real person, someone culturally important. They offer filmmakers a chance to tell a true and meaningful story in a manner that allows them to put their own personal stamp upon it. Sometimes, they become the primary way through which the world knows this person or people.

“Harriet” is the latest example of just such a biopic. It’s the story of Harriet Tubman, legendary conductor on the Underground Railroad and true American hero. It’s precisely the sort of movie that expects to generate some awards chatter. And it will – but likely less than the folks behind it may have hoped. Call it a hunch, but I feel like this is one of those attention-worthy projects that will fall through the cracks a little.

That’s not a condemnation – “Harriet” is quite a good film. It’s a nice-looking historical drama; the period aesthetic is exceptional. And the performances, led by Cynthia Erivo in the titular role, are good-to-great almost across the board. Director Kasi Lemmons – who co-wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard – endows the project with her passion and talent. There’s a lot to like, and again, I won’t be surprised if it gets some attention.

I just won’t be surprised if it doesn’t, either. There’s a sense of familiarity here – the style, the choices, the narrative beats – that may breed just a little bit of contempt among awards voters. And that little bit could very well make the difference when nominations start landing.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 29 October 2019 10:41

‘Black and Blue’ a meandering misfire

There’s something admirable about a filmmaker wanting to tackle larger social issues through their craft. Making a movie that offers salient commentary on the world is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and almost always springs from good intentions.

But the leap from intention to execution can be tricky … and you’re not always going to stick the landing.

And that’s the story of “Black and Blue” in a nutshell. Director Deon Taylor has a history of incorporating a message into his entertainments, with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, this time it doesn’t quite land. He’s a skillful filmmaker and he’s working with a talented cast, but he’s ultimately unable to present his ideas with the nuance necessary to make them work.

Reducing big ideas to manageable size is vital in these situations, but you also must be careful not to oversimplify. In their efforts to strike the balance, the filmmakers went too far, rendering complicated issues in a manner that borders on the ham-handed. A noble effort, but one that never quite gels.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 22 October 2019 13:28

PTC’s ‘Gaslight’ lights up the stage

BANGOR – All is not as it seems on the stage of the Bangor Opera House.

Penobscot Theatre Company is presenting “Gaslight,” the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. This Victorian Era-set melodrama is directed by Bari Newport; the show runs through November 3. It’s a thrilling tale of deceit, a story where not even the evidence of one’s own eyes can be trusted.

This play – and the subsequent film adaptations – led to the inception of the term “gaslight,” defined by Merriam-Wesbter as follows: “To attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation.”

In this story, a woman whose grip on the reality of the world around her is steadily crumbling must confront the fact that there’s far more to her descent into madness than she could ever have imagined. She’s left with no idea who to trust and forced to come to terms with the notion that there are those close to her who may have sinister motives.

PTC is offering up some full-on back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead melodrama, with all the shadowy sumptuousness and flamboyant flourishes that that entails. It is big and broad and overtly theatrical, easily overcoming a somewhat-dated script with rich production values and wonderfully toothsome performances.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 25 September 2019 09:18

To the stars – ‘Ad Astra’

In the age of blockbuster franchises and repurposed intellectual property, it’s rare for a film based wholly on an original idea, whose concept wasn’t pulled from a preexisting source, to receive the big-budget treatment. A perfect storm of sorts is required – a combination of story and storyteller that can warrant nine figures without the crutch of already-extant exposure.

“Ad Astra” is just such a film. It’s a sci-fi epic, one that features the talented auteur James Gray in the director’s chair, working from a script Gray co-wrote with Ethan Gross. And Brad Pitt, one of Hollywood’s last movie stars, leads the way in an actual movie star-type role – something we haven’t seen a lot of from him in recent years.

It has all the trappings of big-time science fiction, but it uses those trappings to tell a much more intimate story. At its core, “Ad Astra” is a film about coming to terms with who we are, about understanding our choices and the motivations behind them. It’s about finding ways to let go of the past while holding onto the lessons we learned from it.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 25 September 2019 09:14

‘Downton Abbey’ sumptuous and satisfying

“Downton Abbey” was a television phenomenon. For six seasons, millions of viewers immersed themselves in the lives of the residents of the Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey. The members of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants received equal airtime, with all of their dramas – large and small – playing out to the delight of a massive audience.

I was not a member of that massive audience. Aside from an occasional snippet caught due to a friend or loved one watching the show, I had zero exposure to the program. I was aware of it, but I was largely unfamiliar.

So when it came to the “Downton Abbey” film, I was left with two choices. I could try to catch up on some 50-plus hours of period drama … or I could go in cold and see if the film version held up without the context of the show.

I chose the latter.

Published in Movies
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 09:14

Art for art’s sake – ‘The Goldfinch’

Adapting books to the big screen can be a tricky proposition. The truth is that while many times, a story is a story is a story, regardless of medium, there are some literary works – acclaimed, celebrated works – that resist that sort of translation. Sometimes, filmmakers are able to muscle through that resistance and present a great movie.

Other times, they make “The Goldfinch.”

The film, based on Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, is an undeniably game effort. Everyone involved – director John Crowley, screenwriter Peter Straughan, the talented cast – is clearly giving their all to a project in which they clearly believe very strongly. Unfortunately, the layered, fractured nature of the source text works against them; the end result is a film that is technically well-crafted yet doesn’t cohere. It’s a series of good-looking scenes that never quite click together.

What we have in “The Goldfinch” is essentially an echo of a prestige film, an offering that bears many of the outer indicators of Oscar bait, but is largely devoid of substance once you move beyond those surface trappings. Again – a game and good faith effort, but one that falls short.

Published in Movies

The tail end of the summer is often a tough time at the movie theater. The blockbusters have all made their entrances, their massive opening weekends filled with quips and explosions, while the fall/winter blend of awards contenders and winter blockbusters (yeah, they’re a thing now) has yet to kick off. Most of the time, that means that the cupboard is bare.

But what it ALSO means is that I sometimes get a chance to see something I otherwise wouldn’t – the occasional surprise gets a moment in the sun.

That’s what I got with “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a heartfelt and surprisingly sweet indie comedy/drama that is somehow both completely out of place and utterly at home on the late summer big screen. It’s the story of a young man willing to do whatever it takes to follow his passion, despite living in a world that refuses to believe he’s capable of, well … anything, really.

It’s a modern-day fable, a reimagined “Huckleberry Finn” with loads of swampy charm and a captivating cast that effectively balances triumph and tragedy while introducing audiences to a lead actor unlike any we’ve seen. It’s a film that helps us to understand that sometimes the bad guy is actually good – and that the good guy sometimes yearns to be bad.

Published in Movies
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