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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
Monday, 15 June 2020 15:09

Band of brothers – ‘Da 5 Bloods’

What a perfect time to get another Spike Lee joint.

Granted, there’s never a BAD time to get a movie from America’s greatest black filmmaker, but considering the state of the world in which we’re currently living, the sort of live-wire storytelling that is Lee’s specialty is particularly welcome. No one brings the sort of electric social consciousness to the screen that he does, along with style and vision that is unparalleled among his peers.

His latest offering is “Da 5 Bloods,” currently streaming on Netflix. It’s a story of a quartet of Vietnam veterans returning to the country for the first time since the war, each carrying the world-weariness of age along with the emotional burdens that still endure from their time in battle. The foursome are on a sort of dual quest to make right the real and perceived wrongs that they have suffered, all in service to the brotherhood they formed in that life-or-death time.

It’s a typical stylistic triumph from Lee, featuring the blending of aesthetic techniques and cultural touchstones that mark his best work. And he mines truly exceptional performances from his talented cast – again, the usual. This movie – much like so many others in his oeuvre – contains multitudes in a way that no other filmmaker can match, but that’s not really surprising – there’s only one Spike Lee.

Published in Movies

What does it mean to be famous?

We live in a world in which there have never been more paths to finding some degree of fame. There are the traditional arenas – entertainment, athletics, politics and the like – but the advent of the internet and social media has led to a whole different kind of fame, a fame built around likes and shares and the dopamine rush that comes with the clicks that, in some small way, validate our presence.

And there will always be those for whom infamy is just as good.

“Infamous,” written and directed by Joshua Caldwell, takes a look at the dark potential of this thirst for fame. It’s the story of a young couple who find online notoriety thanks to a video record of their criminal exploits across the South. It also serves as a look at the corrupting power of fame, with the pair getting in over their heads; they go bigger and bigger as the internet audience for their spree grows and grows. After all, you’re only as famous as your last post.

Published in Movies
Monday, 08 June 2020 14:54

Sorry Ms. Jackson – ‘Shirley’

The biopic has been a crucial part of the cinematic landscape since the very beginning. So many of our most acclaimed films have been built around the lives and narratives of real people. Whether they are cradle-to-grave or period snapshot, they share the stories of figures that have in some way shaped the world around them.

But when is a biopic not a biopic? When it’s “Shirley.”

The new film – directed by Josephine Decker from a script adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel of the same name by Sarah Scarf Merrell – takes a look inside the life of the notable and notorious writer Shirley Jackson, whose genre-adjacent fiction was among the most chilling of the mid-20th century.

With a dynamite performance by Elisabeth Moss in the title role, “Shirley” is not only a deconstruction of its subject, but of the very notion of biographical film. It is a sharp, biting film – one unafraid to lay bare the basic unpleasantness of its characters. By refusing to be bound by traditional tropes, this film offers up a striking and impactful interpretation of the creative process and the emotional and physical struggles that can accompany that process.

Published in Movies
Thursday, 04 June 2020 17:46

Master of puppets – ‘Judy & Punch’

There’s nothing quite like that moment of realization – usually within the first few minutes of a movie – that you had no idea what you were in for. Most of the time, I sit down with a fairly clear idea of what to expect from a film. It’s rare for a movie to surprise me.

“Judy & Punch” surprised me.

The film – written and directed by first-timer Mirrah Foulkes – is inspired by the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show, a subversive slapstick satire with roots in the tradition of commedia dell’arte. The stylized brutality and savage humor of the duo proved very popular in Restoration Era England – the same time and place that serves as the setting for this film.

That inspiration lays the foundation for a genre-fluid and deeply weird cinematic experience, one driven by that same ethos of savagery. This is a movie that gleefully pinballs from comic absurdity to stark social commentary to graphic brutality, all in the space of mere minutes. This is a film that is unafraid to shock and almost gleeful in its willingness to undermine expectations. It is dark and unsettling and bizarre, shot through with an anarchic sense of humor that borders on Pythonesque.

All in all, I dug it, but be warned – your mileage DEFINITELY may vary.

Published in Movies

Sometimes, you have a movie experience that is unlike any that you’ve ever had before. It’s not about whether the movie is good or bad – we’re talking about something that can’t be so simply defined. We’re talking about a movie that is bad-good or good-bad, a wildly uneven project featuring elements both excellent and execrable.

We’re talking, ladies and gentlemen, about “Capone.”

“Capone” transcends the very idea of good and bad. The passion project of writer/director Josh Trank is such a jarringly weird viewing experience that it’s hard to use general terms in describing its quality. The storytelling choices are often vividly unpleasant and the narrative flow is inconsistent – all of which is exacerbated by a needle-pinning performance from Tom Hardy in the titular role.

This is a film that fails to work in a multitude of ways, yet remains eminently watchable. Granted, it’s peek-through-the-fingers watchable at times, but watchable nevertheless. “Capone” is a roadside accident of a movie – unfortunate and potentially gruesome, yet still oddly fascinating to look at.

Published in Movies

Maine-made movies are a relative rarity.

It’s surprising, really – in a state with an abundant variety of natural beauty ranging from coastlines to mountains to forests, you’d think more filmmakers would take advantage. Of course, there are a number of reasons we don’t see movies made here – some economic, some logistical – but even so, you’d expect a little more frequency, though the truth is that many people may simply not understand the true breadth of opportunity here.

John Barr understands.

The Maine native and film industry veteran has made his directorial debut with “Blood and Money,” set and filmed in Maine and available on VOD on May 15. The thriller – also written by Barr – takes advantage of the verdant and untamed forests found in the norther parts of the state, constructing a tale of taut tension about a lone man battling his demons and fighting for his life.

Tom Berenger stars, bringing his well-earned gravitas to almost every single frame of the film. His stoic quietude matches the looming intensity of the winter forest through which he makes his way; it’s a good match, one that is served well by the gentle pacing of the narrative and the sere serenity of the setting.

Published in Movies

Bigger isn’t always better.

It’s easy to forget in a world where cinematic bombast is all the rage, but less can still be more. There is still plenty of room in the moviesphere for smaller, more intimate fare. Films that rely on story without spectacle. Films that explore the tiny moments of regular people.

“Driveways,” directed by Andrew Ahn from a screenplay by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and starring the late, great Brian Dennehy in one of his final roles, giving a typically outstanding performance (that might low-key be one of his very best). It’s a movie built on the unexpected connections that can develop between people due to chance factors of proximity and circumstance. It’s a story about the idea of family and how it can mean different things to different people.

And again – less is more. This isn’t a showy film, but rather a sincere one. That sincerity lends an air of verisimilitude to these relationships, making it easy to empathize. “Driveways” embraces its intimacy and unap0logetically wears its heart on its sleeve – much to its ultimate benefit.

Published in Movies

There are a multitude of content providers out there vying for our attention. So many services are producing original movies and TV series for our consumption that it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle. It’s a young man’s game in many respects, but don’t sleep on the OGs. There are some outlets whose histories far predate the current streaming boom and that are creating incredible content of their own.

Take HBO, for instance. While the cable giant’s most prominent original content trends toward episodic work, they are more than capable of putting forward feature efforts that are more than a match for the best of the streaming cinema.

Their latest original film is “Bad Education,” based on the real-life embezzlement scandal that rocked a Long Island school district in the early 2000s. Directed by Cory Finley from a screenplay by Mike Makowsky (adapted from a 2004 New York Magazine article titled “The Bad Superintendent”), it’s a well-crafted and exceptionally performed film, one that offers a look at one of the largest public school scandals in American history – a scandal that was first uncovered by a student journalist.

With an outstanding performance from Hugh Jackman at its heart and propelled by the so-incredible-it-must-be-true nature of its story, “Bad Education” is a wonderfully dark and absurd look at the depths to which even the most high-minded public servants can sink when faced with the temptations that can come from unreserved trust.

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
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