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Often – perhaps too often – we are wont to romanticize the past. We look back at the events of history through rose-colored lenses that focus on the grandiose and filter out many of the more unsavory elements.

The age of chivalry, for instance. We tend to celebrate the heroic and heraldic whilst utterly ignoring the bleak realities of that time for anyone who lived outside the sphere of knights and noblemen. The crushing poverty, the endless warfare, the lack of agency for anyone outside the elite – these truths are absent from the familiar tales of derring-do.

“The Last Duel” – directed by Ridley Scott and based on the 2004 book of the same name by Eric Jager – attempts to delve deeper and address that time and place with a little more honesty. Jager’s book, which is based on a true story, is adapted for the screen by some rather notable writers: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who wrote the script alongside Nicole Holofcener.

Damon and Affleck star, as do Adam Driver and Jodie Comer, in this multi-faceted tale of what happens when a woman of this era accuses a man of rape. Told from multiple perspectives, it’s an effort to deconstruct the uneven power dynamics of the time, its historicity inviting comparisons and contrasts to present-day circumstances. The film sprawls across the screen, asking the audience to view the proceedings through the eyes of three different narrators, each of whom with their own beliefs regarding how the story played out.

Published in Movies

I’m a big fan of actors pushing their own personal envelopes. I like it when comedic actors go the dramatic route and I like it when actors known for their dramatic chops venture into the realm of comedy. As a firm believer that a good actor is a good actor, it’s nice to see performers stretch themselves.

Take Jason Sudeikis. He made his bones as a comic performer, taking a turn as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” and following that with a number of film comedies. But it’s his recent work as the titular character “Ted Lasso” – a comedy, yes, but one with dramatic underpinnings – that has really shown the breadth of his performance potential. The dude has what it takes.

In the new film “South of Heaven,” directed by Aharon Keshales and co-written by Keshales, Navot Paspushado and Kai Mark, Sudeikis is given the opportunity to take things in a much more extreme direction. What we have here is a bizarro Texas noir, a story populated by ex-cons and current criminals, all of it driven by one man’s singular desire to do right by the woman he loves.

While there’s plenty to like here, the film is tonally inconsistent to a distracting degree, veering wildly from dramatic intensity to romance to sitcom-adjacent banter – the sort of movie that relies on a steady stream of coincidence to keep moving forward. The performances – led by Sudeikis – are legitimately strong, but the unsteady narrative foundation undermines them. It’s a dark movie that can’t quite embrace its own darkness – at least, not until the end, when things get particularly nuts in an unexpected way.

Published in Movies

Some things are better left alone.

Now, I’m not one to wring my hands and clutch my pearls over Hollywood’s current IP-driven phase. I don’t hate the franchises and sequels and reboots and remakes; certainly not to the same degree as some of my critical peers. It’s not often great cinema, but people (and I include myself there) like what they like.

But sometimes, we get an idea that really seems like a mistake.

“The Many Saints of Newark” – currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max – is an attempt at crafting a prequel to “The Sopranos,” the seminal HBO drama that in many ways redefined what the television medium could do over the course of its six seasons. That series – still considered to be one of the greatest TV shows ever – followed the mobster Tony Soprano through the violence and vulnerability of his complicated life. It remains insightful and enthralling and utterly brilliant, even now.

So did we REALLY need a prequel?

Look, a lot of the behind-the-scenes people involved with “The Sopranos” are here; series creator David Chase wrote the script along with Lawrence Konner and the film’s director Alan Taylor spent serious time behind the camera on the show. There are some wildly talented performers in the cast as well. But there seems to be an absence of focus, a desire to try and tell too many different stories all at once. You probably think this film is a Tony Soprano origin story – I certainly did – but while that’s part of the picture, it is just that – a part. And perhaps not even the main part at that.

Published in Movies
Monday, 04 October 2021 14:04

‘The Guilty’ answers the call

Limitations can make for fascinating filmmaking. Whether the obstacles spring from outside forces or are self-imposed, it’s often quite interesting seeing how filmmakers overcome them.

Stories that are set in a singular space, for example – narratives that require our protagonist (and often ONLY our protagonist) to be confined to one place by circumstance. The inherent stasis to such a setting presents all manner of challenges – to the director, to the writer, to the actor(s). When those challenges are suitably and fully met, the result can be brilliant.

Alas, the new Netflix film “The Guilty” doesn’t quite get there. The pieces are certainly in place – Antoine Fuqua directed, Nick Pizzolatto penned the script and Jake Gyllenhaal is our lead – but they don’t all fit together in precisely the right way. That’s not to indicate the film is bad, by the way – it isn’t – but that it hits a few bumps along the way.

A remake of a 2018 Danish film of the same name, “The Guilty” is a story of a disgraced police officer stuck on a dispatch desk as he awaits judgment on his questionable acts. A 911 call from a woman claiming to be abducted sends him into a frenzy, pulling out all the stops as he tries to help this woman, even while the qualities and flaws that led him to this place continue to roil and bubble – and erupt.

Published in Movies

I’ve got a long-standing fascination with movies about gamblers and gambling. The combination of inherent insular tension and a tendency toward morally complex and ethically flexible characters results in films that hit me just right. Doesn’t matter if the story is meant to be redemptive or if we’re just spending time in this world or if we’re living somewhere in between – I’m here for it.

“The Card Counter,” the latest from auteur writer/director Paul Schrader, definitely exists in that nebulous middle ground. It’s a character study of a professional gambler who attempts to find some small degree of atonement for his past sins, only to wind up drawn back into darkness.

It’s also a throwback, evoking the spirit of ‘70s New Hollywood – unsurprising since that’s the era in which Schrader cut his screenwriting teeth. It is aesthetically distinctive and meticulously paced, telling the sort of small-scale yet sweeping story at which he excels. And by placing a talent as significant as Oscar Isaac at its center, Schrader ensures that the narrative is in supremely capable hands.

Published in Movies

There are a lot of people – directors and writers and actors and designers – who need to succeed in order to make a good movie. But that success is relative – it is possible for the work of one or a few to have an outsized impact on a movie, to be great even if their surroundings don’t quite measure up.

This is a long-winded and overly verbose way of saying that the new movie “Stillwater” – directed by Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the script alongside Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bregdain and Noe Debre, and starring Matt Damon – is a so-so film that is nevertheless home to some outstanding individual work.

This story of an Oklahoma man who devotes himself to proving the innocence of his young daughter, jailed in France for a crime she claims not to have committed, drew inspiration from the real-life story of Amanda Knox, whose own salacious case of murder and wrongful conviction played out over the course of years back in the ‘00s. It’s a deep and often moving portrait of one man’s efforts to do what’s right, only to continually and thoroughly misstep … not to mention one of Matt Damon’s best performances in years.

(It should be noted that there’s an ongoing discourse surrounding “Stillwater” with regard to Knox and her feelings about having her ordeal used as fodder for the film; the parallels are fairly clear. The degree of control a person has over their own personal story becomes lessened when they move into the public eye, whether by choice or against their will. It might not be right, but it’s how it is, at least right now.)

Published in Movies

You can turn just about anything into a movie.

Books and plays, sure. But also songs and TV shows and comic books. Cartoons and toys. Folk tales and urban legends. All of these things have been given the cinematic treatment over the years. Adaptation to the screen is a huge part of the movie business.

But can a Twitter thread become a movie? It can if it achieves enough viral notoriety that it becomes known as simply #TheStory.

That’s what we get with “Zola,” a film inspired by a legendary 148-tweet thread posted in 2015 by a Detroit waitress and exotic dancer named A’Ziah “Zola” King and the David Kushner story for Rolling Stone that followed. Adapted to the screen by Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo, who also directed the film, it’s a surreal and darkly comic road trip to the heart of American darkness. You know – Florida.

It is a bleak and hilarious story, one whose based-in-reality bona fides strain credulity – in a good way. There’s an intensity to the tale, charged as it is with various flavors of cultural and societal mores being prodded, bent and broken. Again, we’re talking about a film – a story – that is inherently and utterly bizarre, yet wildly compelling, a fascinating glimpse of a world many of us have never experienced for ourselves.

Published in Style

Being out in the world can be difficult. So often, we find ourselves wanting nothing more than to forget about what’s out there and bury ourselves into the insular realms that we have built for ourselves. Some believe that all the connection we need can be found within our own four walls.

But what if the ones we love want more? And what if we’re forced by circumstance to venture forth and engage, even if it’s the last thing we want to do?

“The Outside Story” offers answers to those questions. Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski – his feature debut in both capacities – and starring Brian Tyree Henry, it’s a quirky and intimate look at urban life reflected through the eyes of an introvert who is forced by circumstance to engage with his immediate surroundings in a way he never has before.

Driven by thoughtful, grounded performances, it’s a story of what it means to be a part of the world. It’s about what can happen – both good and bad – when we are forced out of our comfort zones. We can struggle against it or fully embrace it, but either way, we will be changed by the act of engagement.

Published in Movies

There’s something sacred about the rituals that come with saying goodbye, regardless of the culture from which you hail. No matter who you are or where you’re from, odds are that you or someone close to you has very specific ideas about what will happen when you die (logistical ideas, mind you, not metaphysical ones – we haven’t got all day).

But what happens when circumstances upend those expectations and you’re forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to fulfill them?

That’s the question that Irish filmmaker Aoife Crehan addresses in “The Last Right.” Written and directed by Crehan, it’s the story of a man whose personal journey of grief is thrown into chaos by the actions of the stranger sitting next to him on an airplane – chaos that may eventually lead him to discover the order he was always meant to experience.

It’s one of those movies that brings a lot to the table. You’ve got family secrets and dysfunction. You’ve got a little romance, plenty of situational comedy and even some heist vibes. All in service to telling a small story of what it means to follow through on a promise … even if it’s a promise you never really made.

Published in Movies
Monday, 05 April 2021 15:07

Saddle up with ‘Concrete Cowboy’

One of the great things about the world in which we live is that there’s room for all manner of interests and identities. No matter how niche and/or unlikely the pursuit, there will be others who share feelings about it.

These subcultures sometime surface in mainstream awareness, but others simply go on, whirring along beneath the zeitgeist for decades. And again, no matter how incongruous and unlikely they may sound, they are very real and very important to those whose passions they reflect.

“Concrete Cowboy,” the new Netflix film directed by Ricky Staub, is the story of one such subculture. Adapted by Staub and Dan Walser from Greg Neri’s 2011 novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” it’s the story of a multigenerational group of horse enthusiasts operating out of inner-city Philadelphia. Through their connection to horses, these people find what they need.

(It’s worth noting that several supporting roles are played by real-life members of Fletcher Street Stables, the group upon whom Neri’s novel was largely based.)

It’s also the story of a young man who is thrust into the midst of this world, left to contextualize it alongside his own sphere of understanding, introduced into it all by the father who is all but a stranger to him. But even with influences tugging from all sides, he is the one who ultimately must make the decision about the man he wants to become.

Published in Movies
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