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One of the most fundamental aspects of being human is a desire for connection. We seek those connections through romance and family and friendship, all in an effort to feel just a little less alone in a world that is too often cold and uncaring. When we find those connections, and cultivate them, our sphere expands and the space through which we move becomes just a little warmer.

But what happens when we lose those connections? And worse – what if we don’t even understand why?

“The Banshees of Inisherin,” the latest film from writer-director Martin McDonagh, asks that very question. And it isn’t about death or divorce or anything like that. It’s not about the loss of a family member or a spouse. No, this is about what happens when someone’s friend – their very dear friend – decides to not be a friend anymore.

From this seemingly simple idea, McDonagh unleashes multitudes. It’s an exploration of the toxic repression of emotion that was the masculine ideal for so many generations and how damaging the results of that repression can be. It delves into the value of connection, both in terms of celebrating its presence and mourning its absence. All of it refracted through the pitch-black prism of McDonagh’s dark and tragic sense of humor and brought to effusive, excruciating life by two actors at the top of their game.

Published in Style

Have you ever asked yourself what the difference between “based on” and “inspired by” actually is?

It’s always tricky when it comes to movies, because obviously, filmmakers want (and should want) a degree of creative license with which to tell their stories. We’re not talking about documentaries here – these are fictionalized features, bearing as much or as little direct resemblance to their inspirations as deemed fit by the folks behind the camera. We can talk about based on or inspired by, but ultimately it comes down to this:

How true is the true story? And how true do we need it to be?

This brings us to “Amsterdam,” the latest film – and first in seven years – from writer/director David O. Russell. It’s clear early on that this one falls into the “inspired by” camp, with an opening title card that flat-out states “A lot of this really happened.” It should be noted, however, that the words “a lot” are doing A LOT of heavy lifting.

It’s got the standard galaxy of A-listers that we’ve come to expect from Russell’s movies, the sort of absolutely stacked cast that always seems to turn up. It blends comedic quirks with dramatic stakes and tries very hard to give its many stars a chance to shine.

Loosely (and I do mean loosely) based on the alleged Business Plot of the early 1930s, “Amsterdam” is a shaggy screwball mystery wrapped around a nugget of bleak historical truth. And while I myself found it charming and engaging, the meandering nature of the plot and the often-questionable relationship to the “real” events on which it is based might well prove a turn-off to others. As with many of Russell’s movies, your mileage may vary.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 21 September 2022 12:31

The complexity of connection – ‘Clarkston’

BANGOR – The power of connection – for good and for ill – is taking center stage at the Bangor Opera House.

“Clarkston,” by Samuel Hunter, opens the 49th season for Penobscot Theatre and runs through October 2. It also marks new artistic director Jonathan Berry’s directorial debut with the company. It’s a bold beginning, one that seems to speak directly to Berry’s tastes and passions as a theatre artist.

It’s an intimate piece, packed with emotional impact and driven by the relationships formed by family or fate and how our humanity is shaped by those relationships. It is a thoughtful, provocative and surprisingly funny play, with myriad juxtapositions and seeming contradictions brought forward by the complicated dynamic between the two young men at its heart.

Finding something meaningful and real between people is rare, a truth illustrated with heart, humor and hubris by the beautiful and challenging play currently gracing the Opera House boards.

Published in Style

Confession time: I’m always just a little leery of film adaptations of recent best-sellers.

That might sound strange, coming from someone who reviews almost as many books as he does movies. And I’m not saying that recent books shouldn’t be made into films – there are plenty of quick turnaround cinematic adaptations that have worked very well.

However, just because a book is popular doesn’t mean that it will translate well to the big screen.

Such is the case with “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the new film based on the 2018 Delia Owens novel of the same name. Directed by Olivia Newman from a script adapted by Lucy Alibar, it’s the years-spanning story of a young woman who grew up largely alone and isolated in the marshes of North Carolina and the various trials and tribulations she endures, both due to her own actions and the perceptions of others.

Unfortunately, we never get much in the way of a settled tone. The emotional beats tend to whipsaw back and forth, from extremity to gentility and back, without much in the way of rhyme or reason. There are some strong performances and some beautifully atmospheric shots, but they aren’t enough to overcome the issues inherent to a film that can’t seem to stay out of its own way.

Published in Movies
Monday, 27 June 2022 14:52

Hail to the King – ‘Elvis’

There are few mainstream filmmakers who offer the degree of stylistic audacity that you get from Baz Luhrmann. The Australian director has made a career our of crafting visually arresting films that luxuriate in their own aesthetic extremity.

So I suppose it only makes sense that he would tackle the King.

“Elvis” is the latest project from the Aussie auteur. Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner, Luhrmann has imprinted his own vision on the story of one Elvis Presley. Powered by the standard over-the-top visuals – particularly at the onset – and driven by an electrifying performance from Austin Butler as the man himself, the movie offers a look at the man who would become a myth. All of it through the lens of the man who helped him get there even as he helped himself, the promoter Colonel Tom Parker (brought to life by Tom Hanks).

Call it “The King and the Kingmaker.”

It is a dazzling spectacle, to be sure – fitting the larger-than-life subject at its center – but it is also a look at the complicated and often toxic dynamic between the rock and roll icon and the carny-turned-music promoter who ostensibly assisted him on his rise to the top.

Published in Movies

It has never been easier to create. It used to be that access to the necessary tools to make movies was out of reach to most, but now, technological advances have largely democratized that access. However, just because you can make something doesn’t mean you have the means to ensure it is seen. If anything, this new level of access just means that there’s a whole lot more noise from which you have to separate the signal of quality work.

On the other hand, there’s someone like Cooper Raiff, who seems to have basically sprung forth fully formed as a filmmaker. He’s still young, but hey – when you’re in your mid-20s and have already crushed Sundance twice, you’re doing something right.

Raiff’s latest triumph is “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” currently available for streaming on Apple TV+; the streamer bought the distribution rights for the film out of Sundance (where it won the Audience Award) for $15 million. Raiff wrote and directed and, oh yeah, stars in the film, the story of an aimless recent college graduate whose side hustle hyping up bar mitzvahs leads him into some unconventional relationships.

Equal parts sweet and sharp, it’s a well-crafted portrait of a young man trying to figure out just what it is he wants from the world even as he struggles. He’s adrift and looking for some kind, any kind of connection. It is funny and poignant, radiant with goofball energy and offbeat sincerity, a compelling look at what happens next when you don’t know what happens next.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 08 June 2022 08:04

‘The Moors,’ the merrier

ORONO – A local theatre company is back in action, bringing a skewed take on the literary trope of the windswept moors to the Orono stage.

True North Theatre’s latest production is “The Moors” by Jen Silverman. The piece – directed by Jasmine Ireland – is an idiosyncratic and irreverent story of a pair of spinster sisters living in a crumbling house set in the midst of isolated wild country. The setting – time and place – is specific while also being oddly, well … unmoored, riddled with absurdity and anachronism even as the central tragicomic narrative unfolds. The show runs through June 12 at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre on the University of Maine campus.

It is a strange piece, to be sure, dark and darkly funny and unapologetic in its weirdness; a challenging play that is very much in keeping with the general ethos of True North Theatre. Bleak on its surface, it’s a show that plumbs those shadows for moments of pitch-black humor that only serve to accentuate the themes of interpersonal disconnect at its center.

Let me put it this way – whatever you think “The Moors” is going to be, it probably isn’t that … and that’s a good thing.

Published in Style

Remember when “Downton Abbey” was EVERYWHERE? It was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, likely one of the last truly quadrant-crossing zeitgeist-seizing TV experiences we’ll see, thanks to the proliferation of streaming services and the audience fragmentation born of an unceasing deluge of content.

In truth, I would have anticipated that “Downton” was done, having realized the six-seasons-and-a-movie dream. You’d think I would have learned – content is king, and this is some valuable IP we’re talking about here. It was inevitable that there would be more.

Thus, we get “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay by “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes. Let’s be clear from the get-go: no one here is the least bit interested in upending the apple cart. The folks involved – both behind the camera and in front of it – know precisely what is expected of them and they have every intention of delivering just that. There’s nothing new or challenging about this iteration. It’s pure comfort food for the PBS set.

And that’s perfectly OK. The filmmakers know what they are doing and they are unashamed to be doing it. This is low-stakes drama in historical dress, with nary a real conflict to be found; oh, there are a few plot drivers, but for the most part, everyone is generally content and has little in the way of actual problems. But the truth is that sometimes, an audience just want to look at people with fancy outfits and/or charming accents living in a giant house.

It's a different kind of drama (such as it is) this time around. “A New Era” is essentially split into two parts, with the film shifting back and forth between the plots more or less at will – there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind the moves, but it generally works. It feels like nothing so much as a two-hour-long episode of television, albeit a well-made one featuring a massive cast.

Published in Style

A movie comes along that is accompanied with massive amounts of hype. Maybe it’s a critical darling, maybe it’s a commercial blockbuster, maybe it’s something in the middle, but one thing is clear – people are singing its praises early and often. And loudly.

As a rule, these films tend to be excellent offerings, though perhaps not quite clearing the exceedingly high bar that has been set for them by the discourse. Occasionally, they prove to be something of a disappointment, leaving you wondering what so many people saw in them.

But every once in a while, you get something that actually manages to outperform your already massive expectations. You get a film that is somehow even better than the people shouting its quality from the rooftops have led you to believe. You get a movie that is unlike anything you’ve seen before in the very best of ways.

You get “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

The film – written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the filmmaking team known collectively as Daniels – is a phantasmagoric experience, a genre-blending adventure that digs into the collective human experience and celebrates the underlying possibilities that unfold with every decision that we make. It is incredibly smart and wildly entertaining, packed with humor and action and heartfelt emotion.

This is the sort of movie that essentially dares you to describe it. It is a roiling tumult of narrative complexity and naked feeling, swirled together into a visually stunning mélange that again – and I can’t stress this enough – is unlike anything you’ve seen before. It is vibrant and vivid and unabashedly weird, powered by the bizarre beauty of its aesthetic and some utterly captivating performances.

Published in Movies

ORONO – Our history books are filled with the names of those who were first, the intrepid figures who undertook the seemingly impossible in the name of exploration and discovery. But what about the names of those lost along the way?

That’s the underlying question of “Terra Nova,” the current show from the University of Maine’s School of Performing Arts. Written by Ted Tally and directed by Julie Arnold Lisnet and running through Feb. 20, it’s the story of the ill-fated British expedition to the South Pole. The race to be first was ultimately won by the Norwegians, but what these five brave men lost was not just the race to glory, but their very lives.

Adapted from the journals of Robert Scott, the leader of the British expedition, this is a story of what it means to sacrifice everything in the name of knowing the unknown. As these men struggle across a seemingly unending sheet of ice, we’re left to watch as their time slowly, inexorably ticks away. But even as all seemed lost, the one thing that these men never lost … was their courage.

Published in Style
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