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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
Monday, 13 April 2020 11:19

‘Tigertail’ burns bright

The story of America cannot be told without sharing the tales of those who come here in search of something. Something new or better or simply … different. Film has proven a capable medium with regards to bringing these sorts of narrative to life.

“Tigertail” – written and directed by Alan Yang – is one such immigration story. Released via Netflix, it is a rich and compelling tale of one man’s journey from a hardscrabble youth in Taiwan to a significantly successful life in America – one that shares the sometimes-harsh truth that an immigrant’s success often comes at a price.

Lushly shot and beautifully performed (in three languages, no less – Taiwanese, Mandarin and English), it’s a thoughtful meditation on one type of immigrant experience, one that illustrates the sacrifices that are made for the mere promise of a new life. Choices have consequences that can linger long after the perceived goal has been met.

Published in Movies

To many, the more granular aspects of wine might seem inaccessible. The finer details picked up by the oenophiles among us are largely lost on those on the outside looking in. And make no mistake, there are A LOT of finer details … and only the select few who fully grasp all of those details can achieve the title of master sommelier.

But what if your passion for wine isn’t enough? What if there are other forces at work, personal and professional responsibilities that are at odds with your singular goal?

That’s the conflict at the center of “Uncorked,” the new drama from Netflix. Written and directed by Prentice Penny, it’s the story of one young man whose love of wine inspires him to try and pursue an oenophile’s education, much to the chagrin of the father who wants him to take over the family business.

This sort of father/son conflict is pretty standard fare for family drama, but this film explores it without ever devolving into boilerplate. Sure, there’s a formula at work here, but thanks to some smart choices and a handful of really compelling performances, the movie never succumbs to cliché. Instead, we get a heartfelt and extremely watchable drama – one to which you’ll have no problem raising a glass.

Published in Movies

I’m on record as being a big proponent of coming of age stories. For whatever reason, I find tales of young people crossing the various Rubicons that come with growing up to be endlessly fascinating. There’s a universality to them; while the details may change, the fundamental underpinnings are simple and constant.

That said, while I personally enjoy them all, there’s no denying that, as with any genre, there are good ones and bad ones.

My guess was that “Big Time Adolescence,” the new film streaming on Hulu, would trend more toward the latter category. Instead, the feature debut from writer/directory Jason Foley surprised me. It’s a thoughtful and heartfelt meditation on the connections we make when we’re young and the people with whom we choose to make them … not to mention the relative wisdom (or lack thereof) inherent to those choices. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it also manages to avoid the saccharine pitfalls that often undermine these kinds of stories.

Published in Movies

BANGOR – One of the most challenging and beautiful theatrical works to grace an area stage in years took place at Penobscot Theatre last weekend. Alas, it saddens me to say that due to the current circumstances, you won’t be able to watch it from a seat in the Bangor Opera House.

That’s the situation with Penobscot Theatre Company’s new production. “Safety Net,” a play written by Daryl Lisa Fazio and directed by PTC’s own Tricia A. Hobbs. While the measures taken in recent days due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus mean that the Opera House seats will remain unfilled, PTC is hoping to take unprecedented action of its own.

Here’s how it’s going to work. Through this next week – up to March 22 – PTC will be presenting a livestream of the production at regular showtimes. From Wednesday through Sunday, March 18-22, the company will present a real-time video performance of the show. Tickets can be purchased in the usual way via the PTC website – www.penobscottheatre.org. Purchasers will be given instructions, a link and a password dedicated specifically to the night of their ticket purchase. It might not be the usual manner in which you see a play, but I’d advise you to take advantage of it.

Because any way you slice it, this is a remarkable piece of theatre.

(Full disclosure: I can’t speak to the experience of watching this show on video. I was one of four non-production personnel in the house for one of the early performances. But if watching it on a screen is even a tenth as impactful as seeing it on stage, it will be worth every cent and every second you spend on it.)

Published in Buzz
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