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There are a lot of ways in which movies can surprise us. Sometimes it is subtle – a film is funnier or more dramatic than we expected. Sometimes, it’s a little more overt – a stunt cast cameo or a third act twist. But the vast majority of these surprises involve what a movie is.

But what about when the surprise springs from what a movie isn’t?

That’s what I got when I finally, after spending a full year hearing about its excellence from various trusted sources since its debut at Sundance in January of 2020, got to watch “Minari,” the brilliant film written and directed by Lee Isaac Cheung. Now, these sources who sung the film’s praises steered clear of spoilers – what I heard was that it was great, not why it was great.

We all have our biases, conscious and otherwise. And when I heard that “Minari” centered around a Korean family moving to Arkansas in the 1980s, I made some assumptions about what the film would be about, assumptions that involved othering born of the racist attitudes of that place and time.

Instead, what I got was a moving family drama, a film that explored the complexities that come with being bound by blood and how cultural expectations can challenge the choices people make. It is a film about love and obligation, of the responsibilities and burdens we bear toward those who matter most to us. It is about differences, yes, but also acceptance, all in service of trying to do right by the ones who mean the most to us.

Published in Movies

I’m a huge admirer of triple threats – that is, performers with the ability to sing, dance and act at a high level. It’s a term most often foisted upon stage actors, specifically Broadway types, but it can be applied to a number of stage and screen talents.

Here’s the thing, though: Something has to be third. No one is EQUALLY gifted at singing, dancing and acting. Yes, you can be good, even great, at all three, but there has to be one that comes in last.

This brings us to Justin Timberlake, a performer of immense ability across the spectrum – a legitimate triple threat. However, I feel very comfortable saying that for JT, acting definitely comes in third.

And yet, when I watch him in “Palmer,” his new film currently streaming on Apple TV+, I wonder. Not enough to change my mind, of course, but that’s more because his singing/dancing talents are so extreme rather than any acting shortcoming. We haven’t seen Timberlake take on any kind of a serious role in years (and never anything like this one), so it’s easy to forget.

This movie – directed by Fisher Stevens from a screenplay by Cheryl Guerriero – pushes the pop star toward a darkness that is vastly unlike any of his previous efforts. It’s a heartfelt story of redemption and acceptance, one that goes to some morally murky places and is unafraid to venture into unpleasant territory. It’s about responsibility, about protecting those who need protection and how that protective instinct can grow into something more. And it’s about what happens when someone who has lost everything sees a chance to regain some of what he no longer has.

Published in Movies
Monday, 11 January 2021 16:56

A home of one’s own – ‘Herself’

Stories of reinvention have always worked well on screen. There’s a real appeal to watching people, through sheer determination and a support system willing to help, turn their lives around – particularly when they’re moving away from toxic and/or dangerous circumstances.

That idea of reinvention is central to “Herself,” newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The Irish film is directed by Phyllida Lloyd from a script co-written by Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne (who also stars); it’s the story of a woman who escapes an abusive relationship and attempts to carve out a new life for herself and her two daughters.

It’s a small film that mines great power from its intimate nature. Featuring some excellent performances and a simple story that is alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, it’s a quietly powerful viewing experience that offers a look at just how difficult it can be to change one’s life for the better.

Published in Movies

One of the things that I’ve learned from being part of the larger critical discourse surrounding movies is that I generally align with the consensus view of my peers. That’s not to say I’m in lockstep with the crowd – we all have our differences – but a lot of the time, we’re in the same neighborhood.

Not always, though.

Take the new Netflix film “Hillbilly Elegy,” directed by Ron Howard from a script by Vanessa Taylor adapted from J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name. This story of a young man’s connection to his Kentucky roots and how those roots impact his current circumstances as a student at Yale Law School has been largely panned by critics, with many viewing it as a transparent awards grab lacking in soul and substance.

I respectfully disagree.

I’m not calling this a perfect movie by any stretch – it has its share of issues to be sure. But it is a much better movie than it has been deemed by critics, a story of poverty and its generational impacts that at least tries to address the emotional, social and economic realities that come from being poor. It isn’t always successful, but even the misplaced efforts merit a degree of credit.

Published in Movies

There are few tighter bindings than family ties. No matter how we might try to escape them, no matter how we might want and need to separate ourselves from them, for so many of us, they are unavoidable. But while these ties are ostensibly spun from love, there’s an undeniable toxicity inherent to many of them.

“Uncle Frank,” the new film from writer/director Alan Ball, offers an illustration of how deeply those toxic waters can flow, even as those who seek to escape prove unable to extract themselves from the unrelenting riptide of familial dynamics; it shows just how much of ourselves we’re willing to hide in order to find some sort of connection with the ones who raised us.

With a titular character living a double life – closeted with his South Carolina kin, out and proud in New York City – we see what happens when the oft-avoided cultural clash between those two worlds is no longer so easily dismissed, as well as when a naïve young member of the family inadvertently discovers the truth about her beloved uncle. It’s about small-town social mores in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a snapshot of what it means to be true to yourself – including the consequences.

Published in Movies

So much of Hollywood is driven by spectacle. There’s a bigger-is-better ethos at work that drives more and more of the industry with each passing year, often crowding out some of the less flashy fare. Yet one could argue that movies work even more effectively as a medium for delivering smaller, more intimate stories. Bigger might be better, but sometimes, smaller is superb.

Take “Blackbird,” the new film directed by Roger Michell. A remake of the 2014 Dutch film “Silent Heart,” “Blackbird” is the story of an ailing matriarch bringing her family together for one final celebration of their lives together before her death – a death that she intends to be entirely on her own terms.

Featuring an absolutely stacked cast, “Blackbird” is a heartfelt meditation on the familial complexities that come with death and a look at how an impending loss can impact our choices. It’s a movie about choices and wrestling with the consequences of those choices and how, in the end, we must allow people to make those choices for themselves.

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
Tuesday, 10 December 2019 12:04

When love leaves – ‘Marriage Story’

When does the story of a marriage end? And how should it be told when it does?

That’s the fundamental question behind “Marriage Story,” the latest offering from writer/director Noah Baumbach. The film – which stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson – is a portrait of a marriage in dissolution, a relationship that has arrived at its expiration date. It is emotionally raw and darkly funny, driven by moments of passion and poignancy.

There are many reasons for two people to choose to be together. There are many reasons – some the same, some altogether different – for two people to choose to stay together. And there are many reasons – a surprising number shared with the previous choices – for two people to choose to break apart. And the underlying reality is that the story of a marriage has two sides … and the truth lives somewhere in the middle.

“Marriage Story” is unrelenting and discomfiting – and one of the year’s best films.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 21 December 2016 11:27

The magnificent ‘Manchester by the Sea’

There are plenty of ways in which a movie can be great. It can feature a great aesthetic or offer great performances or tell a great story. It can be funny or sad or emotionally charged or simply beautiful. It can transport you while you’re watching and leave you thinking while it follows you home. Any one of these qualities can make for a great movie, but it’s a rare film that can do most or all of these things.

Published in Movies

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