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As someone with a genuine affection for the genre, I’ve enjoyed seeing the evolution of the Western for the modern day. The most successful of these neo-Westerns are the ones that are able to maintain the frontier sensibilities of the classics within a more present-day framework.

Among the foremost practitioners of the neo-Western – and perhaps the best and striking that delicate balance – is Taylor Sheridan, the writer-director behind such projects as “Wind River,” “Hell or High Water” and the TV western “Yellowstone.”

Sheridan’s latest – a project that he both directed and co-wrote – is “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” adapted from Michael Kortya’s 2014 novel of the same name. It’s a great example of how the neo-Western vibe doesn’t necessarily rely on the tropes of the genre. There are no cowboys here, but the tone and attitude of the characters and the narrative surrounding them can be traced directly back to the classic Westerns of the ’60s and ‘70s.

It’s a lushly-filmed thriller, one that takes full advantage of the natural majesty in which it was filmed. And it features a top-notch cast, led by Angelina Jolie. But while there’s no denying the propulsive nature of the story, there’s some muddiness to the proceedings that prevent the film from reaching its full potential. Still, it’s a hell of a watch, and truthfully? That’s more than enough.

Published in Movies

If 21st century cinema has taught us anything, it’s that everything old is new again. We’ve watched as IP-driven blockbusters and nostalgia-trip remakes have dominated the box office over the past couple of decades.

Hollywood is a flat circle. We should never be surprised when a property from the past gets a shine-up and gets released onto a new generation of unsuspecting moviegoers.

So it is with “Mortal Kombat,” currently in theaters and available for streaming via HBO Max. Based on the iconic video game series of the same name and directed by first-timer Simon McQuoid, the film tries to breathe new cinematic life into the characters that have proved so popular for nearly three decades.

Tries and … sort of succeeds? But not really?

It’s a good faith effort, to be sure, but while we do get some narrative expansion, it proves to be awfully muddy and convoluted in ways that detract from the fundamental appeal of “Mortal Kombat.” By attempting to graft new characters and situations onto the already-extant foundation, we’re left with a film that can’t seem to get out of its own way. Yes, there’s some first-rate magical martial arts action – and a pleasantly surprising amount of visceral gore – but the clunkiness of the story development effectively caps the film’s potential.

Published in Movies

Justice for the Justice League!

Specifically, for director Zack Snyder’s vision of the team – a vision that was undeniably disrupted by the circumstances surrounding 2017’s “Justice League.” When personal issues led to Snyder’s walking away from the project during post-production, replacement director Joss Whedon wound up putting his own very distinct stamp on the proceedings … for better or worse.

Mostly worse, as it turns out.

But now, in what is a first in the vast and varied world of big-budget superhero cinema, we’ve been given a chance to experience something far closer to Snyder’s original intent – a do-over. Thanks in no small part to massive internet outcry from fans, the powers that be at HBO gave the keys back to Snyder (as well as a hefty budget, around $70 million) to turn the film back toward his original intent, retrofitting and reshooting and ultimately restoring Snyder’s vision.

The end result is “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” a four-hour extravaganza that far outshines the film that came before it. It’s better. A lot better. Now, if you want to argue that it’s bloated and unnecessary, I won’t fight you. Think a dangerous precedent has been sent regarding the power potential of dedicated fandoms, no matter how potentially toxic? Could be. None of that changes the fact that this new film, as overwrought and overproduced as it may be, is a significant improvement.

It’s got many of the usual issues that dog Snyder’s work – the washed-out color palette, the ubiquitous slo-mo, the jittery, hard-to-follow battle scenes – but even those concerns are lesser here than they’ve been in previous films. And the storytelling gains – particularly when it comes to certain character arcs – more than offset all of that.

For me, it boils down to this. I basically shrugged my shoulders at “Justice League” in 2017. I genuinely enjoyed “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” … and I really wasn’t sure that I would.

Published in Movies

Abbott and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. Martin and Lewis. Lemmon and Matthau. Farley and Spade. Ferrell and Reilly. The history of cinema is rife with comic duos, esteemed teams that have done great things to advance the art of the laugh. Some were dedicated double acts, others came together through circumstance, but all brought us joy.

So it is with Tom & Jerry. The animated cat-and-mouse pairing has been delighting audiences since their debut in 1940 with their trademark slapstick mayhem. But now, they’re taking a trip into the third dimension.

“Tom & Jerry” is a live-action/animated hybrid film directed by Tim Story from a screenplay by Kevin Costello. It brings the iconic duo into the real world, folding together the outsized violence of the original shorts with an ostensibly real setting.

Now, you might wonder if characters whose body of work consists almost entirely of shorts can translate to a full-length feature. The answer is … sort of? While the Tom and Jerry dynamic remains intact and still largely works, the truth is that the kinetic explosiveness of their interactions simply can’t be sustained for 101 minutes. And while everyone in the human cast is doing their best, it doesn’t always click.

All that being said, kids are almost certainly going to dig this film, even if they might want a little more cat-and-mouse. And parents – particularly parents with fond memories of these characters – may well find things to like as well. Not a spectacular success, sure, but far from terrible.

Published in Movies

Denzel Washington is a movie star. One of the few we still have, really.

This doesn’t mean that every movie he makes is automatically some sort of commercial and/or critical success. He can usually open a movie – well, as much as anyone can outside the realm of blockbuster IP – and he’s almost always good, but the films themselves are a little more inconsistent.

“The Little Things” – currently in theaters and available on HBO Max – is a prime example of that variability. It’s a period crime thriller (though as an aside, calling a movie set in 1990 “period” has me feeling my age) – red meat for Denzel – with a couple of Oscar-winning co-stars in Rami Malek and noted weirdo Jared Leto. That certainly looks like a formula for success.

Unfortunately, while director John Lee Hancock did an admirable job in eliciting good performances and evoking an engaging atmosphere, screenwriter John Lee Hancock failed to rise to the occasion, leading to a story that feels formulaic, disjointed and a little derivative. For me, the pros slightly outweigh the cons, but your mileage may vary.

Published in Movies

Brace yourselves, folks – the onslaught of pandemic cinema is fast approaching. We’re going to see a wealth of films a) made during the lockdown, b) made about the lockdown or c) both. Some of these movies might well prove to be exceptional pieces of work, but rest assured that a lot of them are going to be, well … not.

“Locked Down,” the new film directed by Doug Liman and starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, lands closerto that latter category. Currently available on HBO Max, it’s the kind of throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks movie that doesn’t always work; toss in the limiting factors of pandemic production and you’re looking at a project that was already hamstrung before shooting started.

I mean, who thought it was a good idea to make a lockdown-centric movie mashup of romantic comedy, relationship drama and heist movie? Rumor has it that screenwriter Steven Knight wrote the script on a dare. It definitely shows. Now, it’s not all bad – the truth is that there are some solid ideas here and the leads are certainly talented enough. Unfortunately, the disparate elements never get properly blended, leaving us with a clunky three-into-one vibe that will prove frustrating to those who see the very real potential here.

Published in Movies

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, superhero movies have defined the industry for well over a decade and show no signs of slowing. If anything, we’re just going to keep getting more and more of them – they’re appointment films in a business that is dying for anything that will ensure big box office receipts. Considering the faltering movie theater model, expect studios to keep pushing this kind of franchise-friendly fare.

Me? I love superhero movies. Do I recognize the more cynical motives behind them? Sure! Do I care? Not in the least!

So I was thrilled to finally see “Wonder Woman 1984.” As someone who, despite my job, is still steering clear of movie theaters, having the opportunity to see this movie in my own home via HBO Max was fantastic. Given the extended drought of superhero cinema, I was primed to dig this movie even though Marvel > DC, in my opinion.

And guess what? I dug it!

Directed by Patty Jenkins – who returned to the franchise after helming 2017’s excellent “Wonder Woman” – from a script she co-wrote with Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham, “Wonder Woman 1984” is engaging enough, though it doesn’t quite capture the same lightning in a bottle energy of the previous film. There are some great set pieces, solidly charismatic lead performances and a couple of really going-for-it supporting turns – enough to make for a flawed-but-satisfying moviegoing experience.

Published in Movies

Few filmmakers are as habitually freewheeling as Steven Soderbergh, constantly willing to move in different directions and try new things. He’s unafraid to shift creative gears, trusting in his abilities and the abilities of those around him to make it work – and it usually does.

Take “Let Them All Talk,” his newest offering now available via HBO Max. Shot in a quasi-indie manner, it’s an amiable and chatty dramady that takes place on a trans-Atlantic cruise. The kicker, of course, is that it was filmed during an actual crossing, with all that that entailed. Soderbergh assembled an incredible cast, led by Meryl Streep, and kept it simple, using mostly natural light and minimal equipment to film.

The end result – ostensibly written by noted short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, though much of the dialogue was improvised by the cast – is an extremely watchable, albeit light, story of renewed and new connections. It’s not a film where a lot actually happens, but the people to whom stuff isn’t happening are engaging enough to get you to stick around. A good hang.

Published in Style
Monday, 30 November 2020 14:47

‘Superintelligence’ not too bright

Creative collaborations between couples can be a wonderful thing. Two people taking advantage of their personal connection to enhance their creative work has vast potential. We’ve seen it a million times at the movies – think Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach or Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, with one member of the pairing in front of the camera and the other behind.

Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone have this sort of collaborative relationship. Their latest team-up – their fourth with McCarthy starring and Falcone directing – is “Superintelligence,” currently streaming on HBO Max. However, this particular pairing, while robust in quantity, doesn’t quite live up to some of the others as far as quality is concerned.

This new film, the story of a newly self-aware AI deciding to use the most average person in the world to determine the ultimate fate of humanity, is a fairly lukewarm effort. The characterizations are thin and the story is needlessly convoluted, and while there are a handful of decent jokes and moments of physical comedy, the majority of the humor is built on a rickety foundation of pop culture references and overlong bits. McCarthy’s charm keeps it from completely collapsing, but her talents aren’t enough to fully salvage the experience.

Published in Movies
Monday, 26 October 2020 14:45

‘The Witches’ somewhat lacking in magic

The works of author Roald Dahl have long been prime fodder for the leap from page to screen. The unabashed weirdness and genuinely frightful nature of his work – not to mention the wildly inventive and colorful characters and narratives that he constructs – make these books ideal subjects for translation to visual media. They are fun, bizarre experiences whether you’re reading them or seeing them.

However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing … particularly when a story is revisited for the big screen treatment.

To wit: HBO Max is currently streaming their version of “The Witches,” directed by Robert Zemeckis. It’s an adaptation of Dahl’s 1983 novel of the same name – a novel that already received a VERY successful remake in 1990. It’s a bold choice, remaking a film that, while 30 years old, still maintains a place of high regard in the memories of many moviegoers. A bold choice … and a somewhat misguided one.

Don’t get me wrong – this new version isn’t bad. It just doesn’t land with the same spirited resonance as its predecessor. Much like Tim Burton’s stab at “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory,” this new take on “The Witches” simply feels unnecessary. It’s no one’s fault, really – everyone involved seems to be operating in good faith and really giving it their all. It’s just that there probably shouldn’t have been a project for which to give said all.

Published in Movies
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