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Cinematic reunions are rarer than you think. While there are a few Coen-esque or Andersonian (Wes or Paul Thomas, take your pick) stables of performers out there, the truth is that these sorts of filmmaking teams don’t turn up all that often.

That relative rarity is a big part of what makes the new film “Velvet Buzzsaw” so intriguing. Writer/director Dan Gilroy has brought back the two stars of his 2014 offering “Nightcrawler” – Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo – for this one, a genre-bending story of creeping horror set amidst the backdrop of the contemporary art world.

Combining elements of satire and social commentary with horror tropes and a gleefully needling deflation of the self-indulgent self-seriousness of the high-end artistic realm, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a film that is undeniably itself. The component parts don’t always mesh as well as they might, but the overall experience is an engaging one that will appeal to a weirdly disparate audience.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 06 January 2019 16:11

Room for improvement - ‘Escape Room’

It’s no secret that January has long served as a bit of a dumping ground for Hollywood. Yes, this is the time when many award-contending films go into wider distribution, but as far as new releases January is where studios tend to offload their biggest mistakes and misfires.

However, a movie can still be entertaining even when it isn’t very good.

Take “Escape Room,” for example. It’s a formulaic and predictable horror thriller that absolutely deserves its early January release date. That being said, it’s got an interesting concept with which it proves willing to have some fun, at least initially. Sure, the movie’s back end devolves into illogic and nonsense, but that’s OK. As long as you set the bar nice and low, there’s no reason for you to not have a good time.

Published in Movies

Finding new ways to tell the same story is one of the biggest obstacles to clear in filmmaking. There are only so many stories, but infinite ways in which to tell them. Horror cinema is particularly vulnerable to that kind of repetition.

Take exorcism movies, for example. Every one since “The Exorcist” plays out in more or less the same way, hitting the same beats. Some do it well, others not so much, but either way, you’ve pretty much seen it before.

“The Possession of Hannah Grace” initially seems like it might actually give you something different. It even starts to give it once or twice. But ultimately, it simply shrugs off the possibilities presented by its twist on the story and settles into the same old tumbledown pile of tropes. It’s a little different, yes - but not nearly different enough.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 14 November 2018 12:42

The horrors of war – ‘Overlord’

Genre mash-ups are a tricky business. To be truly successful, they must stay true to the genres being addressed while also avoiding getting bogged down in tropes and clichés. Making something that is cohesive and entertaining requires a specific touch.

And when the genres you’re mashing up are horror and war, well … you’re swinging big.

“Overlord” takes just such a big swing. The J.J. Abrams-produced film – directed by Julius Avery from a screenplay by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith – is a stoned dorm room bull session come to fruition, a preposterous elevator pitch brought to life. It’s a joking dare taken seriously.

And it is a gory, absurd delight.

You’ve probably never said to yourself “I sure do want to see a World War II movie where a group of soldiers on a mission behind enemy lines wind up encountering an experimental Nazi lab that makes zombies.” I know I never have. That doesn’t make it untrue. Because that’s the thing – you ABSOLUTELY want to see that movie. And now you can.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 23 October 2018 17:09

‘Halloween’ horrifies once again

When it comes to scary movies, you can conjure up all manner of ghouls and supernatural forces. Ghosts and monsters and gibbering creatures from beyond the dimensional veil – all of that stuff can make for solid scares.

But sometimes, all you need for good horror is a guy in a mask wielding a knife. He doesn’t have any special powers or superhuman abilities. He’s just a strong psychopath with an affinity and aptitude for stabbing.

That’s what made John Carpenter’s 1978 horror film “Halloween” such a classic. Just a dude killing people on Halloween. In a lot of ways, it was the Platonic ideal of the slasher movie. Of course, the film’s success led to sequels and reboots galore, with seven installments following the original and then a pair of Rob Zombie-helmed reimaginings.

So what was writer/director David Gordon Green going to do to set his own take on the tale apart? Well, plenty, but here are the two big ones: he got Carpenter’s blessing and then basically threw away all the convoluted canon. He flushed the ridiculous lore and made a straight-up 40-years-later sequel. That’s Green’s “Halloween.”

And you know what? We’re all the better for it.

Published in Movies

There’s truth in the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. However, I would argue that in some cases, you CAN judge a book by its title.

For instance, take Raymond A. Villareal’s new novel “A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising” (Mulholland, $27). That is one judgeable title – evocative and provocative at the same time, offering a tantalizing and crystal-clear description of what you’re about to experience.

This book is exactly what its title purports it to be – a complex and engaging sort of future history that follows the gradual appearance and assimilation of vampires into modern society. It follows a disparate cast of characters from both sides of the divide, offering first-person accounts from key players while also interspersing interview transcripts and news articles and other secondary and tertiary materials throughout.

What ultimately emerges is a thoughtful and finely-crafted work that reads as particularly insightful pop history – the title’s allusion to Howard Zinn’s seminal book isn’t an accident. It’s got a lot of Max Brooks’ “World War Z” in its DNA as well (though, it should be noted, not in a derivative way). It bears its influences proudly, but is very much its own beast.

Published in Buzz

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Stephen King is the preeminent American storyteller.

Apologies for my broken-recordness on the subject, but it always bears repeating – there is no one in American letters over the past half-century who has managed to be as prolific and as culturally relevant as Stephen King.

And there’s a reason the zeitgeist is awash with King-inspired and -adjacent properties. Not only have the majority of his iconic earlier works withstood the test of time, but his late-career renaissance puts on display a King who has evolved while still maintaining an unprecedented degree of narrative skillfulness.

Oh yeah – and his stuff is still REALLY scary.

King’s latest is “The Outsider” (Scribner, $30), a pulpy, propulsive tale reminiscent of some of his earlier highlights. Yet even as he elicits memories of his own creepy stylings from 30 years ago, he infuses that throwback thriller with pointed references to the present. The end result is a book that is somehow both Now and Then, where early King and late King combine with an eerie smoothness. It is dark and creepy and thought-provoking and engrossing – everything you hope for from Stephen King.

Published in Buzz

One could make the argument that we’re currently in the midst of a horror movie renaissance. While the genre still offers up its share of misfires, horror has provided fertile ground for filmmakers looking to explore ideas big and small in sophisticated ways. It’s an arena where chances can still be taken. And when those risks pay off, you get some pretty great movies.

Movies like “A Quiet Place.”

Published in Movies

There are certain literary works that, for one reason or another, are deemed unfilmable. Whether it’s a question of scale or story or power or perspective, these books seemingly defy any effort to effectively translate them to the big screen.

A lot of people hung that label on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, a collection of genre-bending books telling a surreal, dreamlike and very weird story about an unknown presence encroaching on the southern United States and the agencies tasked with dealing with it. VanderMeer isn’t what you’d call a conventional storyteller – the three books (“Annihilation,” “Authority” and “Acceptance”) are well-written, well-regarded and compelling as hell, but stylistically, they’d seem to warrant the unfilmable tag.

But Alex Garland cares not for your labels.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 04 October 2017 10:28

‘Flatliners’ dead on arrival

Hollywood’s current tendency toward remakes and reboots of preexisting properties isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, the right filmmaking team can take an older idea and breathe new life into it, creating something that both honors the source material and brings something uniquely its own to the table. The end result can be a really enjoyable movie.

Other times, a filmmaking team can completely miss whatever it was that made a property engaging in the first place and create something that is utterly devoid of anything remotely resembling value – entertainment or otherwise. That end result can be a truly terrible movie.

A movie like “Flatliners.”

Published in Movies
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