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Tuesday, 10 September 2019 17:54

A lie of the mind - ‘The Institute’

Stephen King’s reputation is that of a master of horror, a writer who plumbs the depths and brings forth supernatural terrors to be confronted and defeated by regular people who have been thrust into irregular circumstances. And that reputation is well-earned.

But make no mistake – King is often at his horrifying best when his villains are ordinary rather than extraordinary. Finding the evil that lurks within the human heart – that’s a skill for which Mr. King doesn’t always get his full due.

Those are the villains in King’s latest novel “The Institute” (Scribner, $30), regular people willing to do unspeakable things simply because they have been told those things are necessary. There’s a timeliness to this book, an of-the-moment quality that also possesses a sense of universality. It is a look at the evil that men do when they believe their cause is just.

But while these villains may not be possessed of paranormal girts, the targets of their villainy certainly are – children. Children, stolen from their homes in the dead of night and confined to an isolated compound, selected for imprisonment and torture so that a shadowy cabal might somehow bring forth the full force of the children’s inexplicable talents.

Published in Buzz
Thursday, 05 September 2019 14:47

Send in the clowns – ‘It Chapter Two’

The next chapter has arrived: Pennywise the Dancing Clown is once again creepily cavorting across movie screens.

“It Chapter Two” concludes the cinematic diptych begun with 2017’s “It” – both films were directed by Andy Muschietti, while screenwriter Gary Dauberman handles the new installment solo after co-writing the previous film, all of it adapted from the iconic 1987 horror masterpiece of the same name by Stephen King. That creative carryover goes a long way toward building an aesthetic and tonal consistency across the two films – important in any case, but particularly vital when you have a movie whose narratives are both chronologically separate and utterly entangled.

This second installment brings to an end the story of the self-styled Losers Club, a group of childhood outcasts forced to confront an ancient evil that has poisoned their hometown of Derry. Despite believing that they had emerged victorious – and allowing themselves to compartmentalize away the trauma that came with the triumph – it seems that their foe merely slumbered, awaiting an opportunity to victimize the town anew.

“It Chapter Two” is an aesthetic triumph, one where every frame seems perfectly crafted to elicit the creepy weirdness and absurdity of the circumstances. And the ensemble is exceptional, with outstanding work from performers of all ages. However, it doesn’t quite clear the (extremely high) bar set by its predecessor – not that there’s any shame in that. The film’s pacing occasionally undermines the meticulously-conceived look and feel; the 169-minute runtime could have been trimmed to two-and-a-half hours pretty easily. It’s more tense than scary.

But again – that’s OK. Ultimately, any quibbles are minor. If this film’s biggest sin is that it isn’t quite as good as the one that came before, then you’ve still got a damned good movie – which this absolutely is.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 27 August 2019 18:00

Here comes ‘Ready or Not’

Blending genres effectively is one of the more difficult things a filmmaker can try to do. Putting disparate elements together in a manner that is balanced and effective isn’t easy, which is why so many efforts to do so wind up falling flat.

Horror-comedy is one of the worst offenders; for every “Evil Dead” or “Cabin in the Woods,” there are a half-dozen failed experiments littering late-night cable and the lower tiers of streaming algorithms. The real successes are few and far between.

But here’s the thing - “Ready or Not” is one of them.

Directed by the team of Matt Bettinelli-Opin and Tyler Gillett from a screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, this story of one woman’s efforts to survive the night after discovering that her new husband’s family has a dark and sinister secret – one that requires that she be dead by dawn.

It’s a sharp and subversive spin on the age-old “final girl” standard, one that embraces the tradition of the trope while simultaneously recognizing its inherent ridiculousness. It mixes over-the-top violence with self-awareness, never once losing sight of the basic absurdity underlying most horror narratives. It is bloody and funny and bloody funny.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 16 July 2019 19:34

See you later, alligator – ‘Crawl’

Appearances can be deceiving.

A lot of the time, you can watch a trailer or two and just KNOW that particular movie is going to be good or bad. A handful of seconds of footage and a basic idea of plot and provenance and you feel confident of your opinion. This movie will be great, that movie will be terrible, etc.

But sometimes – not often, but sometimes – your seemingly solid take is dead wrong.

I was pretty sure “Crawl” was going to be a bad movie. The overwrought scenes in the trailers, the fundamental silliness of the central plot – all of it spelled mediocre-at-best genre fare. It was the sort of movie that I almost didn’t bother to see, so sure was I of what I would get. Seriously – if we’d had three wide releases this week, this would almost certainly have been the unseen bronze medalist.

I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong.

Now, I’m not saying that “Crawl” is a GOOD movie, because it is not. It is shlock. But it is beautifully sincere, well-crafted shlock. It is shlock that is gleefully and unapologetically itself. It is fully committed to the bit to such a degree that it quickly becomes extremely hard not to lean into it yourself.

Basically, you never forget how ridiculous it all is, but neither does the movie, and so everyone just embraces it and has a fantastic time.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 09 July 2019 20:17

Sunshine and shadows – ‘Midsommar’

Movies rarely surprise us anymore.

Part of it springs from the sorts of movies that get made – while blockbuster franchise films are usually fun, they’re rarely surprising. Biopics tend to be about people we already kind of know. And even Oscar bait offerings have a certain predictability.

Part of it comes from the deluge of trailers and press junkets and preview articles – it’s tough to feel surprised by anything that happens in a film that you’ve been hearing about for months.

But then you have a movie like “Midsommar,” written and directed by Ari Aster, who surprised us all with his debut feature “Hereditary” and apparently decided he would go ahead and do it again. While the content machine certainly churned around this latest film, it never lost the air of mystery that surrounded it. The potential was there for surprise.

And boy oh boy, did it ever deliver.

“Midsommar” is one of the weirder wide releases that we’ve gotten in quite some time, a bizarre and occasionally gruesome puzzle box of a movie rendered all the darker by the fact that it never actually gets dark. You wouldn’t think placing most of the action in bright sunshine would somehow make things more unsettling, but Aster takes advantage of an unexpected truth – the brightest lights cast the deepest shadows.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 25 June 2019 16:58

Dies and dolls – ‘Child’s Play’

One of the unexpected side effects of Hollywood’s current remake/reboot culture is the reflection of how the world has changed in the time between iterations of a story.

This societal shift is often most clearly reflected in horror movies; perhaps more than any other genre of film, they are of-the-moment representations of the culture at a certain time and place. Seriously – if you want an accurate notion of what sorts of issues, large and small, that are troubling the general public at a given point in time, you could do worse than checking out a horror flick.

You can learn a lot about people by what scares them.

And in the case of the new “Child’s Play,” we get a story that, almost by accident, is able to speak to those current fears in a way that its 1988 predecessor never could have dreamed.

Don’t get me wrong – this latest film has plenty of the ridiculous camp and over-the-top schlock that made its inspiration into a cult classic and basis for a shockingly deep franchise; did you know there were SIX (!) sequels to that film? It’s also surprisingly funny, albeit in a winkingly gruesome way – the filmmakers are gleeful with their distribution of spurting, squirting viscera. And the performances are strong as well, with the stars striking just the right balance of taking the work seriously while also being fully aware of the inherent ridiculousness.

It’s an unexpectedly good movie – one that has its shares of hiccups and bumps, but is a reasonably enjoyable time at the cinema all the same.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 10 April 2019 12:55

Grave consequences – ‘Pet Sematary’

Considering Hollywood’s concurrent current trends toward embracing reboots and Stephen King properties, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that a number of the Master of Horror’s past filmic adaptations are ripe for revisitation. Particularly when you take into account the runaway critical and commercial success of 2017’s remake of “It” and the notorious unevenness of previous screen adaptations.

This brings us to the latest King remake “Pet Sematary.” This new film – based on King’s 1983 novel of the same name – follows the 1989 version helmed by Mary Lambert. It tells the story of the Creed family and their move to rural Maine, where in the woods behind their new home, they stumble upon a dark place – a place where death is no longer an end, but rather the beginning of a much more horrifying tale.

However, while the assembled cast is stellar and co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer are not without skill, the end result doesn’t quite clear the bar set by either the novel or the original film. That isn’t to say that this version is without merit, but those with a deep-seated affection for those previous works will likely find themselves a little disappointed.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 27 March 2019 14:12

This is ‘Us’

Horror cinema has long been a genre whose flexibility has allowed it to serve as a remarkable vehicle for the delivery of big and complex ideas. The allegorical underpinnings of horror movies allow filmmakers to spark conversations about the complicated entanglements of the world in which we live on both macro and micro levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele took advantage of horror’s flexibility and shifted the paradigm with his 2017 debut film “Get Out,” building a film that was both bitingly socially satiric and legitimately tense and scary. That movie’s wild critical (Oscar nominations for Actor, Director and Picture and a win for Original Screenplay) and commercial (over $250 million at the global box office against a budget under $5 million) success meant a whole lot of anticipation for (and pressure on) the follow-up.

And “Us” clears every bar.

Peele’s latest horror thriller delves into the tropes of home invasions and evil twins and more, using those genre touchstones as part of a meaningful conversation about social stratification and class warfare and other important issues confronting the America of today. I’ll put it this way – “Us” could easily be read as “U.S.” … and that’s certainly not a coincidence.

Published in Movies

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
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