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What does it mean to take on the role of an icon?

It’s one of the fundamental challenges of a biopic – how to invoke the spirit and sensibility of a famous figure in a manner that avoids caricature. The best of these performances aren’t impressions or impersonations, but rather honest appraisals of the person being portrayed, built on actual character rather than a few plucked characteristics.

It’s worth noting that sometimes in biopics, the skill and subtlety of the central performance far outshines the rest of the film. The movie becomes less about the story and more about the person to whom the story is happening. That doesn’t mean the film is bad, necessarily – just that it doesn’t fully live up to the actor at its core.

Such is the case with “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” directed by Lee Daniels from a screenplay adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks from part of Johann Hari’s 2015 book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” It’s a film with issues – tonal inconsistency, uneven direction, a somewhat meandering narrative and odd aesthetic choices.

And yet, many of the film’s sins are forgiven due to the sheer incandescence of Andra Day’s performance as the titular Billie Holiday. Even during stretches when the movie isn’t entirely working, Day NEVER stops working. She is absolutely magnetic onscreen, thrilling to watch. And when she starts to sing? Forget about it. Day papers over a lot of the film’s issues through sheer power of performance.

Published in Movies
Monday, 22 February 2021 14:17

Hit the road with ‘Nomadland’

It’s always intriguing to watch a movie that blurs the lines between fiction and truth. Now, I’m not talking about “based on” or “inspired by” films – though one could argue that they partake in their own line blurring – but rather films that fold together the real and the fictional. Films that evoke that cinema verité vibe without being true documentaries.

That sort of vague and vaguely-explained categorization – it’s tough to articulate, but you know it when you see it – precisely and perfectly encapsulates Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland.” The film – written, directed, edited and produced by Zhao – is adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.”

It’s a story about the road-roaming lifestyle adopted by an increasing number of people – older, middle-class folks – who have been forced out of their homes and into a nomadic lifestyle by the unfortunate realities of late-stage capitalism. The companies for whom they spent years working are gone, their homes and savings destroyed by the mortgage and banking crises. To survive, they move into vans and RVs and follow seasonal work – Amazon distribution centers and campgrounds and national parks and the like – gradually becoming part of the ever-growing subculture.

It also – aside from a pair of incredible actors (Frances McDormand and David Strathairn) at its center – is populated almost wholly by people playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, actual livers of the nomadic lifestyle.

That bringing together of the fictional and the factual is what pushes Zhao’s film into the realm of greatness, an intimate epic of the American west as experienced by those who have been left behind by one or more of this country’s 21st century economic collapses and rebirths. It is quiet and expansive all at once, a film enamored of the broad openness of the landscape while gently acknowledging how easy it is for individual lives to get lost in the vastness that is America.

Published in Adventure

Surprises are pretty rare these days when it comes to movies. So much of what we see has been relentlessly promoted, with outreach projected through algorithmic and demographic prisms. To know anything about an upcoming offering is often to know everything.

But not always.

I had heard a little bit about Derek Delgaudio’s one-man show “In & Of Itself” when it was first taking off a couple of years ago, but not much. Basically, I understood that it was a show that utilized stage magic but wasn’t ABOUT stage magic. That was it, really – no knowledge of content or tone or anything like that.

So when I learned that Hulu was airing a filmed version of the show – one directed by the same person who directed the stage show, the legendary Frank Oz – I figured I’d check it out, see some card tricks, that kind of thing.

I had no idea.

Published in Movies

I’ve reviewed my share of teen weepies over the years. And there will always be more, because the powers that be aren’t dumb – there is always going to be a market for movies where attractive young people deal with obstacles both real and imaginary.

I should be clear – I’m not one of these people who automatically assumes that something with a YA label is somehow less than. There are plenty of high-quality YA entertainments across all media out there; to my mind, a good story is a good story. The unfortunate truth, however, is that those same powers that be aren’t always that concerned with a good story – for them, the overwrought feelings and melodrama are more than enough to get the job done.

“The Ultimate Playlist of Noise,” newly streaming on Hulu, isn’t QUITE that cynical. Directed by Bennett Lasseter from a script by Mitchell Winkie, it’s a well-intentioned film that offers a perspective on what it means to be a young person losing something (or someone) that you love. It’s the story of a young man who, faced with the loss of his hearing, undertakes to hit the road and record a collection of favorite sounds before they’re gone (for him) forever.

(If this rings familiar, last year’s exceptional “Sound of Metal” covered a fair amount of the same ground, only in a more nuanced and much less saccharine way.)

Now, this movie isn’t actively bad the way so many films that fall into the YA feelings category are. It has some things to recommend it – exceptional sound design, for example, with a killer soundtrack – but for the most part, it lands in the muddy middle. Fine and forgettable.

Published in Style

Finding freshness in any longstanding entertainment genre can be a trying task. How does one bring a sense of newness or novelty to something utterly familiar without losing the essence of what makes that thing worthy of exploration in the first place?

Take romantic comedies, for example. We’re in the midst of a rom-com renaissance of sorts, with streaming services taking up the baton for the studios that have largely abandoned the genre. And while most of these new offerings are various shades of beige, content to stick to the tricks and tropes with which we’re all familiar, there are a few that succeed in breathing new life into the form.

“Happiest Season” is one of those few.

The film, directed and co-written by Clea DuVall and streaming on Hulu, is an outstanding movie, a smart and slyly subversive take on the genre. Featuring a dynamite cast and a thoughtful story, it’s the kind of high-end rom-com that just doesn’t come along that often. Maneuvering the relationship complexities that come with holidays and meeting parents and the whole deal while ALSO exploring some of the realities of queer romance? That’s one hell of a tightrope walk, but DuVall and her crew practically dance across it, embracing the joy and pain alike.

(In case you haven’t guessed yet, I REALLY liked this movie.)

Published in Style
Monday, 23 November 2020 16:48

Mommy fearest - ‘Run’

Most of us have a pretty good understanding of the power of a mother’s love. Heaven knows we’ve seen it portrayed enough times on page, stage and screen. The majority of the time, we’re given a sense of not just the power, but the purity of that power. A mother’s love is meaningful and unconditional.

But when that love turns toxic, when it becomes all-consuming? That’s when we bear witness to the darkness, for there can be no light without shadow.

“Run,” the new movie from Hulu, offers us a look at that toxic darkness. Directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty, the talented filmmaker behind 2018’s excellent “Searching,” this is a chilling and emotionally charged dive into the circumstances of one mother’s love and how fear and delusion can twist that relationship into something dark and hurtful.

We’ve seen variations on the “mother from hell” formula before, but few have achieved this level of genuine scares. Sure, there are a couple of moments that threaten to teeter over the edge into camp – always a concern with these kinds of movies – but Chaganty’s steady hand and a pair of dynamite performances keep things on the rails. That barely-restrained sense of impending lunacy contributes greatly to what is ultimately a top-notch viewing experience.

Published in Movies
Monday, 31 August 2020 13:55

‘The Binge’ is not worthy

Sometimes, genre mixing works beautifully in movies. Bringing together seeming disparate influences to create something new can be exciting as well as entertaining. In the right hands and with the right ideas, such mashups can prove to be real winners. But when those efforts go awry, you’re often left with misfires that are significantly less than the sum of their genre parts.

Basically, you’re left with movies like “The Binge.”

This weird mélange of raunchy teen comedy and “The Purge” is currently streaming on Hulu. Directed by Jeremy Garelick from a screenplay by Jordan VanDina, “The Binge” is an at-times pantingly obvious effort to riff on the latter using the trappings of the former. Unfortunately, the pieces never quite fit together properly – the film is neither funny enough nor Purge-y enough to effectively land.

It’s unfortunate, really. It’s relatively easy to see some potential in the foundational concepts here, but the filmmakers never manage to realize that potential. There are a handful of amusing moments, though those are born more of incredulity than genuine humor. Ultimately, it’s a disposable entry into the “best night ever” subgenre of teen comedy that will almost immediately be remanded to the dustbin, a forgettable shoulder-shrug of a film.

Published in Buzz

When I first heard that Hulu was going to be airing a documentary about Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip-hop improv troupe co-founded by Lin-Manuel Miranda and other notables in the mid-2000s, I knew that I had to review the film. I’m not going to say that I’m UNIQUELY suited, but I’d guess that few share these three qualifications:

  1.     I have been a film critic for a dozen years
  2.     I have been an improvisor for over a decade
  3.     I have won the “Downtown with Rich Kimball” Downtown Throwdown rap battle – twice.

So yeah – you could say that this one is in my wheelhouse.

“We are Freestyle Love Supreme” hit the streaming service on July 17 – it was originally scheduled to debut in early June but was postponed. Directed by Andrew Fried, it’s the story of the titular improv group, featuring footage filmed over the course of 15 years and the usual talking head-style interviews; we watch as the fresh-faced kids of the early aughts grow into men. Some of the troupe’s members go on to staggering amounts of professional success, but even those who don’t become household names are clearly wildly talented.

It’s about the show, yes – we get plenty of insight into what kind of show FLS puts on, as well as a sense of just how gifted the players are – but it’s also a look at their growth and evolution. We meet them as recent college grads just looking to have some fun with their friends; by the time we close, we’re watching a years-later sold-out reunion run on Broadway. We get to see the love and respect these people carry for one another and how this goofy little group has impacted their lives over the years.

Published in Movies

It’s rare for a movie to present an idea with such complete success as to essentially take ownership of said concept, to come up with a hook that becomes the model upon which future movies are based.

“Groundhog Day” is one of those rarities. How many times have you heard a film referred to as “‘Groundhog Day’ but X”? It has become an easy shorthand for the sort of recursive time loop story that has proven to work across all genres. Comedy, yes, but also horror, thriller, sci-fi … we’ve seen examples that run the gamut.

The newest entry into the time loop oeuvre is “Palm Springs,” currently streaming on Hulu. The Andy Samberg-starring comedy was a big hit at Sundance, with Hulu buying the film for a tidy $17.5 million (and 69 cents, which … nice). Directed by Max Barbakow from a screenplay by Andy Siara (and produced in part by Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer), the quick pitch is “‘Groundhog Day,’ but at a wedding” – and it is excellent.

It’s an engaging take on the trope, one that pushes the logistics of the premise to absurd extremes while also finding ways to explore the inevitable emotional ramifications of an eternity of repetition. It asks questions about love and the human condition, yes, but it also features great jokes and slapstick moments. All of it structured around genuine insight regarding life and its meaning.

Published in Movies
Monday, 08 June 2020 14:54

Sorry Ms. Jackson – ‘Shirley’

The biopic has been a crucial part of the cinematic landscape since the very beginning. So many of our most acclaimed films have been built around the lives and narratives of real people. Whether they are cradle-to-grave or period snapshot, they share the stories of figures that have in some way shaped the world around them.

But when is a biopic not a biopic? When it’s “Shirley.”

The new film – directed by Josephine Decker from a script adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel of the same name by Sarah Scarf Merrell – takes a look inside the life of the notable and notorious writer Shirley Jackson, whose genre-adjacent fiction was among the most chilling of the mid-20th century.

With a dynamite performance by Elisabeth Moss in the title role, “Shirley” is not only a deconstruction of its subject, but of the very notion of biographical film. It is a sharp, biting film – one unafraid to lay bare the basic unpleasantness of its characters. By refusing to be bound by traditional tropes, this film offers up a striking and impactful interpretation of the creative process and the emotional and physical struggles that can accompany that process.

Published in Movies
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