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True crime has become a thriving subgenre of programming across all media. Podcasts, TV shows, books, articles – we as a people love engaging with the deconstruction of heinous acts. What that says about us, well … your mileage may vary.

One of the hallmarks of true crime content is the idea that what we think we know can be upended at any point. The supposed truth at one point in the story can easily veer in an entirely new direction. It’s all about the deeper surprises dredged up once we delve beneath the surface of a story.

And when you throw Bigfoot into the mix, then all bets are off.

“Sasquatch” is a new entry into the true crime oeuvre, a three-episode docuseries on Hulu. Directed by Joshua Rofe, the series begins as an effort by one man to uncover the truth behind a decades-old murder whose initial explanation defied belief. But as he digs into the bizarre-on-its-face story, he begins to learn far more than he ever expected.

You’d be forgiven for expecting that this series is about, well, Sasquatch. And for stretches, it is. But what it’s truly about is the shadowy and sinister reality of the world of cannabis farming in Northern California, as well as the fact that the most frightening monsters of all are the ones that look just like us.

Published in Adventure

One of the realities of big business these days is that so much of what the money is buying doesn’t actually exist yet. Millions of dollars thrown at ideas that may or may not come to some sort of fruition, a quest to find the next big thing – the next “unicorn,” VC speak for a company worth a billion dollars. And when you’re operating in a world where ideas can be everything, there will be people who prove capable of talking their way to the top.

“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” currently streaming on Hulu, tells the story of the bright burnout of the ostensible tech company WeWork and its CEO Adam Neumann. Directed by Jed Rothstein, the film depicts the company’s rapid rise and fall, from a peak value of $47 billion to near bankruptcy in a matter of weeks – illustrative of some of the dangers that come with investing in opportunities that seem too good to be true.

Published in Buzz

There are a lot of cautionary tales out there regarding the aftermath of child stardom in the entertainment industry. So many times, the Hollywood machine sucks them dry, chews them up and spits them out. Maybe they become punchlines. Maybe they become cautionary tales. Or maybe they just fade away, forgotten.

But what’s the view like from the inside?

That’s the perspective of the new Hulu documentary “Kid 90.” Specifically, it’s the perspective of Soleil Moon Frye, who rose to fame in the mid-1980s as the titular moppet in NBC’s hit series “Punky Brewster.” See, as it turns out, Frye spent much of her adolescence with a video camera in hand, recording the world around her throughout her teen years and into her 20s – and she kept all of it.

Published in Movies

So there sure have been a lot of time loop movies lately, huh?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m as big a fan as anyone of the “Groundhog Day, but also this” genre. But at this point, you have to bring something new to the table; it’s all familiar now, so what else you got?

Movies like Hulu’s “Boss Level,” directed by Joe Carnahan and starring Frank Grillo, usually need that extra push to become something other than disposable. This action-driven time looper never does get around to breaking new ground, so its ceiling is on the low side. However, through gleefully nonsensical action sequences and a fresh-out-of-f—ks performance from Frank Grillo in the lead, it actually gets pretty close to that ceiling.

It’s a movie that does have some fun with its premise, offering a number of sharp action sequences and a few decent gags (including a couple that are a little … squishy). The cast is having a good time and no one is expecting you to think too hard. Again – you’ve seen it all before, but there are definitely worse ways to kill a couple of hours.

Published in Movies

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
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