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Coming across an unexpectedly good movie is a lovely treat. The blockbusters tend to take up most of the oxygen, making it a little tougher to discover smaller, more idiosyncratic films. One of the many joys of my job is that the gig makes it just that much easier to find the less obvious gems.

“Sometimes Always Never” is no one’s idea of a blockbuster. It’s an intimate, offbeat family dramedy, the feature directorial debut of Carl Hunter, who might be best known as a member of Liverpool pop band The Farm (say what you will, but “Groovy Train” remains a bop), with a script by noted British screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce. It is smart and sweet and incredibly stylish, a mélange of retro aesthetics and family dynamics.

Again, this is not a big movie. Instead, it is constructed of intimate moments, relying on vivid visual choices and heartfelt performances to tell a simple, delicate story of what it means to love and the myriad ways in which we try to move on from loss. It is a clever and quietly, quirkily moving piece of cinema.

Published in Style
Sunday, 12 July 2020 16:28

‘Greyhound’ wages war on the water

Many of our greatest stories have revolved around warfare. From the great epics of the ancient Greeks thousands of years ago to the continued proliferation of war movies today, the tragedies and triumphs of the battlefield have been major subjects of our storytelling since we first began telling them.

We’ve already seen one strong entry into the war movie canon this year with Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” but we can add another to the list courtesy of “Greyhound,” currently available on Apple TV+. The film – directed by Aaron Schneider from a screenplay adapted by Tom Hanks (who also stars) from the C.S. Forester novel “The Good Shepherd” – is a throwback of sorts, an ode to the WWII films of the past, telling the tale of the men tasked with protecting trans-Atlantic convoys in the empty stretches too far from shore for air support.

It’s a sharply-paced, engaging war movie, one that finds interesting ways to juxtapose the vast and harsh expanse of the ocean with the nigh-claustrophobic confines within a warship. It also captures the pressures that land on the shoulders of those in command, pressures that are exponentially heightened by the simple fact that the enemy is often invisible. That air of dread and anticipation – and the heroism that it takes to stand strong and fight anyway – permeates the film.

Published in Movies
Saturday, 11 July 2020 16:41

Never say die – ‘The Old Guard’

It takes a special kind of performer to headline an action franchise. Gone are the days when all it took was a willingness to bulk up, shoot guns and spout catchphrases; today’s action offerings trend toward the high-concept, particularly when looking to create or continue a series. And a different sort of action requires a different sort of actor.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have pegged someone like Charlize Theron as a likely action star, but following recent turns in films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde,” it is abundantly clear that she has all the requisite chops to handle her business.

Her latest entry into that realm is “The Old Guard,” currently streaming on Netflix. It’s a sharp and sometimes surprising sci-fi action offering, one clearly intended to kick off a franchise for the streamer. There’s a thoughtfulness to the film that you don’t always see in this sort of offering, along with a willingness to allow breathing room for character development (although the action set pieces are high in both quality and quantity).

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from a screenplay that Greg Rucka adapted from his own graphic novel series of the same name, “The Old Guard” is a film whose strengths are consistently complementary, finding the perfect blend of action-packed excitement and character engagement – one left wide open for future installments.

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, 06 July 2020 13:13

Return to sender - ‘Desperados’

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Netflix has another original romantic comedy hitting their service.

The streaming giant has done significant work in their efforts to corner a variety of cinematic niche markets through the combined power of their algorithm and their checkbook. Nowhere is that focus more apparent than in the realm of rom-coms; Netflix is the undisputed industry leader as far as that genre goes. They just keep churning them out, for (sometimes) better and (usually) worse.

Their latest offering is “Desperados,” a film that is very much the latter. It is a derivative and vaguely dull film, one that seems to have simply thrown a bunch of clichés and tropes at the wall and filmed what stuck. It is a warmed-over rehash, a cover band attempting to play the hits. It’s the sort of movie that offers literally nothing that you haven’t seen before.

Watching this movie is like watching items checked off a list. Quirky female protagonist? Check. Two unreasonably supportive friends? Check. Ridiculous and easily avoided mistake made? Check. Exotic getaway setting? Check. Questionable decision making? Check. Physical injury played for laughs? Check.

You get the picture.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 05 July 2020 16:23

‘Hamilton’ gets the job done

If you were even remotely connected to the theatre world five years ago, you were aware of the phenomenon that was “Hamilton.” Adoring fans were shouting the praises of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop Founding Fathers opus from the rooftops. The soundtrack was everywhere. Tickets were impossible to come by.

Now, a half-decade later, the masses who to this point were unable to see the show have finally gotten their chance.

A filmed version of the show, as directed by Thomas Kail and recorded back in 2016, was supposed to get a theatrical release this year. Instead, it made the move to streaming, landing on Disney+. And if social media buzz is any indication, a LOT of people watched it. That’s no surprise.

What is a surprise is how great it is.

Now, that’s not meant as a slight to the show itself. The plaudits and accolades speak volumes regarding the quality of the experience. No, what I’m talking about is the fact that filmed plays almost always fail to fully resonate. Best case, you get a dull, flat rendering of an experience meant to be energetic and visceral. Worst case, you get something effectively unwatchable.

Yet this film somehow blows away that best case. I can say with confidence that this version of “Hamilton” is far and away the best filmed representation of a stage play that I have ever seen. Granted, there’s a fair amount of production value here, but the fundamental staginess of the show remains intact. You never once forget you’re watching a play, and yet … it clicks on the small screen to a remarkable degree.

It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Published in Buzz

If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered what would happen if you were to combine ABBA with Bjork, divide that into into two people and enter the result in the Eurovision Song Contest. Now, thanks to Will Farrell and Netflix, we finally have an answer.

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” – directed by David Dobkin and starring Ferrell (who also co-wrote the script) and Rachel McAdams – is the story of a mismatched pair of Icelandic oddballs whose strange band accidentally winds up representing their country in the legendary Eurovision Song Contest.

This is a legitimately weird movie, one that revels in its sense of exaggerated cultural absurdity and is unapologetic in its steadfast refusal to concern itself with making sense. It is both celebration and satire, a goofy love letter to Eurovision that leans into the over-the-top pomp and circumstance that helps define the beloved contest. It is relentlessly ridiculous, loose and shaggy and rife with inexplicable accents. It is a movie that won’t be everyone’s cup of brennivin, but if you’re into it, you will be INTO IT.

Real talk: I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, but your mileage definitely may vary.

Published in Movies

Anyone with eyes and ears is aware that we’re currently living in an extremely polarized time. That polarization makes it both a great time and a tough time to make a political comedy. On the one hand, the landscape is littered with targets for satirization. On the other hand, it’s all just so f---ing bleak out there.

Into this dichotomy drops “Irresistible.” Currently available via VOD services, the film is written and directed by Jon Stewart. It tells the tale of what happens when a small-town mayoral race captures the attention of high-level political operatives on both sides of the partisan divide. These operatives swoop in and turn this minor municipal election into a big-money campaign. It’s ostensibly an ideological fight, but it soon becomes clear that there’s far more to it than that.

Stewart’s body of work from “The Daily Show” on up would seem to make him the ideal candidate (no pun intended) to make a film like this. And it’s a dynamite cast, led by Steve Carell, Chris Cooper and Rose Byrne. The talent is here, for sure.

So why isn’t this movie better?

Not that it’s bad, per se. It has its moments. It just feels like it is trying to be all things to all people, which is ironic considering its subject matter. It never commits to a tone, resulting in an overall feeling of meh-ness that undercuts whatever satiric impact it might have made. Political commentary? Sly satire? Underdog tale? “Irresistible” is all of these – and hence none of them.

Published in Movies

The world of elite competitive sports is a fascinating one, studded with stars and fantastic feats. We watch and we marvel and we revel in the incredible athleticism that plays out on the fields and in the arenas that make up the grandest stage. We LOVE sports.

But there’s another side to that love affair – a side that can be unpleasant, harmful and, sometimes, utterly horrifying.

“Athlete A” – a documentary by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, currently streaming on Netflix – tells a story that reveals just how dark the dark side of sports can get. It’s the story of the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, in which team physician Dr. Larry Nassar took advantage of his position to abuse hundreds of girls over the course of decades – and in which the leadership of USA Gymnastics attempted to cover it all up. The film walks the viewer through the investigation, led by reporters at the Indianapolis Star, while also engaging with some of the first women to go public with their allegations of abuse.

Watching this film isn’t always easy – there are some gut-wrenching moments that will land hard no matter how much you already know of the story. But “Athlete A” is important filmmaking, a cinematic document of a story that forces us to take a long hard look in the mirror of our fandom. It’s a reminder that a win-at-all-costs mentality can be dangerous – because some costs are devastatingly, unconscionably high.

Published in Sports

Creating tension – genuine tension – is one of the most difficult things to effectively do in a film. It’s about finding the right buttons to push, yes, but also about discerning the best manner in which to push them. It comes down to the choices made by the filmmaker. When those choices don’t work, the result is flat and leaves the viewer disinterested and disengaged. When they DO work, however, the sky is the limit.

The new film “7500” is very much the latter – both literally and figuratively.

The film – currently streaming and available for free on Amazon Prime Video – is the story of a pilot confronted with an attempted hijacking. Taking place almost exclusively within the confines of the cockpit of an airliner, it is a claustrophobic and taut piece, a bundle of exposed-nerve tension that is rendered all the more powerful by the limitations of its setting.

Anchored by a phenomenal performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “7500” is a story about a man being pushed to the breaking point – and beyond – by circumstances outside of his control. His survival and the survival of his passengers are reliant on his making the right choices at the right time. And thanks to the efforts of Gordon-Levitt and first-time feature writer/director Patrick Vollrath, we’re there right alongside him – muscles tensed, breath held – until the bitter end.

Published in Movies
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