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Tuesday, 03 December 2019 13:52

‘Knives Out’ a cut above

Is there anything better than a good old-fashioned whodunnit? Getting dropped into the midst of a mystery as it unfolds can be an utterly delightful entertainment experience, whether we’re talking about the page, the stage or the screen.

Of course, the key here is the word “good.” Because while a good whodunnit is great fun, a bad one is decidedly not. There are a LOT of ways for a mystery to go bad and it is far from easy to make one that engages in all the ways it needs to engage.

“Knives Out,” the latest offering from writer/director Rian Johnson, isn’t good. It’s great.

From the film’s opening moments to its dynamic conclusion, “Knives Out” is firing on all cylinders. The aesthetic is exquisite, packed with details both ornamental and load-bearing. The narrative is nuanced, with a twisty-turny plot that finds ways to both celebrate and subvert the conventions of the genre. And the cast is magnificent, a collection of top-tier talent welded together into one of the most entertaining ensembles to hit theaters this year.

It is a modern twist of the knife, so to speak; a combination of Agatha Christie-esque manor house mystery with a 21st sensibility. It is smart and self-aware, layered and tense and surprisingly funny. It embraces stylistic formula while simultaneously being something altogether itself. It cuts quickly and deeply … and so very effectively.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 03 December 2019 13:49

Morality and mortality – ‘The Irishman’

Martin Scorsese is an icon, one of the best directors in the history of the medium. The creative force behind films like “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” – films that are indelible parts of the cinematic pantheon.

His latest offering is a worthy addition to that illustrious filmography.

“The Irishman” is an achievement in filmmaking, an American epic of the sort that many had simply given up ever seeing again. It is Scorsese embracing the sordid past of our culture’s underbelly, finding shadows in the sun. Over the course of its sprawling (and admittedly sometimes self-indulgent) 209 minutes, it shares a kind of secret history of the American dream.

Featuring a pair of all-time talents in frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert De Niro and Al Pacino supported by a Murderers’ Row of exceptional talent, “The Irishman” is an ambitious film – one that occasionally succumbs to the consequences of that ambition, but whose successes far outweigh the odd minor stumble. It is an intricate, immense memory play, driven by the vision of one of the greats.

Published in Movies

There are a certain few people in this world for whom a nigh-universal affection is held. These people are beloved for reasons that essentially transcend our individual biases, people who are by all appearances genuinely decent.

People like Mr. Rogers.

I don’t care who you are – you probably have a fondness in your heart for Mr. Rogers. He is an icon, a man not just nice but Nice, a living embodiment of humanity’s innate love for our children. To so many of us, Fred Rogers is the Socratic ideal of a good human being.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” attempts to show us just how monumental an impact an encounter with such a person can have on our lives. Inspired by a 1998 Esquire profile written by Tom Junod, the film opens a window onto the one singular truth about Mr. Rogers that is both unbelievable and utterly expected – that he is precisely the man he appears to be.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 27 November 2019 11:37

A bridge too far – ’21 Bridges’

Sometimes, it is abundantly clear why a movie doesn’t work. Perhaps a director is out of their element. Perhaps a lead role is woefully miscast. Perhaps the story lacks depth or displays an unfortunate tone-deafness. Sometimes, it’s more than one of these things.

Other times, it isn’t quite so cut-and-dried. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the whole is simply less than the sum of its parts.

The latter description suits the new cop thriller “21 Bridges.” It’s a competently made film with some legitimate star power, featuring some solid action and dramatic tension. The pieces are all there for a good movie … but “21 Bridges” never quite figures out how to put them together.

Now, that’s not to say that this is a bad movie. It isn’t. What it is, unfortunately, is forgettable. And honestly, considering what’s being brought to the table in terms of talent, that’s almost more damning.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 19 November 2019 11:57

Race to the top – ‘Ford v. Ferrari’

One of the complaints surrounding awards shows like the Oscars in recent years is the fact that often, the movies up for these honors aren’t necessarily movies that a lot of people have seen. They are critical darlings, but that acclaim only sometimes translates to significant commercial success.

“Ford v Ferrari” is that relative rarity, a film intended to win both at the ballot box and the box office. It’s pure Oscar bait, but with a big-budget sensibility – no surprise considering we’re talking about Disney here. It’s a sports movie and a biopic – the story of Ford Motor Company’s efforts to usurp Ferrari’s place atop the racing world back in the 1960s – with two no-doubt movie stars heading up the cast.

This kind of movie was once a mainstay of mainstream Hollywood. Now, it’s an unexpected treat. And it is a treat – you’ve got a talented and flexible studio director in James Mangold, with A-listers Matt Damon and Christian Bale taking turns driving. Just like the race cars produced by its namesakes, “Ford v. Ferrari” is sleek and fast; a powerful and expensive machine.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 19 November 2019 11:55

‘Charlie’s Angels’ get their wings

Did we really need another “Charlie’s Angels” movie?

It’s not surprising, really; the basic concept is certainly ripe for revisiting in this current era of IP-driven franchise-building. And in case you’re wondering, yes – this new film is intended as a sequel of sorts to the two “Charlie’s Angels” films from 15 years ago, rather than a reboot.

But the question remains: why?

That said, the actual result is better than it has any right to be. Not great, but OK. It’s probably safe to assume that much of the credit for that has to go to Elizabeth Banks, who not only directed the film but also makes her feature debut as a screenwriter. Oh, and she’s in it as well. So yeah – this is very much an Elizabeth Banks joint.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 19 November 2019 11:53

Pros and cons – ‘The Good Liar’

In a world full of franchises and IP-driven cinematic entertainment, certain types of films have fallen out of favor with the biggest studios. That’s not a judgment so much as a simple statement of fact.

And it’s too bad, because if Hollywood allowed itself to keep an open mind, we might get more efforts like the new dramatic thriller “The Good Liar.” It’s a movie whose tight, taut tone is brought forth by the talented likes of director Bill Condon behind the camera and the delightful central pairing of Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren. Films like this – films interested in neither billion-dollar box office or scads of awards attention – are thinner on the ground than ever.

It’s not a perfect movie – things get more than a little convoluted at times and the pacing has moments where it lags a bit – but its relatively minor issues are more than overcome by McKellan and Mirren, who are cinematic treasures and are clearly enjoying themselves immensely. When you’ve got that kind of charm and charisma on display, the rest more or less takes care of itself.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 12:46

‘Doctor Sleep’ shines on

It seems like every week sees the announcement of another screen adaptation of a Stephen King work. Hollywood has always had an affinity for King, but the proliferation of outlets has brought more and more content creators to the nigh-endless font of material that is the erstwhile Master of Horror.

But “Doctor Sleep” is a little different. The 2013 book is a sequel to King’s classic novel “The Shining,” a look at whatever happened to little Danny Torrance in the aftermath of his ordeal at the Overlook Hotel. King’s relationship with Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining” is notoriously fraught; in some ways, “Doctor Sleep” was a years-later reaction to that film.

Obviously, this makes the idea of adapting “Doctor Sleep” to the screen a tricky proposition. But few are as uniquely suited to strike the proper balance as Mike Flanagan, who both directed and wrote the screenplay for the film. Flanagan’s horror bona fides are legit, but more than that, he wrote and directed one of the best King adaptations of recent years; “Gerald’s Game” was a book that seemed almost unfilmable, yet Flanagan turned it into a powerful and effective film.

Turning his eye onto “Doctor Sleep,” Flanagan’s stated goal was to do proper service to King’s book while also finding ways to pay homage to Kubrick’s iconic film. It would seem to be a Herculean task … and yet Flanagan managed to pull it off. Being all things to all people rarely works, yet here we are – a film that is true to both the spirit of the book being adapted and of the film being remembered.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 12:44

‘Midway’ tries to fight the good fight

The Battle of Midway is considered one of the major turning points in World War II. The victory by U.S. forces over the Japanese Navy prevented Japan from taking control of the Pacific Ocean and bringing devastation to America’s west coast. The United States was outnumbered and outgunned, but thanks to the bravery of the men in the fight and the brilliance of those plotting the course, they emerged victorious.

It’s an obvious choice to receive the cinematic treatment. Indeed, the battle was the namesake of a star-studded 1976 film. Now, over 40 years after that film and over 70 since the battle itself, moviegoers are getting another look at that historic fight on the big screen.

Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

Director Roland Emmerich, whose name has become a kind of shorthand for big-budget Hollywood films that are heavy on the explosions and light on the … everything else, brings us “Midway.” While he certainly understands the spectacle that comes with war movies, he doesn’t quite capture the subtler aspects of the story the way one might hope.

It’s not that the film is bad, per se – it’s just a bit heavy-handed, both in terms of the CGI battle scenes and the interpersonal relationships. To his credit, Emmerich has assembled a talented cast that is able to somewhat alleviate the issues with both his direction and Wes Tooke’s screenplay, lending the proceedings a depth that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The end result is a moviegoing experience that is fine, but no more than that.

It’s a story that warrants telling; it’s just too bad that it isn’t better told.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 12:42

‘Playing with Fire’ a lukewarm family film

Let’s be clear from the start: John Cena is not The Rock. Nor will he ever be The Rock, no matter how hard he, WWE and/or Hollywood try to make it be so.

And that’s OK. Cena has his own (admittedly limited) charms, both in terms of personality and performance acumen. He’s never going to be the entertainment force that is Dwayne Johnson.

Movies like “Playing with Fire” are an excellent illustration of that truth. While The Rock had his share of kid-friendly outings early in his film career, it was clear even at the time that something larger was looming. Cena simply doesn’t have the same sort of raw charisma.

This isn’t a criticism, really – though it may sound like one. Cena’s performative talents may lag behind his fellow wrestler-turned-actor, but he also has plenty to offer in his own right. He’s got a gift for using his imposing physicality to his benefit, as well as a legitimately good sense of comedic timing and a genuine earnestness – all of which work well in a movie like this one.

Published in Movies
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