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Wednesday, 18 September 2019 09:14

Art for art’s sake – ‘The Goldfinch’

Adapting books to the big screen can be a tricky proposition. The truth is that while many times, a story is a story is a story, regardless of medium, there are some literary works – acclaimed, celebrated works – that resist that sort of translation. Sometimes, filmmakers are able to muscle through that resistance and present a great movie.

Other times, they make “The Goldfinch.”

The film, based on Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, is an undeniably game effort. Everyone involved – director John Crowley, screenwriter Peter Straughan, the talented cast – is clearly giving their all to a project in which they clearly believe very strongly. Unfortunately, the layered, fractured nature of the source text works against them; the end result is a film that is technically well-crafted yet doesn’t cohere. It’s a series of good-looking scenes that never quite click together.

What we have in “The Goldfinch” is essentially an echo of a prestige film, an offering that bears many of the outer indicators of Oscar bait, but is largely devoid of substance once you move beyond those surface trappings. Again – a game and good faith effort, but one that falls short.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 18 September 2019 09:10

Fun run – ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’

Movies don’t often surprise us anymore. That’s by design – we live in a world of massive marketing budgets and huge publicity pushes, when every major release receives multiple trailers and press junkets and the whole nine yards.

Then again, there are different kinds of surprises. There are the indie darlings that turn out to be dark horse awards contenders. There are the presumed anointed that wind up falling flat both critically and commercially. And then there are movies that surprise on a more individual level.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” falls into that third category. Specifically, it features a lead performer – in this case, Jillian Bell – known primarily for comedic work taking the turn into something with a bit more substance. That’s not to say that comedy is somehow insubstantial, only that it’s interesting to see comedic performers taking dramatic risks.

This movie is that risk for Bell, a gifted comedian who displays a degree of emotional vulnerability and honesty that is a significant departure from the work we’re accustomed to seeing from her. The comedy isn’t gone – she’s as funny as ever – but it’s coming from a genuine place, informed by real feeling. It’s a smart, sharp story that manages to balance a comedic coarseness with an underlying message that is legitimately inspirational.

Published in Movies
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

The tail end of the summer is often a tough time at the movie theater. The blockbusters have all made their entrances, their massive opening weekends filled with quips and explosions, while the fall/winter blend of awards contenders and winter blockbusters (yeah, they’re a thing now) has yet to kick off. Most of the time, that means that the cupboard is bare.

But what it ALSO means is that I sometimes get a chance to see something I otherwise wouldn’t – the occasional surprise gets a moment in the sun.

That’s what I got with “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a heartfelt and surprisingly sweet indie comedy/drama that is somehow both completely out of place and utterly at home on the late summer big screen. It’s the story of a young man willing to do whatever it takes to follow his passion, despite living in a world that refuses to believe he’s capable of, well … anything, really.

It’s a modern-day fable, a reimagined “Huckleberry Finn” with loads of swampy charm and a captivating cast that effectively balances triumph and tragedy while introducing audiences to a lead actor unlike any we’ve seen. It’s a film that helps us to understand that sometimes the bad guy is actually good – and that the good guy sometimes yearns to be bad.

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

“Who ARE all these people?”

That was what I muttered to myself as I entered the first screening of “Angel Has Fallen” at my local cinema. It was just after 1 p.m. on a sunny Friday afternoon in late summer, the sort of stretch for which people bail on work to go for a hike or to the beach or something, but … this? The third movie in an increasingly-ludicrous series in which talking mayonnaise wad Gerard Butler has to save the day despite overwhelming odds against him? This is how you’re going to spend your day? Me, I have to be here – what’s your excuse?

Who ARE all these people?

Whoever they are, they got to see a movie that, while far from good, did manage to at least improve upon its execrable (and kind of racist) “London Has Fallen,” the follow-up to “Olympus Has Fallen,” best known as the “Deep Impact” to the “Armageddon” of the Channing Tatum/Jamie Foxx team-up “White House Down.”

“Angel Has Fallen” is happy to lean into the assorted tropes and clichés of the genre, featuring a convoluted narrative packed with inexplicable decision-making, totally telegraphed betrayals and meaningless technobabble jargon to go along with loads of grim grimaces and steely glares. It’s not good – never good – but it’s better. A low bar, but there you have it.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 21 August 2019 09:56

The kids are all right - ‘Good Boys’

I was always going to like “Good Boys.”

Few comedic conventions sit as squarely in my wheelhouse as children cursing. What can I say? There will always be a part of me that remains eternally 13, just as there will always be movies that speak to that part of me. Much of the appeal is the juxtaposition against the relative innocence of childhood, of course, but I wasn’t prepared for how genuinely that innocence was going to be treated.

That sense of genuineness is what allows “Good Boys” to be something more than simply crass. There’s an underlying sweetness to it, one that focuses on the reality that no matter how much the world around them may change, there will always be certain things about being 12 years old that never will.

Published in Movies

A young person’s outlet for self-discovery can take many forms. One never knows what outside influence will inspire a whole new outlook and a whole new path. Sometimes, those influences make perfect sense. Other times, they are more of a surprise.

“Blinded by the Light” gives us the latter.

The film, based on a true story, explores the life of a young Pakistani teen in Thatcher-era Great Britain. He’s left to deal with the realities of life in that place and time – economic unrest, anti-immigrant prejudices, cultural expectations – while struggling with finding his own place. He wants to be his own person, but he’s not even sure what that means.

Until, that is, he hears the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Published in Movies

Full disclosure: I love dogs. I am a bordering-on-weird dog person. I recognize this about myself and own my lack of objectivity regarding dogs and their feelings fully. That said, I am able to manage enough separation to recognize when a movie isn’t actually all that good, even if it has no problem pushing the appropriate buttons to elicit the desired emotional responses from someone like me.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain,” based on Garth Stein’s best-selling 2008 novel of the same name, is far from great cinema. On its face, it is an over-plotted and underdeveloped family drama with a whiff of Nicholas Sparks about it. We’re kind of on a road to nowhere, driving aimlessly and never actually getting anyplace.

But there’s a dog with an inner monologue who has thoughts and feelings and engages with the thoughts and feelings of people, so what am I supposed to do? I’m not made of stone.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 13 August 2019 15:22

Mob wives – ‘The Kitchen’

While their position in the zeitgeist has ebbed and flowed over the decades, there’s no denying that mob stories are a fixture in our popular culture. The framework of organized crime allows for loads of violence and sex to go with interpersonal drama – it’s like the whole enterprise was invented for the stories (and plenty of it was).

Here’s the thing about popular stories – it’s tough to find new and successful ways in which to tell them.

That’s perhaps the biggest problem faced by “The Kitchen,” a 1970s-set mob movie that tries to venture down some different and interesting paths, but other than a few flashes, winds up largely bogged down in the clichés and tropes of the subgenre.

Based on the comic book series of the same name, “The Kitchen” tells the tale of three women forced by circumstance to team up and fill the void left by their absent husbands, who have been sent to prison. The leading trio is wildly talented, as is much of the supporting cast, but it isn’t enough; first-time director Andrea Berloff – directing from her own script – can’t seem to avoid the pitfalls of returning to such thoroughly excavated territory.

Published in Movies
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