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Tuesday, 15 October 2019 20:37

Battle of Wills – ‘Gemini Man’

Anyone who’s paying attention realizes that we’re moving into a post-movie star realm of cinematic entertainment. The vast majority of movies are IP-driven – the franchise matters more than the star. It’s the classic Johnny Bravo conundrum writ large – it’s all about who fits the costume, and with the current state of CGI … anyone can fit the costume.

There are a few leftovers from previous eras who are still hanging around to some extent – your Cruises, your Pitts, those sorts – and a couple of new guys (well, just one if we’re being real – congrats, The Rock!), but that’s about it.

Will Smith is one of the holdovers, someone who has been using raw charisma to dominate the big screen for going on a quarter-century. He is one of the scant handful of people out there to whom the descriptor “movie star” can still be applied, despite a … let’s just call it a questionable body of work. But hey – he’s still a movie star, right? And what could be better than a blockbuster movie featuring Movie Star Will Smith?

How about TWO Will Smiths?

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 15 October 2019 20:33

A star is (re)born – ‘Judy’

One of the staples of awards season is the biopic. For whatever reason, we’ve collectively decided that watching actors portray real people is more impressive than portraying fictional characters. Sometimes that’s true … and sometimes it isn’t. There are a lot of pitfalls that come with representing a living breathing human. Sometimes, good intentions give way to mishaps. Other times, you get something that’s middling. And sometimes, you get something unforgettable.

In “Judy,” Renee Zellweger gives us the latter.

The film, which tells the story of entertainment icon Judy Garland’s 1968 trip to London, isn’t any kind of wheel reinvention. Directed by Rupert Goold from a screenplay adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s stageplay “End of the Rainbow,” it’s pretty standard stuff. It’s a moment-in-time biopic as opposed to a birth-to-death biopic (though we do get some “Wizard of Oz”-era flashbacks, aiming to capture one small stretch of the subject’s life.

What elevates “Judy” is Zellweger’s work in the titular role. She is wholly committed in a way we don’t often see, giving the sort of transformative performance that requires most actors to shift their weight by 50 pounds or slather on the prosthetics … and she does it with a haircut. She inhabits the icon, warts and all. Hell, she even does her own singing, which is a major flex no matter who you are.

And it works. All of it.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 08 October 2019 14:29

This ‘Joker’ is wild

Hollywood has spent the past decade-plus showing us that superheroes are more than capable of carrying a movie. We’ve seen all manner of comic book fare, from the biggies like Marvel and DC to more independent offerings. Superheroes are movie stars.

But what about supervillains?

With few exceptions, we haven’t seen the bad guys in the lead in these films. There’s “Suicide Squad” and … what? Now, one could argue that the single greatest performance in a superhero film was Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” but he wasn’t the star – not really.

And now, we’re getting yet another iteration of that character, only this time, it’s his story. “Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips from a script co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, stars Joaquim Phoenix as the titular criminal. For the first time, a singular bad guy got the chance to carry a film all by his lonesome. There are no heroes here, no other villains – just Joker.

The result is a film that is unapologetically visceral and unwavering in its brutality. It paints a bleak portrait of the world and the people who live in it, using its titular character as a mirror to force society to look itself in the warts-and-all face. It is repugnant and fascinating in equal regard, driven by an absolutely mesmerizing and transformative performance by Phoenix. It is aggressive in its unpleasantness, doubling and tripling down on its unreliability as it forces us to follow along on a journey where the line between reality and delusion is indelibly blurred.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 08 October 2019 14:27

‘In the Tall Grass’ comes up a bit short

What if you heard a voice calling to you, emerging from an unseen child lost somewhere in a field of tall grass? If that voice asked you for help, would you venture forth to offer your assistance? What if you went in … and couldn’t find your way out?

That’s the deceptively simple conceit of “In the Tall Grass,” a film directed by Vincenzo Natali from a script Natali adapted from the novella of the same name co-written by Stephen King and Joe Hill. It’s pastoral horror at its most elemental, a tale of terror where unexplained forces can trap the innocent in circumstances that they cannot understand – and cannot escape.

The film operates largely in the realm of atmospheric scares, relying on the seeming innocence of the natural setting to evoke the fear-feeding tension. It isn’t always successful, with stretches that don’t quite cohere as well as they might; the plot takes on a complexity that isn’t always easy to follow. But with some brutally bloody moments and an enervating audio/visual style, you might find yourself unable to look away.

Published in Movies

In the world of big-time cinematic animation, we tend to think of Pixar as the big artistic achiever and Walt Disney Animation as the song-and-dance populist, while both are adept at the unabashed tugging of heartstrings. And then you have DreamWorks Animation, the goofball cousin with a looser, slightly weirder sensibility, but with no less attention to the pushing of emotional buttons.

“Abominable” is the latest animated offering from DreamWorks, one that fits right in with that perceived dynamic. It isn’t as ambitious as a Pixar film, nor as slick as a Disney; instead, it’s silly and sincere in equal measure, a sweet and well-made 97-minutes of quality kiddie fare.

There’s a message, of course. There always is – in this case, it’s a fairly simple moral about family and friendship and moving forward. But the film is also interested in giving us juvenile (in a good way) humor and a handful of impressive set pieces … and writer/director (and animation vet) Jill Culton is here to make sure we get plenty of that too.

It’s the right choice.

Published in Movies

Time travel is tricky.

It’s easy to understand why a filmmaker – especially a filmmaker on a budget – would be interested in the possibilities offered by time travel. It’s a conceit that allows plenty of room for speculative spread without necessarily requiring one to shell out a ton of cash for effects work.

However, one must also be prepared to deal with the narrative ramifications of using something like time travel. You can’t just point the camera and say “time travel” – there has to be some sense of cohesion. Without a delicate touch, the whole thing is in danger of dissolving into incoherence.

Some time travel movies – the best ones – strike a balance; the filmmaker is able to embrace the advantages offered by the concept while also avoiding the many pitfalls. The vast majority fall short of that ideal.

“In the Shadow of the Moon” is one of the many, rather than the few. Rather than building a time travel narrative that builds upon itself, it instead collapses under its own weight. Its intriguing initial idea is unable to sustain itself, crumbling into paradox. The logistical issues are either ignored or hand-waved away, rendering the central mystery an uninteresting afterthought.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 25 September 2019 09:18

To the stars – ‘Ad Astra’

In the age of blockbuster franchises and repurposed intellectual property, it’s rare for a film based wholly on an original idea, whose concept wasn’t pulled from a preexisting source, to receive the big-budget treatment. A perfect storm of sorts is required – a combination of story and storyteller that can warrant nine figures without the crutch of already-extant exposure.

“Ad Astra” is just such a film. It’s a sci-fi epic, one that features the talented auteur James Gray in the director’s chair, working from a script Gray co-wrote with Ethan Gross. And Brad Pitt, one of Hollywood’s last movie stars, leads the way in an actual movie star-type role – something we haven’t seen a lot of from him in recent years.

It has all the trappings of big-time science fiction, but it uses those trappings to tell a much more intimate story. At its core, “Ad Astra” is a film about coming to terms with who we are, about understanding our choices and the motivations behind them. It’s about finding ways to let go of the past while holding onto the lessons we learned from it.

Published in Movies

Did we really need another Rambo movie?

When the character – played by Sylvester Stallone – first graced movie screens back in 1982’s “First Blood,” John Rambo was a relatively nuanced rendition of a Vietnam veteran struggling to reintegrate into American society upon his return from war. But with each subsequent iteration – “Rambo: First Blood Part II” in 1985, “Rambo III” in 1988 and especially 2008’s “Rambo” – the character became more cartoonish and violent, with increasingly nonsensical plotlines and escalating brutality essentially erasing the complexity displayed in that initial film.

“Rambo: Last Blood” continues in that unfortunate vein. With a disinterested and generic script co-written by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick and bland direction from Adrian Grunberg, this fifth installment in the series brings nothing new to the table. Instead, it seems to exist solely to give Stallone a chance to flail around in his blood-soaked sandbox; it is visceral in its violence and largely absent of anything resembling real connection.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 25 September 2019 09:14

‘Downton Abbey’ sumptuous and satisfying

“Downton Abbey” was a television phenomenon. For six seasons, millions of viewers immersed themselves in the lives of the residents of the Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey. The members of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants received equal airtime, with all of their dramas – large and small – playing out to the delight of a massive audience.

I was not a member of that massive audience. Aside from an occasional snippet caught due to a friend or loved one watching the show, I had zero exposure to the program. I was aware of it, but I was largely unfamiliar.

So when it came to the “Downton Abbey” film, I was left with two choices. I could try to catch up on some 50-plus hours of period drama … or I could go in cold and see if the film version held up without the context of the show.

I chose the latter.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 18 September 2019 09:18

Don’t hustle these ‘Hustlers’

Here’s a reminder for those of you who may have forgotten: Jennifer Lopez is legitimately good at everything. She is a talented pop singer, an excellent dancer and a gifted actress. She is a savvy businesswoman and a social media savant. She is smart as hell and still hungry after more than two decades in the spotlight.

She puts those skills on full display in her new film “Hustlers,” directed by Lorene Scafaria from a screenplay she adapted herself from a magazine article written by Jessica Pressler. It’s a movie that is equal parts heist story and female friendship narrative. Lopez unleashes the full force of her talents (not to mention her pure unbridled charisma), putting forward a performance that is nuanced and raw and serves as an absolutely magnetic foundation for what ultimately proves to be a damned good movie.

It’s an unapologetic look at what it takes to get ahead in a world where the deck is stacked against you, a story that refuses to condemn its characters for embracing the same tactics that the men of the world get rich employing. It’s a story about people who, instead of playing the hand that they were dealt, choose to change the rules to which they are expected to adhere.

Published in Movies
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