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It’s no secret that DC Comics and their characters have been playing catch-up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the better part of a decade. Sure, DC cornered the early market on superhero cinema as high art (thanks almost entirely to Christopher Nolan), but their overall success lagged considerably.

One of the biggest complaints has been about tone. Specifically, that DC learned the wrong lessons from Nolan’s achievements and focused on gritty grimdarkness in its subsequent films. Sure, that works when you’ve got a dark-by-design character like Batman being brought forth by a brilliant actor and a transcendent filmmaker, but otherwise? Not so much.

The last couple of years have seen a course correction of sorts, with both “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” serving to show what can happen if these films are made with a different goal. And now, we get “Shazam!”, yet another big step in the right direction.

“Shazam!” is easily the most joyful of the DC offerings to date. It is pure escapist fantasy, distilling the essence of the wish fulfillment that is at the core of why so many of us fell in love with comic books in the first place. It is goofy and charming, wearing its dorkiness with pride. And the fact that it features a less well-known character (one who once shared a name with the Marvel character who just had a movie of her own hit theaters a few weeks ago) is just the icing on the cake.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 03 April 2019 12:56

‘Dumbo’ can’t quite take flight

Whatever your feelings with regards to mainstream Hollywood’s ongoing devotion to remakes, you have to accept the fact that things aren’t going to change anytime soon. Like it or not, you’re along for the remake ride – all you can do now is hope that they’re good.

With Disney’s live-action “Dumbo” – a remake of the studio’s 1941 animated classic – it seemed as though the pieces were there for success. Tim Burton’s pop-goth sensibilities and Technicolor weirdness seemed like a potentially fun lens through which to tell this story. The cast looks really strong. And the tale is a beloved one.

And yet – the film is less than the sum of its parts. While Burton’s aesthetic did lead to some memorable, engaging visuals and the ensemble provided generally solid-to-strong performances, an iffy screenplay and lack of spirit undermined those efforts. While it’s far from a bad movie, this “Dumbo” never manages to soar.

Published in Movies

Recounting real-life stories in movies is complicated business. The filmmakers must decide where to strike the balance between historical veracity and dramatic license – and the line moves. Finding the proper offset between telling the truth and telling a story is tough when that tipping point is in different places. The best docudramas are the ones that toe the line without crossing it, finding the correct distribution of truth and fiction for a particular film.

Making a movie such as “Hotel Mumbai,” a retelling of the real-life 2008 Mumbai attacks focusing on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, demands that delicacy of touch. Not only was this a huge tragedy, but a brutal and violent one; it’s an event that demands sensitivity in its presentation, yet also requires a certain bluntness to be truthful. Director Anthony Maras – who also co-wrote the screenplay with John Collee – had to step carefully.

And for the most part, he did so.

This is an undeniably tense and unexpectedly graphic account of what happened in those hours. While there are moments that skate up to the edge of exploitation, Maras manages to avoid crossing those lines. The visceral brutality of the film is, by most accounts, true to life. And the starkness of the violence allows the moments of selflessness and heroism to stand out the more.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 27 March 2019 14:12

This is ‘Us’

Horror cinema has long been a genre whose flexibility has allowed it to serve as a remarkable vehicle for the delivery of big and complex ideas. The allegorical underpinnings of horror movies allow filmmakers to spark conversations about the complicated entanglements of the world in which we live on both macro and micro levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele took advantage of horror’s flexibility and shifted the paradigm with his 2017 debut film “Get Out,” building a film that was both bitingly socially satiric and legitimately tense and scary. That movie’s wild critical (Oscar nominations for Actor, Director and Picture and a win for Original Screenplay) and commercial (over $250 million at the global box office against a budget under $5 million) success meant a whole lot of anticipation for (and pressure on) the follow-up.

And “Us” clears every bar.

Peele’s latest horror thriller delves into the tropes of home invasions and evil twins and more, using those genre touchstones as part of a meaningful conversation about social stratification and class warfare and other important issues confronting the America of today. I’ll put it this way – “Us” could easily be read as “U.S.” … and that’s certainly not a coincidence.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 20 March 2019 12:46

Love is in the air – ‘Five Feet Apart’

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a soft touch, emotionally speaking. My buttons can be pushed pretty easily. If a movie wants to make me cry, it will have little problem doing so. Whether or not that emotional manipulation is earned, well … it doesn’t really matter. It will work. However, just because my emotions are impacted doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the strings being pulled.

The new movie “Five Feet Apart” – directed by Justin Baldoni from a screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis – is nothing BUT strings. It is almost cynically manipulative, with a star-crossed love story featuring terminally ill teenagers falling for one another yet being kept apart by forces beyond their control. It is so formulaic, so boilerplate, that it almost feels algorithmically-generated – a product of maudlin mathematics.

Published in Movies

If history has taught us anything, it’s that when people are confronted with an invasion, they inevitably fall into one of two categories: collaborator or resistor. It has been that way in every war that has ever been fought; when enemy forces take over, some will fall in line and others will fight back.

There’s no reason to think that that would somehow change if said forces came not from another country, but from another world.

That’s the basic gist of “Captive State,” an alien occupation thriller directed by Rupert Wyatt from a script he co-wrote with Erica Beeney. It’s a story of what it means to live under the rule of an enemy that seems too powerful to overcome – and what it means to stand up to that enemy anyway.

It’s not a particularly subtle movie; it wears its ideas on its sleeve and is more about blunt force than surgical precision. The story is a bit overlong as well and meanders through its middle third. However, the low-fi aesthetic is interesting and there are some good performances. Add it all up and you get an acceptable (and forgettable) sci-fi outing.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 13 March 2019 13:07

Marvel at ‘Captain Marvel’

There’s no disputing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe rules the box office like nothing the entertainment industry has ever seen. Film after film drawing massive numbers, with grosses in the middle nine figures AT WORST. The MCU has produced some of the most globally popular movies of all time.

As we near the end of Phase Three – set to culminate with next month’s “Avengers: Endgame” – we are finally introduced to one of the characters who promises to be a major player in how that arc ends: Captain Marvel. The superpowered spacefarer stars in her own eponymously-titled outing, serving as the first female character to headline an MCU movie.

You may have heard about efforts from certain elements to undermine the film before its release. You may have also heard about how ultimately ineffectual those efforts were. Because a LOT of people saw this movie on opening weekend. And what they saw was pretty darned good, a quippy, zippy origin story that manages to stand on its own merits while also serving as connective tissue for the rest of the MCU out of necessity.

“Captain Marvel” could have floundered under the storytelling load it was asked to shoulder, but instead manages to (mostly) soar, giving us a fun and engaging narrative, some decent gags and some solid action set pieces (along with a killer ‘90s soundtrack). Excellent performances (particularly from star Brie Larson) serve as the glue that binds it all together.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 06 March 2019 13:08

Girl stalk – ‘Greta’

We’ve largely worked our way through the winter doldrums at the movies. It won’t be long before the deluge of big-budget blockbusters and franchise tentpoles begins in earnest. However, there are still a few stragglers hitting screens, films that have been thrust out into the market because if not now, when?

One such movie is “Greta,” a film you may not have even heard about (not many did, if the box office numbers are any indication). This despite some top-notch talent leading the cast and a well-regarded writer-director returning to the big screen for the first time in the better part of a decade. And yet, aside from a few interesting choices both in front of and behind the camera, the film is a largely forgettable thriller, a movie that we’ve seen a dozen times before.

Published in Movies

Have you ever wondered where pro wrestlers come from? From what kind of environment does a professional wrestling star spring?

“Fighting with My Family” tells the story of how one particular wrestler – WWE star Paige – came to reach the pinnacle of her chosen pursuit. Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (yes, THAT Stephen Merchant), the film is based on Max Fisher’s 2012 documentary “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family.” It’s the story of an English family and their devotion to the world of professional wrestling – a devotion that would help one of them reach the top of the heap.

It’s also a funny and surprisingly heartwarming story about what it means to be a family and about how those family ties can both help and hinder efforts at self-betterment. Sure, it’s a bit of on-brand fantasy courtesy of WWE, but instead of feeling calculated and cynical, there’s an unexpected sincerity to it that proves quite engaging.

Published in Movies

Despite how it may sometimes seem, it isn’t easy building an ongoing franchise. Creating something that will hold audience interest through multiple iterations takes plenty of skill and more than a little luck. Even animated fare, which could appear to have a leg up when it comes to turning a movie into a series, doesn’t always succeed.

That’s why the “How to Train Your Dragon” films – based on the Cressida Cowell book series of the same name – are such a delight. These movies – the third of which has just been released – have proven to be quality outings, earning plenty at the box office while also being of high enough quality to satisfy the critical sphere.

This newest installment - full title: “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” – offers us the third leg of a trilogy long in the making. Like its predecessors, the film offers up a surprisingly heartfelt message wrapped in high-flying dragon action and goofy slapstick. It feels like an ending – perhaps not of the franchise as a whole, but at least of this portion of the story.

Published in Movies
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