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The transition from stage to screen can be hard.

No matter how good a stage play might be, no matter how brilliant the writing and writer, the shift from a live performance setting into the realm of cinema is rife with pitfalls. There are any number of things that can go awry, leaving audiences with a detached viewing experience that simply cannot compare with the one that took place in the room where it happened.

But when it works, man oh man – it WORKS.

Netflix’s new film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s play of the same name – works. It is an electrifying piece of cinema, powerful and provocative. The performances – led by Viola Davis as the titular Ma and an absolutely mesmerizing turn from the late Chadwick Boseman – are exquisite. The period aesthetic is vividly on point and the music slaps.

It’s a story of appropriation and what it means to push back against that appropriation. It’s about using whatever talents you have to force your way into the conversation, to demand a place at the table of your own, regardless of whether the world believes you deserve that spot. It is about systemic racism and cultural exploitation and the myriad ways in which one might choose to deal with those harsh realities.

Published in Movies

I’ll admit to having had some fun at Gerard Butler’s expense over the years. He’s made some interesting choices, particularly in recent years, from the increasingly outlandish “[Something] has Fallen” series to ridiculous genre offerings like “Geostorm” and “Hunter Killer” to the outright execrable “Gods of Egypt.”

Quite the resume, no?

That being said, I’ve always derived enjoyment from these movies precisely BECAUSE they’re so flawed. Butler has carved out a niche as the guy you call to star in your nonsense movie. He’s good at it, lending an unearned gravitas to projects (I personally prefer him in his natural accent, but his generic American works just as well) that otherwise would sink unnoticed to the bottom of the VOD seas.

“Greenland” – directed by Ric Roman Waugh from a script by Chris Sparling – is a perfect example of the kind of B-movie sensibility to which Butler has hitched his wagon over the past near-decade, a straightforward end-of-the-world movie that nevertheless manages to engage on a more individualized level. It’s a film that embraces its budgetary limitations, giving us a film that is heavy on the human element rather than CGI pageantry.

Now, is it a great movie? Of course not – this is Gerard Butler we’re talking about. But it is an undeniably fun movie, one that manages to prove surprisingly moving in moments despite the general outlandishness of its plot machinations. We’ve seen a lot of apocalypses play out on the silver screen over the years, and while “Greenland” certainly isn’t the best of the bunch, it is far from the worst.

Published in Movies

Wedding movies tend to be extremely hit or miss propositions.

I understand the impulse to construct a story around a wedding. There’s a lot of emotional energy built into the premise. There’s plenty of room for slapstick goofiness or straightfaced drama. It’s a reason for a lot of people – some familiar, some relative strangers – in a single place at the same time. I get why they keep happening, but the truth is that you never really know what you’re going to get.

“Sister of the Groom” – written and directed by Amy Miller Gross – generally lands on the positive end of the wedding movie spectrum, though it certainly isn’t without its faults. Thanks to some solid lead performances, a game ensemble and a lovely Long Island setting, it succeeds more than it fails, capturing not just the weird vibes that a wedding can inspire, but also an interesting investigation into how we consider the ways in which our choices impact our lives.

Published in Movies
Monday, 14 December 2020 15:31

‘Safety’ a feel-good football film

Full disclosure: I am a sucker for an inspirational sports movie. No matter the sport, no matter the story – I’m in. Give me athletes overcoming obstacles and coming together as a team in the course of that overcoming. Heck and yes.

All of this is to say that I was always going to enjoy “Safety,” the new film from Disney now streaming on Disney+. Based on the true story of football player Ray McElrathbey and his little brother Fahmarr, it’s a tale of perseverance in the face of adversity, as well as of the different ways people can be (or become) family.

Now, this is a Disney production, so the grittier aspects of the story have definitely had those rough edges sanded down. Still, for the most part, director Reginald Hudlin manages to keep the proceedings from moving beyond the sentimental into the saccharine. The beats will ring familiar to anyone who watches this sort of film, but the emotions still resonate. And make no mistake – this is a movie that is both aware of which buttons to push and unafraid to push them.

Published in Sports

We’ve seen a steady stream of movies converted into Broadway musicals in recent years to no small success. And there’s been plenty of transitioning in the other direction – the path from stage to screen has been well-traveled.

Converting musicals into movies is an interesting process. You never know if the filmmakers are going to be able to capture the essence of a musical – its spirit. Finding the right ways to convert the visceral nature of live performance onto film is always a crapshoot – one where sometimes you get “West Side Story,” sometimes you get “Cats.”

“The Prom” – currently streaming on Netflix – is the kind of movie that could be deemed nearer the former or the latter, depending on who you ask. Directed by Ryan Murphy and adapted to the screen by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin from their and Matthew Sklar’s 2018 musical of the same name, it’s a brightly-colored and broad (and dated) look at LGBTQ inclusivity and celebrity activism.

“The Prom” is driven by high-energy performances, delightful production numbers and some songs that are catchy as hell, all in service of what is ultimately intended to be a very sweet love story. Oh, and the cast is dynamite. While it has its clunky and/or heavy-handed moments and occasional missteps, it is by and large a fun and (mostly) funny take on what it means to want to help versus actually stepping up and helping.

Published in Movies

Few filmmakers are as habitually freewheeling as Steven Soderbergh, constantly willing to move in different directions and try new things. He’s unafraid to shift creative gears, trusting in his abilities and the abilities of those around him to make it work – and it usually does.

Take “Let Them All Talk,” his newest offering now available via HBO Max. Shot in a quasi-indie manner, it’s an amiable and chatty dramady that takes place on a trans-Atlantic cruise. The kicker, of course, is that it was filmed during an actual crossing, with all that that entailed. Soderbergh assembled an incredible cast, led by Meryl Streep, and kept it simple, using mostly natural light and minimal equipment to film.

The end result – ostensibly written by noted short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, though much of the dialogue was improvised by the cast – is an extremely watchable, albeit light, story of renewed and new connections. It’s not a film where a lot actually happens, but the people to whom stuff isn’t happening are engaging enough to get you to stick around. A good hang.

Published in Style
Monday, 14 December 2020 15:20

Two Drews can't save ‘The Stand In’

Hollywood has a long history of actors playing multiple roles in the same film. Sometimes, it is for the sake of mining the possibilities of two (or more) people resembling one another – mistaken identities or identity swaps or the like. Other times, it’s just because Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler wants a wider runway to do whatever goofy stuff they want to do.

“The Stand In” is the latest entry into the genre. This time, it’s Drew Barrymore playing two different roles in a story about a once-famous actress and her relentlessly sunny stand in. Directed by Jamie Babbit from a screenplay by Sam Bain, it’s an effort to document the deleterious impact of fame on people, doing so by way of yet another riff on the Mark Twain classic “The Prince and the Pauper.”

Unfortunately, the film legitimately struggles to decide what sort of tone it wishes to strike. The vacillation from comedy to drama and back again is constant and almost always without warning, leaving viewers with narrative whiplash. Despite Barrymore’s willingness to go for it – and she does give it her all – that lack of consistency leaves you wondering just what the aim was. Of course, if the goal was a movie that can’t figure out if it’s “Bowfinger” or “Single White Female,” well … mission accomplished?

Published in Movies
Monday, 14 December 2020 15:17

'Gap Year' explores alternate path to NBA

When the NBA implemented its “One and Done” rule in 2006, it altered the draft landscape. Players could no longer enter the draft directly out of high school; they had to be both a) at least 19 years old, and b) at least one year removed from the graduation of their high school class.

In practice, this essentially meant that players would go play for a college team for one year before making their way to the draft. However, playing in college, while perhaps the most conventional choice, was not the only one.

Players had the option of playing professionally overseas for a year. And the NBA’s G-League developmental league also presented an opportunity to play for pay in that year, albeit considerably less lucratively than a foreign league.

But then there’s Darius Bazley, who followed an entirely different path – one that may lead to a different sort of opportunity for other players down the road.

The new documentary “Gap Year,” directed by T.J. Regan and Josh Kahn, follows Bazley as he embarks on that different opportunity. Instead of going to college for a year or heading overseas or to the G-League, Bazley embraced a heretofore unseen path – an internship.

A million-dollar internship.

Published in Sports

As with literally every other aspect of our lives, 2020 has been a weird one when it comes to movies.

Despite the fact that movie theaters have been largely dormant for much of the year, we’ve still had the opportunity to watch a LOT of movies. I myself will have seen and reviewed more than 150 films in 2020. A lot of them have been good and some have been great.

Many of those great ones appear on this list.

Now, we’ve got 20 of my favorites from 2020 here. I’ve also included some honorable mentions, many of which might well have landed on this list had I written it on a different day. There’s a lot of fungibility here and the margins between most of these are VERY thin. Still, this is pretty close – at the very least, you can rest assured that these are among the films that I enjoyed and/or engaged with most in this very weird, very long year.

(And don’t worry – I’ll be doing my annual worst-of list as well. I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of all that fun. You’ll get that in a week or two.)

So here you have it – 20 of my 2020 favorites.

(Please note: this list is in alphabetical order rather than order of preference.)

Published in Cover Story
Monday, 07 December 2020 16:53

Write hard, aim low – ‘Mank’

The term “movie magic” gets bandied about pretty regularly, even in these cynical times. It is intended to evoke the sense of awe and wonder that is often born of the cinematic arts, but it should also be noted that there’s a darkness that sometimes goes hand in hand with magic – a darkness rendered all the more deeply courtesy of film’s flickering light.

“Mank” is a film that is unafraid to delve into that darkness, exploring the bleak underside of the rapid rise of early Hollywood. Directed by David Fincher from a screenplay written by his late father Jack Fincher, “Mank” is ostensibly the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the writer (or co-writer, depending on how much stock you put into early-70s Pauline Kael) of the iconic “Citizen Kane,” but in many ways, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.

“Mank” is an ode to old Hollywood, but not the sort of self-celebration we so often see from stories set in that time and place. Instead, we get a glimpse into the unseemly sleaziness that was so thoroughly shot through the industry at that time, with tyrannical studio heads and other assorted titans freely and unrelentingly taking advantage of those with even a modicum less power than they possessed. It is a story of one man’s journey from respectability to sellout to burnout to oddly noble flameout, all set against the backdrop of a time that has been cynically romanticized by an industry that loves nothing more than patting itself on the back.

Published in Movies
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