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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

Remember “The Fast and the Furious”? The movie that was about illegal street racing?

Those days are long past, of course; as things currently stand, these movies exist in a physics-defying universe of impossible stunts, ridiculous fistfights and cornball dialogue. Notice I didn’t mention plot or character development, because that is very much not what these movies are about.

And never has the franchise been as fully all-in on the nonsense as it is with this latest iteration. This new installment – the first in what will almost certainly end up being a cavalcade of spinoffs – is “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (for the sake of brevity, we’ll go ahead and just call it “Hobbs & Shaw” moving forward – no one will have any trouble remember the connection to “F&F”).

This one leaves behind Dominic Torretto and his street-racer-turned-international-superagent “family” to focus on later arrivals Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw, allowing for an expansion of the franchise into a whole new realm of lunacy.

And expand it does, offering audiences a spectacle even sillier and more outlandish than the extremely silly and outlandish stuff we’ve seen in the most recent “F&F” films. There’s no narrative cohesion to speak of and a lot of what happens doesn’t really add up, but let’s be real – you’re not coming to this movie for the story. What you ARE here for is the action – and there’s a LOT of that, with set pieces that lean into the big, dumb and ultimately loving embrace of the franchise.

It doesn’t make much sense, but hey – it doesn’t have to.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 06 August 2019 19:14

Mother knows worst – ‘Otherhood’

Sometimes, you know exactly what you’re going to get from a movie within the first few minutes. Occasionally, that’s a good thing. More often, it’s definitely not.

The new movie “Otherhood” – directed by Cindy Chupak from a script she co-wrote with Mark Andrus, based on the William Sutcliffe novel “Whatever Makes You Happy” – is very much an example of the latter. Despite a talented cast, the film quickly bogs down in clichés and spins its wheels, asking the viewer to bear with it even as it staggers toward an uninspired finish.

It’s another example of the algorithmically-curated content creation model of Netflix; the streaming service recognizes an audience for a type of movie – in this case, a story featuring women of a certain age dealing with their families – and proceeds to make it. Alas, actual quality doesn’t always factor into the decision.

Published in Movies

There are no half-measures in Quentin Tarantino movies. There is nothing partial about the films that he makes. They might be shaggy or smug or gratuitous or plain indulgent, but they are never anything less than the full extent of what he intends them to be.

That utter commitment is a big part of what has made Tarantino into perhaps the most influential mainstream filmmaker of his generation. More than any of his peers, he has shaped both the creation and consumption of popular culture over the past quarter-century – largely by celebrating and appropriating the popular culture that shaped him.

In that sense, “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” – Tarantino’s ninth (Ish? Still not sure I’m buying the “Kill Bill” duology as one movie) film – is the culmination of a creative journey of sorts. It’s a full-on love letter to the Hollywood of the late 1960s, the Hollywood that produced so many of the influences that impacted his creative development. At its heart, from the title on down, it is a fairy tale. It also might be the most sentimental offering of QT’s career.

While it unfolds using the infamous Manson Family murders as a backdrop, “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” isn’t really ABOUT Charles Manson or his followers or even the doomed Sharon Tate. It’s about what it means to fade from a world that is itself fading away. It is about the ever-turning cogs behind the romance of Tinseltown and the notion that the end isn’t coming but has instead already happened without you noticing. It is about what it means to be a rising star and what it means to fall. It is a vivid reimagining of a tumultuous time, all viewed through the lens of one man’s battle against his looming irrelevance.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 23 July 2019 15:22

‘The Lion King’ a dull roar

Anyone with even the slightest modicum of pop cultural awareness knows just how monolithic the Disney machine has become. With an ever-growing list of acquisitions and developments, Big Mouse is in the driver’s seat with regards to the entertainment we consume.

Perhaps the most cynical of their recent trends is the proliferation of live-action adaptations of beloved animated fare. They’ve been ramping it up over the past couple of years, but 2019 has taken things to a whole new level.

Already this year, we’ve seen adaptations of “Dumbo” (by Tim Burton) and “Aladdin” (by Guy Richie), a pair of tepid films in blockbuster clothing.

But “The Lion King” looked like it might be different. Featuring a stellar voice cast and directed by Jon Favreau, who already had some success in this particular domain with his very good “Jungle Book” adaptation, this one seemed to have potential.

Alas, it is simply more of the same, an almost shot-for-shot remake of the original film whose visual accomplishment simply can’t overcome an overarching feeling of inessentiality. The animated version was exceptional, while this new version doesn’t really have any reason to be.

(Well, one reason: a practically guaranteed massive box office haul – the film took in $185 million opening weekend.)

While there are game efforts on the part of all involved, there are certain fundamental issues that can’t be overcome. The photorealism of the all-animal cast is impressive, yes, but it is also an obstacle; there’s a lack of expressive flexibility that makes much of the dialogue feel flat and removed. And without that interactive dynamism, it doesn’t really matter how good it all looks.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 16 July 2019 19:34

See you later, alligator – ‘Crawl’

Appearances can be deceiving.

A lot of the time, you can watch a trailer or two and just KNOW that particular movie is going to be good or bad. A handful of seconds of footage and a basic idea of plot and provenance and you feel confident of your opinion. This movie will be great, that movie will be terrible, etc.

But sometimes – not often, but sometimes – your seemingly solid take is dead wrong.

I was pretty sure “Crawl” was going to be a bad movie. The overwrought scenes in the trailers, the fundamental silliness of the central plot – all of it spelled mediocre-at-best genre fare. It was the sort of movie that I almost didn’t bother to see, so sure was I of what I would get. Seriously – if we’d had three wide releases this week, this would almost certainly have been the unseen bronze medalist.

I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong.

Now, I’m not saying that “Crawl” is a GOOD movie, because it is not. It is shlock. But it is beautifully sincere, well-crafted shlock. It is shlock that is gleefully and unapologetically itself. It is fully committed to the bit to such a degree that it quickly becomes extremely hard not to lean into it yourself.

Basically, you never forget how ridiculous it all is, but neither does the movie, and so everyone just embraces it and has a fantastic time.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 16 July 2019 19:31

‘Stuber’ far from five stars

Who among us doesn’t love a good buddy comedy? A movie with a dynamic central pairing that has good chemistry and good comedic timing – the sort of movie that can coast on the charisma of the foundational duo – can really be a great time. The right casting can cover for a lot of issues in terms of story and style.

“Stuber” is ALMOST such a movie.

The buddies in question are Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista – and honestly, it’s a really good match. They’re a wonderful set of contrasts, in terms of both sensibility and physicality. There’s an ease between them that makes for an engaging relationship.

Unfortunately, it isn’t enough. There’s a stylistic inconsistency on the part of director Michael Dowse – the film can’t seem to choose a tone, leading to some shifts in energy that are pretty jarring. Add to that a muddy script from Tripper Clancy and you’re left with a film that, while entertaining at points, fails to fully utilize the considerable abilities of the two performers at its center.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 09 July 2019 20:17

Sunshine and shadows – ‘Midsommar’

Movies rarely surprise us anymore.

Part of it springs from the sorts of movies that get made – while blockbuster franchise films are usually fun, they’re rarely surprising. Biopics tend to be about people we already kind of know. And even Oscar bait offerings have a certain predictability.

Part of it comes from the deluge of trailers and press junkets and preview articles – it’s tough to feel surprised by anything that happens in a film that you’ve been hearing about for months.

But then you have a movie like “Midsommar,” written and directed by Ari Aster, who surprised us all with his debut feature “Hereditary” and apparently decided he would go ahead and do it again. While the content machine certainly churned around this latest film, it never lost the air of mystery that surrounded it. The potential was there for surprise.

And boy oh boy, did it ever deliver.

“Midsommar” is one of the weirder wide releases that we’ve gotten in quite some time, a bizarre and occasionally gruesome puzzle box of a movie rendered all the darker by the fact that it never actually gets dark. You wouldn’t think placing most of the action in bright sunshine would somehow make things more unsettling, but Aster takes advantage of an unexpected truth – the brightest lights cast the deepest shadows.

Published in Movies

It’s tough to argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t one of the most monumental achievements in the history of the medium. Regardless of how you feel about the content of the movies – some people just don’t dig superhero flicks – you cannot deny that the unspooling of the MCU saga over more than 20 films is an incredible achievement.

The culmination of that arc was “Avengers: Endgame,” but despite what you might think, that film was not the end of Marvel’s so-called Phase 3.

That honor goes to “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” a film that puts Tom Holland’s excellent Spider-Man front and center once again while also serving to both cleanse the palate and pick up the pieces after the paradigm-shifting events of the previous film. It’s a chance to view the aftermath of what has come before while also laying the groundwork for what comes next.

It’s also a delightful standalone adventure in its own right, a quippy, flippy movie packed with web-slinging action and some first-rate comic beats. In addition, we get our first look at a world still working its way through the everyday logistical chaos left by the Snap – or the Blip, as the kids apparently call it. A first look at a world without Tony Stark.

Published in Movies
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