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Few filmmakers have had as outsized an influence on 21st century comedy as Judd Apatow. For over a decade, the Apatovian voice led the way, introducing us to the players who would define the genre for their generation. It was a comedy of youth, shaggy and unapologetic and inspiring to those who would follow.

It’s hard to believe that it has been five years since Apatow helmed a movie, but it’s true – his last directorial foray was the 2015 Amy Schumer vehicle “Trainwreck.” Perhaps he was simply waiting for the proper inspiration to get back into the saddle.

Said inspiration has apparently arrived in the form of Pete Davidson, who teamed up with Apatow and Dave Sirus to co-write “The King of Staten Island,” a film based in large part on Davidson’s own life. It’s an emotionally charged and honest offering, one driven by the real feelings at the heart of its semi-autobiographical story.

Davidson – who also stars – is a polarizing figure in a lot of ways, but love him or hate him, it’s difficult to deny the quality of his work here. Apatow lets the story do the heavy lifting as far as the laughs go, allowing the flat-out exceptional cast to bring forth the very genuine emotions at the heart of things. It is funny and touching and surprisingly moving, a much more warts-and-all glimpse of the arrested development that the director so excels at presenting.

Published in Movies

What does it mean to be famous?

We live in a world in which there have never been more paths to finding some degree of fame. There are the traditional arenas – entertainment, athletics, politics and the like – but the advent of the internet and social media has led to a whole different kind of fame, a fame built around likes and shares and the dopamine rush that comes with the clicks that, in some small way, validate our presence.

And there will always be those for whom infamy is just as good.

“Infamous,” written and directed by Joshua Caldwell, takes a look at the dark potential of this thirst for fame. It’s the story of a young couple who find online notoriety thanks to a video record of their criminal exploits across the South. It also serves as a look at the corrupting power of fame, with the pair getting in over their heads; they go bigger and bigger as the internet audience for their spree grows and grows. After all, you’re only as famous as your last post.

Published in Movies
Monday, 08 June 2020 14:54

Sorry Ms. Jackson – ‘Shirley’

The biopic has been a crucial part of the cinematic landscape since the very beginning. So many of our most acclaimed films have been built around the lives and narratives of real people. Whether they are cradle-to-grave or period snapshot, they share the stories of figures that have in some way shaped the world around them.

But when is a biopic not a biopic? When it’s “Shirley.”

The new film – directed by Josephine Decker from a script adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel of the same name by Sarah Scarf Merrell – takes a look inside the life of the notable and notorious writer Shirley Jackson, whose genre-adjacent fiction was among the most chilling of the mid-20th century.

With a dynamite performance by Elisabeth Moss in the title role, “Shirley” is not only a deconstruction of its subject, but of the very notion of biographical film. It is a sharp, biting film – one unafraid to lay bare the basic unpleasantness of its characters. By refusing to be bound by traditional tropes, this film offers up a striking and impactful interpretation of the creative process and the emotional and physical struggles that can accompany that process.

Published in Movies

As someone who considers himself a bit of an action movie connoisseur, I’ve got a special place in my heart for high-concept action. I enjoy the broad strokes and tropes of the genre, but I particularly dig it when there’s an interesting idea serving as the framework.

Obviously, when I hear tell of a film with just such a framework, I look forward to seeing it. I have certain expectations, of course, but they are expectations I believe to be quite reasonable. My bar in terms of pure enjoyment is relatively low … and yet some films still manage to undershoot it by a frankly astonishing degree.

So it is with “The Last Days of American Crime,” a film that limbos so far beneath my reasonable expectations as to bury itself in a not-so-shallow grave. The film – directed by Olivier Megaton and currently streaming on Netflix – commits egregious cinematic sins almost too numerous to name, working its way through what almost seems like a deliberate checklist of poor choices and worse execution.

Seriously – this movie is a bad time. It is staggeringly overlong, yet still manages to feel dull and uneventful. The dialogue is laughable, the performances are wooden and/or off-kilter and the character motivations are either nonsensical or nonexistent. The action sequences feel rote and uninspired and it is shockingly tone deaf in spots. Just … not good.

Published in Movies

Movies are rarely kind to prodigies.

Most of the time, when we meet an ultra-talented child on film, we quickly learn about the multitude of difficulties faced by that child. Whether they’re a brilliant mathematician or a chess master or an amazing musician, these kid geniuses unfailingly face significant personal obstacles apart from their gifts.

How those problems are handled, both by the filmmakers and by the characters within the narrative, defines the sort of movie you get.

“Mighty Oak,” a film directed by Sean McNamara from a screenplay by Matt Allen, handles its child genius – in this case, a rock and roll prodigy – with a good degree of care. While the young man’s life is marked with tragedy, that tragedy is offset by a sense of connection – connection to the people around him … and to the universe.

It isn’t the sort of story to get bogged down in negativity; the filmmakers go out of their way to generate a feel-good vibe, an effort helped greatly by a charming cast and some solid musical offerings. It’s a warm and welcoming film, a scrappy, scruffy underdog of a movie that, despite a few issues, will likely leave you with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Published in Style
Thursday, 04 June 2020 17:46

Master of puppets – ‘Judy & Punch’

There’s nothing quite like that moment of realization – usually within the first few minutes of a movie – that you had no idea what you were in for. Most of the time, I sit down with a fairly clear idea of what to expect from a film. It’s rare for a movie to surprise me.

“Judy & Punch” surprised me.

The film – written and directed by first-timer Mirrah Foulkes – is inspired by the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show, a subversive slapstick satire with roots in the tradition of commedia dell’arte. The stylized brutality and savage humor of the duo proved very popular in Restoration Era England – the same time and place that serves as the setting for this film.

That inspiration lays the foundation for a genre-fluid and deeply weird cinematic experience, one driven by that same ethos of savagery. This is a movie that gleefully pinballs from comic absurdity to stark social commentary to graphic brutality, all in the space of mere minutes. This is a film that is unafraid to shock and almost gleeful in its willingness to undermine expectations. It is dark and unsettling and bizarre, shot through with an anarchic sense of humor that borders on Pythonesque.

All in all, I dug it, but be warned – your mileage DEFINITELY may vary.

Published in Movies

Full disclosure: I love a spelling bee.

As someone who spent a little time spelling competitively in his youth (three-time school champ with a couple of regional finals appearances, nbd), I will always have a place of affection in my heart for the bee, one of the relatively few competitive scholastic outlets for the academically gifted as opposed to the athletically inclined.

Of course, even at my best, the difference between myself and the true elites of the spellosphere was the same as that between, say, a decent high school baseball player (which I also was) and an All-Star big leaguer (which I decidedly was not).

“Spelling the Dream,” a new Netflix documentary written and directed by Sam Rega, follows a handful of those elite competitors, young people who have the skill and the will to reach the top of the mountain – the Scripps National Spelling Bee. These kids have a lot in common, of course, but this film focuses on something that connects them with a significant number of their fellow lexicographical comrades in arms – their cultural identity. Specifically, their heritage as Indian-Americans.

Published in Livin'

When we think of sci-fi movies today, we tend to think of big, effects-driven events. We’re thinking about nine-figure budgets aimed mostly at either advancing franchises or originating them, the odd name director standalone project notwithstanding. These films allow for grand visual, visceral representation of the futuristic/alien/whatever worlds of their stories – and that grandness can cover up a lot of flaws.

But there’s a whole other tradition of cinematic sci-fi, one that can tell a commanding story without the bells and whistles. These films are the one that convey science fiction narratives through ideas, finding ways to engage and entertain without the trappings of spectacle. They are smaller films, with far less room for error – there’s no massive effects budget to distract from any missed choices. These indie offerings are much more warts and all.

“The Vast of Night” – newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video – falls very much into the latter category. The film, directed by first-timer Andrew Patterson from a script by James Montague and Craig Sanger, is a retro sci-fi delight telling the story of a fateful night in 1950s New Mexico where two young people find themselves in the midst of a mystery unlike anything anyone in their small town could ever have imagined.

The film leans heavily into its lo-fi high-concept underpinnings, going so far as to use a “Twilight Zone”-esque TV show called “Paradox Theatre” as a framing device. This isn’t about visual flourishes – though Patterson shows his clearly considerable stylistic talent in a few spots – so much as density of storytelling. The dialogue is thick and the pacing is deliberate, all in service to a narrative that unfolds in enigmatic quietude. It is atmospheric and creepy – and very good.

Published in Movies

Hollywood loves making movies about music. Now, we’re not talking movie musicals (although that genre seems to potentially be making a comeback as well) so much as movies about the makers of music.

There’s a particular affection for the juxtaposition of those struggling to make it against those who have already made it; stories of upward and downward trajectories and the intersection of those lines.

“The High Note,” directed by Nisha Ganatra from a script by Flora Greeson, is the latest in this long line of rise-and-decline tales – one that doesn’t venture very far from the fundamentals. This story of a world-famous diva and her aspirational personal assistant doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises, but it’s tough to argue against the relative quality of its execution.

It’s a well-made movie, featuring good performances from its leads. And the music is solid (and in a couple of cases more than solid) – a major key to the relative success of this kind of film. It’s a reasonably entertaining experience; the tune is a familiar one, and there’s nothing wrong with liking a song you’ve heard a hundred times. All in all, the movie is … fine, even if it does occasionally wander off-key.

Published in Movies

When the central relationship of your movie – particularly if it’s a rom-com – really pops, it can make up for considerable shortcomings in other respects. If there’s genuine chemistry in that dynamic, then viewers will forgive a lot.

There’s no denying that Kumail Najiani and Issa Rae have that easy chemistry in “The Lovebirds.” Directed by Michael Showalter (who also directed Nanjiani in the excellent “The Big Sick”) from a script written by Aaron Abrams and Brendon Gall, it’s the story of a couple who, in the midst of what may be the end of their relationship, wind up entangled in a complex and weird mystery.

As far as this sort of action-adjacent rom-com goes, “The Lovebirds” is pretty familiar stuff. We’ve more or less seen this structure with these beats before – there’s nothing new here. But it still works, thanks to what Nanjiani and Rae bring to the table. Their energy elevates the movie to a significant degree, turning something that could have been generically forgettable into a worthwhile watch.

Published in Movies
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