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So much of how we engage with the world around us is defined by our senses. It is only through them – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell – that we can identify what’s around us. The absence of one or more is keenly felt, but the others can still contribute to giving us a window on the world.

But what if you couldn’t trust those senses to tell you the truth? What if what you saw, heard, touched – what if those things were other than what your brain was telling you?

“Sensation,” a new science fiction thriller from writer/director Martin Grof, explores that possibility via a mystery that defies you to believe the evidence of your own eyes. It’s a challenge to the very concept of the validity of personal perception. Lofty ideas, to be sure, albeit ones that aren’t always executed quite as cleanly as one might hope.

The premise is solid and the look is appealing – there are moments of impressive visual style. Unfortunately, there’s a sense of unnecessary convolution that mars much of the film, with the filmmakers prioritizing maintaining a sense of mystery above all else … including consistent narrative coherence.

Published in Movies

Better late than never.

It feels weird to be writing an Academy Awards preview in April instead of February, but thanks to the pandemic, that’s where we are. 2020 was also a weird year for movies in general, what with the extended closure of movie theaters and the general lack of enthusiasm by Hollywood for releasing their big-ticket offerings.

Still, the Academy pushed back the Oscars by a couple of months and expanded the eligibility window for films, both in terms of timeline and of distribution. It only makes sense that after a year unlike any other, we would wind up with an Oscars unlike any other.

And as always, I’m here to offer up my thoughts.

This is the 93rd edition of Hollywood’s favorite awards show. It’s also the 14th time I’ve offered up my Oscars predictions, if you can believe that. You might think that after 14 years, I know what I’m doing. And maybe I do … to an extent. I’ve gotten pretty good at sussing out who is going to win. But the real joy of these awards is that there are always going to be some surprises. You just never know, and in a strange year like this one, who can say what will happen?

Here are my picks. I’ve gone in-depth on the big-ticket categories and included winners for all the others. And as always, the disclaimer: these are my predictions as to who WILL win, as opposed to my feelings about who SHOULD win. There will always be a degree of disconnect, though perhaps a touch less than in previous years.

Let’s hit the red carpet.

Published in Cover Story

There’s something sacred about the rituals that come with saying goodbye, regardless of the culture from which you hail. No matter who you are or where you’re from, odds are that you or someone close to you has very specific ideas about what will happen when you die (logistical ideas, mind you, not metaphysical ones – we haven’t got all day).

But what happens when circumstances upend those expectations and you’re forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to fulfill them?

That’s the question that Irish filmmaker Aoife Crehan addresses in “The Last Right.” Written and directed by Crehan, it’s the story of a man whose personal journey of grief is thrown into chaos by the actions of the stranger sitting next to him on an airplane – chaos that may eventually lead him to discover the order he was always meant to experience.

It’s one of those movies that brings a lot to the table. You’ve got family secrets and dysfunction. You’ve got a little romance, plenty of situational comedy and even some heist vibes. All in service to telling a small story of what it means to follow through on a promise … even if it’s a promise you never really made.

Published in Movies

“Every dog must have his day.” – Jonathan Swift

I love dogs. I love my dog Stella and every dog I ever had growing up. I love dogs I pass on the street. I love dogs that bark and dogs that whine and dogs that growl. I love them all, regardless of whether or not they love me back (although they usually do).

So it’s no surprise that when the opportunity was presented to me to review the new documentary “We Don’t Deserve Dogs,” directed by Matthew Salleh in collaboration with his partner Rose Tucker. It’s a voyage around the globe, looking at the various ways that dogs impact the worlds in which we live. Across borders and cultures, dogs are present, helping us by simply being the wonderful creatures that they are.

From country to country, from circumstance to circumstance, we bounce from place to place, encountering our four-legged friends in various environments. And even in those spots where the life of a dog is difficult, these wonderful creatures find ways to shine their light upon us. It is heartfelt and charming and uplifting – and don’t forget the tissues, because if you’re anything like me, you are going to need them.

Published in Movies

We might have passed the point of no return regarding superhero cinema.

Yes, there are plenty of folks who would argue that we long ago reached cultural saturation when it comes to superhero movies. But in the aftermath of the Snyder Cut and with multiple MCU offerings on the immediate horizon – plus the wide swath of recent and forthcoming streaming series drawing from superpowered source material both well-known and obscure – well … it’s a lot, not all of it good.

And this is coming from someone who LOVES this stuff.

Netflix’s latest foray into the realm of the superheroic is “Thunder Force,” a new film written and directed by Ben Falcone and starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer. It’s an effort to play the tropes for laughs and have some fun with the foibles inherent to the genre, relying heavily on the talents of its cast to carry the day.

It doesn’t quite work out the way they might have hoped.

What so many of these filmmakers forget is that while spectacle is at the forefront with superhero films, the story still matters. Without an engaging narrative, all we’re left with is a bunch of CGI nonsense that is difficult to invest in. And no matter how hard the actors try, they can’t salvage what ultimately becomes an effort to turn 45 minutes of story into 100-plus minutes of movie.

Published in Movies
Monday, 05 April 2021 15:07

Saddle up with ‘Concrete Cowboy’

One of the great things about the world in which we live is that there’s room for all manner of interests and identities. No matter how niche and/or unlikely the pursuit, there will be others who share feelings about it.

These subcultures sometime surface in mainstream awareness, but others simply go on, whirring along beneath the zeitgeist for decades. And again, no matter how incongruous and unlikely they may sound, they are very real and very important to those whose passions they reflect.

“Concrete Cowboy,” the new Netflix film directed by Ricky Staub, is the story of one such subculture. Adapted by Staub and Dan Walser from Greg Neri’s 2011 novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” it’s the story of a multigenerational group of horse enthusiasts operating out of inner-city Philadelphia. Through their connection to horses, these people find what they need.

(It’s worth noting that several supporting roles are played by real-life members of Fletcher Street Stables, the group upon whom Neri’s novel was largely based.)

It’s also the story of a young man who is thrust into the midst of this world, left to contextualize it alongside his own sphere of understanding, introduced into it all by the father who is all but a stranger to him. But even with influences tugging from all sides, he is the one who ultimately must make the decision about the man he wants to become.

Published in Movies

One of the realities of big business these days is that so much of what the money is buying doesn’t actually exist yet. Millions of dollars thrown at ideas that may or may not come to some sort of fruition, a quest to find the next big thing – the next “unicorn,” VC speak for a company worth a billion dollars. And when you’re operating in a world where ideas can be everything, there will be people who prove capable of talking their way to the top.

“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” currently streaming on Hulu, tells the story of the bright burnout of the ostensible tech company WeWork and its CEO Adam Neumann. Directed by Jed Rothstein, the film depicts the company’s rapid rise and fall, from a peak value of $47 billion to near bankruptcy in a matter of weeks – illustrative of some of the dangers that come with investing in opportunities that seem too good to be true.

Published in Buzz

If you want to argue that too many of today’s blockbusters spring from blown-out franchises and IP cinematic universes, I’m not going to stop you. It’s clear that big-budget moviemaking has become almost exclusively a realm of CGI and superheroes and the like. Everything is loud and overlarge. It’s a fair point.

Counterpoint: Sometimes you just want to see giant monsters fight.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” is the fourth entry in the Warner Brothers self-styled MonsterVerse (it’s also the 36th Godzilla movie and the 12th King Kong movie, if you’re into that sort of thing), bringing together these heavyweights of giant monster cinema. Directed by Adam Wingard and currently available both in theaters and via HBO Max, it’s the sort of lumpy tentpole sequel that slots nicely into the overall development of the franchise. It’s big and a little convoluted and quite fun, albeit maybe just a little stingy with the aforementioned monster fighting.

It’s a big swing at progressing the overall universe even as it gives audiences the showdown they want. Whether those efforts at expansion prove fruitful remains to be seen – things get a little muddy and tough to follow in spots – but it’s a valiant attempt. And while some of the narrative subplots don’t work as well as others, the overall payoff is worth it.

Published in Movies
Monday, 29 March 2021 16:04

To Paris with love – ‘French Exit’

Most of the time, movies are relatively straightforward. Sure, you have your odd arthouse auteurs and the like, but usually, films work in the way you expect. You go to a drama, you expect emotional impact. You see a comedy, you’re ready to laugh. You walk into a superhero movie, you get superheroes. Horror, scares. Thriller … thrills.

But every once in a while, you find a movie that gleefully upends your understanding of the world in which it operates. It doesn’t actually change anything, yet you’re left with fundamental questions about both what you’ve seen so far and what is yet to come.

That’s the kind of movie that you get with “French Exit,” a smart, engaging film directed by Azazel Jacobs from a screenplay that Patrick deWitt adapted from his own 2018 novel of the same name. It is a dry and witty comedy that takes a surreal turn, introducing strange and unexpected elements that nevertheless only serve to enhance the overall experience of the film.

With an absolutely exceptional cast led by Michelle Pfeiffer, this movie is not necessarily what you might expect it to be, but by subverting your expectations, it gives you an experience that is arguably far better than the one you thought you were getting.

Published in Movies

Sometimes, you just know it’s going to be bad.

You settle in and start watching and within a scant few minutes, you’re made painfully aware that the next hour-and-a-half is not going to be the good time that you expected it to be. You might say that, instead, you’re going to have a bad trip.

Or a “Bad Trip,” as it were.

That’s the title of a new Netflix movie starring Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish. It’s a feature-length distillation of the weirdo cringe comedy ethos of Andre, directed by the comedian’s longtime collaborator Kitao Sakurai. Basically, it’s a collection of hidden camera stunts and pranks stitched together through a bare-bones narrative.

It’s … not great.

I’ll concede the very real possibility that this movie simply isn’t for me, that this brand of aggressive absurdism doesn’t push my humor buttons. That being said, “Bad Trip” is less a movie than a deluge of self-harm and personal space invasion that occasionally features some not-particularly good dialogue. Did I laugh? A couple of times, sure, but nearly enough to justify the time spent watching something that, when boiled down, is simply a few comedians dicking around.

Published in Movies
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