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Monday, 26 October 2020 14:45

‘The Witches’ somewhat lacking in magic

The works of author Roald Dahl have long been prime fodder for the leap from page to screen. The unabashed weirdness and genuinely frightful nature of his work – not to mention the wildly inventive and colorful characters and narratives that he constructs – make these books ideal subjects for translation to visual media. They are fun, bizarre experiences whether you’re reading them or seeing them.

However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing … particularly when a story is revisited for the big screen treatment.

To wit: HBO Max is currently streaming their version of “The Witches,” directed by Robert Zemeckis. It’s an adaptation of Dahl’s 1983 novel of the same name – a novel that already received a VERY successful remake in 1990. It’s a bold choice, remaking a film that, while 30 years old, still maintains a place of high regard in the memories of many moviegoers. A bold choice … and a somewhat misguided one.

Don’t get me wrong – this new version isn’t bad. It just doesn’t land with the same spirited resonance as its predecessor. Much like Tim Burton’s stab at “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory,” this new take on “The Witches” simply feels unnecessary. It’s no one’s fault, really – everyone involved seems to be operating in good faith and really giving it their all. It’s just that there probably shouldn’t have been a project for which to give said all.

Published in Movies
Monday, 26 October 2020 12:49

‘Rebecca’ offers stylish gothic thrills

It takes a lot of chutzpah to remake Alfred Hitchcock.

There are a handful of acknowledged masters in the cinematic realm that pretty much everyone can agree on, filmmakers who are universally acclaimed as the very best at what they do … and Hitchcock is on that list. No one has demonstrated such mastery of the psychological thriller. Even now, nearly 50 years after his last film, he’s the maestro.

His 1940 “Rebecca” – based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name – was his first American project, a film that landed 11 Academy Award nominations and won two, including Hitchcock’s only Best Picture win.

So to tackle a movie that remakes not just any Hitchcock, but one of his best, well … like I said. Chutzpah.

Yet here we are, with Netflix producing a remake of the classic, directed by Ben Wheatley from a screenplay adaptation by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. And it’s a pretty solid effort, with a talented cast and a suitably sumptuous aesthetic. The biggest strike against it – and it is a big one – is that it was preceded by a legitimate masterpiece.

The story of a young woman who marries into a situation far more complex and shadowy than she ever could have imagined, “Rebecca” is a gothic thriller set against the lush English countryside in the heady days preceding World War II. It is a tale of the darkness within – and the fact that even those closest to us may be keeping secrets.

Published in Movies
Friday, 04 September 2020 23:47

Crouching ‘Mulan,’ hidden dragon

It’s tough to argue against the live-action remake strategy that Disney has trotted out over the past five years or so. By presenting live retellings of their beloved animated fare, Big Mouse is able to double down on the value derived from those properties while also introducing (or reintroducing) them to a new audience. Economically, it totally makes sense.

Artistically? Your mileage may vary. But whether you view these films as viable extensions of the originals or little more than cash grabs, there’s no fighting it – they’re here to stay.

The latest in line is “Mulan,” a live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated film. Originally scheduled as a summertime tentpole release for the studio, the film was made available for streaming to Disney+ subscribers, albeit for an additional charge of $30. This move makes it an interesting test case as far as what may happen with movies moving forward; in truth, this movie’s reception and receipts could prove definitional to film’s commercial future.

As for the movie itself? Pretty solid, actually. Director Niki Caro does a good job capturing the epic scale of the thing; her choices evoke the vastness of the proceedings with a deft clarity. The action sequences are on point – there’s an elevated kung-fu movie vibe to the fight scenes that works nicely. The emotional beats are all properly hit and the performances are uniformly strong. All in all, a really good movie.

Published in Movies

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. John Wayne and John Ford. Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott. Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Kurt Russell and John Carpenter. Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder.

The history of Hollywood is littered with actor/director pairings that became ongoing, marriages between filmmaker and star that led to long-term cinematic relationships. These pairings often – but definitely not always – lead to exceptional and memorable projects.

While the partnership between Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg might not have the same legendary heft carried by the names on that previous list, it’s tough to argue that they haven’t been both prolific and successful (commercially, anyway – critically is a different story).

Their latest collaboration is “Spenser Confidential,” a Netflix original film loosely based on the novel “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins and the 1980s TV show “Spencer: For Hire,” both featuring characters created by Robert B. Parker. Wahlberg plays the titular Spenser, an ex-cop and ex-con looking to get his life back together, only to get swept up into a vast conspiracy.

It’s a throwback movie, one reminiscent of the Reagan-era action thrillers from which it draws its inspiration. While the plot is thin and convoluted and most of the characters are more accurately described as caricatures, that nostalgia vibe is enough to make the movie a mildly enjoyable experience – though no one is going to mistake it as “good,” per se.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 19 February 2020 13:53

‘Downhill’ an uphill battle

A good comedic pairing is something to cherish. When two talented and funny people are brought together onscreen for the first time, our expectations are really elevated. We can’t wait to see how their respective talents react with one another. And when the filmmakers bringing them together are acclaimed talents in their own right, well … what could go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

So it is with “Downhill,” the new film starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Written and directed by Oscar-winning duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the film is a remake of the 2014 dark comedy “Force Majeure.” Unfortunately, despite the tremendous talent involved, “Downhill” goes downhill pretty fast.

This new film never manages to recreate the same delicately unsettling balance of its predecessor, resulting in a movie that is constantly at odds with itself regarding the sort of movie it wants to be. The erstwhile dramatic moments feel forced and false, while the ostensibly comedic bits come off as disingenuous and get lost in the morass. Tonally, “Downhill” never stays in its lane; it gets out over its skis, leaving its cast (and us) tumbling helplessly down the mountain.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 07 January 2020 12:46

‘Little Women,’ big feelings

No matter how voracious a cultural consumer we might be, the reality is that there’s just too much out there for anyone to experience it all. Too many books to read, to many songs to hear, too many films and plays and shows to watch. There will always be gaps.

For instance, I myself have a “Little Women”-shaped hole in my own cultural experience. Despite the relative ubiquity of Louisa Mae Alcott’s classic novel and its multitude of film and stage adaptations, I had never directly engaged with the story. I never read the novel, nor saw it on stage or screen. Yes, I had a very basic awareness due to its cultural presence, but it boiled down to basic timeframe, number of sisters and the plot point that Rachel spoils for Joey on an episode of “Friends.”

So I wondered what kind of experience I would have seeing this new “Little Women” cinematic adaptation. It comes courtesy of Greta Gerwig, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, and features an absolutely stacked ensemble cast. Obviously, the odds were in favor of this being a good movie. But would my lack of familiarity hinder my enjoyment?

Turns out I worried for nothing, because not only is “Little Women” a good film, it is a GREAT film. It is masterfully constructed and beautifully composed, featuring a wonderful period aesthetic and absolutely incredible performances. It stays true to the truths of the material’s history while also finding ways to endow those truths with elements tied to our own modern world. It’s an incredible feat of filmmaking, one that is almost certainly even better than you think it is, no matter how good you believe the movie to be.

Published in Style
Tuesday, 07 January 2020 12:42

Holding a grudge against ‘The Grudge’

It’s never a good sign when a movie is released in early January. Traditionally, that stretch of the calendar is reserved for the films that, for whatever reason, studios have decided to abandon. They’re done, so they might as well be released; however, they drop with little fanfare, abandoned to fend for themselves against the remaining December blockbusters and the expanded releases of late-season prestige fare.

On a related note, I saw “The Grudge.”

This film – a remake of the 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle of the same name, which was itself a remake of Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 original – is the epitome of an early January release. It’s an unnecessary remake of a mid-00s ripoff of an excellent Japanese horror film; a copy of a copy of a copy means we’re losing a little coherence.

Or a lot of coherence, because there certainly isn’t much in this new movie, written and directed by the much-better-than-this Nicholas Pesce. The story exists only to prop up a bunch of stitched-together jump scares. There’s little in the way of thoughtfulness, just a formulaic paint-by-numbers meander through the narrative; there’s an attempt to disguise the rudimentary nature of the plot via back-and-forth timeline jumping, but that only serves to further obscure any possibility of the audience engaging.

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, 25 June 2019 16:58

Dies and dolls – ‘Child’s Play’

One of the unexpected side effects of Hollywood’s current remake/reboot culture is the reflection of how the world has changed in the time between iterations of a story.

This societal shift is often most clearly reflected in horror movies; perhaps more than any other genre of film, they are of-the-moment representations of the culture at a certain time and place. Seriously – if you want an accurate notion of what sorts of issues, large and small, that are troubling the general public at a given point in time, you could do worse than checking out a horror flick.

You can learn a lot about people by what scares them.

And in the case of the new “Child’s Play,” we get a story that, almost by accident, is able to speak to those current fears in a way that its 1988 predecessor never could have dreamed.

Don’t get me wrong – this latest film has plenty of the ridiculous camp and over-the-top schlock that made its inspiration into a cult classic and basis for a shockingly deep franchise; did you know there were SIX (!) sequels to that film? It’s also surprisingly funny, albeit in a winkingly gruesome way – the filmmakers are gleeful with their distribution of spurting, squirting viscera. And the performances are strong as well, with the stars striking just the right balance of taking the work seriously while also being fully aware of the inherent ridiculousness.

It’s an unexpectedly good movie – one that has its shares of hiccups and bumps, but is a reasonably enjoyable time at the cinema all the same.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 29 May 2019 11:47

A ho-hum new world – ‘Aladdin’

We can all agree that Disney more or less rules the cinematic landscape at this point, yes? We don’t have to like it, but there’s no denying the company’s omnipresence on our screens. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars movies have definitely filled the coffers to overflowing, but those films are far from the only moneymakers in Big Mouse’s stable.

Another high-impact trend for Disney is the onslaught of live-action remakes of their beloved animated films. They’ve been having success with that formula for a few years now, but 2019 sees them really pushing the envelope.

The latest is “Aladdin,” a remake of the beloved 1992 animated film. It’s perhaps the boldest maneuver yet, considering the iconic nature of both the movie as a whole and of the performance by Robin Williams as the Genie in particular. Basically, we’re left to wonder why (hint: the answer is money – it’s always about the money).

This new film – directed by Guy Ritchie (I’m as surprised as you are) and featuring Will Smith assuming the bright blue mantle of geniedom – had the look of an utter disaster early on. And while it turned out to be considerably better than that, it only succeeded in being … OK. Not terrible. Not great. Just OK. And that bland meh-ness is maybe the worst place it could have landed; we’re left with a movie that is almost defined by how unnecessary it feels.

(Of course, it also did nine figures at the box office opening weekend, so what do I know?)

Published in Movies
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