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A movie comes along that is accompanied with massive amounts of hype. Maybe it’s a critical darling, maybe it’s a commercial blockbuster, maybe it’s something in the middle, but one thing is clear – people are singing its praises early and often. And loudly.

As a rule, these films tend to be excellent offerings, though perhaps not quite clearing the exceedingly high bar that has been set for them by the discourse. Occasionally, they prove to be something of a disappointment, leaving you wondering what so many people saw in them.

But every once in a while, you get something that actually manages to outperform your already massive expectations. You get a film that is somehow even better than the people shouting its quality from the rooftops have led you to believe. You get a movie that is unlike anything you’ve seen before in the very best of ways.

You get “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

The film – written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the filmmaking team known collectively as Daniels – is a phantasmagoric experience, a genre-blending adventure that digs into the collective human experience and celebrates the underlying possibilities that unfold with every decision that we make. It is incredibly smart and wildly entertaining, packed with humor and action and heartfelt emotion.

This is the sort of movie that essentially dares you to describe it. It is a roiling tumult of narrative complexity and naked feeling, swirled together into a visually stunning mélange that again – and I can’t stress this enough – is unlike anything you’ve seen before. It is vibrant and vivid and unabashedly weird, powered by the bizarre beauty of its aesthetic and some utterly captivating performances.

Published in Movies

As someone who often finds himself defending the literary merits of speculative fiction, I sometimes forget that, for all the thematic and narrative complexity that genre can evoke, it’s okay for a book’s primary aim to be entertaining the reader.

In short: sometimes you just want a thrilling, compelling yarn, one that is exciting and funny and imaginative. One where the other stuff – the “important” stuff – is still present, but still less vital to the experience than the pure story.

At the risk of damning him with faint praise, John Scalzi is one of the best around at crafting these sorts of high-concept, humorous sci-fi riffs. Best known for works like “Old Man’s War” and “Redshirts,” as well as his bestselling Interdependency trilogy, Scalzi’s latest is “The Kaiju Preservation Society” (Tor, $26.99). It’s a smart and timely and often hilarious work, a quick page-turner that fills the reader with a sense of speculative adventure even as its underlying ethos worms its way into your brain.

Plus, it has giant monsters in it.

Published in Style

I have a complicated history with Ryan Reynolds.

For a good stretch of his career, I found him to be generally insufferable. He radiated smugness, smirking and quipping his way through a series of not-terribly-interesting comedies and franchise misfires. Long story short, I didn’t care for him.

And then, well … he wore me down.

Don’t get me wrong – the aforementioned qualities are still part of the package. And he’s still making plenty of questionable films. I just find myself enjoying them more, even if (when) they’re not necessarily that great.

Which brings us to “The Adam Project,” the new big-budget Netflix offering starring Reynolds as a time traveler who inadvertently winds up partnering with his younger self (played exceptionally by newcomer Walker Scobell) in an effort to save the world from the clutches of a power-mad billionaire.

I know, I know – it sounds ridiculous. And it is. But it’s better than it sounds. The notion of setting right what once went wrong is a staple of the time travel genre; adding the coming-of-age element gives the film a flavor that makes it palatable even when the logistics of the narrative break down and we see the seams a little.

Published in Movies

There’s something to be said for filmmakers who have a gift for creating a certain type of movie. Sure, these directors and writers can and do produce work outside that area of expertise, but even as they spread their wings, there’s no doubt that they have a space in which they can become the best versions of themselves.

Roland Emmerich is one of those filmmakers.

Seriously, is there anyone out there who can hang with Emmerich when it comes to big-budget movies revolving around ludicrous, over-the-top disasters? Is there anyone else even in the conversation? I’d say not. Sure, he can do other stuff and do it fairly well, but nothing tops Emmerich when he’s placing the world in existential peril.

And so, it’s always a hoot when we get a new entry into that particular canon. His latest is “Moonfall,” which he directed from a script he co-wrote with Spenser Cohen and Harald Kloser (who also did the score). It is as deliriously dumb as the very best of his movies have been in recent years, a sci-fi action film based on a ridiculous premise and made with a nine-figure budget.

Seriously – this movie doesn’t make a lick of sense. It is packed with questionable decisions and incoherent action. There are SO MANY PLOTLINES, and just when it seems like the narrative threads are coming together, more tendrils are sent spiraling outward. Just an absolute bonkers mess.

It is lunacy and I am here for it.

Published in Movies

You might not think that the end of the world is an appropriate backdrop for comedy, but fear not – Adam McKay has you covered.

Sure, an impending apocalypse SHOULDN’T be funny, but in the right hands, it certainly can be, and McKay has those hands, along with a willingness to embrace cultural divides and darkness in the name of plausibly bleak satiric observation.

McKay’s latest is “Don’t Look Up,” an at-times pitch-black comedy about what happens when the end of the world is coming and no one can seem to agree on what – if anything – we should do about it. The film has the same sort of sharp edges that we’ve seen in McKay’s more recent output and his fingerprints are all over it – he’s directing his own screenplay here. It also features a frankly incredible cast, an ensemble jam packed with Oscar winners and Hollywood icons; you don’t often see a bench this deep.

It is wildly funny – darkly so, but funny nevertheless – while also being deeply, bleakly plausible. It is a condemnation of current cultural discourse, a scathing takedown of American attitudes that is relentless in its disdain. It is a relevant and resonant reflection of where we are and where we could be going, delivered in a manner that elicits laughter even as it unsettles.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 29 December 2021 12:54

‘The Matrix Resurrections’ lives on

Funny thing about art – more often than not, you get out what you put in.

Consuming a creative work, whether it be a book or a painting or a film or a play or a song, is in many ways a means of looking at oneself. The best art holds up a mirror to life, offering a reflection that is specific to the one gazing upon it.

So I suppose it makes sense that mirrors are a major motif in “The Matrix Resurrections,” the years-later sequel to the trilogy of films that began over two decades ago. This film – directed solo this time, by Lana Wachowski, from a script she co-wrote with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon – is the product of years of self-reflection, a return to a morally and philosophically complex sci-fi universe constructed on a foundation of perception versus reality and whether we can ever actually know the difference.

It is a gloriously messy film, one that tells the story that Lana Wachowski wishes to tell … and that has relatively little regard for the expectations others might hold for it. The underlying metaphor – the idea that the world we see is not necessarily the world that is – remains intact, but altered; “The Matrix Resurrections” is a movie driven not by logic, but by emotion. For all its intense action trappings, it is, at its core, a love story.

Published in Movies
Monday, 13 December 2021 13:50

No need to get close to ‘Encounter’

I’ve always loved paranoid thrillers. Movies where something sinister and paradigm-shattering is happening, but only a few people (or even just one person) know the truth? Yeah, I’m here for it.

Sure, we’re past the ‘70s-era heyday of such films, but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally get one now and then. And when these thrillers incorporate other genre elements, so much the better. Of course, all of this is predicated on the fact that the movie in question has to be, you know … good.

If it isn’t, well … that’s when you wind up with something like “Encounter.”

The film, directed by Michael Pearce from a script Pearce co-wrote with Joe Barton, is an attempt to recreate that paranoid thriller vibe within a science fiction framework. Now, that kind of genre melding has been done to great success in the past, but the truth is that this story never quite finds its footing, with an inconsistent connection to the relative reality of its premise that evokes more confusion than paranoia.

It’s too bad, because there does seem to be something here. And there’s a dynamite lead performance from Riz Ahmed. Unfortunately, that performance is largely wasted in service of a story that never quite adds up. One might argue that that narrative jumbling is a choice, but even if it is, it is a largely ineffectual one.

Published in Movies

One of the most difficult things to do as an actor is to perform by yourself.

From the outside, we tend to view actors as individuals and judge their work as such, but the reality is that so much of acting is reacting. Performers take what is being given to them by their fellow actors and respond accordingly. The quality of the work is amplified – often exponentially – by the quality of work that surrounds it.

This is why I will continue to praise Tom Hanks’s performance in “Cast Away” as one of the 20th century’s true triumphs of cinematic performance. He was brilliant despite being all by himself; people who haven’t done it have no idea how truly difficult that is.

Hanks’s latest film “Finch” doesn’t leave him quite so alone. Instead of wandering a deserted island with a volleyball for a companion, he’s got not one, but two fellow travelers through a post-apocalyptic wasteland – a dog and a robot. Still, even when your only speaking co-star is at best a dude in green spandex covered in ping-pong balls, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, “Finch” – available exclusively on Apple TV+ – is the story of a man doing his best to survive the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, a man who takes his responsibilities – real and perceived – very seriously. And when circumstances force him to abandon the place that has been his safe haven, he takes to the road in order to ensure not his own survival, but that of those who rely upon him.

Published in Movies
Monday, 25 October 2021 14:00

Fear is the mind-killer – ‘Dune’

Every once in a while, there is a movie experience that manages to transcend a lot of the traditional markers that define quality, however nebulously. Most films you watch, they’re relatively easy to parse – I liked it because X, I didn’t like it because Y, you know the drill. But occasionally, a film will come along that moves beyond those identifiers; your reasoning is still there, of course, but there’s also something fundamentally overwhelming about it.

“Dune” overwhelmed me.

The new film from director Denis Villeneuve – who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts (adapted from Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel of the same name – or the first half or so anyway) is a sprawling, sand-strewn epic. It is a movie that unabashedly embraces not just the letter but the spirit of its source material, resulting in a deliberately-paced and utterly gorgeous film that captures the sheer scale of galactic intrigue while also delving into the psychological and sociological underpinnings that come when nobility takes different approaches to maintaining their humanity.

It’s a space opera, for sure, with plenty of familiar tropes of the genre at play. But the combination of Hebert’s interplay of eco-consciousness and political dynamics matched with the auteur’s eye of Villeneuve transforms “Dune” into something far more. It is a literal feast for the eyes, one of the most strikingly compelling visual blockbusters we’ve seen in years, all in service to a dense plot involving everything from galaxy-spanning empires to mind-expanding traditions to colonialism to learning what it means to lead.

Yeah – overwhelming is the right way to put it. And this is just the first part!

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 25 August 2021 11:40

Tanks for the memories – ‘Reminiscence’

Among the many joys that come with genre filmmaking is the possibility of overlap. All the available commonalities allow intrepid (and even not-so-intrepid) filmmakers to design their own stylistic and thematic Venn diagrams, putting together projects that combine tropes and other elements from a variety of narrative and aesthetic sources. In general, the flexibility of genre usually translates.

This is the process that gives us “space horror” and “urban fantasy” and any number of other weird and wonderful combo platters.

The new film “Reminiscence,” currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, is an example of a particularly effective genre blend – sci-fi noir, or tech noir. The film – written and directed by Lisa Joy and starring Hugh Jackman – follows in the footsteps of filmmakers like Ridley Scott and James Cameron and Terry Gilliam, bringing the shadowy grit of film noir into a future world of bleeding edge technology.

Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as successful as those films. It has a talented cast and the premise and setting are intriguing enough, but “Reminiscence” can’t quite stay out of its own way, getting bogged down in the details of a not-quite-coherent romantic mystery even as it tosses out and then promptly abandons a number of interesting ideas. The end result is a film that leaves you remembering other, better films and wondering about what might have been – oddly ironic for a story where the toxicity of nostalgia is a central tenet.

Published in Movies
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