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If history has taught us anything, it’s that when people are confronted with an invasion, they inevitably fall into one of two categories: collaborator or resistor. It has been that way in every war that has ever been fought; when enemy forces take over, some will fall in line and others will fight back.

There’s no reason to think that that would somehow change if said forces came not from another country, but from another world.

That’s the basic gist of “Captive State,” an alien occupation thriller directed by Rupert Wyatt from a script he co-wrote with Erica Beeney. It’s a story of what it means to live under the rule of an enemy that seems too powerful to overcome – and what it means to stand up to that enemy anyway.

It’s not a particularly subtle movie; it wears its ideas on its sleeve and is more about blunt force than surgical precision. The story is a bit overlong as well and meanders through its middle third. However, the low-fi aesthetic is interesting and there are some good performances. Add it all up and you get an acceptable (and forgettable) sci-fi outing.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 06 March 2019 13:08

Girl stalk – ‘Greta’

We’ve largely worked our way through the winter doldrums at the movies. It won’t be long before the deluge of big-budget blockbusters and franchise tentpoles begins in earnest. However, there are still a few stragglers hitting screens, films that have been thrust out into the market because if not now, when?

One such movie is “Greta,” a film you may not have even heard about (not many did, if the box office numbers are any indication). This despite some top-notch talent leading the cast and a well-regarded writer-director returning to the big screen for the first time in the better part of a decade. And yet, aside from a few interesting choices both in front of and behind the camera, the film is a largely forgettable thriller, a movie that we’ve seen a dozen times before.

Published in Movies

Cinematic reunions are rarer than you think. While there are a few Coen-esque or Andersonian (Wes or Paul Thomas, take your pick) stables of performers out there, the truth is that these sorts of filmmaking teams don’t turn up all that often.

That relative rarity is a big part of what makes the new film “Velvet Buzzsaw” so intriguing. Writer/director Dan Gilroy has brought back the two stars of his 2014 offering “Nightcrawler” – Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo – for this one, a genre-bending story of creeping horror set amidst the backdrop of the contemporary art world.

Combining elements of satire and social commentary with horror tropes and a gleefully needling deflation of the self-indulgent self-seriousness of the high-end artistic realm, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a film that is undeniably itself. The component parts don’t always mesh as well as they might, but the overall experience is an engaging one that will appeal to a weirdly disparate audience.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 03 February 2019 18:25

‘Miss Bala’ mostly misfires

By now, we’ve grown accustomed to unconventional action movie leads. The past decade-plus has illustrated that action heroes are no longer one-size-fits-all. So I wasn’t all that surprised to see that Gina Rodriguez was getting a swing at heading up her own shoot-em-up.

Sure, Rodriguez is best known as the titular Jane in TV’s “Jane the Virgin,” but she has shown flashes of action aptitude in movies like “Annihilation.” It makes sense that she’d get a shot. It’s just too bad that said shot wildly misses the target.

“Miss Bala” – a remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name – is a story of a woman who gets swept up into a fight that she had nothing to with, a battle between cartels and corrupt police and unfeeling governments. Forced into the middle of a war she never wanted to fight, she has no choice but to do whatever it takes to survive.

Unfortunately, while the movie has a striking look and a handful of genuinely engaging sequences, the vast majority of the narrative is confusing and convoluted. Subplots are introduced and discarded at seeming random, with little consistency regarding what should be considered important. It is chaotic and melodramatic, a feature-length telenovela with explosions (not a compliment, though I can see how it might read as one).

Published in Movies
Monday, 28 January 2019 15:19

Fish out of water – ‘Serenity’

Usually, our feelings about movies are fairly easy to work out. We liked it or we didn’t like it. We got it or we didn’t get it. And we’re usually able to see why someone else might like or dislike a film even if our own feelings are opposing. Obviously, there’s plenty of gray area, but for the majority of movies, it’s a binary situation – “good” or “bad.”

But every once in a while, you get a movie that is so inexplicable, so bizarrely conceived, so bats—t crazy that the binary is out the window. It isn’t “good,” it isn’t “bad,” it’s “what in God’s name did I just watch?”

“Serenity” very much falls into that third category.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself “Really? I saw the trailer for that movie and it looked pretty straightforward to me.” And you’d be right, as far as that goes. The trailer DOES make it all look pretty straightforward. But rest assured – it is not. At all.

For its first half, “Serenity” is nothing special, a sort of beach noir thriller. The pieces are a little ill-fitting, but it’s all fairly conventional. Meanwhile, the second half of the movie hinges on a Shyamalan-on-acid twist, one of the weirdest narrative turns I’ve seen in a mainstream movie in years. Maybe ever.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 20 January 2019 18:47

‘Glass’ more than half full

It’s always nice to be truly, genuinely surprised by a movie. It doesn’t happen all that often, so when it does, it’s a treat.

For instance, the most delightful surprise of 2016 was the ending of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split,” whose closing scene revealed it to be part of the same universe in which his 2000 film “Unbreakable” took place.

A surprise sequel? To a movie that I personally loved and whose deconstruction of the superhero predated the MCU-led super-movie explosion of the last decade or so? Yes, please.

And of course, the series – dubbed the Eastrail 177 trilogy, after the train crash that kicked off the events of “Unbreakable” – must be completed.

“Glass” marks the culmination of a decades-spanning story, one that addresses the aspirational mythologizing behind our fascination with the superhuman. It’s a chance to once again grapple with what a world of heroes and villains might actually mean – both to them and to the rest of us.

While “Glass” has its share of flaws – namely Shyamalan’s inability to fully divest himself of some of his more self-indulgent tendencies – it is still a worthwhile final installment. The ethical ambiguity of heroes and villains, the general implications scaled both small and large – those are here, albeit occasionally a bit muddied. And with some top-notch performances and a handful of sharp aesthetic choices, the movie succeeds far more than it fails.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 06 January 2019 16:11

Room for improvement - ‘Escape Room’

It’s no secret that January has long served as a bit of a dumping ground for Hollywood. Yes, this is the time when many award-contending films go into wider distribution, but as far as new releases January is where studios tend to offload their biggest mistakes and misfires.

However, a movie can still be entertaining even when it isn’t very good.

Take “Escape Room,” for example. It’s a formulaic and predictable horror thriller that absolutely deserves its early January release date. That being said, it’s got an interesting concept with which it proves willing to have some fun, at least initially. Sure, the movie’s back end devolves into illogic and nonsense, but that’s OK. As long as you set the bar nice and low, there’s no reason for you to not have a good time.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 20 November 2018 11:52

‘Widows’ an engaging, atypical thriller

What happens when an Academy Award-winning director teams up with a bestselling novelist-turned-screenwriter to make an unexpected and unconventional heist movie?

“Widows” happens.

Director Steve McQueen isn’t necessarily the guy you’d think of when it comes to gritty gangster noir fare, but this film – which he also co-wrote alongside “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn – is all that and more. It’s a tense thriller, yes, but it’s also a work of feminist empowerment. And oh yeah, it has something to say about the American political system as well.

It’s a beautifully-crafted film, aesthetically stylish and narratively surprising, featuring a peak-of-his-powers filmmaker assembling an incredibly talented ensemble to create a movie that, while hauntingly familiar in some respects, is still something you’ve never really seen before.

Published in Movies

Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” of crime novels – “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” – are among the most popular books of the 21st century, selling tens of millions of copies.

The books were made into films by the Swedish production company Yellow Bird; with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander (the titular Girl), they proved wildly popular. So popular that an American adaptation of the first book was made in 2011, directed by David Fincher and starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig.

However, plans for adaptations of the second and third books fell through. Instead, what we get it “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” based on the fourth book in the series, the first written by David Lagercrantz. This installment – directed by Fede Alvarez and starring Claire Foy as Salander – is an effort to continue the story set forth so brilliantly by Larsson.

Said effort is futile.

While there are moments where we’re reminded of the visceral power of Larsson’s story and Lisbeth’s character, too much nuance has been lost. Where once Salander was a relatable, complex person, this new narrative has rendered her largely inert, a collection of traumas dressed like a Hot Topic bargain bin and possessed of computer acumen indistinguishable from wizardry. There’s no reason to emotionally connect with her – even when the filmmakers unabashedly demand it.

Published in Movies

As someone who considers himself a reasonably savvy moviegoer, I like to think that I’m not bad at discerning what the deal is going to be with a movie before I see it. That’s not to say that I think I have every plot point or aesthetic choice nailed down; I just mean that I’m good at predicting some general qualities from limited information.

Good, but far from perfect.

For instance, I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to get from “Bad Times at the El Royale” despite the fact that the publicity run-up wasn’t particularly thorough. The thing is written and directed by Drew Goddard, after all – he’s a prolific writer and producer, but the last time we got the writer/director double-dip, he gave us the exceptional meta-horror “The Cabin in the Woods.” I figured I was going to get something similar to that movie, a noir/neo-noir deconstruction-cum-parody.

But rather than a comment on a genre, Goddard – along with a fantastic ensemble cast – gives us a particularly well-executed example of that genre, one tinged with Goddard’s weirdo sensibilities and unique aesthetic sense. It twists and turns with abandon and is utterly remorseless in the sacrifices it makes in order to advance the narrative. It’s brutal and visceral and darkly funny – not quite what I expected, but a hell of a time nonetheless.

Published in Movies
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