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Another week, another Netflix original.

While the streamer’s commitment to providing a steady supply of original content is admirable, the combination of constant churn and a vague sense of algorithmic generation, there’s no disputing that the level of quality is … uneven, to say the least, even if the quantity is largely delivered as promised.

Their latest entry is “Sweet Girl,” a revenge thriller starring Jason Momoa. This story of a man pursuing vengeance against the pharmaceutical company that he holds responsible for the death of his wife is your run-of-the-mill passable, largely forgettable action offering … right up until a late twist that turns the whole thing into something altogether more bonkers, altering not just the remainder of the film, but everything we’ve seen before.

Now, that’s not to say that this makes any of this what you’d call “good” – the film is too across-the-board workmanlike for that – but it certainly turns what initially seems like a time-filling watch into something you’ll at least remember beyond the end credits.

Published in Movies

Sometimes, you look at someone on screen and think “That person has it. They’re going to be a huge star.” There’s just an indefinable … something. Presence. Charisma. Whatever you want to call it.

That said, having “it” isn’t always enough.

Take the new Netflix thriller “Beckett,” for instance. John David Washington is an actor who has that something, that elusive star quality (even if he doesn’t always know how to properly wield it). But while that energy is certainly present in this film, it can’t make up for the thin narrative and assorted odd thematic and tonal choices scattered throughout. He’s able to keep the movie from being outright bad, but he can’t pull it up to the level of being good.

There’s a decent supporting cast, but they’re stuck in the slog as well, plodding their way through the unevenly paced proceedings. Everyone in the ensemble is doing what they can, but they’re ultimately undermined by Ferdinando Filomarino’s uninspired direction and Kevin Rice’s threadbare and derivative screenplay.

Published in Movies

I dig M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Not all of them – he’s definitely got a couple of real stinkers in there – but for the most part, I’ve liked the films that he’s made. Frankly, there’s something refreshing about the dude and his work; he is clearly someone who makes movies that he likes and doesn’t really worry all that much about anything else. And thanks to the ongoing cultural impact of “The Sixth Sense,” he has enough creative capital to keep doing what he does.

Plus, he’s kind of on a pretty good run.

Since his sort-of-comeback with 2015’s “The Visit,” Shyamalan has reinvigorated his career, putting the previous decade or so – in which he became something of a punchline – in the rearview. That film, plus the double dip of 2016’s excellent “Split” and 2019’s I-liked-it-more-than-many “Glass” along with his work on TV shows like “Wayward Pines” and “Servant,” have him back in the conversation, albeit not quite at his turn-of-the-century heights.

His latest is “Old.” It’s a bit of an outlier for him; he directed and wrote the screenplay, as per usual, but this time, it’s an adaptation – a French graphic novel titled “Sandcastle.” But it’s the sort of supernaturally-tinged story we’ve learned to expect from him, with the same brand of ludicrous/intriguing elevator pitch description.

To wit: What if people went to a beach that made them age their entire lives in just a few hours?

I know, I know – it sounds goofy. And I suppose it is. But it is also precisely the sort of premise with which a filmmaker like Shyamalan can have some fun. It’s not perfect – things get clunky here and there and there’s one particular plot development that is actively icky – but the things that Shyamalan does well, he does REALLY well … and they’re on display here.

Published in Movies

There’s something almost sad about watching a film’s ending set the table for a sequel that – if what you’ve just watched is any indication – almost certainly won’t wind up happening. You’ve sat through the 100ish minutes and are left to sympathize with the sure-to-be-dashed sequel dreams of the filmmakers before ultimately walking away and promptly forgetting about it.

However, “almost certainly” is not “certainly.” Know how I know? Because “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” exists.

This sequel was transparently set up by the ending of 2019’s “Escape Room” (to the ultimate detriment of that film, to be honest); while the first installment didn’t really earn this continuation via quality, it was relatively successful at the box office – and money talks.

Director Adam Robitel is back for round two, as are a couple of the first film’s stars. But really, they could have simply brought everybody back and taken another go, because it’s largely more of the same.

An unnecessary sequel – fine. I get the desire to return to that well. However, if you’re going to make a sequel to a movie that itself was underwhelming, perhaps the right move is to make that sequel … better? Or at least different? Instead, this is basically a rehash; they’ve turned the dial up a little, but otherwise, it’s more of the same.

Published in Movies

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a genuine affection for old man action movies. There’s something so compelling about watching a creaky-kneed geriatric hobble his way across the screen, gratefully giving way to stunt performers when things get a little too active. I know that sounds derogatory (and maybe it is, a little) but that doesn’t change the fact that I for-real dig it.

Of course, the king of geriatric action (geriaction?) is my man Liam Neeson. His “Taken” franchise really kicked off the boom times of the subgenre, though I should note that I don’t count the aging action stars as part of it – your Schwarzeneggers, your Stallones, your Willises. And while Neeson’s definitely lost a step or two since that first “Taken” outing, he’s still out there getting after it (and getting those checks).

His latest foray into old man action is “The Ice Road,” a Netflix offering written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh. This time, Neeson plays an over-the-road truck driver who is pressed into service to save a bunch of trapped miners before it’s too late, only there are outside forces conspiring to stop him from doing that.

It’s the sort of paint-by-numbers action-thriller that makes up the entirety of Neeson’s workload these days – one that is decidedly lacking in both action and thrills. He does his gruff Everyman thing, trying to convey world-weariness even as his only clear motivation is cashing his check. It is purely disposable, a movie designed for folks of a certain age to fall asleep in front of.

Published in Movies

Baby horror has long been a vital subgenre beneath the horror umbrella. The possibilities that come with the fundamental mysteries of pregnancy and giving birth are myriad. You can do demonic possession or supernatural rituals or weird science, all with a body horror underpinning that comes part and parcel with the whole situation.

Of course, these movies aren’t always good.

Take “False Positive,” newly streaming on Hulu. I had high hopes for this one, honestly. Ilana Glazer stars and co-wrote the script with director John Lee. Both of them have some legitimately weird credits to their name. Throw in Justin Theroux and Pierce Brosnan as co-stars and you’ve got my attention.

Unfortunately, while the film starts with some real promise, it never quite gets to where we want it to be. Instead, it devolves into a muddled mishmash of dream sequences and “What is real?” psychodrama that never finds its footing after the strong start. Too many decisions make little or no sense; there’s never any sense behind why people are behaving the way that they are. We’re left with a confusing and ultimately unsatisfying film that never quite decides what it wants to be. Again, there are moments of strength, but not nearly enough of them.

Published in Movies

A perhaps underrated aspect of a story’s quality is our engagement by the storyteller.

Yes, I mean the person crafting the story in question, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Once we venture beyond the third-person omniscience POV, well … now you’ve got a narrator. Another layer of the storytelling onion.

There are plenty of narrators in the world of fiction, with wave upon wave of first-person perspectives lapping against assorted narrative shores. There’s a certain degree of familiarity that comes with that plentitude – it’s rare for you to get a story to you by someone whose like you’ve never encountered before.

But in Will Leitch’s new novel “How Lucky” (Harper, $25.99), that’s precisely what we get.

The person at the center of this story – the one through whose eyes we watch it all unfold – is unlike anyone you’ve met in literature. And the story that he shares with us is thrilling and funny and just a little off-kilter, driven by the notion that the desire to save the day isn’t confined to a certain type of person. It’s a story of living a life of limitation, yet refusing to be defined by those limitations – even when the world around you isn’t quite so free of judgment.

Published in Style

As someone with a genuine affection for the genre, I’ve enjoyed seeing the evolution of the Western for the modern day. The most successful of these neo-Westerns are the ones that are able to maintain the frontier sensibilities of the classics within a more present-day framework.

Among the foremost practitioners of the neo-Western – and perhaps the best and striking that delicate balance – is Taylor Sheridan, the writer-director behind such projects as “Wind River,” “Hell or High Water” and the TV western “Yellowstone.”

Sheridan’s latest – a project that he both directed and co-wrote – is “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” adapted from Michael Kortya’s 2014 novel of the same name. It’s a great example of how the neo-Western vibe doesn’t necessarily rely on the tropes of the genre. There are no cowboys here, but the tone and attitude of the characters and the narrative surrounding them can be traced directly back to the classic Westerns of the ’60s and ‘70s.

It’s a lushly-filmed thriller, one that takes full advantage of the natural majesty in which it was filmed. And it features a top-notch cast, led by Angelina Jolie. But while there’s no denying the propulsive nature of the story, there’s some muddiness to the proceedings that prevent the film from reaching its full potential. Still, it’s a hell of a watch, and truthfully? That’s more than enough.

Published in Movies

Movies don’t always work. There are a million potential reasons why, but that’s the simple truth: sometimes, films fail.

On the surface, something like “The Woman in the Window,” newly streaming on Netflix, looks like a candidate for solid success. It’s got talent behind the camera in director Joe Wright and a wildly overqualified cast led by Amy Adams. It’s based on a best-selling book adapted by the excellent Tracy Letts (who also makes an uncredited appearance in the film).

But look closer and it all starts to crumble.

This was a film that was supposed to come out nearly two years ago – in October of 2019 – before terrible test screenings lead to re-edits, pushing the release to May of 2020 (and we all know how that worked out). After that further delay, the studio sold the rights to Netflix and here we are.

After watching it, well … I’m just curious as to how bad it was BEFORE the fixes.

This kind of “woman in distress” thriller has seen a bit of a renaissance in recent years, courtesy of authors like Gillian Flynn. But this one – penned pseudonymously by noted fabulist Daniel Mallory – has none of the propulsive power of that novel. And as for the film adaptations? Let’s just say the window should have stayed closed.

Published in Movies
Monday, 22 March 2021 15:24

‘Happily’ never after

Most of the time, the media we consume – movies, books, TV, music – fits comfortably within the confines of description. That is, we can pretty easily define what kind of film or book or show or song we’re experiencing; even the stuff built on genre cross-pollination can be described reasonably succinctly.

Occasionally, though, we get something that doesn’t quite fit into one or two categories. Something that is many different things at once while also being essentially its own thing.

“Happily,” written and directed by BenDavid Grabinski, checks a LOT of different genre boxes, but does so in a way that is appealingly messy. There’s a fundamental shagginess to the film, born of the filmmaker’s clear desire to take a kitchen sink approach to tone and type. And the film really does have it all – romance and dark comedy and speculative undertones and relationship drama – but in the course of doing so, it sometimes loses its way.

That said, we’ve got a dynamite cast, some killer aesthetic choices and visual styling and an obvious willingness to let things get weird. It’s a film where you might THINK you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t. Not really. And that’s (mostly) a good thing.

Published in Movies
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