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Tuesday, 07 January 2020 12:43

Sandler sparkles in ‘Uncut Gems’

It’s easy to poke fun at Adam Sandler. His output in recent years has been largely of the “working vacation with my friends” variety, comedies that are basic and kind of lazy. Oh, and not particularly funny. Sandler has found a formula that works for him; the dude works only as hard as he has to, contenting himself with good enough.

Of course, it’s ALSO easy to forget that when Sandler is given the right material and given a proper push, he can be brilliant. It’s been a while, but we’ve finally got another great performance to add to the list.

“Uncut Gems,” directed by filmmaking brothers Josh and Bennie Safdie from a script written by the Safdies and Ronald Brownstein, is a visceral and gritty drama, a moment-in-time period piece set all the way back in the bygone time of 2012. It is a character study of a man with little character, a self-absorbed degenerate who can’t help but succumb to his own baser impulses. It is a brutal, ugly story, driven by a collection of terrible people, few of whom possess any kind of truly redeeming qualities.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 27 November 2019 11:37

A bridge too far – ’21 Bridges’

Sometimes, it is abundantly clear why a movie doesn’t work. Perhaps a director is out of their element. Perhaps a lead role is woefully miscast. Perhaps the story lacks depth or displays an unfortunate tone-deafness. Sometimes, it’s more than one of these things.

Other times, it isn’t quite so cut-and-dried. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the whole is simply less than the sum of its parts.

The latter description suits the new cop thriller “21 Bridges.” It’s a competently made film with some legitimate star power, featuring some solid action and dramatic tension. The pieces are all there for a good movie … but “21 Bridges” never quite figures out how to put them together.

Now, that’s not to say that this is a bad movie. It isn’t. What it is, unfortunately, is forgettable. And honestly, considering what’s being brought to the table in terms of talent, that’s almost more damning.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 19 November 2019 11:53

Pros and cons – ‘The Good Liar’

In a world full of franchises and IP-driven cinematic entertainment, certain types of films have fallen out of favor with the biggest studios. That’s not a judgment so much as a simple statement of fact.

And it’s too bad, because if Hollywood allowed itself to keep an open mind, we might get more efforts like the new dramatic thriller “The Good Liar.” It’s a movie whose tight, taut tone is brought forth by the talented likes of director Bill Condon behind the camera and the delightful central pairing of Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren. Films like this – films interested in neither billion-dollar box office or scads of awards attention – are thinner on the ground than ever.

It’s not a perfect movie – things get more than a little convoluted at times and the pacing has moments where it lags a bit – but its relatively minor issues are more than overcome by McKellan and Mirren, who are cinematic treasures and are clearly enjoying themselves immensely. When you’ve got that kind of charm and charisma on display, the rest more or less takes care of itself.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 29 October 2019 10:41

‘Black and Blue’ a meandering misfire

There’s something admirable about a filmmaker wanting to tackle larger social issues through their craft. Making a movie that offers salient commentary on the world is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and almost always springs from good intentions.

But the leap from intention to execution can be tricky … and you’re not always going to stick the landing.

And that’s the story of “Black and Blue” in a nutshell. Director Deon Taylor has a history of incorporating a message into his entertainments, with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, this time it doesn’t quite land. He’s a skillful filmmaker and he’s working with a talented cast, but he’s ultimately unable to present his ideas with the nuance necessary to make them work.

Reducing big ideas to manageable size is vital in these situations, but you also must be careful not to oversimplify. In their efforts to strike the balance, the filmmakers went too far, rendering complicated issues in a manner that borders on the ham-handed. A noble effort, but one that never quite gels.

Published in Movies

Time travel is tricky.

It’s easy to understand why a filmmaker – especially a filmmaker on a budget – would be interested in the possibilities offered by time travel. It’s a conceit that allows plenty of room for speculative spread without necessarily requiring one to shell out a ton of cash for effects work.

However, one must also be prepared to deal with the narrative ramifications of using something like time travel. You can’t just point the camera and say “time travel” – there has to be some sense of cohesion. Without a delicate touch, the whole thing is in danger of dissolving into incoherence.

Some time travel movies – the best ones – strike a balance; the filmmaker is able to embrace the advantages offered by the concept while also avoiding the many pitfalls. The vast majority fall short of that ideal.

“In the Shadow of the Moon” is one of the many, rather than the few. Rather than building a time travel narrative that builds upon itself, it instead collapses under its own weight. Its intriguing initial idea is unable to sustain itself, crumbling into paradox. The logistical issues are either ignored or hand-waved away, rendering the central mystery an uninteresting afterthought.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 10 September 2019 17:54

A lie of the mind - ‘The Institute’

Stephen King’s reputation is that of a master of horror, a writer who plumbs the depths and brings forth supernatural terrors to be confronted and defeated by regular people who have been thrust into irregular circumstances. And that reputation is well-earned.

But make no mistake – King is often at his horrifying best when his villains are ordinary rather than extraordinary. Finding the evil that lurks within the human heart – that’s a skill for which Mr. King doesn’t always get his full due.

Those are the villains in King’s latest novel “The Institute” (Scribner, $30), regular people willing to do unspeakable things simply because they have been told those things are necessary. There’s a timeliness to this book, an of-the-moment quality that also possesses a sense of universality. It is a look at the evil that men do when they believe their cause is just.

But while these villains may not be possessed of paranormal girts, the targets of their villainy certainly are – children. Children, stolen from their homes in the dead of night and confined to an isolated compound, selected for imprisonment and torture so that a shadowy cabal might somehow bring forth the full force of the children’s inexplicable talents.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 16 July 2019 19:34

See you later, alligator – ‘Crawl’

Appearances can be deceiving.

A lot of the time, you can watch a trailer or two and just KNOW that particular movie is going to be good or bad. A handful of seconds of footage and a basic idea of plot and provenance and you feel confident of your opinion. This movie will be great, that movie will be terrible, etc.

But sometimes – not often, but sometimes – your seemingly solid take is dead wrong.

I was pretty sure “Crawl” was going to be a bad movie. The overwrought scenes in the trailers, the fundamental silliness of the central plot – all of it spelled mediocre-at-best genre fare. It was the sort of movie that I almost didn’t bother to see, so sure was I of what I would get. Seriously – if we’d had three wide releases this week, this would almost certainly have been the unseen bronze medalist.

I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong.

Now, I’m not saying that “Crawl” is a GOOD movie, because it is not. It is shlock. But it is beautifully sincere, well-crafted shlock. It is shlock that is gleefully and unapologetically itself. It is fully committed to the bit to such a degree that it quickly becomes extremely hard not to lean into it yourself.

Basically, you never forget how ridiculous it all is, but neither does the movie, and so everyone just embraces it and has a fantastic time.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 22 May 2019 12:15

Don’t miss ‘The Missing Season’

There are some people who will simply never give young adult fiction its due. These people, for whatever reason (*coughcoughsnobberycough*) will dismiss out of hand any work that happens to bear that label. And that’s too bad, because they are missing out on some phenomenal work, all to satisfy some sort of literary holier-than-thou nonsense.

They’re missing out on the work of Gillian French.

The Maine-based author’s latest book is “The Missing Season” (HarperTeen, $17.99). It’s a well-crafted mystery that also delves into what it’s like to be young. It’s about being the new kid and having crushes and coming of age in the midst of a small town’s slow fade. It’s about what it means to be afraid, whether it’s of the boogeyman in the woods or the secrets of those closest to us.

And it’s very good.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 08 May 2019 11:24

Home sweet home - ‘The Intruder’

With the “Avengers: Endgame” monolith dominating the box office as expected, the big-screen offerings of early May were always going to be a bit offbeat. Studios were aware that specifically-aimed counterprogramming would be the only way to ride out the massive second and third weekends from the MCU juggernaut.

But no one could have expected something like “The Intruder,” a weird little bit of B-movie genre filmmaking featuring a pulpy blend of thriller themes and a delightfully bonkers performance from Dennis Quaid. It is unapologetic and unrelenting in its choices, committing fully to a mess of stalker/home invasion tropes sprinkled with periodic moments of intentional unintentional comedy.

Basically, if you could distill the desire to shout “Don’t go in there!” at a movie screen and turn it into an actual movie, you’d pretty much have “The Intruder.”

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 27 March 2019 14:12

This is ‘Us’

Horror cinema has long been a genre whose flexibility has allowed it to serve as a remarkable vehicle for the delivery of big and complex ideas. The allegorical underpinnings of horror movies allow filmmakers to spark conversations about the complicated entanglements of the world in which we live on both macro and micro levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele took advantage of horror’s flexibility and shifted the paradigm with his 2017 debut film “Get Out,” building a film that was both bitingly socially satiric and legitimately tense and scary. That movie’s wild critical (Oscar nominations for Actor, Director and Picture and a win for Original Screenplay) and commercial (over $250 million at the global box office against a budget under $5 million) success meant a whole lot of anticipation for (and pressure on) the follow-up.

And “Us” clears every bar.

Peele’s latest horror thriller delves into the tropes of home invasions and evil twins and more, using those genre touchstones as part of a meaningful conversation about social stratification and class warfare and other important issues confronting the America of today. I’ll put it this way – “Us” could easily be read as “U.S.” … and that’s certainly not a coincidence.

Published in Movies
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