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We’re all searching for something. The problem is that we don’t always know what that something is.

Our quests for understanding – internal, external or both – aren’t always defined solely by ourselves. Oftentimes, particularly when we’re young, our personal journeys toward knowledge are unduly influenced by the people and places with which our lives are entangled. What we seek becomes conflated and even replaced by the pursuits of those close to us – sometimes without our even knowing that it is happening.

This confusing, convoluted search is central to “The Lightness” (William Morrow, $26.99), the debut novel from Literary Hub editor Emily Temple. It’s a fractured, fascinating look at a teenage girl’s pursuit of understanding – understanding of her circumstances and understanding of herself. Structurally daring and prosaically deft, the narrative moves back and forth across time (though all is past from the perspective of our frank and forthright narrator), capturing the fluidity and futility of memory.

It’s also a story of the complex sociological minefield that is friendship between teenaged girls, delving into the eggshell-stepping delicacy that can come from the deep and not always fully conscious desire to connect with those who may or may not have your best interest at heart … and are perfectly willing to co-opt your journey in order to advance along their own.

Published in Style

When we think of sci-fi movies today, we tend to think of big, effects-driven events. We’re thinking about nine-figure budgets aimed mostly at either advancing franchises or originating them, the odd name director standalone project notwithstanding. These films allow for grand visual, visceral representation of the futuristic/alien/whatever worlds of their stories – and that grandness can cover up a lot of flaws.

But there’s a whole other tradition of cinematic sci-fi, one that can tell a commanding story without the bells and whistles. These films are the one that convey science fiction narratives through ideas, finding ways to engage and entertain without the trappings of spectacle. They are smaller films, with far less room for error – there’s no massive effects budget to distract from any missed choices. These indie offerings are much more warts and all.

“The Vast of Night” – newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video – falls very much into the latter category. The film, directed by first-timer Andrew Patterson from a script by James Montague and Craig Sanger, is a retro sci-fi delight telling the story of a fateful night in 1950s New Mexico where two young people find themselves in the midst of a mystery unlike anything anyone in their small town could ever have imagined.

The film leans heavily into its lo-fi high-concept underpinnings, going so far as to use a “Twilight Zone”-esque TV show called “Paradox Theatre” as a framing device. This isn’t about visual flourishes – though Patterson shows his clearly considerable stylistic talent in a few spots – so much as density of storytelling. The dialogue is thick and the pacing is deliberate, all in service to a narrative that unfolds in enigmatic quietude. It is atmospheric and creepy – and very good.

Published in Movies

Maine-made movies are a relative rarity.

It’s surprising, really – in a state with an abundant variety of natural beauty ranging from coastlines to mountains to forests, you’d think more filmmakers would take advantage. Of course, there are a number of reasons we don’t see movies made here – some economic, some logistical – but even so, you’d expect a little more frequency, though the truth is that many people may simply not understand the true breadth of opportunity here.

John Barr understands.

The Maine native and film industry veteran has made his directorial debut with “Blood and Money,” set and filmed in Maine and available on VOD on May 15. The thriller – also written by Barr – takes advantage of the verdant and untamed forests found in the norther parts of the state, constructing a tale of taut tension about a lone man battling his demons and fighting for his life.

Tom Berenger stars, bringing his well-earned gravitas to almost every single frame of the film. His stoic quietude matches the looming intensity of the winter forest through which he makes his way; it’s a good match, one that is served well by the gentle pacing of the narrative and the sere serenity of the setting.

Published in Movies

Just because a town is small doesn’t mean it is lacking in shadows or secrets. With proximity comes familiarity … and familiarity breeds contempt.

That’s why small-town noir works so well – the trappings of the genre work beautifully even removed from sprawling urban landscapes. A ramshackle desert town, an isolated Midwestern farming community or a hardscrabble coastal fishing village – they’re all ripe for receiving the noir treatment.

So it is with “Blow the Man Down,” newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The movie – set in the fictional town of Easter Cove, Maine, and filmed largely on location within the state – marks the feature debut of the writing/directing team of Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy.

It’s the story of a small town and the murkiness that exists in the depths beneath the seemingly placid surface. The film explores the idea that in these small places, the divide between the person we present to the world and the person we actually are can be shockingly vast. There are plenty of secrets packed into the cracks; even the most upstanding of citizens may have unsettling skeletons in their closets. And when that veneer of respectability and gentility is cracked, true (and often unpleasant) natures are unleashed.

Published in Movies

It’s easy to forget how long the publishing process really takes. Books are written and proofed and edited and reproofed and reedited and so on and so forth, with release dates scheduled months in advance. So far in advance, in fact, that you occasionally wind up with something that is accidentally timely.

So it is with Chris Bohjalian’s latest thriller “The Red Lotus” (Doubleday, $27.95). It’s excellent in the way that Bohjalian’s work is always excellent – smart, crisply-paced, well-plotted – but it also happens to feature a central plot point revolving around the threat of a weaponized disease. While there are essentially zero actual similarities between Bohjalian’s plot and current events, the timing of the book’s release means that the comparison is unavoidable.

Still, once you move past that odd bit of synchronicity, you can enjoy this book for what it is – a taut and twisting work that features the intrigue and idiosyncrasy that are hallmarks of Bohjalian’s work. It is evocative and exciting, a quick and engaging read that will prove a welcome experience for fans of thrillers.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 18 March 2020 12:20

The most dangerous game – ‘The Hunt’

It’s nice when movies have something to say.

Don’t get me wrong – I love turning off my brain and watching stuff blow up for a couple of hours as much as the next guy. However, there’s something inherently engaging about films that try to use the medium to explore larger concepts. If stuff blows up while they do so, so much the better.

There’s a long history of genre filmmakers finding ways to use their platforms to address social and cultural ideas – science fiction and fantasy, horror and thrillers and so on – in ways both subtler and more overt than can be done in more traditional films. When it’s done well, you get absolute classics – films that challenge the status quo and say something while also embracing the pulpiness of their genre roots.

When it’s done less well, you get movies like “The Hunt.”

The Blumhouse-produced film – directed by Craig Zobel from a script co-written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof – is a cross-genre effort to explore and satirize the current political divide and level of ideological discourse by way of elevated B-movie trappings. Basically, the deal is that the liberal elite is hunting vocal conservatives for sport, with all the societal and classist issues that that concept entails.

“The Hunt” has already generated controversy – the film’s opening date was pushed from September to March due to a combination of real-life circumstances and angry rhetoric – but the truth is that the vitriol would have been better-served elsewhere, because even though the baseline concept is one that might merit offense, the truth is that the film simply doesn’t commit enough to its ideals to be anything other than an incoherent jumble. Thematically, tonally, stylistically – it lacks consistency in every respect.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 11 February 2020 11:55

‘Horse Girl’ a wild, weird ride

Sometimes, you sit down to watch a movie with certain expectations, only to have those expectations completely subverted because it turned out you really didn’t have any idea what you were getting into.

That’s an apt description of my experience with “Horse Girl,” newly streaming on Netflix after its recent debut at Sundance. Starring Alison Brie, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside director Jeff Baena, the film is a difficult-to-describe experience, a seemingly straightforward look at a socially awkward woman’s struggles that rapidly deteriorates into a what’s real/what’s not tightrope walk between mental illness and paranormal experience – and it occasionally loses its balance.

It’s an uneven and strange viewing experience, one that is unafraid to be opaque and confusing with regards to what is happening and why (or even if). The jaggedness of the plot and the fluidity between reality and fantasy and which is which can present some problems in terms of engagement with the story. Still, with a strong performance from Brie and some bold aesthetic and narrative choices, there’s more than enough here to warrant a look.

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 04 February 2020 10:58

‘The Rhythm Section’ is out of sync

There’s something deeply satisfying about a good revenge thriller. There’s a visceral enjoyment that comes from watching a wronged person exact vengeance upon those who wronged them. Sure, it can be a little formulaic, but if the formula is executed well, it doesn’t matter – it’s brutal, bloody fun.

But if it is executed poorly, well … that’s a whole different story.

Poor execution is just one of the many problems with “The Rhythm Section,” directed by Reed Morano from a screenplay by Mark Burnell (adapted from his own novel of the same name). It is meandering and convoluted, with a thin narrative that strains the credulity of even the most forgiving audience member. There are some talented performers here – and they even seem to give a s—t – but that’s not enough to salvage a film that is utterly familiar and ultimately forgettable.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 29 January 2020 14:04

‘The Turning’ screws up a classic

Adapting a literary classic for film is always a fraught proposition. Making the transition from page to screen is a delicate, tricky process. Sometimes, it is wildly successful and we get a film that not only represents the source material, but transcends it, becoming a classic in its own right.

Other times, we get “The Turning.”

Based on the 1898 Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw,” this film is intended to be a modern update of that classic Gothic ghost story. A tale of psychological intrigue, it’s an atmospheric and insular work, one that relies heavily on the creepiness inherent to its setting and circumstances for its fright factor. It is a slow-moving, slow-developing work; the glacial nature of its pacing can present a challenge to a reader.

Now imagine that same glacial pacing unfolding on screen. It simply doesn’t play, despite the best efforts of those involved. But there are only so many rea/not-real jump scares that we can take before it all starts to blend together into rote repetition. And that’s all we get from director Floria Sigismondi, working from a screenplay by twin brother writing team Carey and Chad Hayes. It’s a meandering, unfocused ramble that doesn’t seem to understand what made the original work scary in the first place.

Published in Movies
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
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