All posts by Brent Leuthold

The Lighthouse

Writer/director Robert Eggers follows up his striking debut The Witch with The Lighthouse, a different kind of horror movie that channels psychological distress over supernatural haunts. While both films use period-correct dialogue with authentic dialects to establish an undeniable sense of time and place, Eggers’ latest effort is even more engrossing and oddly enchanting by comparison. Shot in gorgeously haunting black-and-white and presented in a constrained 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film is an unrelenting symphony of dread and dismay fueled by impeccable sound design and two top-caliber performances.

We meet our two main characters, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), in hazy silhouette as their boat charges ahead to a remote island off the coast of New England. It is there that the two men plan on spending the next four weeks together, with the cantankerous Wake serving as the lead of the lighthouse while the virile Winslow takes up the physically taxing jobs. Over their stay, the pair bond over nightly dinners and overnight liquor sessions but eventually, isolation and paranoia begin to take hold of them as the natural elements around grow harsher every day.

Shaped by the work of German Expressionist masters like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, The Lighthouse is a hellish and hypnotic vision from a filmmaker who continues to push himself formally and stylistically. Together with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers beautifully paints his frame with the perfect balance of light and shadow to convey the rotting psyche of the central duo. Also lending itself to the slow decline into insanity is the music score by Mark Korven and the accompanying cacophonous sound design, which blends the constant cawing of seagulls with the growl of a bellowing furnace to overwhelming effect.

Thanks to the fiercely committed acting from the leads, this is as good a two-hander as you’re likely to see in theaters this year. Sporting a picturesque seaman’s beard, Dafoe brings a cackling menace to his role as he tosses off dinner toasts and curse-laden monologues with equal panache. Pattinson, who was also excellent in another challenging A24 entry High Life earlier this year, is even better as the downtrodden wickie who becomes consumed with guilt and obsession. I hope this film gets nominated for plenty of Academy Awards when the nominations are announced but at the very least, these two actors deserve to be recognized for their superb work.

Bringing everything together is the salty screenplay by Robert Eggers and his brother Max Eggers, which ratchets up the tension between the beleaguered men with pointed dialogue that’s at times harrowing and hilarious. Whether they’re sparring about the quality of one’s cooking or how lazy the other is, their bickering is intentionally reminiscent of an old married couple. In the midst of a more amiable conversation, Thomas utters the film’s thesis: “boredom makes men to villains.” Immaculately crafted from top to bottom, The Lighthouse is a maelstrom of mischief that should pull in all who dare to enter its path.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Charlie’s Angels, starring Kristen Stewart and Naomi Scott, reboots the popular female-centric action franchise about a trio of highly trained spies who travel internationally to take on a new threat.
Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, tells the true story of an American car designer and professional driver who set out build a brand new vehicle to challenge Ferrari at 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Good Liar, starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, is a spy thriller about a seasoned con man who finds himself falling for the woman he orchestrated his latest scheme against after meeting her online.

Doctor Sleep

The shadows of the creepy Overlook Hotel continue to loom large in Doctor Sleep, a follow-up to the horror classic The Shining that doesn’t entirely hit the heights of its predecessor but does offer some spooky delights within the same universe. Adapted from Stephen King’s 2013 novel, the film feels more like a spiritual successor than a direct sequel, taking characters and concepts from the original and deepening the mythology behind them. Much of the marketing for the movie has played up the ties that it has to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece but aside from the third act, it thankfully doesn’t lean on The Shining’s legacy as much as one may expect.

Still traumatized from the events of his childhood, Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) wrangles with his past demons as an adult while also battling drug addiction and alcoholism. He also still carries the magical gift of “shine”, which allows him to communicate with other telepaths like Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl who is on the run from a dangerous group known as the True Knot. Led by the cunning Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the True Knot hunt down individuals with shine in order to supplement their own immortality. Together, Dan and Abra engage in psychic battle with Rose and her followers while staving off other dark forces along the way.

More often than not, Doctor Sleep reminded me most of a renegade vampire movie a la Near Dark or The Lost Boys as opposed to the haunted house movie that some may go into this film expecting. The members of the True Knot aren’t technically vampires but given their mind control abilities and tentative immortality, the effect remains the same. In fact, one of the younger members even brands a victim with a double puncture pattern that closely resembles the fangs of a vampire. Ferguson is particularly excellent as the leader of the gypsy gang, conveying all the menace necessary while slowly adding on layers of humanity that ultimately make her more empathetic than evil.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan, who previously adapted King’s Gerald Game for Netflix, once again shows his aptitude for translating the Master of Horror’s prose to the big screen. He navigates the myriad subplots and constantly evolving mysticism of the dense source material to tell an emotionally resonant story about overcoming the ghosts of the past. Kubrick famously clashed with King when he adapted The Shining in 1980, stripping away many plot elements in favor of a spare story with Kubrick’s trademark sense of chilly remove. Comparatively, Doctor Sleep is a much warmer and more sentimental film that embraces the affectionate tone behind much of King’s work.

For much of the running time, the film seems to get out from the shadow of it’s predecessor, so it’s ultimately disappointing when the finale goes into overload when it comes to callbacks. Nearly every memorable piece of iconography from the horror classic, from the fiendish ghouls and haunting music score down to the lightbulbs that illuminate the chilling corridors, is recreated to diminishing results. Flanagan does put his own angle, so to speak, on a famous shot shown this time from a different perspective, deliberately throwing off Kubrick’s ever-present symmetry. It’s touches like these, along with the substantial supernatural story, that make Doctor Sleep a worthwhile watch for fans of Stephen King and horror in general.

Score – 3.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Midway, starring Ed Skrein and Patrick Wilson, follows a group of Navy sailors and aviators during World War II as they overcome the attack on Pearl Harbor and fight the titular battle.
Last Christmas, starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding, is a holiday romantic comedy about a young woman who is working as a department store Santa’s elf when she meets a promising new prospect.
Playing with Fire, starring John Cena and Keegan-Michael Key, follows the 1990s Hulk Hogan family comedy model of pitting a hulking WWE star against a set of rambunctious toddlers.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Countdown

Out in time for Halloween, the new teen horror flick Countdown stars Elizabeth Lail as Quinn, a bright young nurse on her way to becoming an RA. While treating a patient, she discovers that he’s downloaded an app called Countdown that allegedly tells the user, down to the very second, when they will die. On a lark, she downloads it herself and is shocked to find out that her ticker only has three days left, which is made even more alarming since her patient’s countdown turns out to be deadly accurate. Searching for answers, she meets Matt (Jordan Calloway), whose phone tells him he’ll go mere hours before Quinn does and the two set out to find the supernatural force behind the ominous app.

Despite having a fun, high concept premise, the film is essentially lifting core conceits from two other franchise favorites of the genre. It borrows both the ticking clock concept crystallized in The Ring (although our characters here don’t even get the full seven days) and the idea of “death having a design” from Final Destination. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the horrifying imagery of the former and thanks to the PG-13 rating, it also lacks the gruesome, Rube Goldberg-esque kills of the latter. Instead, we mainly observe characters looking down incredulously at their phones as the seconds tick by, which is about as interesting as it sounds.

In Countdown, nearly every character can’t resist the temptation that the titular app presents and immediately checks when their number will be up without a moment’s hesitation. While I don’t doubt there would be some curious individuals who would give it a shot, the film exists in a universe in which everyone can’t stop talking about this app. The screenplay by writer/director Justin Dec is packed with tin-eared dialogue about how we interact with smartphones and given how prevalent technophobia has been in the horror genre recently (this year’s Wounds also revolves around a killer cell phone), his script leaves much to be desired. It also pads the paperthin story with unnecessary subplots like one about a lecherous doctor that seems shoehorned in from the Time’s Up movement.

Despite all this, the movie isn’t quite as poor as it could have been and the fact that it’s simply derivative and boring means that it will ultimately be more unmemorable than if it had been worse. Even in one-dimensional roles, the performers seem to be doing what they can to leave an impression. Lail does a fine job as a increasingly determined heroine and will hopefully have more luck in the future if she chooses to continue down the scream queen route. PJ Byrne and Tom Segura doggedly score some laughs in their comic relief roles, including a dig at the Marvel Cinematic Universe that genuinely caught me off guard.

Ultimately, the film just can’t seem to rise above the genre conventions that plague it at every turn. We get dumb teenagers making dumb decisions, we get priests reciting passages of Latin within a magic circle of demon-busting powder and a computer-generated creature so cliche that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the default setting for “death monster” within Photoshop. If you’re a teenager who’s looking for a scare or two in a theater around Halloween, then you could probably do worse than Countdown. Other than that, I can’t see much of a reason not to stay at home and let its timer run down to zero.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Terminator: Dark Fate, starring Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, retroactively serves as a sequel to Terminator 2 that finds Sarah Connor teaming up with a cyborg to protect a young girl.
Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr., tells the true story of Harriet Tubman as she escapes from slavery and leads many other slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
Motherless Brooklyn, starring Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, is Norton’s passion project 20 years in the making about a private investigator with Tourette syndrome solving crimes in 1950s New York.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Zombieland: Double Tap

Arriving ten years after the breakout zom-com hit, Zombieland: Double Tap offers many of the same aspects that made its predecessor work as well as it did. The chemistry of the talented cast is still in tact, the humor is as snarky and self-referential as ever and the violence towards the undead is at least as gory as one would expect. It’s disappointing, then, that the film still can’t help but feel like afterthought among the legions of zombie-related media that we’ve been saturated with throughout the past decade. Fittingly, this is addressed in the opening voiceover, in which we’re told “you have a lot of choices when it comes to zombie entertainment, so thank you for picking us.” While I appreciate the sentiment, I’d rather just have fewer choices.

We pick back up with survivors Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) as they take up residence at the now-abandoned White House. Their relatively idyllic family atmosphere dissipates when Wichita and Little Rock decide to hit the road, for fear of growing too emotionally attached. After a month, Wichita makes her way back but loses Little Rock to a hippie named Berkeley (Avan Jogia) along the way. Together with Madison (Zoey Deutch), Columbus’ new girlfriend that he made during Wichita’s absence, the group sets out to bring Little Rock back into the fold amid a world with increasingly resilient zombies.

A common charge rallied against sequels that are far removed in time from their predecessors is that the cast can look bored or tired on-screen, potentially due to contractual obligation. Say what you will about Zombieland: Double Tap but the performers do seem genuinely excited to be back in this universe. Even though their enthusiasm doesn’t quite save the tired material at the film’s core, it’s at least admirable that a primary cast including 3 Oscar nominees and an Oscar winner don’t feel like their phoning it in. Despite working from paper-thin characters, newcomers like Luke Wilson and Rosario Dawson add some comedic sparks on the periphery.

By and large, the film follows the well-worn sequel tradition of taking what worked in the original and amplifying it up to 11. This means that we get 3 different variations on Tallahassee’s signature line where just one callback to it would have likely sufficed. Where Eisenberg would chime in sparingly to remind us of the Rules in Zombieland, his cheeky voiceover track this time around seems to tower over most of the dialogue from other characters. The most clever bit in the film, where Columbus and Tallahassee run into alternate reality versions of themselves, was not only spoiled in the trailers but massively overstays its welcome in long form.

Still, the movie does have some well-earned laughs here and there. There’s a pre-credit bit that I found clever and unexpected and the post-credit scene will delight those who were holding their breath for a callback cameo by a particular comedic icon. It’s everything in the middle that’s quite hit-or-miss, especially since the jokes are attached to a storyline that is transparent and completely surprise-free. As far as belated sequels go, you could certainly do much worse than Zombieland: Double Tap but that still doesn’t mean that it does enough on its own to justify its existence.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Countdown, starring Elizabeth Lail and Peter Facinelli, is a new horror film about a young nurse who downloads an app that claims to predict exactly when a person is going to die.
Black and Blue, starring Naomie Harris and Tyrese Gibson, tells the story of a rookie police officer captures the murder of a drug dealer on her body cam, only to find out that it was committed by fellow policemen.
The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, follows two lighthouse keepers as they are faced with loneliness, friendship and their worst fears in 1890s New England.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Gemini Man

It’s two Will Smiths for the price of one in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, a clunky and dated would-be action thriller with a tired premise and even more exhausting execution. Pushing the current film trend of digitally “de-aging” actors to its breaking point, Lee continues his trajectory of foisting cutting-edge technology upon stories that don’t merit the slick upgrades in the first place. He’s proven with films like The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain that he doesn’t need 4K resolution or high frame rate presentation to tell a great story. It all starts with a well-crafted screenplay and all the high-tech bells and whistles can’t disguise the terrible dialogue and exposition on the page.

Smith stars as Henry Brogan, an esteemed assassin on his way to retirement after 25 years of service for the DIA. His final hit, carried out against a terrorist traveling on a bullet train, is called into question when one of Brogan’s inside contacts informs him that the man was actually a civilian biochemist. Shortly after, Brogan discovers he’s being surveilled by a fellow agent named Dani (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and after DIA soldiers descend upon their location, the two make a run for it. The man behind the mission to take out Brogan is Clay Varris (Clive Owen), the leader of a black ops unit who used Brogan’s DNA to create a copy of him and has sent the clone to take him out.

To create the idea of a younger-looking Will Smith, Lee uses a combination of motion capture from Smith’s performance along with the increasingly prevalent de-aging effect to composite a new character. As far as we’ve come with technology, the results of this experiment still aren’t entirely convincing. In most of the action scenes, especially the characters’ first bike-bound confrontation in Colombia, Junior (the name for Brogan’s clone) often moves with a weightless artificiality that rarely feels credible. Most of Junior’s scenes are shot either at night or in dimly-lit rooms, for reasons that become devastatingly obvious when a scene late in the film set in broad daylight reveals just how dismal the de-aging effect can look.

No amount of cosmetic retouching can hide the fact that this script, which has allegedly been kicked around Hollywood since the late ‘90s, is simply abysmal from start to finish. The dialogue, which includes yikes-inducing lines like “it’s not gun time, it’s coffee time” and “I’m finding myself avoiding mirrors recently”, is wall-to-wall tin-eared. It’s the kind of shoddy screenplay that sets up a character’s bee allergy so blatantly from the onset that we have to assume a payoff is coming later on, though “payoff” is perhaps much too generous.

Smith does what he can to pack maximum gravitas into his mirthless mercenary but it’s ultimately the same kind of stilted dramatic performance we’ve seen from him on multiple occasions. Like his work in recent clunkers like Collateral Beauty and Bright, he loads the characters from his dramatic work with an irrevocable joylessness so as to garner respect from audiences and fellow actors alike. I was no fan of the Aladdin remake from earlier this year but it was at least good to watch Smith have fun — and, heaven forbid, smile — on screen again. Gemini Man should serve as a reminder that it’s best for some movie ideas to stay buried.

Score – 1.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, starring Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning, once again follows the Sleeping Beauty antagonist as her goddaughter Princess Aurora is proposed to by Prince Phillip, sparking a war between humans and fairies.
Zombieland: Double Tap, starring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg, brings back the band of misfit zombie fighters as they meet new survivors of the apocalypse while squaring off against an evolved threat.
As part of Fright Night, Cinema Center will be screening 1989’s Pet Sematary. Local artists will be in attendance to re-create iconic movie posters for sale. Those who dress up in zombie garb will receive a $10 ticket & a complimentary small popcorn.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Joker

The Clown Prince of Gotham struts onto the big screen once again in Joker, a bold and bleak reinterpretation of the modern comic book movie that is destined to send shockwaves through the genre. Using gritty psychodramas like Taxi Driver and Blow Out as a blueprint, writer/director Todd Phillips tells a new origin story for the Batman baddie that draws on the character’s extensive mythology along with myriad other cinematic influences. While it may not be more than the sum of said influences, Phillips mines enough stylistic gold from past films to allow his dark character study to thrive on its own distinctive terms.

It’s 1981 and just like the mean streets of New York, Gotham City is plagued with rampant crime and abject poverty. Amongst its downtrodden citizens is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional clown who aspires for a career in stand-up comedy. Besides the presence of his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he shares a drab apartment, Fleck leads a distressingly lonely life exacerbated further by mental illness tenuously kept in check by seven different medications. After a pair of violent attacks against him, Fleck reaches a breaking point and vows to turn against the city that has turned its back against him his whole life.

Sporting a disturbingly gaunt frame and a creepy smile devoid of happiness, Phoenix’s performance is Joker’s primary selling point and it’s nearly impossible to imagine the film without it. Save a handful of supporting characters with a few scenes a piece, the two-hour runtime belongs almost entirely to Phoenix as he masterfully portrays Fleck’s slow descent into unbridled madness. His interpretation of this iconic character will no doubt draw comparisons to previous iterations, especially Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, but the details and nuances that Phoenix bring to his performance give us an entirely new angle on the supervillain.

It’s been said of the Joker character that the most unsettling aspect of his mythology is that he doesn’t have one set origin story; Ledger’s Joker even cycles through multiple anecdotes so we can’t be sure which is the truth. Phillips, then, is doing something quite daring here: cutting through the ambiguity and saddling this Joker with a fleshed-out tragedy that implicitly makes him more empathetic in the process. This choice may come across as thuddingly literal and obvious for some and while I admit most of the enjoyment to be had with the film is surface-level, it’s an admirable surface nonetheless.

Like his central character, Phillips is a gifted mimic as he overtly references films ranging from Chaplin’s Modern Times and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, in which Robert De Niro has much more screen time than he does here. Thanks to excellent cinematography by Lawrence Sher, the film has a larger-than-life scope that is at once overwhelming and intimate. While the script is overwritten and redundant at times, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver glimmer enough insight into this broken man’s psyche to make his journey a plausible one. In a world overrun with one superhero movie after another, Joker makes the case that we could use more told from the perspective of the supervillain.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Gemini Man, starring Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, pits an aging government assassin against a younger clone of himself who is able to predict his every move.
The Addams Family, starring Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron, brings the delightfully macabre clan to the 21st century as they face off against a reality TV host looking to capitalize on their image.
Jexi, starring Adam DeVine and Rose Byrne, follows a lonely bachelor who becomes even more addicted to his smartphone when an update implements an A.I. life coach that he begins to fall for.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Hustlers

It’s exotic dancers vs. Wall Street sharks in Hustlers, a flashy crime drama with a great ensemble cast but a somewhat predictable story that could have dug a bit deeper. Inspired heavily by crime capers like Goodfellas and Ocean’s Eleven, it delights in showing us the intricacies of the scam at the heart of the story while also hanging some bittersweet personal notes on the main players’ relationships. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria funnels her Scorsese and Soderbergh influences into something that might feel a bit too familiar to fans of the genre but should be a breezy diversion for those looking for a fun girls’ night out.

Based on a 2015 New York magazine article, Hustlers stars Constance Wu as Destiny, a Queens native who cycles through a variety of odd jobs until she lands a spot at the popular strip club Moves. It is there that she meets veteran stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who quickly takes her under her wing and shows her the ropes (perhaps “poles” is more apt.) Things are going well at Moves, until the 2008 financial crisis quickly puts the brakes on the money train and Destiny finds herself unable to support her newborn daughter. Desperate to stay afloat in the brutal economy, Ramona hatches a scheme with a pair of other protégées to drug wealthy Wall Street executives, drag them to the club and run up their credit cards against their knowledge.

As Janet Jackson tells us in song during the film’s opening line, “this is a story about control” and the film’s Robin Hood-esque tale of the disenfranchised stealing from one-percenters resonates even a decade after the markets crashed. It may be difficult for some to empathize with these criminals, even given how greedy and vile their victims are portrayed to be, but what is more disappointing is that Scafaria doesn’t seem to imbue the film with much moral ambiguity. We follow the scammers each step of the way, confident that they’re in the right because of their downtrodden circumstances, but it’s more difficult to square when they begin showering each other with expensive gifts from their ill-gotten gains.

The biggest reason it’s easy to track with these women, despite their dirty deeds, is that the performances are honest and open-hearted across the board. Wu has loads of charisma as a character who starts from an innocent enough place but is slowly seduced by the extravagant possibilities of Ramona’s machinations. Lopez is even better as the cool and confident culprit who asserts her dominance early on with a jaw-dropping dance set to Fiona Apple’s 90s hit “Criminal” and never lets up.

Scafaria leans on a framing device that ping-pongs the narrative back and forth between 2008 and 2014, which tends to spell things out a bit too much and doesn’t raise the stakes as much as it should. Besides that, the editing by Kayla Emter is first-rate and gives the film flair and style between every cut. One edit, marrying a scene from 2008 in which Destiny hopes her newborn is male with a smash cut to 2011 showcasing her newborn daughter, is both hilarious and devastating at the same time. Hustlers is a whirlwind of a heist movie that likely won’t linger long in the mind afterwards but is nevertheless enjoyable in the fleeting moment.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro, tells a new origin story for the Batman supervillain as a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City.
Lucy in the Sky, starring Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm, is a sci-fi drama based partially on a true story about an astronaut who begins to lose her connection with reality after returning from a length space mission.
Pain & Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, is the latest project from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar about a fictional film director who reflects on the choices that he’s made in his life.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ad Astra

Brad Pitt gives a career-best performance as an unflappable astronaut pushing the boundaries of outer space in Ad Astra, a ruminative and rich examination of a seemingly impenetrable man. Those expecting a science-fiction adventure like Apollo 13 or Armageddon may want to recalibrate their expectations; this film’s philosophical and psychological streak puts it more in the company of films like Solaris and last year’s First Man. It asks us to consider the mindset of a person who willingly risks their life to push forward into dark void of space and also to consider how that unimaginable journey would inevitably change them.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, who, in a similar fashion to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, tells the audience in opening voiceover narration “I always wanted to be an astronaut.” He admits the biggest reason for this is his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), also a highly revered astronaut before he disappeared on his final mission called The Lima Project. After a harrowing early scene that showcases Roy’s expertise and resiliency, he’s brought in for a new mission to investigate cosmic pulses near Neptune that are causing worldwide electronics malfunctions on Earth in a catastrophe nicknamed “The Surge.”

As McBride travels from the Moon to Mars and ultimately to Neptune, we’re reminded each step of the way just how harsh and unforgiving the environment around him is. Once we leave the comparatively bright setting of Earth, McBride’s surroundings seem to only get more bleak and dangerous from there on out. At one point, he has to wade through pitch-black waters in order to catch a shuttle with only a precarious rope as his guide. In case he needed a reminder that space is not designed around comfort, the stewardess on his trip to the Moon nonchalantly relays that the cost for an in-flight blanket would be $125.

Director James Gray, who also examined the psyche of a fearless pioneer with his last film The Lost City Of Z, fashions his brand of stoic storytelling onto a fittingly stoic protagonist. As a profoundly withdrawn man whose cool exterior slows chips away, Pitt is excellent at conveying the subtle emotional changes within his character. With the film’s themes concerning fatherhood and parental neglect along with Pitt’s pensive voiceover throughout, I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, where Pitt played the father figure instead of the son as he does here. While I would argue Gray doesn’t quite have the writing chops to mirror the hushed narration of Malick’s best work, the technique works more often than it doesn’t.

With cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who also shot Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar, Gray paints a portrait of outer space marked by its stark isolation with touches of beauty along the way. His film is an anxious one, where stress and worry permeate through both the most battle-tested veterans and the most air-tight capsules alike. It can be a dispiriting and depressing ride at times, though not as much as High Life from earlier this year, but Gray leaves the door open for hope and reconciliation to carry his audience to the end. Ad Astra reminds us that regardless of the traveler, the journey is often more important than the destination.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Abominable, starring Chloe Bennet and Sarah Paulson, is an animated adventure tale about a magical Yeti who looks like reconnect with its family on the top of Mount Everest.
Judy, starring Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock, is an Oscar-aspiring biopic centered around the life and career of American icon Judy Garland, focusing specifically on a run of sell-out concerts she put on in 1969 London.
Opening at Cinema Center is Ay Mariposa, a documentary set along the US-Mexico border wall that follows a protester, a migrant worker and a symbolic butterfly as they adjust to the changing political climate.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Peanut Butter Falcon

The charming and endearing new indie The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen as Zak, a young man with Down syndrome living in a North Carolina nursing home under the supervision of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). With the assistance of his wily roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak escapes the facility one evening and stows away on a small fishing boat. We learn that the boat belongs to a rebellious fisherman named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is on the run from rival fishermen for poaching their equipment. Together, Tyler and Zak begin to bond with one another while making their way to a wrestling camp in Florida where Zak hopes to learn the secrets of the pros.

The film occupies a number of genres at once: it’s a buddy movie, it’s a road movie (well, sea movie might be more fitting), it’s a quirky dramedy and it’s even a bit of a thriller. In its overall form, it mirrors the Mark Twain novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is referenced overtly in the film during a conversation between Tyler and Eleanor. Despite these comparisons, The Peanut Butter Falcon paves its own way with characters that feel believable and with story twists that give it a unique sense of style. The title, which references the idiosyncratic wrestling name that Zak eventually gives himself, is perhaps the first sign that this movie marches to the beat of its own drum.

The relationship between Tyler and Zak, which gets off to a rocky start but blossoms into a deep friendship throughout the story, is the key to the film’s heart and the actors do terrific work in crafting their characters. In his first on-screen performance, Gottsagen brings loads of personality to a role that could have been one-dimensional in a lesser film. LaBeouf has never been better than he is here, effortlessly peeling back the layers behind his charater’s gruff exterior to reveal a more vulnerable side. As good as their acting is separately, the electric chemistry between both actors is the strongest single element of the film.

The writing and directing duo comprised of first-timers Tyler Nilsson and Michael Schwartz is working with a kind of story that we’ve seen before, both in overall form and specific moments. There are some cliches that are indulged and scenes that strain credulity even in a free-wheeling adventure like this. Having said that, the dialogue is frequently incisive and cuts to the core of the characters while sharing wisdom and truth in the process. Nilsson and Schwartz also make the most of their swampy South Atlantic locale, showcasing muggy, miserable conditions in one scene while contrasting it with the gorgeous, endless sea in the next.

The earthy cinematography by Nigel Bluck is both aesthetically pleasing and thematically relevant, using wide shots at the beginning of Tyler and Zak’s journey to depict the “distance” between their characters while moving in closer as the story progresses. The mix of bluegrass and folk music from acts like the Punch Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show settle in nicely to the background and fill out the sonic palette. If you’re in the mood for a movie that will put a smile on your face and brighten your view of humanity, then The Peanut Butter Falcon is your ticket.

Score 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones, tells the tale of an astronaut who undertakes a new mission to uncover the truth about his missing father and the doomed expedition he took 30 years ago.
Downton Abbey, starring Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery, adapts the smash TV show for the big screen to follow the Crawley family as they welcome King George V and Queen Mary onto their estate.
Rambo: Last Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone and Paz Vega, brings the ruthless action hero back one last time to save his niece after she is taken hostage by an uncompromising Mexican cartel.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup