All posts by Brent Leuthold

Booksmart

Actress Olivia Wilde makes her feature directorial debut with Booksmart, a joyfully vulgar and endlessly witty teen comedy that is destined to go down as an all-time classic. Taking cues from genre pillars like The Breakfast Club and Clueless, Wilde paints a hilarious portrait of high school life that feels specific to this generation while still remaining timeless on a thematic level. Even though we’ve been recently spoiled with an abundance of excellent coming-of-age movies like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, we have yet another winner on our hands.

We meet best friends and academic overachievers Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on their final day of high school as they prepare to graduate with top honors. Upon discovering that most of her rambunctious peers were also accepted to prestigious universities, Molly grows envious of their party-hard mentality and vows to make their last night of senior year one to remember. The pair set out on a conquest to find an ever-elusive house party (“We are A+ people going to an A+ party,” Molly asserts) while naturally running into increasingly absurd obstacles along the way.

Penned by an all-female quartet of writers, the masterful script for Booksmart is filled with humor that can be shockingly explicit one minute and then unexpectedly high-minded (indicative of the film’s title) the next. This means that copious amounts of four-letter words and jokes about the human anatomy are tempered with relatively obscure references to famed documentarian Ken Burns and Queen Noor of Jordan. In her first time out as a director, Wilde deftly juggles an impressive array of comedic styles with unfailingly hilarious results.

Atop a talented ensemble of both first-time actors and veteran comedy performers, Dever and Feldstein sport an undeniable chemistry full of charm and warmth that trickles down to the rest of the cast. A chief complaint I had with Superbad, another very funny high school romp to which Booksmart will inevitably be compared, is that the friendship between its two central characters seemed to be rooted more in malice than in mirth. Even at their snarkiest, Amy and Molly always find small but significant ways to empower one another and, in one notable instance, reprimand each other when they occasionally succumb to negative self-talk.

While SNL alums like Will Forte and Wilde’s fiancé Jason Sudeikis turn up in amusing adult roles, the cast of the film is mainly made up of fresh faces who make the most of their time on screen. Billie Lourd, the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher, is a scene-stealing highlight as a relentless party girl who continues to pop up mysteriously throughout the night. Molly Gordon is similarly terrific as a character who seems to fit the “mean girl” mold early on until a pivotal monologue reveals greater depths to her character. As a high school comedy that both invigorates the genre and reminds us why it’s such an enduring one in the first place, Booksmart succeeds with flying colors.

Score – 4.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Aladdin, starring Mena Massoud and Will Smith, is another live-action Disney remake of a animated classic about an affable thief who hopes to win the heart of a princess with the help of a magical genie.
Brightburn, starring Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, inverts the traditional superhero origin story and depicts a child from another planet who comes to use his powers for evil instead of good.
Opening at Cinema Center is Hail Satan?, a documentary that traces the recent rise of The Satanic Temple, which is regarded as one of the most controversial religious movements in American history.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Based on the hugely successful video game franchise, Pokémon Detective Pikachu stars Justice Smith as Tim, a young Pokémon trainer who learns that his father Harry has died in a suspicious car crash. Upon hearing the news, he travels to Harry’s apartment in Ryme City, a unique town where Pokémon and people live in peaceful co-existence. It is there that Tim encounters Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), a Pokémon who is able to communicate freely with Tim while other humans can only hear him repeat his name ad nauseam. The two set out to uncover clues which point to a cover-up that suggests Harry could still be alive.

It’s no secret that video games tend to translate poorly to the big screen and while this film does have some admirable elements, it often feels too far removed from its original source material. An early scene suggests a simpler movie that could have been, where Tim and his friend (who disappears from the film afterwards) are trying to catch a Cubone with a Pokéball in the wild. Even as someone who hasn’t played Pokémon in 20 years, I was still able to track with the terms of this Poké-world but the actual premise of the film rarely resembles the gameplay of those early Gameboy entries or the anime series that coincides with them.

With visual allusions to Blade Runner and a storyline that mirrors Zootopia to an uncomfortable degree, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is conceptually busy even before we meet the cherubic titular character. When Reynolds enters the mix with his signature brand of smart aleck banter, then the film veers more in the direction of a buddy comedy along the lines of The Hitman’s Bodyguard. On top of all of these incongruous tones, director Rob Letterman drags us through a whodunit so convoluted that even the most ardent of Poké-fans will have a hard time making heads or tails of the unnecessarily complicated plot developments.

As one may expect, the movie is packed to the gills with bits of fan service embedded in nearly every frame and loads of Pokémon make blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos. If the sight of Machamp directing street traffic or Jigglypuff singing karaoke doesn’t sound enticing, it’s likely that you’re not in the film’s desired demographic. As someone who is relatively Poké-agnostic, the barrage of admittedly well-rendered CG creatures didn’t add or detract much from my overall experience, although I did grow attached to the adorably nebbish Psyduck character. His ability to create powerful psychic blasts unexpectedly when he gets overwhelmed is a subject of my favorite gag in the film.

Less successful from a comedic standpoint is woefully miscast Reynolds as Pikachu, who quickly wears out his welcome with tiresome riffing and snarky injections that come at a non-stop pace. It’s not clear exactly how much of his dialogue is the product of the screenplay or vocal booth improv from Reynolds but the results suggest the latter over the former. The decision to cast him was obviously designed to cash in on the subversive persona cultivated from the successful Deadpool films but that R-rated brand of humor just doesn’t gel in this kid-friendly environment. Overdeveloped and under-realized, Pokémon Detective Pikachu serves as a reminder that sometimes simpler is better.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, starring Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry, pits the unstoppable hitman against a legion of trained assassins after he is excommunicated from their guild.
A Dog’s Journey, starring Dennis Quaid and Josh Gad, is the family-friendly follow-up to A Dog’s Purpose is which a dog is reincarnated into different canine bodies to enrich the lives of those around him.
Opening at Cinema Center is Amazing Grace, a recently unearthed Sydney Pollack-directed concert film that captures Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performance from New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

High Life

Opening at Cinema Center this weekend, the new Claire Denis film High Life stars Robert Pattinson as Monte, an astronaut who lives in an otherwise abandoned spaceship with his newborn daughter. Through flashbacks, we learn that Monte is actually one of several violent criminals serving life sentences on the ship undergoing a dangerous mission to extract energy from a distant black hole. As the story continues, we learn more about a creepy doctor named Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and a heinous experiment that she is secretly performing on the prisoners behind their backs.

In nearly every way, this film is designed to challenge, provoke and even disgust its audience. The aggressively non-linear storytelling that Denis uses to tell this troubling and distressing tale makes it difficult to even form a coherent storyline in one’s head. Piecing the story together during the film is difficult enough but even mentally re-arranging the scenes together after the fact can also prove to be strenuous. Even those who are comfortable with atypical chronology could still be turned off by its perverse and often shocking subject material; I would implore potential viewers to take the MPAA rating very seriously.

Having said all of that, High Life is an exceptionally well-crafted and almost overwhelmingly haunting blend of science-fiction and horror that lingers in the memory far after the end credits roll. Its deliberate pace and ruminative camera recalls the work of Tarkovsky, particularly Solaris, but some of the nightmarish imagery and visceral scares also reminded me of the 90s chiller Event Horizon. Even with those two relatively disparate films as touchstones, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how to characterize this beguiling film but that may well be one of its greatest strengths.

If there’s a central theme to be mined from this enigmatic, puzzle box of a movie, it’s that hope and love can still found amidst the bleakest and desperate of circumstances. Onboard a dingy spaceship with flickering lights and sputtering AC units, the crew on board must fill out a status report to a computer just to continue the 24-hour cycle of functional support systems as they hurtle into the unknown. Even at the brink of oblivion, Denis treats us to quiet scenes of Monte doing his best to lovingly raise his daughter with as much grace and warmth as he can muster.

Driving these fatherly scenes home is Robert Pattinson, probably still best known for his lead role as a hunky vampire in the five incredibly lucrative Twilight films that concluded with Breaking Dawn – Part 2 in 2012. Since then, he has pushed himself with demanding roles in films like The Rover and Good Time which showcase a level of talent that would have been difficult to forecast from those YA adaptations. He may further alienate his fans if he continues to challenge himself with these kinds of roles but if it means we get films like High Life as a result, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Pokémon Detective Pikachu, starring Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith, adapts the popular video game phenomenon to a live-action/animated story about a talking creature who helps a young man search for his missing father.
The Hustle, starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, is a gender-swapped remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels about two scam artists who plan to take revenge on the men who wronged them.
Poms, starring Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver, follows a group of women from a retirement community looking to take one last shot at their dreams by forming a cheerleading squad.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Avengers: Endgame

The Marvel Cinematic Universe makes room for another gargantuan blockbuster in Avengers: Endgame, a rousing and rewarding conclusion to a 22-film saga that began with Iron Man in 2008. After the universe-shattering events of last year’s Infinity War, audiences have been waiting with bated breath for a resolution to one of the biggest cliffhangers in film history and thankfully, the payoff is quite satisfying. As one may expect from the culmination of a decade-long superhero series, it showcases both the best and worst aspects of what these Marvel films have to offer and does so on a scale hitherto undreamt of.

Without going into the details of the plot, it’s enough to say that the narrative of Endgame is incredibly complex and requires more than a passing knowledge of these characters and their backstories. As this is the case, casual moviegoers may find it to be a demanding experience at times and even though I’ve seen every film in this series at least once, there were a few occasions that I scrambled to recall previous storylines for context. This sprawling franchise has always been about investment, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that fans who have spent more time in this Universe will be rewarded accordingly for their efforts.

A marked improvement that Endgame makes in relation to its predecessor is its more deliberate structure in the form of a traditional three act framework that clearly spells out the ever-changing conflict. Too often Infinity War embodied the negative connotations of its title by feeling like an endless melee replete with wall-to-wall action and character introductions at a breakneck pace. While this sequel is similarly crowded and somehow packs even more of the Marvel mythology in its daunting 181 minute runtime, it feels more focused and purposeful, especially at the outset, than its chaotic and unwieldy forerunner.

The script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is more intentionally self-reflexive, and occasionally self-indulgent, than any of the other screenplays from the MCU canon. A common criticism for these films is that they effectively serve as commercials for more Marvel adventures to come, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much Endgame chooses to ruminate on the past rather than tantalize with the future. Returning from Infinity War, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have completed a cinematic one-two punch of monumental proportions that may not be attempted again for quite some time.

With quite a few Marvel films under their belts at this point, it would be easy for MCU veterans like Robert Downey Jr. or Scarlett Johansson to coast along when reprising their iconic roles but the caliber of acting across the board is worthy of this film’s lofty ambitions. Chris Evans stands out of an incredibly stacked cast, giving a career-best performance once again as Steve Rogers that adds even more emotional resonance to the foundation laid from previous Captain America films. As the centerpoint of a cultural phenomenon that is still in progress, Avengers: Endgame is a love letter dedicated to the fans who have waited 11 years for catharsis and closure.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
UglyDolls, starring Kelly Clarkson and Nick Jonas, is an animated adventure based on the popular line of plush toys in which the residents of Uglyville travel to the town of Perfection.
Long Shot, starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, tracks the unlikely relationship between an unemployed journalist and his childhood love interest, who is now the acting US Secretary of State.
The Intruder, starring Dennis Quaid and Meagan Good, is a psychological thriller about a young married couple settling into their new dream home and deranged previous owner who is set on getting it back.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Missing Link

The geniuses at Laika Studios have another winner on their hands with Missing Link, a delightful stop-motion animated feature that’s both fast on its feet and warm in its heart. Other films in Laika’s catalog like excellent Coraline and similarly great Kubo and the Two Strings tend to deal with darker material and heavier themes but their latest effort proves they have a knack for lighter fare too. Despite having a storyline that’s perhaps a bit too familiar, the film has plenty of good-natured laughs and laudable voice performances that make it a family-friendly adventure well worth taking.

Hugh Jackman stars as Sir Lionel Frost, a self-aggrandizing but generally well-meaning explorer who desperately wants to join an elite society of adventurers led by Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry). He receives a letter concerning a Sasquatch sighting in the Pacific Northwest and upon traveling there, he indeed happens upon said creature in the forest and dubs him “Mr. Link” (Zach Galifianakis). We learn that not only does Mr. Link know English but that he is the one who penned the letter to Frost, which he wrote to request help in finding the Yetis, his long lost relatives from the Himalayas.

At a brisk 87 minutes, Missing Link moves breathlessly from one exotic location to the next but it does so with a grandeur and panache that’s worthy of its intrepid main character. It’s the kind of swashbuckling adventure film that diagrams the globetrotting of its main characters by drawing a red line on an old-fashioned map for us to follow along. The action scenes, like a rambunctious bar fight and a stunning boat-bound foot chase that reminded me of the classic hallway sequence in Inception, move with a fluidity that is made more impressive when you remember that each frame of movement was adjusted by hand.

Not only is the film always a visual treat to behold but thanks to a droll script by writer-director Chris Butler, there are plenty of jokes that cleverly juxtapose the haughty and naive natures of its main characters. Turns of phrase and bits of sarcasm from the “refined” English gentleman are lost on the more innocent-minded bigfoot creature, whose literal interpretation of Frost’s words leads to some of the film’s funniest gags. Jackman imbues his character with a brand of pomposity that is somehow endearing but it’s Galifianakis as the earnest and sweet-hearted Mr. Link that gives the most charming performance.

I desperately hope this isn’t the last we see of Laika. Despite all five of their films garnering good to great reviews from critics, their output has not resonated with general audiences and Missing Link’s abysmal $5.8 million debut (finishing ninth in its opening weekend) represents a new financial low point for the studio. In an animated landscape that keeps feeling more homogenized, their visionary work and the painstaking lengths they go through to create it feel more important than ever. Here’s hoping that we have more fresh and fun stop-motion adventures like Missing Link to look forward to for years to come.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Avengers: Endgame, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, finds the surviving members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe working to reverse the damage caused by Thanos in Infinity War.
High Life, starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, tracks an astronaut and his daughter as they struggle to survive in deep space while on a mission to discover an alternate energy source.
Teen Spirit, starring Elle Fanning and Rebecca Hall, follows a shy teenager who enters an international singing competition and dreams of pop stardom as an escape from her shattered family life.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Pet Sematary

We’ve seen a surge in cinematic Stephen King adaptations over the past couple years and now added to the procession is Pet Sematary, an intermittently eerie but ultimately forgettable retelling of King’s 1983 novel. As someone who has neither read the book nor seen the previous film adaptation from 30 years ago, I went into this new iteration with an open mind but came out oddly unmoved by a tale that’s almost oppressively bleak. While there are some well-earned scares that meet the minimum requirements for modern horror, it feels like the source material was stripped of most of its emotional heft for a more broadly commercial appeal.

Jason Clarke stars as Louis Creed, a doctor who relocates from Boston to a rural town in Maine with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their two young children Ellie and Gage, and the family cat Church. While wandering through the woods one day, Ellie stumbles upon a creepy pet cemetery where their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) fills her in on some of the town’s mysterious past. After a pair of tragedies subsequently befall the Creed family, Louis and Jud take matters into their own hands and conjure the powerful mystical forces of a sinister burial ground behind the cemetery.

Co-directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch lay some out nice foundational work with foreboding musings on death and the afterlife but once the plot kicks in, the pacing begins to resemble a headlong rush towards the conclusion. Although it has some properly macabre touches, the main storyline also has more than a few contrivances and inconsistencies that screenwriter Jeff Buhler isn’t able to fully iron out. More successful is a subplot involving Rachel’s guilt stemming from a conflict with her dead sister, which manifests itself in a pair of chilling setpieces that give the film a terrifying jolt of energy.

The effectiveness of these scenes is mainly due to the excellent work from Seimetz, who carries an authentic anxiety in her performance that makes her the most sympathetic character in the story. Although Lithgow brings a sweltering severity to the film’s most ostentatious role, his Jud often feels like more of a ever-present plot device than a fully realized person. On the other end of the quality spectrum is Clarke, who is never fully convincing as Louis in the quieter scenes towards the beginning but strains credulity even further in the ghoulishly over-the-top material that dominates the film’s second half.

A quarrel that I have not with the film itself but the marketing of the film is just how many plot details are ruined by the theatrical trailer, which is a trend that is becoming disturbingly common these days. There are at least 3 crucial plot points, including 2 that I would consider major spoilers for those unfamiliar with the source material, that are present in the footage that has played in the months leading up to the film’s release. Perhaps going in fresh would have yielded better results but with its secrets already out in the open, Pet Sematary digs itself into a shallow grave.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Curse of La Llorona, starring Linda Cardellini and Raymond Cruz, continues the supernatural chills of the Conjuring Universe by introducing a motherly ghost who preys on children.
Breakthrough, starring Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas, tells the harrowing true story of a teenager who enters a coma after falling through ice and the family that prays for his full recovery.
Penguins, narrated by Ed Helms, is a Disneynature documentary about a penguin who joins millions of fellow males on a quest to build a suitable nest, find a life partner and start a family.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Gloria Bell

Julianne Moore sings and dances her way through another memorable role in Gloria Bell, a English-language remake of the 2013 Chilean film Gloria that successfully recreates the free-spirited gusto of its predecessor. While it may not build to any kind of profound conclusions or reinvent the conventions of the romance genre, the movie tracks the perspective of its middle-aged protagonist with empathy and lightness. In a season that has been particularly dominated by one blockbuster after another, this serves as a pleasant detour that should resonate with people looking for movies based in something that more closely resembles everyday life.

We first meet the title character, played by a perfectly-cast Moore, as she confidently makes her way onto the dance floor of a neon-tinged nightclub with a martini in hand. After a meeting in a singles bar one night, she soon begins a fling with Arnold (John Turturro), a fellow divorcee with grown children who is also hoping to start a new chapter in his life. The film follows Gloria and Arnold through the ups and downs of their burgeoning relationship, as well as the often strained interactions that Gloria has with her son Peter (Michael Cera) and her ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett).

As one may expect from her stellar track record, Moore’s winning performance as the fun-loving and often impulsive Gloria is the strongest thing that the film has going for it. Whether she’s singing along to Olivia Newton-John in the car or dancing her heart out to disco tunes at the club, her joie de vivre is the emotional center point upon which this heartfelt tale finds its pulse. Of course life isn’t always upbeat and neither is Gloria’s story but Moore is more than capable of making the melancholic moments matter just as much as the lighter points in the narrative.

For having a character at its center that isn’t afraid to take chances, it’s somewhat disappointing that writer-director Sebastián Lelio seemed to hedge his bets a bit when it comes to the film’s storytelling. Gloria Bell is so slavishly dedicated to each story beat of Lelio’s previous work Gloria that it makes one wonder why he found it necessary to recreate it in the first place if the final products would be so similar. The story of self-discovery works about as well as it did in the original but I wish he had found a way to give new life to this material in the process of translating it for American audiences.

The screenplay by Lelio and Alice Johnson Boher has plenty of perceptive and poignant dialogue that clues us into where each character stands without belaboring the point. In an effort to break up an increasingly awkward political conversation between her friends at a dinner party, Gloria chimes in with, “when the world blows up, I hope I go down dancing.” With a buoyant and life-affirming tone that should resonate with people regardless of the stage in life they find themselves in, Gloria Bell rings true with impassioned wisdom and a central performance that captivates from start to finish.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Hellboy, starring David Harbour and Milla Jovovich, is a reboot of the comic book series about a demonic superhero who battles supernatural creatures from the underworld.
Missing Link, starring Hugh Jackman and Zoe Saldana, is the latest stop-motion animation offering from Laika Studios about an adventurer’s quest to find a Bigfoot-like creature.
Little, starring Regina Hall and Issa Rae, is a new body swap comedy in which a demanding tech mogul is transformed into a teenaged version of herself.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Shazam!

Warner Bros brings some levity to their generally dour DC Extended Universe with Shazam!, a well intentioned but ultimately disappointing superhero entry that strains a bit too hard for likeability. Part family-friendly comedy and part body swap movie, it does offer some new storytelling elements to the most saturated film genre at the moment but the execution of these ideas doesn’t feel as inspired as it should. Director David F. Sandberg is working hard to emulate the tone of kid-centric 1980s Spielberg productions like E.T. and Gremlins and in the process, he reminds us how challenging it is to recreate the magic of those classics.

After a drawn-out prologue starting in the mid-70s, we’re brought up to present day to meet Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled teen who has gone from one foster home to another after being abandoned by his mother at a young age. Traveling on the subway on day, Billy is suddenly transported to a magical realm where a weakened wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) bestows Billy with the ability to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Along with his newest foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), Billy learns how to harness his newfound powers in order to stop the villainous Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

The strongest facet of the film can be found in Levi’s performance as the body-swapped hero, which channels the same wide-eyed giddiness that Tom Hanks utilized for his similar role in Big. He’s certainly the source of the movie’s biggest laughs, especially during a scene in which he strides confidently into a gas station and announces to the teller that he’d “like to purchase some of their finest beer, please.” Levi also has excellent comedic chemistry with Grazer, who gets in a few quality one-liners of his own despite the fact that his character is underdeveloped and sidelined at critical points in the story.

In an ironic twist, Strong represents the weakest aspect of the movie as he glowers through another bland and one-note supervillain role that diminishes any of the storyline’s potential. Shazam is the kind of idiosyncratic character that demands a more compelling foil but Sivana offers the same exact kind of obstacles for our hero that we’ve seen plenty of times before. At one point during the film’s pre-production, Dwayne Johnson was lined up to play Shazam’s nemesis Black Adam, which is a much more compelling scenario than what Warner Bros opted for instead with this rote showdown.

The screenplay by Henry Gayden does have a handful of quality jokes, despite being all over the map in terms of comedic tone, but it’s saddled with the task of also providing a straight-faced superhero narrative. The film’s overextended climax, which contributes heavily to the already bloated runtime, involves the same kind of weightless CGI aerial brawl that sunk the otherwise worthwhile Superman outing Man of Steel in 2013. I applaud Shazam! for attempting to shake things up within the DCEU but the film lacks the kind of clear artistic conviction that would have made the gamble pay off.

Score – 2/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Pet Sematary, starring Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz, is the latest Stephen King adaptation about a family who summons evil forces after meddling with a mysterious burial ground.
The Best of Enemies, starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, tells the true story of a civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan leader who debate school segregation in 1970s North Carolina.
Gloria Bell, starring Julianne Moore and John Turturro, reimagines 2013’s Gloria about a free-spirited woman in her 50s who seeks new love amid the Los Angeles dance club scene.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup