All posts by Brent Leuthold

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

Adapted from the creepy children’s series that has haunted book fairs for decades, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark stars Zoe Colleti as Stella, a teenaged horror fanatic who also fancies herself a writer. It’s Halloween 1968 and Stella’s friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) convince her to come out and help them get back at the school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) with a prank. While being chased by Tommy and his gang, the trio meet the new kid in town Ramón (Michael Garza) and they hide together in a haunted house until the coast is clear. It’s there that they discover a creepy book that pens spooky tales on its own, which soon manifest themselves into real-life events.

Even those who haven’t read the books from Alvin Schwartz’s series are likely familiar with the corresponding illustrations by Stephen Gammell and the film wisely uses his unsettling imagery as a starting point. At the center of each of the six twisted tales that come to life before our eyes in real time is a terrifying creature (or series of creatures) plucked straight out of a disturbing nightmare. The influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, the mind behind The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, is seen clearly in the stellar creature design that beautifully integrates costumes and computer-generated effects.

Norwegian director André Øvredal is at his best when he is gleefully crafting the chilling setpieces that feature the monsters lurching slowly towards our protagonists. All of the scares conjured up from these spooky scenes are all about evenly matched in terms of quality but one story, entitled The Dream, stands out among the rest. Trapped in a hospital corridor drenched in red light, one of our main characters peers down a series of endless hallways looking for an exit, only to find the same figure, which readers will recognize as the Pale Lady from the books, creeping towards him from every direction. This sequence alone should give horror fans enough nightmare fuel to hold them over until It: Chapter Two opens next month.

As much time and effort was put into bringing the horrific artwork of the books to the big screen, I wish more work had been put into the overarching narrative that surrounds each of these scary stories. The screenplay by Dan and Kevin Hageman leans on stock characters (The Nerdy Protagonist, The Prankster, The Bully, etc.) that we’ve seen plenty of times before. The young cast of mostly unknown actors do their best with the material but there really isn’t enough on the page to develop their characters past their shallow foundations. Once the kids get to the bottom of what makes the book produce these horrifying incidents, the plot revelations are unsurprising and hardly satisfying.

Fortunately, the film frequently succeeds at its primary objective, which, naturally, is to scare its audience and hopefully haunt them a bit after they leave the theater. It’s likely that audience will skew a bit younger as well, thanks to the PG-13 rating that allows for teens to get their share of frights. Too often in the horror genre, movies include enough gore and violence to merit an R rating but they settle for cheap jump scares instead of genuine suspense (last year’s The Nun is a prime example.) Kudos to Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark for proving that you don’t need blood and guts to get under people’s skin.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Angry Birds Movie 2, starring Jason Sudeikis and Josh Gad, follows up the hit animated movie based on the popular video game about a group of feathered friends fueding with their foes, the Bad Piggies.
Good Boys, starring Jacob Tremblay and Keith L. Williams, follows a trio of pre-teens as they skip school to set out on a debaucherous adventure that culminates with an epic high school party.
Blinded By the Light, starring Viveik Kalra and Hayley Atwell, tells the true story of a British-Pakistani teenager who finds refuge in the music of Bruce Springsteen amid the political unrest in 1980s England.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Farewell

The immensely moving and thoroughly amusing new film The Farewell stars Nora Lum (who goes by the moniker Awkwafina in her music career) as Billi, a struggling writer toiling away New York City. While making a laundry run at the home of her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), she learns that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer with only three remaining months. The decision is made by the family, in accordance with Chinese culture, not to reveal the news to Nai Nai but a hasty marriage proposal by Billi’s cousin Hao (Chen Hanwei) to his new girlfriend ensures that the family can travel to Beijing to say their veiled goodbyes to their spritely matriarch.

The premise would suggest a rather somber affair but thanks to some intuitive and empathetic direction by Lulu Wang, who based this film on her own real-life story, the tone is mostly light-hearted with notes of bittersweet reflection along the way. She finds humor where others might only find sadness and lends a perspective that may indeed help others get through their own hard times. In this way, it reminded me often of the similarly excellent dramedy The Big Sick, which also intelligently balanced the heavy story at its center with plenty of tasteful laughs.

From an early phone conversation between Billi and Nai Nai, in which both trade fibs about where they are and what they’re doing, the film is predicated upon the polite lies that we tell our family to guard them from unpleasant truths. When it comes to the well-intentioned deception behind the big secret at the center of the story, there’s a sense of dramatic tension that any character could blurt out the news to sweet Nai Nai at any moment. More importantly, there is a poignant subtext about how we can do the wrong thing for the right reasons on behalf of the people that are closest to us. Some may view this movie and object to how the characters handle this situation but few would question the sentiment behind their decisions.

The performances from the ensemble cast are stellar across the board but it’s Lum, who popped up last year in both Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, that stands out as a true revelation. In her first leading role, Lum is remarkably assured and quietly commanding (despite her slumped posture) in an audience surrogate role that could have been potentially been flat or one-note. Shuzhen is also terrific as the blissfully unaware Nai Nai, whose firecracker spirit and quippy banter give the movie a richly humane energy. That she consistently reminded me of my own late grandmother would likely explained why I was moved to tears on two separate occasions during the film.

There are some playful touches from behind the camera that bolster the comedic and dramatic foundation of each scene. The editing work by Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman does a fantastic job of giving us enough time to take in each characters’ role in the family while also aiding in some briskly-paced scenes of situational comedy. Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano gives us some gorgeous foundational shots of the Chinese city Changchun but also treats us to some sumptuous low angles of busy dinner tables that make every meal look like a delectable feast. The Farewell is one of the year’s best films, a heartfelt tribute to grandparents everywhere and the families that support them.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, starring Zoe Colletti and Michael Garza, adapts the series of children’s horror tales into a story about a young girl who conjures terrifying creatures within her mansion.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold, starring Isabela Moner and Eva Longoria, bring the cartoon explorer into live-action for a new adventure in which Dora must save her parents and solve an ancient Inca mystery.
The Kitchen, starring Melissa McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss, is a comedy crime film about three housewives out to settle the score with the Irish mafia after their mobster husbands are sent to prison.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino takes us on a ride through 1969 Los Angeles in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a nostalgic would-be fairy tale with plenty of style but not nearly enough substance. Tarantino would likely describe this as a “hangout film,” a term he coined himself when discussing his Jackie Brown, in which the specifics of the plot are secondary to the camaraderie we as the audience feel with the main characters. The movie does have the languid and meandering pace to fit the descriptor and while it does have a pair of well-developed characters that we get to know quite well, it doesn’t have enough others in its ensemble cast to make it a hangout worth having.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, a washed-up star of a hit Western TV show in the 1950s who has struggled to find much success since due to his alcoholism. Rick confides in his long-time stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a war veteran with a mysterious past who drives Rick around and help him with odd jobs around the house. Elsewhere in Hollywood, we spend time with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an up-and-coming young actress who happens to live next door to Rick on Cielo Drive. The fates of the three characters are intertwined on one sweltering August evening in the City Of Angels.

As a love letter to the dreamy, half-remembered Los Angeles in which Tarantino grew up, this certainly feels like the writer/director’s most personal and heartfelt work to date. He remains a master of style and setting, filling the frame with era-specific details that effortlessly transport us 50 years in the past to this heightened version of Tinseltown. Naturally, the soundtrack is filled with impeccable music cues and convincing radio and TV advertisements (along those lines, be sure to stay through the end credits) that set the tone perfectly. Whether he’s working in nods to old war movies or Spaghetti Westerns, Tarantino revels in recreating relics from his pop-culture saturated childhood.

Unfortunately, all of this brilliant table setting is in service of a meal that resembles microwaved leftovers. Until the concluding moments of the 161 minute runtime, the narrative is largely incident-free and the story elements at play recall those that Tarantino has tackled more deftly in previous work. Thematically, he’s been spinning his wheels for his past few films, so perhaps it’s fitting that so much screen time is devoted to following characters as they drive around the streets of Hollywood. I can’t discuss details of the ending but it’s enough to say that at this stage in Tarantino’s career, his provocation has become predictable and the most shocking thing that he could do is make a film that didn’t try so hard to throw its audience for a loop.

It’s especially a shame because this is the first time that DiCaprio and Pitt have starred in a project together and the iconic pair of actors are contributing some career-best work in the film. DiCaprio is excellent as an aging actor desperate to hold on to the small amount of fame that he’s accrued while Pitt synthesizes the laid-back charisma of past legends like Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds to craft a character that epitomizes “cool”. With a tighter story and more streamlined direction, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood could have ranked among Tarantino’s very best but instead, it’s a pretty postcard with “see front” written on the back.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Hobbs & Shaw, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, is a spin-off of the popular Fast & Furious franchise about a pair of unlikely allies who team up to stop a cyber-genetically enhanced foe.
The Farewell, starring Awkwafina and Tzi Ma, depicts a Chinese family who, upon learning their grandmother only has a short time left to live, decide not to tell her and schedule a family gathering before she dies.
Opening at Cinema Center is Luz, starring Luana Velis and Johannes Benecke, about a young cabdriver who is stalked by a demonic presence in the middle of a run-down police station.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Lion King

The Lion King, another fruitless facsimile of a Disney Renaissance-era animated classic, revisits the animals of Pride Rock, ruled by the tough-but-fair lion King Mufasa (James Earl Jones). His newborn son Simba (JD McCrary and Donald Glover) is being slowly groomed for the throne, much to the chagrin of Mufasa’s covetous younger brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). After Scar leads his brother into a deadly trap, Simba flees his home out of guilt and finds comfort in a new friendship with the carefree duo Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). His past seems to be behind him, until his childhood friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) finds Simba and convinces him to reclaim the crown from his treacherous uncle.

Opening with a shot-for-shot recreation of the “Circle of Life” number from the original, even down to the smash cut to title card, the film does less than any of the other Disney remakes to distinguish itself from its predecessor. Unlike the live-action reimagining of Dumbo from earlier this year, whose animated companion was made in 1941, there are only 25 years separating the original Lion King and this photorealistic update. While it’s not as cloying as the embarrassing Aladdin re-do from a couple months ago, it’s equally pointless and transparent in its mission to capitalize on misguided nostalgia.

Director Jon Favreau, also responsible for 2016’s The Jungle Book, oversees another technical marvel that is truly state of the art from an effects standpoint. What’s especially impressive this time around is how much of the computer-generated work takes place in direct sunlight, where murky rendering becomes much more apparent. Every detail, from the way the animals move to the shadows they cast and even down the veins in their paws, is impeccably visualized. A montage that tracks the movement of a clump of Simba’s hair, as it makes its way from a river to an ant parade and eventually a dung beetle, is a delight to behold.

As breathtaking as the look of the film can be, the hyper-realistic approach isn’t as conducive to proper storytelling as the hand-drawn animation of the original. There are levels of expressiveness, from the movement of the eyes and mouths of the characters, that might make the 1994 version seem “cartoonish” by comparison but also give it much more personality. This literal-minded update frequently looks like a nature documentary, albeit one where the animals break into song at random intervals. The voice cast does their best to bring passion to their roles, even though their visual counterparts aren’t nearly as emotive.

A bigger issue with the film, and the litany of retreads that the House of Mouse has been churning out recently, is that there simply isn’t anything new being told in this story. Nearly every single plot point and many of the lines of dialogue are ripped directly from the script of the original, which makes the value of the “refreshed” take especially dubious. Disney is clearly capable of making original films with new characters and exciting stories (Moana would be a recent example) but as long as regurgitating old material is profitable, then what is the incentive for them to stop? The Lion King is as lazy as a lion laying in the sun, assured and confident of the dominance it holds over its kingdom.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, is the latest film from Quentin Tarantino about a television actor and his stunt double striving to achieve fame and fortune in 1969 Los Angeles.
Opening at Cinema Center is The Last Black Man In San Francisco, starring Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors, which tells the story of a man trying to reclaim the house built by his grandfather in a now-gentrified area of San Francisco.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Midsommar

Writer/director Ari Aster follows up his terrifying feature debut Hereditary with Midsommar, another grim and disturbing tale that will no doubt leave audiences reeling once again. While both are horror films that feature female protagonists struggling to cope with loss and grief, the narrative structures and thematic ambitions of the two vary drastically. The experience of watching these movies feels different as well: where Hereditary is more of an immediate shock to the system, Midsommar lingers in the pit of one’s stomach for days (and possibly weeks) after the fact.

Florence Pugh stars as Dani, a college student who seeks refuge in her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) after a family tragedy claims the lives of both her sister and her parents. In an attempt to heal their relationship, Christian invites Dani on a summer trip to rural Sweden with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter). Guided by Christian’s Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the group attends a midsummer celebration with the ancestral commune in Pelle’s home village but it doesn’t take long before the rituals performed there take an unexpectedly sinister turn.

Aster returns with all of the formal rigor that made his first feature an instant classic of the genre. Starting with claustrophobic close-ups on Dani’s anxiety-ridden face, he gradually pulls the camera back to transition into the sweeping wide shots that detail the creepy commune. Pawel Pogorzelski’s hypnotic and woozy cinematography gives the impression that the camera is as sun-poisoned as the characters on-screen. The sound design is detailed and dynamic, using Dani’s labored breathing at points in the film to ratchet up the tension while also bringing us closer to the main character in the process.

Unfortunately, Aster’s control behind the camera isn’t fully reciprocated in his undercooked and somewhat disheveled screenplay. Working from a folk horror premise not dissimilar from The Wicker Man (the original or the Nic Cage remake, if you like) or last year’s Apostle, he implements a few arbitrary sub-plots that distract from the main narrative at hand while leaving out crucial details of the central storyline as well. Additionally, the attempts at foreshadowing feel clumsier and more telegraphed in comparison to the setups that Aster interspersed in his Hereditary script. It all leads to a conclusion that is disappointingly predicable on a surface level but is loaded with resonant subtext and unforgettable imagery that leaves the film on a remarkable high note.

Bringing these final moments home is Pugh, whose stellar, emotionally-wrought performance is as crucial to the success of this movie as Toni Collette’s was for Hereditary. As a wounded soul flailing helplessly in a toxic relationship, Pugh gives Dani an astonishing range of joy and pain upon which to paint her emotional journey and eventual catharsis. The rest of the cast, the majority of whom are adorn with eerily clean white linens and even eerier smiles, set the oppressively ominous tone quite nicely. Midsommar is a sun-drenched symphony of sadness that solidifies Ari Aster as one of the strongest voices working in horror cinema today.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Lion King, starring Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, is yet another remake from the Disney Renaissance era about a young lion prince who takes over the throne after his father is murdered.
The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, follows a mild-mannered accountant who takes a vigorous interest in karate after being attacked by a motorcycle gang.
Opening at Cinema Center is Wild Rose, starring Jessie Buckley and Julie Walters, tells the story of a musician from Glasgow who moves to Nashville to become a country singer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Spider-Man: Far From Home

The Marvel Cinematic Universe closes out its 3rd “Phase” with Spider-Man: Far From Home, which follows up the universe-altering events of Avengers: Endgame. It’s back to school for Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and a two-week field trip to Europe prompts him to leave his Spidey suit at home to make time for his crush MJ (Zendaya). Things seem to be back to normal, until a creature called an Elemental turns the group’s stop in Venice into a water-soaked catastrophe. Parker defeats the new threat with help from Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a dimension-hopping superhero who vows to destroy the rest of the Elementals that lurk under the Earth’s surface.

Like its superior predecessor Homecoming, Far From Home excels most when it leans into what makes it unique in the MCU, namely its high school setting and teenaged characters. Literally dozens of other superhero movies can show us high-stakes action that leaves half of a city in ruin but very few go small enough to show our heroes struggling with how to talk a love interest. Holland and Zendaya have plenty of chemistry and vulnerability in their scenes together as they navigate the tangled web of teen romance. I was even more taken with the hilariously saccharine relationship between Peter’s friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his girlfriend Betty (Angourie Rice).

Returning from Homecoming, director Jon Watts manages the high school comedy aspects better than CGI-laden action sequences, which are especially chaotic this time around. The setpieces revolving around the Elementals feel especially clumsy and uninspired, recalling the messy battles with Sandman from the overstuffed Spider-Man 3. A final showdown in London features the larger-than-life scale that we’ve come to expect from the MCU but it loses more than a little of the protagonist’s personality in the process. Undoubtedly, the highlight from an action perspective is a hypnotic skirmish that brings in allusions to the mythology of Spider-Man and other Marvel superheroes.

Screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers do their best to negotiate the franchise mandates of post-Endgame cleanup and plot exposition while also trying to forward Parker’s story as well. They pack their script with plenty of twists that may keep some viewers guessing but these turns rarely felt as fresh or fleet-footed as the plot revelations from Homecoming. One narrative-altering, bar-set scene will be gallingly transparent to comic book fans but even for a more casual superhero follower like myself, it seemed to hinge on an uncharacteristically foolish decision just to push the story forward.

Despite its on-paper flaws, the film coasts along on an abundance of charm and swings briskly through its 129 minute runtime. Returning characters like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) add some laughs as they impart instruction to Parker, while Gyllenhaal serves as a fine newcomer to a Universe that hasn’t seen a character quite like his before. The pair of post-credit stingers vary drastically in terms of quality but both are extremely consequential to both this film and future Spider-Man films, so be sure to stay until the very last frame. Spider-Man: Far From Home is a serviceable Spidey flick that should keep most moviegoers entertained but with some narrative enhancements, it could have been something to write home about.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Crawl, starring Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper, follows a father and daughter who are trapped in a crawl space during a Category 5 hurricane whilst trying to fend off marauding alligators.
Stuber, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista, pairs a mild-mannered Uber driver with a grizzled detective who is hot on the trail of a sadistic terrorist.
Opening at Cinema Center is Pavarotti, a documentary from Ron Howard about the life and career of famed opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Yesterday

In the charming but clumsy Capraesque fable Yesterday, Himesh Patel makes his feature debut as Jack, a down-on-his-luck musician who seemingly suffers another setback in the form of a biking accident. He awakens to a world in which The Beatles seem to be wiped from existence and after performing a number of their now-original tunes, Jack quickly rises to music super-stardom. His meteoric rise to fame catches the attention of singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran (playing a version of himself) and his duplicitous manager Debra (Kate McKinnon), while putting a strain on his relationship with his best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James).

With an inspired what-if premise and buoyant timbre, the film starts off on the right note with a handful of humorous scenes that set the stage for a world devoid of the Fab Four’s presence. When Jack plays “Yesterday” for the “first time” amongst a group of friends, he’s dumbfounded by their mixed response to what he views as “one of the greatest songs ever written.” Later, he attempts to treat his benevolent parents and their well-meaning friend to “Let It Be” but the distractions of a ringing phone and persistent doorbell force him to repeatedly restart his rendition before he can even get to the chorus.

Of course, such a high-concept conceit inevitably inspires a barrage of follow-up questions and Love Actually screenwriter Richard Curtis doesn’t help things by investigating this ripple effect of removing The Beatles from history. A running joke finds Jack consulting Google for the existence or non-existence of certain things in this new world, where Coldplay and Radiohead somehow still came to be but Coke and cigarettes have since vanished. I would have been happy to suspend disbelief for the sake of the narrative but Curtis’ constant compartmentalization of the Beatles’ cultural impact feels shallow and unnecessary.

At its core, this is a romantic comedy à la Notting Hill or Bridget Jones’s Diary (unsurprisingly, both written by Curtis) but the central relationship never fully takes hold. With her frizzy hair and frumpy clothes, Ellie is meant to be the love interest that Jack has overlooked since childhood but it’s a bit of a stretch to think that he would keep someone this charming and supportive in the “friend zone” for so long. Trapped inside an outdated and one-dimensional love story, Patel and James aren’t able to conjure up much chemistry on-screen but it’s reasonable to think that a more dynamic screenplay could have produced some sparks between the two.

Except for a handful of Dutch angles, Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle keeps his trademark visual flourishes to a minimum in service of the other elements at play. In this old-fashioned tale, one aspect that does feel refreshingly modern is the take on the evil manager trope by Kate McKinnon. As a comedically exaggerated foil who literally salivates over YouTube views, she sells silly lines like “stop in the name of money!” with just the right amount of irony and self-awareness. Yesterday is a perfectly pleasant riff on the legacy of rock’s most iconic and important band but it misses the opportunity to dig a bit deeper.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Spider-Man: Far From Home, starring Tom Holland and Jake Gyllenhaal, brings the web-slinger back to a post-Endgame MCU where a new inter-dimensional threat emerges during a field trip to Europe.
Midsommar, starring Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor, follows a group of friends who travel to rural Sweden for an exclusive festival that slowly turns into a nightmarish ritual.
Playing at Cinema Center is Echo In The Canyon, a documentary that investigates the influence of music acts like The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds who emerged from the Laurel Canyon music scene in the 1960s.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup