Category Archives: Review

Review

The Way Back

The Invisible Man

The Hunt

Emma

Onward

The Call of the Wild

The Lodge

Birds of Prey

Gretel & Hansel

The Turning

Dolittle

Just Mercy

1917

Little Women

Uncut Gems

Richard Jewell

Frozen II

Knives Out

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

The Lighthouse

Doctor Sleep

Countdown

Zombieland: Double Tap

Gemini Man

Joker

Hustlers

Ad Astra

The Peanut Butter Falcon

It Chapter Two

Luce

Ready Or Not

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

The Farewell

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

The Lion King

Midsommar

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Yesterday

Toy Story 4

The Souvenir

Dark Phoenix

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Aladdin

Booksmart

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

High Life

Avengers: Endgame

Missing Link

Pet Sematary

Gloria Bell

Shazam!

Us

Apollo 11

Captain Marvel

Greta

At Eternity’s Gate

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Palace

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Serenity

Glass

If Beale Street Could Talk

Vice

The Favourite

Mary Poppins Returns

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

A Star Is Born

Creed II

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Widows

The Grinch

Bohemian Rhapsody

The Sisters Brothers

Halloween

First Man

Venom

Night School

A Simple Favor

The Predator

The Nun

Searching

The Happytime Murders

BlacKkKlansman

Eighth Grade

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Blade Runner 2049 ****|****

Battle of the Sexes **½|****

Columbus ***|****

Mother! ***½|****

It ***|****

Good Time ***|****

Death Note **|****

Logan Lucky ****|****

The Glass Castle *½|****

Detroit ***|****

A Ghost Story **|****

Dunkirk **½|****

The Big Sick ****|****

Spider-Man: Homecoming ***½|****

Baby Driver ***|****

Menashe ***½|****

The Mummy *|****

It Comes At Night ***|****

Wonder Woman **½|****

War Machine *½|****

Alien: Covenant **|****

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ***½|****

Their Finest ***½|****

The Circle **|****

Free Fire ***½|****

Personal Shopper **½|****

Win It All ***|****

The Discovery **½|****

Life **|****

Beauty and the Beast *½|****

Kong: Skull Island **½|****

Logan ***|****

Get Out ****|****

John Wick: Chapter 2 ***|****

The Lego Batman Movie ***½|****

The Handmaiden ***½|****

Silence **½|****

Elle **|****

La La Land ****|****

Fences ***|****

Manchester by the Sea ***½|****

Rogue One ***|****

Nocturnal Animals **½|****

Moana ***½|****

Moonlight ****|****

Arrival ***½|****

Doctor Strange **|****

Ouija: Origin of Evil **½|****

The Accountant ***|****

The Girl on the Train **|****

The Magnificent Seven ***|****

Sing Street ***½|****

Green Room **½|****

Everybody Wants Some!! ***|****

Eye in the Sky ***|****

Midnight Special ****|****

Knight of Cups **|****

Snowden **|****

Sully ***|****

Hell or High Water ****|****

Don’t Breathe **½|****

Kubo and the Two Strings ***½|****

Sausage Party ***|****

Suicide Squad ***|****

Jason Bourne **|****

Star Trek Beyond **½|****

Ghostbusters **|****

De Palma **½|****

The Secret Life of Pets ***|****

Weiner ****|****

Finding Dory **½|****

Hunt for the Wilderpeople ***½|****

Love & Friendship ***½|****

The Lobster ****|****

X-Men: Apocalypse **|****

High-Rise *½|****

The Nice Guys ***|****

Born To Be Blue ***|****

Captain America: Civil War ***½|****

Keanu **½|****

Krisha ****|****

The Jungle Book **½|****

Only Yesterday ***½|****

Samurai Cop ****|****

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice *½|****

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ***|****

10 Cloverfield Lane **|****

Zootopia ***|****

Gods of Egypt *|****

The Witch ***|****

Deadpool ***½|****

Hail, Caesar! **½|****

Anomalisa ****|****

Brooklyn **½|****

The Revenant ***½|****

The Hateful Eight **|****

Spotlight ***|****

The Big Short **|****

Star Wars: The Force Awakens ***½|****

Room ****|****

Creed ***|****

Spectre **|****

Goodnight Mommy ****|****

Sicario ***½|****

The Martian ***½|****

The Walk ***|****

The End of the Tour ***|****

The Tribe **|****

The Gift **½|****

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation ****|****

Amy ***½|****

Ant-Man/Trainwreck

Minions **|****

Terminator Genisys *½|****

Love & Mercy ***½|****

Inside Out ****|****

Jurassic World ***|****

Entourage/Spy/Insidious: Chapter 3

Tomorrowland ***|****

Mad Max: Fury Road **½|****

Ex Machina ***|****

Avengers: Age of Ultron ***|****

While We’re Young ****|****

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter **½|****

It Follows ***½|****

A Most Violent Year ***½|****

Fifty Shades of Grey *½|****

Inherent Vice ***|****

Foxcatcher ***|****

Selma ****|****

American Sniper ***|****

Force Majeure ***½|****

The Imitation Game **½|****

The Theory of Everything **½|****

The Interview ***|****

Whiplash ****|****

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies *½|****

Top Five ***|****

The Overnighters ***½|****

The Babadook ***½|****

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 **½|****

Dear White People ***|****

Birdman ***|****

Dumb and Dumber To **|****

Before I Go To Sleep **½|****

Interstellar ***|****

Nightcrawler ***½|****

The Guest ***|****

The Skeleton Twins ***½|****

Gone Girl ****|****

 

The Way Back

“Little things add up; let’s do all the little things right.” So advises Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high school basketball star who’s been tasked with coaching his alma mater’s failing basketball squad. It’s sound advice for a sports team and incidentally, valid advice for anyone battling through the depths of depression and grief. It just so happens that Jack, who is more deeply depressed than he even knows, isn’t doing either the little or big things right. Separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) for a year, Jack has isolated almost everyone from his life and drowns his loneliness with a constant supply of alcohol. When the opportunity to lead the aforementioned team presents itself, he rehearses his rejection speech intended for the head of the school while downing a 12-pack of his go-to lager before ultimately accepting the job.

As a redemption drama that could ostensibly be described as a “sports movie”, The Way Back is uncommonly insightful when it comes not only to addiction but how much strength it takes to overcome it, even temporarily. Jack thinks he’s hiding his alcoholism better than he really is, though he doesn’t have many people in his life to hide it from anyway. His sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) chides him for being late for Thanksgiving dinner and even confronts him more directly later on, relaying gossip about him visiting the local watering hole Harold’s Place every night. “I’m fine. I appreciate it but it’s– I’m fine,” Jack grunts. As it’s said, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one, even if Jack is still in denial when he accepts the coaching position that could set him on the right path.

I thought I knew what to expect going into The Way Back and you probably will too. As the director of other rousing sports films like Miracle and Warrior, Gavin O’Connor knows this and uses our knowledge of the genre to throw us off of the expected trajectory but not in a way that feels manipulative. Right up to the last frame, this film resonates with the stark authenticity that can only come from firsthand experience with the subject matter. Yes, there are training montages and yes, the team learns to overcome their interpersonal struggles in order to achieve success together as a team. The entire basketball angle, however, is always filtered through Jack’s perspective and O’Connor never loses sight of how much further he has to go to overcome his demons. Yes, coaching has given a reason for Jack to get out of bed in the morning but will that be enough for lasting change?

It feels strange to talk for this long about The Way Back and not discuss Affleck’s gut-wrenching and staggering lead performance, the finest of his 20+ year career. Rewatching 2000’s Boiler Room recently, I had in mind the cool and confident speeches he gave in that film and compared them to the impassioned words he shares with his team during timeouts here. This time, his voice cracks and he desperately shouts every word like it could be his last. Like his younger brother Casey’s Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea, Ben Affleck’s role is one marked by tremendous levels of personal pain which he both internalizes and externalizes brilliantly. It’s hard not to recall Nicolas Cage’s work in Leaving Las Vegas, where his character is either inebriated or hung over in every single scene. Affleck is even more nuanced in his portrayal of an aimless man searching for a way forward, despite the film’s slightly contradictory title.

Even if one goes into The Way Back simply looking for an inspiring sports movie, O’Connor and crew swish on the fundamentals that make for exciting basketball footage. The clear and concise editing from David Rosenbloom paired with the grounded cinematography by Eduard Grau will even have sports novices on the edges of their seats. Rob Simonsen’s music score begins with doleful stabs from dampened piano strings, gradually crescendoing to rousing heights with exultant percussion. Steeped in the messy realities of hard living, The Way Back is the kind of intimate and personal filmmaking that is sorely lacking from the major studio system.

Score – 4/5

The Invisible Man

In the wreckage of Universal’s failed Dark Universe franchise comes The Invisible Man, a smart and sensitive reimagining of the H.G. Wells novel that flips the script on the classic monster tale. Instead of focusing on Adrian Griffin, the troubled scientist who finds a way to permanently disappear, this remake shifts the perspective to the Griffin’s wife, who desperately seeks to get out from his overwhelmingly controlling presence. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has crafted a memorable psychological thriller that resonates with insightful truths about abusive relationships but doesn’t skimp on the unsettling moments of horror as well.

In the film’s masterful opening sequence, we’re introduced to Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) as she wakes in the middle of the night and gently pries herself from the grasp of her sleeping husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). After narrowly fleeing from their home, Cecilia takes refuge from her menacing husband with her police officer friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). She’s with them two weeks before she gets the news that Adrian has died of apparent suicide, of which she becomes immediately skeptical and even more so when she feels stalked by his unseen presence. Misplaced items and misunderstandings soon escalate to dead bodies as Cecilia becomes desperate to prove that she is being hunted by a man that no one can see.

Whannell graduates from dreck like Insidious: Chapter 3 to this mature and sophisticated chiller that mostly trusts the audience to keep up with the story’s many twists and turns. Though the narrative goes in many different directions, we’re taking the journey with Cecila every step of the way and even though other characters begin to question her sanity, we know we can trust her perspective. Even in a young year, we’re seeing films from The Assistant and Birds of Prey that directly call out predatory men and the systems that allow them to retain their power. The Invisible Man furthers this trend of reflecting on the Me Too movement, making the emotional violence perpetrated against the protagonist even more palpable.

As the fraught but fierce Cecilia, Moss disappears into a challenging role that demands both conviction and vulnerability and she finds the perfect balance in every scene. She can convey layers of trauma and suffering with a single glance, bringing the audience ever closer to her world of isolation and paranoia. As with most of the characters that Moss portrays, Cecilia is smart, cunning and resourceful; we know that we can trust her to make the right decisions even when she seems unhinged. There’s always been a steely magnetism to Moss’ work, a unique blend of unpredictability and understanding that makes her one of the most fascinating actresses working today.

Behind the camera, Whannell and his cinematographer Stefan Duscio brilliantly ratchet up the tension by filling the frame with negative space to suggest where the hidden antagonist could be at any moment. Along with Andy Canny’s editing, this creates a more studied pace to most of the film that distinguishes it from other horror movies that usually only care about cutting to a cheap scare. Topping things off, Benjamin Wallfisch’s dynamic and icy music score picks just the right moments to pop out and avoid the typical “gotcha!” stabs when underlying moments of genuine terror. Though it does commit a number of tiny gaffes in terms of logic and plotting, The Invisible Man remains a great example of how to shed light on an old monster and realize it never really left us in the first place.

Score – 3.5/5

The Hunt

Few films receive a marketing bump quite as staggering as the one behind The Hunt. Originally scheduled for release last October, with its controversial trailer premiering two months prior, the movie was shelved indefinitely amid the social unrest following a pair of mass shootings. The politically-charged promotional footage, which depicted liberals hunting conservatives for sport, predictably drew the ire of many given the cultural climate. Several news cycles later, Universal dropped a new trailer, touting their release as “the most talked about movie of the year that no one’s actually seen.” Given the current coronavirus scare, it’s ironic that the movie will likely remain unseen by many for reasons entirely removed from its political provocations.

After a text thread between unseen friends depicts them discussing a “hunt” for “deplorables”, we meet a group of 12 strangers who wake up in the middle of the woods a-la The Hunger Games. One brave soul opens up a large crate in the middle of the field, which houses a tiny clothed pig and an impressive array of weaponry. After they each grab their firearm of choice, the group is immediately fired upon by unknown assailants and the hunt appears to be on. A series of spectacularly bloody deaths occur and after some time is spent with some of the other survivors, the story settles upon Crystal (Betty Gilpin), the most fearless of the bunch who is determined to beat the hunters at their own game.

A relentlessly cheeky take on The Most Dangerous Game that gleefully skewers both sides of the political spectrum, The Hunt has enough satirical surprises up its sleeve to make its predictable premise palatable. Sure, personifying the current cultural war as a literal bloodthirsty battle royale between liberals and conservatives is not the most subtle of artistic choices but director Craig Zobel knows this. Instead, he saves a more precise aim when he goes for specific targets ranging from conspiratorial podcasters who are primed to out crisis actors to NPR addicts who blanch at the sight of cultural appropriation. Screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof revel in being an equal opportunity offenders, although it could be argued that the holier-than-thou liberal captors get put on blast even more than their conservative captive counterparts.

Even though the film is loaded with charged language and incendiary laugh lines, its influences and aspirations lie more in the genre of female-centric gory thrillers like Kill Bill or last year’s Ready or Not. It’s the kind of movie that delights in picking off characters with bits of brutality that get more ridiculous as the story progresses. Within that context, Gilpin’s Crystal is formidable “final girl” who doggedly assesses each threat with a droll, matter-of-fact sense of humor about the circumstances. Armed with a measured Mississippi drawl and dead-eyed stare, she turns in a fun and commanding performance with some appropriately over-the-top affectations and crazed mannerisms.

Just like their work on ABC’s Lost, Cuse and Lindelof start with a familiar “desert island” premise before introducing myriad twists and turns that will have audiences questioning characters’ motivations and where their allegiances lie. Unfortunately, problems with storytelling come about when these plot wrinkles generate logic issues within the narrative. Even at a taut 90 minutes, the film sags a bit too much in the middle as we impatiently wait for the admittedly outstanding final showdown. As a brazen sendup of America’s current political divide, The Hunt is surprisingly solid satire.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to video on demand:

With the closing of cinemas worldwide, NBCUniversal made the unprecedented move to release new movies to streaming services the same day as their theatrical releases. Look for The Hunt, The Invisible Man, and Emma to be released for $19.99 rental from services such as iTunes and Amazon Video as early as Friday, March 20.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Emma

Hot on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s awe-inspiring take on Little Women, we now have another iteration of a female-penned classic novel. Jane Austen’s Emma may be best known as the jumping off point for the mid-90s rom-com Clueless but in her directorial debut, Autumn de Wilde gives us a more traditional version of the tart tale. This is a sumptuous vision, filled with the lavish costume design and set decoration that we’d come to expect from a period piece like this, but also comes with flourishes that distinguish it from the genre. The film’s humor ranges from biting to whimsical and often within the same scene, which perfectly suits the flitting nature of the title character.

This time around, the haughty and posh matchmaker Emma Woodhouse is played by Glass star Anya Taylor-Joy. She cares for her father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) within their massive estate, though he largely stays removed from her affairs. To pass the time, she latches onto subjects around her and becomes interspersed with their romantic prospects, most notably the naive young orphan Harriet (Mia Goth). She has eyes for the plainspoken farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) but Emma maintains that she can do much better for herself and attempts to set her up instead with the obsequious Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Through all of this, Emma pursues a friendship with the fetching Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who sees past her conniving ways and into her true essence.

Emma has always been a bit of a tricky character, as she has to straddle that line of arrogance and amiability, and Taylor-Joy captures this dichotomy even better than Paltrow did in the 1996 film adaptation. From the way she blithely pushes open a carriage window with a flippant tap of her index finger to the way she violently fans herself upon being bested by a friend’s pianoforte performance, she has all the mannerisms that capture the self-assured yet insecure nature of her character. As Knightly, Flynn is a grounded and cunning foil to the more flighty Emma and the two performers have a winning chemistry from their initial scene together. After a heartbreaking scene in which Emma makes an impudent remark towards Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), Knightley properly reproaches Emma and we’re reminded that this heroine is far from fault herself.

Set across a full year in the charming village of Highbury, with each season getting its own title card, we feel the passage of time ebb and flow as alliances are forged and broken. This movement is aided greatly by the enchanting and vivacious musical score by Isabel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, which is so spirited that you’d be forgiven for thinking the characters could break out in song at any moment. Adding to the opulent table setting is the diverse and vibrant costume design by Alexandra Byrne, which outfits the women with exquisite dresses that practically tell their own story and the men with pompous collars so high and stiff that it’s a wonder they can muster any breath at all.

As costume dramas go, Emma isn’t quite as subversive and biting as The Favourite or Love and Friendship but it’s certainly no stuffy affair either. There are plenty of laughs to be had at the periphery, especially from Bill Nighy’s Woodhouse character, who doesn’t speak often but effortlessly lands some of the film’s funniest quips. Whether he’s sniping at Mr. Elton’s pronunciation of “innocence” or hiding behind a fort of fire screens in his ornate parlor, his pouty patriarch is a welcome presence at every turn. Emma is yet another example of timeless literature finding its match with a promising young talent on the rise.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Hunt, starring Betty Gilpin and Emma Roberts, is a politically-charged thriller about a group of strangers who discover that they are being hunted for sport by wealthy members of a secret organization.
Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel and Eiza González, follows a slain marine as he is brought back to life with nanotechnology and turned into an impervious super soldier.
Opening at Cinema Center is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, about a a female painter commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman in 18th century France.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Onward

“Long ago, the world was full of wonder.” So goes the opening line of Disney Pixar’s Onward, a fantasy adventure film about rediscovering magic in a world that seems to have largely forgotten it. It’s not a stretch to think that the conceit is emblematic of Pixar’s current status in the world of animation, trying the recreate the effortless charm and whimsy behind some of their strongest achievements. After all, 4 of their past 5 films have been sequels, which might suggest a lack of fresh ideas. While Onward does rely on some of the formulaic factors that bolster most of Pixar’s other efforts, it still retains enough liveliness and lightheartedness to make it a mystical quest worth taking.

Set in a fantasy world inhabited by different types of mythical creatures, our story centers on the elven Lightfoot family led by the widowed Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Her sons, the meek Ian (Tom Holland) and rambunctious Barley (Chris Pratt), have very little memory of their late father. When Laurel gifts Ian with a wizard staff for his 16th birthday, they jump at the chance to resurrect their father temporarily to make up for lost time. Ian attempts to cast the spell, only to bring back their father’s lower half. With only 24 hours to complete the rest of the spell, Ian and Barley hit the road to find the rare Phoenix Stone that will allow for their father’s complete reincarnation.

Director Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University back in 2013, doesn’t stray far from the plot elements of other Pixar classics. The attempt to communicate with the deceased recalls the plot of Coco while the ticking-clock feel that surrounds the road trip narrative calls to mind the adventures found within the Toy Story films. What feels fresh this time around is the connection between the two brothers, who start out as polar opposites in terms of personality but are drawn closer together in the quest to bring their father back. A big reason their relationship comes through is due to the stellar voice work from Holland and especially Pratt, who have a chemistry that makes their bond as brothers completely believable.

A complaint that I almost never have with Pixar films is in the quality of animation and while Onward doesn’t necessarily look poor per-se, it has a certain blandness to its color palette that I wasn’t expecting. Even though its story is set in a magical land that has become more mundane as time has gone on, the settings are more dull and drab than they really need to be to get that point across. Even lackluster efforts like The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory still benefited from top-tier animation and comparatively, Onward feels like a bit of a step back. Despite this, there are some visual gags that land beautifully, particularly in the Weekend At Bernie’s-esque way the Lightfoot brothers find ways to disguise the fact that their father is missing from the waist up.

The conceit that this world is inhabited by mythical beings who have traded their magical powers for the comforts of commercialism and consumerism is an inspired one but the movie doesn’t dig into this theme as much as it could. Instead, it focuses on the inevitable obstacles that the two brothers encounter on the road, which makes for an amiable if unadventurous movie. Onward is more sturdy and reliable entertainment from the best in the business, even if it leaves a bit too much on the table.

Score – 3/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
The Way Back, starring Ben Affleck and Al Madrigal, follows a former basketball star turned alcoholic who looks for a path to redemption as he’s offered a coaching job at his alma mater.
Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, puts a twist on the classic Jane Austen novel about a young woman who can’t stop meddling in the love lives of those around her.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Call of the Wild

Despite their limited range when it comes to acting chops, man’s best friend has a long history of capturing the Hollywood spotlight. From my childhood alone, I still have fond memories of dog-centric fare like Beethoven, Homeward Bound and Air Bud, just to name a few. The tradition has been in hiring well-trained canines along with their corresponding handlers but the latest adaptation of The Call of the Wild takes a different approach. Instead of casting a real-life dog, Disney has chosen the CGI route and rendered a new digital Buck from the ground up. Technology is such that Buck often looks rather convincing, especially the more time we spend with him, but all the special effects in the world still can’t disguise a lackluster story.

The premise follows the broad strokes of the Jack London novel upon which it is based, still centered around the St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix known as Buck. We follow him as he’s stolen from his pampered California life with the respected Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and shipped up to Alaska amidst the Gold Rush. After a temporary stint with cruel owners, he finds his way as a sled dog on a mail route with the much kinder Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee). Through teamwork and dedication, he is able to work his way up to alpha dog until the route is abruptly cancelled and he falls under new ownership by the odious city slicker Hal (Dan Stevens). Not longer after, he is rescued by outdoorsman John Thornton (Harrison Ford) and the two set off on a new adventure together.

The most important and prevalent hurdle for the film to manage is the believability of computer-generated Buck as a substitute for the on-screen flesh-and-blood canine to which we’re aquatinted. Save for a few frames here and there, I’m happy to report that the illusion worked quite seamlessly for me; I stopped thinking about whether the dog was “real” about 10 minutes in, which I would signify as a success. I appreciate that Buck appears not just in shadows or darkness, where it’s easy to conceal shoddy rendering, but also in many scenes in broad daylight. I had similar praise for Disney’s Lion King remake last year but thankfully, Buck is infinitely more expressive here than the stilted creatures in that production. Animators paid careful attention to all the mannerisms that make dogs so lovable in the first place, so every tail wag and eyebrow raise is calibrated for maximum potency.

The frustration sets in when we realize that director Chris Sanders and his screenwriter Michael Green brought very little new perspective to this tale, which has already been adapted several times for the big screen. Harrison Ford’s husky voiceover narration removes any iota of subtlety from each plot point, which may be helpful for younger viewers to track along but is sure to grow tedious for adult audiences. Understandably, Ford is prominently portrayed in the film’s poster and trailer but his character doesn’t really become a factor into the story until about an hour in. Once Buck and Ford share the screen, the movie’s true potential is unlocked but it takes multiple training montages and action sequences to get there.

More than any actor in the film, Ford makes us feel that Buck is not only real but a true companion to his lonely prospector character. Whether Buck is burying John’s troublesome bottle of whiskey or stashing John’s hat in his mouth, Ford brings the level of charm and playfulness that effortlessly recalls the Han Solo-Chewbacca relationship from the original Star Wars trilogy. If only the movie had spent more time with those two instead of wasting time with throwaway characters like Hal, a villain so comically over-the-top that I think Dan Stevens literally twirls his mustache at one point. The Call of the Wild is a serviceable update to a well-worn tale but it doesn’t quite have enough to make it stand out from the pack.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss and Aldis Hodge, reimagines the classic H.G. Wells novel as a thriller about a woman who is being stalked by an abusive ex-boyfriend that nobody can see.
Playing at Cinema Center is Best International Feature Film Oscar nominee Pain and Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, about a film director who reflects on the choices he’s made as past and present come crashing down around him.
Also playing at Cinema Center is After Midnight, starring Jeremy Gardner and Brea Grant, about a man who house is attacked nightly by an unseen creature after his girlfriend suddenly disappears.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Lodge

Unless there’s a particularly compelling reason behind it, a delayed release for an indie feature (or any movie, really) is almost never a good sign. Debuting at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the occasionally disturbing but largely limp The Lodge finally sees limited release over a year after its premiere. Distributed by Neon, who had an incredible 2019 with releases like Best Picture winner Parasite and stellar documentary Apollo 11 among others, the film resembles stale leftovers a week after a delicious meal. Whether it’s the result of early year house-cleaning or not, there just isn’t enough in this snowbound snoozer to justify braving the elements to head to the theaters.

The story centers around brother and sister Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), who are bereft by the tragic passing of their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) as her divorce from their father Richard (Richard Armitage) is being finalized. Despite their mourning, Richard pursues a new relationship with the younger Grace (Riley Keough) and to make matters worse, he brings all three to a remote winter cabin in the hopes that it will bring them closer. It doesn’t take long before he’s called away for work, leaving the already tentative Grace alone with the two soon-to-be stepchildren. An awkward situation turns into something more sinister when the isolation and ill feelings dredge up secrets from Grace’s dark past.

In their English-language debut, Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala reassemble the same elements that made their previous film Goodnight Mommy such a terrifying masterpiece. Once again, we have a mother flanked by two youngsters in a sleek location removed from the rest of the world. Despite working from the same playbook, The Lodge fails both in telling an equally compelling story and in providing the kind of scares that are necessary for even a “slow-burn” chiller. A bigger issue is one of perspective; Goodnight Mommy is always told from the kids’ point-of-view but Franz and Fiala can’t decide this time around if we’re meant to empathize with Grace or with the children.

Despite its indie aspirations, the movie still commits the same boneheaded decisions that you would expect from a more mainstream horror picture. Characters make foolish decisions from the outset — decisions that put them inside the doomed cabin in the first place — and each subsequent poor choice draws them further away from our sympathy. Richard’s stunning level of callousness is never fully investigated but it’s difficult to feel anything but contempt for a character who strands his grieving children with a new girlfriend with whom they’re barely acquainted. Without revealing too much about the full narrative, it’s enough to say that neither Grace nor Aidan and Mia are completely virtuous in their actions as well.

Even if the story isn’t as engaging as it should be, the film always has a handsome aesthetic thanks to some top-tier production design and terrific camerawork. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who brought a similarly chilly approach to The Killing of a Sacred Deer, shoots the claustrophobic hallways of the rustic lodge with haunting stillness and Kubrickian remove. I also appreciates how Franz and Fiala foreshadow Grace’s presence by obscuring her figure behind frosted panes and icy car windows until finally revealing her fully around the 30 minute mark. The table is all set for a solid horror hit but The Lodge only manages to serve up a mish-mash of tropes that we’ve been served plenty of times before.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Call of the Wild, starring Harrison Ford and Dan Stevens, updates the classic Jack London novel about a grizzled explorer and a resilient dog who team up to find his way home.
Brahms: The Boy II, starring Katie Holmes and Ralph Ineson, follows the titular eerily life-like doll as he stalks a new family who moves into his mansion.
The Photograph, starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, is a romantic drama about a relationship between the estranged daughter of a famous photographer and the journalist assigned to cover her late mother.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Birds of Prey

Despite the overwhelmingly negative response that Suicide Squad received across the board, critics and fans agreed on one thing: Margot Robbie was born to play Harley Quinn. 4 years later, the anarchic anti-heroine gets her own spinoff of sorts in Birds Of Prey, whose subtitle And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn implies more of an origin story than a group outing. Like its full title, the film is similarly at odds with whether it wants to be a team-up movie a-la The Avengers or a more personal story centered around its central figure. More often than not, it splits the difference between these two ideals, which yields intermittently entertaining but ultimately frustrating results.

We pick up with Quinn after she’s been unceremoniously kicked to the curb by the Joker. The break-up sends shock waves throughout Gotham City, as Harley’s association with the Clown Prince offered her a level of power and protection that has since evaporated. This puts her in the crosshairs of nearly every lowlife that she’s wronged in the past, including the eccentric but ruthless gangster Roman Sionis (Evan McGregor). In order to square things with Sionis and his crew, Quinn is tasked with finding a diamond with banking codes embedded inside. Along the way, she recruits the crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sionis’ personal driver Black Canary (Journey Smollett-Bell).

Stylistically and narratively, Birds of Prey feels like the DCEU’s response to the Deadpool series, specifically Deadpool 2 since both protagonists spend most of their runtimes shackled to a teenaged accomplice. Both Deadpool and Harley Quinn exert full meta control over their respective movies, cheekily relaying their own version of the stories with wall-to-wall voiceover. Quinn, and by extension director Cathy Yan, take things a step further by zig-zagging the narration back and forth through time to introduce new characters and context to the plot. It’s a fun trick the first time or two but it doesn’t take long for it to disrupt the momentum of the overall plot and leave too many plates spinning at once.

Thematically, the film does break new ground within the comic book genre in the ways that it overtly takes aim at misogyny, power dynamics and toxic masculinity. Its perspective on how the world has mistreated these female characters and how they’ve overcome their distinct struggles is undeniably a valuable one. It’s just a shame that these worthwhile themes are grafted onto a routine, McGuffin-driven plot with a predictable, albeit rollicking and well-choreographed, climax. The film’s outspoken feminist agenda is often persuasive but does overstep and strain credibility at points, as when Sionis mercilessly humiliates a female club patron for reasons that seem contrived even for a supervillain.

As in Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s committed work as Harley Quinn is the film’s strongest point. She brings the same brand of gleeful mischief and batty charisma to the role but she also finds new notes to play with in order to develop the character further. We see her smooth talk her way out of seemingly impossible confrontations and utilize her PhD as she psychologically sizes up criminals on the spot. This character obviously has enough depth to sustain her own feature and Robbie is clearly game for it, which makes the decision to shoehorn in the rest of these Birds of Prey that much more disappointing. When it comes to narrative ambition, Birds of Prey flies a bit too close to the sun.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Sonic the Hedgehog, starring Jim Carrey and James Marsden, brings the blue ball of energy from the Sega video game line to the big screen as he hides out on Earth and avoids the evil Dr. Robotnik.
Downhill, starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, re-imagines the Swedish dark comedy Force Majeure for American audiences as an avalanche during a family ski vacation throws things into disarray.
Fantasy Island, starring Michael Peña and Maggie Q, is the latest Blumhouse thriller about an island resort where guests have to solve the island’s mystery in order to escape with their lives.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Gretel & Hansel

The Brothers Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel has been adapted for the screen countless times, most recently and regrettably in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and now we have yet another take. Gretel & Hansel, the latest from The Blackcoat’s Daughter director Oz Perkins, primarily sticks to the narrative beats that will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the story. We have the titular sister and brother, played respectively by Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, who stumble upon a mysterious house in the middle of the dark woods. The homeowner, played by Alice Krige, accommodates them with a table full of endless feasts but the longer they stay, the more nefarious her intentions become.

Perkins uses this setup as a jumping off point to tell a more personalized coming-of-age tale centered around Gretel, whose prominence in the story is suggested by the film’s title. This time around, she’s twice as old as Hansel and is unquestionably the one in charge. She’s also been gifted with magical abilities, which are recognized and further developed by the witch who resides at that ever-tempting house. The focus on a female protagonist struggling with the temptation of witchcraft in a bleak setting is strikingly similar to 2016’s The Witch, even though the results here aren’t as compelling as they are in that excellent period horror piece.

Gretel & Hansel also resembles The Witch in its keen attention to production design and cinematography, which are often first-rate and enough to make it worth recommending. The film is more interested in accumulating dread than slapping audiences in the face with overt scares and much of this done with the atmosphere that creeps at the edges of the frame. Cinematographer Galo Olivarez uses unconventional lighting schemes to capture the beauty and terror of this world, sometimes even within the same shot. One such image, in which Gretel’s face is lit both by the blue of the moonlight and the orange of a flickering flame, is hauntingly lovely and of a caliber that one might not expect from a horror movie unceremoniously released over Super Bowl weekend.

The main trouble in Gretel & Hansel comes from the underdeveloped screenplay by Perkins and co-writer Rob Hayes, which doesn’t do quite enough to expand on the original fairy tale. Besides Gretel’s aforementioned personal journey, nearly everything else in the script feels like a distraction and filler to pad the already lean 87 minute runtime. Save a few scenes in the film’s opening with characters that are never seen nor heard from again, we spend the entirety of the movie with the trio of Gretel, Hansel and the Witch. That’s not inherently an issue but there isn’t enough character development between the trio to justify hanging the whole story on their shoulders.

In an attempt to patch up some of the shallow character work, Perkins includes an intermittent voiceover from Gretel, in which she ponders rhetorical questions like “is it wise to trust someone who appears when you need them?” These philosophical musings along with the lush landscapes give viewers an idea of what Terrence Malick may come up with if he were tasked to adapt a Grimm tale. Even though this voiceover rumination grows more pretentious as the movie goes on, I appreciate the artsy ambition in a genre that is often sorely in need of it. Gretel & Hansel is a classic case of style over substance but when the style is this superb, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Birds of Prey, starring Margot Robbie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, gives the DC Comics baddie Harley Quinn her own spin-off in which she recruits other female vigilante to take down a crime lord.
The Lodge, starring Riley Keough and Jaeden Martell, is a psychological chiller about a soon-to-be stepmom who gets snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote cabin.
Playing at Cinema Center this weekend are all of the Academy Award-nominated shorts for the Animated, Live Action and Documentary categories, which you can catch before Oscar Night on Sunday, February 9th.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Turning

The haunted house movie genre is one that always seems to be in constant ebb and flow when it comes to quality. For every stellar entry like The Conjuring or Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, we get forgettable titles like Winchester and Amityville: The Awakening. The Turning, Hollywood’s latest mangling of Henry James’ classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, sadly falls into the category of film that only exists to make the great ones seem greater by comparison. Despite starting with rich source material and incorporating some watchable rising stars into its cast, this redundant and horribly derivative would-be supernatural thriller offers very little in the way of fresh scares.

Set almost 100 years after James’ original tale, the story centers around kindergarten teacher Kate (Mackenzie Davis) as she takes a live-in nanny/tutor position for the recently orphaned Flora (Brooklynn Prince) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard). Helping manage the vast estate where the kids reside is housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who seems suspicious of Kate from the moment she steps onto the property. Although Kate and Flora seem to ease into a friendly relationship, Miles presents as much more abrasive and even lecherous to their new guest. It doesn’t take long for things to sour further as the haunts of the creepy manor materialize in the form of menacing apparitions that suggest a dark history.

Making the leap to feature films after crafting music videos for artists like Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake, director Floria Sigismondi can’t find her voice within this hopelessly generic adaptation. In an all-too-rare bit of meta humor, Kate murmurs “this can’t be real” as she pulls up to the house for the first time and beholds the barrage of cliches that fall before her: the dilapidated mansion, the impossibly long driveway adorn with dead trees on either side and, naturally, the gloomy weather to match. The truth is, it’s all real, at least in the sense that Sigismondi is going to take every trick and trope associated with the spooky house genre deadly seriously from there on out.

Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, responsible for bringing The Conjuring to life, inelegantly stuff their script with suggestions as to what’s behind all of these creepy occurrences. The character work is especially thin, not leaving much meat on the bone for Davis and company to dig into past increasingly haunted facial expressions. The presence of props from pet tarantulas to porcelain dolls perpetuate a moody atmosphere that constantly comes across as contrived. Sigismondi assembles all of these tried-and-true gothic horror elements and tosses them into a blender, producing a bland purée that only the most gullible of teens will consume.

This is the kind of film that teases you for 90 minutes, dangling all manner of red herrings and half-reveals in front of our faces, until it finally gives the viewer the unfiltered truth in the end. If The Turning is remarkable in any way, it’s certainly in how unsatisfying and downright confusing a conclusion it offers as a bitter consolation prize for enduring its preceding narrative. Everyone who worked on the film should take comfort in knowing that most audience members will stay through the credits, likely to take a moment and wipe the perplexed looks off their faces. The Turning may indeed turn heads, even if it’s to the side to signify bewilderment.

Score – 1.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Gretel and Hansel, starring Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, retells the dark fairy tale about a pair of siblings who get lost in the woods and stumble upon terrifying evil in the process.
The Rhythm Section, starring Blake Lively and Jude Law, is an international spy thriller that follows a woman who seeks to uncover the truth behind a plane crash that killed her family three years earlier.
Opening at Cinema Center is VHYes, starring Kerri Kenney and Thomas Lennon, a comedy shot entirely on VHS and Beta about a boy who accidentally records home videos over his parents’ wedding tape.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup