Category Archives: Review

Review

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

2019 Preview

The Favourite

Mary Poppins Returns

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

2018 Christmas Weekend Preview

A Star Is Born

Creed II

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Widows

2018 Thanksgiving Weekend Preview

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 Peanut Butter Falcon

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

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

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

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

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

Score 3.5/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

It Chapter Two

When Andy Muschietti’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s sprawling novel It was released in 2017, it scared up box office numbers that not even the most optimistic figures could have predicted. Two years later, Muschietti and crew are back with some new cast additions to tell the second half of King’s 1000+ page story. Like its predecessor, It Chapter Two is surprisingly thorough in the translation of its source material but more importantly, it’s true to the darkly nostalgic spirit of the book. On the whole, the follow-up isn’t as successful as the first film but its go-for-broke attitude among a sea of uninspired blockbusters is admirable if nothing else.

27 years after the Losers’ Club made a pact to stop the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) if he should ever re-emerge in Derry, the evil entity rises up from the sewers once again. Now all in their early 40s and spread out in various parts of the country, each of the members gets a call from Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the one Loser who never left Derry, with the bad news. With trepidation, the gang returns to their old haunts, with Bill (James McAvoy) returning in his de facto leader role. The bickering between jokester Richie (Bill Hader) and the panicky Eddie (James Ransone) resumes right where it left off while the long lost romance between Bev (Jessica Chastain) and Ben (Jay Ryan) is also re-kindled.

Flaunting a 170-minute runtime, the most glaring issue with It Chapter Two is its length. There’s a reason most horror films tend not to break the two-hour mark: it’s difficult to keep an audience in suspense for that amount of time, no matter how good the premise is. That would also explain why it doesn’t take much time for the bevy of CG-based scares to get redundant, despite some worthwhile setups. The most terrifying scene, in which Bev returns to her childhood apartment with a precarious new tenant, was thoroughly spoiled in the theatrical trailer. Thankfully, the film doesn’t rely on its horror elements as much as its predecessor and the dramatic and comedic beats often trump the creepy creature effects.

It certainly had some humor to it but there’s no mistaking its intentions as a horror movie above all. What surprised me most about its sequel is how often and how hard at laughed while watching it, likely more than I did for most straight-ahead comedies released this summer. The biggest contributing factor for this is Hader, who continues to put together an impressive post-SNL resume with roles that play to his comedic strengths while deepening his dramatic chops as well. His Richie is a fun audience surrogate as someone who takes the terrors of the story seriously but often responds with humor as a way of combating his fear.

Another strength of the original was its stellar casting and the adult counterparts for the young actors are exceedingly well-realized. The resemblance between Eddie actors James Ransone and Jack Dylan Grazer is particularly uncanny, evidenced by a shot that overlays both actors’ faces on top of one another to eerie effect. Similar looks aid continuity but more importantly, the performances by the adult actors mirror the respective work by the younger actors to great effect. As a blockbuster horror entry with plenty of ambition, It Chapter Two floats more often than it sinks.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Goldfinch, starring Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman, tells the story of a boy who is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients during the late-2000s financial crisis.
Opening at Cinema Center is Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, a documentary about the Grammy Award-winning singer who broke out in the folk music scene of the 1960s and solidified herself as the “queen of country rock” in the ensuing decades.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Luce

Based on the play by JC Lee, Luce stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the titular African-American teen who seems to have it all: excellent grades, track and field records and a captain’s spot on the debate team. He’s the shining example of a perfect high-school student that has won over his peers and the faculty — “this one’s my thoroughbred,” the principal dotes on him with a hearty pat on the shoulder. Everyone seems to look up to Luce but no one is prouder of him than his adoptive parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), who rescued him from war-torn Eritrea when he was 7 years old.

Among a sea of approval, there remains a lone holdout in the form of Luce’s stern debate teacher Harriet (Octavia Spencer). After she assigns her class an essay to be written from the perspective of a historical figure, Harriet is disturbed when Luce chooses to write convincingly in the voice of a violent dictator. She takes it upon herself to search through his locker and when she finds a bag filled with dangerous fireworks, Harriet confronts Amy with her findings. Tensions continue to simmer as Amy and Peter naturally come to their son’s defense amid the allegations while Harriet continues to push forward with her crusade against the star pupil.

Luce made a splash when it debuted at Sundance earlier this year and in some ways, it’s not difficult to see why: it has a clean look, a stellar cast and a provocative story about race and privilege. Unfortunately, the film is consistently marred by its reach exceeding its grasp when it comes to the overall narrative intent. On the whole, the script by JC Lee and Julius Onah, the latter of whom also serves as director, is both overwritten and underdeveloped. There are intriguing plot points that arise and some terrifically tense moments where characters’ intentions begin to turn but all of these elements build to a climax that could more aptly be described as an anti-climax.

Unsurprisingly, Luce shines brightest when the light is cast on its young star Kelvin Harrison Jr. As an upstanding teen who may be harboring some dark thoughts, he does an fantastic job at wielding his intellect for empathy with his friends and subtle menace with his foes. Spencer, whose performance in Ma earlier this year was that film’s sole highlight, turns in more great work her as a woman rife with personal issues who gets in over her head trying to investigate an unimpeachable target. Watts and Roth, who also played a married couple in 2008’s Funny Games, work well together as Luce’s biggest advocates, although their accent work is a bit shoddy at times.

The cinematography by Larkin Seiple leans heavily into an overexposed and chilly aesthetic that is effective to a degree but everything is so plain and bright, it began to feel like every scene took place in a hospital. The music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury alternates between ponderous organ dirges and abrasive trap beats, a interesting combination that nevertheless left me with sonic whiplash. Luce wants to be a conversation starter that will linger with audiences after the credits roll but it’s far too opaque and circumspect to inspire much more than a few talking points.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
It Chapter Two, starring James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, revisits The Losers’ Club as they are terrorized again by the killer clown Pennywise 27 years after the events of Chapter One.
After The Wedding, starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, tells the story of an orphanage founder who travels to New York for a wedding where dark secrets from the past come to light.
The Peanut Butter Falcon, starring Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, is an adventure about a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ready Or Not

The Most Dangerous Game gets a darkly comedic twist in Ready Or Not, a proudly R-rated cat-and-mouse chase with gruesome delights and a wicked sense of playfulness. Opening with a shot of a grinning devil, the film lives up to its initial pledge by delivering some deliciously demented setpieces on top of a story about the burden of tradition and the ties that bind. With its tongue thoroughly in cheek for all of its 91 minute runtime, it reminded me of similarly salty horror peers like The Cabin in the Woods and especially the excellent You’re Next, which it sometimes mirrors to an uncomfortable degree.

Samara Weaving stars as Grace, a young bride-to-be smitten with the good-natured and attentive Alex (Mark O’Brien). It just so happens his obscenely wealthy family made their fortune by creating games of all sorts through the generations — as Alex cheekily puts it, they’re a “gaming dominion” — so Grace only thinks it’s slightly odd that they want to play a game of hide-and-seek on their wedding night. Little does she know, Alex’s family turns out to be a very serious set of players, which becomes obvious as they mount crossbows and shotguns in their pursuit of the hiding Grace.

There’s Daniel (Adam Brody), Alex’s hard-drinking brother who puts up a sardonic front but seems to have a soft spot for certain members of the family. That includes their sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), who pops just the right combination of pills to remain alert for the evening. Their parents Tony (Henry Czerny) and Becky (Andre MacDowell) seem perfectly coiffed for the wedding but devolve into two entirely different people as the night of madness and mayhem marches on. And then there’s Helene (Nicky Guadagni), the stone-faced matriarch whose every line of dialogue drips with sarcasm (“you continue to exist,” she greets someone at one point.)

Weaving, who made the most of a ditsy role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and also shined in Netflix’s horror comedy The Babysitter, proves to be a excellent scream queen. As a fearless and foul-mouthed “final girl” on the run from one deranged family member to another, she brings plenty of relatability and raw power to her breakout performance. I also appreciated Czerny playing against type as the seemingly calm and composed head of the house who gradually loses his cool in tremendous fashion.

The directing duo of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett commit to creative choices that pay off more often than they don’t. The dimly-lit castle-like setting, adorn with affluent accoutrements like massive buck mantles and even larger paintings, is perfect for the sadistic chase at the film’s core. The cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz makes use of the popular “shaky cam” technique, which works fine for tense tracking shots but makes much less sense for more foundational shots like one of Grace standing under a doorway. If you’re in the mood for a gory and gregarious dark comedy, then Ready Or Not may be perfect for your next game night.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Don’t Let Go, starring David Oyelowo and Storm Reid, follows a father who is heartbroken by his family’s death but soon gets a call from his niece, who is somehow two weeks in the past.
Opening at Cinema Center is The Nightingale, which tells the story of a young convict seeking revenge for a horrible act of violence perpetrated against her family.
Also playing at Cinema Center is Mike Wallace Is Here, a documentary about the titular American journalist who was a host of CBS’ 60 Minutes for 50 years.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Based on the best-selling novel by Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette stars Cate Blanchett in the title role as an agoraphobic misanthrope with a mysterious past. Residing in Seattle with her tech mogul husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and her bright daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), she does just about everything she can to avoid other people, including her snippy neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig). After Elgin attempts to stage an intervention along with their psychiatrist Dr. Kurtz (Judy Greer), Bernadette finds a way out of the situation and promptly disappears without a trace. It’s up to Elgin and Bee to follow what sparse clues they have and bring their Bernadette back safely.

Coming off of three solid outings in Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!!, and Last Flag Flying, director Richard Linklater seems as lost as his prickly protagonist with this material. As someone who hasn’t read the book, I struggle to find what Linklater found so enticing in the original text that he felt the need to adapt it into this obvious and pandering melodrama. He seems to be channeling his inner Cameron Crowe, leaning on an obnoxiously plucky music score by Graham Reynolds and Sam Lipman to hone in on maudlin characters revelations that one could see coming a mile away.

The verbose screenplay, penned by Linklater along with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr., focuses too much on the wordy monologues that Bernadette barks at her personal assistant via e-mail or at the random acquaintances she chooses to engage. We do get detailed portrait of our central character and some insight into what would cause her actions but almost all of the other supporting characters are given short shrift. The tantalizing mystery teased in the film’s title is answered astonishingly early in the runtime and the motivations behind it are often obscured by subplots so spasmodic that I almost lost track of all the ultimately meaningless threads.

As usual, Linklater has assembled an excellent cast of talented performers that make the most of their roles. A commanding Blanchett, riffing on her manic, mile-a-minute-talking role from Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, gives soul to a character that comes across rather soulless on the page. The always welcome Laurence Fishburne turns up in a small role as a colleague of Bernadette’s, who patiently waits through her long-winded rambling before politely jumping in with “you done?” Best of all is Emma Nelson as Bernadette’s staunchest defender, whose emotional arc is one of the strongest points of the film.

Perhaps fans of the novel will find much more to like about the movie but I’ve found that more often than not, those who have read the source material for a given adaptation tend to scrutinize it a bit harder than those who go in fresh. After all, it’s easy to do a real-time play-by-play analysis when you’re familiar with the story but even with no points of comparison, I found myself vacillating between boredom and bewilderment. For a film that is at least tangentially related to architecture, it’s ironic that Where’d You Go, Bernadette has issues at its foundation that should have been remedied well before the finishing touches were applied.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:

Ready or Not, starring Samara Weaving and Adam Brody, is a dark comedy thriller about a newlywed who joins her husband and his well-to-do family in a high-stakes version of hide-and-seek.
Angel Has Fallen, starring Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman, is the third installment in the action-packed series about a Secret Service agent once again protecting the President from terrorist attacks.
Overcomer, starring Alex Kendrick and Priscilla Shirer, is a faith-based drama about a high school basketball coach whose championship dreams vanish when he receives unexpected news.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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