Category Archives: Review

Review

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 ****|****

 

First Man

Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle reunites with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling in First Man, an emotionally enthralling and sensorily spectacular account of Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the Moon landing. Not only is this a fitting biopic for an American hero, it’s also an ode to the men and women who dared to do the impossible and made incredible sacrifices so that we could extend our reach in the universe. What’s distinctive about Chazelle’s vision of space travel is how he tethers the hopes and dreams of NASA’s brightest to the overwhelmingly dangerous operations necessary for Apollo 11’s success.

Opening in 1961 with a thrilling sequence in which Armstrong (Gosling) heads up an atmosphere-piercing flight test gone awry, we’re introduced to his wife Jan (Claire Foy) as the two are coping with the loss of their young daughter. Upon moving to Houston for a fresh start, Armstrong moves up the ranks at NASA and is soon involved in the Gemini program, during which critical tasks are mastered for use in the Apollo missions. With pressure mounting from the Space Race, Apollo 11 is carried out in the summer of 1969 with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) becoming the first two men to walk on the Moon.

As much as this is a film about the space program and the incredible amount of work that it took to get America to the Moon, it’s also an engaging personal story about the toll those efforts took on the people involved. Screenwriter Josh Singer balances the no-nonsense mechanics of the missions with intimate sequences of home life between Armstrong and his increasingly alienated family. Foy is particularly good portraying a wife wracked with anxiety over the new perils that face her husband with each new development in his profession. Gosling also turns out to be an excellent fit to play the titular character, stripping away his typical levels of charm to play an engineer whose head is always in his work.

In addition to casting Gosling again, Chazelle has also re-teamed with the technical leads from La La Land and achieves a similar level of success with them in this film. The musical score by Justin Hurwitz is tempered with a beautiful combination of worry and wonder, led by a mournful and spellbinding theremin that recalls sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s. It took a little time for me to get on board with the look of the film, but cinematographer Linus Sandgren does find a rhythm after a few initial missteps to produce plenty of indelible images. But the MVP from a technical standpoint is editor Tom Cross, who won Best Editing for Chazelle’s Whiplash and does a stunning job of piecing together some extremely tense setpieces.

Of course it all comes back to the vision laid out by Chazelle; in keeping the action focused on the point-of-view of the astronauts as they’re crammed into their spacecrafts, he has created an experience that’s as claustrophobic and intense as any of its kind since Apollo 13. IMAX is becoming more of a gimmick than a necessity for most movies released these days, but seeing this film in IMAX is necessary not only for the enhanced picture but for the dynamic sound design that accompanies it. First Man is a first-rate docudrama about the spirit of innovation that led to triumphs in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer, is a direct sequel to the 1978 horror classic that finds serial killer Michael Myers escaping prison once again to wreak havoc during the titular holiday.
The Hate U Give, starring Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall, is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas about a teenager whose life is shattered after her childhood friend is murdered by a police officer.
The Sisters Brothers, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, is a Western dark comedy that follows a pair of assassins as they track down a notorious gold prospector (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) during the California Gold Rush.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Venom

There is a time in which Venom, the new Sony-backed superhero movie featuring a popular character from the Spider-Man comics, could have likely passed as a decent entry into the genre. If it had arrived prior to 2008, the year game-changers like Iron Man and The Dark Knight hit theaters, then it’s possible that its muddled blend of faux-gritty realism and buddy movie antics could have played as novel or even subversive. The problem is that we’ve since had 10 years of seemingly innumerable superhero films and it’s more than a bit puzzling that Sony thought they could release something this flat and uninspired in 2018.

Tom Hardy bumbles his way through a thoroughly gonzo performance as Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter whose unethical practices lead to him lose both his job and fiancé Anne (Michelle Williams) in the same day. After trying to exact revenge on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the head of a shady bioengineering company called the Life Foundation, he gets tangled up with an alien entity called a symbiote and is subsequently “taken over” by the foreign creature named Venom. Now sporting a new set of superpowers that allow him to mow through henchmen left and right, Brock vows to stop Drake before he unleashes his dangerous symbiotes into the world.

The big problems with Venom start with the bone-headed script, which not only regurgitates tropes that are well past exhausted by now but also bounces around from one plot point to another without a shred of logic attached. It doesn’t help that it also includes dubious lines of dialogue like the supposedly menacing “have a nice life” and the downright bizarre “ain’t nothing change but the weather”. Save for some of the bi-play between Brock and Venom, particularly one exchange that occurs at the top floor of a high building, most of the comedy falls flat and feels completely at odds with the dark and moody tone that director Ruben Fleischer is attempting to establish.

Hardy, who also voices the carnivorous Venom creature, is perhaps the only person trying to do something interesting but different doesn’t always mean better. Lurching around like the alien-possessed farmer from Men In Black, he chooses to voice Brock like a marble-mouthed buffoon who can rarely stay ahead of the curve. Meanwhile, fantastically over-qualified supporting players like Williams and Ahmed are hindered by inconsistent and generally dopey characters that don’t add any dimension to the already lackluster story.

Like the inky substance that overtakes the film’s protagonist, Venom also has an especially murky and lifeless look to it. As is becoming more routine for blockbusters these days, the majority of the scenes take place at night to disguise sloppy CGI and editing. The film’s final fight scene, which looks like it’s set in an exploding silly string factory, is both visually incomprehensible and unappealing. It’s another swing-and-a-miss by Sony, who leased the rights for some of the Spider-Man characters to Marvel Studios but obviously retained control of Venom on the hopes that they could score a hit sans the web-slinger. Unfortunately, I fear they will indeed have financial success with Venom, which means we’ll have plenty more cash-grabbing superhero ventures for years to come.

Score – 1/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
First Man, starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, is a Neil Armstrong biopic covering the lead-up to the Apollo 11 mission and is the latest from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.
Bad Times at the El Royale, starring Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson, follows seven strangers as they begin to uncover each others’ secrets during their stay at a novelty southwest hotel.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, starring Jack Black and Wendi McLendon-Covey, looks to cull chills once again from the popular children’s horror book series by R. L. Stine.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Night School

From the Adam Sandler-centric Billy Madison to the one-two combination of 21 and 22 Jump Street, the idea of grown adults returning to high school is a concept that has played out in plenty of comedies over the years. Returning to the well once more is Night School, the new Kevin Hart vehicle (or HartBeat Production, according to a pre-credit logo) that does precious little to distinguish itself from the class. Along with co-star Tiffany Haddish, Hart brings his typical level of charm and dedication to the film but even with six credited writers on board, there just aren’t enough laughs built in to the script to make this trip back to school worth taking.

Hart stars as Teddy Walker, a barbecue grill salesman looking to move into a career in finance to keep pace with his successful fiancé Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), despite the fact that he lacks a high school diploma. With the hopes that he can charm his way into a work-free GED, he attends night school classes at the same school he dropped out of years prior but is met head-on by the no-nonsense instructor Carrie (Tiffany Haddish). Together with his eccentric group of classmates, Teddy must learn to overcome the same obstacles that precluded him all those years ago.

The film gets off to a promising start, as director Malcolm D. Lee sets Teddy up as a likable guy who seems to have peaked early on in life, but each subsequent character is given less and less dimension by comparison. By the time we get to the first night school class, supporting players like Rob Riggle and Mary Lynn Rajskub are relegated to one or two introductory lines that don’t create enough of a foundation upon which to build clever jokes. The movie’s would-be climax, a late-night school break-in to steal answers to a practice test, spreads its humor thin across half a dozen characters and ends with a gross-out gag that feels out of place and off-putting.

Most of the laughs that land come from the verbal sparring between Hart and Haddish that’s established during their first scene together, in which she refers to him as a “burnt leprechaun”. As is typical for most Hart comedies, his diminutive stature is the center of quite a few jokes; I also appreciated the imposing low angles that cinematographer Greg Gardiner used to juxtapose the height difference between Hart and the film’s more domineering characters. This is especially evident in an early scene with the strict principal played by SNL‘s Taran Killam, whose bat-touting antics seem to be a riff on the Morgan Freeman character from Lean On Me.

Like its main character, the biggest problem that Night School faces is a critical lack of focus. Clearly the film is going for a Breakfast Club vibe where each character has their own dilemma to solve but with two major comedic talents at the forefront, there isn’t enough screen time for a whole class of students. Perhaps if Teddy had been paired with just one classmate, like the one played by Romany Malco (the two shared a hilarious scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin), then there could have been some tighter comedic writing. Night School is good-natured and has an endearing message at its core but as a laugh-out-loud comedy, it doesn’t quite make the grade.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Venom, starring Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams, is the latest Sony-backed Marvel superhero movie that focuses on a journalist who gains superpowers after coming in contact with an extraterrestrial parasite.
A Star is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, is the third remake of the 1937 original film that follows the romance that develops between a road-worn country musician and an up-and-coming singer.
Also opening at Cinema Center this weekend is Blaze, starring Ben Dickey and Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat, which is a new biopic directed by Ethan Hawke that covers the life of country musician Blaze Foley.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Simple Favor

What would you get if you combined the pulpy thrills of a murder mystery like The Girl on the Train with the comedic strokes of Mean Girls and a dash of Gossip Girl for good measure? You’d probably end up with something like A Simple Favor, the new comedy-thriller by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig that probably shouldn’t work on paper but somehow finds its own niche and vibrancy on-screen. With its over-the-top characters and preposterous scenarios, this film may not work for those who like their stories to be even remotely grounded in reality but those looking for a frills-free escape should find exactly what they seek.

Based on the Darcey Bell novel of the same name, A Simple Favor stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, a quirky and self-conscious single mom who runs a successful homemaking Vlog from the comfort of her own kitchen. After the disappearance of her domineering and elusive friend Emily (Blake Lively), Stephanie teams up with Emily’s novelist husband Sean (Henry Golding) to launch their own private investigation and chase the bread crumbs that fall on the trail. As the two begin to dig deeper into Emily’s shadowy past, they realize how little they both actually know her and eventually uncover secrets that have unexpected consequences on their lives.

While everyone in the cast seems to be a good fit for their roles, Lively seems particularly well suited to play the deliciously cartoonish villain, who literally struts around with a skull-topped cane. Kendrick brings plenty of charm to Stephanie, though her faux-awkward schtick did wear out its welcome early on and the character is so wildly inconsistent that it becomes difficult to keep up with her at points. Golding, on the other hand, is saddled with a generally lifeless character who is largely reactive to the incidents that occur and he lacks the edge necessary to keep up with the more involving performances that are on display.

Scored with a buoyant French pop-inspired soundtrack and outfitted with decadent, distinctive costume design, the film routinely brings a light, campy touch to some of the darker subject material. This juxtaposition often creates a sort of tonal whirlwind that works more often than it doesn’t and also serves to keep the audience on their toes, as to easily throw them off balance for the story’s inevitable twists and turns. Jessica Sharzer’s densely plotted and often self-aware script is filled with the kind of biting dialogue that constantly shifts the advantage one character may have over another, much like a verbal tennis match at lightning-fast speed.

The screenplay, however, also includes contrivances that are beyond ludicrous and some (perhaps all, depending on the viewer) of the plot twists are easy to spot from a mile away. At two hours long, it also threatens to overstay its welcome and probably could have lost a plot tangent or two for the sake of brevity. Still, there’s something admirable about the go-for-broke spirit that’s on display and there’s little doubt that this is the most ambitious movie that Paul Feig has ever directed. A Simple Favor is a film that defies traditional description and if you’re looking for a twist on a familiar cocktail, this may just hit the spot.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Night School, starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, follows a group of eccentric adult students who are attempting to earn their GEDs from a hard-nosed teacher with unorthodox methods.
Smallfoot, starring Channing Tatum and James Corden, is a new animated fish-out-of-water story about a group of Yeti who cross paths with a human, with either party previously believing the existence of the other was a myth.
Hell Fest, starring Reign Edwards and Bex Taylor-Klaus, is a slasher film which takes place in a horror-themed amusement park where parkgoers remain oblivious to the murderous spree of a masked killer among the rest of the park’s distractions.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Predator

With its primal story of survival and its ultra-macho attitude, John McTiernan’s Predator is still lauded as an action classic to this day and went on to generate 2 direct sequels along with 2 spin-offs in the Alien Vs. Predator series. Now from writer/director Shane Black, who had a comic relief role as Hawkins in the 1987 original, comes The Predator, another sequel that also doubles as a way to reboot an ailing franchise. On paper, this new film seems to have the qualifications to work within the Predator series but the actual result feels both overwritten and underdirected while also seeming to add little to the franchise’s overall mythology.

The story this time once again centers around a Predator ship that comes crashing to Earth when it’s discovered by decorated Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), who confiscates armor from the ship and mails it to his home to keep it out of the government’s hands. The Predator’s body is then brought to a laboratory where it’s observed by biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) before the creature awakens and escapes the facility, leaving loads of mangled bodies in its wake. After being picked up for investigation by an Agent Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), McKenna is recruited along with a ragtag band of veterans to bring the Predator down at any cost.

This group, which includes likable actors like Trevante Rhodes and Keegan-Michael Key, is reminiscent of the misfit military men from the first Predator film but the characters here lack the necessary depth and personality. The film comes to a screeching halt to introduce each new character in the most perfunctory way possible, outlining how each person is likely to behave and why we should care about them. It has all the elegance and tact of an overly eager elevator pitch and it’s the result of lazy writing that doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to ascertain all of the necessary character traits without the “help” of clunky dialogue.

That particular scene is emblematic of a larger problem with The Predator, which is that is the script is needlessly busy weaving together plot points that feel like they belong to completely different genres altogether. The first Predator has just about the most basic premise possible (alien lands in the jungle, army men have to kill it) but it makes the most of this simple setup by slowly wringing tension from the treacherous nature of the surroundings. By contrast, the convoluted screenplay of the newest entry ensures that our characters will be unceremoniously shuffled around from one location to another with little idea what good it will do them.

Shane Black, who has previously written and directed quality quippy films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, also has experience with big-budget action fare after his work on Marvel’s Iron Man 3 but he seems hopelessly lost here. The only actor who really seems to get the balance of hubris and humor right is Trevante Rhodes, who turns in what is by far the film’s most compelling performance following his star-making turn in the 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight. If the rest of the cast had been on the same page with him, then The Predator could have at least worked as an ensemble comedy of sorts but it’s just one of the film’s many missed opportunities.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The House with a Clock in its Walls, starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, is a family-friendly fantasy film from Eli Roth, who has previously directed not so family-friendly fare like Hostel and The Green Inferno.
Life Itself, starring Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde, is an ensemble romantic comedy-drama based in New York and Spain from the creator of the hit NBC series This Is Us.
Fahrenheit 11/9, the new provocative documentary from Michael Moore, is a sequel of sorts to his 2004 doc Fahrenheit 9/11 that covers the 2016 US presidential election and the subsequent presidency of Donald Trump.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Nun

Since the Conjuring series of films began with the first entry in 2013, the R-rated horror franchise has summoned supernatural scares that have translated to hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. The Conjuring generated the spin-off Annabelle about a creepy possessed doll and The Conjuring 2 has now led to another spin-off called The Nun, spelling out the backstory for the Valak character that was introduced in that film. Like the rest of its companions in the Conjuring Universe, this film relies heavily on jump scares with jarring audio cues but it lacks an engaging story or any involving characters to make this prequel journey worth taking.

After a nun is found dead after apparently taking her own life outside a Romanian monastery, The Vatican tasks Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) with investigating the incident. There, they meet “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), the man who discovered the nun’s body while delivering supplies to the abbey, who aides them in their examination. As the trio spends more time on the premises, they begin to witness supernatural sightings and seem to be haunted continuously by evil spirits that tie back to a demonic entity known as Valak, who is usually held in check by constant prayer from the nuns but has seemingly grown more powerful.

The issues with The Nun start fairly early on, as the first scenes of the spooky Nun character set up the general pace and timbre of the rest of the scares and frankly, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen done better countless times before. It leans into religious iconography like upside-down crosses and ominous headstones in ways that scores of other horror films (The Exorcist series, for one) have all invoked in more creative ways. All of the visual clichés are firmly in place as well, like the close-up/pan to an empty area/pan back to close-up with scary figure behind main character sequence, but they’re brought down even further by a murky visual palette that makes for an especially drab viewing experience.

Some of these rote horror movie beats might be worth forgiving if there were other redeemable aspects to the film but the terribly thin script doesn’t allow for any sort of intrigue in the story or any interest for the characters. Even though this would seem to be an explanation of how the Valak creature came to be, the film gives very little in terms of details on the origins of this nefarious being and the answers that we’re given are perfunctory at best. It’s also extremely inconsistent about the actual powers of this spirit, who is shown early on to be powerful enough to bury someone alive in the blink of an eye but then is almost comically under-powered the rest of the film as it conjures up hands to grab at the protagonists.

The first two Conjuring films have been aided greatly by the effortless chemistry between leads Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson but this trio of actors, including Vera’s younger sister Taissa, doesn’t have the same kind of spark to make their characters engaging from the get-go. While they aren’t able to make much happen together on-screen, I’d hardly say it’s their fault as the three are saddled with shamefully underwritten roles that do them no justice. The Nun may have enough frights in it for fans of the series to find it worth watching but I have to imagine that most moviegoers won’t find nearly enough for the film to justify its existence outside of being another payday for Warner Bros in this lucrative franchise.

Score – 1.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Predator, starring Boyd Holbrook and Trevante Rhodes, is the third sequel to the 1987 sci-fi action classic that pits a group of mercenaries against a town overrun by the titular creatures.
A Simple Favor, starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, is a mystery-thriller that centers around a blogger who attempts to solve a missing persons case that involves her best friend.
White Boy Rick, starring Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt, tells the true story of Richard Wershe Jr., who is notorious for being the youngest FBI informant ever at age 14.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Searching

So much of our modern lives are dictated by how we interact with screens, whether it’s a smart phone or tablet or computer, it only seemed to be a matter of time before the movies would address the staggering cultural change. First it was the 2014 horror film Unfriended, which told its cyberbullying revenge tale entirely from the perspective of computer screens during a group Skype call. Now comes the new techno-thriller Searching, which employs the same general setup of capturing everything from the point-of-view of these ever-present screens but does so in service of a much more human story with real stakes at its core.

The film stars John Cho as David Kim, a single father doing his best to raise his 16-year old daughter Margot (Michelle La) while still struggling to cope with the recent loss of his wife to cancer. After waking up to multiple missed calls from Margot, David becomes worried when he’s unable to reach her back in the morning and does some preliminary research to try to track her down. When parts of Margot’s story don’t add up and she isn’t heard from in over 36 hours, the missing persons case begins and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) begins working with David to track Margot’s digital footprint for information that will lead to her safe return.

It may not initially seem enticing to watch a mystery like this unfold from the vantage point of the protagonist’s electronic devices but first-time director Aneesh Chaganty knows just how to pace the action on-screen. He manages to wring an uncanny amount of tension from tasks that we’re used to completing every day like web searching and checking e-mail by embedding clues behind each click. Thanks to the skillful editing of Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, there’s a propulsive energy and seemingly unstoppable momentum behind every scene that delivers the story’s twists and turns at a break-neck speed while (hopefully) not losing the audience in the process.

Another important key to this film’s success is just how much technical accuracy and precision goes into every tab and window that’s on display and tech-savvy movie goers will have fun picking out every detail that appears on screen. It also helps that David’s sleuthing tends to be remarkably clever, as he finds quick but credible solutions to obstacles like not knowing the password to an account while also not being able to log in to the e-mail address linked to the same account. The less technologically-inclined among us may not be able to catch every single bread crumb on the trail but it doesn’t take a computer whiz to follow the touching family story that serves as the film’s emotional backbone.

Always at the center of the film’s action is John Cho, an actor who’s probably best known for playing Sulu in the new Star Trek films and was excellent in last year’s Columbus, but has the chance to really shine in a performance that’s often unaccompanied. The anxiety and desperation that his character feels is often on full display from his computer’s camera but Cho also conveys a progression of stress that’s completely believable for any parent who would have to endure a situation like this. Searching is a terrific thrill-ride that utilizes its screen-based gimmick to maximum effect while also telling a poignant story about raising children in the age of the internet.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Nun, starring Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, is the latest in the Conjuring series of horror films that investigates the origins of the ominous Valak character introduced in The Conjuring 2.
Peppermint, starring Jennifer Garner, is a vigilante action thriller from the director of Taken that centers around a woman’s search for justice following the murder of her husband and daughter.
Also opening at Cinema Center is Madeline’s Madeline, which scored rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and stars Helena Howard as a theater student on the verge of an artistic breakthrough.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Happytime Murders

It’s difficult to imagine how a comedy as abysmal as The Happytime Murders actually makes it to a theatrical release. First announced by The Jim Henson Company in 2008 and originally slated to begin shooting in January 2011, the long delayed project went through multiple distributors and underwent major casting shake-ups before finally gracing theaters nationwide this past weekend. Troubled productions don’t always result in terrible movies but sometimes, the worst case scenario comes to pass and it’s almost painful to think about how much time and money went into making something this unspeakably awful.

The film takes place in an alternate version of Los Angeles in which conscious puppets co-exist with humans but are treated as second-class citizens and pushed to the fringes of society. The story centers around puppet private eye Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) as he tracks a killing spree that involves members of a past sitcom called The Happytime Gang, including Phillips’ ex-girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). When the LAPD gets involved, Phillips teams up with his previous partner from the force Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to unravel the mystery behind the connected murders.

With its hard-boiled detective story and overly profane dialogue, The Happytime Murders clearly aspires to be a combination of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Broadway musical Avenue Q, but it’s not nearly as inventive as the former nor as clever as the latter. Given how stale the concept is, it’s not likely that a comedy about potty-mouthed puppets would have yielded great results in any scenario but it doesn’t help that the jokes are as brutally repetitive and aggressively witless as they are here. There’s a certain quiet that tends to accompany terrible comedies like this one, a hush that falls over the audience in the absence of humor, and the silence was near-deafening during my particular screening.

It’s one thing for all of the puppet-based gags to be derivative and sophomoric but I’d like to think that the human cast would somehow be able to elevate this material. Sadly, the load is too leaden to lift, as talented performers like Maya Rudolph and Joel McHale are stuck with some seriously lame banter that wouldn’t even pass on a third-rate sitcom much less a feature film. Even Melissa McCarthy, who has seemingly starred in dozens of these types of R-rated comedies since her breakout role in 2011’s Bridesmaids, looks particularly exasperated this time around and doesn’t even try to make the most of her already limited range.

But what makes this unfunny abomination that much more unbearable is the knowledge that director Brian Henson, who helmed Muppet classics like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, worked so hard to see this to completion. He and his crew of puppeteers clearly put loads of effort into bringing life to the 125 puppets that are seen in the film and it’s depressing that their talents were wasted for something that’s so spectacularly unworthy of them. The end credits even bring this point home as they showcase scenes from the film before the performers were digitally removed and we see just how much of their dedication was wasted. The Happytime Murders is brought to you by the letter “L” for lazy, limp and lousy.

Score – .5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Operation Finale, starring Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, tells the true story of the capture of Adolf Eichmann by Israeli spies in 1960 Argentina.
Kin, starring Jack Reynor and James Franco, is a sci-fi action adventure about a pair of brothers on the run from alien soldiers after they discover an extraterrestrial weapon.
Also expanding to local theaters is Searching, starring John Cho and Debra Messing, which is a thriller shown entirely from the point-of-view of smartphones and computer screens.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

BlacKkKlansman

Those who have followed the work of Spike Lee during his 30-plus year career know that he’s not a director who shies away from potential controversy when addressing important political and social issues of the time. His latest Joint, BlacKkKlansman, proves that old age hasn’t extinguished the fire that has been burning in Lee since his monumental early films like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. This time out, he’s telling a slightly more conventional tale based on a true story with a more intentional inclusion of humor throughout and while the results are varied, the conversations that they will inevitably inspire are worth the experience.

Set in 1970s Colorado Springs, the film stars John David Washington (his father Denzel has appeared in 4 of Spike’s past films) as Ron Stallworth, an ambitious young detective who seeks to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. To do this, he talks with its members over the phone and sends fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to their meetings under the guise that they are one and the same. Their investigation leads the pair to the very top of the organization and its Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), who plans to visit Colorado Springs to witness “Stallworth”‘s induction into the KKK.

After a prologue of sorts, things get off to a good start as we witness the beginnings of Stallworth’s career in the police department and his first phone call to the KKK but around the hour mark, the film starts to stall and become repetitive. There’s meant to be a constant tension that Zimmerman will eventually be discovered by the group to be an undercover cop and it’s effective to a point but the cat-and-mouse element doesn’t develop enough as the story goes along. The script, penned by Lee along with three other writers, feels oddly light on incident and makes the big mistake of sidelining its most interesting character (Stallworth) during a large portion of the climax.

I don’t believe I’ve seen Washington in any other films before but his performance here as Stallworth will no doubt score him more screen roles in the future. I’m sure it helps that confidence and charisma run deep in the family but he also brings some playful humor and layers of irony to his performance that make him a very easy character to root for. Additionally, Driver continues his hot streak of selecting challenging roles that make the best of his range and make him that much harder to typecast. Other actors like Corey Hawkins, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Harry Belafonte make memorable impressions, even in their limited screen time.

Lee is no stranger to working with provocative material and he often finds the right tone of humor within beats of this story but the pacing overall feels too languid for the type of narrative that he sets up early on. This, however, is not the case with the concluding 5 minutes of the movie, which are bound to leave most audiences shaken as they leave the theater. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t mirror the sense of urgency that’s found in the film’s incendiary ending. BlacKkKlansman could have also benefited greatly from a re-write or two and some more judicious editing but as is, it’s a thought-provoking if messy entry in Lee’s oeuvre.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Happytime Murders, starring Melissa McCarthy and Elizabeth Banks, is an R-rated crime comedy that takes place in a world where humans and sentient puppets co-exist.
Beautifully Broken, starring Benjamin Onyango and Scott William Winters, tells the true story of three families from different parts of the world struggling to find hope amongst genocide and war.
Also being re-released into theaters for a week-long engagement is the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Fans can see it in local IMAX theaters from August 23rd to August 30th ahead of its 70mm presentation at Indiana State Museum’s IMAX beginning September 7th.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Eighth Grade

15-year-old Elsie Fisher gives one of the year’s best performances in Eighth Grade, the simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming new film written and directed by 27-year-old stand-up comedian Bo Burnham. Fisher stars as Kayla Day, a kind and reserved teenaged girl (she’s awarded the “Most Quiet” superlative by her classmates) trying her best to make it through the final week of her painful middle school experience. Doing their best to help her through the transition are Kayla’s single father Mark, played by Josh Hamilton, and her high school friend Olivia, played by Emily Robinson, who are sometimes no match for the seemingly insurmountable anxieties and insecurities that Kayla faces on a day-to-day basis.

Burnham has crafted an often cringe-inducing but wholly empathetic portrait of teenage life that at once feels specific to the current generation of youngsters but also touches on universal themes that every adult can relate to as well. This is a film of quiet wisdom about how easy it is to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, especially during the hormone-charged teenage years, but also reflects on how time can change how we view ourselves. Most films about kids of this age tend to come from the perspective of the adults around them; not only does Eighth Grade feel like it’s told entirely through the lens of Kayla’s world but it also tends to loosen its focus around all of the other adults in the story with the exception of her father.

One aspect of teenage life that this film tackles better than any coming-of-age story that I’ve ever seen is the role that social media plays into how kids of this generation view themselves and the world around them. Filmmakers often skirt around social media, perhaps with the fear that including it in their work will date the material too much. However, Burnham not only embraces these platforms but incorporates them into the narrative in a way that feels completely organic to this character and her experience. A prime example is the way that Kayla uses YouTube to create short self-help videos on topics like How To Be Yourself and How To Put Yourself Out There, even though these videos only tend to average a handful of Views.

There’s a meta bit of irony to that detail, as director Bo Burnham made his career from the millions of YouTube Views he received on videos of funny songs that he started to record at the age of 15. From this almost instant popularity, he transitioned to stand-up comedy and brought his cutting, clever sense of humor to the stage (his two most recent specials what. and Make Happy are both currently on Netflix and highly recommended). What’s remarkable about Eighth Grade is how Burnham avoids what I’m sure was a temptation to over-write this script, which favors sharply-realized scenarios over sharp-tongued dialogue that fits much better inside this sensitive portrayal of early adolescence.

At the center of everything is Elsie Fisher’s work as Kayla Day, which is the type of performance that often gets overlooked by those who claim an actor is just “playing themselves.” Sporting chin acne and often unflattering apparel, Fisher lays everything bare here but also brings loads of charm and sweetness to the role that makes it effortless for us to get caught up in her story and her struggles. Together with Burnham, she has crafted a film with radiates with compassion and honesty during a time when both seem to be in depressingly short supply.

Note: the MPAA slapped this film with an “R” rating over a few instances of the F-word and some relatively mild sexual content. Parents: please don’t let this deter you from taking your kids to see this film. It’s more than worthy of your time and attention.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding, is a romantic comedy based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan.
Alpha, starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, follows a young man and his wolf companion as they fight the brutal elements during the stone age.
Mile 22, starring Mark Wahlberg and John Malkovich, pits a CIA task force against a terrorist group seeking to extract a highly-prized asset.
Also, Cinema Center will be screening The Death of Stalin, the hilarious political satire starring Steve Buscemi and Arrested Development‘s Jeffrey Tambor, which is still my favorite film of the year so far.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup