Category Archives: Review

Review

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Irresistible

Da 5 Bloods

The King of Staten Island

Shirley

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 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

Dolittle

Robert Downey Jr. is on top of the world. Recently capping off an eleven-year stretch as Iron Man in the obscenely lucrative Marvel films, in which he reportedly earned $75 million for his Endgame role alone, he could seemingly do whatever he’d like at this point. Given that, it’s downright bewildering that he would follow up the iconic superhero era of his career with Dolittle, a slapdash CGI trainwreck that’s as mindless as it is misguided. It’s neither thrilling nor funny, which is problematic for a film that purports to be an adventure comedy, and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone over the age of the average kindergartener will get much from this bloated mess of a movie.

Mangling an untraceable South African/Scottish/Welsh accent, Downey plays Dr. John Dolittle, a reclusive veterinarian who’s holed up in a mystical manor where he communicates with a menagerie of animals. When he gets word that Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has fallen deathly ill, he climbs atop his sassy ostrich and hightails it to Buckingham Palace alongside his companion creatures. He arrives to find that the Queen has been poisoned and that the cure can only be found on a remote island on the other side of the world. With his new human apprentice Stubbins (Harry Collett) and animal friends by his side, Dolittle sets out on a journey to retrieve the precious antidote.

Atop the heap of beguiling creative decisions behind Dolittle is the choice to have Stephen Gaghan, the mind behind hard-hitting political dramas like Traffic and Syriana, direct and co-write this would-be family entertainment. Besides 2016’s Gold, he hasn’t directed anything since Syriana back in 2005 and nothing in his previous work would indicate that he would even be a close fit for something this toothless and juvenile. He and his three co-writers strain hard for laughs that, aside from a misjudged Godfather reference, are aimed squarely at youngsters. Even though the story is ostensibly set in 19th century England, the animals interject frequently in 21st century American vernacular, as when an octopus warns Dolittle “snitches get stitches.”

The depressingly overqualified voice cast, which includes recent Academy Award winners like Rami Malek and Octavia Spencer, does their best to give life to their lifeless CG counterparts. Spencer, whose duck character is actually named Dab-Dab, is saddled with anachronistic clunkers like “do you understand the words that are coming out of my bill?” It’s difficult to imagine what could have compelled this many talented actors to sign up for this freak show in the first place. Most of the film is so on-the-nose obvious about what it’s trying to do and who it’s trying to appeal to, it plays out like one of the parody trailers that opened the Downey-starring Tropic Thunder.

The film’s peaks far too early with a lovely, hand-drawn animated prologue outlining Dolittle’s long-lost love and I would have much preferred watching a story carried out in this style. Instead, we have to bear the sight of Downey mugging against computer-generated cacophony with at least half of his lines sounding like they were re-recorded in post-production. With a $175 million budget, you may come in expecting Marvel-level visual effects but the fantastical creations here are much more dubiously rendered; other non-animal shots, like one in which Stubbins leaps from one part of a bridge to another, are equally unconvincing. Tepid and tedious, Dolittle is an endless parade of wasted talent both on and off-camera.

Score – 1/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Gentlemen, starring Matthew McConaughey and Charlie Hunnam, is the latest action caper from Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie about a British drug lord attempting to sell his empire to a group of Oklahoma billionaires.
The Turning, starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, is a supernatural horror update on “The Turn of the Screw” about a newly appointed nanny who looks after two disturbed orphans in a haunted Maine estate.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Just Mercy

In the heart of Oscar season, two popular genres tend to dominate the multiplex: hard-hitting legal dramas and issues movies meant to provoke discussion about a hot-button topic. Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy happens to fall narrowly in the middle of both of those categories. As this is the case, it tends to be doubly as familiar in some ways but also doubly as admirable in its successes, given the baggage of expectations that it carries on its shoulders. The issue at the center of the movie, the ethical ramifications of the death penalty and its staggering rate of error, has been examined on film previously but Cretton pursues slightly different avenues to shed new light on the subject.

Our story starts in 1987 Alabama, where Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is hastily tried and convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old girl with almost no evidence. Catching wind of the case, Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) travels south to establish the Equal Justice Initiative with social worker Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). The EJI’s aim is to overturn wrongful convictions, specifically for those on death row, and McMillian’s case becomes the focal point of Stevenson’s efforts. His investigation draws the ire of many in the community who firmly believe in McMillian’s guilt, like the hot-headed district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), but Stevenson persists among the multitude of obstacles thrown his way.

Just Mercy plays out about how one might imagine. There’s the terse initial meeting between McMillian and Stevenson, in which an incredulous McMillian turns Stevenson away, even though we know the plot will of course hinge on the two working together. There are the multiple run-ins with sweaty bigoted members of Alabama’s law enforcement, desperate to take Stevenson and his team down at any costs. We have the procedural feel throughout the investigation, in which pages of law books are shuffled through in order to clear McMillian’s name in court. Yet, these recognizable story beats still resonate because of the conviction of the performances on-screen and the direction off-screen.

Where Cretton finds new direction in this harrowing true tale is in the relationships between McMillian and his fellow inmates. Often in capital punishment movies, the injustice of the system is the sole focus and while this film certainly accentuates that aspect, it also focuses on the human interactions and brotherhood behind the bars. Hope and inspiration are precious commodities on death row and the modicum that can be found are uplifting to behold, even in fleeting moments. As good as Foxx and Jordan are, supporting players like O’Shea Jackson and Rob Morgan are even better in roles that allow them to deeply humanize prisoners who know they may not get a second chance themselves.

At a stout 136 minutes, the movie does suffer from pacing issues and may overstay its welcome even for those who are interested in the material. Despite her real-life significance, I’m not certain that Brie Larson’s character even needed to be included in the film, much less given as much screen time as she is since her role in the case is relatively minimal. It’s reasonable to believe that Larson, who worked with Cretton previously in the excellent Short Term 12 and terrible The Glass Castle, was recruited post-Captain Marvel success to add another familiar face to the cast list. Despite its shortcomings, Just Mercy is a sobering and earnest examination of a broken system and the victims left in its wake.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Bad Boys For Life, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, caps off the buddy cop trilogy about two reckless police detectives who reunite once again to take down a Romanian mob boss.
Dolittle, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jessie Buckley, retells the story of a renown doctor who surrounds himself with a myriad of wondrous creatures with whom he can communicate.
Playing at Cinema Center is Parasite, the current Oscar front-runner for Best International Feature Film about a lower-middle class family who slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of a wealthy family.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

1917

The harrowing new World War I film 1917 opens on two British soldiers, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, getting some much needed rest. Little do they know, it’s the only bit of respite that they’ll get for the next two hours. After they’re awoken and given a mission by their General, played by Colin Firth, the pair is thrust into no man’s land to deliver a message with orders to call off an ally’s pending attack. Along the way, familiar faces from Benedict Cumberbatch to Mark Strong pop up to help our protagonists in their treacherous journey. What makes the experience different than almost any other war movie, however, is that we follow the action in real time as the film is presented to appear as one continuous shot.

This impressive technical feat, a collaboration between director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, has been attempted several times in other non-war films. Hitchcock’s Rope was the first to approach the gimmick back in 1948 and recent films from Birdman to Son of Saul have used disguised cuts to appear as a single take. Even more rare are the films that are truly one unbroken shot, like the mind-boggling 140-minute heist film Victoria. Though Mendes does implement a few cuts from the action — particularly the most notable one separating day from night at the film’s midpoint — the effect is as arresting and sensational as the director intended. The level of coordination and timing on display within these lengthy long takes is simply unheard of, particularly for this genre.

Mendes wisely re-teamed with his Skyfall cameraman Deakins to carry out such an expansive experiment. Deakins, who won a long overdue Oscar a couple years ago for his work in Blade Runner 2049, is in line for another nomination and hopefully a win for his nimble and virtuosic cinematography. Whether his camera is skimming across shallow water to follow our heroes or pedaling back as a wounded German plane comes careening to the ground, the action is framed flawlessly in every sequence. Even more minor shots, like the claustrophobic one in the back of a crowded truck where a camera crew couldn’t possibly fit, highlight a level of preparation and commitment that is inspiring, to say the least.

If there’s disappointment in 1917, it’s that the story and character work simply doesn’t match the ambition and ingenuity of the technical aspects at play. We follow the primary soldiers as they doggedly trek through a series of perilous circumstances but we learn very little about them in the process. Nearly every other character is only on-screen for a few moments total and, perhaps by necessity, their roles are underdeveloped and unmemorable. Despite its technical excellence, the film dips into self-indulgence in certain stretches and at times, the film doesn’t seem to exist for any other reason than to show us how difficult it was to make.

Nevertheless, the behind-the-camera aspects, including a rousing and riveting music score from Thomas Newman, will deservedly draw attention in the upcoming award season. One area that will likely be ignored is the work by the two lead actors, particularly by MacKay. Acting is easier when one can rely on multiple takes upon which to cobble together the most optimal performance but the pressure on the performer is much higher when they have to be “on” for 45 consecutive minutes at a time. 1917 isn’t quite the all-time great that it wants to be but it’s a visceral and thrilling exploration of warfare from an audacious new perspective.

Score – 3.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, tells the true story of a civil rights defense attorney who takes the case of a wrongly condemned death row prisoner in 1980s Alabama.
Like a Boss, starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne, is a comedy set in the cosmetics world about two entrepreneurs who start a beauty company but are hindered by a greedy benefactor.
Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel, is a spin on the Alien formula about a crew of underwater researchers who are left stranded when an earthquake wrecks their subterranean laboratory.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Little Women

Writer-director Greta Gerwig follows up her breakout debut Lady Bird with Little Women, an enchanting and exquisite modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical novel. It’s a daunting task taking on such a well-known work, one that has now been adapted to film eight times now, but Gerwig has committed to creative choices that distinguish this iteration from its ilk. In the best way, this feels like a “remix” of the original source material, focusing on tone and theme more than adhering strictly to the narrative as it’s laid out in the book. Bolstered by lush camerawork and a first-rate ensemble cast, this is a delightful and supremely entertaining take on a coming-of-age classic.

Set in 1860s New England, the story centers around the March family as Marmee March (Laura Dern) looks over her four daughters while Father March (Bob Odenkirk) fights in the Civil War. There’s Jo (Saorise Ronan), the rambunctious aspiring writer who captures the affection of the devilishly charming next-door neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). There’s Meg (Emma Watson), who dreams of a life on the stage with a suitor waiting in the wings. There’s Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest whose jealousy and selfishness tend to get the best of her. Finally, there’s Beth (Eliza Scanlen), whose sweet and reserved disposition is reflected in her beautiful piano playing that warmly fills the March residence.

Gerwig’s boldest artistic direction, in conjunction with editor Nick Houy, comes in how she approaches the chronology, beginning the film with Jo as an adult pitching a pulp novel to the incredulous Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). From there, we flash back six years to Jo’s childhood in the lively March household and then we flip back and forth in time to follow not only Jo’s journey but also the stories of the other three sisters as well. As is tradition for retellings of this tale, Jo remains the focus but Gerwig expands the scope of the character work by allowing us to spend more time with the rest of the March family. For example, Amy has been more crudely drawn in other adaptations but through Pugh’s performance and Gerwig’s writing, she’s a fully fleshed-out character.

The dream cast, which also includes venerable veterans like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, is perfectly realized in both major and minor roles. Rekindling their pre-existing partnership from Lady Bird, Ronan and Chalamet showcase an effortless charm and chemistry that brings out the very best of the actors’ sensibilities. Pugh caps off her breakout year with another winning performance that cements her as one of the most magnetic young actresses working today. Also carried over from Lady Bird is Letts, who scores some big laughs as a cynical publisher who playfully picks apart Jo’s pending novel, peppering in pieces of advice like “if the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end.”

Bringing the whole package together are some terrific contributions from behind the camera. The elegant cinematography from Yorick Le Saux makes beautiful use of natural light in every scene, book-matching the opening and concluding shots of the film with transcendent symmetry. Musically, Alexandre Desplat’s stately yet spritely score adds the perfect notes of sophistication and whimsy for a period drama such as this. Little Women is proof that with the right combination of ingenuity and intelligence, it’s possible to make even the most well-worn stories feel fresh once again.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Grudge, starring Andrea Riseborough and John Cho, is a remake of a remake about a spooky house cursed by a vengeful spirit who haunts and kills all those who enter it.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler disappears into another dominant dramatic role in Uncut Gems, a frenetic and fraught character study of a hopelessly degenerate gambler with his back perpetually against the wall. Benny and Josh Safdie, who also helmed 2017’s similarly frenzied Good Time, have perfected a brand of controlled chaos that’s designed to maintain an almost unbearable level of tension throughout. Playing out like a two-hour panic attack, the film captures a seedy subsection of New York where nothing ever seems to slow down and everyone is constantly grinding for the next big score. It’s unquestionably a stressful world to inhabit, so much so that audiences will likely have to catch their breath after they leave the theater.

We first meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) mid-colonoscopy, a rare moment when he’s not in motion. To say that Howard has problems would be a massive understatement. He owes money to bookies all over the city, whose enforcers seem to lurk behind every corner. We see Howard make bets with money that he shouldn’t have in the first place and pawn merchandise from his jewelry store to cover his losses. His only saving grace comes in the form of an uncut Ethiopian opal that he smuggles into the country, which he intends to put to auction but makes the mistake of showing it to NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) first. This throws Howard’s plan completely out of orbit and sets off a chain of events that make his situation even more desperate than it already was.

Uncut Gems finds a totem that encapsulates its protagonist perfectly in an early scene when Howard shows off a blinged-out Furby necklace to Garnett and his entourage. With its creepy smile and manic shifty eyeballs, it perfectly symbolizes who Howard is and what gambling addiction has done to his life. And it’s not as if he’s unaware either; “I’m so stressed out,” he laments to his mistress as she offers a consolation cuddle. That he can’t see a way to rise above his problems is obviously tragic but the more we get to know Howard, the more we come to understand that he is likely the source of almost all of his misfortune. After all, he’s morally reprehensible, brazenly tactless and about as egomaniacal as one could be.

Despite this, we somehow still root for Howard in his escalating endeavors and almost all of that credit goes to Sandler in a role that may have been fully intolerable had another actor been involved instead. We’ve gotten tastes of his dramatic chops in Punch-Drunk Love and more recently in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) but here, he raises his game even higher than he has in the past. As we all know, Sandler has done loads of terrible comedies in the past and he will almost certainly commit to more in the future. My feeling is that if that’s what he needs to do for us to get a performance as revelatory as the one in this film, then it might all just be worth it.

The Safdies have proven yet again that no one makes films that are quite as propulsive and unnerving as their own. They push our expectations for just how stressful a situation can become and how much worse things can get for our protagonist. While there are brief moments of respite and release, anxiety permeates nearly every fiber of the film. Uncut Gems is like a domino set if the dominos were replaced with sticks of dynamite, where every interaction and obstacle is calibrated for maximum impact.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, starring Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, brings the nine-part “Skywalker saga” to a close as Rey and Kylo Ren battle for the fate of the universe.
Cats, starring James Corden and Taylor Swift, is a big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical from Tom Hooper, the director of 2012’s Les Misérables.
Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, centers around the true story of three female Fox News reporters and their allegations against its founder Roger Ailes.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup