Category Archives: Reel Views

Reel Views

Creed II

Michael B. Jordan steps into the ring once again as heavyweight boxer Adonis Creed in Creed II, a sequel to the 2015 film that was itself a reboot of a franchise that seemed to be down for the count but still had some fight left in it. While there are few fresh concepts or challenging ideas in this new entry, it willingly serves up the familiar pleasures and tropes that we commonly associate with boxing movies and specifically with the Rocky films of the past. Taking over for Ryan Coogler after his success with Marvel’s Black Panther, director Steven Caple Jr. isn’t able to match the rich emotional depths found in Creed although the fight scenes are often just as thrilling.

We’re re-introduced to Creed as he’s in the middle of hot streak, on the precipice of becoming the world heavyweight champion with his mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and his fiancé Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in his corner. We soon learn there’s trouble brewing in Ukraine as Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the boxer who killed Creed’s father Apollo in the ring during the events of Rocky IV, has been relentlessly training his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to overtake Creed on the world boxing stage. With the legacies of their fathers inextricably linking the two boxers together, Creed and Drago take to the ring in an all-or-nothing brawl.

As is to be expected, there are plenty of callbacks to past Rocky films and particularly to Rocky IV, although the tone of Creed II is thankfully much more grounded in reality than most of its predecessors. The chief issue this time around is that the overall narrative arc is painfully predictable from the first frame and save for a few notable character moments, Caple Jr. does little to stray from the formula that has worked quite well in the past. Still, he hits most of the familiar story beats with gusto and by the time we’re in the ring for the big fight, the groundwork that has been laid out is sufficient enough to root for our protagonist.

The script, co-written by Stallone along with Juel Taylor, spends plenty of time fleshing out the relationship between Creed and Bianca, which is a smart move given how much chemistry Jordan and Thompson have on-screen. However, I wish there had been more time dedicated to the Drago family and the tragic backstory that contributes to their presence in this film. A pivotal scene in Russia between Ivan and Viktor is a poignant reminder of just how separated they feel not only from one another but also from their own country as well. I wish Caple Jr. had taken more opportunities like this to balance the struggles of the hero with the villain.

Still, fans of boxing movies will find plenty to enjoy in the both the training montages (including a sequence in the desert with some memorable imagery) and the pair of electrifying fight scenes between the two heavyweights. Caple Jr. shoots these scenes with an appropriate level of visual verve and stages the action in a way that nicely juxtaposes Creed’s quickness against Drago’s seemingly insurmountable strength. Creed II is a serviceable entry in the Rocky franchise that doesn’t do as much as it could have done to distinguish itself from the pack but also isn’t the total letdown that it could have been either.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Ben Is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, is an addiction drama about a young man who returns home on Christmas Eve in an effort to re-connect with his estranged family.
Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, retells the true story of Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Queen Elizabeth I in 16th century England.
Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law, centers around an international pop singer who struggles to hold onto her success amid mounting scandals that threaten her career.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Coming 6 years after the surprise breakout hit Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet reunites us with the titular video game character (John C. Reilly) and his best friend Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). When the steering wheel for Vanellope’s Sugar Rush game breaks, the two must go online and traverse the World Wide Web in order to track down the hard-to-find replacement part. During their journeys, they run into various citizens of the digital world, including the head of a popular video site called BuzzzTube (Taraji P. Henson) and the head racer of a video game called Slaughter Race (Gal Gadot).

Walt Disney Animation Studios isn’t typically known for their sequels (this is their first since Fantasia 2000) and given how strong their track record has been since Wreck-It Ralph‘s release, it’s difficult not to feel a bit disappointed by this film. Compared to recent releases like Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana, Ralph Breaks the Internet isn’t up to par in terms of narrative quality and seems like it’s destined to have less staying power in the long run. Sure, kids may be excited to see the overall-wearing oaf once again but if you ask them 5 years from now whether they’d like to watch Wreck-It Ralph 1 or 2, I doubt anyone would be adamant about this particular entry.

Naturally, the most memorable aspect of this movie is the digital depiction of the Internet as a physical world in which avatars of human web surfers zip around from one website to another. This setting is filled with personifications of online scenarios we encounter everyday; for example, a character named KnowsMore (voiced by Alan Tudyk) exemplifies a search engine whose autofill function is humorously over-aggressive. The film’s funniest sequence finds Vanellope in Oh My Disney, a place for all things Disney in which she meets all of the famous Disney Princesses and they cleverly dissect the tropes associated with their characters.

Besides this stand-out setpiece, which was already spoiled thoroughly in the film’s trailer, there aren’t nearly enough subversive touches or tongue-in-cheek laughs to keep the comedic side of the story afloat. The script, penned by co-director Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon, is packed with contrivances that pull our lead characters from one location to the next but the narrative begins to feel laborious by the third act. This is a screenplay that desperately could have used either some trimming or some “punch-up” (dialogue re-written for comedic emphasis) to make the plot-heavy elements a bit more palatable.

Despite the lack of humor, this movie has a worthwhile message for kids about friendship and allowing best friends to find their own path while still maintaining a relationship with them. Compared to last year’s abysmal The Emoji Movie, another animated film filled with product placement that attempts to create a digital version of the World Wide Web, Ralph Breaks the Internet clearly has the moral high ground. Unfortunately, it seems the creators couldn’t quite re-capture the spark and spontaneity of its predecessor and the result is a passable but relatively forgettable entry in the animated Disney canon.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Possession of Hannah Grace, starring Kirby Johnson and Shay Mitchell, is a supernatural horror film that follows a policewoman who encounters unexplainable events while working a graveyard shift in the city morgue.
Bodied, starring Calum Worthy and Jackie Long, follows a graduate student who becomes immersed in the fiercely competitive world of battle rapping while working on his graduate thesis.
Screening at Cinema Center is Wildlife, starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, which is the directorial debut from actor Paul Dano that centers around a struggling family in 1960s Montana.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Widows

Most modern heist films, like Ocean’s 8 from earlier this year or last year’s Logan Lucky, seem to aim for a certain kind of escapism as we get an inside peek into all the details that go into pulling off a big score. Widows, the latest from 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen, is comparatively much more grounded in reality but the results are no less electrifying than some of the best in the genre. Based on a British series from the 1980s, the film uses its setting of modern-day Chicago to examine a bevy of issues that plague our society but it does so without letting its weighty themes bog down the thrilling narrative.

Viola Davis leads a stellar ensemble cast as Veronica Rawlings, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed in the opening minutes of the film as he and his crew of four find themselves in the middle of a heist gone wrong. Still reeling from the loss of her husband, she is confronted by local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who demands that she settle the debt left unresolved by Harry’s botched robbery. After she discovers her late husband’s notebook full of plans for a potential job, Veronica teams up with the widows of the other thieves to pull off a $5 million robbery that will make her even with Manning, who is also running against incumbent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) as alderman of a South Side precinct.

The cast, which also includes talented performers like Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya, is loaded with powerhouse talent and each actor puts everything they have into the pockets of time that they’re on-screen. Davis reaffirms her status as one of the most compelling actresses working today, channeling layers of grief and anger into a performance that works beautifully as an emotional backbone for the entire film. Debicki, who was also excellent in The Tale earlier this year, brings so much strength and resiliency to her portrayal of a wounded soul and Kaluuya brings pitch-perfect menace to his role as a mob enforcer.

While there is no shortage of brilliance in front of the camera, there is also an abundance of skill behind the camera, which starts with McQueen in the director’s chair. His previous films like Hunger and Shame have typically been character studies that focus more on mood than plot but his transition here into a densely packed narrative with many moving parts feels seamless. He has also re-teamed with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker to craft a movie that is visually engaging from the very first frame. Additionally, Hans Zimmer contributes a kinetic musical score that’s not nearly as showy as some of his work in the past.

Among all this excellent work, it’s the first-rate script, penned by McQueen along with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, that stands out as possibly the most impressive aspect of a film that does so much right. The screenplay features all the clever plotting necessary for a film like this to work effectively but is also packed with hard-hitting dialogue that feels true to every character who speaks it. Widows feels like a blend of the crime caper thrills of Heat mixed with the sociological incisiveness of The Wire and is a perfect example of how just how exhilarating genre fare executed to the highest level can be.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Creed II, starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, pits the son of boxer Apollo Creed against the son of Ivan Drago, the Russian heavyweight who was responsible for killing Apollo in the ring.
Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, tells the true story of Jamaican-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his driver Tony Lip as they find friendship amid racism in the 1960s Deep South.
Ralph Breaks the Internet, starring John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, is the belated follow-up to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph that follows the titular video game character as he breaks out of his arcade machine and finds himself online.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Grinch

Illumination’s new take on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is the cinematic equivalent of sitting down next to a roasting fireplace in the dead of winter, armed with a piping cup of hot chocolate in one hand with a beloved pet resting under the other. Or perhaps it’s more apt to say that it’s like a plate of comfort food, piled high with freshly-carved Roast Beast. It’s a familiar pleasure and a welcome one, especially around the holidays, even if it’s one that won’t linger long in one’s memory after the experience. Riding high off the success of The Secret Life of Pets and the Despicable Me series, Illumination has crafted another family-friendly hit that kids (and possibly their parents) will likely enjoy.

Voicing the dyspeptic and diabolical titular character in this iteration is Benedict Cumberbatch, channeling an American accent not dissimilar from his work as Doctor Strange in the Marvel films. His Grinch has the same plan in mind as previous Grinches: dress up as a fake Santa Claus and attempt to crush the indomitable spirit of the Whoville citizens by stealing all of their decorations and presents on Christmas Eve. Whilst The Grinch devises his plan, Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) also plots to catch Santa while he leaves presents so that she can ask a favor for her overworked mother Donna (Rashida Jones).

The Grinch is the third telling of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book and it lands right in the middle in terms of quality; it’s not as memorable as the 1966 TV special but also not nearly as off-putting as Ron Howard’s nightmare-inducing live-action version. The most remarkable thing about this entry is that it’s generally unremarkable, which isn’t exactly a bad thing while not being especially high praise either. It’s gratifying to see a film this uncynical in 2018 but it’s so good-natured that there are basically no stakes through the entire story and I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids are bored by the hour-mark.

The movie is so light on incident that it probably could have been half its runtime (the animated classic is only 26 minutes) and the conflict that does exist within the film doesn’t have much impact since the main character’s progression is so minimal. Except for an early montage in which he mildly inconveniences a few Whos during a trip to Whoville, The Grinch hardly exhibits any behavior that is particularly cruel or even mean-spirited. This Grinch, in comparison to the past film Grinches, seems generally more lonely than loathsome and the kindness that he shows to his adorable pet dog Max is present even before his heart grows three times larger.

Still, I give The Grinch credit for hitting the notes that it needed to hit and the animation is appropriately cheery and bright as we get plenty of shots swooping over the impeccably decorated Whoville. There are also some clever visual machinations during the Grinch’s Christmas raid as he deploys Wile E. Coyote-esque contraptions like throwing stars that wrap up a Christmas tree in seconds. There’s good reason why this tale of a curmudgeon who learns the value of empathy and kindness has been re-told several times and with hope, we’ll be telling it again and again in the future.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, starring Eddie Redmayne and Johnny Depp, is another entry in the Wizarding World franchise in which Newt Scamander and a young Albus Dumbledore square off against the titular dark wizard.
Instant Family, starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, is a family comedy about a married couple who gets in over their heads when they adopt three children at the same time.
Widows, starring Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki, is a heist film from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen about four women who enter a life of crime after their husbands are killed during a robbery gone wrong.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Bohemian Rhapsody

Freddie Mercury and his Queen bandmates get the biopic treatment in Bohemian Rhapsody, an occasionally inspiring but generally middling overview of the arena rock group and its larger-than-life lead singer. Creative differences between the real-life band’s surviving members and Sacha Baron Cohen, who was originally slated to play Mercury, have loomed over the production since 2010 and it’s no big surprise that the band ultimately favored a more play-it-safe approach with the material. With a rousing soundtrack and a litany of on-the-road montages, die-hard Queen fans will have plenty to enjoy in this film but those looking for a deeper dive will likely be disappointed.

We’re introduced to Mercury (Rami Malek) as he meets guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) the night that they serendipitously find themselves in need of a new lead singer. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), the group re-forms under the name Queen and begins selling out shows around the world after the success of their debut album. The film skims through the highs and lows of the band’s career but tends to focus on the struggles of its elusive lead singer, including his atypical relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his hard partying lifestyle that would eventually drive a wedge between himself and the group.

The cast, aside from the distracting presence of Mike Myers, is well-realized and each performer does solid work in their respective roles but it’s Malek who shines brightest in the spotlight. He gives an appropriately commanding performance that’s worthy of the towering persona that Mercury exuded in real life and by the time we get to the iconic Live Aid performance, Malek is practically indistinguishable from the real Freddie as he struts around the stage. In addition to mastering Mercury’s slinky physicality and stunning vocal range, Malek also digs past the singer’s haughty exterior to reveal a wounded soul with more insecurity than he’s willing to let on.

The biggest issues with Bohemian Rhapsody tend to come from behind the camera and generally center around the thoroughly unimaginative storytelling from director Bryan Singer, who was fired about one month before filming ended. From the introduction of Freddie’s disapproving parents to the pleas from Mary Austin that Freddie’s “burning the candle at both ends”, Singer leaves no rock-biopic cliché unturned; he follows a well-worn formula that even those unfamiliar with the genre will be able to pick up on early in the film. It’s also apparent that Singer has little to say about the band’s legacy and it seems the influence of May and Taylor as executive producers has steered the film towards hagiography.

It’s unfortunate that the life of a musical firebrand like Freddie Mercury has been sanitized to this degree but this is clearly the kind of innocuous product that 20th Century thought would play best to general audiences. Even though the script is full of moments that range from unlikely to downright false, screenwriter Anthony McCarten does land some quality zingers as Mercury and crew snipe with higher-ups in the record industry. Bohemian Rhapsody is at its best when it focuses on the hard work of four musicians who crafted 15 studio albums in their relatively limited time together but as an examination of a rock icon, it’s regrettably tame and toothless.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Grinch, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rashida Jones, is the latest update on the 1957 Dr. Seuss book about a grumpy creature who’s out to ruin Christmas for the nearby people of Whoville.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, starring Claire Foy and LaKeith Stanfield, follows hacker Lisbeth Salander as she squares off against a foe who has ties to her past.
Overlord, starring Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell, is a World War II horror film that pits American paratroopers against violent creatures bred from a secret Nazi experiment.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers, the first English-language feature from French director Jacques Audiard, stars John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, two guns-for-hire caught in the middle of the California Gold Rush. Their latest mission, handed down from their employer known simply as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), revolves around a scientist named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has allegedly developed a chemical that makes underwater gold much easier to locate. Also hot on Warm’s trail is detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who hopes to extract the secret formula from the chemist before the Sisters finish the job.

Advertising for this film has pitched it as a kind of buddy comedy between Reilly and Phoenix and with the former’s work alongside Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, the strategy seems sound. The truth is that this is much more of a straight-ahead Western; sure, it has a few quirks here and there but the general tone is more stoic and somber than the trailer lets on. Having said that, I appreciated that this film stuck to its genre so thoroughly, especially in a time when the closest thing to Westerns that are typically released tend to be action movies that just happen to be set in the Old West.

The central conflict and its embedded themes are tied directly to the film’s setting in the mid-19th century, a time when so much of the country ran rampant with lawlessness while beacons of civility could be found in emerging cities. Eli finds himself drawn to these indicators of a burgeoning modern society; he’s taken with curiosity as he’s introduced to a toothbrush and giggles with glee as he flushes a toilet for the first time in their San Francisco hotel. Charlie, the younger and more impulsive of the brothers, is more skeptical of the changing times and doesn’t see how his violent urges could fit into a more decent and polite community.

Audiard unpacks these themes delicately across the movie’s 2-hour runtime and while the first half can feel a bit aimless and slow at times, the film’s second half picks up considerably as the four main characters converge in the wilderness. While Reilly and Phoenix aren’t always convincing as actual brothers, the two fine actors do turn in reliably great performances as two men whose ideologies seem to be veering in different directions. Ahmed and Gyllenhaal do fine work as well, despite the latter’s slightly ponderous accent choice, but the screenplay doesn’t quite develop their characters as much as I would have liked.

The script, co-written by Audiard with Thomas Bidegain, not only provides some contemplative dialogue between the four men but also keeps the audience on their toes with some unexpected turns in the story. Aside from a couple comedic moments, the movie largely feels like a traditional Western and is often refreshingly old-fashioned. In its evocation of greed and its focus on camaraderie amongst characters in dire circumstances, I was reminded of the John Huston classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Like that film, The Sisters Brothers finishes strong by building to a final scene that perfectly ties up everything that came before it.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton, is the highly anticipated biopic about the stadium rock band Queen and specifically its eccentric lead singer Freddie Mercury.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, starring Keira Knightley and Mackenzie Foy, is the latest adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker about a young girl who is transported to a magical world.
Suspiria, starring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, is Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 giallo classic about a young dancer who joins a distinguished dance academy that holds disturbing secrets.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Halloween

Michael Myers is back to his murderous ways again with this latest installment in the Halloween franchise that forgoes all of its previous movies with the exception of the 1978 slasher classic. The idea of positioning Halloween (confusingly, the third film in the series with that title) as a direct sequel set 40 years after the original is one of several potentially rewarding concepts that went into the development of this newest entry. Unfortunately, these decisions are overridden by the same trite storytelling techniques that we’ve seen countless times both in this series and in other slasher films for the past four decades.

We’re re-introduced to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as a grandmother who is still traumatized from her initial run-in with Michael Myers but who has also been actively preparing for what she sees as his inevitable return. We learn that this fixation with the masked killer cost her two marriages and the relationships with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). When the prison bus that’s transporting Myers (played by both Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney) crashes, Laurie seeks to protect her family at all costs as the seemingly unstoppable evil descends upon Haddonfield once again.

Director David Gordon Green has helmed both independent dramas and mainstream comedies in his prolific career but his inexperience with the horror genre is evident early on in Halloween. Whereas John Carpenter sets things up brilliantly with an unforgettable opening in the 1978 original, Gordon Green isn’t as successful in creating the same kind of chilly atmosphere that’s integral for scary movies to function. To his credit, he does cleverly invert some key moments from its predecessor for the sake of juxtaposition but there aren’t enough new ideas that stand independent from the ones that Carpenter developed all those years ago.

It’s a shame that the script, co-written by Green with Jeff Fradley and comedic actor Danny McBride, relies so heavily on the kinds of well-worn cliches that they’d probably be better off skewering instead of embracing. Any of the comedy that does turn up, like two cops bickering about banh mi sandwiches as they wait for Myers to appear, feels forced and completely inorganic to the scenarios that arise from the plot. There is a meta moment, when a hapless teen unwittingly asks Michael “have you ever really liked a girl and you just couldn’t have her?”, that hints at a much more self-aware and potentially fun film that could have been.

Instead, we’re treated to the same setups and slayings that I suppose are integral to this genre but each death seems to have less meaning as the runtime moves along. In the 1978 original, Michael kills 5 people; here, I lost count about 30 minutes in. It doesn’t help that the editing is particularly slap-dash and unexpectedly sloppy in places; I counted multiple instances in which the lines that an actor was speaking didn’t match with the movement of their mouth. Fans of this series may respond positively to this newest entry that also could reboot the franchise but for more casual moviegoers, Halloween is likely to come across as a rather hollow experience.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Hunter Killer, starring Gerard Butler and Gary Oldman, follows a group of Navy SEALs aboard a submarine as they attempt to rescue the kidnapped Russian President.
Mid90s, starring Sunny Suljic and Lucas Hedges, is a coming-of-age comedy-drama written and directed by Jonah Hill about troubled teenagers skateboarding through 1990s Los Angeles.
Opening at Cinema Center is Puzzle, starring Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan, which is a romantic drama about a suburban wife and mother who uncovers a new found passion for solving jigsaw puzzles.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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