Category Archives: Reel Views

Reel Views

The Farewell

The immensely moving and thoroughly amusing new film The Farewell stars Nora Lum (who goes by the moniker Awkwafina in her music career) as Billi, a struggling writer toiling away New York City. While making a laundry run at the home of her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), she learns that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer with only three remaining months. The decision is made by the family, in accordance with Chinese culture, not to reveal the news to Nai Nai but a hasty marriage proposal by Billi’s cousin Hao (Chen Hanwei) to his new girlfriend ensures that the family can travel to Beijing to say their veiled goodbyes to their spritely matriarch.

The premise would suggest a rather somber affair but thanks to some intuitive and empathetic direction by Lulu Wang, who based this film on her own real-life story, the tone is mostly light-hearted with notes of bittersweet reflection along the way. She finds humor where others might only find sadness and lends a perspective that may indeed help others get through their own hard times. In this way, it reminded me often of the similarly excellent dramedy The Big Sick, which also intelligently balanced the heavy story at its center with plenty of tasteful laughs.

From an early phone conversation between Billi and Nai Nai, in which both trade fibs about where they are and what they’re doing, the film is predicated upon the polite lies that we tell our family to guard them from unpleasant truths. When it comes to the well-intentioned deception behind the big secret at the center of the story, there’s a sense of dramatic tension that any character could blurt out the news to sweet Nai Nai at any moment. More importantly, there is a poignant subtext about how we can do the wrong thing for the right reasons on behalf of the people that are closest to us. Some may view this movie and object to how the characters handle this situation but few would question the sentiment behind their decisions.

The performances from the ensemble cast are stellar across the board but it’s Lum, who popped up last year in both Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, that stands out as a true revelation. In her first leading role, Lum is remarkably assured and quietly commanding (despite her slumped posture) in an audience surrogate role that could have been potentially been flat or one-note. Shuzhen is also terrific as the blissfully unaware Nai Nai, whose firecracker spirit and quippy banter give the movie a richly humane energy. That she consistently reminded me of my own late grandmother would likely explained why I was moved to tears on two separate occasions during the film.

There are some playful touches from behind the camera that bolster the comedic and dramatic foundation of each scene. The editing work by Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman does a fantastic job of giving us enough time to take in each characters’ role in the family while also aiding in some briskly-paced scenes of situational comedy. Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano gives us some gorgeous foundational shots of the Chinese city Changchun but also treats us to some sumptuous low angles of busy dinner tables that make every meal look like a delectable feast. The Farewell is one of the year’s best films, a heartfelt tribute to grandparents everywhere and the families that support them.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, starring Zoe Colletti and Michael Garza, adapts the series of children’s horror tales into a story about a young girl who conjures terrifying creatures within her mansion.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold, starring Isabela Moner and Eva Longoria, bring the cartoon explorer into live-action for a new adventure in which Dora must save her parents and solve an ancient Inca mystery.
The Kitchen, starring Melissa McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss, is a comedy crime film about three housewives out to settle the score with the Irish mafia after their mobster husbands are sent to prison.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino takes us on a ride through 1969 Los Angeles in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a nostalgic would-be fairy tale with plenty of style but not nearly enough substance. Tarantino would likely describe this as a “hangout film,” a term he coined himself when discussing his Jackie Brown, in which the specifics of the plot are secondary to the camaraderie we as the audience feel with the main characters. The movie does have the languid and meandering pace to fit the descriptor and while it does have a pair of well-developed characters that we get to know quite well, it doesn’t have enough others in its ensemble cast to make it a hangout worth having.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, a washed-up star of a hit Western TV show in the 1950s who has struggled to find much success since due to his alcoholism. Rick confides in his long-time stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a war veteran with a mysterious past who drives Rick around and help him with odd jobs around the house. Elsewhere in Hollywood, we spend time with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an up-and-coming young actress who happens to live next door to Rick on Cielo Drive. The fates of the three characters are intertwined on one sweltering August evening in the City Of Angels.

As a love letter to the dreamy, half-remembered Los Angeles in which Tarantino grew up, this certainly feels like the writer/director’s most personal and heartfelt work to date. He remains a master of style and setting, filling the frame with era-specific details that effortlessly transport us 50 years in the past to this heightened version of Tinseltown. Naturally, the soundtrack is filled with impeccable music cues and convincing radio and TV advertisements (along those lines, be sure to stay through the end credits) that set the tone perfectly. Whether he’s working in nods to old war movies or Spaghetti Westerns, Tarantino revels in recreating relics from his pop-culture saturated childhood.

Unfortunately, all of this brilliant table setting is in service of a meal that resembles microwaved leftovers. Until the concluding moments of the 161 minute runtime, the narrative is largely incident-free and the story elements at play recall those that Tarantino has tackled more deftly in previous work. Thematically, he’s been spinning his wheels for his past few films, so perhaps it’s fitting that so much screen time is devoted to following characters as they drive around the streets of Hollywood. I can’t discuss details of the ending but it’s enough to say that at this stage in Tarantino’s career, his provocation has become predictable and the most shocking thing that he could do is make a film that didn’t try so hard to throw its audience for a loop.

It’s especially a shame because this is the first time that DiCaprio and Pitt have starred in a project together and the iconic pair of actors are contributing some career-best work in the film. DiCaprio is excellent as an aging actor desperate to hold on to the small amount of fame that he’s accrued while Pitt synthesizes the laid-back charisma of past legends like Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds to craft a character that epitomizes “cool”. With a tighter story and more streamlined direction, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood could have ranked among Tarantino’s very best but instead, it’s a pretty postcard with “see front” written on the back.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Hobbs & Shaw, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, is a spin-off of the popular Fast & Furious franchise about a pair of unlikely allies who team up to stop a cyber-genetically enhanced foe.
The Farewell, starring Awkwafina and Tzi Ma, depicts a Chinese family who, upon learning their grandmother only has a short time left to live, decide not to tell her and schedule a family gathering before she dies.
Opening at Cinema Center is Luz, starring Luana Velis and Johannes Benecke, about a young cabdriver who is stalked by a demonic presence in the middle of a run-down police station.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Lion King

The Lion King, another fruitless facsimile of a Disney Renaissance-era animated classic, revisits the animals of Pride Rock, ruled by the tough-but-fair lion King Mufasa (James Earl Jones). His newborn son Simba (JD McCrary and Donald Glover) is being slowly groomed for the throne, much to the chagrin of Mufasa’s covetous younger brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). After Scar leads his brother into a deadly trap, Simba flees his home out of guilt and finds comfort in a new friendship with the carefree duo Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). His past seems to be behind him, until his childhood friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) finds Simba and convinces him to reclaim the crown from his treacherous uncle.

Opening with a shot-for-shot recreation of the “Circle of Life” number from the original, even down to the smash cut to title card, the film does less than any of the other Disney remakes to distinguish itself from its predecessor. Unlike the live-action reimagining of Dumbo from earlier this year, whose animated companion was made in 1941, there are only 25 years separating the original Lion King and this photorealistic update. While it’s not as cloying as the embarrassing Aladdin re-do from a couple months ago, it’s equally pointless and transparent in its mission to capitalize on misguided nostalgia.

Director Jon Favreau, also responsible for 2016’s The Jungle Book, oversees another technical marvel that is truly state of the art from an effects standpoint. What’s especially impressive this time around is how much of the computer-generated work takes place in direct sunlight, where murky rendering becomes much more apparent. Every detail, from the way the animals move to the shadows they cast and even down the veins in their paws, is impeccably visualized. A montage that tracks the movement of a clump of Simba’s hair, as it makes its way from a river to an ant parade and eventually a dung beetle, is a delight to behold.

As breathtaking as the look of the film can be, the hyper-realistic approach isn’t as conducive to proper storytelling as the hand-drawn animation of the original. There are levels of expressiveness, from the movement of the eyes and mouths of the characters, that might make the 1994 version seem “cartoonish” by comparison but also give it much more personality. This literal-minded update frequently looks like a nature documentary, albeit one where the animals break into song at random intervals. The voice cast does their best to bring passion to their roles, even though their visual counterparts aren’t nearly as emotive.

A bigger issue with the film, and the litany of retreads that the House of Mouse has been churning out recently, is that there simply isn’t anything new being told in this story. Nearly every single plot point and many of the lines of dialogue are ripped directly from the script of the original, which makes the value of the “refreshed” take especially dubious. Disney is clearly capable of making original films with new characters and exciting stories (Moana would be a recent example) but as long as regurgitating old material is profitable, then what is the incentive for them to stop? The Lion King is as lazy as a lion laying in the sun, assured and confident of the dominance it holds over its kingdom.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, is the latest film from Quentin Tarantino about a television actor and his stunt double striving to achieve fame and fortune in 1969 Los Angeles.
Opening at Cinema Center is The Last Black Man In San Francisco, starring Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors, which tells the story of a man trying to reclaim the house built by his grandfather in a now-gentrified area of San Francisco.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Midsommar

Writer/director Ari Aster follows up his terrifying feature debut Hereditary with Midsommar, another grim and disturbing tale that will no doubt leave audiences reeling once again. While both are horror films that feature female protagonists struggling to cope with loss and grief, the narrative structures and thematic ambitions of the two vary drastically. The experience of watching these movies feels different as well: where Hereditary is more of an immediate shock to the system, Midsommar lingers in the pit of one’s stomach for days (and possibly weeks) after the fact.

Florence Pugh stars as Dani, a college student who seeks refuge in her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) after a family tragedy claims the lives of both her sister and her parents. In an attempt to heal their relationship, Christian invites Dani on a summer trip to rural Sweden with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter). Guided by Christian’s Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the group attends a midsummer celebration with the ancestral commune in Pelle’s home village but it doesn’t take long before the rituals performed there take an unexpectedly sinister turn.

Aster returns with all of the formal rigor that made his first feature an instant classic of the genre. Starting with claustrophobic close-ups on Dani’s anxiety-ridden face, he gradually pulls the camera back to transition into the sweeping wide shots that detail the creepy commune. Pawel Pogorzelski’s hypnotic and woozy cinematography gives the impression that the camera is as sun-poisoned as the characters on-screen. The sound design is detailed and dynamic, using Dani’s labored breathing at points in the film to ratchet up the tension while also bringing us closer to the main character in the process.

Unfortunately, Aster’s control behind the camera isn’t fully reciprocated in his undercooked and somewhat disheveled screenplay. Working from a folk horror premise not dissimilar from The Wicker Man (the original or the Nic Cage remake, if you like) or last year’s Apostle, he implements a few arbitrary sub-plots that distract from the main narrative at hand while leaving out crucial details of the central storyline as well. Additionally, the attempts at foreshadowing feel clumsier and more telegraphed in comparison to the setups that Aster interspersed in his Hereditary script. It all leads to a conclusion that is disappointingly predicable on a surface level but is loaded with resonant subtext and unforgettable imagery that leaves the film on a remarkable high note.

Bringing these final moments home is Pugh, whose stellar, emotionally-wrought performance is as crucial to the success of this movie as Toni Collette’s was for Hereditary. As a wounded soul flailing helplessly in a toxic relationship, Pugh gives Dani an astonishing range of joy and pain upon which to paint her emotional journey and eventual catharsis. The rest of the cast, the majority of whom are adorn with eerily clean white linens and even eerier smiles, set the oppressively ominous tone quite nicely. Midsommar is a sun-drenched symphony of sadness that solidifies Ari Aster as one of the strongest voices working in horror cinema today.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Lion King, starring Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, is yet another remake from the Disney Renaissance era about a young lion prince who takes over the throne after his father is murdered.
The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, follows a mild-mannered accountant who takes a vigorous interest in karate after being attacked by a motorcycle gang.
Opening at Cinema Center is Wild Rose, starring Jessie Buckley and Julie Walters, tells the story of a musician from Glasgow who moves to Nashville to become a country singer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Spider-Man: Far From Home

The Marvel Cinematic Universe closes out its 3rd “Phase” with Spider-Man: Far From Home, which follows up the universe-altering events of Avengers: Endgame. It’s back to school for Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and a two-week field trip to Europe prompts him to leave his Spidey suit at home to make time for his crush MJ (Zendaya). Things seem to be back to normal, until a creature called an Elemental turns the group’s stop in Venice into a water-soaked catastrophe. Parker defeats the new threat with help from Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a dimension-hopping superhero who vows to destroy the rest of the Elementals that lurk under the Earth’s surface.

Like its superior predecessor Homecoming, Far From Home excels most when it leans into what makes it unique in the MCU, namely its high school setting and teenaged characters. Literally dozens of other superhero movies can show us high-stakes action that leaves half of a city in ruin but very few go small enough to show our heroes struggling with how to talk a love interest. Holland and Zendaya have plenty of chemistry and vulnerability in their scenes together as they navigate the tangled web of teen romance. I was even more taken with the hilariously saccharine relationship between Peter’s friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his girlfriend Betty (Angourie Rice).

Returning from Homecoming, director Jon Watts manages the high school comedy aspects better than CGI-laden action sequences, which are especially chaotic this time around. The setpieces revolving around the Elementals feel especially clumsy and uninspired, recalling the messy battles with Sandman from the overstuffed Spider-Man 3. A final showdown in London features the larger-than-life scale that we’ve come to expect from the MCU but it loses more than a little of the protagonist’s personality in the process. Undoubtedly, the highlight from an action perspective is a hypnotic skirmish that brings in allusions to the mythology of Spider-Man and other Marvel superheroes.

Screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers do their best to negotiate the franchise mandates of post-Endgame cleanup and plot exposition while also trying to forward Parker’s story as well. They pack their script with plenty of twists that may keep some viewers guessing but these turns rarely felt as fresh or fleet-footed as the plot revelations from Homecoming. One narrative-altering, bar-set scene will be gallingly transparent to comic book fans but even for a more casual superhero follower like myself, it seemed to hinge on an uncharacteristically foolish decision just to push the story forward.

Despite its on-paper flaws, the film coasts along on an abundance of charm and swings briskly through its 129 minute runtime. Returning characters like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) add some laughs as they impart instruction to Parker, while Gyllenhaal serves as a fine newcomer to a Universe that hasn’t seen a character quite like his before. The pair of post-credit stingers vary drastically in terms of quality but both are extremely consequential to both this film and future Spider-Man films, so be sure to stay until the very last frame. Spider-Man: Far From Home is a serviceable Spidey flick that should keep most moviegoers entertained but with some narrative enhancements, it could have been something to write home about.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Crawl, starring Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper, follows a father and daughter who are trapped in a crawl space during a Category 5 hurricane whilst trying to fend off marauding alligators.
Stuber, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista, pairs a mild-mannered Uber driver with a grizzled detective who is hot on the trail of a sadistic terrorist.
Opening at Cinema Center is Pavarotti, a documentary from Ron Howard about the life and career of famed opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Yesterday

In the charming but clumsy Capraesque fable Yesterday, Himesh Patel makes his feature debut as Jack, a down-on-his-luck musician who seemingly suffers another setback in the form of a biking accident. He awakens to a world in which The Beatles seem to be wiped from existence and after performing a number of their now-original tunes, Jack quickly rises to music super-stardom. His meteoric rise to fame catches the attention of singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran (playing a version of himself) and his duplicitous manager Debra (Kate McKinnon), while putting a strain on his relationship with his best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James).

With an inspired what-if premise and buoyant timbre, the film starts off on the right note with a handful of humorous scenes that set the stage for a world devoid of the Fab Four’s presence. When Jack plays “Yesterday” for the “first time” amongst a group of friends, he’s dumbfounded by their mixed response to what he views as “one of the greatest songs ever written.” Later, he attempts to treat his benevolent parents and their well-meaning friend to “Let It Be” but the distractions of a ringing phone and persistent doorbell force him to repeatedly restart his rendition before he can even get to the chorus.

Of course, such a high-concept conceit inevitably inspires a barrage of follow-up questions and Love Actually screenwriter Richard Curtis doesn’t help things by investigating this ripple effect of removing The Beatles from history. A running joke finds Jack consulting Google for the existence or non-existence of certain things in this new world, where Coldplay and Radiohead somehow still came to be but Coke and cigarettes have since vanished. I would have been happy to suspend disbelief for the sake of the narrative but Curtis’ constant compartmentalization of the Beatles’ cultural impact feels shallow and unnecessary.

At its core, this is a romantic comedy à la Notting Hill or Bridget Jones’s Diary (unsurprisingly, both written by Curtis) but the central relationship never fully takes hold. With her frizzy hair and frumpy clothes, Ellie is meant to be the love interest that Jack has overlooked since childhood but it’s a bit of a stretch to think that he would keep someone this charming and supportive in the “friend zone” for so long. Trapped inside an outdated and one-dimensional love story, Patel and James aren’t able to conjure up much chemistry on-screen but it’s reasonable to think that a more dynamic screenplay could have produced some sparks between the two.

Except for a handful of Dutch angles, Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle keeps his trademark visual flourishes to a minimum in service of the other elements at play. In this old-fashioned tale, one aspect that does feel refreshingly modern is the take on the evil manager trope by Kate McKinnon. As a comedically exaggerated foil who literally salivates over YouTube views, she sells silly lines like “stop in the name of money!” with just the right amount of irony and self-awareness. Yesterday is a perfectly pleasant riff on the legacy of rock’s most iconic and important band but it misses the opportunity to dig a bit deeper.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Spider-Man: Far From Home, starring Tom Holland and Jake Gyllenhaal, brings the web-slinger back to a post-Endgame MCU where a new inter-dimensional threat emerges during a field trip to Europe.
Midsommar, starring Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor, follows a group of friends who travel to rural Sweden for an exclusive festival that slowly turns into a nightmarish ritual.
Playing at Cinema Center is Echo In The Canyon, a documentary that investigates the influence of music acts like The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds who emerged from the Laurel Canyon music scene in the 1960s.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Toy Story 4

The toys are back in town one last time for Toy Story 4, a superfluous but satisfying sequel to the seemingly conclusive Toy Story 3 from 9 years ago. As someone who wasn’t quite as taken with that third entry as others seemed to be, I was relatively open to another Toy Story adventure while still acknowledging that this could just be another excuse for Pixar to return to their cash cow once more. While this latest film does reincorporate many of the themes from the previous entries, it mines enough fresh ideas from its collection of new characters to make it a worthwhile addition to the series.

We pick back up with Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of the gang, who are all now possessed by a kindergartner named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). On her first day at school, she unknowingly gives life to a new toy named Forky (Tony Hale) while merging a spork with pipe cleaners at craft time. When Bonnie and her family hit the road for family vacation, we’re introduced to new toys like the daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the pullstring doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) while being reintroduced to Woody’s old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

Opening with an exceptionally well-animated flashback that fills us in on Ms. Peep’s whereabouts, the film gets off to a bit of a slow start until Forky makes his first appearance. His character, a dilapidated creation who considers himself more trash than toy, is easily the most conceptually inspired and comedically gratifying of the entire film. The existential dilemma that drives the forlorn utensil to catapult himself into the waste basket time and time again is darkly humorous while adding some unexpected philosophical weight to boot. Although the context is different, Woody’s mission in this film mirrors that of the first Toy Story: convincing a toy that they’re actually a toy.

Once the family packs up the RV and heads out of town, most of the action takes place inside the Second Chance Antiques shop, where Gabby Gabby resides with her creepy ventriloquist dummy henchmen. The chase sequences that take place in the store are nothing new to this series but the setting, filled with cobweb-drenched corridors pierced by smatterings of sunlight, is stunningly detailed and hauntingly beautiful in a completely original manner. A brief moment between Bo Peep and Woody as they behold the light from a chandelier display features a caliber of animation that Pixar only could have dreamed of when Toy Story first premiered 24 years ago.

While this is the best-looking chapter in the franchise, I would consider it the funniest as well, thanks to a clever script from Stephany Folsom and Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton. It’s also no surprise given that comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele lend their voices this time around. A scene in which their two plush toy characters talk through a series of extraordinarily amateurish plans to obtain a door key might be one of the funniest gags I’ve seen all year. Toy Story 4 may be one trip to the toy chest too many for some but those who are open to another glimpse of this pint-sized world will be rewarded for their curiosity.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Annabelle Comes Home, starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, is another entry in the Conjuring series and third film about the titular creepy doll who returns to wreak havoc on a new family.
Yesterday, starring Himesh Patel and Lily James, centers around a young musician who wakes up from an accident and finds that the rest of the world is unaware of The Beatles’ existence.
The Dead Don’t Die, starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver, brings together an all-star cast for a horror comedy about a small town that becomes the target of a zombie invasion.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Souvenir

The stately and subdued drama The Souvenir stars Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, a quiet but passionate aspiring filmmaker making her way through film school in early 1980s England. While snapping photos at a party one evening, she meets the older and seemingly wiser Anthony (Tom Burke) and after a series of initial dates, the two move in together and begin a romantic relationship. We then see snapshots of their life together, from the promising sparks of humor and shared interests between the couple to the seeds of discontent that are sown from deceit and over-dependence.

Around the mid-point of the film, Julie discusses the technical aspects behind the classic shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho with her film school colleagues. It’s fitting, then, that The Souvenir feels like the emotional equivalent of that very scene played out in super slow motion, as we watch a budding romance gradually decay over the course of two hours. “Gradually” is very much the operative word in this case, as the deliberate and sometimes lugubrious pace of the narrative is both the film’s most notable and most frustrating creative decision.

The Souvenir would seem to be, at least in part, an autobiographical tale from English writer/director Joanna Hogg, who also attended film school in her mid-twenties just like the film’s heroine. The sense is that this is Hogg’s way of reckoning with a toxic relationship from her youth, a foggy look into the past realized with fittingly hazy camerawork from cinematographer David Raedeker. While this experience may well have been formative for Hogg in her personal or professional life, the significance of the “tragic love story” at hand is obscured further as it drags on to its inevitable conclusion.

Though the direction comes off as incohesive and haphazard, what kept me thoroughly invested through most of the runtime were the terrific performances by Burke and especially by Byrne. Sporting an initially alluring dry wit and near-permanent sneer, Burke is properly detestable as the passive-aggressive leach that latches himself to our naive protagonist. Byrne, the real-life daughter of powerhouse actress Tilda Swinton (who also appears briefly in the film as Julie’s mother), is even better in a star-making turn that will hopefully earn her plenty of work in the future. The film’s best scene, in which a character played by an always welcome Richard Ayoade relays portentous details about Anthony to Julie, allows Byrne to play out stages of heartbreak in a series of dynamically-framed reaction shots.

The central question most audience members will no doubt have while watching this film is “why doesn’t she just break up with this guy?” Hogg’s sly inclusion of the pop song “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” implies that she anticipates this reaction. The issue is that the answer to these inquiries is never relayed convincingly and is often sidetracked by inert scenes involving Julie’s film project that distract from the narrative at hand, particularly in the film’s second half. Hitchcock once quipped that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out” and in the case of The Souvenir, it seems Ms. Hogg left too many of them in.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Toy Story 4, starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, brings the toys back together one more time as they head out on a road trip adventure with a new toy named Forky.
Child’s Play, starring Aubrey Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry, reboots the 1988 slasher film about a murderous robot doll who terrorizes a mother and her teenaged son.
Anna, starring Sasha Luss and Luke Evans, is the latest action thriller from Léon: The Professional director Luc Besson about a fearless government assassin on a dangerous new mission.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dark Phoenix

Fox’s X-Men franchise flames out with Dark Phoenix, a formulaic and forgettable superhero entry that contributes hardly anything unique to an already overpopulated genre. Sometime after the excellent Days Of Future Past in 2014, this series inexplicably took a turn towards darker themes and a more moody atmosphere, evidenced by the joyless bore that was 2016’s Apocalypse and carried through in this latest chapter. Put simply, these X-Men films just aren’t as fun as they should be and this lifeless addition drives home the point that this series needs a new spark in order to keep things going.

The story this time is focused on the telekinetic mutant Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who is taken in at a young age by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after her powers result in the accidental death of her parents. Years later, while working on a space mission with her X-Men crew, Jean absorbs a mass of dark energy in order to save members of the Endeavour space shuttle. After coming in contact with the mysterious force, her powers continue to grow wildly out of her control and it’s up to the rest of the X-Men, including Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), to set things right.

This isn’t writer/director Simon Kinberg’s first crack at adapting the lauded comic book series “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” as he was previously a co-writer for 2006’s The Last Stand. While this second attempt does try to bring more dimension to Jean Grey’s character and her potentially interesting story arc, there just isn’t enough on the page to make her transition into Dark Phoenix compelling. The character development is entirely too rushed across the board but especially so for Jean Grey, who was barely introduced in Apocalypse and is now the focal point for this massively abridged version of her story.

As the film centers around an underwritten female protagonist discovering herself while also on the run from shape-shifting aliens, the comparisons between Dark Phoenix and the recently released Captain Marvel are inevitable. It’s even rumored that the entire third act of the former was re-shot to avoid similarities with the latter. The biggest distinction between the two is that Marvel was able to inject some levity into its storyline while Phoenix couldn’t possibly take itself more seriously. Neither film features particularly captivating action sequences, although the space mission scene from Phoenix succeeds mainly on the chemistry between the stellar cast.

Despite the shaky script, most of the actors do their level best to make this story work. Turner does a fine job in a challenging lead role that requires a large range of emotion and McAvoy continues to fill out his Xavier character nicely. While he’s always been the strongest part of the ensemble in these “new” X-Men films, Fassbender feels especially overqualified this time around as Magneto’s role in the movie is more perfunctory than ever. Now that Fox is done with this franchise following their acquisition from Disney, we can at least hold out hope that a better X-Men series will rise from the ashes.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Men in Black: International, starring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, reboots the sci-fi comedy franchise with two new MIB agents who are sent to London to investigate alien attacks.
Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher, brings a third generation to the Shaft series as an FBI agent turns to his father and grandfather for help on a new case.
Opening at Cinema Center is The Souvenir, a new romantic drama from A24 about a young film student who becomes romantically involved with a complicated and untrustworthy man.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

After a five year hiatus, everyone’s favorite giant lizard monster has returned in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third and best film so far in Legendary’s ever-expanding MonsterVerse. While 2014’s Godzilla did have some stunning imagery and a final battle worthy of its namesake, it spun its wheels far too long with character development that goes nowhere and a lifeless plot that lurches along like a slug. If Godzilla resembles something of a responsible big brother, then this sequel is undoubtedly the more impulsive and hyper-active little brother by relation. In most cases, I could see myself aligning with the former but when it comes to monster movies, it seems I fall in line with the latter.

The story revolves once again around the shadowy organization Monarch, where Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has created a device known as Orca that can keep Titan creatures like Godzilla at bay. The Orca is summarily stolen by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), who plans to use the device to summon the ominous Monster Zero from its Antarctic prison and “restore balance” to the Earth’s natural order. It’s up to Emma’s ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) and his estranged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) to team up with Godzilla to stop the fearsome Monster Zero and the other Titans that it conjures in its wake.

Director Michael Dougherty, the mind behind campy cult classics like Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, is a near-perfect fit for this particular installment. Where Godzilla director Gareth Edwards waited an hour to show us Godzilla in full and then a half an hour after that to show him in a proper battle, Dougherty wastes no time getting the monster melee underway. He knows exactly what kind of a movie he’s making and it’s clear that he’s having a blast doing so. His exuberance for the material and passion for the existing Godzilla franchise was infectious even for someone like me who is typically on the fence for this genre.

Like its predecessor, King of the Monsters sports a stellar cast that tackles their admittedly one-dimensional roles with admirable aplomb. It’s no secret that the human characters in these creature features are typically underserved to make way for their mammoth computer-generated counterparts. However, if that trade-off allows for more time to spend with Godzilla as he dukes it out with likes the pterodactyl-like Rodan and the three-headed hydra Ghidorah, then I deem it a necessary sacrifice. The silly and sometimes incomprehensible storyline is hung with just enough character motivation to give context to these splendid and transcendent battles.

It’s easy enough to recommend watching a larger-than-life film like this in the IMAX format for the enhanced picture but more often than not, I’m recommending IMAX these days for its enhanced sound quality. This is a perfect example of a blockbuster using its immaculate sound design to make otherworldly noises sonically convincing. It’s not just enough to hear Godzilla roar; you truly do need to feel it to get the maximum effect. Fueled by old-fashioned movie magic, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a step in the right direction for a series that I hope will continue to embrace the joyously campy aspects at its foundation.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Dark Phoenix, starring Sophie Turner and James McAvoy, is the latest film in the X-Men series concerning the transformation of Jean Grey into the powerful mutant Phoenix after a mission goes awry.
The Secret Life of Pets 2, starring Patton Oswalt and Eric Stonestreet, follows up the highly successful animated comedy about a misfit band of animals who go on adventures together in the big city.
Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, tells the tale of a late-night talk show host who teams up with a new writer on staff to try and turn the show around in the face of falling ratings.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup