CODA

The opening film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which brought audiences to their feet when it screened on-site and virtually back in January, is now here to warm hearts the world over. Apple acquired distribution rights to CODA for $25 million, a record-setting price tag for a Sundance selection, two days after it premiered and I’m happy to report that the movie is worth every penny spent. Apple TV+ is a streaming service that has gotten off to a slow start since programming began in November of 2019 but crowd-pleasing content like Ted Lasso, the ongoing Schmigadoon! and this new entry could be a formidable way forward. Theoretically, the demand for feel-good streaming entertainment should be higher than ever and this indie gem has all the hallmarks of an endearing and enduring classic.

The film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, a demure high school senior whose designation as a Child Of Deaf Adults gives the film its acronymous title. As the only hearing member of her Massachusetts-based family, she plays a crucial role in aiding the fishing business her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) started with little more than a schooner to his name. Ruby splits her time at school going out to sea with her father and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), singing along to oldies while helping them bring in their fishing nets. Her burgeoning passion for music is recognized and emboldened by Ruby’s choir teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez), whose proposition that Ruby consider music school puts her personal dreams at odds with her desire to keep her tight-knit, working-class family together.

Adapting from the French dramedy La Famille Bélier, writer/director Sian Heder has crafted an irresistible and utterly charming coming-of-age story packed with both achingly authentic and warmly funny moments. It’s a fair criticism to point out that the shape of CODA‘s narrative is not novel to the genre but for every story beat that may seem familiar, Heder adds a character detail or extra moment that gives her film its own unique signature. She isn’t interested in making saints out of her deaf characters; Leo playfully exchanges vulgarities with her sister in American Sign Language (ASL), while Ruby has to translate for her not-so-discreetly amorous parents during an uncomfortable doctor’s visit. These are full-featured and soulful characters who inspire empathy and affection from minute one.

Much of that is credit to the immensely talented cast, headed up by the phenomenal 19-year-old British actress Emilia Jones. As Ruby, she is CODA‘s magnetic center, carrying the weight of her family’s struggles and expectations of her while trying to find herself and realize her dreams in the process. It’s a breakout performance, affecting and pure with heaps of compassion baked in. Along with Marlee Matlin in addition to Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, the film features an exceptional trio of deaf actors who effortlessly flesh out characters usually relegated to the periphery with fantastically lived-in performances. Kudos to casting director Deborah Aquila for not just finding actors that “fit the bill” but matching each performer flawlessly with their respective roles.

Since a significant portion of the film is in ASL, CODA is to be the first film with “open” subtitles being displayed throughout for every member of the audience during its theatrical run. Whatever taboo may exist around American audiences being shown subtitles during an English-language film may be dissolving thanks to other movies like A Quiet Place and its recent sequel, which also feature extensive use of ASL. Personally, I prefer to watch as many films with subtitles as possible (regardless of language) and I hope the experience of viewing one in theaters will open audiences up to the possibilities it provides. As Parasite director Bong Joon Ho pointed in one of his Oscar speeches from last year, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I’m happy to cite CODA as a prime example.

Score – 4.5/5

More new movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Free Guy, an action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, follows a non-player character in an open world video game who becomes self-aware and decides to save the day.
Don’t Breathe 2, a horror thriller starring Stephen Lang and Madelyn Grace, fast forwards 11 years after the home invasion of the original film to find The Blind Man fending off more bandits.
Respect, a music biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, details Aretha Franklin’s rise from choir singer in Detroit to the Queen of Soul while depicting her personal struggles along the way.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #56 – The Green Knight

I’m joined by my friend Nick as we get medieval on your heinies to discuss The Green Knight, the new Arthurian tale from A24 and writer/director David Lowery. Then we share other things we’ve been listening to and watching, including the Radiolab project The Vanishing of Harry Pace and the Apple TV+ comedy musical series Schmigadoon! (first four episodes currently streaming, final two in the coming weeks). Nick also plugs his excellent short story series podcast Written and Read By. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

The Green Knight

Texas-based filmmaker David Lowery has always had Camelot on his mind. In a recent press release, he shared a photo of himself at 8-years-old donning a tunic and shiny helmet, crediting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for his obsession around Grail mythology and Arthurian lore. Now 40, Lowery has realized his childhood dream with The Green Knight, a beautiful and bold medieval fantasy that doesn’t play by any of the “rules” laid out by previous Round Table movies. While the film follows the narrative laid out by the 14th-century poem, the ethereal epic explores the text’s themes of courage and loyalty in an evocative and challenging manner that immerses all of one’s senses in the theatrical experience.

The focus of the tale is Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), who joins his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris) in the royal court for a Christmas feast among a group of legendary knights. Gawain laments that he has no notable stories to share with his esteemed brethren when a mystical treelike creature calling himself the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) proffers a festive challenge to the group. He offers his axe to whomever can land a clean strike against him but warns that an equal blow will be returned in a year’s time, prompting Gawain to heedlessly behead the Green Knight. When the otherworldly being retrieves his head and rides away laughing, Gawain must decide whether to accept his fate by traveling to the Knight’s home of Green Chapel the year following or to cower in Camelot until Christmas comes again.

Leading up an exemplary ensemble cast, Patel has never been better as a temerarious but trustworthy young journeyman trying to find his place in the world between myth and mediocrity. A24 regulars like Barry Keoghan and Kate Dickie (the latter of whom also appeared with Ineson in the studio’s 2016 breakout The Witch) make the most of their screen time as a creepy scavenger and Queen Guinevere, respectively. The always welcome Joel Edgerton also turns up as a chuffed lord eager to help Gawain on his quest, with some caveats. Alicia Vikander is also terrific in a dual role whose characters bleed into one another in a seductive and mysterious way. In the third act, one of her characters gives a colorful monologue about the unstoppable forces of nature that made me temporarily scared of the color green.

Many modern medieval movies (2018’s Robin Hood springs to mind) tend to focus on the battle and swordplay associated with these tales, bringing in loads of computer-generated effects and legions of stunt people to give things an “epic” feel. Though he does use some CGI for the Green Knight creature and a friendly fox that aids and, on one occasion, scolds Gawain, Lowery often utilizes the immaculate production design and practical effects to convey his pensive and impressionistic tale. This isn’t an action movie; the violence in the film takes place quickly but the consequences reverberate throughout. There are more than a handful of Arthurian allusions in the picture and those not familiar with the material may be frustrated at the movie’s lack of explanation and exposition. One would do well to brush up on the source material before going into the theater.

In addition to writing and directing The Green Knight, Lowery serves as the editor and applies the unique rhythm and texture he established in 2017’s A Ghost Story. He’s often unpredictable in his movement, using startling jump cuts to pass over long stretches of time but holding and lingering on shots that we may expect other directors to cut away from sooner. With cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, he composes shots that are haunting and suggest depths of emotion that may not be felt otherwise from the story. Lowery revealed in an interview last week that in the long lead-up to the film’s release, he had doubts about continuing to make future films in the face of an increasingly uncertain world but decided to press on with projects he deemed worthwhile. If The Green Knight is evidence of what else he has in store, he has chosen wisely.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and on HBO Max is The Suicide Squad, a DCEU superhero sequel starring Margot Robbie and Idris Elba about super-powered penitentiary inmates who are sent to a South American island to destroy a Nazi-era laboratory.
Available to rent on demand is John and the Hole, a psychological thriller starring Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle about a disturbed young boy who holds his family captive in a hole in the ground.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Val, a documentary that depicts the life and career of actor Val Kilmer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Old

Since his ubiquitous breakout The Sixth Sense in 1999, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has managed to capture the attention of the movie-going and non-movie-going public alike with tantalizing high concept mysteries. His follow-up Unbreakable grafted the nascent superhero genre onto a thriller that asked “what if Superman lived in the real world and didn’t know he was Superman?” His existential science fiction tale Signs wondered “how would the world react if those farmers who saw crop circles were right after all?” While films like Lady in the Water and The Happening haven’t been as nearly as well-received as his earlier work, their loglines have undeniably lingered in the zeitgeist longer than their quality would suggest they would. I expect a similar fate for his latest project Old, a mercurial and macabre misfire whose promising pitch is undone by frustratingly marred execution.

The setting of Shyamalan’s story forms the basis for his water cooler-ready concept: a picturesque beach that causes unsuspecting visitors to age rapidly, turning hours spent in its “sands of time” into decades of their respective lives. The secluded stretch of seaside is located near a tropical resort, where guests like Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are gayly greeted with customized cocktails at check-in, while their kids Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River) fawn over the 24-hour candy station. Looking for a less crowded spot to lay over their towels, the family takes a shuttle with other vacationers like Charles (Rufus Sewell) and Chrystal (Abbey Lee) to the aforementioned beach. It doesn’t take long for the supernatural effects of the area to induce panic among the group and leave them desperate to free themselves from its clutches.

Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. Old is a surprisingly dark and almost refreshingly morbid chiller from Hollywood’s most painfully earnest auteur. Not since Max von Sydow played chess with Death in The Seventh Seal have beaches and mortality been this inextricably linked. Shyamalan uses his terrifying set-up to explore the helplessness evoked by natural aging and the vulnerability of watching our loved ones grow up faster than we’d like. An hour away from one’s children on a normal beach means a break to get through two chapters of a book but on this beach, it means you’ve missed two years of their lives. The film is at its best when it ignores the rocky facets of its premise and explores the emotion of watching time evaporate so rapidly.

But a jumping-off point is only as good as the crystal-blue water below it and it doesn’t take long for the cliff jump that Shyamalan sets up to turn ugly. He’s never been the most elegant screenwriter but the dialogue here is about as on-the-nose and tin-eared as you’re likely to hear in any movie this year. Worse than the specific words characters use is their collective inability to grapple with the otherworldly effects of their surroundings, even when their presence and the nature of their power are beyond obvious. Shyamalan tries his best to patch over the script’s plot holes — there’s a brief explanation as to why fingernails and hair don’t grow rapidly along with the rest of the characters’ bodies — but the story just can’t hold up to however many waves of scrutiny a given audience is likely to send its way.

Most disappointing is the profound lack of chemistry between the qualified cast, given how great some of the actors have been in recent projects. Krieps was an absolute revelation in Phantom Thread, one of the finest films of at least the past ten years, but aside for a few moments of familial tenderness, she looks utterly lost here. The bright young talent Thomasin McKenzie appears as an older version of Maddox but strains too hard and forces awkward line readings past the point of salvageability. Even with limited screen time, other actors like Aaron Pierre and Lost‘s Ken Leung impart hollow performances to the flotsam. Old has a combination of campiness and creepiness that leads to some shining moments in the sun but it ultimately gets washed away by fragile filmmaking atop a faulty foundation.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters and Premier Access on Disney+ is Jungle Cruise, a fantasy adventure starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt about a riverboat captain and a British scientist who go on a perilous mission to find the Tree of Life.
Playing only in theaters is The Green Knight, a medieval epic starring Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander which tells the story of King Arthur’s headstrong nephew and his quest to confront the eponymous tree-like creature.
Also playing only in theaters is Stillwater, a crime drama starring Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin which follows a father traveling from Oklahoma to France to help exonerate his estranged daughter for a murder she claims she didn’t commit.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Space Jam: A New Legacy

When the ESPN docuseries The Last Dance aired last year, it unveiled plenty of insights into the Chicago Bulls’ historic NBA run in the 1990s but perhaps none more tantalizing than the implication that filming Space Jam allowed Michael Jordan to return to the league in top shape. To prepare for the 1996 sports comedy-turned-millennial pop cultural artifact, Jordan played scrimmage games with greats like Reggie Miller and former teammate Dennis Rodman in a state-of-the-art basketball facility built by Warner Bros. Perhaps it will take another 25 years or so to uncover the hidden merit behind its belated and belabored sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy but in the meantime, it’s best to take it at face value as the visually abrasive and artistically adrift piece of corporate cinema that it is.

Succeeding Jordan is Cavaliers/Heat/Cavaliers/Lakers star LeBron James, playing a fictionalized version of himself but retaining his real-life status as a father of three. He pushes his youngest son Dom (Cedric Joe) to follow in his footsteps on the court, while ignoring the fact that Dom would rather attend video game design camp than basketball camp. After taking an ill-fated meeting at the Warner Bros. studios, the two get on an elevator to leave but are lured down to a server room where the evil computer AI Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) capitalizes on the rift between father and son. After becoming trapped in a virtual reality based on one of Dom’s games, LeBron and his son must square off in a digital game of hoops to get back to reality.

Any way you look at it, Space Jam is no masterpiece but it’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit when compared to A New Legacy. The former stands at a reasonable 87 minutes (79 minutes, if you lop off the lengthy closing credits), where its follow-up plays like a 115-minute unskippable ad for Warner Media, LLC. Sure, the Looney Tunes factor heavily into both movies but the process of reuniting the Tune Squad in Legacy leads to a tacky and irresponsible montage where various animated characters are copy-and-pasted into scenes from WB properties like Mad Max: Fury Road and Austin Powers. Even stupider is the decision to reference other movie characters from (inexplicably) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to (more inexplicably) A Clockwork Orange by way of cosplaying extras in the stands of the fateful digital ball game.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a studio so garishly promote its own IP within a film as Warner Bros. does here and that’s including Ready Player One, the WB-produced Spielberg misfire that was less of a movie and more of an “Easter egg” hunt. Just because Bugs is the Bunny hiding the eggs this time around doesn’t make the designs on the outside any more appealing and the prizes on the inside any less putrid. Beyond the barrage of pop culture references, the screenplay with 6 credited writers attached is full of airball after airball in the humor department. There’s one joke that lands: a mistaken identity gag with a relatively clever punchline and a cameo from a well-known actor who doesn’t look totally embarrassed to be there. Still, it’s the equivalent of scoring a layup during a 40-point deficit with 2 minutes left in the game.

There have been cloying and unfunny films in the past but Space Jam: A New Legacy depresses me most because its narrative’s existence within a virtual world implicitly promotes another level of removal from reality to its impressionable audience. Movies are enough of an escapist entertainment as it is and devices that distract us from real life already pervade every facet of daily living. Do we really need to set kids’ entertainment in a techno-scape of zeroes and ones to keep their attention? The Space in Space Jam used to mean outer space; now it refers to a digital space that is constantly changing and warping around us in ways we can’t totally understand and ways that Hollywood certainly doesn’t understand. Let’s hope the legacy of Space Jam: A New Legacy is much shorter lived than its predecessor.

Score – 1/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is Old, an M. Night Shyamalan supernatural mystery starring Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps about a vacationing family who discovers a beach that inexplicably causes them to age rapidly.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is Snake Eyes, a G.I. Joe spin-off starring Henry Golding and Andrew Koji about the titular fighter joining an ancient Japanese ninja clan.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Jolt, an action comedy starring Kate Beckinsale and Laverne Cox about a bouncer whose homicidal tendencies are kept at bay by an electrode-lined vest.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Pig

Nicolas Cage. Since sneaking on-screen as Brad’s Bud in Fast Times at Ridgemont High almost 40 years ago, he’s forged an ironclad foothold in our pop culture consciousness with over 100 film roles to his name. Over the past 3 years, he’s appeared in 10 direct-to-VOD movies, almost all of which I’ve seen and are admittedly terrible. But Cage is an actor that knows when certain projects are worthy of his best and the new indie drama Pig is one of the defining examples of his career. When the film’s trailer was released last month, depicting it as a revenge movie in which Cage’s character seems to go on a rampage looking for his lost pig, the internet was understandably alit with choruses of John Oink and Bacon as a swine-based swap for Taken. But those coming into this expecting Cage to ham it up will hopefully be delighted to have an entirely different kind of meal served to them.

Cage stars as Rob, a reclusive forager living in the vast Oregonian woods with an affectionate and intelligent truffle-hunting pig always by his side. One of Rob’s only visitors is Amir (Alex Wolff), a Portland-based purchaser who drops by once a week to buy the in-demand truffles and sell them to the city’s most competitive chefs. The value of such a potentially profitable pig is realized when Rob’s prized pet is stolen from him one night, prompting him to pair with the now disadvantaged Amir to track down the pig-nappers and punish them for their crimes. The journey into Rob’s former hometown does indeed unveil a specific set of skills that he possesses but they aren’t as bloodthirsty and violent as the narrative might suggest.

As much as the marketing of Pig painted it to have the singular focus of a traditional revenge movie, the movie is not only about much more than one thing but it’s also incredibly wise about the other topics it chooses to invoke. For one, it’s a melancholic but relentlessly optimistic portrait of broken men blindly scouring the world for power and purpose in the absence of women for whom they’ve cared. It’s a sensitive examination of toxic masculinity that doesn’t resort to having female characters chew male characters out about their indiscretions. Watching these men flail about as they try to put themselves back together is more painful than the fury behind any scornful words that could be uttered at them.

In the film’s meditation on man’s place in nature amid the creeping forces of commerce and capitalism, Pig reminded more of last year’s quietly moving First Cow than your typical Liam Neeson-starring vengeance tale. “There’s nothing for you here anymore,” a suspect laments to Rob, “There’s nothing here for most of us. You don’t keep a grip on it, that’s pretty much it.” These lines have an extra layer of shattering context given the social unrest that has pervaded Portland as of late but even taken on a more broad level, they speak to a sense of identity that urban living promises to the young and idealistic but naturally can’t fulfill for everybody. More than anything else, the movie beautifully explores past lives, future selves and the mess we create in between.

An actor who is frequently charged with “over-acting”, Cage proves once again after his wordless Willy’s Wonderland performance from earlier this year that his best version of more is less. His Rob is a character who seems to be hovering above these characters and this story, not in an arrogant or dismissive way but in a way that suggests an ethereal sense of empathy. He listens, and listens intensely, and when he speaks, he chooses the fewest amount of words for the highest level of emotional impact. It’s calm and controlled work but not self-consciously so and quite simply, it’s one of the very best performances of his career. Sensitive and smart, Pig is a hidden gem that will reward adventurous moviegoers who choose it from the menu of uninspired selections that are being offered up weekly both at home and in theaters.

Score – 4.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and on HBO Max is Space Jam: A New Legacy, a sports comedy starring LeBron James and Don Cheadle which finds another basketball icon getting sucked into an animated world to play a high-stakes game of hoops.
Playing in theaters and available to rent digitally is Die In A Gunfight, a stylized update of Romeo and Juliet starring Diego Boneta and Alexandra Daddario which finds a pair of star-crossed lovers flanked by a jealous ex-boyfriend and two rival families.
Streaming on Netflix is Gunpowder Milkshake, an action thriller starring Karen Gillan and Lena Headey about a mother and daughter assassin duo out to protect an 8-year-old girl caught in the middle of a gang war.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Black Widow

In an early scene from The Avengers, still the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s finest entry, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is being interrogated by Russians when she gets a phone call from S.H.I.E.L.D. handler Agent Coulson. “I’m in the middle of an interrogation, this moron is giving me everything,” she protests while the Russian general and his henchmen look confused. “I don’t give everything,” he barks back, not even realizing how much he just got played. Almost 10 years later, Romanoff and Johansson finally get their own headlining feature in Black Widow, a too-little-too-late prequel that sidesteps the qualities that make the character distinct in favor of generic action setpieces and family-based pathos.

The film takes us back to 2016 after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which find Romanoff on the run from the US government for violating the Sokovia Accords. She flees to a safe house in Budapest, where she is surprised to find her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) hiding out as well. Growing up in Russia, both Natasha and Yelena were trained to become deadly spies under the Black Widow program, now ruled by the power-hungry Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who utilizes mind control to keep his burgeoning assassins in line. Incensed by the idea that hundreds of women have lost their free will to a madman, the sisters team up with their estranged father (David Harbour) and mother (Rachel Weisz) to take down Dreykov and his elusive training grounds known as the Red Room.

When Avengers director Joss Whedon spoke years ago about a potential Black Widow project, he envisioned it as a paranoid spy thriller in the vein of John le Carré. While I can’t imagine Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios would go for something that subdued at this stage in the game, I would still love to see that movie. Instead, the final product here feels much more anonymous by comparison with some glimmers of personality but far too many action beats that don’t seem germane to this character. I kept thinking during Black Widow how much different it would be if it were another Avenger like Hawkeye in the main role and I doubt the end result would’ve been altered very much.

The best parts of the film play like both a far less pretentious re-do of the Jennifer Lawrence dud Red Sparrow and a female-centric take on The Bourne Supremacy. When Natasha and Yelena chart out their mission, we get a sense of both their shared skills and shatterproof sisterhood as they plot together. A sequence late in the film is cross-cut with a prior scene of planning, giving us just enough insight to figure out how carefully those moments were configured and how the cat-and-mouse game may transpire. Unfortunately, director Cate Shortland doesn’t have as firm a grip on editing and timing for the majority of the film. A prison break scene that serves as the Black Widow‘s major action sequence has admirable stunt work but is marred by dubious staging and an uneven rhythm.

Johansson is strong as ever as a character she’s played for over 10 years now but the movie’s secret weapon is Pugh as Natasha’s younger sister. After a Bourne Identity-aping brawl during the sisters’ reintroduction, Yelena doesn’t waste much time razzing Black Widow for her penchant for posing when alongside her fellow Avengers. “I doubt a god from space has to take ibuprofen after a fight,” Yelena smirks. That Romanoff is a human among superheroes is one of the qualities that reportedly drew Johansson to the role but in an effort to super-size her narrative, Black Widow forgets the cunning and intellect that made the character unique in the first place.

Score – 2.5/5

More movies currently in theaters:
Playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock is The Boss Baby: Family Business, an animated comedy starring Alec Baldwin and James Marsden continuing the story of an infant hedge fund CEO who meets his match in the form of another “boss baby”.
Playing in theaters and streaming on Hulu is Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a Questlove documentary which unearths never-before seen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
Playing only in theaters is The Forever Purge, a dystopian horror film starring Ana de la Reguera and Josh Lucas that concludes the Purge franchise with the story of a Mexican couple who clashes with a group of outsiders who unlawfully continue the Purge on their own terms.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Werewolves Within

When it comes to films based on video games, the track record over the past 25+ years has been something less than stellar. Of the dozens of live-action adaptations, Rotten Tomatoes has only graded 2 — Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog — as Fresh, while 11 of them have a meager 10% critical approval to their name. Given all this, it’s not much of an overstatement to call Werewolves Within the strongest such adaptation to date. Derived from the 2016 virtual reality game, it may not be as well known as titles like Super Mario Bros. or Mortal Kombat but the framework of its deduction-based playing mechanics align perfectly with the whodunit movie genre. This ended up also being the case for the 1985 cult classic Clue, almost certainly the best film based on a board game.

The setting of this claustrophobic mystery is the blustery village of Beaverfield, where good-hearted forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) has recently arrived for his latest posting. He’s assigned to oversee the construction of a proposed gas pipeline that has created division amongst the otherwise genial folk of the quaint town. As he checks into the local inn, the town’s chipper postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) catches him up on Beaverfield’s most notable citizens, who incidentally find themselves all under the same roof thanks to a fierce snowstorm. Gossip about a werewolf loose in town combined with foul play near a backup generator that leaves the inn-mates without power leads them to point fingers at one another in hopes of finding out who’s responsible for the mischief that’s afoot.

Director Josh Ruben follows up last year’s Scare Me with another comedy horror film largely confined to a single location, relying on some creative camera tricks and swift editing to make up for the modest budget. Where Werewolves Within distinguishes itself is in its eclectic and well-cast cavalcade of players, integral for a whodunit like this to really take off. It may not have the star power or lavish production design of something like Knives Out but these lesser-known actors make the most of their revolving screen time as they poke through alibis and assign motives to one another. If the movie has a weak point (a silver bullet, perhaps) on the directing side of things, it’s that the squabbling between the Beaverfieldians can make an already crowded movie feel a bit overstuffed.

Thanks to born-to-do-this screenwriter Mishna Wolff, the accusatory dialogue between the townspeople is often as chilly as the howling winds that blow outside the wooded inn. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Trish, but everything in these woods eats tiny little dogs,” one townsperson blithely blurts out to a grieving dog mom while neglecting to break direct eye contact with his phone. Wolff also works in some cheeky nods to the country’s current sociopolitical divide that don’t have all that much bite but also aren’t likely ruffle the fur of audiences, regardless of their political inclinations. After all, the spirit and words of Fred Rogers are unironically invoked several times during the movie and if his message of compassion and empathy leaves viewers cold, then there may be no hope for them anyway.

The guilty party or parties may remain hidden for most of Werewolves Within but fortunately, the film is a constant comedic spotlight for two possibly familiar faces who will hopefully score more starring roles in the future. Sam Richardson, who’s popped out in brilliant TV series from Veep to I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, is perfect as a perky straight man trying to ease tensions among the paranoid townspeople. Milana Vayntrub, who sports some outstanding comedic instincts here, may be even more recognizable not from a television show but rather from a ubiquitous series of AT&T commercials that have aired since 2013. The two have an infectious on-screen chemistry that make Werewolves Within a great pick for your next movie night, whether you’re snowed in or not.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies streaming this weekend:
Streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime is The Tomorrow War, a sci-fi action movie starring Chris Pratt and J. K. Simmons depciting a war against an alien invasion and mankind’s new ability to draft soldiers from the past to help fight the aliens.
Streaming exclusively on HBO Max is No Sudden Move, a period crime thriller starring Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro about a group of small-time criminals whose plan to steal what they think is a simple document goes awry.
Streaming exclusively on Netflix is America: The Motion Picture, an adult animated comedy starring Channing Tatum and Olivia Munn that re-imagines the American Revolution through a more colorful and intentionally anachronistic perspective.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Natalie’s Rap Sheet: Jackie

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

Can anyone understand how it is to have lived in the White House and then, suddenly, to be living alone as the President’s widow?

– Jacqueline Kennedy

Is there a harder job in the world than President? In his English-language film debut Jackie, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín suggests that the role of The Widow may be even more difficult. When John F. Kennedy’s life was cut short in November of 1963, his wife Jacqueline placed her deceased husband’s head in her lap as the presidential motorcade sped away to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Almost two hours later, the former First Lady stood in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit next to Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One as he was inaugurated as the next President. “I want them to see what they have done to Jack,” she insisted to “Lady Bird” Johnson when it was suggested she change her clothes before the inevitable photographs were taken for the historical swearing-in.

An exploration of both grief and legacy as they play out on the world’s stage, the film gives us an unconventional portrait of Jackie Kennedy’s mindset surrounding that tragic day in November. The events before and after are framed around a hazy Hyannis Port morning the week after, when Life journalist Theodore White (played by Billy Crudup) knocks on the door of Kennedy’s new home. Jackie (played by Natalie Portman) demands editorial control over her interview before inviting him in for their emotional exchange about her late husband’s legacy. It’s a traditional lynchpin for biopics, allowing the director to show flashbacks that line up with the subject’s recollection of events. But Larraín eschews the sign-posting to which we’ve become accustomed, scattering the chronology like a nightmare half-remembered after waking up.

We see her public image being molded before our eyes, as she shoots her Tour of the White House CBS special, with White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (played by Greta Gerwig) instructing her behind the camera on how to smile. We watch her deplane in Texas in that iconic Chanel suit, greeted by Vice President Johnson (played by John Carroll Lynch) and First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson (played by Beth Grant) amid cheering crowds. After the assassination, she grieves with John’s brother Bobby (played by Peter Sarsgaard) as they process what happened and try to sort out the details of the highly-anticipated funeral. Most intimately, the film includes conversations Jackie had with an unnamed priest (played by John Hurt) shortly after her husband’s death.

Just like Jackie when she was in office, all eyes are on Portman as she attempts to transform into who is most likely the most well-known First Lady of all-time. The first thing that’s impossible to ignore is Portman’s accent work while recreating Kennedy’s highly unique dialect. She goes for a spot-on recreation of her specific timbre, nailing nearly every inflection and catch-breath that the real Jackie exhibited in her many public appearances. Centering around a fashion icon, the movie’s attention to detail in the costume design is almost as important and Academy Award nominee Madeline Fontaine adorns Portman with stitch-perfect wardrobe in every scene. Though Portman doesn’t exactly look like Jacqueline, her voice and outfits go a long way in terms of weaving together the fictional with reality.

But does her performance transcend a fine-tuned impression? I would argue that it almost always does. It’s tricky because she’s playing a character who is always keenly aware of how she is being perceived, so it’s something of a performance of a performance. Portman shines most in the moments that we haven’t seen play out in public view before, specifically her scenes with Hurt’s priest character. It’s here that she’s most candid and most vulnerable, allowing herself to meld most with her tragic character. There are times that her portrayal can feel a bit too mannered and self-conscious for its own good (typically in the historical recreation sequences) but on the whole, this is some of Portman’s finest work. For it, she scored her third Best Actress nomination but lost to temporary Best Picture winner Emma Stone.

Early on, Jackie tells the journalist, “when something is written down, does that make it true?” The entire film grapples with the notion of who writes our history and how we’re to be remembered but more specifically, how little the actual truth might matter compared to the appearance of things. Through TV and print, the Kennedys came to epitomize American excellence and majestic opulence, even though there were plenty less than wholesome things under the surface. There are allusions to Camelot, a musical said to be JFK’s favorite whose line “don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot” came to eulogize a Kennedy presidency cut short of its full potential. Was John really that big a fan of the musical? Maybe not but to paraphrase Jackie, the American people love their fairy tales.

The strongest elements of the film collide in its most potent scene, which depicts Jackie aimlessly marching through Arlington National Cemetery on a gloomy fall day while cabinet members argue about the location of his grave. The camerawork from Stéphane Fontaine is full of nightmarish conviction, tracking along with the traumatized widow as the snares of Mica Levi’s music score gallop along with her. She doesn’t know where she’s going but she doesn’t want to waste any time getting there. Jackie fumbles in high heels through the mist of the myth that she and her family have worked to create and preserve. It’s a haunting and indelible image, one of many that make this uneven but unflinching look at fame and misfortune a memorable showcase for Portman’s refined talents.

False Positive

“This pregnancy [stuff] is no joke!”, one mom-to-be proclaims to another over lunch in False Positive, a fitfully inspired but thoroughly distracted horror film about the terrors of new motherhood. The line is courtesy of star and screenwriter Ilana Glazer, departing from 5 seasons of the hit Comedy Central series Broad City to make the transition to film in a more serious role. Though the tone of the material is different than what she’s written before, it would seem to be just as personal and potentially autobiographical, as she and her partner announced a few months ago that they were expecting their first child. Unfortunately, her perspective on the subject is sadly obscured in a script that can’t seem to settle on what it wants to say about bringing a new life into the world.

Glazer stars as Lucy Martin, a copywriter who has been trying for years to get pregnant with her reconstructive surgeon husband Adrian (Justin Theroux). With time ticking away on the biological clock, the Martins call in the big guns by way of top-5-in-the-country fertility specialist Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan) and his Stepford Wife-like nurse Dawn (Gretchen Mol). Through Hindle’s patented method, a hybrid approach of IVF and IUI, Lucy does indeed become pregnant but the persistent nausea is the least of her new concerns. Difficult decisions about the baby-to-be have to be made early, creating a rift between Adrian and Lucy and causing the latter to find support in the form of the also-pregnant Corgan (Sophia Bush). But no amount of camaraderie can shake Lucy’s feeling that something about her “birth story” is completely amiss.

There’s a shot around the halfway mark of False Positive that sums up Glazer and director John Lee’s thesis statement in one cleverly-composed image. Adrian stands to the side of a reposed Lucy as Dr. Hindle stands behind her over the examination table but the characters’ positions make it appear as though Lucy isn’t actually present with them. As many loose plot threads and thematic ambitions as the film contains, I take its central message to revolve around women’s diminished agency when it comes to birthing decisions in modern medicine. My favorite extrapolation of this idea is the recurrence of the phrase “mommy brain”, blithely uttered by both male and female characters, to dismiss concerns of pregnant women and leave them vulnerable to gaslighting and other forms of manipulation.

But there’s just too much else going on in the film’s lean 92 minute runtime to bring the potency or urgency of that message home. Described in the press as being “a contemporary take on Rosemary’s Baby“, the movie has less to do with Polanski’s pregnancy paranoia tale than something like Midsommar, a horror movie about a woman able to see evil clearly amid a group of men who remain blind to it. Where that film leans into its creepy cult conceit, False Positive asks us to suspend disbelief that Brosnan’s Dr. Hindle could be anything but a mad scientist with nefarious plans. The movie’s back half leans hard into the unreliable narrator trope we’ve seen often in horror movies, culminating with a confusing Peter Pan metaphor and an off-putting ending whose shock value is totally unearned.

Making her first foray into drama, Glazer gives a committed performance in the lead role but all of the other actors don’t seem to have a grasp of the material or the conviction to carry out its concepts. Theroux doesn’t add much to his role as the absent husband and his lack of chemistry with Glazer makes their relationship less credible, especially when one considers the difficult journey their characters have endured together. Brosnan is fine in his villainous role but he can play suave and phlegmatic in his sleep. I would’ve much rather seen this cast, who has more comedic chops than it may seem at first glance, play in a sharply-penned comedy about modern pregnancy anxieties than watch them toil in a boilerplate chiller like this. Underwritten and dependent on tired genre clichés, False Positive would have benefited greatly from a longer gestation period.

Score – 2/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is F9, the latest in the Fast & Furious franchise starring Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez in which Dom and the rest of his carjacking crew square off against his estranged brother.
Streaming on Netflix is The Ice Road, a disaster thriller starring Liam Neeson and Laurence Fishburne about a tough-as-nails big-rig driver who leads an impossible rescue mission over a frozen ocean to save a group of trapped miners.
Coming to theaters this weekend and available to digitally rent the following weekend is Werewolves Within, a comedy whodunnit starring Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub about a snowstorm that traps the residents of a small town in a local inn with a lycanthrope.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My thoughts on the movies