Tag Archives: 1.5/5

Memory

Since his iconic tough guy role in 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has been on a mission with his specific set of skills: to star in as many similarly budgeted and crafted action movies as humanly possible. From anonymous thrillers like Unknown to Blacklight from just earlier this year, the almost-70-year-old performer doesn’t seem to turn his nose up at any script, provided his character growls some threatening lines and he gets to punch a few people along the way. His latest endeavor along these lines is Memory, an English-language remake of early-aughts Belgian thriller The Alzheimer Case, itself adapted from a novel of the same name. With an accomplished director like Martin Campbell at the helm, this movie had the potential to be a memorable entry in Neeson’s unofficial “Old Guy With A Gun” franchise but instead, it falls far short of that mark.

Neeson is Alex Lewis, a veteran assassin whose brutal precision is skillfully depicted in the film’s opening minutes when he ambushes a target in front of his hospital bed-ridden mother. The latest task from Alex’s handler calls him to El Paso, where he’s expected to eliminate an underage girl holding information that could be passed to the FBI. In addition to the job conflicting with his principled stand to never kill children, Alex is also struggling to keep his advanced Alzheimer’s diagnosis from interfering with his work. When someone gets to Alex’s mark before he does, FBI agents Vincent (Guy Pearce) and Linda (Taj Atwal) begin to follow the trail of mistakes that the ailing Alex leaves behind, eventually leading to hedge fund CEO Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci) and a band of child traffickers under her employ.

It may be enough to say that no one seems like they want to be in Memory but more specifically, no one feels like they belong in the world that Memory attempts to create. Everything feels like it doesn’t fit together and naturally, the actors seem uncomfortable as a result. It would be easy to take Neeson’s awkward performance and pin its stilted nature on the condition from which his character suffers but there are more fundamental problems here. It’s not that he can’t be bothered to give a compelling performance in one of these on-brand actioners anymore; it’s that this outing seems like this is his first time appearing in one when the complete opposite is true. Elsewhere, Pearce engages in dialect rodeo with a Texas accent that barely hangs on at times but otherwise wavers violently from line to line.

This sort of cops and robbers — perhaps agents and assassins is a better fit — story isn’t particularly novel anyway but scribe Dario Scardapane peppers in a plethora of character details that add up to nothing. Much of the film boils down to Vincent and Linda meeting with witnesses or suspects but these parlays go round and round with virtually no benefit to the story. I’m all for character refinement but when we’re an hour in and learning about a tertiary character’s former Olympic swimming career as opposed to what Alex is going to do next, something has gone awry. Campbell, also responsible for directing two all-time great James Bond entries, seems to lose interest in Alex’s dementia for most of the runtime, just to exploit it later on for an eye roll-inducing last act reveal.

It would be reasonable to expect that Neeson is about ready to hang up his “action star” hat and that Memory would be his last time fronting this type of action thriller but he’s reportedly in the middle of filming another one right now. He’s obviously a talented performer and even during this gun-heavy period of his career, he’s given terrific performances in films like Ordinary Love and Widows. I can’t say I understand what is driving Neeson to keep doing these films — he even joked about the dubious existence of a second Taken sequel, only to eventually appear in it anyway — but if they allow him to appear in smaller movies without having to sweat a paycheck, then I suppose they may be worth continuing to endure. We can only hope that the next one isn’t as bad as Memory.

Score – 1.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the newest MCU superhero film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen following the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home as Strange looks to mend the Multiverse with the help of Scarlet Witch and other mystical allies.
Streaming on Netflix is Marmaduke, an animated adaptation of the titular comic strip starring Pete Davidson and J. K. Simmons about a legendary dog trainer who believes he can help Marmaduke become the first Great Dane in history to win the Westminster Champions trophy.
Premiering on HBO Max is Navalny, a documentary that follows the months-long recovery of a Russian opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt by poisoning with a lethal nerve agent in August 2020.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Morbius

For those who don’t have their PhDs in cinematic universes, it should be said that the awful new superhero movie Morbius is the third entry in the Sony’s Spider-Man Universe that was created in 2018 for Venom. See, Sony leased the rights for Spider-Man away to Marvel Studios in 2015 but in an effort to ring all the cash out of the spider web that they could, they developed movies based around the character’s villains, even in the hero’s absence. Making a pair of Venom movies without Spider-Man is sort of like making a film about macaroni without cheese but at least baddies like Venom and Vulture are on the A-list of the webslinger’s foes. By selecting Morbius, Sony has already jumped down to the C-list of comic book antagonists as their SSU plows ahead against petty obstacles like artistic integrity and good taste.

We meet Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) as he arrives at a cave in Costa Rica and draws vampire bats out using a machine whose function is never clearly (or unclearly) stated. Along with his childhood friend Lucien (Matt Smith), Morbius suffers from a rare blood illness, for which the doctor has spent his entire life trying to develop a cure. His latest attempt involves splicing his DNA with the recently-captured bats, which gifts him with vampiric superpowers but also curses him with an unquenchable thirst for blood. Morbius’s hunger is temporarily satiated by a synthetic blood he created but his growing bloodlust has coincided with a string of attacks on the city by someone who has been sucking victims dry. Together with fellow scientist Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), Morbius sets out to take down the city’s new “vampire killer”.

Like many films that have been released over the past year, Morbius is yet another victim of covid-related delays after an initial July 2020 premiere window and as that’s the case, its trailer has played ad nauseum since movie theaters have reopened. It teases about a dozen Easter eggs and scenes that never made the final cut, which points to manipulative advertising rather than judicious editing on Sony’s part. It’s also indicative of aimlessness when it comes to what story director Daniel Espinosa is trying to tell. The film shamelessly rips off specific moments from better superhero films like Batman Begins and 2002’s Spider-Man but not in a way that helps justify why this interpretation of the Morbius character should exist in the first place.

From the casting of Leto as a brilliant scientist to a plot that’s been drained of every ounce of originality, there’s not an aspect of Morbius that doesn’t feel haphazard and sloppy. An awkward early flashback depicts a meet-ugly between Morbius and Lucien, where the former insists on calling the latter by the incorrect name to mock his expendability. From that moment on, the title character operates in two modes of “selfish jerk” and “outright bore” for the rest of the movie. Leto injects the film with lifeless voiceover narration that insults the audience’s intelligence, as if we’re not supposed to know what echolocation is. At least Matt Smith is trying to have some fun — he even gets a peppy dance number before a night on the town — but his antics are bogged down by the film’s brooding and moody nature.

What’s most painful about Morbius is just how hard it’s trying to be cool and how dated it looks in all of its efforts to do so. With speed-ramping bullet effects out of an Underworld sequel and color palette that blends shades of Hot Topic and Spirit Halloween, it’s about as edgy as an Evanescence cover band on a Tuesday night. I’m all for a comic book movie with moral complexity or a darker tone but there’s nothing ambiguous or artistic about the way this film tries to get across its message. Perhaps I was a bit too hard on Venom a few years ago because that movie and its sequel at least have an admirable, out-of-left-field goofiness that’s nowhere to be found in this self-serious dreck. Tawdry and toothless, Morbius is more BS from a media conglomerate that needs to put a stake in the heart of this bungled cinematic universe.

Score – 1.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Ambulance, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, is a Michael Bay-directed action thriller about two robbers who steal an ambulance and hold an EMT hostage after their heist goes awry.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2, starring Ben Schwartz and James Marsden, is the sequel to the 2020 video game adaptation that finds Sonic and his new partner Tails squaring off against the evil Dr Robotnik and his new ally Knuckles.
Everything Everywhere All at Once, starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, is a science fiction action comedy about an aging Chinese immigrant who is tasked with saving the world by exploring other universes connecting with the lives she could have led.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Studio 666

In addition to selling millions of records and packing stadiums around the world during their 25+ year career as a band, Foo Fighters has also demonstrated a propensity towards silly music videos. The visual companion pieces to songs like “Everlong”, “Learn To Fly” and “Long Road To Ruin” are spearheaded by the goofy charisma of frontman Dave Grohl, who has no compunction about sporting a wig or fake mustache for yuks. Conjured forth from those comedic impulses comes Studio 666, a horror comedy that could have worked as a 5-minute music video but absolutely flounders as a 105-minute feature. Shot partially during lockdown in the same mansion where the band recorded their tenth album Medicine at Midnight, it’s a lazy and pointless vanity project that inexplicably crept onto 2000 screens nationwide this past weekend.

The story features fictionalized versions of the Foos, pressured by their manager Jeremy Shill (Jeff Garlin) at the outset to complete new music for their record company. Looking for inspiration, they take Shill’s advice and move into an Encino house where fictional band Dream Widow almost finished an album of their own before the project ended abruptly by grisly means. After regurgitating riffs from tunes that he’d already written before, Grohl accepts that he’s going through a bout of songwriter’s block before happening upon the reels from Dream Widow’s partial recordings in the basement. Listening to the tracks possesses Grohl, not only figuratively in terms of musical inspiration but also literally, as the music unlocks unholy spirits that turn the frontman demonic.

Lifting visually from horror classics like The Exorcist and The Omen and narratively from scores of others, Studio 666 simply doesn’t have enough of its own ideas to justify its existence. Grohl is credited with coming up with the story, obviously conceived during his time recording the real-life album, but the screenplay by Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes is paper-thin and painfully puerile. When the band members aren’t exchanging naughty four-letter words with one another, they’re stuck with witless dialogue about subpar grilling technique or aversions to meditation. Comedians like Whitney Cummings and Will Forte, the latter as a delivery guy who professes Foo Fighters are his “2nd favorite band after Coldplay”, pop up to punch things up but their effort is sadly in vain.

In the aforementioned music videos and numerous TV appearances throughout the years, Grohl has exhibited an endearing charm that has served him even outside the context of Foo Fighters fans. However, the rest of the band clearly doesn’t share his affinity for a life in front of the camera. Of course the other five members are great musicians but their unnatural and unconvincing acting feels like the product of Grohl pushing these guys past their natural abilities. Drummer Taylor Hawkins, who reportedly didn’t bother to learn any of the lines from the script, ironically gives the funniest performance of the lot simply by replaying the same note of weirded-outness at the occult occurrences. The other four Fighters are relegated to reaction shots that don’t produce any laughs nor add to the impact of the would-be scares.

The one aspect that the production team seemed to put any effort behind is in the gory practical effects during the inevitable kill scenes, which are admirable in their craft if not completely novel in their execution. Director B.J. McDonnell, who headed up the third entry in the Hatchet slasher series, leans into his skill set and delivers a few sequences that pay off with over-the-top slayings that make fine use of unique props and settings. An icon of the horror genre also shows up in an all-too-brief cameo as a sound engineer, while a legend of soul music says “hello” in another scene without adding much of an impact. Studio 666 obviously doesn’t diminish the Foo Fighters’ music legacy but it should put a swift demise to any future cinematic aspirations for the group.

Score – 1.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Batman, the latest reincarnation of the Caped Crusader starring Robert Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz about Batman’s second year of fighting crime as he teams up with Catwoman to take on The Riddler and The Penguin.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Lucy and Desi, a documentary from director Amy Poehler covering the rise of comedian icon Lucille Ball, her relationship with Desi Arnaz, and how their groundbreaking sitcom I Love Lucy forever changed Hollywood.
Premiering on Hulu is Fresh, a comedy thriller starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan about a young woman who navigates the hurdles of modern dating and discovers that her new boyfriend may have sinister proclivities for sustenance.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Cyrano

Though the 19th century play Cyrano de Bergerac has been adapted countless times for the screen and stage since its premiere, the new prestige drama Cyrano is based most specifically on a 2018 stage musical of the same name. Conceived by theater director Erica Schmidt, presumably with her real-life husband Peter Dinklage in mind, the musical differs from the source material most notably by trading Cyrano’s trademark facial disfigurement with dwarfism as the protagonist’s primary obstacle. Despite this, the new adaptation remains true to the setting, story and spirit to the original work but mangles so many aspects of the execution that it hardly seems to matter. It’s not as much of an unmitigated disaster as Dear Evan Hansen but it’s not as far off as one may imagine.

Dinklage stars in the title role as a member of the French army in the mid-17th century who’s equal halves sharp-tongued wordsmith and sharp-tipped swordsmith. We meet Cyrano as he verbally spars with a gussied-up actor mid-performance and then physically spars with an upset audience member on-stage. Looking on from the balcony is Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a longtime friend of Cyrano for whom he has secretly carried a torch as long as they’ve been acquainted. She confides in him a love at first sight with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a newcomer to the military in Cyrano’s regiment and when Cyrano brings Roxanne up to Christian, he confesses a requisite affection. Sadly, Christian’s good looks don’t translate to sharp wits, leading Cyrano to offer his verbosity as he pens love letters to Roxanne under Christian’s name.

The biggest tragedy of Cyrano is that the music and lyrics come courtesy of members from the excellent rock band The National, who have made some of my favorite albums of the past 15 years. Guitarist brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner composed the music while lead singer Matt Berninger penned the lyrics along with his wife Carin Besser. The Dessners are known for their technically intricate and sonically sophisticated guitar work with The National but their range in these songs is frustratingly limited. Too many of these numbers sound nearly identical to one another, while the words don’t reveal the characters’ motivations as much as they simply underline plot points that are already obvious. Dinklage mournfully belts out Roxanne’s name so often, I half-expected Sting to come in beckoning her not to “put on the red light.”

It could be that musical range is intentionally myopic to cover for the undeveloped vocal talents of Dinklage and Bennett, who reprise their roles from the stage musical. Neither are necessarily poor singers but they do rely on the kind of digital processing that has become alarmingly common in movie musicals over the past 10 years. In this recontextualized role, Dinklage does a fine job channeling Cyrano’s social shortcomings into poignant pathos but Bennett falls totally flat in trying to make Roxanne an empathetic character. After her first meeting face-to-face with Christian, she would understandably be confused in trying to reconcile his simple disposition with his poetic prose. Instead of singing a song about that, she simply bellows “I want more” repeatedly in regards to a potential suitor, making her seem more of an entitled brat than an unaware member of a bizarre love triangle.

Making Cyrano’s short stature a stumbling block for a potential partnership with Roxanne is a wise refresh of the original tale, given Dinklage’s affinity for the role, but there is one change that wasn’t quite as well thought-through. While I appreciate the colorblind casting of Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Christian, it’s not an especially great look for him to be cast as a slow-witted black man who seeks the aid of a white savior for guidance in his love letters. The staging of one major scene, in particular, robs Christian of his agency in ways that would seem hoary and tacky even when race isn’t factored in but even more cringe-inducing when it is. Cyrano may have worked better in the more intimate setting of musical theater but as a film, it comes up short of the mark.

Score – 1.5/5

More new movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Disney+ is The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild, an animated spin-off starring Simon Pegg and Vincent Tong about a pair of possum brothers who team up with a weasel to save the Lost World from dinosaur domination.
Premiering on HBO Max is The Fallout, a teen drama starring Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler about a high schooler who navigates the emotional fallout she experiences with friends and family in the wake of a school tragedy.
Screening at Cinema Center January 28th and 29th is Into The Storm, a documentary filmed over 5 years that follows the unlikely dream of a young indigenous surfer from one of the toughest barrios in Latin America as he struggles to escape the struggles of his background and become a professional surfer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Red Notice

On their comedy companion channel Netflix Is A Joke, the streaming giant has a series called Written Entirely By Bots, comprised of animated shorts allegedly written by a computer program tasked with watching thousands of hours of a given genre of film. If they did one called The First Action-Adventure Film Written Entirely By Bots, I can’t imagine it would turn out much differently than Red Notice. Seemingly rendered to trigger a new wave of post-human cinema, the new would-be blockbuster doesn’t seem designed by committee as much as it seems designed by algorithm. Hypothetically, it was made to entertain humans but perhaps bots will be trained to watch it to juice up Netflix’s Nielsen numbers and trigger an inevitable franchise. We, the ticket-holders (subscription-holders, more aptly), are finally obsolete.

The story goes that thousands of years ago, Cleopatra received three egg-shaped jewels as gifts that were lost over time and scattered across the world. Cut to present day and their mystique still drives art thieves like Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) to scoop them up and sell the reconvened trio to the highest bidder. After nearly catching Booth in the act of stealing the first egg from Rome, FBI agent John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson) stays hot on his trail as he travels to Spain, where the second egg is allegedly held by arms dealer Sotto Voce (Chris Diamantopoulos). We discover Booth isn’t the only one scooping up eggs, as a fellow burglar known as The Bishop (Gal Gadot) is also drawn to the bejeweled artifacts and threatens to discover the lost third egg before he does.

From the expository opening voiceover that literally sounds like it was deep-faked into existence to the obligatory sequel its ending portends, Red Notice is gallingly generic throughout its 118 minute runtime. It apes globe-trotting escapades like Indiana Jones and The Mummy but does so with a stunning lack of personality and originality. Everyone here is squarely within their wheelhouse: Johnson as the stoic straight man, Reynolds as the wise-cracking fool and Gadot as the statuesque mystery woman who knows how to kick a butt or two. I understand actors playing to their strengths but these three stars are so unwilling to move away from their comfort zones that it just comes across as lazy. Perhaps Gadot and company still believe they’re under quarantine singing “Imagine” in their mansions, locked down from venturing out into the world of creativity.

Credited writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber hit it big in the past with comedies like DodgeBall and We’re the Millers but has transitioned to helming anonymous actioners since teaming with Johnson in 2018’s Skyscraper. Red Notice is a little too eager to please with its comedic notes but despite itself, it lands a few laughs along the way. Almost all the attempts come courtesy of Reynolds’ trademark quips, which are exhausting in their frequency but not without their occasional wins. His Booth asking a Russian prison cafeteria worker if the gruel he just served is farm-to-table is one such example that caught me off guard enough to chuckle. However, on the subject of food and drink, I can’t roll my eyes hard enough at the fact that Reynolds didn’t think we’d notice product placement for his own line of gin.

Just like the on-screen persona that Reynolds has crafted over the past twenty years, Red Notice is simply far too pleased with itself. It’s fueled by the same self-satisfied soullessness that has plagued blockbusters in the past but that Netflix is cynical enough to bet on this brand of entertainment for home viewing further demonstrates their commitment towards quantity over quality. Just this month, they’ve already released two other films — The Harder They Fall and Passing — that are well worth one’s time but won’t get half the views of this star-studded sham. With a title that sounds like an ominous warning that the crimson-hued “N” will soon take over all of Hollywood, Red Notice is less of a movie and more of a call to arms for creatives at risk of being outsourced by machines.

Score – 1.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a supernatural comedy sequel starring Paul Rudd and Finn Wolfhard about a recently evicted family who moves to a farmhouse and experiences unexplained earthquakes that they suspect could be tied to the paranormal.
Playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max is King Richard, a sports biopic starring Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis about how tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams became who they are after the coaching from their father Richard Williams.
Premiering on Netflix is Tick, Tick… Boom!, a musical starring Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp about an aspiring theater composer endures a quarter-life crisis as he approaches 30 and does not feel close to his dream.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Stowaway

In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Matt Damon plays a brilliant astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and with the aid of a robust sense of humor and scientific intellect along with NASA assistance, he makes it back to Earth. The new sci-fi snoozer Stowaway finds four space travelers in a similar predicament, who work through a life-or-death struggle in the most rote and matter-of-fact way possible. The special effects are believable enough and the process of how the astronauts deal with their stressful situation is likely accurate but that doesn’t mean it makes for an engaging movie. Watching the film is like reading an inventory list of dehydrated food supplies or an instruction manual for how to eat them; it’s the cinematic equivalent of the saltine cracker challenge.

The film opens on the faces of three crew members during the takeoff of a space shuttle owned by Hyperion, a sort of fictional SpaceX of the near-future. The aim of their two year, Mars-bound mission is to test food production on the red planet, spearheaded by tireless research from the ship’s biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). The rest of the trio, medic Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), round out a lean crew that grows too large when the latter finds an unconscious man behind a ceiling grate. He turns out to be a concussed launch support engineer who unwittingly became an accidental stowaway on a ship that only has resources to support three people and apparently not enough to abort the mission altogether.

In his directorial debut Arctic, director Joe Penna told a similar survival story to the one found in Stowaway but with even fewer people, revolving entirely around a stranded pilot played by Mads Mikkelsen. Taking place in the oppressive tundra of the Arctic Circle, the film has a convincing and menacing sense of environment that carries over to the unforgiving outer space surroundings of Penna’s sophomore effort. Adapting from “The Cold Equations”, a sci-fi short story that has also served as the basis for a Twilight Zone episode of the same name, Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison lay out the terms of the crew’s conundrum in fittingly unfeeling terms.

A creative decision becomes apparent early-on, one that dictates the story is told only from the perspective of these four voyagers. When Barnett communicates with a head technician at Hyperion, we only hear her side of the phone call and we don’t meet any other characters besides those four. This is in contrast to a space movie like The Martian, where we bounce between Mars and Earth and are introduced to supporting players to get a more complete picture. This withholding context should make the proceedings more tense, since we’re stuck on the ship with the crew, but the isolation only makes things painfully dull. The third act features an action setpiece of sorts but everything leading up to it is essentially hand-wringing devoid of the kind of moral ambiguity that could have made things interesting.

I’m not sure there’s a group of actors who could have given this lifeless tale what it needed but it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Aside from some fleeting sparks of chemistry with her two male cohorts, the charming Anna Kendrick is sadly miscast in a role that squanders her spunky sense of humor. Daniel Dae Kim deserves a starring role with more meat on the bone than this and Toni Collette, one of the best actresses around, is forced to push her melodramatic lines to their breaking point. Shamier Anderson might come across as the best of the quartet in his titular role but even his efforts fall short. Overacted and underdirected, Stowaway is a Netflix movie that barely passes muster as a screensaver at which to occasionally glance behind your smartphone after a hard day’s work.

Score – 1.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max is Mortal Kombat, a martial arts fantasy movie starring Lewis Tan and Jessica McNamee about an MMA fighter who recruits Earth’s greatest champions for a high stakes tournament in another universe.
Also coming to theaters is Together Together, an indie comedy starring Ed Helms and Patti Harrison about an introverted young woman who becomes a gestational surrogate for a single man in his 40s.
Also in theaters is The Asset, an action thriller starring Michael Keaton and Maggie Q about a pair of premiere assassins who team up to track down the killer of their mutual mentor.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Cherry

Transitioning in and out of a franchise-defining role can present a unique challenge to an actor, especially early in one’s career. Take Daniel Radcliffe. Starring in the first Harry Potter movie at the age of 11, he only appeared in one non-Potter film, the Australian weepie December Boys, during the octology’s 10 year run. His effort to break free from the specter of the bespectacled sorcerer in the 10 years since the series capping Deathly Hallows has led to roles that range from safe to bewildering, with flashes of brilliance in between. Tom Holland, currently filming the second sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, has faced a similar challenge shedding the image of his squeaky-clean superhero persona when taking on new projects like the pitiless dud Cherry.

Based on the bombshell autobiography from Army vet Nico Walker, Cherry stars Holland in the title role as a wayward young man who drops out of an Ohio university to become a military medic. In the transition, he meets the precocious but charming Emily (Ciara Bravo) and quickly falls in love with her. It isn’t long before he’s rushed through basic training and sent off to Iraq to treat soldiers’ horrific wounds while fighting for as much phone time with his true love as possible. When he returns stateside, he finds respite from his worsening PTSD by way of opioids and quickly falls down the steep spiral of drug addiction, while jeopardizing Emily’s future in the process. As hinted in the film’s prologue, Cherry eventually turns to bank robbery as a means of funding his heartbreaking habit.

After disintegrating the universe (half of it, technically) in Avengers: Infinity War and putting it back together in Avengers: Endgame, directors Anthony and Joe Russo are necessarily dealing in smaller stakes here by comparison. The main issue with Cherry is that even though the scale of the story should be much more modest, the Russos render every frame of their posturing crime drama with the same intensity of a big budget blockbuster. Nearly every scene incorporates at least one filming technique, be it exaggerated uses of focus or shifting aspect ratios, that seem designed to inspire nods of understanding from packed film school lecture halls. It’s enough to make one wonder if MCU architect Kevin Feige needed to tell these guys to rein it in more often than to punch things up during their 4 film stint with Marvel.

Beyond the over-stylization of the film’s visual palette, the Russos also lay it on way too thick when it comes to the themes of the narrative, which are displayed as ostentatiously as lighted letters on the side of a bank. There is a sensitive story still to be told about how veterans returning to the US don’t receive the treatment they need and become victims of drug abuse and suicide at disproportional and alarming rates. The directing duo may indeed care about these issues but the leading principle behind their vision isn’t “how can we intelligently convey this tragedy?” but rather “how can we make this look really cool?” When they do attempt to address the societal problems that sprout up from the story, their grasps at profundity couldn’t be any more amateurish and shallow.

The try-hard theatrics behind the camera could be forgiven if they at least generated a revelatory performance from Holland but the young actor is caught trying just as hard to shatter his clean-cut image. I simply never bought him as an ex-soldier turned hardened criminal, no matter how many four-letter words he spit out or how many times he brandished a gun in someone’s face. Ciara Bravo, whose name is incidentally homophonous with two letters from the military phonetic alphabet, is only slightly more convincing in her underwritten role. A product of directors trading epic storytelling for an epic failure, Cherry is filmmaking made rotten by the sickness of rampant over-direction.

Score – 1.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Premiering on Netflix is Yes Day, a family comedy starring Jennifer Garner and Édgar Ramírez about a pair of parents who give their three kids a “yes day”, where kids make the rules for 24 hours.
Streaming on Disney+ is Own The Room, a documentary from National Geographic which chronicles five students from disparate corners of the planet as they take their budding business ventures to the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards.
Available to rent digitally is Dark Web: Cicada 3301, a techno thriller starring Jack Kesy and Conor Leslie about a hacker and his friends who get caught up in a secret society’s global recruitment game.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Palmer

What does Justin Timberlake want? Not yet 40 years old, the pop icon has sold tens of millions of albums in his solo music career alone, resulting in ten Grammy Awards, and performed at two Super Bowl halftime shows, one of which gave birth to the dreadful phrase “wardrobe malfunction.” Though he’s dabbled in the movie industry throughout the years with films like The Social Network and the Trolls franchise, his latest project Palmer would suggest that he wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic leading man. Since a future Tony Award seems inevitable given his undeniable music talent, it makes sense that he would want to refine his acting chops to secure EGOT status but starring in hoary pablum like this latest offering from Apple TV+ won’t do his career or his Oscar aspirations any favors.

Timberlake stars as Eddie Palmer, a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who’s just been released from prison after a 12-year stint for attempted murder. He returns to the rural Louisiana home of his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who takes him in on the condition that he finds a job and joins her for church every Sunday. After finding out just how difficult it is for convicted felons to land even a minimum wage gig, he’s eventually hired as a janitor for the local elementary school, where he meets a charming young teacher named Maggie (Alisha Wainwright). One of her students Sam (Ryder Allen) is also taken in by Vivian after being abandoned by his delinquent mother Shelley (Juno Temple), which causes Palmer and Sam to strike up an unlikely friendship with one another.

Beyond Timberlake’s apparent desire to win respect within the acting community, it’s difficult to know what drew anyone to make Palmer. Director Fisher Stevens is best known for his work on socially-conscious, nature-based documentaries like the Oscar-winner The Cove and Before the Flood but his narrative instincts on display here are about as pedestrian as it gets. “Ex-con mentors troubled youth” isn’t exactly the most promising starting point but I was hoping that Stevens would be able to add some sort of depth or nuance as the story progressed. Not only does he refuse to have an original take on this tired material, he leans into nearly every cliche that we’ve come to associate with this overwrought brand of melodrama that’s barely above the level of a Hallmark movie.

The script by Cheryl Guerriero is packed with characters so one-dimensional that they more closely resemble a line-up from a geometry textbook rather than an assemblage of people who actually exist in the real world. It evokes a simplistic and stereotypical view of Southern culture that’s so obvious and unsophisticated that it’s borderline insulting. This is one of those movies that seems to have been created by pulling from a hat filled with the most trite scenes imaginable, from a pack of good ol’ boys drunkenly regaling each other with stories from their glory days to a tear-filled custody hearing where the judge demands order from the courtroom. I can’t readily recall a screenplay more complacent and safe than the one that Guerriero offers here.

In the midst of a streaming war that gets more competitive every year, Apple TV+ is still in the relatively early phases of developing their original content. Though they have yet to create a series that makes their service indispensable, they’ve moved the meter a bit with offerings like Servant and Ted Lasso. From the film side of things, their partnership with A24 yielded successes last year like On The Rocks and Boys State and promises more winners in the future. Beyond those, their movies have ranged greatly in terms of quality and style, which makes it difficult to tell what kind of brand they’re trying to establish. Regardless of what the future holds for the emerging streaming service, they’ll need to do better than utterly bland fare like Palmer to command the attention of couchbound audiences.

Score – 1.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Arriving on HBO Max is The Little Things, a crime thriller starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek about a feud between a deputy and a detective during the investigation of a serial killer in 1980s California.
Debuting on Netflix is The Dig, a period drama starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes about an archeologist who discovers and begins excavating the Sutton Hoo burial site in 1930s England.
Out for digital rental is Supernova, a romantic drama starring Colin Firth and Stanley Stucci about a pair of longtime partners who reunite with friends and family after one of them is diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Rental

Following in the footsteps of his big brother James, Dave Franco makes his directing debut with The Rental, an insipid and immature horror-thriller that never finds a sense of place or purpose. Franco tries to shake up the well-worn slasher genre by throwing in the romantic hang-ups of the mumblecore genre but he doesn’t seem to have the mechanics of either genre down. Existing at the intersection of Drinking Buddies and I Know What You Did Last Summer, it lacks both the amiable character chemistry of the former and the over-the-top gory kills of the latter.

We’re introduced to co-workers Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) as they drool over a oceanview AirBnb and since they just finished a big project, they reward themselves by booking it for a weekend away. Along with Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina’s boyfriend/Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), the group makes their way to the picturesque rental property. The sweet deal starts to sour when property manager Taylor (Toby Huss) gives them creepy vibes right from the get-go and it doesn’t take long for unresolved sexual tension to rear its ugly head. After making other unsettling discoveries about the house, the four vacationers become the target of a series of violent confrontations from an unseen force.

The setup for The Rental (four friends going away for the weekend) is about as old as the slasher genre itself, so the devil, as they say, is in the details. The biggest issue with the film is that the screenplay, co-written by Franco and Joe Swanberg, doesn’t adequately capitalize on this hackneyed jumping-off point. Although Mina is certainly the most likable of the four friends, all of the characters are generally repugnant in their behavior and are increasingly difficult to empathize with. It certainly doesn’t help that Franco indulges some improvisational banter from the quartet, particularly a banal set of exchanges interpolating the word “bro”.

Franco also carries forth another proud tradition of bad slasher movies: dumb people making dumb decisions just so the plot can move forward. These four seem to be in their mid-30s and yet they have the decision-making abilities and childish senses of humor that would seem more in-line with a misfit group of teenagers. As the circumstances behind the characters’ stay become deadly, several obvious solutions emerge only to be brushed aside in favor of other hair-brained schemes. It all leads to a head-scratching anticlimax topped off with some overbearing social commentary about The Way We Live Today. That the most chilling portion of the movie plays out over the end credits tells you everything you need to know about the previous 88 minutes.

Perhaps fitting for the on-screen buffoons, there are amateur mistakes made off-screen as well. While some of the cinematography by Christian Sprenger takes advantage of the idyllic locale, several key shots are sloppily rendered and unnecessarily murky. The editing by Kyle Reiter cuts away from or omits so many shots of potential violence that it almost seems like they were shooting for a PG-13 rating. Normally I wouldn’t dock a film for holding back on violent images but when we’re talking about a slasher movie, modesty is often not a virtue. If the ScareBnb horror subgenre is to continue, it needs better torch-bearers than The Rental.

Score – 1.5/5

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Turning

The haunted house movie genre is one that always seems to be in constant ebb and flow when it comes to quality. For every stellar entry like The Conjuring or Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, we get forgettable titles like Winchester and Amityville: The Awakening. The Turning, Hollywood’s latest mangling of Henry James’ classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, sadly falls into the category of film that only exists to make the great ones seem greater by comparison. Despite starting with rich source material and incorporating some watchable rising stars into its cast, this redundant and horribly derivative would-be supernatural thriller offers very little in the way of fresh scares.

Set almost 100 years after James’ original tale, the story centers around kindergarten teacher Kate (Mackenzie Davis) as she takes a live-in nanny/tutor position for the recently orphaned Flora (Brooklynn Prince) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard). Helping manage the vast estate where the kids reside is housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who seems suspicious of Kate from the moment she steps onto the property. Although Kate and Flora seem to ease into a friendly relationship, Miles presents as much more abrasive and even lecherous to their new guest. It doesn’t take long for things to sour further as the haunts of the creepy manor materialize in the form of menacing apparitions that suggest a dark history.

Making the leap to feature films after crafting music videos for artists like Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake, director Floria Sigismondi can’t find her voice within this hopelessly generic adaptation. In an all-too-rare bit of meta humor, Kate murmurs “this can’t be real” as she pulls up to the house for the first time and beholds the barrage of cliches that fall before her: the dilapidated mansion, the impossibly long driveway adorn with dead trees on either side and, naturally, the gloomy weather to match. The truth is, it’s all real, at least in the sense that Sigismondi is going to take every trick and trope associated with the spooky house genre deadly seriously from there on out.

Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, responsible for bringing The Conjuring to life, inelegantly stuff their script with suggestions as to what’s behind all of these creepy occurrences. The character work is especially thin, not leaving much meat on the bone for Davis and company to dig into past increasingly haunted facial expressions. The presence of props from pet tarantulas to porcelain dolls perpetuate a moody atmosphere that constantly comes across as contrived. Sigismondi assembles all of these tried-and-true gothic horror elements and tosses them into a blender, producing a bland purée that only the most gullible of teens will consume.

This is the kind of film that teases you for 90 minutes, dangling all manner of red herrings and half-reveals in front of our faces, until it finally gives the viewer the unfiltered truth in the end. If The Turning is remarkable in any way, it’s certainly in how unsatisfying and downright confusing a conclusion it offers as a bitter consolation prize for enduring its preceding narrative. Everyone who worked on the film should take comfort in knowing that most audience members will stay through the credits, likely to take a moment and wipe the perplexed looks off their faces. The Turning may indeed turn heads, even if it’s to the side to signify bewilderment.

Score – 1.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Gretel and Hansel, starring Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, retells the dark fairy tale about a pair of siblings who get lost in the woods and stumble upon terrifying evil in the process.
The Rhythm Section, starring Blake Lively and Jude Law, is an international spy thriller that follows a woman who seeks to uncover the truth behind a plane crash that killed her family three years earlier.
Opening at Cinema Center is VHYes, starring Kerri Kenney and Thomas Lennon, a comedy shot entirely on VHS and Beta about a boy who accidentally records home videos over his parents’ wedding tape.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup