Tag Archives: 2.5/5

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

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

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

Pet Sematary

We’ve seen a surge in cinematic Stephen King adaptations over the past couple years and now added to the procession is Pet Sematary, an intermittently eerie but ultimately forgettable retelling of King’s 1983 novel. As someone who has neither read the book nor seen the previous film adaptation from 30 years ago, I went into this new iteration with an open mind but came out oddly unmoved by a tale that’s almost oppressively bleak. While there are some well-earned scares that meet the minimum requirements for modern horror, it feels like the source material was stripped of most of its emotional heft for a more broadly commercial appeal.

Jason Clarke stars as Louis Creed, a doctor who relocates from Boston to a rural town in Maine with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their two young children Ellie and Gage, and the family cat Church. While wandering through the woods one day, Ellie stumbles upon a creepy pet cemetery where their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) fills her in on some of the town’s mysterious past. After a pair of tragedies subsequently befall the Creed family, Louis and Jud take matters into their own hands and conjure the powerful mystical forces of a sinister burial ground behind the cemetery.

Co-directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch lay some out nice foundational work with foreboding musings on death and the afterlife but once the plot kicks in, the pacing begins to resemble a headlong rush towards the conclusion. Although it has some properly macabre touches, the main storyline also has more than a few contrivances and inconsistencies that screenwriter Jeff Buhler isn’t able to fully iron out. More successful is a subplot involving Rachel’s guilt stemming from a conflict with her dead sister, which manifests itself in a pair of chilling setpieces that give the film a terrifying jolt of energy.

The effectiveness of these scenes is mainly due to the excellent work from Seimetz, who carries an authentic anxiety in her performance that makes her the most sympathetic character in the story. Although Lithgow brings a sweltering severity to the film’s most ostentatious role, his Jud often feels like more of a ever-present plot device than a fully realized person. On the other end of the quality spectrum is Clarke, who is never fully convincing as Louis in the quieter scenes towards the beginning but strains credulity even further in the ghoulishly over-the-top material that dominates the film’s second half.

A quarrel that I have not with the film itself but the marketing of the film is just how many plot details are ruined by the theatrical trailer, which is a trend that is becoming disturbingly common these days. There are at least 3 crucial plot points, including 2 that I would consider major spoilers for those unfamiliar with the source material, that are present in the footage that has played in the months leading up to the film’s release. Perhaps going in fresh would have yielded better results but with its secrets already out in the open, Pet Sematary digs itself into a shallow grave.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Curse of La Llorona, starring Linda Cardellini and Raymond Cruz, continues the supernatural chills of the Conjuring Universe by introducing a motherly ghost who preys on children.
Breakthrough, starring Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas, tells the harrowing true story of a teenager who enters a coma after falling through ice and the family that prays for his full recovery.
Penguins, narrated by Ed Helms, is a Disneynature documentary about a penguin who joins millions of fellow males on a quest to build a suitable nest, find a life partner and start a family.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Captain Marvel

The Marvel Cinematic Universe makes room for yet another superhero in Captain Marvel, an action-packed addition to the gargantuan series which is noteworthy for its female lead but not for much else. It’s a perfectly acceptable product from Marvel Studios, which has produced an average of 2 comic book movies a year for the past 10 years, but it rarely distinguishes itself enough to transcend that dubious designation. For a film that revolves around its superheroine searching for her true identity, it’s painfully ironic that the film itself doesn’t break with the “Marvel formula” long enough to establish an identity of its own.

Set in the mid-1990s, the story centers around Vers (Brie Larson), a member of the alien race known as Kree who trains under the mentorship of the revered warrior Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). During a battle against their shapeshifting foes known as Skrulls, Vers escapes to Earth and is discovered by SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) after she crash lands inside a Los Angeles Blockbuster store. On the run from Skrull soldiers led by the treacherous Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the two follow clues that point towards a hidden past that Vers had on Earth and advanced technology that may end the intergalactic alien feud once and for all.

The best elements of Captain Marvel revolve around the chemistry between Larson and Jackson in a storyline that feels like it’s ripped straight from a ’90s buddy-cop movie like Die Hard with a Vengeance. Thanks to some utterly convincing digital de-aging in post-production, Jackson even looks like they pulled him right off the set from one of those films and placed him in this fish-out-of-water tale. The banter and comedic timing between the determined Vers and the incredulous Fury lead to the biggest delights of the film and offer respite from the tiresome space conflict that drives the majority of the narrative.

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known for crafting intimate character studies like Half Nelson and Sugar, would seem to be a great fit to tell an origin story with an amnesiac at its center. Sadly, the investigation of Vers and her backstory is relatively shallow and lacks the type of nuance that we’ve come to expect based on the directors’ previous work. Their lack of experience in the action genre is apparent from the numerous setpieces that are somewhat enjoyable but lack the visual flair of other entries in the Marvel canon. There’s also no doubt that some of the more rambunctious musical cues are incongruous with the rest of the film’s general tone.

The cast certainly does the best that they can with the material and most of the actors and actresses are given at least one scene in which they really shine. Despite portraying a woefully underwritten central character, Larson is able to balance snark and stoicism to mostly make up for the script’s deficiencies. Newcomer Lashana Lynch is terrific in her limited role and her scenes with Larson are hands-down the most human moments in the entire film. There just aren’t enough of them to give Captain Marvel the kind of emotional heft that it needed to stand out from the increasingly homogeneous superhero landscape.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Wonder Park, starring Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong, is the latest offering from Nickelodeon Movies about an imaginative young girl who creates an amusement park filled with talking animals and fantastical rides.
Captive State, starring John Goodman and Ashton Sanders, depicts a world in which an uncompromising extraterrestrial force has fractured humanity into two opposing sides.
Five Feet Apart, starring Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse, adapts the young adult novel about pair of teenagers with life-threatening illnesses who fall in love after meeting in the hospital.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Greta

Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz play a dangerous game of cat and mouse in Greta, a campy thriller with a pair of memorable performances that is critically compromised by a cliche-ridden screenplay. Cut from the same cloth as 90s stalker movies like Single White Female and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, the film cycles through conventions of the sub-genre with relative ease but does so without making much of an impression on its own terms. Irish director Neil Jordan, probably still best known for his Oscar-winning The Crying Game, is able to generate some suspenseful scenes in the third act, even if it takes a little too long to get there.

Moretz stars as Frances, a young waitress living in New York with her street-smart friend Erica (Maika Monroe), who finds a deserted purse on the subway one evening after her shift. Wanting to do the right thing, she follows the address on the driver’s license inside and subsequently meets the titular character played by Huppert, a widowed piano teacher who seems plagued by loneliness. The two soon become close but after Frances finds evidence that suggests their initial meeting might not have been as serendipitous as it seemed, Greta becomes obsessed with preserving what she views as their mother-daughter relationship.

It’s vital for a movie like this to have a central character with whom we can empathize as she goes through an increasingly alarming scenario and thankfully, Greta undoubtedly excels in this area. Moretz does a fine job at imbuing Frances with grace and likability right off the bat, while Monroe also continues a nice string of work as a more cynical and savvy counterpart to the naive Frances. But as you may expect, it’s Huppert as the unassuming but deranged Greta who steals the show as she tiptoes and terrorizes her way through a story that isn’t quite deserving of her abundant talents.

The script, co-written by Jordan with Ray Wright, does not feel as fresh as it should for a film of this genre and creates moments that inspire dubious questions in the minds of audience members. For example, if one was alerted to being watched in a crowded public area, why would he or she leave that area to walk alone down a dark alley? Also, if a kidnapper restrained her captive in a bed, why would she place the bed post up against a wall so that visitors could hear the commotion from said bed post? It’s a shame that the plot folds under basic scrutiny from common sense questions like these because a little fine tuning could have eliminated these errors.

Aside from the reckless plotting and glaring issues with many of the decisions made by the characters, there are small delights from a technical aspect that piqued my interest at various points. I appreciated the way Javier Navarrete interpolated the familiar tune of Lizst’s “Liebestraum,” which is played by Greta during her first meeting with Frances, into his tense musical score. Jordan also captures a side of New York that feels more isolated and lonesome than the bustling metropolis we typically see on-screen. Unfortunately, touches like these are simply grace notes to a melody that feels all too familiar and make Greta a fluffy and forgettable thriller.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, is the latest Marvel movie about an Air Force pilot who gets caught in an intergalactic conflict between two alien worlds.
Arctic, starring Mads Mikkelsen, tells the harrowing story of a man stranded in the Arctic after an airplane crash who must decide whether to remain in his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown.
Opening at Cinema Center is Song Of Back And Neck, starring The Office’s Paul Lieberstein and Rosemarie DeWitt, in which a man with chronic muscle pain begins to find relief when new romance enters his life.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

When The Lego Movie was released in 2014, it was an overwhelming success with both audiences and critics which used the popular toy line as a jumping off point to tell an amusing and visually inventive story. 5 years and 2 spin-offs later, a direct sequel is now upon us but unfortunately, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part does not recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle success of its predecessor. Despite investigating childlike concepts of creativity and playtime, the first film felt relatively mature in its ideas and execution. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the sequel’s attempt to cater more to younger audiences, it’s a creative decision that undoubtedly weakens the film’s comedic thrust.

Set 5 years after our hero Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) saves Bricksburg from the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), the Duplo invaders have since turned their idyllic city into a post-apocalyptic wasteland renamed Apocalypseburg. A new alien threat emerges as General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) kidnaps Emmet’s girlfriend Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) along with other citizens of their town and takes them far away to the Systar System. After Emmet crosses paths with intergalactic hero Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Pratt) and his crew of talking velociraptors, they launch a rescue mission to recover their friends from the shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish).

The Lego Movie‘s directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have returned to write this follow-up but in the director’s chair this time around is Mike Mitchell, who helmed the Dreamworks hit Trolls a few years back. This change might seem inconsequential but the impact is evident, as the overbearingly bright color palette and more juvenile tone of that film seems to be on full display for The Lego Movie 2. The story is generally one-dimensional until the third act, during which its message about altruism amid trying circumstances is laid on so thick that I felt like I was getting sprayed with a pathos fire hose.

With their work on the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Jump Street films, Lord and Miller have established their own brand of meta humor that pokes fun at the tropes of their respective franchises. They use the same approach with the screenplay this time around, as when Rex Dangervest unveils his heroic tools like the CPD (Convenient Plot Device) and the Implausitron. While they do occasionally land some nice one-liners in the process, the jokes on a whole just don’t seem as fresh as in Lord and Miller’s previous work. Perhaps I’ve grown a bit weary of self-aware humor as of late but it’s also possible that the writing duo just didn’t put quite as much effort in this time around.

The film also relies more heavily on pop music and musical numbers to keep the energy high but nothing quite matches the infectious exuberance of The Lego Movie‘s “Everything Is Awesome.” There is an attempt to recreate the first film’s earworm in the appropriately titled “Catchy Song” but its claim that “this song is gonna get stuck inside your head” feels like more a threat than an invitation. Beck and the comedy trio The Lonely Island fare better on an end credits song that may be the film’s peak in terms of comedic innovation. Sadly, it’s a reminder of the lost opportunities that precede it which make The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part a mild disappointment.

Score – 2.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Cold Pursuit, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Dern, tells the tale of a vengeful snowplow driver up against a drug cartel after his son is murdered in their Rocky Mountains hometown.
The Prodigy, starring Taylor Schilling and Jackson Robert Scott, centers around a mother who begins to suspect that her brilliant young son may be possessed by supernatural forces.
What Men Want, starring Taraji P. Henson and Tracy Morgan, is a gender-swapped remake of the Mel Gibson film What Women Want that follows a woman who is able to hear men’s inner thoughts.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ralph Breaks the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 2.5/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 2.5/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Night School

From the Adam Sandler-centric Billy Madison to the one-two combination of 21 and 22 Jump Street, the idea of grown adults returning to high school is a concept that has played out in plenty of comedies over the years. Returning to the well once more is Night School, the new Kevin Hart vehicle (or HartBeat Production, according to a pre-credit logo) that does precious little to distinguish itself from the class. Along with co-star Tiffany Haddish, Hart brings his typical level of charm and dedication to the film but even with six credited writers on board, there just aren’t enough laughs built in to the script to make this trip back to school worth taking.

Hart stars as Teddy Walker, a barbecue grill salesman looking to move into a career in finance to keep pace with his successful fiancé Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), despite the fact that he lacks a high school diploma. With the hopes that he can charm his way into a work-free GED, he attends night school classes at the same school he dropped out of years prior but is met head-on by the no-nonsense instructor Carrie (Tiffany Haddish). Together with his eccentric group of classmates, Teddy must learn to overcome the same obstacles that precluded him all those years ago.

The film gets off to a promising start, as director Malcolm D. Lee sets Teddy up as a likable guy who seems to have peaked early on in life, but each subsequent character is given less and less dimension by comparison. By the time we get to the first night school class, supporting players like Rob Riggle and Mary Lynn Rajskub are relegated to one or two introductory lines that don’t create enough of a foundation upon which to build clever jokes. The movie’s would-be climax, a late-night school break-in to steal answers to a practice test, spreads its humor thin across half a dozen characters and ends with a gross-out gag that feels out of place and off-putting.

Most of the laughs that land come from the verbal sparring between Hart and Haddish that’s established during their first scene together, in which she refers to him as a “burnt leprechaun”. As is typical for most Hart comedies, his diminutive stature is the center of quite a few jokes; I also appreciated the imposing low angles that cinematographer Greg Gardiner used to juxtapose the height difference between Hart and the film’s more domineering characters. This is especially evident in an early scene with the strict principal played by SNL‘s Taran Killam, whose bat-touting antics seem to be a riff on the Morgan Freeman character from Lean On Me.

Like its main character, the biggest problem that Night School faces is a critical lack of focus. Clearly the film is going for a Breakfast Club vibe where each character has their own dilemma to solve but with two major comedic talents at the forefront, there isn’t enough screen time for a whole class of students. Perhaps if Teddy had been paired with just one classmate, like the one played by Romany Malco (the two shared a hilarious scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin), then there could have been some tighter comedic writing. Night School is good-natured and has an endearing message at its core but as a laugh-out-loud comedy, it doesn’t quite make the grade.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Venom, starring Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams, is the latest Sony-backed Marvel superhero movie that focuses on a journalist who gains superpowers after coming in contact with an extraterrestrial parasite.
A Star is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, is the third remake of the 1937 original film that follows the romance that develops between a road-worn country musician and an up-and-coming singer.
Also opening at Cinema Center this weekend is Blaze, starring Ben Dickey and Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat, which is a new biopic directed by Ethan Hawke that covers the life of country musician Blaze Foley.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup