Tag Archives: 2.5/5

Halloween Ends

The leaves are changing to golden hues, the brisk air smells of Pumpkin Spice Latte, and that can only mean one thing: a new Halloween sequel is on Peacock. Whether Halloween Ends, the thirteenth installment in the Halloween franchise, will truly be the series’s last is still a bit of an open question, given how lucrative these films continue to be. But at the very least, it does seem to be the definitive end for the trio of films that writer/director David Gordon Green started in 2018 with legacy sequel Halloween and its 2021 follow-up Halloween Kills. As a trilogy capper, it wraps things up about as well as it could have and the quality level is consistent with the other two recent entries. If you were a fan of those two, then Ends is unlikely to disappoint. If, like me, you’ve been underwhelmed with this slasher series, then you may do better to select from the plethora of other recent quality horror titles for spooky season this year.

Halloween Ends picks up 4 years after the events of Kills, with the town of Haddonfield still traumatized from Michael Myers’s latest slaying spree and subsequent disappearance. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has since bought a house in town with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) and is writing a memoir about her encounters with evil incarnate. Deputy Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) is doing his best to learn Japanese and got himself a new guitar to pluck around with. Everyone is just trying to move on. That includes Corey (Rohan Campbell), still tormented from a babysitting gig years ago that unexpectedly turned deadly during his watch. But as this series has proven over and over, evil never dies and Myers does eventually come out of hiding to wreak havoc on Halloween night once more and to finish his face-off with Laurie.

As much as Universal is touting Halloween Ends as a feature-length showdown between Michael and Laurie, most of the film’s narrative revolves around the relationship that develops between Corey and Allyson. Outside of their individual hangups — Corey has a dead-end job at a salvage yard, while Allyson gets overlooked for a charge nurse promotion because she won’t sleep with her boss — they both share pain related to how residents of Haddonfield see them. They’re local legends for the wrong reasons and diner-goers and bar patrons don’t miss an opportunity to remind them about every chance they get. Of course, their struggle mirrors the conflict Laurie has had with Michael all these years but Corey and Allyson being young and eager to leave town makes their cause easy to root for as well.

Thematically, Halloween Ends ponders the nature of evil, most notably in a monologue Laurie gives about external evil borne of negative circumstances and internal evil borne of one’s reaction to them. The idea that bullies, who show up in this film even more than its two direct predecessors, act negatively against others to poorly cope with their own struggles is not a new one. While the movie does shed new light on what becomes of the bullied when they decide to fight back, it doesn’t exactly tie in with how the rest of the franchise functions. In the very first Halloween, Michael Myers is a disturbed child who murders his babysitter for reasons we and he don’t fully understand. He comes back later as an adult and goes on a killing spree without an explanation of how he got that way. To quote Scream, “it’s scarier when there’s no motive.”

I have nothing against the slasher genre; I’ve enjoyed both X and Pearl from this year alone and recent reboots of Candyman and Hellraiser have worked for me, in addition to the subversive Happy Death Day entries. But I think it’s time to retire Michael Myers at this point. He’s had quite the run over the past six decades, with some great movies and not-as-great movies under his belt. Even as an embodiment of pure evil, to paraphrase series protagonist Dr. Loomis, he just isn’t much of an interesting character anymore. He’s a mute antagonist whose levels of physical strength and vulnerability have varied greatly over the years — and even sometimes within the same movie. If Halloween Ends inspires the beginning of a brand-new slasher series, or different kind of horror subgenre entirely, then this new trilogy will have served its purpose.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is Black Adam, a DCEU superhero movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Aldis Hodge chronicling a super-powered being who is hungry for justice after being awoken from his Egyptian tomb after nearly five thousand years of imprisonment.
Also coming only to theaters is Ticket to Paradise, a romantic comedy starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts about two divorced parents who travel to Bali after learning that their daughter is planning to marry a man whom she has just met.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Raymond & Ray, a family dramedy starring Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke about two half-brothers who reunite at the funeral of their father, with whom both had a poor relationship.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Don’t Worry Darling

Hot off its Venice International Film Festival premiere earlier this month, Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort Don’t Worry Darling lands in theaters with a whole mess of PR in tow. Reports of casting shake-ups and alleged on-set conflicts painted the picture of a troubled production before a disjointed press circuit further exacerbated the optics surrounding the film. It’s to the movie’s credit that all of this baggage begins to evaporate quite quickly, like a dream upon waking, after the lights dim and the projector begins to flicker. Unfortunately, the end result still isn’t good enough to overcome all the expectations most audiences will have going into the theater, nor is it bad enough for the hate-watching crowds to get their kicks either.

Set in an idyllic community deeply steeped in mid-century architecture and fashion, Don’t Worry Darling is told through the eyes of Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh), a stay-at-home wife who dutifully sees her engineer husband Jack (Harry Styles) off every morning. She spends her days rigorously cleaning the house and sharing a mid-day martini with next-door neighbor Bunny (Olivia Wilde) before preparing a lavish dinner just in time for Jack’s arrival back home. Alice’s utopian life in the town of Victory starts to fall apart when her friend Margaret (KiKi Layne) begins to press Frank (Chris Pine), the founder of the all-encompassing Victory Project, for details around the enigmatic operation. After seeing a plane crash in the desert one day, Alice makes a trip to investigate the wreckage but instead finds the Victory Headquarters, causing her to ask questions similar to the ones Margaret asked before suffering an alleged “accident”.

Anyone who has seen the trailer for Don’t Worry Darling, which played ad nauseam in theaters this summer, won’t be surprised that some of the film’s stronger points are its surface-level delights. The set design, location work and production design are absolutely first-rate, meticulously evoking a 1950s postcard-prepped Palm Springs paradise that is exquisitely rendered at every turn. The masterful cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whose work on Black Swan underscores the ballet classes that Alice takes in this film, beautifully renders these picturesque settings while implying a darkness under the surface. Juxtaposing the carefree doo-wop and jazz hits on the soundtrack, John Powell’s haunting music score blends chopped-up breaths and grimy synths to perpetually chilling effect.

It’s all fantastic window-dressing but the script for Don’t Worry Darling dooms itself by putting all its eggs in the basket dedicated to the central mystery concerning what is really happening at Victory. Wilde occasionally drops paltry breadcrumbs leading to the late third-act development but spends too much time spinning her wheels with one psychological horror trope after another. Without getting into details that would constitute spoilers, the reveal feels cobbled together from other movies and TV series that have explored its implications and ramifications more thoroughly and intelligently. Wilde adds some layers of gender politics and social commentary that feel fresh and germane to the story but not enough to triumph over the nagging questions that theatergoers will have when the credits roll.

The stacked ensemble cast, which also includes Gemma Chan and Nick Kroll, does everything they can to bring this wonderland to life. Translating the terrors of her Midsommar character into a somewhat similar scenario, Pugh is reliably outstanding at bringing us into the shattered psyche of a woman at odds with the perfidious paradise around her. Pine is also excellent as a confident and charismatic authority figure who conjures platitudes about progress and positivity so seductively that they start to sound profound in no time. Styles is fine conveying what is admittedly a pretty bland character but based on the strength of his latest album, I hope he makes music a bigger priority than acting from here on. Don’t Worry Darling has plenty going for it but ultimately comes undone by a backloaded screenplay that favors surprises over subtlety.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters is Bros, a romantic comedy starring Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane about a New York museum curator with commitment issues and insecurities about his homosexuality who attempts a relationship with a workaholic lawyer.
Streaming on Disney+ is Hocus Pocus 2, a supernatural comedy starring Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker bringing back the Sanderson sisters 29 years after the events of the first film as they face off against a new trio of high school students.
Premiering on Netflix is Blonde, a historical drama starring Ana de Armas and Adrien Brody which tells a fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe from her tragic childhood to her meteoric rise to fame and her untimely death at the age of 36.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.

Last September, The Eyes of Tammy Faye took the straight-laced biopic approach to telling the story of a pastor’s wife standing alongside her husband amidst a turbulent time of scandal and mistrust. Its spiritual companion, so to speak, now arrives a year later in Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., which works off of a similar premise but takes a markedly different approach to the story. Half of the film plays like a mockumentary version of The Righteous Gemstones, while the other half resembles Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, if its target was organized religion instead of the entertainment industry. While it has some strong laughs early on and a pair of terrific lead performances, the film is stylistically incongruous and narratively superfluous.

The movie centers around fictional Atlanta megachurch Wander To Greater Paths Baptist, led by perfervid pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and congenial “first lady” Trinitie (Regina Hall). Together, the pair have cultivated a congregation of 25,000+ members but their status in the community is at risk when accusations come out against Lee-Curtis that force the Childs’ to temporarily close the church’s doors. In the interim, the nearby Heaven’s House, led by Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie, respectively), has seen a steady uptick in congregants that the Sumpters would like to retain even after Greater Paths reopens. With their backs against the wall, the Childs’ plan a comeback of biblical proportions that will restore their reputation and return their sheep to the fold.

Opening with Trinitie fumbling over a rat-based parable to an unseen camera crew, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. gets off on the right foot early with a faux-documentary style to which fans of The Office or Modern Family will feel acclimated right away. The more image-conscious the subjects are in this genre, the more fun their characters are to observe and the Childs’ fit this billing to a T. Whether they’re flaunting “divine additions” courtesy of Prada or making sure that the indoor fountain in frame behind them is spitting all sorts of unnecessary water, there’s plenty of comedy to be had with their conceited diversions. We’re also treated to domestic moments of Trinitie and Lee-Curtis trading verses on “Knuck If You Buck” and arguing about the en vogue pronunciation of “amen” that give these characters depth and personality.

But around the halfway point, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. turns from a lighter comedy about commodified Christianity to a more serious and pointed satire about hypocrisy at the highest levels of power. It’s certainly a worthy subject but compared to the tone of what came before it, the more biting commentary feels deflating and out of place. Ostentatious preachers and histrionic churchgoers are low-hanging fruit but it’s when the film tries to climb up the tree that it not only loses its sense of humor but also its sense of purpose. The Childs’ start as caricatures and become more sharply defined as the story progresses but I lost what writer/director Adamma Ebo is ultimately trying to say about them as people.

Fortunately, we never want to take our eyes off of Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, due to the sheer magnetism of the performances by Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall. The pair has an outstanding chemistry with one another and plays off each other beautifully, interplaying guile and grace all while trying to look good for the ever-present cameras. Conphidance and Nicole Beharie are quite good also but the movie seems to lose track of the Sumpters as it narrows in on the nature of Lee-Curtis’ indiscretions. If this had been a matter of the Childs’ vs. the Sumpters in a holy royal rumble for church members, it could have been played more broadly but I wouldn’t have complained as long as the jokes still landed. As is, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. is a mixed bag of blessings and woes whose script could have benefited from some divine intervention.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Barbarian, a horror film starring Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgård about a woman who arrives at an Airbnb to find that it’s apparently been double-booked as a man is also staying there the same time as her.
Premiering on Disney+ is Pinocchio, a live-action remake starring Tom Hanks and Joseph Gordon-Levitt about an Italian woodcarver whose puppet is brought to life after he wishes upon a star one evening.
Streaming on Netflix is End of the Road, a thriller starring Queen Latifah and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges about a cross-country road trip through the New Mexico desert that becomes treacherous for a woman and her family when they become the targets of a mysterious killer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Bodies Bodies Bodies

Bodies Bodies Bodies is a movie that tries so hard to be several different things that it doesn’t amount to much of anything in the end. It wants to be a satire of Generation Z and zoomer culture but it doesn’t push hard enough on those elements to succeed; the worst crime a satire can commit is to not be recognizable as one. Maybe it’s an in-on-the-joke slasher like Scream (2022, since designation is now necessary) but if that’s the case, why aren’t any of the characters making fun of the tropes that surround them? Murder mysteries like the superior Werewolves Inside and the Apple TV+ series The Afterparty have been popular recently but this film doesn’t exactly fit that categorization either. Though I can’t say I laughed much, perhaps it fits best as a dark comedy about interchangeable caricatures without a clue.

We open on young lovers Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) and Bee (Maria Bakalova) as they head to a “hurricane party” hosted by Sophie’s friend David (Pete Davidson) inside his dad’s mansion. Upon their arrival, they’re greeted warmly by some like Alice (Rachel Sennott) and her older boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace) but much less so by others like Jordan (Myha’la Herrold) and David’s girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders). To break the tension, Sophie suggests a game of Bodies Bodies Bodies, the rules of which are never clearly explained other than the fact that it resembles a variation of Mafia with flashlights. Once an actual dead body pops up within their game of fake murder, each of the partygoers becomes a suspect for one another as the tropical storm rages on outside.

The talented young cast does a nice job filling in the gaps of the screenplay where the development behind their characters should be, doing their level best to distinguish these otherwise indistinguishable characters from one another. In her English directorial debut, Halina Reijn often shifts the narrative focus between each of the houseguests, both keeping the audience on their toes and allowing us to spend split time with all of them. Amandla Stenberg was perhaps the only good aspect of last year’s otherwise atrocious Dear Evan Hansen and she gives another compelling performance here as an addict struggling to reconnect with her friends. Though characters pester her about not keeping up in the group chat, it’s made clear in time that this group of friends really only functions in a virtual sense as opposed to a face-to-face setting.

But Bodies Bodies Bodies doesn’t seem to have much of an attitude or perspective on the culture behind these young (except Greg) faces. A scene of confrontation later in the film is one of the only sequences that feels like it was conceived as a series of Tweets, with characters volleying jabs about “feelings are facts” platitudes and “ableist” accusations. If this film is supposed to be mocking how these characters interact, it needs to either keep up this cadence throughout or drop it entirely but as a thesis, it’s undercut by a movie that elsewhere doesn’t have enough else to say about Gen Z. I’d be happy to see a movie that either stands up for this crowd or takes them down but the film resides within a safe space where it wants to offend without offending.

Rhetoric aside, Bodies Bodies Bodies falls flat in the visual realm, which is especially troubling at a time when movie theaters finally seem to be coming back in fashion and only films “meant to be seen on the big screen” are selling tickets. The hurricane outside the mansion causes an obligatory power outage, which leads to most of the film being lit by either characters’ cell phone flashlights or glow sticks. This should be a unique challenge for any cinematographer to take on but director of photography Jasper Wolf shoots too much over-the-shoulder with very few wide shots to give us a sense of the space. Strong performances and some amusing dialogue aside, Bodies Bodies Bodies is boring, bland and basic.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Beast, a survival thriller starring Idris Elba and Sharlto Copley about a father and his two teenage daughters who find themselves hunted by a massive rogue lion intent on proving that the Savanna can only have one apex predator.
Streaming on Paramount+ is Orphan: First Kill, a psychological horror film starring Isabelle Fuhrman and Julia Stiles following Esther as she breaks out of an Estonian psychiatric facility and travels to America by impersonating the missing daughter of a wealthy family.
Available to rent or stream on AMC+ is Spin Me Round, a romantic comedy starring Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza about a woman who wins an all-expenses trip to Florence through the company where she works but finds a different adventure than the one she imagined.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Nope

Three films into his career, writer/director Jordan Peele has established himself as a rare breed in Hollywood: a creative force with a distinctive voice who not only has big ideas but also has the budget to put them on the screen. But those who appreciated the cheeky brand of social commentary on race and class from Get Out and Us may be left scratching their heads after Nope, Peele’s attempt at a Western blockbuster. As evasive as the marketing for it has been, the ads pitched the film as a Spielbergian summer spectacle a la Jaws or Close Encounters but naturally, Peele also has other things on his mind too. The ideas he puts forth about the voyeuristic insatiability of the entertainment industry and man’s meddling with the laws of nature feel underdeveloped and more importantly, unrelated to the otherwise straightforward story.

Nope follows two siblings, Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Palmer), who run Haywood Hollywood Horses in the secluded desert town of Agua Dulce after their father Otis Sr. (Keith David) passed in a freak accident. Their business of training and handling horses for feature films has suffered since their father’s death, forcing them to sell some of their horses to child star-turned-tourist attraction owner Jupe (Steven Yeun). But flickering lights at their ranch may signal an end to their financial woes, as the Haywoods become convinced that an unidentified flying object is in their midst. Desperate to record its existence, they recruit tech store employee Angel (Brandon Perea) and enigmatic cinematographer Antlers (Michael Wincott) to capture its movements on film without being able to use electronics in its presence.

After opening with a one-two punch of tantalizing images in a blood-covered chimpanzee on a TV set and a passage from the Book of Nahum, Nope dutifully sets up the disparity in personalities between Otis Jr. and Em. This isn’t the first time Kaluuya has played the strong silent type but he’s usually able to put plenty of charisma into whatever role he portrays. Whether it’s in his acting choices or Peele’s direction of his performance, he comes across as off-puttingly sedate and almost obstinate in not letting us into his headspace. Palmer fares better as the more extraverted of the two, effortlessly winning a film crew over with a charming safety speech, but there’s not much on the page beyond that opening monologue to give her character dimension and depth.

Nope has no paucity of compelling story points, even if Peele doesn’t seem to know how they all fit together. The Haywoods being descendants of a jockey seen in the first motion picture dating back to the 1880s speaks to their firsthand knowledge of the power that images can hold and explains why they would fight so hard for UFO footage. The subplot about a sitcom filming that turned deadly when a trained chimp goes rogue calls to mind how often animals are still exploited for entertainment. The presence of a TMZ reporter, whose face is never shown, in the third act seems to comment on sensationalism in the internet age. Rich subtext, to be sure, but the text itself has to be captivating on its own terms first but it simply isn’t.

Fortunately, the film is at least always captivating to the eye, courtesy of one of the best DPs in the world, Hoyte van Hoytema, behind the camera. Scale is important both in Westerns and in movies about alien craft and Hoytema does a beautiful job organizing each frame with relative size in mind. The music from Michael Abels heavily recalls the scores of John Williams as majestic horns and quizzical strings percolate with wonderment below the sonic surface. Even though he has a Spielberg soundalike in the music department, Peele just doesn’t have the same knack for this Spielberg style of storytelling as he did with socially-conscious horror in his first two features. Spielberg is a master of being gracious with his audience, cluing them in to characters’s motivations without hitting us over the head with it, where Peele doesn’t seem to care whether or not we’re on the same page with our protagonists. I hope he finds a way to draw us back in his next time out.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is DC League of Super-Pets, an animated superhero film starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart following Superman’s dog Krypto and his other furry friends as they rescue kidnapped members of Justice League.
Also playing only in theaters is Vengeance, a mystery comedy starring B.J. Novak and Boyd Holbrook about a journalist and podcaster who travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl with whom he was romantically involved.
Streaming on Hulu is Not Okay, a dark comedy starring Zoey Deutch and Dylan O’Brien about a young woman who fakes a trip to Paris to gain followers online but a terrifying incident takes place and becomes part of her trip.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Watcher

In the opening shot of the new thriller Watcher, Julia (Maika Monroe) looks out a taxi window with a glimmer of excitement at the Bucharest buildings that surround her new residence. She and her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) have just moved from the US to Romania for work, even though Julia doesn’t know the Romanian language nearly as well as her hubby. She spends her first days there working to remedy the linguistic barrier, listening to foreign language courses while discovering the city on-foot. But bumming around Bucharest gets much more tense by the presence of Daniel (Burn Gorman), an across-the-way neighbor who too frequently looks into the married couple’s apartment window and who Julia suspects may be following her around as well.

Watcher is the first feature from writer/director Chloe Okuno and while it may not be the most auspicious debut, there are some signs of promise in the way she brings the audience into this tale. Visually, she captures rainy Bucharest in its paradoxically opulent griminess as the high-concept story vacillates between stately and seedy. All the angles to suggest a shadowy figure is stalking Julia are there, from the negative space of the most tense frames to the shallow focus on Julia’s worried face. Like Monroe’s 2014 breakthrough It Follows, it’s all about putting us in the mindset that the protagonist could be in danger and under pursuit at any moment. Up until the final 15 minutes, the pace and rhythm is in line with a slow-burn thriller, although it can feel more like it’s spinning its wheels rather than calculatedly creaking them for effect.

Where Watcher flats flat is in the scant screenplay, adapted by Okuno from a script written originally by Zack Ford. There is shockingly little character development amid the limited ensemble; a next-door neighbor character played by Madalina Anea may be the most well-rendered person in the whole film and she’s only really in a few scenes. Okuno does a fine job setting up the scenario of whether or not Julia is actually in danger and considering what she should do about it but the conflicts therein too often become redundant. I understand that Okuno is more concerned with establishing a mood of unease rather than writing scenes of lengthy dialogue but nevertheless, there has to be a compelling narrative first to make the atmospheric scenes resonate.

From a story perspective, Watcher plays like a Eurotrash mash-up of two classics, one from a very similar genre and another from a different genre entirely. Polanski’s horror film Repulsion, which also follows a young woman’s descent into paranoia through her perceived encounters with menacing men, seems to have been a touchstone for Okuno while making this film. While existential dramedy Lost in Translation isn’t scary, I was often reminded of Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte when watching Monroe’s Julia try to find herself in an intimidating new city. Glusman’s Francis also shares similarities with Giovanni Ribisi’s Translation character, both blasé workaholics whose disinterest in their wive’s satisfaction (and well-being, in Watcher’s case) should land them in hot water more than it actually does.

Glusman hasn’t made much of an impact on me in his filmography thus far and he’s a total bore as a character who needs sharper definition to make the relationship angle of this movie work. It doesn’t help that he and Monroe have little to no chemistry, although it’s possible that was somewhat intentional. Monroe is a talented young actress and this should theoretically be as much a showcase for her abilities as It Follows was 8 years ago but this project just isn’t up to her level. It’s hard to tell what on the page drew her to this role but I hope she’s able to find better scripts in the future, if for no other reason than to firmly retain her scream queen status. Watcher wears the guise of better voyeuristic thrillers but it’s ultimately not much more than window dressing.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Jurassic World Dominion, the conclusion to the Jurassic World trilogy starring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, which finds dinosaurs now living alongside humans all over the world as the fight to determine the true apex predator comes to an end.
Streaming on Netflix is Hustle, a sports drama starring Adam Sandler and Queen Latifah about a former basketball scout who tries to revive his career by recruiting a player with a checkered past from overseas to play in the NBA.
Debuting on HBO Max is The Janes, a documentary highlighting a group of activists who built an underground network that provided safe and free abortions prior to the passing of Roe v. Wade.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Northman

Three films into his career, writer/director Robert Eggers has carved out a niche for himself with period pieces that stick closely to the language used during their respective eras. Much of the script for his debut The Witch was translated directly from 17th century Puritan texts, while the dialogue from The Lighthouse leans heavily into the dialects of late 19th century sailors. His latest effort, The Northman, is another piece of historical fiction — this time in 9th century Iceland — but everything just feels a bit too hollow in this outing. The music of the characters’ words somehow doesn’t ring as true this time and it doesn’t help that this is the most straightforward narrative that Eggers has told thus far. There are wrinkles of weirdness and wonder left in this tale but like the film’s hulking protagonist, it prefers bold print over footnotes and action over contemplation.

We meet the Viking warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as a young boy, excited to greet his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) on the way home from his most recent pillaging. It turns out the most treacherous battle awaits him in his kingdom, where Aurvandill’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders him in front of Amleth and takes the throne for himself. The young prince narrowly escapes Fjölnir’s forces, is taken in by a separate band of Vikings and vows vengeance on Fjölnir, while also swearing to rescue his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as well. Factoring into his conquest for revenge is Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a slave who comes to have a growing affection for the fearless Amleth and whose knowledge and practice of dark magic proves useful to their shared goal of overthrowing Fjölnir.

The ubiquity of the Scandinavian legend of Amleth is due in no small part to the direct influence it had on William Shakespeare while writing Hamlet, a tale that has itself been adapted countless times in various mediums. Like just about any other movie, The Northman is less about the “what” and more about the “how”; it’s less important what it’s about than how it’s about it. This is where the film is chiefly a disappointment: its story doesn’t do quite enough to distinguish itself from myriad other fictional accounts of a son swearing revenge of his murderous uncle. Too much of the film is blunt in its execution of its core mission; Amleth literally repeats it in voiceover over and over like a mantra. There are details in the journey that evoke the time period in interesting ways but they don’t often add much to the way that we’re supposed to feel about these characters.

Eggers is working with a budget that’s roughly 8 times the size of each of his two previous features and he certainly makes good use of the extra cash when it comes to presentation and overall cinematic experience. A bravura attack sequence set in the land of the Rus feels like a follow-up to the opening salvo Iñárritu put together for The Revenant. It begins with Amleth grabbing a thrown spear mid-air and chucking it back at the opposing forces and doesn’t end until his battle axe has spilled more than its fair share of blood. Willem Dafoe makes the most of his limited screen time as an overseer of a spiritual ceremony, talking directly to camera while ominously describing fates being sealed and tears of sadness that can no longer be shed. The reclusive Icelandic artist Björk also pops up as a sorceress with foreboding news and an outfit that is exactly as ornate as one would expect from the fashion iconoclast.

It’s window dressing and exquisitely-rendered window dressing but the more I sat with The Northman, the more it felt like a distraction rather than a supplement to the storyline. The Witch and The Lighthouse simply carried much more weight subtextually and psychologically than this film and put bluntly (as Amleth may respect), there just doesn’t seem to be enough brains to this story. There is a scene between the grown-up Amleth and Gudrún that challenges our conception of what their relationship may be but there are too few moments of character insight like this in the rest of the movie. From a narrative perspective, I didn’t feel challenged or moved very often but perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t in suspense as I watched this revenge tale play out. Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting something different from Eggers based on his previous work but The Northman is a let-down nevertheless.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Memory, an action thriller starring Liam Neeson and Guy Pearce about an assassin-for-hire who finds he’s become a target after he refuses to complete a job for a dangerous criminal organization.
Streaming on HBO Max is The Survivor, a historical drama starring Ben Foster and Vicky Krieps that tells the story of a real-life survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp who boxed fellow inmates to survive.
Available to rent on demand is Hatching, a Finnish horror movie starring Jani Volanen and Reino Nordin involving a young gymnast who discovers a strange egg and hides it from her family until something wholly unexpected emerges.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Uncharted

Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg seek box office treasure with Uncharted, an adaptation of the popular Playstation video game series in another synergistic bit of cross-platforming from the folks at Sony. Originally slated for a 2020 release, production was halted early and often due to covid for this potential franchise starter and that’s after the years of revolving directors and shuffled-around cast. Decisions like settling on Zombieland‘s Ruben Fleischer as the director and casting Wahlberg in the mentor role instead of as the main hero feel more perfunctory than purposeful. With these problems at the forefront, it’s admirable that the result of these struggles is formally sound and occasionally thrilling, if unremarkable on the whole.

After being separated from his adventure-loving brother as a teenager, young hotshot Nathan Drake (Holland) harbors an obsession for long-lost treasure while tending bar in New York. As fate should have it, treasure hunter Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Wahlberg) engages Drake at his workplace and tells tale of a Magellan-era fortune lost to time that’s just waiting to be rediscovered. The pair jet set to an art auction in Barcelona, where they plan to steal a cross-shaped key to kick off their journey but are met by fellow gold seeker Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas) and his ruthless accomplice Jo (Tati Gabrielle). Another key turns up in the hands of Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali), a fellow adventurer who reluctantly joins Drake and Sully in their conquest to find Magellan’s fortune before Moncada and his deadly crew get the chance.

To cut to the chase, Uncharted is two terrific action setpieces in search of a complete movie. The first such sequence is the lynchpin of the film’s advertising, which features Drake bouncing from one supply crate to another as they plummet through the sky. Add some henchmen, a tumbling Mercedes and some ripped-from-the-video-game physics and you have a fun, gravity-defying crescendo so nice, they play it twice. The second takes place in the third act and without giving too much away, it involves a pair of helicopters making some impressive aerial maneuvers while lifting precious cargo below. Apropos of the action-adventure genus, there are plenty of secret passages and mechanical doors that lead up to (“get in the way of” may be more apt) these airborne acrobatics.

As with genre classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pirates of the Caribbean, whose protagonists are name-dropped during scenes that borrow heavily from the respective films, characters remain key for staying power. Sadly, Uncharted‘s trio of screenwriters don’t provide enough on the page for the actors to create memorable ones. Most of Drake and Sully’s repartee revolves around disparities in their age (Sully leaves too many apps open on his phone!) or in their masculinity (Drake orders girly drinks!) but the characterization remains thin. Gabrielle and Ali are able to add a bit more nuance to their roles, by virtue of not being saddled with clunky comedic dialogue, but their performances don’t exactly lift the material much either.

Fresh off the blockbuster that recently overtook Avatar‘s #3 spot on the list of all-time domestic earners, Holland does what he can to distance himself from the version of Peter Parker with which he’s most commonly associated. As someone who’s never played the game upon which this movie is based, I can’t say how his Drake compares to the digital counterpart but Holland brings a grifter’s charm that won me over. He’s certainly better off here than he is than in disasters like Chaos Walking and Cherry. Wahlberg may have been a better fit for Drake when he was originally tapped for the role 10 years ago but recasting him as the sidekick is about as awkward in execution as one may expect. Uncharted doesn’t go as off the map as it could’ve but it doesn’t chart enough of an original course to make it worth the journey.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Studio 666, a horror comedy starring Foo Fighters members Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins which finds the frontman tangling with supernatural forces while the band records their tenth studio album in a mansion.
Premiering on Hulu is No Exit, a snowbound thriller starring Havana Rose Liu and Dennis Haysbert about a college student stranded at an isolated highway rest stop who discovers a kidnapped child hidden in a car belonging to one of the people inside.
Streaming on Netflix is A Madea Homecoming, a family comedy starring Tyler Perry and Cassi Davis-Patton that reconvenes the feisty matriarch with her family for a celebratory dinner for her great-grandson’s graduation.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Sky Is Everywhere

6 months after premiering the outstanding coming-of-age tale CODA, Apple TV+ adds another title to the genre with The Sky Is Everywhere, adapted from Jandy Nelson’s 2010 young adult novel. Like CODA, this latest offering shares that film’s passion for music and also features a breakthrough performance from a young actress but doesn’t have nearly the same level of impact as a whole. This is a film that telegraphs its ending quite clearly about 15 minutes into its runtime, which isn’t unremarkable for movies about young romance but disappointing given that the director is Josephine Decker. Her 2018 breakout Madeline’s Madeline was anything but predictable, while 2020’s Shirley found new notes to play within the crowded biopic genre. Some flights of fancy aside, Decker seems content to tell a conventional story through relatively conventional means.

An opening voiceover from bright high schooler Lennie Walker (Grace Kaufman) details an inseparable relationship with her sister Bailey (Havana Rose Liu), who meets a very untimely end due to an undiagnosed heart arrhythmia. Lennie’s support system is hindered by the absence of her mother and father but bolstered instead by her grandmother Gram (Cherry Jones) and uncle Big (Jason Segel), with both of whom she lives. The presence of Bailey’s boyfriend Toby (Pico Alexander) around the house complicates things, as Lennie has guiltily held affections for him even when Bailey was still alive. At school, charismatic new kid Joe (Jacques Colimon) strikes up a music-centric relationship with Lennie and unknowingly enters a love triangle with Toby.

Most of watching The Sky Is Everywhere is in waiting for it to differentiate itself from the pack of recent John Green-inspired YA adaptations and the film does thankfully have some inspired scenes where Decker’s influence shines through. Almost all of these moments involve music in one way or another, as when Joe is introduced with papier-mâché music notes emanating from the bell of his trumpet and filling the halls with swooning girls. While listening to Bach’s “Air In G” over shared earbuds, Lennie and Joe lay next to each other in the grass as rose-covered interpretive dancers envelop them to symbolize the symbiosis of nature and music. These bits of heightened reality aren’t quite as intentionally diverting as those found in Madeline’s Madeline but rather enhance the narrative in ways that are thematically relevant and stylistically playful.

But all of these flourishes — even the bad ones, like the recurrence of cartoony “boing” sound cue during lines accompanied by sexual innuendo — feel like a cover-up for a paper-thin script, also penned by Nelson. It’s a screenplay that contrives obstacles for Lennie to traverse before arriving at a conclusion that will be easy for anyone who has seen a movie before to foresee. The love triangle between the leads is obviously the movie’s focus but the limited screen time given to Segel and Jones doesn’t yield the emotional punctuations you’d want from actors of that caliber. The platitudes about coping with grief ring especially hollow given how many films these days are about teenagers overcoming trauma. The Fallout, a high school drama that debuted on HBO Max just a couple weeks ago, tackles similar themes but with dialogue that feels much more authentic to the way that teens actually speak.

While Grace Kaufman’s performance here isn’t quite the revelation that Emilia Jones’ was in CODA, she nevertheless announces herself as a bright young talent to watch in the coming years. Jacques Colimon is another newcomer who shines in a role defined by a modest musical magnetism; if “humble swagger” is a thing, this character has it. The two of them give Lennie and Joe such palpable chemistry that Toby largely comes across as a squeaky third wheel with whom Lennie inexplicably keeps torturing herself instead of just letting go. Despite its continuation of Decker’s arts-and-crafts store aesthetic, The Sky Is Everywhere is a floral-framed painting that we’ve seen a hundred times before.

Score – 2.5/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and streaming on Peacock is Marry Me, a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson about a pop superstar who marries a stranger in the crowd of one of her shows after discovering her partner has been unfaithful.
Coming only to theaters is Death on the Nile, a whodunnit starring Kenneth Branagh and Gal Gadot continuing the adventures of detective Hercule Poirot as he investigates the murder of a young heiress on a steamboat with dozens of suspects aboard.
Screening at Cinema Center on February 11th and 12th is The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a documentary scrutinizing the mysterious 1992 death of the titular black gay rights activist and Stonewall veteran through interviews with Johnson’s family, friends and fellow activists.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

House Of Gucci

At 83 years old, director Ridley Scott will take a crack at just about any story. He’s headed up classics in the horror, sci-fi and war genres, fine-tuning a chameleonic approach that has kept him sharp throughout his storied career. With his latest project, the glamorous but lugubrious House of Gucci, he finds his latest tale to tell at the intersection of high crime and high fashion. He’s tackled true crime stories before, most recently in 2017’s All the Money in the World, but where that film generally plays it straight when recreating the kidnapping of John Paul Getty, Scott decided he wanted to dial up the camp considerably this time around. It’s not a bad call, given the talented cast that he’s assembled, but when you take that element away from the film, you’re left with a flimsy story that’s not juicy enough to justify this big-screen retelling.

We’re introduced to Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) as she struts past cat-callers to the managing office of her father’s modest trucking company. She’s no stranger to using her lavish looks to get what she wants, allowing her to fast-track a meet-cute with fashion heir Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) into a swift marriage and pregnancy. Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) expresses his suspicions of Patrizia early and often, while Rodolfo’s brother Aldo (Al Pacino) seems to favor Patrizia over his maladroit son Paolo (Jared Leto). Shake-ups in Rodolfo’s health lead to Maurizio inheriting 50% stake in his family’s prestigious brand, a shift that causes Maurizio to become more invested in the business than in his marriage.

Shot with the same steel-tinted remove as All the Money in the World, House of Gucci is the second film Scott has released this season that doesn’t exactly invite viewers into its potentially entrancing setting. Certainly the production design and the costume design are as stellar as one would expect — Gaga’s opulent outfits alone may be worth the price of admission for some — but there’s a repeated color palette here that I wish Scott would sidestep next time. He doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel from the aural perspective either, tapping overplayed late-era disco hits like “Heart of Glass” and “I Feel Love” to remind us that we’re in early 1980s New York and things are moving fast. The opera cuts are even more predictable; there’s literally a scene where Patrizia and Paolo dance to “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto (trust me, you’d recognize it) in an oversized kitchen.

Scott and his performers can’t quite decide how seriously we should be taking the pile of Italian cliches that stack up like knockoff handbags in an ignored bedroom closet. When characters don’t have an espresso cup pressed up against their lips, they’re speaking in a wide range of dialects that can best be categorized as “scattershot spaghetti”. Jeremy Irons barely abandons his native English accent, while Jared Leto runs with a phonology that would be considered borderline offensive even in a Super Mario Bros. animated show. Gaga not only gives the film’s best performance but also offers an accent that veers into Natasha Fatale territory at Patrizia’s most sinister moments but is otherwise the most measured vocal work in the movie.

Bursting onto the Hollywood scene with an Oscar-nominated role in A Star Is Born, Gaga proves once again that she has the chops to dominate the music and film industries simultaneously. As the original “Black Widow”, she balances femme fatale proclivities with a woman doing her best to find her way in the world. It’s a juicy role and it’s no surprise fashionista Gaga would jump at the chance to play someone tied into Gucci’s legacy but Scott and his screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna don’t seem to have the same gusto in their assignments. The events that lead to the tragedy of Maurizio and Patrizia play out with too little personal perspective on the corresponding real-life events. Like Disney’s Cruella from earlier this year, House of Gucci has plenty of window dressing but not enough in the store to back it up.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering on Netflix is The Power of the Dog, a Western starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst about a charismatic rancher whose world is turned upside down when his brother brings home his new wife and her son.
Streaming on Disney+ is Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an animated comedy starring Brady Noon and Chris Diamantopoulos about a beleaguered middle schooler who chronicles his hormonal hardships in the pages of his trusty journal.
Playing at Cinema Center is I Carry You With Me, a Spanish-language drama starring Armando Espitia and Christian Vázquez about a decades-long romance that begins in Mexico between an aspiring chef and a teacher.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup