Tag Archives: 2.5/5

The Call of the Wild

Despite their limited range when it comes to acting chops, man’s best friend has a long history of capturing the Hollywood spotlight. From my childhood alone, I still have fond memories of dog-centric fare like Beethoven, Homeward Bound and Air Bud, just to name a few. The tradition has been in hiring well-trained canines along with their corresponding handlers but the latest adaptation of The Call of the Wild takes a different approach. Instead of casting a real-life dog, Disney has chosen the CGI route and rendered a new digital Buck from the ground up. Technology is such that Buck often looks rather convincing, especially the more time we spend with him, but all the special effects in the world still can’t disguise a lackluster story.

The premise follows the broad strokes of the Jack London novel upon which it is based, still centered around the St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix known as Buck. We follow him as he’s stolen from his pampered California life with the respected Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and shipped up to Alaska amidst the Gold Rush. After a temporary stint with cruel owners, he finds his way as a sled dog on a mail route with the much kinder Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee). Through teamwork and dedication, he is able to work his way up to alpha dog until the route is abruptly cancelled and he falls under new ownership by the odious city slicker Hal (Dan Stevens). Not longer after, he is rescued by outdoorsman John Thornton (Harrison Ford) and the two set off on a new adventure together.

The most important and prevalent hurdle for the film to manage is the believability of computer-generated Buck as a substitute for the on-screen flesh-and-blood canine to which we’re aquatinted. Save for a few frames here and there, I’m happy to report that the illusion worked quite seamlessly for me; I stopped thinking about whether the dog was “real” about 10 minutes in, which I would signify as a success. I appreciate that Buck appears not just in shadows or darkness, where it’s easy to conceal shoddy rendering, but also in many scenes in broad daylight. I had similar praise for Disney’s Lion King remake last year but thankfully, Buck is infinitely more expressive here than the stilted creatures in that production. Animators paid careful attention to all the mannerisms that make dogs so lovable in the first place, so every tail wag and eyebrow raise is calibrated for maximum potency.

The frustration sets in when we realize that director Chris Sanders and his screenwriter Michael Green brought very little new perspective to this tale, which has already been adapted several times for the big screen. Harrison Ford’s husky voiceover narration removes any iota of subtlety from each plot point, which may be helpful for younger viewers to track along but is sure to grow tedious for adult audiences. Understandably, Ford is prominently portrayed in the film’s poster and trailer but his character doesn’t really become a factor into the story until about an hour in. Once Buck and Ford share the screen, the movie’s true potential is unlocked but it takes multiple training montages and action sequences to get there.

More than any actor in the film, Ford makes us feel that Buck is not only real but a true companion to his lonely prospector character. Whether Buck is burying John’s troublesome bottle of whiskey or stashing John’s hat in his mouth, Ford brings the level of charm and playfulness that effortlessly recalls the Han Solo-Chewbacca relationship from the original Star Wars trilogy. If only the movie had spent more time with those two instead of wasting time with throwaway characters like Hal, a villain so comically over-the-top that I think Dan Stevens literally twirls his mustache at one point. The Call of the Wild is a serviceable update to a well-worn tale but it doesn’t quite have enough to make it stand out from the pack.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss and Aldis Hodge, reimagines the classic H.G. Wells novel as a thriller about a woman who is being stalked by an abusive ex-boyfriend that nobody can see.
Playing at Cinema Center is Best International Feature Film Oscar nominee Pain and Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, about a film director who reflects on the choices he’s made as past and present come crashing down around him.
Also playing at Cinema Center is After Midnight, starring Jeremy Gardner and Brea Grant, about a man who house is attacked nightly by an unseen creature after his girlfriend suddenly disappears.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Birds of Prey

Despite the overwhelmingly negative response that Suicide Squad received across the board, critics and fans agreed on one thing: Margot Robbie was born to play Harley Quinn. 4 years later, the anarchic anti-heroine gets her own spinoff of sorts in Birds Of Prey, whose subtitle And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn implies more of an origin story than a group outing. Like its full title, the film is similarly at odds with whether it wants to be a team-up movie a-la The Avengers or a more personal story centered around its central figure. More often than not, it splits the difference between these two ideals, which yields intermittently entertaining but ultimately frustrating results.

We pick up with Quinn after she’s been unceremoniously kicked to the curb by the Joker. The break-up sends shock waves throughout Gotham City, as Harley’s association with the Clown Prince offered her a level of power and protection that has since evaporated. This puts her in the crosshairs of nearly every lowlife that she’s wronged in the past, including the eccentric but ruthless gangster Roman Sionis (Evan McGregor). In order to square things with Sionis and his crew, Quinn is tasked with finding a diamond with banking codes embedded inside. Along the way, she recruits the crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sionis’ personal driver Black Canary (Journey Smollett-Bell).

Stylistically and narratively, Birds of Prey feels like the DCEU’s response to the Deadpool series, specifically Deadpool 2 since both protagonists spend most of their runtimes shackled to a teenaged accomplice. Both Deadpool and Harley Quinn exert full meta control over their respective movies, cheekily relaying their own version of the stories with wall-to-wall voiceover. Quinn, and by extension director Cathy Yan, take things a step further by zig-zagging the narration back and forth through time to introduce new characters and context to the plot. It’s a fun trick the first time or two but it doesn’t take long for it to disrupt the momentum of the overall plot and leave too many plates spinning at once.

Thematically, the film does break new ground within the comic book genre in the ways that it overtly takes aim at misogyny, power dynamics and toxic masculinity. Its perspective on how the world has mistreated these female characters and how they’ve overcome their distinct struggles is undeniably a valuable one. It’s just a shame that these worthwhile themes are grafted onto a routine, McGuffin-driven plot with a predictable, albeit rollicking and well-choreographed, climax. The film’s outspoken feminist agenda is often persuasive but does overstep and strain credibility at points, as when Sionis mercilessly humiliates a female club patron for reasons that seem contrived even for a supervillain.

As in Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s committed work as Harley Quinn is the film’s strongest point. She brings the same brand of gleeful mischief and batty charisma to the role but she also finds new notes to play with in order to develop the character further. We see her smooth talk her way out of seemingly impossible confrontations and utilize her PhD as she psychologically sizes up criminals on the spot. This character obviously has enough depth to sustain her own feature and Robbie is clearly game for it, which makes the decision to shoehorn in the rest of these Birds of Prey that much more disappointing. When it comes to narrative ambition, Birds of Prey flies a bit too close to the sun.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Sonic the Hedgehog, starring Jim Carrey and James Marsden, brings the blue ball of energy from the Sega video game line to the big screen as he hides out on Earth and avoids the evil Dr. Robotnik.
Downhill, starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, re-imagines the Swedish dark comedy Force Majeure for American audiences as an avalanche during a family ski vacation throws things into disarray.
Fantasy Island, starring Michael Peña and Maggie Q, is the latest Blumhouse thriller about an island resort where guests have to solve the island’s mystery in order to escape with their lives.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Richard Jewell

89-year-old Clint Eastwood continues his string of competently-made biopics with Richard Jewell, an occasionally inspiring but largely listless docudrama about the vilification of an everyday hero. Like his Tom Hanks-starring Sully from a few years back, Eastwood once again examines how the government and media conspired together to take a second look at a newly proclaimed national hero. Though it tackles the same themes, Jewell is over 30 minutes longer than Sully and doesn’t feature any scenes as harrowing as the famous landing on the Hudson. Most striking, though, is the relatively leisurely pace and overall lack of urgency that go into telling this story.

Our titular hero (Paul Walter Hauser) may be familiar to those who had their finger on the pulse in the mid-90s. It was at the 1996 Summer Olympics that the Atlanta security guard stumbled upon a suspicious package, a bundle of pipe bombs that only exploded after Jewell and fellow officers cleared the area. His moment of glory in the national spotlight begins to darken when FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and rambunctious reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) craft a narrative implicating Jewell in the attack. With his bullish lawyer (Sam Rockwell) and caring mother (Kathy Bates), Richard fights back to prove his innocence in the mounting trial by the media.

Set at the intersection of cynicism and heroism, Richard Jewell seeks to investigate the impulse by the general public to quickly turn on innocent figures for instant gratification. Eastwood’s choice to depict a sea of concert-goers dancing mindlessly to the “Macarena” seems to reinforce the idea that the masses will go along with just about anything if the tune is catchy enough. The problem, then, is that we don’t get insight into how the “song” against Richard Jewell was created. I went into the film expecting to see how the initial hit piece by the Atlanta Journal Constitution was written or what kind of evidence the FBI had against Jewell but the movie is oddly devoid of much of this insight.

If the narrative isn’t as exciting as it should be, things are carried along nicely by the talented cast led by the exceptional Paul Walter Hauser, who gave memorable performances over the past couple years in BlacKkKlansman and I, Tonya. Here, he imbues our protagonist with the quiet dignity and underdog spirit to make it nearly impossible to root against him. He keeps most of his emotions under the surface but when bouts of anger do spike up, they’re more heartbreaking than alarming given everything the character is put through. Elsewhere, Rockwell and Hamm turn in reliable work as aggressive men trying to get the job done while Wilde out-hams Hamm in a juicy role as a promiscuous reporter.

With its mistrust of government officials and depiction of “fake news” before that was even a term, the film unquestionably has a political subtext if one seeks it. Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to read the film without it and engage with the story no matter where you lean politically. Frankly, I would have been more than okay with Eastwood making things even more political if it had resulted in a more interesting movie as a whole. Thanks to cinematographer Yves Bélanger, the film always looks great and is a huge step-up from the shoddy camerawork in Eastwood’s The 15:17 To Paris from last year. As is, Richard Jewell works best as a quiet character study and may disappoint those looking for the tightly-edited thriller that the promotional material suggests.

Score – 2.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Jumanji: The Next Level, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black, brings the gang of video game avatars back for another adventure that will take them all across the digital landscape.
Black Christmas, starring Imogen Poots and Cary Elwes, is a remake of the 1970s slasher movie about a group of female college students who are being stalked during their Christmas break.
Waves, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown, tells the harrowing story of a suburban family as they recover together in the aftermath of an unspeakable loss.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Zombieland: Double Tap

Arriving ten years after the breakout zom-com hit, Zombieland: Double Tap offers many of the same aspects that made its predecessor work as well as it did. The chemistry of the talented cast is still in tact, the humor is as snarky and self-referential as ever and the violence towards the undead is at least as gory as one would expect. It’s disappointing, then, that the film still can’t help but feel like afterthought among the legions of zombie-related media that we’ve been saturated with throughout the past decade. Fittingly, this is addressed in the opening voiceover, in which we’re told “you have a lot of choices when it comes to zombie entertainment, so thank you for picking us.” While I appreciate the sentiment, I’d rather just have fewer choices.

We pick back up with survivors Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) as they take up residence at the now-abandoned White House. Their relatively idyllic family atmosphere dissipates when Wichita and Little Rock decide to hit the road, for fear of growing too emotionally attached. After a month, Wichita makes her way back but loses Little Rock to a hippie named Berkeley (Avan Jogia) along the way. Together with Madison (Zoey Deutch), Columbus’ new girlfriend that he made during Wichita’s absence, the group sets out to bring Little Rock back into the fold amid a world with increasingly resilient zombies.

A common charge rallied against sequels that are far removed in time from their predecessors is that the cast can look bored or tired on-screen, potentially due to contractual obligation. Say what you will about Zombieland: Double Tap but the performers do seem genuinely excited to be back in this universe. Even though their enthusiasm doesn’t quite save the tired material at the film’s core, it’s at least admirable that a primary cast including 3 Oscar nominees and an Oscar winner don’t feel like their phoning it in. Despite working from paper-thin characters, newcomers like Luke Wilson and Rosario Dawson add some comedic sparks on the periphery.

By and large, the film follows the well-worn sequel tradition of taking what worked in the original and amplifying it up to 11. This means that we get 3 different variations on Tallahassee’s signature line where just one callback to it would have likely sufficed. Where Eisenberg would chime in sparingly to remind us of the Rules in Zombieland, his cheeky voiceover track this time around seems to tower over most of the dialogue from other characters. The most clever bit in the film, where Columbus and Tallahassee run into alternate reality versions of themselves, was not only spoiled in the trailers but massively overstays its welcome in long form.

Still, the movie does have some well-earned laughs here and there. There’s a pre-credit bit that I found clever and unexpected and the post-credit scene will delight those who were holding their breath for a callback cameo by a particular comedic icon. It’s everything in the middle that’s quite hit-or-miss, especially since the jokes are attached to a storyline that is transparent and completely surprise-free. As far as belated sequels go, you could certainly do much worse than Zombieland: Double Tap but that still doesn’t mean that it does enough on its own to justify its existence.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Countdown, starring Elizabeth Lail and Peter Facinelli, is a new horror film about a young nurse who downloads an app that claims to predict exactly when a person is going to die.
Black and Blue, starring Naomie Harris and Tyrese Gibson, tells the story of a rookie police officer captures the murder of a drug dealer on her body cam, only to find out that it was committed by fellow policemen.
The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, follows two lighthouse keepers as they are faced with loneliness, friendship and their worst fears in 1890s New England.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Luce

Based on the play by JC Lee, Luce stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the titular African-American teen who seems to have it all: excellent grades, track and field records and a captain’s spot on the debate team. He’s the shining example of a perfect high-school student that has won over his peers and the faculty — “this one’s my thoroughbred,” the principal dotes on him with a hearty pat on the shoulder. Everyone seems to look up to Luce but no one is prouder of him than his adoptive parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), who rescued him from war-torn Eritrea when he was 7 years old.

Among a sea of approval, there remains a lone holdout in the form of Luce’s stern debate teacher Harriet (Octavia Spencer). After she assigns her class an essay to be written from the perspective of a historical figure, Harriet is disturbed when Luce chooses to write convincingly in the voice of a violent dictator. She takes it upon herself to search through his locker and when she finds a bag filled with dangerous fireworks, Harriet confronts Amy with her findings. Tensions continue to simmer as Amy and Peter naturally come to their son’s defense amid the allegations while Harriet continues to push forward with her crusade against the star pupil.

Luce made a splash when it debuted at Sundance earlier this year and in some ways, it’s not difficult to see why: it has a clean look, a stellar cast and a provocative story about race and privilege. Unfortunately, the film is consistently marred by its reach exceeding its grasp when it comes to the overall narrative intent. On the whole, the script by JC Lee and Julius Onah, the latter of whom also serves as director, is both overwritten and underdeveloped. There are intriguing plot points that arise and some terrifically tense moments where characters’ intentions begin to turn but all of these elements build to a climax that could more aptly be described as an anti-climax.

Unsurprisingly, Luce shines brightest when the light is cast on its young star Kelvin Harrison Jr. As an upstanding teen who may be harboring some dark thoughts, he does an fantastic job at wielding his intellect for empathy with his friends and subtle menace with his foes. Spencer, whose performance in Ma earlier this year was that film’s sole highlight, turns in more great work her as a woman rife with personal issues who gets in over her head trying to investigate an unimpeachable target. Watts and Roth, who also played a married couple in 2008’s Funny Games, work well together as Luce’s biggest advocates, although their accent work is a bit shoddy at times.

The cinematography by Larkin Seiple leans heavily into an overexposed and chilly aesthetic that is effective to a degree but everything is so plain and bright, it began to feel like every scene took place in a hospital. The music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury alternates between ponderous organ dirges and abrasive trap beats, a interesting combination that nevertheless left me with sonic whiplash. Luce wants to be a conversation starter that will linger with audiences after the credits roll but it’s far too opaque and circumspect to inspire much more than a few talking points.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
It Chapter Two, starring James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, revisits The Losers’ Club as they are terrorized again by the killer clown Pennywise 27 years after the events of Chapter One.
After The Wedding, starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, tells the story of an orphanage founder who travels to New York for a wedding where dark secrets from the past come to light.
The Peanut Butter Falcon, starring Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, is an adventure about a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 2.5/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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