Tag Archives: 2018

First Man

Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle reunites with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling in First Man, an emotionally enthralling and sensorily spectacular account of Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the Moon landing. Not only is this a fitting biopic for an American hero, it’s also an ode to the men and women who dared to do the impossible and made incredible sacrifices so that we could extend our reach in the universe. What’s distinctive about Chazelle’s vision of space travel is how he tethers the hopes and dreams of NASA’s brightest to the overwhelmingly dangerous operations necessary for Apollo 11’s success.

Opening in 1961 with a thrilling sequence in which Armstrong (Gosling) heads up an atmosphere-piercing flight test gone awry, we’re introduced to his wife Jan (Claire Foy) as the two are coping with the loss of their young daughter. Upon moving to Houston for a fresh start, Armstrong moves up the ranks at NASA and is soon involved in the Gemini program, during which critical tasks are mastered for use in the Apollo missions. With pressure mounting from the Space Race, Apollo 11 is carried out in the summer of 1969 with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) becoming the first two men to walk on the Moon.

As much as this is a film about the space program and the incredible amount of work that it took to get America to the Moon, it’s also an engaging personal story about the toll those efforts took on the people involved. Screenwriter Josh Singer balances the no-nonsense mechanics of the missions with intimate sequences of home life between Armstrong and his increasingly alienated family. Foy is particularly good portraying a wife wracked with anxiety over the new perils that face her husband with each new development in his profession. Gosling also turns out to be an excellent fit to play the titular character, stripping away his typical levels of charm to play an engineer whose head is always in his work.

In addition to casting Gosling again, Chazelle has also re-teamed with the technical leads from La La Land and achieves a similar level of success with them in this film. The musical score by Justin Hurwitz is tempered with a beautiful combination of worry and wonder, led by a mournful and spellbinding theremin that recalls sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s. It took a little time for me to get on board with the look of the film, but cinematographer Linus Sandgren does find a rhythm after a few initial missteps to produce plenty of indelible images. But the MVP from a technical standpoint is editor Tom Cross, who won Best Editing for Chazelle’s Whiplash and does a stunning job of piecing together some extremely tense setpieces.

Of course it all comes back to the vision laid out by Chazelle; in keeping the action focused on the point-of-view of the astronauts as they’re crammed into their spacecrafts, he has created an experience that’s as claustrophobic and intense as any of its kind since Apollo 13. IMAX is becoming more of a gimmick than a necessity for most movies released these days, but seeing this film in IMAX is necessary not only for the enhanced picture but for the dynamic sound design that accompanies it. First Man is a first-rate docudrama about the spirit of innovation that led to triumphs in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer, is a direct sequel to the 1978 horror classic that finds serial killer Michael Myers escaping prison once again to wreak havoc during the titular holiday.
The Hate U Give, starring Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall, is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas about a teenager whose life is shattered after her childhood friend is murdered by a police officer.
The Sisters Brothers, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, is a Western dark comedy that follows a pair of assassins as they track down a notorious gold prospector (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) during the California Gold Rush.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Venom

There is a time in which Venom, the new Sony-backed superhero movie featuring a popular character from the Spider-Man comics, could have likely passed as a decent entry into the genre. If it had arrived prior to 2008, the year game-changers like Iron Man and The Dark Knight hit theaters, then it’s possible that its muddled blend of faux-gritty realism and buddy movie antics could have played as novel or even subversive. The problem is that we’ve since had 10 years of seemingly innumerable superhero films and it’s more than a bit puzzling that Sony thought they could release something this flat and uninspired in 2018.

Tom Hardy bumbles his way through a thoroughly gonzo performance as Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter whose unethical practices lead to him lose both his job and fiancé Anne (Michelle Williams) in the same day. After trying to exact revenge on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the head of a shady bioengineering company called the Life Foundation, he gets tangled up with an alien entity called a symbiote and is subsequently “taken over” by the foreign creature named Venom. Now sporting a new set of superpowers that allow him to mow through henchmen left and right, Brock vows to stop Drake before he unleashes his dangerous symbiotes into the world.

The big problems with Venom start with the bone-headed script, which not only regurgitates tropes that are well past exhausted by now but also bounces around from one plot point to another without a shred of logic attached. It doesn’t help that it also includes dubious lines of dialogue like the supposedly menacing “have a nice life” and the downright bizarre “ain’t nothing change but the weather”. Save for some of the bi-play between Brock and Venom, particularly one exchange that occurs at the top floor of a high building, most of the comedy falls flat and feels completely at odds with the dark and moody tone that director Ruben Fleischer is attempting to establish.

Hardy, who also voices the carnivorous Venom creature, is perhaps the only person trying to do something interesting but different doesn’t always mean better. Lurching around like the alien-possessed farmer from Men In Black, he chooses to voice Brock like a marble-mouthed buffoon who can rarely stay ahead of the curve. Meanwhile, fantastically over-qualified supporting players like Williams and Ahmed are hindered by inconsistent and generally dopey characters that don’t add any dimension to the already lackluster story.

Like the inky substance that overtakes the film’s protagonist, Venom also has an especially murky and lifeless look to it. As is becoming more routine for blockbusters these days, the majority of the scenes take place at night to disguise sloppy CGI and editing. The film’s final fight scene, which looks like it’s set in an exploding silly string factory, is both visually incomprehensible and unappealing. It’s another swing-and-a-miss by Sony, who leased the rights for some of the Spider-Man characters to Marvel Studios but obviously retained control of Venom on the hopes that they could score a hit sans the web-slinger. Unfortunately, I fear they will indeed have financial success with Venom, which means we’ll have plenty more cash-grabbing superhero ventures for years to come.

Score – 1/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
First Man, starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, is a Neil Armstrong biopic covering the lead-up to the Apollo 11 mission and is the latest from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.
Bad Times at the El Royale, starring Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson, follows seven strangers as they begin to uncover each others’ secrets during their stay at a novelty southwest hotel.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, starring Jack Black and Wendi McLendon-Covey, looks to cull chills once again from the popular children’s horror book series by R. L. Stine.

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

Ep. #16 – 4th Quarter Rundown

On this solo episode, I run down some of the most notable releases coming out the next few months:

A Simple Favor

What would you get if you combined the pulpy thrills of a murder mystery like The Girl on the Train with the comedic strokes of Mean Girls and a dash of Gossip Girl for good measure? You’d probably end up with something like A Simple Favor, the new comedy-thriller by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig that probably shouldn’t work on paper but somehow finds its own niche and vibrancy on-screen. With its over-the-top characters and preposterous scenarios, this film may not work for those who like their stories to be even remotely grounded in reality but those looking for a frills-free escape should find exactly what they seek.

Based on the Darcey Bell novel of the same name, A Simple Favor stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, a quirky and self-conscious single mom who runs a successful homemaking Vlog from the comfort of her own kitchen. After the disappearance of her domineering and elusive friend Emily (Blake Lively), Stephanie teams up with Emily’s novelist husband Sean (Henry Golding) to launch their own private investigation and chase the bread crumbs that fall on the trail. As the two begin to dig deeper into Emily’s shadowy past, they realize how little they both actually know her and eventually uncover secrets that have unexpected consequences on their lives.

While everyone in the cast seems to be a good fit for their roles, Lively seems particularly well suited to play the deliciously cartoonish villain, who literally struts around with a skull-topped cane. Kendrick brings plenty of charm to Stephanie, though her faux-awkward schtick did wear out its welcome early on and the character is so wildly inconsistent that it becomes difficult to keep up with her at points. Golding, on the other hand, is saddled with a generally lifeless character who is largely reactive to the incidents that occur and he lacks the edge necessary to keep up with the more involving performances that are on display.

Scored with a buoyant French pop-inspired soundtrack and outfitted with decadent, distinctive costume design, the film routinely brings a light, campy touch to some of the darker subject material. This juxtaposition often creates a sort of tonal whirlwind that works more often than it doesn’t and also serves to keep the audience on their toes, as to easily throw them off balance for the story’s inevitable twists and turns. Jessica Sharzer’s densely plotted and often self-aware script is filled with the kind of biting dialogue that constantly shifts the advantage one character may have over another, much like a verbal tennis match at lightning-fast speed.

The screenplay, however, also includes contrivances that are beyond ludicrous and some (perhaps all, depending on the viewer) of the plot twists are easy to spot from a mile away. At two hours long, it also threatens to overstay its welcome and probably could have lost a plot tangent or two for the sake of brevity. Still, there’s something admirable about the go-for-broke spirit that’s on display and there’s little doubt that this is the most ambitious movie that Paul Feig has ever directed. A Simple Favor is a film that defies traditional description and if you’re looking for a twist on a familiar cocktail, this may just hit the spot.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Night School, starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, follows a group of eccentric adult students who are attempting to earn their GEDs from a hard-nosed teacher with unorthodox methods.
Smallfoot, starring Channing Tatum and James Corden, is a new animated fish-out-of-water story about a group of Yeti who cross paths with a human, with either party previously believing the existence of the other was a myth.
Hell Fest, starring Reign Edwards and Bex Taylor-Klaus, is a slasher film which takes place in a horror-themed amusement park where parkgoers remain oblivious to the murderous spree of a masked killer among the rest of the park’s distractions.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Predator

With its primal story of survival and its ultra-macho attitude, John McTiernan’s Predator is still lauded as an action classic to this day and went on to generate 2 direct sequels along with 2 spin-offs in the Alien Vs. Predator series. Now from writer/director Shane Black, who had a comic relief role as Hawkins in the 1987 original, comes The Predator, another sequel that also doubles as a way to reboot an ailing franchise. On paper, this new film seems to have the qualifications to work within the Predator series but the actual result feels both overwritten and underdirected while also seeming to add little to the franchise’s overall mythology.

The story this time once again centers around a Predator ship that comes crashing to Earth when it’s discovered by decorated Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), who confiscates armor from the ship and mails it to his home to keep it out of the government’s hands. The Predator’s body is then brought to a laboratory where it’s observed by biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) before the creature awakens and escapes the facility, leaving loads of mangled bodies in its wake. After being picked up for investigation by an Agent Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), McKenna is recruited along with a ragtag band of veterans to bring the Predator down at any cost.

This group, which includes likable actors like Trevante Rhodes and Keegan-Michael Key, is reminiscent of the misfit military men from the first Predator film but the characters here lack the necessary depth and personality. The film comes to a screeching halt to introduce each new character in the most perfunctory way possible, outlining how each person is likely to behave and why we should care about them. It has all the elegance and tact of an overly eager elevator pitch and it’s the result of lazy writing that doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to ascertain all of the necessary character traits without the “help” of clunky dialogue.

That particular scene is emblematic of a larger problem with The Predator, which is that is the script is needlessly busy weaving together plot points that feel like they belong to completely different genres altogether. The first Predator has just about the most basic premise possible (alien lands in the jungle, army men have to kill it) but it makes the most of this simple setup by slowly wringing tension from the treacherous nature of the surroundings. By contrast, the convoluted screenplay of the newest entry ensures that our characters will be unceremoniously shuffled around from one location to another with little idea what good it will do them.

Shane Black, who has previously written and directed quality quippy films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, also has experience with big-budget action fare after his work on Marvel’s Iron Man 3 but he seems hopelessly lost here. The only actor who really seems to get the balance of hubris and humor right is Trevante Rhodes, who turns in what is by far the film’s most compelling performance following his star-making turn in the 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight. If the rest of the cast had been on the same page with him, then The Predator could have at least worked as an ensemble comedy of sorts but it’s just one of the film’s many missed opportunities.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The House with a Clock in its Walls, starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, is a family-friendly fantasy film from Eli Roth, who has previously directed not so family-friendly fare like Hostel and The Green Inferno.
Life Itself, starring Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde, is an ensemble romantic comedy-drama based in New York and Spain from the creator of the hit NBC series This Is Us.
Fahrenheit 11/9, the new provocative documentary from Michael Moore, is a sequel of sorts to his 2004 doc Fahrenheit 9/11 that covers the 2016 US presidential election and the subsequent presidency of Donald Trump.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Nun

Since the Conjuring series of films began with the first entry in 2013, the R-rated horror franchise has summoned supernatural scares that have translated to hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. The Conjuring generated the spin-off Annabelle about a creepy possessed doll and The Conjuring 2 has now led to another spin-off called The Nun, spelling out the backstory for the Valak character that was introduced in that film. Like the rest of its companions in the Conjuring Universe, this film relies heavily on jump scares with jarring audio cues but it lacks an engaging story or any involving characters to make this prequel journey worth taking.

After a nun is found dead after apparently taking her own life outside a Romanian monastery, The Vatican tasks Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) with investigating the incident. There, they meet “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), the man who discovered the nun’s body while delivering supplies to the abbey, who aides them in their examination. As the trio spends more time on the premises, they begin to witness supernatural sightings and seem to be haunted continuously by evil spirits that tie back to a demonic entity known as Valak, who is usually held in check by constant prayer from the nuns but has seemingly grown more powerful.

The issues with The Nun start fairly early on, as the first scenes of the spooky Nun character set up the general pace and timbre of the rest of the scares and frankly, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen done better countless times before. It leans into religious iconography like upside-down crosses and ominous headstones in ways that scores of other horror films (The Exorcist series, for one) have all invoked in more creative ways. All of the visual clichés are firmly in place as well, like the close-up/pan to an empty area/pan back to close-up with scary figure behind main character sequence, but they’re brought down even further by a murky visual palette that makes for an especially drab viewing experience.

Some of these rote horror movie beats might be worth forgiving if there were other redeemable aspects to the film but the terribly thin script doesn’t allow for any sort of intrigue in the story or any interest for the characters. Even though this would seem to be an explanation of how the Valak creature came to be, the film gives very little in terms of details on the origins of this nefarious being and the answers that we’re given are perfunctory at best. It’s also extremely inconsistent about the actual powers of this spirit, who is shown early on to be powerful enough to bury someone alive in the blink of an eye but then is almost comically under-powered the rest of the film as it conjures up hands to grab at the protagonists.

The first two Conjuring films have been aided greatly by the effortless chemistry between leads Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson but this trio of actors, including Vera’s younger sister Taissa, doesn’t have the same kind of spark to make their characters engaging from the get-go. While they aren’t able to make much happen together on-screen, I’d hardly say it’s their fault as the three are saddled with shamefully underwritten roles that do them no justice. The Nun may have enough frights in it for fans of the series to find it worth watching but I have to imagine that most moviegoers won’t find nearly enough for the film to justify its existence outside of being another payday for Warner Bros in this lucrative franchise.

Score – 1.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Predator, starring Boyd Holbrook and Trevante Rhodes, is the third sequel to the 1987 sci-fi action classic that pits a group of mercenaries against a town overrun by the titular creatures.
A Simple Favor, starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, is a mystery-thriller that centers around a blogger who attempts to solve a missing persons case that involves her best friend.
White Boy Rick, starring Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt, tells the true story of Richard Wershe Jr., who is notorious for being the youngest FBI informant ever at age 14.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Searching

So much of our modern lives are dictated by how we interact with screens, whether it’s a smart phone or tablet or computer, it only seemed to be a matter of time before the movies would address the staggering cultural change. First it was the 2014 horror film Unfriended, which told its cyberbullying revenge tale entirely from the perspective of computer screens during a group Skype call. Now comes the new techno-thriller Searching, which employs the same general setup of capturing everything from the point-of-view of these ever-present screens but does so in service of a much more human story with real stakes at its core.

The film stars John Cho as David Kim, a single father doing his best to raise his 16-year old daughter Margot (Michelle La) while still struggling to cope with the recent loss of his wife to cancer. After waking up to multiple missed calls from Margot, David becomes worried when he’s unable to reach her back in the morning and does some preliminary research to try to track her down. When parts of Margot’s story don’t add up and she isn’t heard from in over 36 hours, the missing persons case begins and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) begins working with David to track Margot’s digital footprint for information that will lead to her safe return.

It may not initially seem enticing to watch a mystery like this unfold from the vantage point of the protagonist’s electronic devices but first-time director Aneesh Chaganty knows just how to pace the action on-screen. He manages to wring an uncanny amount of tension from tasks that we’re used to completing every day like web searching and checking e-mail by embedding clues behind each click. Thanks to the skillful editing of Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, there’s a propulsive energy and seemingly unstoppable momentum behind every scene that delivers the story’s twists and turns at a break-neck speed while (hopefully) not losing the audience in the process.

Another important key to this film’s success is just how much technical accuracy and precision goes into every tab and window that’s on display and tech-savvy movie goers will have fun picking out every detail that appears on screen. It also helps that David’s sleuthing tends to be remarkably clever, as he finds quick but credible solutions to obstacles like not knowing the password to an account while also not being able to log in to the e-mail address linked to the same account. The less technologically-inclined among us may not be able to catch every single bread crumb on the trail but it doesn’t take a computer whiz to follow the touching family story that serves as the film’s emotional backbone.

Always at the center of the film’s action is John Cho, an actor who’s probably best known for playing Sulu in the new Star Trek films and was excellent in last year’s Columbus, but has the chance to really shine in a performance that’s often unaccompanied. The anxiety and desperation that his character feels is often on full display from his computer’s camera but Cho also conveys a progression of stress that’s completely believable for any parent who would have to endure a situation like this. Searching is a terrific thrill-ride that utilizes its screen-based gimmick to maximum effect while also telling a poignant story about raising children in the age of the internet.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Nun, starring Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, is the latest in the Conjuring series of horror films that investigates the origins of the ominous Valak character introduced in The Conjuring 2.
Peppermint, starring Jennifer Garner, is a vigilante action thriller from the director of Taken that centers around a woman’s search for justice following the murder of her husband and daughter.
Also opening at Cinema Center is Madeline’s Madeline, which scored rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and stars Helena Howard as a theater student on the verge of an artistic breakthrough.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup