Tag Archives: 3.5/5


As movie theaters around the country still struggle to replicate pre-pandemic numbers, the horror genre could ironically represent the light at the end of the tunnel. Recent offerings like Don’t Breathe 2 and Candyman both exceeded box office expectations relative to their modest budgets and it’s not hard to see why. Scary films have often appealed to younger crowds, who are the most likely to return to theaters despite lingering covid concerns. There’s also something about leaving the safety of one’s home to go into a darkened room with strangers and experience the unexpected and potentially terrifying together that streaming just can’t touch. After all, how scary can something be when you’re half-watching it behind your smartphone? I didn’t see the new horror movie Malignant in theaters but given these factors, I wish I had.

The film tells the story of Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a Seattle-based mother-to-be who is plagued by graphic visions of gruesome murders following an incident with her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). She observes these happenings as if she’s in the room when they take place, like a more visceral form of sleep paralysis amid waking nightmares. First, she sees Derek attacked in their kitchen, followed by a woman being abducted in the Seattle Underground. When Madison awakes, she’s terrified to learn that all of these disturbing premonitions are actually events that have already taken place while she was asleep. With more crime scenes piling up, Madison works with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and a beleaguered detective (George Young) to put a stop to the brutal violence.

Those worried about another rote scare fest should be heartened by the fact that Malignant is helmed by none other than James Wan, the mastermind behind the Insidious and Conjuring franchises. More pertinently, this is the man who made cars fall from the sky in Furious 7 and made a CGI octopus play drums in Aquaman, which mirrors the kind of devil-may-care attitude he brings to his return to the horror genre. Wan’s direction here is reminiscent of the over-the-top supernatural aesthetic pioneered by Evil Dead creator Sam Raimi, who sadly hasn’t made a horror film since 2009’s minor camp classic Drag Me to Hell. I was also reminded of the lesser-known, Ti West-directed The House of the Devil, which chugs along like a mild-mannered haunted house movie until its bombastic finale.

And boy, does Malignant ever have one of those itself. This is a film that dares you to solve what’s really going on in real time and if you’ve seen a horror movie in the past 50 years, there’s a good chance you’ll guess the broad strokes of what screenwriter Akela Cooper has cooked up. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and Wan saves the most outlandish reveals for the third act, paying off some clever bread crumbs of foreshadowing while taking things further than the Conjuring crowd may anticipate. In this way, Malignant has the most in common with another Wan feature that kicked off a mega franchise: Saw. He peppers in loads of visual cues to that surprise 2004 success, from moodily lit shots of decaying bricks to a skulking, trench coat-wearing killer who moves like the Jigsaw Killer from the Saw movies.

As distinct an impression as Malignant leaves in its final 30 minutes, I wish the film had been a bit lighter on its way there. Wan and his editor Kirk Morri could’ve cut off about 15 to 20 minutes from the runtime and I doubt much would have been missed. A movie like this really shouldn’t stick around much longer than it needs to, lest the audience give themselves time to subject the narrative to further scrutiny and uncover plot inconsistencies. There’s also heavy subject material at the beginning, involving miscarriages and child abuse, that is tonally inconsistent with the kind of campy conclusion that Wan is ultimately setting up. Malignant could have used a bit more of a surgical approach to carve out its scares but Wan proves that, even with blunt instruments, he can get the job done well.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and on HBO Max is Cry Macho, a neo-Western starring Clint Eastwood and Dwight Yoakam about an ex-rodeo star who is hired by his former boss to kidnap his Mexican son and transport him to Texas.
Opening only in theaters is Copshop, an action thriller starring Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo about a wily con artist on the run from a lethal assassin who devises a scheme to hide out inside a small-town police station.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a coming-of-age musical starring Max Harwood and Sarah Lancashire about a teenager from Sheffield, England who aspires to be a drag queen.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Night House

A year and a half after debuting at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, a hefty Searchlight Pictures acquisition finally sees the light of day, which is to say the dark of the movie theater. The atmospheric and genuinely chilling The Night House is half tantalizing mystery and half psychological horror but wholly gripping all the way through. Like Netflix’s The Woman in the Window from earlier this year, the film depicts a female protagonist who isolates herself from the rest of the world to pull a nagging thread that threatens to unravel everything around her. Just as Amy Adams knocked it out of the park in that unfairly maligned Netflix offering, Rebecca Hall turns in a fiercely committed performance that puts us firmly within her fractured psyche.

Hall plays Beth, a high school teacher failing to make sense of the abrupt suicide of Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), her loving husband of almost 15 years. Retreating to the ornate lake house that he built for them before their marriage, she goes through mementos like wedding videos and love notes before happening upon the blueprints for their luxurious home. Strange inscriptions and evidence of hidden rooms prompt Beth to dig deeper, which in turn causes sleeplessness and disturbing visions that only get her more involved in the dark secrets that are waiting to be uncovered. Beth’s new obsession disturbs friends like Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and neighbors like Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) alike, begging the question if all of these supernatural connections are simply a matter of Beth’s grief-stricken imagination.

Directed by David Bruckner, veteran of horror anthology showcases like V/H/S and Southbound, The Night House doesn’t have the sturdiest script around but makes up for the more ungainly plot elements with some well earned scares. Yes, there are jump scares and yes, some of them are cheaper than others, but the movie also provides more drawn-out sequences that give us time to study the frame and investigate the shadows that may or may not be there. While the film has slightly different goals and intentions than last year’s The Invisible Man, both movies share a proclivity for negative space in the frame, suggesting the evil that may lurk there and allowing our imagination to fill the chasm. The Night House makes even more evocative use of moving shadows and shifting rooms, to profoundly creepy and unsettling effect.

Bruckner also thematically and visually quotes several films of a master filmmaker not traditionally associated with the horror genre: Ingmar Bergman. His narrative invokes Jungian duality and doppelgängers in ways that brought me right back to Bergman’s endlessly debated masterwork Persona. A shot late in the film between Beth and a deathly figure is composed and choreographed so similarly to the iconic chess scene in The Seventh Seal that I find it impossible for it not to be intentional. More obliquely, the crimson-tinged third act of The Night House recalls the inescapable reddish rue of Cries and Whispers and all of its stirring underpinnings. It’s heartening to see directors implement concepts of classic cinema so seamlessly into a modern ghost tale.

Since appearing in The Prestige 15 years ago, Rebecca Hall has become one of the most captivating actresses around and here, she proves that she can hold a movie together with little help from other performers. Her Beth isn’t always likable in the traditional sense — she’s not afraid to confront people and make them uncomfortable if it seems warranted –but her struggle to put these twisted puzzle pieces together is always engaging. Hall wears the fears and insecurities of her characters with such boldness that it’s often inspiring; if her characters can overcome their baggage and damage, perhaps we can too. When Bruckner introduced the film at Sundance, he said it’s “about which idea you find scarier: that ghosts exist, or that they don’t.” The Night House has the capacity to haunt properly, no matter which option you choose.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Candyman, a supernatural slasher sequel starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris about a Chicago-based group of young professionals who awaken the titular bogeyman once again.
Streaming on Hulu is Vacation Friends, a comedy starring John Cena and Lil Rel Howery about a couple whose wedding is crashed by a pair of casual friends from a vacation.
Available on Netflix is He’s All That, a gender-swapped remake starring Addison Rae and Tanner Buchanan about a high school girl who accepts a challenge to turn the school’s least popular boy into prom king.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Werewolves Within

When it comes to films based on video games, the track record over the past 25+ years has been something less than stellar. Of the dozens of live-action adaptations, Rotten Tomatoes has only graded 2 — Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog — as Fresh, while 11 of them have a meager 10% critical approval to their name. Given all this, it’s not much of an overstatement to call Werewolves Within the strongest such adaptation to date. Derived from the 2016 virtual reality game, it may not be as well known as titles like Super Mario Bros. or Mortal Kombat but the framework of its deduction-based playing mechanics align perfectly with the whodunit movie genre. This ended up also being the case for the 1985 cult classic Clue, almost certainly the best film based on a board game.

The setting of this claustrophobic mystery is the blustery village of Beaverfield, where good-hearted forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) has recently arrived for his latest posting. He’s assigned to oversee the construction of a proposed gas pipeline that has created division amongst the otherwise genial folk of the quaint town. As he checks into the local inn, the town’s chipper postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) catches him up on Beaverfield’s most notable citizens, who incidentally find themselves all under the same roof thanks to a fierce snowstorm. Gossip about a werewolf loose in town combined with foul play near a backup generator that leaves the inn-mates without power leads them to point fingers at one another in hopes of finding out who’s responsible for the mischief that’s afoot.

Director Josh Ruben follows up last year’s Scare Me with another comedy horror film largely confined to a single location, relying on some creative camera tricks and swift editing to make up for the modest budget. Where Werewolves Within distinguishes itself is in its eclectic and well-cast cavalcade of players, integral for a whodunit like this to really take off. It may not have the star power or lavish production design of something like Knives Out but these lesser-known actors make the most of their revolving screen time as they poke through alibis and assign motives to one another. If the movie has a weak point (a silver bullet, perhaps) on the directing side of things, it’s that the squabbling between the Beaverfieldians can make an already crowded movie feel a bit overstuffed.

Thanks to born-to-do-this screenwriter Mishna Wolff, the accusatory dialogue between the townspeople is often as chilly as the howling winds that blow outside the wooded inn. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Trish, but everything in these woods eats tiny little dogs,” one townsperson blithely blurts out to a grieving dog mom while neglecting to break direct eye contact with his phone. Wolff also works in some cheeky nods to the country’s current sociopolitical divide that don’t have all that much bite but also aren’t likely ruffle the fur of audiences, regardless of their political inclinations. After all, the spirit and words of Fred Rogers are unironically invoked several times during the movie and if his message of compassion and empathy leaves viewers cold, then there may be no hope for them anyway.

The guilty party or parties may remain hidden for most of Werewolves Within but fortunately, the film is a constant comedic spotlight for two possibly familiar faces who will hopefully score more starring roles in the future. Sam Richardson, who’s popped out in brilliant TV series from Veep to I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, is perfect as a perky straight man trying to ease tensions among the paranoid townspeople. Milana Vayntrub, who sports some outstanding comedic instincts here, may be even more recognizable not from a television show but rather from a ubiquitous series of AT&T commercials that have aired since 2013. The two have an infectious on-screen chemistry that make Werewolves Within a great pick for your next movie night, whether you’re snowed in or not.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies streaming this weekend:
Streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime is The Tomorrow War, a sci-fi action movie starring Chris Pratt and J. K. Simmons depciting a war against an alien invasion and mankind’s new ability to draft soldiers from the past to help fight the aliens.
Streaming exclusively on HBO Max is No Sudden Move, a period crime thriller starring Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro about a group of small-time criminals whose plan to steal what they think is a simple document goes awry.
Streaming exclusively on Netflix is America: The Motion Picture, an adult animated comedy starring Channing Tatum and Olivia Munn that re-imagines the American Revolution through a more colorful and intentionally anachronistic perspective.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Quiet Place Part II

After a 14-month delay, the follow-up to 2018’s surprise hit A Quiet Place is finally being released in a place that has been all too quiet the past year: our movie theaters. A Quiet Place Part II is another potent creature feature from writer/director John Krasinski, whose presence on-screen may be reduced this time around but his creative control behind the camera is on full display. Horror sequels have a bad habit of over-explaining the origins of their monsters or expanding their cinematic world too quickly; Krasinski wisely avoids both of those pitfalls while matching (if not exceeding) the tension produced by his predecessor. It obviously would help to have seen A Quiet Place first before picking up with this chapter but even audience members who go in blind shouldn’t have much trouble getting wrapped up in the film’s scares.

A Quiet Place begins on “Day 89” after Earth is overrun by terrifying creatures who hunt anything that makes noise; Part II goes back to show us the events of “Day 1” when the monsters first attack. After that extended prologue, we join Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) with her newborn baby along with daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and son Marcus (Noah Jupe), right after the events of the first film. With their home now destroyed, the family ventures out beyond the sand path and happens upon a seemingly abandoned steel factory. There they find Emmett (Cillian Murphy), a former family friend doing his best to survive after the loss of his children and more recent loss of his wife. Together, they work together to stave off the horrifying creatures and find a way to finish them off for good.

Restraint is a rare quality among horror movies, and especially ones as highly anticipated as A Quiet Place Part II, but Krasinski has again struck a fine balance between tension and release that permeates the film’s scariest moments. He explores and makes terrific use of new spaces, venturing past the cornfields of the original to a larger world that includes Emmett’s grimy bunker and a set of abandoned train cars. Complimenting some top-notch sound design, composer Marco Beltrami returns with a spine-tingling music score that is used sparingly but effectively. There are plenty of nail-biting scenes in this lean and mean sequel but the climax, beautifully edited by Michael P. Shawver, seamlessly weaves together three separate stories in a sequence that will leave audiences breathless.

If Krasinski’s script is light on nuance and character development, his performers make up the difference with heartfelt and beautifully lived-in performances. Blunt capably takes over the spotlight from both her real-life and fictional husband as a fierce matriarch saddled with a precious newborn but blessed with two children nearly as resourceful as she is. Simmonds is again terrific in a commanding and cunning role that properly empowers the deaf community without pandering to them. Though Murphy has appeared in plenty of Christopher Nolan’s movies, it seems like it’s been a while since he’s had a lead film role and he’s an outstanding addition to this eminently talented cast.

Like the best post-apocalyptic features, the pair of these films asks us to consider how much can be lost so quickly and to cherish the things in our lives that we may take for granted. The COVID-19 pandemic seemed destined to deal the final blow to movie theaters but through patience and resiliency, we gather together once again. Besides someone shouting “that’s Jim!” when Krasinski first appeared on screen, the audience at my IMAX screening was exceedingly respectful and properly enraptured by the presence of a screen alit once more. The movies allow us to sit as silent strangers in the dark but become acquainted and united with each other through light and magic. May A Quiet Place Part II be the first of many more movies to brighten our faces amid the darkness.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and playing on HBO Max is The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, a horror movie starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga that continues the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they take on another terrifying case.
Playing only in theaters is Spirit Untamed, an animated adventure starring Isabela Merced and Jake Gyllenhaal about a young girl who moves from the city to a small frontier town and befriends a wild mustang named Spirit.
Available to rent on demand is Undine, a myth-based romantic fantasy starring Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski about a mermaid posing as a German historian who must kill her cheating boyfriend and return to the water.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Without Remorse

Without Remorse (technically Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse) is the sixth movie based on a Clancy novel but the first to make Clancy’s other famous spy character, John Clark, its primary player. The prolific espionage writer is known for creating Jack Ryan, played previously by heavyweights like Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin on the big screen and currently being portrayed by John Krasinski on the Amazon Prime series Jack Ryan. In the books, Clark is written as a more intimidating physical presence and more inclined to take retaliatory action than the more measured Ryan. It turns out that Michael B. Jordan, star of the Creed franchise and villain of Black Panther, is a nice fit for a more imposing protagonist to head up a lean and mean action film like this one.

We meet Clark alongside his crew of Navy SEALs in Syria as they rescue a high-value hostage who their boss, Director Ritter (Jamie Bell), tells them is being held by potential ISIS members. It turns out the captors were Russian military and months later, members of the SEAL team are assassinated on US soil as retribution . Caught in the crossfire is Clark’s pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London), whose attackers (save one) are killed by Clark soon afterwards. Thanks to a lead from friend in the CIA Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith), Clark goes on a warpath to track down the final assassin and avenge his wife’s untimely death as well as the deaths of his former teammates.

We’ve seen this plot before and we’ve probably seen it done better too but what sets Without Remorse apart from its revenge movie peers is the effortlessly breakneck pace established by director Stefano Sollima. Using land, air, and sea as settings, he elegantly strings his efficiently brutal action setpieces together with just the right amount of interpersonal drama and tense geopolitical intrigue. The pace reminded me of an action-packed video game, specifically — and perhaps not coincidentally — the stealth shooting game Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. As with the recent Mortal Kombat reboot, we’ve seen Hollywood try to make video games cinematic but more uncommon and admirable are the films that evoke the excitement of discovering a video game in real time.

Whether he’s getting into a burning car for an “advanced interrogation” or shirtlessly preparing to take on a legion of armored prison guards, Jordan oozes the command and confidence vital for this role. Though the movie doesn’t utilize the full range of his charisma, Jordan also has an understated chemistry with Turner-Smith that blurs the line between the characters’ professional friendship and potential romance. The script is a collaboration between video game developer Will Staples and Hell or High Water scribe Taylor Sheridan and while the dialogue isn’t particularly noteworthy or inspired, it gets the job done. After all, Clancy books are notoriously long and distilling one into a 100-minute movie doesn’t necessarily make for the easiest adaptation.

Like nearly everything else in the movie industry these days, this film sets up an extended universe (Clancyverse has likely already been trademarked) for future content, confirmed by the post-credit stinger. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t be opposed to Michael B. Jordan teaming up with John Krasinski for a Clark/Ryan project, whether as a movie or new Amazon series. If they do, I hope they’re able to include stories with a bit more meat on the bone and rope in talented directors like Sollima for more first-rate action sequences. As both an adrenaline-pumping franchise-starter and throwback to 1990s action fare, Without Remorse is a guilty pleasure about which you don’t have to feel too guilty.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Wrath of Man, a Guy Ritchie action thriller starring Jason Statham and Holt McCallany about a mysterious money courier who is on the hunt for the people behind his son’s murder.
Available to rent on demand is Mainstream, a dramedy starring Andrew Garfield and Maya Hawke about a young woman who finds a path to internet stardom when she starts making videos with a charismatic stranger.
Streaming on Netflix is Monster, a legal drama starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Jennifer Ehle about a teenage honor student whose world comes crashing down around him when he is charged with felony murder.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk goes from Mr. Chips to Scarface in Nobody, a cheeky shoot ’em up that cleverly reconfigures its key influences into one massively entertaining package. The most inescapable of these inspirations is the John Wick series, in which Keanu Reeves plays a hitman who retires legions of other hitmen who are after him for one reason or another. It also recalls vigilante films like The Equalizer and Taken, in which seemingly mild-mannered, middle-aged men are forced into large-scale retaliation when loved ones are caught in the crosshairs. But the movie that Nobody evoked most specifically for me is Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, where Viggo Mortensen plays a small-town diner owner whose thwarting of two robbers sends his life into a tailspin.

Odenkirk stars as Hutch Mansell, a listless accountant and father of two who seems to be stuck in a suburban rut. His teenage son Blake (Gage Munroe) has little to no respect for him and his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) barely speaks to him, except to pester him about forgetting to take out the trash every Tuesday night. The tedium of his life snaps one night when he catches a pair of burglars in the act, only to let them go despite seeming to have the drop on them. Feeling the disappointment of his son and wife growing after the incident, Hutch shifts gears and decides to go after the robbers for embarrassing him on his own property. His path of vengeance soon intertwines with Russian drug kingpin Yulian (Aleksei Serebryakov), whose two primary passions are karaoke singing and ruthless violence.

Wick creator Derek Kolstad is Nobody‘s sole credited writer and he carries over elements of the first John Wick screenplay into this more overtly humorous take on a similar tale. Where the senseless killing of Wick’s puppy is what springs him back into action, a kitty cat bracelet that Hutch believes the thieves stole is ostensibly the reason that he goes on a retaliatory rampage. Where Kolstad unfortunately pulls his punches is in character development, instead favoring brevity over depth. While Blake and Becca’s role in the inciting events is critical, their characters are severely underwritten and Nielsen in particular seems to be underserved in a one-dimensional role that wouldn’t have taken much effort to give some nuance.

Director Ilya Naishuller drops clever clues early on in the film that there may be more to Hutch that meets the eye. In an expertly-edited montage, which dryly documents our protagonist’s mundane existence, he peppers in shots of Hutch capably performing pull-ups on a bus shelter bar during his commute. There’s a voice, that of the rapper-actor RZA, with whom he seems to exchange weapons intel over a hidden radio disguised as a CD player in his office. But beyond foreshadowing, Naishuller also doesn’t forget to deliver the goods when it comes to satisfying and kinetic action sequences once the cards are finally out on the table. The brutal bus brawl that comprises the film’s climax gives any of the setpieces in the John Wick trilogy a run for their money.

Lead actors in action movies sometimes get overlooked, perhaps taken for granted once they have a few films of the genre under their belt (Liam Neeson, for one, comes to mind). While this is Odenkirk’s first time in this kind of role, he does an incredible job of conveying someone who comes off as inadequate but may just be powerful beyond measure. When he takes hits during the lengthy fight scenes, we believe that he’s muddling through these imperfect melees out of necessity rather than bloodlust and will no doubt have the scars and bruises to prove it. Most importantly, he brings a wry humor and self-deprecation that perfectly rounds out the performance. Fierce and fun, Nobody may just be the movie that gets everybody back to the theaters.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering March 31st both in theaters and on HBO Max is Godzilla vs. Kong, a creature feature starring Millie Bobby Brown and Alexander Skarsgård in which the two iconic monsters duke it out as the world watches.
Coming to Netflix is Concrete Cowboy, a modern Western starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin about a teenager who discovers the world of urban horseback riding when he moves in with his estranged father in North Philadelphia.
Available to rent on demand is Shiva Baby, a comedy starring Rachel Sennott and Molly Gordon about a college student who runs into her sugar daddy at a Jewish funeral service with her parents.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Considering how the DC Extended Universe has unfolded over the past 8 years, it’s enough to wish that Superman would zip around the Earth to turn the clocks back and give Warner Bros a mulligan on the franchise. Beginning with the equally contemplative and cacophonous Man of Steel in 2013, the film’s director Zack Snyder became the de facto architect of a franchise that was already playing severe catch-up to the Disney-backed Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film’s sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, was intended to be a precursor to a trilogy based on the Justice League, DC’s analog to Marvel’s Avengers. Responding to that film’s poor reception, the executives at WB rushed out a solo iteration of Justice League just a year later, sandwiched in between standalone entries for Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

To say that 2017’s Justice League, intended to be the culminating film for the DCEU, had a troubled production would be an understatement. Snyder and his screenwriter Chris Terrio went through many different story ideas that had to be shifted at the last minute to match continuity with the preceding Suicide Squad, which also underwent profound changes in post-production. More studio meddling occurred after Snyder stepped down during post-production due to the tragic passing of his daughter, causing Joss Whedon (ironically, the director of Marvel’s The Avengers) to be called in as an uncredited co-director. The theatrical cut of the movie, derogatorily dubbed by die-hard comic fans as Josstice League, was derided by critics and fans alike, causing WB to pivot wildly again to spin-offs like Shazam! and Birds of Prey.

Now we have Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a rare director’s cut that is over twice the length of its theatrical companion. WB’s mandate that Justice League‘s runtime be no longer than 2 hours produced a myriad of plot holes and left hours of critical story moments on the cutting room floor. At a staggering 242 minutes, the “Snyder Cut” is obviously outside the realm of reasonable cinema but represents a fullness of vision that is admirable on its own unprecedented terms. The general storyline follows the trajectory of the original: the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) awakens both a trio of ancient artifacts known as the Mother Boxes and the warmongering alien Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) to stop him.

When Justice League was released, I considered it the nadir of woefully misguided DCEU and opined that it “literally feels like it was patched together by a focus group that was held up at gunpoint.” Against all odds, Zack Snyder’s Justice League emerges as the strongest realization of these DC’s characters and the franchise’s finest film. Paradoxically, much of its success is addition by subtraction. Gone are the pathetic attempts at quippy humor, like Superman describing the experience of resurrection as “itchy” and The Flash riffing on the concept of brunch. The aggressive color grading that made the Russian-set third act appear as if the air was made of Cheeto dust has been undone. Cavill’s mustache, which had to be removed with CGI during extensive re-shoots for the original, is more convincingly absent this time around.

Most importantly, the movie actually has time for trivial things like character motivation and story development. Divided in 6 chapters with a cameo-heavy epilogue, it’s structured more like a comic book series than a traditional superhero epic. Cyborg, who was little more than a curious afterthought in the 2017 version, has a complete and satisfying arc that renders his character both essential and compelling. The Flash’s humor, which came across as strained and desperate in the predecessor, somehow fits in much better and tempers the self-seriousness for which Snyder has been known to indulge. Sporting film history’s largest Most Improved Award on its oversized chest, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is an unwieldy yet undeniably powerful instance of creative control overcoming corporate contamination.

Score – 3.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Premiering on Netflix is Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, a documentary covering the 2019 bribery scandal that snuck the kids of rich and famous families into top US universities.
Available to rent digitally is Happily, a comedic thriller starring Joel McHale and Kerry Bishé about a married couple who go on a tense couples’ trip with friends who may not actually be friends at all.
Also new to video on demand is Last Call, a comedy starring Jeremy Piven and Taryn Manning about a man who returns to his Philadelphia suburban neighborhood when he inherits his family’s pub following his mother’s death.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Little Fish

Meeting at the intersection of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Contagion, the new sci-fi romance Little Fish is a quietly devastating and exquisitely rendered tale that would have hit hard even if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. However, its story of an out-of-control virus that causes memory loss rather than respiratory infection is even more ominously timely than its creators could have initially intended. Originally slated to debut last April at the cancelled Tribeca Film Festival, the film finally arrives on demand with scenes of masked bystanders and clamoring crowds outside of hospitals that are now all too familiar. What keeps this from being a shoe-in for Feel-Bad Movie of the Year is the playful and tender chemistry between its two compelling leads.

The touching relationship at the story’s center is between spirited vet tech Emma (Olivia Cooke) and reserved photographer Jude (Jack O’Connell). The two meet on a gloomy Seattle beach one day, courtesy of a lost dog who serves as the perfect icebreaker. We then move through time as Emma and Jude go on their first few dates and eventually move into the same apartment, all while the world is slowly changing around them. The new illness Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA) is affecting more people every day, causing memory loss that can be either spontaneous or gradual; Emma confesses she doesn’t know which scenario is worse. Through increasing incidents of forgetfulness, it becomes obvious to Emma that Jude has contracted NIA and the two search frantically to find a cure before it’s too late.

Adapting Aja Gabel’s short story of the same name, writer Mattson Tomlin and director Chad Hartigan weave together hushed voiceover narration, vivid flashbacks and modest moments of intimacy to utterly heartbreaking effect. Though it sometimes piles on the misery a bit more than it needs to and in ways that aren’t terribly organic to the primary story, the film works best when it focuses on the aching associated with watching a loved one fade away and the desperate longing between Emma and Jude as they work to preserve their shared memories. With its doomed love story cast against dire circumstances out of the protagonists’ control, Little Fish often reminded me of another dystopian romantic drama: Mark Romanek’s underrated adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Both Cooke and O’Connell turn in some of the very best work of their careers. Cooke feels more natural here than anywhere else that I’ve seen her previously, sporting her native English accent when most of her other roles have called for the “standard” American dialect. She graces her character with a fragile optimism that is a perfect fit for poignant lines like “I find myself wondering how to build a future if you keep having to rebuild the past.” O’Connell imbues Jude with an earnestness and deference that recalls the work of the late Anton Yelchin, with whom Cooke starred in the 2017 thriller Thoroughbreds. Thanks to O’Connell, Jude’s growing confusion and requisite agitation registers with shattering potency.

In his fourth feature film, Hartigan wisely features composer Keegan DeWitt’s staggering and breathtakingly beautiful music score in the majority of the movie’s scenes, particularly in montages showing the central relationship blossom. During the latter half of his story, he also makes subtle use of unreliable narration, making the audience question if we’re misremembering things or if the NIA-affected characters are. Hartigan occasionally spins his wheels and gets lost in the tragic nature of his film from time to time but his terrific leads see his vision through. Though it arrives at a time when viewers may not necessarily be in the mood to take in its oppressively melancholic story, Little Fish is nevertheless a profound reminder of the powerful bonds we hold with those closest to us.

Score – 3.5/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on HBO Max is Judas and the Black Messiah, a biopic starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the member turned FBI informant who betrayed him.
Available to watch on demand is Saint Maud, a psychological horror film starring Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle about a Catholic caretaker who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her troubled patient.
Also gracing the rental moviescape with its presence is Willy’s Wonderland, an action comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Beth Grant about a janitor squaring off against murderous animatronic mascots who come to life in an abandoned family entertainment center.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Much like the Portland-based stop-motion outfit Laika, the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has been building a strong resume over the past decade, even if their work has underwhelmed when it comes to box office numbers. Though all three of their films to this point have been nominated for Oscars in the Best Animated Feature category, they have yet to take home the trophy but this year may present them with their best opportunity yet. Their latest feature, the stunningly gorgeous and altogether magical Wolfwalkers, follows a similar narrative path to hits like How to Train Your Dragon and Pixar’s Brave but distinguishes itself with dazzling 2D animation. It has the kind of crossover appeal that could finally put Cartoon Saloon on the map for American audiences.

Set in 17th century Ireland, the story concerns the tenacious hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) and his teenage daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) as they seek to disband wolf packs that threaten their walled-in village. While venturing outside the city’s fortress one day, Robyn and her pet hawk Merlyn meet Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who belongs to a clan of “wolfwalkers”: magical half-humans who have the ability to take the form of wolves as they sleep overnight. We learn that Mebh is searching for her mother, who transformed into her animal form but hasn’t been able to reunite with her human body. As the barbarous “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) seems to be Mebh’s mothers’s most likely captor, Robyn and Bill seek to set her free while changing the town’s attitude towards the forbearing creatures that lie outside their borders.

Incorporating aspects of both Celtic folklore and modern Japanese animation, Wolfwalkers celebrates the talented hands that crafted it within every beautifully-composed and detail-laden frame. While more recent animated films have tended to strive for precision and photorealism, Cartoon Saloon’s output recalls watercolor paintings that are intended to evoke emotion over exactness. Co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart set most of their story in an autumnal forest landscape where no two leaves seem to have the same exact color. The film’s jaw-dropping art design is a perfect fit for the magical and mystical qualities of the alluring tale at its center but also leaves room for some witty visual humor, as when a group of sheep plop out of an enclosure in one predefined cube.

Another manner in which Wolfwalkers separates itself from the pack of family-oriented animated films is in its breathtaking use and balance of light and shadow in each exquisite shot. As characters are exposed to more sunlight when it pokes through the tree cover of the woods, their translucent colors begin to softly fade and subtly remind one that this otherworldly landscape has long existed in darkness. The light scatters differently in this mystical forest, casting contours that don’t behave in the way that we expect and give us a new lens with which to gaze upon this captivating and surprising world. The technological improvements in computer-generated animation over the past 25 years have allowed the artform to improve by leaps and bounds but the goal of the artistry behind this film isn’t merely to impress but to inspire.

As in Laika’s most recent films Kubo and the Two Strings and Missing Link, Wolfwalkers is beyond impressive when it comes to its artistic prowess but comes up a bit short when it comes to narrative invention. Kids likely won’t mind and may even feel more at home with a more conventional story but it will be impossible for parents not to be able to recognize tropes from other family-friendly adventures. While Pixar has all the money in the world to throw at top-tier animation and some have accused them of thematic repetition, their ability to craft story beats of unparalleled poignancy is something that independent animation studios still have yet to emulate. Nevertheless, Wolfwalkers is Cartoon Saloon’s strongest effort yet and will hopefully enrapture enough audiences at home with its enchanting and vibrant palette.

Score – 3.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is The Prom, a Broadway-adapted musical comedy starring Meryl Streep and James Corden about a troupe of theater stars who converge onto a small Indiana town in support of a high school girl who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom.
Available on HBO Max is Let Them All Talk, a Steven Soderbergh-directed dramedy starring Meryl Streep and Lucas Hedges about an author who goes on a trip with her friends and nephew to find fun and come to terms with her past.
Debuting on Disney+ is Safety, a sports biopic starring Jay Reeves and Corinne Foxx about a Clemson University freshman football player who secretly raised his younger brother on campus.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

On The Rocks

For one reason or another, Sofia Coppola just seems to get Bill Murray. In her previous directorial efforts Lost in Translation and A Very Murray Christmas, Coppola tapped into both the world-weary wisdom and lounge lizard haminess that represent two distinct sides of the veteran comedian’s larger-than-life persona. Now the writer-director and her comic collaborator team up again for On The Rocks, an abundantly charming and breezy screwball dramedy about the potential pitfalls of marriage and the lengths that spouses will go through to get back on track. The marriage in question isn’t that of Murray’s character Felix and his wife but instead of his daughter Laura, played by Rashida Jones.

Along with her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), Laura raises two little girls in the heart of New York City. Quickly approaching 40, she doesn’t have a career as a writer as much as she has a career in blanking staring at her MacBook Pro with research papers strewn across her desk. Conversely, Dean’s tech-based career is going much better, so much so that he’s been traveling more frequently and surrounding himself with attractive colleagues like his assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick). Having fleeting doubts about Dean’s fidelity, Laura calls her gregarious father Felix for reassurance but instead gets further confirmation from him that Dean’s actions are suspicious. Together, Laura and Felix go to extreme lengths to confirm Dean’s loyalty and potentially save the marriage from going cold.

It’s a straightforward comedic premise that could aim for sitcom-level yucks in the wrong hands but thankfully, the chemistry between Jones and Murray more than makes up for the somewhat flimsy story. This is a terrific starring role for Jones, who is best known for her role on NBC’s Parks and Recreation but deserves loads of lead film roles in the future. She’s a completely winning screen presence, imbuing Laura with such grace and passion that it’s almost impossible not to root for her. Whether or not Dean is having some kind of affair, we can empathize with Laura’s concerns and insecurities not only because of his questionable behavior but because of how she has subconsciously expected men to act based on the model of her duplicitous father.

In what may be his most fully-realized role since Lost In Translation, Murray turns in an outstanding performance that plays perfectly to both his comedic and dramatic strengths. We first meet the well-off Felix as his chauffeur pulls up to the curb and a roll-down of the car’s rear window reveals Murray’s droll face, with a perfectly deadpan “get in” to punctuate the moment. Within the first minute of their car ride, Felix blithely whistles a tune and encourages Laura to do the same. Murray renders Felix’s childish and even chauvinistic antics, like his non-stop flirtations with women half (or even a third) his age, with wickedly winsome confidence. When Laura observes Felix get out of yet another jam, she dryly remarks “it must be very nice to be you,” to which he wittily chirps “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

While this is mainly a two-hander between Jones and Murray, Jenny Slate steals a few scenes as a single woman who blathers on so much about her dating issues that Laura eventually doesn’t even bother feigning interest. Wayans is typically known for his work in poorly-received spoofs like A Haunted House and Fifty Shades of Black but he’s a nice fit here, riding the line between preoccupied go-getter and potential scoundrel. But ultimately, Jones and Murray are the reason to see this movie and Coppola’s thoughtful and warm writing allows the two performers to get the most out of their endearing characters. Though it doesn’t reach the depths of Coppola’s strongest work, On The Rocks is a good-natured and welcome diversion when we could all use it the most.

Score – 3.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to his smash 2006 mockumentary Borat about a hapless Kazakhstani reporter who travels American to learn about its culture.
Streaming on HBO Max is The Witches, a remake of the 1990 fantasy comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer about an orphaned young boy who stumbles across a conference of witches while staying with his grandmother at a hotel.
Streaming on Netflix is Rebecca, an adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel starring Armie Hammer and Lily James about a newly married young woman who finds herself battling the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup