Tag Archives: 3.5/5

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood

The 2019 documentary Apollo 11 was a just-the-facts recreation of the titular historic spaceflight but thanks to the magic of rotoscoped animation, we now have a fantastical prequel of sorts. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, the latest from writer/director Richard Linklater, is likely his most personal film yet and a fine return to form after a couple recent misfires. Utilizing the rotoscoping technique he helped launch in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Linklater overlays live-action footage with bursts of animated color in a way that resembles a home movie that’s been strategically painted over. The effect is perfect for this wistful tale of remembering what was and daydreaming about what could have been during an era when anything seemed possible.

It’s 1969 in Texas and ten-year-old Stanley (Milo Coy) is at recess playing kickball when he’s called into a classroom to meet with two NASA officials (Glen Powell and Zachary Levi) about something top secret. As with his friends and family, Stanley is enraptured with the ongoing Apollo missions as they watch the shuttles launch on their televisions but these gentlemen have a proposal that will get him closer to his dreams than he ever imagined. Though NASA scientists are the best and brightest, they accidentally made a lunar module too small for an adult astronaut, much less three of them. So as to not waste resources, NASA offers to train Stanley in their program so that he can make the trip to the moon that Kennedy promised earlier in the decade.

Okay, so Linklater is playing a bit fast and loose with the historical facts of what actually landed man on the moon for the first time but the boyhood fantasy of Apollo 10½ is accompanied by very accurate details of time and place otherwise. About twenty minutes into the story, the film freeze frames on an unflattering moment during high-g training and goes on a lengthy detour that paints an evocative portrait of what life was like in this specific Houston suburb. As Daniel Stern did in The Wonder Years, Jack Black plays the adult version of Stanley looking back on his childhood via voiceover narration. It’s easy to see this as a younger brother to Linklater’s similarly nostalgic Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, as fascinated with 1960s culture as those were with the 1970s.

There’s quite a bit of archival footage used in Apollo 10½ but Linklater and his head of animation Tommy Pallotta incorporate plenty of deep cuts along with the expected cultural touchstones. Sure, most people who grew up during this time can relate to watching The Wonderful World Of Color on Sunday nights or hearing “Sugar, Sugar” played way too often. But the film is more specific about the subculture of Texas suburbanites who were smitten by NASA and their tireless endeavors throughout the decade at the nearby Johnson Space Center. As he does multiple times in the movie to rattle off lists of period-relevant board games or TV shows, Linklater fills up the frame at one point with revered astronauts as they appear on collectible trading cards.

Narratively, the film is split between the fictional account of Stanley’s trip to the moon and his life on the ground with his family of 8 but it doesn’t exactly split the time evenly. Obviously Linklater is using the outer space story as a way to show us a scrapbook of his early years, so it shouldn’t be surprising when the movie meanders for long stretches of time. Though it’s intentional, it does give things an uneven feel and the pacing can be a bit all over the place when the waxing nostalgic goes full throttle but the visual pizazz and the heartfelt nature carry the day. In one scene, Stanley describes one of his grandmothers as “a very sweet lady you couldn’t find much fault in” and the same could be said of Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Morbius, the latest entry in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe starring Jared Leto and Matt Smith about a scientist suffering from a rare blood disease whose attempts to cure himself afflict him with a form of vampirism.
Streaming on Netflix is The Bubble, a meta comedy starring Karen Gillan and Fred Armisen about a group of actors struggling to film the newest sequel of a dinosaur-based blockbuster franchise during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premiering on Disney+ is Better Nate Than Ever, a family-friendly musical starring Rueby Wood and Joshua Bassett about an unpopular 13-year-old who has a goal of becoming a Broadway musical star, even though he can’t land the lead in his school’s play.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Batman

While DC’s Extended Universe will continue to move forward with or without Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader, another version of the Dark Knight now emerges from the shadows. Like Joker in 2019, The Batman aims to free the iconic comic book character from the tangle of shared universes and push the genre in new directions. This is less of a superhero movie and more of a hard-boiled detective story that happens to center around a vigilante dressed up like a bat. Behind the cowl this time around is Robert Pattinson, who has built up a distinctive resume in the 10 years since the Twilight franchise came to a close. His casting allows director and co-writer Matt Reeves to depict a younger version of both Bruce Wayne and Batman, one who’s more hot-blooded and eager to prove himself to a crime-addled Gotham.

When the city’s mayor is murdered in his home on Halloween night, Batman and lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) head up the crime scene as bizarre clues begin to emerge. A card addressed to The Batman contains a cryptic message inside and suggests that a new serial killer, soon dubbed The Riddler, is likely on the rise. More evidence at the scene draws Batman to a notorious nightclub in town run by Oz Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) and frequented by crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). While infiltrating the club, Batman crosses paths with waitress Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), whose search for her missing girlfriend finds her plunging deep into Gotham’s criminal depths. As Riddler’s connected murder count rises, Batman works with his allies to take down the new supervillain.

Just as Joker leaned on specific entries from Martin Scorsese’s filmography, The Batman draws its influences from the psychological thrillers that David Fincher mastered in the 1990s. The partnership of Batman and Gordon often resembles the pairing of detectives Mills and Somerset in Seven, accentuated by the torrents of rain that permeate both films. The labyrinthine design of The Riddler’s plan echoes the paranoid plotting of The Game, while unexpected visual allusions to Fight Club pop up like pretty punches to the face. In comic book lore, Batman is referred to as the World’s Greatest Detective and while he doesn’t exactly live up to that title in this latest cinematic entry, this film attempts to evoke that side of his character more successfully than any other previous Batman movie.

While he doesn’t bring much to Bruce Wayne besides mascara and moodiness, Pattinson packs a formidable presence and menace to a type of Batman of which we’ve only seen glimpses in movies like The Dark Knight Rises and Batman v Superman. He and Kravitz also ooze a sensual “Bat and Cat” chemistry that gives this entry a tangible romantic spark missing from the franchise since Batman Forever. On the villain side of things, Colin Farrell is truly unrecognizable in a deliciously over-the-top take on Penguin that rivals what Danny DeVito did with the role in Batman Returns. Andy Serkis also brings a more rough-and-tumble and adversarial demeanor to an Alfred the butler character who is traditionally depicted as more kindly and obsequious.

Where issues like overstuffed plotting and sluggish editing threaten to put The Batman on ice, the stellar technical aspects underscore the project’s level of aptitude and ambition. Composer Michael Giacchino contributes another instantly memorable musical score, driven by a new theme that is overpowering and operatic, especially in IMAX. DP Greig Fraser, who brought Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Dune to the screen last year, shoots the fight scenes with clear precision but cleverly uses shallow depth of field in moments that could otherwise compromise the precious PG-13 rating. Matt Reeves’ The Batman takes a character that we’ve seen on-screen in myriad contexts and somehow adds a new perspective that feels raw and essential.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering on Disney+ is Turning Red, the latest Pixar offering starring Rosalie Chiang and Sandra Oh about the hormonal struggles of a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
Playing on Netflix is The Adam Project, a sci-fi adventure starring Ryan Reynolds and Mark Ruffalo that follows a time-traveling pilot as he teams up with his younger self and his late father to come to terms with his past while saving the future.
Streaming on Showtime and continuing in select theaters is After Yang, a sci-fi drama starring Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith that takes place in a world where robotic children are purchased as live-in babysitters and depicts one father’s journey to repair their family robot.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Hero

Iran’s selection for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars later this year, A Hero is the latest drama from acclaimed storyteller Asghar Farhadi, whose films A Separation and The Salesman have taken home the trophy in years past. Farhadi’s work is defined by an investigation of messy morality, specifically as it applies to men attempting to make the right choices under trying circumstances. His protagonists and antagonists aren’t strictly defined heroes and villains, as much as flawed people who fall under categories that society might deem as either “right” or “wrong”. The stories he weaves together tend to start with an ethical conundrum that may seem relatively easy to solve at the outset but as more layers of complexity are added on when choices are made, more parties tend to become involved and the dramatic stakes ratchet up too.

The narrative largely takes place during a two-day leave that Rahim (Amir Jadidi) has from his prison sentence for failing to repay a debt owed to his creditor Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh). During the furlough, Rahim scrambles to figure out how to best remedy the financial misstep when his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), as luck would have it, happens upon a bag filled with gold coins. He doesn’t immediately jump to the morally upstanding conclusion of returning the bag to its rightful owner but when he finds that its contents don’t quite cover what he owes, he takes to the local news and advertises the purse as missing. His very public lost-and-found plea sparks goodwill in the community, as the media touts him as a local hero, but those who look closer at the situation begin to doubt Rahim’s heroism.

The terms of A Hero‘s conceit may be a culture shock for American viewers — specifically, that being in debt is a criminal offense and that someone can serve a lengthy prison sentence for not being able to repay what is essentially a business loan. More specifically, it seems the lender has quite a bit of power when it comes to how the debt is repaid and even how much jail time is doled out. While I can’t say that I’m familiar with the particulars of financial law in modern-day Iran, I felt comfortable with the details that Farhadi lent out and chose to omit for the purposes of this gripping story. As it turns out, the way that the media rushes to deify a local figure — and is even more eager to tear the newly-crowned hero from the edifice that they built — will be all too familiar for American audiences.

Farhadi’s films hinge on nuance and while the screenplay is loaded with it, much of the detail comes forth from the acting as well. As the meek and hard-luck Rahim, Jadidi commands the screen with a soft-spoken humility that conceals the rage of an honest man who feels he never got a fair shake in life. At times, this rage boils over and threatens to undo everything, but Jadidi also asserts Rahim’s quiet desperation in ways that are equally compelling. Consider a scene where Rahim receives a merit certificate for his good deed. As he’s being handed the plaque, his son stands under him and starts to grab it from the corners. When the cameras start flashing, Rahim quickly jerks it up to reposition it better for the cameras and flashes his best smile. This could be seen as a duplicitous move, trying to play to the media’s newfound affection for him, but Rahim treats the certificate like a shield meant to protect both himself and his family. “The only thing that matters is my honor,” Rahim tells a council intelligence officer, and we want to believe it too.

Similarly, Tanabandeh portrays Bahram not as some sneering scold whose intent is to kick a poor man when he’s down but rather, someone who was trying to do the good deed of lending out money and was punished for it. We come to learn more about Rahim’s past and Bahram does have good reason to believe Rahim is more unscrupulous than he’s been portrayed on the local news. In the digital age, much of print and online journalism has been robbed of the context and clarifying details that the reader needs to make informed decisions. With A Hero, Farhadi attempts to bridge that gap with an allegorical tale about how the truth means looking past the hasty categorizations that we’re fed everyday.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Munich – The Edge of War, a period thriller starring George MacKay and Jeremy Irons about a British diplomat who travels to Munich in the run-up to World War II, where he meets a former classmate who is secretly working for the German government.
Playing only in theaters is Redeeming Love, a romantic Western starring Abigail Cowen and Tom Lewis about a young couple’s budding relationship as it develops during the harsh realities of the California Gold Rush.
Screening at Cinema Center January 21st and 22nd is Last and First Men, the directorial debut of the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson that depicts a vision two billion years in the future set to voiceover by Tilda Swinton and music written by Jóhannsson.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Finch

Leave it to America’s Dad to make the end of the world more palatable. Tom Hanks’ latest sci-fi vehicle Finch finds the star in the titular role as a robotics engineer who is one of the last remaining people on Earth after a solar flare decimated the ozone layer. He spends his days scavenging for resources and staving off loneliness with the help of his dog Goodyear and diminutive robot assistant Dewey. Finch knows he won’t be around forever, with the threat of dangerous UV radiation and extreme weather events looming large every day, so he works at night to create a more advanced humanoid automaton to care for Goodyear. After years of trial and error, the robot, who Finch decides to call Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), becomes operational and joins the team for a trek to San Francisco.

Compared to survival sci-fi stories like The Martian and I Am Legend, the scale of Finch is reduced drastically but the stakes remain high due to Hanks’ initial affability and also due to the rest of his crew’s vulnerability. Dewey, resembling Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, roams around on his four wheels but is defenseless against any traps that survivors may have set in abandoned buildings. Goodyear, portrayed by real-life good boy Seamus in an all-timer of a pet performance, is well-behaved and intuitive but can still end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The nascent Jeff is deceptively strong and possesses lightning-fast encyclopedic knowledge but lacks the rapport and shorthand that Finch’s other two companions have with him.

Besides the impressive feat of carrying a movie as the only on-screen human performer a la Cast Away, another aspect of Hanks’ performance that I admired was his willingness to show a more stern side of his ailing protagonist. After Jeff is “born”, director Miguel Sapochnik treats us to a zippy montage of Finch teaching him traits like how to walk and how to carry bags but the lessons aren’t always fun and games. Even moving the RV back a few feet so that Finch can avoid the 140 degree sun rays is critical and when Jeff fails to complete relatively simple tasks like that, Finch lets him know about it. Like any father, Finch is hard on Jeff because he wants him to be able to make it on his own and when Finch’s coughing fits become more frequent, we’re to understand how little time he may have left.

Jones, who was motion-captured on-set with Hanks but replaced immaculately with CGI, gives a terrific vocal performance that starts out sterile and mechanized but grows more cherubic and soulful as his relationship with Finch thaws. His body language goes through changes too, his militaristic rigidity and inelastic gait slowly melting into a more slumped body posture like Teenage Groot from Avengers: Infinity War. My favorite detail in Jones’ physical performance is his idle hand movements, fidgeting while trying to fill uncomfortable silence with Finch and fumbling when trying to build up his fine motor skills between pit stops. The replacement of Jones, who had to wear two-foot-tall stilts to make his interplay with Hanks more organic, with the computer-generated Jeff, is nothing short of state-of-the-art.

I don’t talk about movie dogs very often, as they’re typically not integral to the plot of a film and if present in a horror movie, they’re almost always the first to go. Last year’s The Call of the Wild made the choice to completely computer generate Buck instead of casting a real-life canine, which worked better than one might expect but still felt a bit uncanny. Given the amount of time Goodyear/Seamus interacts with an imposing human in a robot costume, he does an impressive job maintaining the illusion that Jeff is an actual robot. It’s part of a trio of unconventional performances that helps Finch overcome its conventional narrative to deliver a heartwarming post-apocalyptic tale.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and streaming on Paramount+ is Clifford the Big Red Dog, an adventure comedy starring David Alan Grier and Jack Whitehall about a young girl’s love for a tiny puppy that makes the dog grow to an enormous size.
Premiering on Netflix is Passing, a black-and-white drama starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga about a pair of mixed-race childhood friends who reunite in adulthood and become increasingly involved with one another’s lives.
For their grand re-opening on Friday November 12th, Cinema Center is screening Archenemy, a superhero film starring Joe Manganiello and Skylan Brooks about a teenager who meets a mysterious man claiming he lost his superpowers after arriving from another dimension.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

No Time To Die

After a year and a half of delays, Bond is finally back. No Time to Die is the 25th movie in the James Bond series but most notably, it’s the fifth and final film for Daniel Craig since his first outing in 2006 with the franchise-best Casino Royale. Each Bond entry since then has built on top of the previous one, an attempt at serialization that makes the Craig era unique in the franchise’s history and gives this final film even more dramatic weight than it would have otherwise. In hindsight, its predecessor Spectre got caught up in the same trap that Warner Bros did with Justice League in trying to match the intertextuality of the ever-elusive Marvel Cinematic Universe without organically leading up to the climax. No Time to Die gets bogged down with canonical calculations but works best as a standalone piece of popcorn cinema.

An extended cold open reacquaints us with Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) as their picturesque Italian vacation is violently cut short by Spectre assassins. Feeling that Swann must have betrayed him by tipping them off, Bond sends her away and retires from MI6 to Jamaica, only to be pulled back in five years later at the appearance of his old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). He’s looking for a scientist who was kidnapped in the process of building a highly-targeted bioweapon and Bond suspects that his nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is behind the plot. Aiding Bond in his mission are old MI6 colleagues M (Ralph Fiennes) and Q (Ben Whishaw), alongside Nomi (Lashana Lynch), a new agent who undertook Bond’s 007 alias after his retirement.

When No Time To Die‘s release was pushed last year from April all the way to November, it was thought that it was due to anticipation that movie theaters would close due to the pandemic. While that is still most likely the case, part of me wonders if the plot of the movie, which hinges on an invisible infectious virus, was one of the reasons behind the film’s initial delay. As the title suggests, time has proven to be the film’s greatest enemy; fittingly, “my timing” is a punchline during an exchange between Bond and Swann. But timing is one thing and planning is another and looking back on this five film arc, it’s clear MGM could have planned things a bit better. Blofeld being unveiled as the big baddie in Spectre was premature and if development had gone differently, No Time To Die could have served as a much better precursor to Spectre.

For those who don’t care about these interwoven plot threads and just want a fun blockbuster to herald the return of the theatrical experience, the film succeeds on delivering on that promise. Much of the marketing has highlighted the action in Italy during the enjoyable, albeit overly long, prologue but there are several other setpieces that match its quality. A detour in Cuba reunites Craig with his Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas, who charms as an inexperienced CIA agent who gains experience by kicking henchmen in the face with high heels. A foggy jungle-set sequence in Norway shows an outgunned Bond using field smarts to fend off a caravan of assassins. But the most visceral action scene is saved for the third act, in which director Cary Joji Fukunaga flexes the one-take muscles he built during the first season of True Detective to satisfying effect.

While the quality of Bond films that Daniel Craig has starred in have been up and down, he’s given everything to this role and his dedication to the performances has never been in question. For a new generation of Bond fans, he has redefined who the character is and made it almost impossible to imagine someone else taking the reins from here on. Where the franchise goes from here will be the subject of thousands of think pieces and forum posts until MGM (which is, sadly, set to be acquired by Amazon) makes their next move but I’m looking forward to Craig’s post-Bond career. He did excellent work in films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Logan Lucky even during his time as Bond. Whether you view it as a season finale or a standalone episode, No Time To Die has all the time in the world to entertain and inspire.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and streaming on paid tiers of Peacock is Halloween Kills, a slasher sequel starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer that follows the women in the Strode family as they defend themselves against the masked killer Michael Myers.
Premiering exclusively in theaters is The Last Duel, a historical drama starring Matt Damon and Adam Driver about a trial by combat ordered by King Charles VI in medieval France between a well-regarded knight and his squire.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is The Velvet Underground, a music documentary which explores the multiple threads that converged to bring together one of the most influential bands in rock and roll.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Guilty

It’s no secret that American remakes of foreign-language films often fall short of their predecessors. For every success like The Departed or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there seem to be a handful of duds like Downhill or The Grudge — both of which were released just last year — that get lost in translation. Based on the 2018 Danish thriller of the same name, The Guilty retains many of the plot points from the film that inspired it but amps up much of the understated tension that permeated the original. This formula could spell disaster for an adaptation but in this case, the result is a hot-blooded American companion piece to the cool and collected European original that is nearly as effective.

The plot centers around Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), an overworked police officer working 911 dispatch who receives an especially distressing call at the end of his late-night shift. The voice on the other line is that of Emily (Riley Keough), whose hushed tone and coerced responses lead Joe to surmise that she’s being kidnapped. Outside of her name, phone number and a few clues regarding her situation, Joe isn’t able to get the details that he needs to intervene in a meaningful way. With what little information he’s able to gather from the call, Joe phones other police forces like his partner Rick (Eli Goree) and his sergeant Bill (Ethan Hawke) to help find Emily before it’s too late.

The man heading up directing duties for The Guilty is Antoine Fuqua, known for helming high-octane blockbusters like the deeply silly but shallowly enjoyable Infinite from earlier this year. Predictably, Fuqua amps up the drama and emotion from its source material but wisely retains its limited perspective. With a few minor exceptions, we never see outside of the dispatch building where Joe is trying to solve this pressing case, limited to just hearing the voices of the people with whom Joe is communicating over the phone. As handsome as Gyllenhaal may be, staring at him for 90 minutes could get stale after a while but Fuqua along with editor Jason Ballantine urgently piece together the right shots to command our attention.

One of the most reliable and compelling actors around, Gyllenhaal turns in another terrific performance as a broken hero who feels paralyzed behind a desk when he knows what he’s capable of doing in the field. His work is unmistakably angrier than that of Jakob Cedergren as the composed protagonist in the 2018 original but it suits the revised time and place of this American update. Surrounded by out-of-control wildfires in modern-day Los Angeles, Joe barks orders and lashes out at fellow police officers on the phone as a result of the helplessness he feels bearing down on him. The voice cast, which also includes Paul Dano and Gyllenhaal’s real-life brother-in-law Peter Sarsgaard, is uniformly great but Keough is especially captivating as the shaken woman that captures Joe’s unshaken attention.

With its narrative primarily being told through a series of phone conversations, The Guilty has parallels to the indie drama Locke, which is effectively a one-man-show as Tom Hardy is the only actor seen on screen. Both films ask much of their central performer, dedicating the vast majority of their screen time with the camera centered solely on them. While Hardy had even less room to move as his Locke was locked into the speaker phone in his car, Gyllenhaal is still flanked by 5 imposing computer monitors and an anxiety-inducing red light that indicates when the phone line is live. Though it contains a few creaky platitudes that Fuqua couldn’t seem to resist, The Guilty is a taut and electric thriller that will keep you on the line to the final frame.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming exclusively to theaters is No Time To Die, the 25th film in the James Bond franchise starring Daniel Craig and Rami Malek which finds the iconic spy getting back to work to locate a missing scientist and uncovering a sinister scheme in the process.
Streaming on Netflix is There’s Someone Inside Your House, a slasher movie starring Sydney Park and Théodore Pellerin about a group of high school students in small-town Nebraska who are terrorized by a masked assailant.
Continuing on Amazon Prime is the Welcome to the Blumhouse series, marked by a new quartet of anthology horror films centered around institutional horrors and personal phobias.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Malignant

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