Tag Archives: 3.5/5

Smile

Capping off an uncommonly strong month for cinematic horror, the frightfest Smile stars Sosie Bacon as Dr. Rose Cotter, a psychologist who’s been putting too many hours into her job at a New Jersey-based psychiatric ward. Right before ending her shift one day, she meets with disturbed PhD student Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who says she is being stalked by an evil grinning figure that takes the appearance of other people she knows. The appointment turns even more tragic and leaves Rose irrevocably shaken, to the growing concern of her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and her boss Dr. Desai (Kal Penn). Rose begins seeing the malevolent entity that Laura described, prompting her to go to her policeman ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner) to find a chain connecting these “smiling” sightings that are now plaguing her.

Smile effectively combines two horror reliable subgenres: transmissible curse films like It Follows or The Ring — going further back, it most resembles the supernatural cop thriller Fallen — and personified trauma movies like Hereditary and The Night House. It also leans on a rich history of creepy cinematic smiles for chills, the most haunting of which still belongs to Conrad Veidt’s character from the silent picture The Man Who Laughs. Adapting from his short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, writer/director Parker Finn takes the material seriously but does have some fun playing with the audience’s expectations. This is a movie that shamelessly includes jump scares but, naturally, Finn’s hope is that their placement may still surprise you. When the camera stays on Cotter as she opens her refrigerator, will there be someone behind the door when she closes it?

As an overworked doctor already at her wit’s end before the film’s inciting event, Bacon is terrific at putting us in the mindset of someone whose grip on reality is slowly becoming more tenuous. Her screen presence and nervy resolve while being terrorized by a distorted-faced bogeyman remind me of Neve Campbell, who returned to the Scream franchise again earlier this year in the series’s fifth installment. As compared to the Scream films, the terror in Smile is more psychological in nature, since the characters around Cotter can’t see the horrifying creature that impersonates her friends and family. She reaches out to people she thinks she can trust, like her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and her therapist Dr. Northcott (Robin Weigert), but there’s no telling when the shapeshifting smirker could rear its smiling head.

Mental health is a subject that horror films have addressed responsibly and not-so-responsibly over the years — more recently, I would put 2022’s Abandoned in the latter category — but Smile builds it into the narrative sensitively and intelligently. As a child, Cotter witnessed her wayward mother overdose on unnamed prescription pills, leaving an indelible mark on her even as she treats patients going through the same sort of mental illnesses that afflicted her mom. The way that the film personifies the cyclical nature of traumatic events is disturbing and shocking at times but doesn’t feel exploitative of these characters or their issues. The people around Rose who know about her relationship with her mother assume that she’s succumbing to genetically-passed psychosis and Finn leaves the door open enough to suspect that they could be right.

Shot by DP Charlie Sarroff largely in shallow focus and with colors that look like they’ve had the life drained out of them, Smile is a admirably bleak affair that nevertheless finds purpose in its protagonist’s quest for vindication. Finn also sprinkles in typically innocuous smiles, like those found on families from vintage print ads or found on the lower end of the Wong-Baker pain scale, to perpetually unnerving effect. Being Finn’s full-length feature debut, the film could have benefitted from more judicious editing but in general, the pacing felt just right for a movie with a sadistically patient antagonist that waits for the right moment to strike. Beaming with a strong central performance and a potent concept, Smile is an elemental chiller that sinks its teeth in and never lets go.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters is Amsterdam, a mystery comedy starring Christian Bale and Margot Robbie involving three friends—a doctor, a nurse, and a lawyer—who become the prime suspects in the murder of a US Senator in the 1930s.
Also playing in theaters is Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, a musical comedy starring Shawn Mendes and Javier Bardem adapted from the popular children’s book about a family moving into a new home, where they find a singing saltwater crocodile living in the attic.
Premiering on Hulu is Hellraiser, a supernatural horror remake starring Odessa A’zion and Jamie Clayton about a young woman struggling with addiction who comes into possession of an ancient puzzle box, unaware that its purpose is to summon evil extradimensional beings.

Pearl

When writer/director Ti West debuted his slasher film X at South By Southwest this past March, he announced that he secretly shot a prequel back-to-back with it that would fill in the backstory for X‘s elderly killer. Nine months later, we have Pearl, a horror movie as indebted to Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s as X was inspired by independently-produced slashers of the 1970s. Though this chapter takes place in 1918, when talkies hadn’t even been invented yet, West also taps into a golden age of Hollywood aesthetic with allusions to The Wizard of Oz and early Disney features. It’s in service of a villain origin story that generates a laudable amount of sympathy for its subject, mainly due to another outstanding performance from Mia Goth.

60 years before the events of X, the young Pearl (Goth) lives and works on a farm with her stern German immigrant mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) while waiting for her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) to return from the Great War. Unsatisfied with the squalor of her circumstances, Pearl goes to the theater in town to watch the Palace Follies dancers and aspire to a more glamorous life. She meets a handsome projectionist (David Corenswet), who immediately takes a liking to her and encourages Pearl to pursue her dancing dreams. Pearl’s sister-in-law Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) informs her that a nearby church is holding auditions for a new chorus line member, which Pearl naturally sees as her ticket off the farm.

Even those who haven’t seen the companion piece X should be able to surmise that Pearl’s dreams of stardom don’t exactly pan out as she’d like but the film’s merits allow it to stand alone and make this a story worth delving into. While some of the early stylistic touches can come across as self-indulgent, which isn’t terribly out of character for West as a director, Pearl gradually begins to settle into itself as a sort of twisted fairy tale with themes similar to those in X about fame and fortune. There are other shared details with its sequel, from the screening of a stag film to the appearance of a certain hungry alligator, that should delight those who saw West’s previous effort. There are also numerous parallels drawn between the Spanish flu outbreak of the era to the COVID-19 pandemic, the latter of which actually helped West to pursue production for this unlikely prequel.

Goth, who co-wrote the Pearl script along with West, donned layers of makeup to play the older version of her character in X but is able to be much more expressive here as the ingénue-turned-murderer. As she performs tasks like feeding the farm animals or bathing her father, it almost seems like Goth could break out into an “I Want” Disney song at any moment, even though she also exhibits disturbing tendencies from the get-go. Her wide-eyed innocence giving way to madness reminded me of Shelley Duvall, particularly in her tormented performance from The Shining; one imagines Goth had an infinitely more enjoyable time making this movie. She does an excellent job getting us inside Pearl’s headspace, especially in a flawlessly-performed barn-burner of a third-act monologue which is presented in an unbroken take.

As he did during SXSW, West announced during Pearl‘s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month that X would get yet another entry in this series called MaXXXine, following the title character into the 1980s. Interestingly enough, Maxine was also played by Goth, meaning that her dual role in X will now have a prequel for one of the characters and a sequel for the other. It’s been quite a treat watching this peculiar trilogy emerge piece by piece as West and Goth find new ways to flesh out the flawed characters from this slasher series. Both films so far have leaned more heavily towards style than substance but then there are moments, like the aforementioned confessional monologue from Pearl or the “Landslide” sequence from X, that achieve unreserved beauty and wisdom. Horror often depicts humans at their worst but Pearl makes room for the hopes and desires that drive us to be better.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Don’t Worry Darling, a psychological thriller starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles about a 1950s housewife living with her husband in a utopian experimental community who begins to worry that his glamorous company could be hiding disturbing secrets.
Streaming on Peacock is Meet Cute, a romantic comedy starring Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson about a young woman who discovers a time machine in a nail salon and uses it to continually fix elements of a date she had the previous night.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is Sidney, a documentary honoring the legendary Sidney Poitier and his legacy as an iconic actor, filmmaker and activist at the center of Hollywood and the Civil Rights Movement.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Breaking

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year with the name 892, the now-retitled thriller Breaking introduces us to beleaguered Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley (played by John Boyega) as he’s being escorted by policemen in handcuffs. His appointment at the veteran’s affairs office one morning does not go as planned, ending with a physical outburst after being shorted desperately-needed funds due to unresolved school debt. Now facing the potential of homelessness for his family, Brown-Easley finds himself out of options and walks into a Wells Fargo bank carrying a backpack he says has an explosive device inside. Fast thinking by the bank’s manager Estel (Nicole Beharie) allows her to evacuate all the customers before his threat becomes known, leaving just her and teller Rosa (Selenis Leyva) on the premises with him.

But Brown-Easley makes it clear early on that he’s not out for some 6 or 7-figure score from the bank and that this isn’t a traditional robbery. He doesn’t want some bank’s money; he wants his money, the money that he’s owed, and he also wants the platform to tell his story to the media. When conversations with the negotiator outside (played by Jeffrey Donovan) stall out, he phones news reporter Lisa Larson (Connie Britton) as a lifeline to tap into what happened to him and why he’s doing this. Police outside finally get Brown-Easley in touch with Detective Bernard (the late Michael Kenneth Williams, in his final film role), a fellow Marine who starts to sympathize with his predicament and aims to get him out of the situation unharmed.

Along with his Red, White and Blue entry in 2020’s Small Axe anthology series, Breaking is a cogent argument for Boyega as an acting powerhouse following his three-film stint in the Star Wars universe. His Brown-Easley is understandably indignant about his circumstances and not above getting heated from time to time but for most of the film, Boyega makes a point of portraying him as polite and penitent during the bomb threat. I’m not sure I’ve seen another bank robbery movie where the robber says “sir” and “ma’am” this much and I’ve certainly never seen one where the robber takes a phone message from a customer for one of the tellers. Director and co-writer Abi Damaris Corbin leans a little too hard on the pathos (and pop culture references) involved in Brown-Easley talking on the phone with his young daughter but Boyega makes the moments in which they pray over the phone feel authentic and tragic.

Sadly, Breaking is based on a true story that occurred in August of 2017 and even if you don’t know before going into this movie how the actual events concluded in real life, a happy ending seems unlikely. Too often, Hollywood is late to the punch when addressing social issues that matter to people at the times that they matter most but the themes about racial inequality and the treatment of US veterans remain depressingly relevant. In fact, the inciting event of Brown-Easley’s actions being an unpaid student loan from a for-profit college suddenly became even more front-of-mind in the national conversation. This film is a reminder of what the best kinds of movies like this can do: take complicated and systemic issues around us and channel them through a few souls with whom we can empathize.

Corbin’s intentions are no doubt noble when telling this story and her message certainly gets across by the film’s conclusion but she does get swept up in some of the sensationalism inherent in this genre. The film is fittingly tense and generally well-rendered but some of the editing was a bit showy given the timbre of the story Corbin wants to tell. As with any movie based on a true story, dramatic license was likely used during certain moments of heightened emotion and a few scenes do feel like they’re straying a bit too far from realism. But the ensemble, which includes excellent performances from Beharie and Williams in addition to Boyega, carries the day and does this tragic tale justice. It may not be the easiest trip to the movies this summer but Breaking is a sobering reminder of how those who serve overseas are too often underserved when they come back home.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and streaming on Peacock is Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., a satirical comedy starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown about the first lady of a prominent megachurch who attempts to help her pastor-husband rebuild their congregation in the aftermath of a huge scandal.
Swinging back in theaters is Spider-Man: No Way Home – The More Fun Stuff Version, an extended cut of last year’s box office champion which features 11 minutes of additional and deleted scenes to the superhero flick.
Premiering on Netflix is Ivy + Bean, a children’s comedy starring Keslee Blalock and Madison Skye Validum about an adventure that kindles a friendship between two very different girls: the scrappy and fearless Bean, and the thoughtful and quiet Ivy.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Black Phone

Ten years ago, writer/director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill teamed up with actor Ethan Hawke to make Sinister, a first-rate supernatural chiller about a true-crime writer who gets too close to the evil that inspires his work. Now the trio reunites for The Black Phone, another horror project that doesn’t quite have Sinister‘s supreme scares but proves that the chemistry established from that film was far from a fluke. Based on a short story of the same name from Joe Hill, whose father Stephen King has dabbled in horror fiction from time to time, the movie extrapolates from its conceit with unbearably tense setpieces and an evocative sense of setting.

The time and place is 1978 Denver, where teen siblings Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) endure family life with an abusive father (Jeremy Davies) while fending off bullies at school. To make matters worse, children have been disappearing all over the community with an abductor nicknamed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) to blame for the disappearances. Finney tries to be careful but is nonetheless taken by The Grabber, waking up in a basement with little except a bare mattress and a disconnected landline. Hope seems lost, until the phone mysteriously rings early in Finney’s kidnapping, with one of The Grabber’s previous victims on the other line with instructions on how to get out alive.

Bleak but not without some well-earned moments of levity, The Black Phone fearlessly takes on difficult subject material that lesser horror movies might try to skirt around or avoid entirely. Derrickson sheds the rose-colored glasses that can be associated with this time period and reminds us early and often that life for kids back then could be downright brutal at times. The constant threat of a schoolyard pummeling is enough to make some of the boys overcompensate when it comes time to fight back; an early scene depicts a new kid whaling on a would-be bully far past a reasonable stopping point, just to make a statement. Tragically, this violence is often learned first at home and the broken families of abused or neglected children produce perfect victims for The Grabber.

Though it’s not a traditional tale of empowerment, the thesis of The Black Phone revolves around persevering through cruel circumstances and coming out the other end a stronger person. The premise of someone communicating with the dead and learning from their mistakes is a nice plot device for Finney to keep his head up during his abduction and simply work the problem. It’s not until the very end that it’s revealed how the bits of advice he gets from The Grabber’s abductees will help Finney escape but when each piece snaps together, it’s quite satisfying for both the protagonist and us in the audience. In the meantime, Hawke makes a meal of his immensely creepy killer character, sporting a two-piece mask that should be a hit when Halloween rolls around in a few months.

Some of the plot elements that don’t directly involve the game of wits between Finney and The Grabber aren’t quite as strong. The subplot surrounding Gwen’s psychic abilities that she inherited from her mother has some strong character moments but stretches credulity in the way that it affects the narrative. Put more frankly: I have trouble believing an entire police force would follow the visions of a teen girl as opposed to tracking down The Grabber with more concrete evidence. Elsewhere, it was nice to see Blumhouse regular James Ransone pop up but his character and his bearing on the plot make way less sense than the myriad supernatural events at play. Nevertheless, The Black Phone is a strong spookfest with compelling acting and a genuine sense of menace.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Thor: Love and Thunder, a Marvel superhero movie starring Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman which finds the god of thunder re-teaming with Valkyrie and Korg to take on Gorr the God Butcher.
Streaming on Netflix is The Sea Beast, an animated adventure starring Karl Urban and Zaris-Angel Hator about a legendary sea monster hunter who has an epiphany when a stowaway girl befriends the most dangerous monster of all.
Also streaming on Netflix is Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between, a teen romance starring Talia Ryder and Jordan Fisher about a high school couple who go on one last epic date in both familiar and unexpected places after making a pact to break up before college.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Cha Cha Real Smooth

After taking CODA all the way to Best Picture Oscar gold earlier this year, Apple TV+ continues their trend of putting down serious cash to acquire wholesome hits out of the Sundance Film Festival. Though Cha Cha Real Smooth didn’t quite score the $25 million price tag that the streamer shelled out last year, $15 million is still a chunk of change to put down for distribution rights of a movie titled after lyrics from a DJ Casper song. It turns out to be another laudable purchase from the formidable streaming service, by virtue of being in their wheelhouse of magnanimous entertainment and in line with their quality-over-quantity pattern of content development. Putting the business aspects aside, it’s simply a sweet movie with a smart script and two winning leads.

Cha Cha Real Smooth follows amiable and adorable twentysomething Andrew (Cooper Raiff) as he toils away at food court oddity Meat Sticks while living with his mom (Leslie Mann) and his stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett). While taking his teenage brother David (Evan Assante) to a bat mitzvah, he inspires young mother Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) to hit the dance floor and get funky to “Funkytown”. Andrew takes this as a cue to try his hand at becoming a party host and professional DJ for the mitzvahs to come, while also helping take care of Lola while Domino’s fiancé Joseph (Raúl Castillo) is perpetually out of town on business.

The 24-year-old Raiff, who is also the writer and director of Cha Cha Real Smooth, has an infectious energy and youthful exuberance that comes across in both his performance and his filmmaking. The sharp screenplay allows us to gain insight on who Andrew is by the instant and lasting connections he forms with those around him. By the time he and Domino have their second and third conversations, it seems like these two have known each other for years. Andrew’s boyish charm almost makes him seem too good to be true at times but Raiff shades him with moments of ugliness, like his not-so-subtle jabs at his stepfather, that show the downside of being so demonstrative. “I know how to soft-step,” he drunkenly details to Domino one evening. “I just don’t want to right now.”

The inevitable romance between Andrew and Domino is necessarily given the most amount of screen time in Cha Cha Real Smooth but Raiff finds pivotal moments for Andrew to share with all the main characters where they truly see each other. Even though Andrew isn’t exactly someone who is in a position to give out life advice, his younger brother David still giddily looks up to him for tips about how to get through middle school. There’s a conversation Andrew has with his mother late in the film that is so open-hearted, gracious and downright sweet that she jokingly asks him if he’s trying to kill her as she tears up. Andrew’s interactions with Joseph are understandably awkward and even terse but their final scene together underscores how these two men with different backgrounds and sensibilities have found common ground.

Johnson, who also serves as a co-producer, has become something of a star in the indie movie circuit since her work in the Fifty Shades trilogy and she delivers another well-calibrated performance here. Domino has a push-pull relationship with Andrew where she’s withholding one minute and unmistakably flirtatious the next. Raiff and Johnson have a palpable chemistry that makes their time together feel vibrant, even if we’ve seen these story beats in other romantic dramedies before. The film’s overall arc is familiar as well and even though it’s still enjoyable, I hope Raiff is able to push himself even more artistically in his next effort. Big-hearted and bright, Cha Cha Real Smooth is a charming and charismatic film that, indeed, goes down real smooth.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Lightyear, an animated adventure starring Chris Evans and Keke Palmer that serves as an origin story for the Buzz Lightyear space ranger character that inspired the correlated toy from the Toy Story films.
Streaming on Netflix is Spiderhead, a sci-fi thriller starring Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller about two convicts living in a near-future society where prisoners can reduce their sentence time by volunteering for experiments using emotion-altering drugs
Premiering on Hulu is Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a romantic comedy starring Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack exploring the relationship that develops between a retired widow and a young male prostitute after their initial tryst.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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