Tag Archives: 3.5/5

The Peanut Butter Falcon

The charming and endearing new indie The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen as Zak, a young man with Down syndrome living in a North Carolina nursing home under the supervision of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). With the assistance of his wily roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak escapes the facility one evening and stows away on a small fishing boat. We learn that the boat belongs to a rebellious fisherman named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is on the run from rival fishermen for poaching their equipment. Together, Tyler and Zak begin to bond with one another while making their way to a wrestling camp in Florida where Zak hopes to learn the secrets of the pros.

The film occupies a number of genres at once: it’s a buddy movie, it’s a road movie (well, sea movie might be more fitting), it’s a quirky dramedy and it’s even a bit of a thriller. In its overall form, it mirrors the Mark Twain novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is referenced overtly in the film during a conversation between Tyler and Eleanor. Despite these comparisons, The Peanut Butter Falcon paves its own way with characters that feel believable and with story twists that give it a unique sense of style. The title, which references the idiosyncratic wrestling name that Zak eventually gives himself, is perhaps the first sign that this movie marches to the beat of its own drum.

The relationship between Tyler and Zak, which gets off to a rocky start but blossoms into a deep friendship throughout the story, is the key to the film’s heart and the actors do terrific work in crafting their characters. In his first on-screen performance, Gottsagen brings loads of personality to a role that could have been one-dimensional in a lesser film. LaBeouf has never been better than he is here, effortlessly peeling back the layers behind his charater’s gruff exterior to reveal a more vulnerable side. As good as their acting is separately, the electric chemistry between both actors is the strongest single element of the film.

The writing and directing duo comprised of first-timers Tyler Nilsson and Michael Schwartz is working with a kind of story that we’ve seen before, both in overall form and specific moments. There are some cliches that are indulged and scenes that strain credulity even in a free-wheeling adventure like this. Having said that, the dialogue is frequently incisive and cuts to the core of the characters while sharing wisdom and truth in the process. Nilsson and Schwartz also make the most of their swampy South Atlantic locale, showcasing muggy, miserable conditions in one scene while contrasting it with the gorgeous, endless sea in the next.

The earthy cinematography by Nigel Bluck is both aesthetically pleasing and thematically relevant, using wide shots at the beginning of Tyler and Zak’s journey to depict the “distance” between their characters while moving in closer as the story progresses. The mix of bluegrass and folk music from acts like the Punch Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show settle in nicely to the background and fill out the sonic palette. If you’re in the mood for a movie that will put a smile on your face and brighten your view of humanity, then The Peanut Butter Falcon is your ticket.

Score 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones, tells the tale of an astronaut who undertakes a new mission to uncover the truth about his missing father and the doomed expedition he took 30 years ago.
Downton Abbey, starring Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery, adapts the smash TV show for the big screen to follow the Crawley family as they welcome King George V and Queen Mary onto their estate.
Rambo: Last Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone and Paz Vega, brings the ruthless action hero back one last time to save his niece after she is taken hostage by an uncompromising Mexican cartel.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ready Or Not

The Most Dangerous Game gets a darkly comedic twist in Ready Or Not, a proudly R-rated cat-and-mouse chase with gruesome delights and a wicked sense of playfulness. Opening with a shot of a grinning devil, the film lives up to its initial pledge by delivering some deliciously demented setpieces on top of a story about the burden of tradition and the ties that bind. With its tongue thoroughly in cheek for all of its 91 minute runtime, it reminded me of similarly salty horror peers like The Cabin in the Woods and especially the excellent You’re Next, which it sometimes mirrors to an uncomfortable degree.

Samara Weaving stars as Grace, a young bride-to-be smitten with the good-natured and attentive Alex (Mark O’Brien). It just so happens his obscenely wealthy family made their fortune by creating games of all sorts through the generations — as Alex cheekily puts it, they’re a “gaming dominion” — so Grace only thinks it’s slightly odd that they want to play a game of hide-and-seek on their wedding night. Little does she know, Alex’s family turns out to be a very serious set of players, which becomes obvious as they mount crossbows and shotguns in their pursuit of the hiding Grace.

There’s Daniel (Adam Brody), Alex’s hard-drinking brother who puts up a sardonic front but seems to have a soft spot for certain members of the family. That includes their sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano), who pops just the right combination of pills to remain alert for the evening. Their parents Tony (Henry Czerny) and Becky (Andre MacDowell) seem perfectly coiffed for the wedding but devolve into two entirely different people as the night of madness and mayhem marches on. And then there’s Helene (Nicky Guadagni), the stone-faced matriarch whose every line of dialogue drips with sarcasm (“you continue to exist,” she greets someone at one point.)

Weaving, who made the most of a ditsy role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and also shined in Netflix’s horror comedy The Babysitter, proves to be a excellent scream queen. As a fearless and foul-mouthed “final girl” on the run from one deranged family member to another, she brings plenty of relatability and raw power to her breakout performance. I also appreciated Czerny playing against type as the seemingly calm and composed head of the house who gradually loses his cool in tremendous fashion.

The directing duo of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett commit to creative choices that pay off more often than they don’t. The dimly-lit castle-like setting, adorn with affluent accoutrements like massive buck mantles and even larger paintings, is perfect for the sadistic chase at the film’s core. The cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz makes use of the popular “shaky cam” technique, which works fine for tense tracking shots but makes much less sense for more foundational shots like one of Grace standing under a doorway. If you’re in the mood for a gory and gregarious dark comedy, then Ready Or Not may be perfect for your next game night.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Don’t Let Go, starring David Oyelowo and Storm Reid, follows a father who is heartbroken by his family’s death but soon gets a call from his niece, who is somehow two weeks in the past.
Opening at Cinema Center is The Nightingale, which tells the story of a young convict seeking revenge for a horrible act of violence perpetrated against her family.
Also playing at Cinema Center is Mike Wallace Is Here, a documentary about the titular American journalist who was a host of CBS’ 60 Minutes for 50 years.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Midsommar

Writer/director Ari Aster follows up his terrifying feature debut Hereditary with Midsommar, another grim and disturbing tale that will no doubt leave audiences reeling once again. While both are horror films that feature female protagonists struggling to cope with loss and grief, the narrative structures and thematic ambitions of the two vary drastically. The experience of watching these movies feels different as well: where Hereditary is more of an immediate shock to the system, Midsommar lingers in the pit of one’s stomach for days (and possibly weeks) after the fact.

Florence Pugh stars as Dani, a college student who seeks refuge in her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) after a family tragedy claims the lives of both her sister and her parents. In an attempt to heal their relationship, Christian invites Dani on a summer trip to rural Sweden with his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter). Guided by Christian’s Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the group attends a midsummer celebration with the ancestral commune in Pelle’s home village but it doesn’t take long before the rituals performed there take an unexpectedly sinister turn.

Aster returns with all of the formal rigor that made his first feature an instant classic of the genre. Starting with claustrophobic close-ups on Dani’s anxiety-ridden face, he gradually pulls the camera back to transition into the sweeping wide shots that detail the creepy commune. Pawel Pogorzelski’s hypnotic and woozy cinematography gives the impression that the camera is as sun-poisoned as the characters on-screen. The sound design is detailed and dynamic, using Dani’s labored breathing at points in the film to ratchet up the tension while also bringing us closer to the main character in the process.

Unfortunately, Aster’s control behind the camera isn’t fully reciprocated in his undercooked and somewhat disheveled screenplay. Working from a folk horror premise not dissimilar from The Wicker Man (the original or the Nic Cage remake, if you like) or last year’s Apostle, he implements a few arbitrary sub-plots that distract from the main narrative at hand while leaving out crucial details of the central storyline as well. Additionally, the attempts at foreshadowing feel clumsier and more telegraphed in comparison to the setups that Aster interspersed in his Hereditary script. It all leads to a conclusion that is disappointingly predicable on a surface level but is loaded with resonant subtext and unforgettable imagery that leaves the film on a remarkable high note.

Bringing these final moments home is Pugh, whose stellar, emotionally-wrought performance is as crucial to the success of this movie as Toni Collette’s was for Hereditary. As a wounded soul flailing helplessly in a toxic relationship, Pugh gives Dani an astonishing range of joy and pain upon which to paint her emotional journey and eventual catharsis. The rest of the cast, the majority of whom are adorn with eerily clean white linens and even eerier smiles, set the oppressively ominous tone quite nicely. Midsommar is a sun-drenched symphony of sadness that solidifies Ari Aster as one of the strongest voices working in horror cinema today.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Lion King, starring Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, is yet another remake from the Disney Renaissance era about a young lion prince who takes over the throne after his father is murdered.
The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, follows a mild-mannered accountant who takes a vigorous interest in karate after being attacked by a motorcycle gang.
Opening at Cinema Center is Wild Rose, starring Jessie Buckley and Julie Walters, tells the story of a musician from Glasgow who moves to Nashville to become a country singer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Toy Story 4

The toys are back in town one last time for Toy Story 4, a superfluous but satisfying sequel to the seemingly conclusive Toy Story 3 from 9 years ago. As someone who wasn’t quite as taken with that third entry as others seemed to be, I was relatively open to another Toy Story adventure while still acknowledging that this could just be another excuse for Pixar to return to their cash cow once more. While this latest film does reincorporate many of the themes from the previous entries, it mines enough fresh ideas from its collection of new characters to make it a worthwhile addition to the series.

We pick back up with Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of the gang, who are all now possessed by a kindergartner named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). On her first day at school, she unknowingly gives life to a new toy named Forky (Tony Hale) while merging a spork with pipe cleaners at craft time. When Bonnie and her family hit the road for family vacation, we’re introduced to new toys like the daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the pullstring doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) while being reintroduced to Woody’s old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

Opening with an exceptionally well-animated flashback that fills us in on Ms. Peep’s whereabouts, the film gets off to a bit of a slow start until Forky makes his first appearance. His character, a dilapidated creation who considers himself more trash than toy, is easily the most conceptually inspired and comedically gratifying of the entire film. The existential dilemma that drives the forlorn utensil to catapult himself into the waste basket time and time again is darkly humorous while adding some unexpected philosophical weight to boot. Although the context is different, Woody’s mission in this film mirrors that of the first Toy Story: convincing a toy that they’re actually a toy.

Once the family packs up the RV and heads out of town, most of the action takes place inside the Second Chance Antiques shop, where Gabby Gabby resides with her creepy ventriloquist dummy henchmen. The chase sequences that take place in the store are nothing new to this series but the setting, filled with cobweb-drenched corridors pierced by smatterings of sunlight, is stunningly detailed and hauntingly beautiful in a completely original manner. A brief moment between Bo Peep and Woody as they behold the light from a chandelier display features a caliber of animation that Pixar only could have dreamed of when Toy Story first premiered 24 years ago.

While this is the best-looking chapter in the franchise, I would consider it the funniest as well, thanks to a clever script from Stephany Folsom and Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton. It’s also no surprise given that comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele lend their voices this time around. A scene in which their two plush toy characters talk through a series of extraordinarily amateurish plans to obtain a door key might be one of the funniest gags I’ve seen all year. Toy Story 4 may be one trip to the toy chest too many for some but those who are open to another glimpse of this pint-sized world will be rewarded for their curiosity.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Annabelle Comes Home, starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, is another entry in the Conjuring series and third film about the titular creepy doll who returns to wreak havoc on a new family.
Yesterday, starring Himesh Patel and Lily James, centers around a young musician who wakes up from an accident and finds that the rest of the world is unaware of The Beatles’ existence.
The Dead Don’t Die, starring Bill Murray and Adam Driver, brings together an all-star cast for a horror comedy about a small town that becomes the target of a zombie invasion.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

After a five year hiatus, everyone’s favorite giant lizard monster has returned in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third and best film so far in Legendary’s ever-expanding MonsterVerse. While 2014’s Godzilla did have some stunning imagery and a final battle worthy of its namesake, it spun its wheels far too long with character development that goes nowhere and a lifeless plot that lurches along like a slug. If Godzilla resembles something of a responsible big brother, then this sequel is undoubtedly the more impulsive and hyper-active little brother by relation. In most cases, I could see myself aligning with the former but when it comes to monster movies, it seems I fall in line with the latter.

The story revolves once again around the shadowy organization Monarch, where Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has created a device known as Orca that can keep Titan creatures like Godzilla at bay. The Orca is summarily stolen by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), who plans to use the device to summon the ominous Monster Zero from its Antarctic prison and “restore balance” to the Earth’s natural order. It’s up to Emma’s ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) and his estranged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) to team up with Godzilla to stop the fearsome Monster Zero and the other Titans that it conjures in its wake.

Director Michael Dougherty, the mind behind campy cult classics like Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, is a near-perfect fit for this particular installment. Where Godzilla director Gareth Edwards waited an hour to show us Godzilla in full and then a half an hour after that to show him in a proper battle, Dougherty wastes no time getting the monster melee underway. He knows exactly what kind of a movie he’s making and it’s clear that he’s having a blast doing so. His exuberance for the material and passion for the existing Godzilla franchise was infectious even for someone like me who is typically on the fence for this genre.

Like its predecessor, King of the Monsters sports a stellar cast that tackles their admittedly one-dimensional roles with admirable aplomb. It’s no secret that the human characters in these creature features are typically underserved to make way for their mammoth computer-generated counterparts. However, if that trade-off allows for more time to spend with Godzilla as he dukes it out with likes the pterodactyl-like Rodan and the three-headed hydra Ghidorah, then I deem it a necessary sacrifice. The silly and sometimes incomprehensible storyline is hung with just enough character motivation to give context to these splendid and transcendent battles.

It’s easy enough to recommend watching a larger-than-life film like this in the IMAX format for the enhanced picture but more often than not, I’m recommending IMAX these days for its enhanced sound quality. This is a perfect example of a blockbuster using its immaculate sound design to make otherworldly noises sonically convincing. It’s not just enough to hear Godzilla roar; you truly do need to feel it to get the maximum effect. Fueled by old-fashioned movie magic, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a step in the right direction for a series that I hope will continue to embrace the joyously campy aspects at its foundation.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Dark Phoenix, starring Sophie Turner and James McAvoy, is the latest film in the X-Men series concerning the transformation of Jean Grey into the powerful mutant Phoenix after a mission goes awry.
The Secret Life of Pets 2, starring Patton Oswalt and Eric Stonestreet, follows up the highly successful animated comedy about a misfit band of animals who go on adventures together in the big city.
Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, tells the tale of a late-night talk show host who teams up with a new writer on staff to try and turn the show around in the face of falling ratings.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Avengers: Endgame

The Marvel Cinematic Universe makes room for another gargantuan blockbuster in Avengers: Endgame, a rousing and rewarding conclusion to a 22-film saga that began with Iron Man in 2008. After the universe-shattering events of last year’s Infinity War, audiences have been waiting with bated breath for a resolution to one of the biggest cliffhangers in film history and thankfully, the payoff is quite satisfying. As one may expect from the culmination of a decade-long superhero series, it showcases both the best and worst aspects of what these Marvel films have to offer and does so on a scale hitherto undreamt of.

Without going into the details of the plot, it’s enough to say that the narrative of Endgame is incredibly complex and requires more than a passing knowledge of these characters and their backstories. As this is the case, casual moviegoers may find it to be a demanding experience at times and even though I’ve seen every film in this series at least once, there were a few occasions that I scrambled to recall previous storylines for context. This sprawling franchise has always been about investment, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that fans who have spent more time in this Universe will be rewarded accordingly for their efforts.

A marked improvement that Endgame makes in relation to its predecessor is its more deliberate structure in the form of a traditional three act framework that clearly spells out the ever-changing conflict. Too often Infinity War embodied the negative connotations of its title by feeling like an endless melee replete with wall-to-wall action and character introductions at a breakneck pace. While this sequel is similarly crowded and somehow packs even more of the Marvel mythology in its daunting 181 minute runtime, it feels more focused and purposeful, especially at the outset, than its chaotic and unwieldy forerunner.

The script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is more intentionally self-reflexive, and occasionally self-indulgent, than any of the other screenplays from the MCU canon. A common criticism for these films is that they effectively serve as commercials for more Marvel adventures to come, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much Endgame chooses to ruminate on the past rather than tantalize with the future. Returning from Infinity War, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have completed a cinematic one-two punch of monumental proportions that may not be attempted again for quite some time.

With quite a few Marvel films under their belts at this point, it would be easy for MCU veterans like Robert Downey Jr. or Scarlett Johansson to coast along when reprising their iconic roles but the caliber of acting across the board is worthy of this film’s lofty ambitions. Chris Evans stands out of an incredibly stacked cast, giving a career-best performance once again as Steve Rogers that adds even more emotional resonance to the foundation laid from previous Captain America films. As the centerpoint of a cultural phenomenon that is still in progress, Avengers: Endgame is a love letter dedicated to the fans who have waited 11 years for catharsis and closure.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
UglyDolls, starring Kelly Clarkson and Nick Jonas, is an animated adventure based on the popular line of plush toys in which the residents of Uglyville travel to the town of Perfection.
Long Shot, starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, tracks the unlikely relationship between an unemployed journalist and his childhood love interest, who is now the acting US Secretary of State.
The Intruder, starring Dennis Quaid and Meagan Good, is a psychological thriller about a young married couple settling into their new dream home and deranged previous owner who is set on getting it back.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Us

Writer/director Jordan Peele follows up his breakout debut Get Out with Us, another visceral and confident work of horror with plenty of well-executed scares and laughs. While Get Out seemed to exist in a genre that it carefully carved out for itself, Peele’s latest effort is more of a conventional tale of modern horror that isn’t as clear-minded about its social commentary but is directed with such a high level of craft that it almost doesn’t matter. It’s packed with shocks and twists that are meant to keep the audience guessing and even if the answers don’t quite live up to the questions, the ride is well worth taking.

The premise centers around Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), who are vacationing at their Santa Cruz beach house with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Upon their first day of the trip, they meet with family friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker) on the beach when Jason has a disturbing encounter with a stranger. Things only get more troubling that evening when the Wilsons are visited by a group of 4 costumed figures who seek to break into their home and turn their idyllic vacation into an unshakable nightmare.

From there, Us takes its lead from home invasion thrillers like Funny Games and You’re Next by constantly ratcheting up the pressure on the characters whose sense of security deteriorates quickly. Before the inevitable break-in, Peele sneaks in eerie signs of chance and coincidence (e.g. a baseball score of 11-11 in the 11th inning is announced on a TV) which point to larger supernatural forces that may be at play. Whether it’s through these instances of foreshadowing or the subsequent moments of sheer terror, he demonstrates a mastery of the horror genre that is markedly assured for someone who worked in comedy for so many years.

What’s especially invigorating about Peele’s first two directorial efforts is how well he is able to build up tension slowly in the more terrifying moments but then release that tension brilliantly with perfectly-placed humor. Not only do the moments of levity feel organic to the situation that the characters find themselves in, they also feel characteristic of Peele’s specific sensibilities as a comedy writer. The scene in which Gabe initially threatens the villainous interlopers could have played out in a more conventionally tense way but instead, Duke’s sense of exaggerated bravado leads to some unexpected laughs.

Assembling the larger thematic puzzle pieces, from an opening prologue that addresses abandoned nationwide tunnels to a recurring Old Testament verse, is unfortunately not as satisfying as the creepy chills on the film’s surface. Even murkier still is the explanation behind the origin of the antagonists and the mythology behind their motives, all of which produces lingering follow-up questions rather provide adequate closure. Still, Us is another crowd-pleasing winner from a burgeoning director who is continuing to establish a brand of horror that is unquestionably bold and refreshing.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Dumbo, starring Colin Farrell and Michael Keaton, retells the 1941 Disney animated classic about an elephant with oversized ears who wows circus-goers with his aerial abilities.
The Beach Bum, starring Matthew McConaughey and Isla Fisher, tells the story of a rebellious vagrant and the colorful cast of characters that surround him as he attempts to write a novel.
Unplanned, starring Ashley Bratcher and Brooks Ryan, is an adaptation of the memoir by anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson from God’s Not Dead writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Dreamworks closes out an impressively consistent trilogy with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, another stunningly animated adventure that serves as a fitting conclusion for fans of the series. While the story is a bit more conventional than those of the previous two films, this entry still has all of the elements that made its predecessors successful and adds notes of finality that distinguish it from the rest. Dean DeBlois has returned as the sole writer and director and his commitment to spearheading these projects has resulted in a trio of films that has bypassed the dips in quality that accompany even the most well regarded trilogies.

We return to the Viking village of Berk as the efforts of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his pet dragon Toothless to rescue captured dragons has resulted in their town becoming increasingly overpopulated. As Berk’s head chief, Hiccup makes it his mission to seek out the fabled “Hidden World,” a far away land that could serve as a safe haven for their fire-breathing compatriots. During his journey, Hiccup encounters the treacherous and cunning dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) as well as a brightly colored dragon nicknamed “Light Fury,” with whom Toothless becomes hopelessly infatuated.

The How To Train Your Dragon series has stood apart from its animated peers mainly due to the quality of its visual sensibility and The Hidden World is no exception to this. The film’s opening, in which Hiccup and his friends ambush a dragon raider’s cove, gets things off to a dazzling start as fire and fog battle in the background while swords clash in the foreground. The growing number of dragons on-screen also allows for creature design that grows richer the more time we spend in this world. But the high point is undoubtedly our first glances of the Hidden World, a bright and vivid landscape that calls back to the groundbreaking CG work of Avatar in the best ways possible.

As stunning as the animation is, the storytelling this time around is not quite up to the standard set by the previous two entries. Despite some deliciously devious voice work from Abraham, it’s difficult to disguise the fact that the villain and his motivations are hardly dissimilar from those of the previous film’s antagonist. Still, the introduction of romantic subplots for both Hiccup and Toothless create opportunities to take the story in both humorous and heartfelt directions. Toothless’ efforts to impress Light Fury with a mating dance result in the film’s biggest laughs while their synchronized movements across the night sky recall the affectionate space dance from Pixar’s WALL-E.

Returning to contribute music to the film, composer John Powell brings back some of the series’ most memorable musical motifs while adding new themes that augment the emotion underneath each of their accompanying scenes. The film also has sonic delights in its accomplished sound design as well, which brings to life the flapping of dozens of dragons’ wings as they maneuver through the air. As a satisfying ending to a family-friendly entertainment that has always had its sights set higher, How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World passes with flying colors.

Score – 3.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Fighting with My Family, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Florence Pugh, tells the real life story of professional wrestler Paige as she rises up the ranks of World Wrestling Entertainment.
Run The Race, starring Mykelti Williamson and Frances Fisher, is a faith-based feature co-produced by Tim Tebow about two brothers who overcome hardship both on and off the football field.
Opening at Cinema Center is Academy Award nominee Cold War, a historical period drama from Poland about a musical director who discovers and subsequently falls in love with a young singer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Star Is Born

Bradley Cooper makes an auspicious directorial debut with A Star Is Born, an often dazzling and occasionally overwrought crowd-pleaser that soars with rousing music and plenty of pathos. There have been four remakes since the original 1937 film and while the story does hit many of the expected beats that line up with the previous iterations, Cooper and crew are able to find just the right notes to deftly bring this timeless tale up to date. Anchored by strong chemistry between the leads and some admirable technical aspects behind the camera, this awards season contender may have what it takes to score some serious Oscar gold next February.

Cooper stars as Jackson Maine, a hard-drinking country singer whose best days are seemingly behind him until he meets a singer named Ally (Lady Gaga) in a burlesque bar one evening. Blown away by her raw talent, Maine invites her on tour and after a guest performance that brings down the house, Ally begins to pursue her own music career first as a singer-songwriter and then later transitioning into pop superstardom. As a romance blossoms between the two, their relationship is constantly tested by the rigorous pressures of the music industry and by the personal demons that continually drive Maine to the bottle.

Given how much Lady Gaga’s real-life career mirrors the trajectory of Ally’s character in the film, she was a smart choice for the lead role and proves that she has more to bring to the table on top of her stunning vocals. Her performance, both in scenes on and off the stage, feels natural and unrestrained in a way that most big-screen debuts typically do not. She and Cooper form a bond that’s not only believable for their characters but also makes it easy to root for them as a couple too. A scene of confrontation between the two, during which ugly remarks are exchanged by one another, is hard to watch but played perfectly by the two performers.

While Cooper and Gaga play the rock stars in front of the camera, there’s also rock star talent behind the camera in the form of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique, known for his work with director Darren Aronofsky. He captures the on-stage sequences with an immediacy that makes them jump off the screen and feel like we have a backstage pass to an exhilarating rock concert. There are plenty of other eye-catching moments off-stage as well, including an especially a captivating close-up of Ally sharing a first glance with Jackson in a bar; the flawless composition of that shot in particular makes it especially memorable.

Of course, a film like this that’s so entrenched in the music industry lives and dies by the quality of its original music and A Star Is Born certainly does not disappoint in that area. The obvious stand-out is the slow-burn duet “Shallow”, whose name is probably being etched into the Best Original Song trophy as we speak, but other cuts like “Maybe It’s Time” and “Always Remember Us This Way” seem to have tremendous staying power as well. The combination of music and melodrama makes for a predictable but ultimately enjoyable movie that marks a promising start to Cooper’s career as a director and to Gaga’s career as an actress.

Note: this film was originally released the first weekend in October; it now returns to theaters for a limited IMAX engagement.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Mortal Engines, starring Hera Hilmar and Hugo Weaving, is a post-apocalyptic tale set in a world where entire cities compete with one another for limited resources while mounted atop gigantic vehicles.
The Mule, starring Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper, tells the true story of a World War II veteran in his 80s who became a drug courier for a dangerous Mexican cartel.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, starring Shameik Moore and Hailee Steinfeld, brings everyone’s favorite webslinger back to the animated world as he teams up with other iterations of Spider-Man from alternate universes.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers, the first English-language feature from French director Jacques Audiard, stars John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, two guns-for-hire caught in the middle of the California Gold Rush. Their latest mission, handed down from their employer known simply as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), revolves around a scientist named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has allegedly developed a chemical that makes underwater gold much easier to locate. Also hot on Warm’s trail is detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who hopes to extract the secret formula from the chemist before the Sisters finish the job.

Advertising for this film has pitched it as a kind of buddy comedy between Reilly and Phoenix and with the former’s work alongside Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, the strategy seems sound. The truth is that this is much more of a straight-ahead Western; sure, it has a few quirks here and there but the general tone is more stoic and somber than the trailer lets on. Having said that, I appreciated that this film stuck to its genre so thoroughly, especially in a time when the closest thing to Westerns that are typically released tend to be action movies that just happen to be set in the Old West.

The central conflict and its embedded themes are tied directly to the film’s setting in the mid-19th century, a time when so much of the country ran rampant with lawlessness while beacons of civility could be found in emerging cities. Eli finds himself drawn to these indicators of a burgeoning modern society; he’s taken with curiosity as he’s introduced to a toothbrush and giggles with glee as he flushes a toilet for the first time in their San Francisco hotel. Charlie, the younger and more impulsive of the brothers, is more skeptical of the changing times and doesn’t see how his violent urges could fit into a more decent and polite community.

Audiard unpacks these themes delicately across the movie’s 2-hour runtime and while the first half can feel a bit aimless and slow at times, the film’s second half picks up considerably as the four main characters converge in the wilderness. While Reilly and Phoenix aren’t always convincing as actual brothers, the two fine actors do turn in reliably great performances as two men whose ideologies seem to be veering in different directions. Ahmed and Gyllenhaal do fine work as well, despite the latter’s slightly ponderous accent choice, but the screenplay doesn’t quite develop their characters as much as I would have liked.

The script, co-written by Audiard with Thomas Bidegain, not only provides some contemplative dialogue between the four men but also keeps the audience on their toes with some unexpected turns in the story. Aside from a couple comedic moments, the movie largely feels like a traditional Western and is often refreshingly old-fashioned. In its evocation of greed and its focus on camaraderie amongst characters in dire circumstances, I was reminded of the John Huston classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Like that film, The Sisters Brothers finishes strong by building to a final scene that perfectly ties up everything that came before it.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton, is the highly anticipated biopic about the stadium rock band Queen and specifically its eccentric lead singer Freddie Mercury.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, starring Keira Knightley and Mackenzie Foy, is the latest adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker about a young girl who is transported to a magical world.
Suspiria, starring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, is Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 giallo classic about a young dancer who joins a distinguished dance academy that holds disturbing secrets.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup