Tag Archives: 3/5

Frozen II

Six years after the box office smash and cultural phenomenon that is Frozen comes its follow-up Frozen II, a fine and safe sequel that mimics the features of its predecessor to mostly positive results. Marrying state-of-the-art animation with catchy musical numbers and a storyline packed with mythology, the film should delight the legions of fans who made the original the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, even if it doesn’t convert many non-believers in the process. According to my five-year-old niece Daphne, it isn’t quite as good as the first film and given her affinity for all things Frozen, I’m inclined to respect her opinion on the matter.

We revisit the kingdom of Arendelle, where the recently coronated Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) celebrates the changing of seasons with her beloved sister Anna (Kristen Bell). Playing charades with Anna and her boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) one evening, Elsa is drawn to a distant siren call that seems to be the product of ancient elemental spirits and sets out to find its source. All three, along with their peppy snowman friend Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff’s amiable reindeer Sven, journey along and find themselves at the Enchanted Forest, whose magical fog bank has not only kept others out for many years but also trapped forest dwellers in its grasp.

The opening ensemble song “Some Things Never Change” both reintroduces us to our main characters and also serves as a bit of a mission statement for the film as a whole. The sentiment of finding comfort in the familiar seems to be the filmmakers giving themselves license to retread numerous narrative tricks from the first Frozen. Though they’re working with tried and true tropes like a magical forest and a heroine’s quest into the unknown, directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee make a hash of the already murky mythology. I tracked with the broad strokes of the story but there were quite a few moments that I struggled to make sense of the movie’s needlessly complicated plotline.

The music, written by returning team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, doesn’t feature a powerhouse hit as potent as “Let It Go,” even though “Into the Unknown” is certainly trying its hardest. Having said that, there are still some gems in this batch of new tunes. Olaf giddily offers up “When I Am Older”, a charming ode to impending maturity, while Kristoff belts out the cheekily self-aware power ballad “Lost in the Woods” with a trio of harmonizing reindeer. But it’s Anna’s feature “The Next Right Thing”, an immensely moving statement on overcoming hardship and grief, that may be the best song in the Frozen franchise.

While the tone and themes are decidedly darker this time around, there is still time afforded for moments of lightheartedness and self-referential humor. While witnessing flashbacks from her life, Elsa winces as she sees herself belting out her signature tune, indicating that she’s about as fed up with “Let It Go” as we are after hearing it ad nauseam. The film’s funniest scene finds Olaf catching new characters up with a zippy summary of the events of the first film, skewering its expositional heft in the process. When it’s all said and done, I probably would have preferred Olaf’s retelling of this film to the experience of watching the whole thing but as is, Frozen II is a serviceable holiday treat.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, finds a corporate defense attorney taking on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.
Playmobil: The Movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Anya Taylor-Joy, follows in the footsteps of the popular Lego Movie franchise as a secret agent goes on a mission to recover citizens from a shadowy organization.
Opening at Cinema Center is In Fabric, starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Hayley Squires, which is a horror comedy set in a department store as a cursed dress makes its rounds from one person to another.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Hustlers

It’s exotic dancers vs. Wall Street sharks in Hustlers, a flashy crime drama with a great ensemble cast but a somewhat predictable story that could have dug a bit deeper. Inspired heavily by crime capers like Goodfellas and Ocean’s Eleven, it delights in showing us the intricacies of the scam at the heart of the story while also hanging some bittersweet personal notes on the main players’ relationships. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria funnels her Scorsese and Soderbergh influences into something that might feel a bit too familiar to fans of the genre but should be a breezy diversion for those looking for a fun girls’ night out.

Based on a 2015 New York magazine article, Hustlers stars Constance Wu as Destiny, a Queens native who cycles through a variety of odd jobs until she lands a spot at the popular strip club Moves. It is there that she meets veteran stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who quickly takes her under her wing and shows her the ropes (perhaps “poles” is more apt.) Things are going well at Moves, until the 2008 financial crisis quickly puts the brakes on the money train and Destiny finds herself unable to support her newborn daughter. Desperate to stay afloat in the brutal economy, Ramona hatches a scheme with a pair of other protégées to drug wealthy Wall Street executives, drag them to the club and run up their credit cards against their knowledge.

As Janet Jackson tells us in song during the film’s opening line, “this is a story about control” and the film’s Robin Hood-esque tale of the disenfranchised stealing from one-percenters resonates even a decade after the markets crashed. It may be difficult for some to empathize with these criminals, even given how greedy and vile their victims are portrayed to be, but what is more disappointing is that Scafaria doesn’t seem to imbue the film with much moral ambiguity. We follow the scammers each step of the way, confident that they’re in the right because of their downtrodden circumstances, but it’s more difficult to square when they begin showering each other with expensive gifts from their ill-gotten gains.

The biggest reason it’s easy to track with these women, despite their dirty deeds, is that the performances are honest and open-hearted across the board. Wu has loads of charisma as a character who starts from an innocent enough place but is slowly seduced by the extravagant possibilities of Ramona’s machinations. Lopez is even better as the cool and confident culprit who asserts her dominance early on with a jaw-dropping dance set to Fiona Apple’s 90s hit “Criminal” and never lets up.

Scafaria leans on a framing device that ping-pongs the narrative back and forth between 2008 and 2014, which tends to spell things out a bit too much and doesn’t raise the stakes as much as it should. Besides that, the editing by Kayla Emter is first-rate and gives the film flair and style between every cut. One edit, marrying a scene from 2008 in which Destiny hopes her newborn is male with a smash cut to 2011 showcasing her newborn daughter, is both hilarious and devastating at the same time. Hustlers is a whirlwind of a heist movie that likely won’t linger long in the mind afterwards but is nevertheless enjoyable in the fleeting moment.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro, tells a new origin story for the Batman supervillain as a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City.
Lucy in the Sky, starring Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm, is a sci-fi drama based partially on a true story about an astronaut who begins to lose her connection with reality after returning from a length space mission.
Pain & Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, is the latest project from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar about a fictional film director who reflects on the choices that he’s made in his life.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

It Chapter Two

When Andy Muschietti’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s sprawling novel It was released in 2017, it scared up box office numbers that not even the most optimistic figures could have predicted. Two years later, Muschietti and crew are back with some new cast additions to tell the second half of King’s 1000+ page story. Like its predecessor, It Chapter Two is surprisingly thorough in the translation of its source material but more importantly, it’s true to the darkly nostalgic spirit of the book. On the whole, the follow-up isn’t as successful as the first film but its go-for-broke attitude among a sea of uninspired blockbusters is admirable if nothing else.

27 years after the Losers’ Club made a pact to stop the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) if he should ever re-emerge in Derry, the evil entity rises up from the sewers once again. Now all in their early 40s and spread out in various parts of the country, each of the members gets a call from Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the one Loser who never left Derry, with the bad news. With trepidation, the gang returns to their old haunts, with Bill (James McAvoy) returning in his de facto leader role. The bickering between jokester Richie (Bill Hader) and the panicky Eddie (James Ransone) resumes right where it left off while the long lost romance between Bev (Jessica Chastain) and Ben (Jay Ryan) is also re-kindled.

Flaunting a 170-minute runtime, the most glaring issue with It Chapter Two is its length. There’s a reason most horror films tend not to break the two-hour mark: it’s difficult to keep an audience in suspense for that amount of time, no matter how good the premise is. That would also explain why it doesn’t take much time for the bevy of CG-based scares to get redundant, despite some worthwhile setups. The most terrifying scene, in which Bev returns to her childhood apartment with a precarious new tenant, was thoroughly spoiled in the theatrical trailer. Thankfully, the film doesn’t rely on its horror elements as much as its predecessor and the dramatic and comedic beats often trump the creepy creature effects.

It certainly had some humor to it but there’s no mistaking its intentions as a horror movie above all. What surprised me most about its sequel is how often and how hard at laughed while watching it, likely more than I did for most straight-ahead comedies released this summer. The biggest contributing factor for this is Hader, who continues to put together an impressive post-SNL resume with roles that play to his comedic strengths while deepening his dramatic chops as well. His Richie is a fun audience surrogate as someone who takes the terrors of the story seriously but often responds with humor as a way of combating his fear.

Another strength of the original was its stellar casting and the adult counterparts for the young actors are exceedingly well-realized. The resemblance between Eddie actors James Ransone and Jack Dylan Grazer is particularly uncanny, evidenced by a shot that overlays both actors’ faces on top of one another to eerie effect. Similar looks aid continuity but more importantly, the performances by the adult actors mirror the respective work by the younger actors to great effect. As a blockbuster horror entry with plenty of ambition, It Chapter Two floats more often than it sinks.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Goldfinch, starring Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman, tells the story of a boy who is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients during the late-2000s financial crisis.
Opening at Cinema Center is Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, a documentary about the Grammy Award-winning singer who broke out in the folk music scene of the 1960s and solidified herself as the “queen of country rock” in the ensuing decades.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

Adapted from the creepy children’s series that has haunted book fairs for decades, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark stars Zoe Colleti as Stella, a teenaged horror fanatic who also fancies herself a writer. It’s Halloween 1968 and Stella’s friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) convince her to come out and help them get back at the school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) with a prank. While being chased by Tommy and his gang, the trio meet the new kid in town Ramón (Michael Garza) and they hide together in a haunted house until the coast is clear. It’s there that they discover a creepy book that pens spooky tales on its own, which soon manifest themselves into real-life events.

Even those who haven’t read the books from Alvin Schwartz’s series are likely familiar with the corresponding illustrations by Stephen Gammell and the film wisely uses his unsettling imagery as a starting point. At the center of each of the six twisted tales that come to life before our eyes in real time is a terrifying creature (or series of creatures) plucked straight out of a disturbing nightmare. The influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, the mind behind The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, is seen clearly in the stellar creature design that beautifully integrates costumes and computer-generated effects.

Norwegian director André Øvredal is at his best when he is gleefully crafting the chilling setpieces that feature the monsters lurching slowly towards our protagonists. All of the scares conjured up from these spooky scenes are all about evenly matched in terms of quality but one story, entitled The Dream, stands out among the rest. Trapped in a hospital corridor drenched in red light, one of our main characters peers down a series of endless hallways looking for an exit, only to find the same figure, which readers will recognize as the Pale Lady from the books, creeping towards him from every direction. This sequence alone should give horror fans enough nightmare fuel to hold them over until It: Chapter Two opens next month.

As much time and effort was put into bringing the horrific artwork of the books to the big screen, I wish more work had been put into the overarching narrative that surrounds each of these scary stories. The screenplay by Dan and Kevin Hageman leans on stock characters (The Nerdy Protagonist, The Prankster, The Bully, etc.) that we’ve seen plenty of times before. The young cast of mostly unknown actors do their best with the material but there really isn’t enough on the page to develop their characters past their shallow foundations. Once the kids get to the bottom of what makes the book produce these horrifying incidents, the plot revelations are unsurprising and hardly satisfying.

Fortunately, the film frequently succeeds at its primary objective, which, naturally, is to scare its audience and hopefully haunt them a bit after they leave the theater. It’s likely that audience will skew a bit younger as well, thanks to the PG-13 rating that allows for teens to get their share of frights. Too often in the horror genre, movies include enough gore and violence to merit an R rating but they settle for cheap jump scares instead of genuine suspense (last year’s The Nun is a prime example.) Kudos to Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark for proving that you don’t need blood and guts to get under people’s skin.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Angry Birds Movie 2, starring Jason Sudeikis and Josh Gad, follows up the hit animated movie based on the popular video game about a group of feathered friends fueding with their foes, the Bad Piggies.
Good Boys, starring Jacob Tremblay and Keith L. Williams, follows a trio of pre-teens as they skip school to set out on a debaucherous adventure that culminates with an epic high school party.
Blinded By the Light, starring Viveik Kalra and Hayley Atwell, tells the true story of a British-Pakistani teenager who finds refuge in the music of Bruce Springsteen amid the political unrest in 1980s England.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Spider-Man: Far From Home

The Marvel Cinematic Universe closes out its 3rd “Phase” with Spider-Man: Far From Home, which follows up the universe-altering events of Avengers: Endgame. It’s back to school for Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and a two-week field trip to Europe prompts him to leave his Spidey suit at home to make time for his crush MJ (Zendaya). Things seem to be back to normal, until a creature called an Elemental turns the group’s stop in Venice into a water-soaked catastrophe. Parker defeats the new threat with help from Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a dimension-hopping superhero who vows to destroy the rest of the Elementals that lurk under the Earth’s surface.

Like its superior predecessor Homecoming, Far From Home excels most when it leans into what makes it unique in the MCU, namely its high school setting and teenaged characters. Literally dozens of other superhero movies can show us high-stakes action that leaves half of a city in ruin but very few go small enough to show our heroes struggling with how to talk a love interest. Holland and Zendaya have plenty of chemistry and vulnerability in their scenes together as they navigate the tangled web of teen romance. I was even more taken with the hilariously saccharine relationship between Peter’s friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his girlfriend Betty (Angourie Rice).

Returning from Homecoming, director Jon Watts manages the high school comedy aspects better than CGI-laden action sequences, which are especially chaotic this time around. The setpieces revolving around the Elementals feel especially clumsy and uninspired, recalling the messy battles with Sandman from the overstuffed Spider-Man 3. A final showdown in London features the larger-than-life scale that we’ve come to expect from the MCU but it loses more than a little of the protagonist’s personality in the process. Undoubtedly, the highlight from an action perspective is a hypnotic skirmish that brings in allusions to the mythology of Spider-Man and other Marvel superheroes.

Screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers do their best to negotiate the franchise mandates of post-Endgame cleanup and plot exposition while also trying to forward Parker’s story as well. They pack their script with plenty of twists that may keep some viewers guessing but these turns rarely felt as fresh or fleet-footed as the plot revelations from Homecoming. One narrative-altering, bar-set scene will be gallingly transparent to comic book fans but even for a more casual superhero follower like myself, it seemed to hinge on an uncharacteristically foolish decision just to push the story forward.

Despite its on-paper flaws, the film coasts along on an abundance of charm and swings briskly through its 129 minute runtime. Returning characters like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) add some laughs as they impart instruction to Parker, while Gyllenhaal serves as a fine newcomer to a Universe that hasn’t seen a character quite like his before. The pair of post-credit stingers vary drastically in terms of quality but both are extremely consequential to both this film and future Spider-Man films, so be sure to stay until the very last frame. Spider-Man: Far From Home is a serviceable Spidey flick that should keep most moviegoers entertained but with some narrative enhancements, it could have been something to write home about.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Crawl, starring Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper, follows a father and daughter who are trapped in a crawl space during a Category 5 hurricane whilst trying to fend off marauding alligators.
Stuber, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista, pairs a mild-mannered Uber driver with a grizzled detective who is hot on the trail of a sadistic terrorist.
Opening at Cinema Center is Pavarotti, a documentary from Ron Howard about the life and career of famed opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Gloria Bell

Julianne Moore sings and dances her way through another memorable role in Gloria Bell, a English-language remake of the 2013 Chilean film Gloria that successfully recreates the free-spirited gusto of its predecessor. While it may not build to any kind of profound conclusions or reinvent the conventions of the romance genre, the movie tracks the perspective of its middle-aged protagonist with empathy and lightness. In a season that has been particularly dominated by one blockbuster after another, this serves as a pleasant detour that should resonate with people looking for movies based in something that more closely resembles everyday life.

We first meet the title character, played by a perfectly-cast Moore, as she confidently makes her way onto the dance floor of a neon-tinged nightclub with a martini in hand. After a meeting in a singles bar one night, she soon begins a fling with Arnold (John Turturro), a fellow divorcee with grown children who is also hoping to start a new chapter in his life. The film follows Gloria and Arnold through the ups and downs of their burgeoning relationship, as well as the often strained interactions that Gloria has with her son Peter (Michael Cera) and her ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett).

As one may expect from her stellar track record, Moore’s winning performance as the fun-loving and often impulsive Gloria is the strongest thing that the film has going for it. Whether she’s singing along to Olivia Newton-John in the car or dancing her heart out to disco tunes at the club, her joie de vivre is the emotional center point upon which this heartfelt tale finds its pulse. Of course life isn’t always upbeat and neither is Gloria’s story but Moore is more than capable of making the melancholic moments matter just as much as the lighter points in the narrative.

For having a character at its center that isn’t afraid to take chances, it’s somewhat disappointing that writer-director Sebastián Lelio seemed to hedge his bets a bit when it comes to the film’s storytelling. Gloria Bell is so slavishly dedicated to each story beat of Lelio’s previous work Gloria that it makes one wonder why he found it necessary to recreate it in the first place if the final products would be so similar. The story of self-discovery works about as well as it did in the original but I wish he had found a way to give new life to this material in the process of translating it for American audiences.

The screenplay by Lelio and Alice Johnson Boher has plenty of perceptive and poignant dialogue that clues us into where each character stands without belaboring the point. In an effort to break up an increasingly awkward political conversation between her friends at a dinner party, Gloria chimes in with, “when the world blows up, I hope I go down dancing.” With a buoyant and life-affirming tone that should resonate with people regardless of the stage in life they find themselves in, Gloria Bell rings true with impassioned wisdom and a central performance that captivates from start to finish.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Hellboy, starring David Harbour and Milla Jovovich, is a reboot of the comic book series about a demonic superhero who battles supernatural creatures from the underworld.
Missing Link, starring Hugh Jackman and Zoe Saldana, is the latest stop-motion animation offering from Laika Studios about an adventurer’s quest to find a Bigfoot-like creature.
Little, starring Regina Hall and Issa Rae, is a new body swap comedy in which a demanding tech mogul is transformed into a teenaged version of herself.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Glass

M. Night Shyamalan fully embraces the superhero genre with Glass, a sequel to 2000’s Unbreakable and 2017’s Split that gleefully brings the comic book lore of its predecessors to the forefront. Indeed, nuance and subtext are not among this film’s strongest qualities but as an earnest, all-out depiction of what superpowers might look like in the real world, it succeeds more often than it doesn’t. Working with a relatively modest $20 million budget (a tenth of what Marvel typically spends on such fare), Shyamalan wisely keeps the action and settings small-scale to thoroughly investigate what makes these superhuman characters tick.

Bruce Willis reprises his Unbreakable role as David Dunn, a security guard who has since become a vigilante hero named The Overseer since discovering his superpowers. He inevitably crosses paths with Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), the kidnapper from Split with multiple personalities who is able to conjure a powerful alter named The Beast. After the two are caught post-showdown, they are brought to a mental hospital where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) is determined to convince them, as well as Dunn’s previous foe Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), that they are just ordinary people who have delusions of grandeur.

In a world where blockbuster comic book movies seem to come out every month, Glass serves as a nice counterpoint to the largely homogeneous product that tends to populate the market these days. Despite falling victim to uneven pacing and distractingly on-the-nose dialogue, the film has a heart and personal vision behind it that feels absent from even the best of Hollywood’s superhero offerings. Like last month’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, it also has a reverence for comic book culture that has seemingly been lost during the film industry’s commoditization of the superhero genre.

Shyamalan’s script sometimes strains too hard when making connections to the other two films in the Eastrail Trilogy but in more ways than one, Glass often feels like a worthy conclusion to the grand narrative. It’s difficult to imagine Shyamalan had this film in mind when he was making Unbreakable 20 years ago and even though the two are still tonally incongruous, their connective tissue now feels undeniable. Shyamalan’s smartest storytelling decision here is his inclusion of secondary human characters from previous films, whose ties to their respective superhuman characters make for naturally high stakes that keep us invested in the story.

The performances from the ensemble cast, which also includes Split‘s Anya Taylor-Joy and Unbreakable‘s Spencer Treat Clark, make this mini-universe of heroes and villains that much more believable. Jackson and Willis do a terrific job of resurrecting characters that have laid dormant for quite some time while McAvoy brings an extra level of dedication to an already challenging role by seamlessly switching between disparate personalities at the drop of a hat. Glass may have mixed results with the cult following that has surrounded Unbreakable but those looking for a change-up to the typical comic book formula could be pleasantly surprised.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Kid Who Would be King, starring Ashbourne Serkis and Patrick Stewart, follows a young boy who sets out on a medieval quest after he discovers King Arthur’s famous Excalibur sword.
Serenity, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, is a neo-noir thriller in which a fishing captain is approached by his ex-wife to murder her new husband.
Stan & Ollie, starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, depicts the later years of the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy as they commit to an expansive theatre tour in Britain as an attempt to revive their film careers.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Creed II

Michael B. Jordan steps into the ring once again as heavyweight boxer Adonis Creed in Creed II, a sequel to the 2015 film that was itself a reboot of a franchise that seemed to be down for the count but still had some fight left in it. While there are few fresh concepts or challenging ideas in this new entry, it willingly serves up the familiar pleasures and tropes that we commonly associate with boxing movies and specifically with the Rocky films of the past. Taking over for Ryan Coogler after his success with Marvel’s Black Panther, director Steven Caple Jr. isn’t able to match the rich emotional depths found in Creed although the fight scenes are often just as thrilling.

We’re re-introduced to Creed as he’s in the middle of hot streak, on the precipice of becoming the world heavyweight champion with his mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and his fiancé Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in his corner. We soon learn there’s trouble brewing in Ukraine as Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the boxer who killed Creed’s father Apollo in the ring during the events of Rocky IV, has been relentlessly training his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to overtake Creed on the world boxing stage. With the legacies of their fathers inextricably linking the two boxers together, Creed and Drago take to the ring in an all-or-nothing brawl.

As is to be expected, there are plenty of callbacks to past Rocky films and particularly to Rocky IV, although the tone of Creed II is thankfully much more grounded in reality than most of its predecessors. The chief issue this time around is that the overall narrative arc is painfully predictable from the first frame and save for a few notable character moments, Caple Jr. does little to stray from the formula that has worked quite well in the past. Still, he hits most of the familiar story beats with gusto and by the time we’re in the ring for the big fight, the groundwork that has been laid out is sufficient enough to root for our protagonist.

The script, co-written by Stallone along with Juel Taylor, spends plenty of time fleshing out the relationship between Creed and Bianca, which is a smart move given how much chemistry Jordan and Thompson have on-screen. However, I wish there had been more time dedicated to the Drago family and the tragic backstory that contributes to their presence in this film. A pivotal scene in Russia between Ivan and Viktor is a poignant reminder of just how separated they feel not only from one another but also from their own country as well. I wish Caple Jr. had taken more opportunities like this to balance the struggles of the hero with the villain.

Still, fans of boxing movies will find plenty to enjoy in the both the training montages (including a sequence in the desert with some memorable imagery) and the pair of electrifying fight scenes between the two heavyweights. Caple Jr. shoots these scenes with an appropriate level of visual verve and stages the action in a way that nicely juxtaposes Creed’s quickness against Drago’s seemingly insurmountable strength. Creed II is a serviceable entry in the Rocky franchise that doesn’t do as much as it could have done to distinguish itself from the pack but also isn’t the total letdown that it could have been either.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Ben Is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, is an addiction drama about a young man who returns home on Christmas Eve in an effort to re-connect with his estranged family.
Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, retells the true story of Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Queen Elizabeth I in 16th century England.
Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law, centers around an international pop singer who struggles to hold onto her success amid mounting scandals that threaten her career.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Grinch

Illumination’s new take on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is the cinematic equivalent of sitting down next to a roasting fireplace in the dead of winter, armed with a piping cup of hot chocolate in one hand with a beloved pet resting under the other. Or perhaps it’s more apt to say that it’s like a plate of comfort food, piled high with freshly-carved Roast Beast. It’s a familiar pleasure and a welcome one, especially around the holidays, even if it’s one that won’t linger long in one’s memory after the experience. Riding high off the success of The Secret Life of Pets and the Despicable Me series, Illumination has crafted another family-friendly hit that kids (and possibly their parents) will likely enjoy.

Voicing the dyspeptic and diabolical titular character in this iteration is Benedict Cumberbatch, channeling an American accent not dissimilar from his work as Doctor Strange in the Marvel films. His Grinch has the same plan in mind as previous Grinches: dress up as a fake Santa Claus and attempt to crush the indomitable spirit of the Whoville citizens by stealing all of their decorations and presents on Christmas Eve. Whilst The Grinch devises his plan, Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) also plots to catch Santa while he leaves presents so that she can ask a favor for her overworked mother Donna (Rashida Jones).

The Grinch is the third telling of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book and it lands right in the middle in terms of quality; it’s not as memorable as the 1966 TV special but also not nearly as off-putting as Ron Howard’s nightmare-inducing live-action version. The most remarkable thing about this entry is that it’s generally unremarkable, which isn’t exactly a bad thing while not being especially high praise either. It’s gratifying to see a film this uncynical in 2018 but it’s so good-natured that there are basically no stakes through the entire story and I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids are bored by the hour-mark.

The movie is so light on incident that it probably could have been half its runtime (the animated classic is only 26 minutes) and the conflict that does exist within the film doesn’t have much impact since the main character’s progression is so minimal. Except for an early montage in which he mildly inconveniences a few Whos during a trip to Whoville, The Grinch hardly exhibits any behavior that is particularly cruel or even mean-spirited. This Grinch, in comparison to the past film Grinches, seems generally more lonely than loathsome and the kindness that he shows to his adorable pet dog Max is present even before his heart grows three times larger.

Still, I give The Grinch credit for hitting the notes that it needed to hit and the animation is appropriately cheery and bright as we get plenty of shots swooping over the impeccably decorated Whoville. There are also some clever visual machinations during the Grinch’s Christmas raid as he deploys Wile E. Coyote-esque contraptions like throwing stars that wrap up a Christmas tree in seconds. There’s good reason why this tale of a curmudgeon who learns the value of empathy and kindness has been re-told several times and with hope, we’ll be telling it again and again in the future.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, starring Eddie Redmayne and Johnny Depp, is another entry in the Wizarding World franchise in which Newt Scamander and a young Albus Dumbledore square off against the titular dark wizard.
Instant Family, starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, is a family comedy about a married couple who gets in over their heads when they adopt three children at the same time.
Widows, starring Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki, is a heist film from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen about four women who enter a life of crime after their husbands are killed during a robbery gone wrong.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Simple Favor

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup