Tag Archives: 3/5

The Father

Despite it being a difficult subject to broach, dementia has been relatively popular in cinema over the past several months. Last summer saw the release of Relic, an Australian horror film that makes literal the treacherous indicators of a decaying mind. In the fall, there was Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson’s unconventional Netflix documentary about her aging father’s worsening mental faculties. Just in time for Oscar season, we now have The Father, a prestige drama told from the perspective of a protagonist suffering from progressive memory loss. None of these three films will be easy for those who have loved ones suffering from similar ailments to watch and I suspect The Father could even be the most difficult to watch of the three.

Adapted from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play Le Père, the movie centers around octogenarian Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his slowly deteriorating state of mind. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell) have welcomed him into their London apartment, where he passes the time listening to opera and hiding valuables from caretakers that he deems untrustworthy. When Anne breaks the news that she and Paul are planning on moving to Paris, Anthony feels a sense of betrayal and fear of abandonment that reverberates through the rest of the story. As more characters are introduced, the sense of reality becomes more subjective as faces blur together and facts begin to lose their sense of permanence.

In his directorial film debut, Zeller demonstrates a keen ability to put the audience in the shoes of an essentially housebound man who grows more paranoid with each passing day. He has a way of making the limited confines even more stifling by filling the space with the loneliness of a man’s later years. When other characters do show up to the apartment, they are sometimes played by different actors who seem to have differing backstories from the people we think we know. Credit to the film’s deceptive nature also goes to editor Yorgos Lamprinos, who utilizes jump cuts and unconventional timing to give the film an off-kilter rhythm that mirrors an unsettled mind.

Despite establishing a uniquely deceptive tone that’s pitched somewhere between family drama and psychological thriller, the actual narrative is not as involving on its own merits. Even at just over 90 minutes, the film’s pace is often languid and not especially packed with incident. Perhaps this is a story better told on stage, where the singular location isn’t as much of a drawback and the atmosphere of the room heightens the experience. The theatrical aspect is carried over primarily in the central performance by Hopkins, which is indeed good work but exudes the kind of righteous anger that culminates in the film’s “stagiest” moments. It doesn’t feel as understated as the work that Colman and Sewell are doing here, although it’s possible that it was never supposed to anyway.

I applaud Zeller for creating a movie about dementia that so entrenches us in the experience of suffering from such a cruel and pernicious disease. The most effective scenes in the film recall the fear and insecurity that permeate heady alt-horror fare like last year’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things but it doesn’t feel like a gimmick or exploitation; it just feels real. Just recently nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it doesn’t seem likely to score any wins (especially since Chadwick Boseman is a lock for Best Actor) but the nods enough may draw enough attention for crowds to seek it out. The Father is certainly not an easy sit but it’s a brave portrayal of those struggling with senility and the caregivers on whom they rely.

Score – 3/5

Other new movies coming this weekend:
Premiering on Netflix is Bad Trip, a hidden camera comedy starring Eric André and Lil Rel Howery about two friends who embark on a cross-country road trip to NYC with pranks and misadventures along the way.
Streaming on HBO Max is Tina, a music documentary about Tina Tuner’s early fame, her private and professional struggles and her return to the world stage as a global phenomenon in the 1980s.
Opening in theaters is Nobody, an action thriller starring Bob Odenkirk and Connie Nielsen about a mild-mannered Good Samaritan who becomes the target of a vengeful drug lord.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The White Tiger

Based on the 2008 New York Times bestseller of the same name, The White Tiger tells the spirited story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a successful young businessman thriving in modern-day Bangalore. Narrating his own tale in voiceover, we flash back to Balram’s early life fighting to survive in an impoverished Indian village after losing his father to tuberculosis. After a fortuitous run-in with a wealthy landlord, the resourceful Balram becomes a full-time driver for the solicitous Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his free-spirited wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). The arrangement seems to be going well, until a night of recklessness forces Balram to reassess his relationship with his rich employers and the unequal society that keeps its most affluent citizens immune from consequences.

The film is written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, who made a splash in critics circles during the mid-2000s with acclaimed independent features like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. While those two movies just barely broke the 80 minute mark, The White Tiger comes in at a much heftier 125 minute runtime and more often than not, its length can be felt. Though he has an accessible and exciting story in his hands, Bahrani seems slavishly devoted to each of the novel’s plot points and its dense themes involving social classism and globalization. The stylistic touches, like its evocation of the eye-rolling “you’re probably wondering how I got here” trope at the film’s opening, make the theatrics of Danny Boyle’s films seem like the stuff of genius by comparison.

Fortunately, Bahrani is adapting some sturdy material and Aravind Adiga’s novel gives the film plenty of hearty fodder to feed this robust rags-to-riches story. Its title, a reference to a rare and magnificent beast to which Balram is compared at a young age, is just one of the animal-based metaphors that is used to symbolize the perils of a seemingly impenetrable caste system. Balram explains India’s poor class as existing in a “rooster coop”, waiting at the market to get slaughtered one at a time, yearning for freedom while being unable or unwilling to escape from their daunting enclosure. But the tone of Balram’s narration doesn’t resemble that of a maudlin requiem for upward mobility; he often peppers in dark humor and irony to affably recontextualize his struggles and those of his people.

As the savvy protagonist, Adarsh Gourav lends a stirring mixture of down-and-out pathos and cheeky resilience to his compelling lead performance. Rajkummar Rao is equally winsome in his portrayal of a well-to-do tech mogul who takes Balram under his wing and gets closer to him than even he suspects. In a role that could have been one-dimensional and cloying, Priyanka Chopra conveys layers of conflict for a young woman torn between her roots in the United States and her charmed life in India. Each of the main three actors have an easy chemistry with one another, gratifying in times when affinity brings them together and heartbreaking in the moments when discord draws them apart.

With its story of a desperate driver looking to get in with a rich family, The White Tiger bears thematic resemblance with last year’s outstanding Best Picture winner Parasite but it lacks that film’s propulsive sense of narrative urgency. Since Bahrani gives us glimpses of both the film’s climax and ending within the first 10 minutes, there isn’t very much suspense built into how things play out. Even though this is more of a coming-of-age drama than a tongue-in-cheek thriller like Parasite, stakes still matter and I would have preferred to have been kept in suspense rather than waiting for the inevitable denouement. Netflix recently announced they’ll be releasing at least one new movie every week in 2021 and if The White Tiger is any indication, they’d do well to focus on quality over quantity.

Score – 3/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Available to rent digitally is No Man’s Land, a modern Western starring Frank Grillo and Andie MacDowell about a young man who flees to Mexico after accidentally killing an immigrant along the Mexico-Texas border.
Also available to rent digitally is Our Friend, a dramedy starring Jason Segel and Casey Affleck about a couple who finds unexpected support from their best friend after they receive life-changing news.
Debuting on Hulu is In & Of Itself, a filmed version of illusionist Derek DelGaudio’s Off-Broadway one-man stage show which explores themes of identity and illusion.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Run

Following up his superb screenlife thriller Searching, writer-director Aneesh Chaganty expands his narrative scope with Run, another engaging nail-biter that doesn’t quite match the ingenuity of his debut. By comparison, it’s much more broad in its story beats and campy in its execution but at the end of the day, it delivers enough slick twists and turns in its lean 90-minute runtime to satisfy one’s Fall fright itch. As lopsided as the script can be, the film mainly succeeds on the strength of the performances by the two lead actresses, one who is steeply committed to this genre at this point in her career and another who is new to acting altogether.

We meet Diane (Sarah Paulson) on what should be the happiest day of her life but the critical condition of her premature newborn casts a pall over the delivery room. Flash forward 17 years and she’s adjusted the best that she can to the various health ailments that plague her homeschooled daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen). Wheelchair-bound and asthma-ridden, Chloe is clearly dependent on her ever-present mom for many physical tasks but can more than fend for herself from an intelligence perspective. It’s this intellect and curiosity that leads her to peel back a loosely adhered medication label and thus unravel a much deeper and darker mystery at the heart of her relationship with her domineering mother.

Fittingly slated to open in theaters on Mother’s Day weekend this past spring, Run is yet another 2020 release that got postponed indefinitely when the pandemic hit and found new life when a streaming service (Hulu, in this case) ponied up for the distribution rights. Unfortunately, this is a movie that benefits greatly from the experience of sitting in a darkened room with strangers whose hushed gasps and shrieks undoubtedly flavor the viewing. If theaters really are on their last legs, as many have suggested, is there anything that filmmakers can do to translate this phenomenon for audiences at home? Will studios even keep making thrillers like this in the first place? Questions like this disturb me more than anything in Run, although that isn’t a burden the film should have to carry.

In any case, the stellar acting is Run‘s strongest quality and the main area in which it distinguishes itself from the trashy Lifetime movie of the week that it could have been otherwise. Kiera Allen, who is disabled in real life, is outstanding as a smart and resourceful teenager who chooses not to define herself by her limitations. It helps to have such a cunning protagonist when we spend much of the running time working through obstacles with her in real time and Allen is more than up to the task. The film’s best scene, a lengthy setpiece in which Chloe must get from one bedroom window to another by crawling across the roof, gave me flashbacks to the famous Burj Khalifa sequence from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

Paulson is very good as the increasingly insidious Diane, although she can practically play chilly and borderline psychotic in her sleep by this point. From her recent appearance as a sinister caregiver in Netflix’s Ratched to her role as a sinister caregiver in last year’s Glass, I’d like to see her display more range in her character choice for her next project. Similarly, the film occupies a familiar class of psychological thriller depicted in shows like HBO’s Sharp Objects and movies like Greta and Ma, although it would easily place first in a race between the three films. If it were playing at your local theater, Run might not warrant a hurried excursion but from the comfort of the couch, it should be enough to quicken one’s pulse.

Score – 3/5

New movies this weekend:
Streaming on Hulu is Happiest Season, a romantic comedy starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis about a young woman planning to propose to her girlfriend while attending her family’s annual holiday party.
Coming to Netflix is The Christmas Chronicles 2, a holiday comedy starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn about Santa teaming up again with a cynical teenager to stop a mysterious foe who threatens to cancel Christmas forever.
Opening only in theaters is The Croods: A New Age, an animated adventure starring Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone about a prehistoric family who is challenged by a rival family who claim to be better and more evolved.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Mulan

Disney goes to the well once more with Mulan, another update on one of their beloved 90s animations that doesn’t supersede the original but at least gets points for trying to go about things in a relatively creative way. Unlike last year’s Aladdin and The Lion King, which were soulless cash grabs that lifelessly tried to recreate classic moments from their predecessors, this new version of Mulan feels more like a modern reimagining of the legend of Hua Mulan rather than a mindless remake of the 1998 Disney film. Gone are the Broadway-style music numbers and cutesy sidekicks, replaced instead by PG-13 wuxia (a term for martial arts stories set in ancient China) action and gorgeously lush set design inspired by genre classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Set in imperial China, the storyline follows the courageous and deft warrior Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), whose parents Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) and Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) foist matchmakers on her so she can find a husband who will tame her wild spirit. Those plans are put on hold when Rouran warriors, led by the fearsome Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his enslaved witch Xianniang (Gong Li), make their way towards the Hua’s village. An edict is put forth where a man from each family must join the fight against Khan’s army but the elderly Zhou is at risk for serious injury or even death should he offer his services to the military. To spare her father, Mulan poses as a young man and sets off to train as a soldier with the knowledge that her gender deception could be punishable by death.

Originally slated to grace screens nationwide back in March, Mulan is one of many victims of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and after months of delay, it now debuts on Disney+ with a $30 surcharge for “Premier Access”. While this is a responsible and sensible business decision on their part, it’s a bit of a shame that we likely won’t see this on the big screen any time soon since this is the best looking live-action remake that Disney has put forth yet. Transfixing images like the Emperor’s opulent, gold-plated throne or a collapsing avalanche with its ensuing fog of powder snow just don’t quite have the same power when watching at home, unless your TV is on par with the digital projection found in the cineplex.

While director Niki Caro makes some smart choices when it comes to action and imagery, the biggest missed opportunity here is in the depth of the storytelling and thematic material. Too often Caro and her quartet of screenwriters take the easy way out and settle for simple characterization on behalf of the protagonist and other supporting players. While the animated version of Mulan was also a fierce warrior, she doesn’t start out that way and has to steadily train her way up the ranks. Comparatively, Yifei’s Mulan is already a powerful fighter from the beginning with the aid of a magical level of chi that resembles The Force from Star Wars — one could easily make several parallels between this Mulan and Rey from the Disney-era Star Wars trilogy.

While most of the performances serve the film well, Yifei is not always as compelling as she needs to be in the title role. Her physicality and poise is often spot-on but she plays the character almost too stoically, offering little insight into Mulan’s inner world. Other actors, like the inimitable Donnie Yen as Commander Tung or Tzi Ma from last year’s excellent The Farewell, tend to fare better in their respective roles. While I appreciate Disney’s push for representation by casting all Asian or Asian-American performers, I wish they had gone a bit farther and just had the characters speaking Mandarin instead English. With Parasite winning Best Picture earlier this year, I would suspect that the subtitle barrier isn’t quite as imposing as it once was. Nevertheless, Mulan is a fine introduction to wuxia films that will hopefully inspire audiences to seek out better entries in the genre.

Score – 3/5

New movies this weekend:
Available for rental is Antebellum, a horror film starring Janelle Monáe and Jena Malone about an author who finds herself trapped in a nightmarish reality during the Underground Railroad period and must find a way to break free.
Streaming on Netflix is The Devil All the Time, a psychological thriller starring Tom Holland and Bill Skarsgård about a series of suspicious characters whose storylines converge on the backdrop of a small Ohio town.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is All In: The Fight for Democracy, a political documentary takes a look at the history of and current activism against voter suppression.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Project Power

Even though movie theaters are still closed nationwide, it’s still technically the summer movie season and blockbusters aren’t canceled if Netflix has anything to say about it. Their latest alt-superhero film Project Power follows in the trajectory of recent streaming output like the Chris Hemsworth-starring Extraction and Charlize Theron-starring The Old Guard and continues Netflix’s quest to compete with Hollywood directly with mid-size budget action movies. While it doesn’t quite fill the void of big-budget tentpole entertainment that still has yet to debut on streaming services, Project Power is diverting and fleetingly entertaining enough to earn a spot on one’s Watch Next queue.

Set in near-future New Orleans, the story centers around a newly-designed, high-tech street drug known as Power, which grants its taker five minutes of a seemingly random superpower. Some addicts catch on fire like the Human Torch, while others have super speed like the Flash and some unfortunate souls literally explode within moments of taking it. The dangerous pill soon takes over the local drug market, motivating young dealers like Robin (Dominique Fishback) to step up their game and police officers like Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to be even more vigilant. Power also draws in the presence of The Major (Jamie Foxx), a mysterious man desperate to dissect the distribution chain and take down the equally mysterious forces at the top.

Now that the X-Men film franchise is basically in shambles (save the ever-pending The New Mutants), Project Power serves as a moderately successful stop-gap of a superpower showcase. Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, whose 2010 documentary Catfish coined a term that has since swam its way into the cultural lexicon, know that Power‘s power lies mainly in its propulsive setpieces and less in its murky mythology. Though there’s a poignant subtext about overcoming systemic inequality, Mattson Tomlin’s script doesn’t have much else on its mind besides shuffling these three, relatively thin characters from place to place so they can level up to the next bad guy.

Thankfully, the trio of performers are all-in for this somewhat silly premise and give it the star power to take things up to the next tier. After a brief reprieve from the limelight, Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings a loose charm and swagger to his rogue cop role that has been sorely missed over the past few years. It’s also good to see Jamie Foxx in an all-out macho lead that reminded me of his work in Django Unchained back in 2012. But the real scene-stealer is Dominique Fishback, who exhibits terrific chemistry with Foxx and creates what is easily the most authentic character on-screen. A bonding scene with Foxx, in which she crafts freestyle raps around words like “seismograph” and “antibiotic”, is arguably more impressive than any of the preceding action sequences.

Like last month’s The Old Guard, Project Power is beset by the same villain issues that have plagued many a superhero movie before it. While it’s fun to watch Gordon-Levitt duke it out with a henchman Powered by ultra-flexibility or watch Foxx take out a whole room of strapped-up baddies, the Men Behind The Curtain are the same old boring bureaucrats we’ve seen in countless action pictures. It doesn’t help that their plan ultimately hinges on several glaring improbabilities that are nearly impossible to square from a logistical perspective. If you don’t use too much brain power, Project Power is a sleek and suitable digression from these less-than-ideal times.

Score – 3/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Opening in limited theaters is Unhinged, a thriller starring Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius about a young woman who is harassed by a seemingly unstable stranger following a road rage incident.
Available on Disney+ is The One and Only Ivan, a fantasy movie starring Sam Rockwell and Angelina Jolie about a gorilla who tries to piece together his past with the help of an elephant as they hatch a plan to escape from captivity.
Available on demand is Tesla, an unconventional biopic starring Ethan Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan about visionary inventor Nikola Tesla and his interactions with Thomas Edison.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Even though Will Ferrell is a household name by this point, you’d have to go back to 2010’s The Other Guys to find a Ferrell-starring comedy that resonated with both audiences and critics. The 2010s have not been especially kind when it comes to lead roles for the oafish SNL alum, littered with dreck from Get Hard to Holmes & Watson with only minor gems like The House that got buried under terrible box office figures. His latest offering, Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, looks to replicate the joyous goofiness of Aughts underdog comedies like Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory and with the help of a strong supporting cast, it barely gets there.

Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, a native to a small Icelandic town who has dreamed of winning the Eurovision contest ever since he was a boy, dancing frantically along to ABBA performing “Waterloo” in front of his TV. His comrade in musical stardom is Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), Lars’ childhood friend who makes up the other half of their fledgling pop duo Fire Saga. Their dreams seem to come into focus when their audition tape is randomly selected by Iceland’s Eurovision committee and they’re whisked away to Scotland to participate in the international music competition. Along the way, they run into challengers like the fiery Russia representative Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) and the seductive Greek singer Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut).

Using even rudimentary criteria, I wouldn’t necessarily classify Eurovision Song Contest as a particularly “good movie”. It’s at least a half-an-hour too long, there are more than a few punchlines that don’t work at all and the overall story arc is about as predictable as can be. Having said that, I chuckled consistently at its go-for-broke spirit and naïve playfulness and in these increasingly dispiriting times, that certainly must count for something. Ferrell is reprising his man-child schtick to limited effect, albeit with a silly accent thrown in for good measure, but McAdams proves after her outstanding turn in Game Night that she’s able to find just the right notes in a broad comedy like this.

Another standout among the supporting players is Stevens, who has been quite bad in recent films like Beauty and the Beast and The Call of the Wild but rebounds here nicely with haughty role clearly modeled after George Michael. A snippy conversation about gender fluidity that he has with McAdams’ character deep into the 2 plus hour runtime scores the biggest laughs in the entire film. It’s a shame that director David Dobkin couldn’t find more for Pierce Brosnan to do as Lars’ father, other than looking handsome and mortified as he watches his son fail on live TV. Given Brosnan’s role in the Mamma Mia! films, I’m shocked that they couldn’t at least manage a more overt ABBA connection for laughs.

While the songs aren’t as memorable as those from other musical comedies like Walk Hard or Music And Lyrics, the Fire Saga tracks “Husavik” and “Double Trouble” are sufficiently catchy. The funniest music moment comes courtesy of Lemtov’s uproarious tune “Lion of Love”, which Stevens performs with appropriately garish aplomb. Elsewhere, the film surprisingly does a decent job at incorporating Icelandic culture. The country’s picturesque scenery is highlighted on numerous occasions and if you think this movie doesn’t offer several Sigur Rós music cues at climactic moments, you have another thing coming. As innocuous distractions go, you could certainly do worse than Eurovision Song Contest.

Score – 3/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Available on Disney+ is Hamilton, a live Broadway recording of the smash hit musical starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. about the life of founder father and first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
Available on demand is The Outpost, a war drama starring Scott Eastwood and Orlando Bloom about a small team of U.S. soldiers as they battle against hundreds of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Available on Netflix is Desperados, a comedy starring Anna Camp and Nasim Pedrad about a young woman who rushes to Mexico with her friends to try and delete a scathing email she sent to her new boyfriend.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Hunt

Few films receive a marketing bump quite as staggering as the one behind The Hunt. Originally scheduled for release last October, with its controversial trailer premiering two months prior, the movie was shelved indefinitely amid the social unrest following a pair of mass shootings. The politically-charged promotional footage, which depicted liberals hunting conservatives for sport, predictably drew the ire of many given the cultural climate. Several news cycles later, Universal dropped a new trailer, touting their release as “the most talked about movie of the year that no one’s actually seen.” Given the current coronavirus scare, it’s ironic that the movie will likely remain unseen by many for reasons entirely removed from its political provocations.

After a text thread between unseen friends depicts them discussing a “hunt” for “deplorables”, we meet a group of 12 strangers who wake up in the middle of the woods a-la The Hunger Games. One brave soul opens up a large crate in the middle of the field, which houses a tiny clothed pig and an impressive array of weaponry. After they each grab their firearm of choice, the group is immediately fired upon by unknown assailants and the hunt appears to be on. A series of spectacularly bloody deaths occur and after some time is spent with some of the other survivors, the story settles upon Crystal (Betty Gilpin), the most fearless of the bunch who is determined to beat the hunters at their own game.

A relentlessly cheeky take on The Most Dangerous Game that gleefully skewers both sides of the political spectrum, The Hunt has enough satirical surprises up its sleeve to make its predictable premise palatable. Sure, personifying the current cultural war as a literal bloodthirsty battle royale between liberals and conservatives is not the most subtle of artistic choices but director Craig Zobel knows this. Instead, he saves a more precise aim when he goes for specific targets ranging from conspiratorial podcasters who are primed to out crisis actors to NPR addicts who blanch at the sight of cultural appropriation. Screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof revel in being an equal opportunity offenders, although it could be argued that the holier-than-thou liberal captors get put on blast even more than their conservative captive counterparts.

Even though the film is loaded with charged language and incendiary laugh lines, its influences and aspirations lie more in the genre of female-centric gory thrillers like Kill Bill or last year’s Ready or Not. It’s the kind of movie that delights in picking off characters with bits of brutality that get more ridiculous as the story progresses. Within that context, Gilpin’s Crystal is formidable “final girl” who doggedly assesses each threat with a droll, matter-of-fact sense of humor about the circumstances. Armed with a measured Mississippi drawl and dead-eyed stare, she turns in a fun and commanding performance with some appropriately over-the-top affectations and crazed mannerisms.

Just like their work on ABC’s Lost, Cuse and Lindelof start with a familiar “desert island” premise before introducing myriad twists and turns that will have audiences questioning characters’ motivations and where their allegiances lie. Unfortunately, problems with storytelling come about when these plot wrinkles generate logic issues within the narrative. Even at a taut 90 minutes, the film sags a bit too much in the middle as we impatiently wait for the admittedly outstanding final showdown. As a brazen sendup of America’s current political divide, The Hunt is surprisingly solid satire.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to video on demand:

With the closing of cinemas worldwide, NBCUniversal made the unprecedented move to release new movies to streaming services the same day as their theatrical releases. Look for The Hunt, The Invisible Man, and Emma to be released for $19.99 rental from services such as iTunes and Amazon Video as early as Friday, March 20.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Onward

“Long ago, the world was full of wonder.” So goes the opening line of Disney Pixar’s Onward, a fantasy adventure film about rediscovering magic in a world that seems to have largely forgotten it. It’s not a stretch to think that the conceit is emblematic of Pixar’s current status in the world of animation, trying the recreate the effortless charm and whimsy behind some of their strongest achievements. After all, 4 of their past 5 films have been sequels, which might suggest a lack of fresh ideas. While Onward does rely on some of the formulaic factors that bolster most of Pixar’s other efforts, it still retains enough liveliness and lightheartedness to make it a mystical quest worth taking.

Set in a fantasy world inhabited by different types of mythical creatures, our story centers on the elven Lightfoot family led by the widowed Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Her sons, the meek Ian (Tom Holland) and rambunctious Barley (Chris Pratt), have very little memory of their late father. When Laurel gifts Ian with a wizard staff for his 16th birthday, they jump at the chance to resurrect their father temporarily to make up for lost time. Ian attempts to cast the spell, only to bring back their father’s lower half. With only 24 hours to complete the rest of the spell, Ian and Barley hit the road to find the rare Phoenix Stone that will allow for their father’s complete reincarnation.

Director Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University back in 2013, doesn’t stray far from the plot elements of other Pixar classics. The attempt to communicate with the deceased recalls the plot of Coco while the ticking-clock feel that surrounds the road trip narrative calls to mind the adventures found within the Toy Story films. What feels fresh this time around is the connection between the two brothers, who start out as polar opposites in terms of personality but are drawn closer together in the quest to bring their father back. A big reason their relationship comes through is due to the stellar voice work from Holland and especially Pratt, who have a chemistry that makes their bond as brothers completely believable.

A complaint that I almost never have with Pixar films is in the quality of animation and while Onward doesn’t necessarily look poor per-se, it has a certain blandness to its color palette that I wasn’t expecting. Even though its story is set in a magical land that has become more mundane as time has gone on, the settings are more dull and drab than they really need to be to get that point across. Even lackluster efforts like The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory still benefited from top-tier animation and comparatively, Onward feels like a bit of a step back. Despite this, there are some visual gags that land beautifully, particularly in the Weekend At Bernie’s-esque way the Lightfoot brothers find ways to disguise the fact that their father is missing from the waist up.

The conceit that this world is inhabited by mythical beings who have traded their magical powers for the comforts of commercialism and consumerism is an inspired one but the movie doesn’t dig into this theme as much as it could. Instead, it focuses on the inevitable obstacles that the two brothers encounter on the road, which makes for an amiable if unadventurous movie. Onward is more sturdy and reliable entertainment from the best in the business, even if it leaves a bit too much on the table.

Score – 3/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
The Way Back, starring Ben Affleck and Al Madrigal, follows a former basketball star turned alcoholic who looks for a path to redemption as he’s offered a coaching job at his alma mater.
Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, puts a twist on the classic Jane Austen novel about a young woman who can’t stop meddling in the love lives of those around her.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Gretel & Hansel

The Brothers Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel has been adapted for the screen countless times, most recently and regrettably in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and now we have yet another take. Gretel & Hansel, the latest from The Blackcoat’s Daughter director Oz Perkins, primarily sticks to the narrative beats that will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the story. We have the titular sister and brother, played respectively by Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, who stumble upon a mysterious house in the middle of the dark woods. The homeowner, played by Alice Krige, accommodates them with a table full of endless feasts but the longer they stay, the more nefarious her intentions become.

Perkins uses this setup as a jumping off point to tell a more personalized coming-of-age tale centered around Gretel, whose prominence in the story is suggested by the film’s title. This time around, she’s twice as old as Hansel and is unquestionably the one in charge. She’s also been gifted with magical abilities, which are recognized and further developed by the witch who resides at that ever-tempting house. The focus on a female protagonist struggling with the temptation of witchcraft in a bleak setting is strikingly similar to 2016’s The Witch, even though the results here aren’t as compelling as they are in that excellent period horror piece.

Gretel & Hansel also resembles The Witch in its keen attention to production design and cinematography, which are often first-rate and enough to make it worth recommending. The film is more interested in accumulating dread than slapping audiences in the face with overt scares and much of this done with the atmosphere that creeps at the edges of the frame. Cinematographer Galo Olivarez uses unconventional lighting schemes to capture the beauty and terror of this world, sometimes even within the same shot. One such image, in which Gretel’s face is lit both by the blue of the moonlight and the orange of a flickering flame, is hauntingly lovely and of a caliber that one might not expect from a horror movie unceremoniously released over Super Bowl weekend.

The main trouble in Gretel & Hansel comes from the underdeveloped screenplay by Perkins and co-writer Rob Hayes, which doesn’t do quite enough to expand on the original fairy tale. Besides Gretel’s aforementioned personal journey, nearly everything else in the script feels like a distraction and filler to pad the already lean 87 minute runtime. Save a few scenes in the film’s opening with characters that are never seen nor heard from again, we spend the entirety of the movie with the trio of Gretel, Hansel and the Witch. That’s not inherently an issue but there isn’t enough character development between the trio to justify hanging the whole story on their shoulders.

In an attempt to patch up some of the shallow character work, Perkins includes an intermittent voiceover from Gretel, in which she ponders rhetorical questions like “is it wise to trust someone who appears when you need them?” These philosophical musings along with the lush landscapes give viewers an idea of what Terrence Malick may come up with if he were tasked to adapt a Grimm tale. Even though this voiceover rumination grows more pretentious as the movie goes on, I appreciate the artsy ambition in a genre that is often sorely in need of it. Gretel & Hansel is a classic case of style over substance but when the style is this superb, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Birds of Prey, starring Margot Robbie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, gives the DC Comics baddie Harley Quinn her own spin-off in which she recruits other female vigilante to take down a crime lord.
The Lodge, starring Riley Keough and Jaeden Martell, is a psychological chiller about a soon-to-be stepmom who gets snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote cabin.
Playing at Cinema Center this weekend are all of the Academy Award-nominated shorts for the Animated, Live Action and Documentary categories, which you can catch before Oscar Night on Sunday, February 9th.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Just Mercy

In the heart of Oscar season, two popular genres tend to dominate the multiplex: hard-hitting legal dramas and issues movies meant to provoke discussion about a hot-button topic. Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy happens to fall narrowly in the middle of both of those categories. As this is the case, it tends to be doubly as familiar in some ways but also doubly as admirable in its successes, given the baggage of expectations that it carries on its shoulders. The issue at the center of the movie, the ethical ramifications of the death penalty and its staggering rate of error, has been examined on film previously but Cretton pursues slightly different avenues to shed new light on the subject.

Our story starts in 1987 Alabama, where Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is hastily tried and convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old girl with almost no evidence. Catching wind of the case, Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) travels south to establish the Equal Justice Initiative with social worker Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). The EJI’s aim is to overturn wrongful convictions, specifically for those on death row, and McMillian’s case becomes the focal point of Stevenson’s efforts. His investigation draws the ire of many in the community who firmly believe in McMillian’s guilt, like the hot-headed district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), but Stevenson persists among the multitude of obstacles thrown his way.

Just Mercy plays out about how one might imagine. There’s the terse initial meeting between McMillian and Stevenson, in which an incredulous McMillian turns Stevenson away, even though we know the plot will of course hinge on the two working together. There are the multiple run-ins with sweaty bigoted members of Alabama’s law enforcement, desperate to take Stevenson and his team down at any costs. We have the procedural feel throughout the investigation, in which pages of law books are shuffled through in order to clear McMillian’s name in court. Yet, these recognizable story beats still resonate because of the conviction of the performances on-screen and the direction off-screen.

Where Cretton finds new direction in this harrowing true tale is in the relationships between McMillian and his fellow inmates. Often in capital punishment movies, the injustice of the system is the sole focus and while this film certainly accentuates that aspect, it also focuses on the human interactions and brotherhood behind the bars. Hope and inspiration are precious commodities on death row and the modicum that can be found are uplifting to behold, even in fleeting moments. As good as Foxx and Jordan are, supporting players like O’Shea Jackson and Rob Morgan are even better in roles that allow them to deeply humanize prisoners who know they may not get a second chance themselves.

At a stout 136 minutes, the movie does suffer from pacing issues and may overstay its welcome even for those who are interested in the material. Despite her real-life significance, I’m not certain that Brie Larson’s character even needed to be included in the film, much less given as much screen time as she is since her role in the case is relatively minimal. It’s reasonable to believe that Larson, who worked with Cretton previously in the excellent Short Term 12 and terrible The Glass Castle, was recruited post-Captain Marvel success to add another familiar face to the cast list. Despite its shortcomings, Just Mercy is a sobering and earnest examination of a broken system and the victims left in its wake.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Bad Boys For Life, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, caps off the buddy cop trilogy about two reckless police detectives who reunite once again to take down a Romanian mob boss.
Dolittle, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jessie Buckley, retells the story of a renown doctor who surrounds himself with a myriad of wondrous creatures with whom he can communicate.
Playing at Cinema Center is Parasite, the current Oscar front-runner for Best International Feature Film about a lower-middle class family who slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of a wealthy family.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup