Tag Archives: 3/5

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness

Is there a point at which the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes too massive and unwieldy that it collapses in on itself? This is a question I asked myself repeatedly while watching Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a film centered around the concept of breaking this shared universe and rearranging the shards like a broken mirror. With scores of movies and TV series now included in the unprecedented franchise, producer Kevin Feige and his team keep pushing for ways to tell new stories as more characters and circumstances are introduced into this world. Each entry has pushed the scope of the storytelling to such a degree that Phase One films like Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger feel positively quaint by comparison. We’re certainly not in Kansas anymore and I have a feeling we’ll never get back to it.

After the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) attempts to retreat into normalcy as he attends the wedding of his former flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Naturally, the reception is interrupted by the ruckus created by an octopus demon that pops up from somewhere else in the multiverse. After subduing the creature with mystic arts colleague Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange meets America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who has been hunted by monsters ever since it’s been discovered that she can travel between dimensions. To save Chavez from constant threat and to learn more about her powers, Strange consults fellow Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as an even more powerful threat emerges across these alternate realities.

A common charge against the MCU is that Marvel Studios will hire up-and-coming directors for their projects and then sideline their artistic contributions to instead present a pre-packaged product. This criticism doesn’t apply to Multiverse of Madness. Veteran director Sam Raimi not only has experience with the superhero genre, having helmed each entry in the original Spider-Man trilogy, but signature touches of his, like comically macabre imagery and schlocky close-ups, are felt throughout this new movie. Harkening back to his Evil Dead days, eyeballs pop up (and out, on at least two occasions) more often than Infinity Stones do in Avengers: Endgame. When Strange sees the Sorcerer Supreme from another universe, the camera locks in on their locked eyes and for a brief moment, the film turns into a Spaghetti Western.

The disappointment here isn’t from the direction but from the writing, as Michael Waldron’s screenplay is heavy on heady exposition about universe-hopping but light on character and believable motivations. The villain of this piece is both overly powerful and under-developed, even if you go into this film having seen the Marvel Studios TV series that are now apparently prerequisites for their cinematic output. This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve gone into one of these movies not understanding which character has powers that are more powerful than another characters’ powers but as I see it, this antagonist should be able to wipe out the protagonists in no time. Not only that but the reasoning behind their actions is frustratingly one-dimensional and makes them a less interesting foe for our heroes to defeat.

Another refrain about MCU films is their tendency to start strong but peter out with final acts that indulge in explosive extravaganza. While Multiverse of Madness has a finale that is far from staid, this movie breaks from the mold by opening with a first act that is quite dull from a story perspective but picks up momentum and delivers one of the most enjoyable third acts that I can recall from this franchise. At some point, character motives and stakes go out the window entirely but when the film fully commits to Raimi’s stylistic lunacy in the back half, it finds its voice in an immensely entertaining way. With a few more passes at the script, Multiverse of Madness could have been an exceedingly well-balanced superhero tale but as is, it’s fleetingly fun and an improvement on the first Doctor Strange chapter.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and streaming on Peacock is Firestarter, a remake of the 1984 Stephen King adaptation starring Zac Efron and Ryan Kiera Armstrong about a father who must protect his daughter after she develops pyrokinesis and is hunted by a secret government agency.
Streaming on Netflix is Our Father, a documentary about a fertility fraud investigation tied to an Indianapolis-based doctor after a woman’s at-home DNA test reveals multiple half-siblings of which she was previously unaware.
Available to rent on demand is On The Count Of Three, a dark comedy starring Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott about two friends whose pact to end each others’ lives takes a number of unexpected turns.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent

Following up one of the very best performances of his career in Pig, Nicolas Cage is back with his most challenging role yet: Nicolas Cage. The taunted and vaunted star is naturally playing a heightened version of himself in the cheekily-titled The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, an undeniably affable if frustratingly cursory buddy comedy that may still satisfy the cult of Cage. That the finished product is more Midnight Run than Being John Malkovich is completely understandable from a marketing standpoint but may be disappointing for those expecting, as the tagline boasts, “The Most Nicolas Cage Movie Ever.” Yes, there are plenty of easter eggs and nods to numerous films in Cage’s 40-year pilgrimage on-screen but the fan service often feels more like window dressing than an integral part of what makes the mechanics of the movie work.

We meet this version of Cage as he is over-selling himself to a director (David Gordon Green, in a cameo) who already seems nervous to cast him in his King Lear riff. As has seemingly been the case for the real-life Cage, this Nick is also struggling with finances as mortgages and alimony to his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) add up to more than he has to repay. Given the circumstances, his agent Richard (Neil Patrick Harris) is excited to report that Cage has been offered $1 million just to show up to the birthday party of wealthy super fan Javi (Pedro Pascal). On his way to Spain, Cage is stopped by a pair of CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz), who don’t buy that Javi has become a billionaire strictly from working in the olive industry. As Cage and Javi’s bond grows closer, Nick’s torn between helping the CIA and protecting his new friend from danger.

What’s most important about The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is that writer/director Tom Gormican is in on the joke with Cage and seems to understand both the person and the persona at the center of this meta comedy. At various points in the film, Cage is confronted by a devil-on-the-shoulder version of his Wild at Heart character, whose bawdy advice is designed to get them back up to the top, no matter what. It’s a derivative but effective way to bifurcate Cage’s larger-than-life screen presence from how he most likely behaves in real life. Gormican is able to reconcile Nic Cage: Leaving Las Vegas Oscar winner with Nic Cage: star of The Wicker Man (yes, it’s referenced) and create a universe where both can peacefully coexist.

The seeds of a great movie are there but the soil isn’t packed as well as it could be. Having Cage go to an eccentric billionaire’s fancy villa and reflect on his storied screen career through the eyes of a super fan is a terrific comedic setup. But Gormican wimps out and dedicates most of the runtime to a broad storyline where Cage is investigating Javi’s potential cartel connections behind his back and doing a poor job of spying at the CIA’s behest. It sets up moderately funny scenes like one where Cage breaks into a server room and accidentally gets knocked out by his own tranquilizing weapon. Cage sells it as well as Leonardo DiCaprio did in the Lemmon Quaalude scene from The Wolf of Wall Street but it’s a nondescript sequence that could be in any other spy comedy from the last ten years.

When the movie focuses on the friendship between Nick and Javi, it becomes sharper both as a specific kind of drug-fueled buddy comedy and a compendium of Cage conceits. The inevitable scene where Cage finds Javi’s embarrassing shrine of Cage memorabilia features plenty of references to his past projects but also narrows in on the peculiar bond between the two characters. When Cage happens upon a sequined pillow with his face on it and makes a self-effacing remark while swiping his hand across it, Javi lovingly puts the pattern back in order to reveal his face once more. Javi knows all sorts of fun facts about Cage — like the fact that he did his own car stunts for Gone In 60 Seconds — but still has more to learn about who the man actually is off-camera. A more focused script would’ve made The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent an even bigger joy for fans but as is, it’s an enjoyable romp centered around Hollywood’s most beguiling thespian.

Score – 3/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is The Northman, a historical epic starring Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman which tells the brutal story of a young Viking prince on a quest to avenge his father’s murder in 10th-century Iceland.
Also playing only in theaters is The Bad Guys, an animated crime comedy starring Sam Rockwell and Marc Maron about several reformed, yet misunderstood, criminal animals attempting to become good, with some disastrous results along the way.
Premiering on Netflix is Along For The Ride, a romantic drama starring Emma Pasarow and Belmont Cameli about a pair of high school seniors whose shared insomnia leads to overnight dates around their seaside town.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Parallel Mothers

The 22nd film from prolific Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar, Parallel Mothers doesn’t quite hit the highs of 2019’s terrific Pain and Glory but is another solid soap opera from a reliable storyteller. Penélope Cruz stars as Janis, a photographer whose shoot with archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) one day leads to an affair and subsequent pregnancy. While waiting to give birth, Janis shares a hospital room with young mother-to-be Ana (Milena Smit), with whom she strikes up a friendship and exchanges her phone number after the pair of babies are born. When Arturo meets Janis’ newborn, he becomes immediately convinced at first glance that the baby is not his daughter, leading Janis to conduct a maternity test with surprising results.

Almodóvar is known for casting the same actors in numerous films throughout his career and Parallel Mothers is no exception. This is frequent collaborator Penélope Cruz’s seventh time working with the acclaimed filmmaker and along with her transcendent work in 2006’s Volver, this performance stands among the very best that she’s given in one of his movies. Her transition from a freewheeling fortysomething in the midst of a tryst to an anxious mother with mounting uncertainty about her situation is heart-wrenching and utterly convincing. Even when completing un-cinematic tasks like staring at a baby monitor or scouring a PDF on a computer screen for answers, she sells the character flawlessly even with the darting of her eyes.

But Cruz’s face isn’t the only one that Almodóvar’s camera loves in Parallel Mothers, especially in close-up. In her second feature ever, co-star Milena Smit more than holds her own in a role that gets more knotty and complicated as the story progresses. The circumstances that led to Ana’s pregnancy are even more unfortunate than Janis’ and Smit’s fragile but resilient delivery gives her character instant pathos. Both Cruz and Smit are crucial in portraying the unusual but deep connection that fate seemed to concoct when the duo met in the hospital. While overcooked writing serves up curveballs in the third act that cause these characters to act in ways that don’t seem especially consistent, the acting remains first-rate to the film’s final scene.

The main element that holds Parallel Mothers back from greatness is the screenplay, which introduces a conceit that’s already a bit of a stretch to begin with and then expands on it with subplots that don’t always pay off. There’s also a layer of sociopolitical commentary that’s clumsily lumped into this sensitive story about maternity that felt relatively unnecessary. The movie begins and ends with heavy-handed allusions to the Spanish Civil War and ends with a political quote from Eduardo Galeano, a didactic turn that left me more confused than inspired. The dialogue isn’t quite as melodramatic as the tone of the film overall but it does often spell out the main themes of the piece rather than allow the audience to glean insight into the characters’ feelings on their own.

The musical score by Alberto Iglesias also lacks any real subtlety, although this could be intentional and in keeping with the soap opera feel that Almodóvar seems to be evoking. The opening credits are grabby but Iglesias’ urgent strings and slinking piano recall Bernard Herrmann’s work on any number of Hitchcock’s films. Based on the tone established, you may think you’re being set up to watch a psychological thriller like Psycho but the tension in Parallel Mothers is, of course, much more subdued by comparison. José Luis Alcaine, another frequent collaborator of Almodóvar, lends a keen eye to the cinematography, juxtaposing lush greens with bright reds to suggest a start/stop motion in keeping with the chief theme of disrupted motherhood. There’s enough in Parallel Mothers to recommend it but too much holding it back to count it among Almodóvar’s best.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Moonfall, a science-fiction disaster movie starring Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson about a pair of astronauts tasked with resetting the Moon after it’s knocked from its orbit by an unknown force and put onto a collision course with Earth.
Also playing only in theaters is Jackass Forever, a comedy sequel starring Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O which finds the crew of the infamous MTV reality series reuniting one last time after an 11 year hiatus for more pranks and stunts.
Screening at Cinema Center on February 4th and 5th is The Burial of Kojo, a Ghanaian drama starring Joseph Otsiman and Cynthia Dankwa about a man who is trapped in a mine shaft by his vengeful brother while his daughter embarks on a magical journey to rescue him.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Being The Ricardos

Though tens of millions of people tuned into I Love Lucy Monday evenings throughout the 1950s, it’s unlikely they knew its stars as well as the show made them feel like they did. The new biopic Being the Ricardos pulls back the curtain on Lucy and Ricky Ricardo to reveal the hard-working husband-wife combination behind the fantastically popular series. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s 20-year marriage was far from the rosy sitcom facsimile that they cultivated together but it was a sincere partnership between two talented individuals with mutual professional respect for one another. One of several hats this film wears is that of a cheerleader for their turbulent but trailblazing relationship, making it a frustrating experience when it tries to do too much elsewhere.

It’s 1952 and I Love Lucy is in its second season when a series of events over one production week threaten the life of the show and the marriage of its two co-stars Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). First, at a time when the Red Scare was at a fever pitch, there’s a news report claiming that Ball was a member of the Communist party. Then, there’s a tabloid story circulating that Arnaz is having an affair, although it’s not the first time such an accusation has been leveled against him. These issues are set against perpetual on-set tensions between William Frawley (J. K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who play the Ricardos’ neighbors, the Mertzes. Through it all, Ball and Arnaz resolve to overcome these obstacles and put everything they have into the show.

I imagine the performances will be the most glaring aspect of Being the Ricardos for audiences and the actors certainly don’t shy away from taking big swings right out of the gate. It’s important to remember that Kidman is only playing Lucy Ricardo during about 10% of her role, with the other 90% spent as the much more shrewd and domineering Lucille Ball. Writer/director Aaron Sorkin portrays Ball as something of a comedy savant, intensely visualizing the possibilities of a comedic premise and poking holes in it before the writing staff has a chance to pitch it completely. Kidman is a classic cocksure Sorkin protagonist, rattling off one-liners like “I’m Lucille Ball; when I’m being funny, you’ll know it” in her first scene.

Puzzlingly, Sorkin uses a trio of faux-documentary talking heads to frame the action of the narrative in the present day before zipping back to the early 50s. He goes back to them a few times in the film but their placement never meshes with the flow of the story and the performances by the three actors are jilted and awkward. Sorkin complicates things further by flashing back to the early 1940s, when Ball and Arnaz’s paths first crossed and their fates in the entertainment industry were forever intertwined. It’s a fine way for us to invest in these characters and their relationship but these flashback scenes are thrown in among scenes from the 1950s and it can be difficult to parse between the two. This is Sorkin’s third directorial effort and while it’s his best when it comes to the performances he’s able to conjure up, he still has a way to go artistically as a storyteller.

Of course, dialogue has been Sorkin’s bread and butter for decades now and he doesn’t let off the gas this time around. Kidman naturally gets most of the best lines — “I’ll be funny by Friday,” she quips blithely during a Tuesday rehearsal — but I also appreciated the verbal sparring between head writers played by Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy. His scripts have a verve and music to them that screenwriters have been trying and failing to emulate both in TV and in film. He’s done his best work when collaborating with great directors like Mike Nichols and David Fincher but ever since he got the idea that he can direct as well as he can write, the results have been below the bar of excellence he’s set for himself. Being the Ricardos may be the best of the three films Sorkin has directed so far but it’s relatively faint praise for one of Hollywood’s premier scribes.

Score – 3/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s take on the classic 1961 musical starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler about a pair of teenagers falling in love amid rival street gangs in 1950s New York.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is National Champions, a sports drama starring Stephan James and J. K. Simmons about a star collegiate quarterback who ignites a players’ strike hours before the biggest game of the year in order to fight for equal rights.
Streaming on Netflix is The Unforgivable, a legal drama starring Sandra Bullock and Vincent D’Onofrio about a woman who is released from prison after serving a sentence for a violent crime and re-enters a society that refuses to forgive her past.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Belfast

Irish writer/director Kenneth Branagh brings the memories of his childhood to the big screen with Belfast, a slight but sweet slice-of-life story with winsome performances that make up for the often too-tidy screenplay. Branagh has directed 18 movies to date, from multiple Shakespeare adaptations to more corporate fare like Cinderella and Artemis Fowl, but this certainly feels like his most deeply-felt film thus far. It captures the joys and fears of an era that Americans may not know as nearly as well as their European counterparts but will likely leave the theater eager to learn more about this turbulent time in history. The movie isn’t unlike a cold pint of Guinness after a hard day at work, in that it’s a nice break from reality that’s familiar and goes down easy.

The film is told from the perspective of Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy living in Belfast with his mother (Caitríona Balfe) and father (Jamie Dornan) when The Troubles begin. Marked by years of street-level violence between Protestants and Catholics throughout Ireland, it was a time of conflict and unrest that understandably caused many to flee the country for greener pastures. But Buddy’s family, including his grandmother (Judi Dench) and grandfather (Ciarán Hinds), has unresolved debts that preclude their ability to just up and leave the only street that they’ve known. We see the struggles of Buddy’s family and friends through his eyes as he makes the most of his childhood, doing his best in school and trying to keep out of trouble on the streets.

Bookended by present-day shots taken around the titular town, Belfast is primarily presented in handsome black-and-white courtesy of cinematographer and frequent Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos. It’s a bit ironic, then, that Branagh seems to recall these events with rose-colored glasses. The opening scene escalates from neighbors doffing caps and hollering pleasantries to an angry mob storming down the street in the span of one continuous 360 degree shot. It’s like an opening number from a musical desperate to introduce the setting and raise the stakes by the time the last note is sung but in a drama like this, such a scene strains credulity. Worse yet is a crucial moment that occurs during what should be the film’s climax, which suffers from downright poor editing that undercuts the dramatic tension of the sequence.

Thankfully, Belfast finds most of its power simply in the hushed discussions overheard between family members who care deeply for one another. Most of the performers are shot in close-up, especially when Buddy is talking with them, suggesting the full panoramic view that adults take up in a child’s field of vision. Sometimes it’s imposing and sometimes it’s comforting, depending on the context of the conversation. Zambarloukos also shoots from lower angles, suggesting the perspective of a boy always looking up to his elders for guidance. A humorous early sequence, and something of a running joke throughout, involves a sweaty preacher firing off about two metaphorical paths of Heaven and Hell, while Buddy innocently wonders which of his actions correspond with which road.

This is Jude Hill’s first credited role and he does a fine job balancing Buddy’s hopes and hang-ups while fostering a cherubic nature that carries through to the easy nature of the film. Dornan, who was a riot earlier this year in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, brings an easy charm here and continues to find colorful roles following his drab stint as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades series. Balfe is radiant as the maternal figure who not only looks after Buddy and his brother but is something of a guardian angel for all of the children on their street, while Dench and Hinds add notes of wit and wisdom as grandparents. Belfast is a bit too nostalgic and sentimental for its own good but wins the day with likable acting and heartfelt direction.

Score – 3/5

Also coming to theaters on Thanksgiving:
Encanto, a Disney animated musical starring Stephanie Beatriz and John Leguizamo, tells the story of a young Colombian girl who is the only member of her family without magical powers and may be the only one who can save the magic when it comes under threat.
House of Gucci, a crime biopic starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, depicts the events and aftermath of the 1995 murder of Maurizio Gucci, Italian businessman and head of the fashion house Gucci.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, a survival horror starring Kaya Scodelario and Hannah John-Kamen, follows a group of survivors as they make their way through a dying town with great evil brewing below the surface.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Last Night In Soho

Following up his music documentary The Sparks Brothers from earlier this year, director Edgar Wright continues to expand past his comedy roots with Last Night In Soho, a shoddy but stylish thriller that taps into the filmmaker’s affinity for pop cultural touchstones. Titled after the song by English beat band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, the film dives into the Swinging Sixties scene of south London through the lens of our current obsession with non-stop nostalgia and retrograde romanticism. Opening with its lead Thomasin McKenzie aping Audrey Hepburn and dancing around in an ornate dress like something Emma Stone would have worn in Cruella, it’s not until about ten minutes in, when her character is seen with Beats headphones, that we realize it takes place in the present day. As we soon find out, getting lost in the past has its price.

McKenzie plays Ellie Turner, an orphaned fashion designer who moves from the English countryside to the big city after she’s accepted into the London College of Fashion. Things don’t get off to a great start with her haughty roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen), leading Ellie to move off campus to an aged apartment run by the strict landlady Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, in her last performance). On her first night there, she has an evocative dream which sends her back to mid-60s London, where she manifests as an aspiring singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Night after night, she is magically transported back to that time but as the dreams continue, she grows increasingly suspicious of Sandie’s manager Jack (Matt Smith). Back in the present day, the images from her vivid reveries pop up unexpectedly with troubling frequency.

Centered around an old soul longing to return to a seemingly better time, the first (and better) half of Last Night in Soho resembles the wistful Woody Allen fantasy Midnight In Paris, swapping protagonists from a stubborn screenwriter to an aspiring fashionista. The much messier second half plays like Mulholland Drive if it were directed by Roman Polanski, though it doesn’t live up to the potential of that amalgamation. What connects the two halves is a curiosity about history as it’s written vs. history as it was lived, peeling back the glossy glamour of a vaunted era to reveal a less wholesome underbelly. It’s a worthy theme, one that directors like David Lynch have explored previously with outstanding results, but Wright missteps in how he attempts to personify these “ghosts” of the past.

Building off a story he fleshed out with screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Wright asks us to consider the connection that Ellie has with Sandie but the answer is disappointing and more than a bit puzzling. As more and more specters from Ellie’s dreams-turned-nightmares pop up, the screenplay spins its wheels with redundant story beats and obvious red herrings before inevitably pulling the curtain back. It also wastes the talents of newcomer Michael Ajao, an afterthought as a potential love interest for Ellie who seemingly has no life outside of being at her beck and call. In fact, the male characters are so poorly written in this film, it makes me wonder if Wright did so intentionally to help men understand how women may have felt with a lack of meaningful representation on-screen in decades past.

What the film lacks in clear-eyed storytelling, it more than makes up for with overwhelming style and alluring presentation. Shot by frequent Park Chan-wook collaborator Chung Chung-hoon, the sumptuous cinematography pushes past the familiar iconography and brings this lively era to life once again. Wright has always been a music-driven filmmaker and brings his eclectic taste to bear with a terrific collection of well-known oldies and overlooked gems. Tight editing, another hallmark of Wright’s films, contributes to the dreamlike quality of the throwback scenes, especially during a dance sequence that uses Texas Switches to alternate between McKenzie and Taylor-Joy. Wright is an inspired and inventive filmmaker but he’ll need a stronger script than the one for Last Night In Soho to get things right in the future.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Eternals, the newest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring Gemma Chan and Kumail Nanjiani about the titular immortal alien race as they reunite to protect humanity from their evil counterparts.
Streaming on Netflix is The Harder They Fall, a Western starring Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba about a notorious cowboy who reassembles his former gang to seek revenge against the man who murdered his parents.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is Finch, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama starring Tom Hanks and Caleb Landry Jones which follows the last man on Earth as he goes on a journey across the country with his personal android and his dog in company.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Like its subject, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a bit difficult to entirely figure out. It’s a biopic based on a documentary that came out over 20 years ago, which does generate a new wave of sympathy for the late Tammy Faye Bakker but seems more than a little late to the party in doing so. Neither hagiography nor hatchet job, the film also can’t be described as a warts and all account of how she and husband Jim Bakker rose to prominence and fell from grace during the 1970s and 1980s. At times, the movie threatens to spin out of control with montages that condense far too much information but with a 126-minute runtime, it ultimately doesn’t seem to be in too much of a rush either. The one thing that’s clear is that Jessica Chastain puts everything she has into the lead role and gives the project the sense of purpose that it needs.

After a brief prologue set in the mid-90s, we travel back to mid-50s Minnesota, where Tammy Faye was raised to be God-fearing and proper by her stern mother (Cherry Jones). This upbringing later leads her to North Central Bible College in 1960, where she meets the handsome and charismatic Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Smitten with one another, they get hitched and drop out of school to spread the word of the Lord on the road, eventually crossing paths with televangelist Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). Working under him at his Christian Broadcasting Network, the Bakkers form their own channel called PTL and reign supreme in the televangelist market until sexual misconduct and fraud allegations bring their operation to a halt.

Director Michael Showalter made quite an impression with his excellent directorial debut The Big Sick in 2017 but his two films since then don’t quite transcend their respective genres. The direct-to-Netflix The Lovebirds was a solid base hit of a romantic comedy and The Eyes of Tammy Faye fits the same descriptor in biopic form. It hits many of the familiar beats, from early childhood to young love, from the soaring heights of success to the agonizing depths of failure. The overall shape of this narrative is nothing you haven’t seen a thousand times before and it’s a bit of a disappointment that Showalter doesn’t try a bit harder to shake things up. Aside from a few match cuts that generate some of the film’s best punchlines, it’s hard to see his artistry come through in the way the story is told.

Chastain, on the other hand, has an abundance of personality and perspective that come through in yet another terrific performance in her already laudable career. Tammy Faye Bakker was a larger than life figure and while Chastain wisely embraces the traits that the public knew best, she goes deeper to suggest desires and dreams that the cameras never captured. While it takes a bit of time for Jim to reveal his true colors as a cheat and a huckster, Tammy Faye ultimately comes across as a decent person whose enormous need for love and attention led to unprecedented audience sizes. I saw a good bit of Dolly Parton in Chastain’s performance, someone who also feels deeply, sings proudly and knows how to keep the public’s attention through the years.

A through line of the movie is Tammy Faye’s conversations with God throughout her life, growing more urgent and desperate the more dire her circumstances become. Prayer isn’t depicted very often in mainstream film, just as religion is typically relegated to faith-based movies that are released only to specific markets. The crisis of faith depicted in The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t the driving force of the plot but it’s a revealing track of character development that candidly reflects how beliefs can be shaken in trying times. When you strip away the layers of gaudy and gooey storytelling, there’s a more simple and moving story to be told that sadly feels the need to be done up to appeal to audiences.

Score – 3/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Dear Evan Hansen, a musical starring Ben Platt and Amy Adams about a high school senior’s journey of self-discovery and acceptance following the suicide of a fellow classmate.
Streaming on Netflix is The Starling, a dramedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd about a married couple who suffer a hardship and find their way through it with the help of a bird nesting in their backyard.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Birds of Paradise, a drama starring Kristine Froseth and Diana Silvers about two ballet dancers who find their friendship tested when they compete for a contract to join an elite academy in Paris.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The 25th film in the all-encompassing Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brings yet another superhero into the fold and with him, a new subgenre to the franchise. Like Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan from last year, this latest entry incorporates martial arts and the fantastical storytelling of wuxia fiction into a mostly satisfying action feature. It’s the MCU’s most inspired standalone entry since Black Panther but includes the most laborious exposition of any of their films since Doctor Strange (and that’s including the one where dozens of characters had to go on a time-travel heist). Despite the heavy amounts of backstory, the movie is as light on its feet as it can be and breezes by with well-placed humor and winsome performances.

When we meet San Francisco-based twenty-something Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), he’s in a bit of a rut. Valeting cars by day under the alias “Shaun” and hitting up karaoke bars by night with his rambunctious cohort Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi’s millennial malaise dissipates suddenly when a bus confrontation forces him to tap into dormant hand-to-hand skills. The goons sent to fight him turn out to be a part of the dangerous Ten Rings organization, headed up by none other than Shang-Chi’s super-powered father Wenwu (Tony Leung). His plan to recover his wife and Shang-Chi’s mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen) from the cryptic land of Ta Lo seems fortuitous at first, until Shang-Chi learns of the violent measures Wenwu and his Ten Rings intend to take in the process.

My main charge against Marvel’s previous big-screen offering Black Widow was that it felt anonymous, as if you could plug any MCU character into the film as its protagonist and not much would be affected. Certainly, the same criticism cannot be applied to Shang-Chi. The most obvious way that the film distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack is with its dazzling fight choreography, particularly in two, Jackie Chan-influenced action setpieces from the first act. The first, in which “Shaun” turns into Shang-Chi before Katy’s eyes while he takes out several oversized foes, somehow gives the jaw-dropping bus brawl from Nobody a run for its money. The second is an extended sequence atop bamboo scaffolding high above Macau, which merges practical effects and CG to brilliant effect.

Reliance on backstory is often an Achilles’ Heel for those Marvel movies which serve as on-screen introductions to a new superhero and sadly, Shang-Chi‘s convoluted setup is its greatest weakness. The film opens with a gorgeous flashback, featuring a sort of “combat ballet” with echoes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but by the third act, the cutaways to the past become tedious. Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton chooses to scatter his exposition throughout the narrative but does so with little regard for the overall flow of the film. The climactic battle is also overstuffed with magical creatures introduced late in the game, who ultimately take up too much screen time and distract from the (admittedly foolish) plan that the villain aims to carry out.

Despite the awkwardly placed bits of storytelling, the film remains engaging throughout mainly due to the liveliness of the performances. As the titular warrior, newcomer Simu Liu brings an earnest charm to his role that plays nicely against his fierce fighting abilities. Awkwafina has been on the rise over the past few years and she turns in another effortlessly funny sidekick performance while also not being relegated to a love interest for the lead. The menacing work from the great Wong Kar-wai collaborator Tony Leung will elate those still bitter about the Mandarin fake-out from 2013’s Iron Man 3. With some tighter direction, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings could have been one of the better chapters in the MCU canon but even as is, it’s another reliable entertainment from the most prolific assembly line in the business.

Score – 3/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Debuting on Amazon Prime is Cinderella, a romantic comedy starring Camila Cabello and Idina Menzel reworking the classic fairy tale into a modern-day musical.
Streaming on Netflix is Worth, a legal drama starring Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci about a headstrong Washington D.C. attorney who battles against bureaucracy and politics to help victims of 9/11.
Available to rent on demand is The Gateway, a crime thriller starring Frank Grillo and Olivia Munn about a social worker who intervenes when an inmate returns to his family and tries to lure them into a life of crime.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Cruella

When it comes to franchise building and marketing, Warner Bros has been emulating Disney for so long, it was only a matter of time before the House of Mouse reciprocated in kind. After the first trailer for Cruella was released a few months ago, many commented on how similar it looked to the promotions for Joker, from its gleefully unhinged tone to the gothic style of its title cards. Would this be Disney’s version of a darker, grittier origin story for one of its most notorious villains? After an all-too-common covid-related delay, the film now arrives in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access with most of the Joker inspiration being held for the final act, preceded by a mostly enjoyable mélange of The Devil Wears Prada and The Favourite.

We meet Estella de Vil (Emma Stone) shortly before her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) dies tragically in a cliffside accident, leaving her to fend for herself on the crowded streets of London. She makes fast friends with grifting brothers Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), creating disguises for their homespun con jobs. Thanks to some sneaky maneuvering by Jasper, Estella lands an entry-level position at an extravagant fashion house headed up by the chilly Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). After toiling under her rule as a ruthless and cutting (quite literally, in one scene) designer, Estella concocts an alter ego called Cruella, an iconoclastic firebrand aiming to take the fashion world by storm and take Hellman out in the process.

Director Craig Gillespie, who painted a sympathetic portrait of another villainous female figure in the cheeky biopic I, Tonya, crams truckloads of exposition into Cruella‘s opening act. This kind of table-setting has been commonplace for Disney’s live-action spinoffs like Maleficent and its sequel, reorienting how we see previously animated antagonists before they turn to their wicked ways. This passage is the most tedious section of the film, setting up an ambitious and potentially interesting character in the most bland and paint-by-numbers way possible. Perhaps it’s not the movie’s fault that I’m completely underwhelmed by origin stories at this stage in the game but it doesn’t help that Stone narrates in voiceover with tired quips like “there’s many more bad things coming, I promise!”

But a funny thing happens around a third of the way through: the movie actually starts to click. Unsurprisingly, this is around the time Emma Thompson’s character, a dead ringer for Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly character in Prada, comes into focus as Estella’s opposing force. Stone and Thompson are electrifying as they go at each others’ throats, in more subtle ways when Estella is working under the Baroness but more bombastically once Cruella is unleashed. Part of Cruella’s plan is to show up the Baroness at her own events wearing outfits that are increasingly head-turning and headline-inspiring. It’s a devilishly decadent game of oneup(wo)manship guaranteed to score Best Costume Design nominations around awards season.

A third act twist elevates the stakes of the revenge even higher and makes good on the Joker similarities forecast in the teaser trailer, specifically in a mansion-set scene where Nicholas Britell’s music score does some heavy lifting. Up to that point, Gillespie flexes Disney’s music licensing budget by compiling an enjoyable but ultimately exhausting barrage of 1970s tunes from bands like The Clash and Blondie. If his influence from Scorsese wasn’t apparent enough in his previous film, he ends this movie with a one-two punch of a character breaking the fourth wall and a Rolling Stones cut that may or may not tie in with the title character’s last name. At a stout 134 minutes, Cruella isn’t the most brisk walk down the runway but it struts with a confidence that’s intermittently infectious.

Score – 3/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is A Quiet Place Part II, a horror film starring Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy about a family continuing to survive in a world overrun by terrifying creatures that hunt by sound.
Streaming on Hulu is Plan B, a teen comedy starring Gus Birney and Mason Cook about a pair of high school students on the search for a Plan B pill after a regrettable first intimate encounter.
Premering on HBO Max is Oslo, a historical drama starring Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott about the development of the pivotal 1990s Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Though the last 10 years have been quite eventful for movie star and mother of 6 Angelina Jolie, very little of her life has taken place on-screen. She was the title character in a pair of Maleficent films and voiced a character in the Kung Fu Panda franchise but besides those roles, she’s understandably focused instead on her laudable humanitarian work and working on passion projects behind the camera. Her latest thriller, Those Who Wish Me Dead, marks the first time she’s led a big-budget action movie since 2010’s Salt and it’s a reminder of how much her unique energy and screen presence has been sorely missed the past decade. In fact, the film’s main fault is that it gets distracted from her character too often and gets bogged down in lurid but comparatively empty genre obligations.

Jolie plays Hannah, a gutsy smokejumper reeling from the trauma of the three lives lost in a forest fire that she and her team stopped too late. A failed psych evaluation after the incident gets her reassigned to a fire lookout tower deep in the forest, where she spots young runaway Connor (Finn Little) in a clearing one day. His father Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant, attempts to find safekeeping at his policeman brother-in-law Ethan’s (Jon Bernthal) home after discovering evidence against some dangerous men. Two ruthless hitmen (Aidan Gillen & Nicholas Hoult) catch up with Owen and Connor on the road, murdering the father while losing the son to the dense woods. Hannah and Connor must evade the assassins while also dealing with all the dangers that Mother Nature throws their way.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is the third film from writer/director Taylor Sheridan, whose pulpy neo-Westerns Hell or High Water and Wind River found conflicted protagonists fighting against the brutal and uncaring forces of nature. Instead of the arid plains of Texas or the frozen tundras of Wyoming, Sheridan sets his story this time amid the vast wilderness of Montana, where finding cell phone service is as unlikely as finding someone who doesn’t have intermediate survival skills. He and cinematographer Ben Richardson capture the lush landscape with fertile greens and fiery reds that find themselves at odds with each other. While the computer-generated lightning effects are wholly unconvincing, the combination of practical and digital fire in the film’s ablaze climax is first-rate.

The events that get the players to that thrilling third act are compelling enough but more fiddly than a story like this really requires. Hannah is set up as a female firebrand amid an order of fraternal firefighters, willing to throw around salty language to fit into the boys club, but her characterization is largely abandoned to make room for the convoluted crime plot. At one point, Tyler Perry pops up as a mob boss who stares at the middle distance while delivering a tough guy monologue to a henchman, only to disappear for the rest of the movie. Sheridan, whose screenwriting credits also include Sicario and its sequel, has penned a screenplay that too often loses sight of its characters amid the smokescreen of action-filled setups and payoffs.

Thankfully, the sturdy performances see this thriller through. Jolie brings the same kind of unpredictability and vulnerability that made her a star around the turn of the century in films like Gone in 60 Seconds and Girl, Interrupted. Newcomer Medina Senghore makes the most of her limited screen time as Ethan’s six months-pregnant wife, emerging from her compromised position as a credible threat for the pair of trained triggermen. Gillen is especially menacing as a determined killer who doesn’t let getting run over by a car and getting half of his face burned stop him from achieving his mission. Despite suffering from a totally unmemorable title (From The Ashes, for one, would’ve worked better), Those Who Wish Me Dead is another no-nonsense frontier story from a filmmaker who puts the “stern” in neo-Western.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Army of the Dead, a Zack Snyder-directed horror action film starring Dave Bautista and Ella Purnell about a group of mercenaries who plot a heist on a Las Vegas casino during a zombie outbreak.
Available to rent on demand is Four Good Days, a family drama starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis about a mother helping her daughter work through four crucial days of recovery from substance abuse.
Opening in theaters is Dream Horse, a sports movie based on a true story starring Toni Collette and Damian Lewis about a small-town bartender who begins training a racehorse with the help of her friends and family.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup