Tag Archives: 3/5

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

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