Tag Archives: 3/5


A spiritual sequel, of sorts, to 2018’s Searching, the new thriller Missing stars Storm Reid as June Allen, a bright but troubled teen who has butted heads with her mom Grace (Nia Long) since her dad passed years prior. Naturally, she doesn’t take to Grace’s new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung) either, although the pair of them going on a trip to Columbia frees her up to throw parties all week before picking them up from LAX upon their return. But when June goes to the airport, her mom and boyfriend are nowhere to be found after their returning flight arrives. After several unsuccessful phone and Facetime calls, she heads home and begins an investigation of her own after filing a missing persons report gets stalled by international red tape.

Like Searching, Missing is a part of the burgeoning screenlife genre, a category of films in which all the events take place on some sort of screen, including those belonging to a computer, smartphone or tablet. June has her MacBook’s camera on during the majority of her digital sleuthing, so we’re able to see her reactions in real time as new clues and bits of information are revealed. Where its predecessor’s protagonist was a somewhat tech-literate dad looking for his daughter, Missing‘s main character is a Gen-Z whiz kid who has just barely been around longer than the invention of the iPhone. That means the pace of her virtual snooping is much more brisk, with apps and windows opening and closing fast enough to make one’s head spin. But like any good mystery, the thrill is in trying to keep up with the hero’s thought process as they piece everything together.

Though Missing‘s story comes from Searching‘s writer-director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian, it’s that film’s editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick who are the credited co-writers and co-directors this time out. That would help explain the swiftness of the narrative but also the dynamic progressions that the duo use when tying certain effects elements together. A montage of June’s week home alone incorporates some clever visual transitions, like the transport bar on a Spotify stream morphing into a guidance arrow on a set of Google Maps directions, that help bring home how ubiquitous these apps are to our daily functioning. Those of us who aren’t as reliant on screens may get lost in the shuffle here but to their credit, Johnson and Merrick do their best to try to keep the technophobes in the audience apprised of the story’s developments.

While Missing has all the fun twists and turns that one would expect from a Searching successor, the actual mystery isn’t quite as tight and the family drama isn’t quite as compelling this time around. Since this is an international affair, the scope of search is much bigger from the outset and means that certain contrivances have to be conceived to whittle down the possibilities for our main character. For instance, there’s a loophole involving the security footage at the Colombian hotel where June’s mom was staying that makes absolutely no sense and only exists so that June has to find another way around. When the (sometimes far-fetched) answers begin to fall into place during the third act, it’s probably best not to scrutinize plot points from the previous two acts.

But putting aside the detective elements of the plot, the familial aspects of Missing just aren’t as potent as they were in Searching. While it’s easy to be engaged in a daughter looking for her lost mother, this movie doesn’t pack the same punch of pathos that you get with a story of a father looking for his missing daughter. Reid is a talented young actress but John Cho as the first film’s beleaguered protagonist was extraordinary in what was pretty much a one person show. Reid has more scene partners by comparison, like a trusty friend played by Megan Suri and a Columbian freelancer played by Joaquim de Almeida, but even with their help, there just isn’t as potent an emotional throughline this time. Missing is missing some of the novelty and innovation that made Searching such a resounding success but it’s still a worthwhile entry in a film genre that will likely only get more popular as technology continues to weave its way into our lives.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Fear, a horror film starring Joseph Sikora and Andrew Bachelor about a weekend vacation that turns sinister when a contagious airborne threat forces a group of friends to each confront their worst fears.
Also playing only in theaters is Infinity Pool, a sci-fi horror movie starring Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth following a couple who are enjoying an all-inclusive beach vacation until a fatal accident exposes a perverse subculture lurking within the resort.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Shotgun Wedding, a romantic action comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel depicting a couple’s extravagant destination wedding as it unexpectedly becomes hijacked by criminals.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Dolls are creepy. Between the lifeless porcelain-eyed gaze and the unnatural permanent smile, it’s no surprise that filmmakers have gotten plenty of mileage from including them in horror movies for decades. The new campy chiller M3GAN combines humankind’s understandable fear of these human-resembling creations with a staple of the sci-fi genre: the distrust of rapidly evolving artificial intelligence. There are family drama elements that don’t pay off quite as well but do underline the cautionary theme of parents allowing technology to raise their kids in their absence. Throw in some satirical jabs at the corporate tech landscape and the ravenous toy market and you have a better-than-average start to the new movie year.

M3GAN follows a recently-orphaned young girl named Cady (Violet McGraw) as she is sent up to Seattle to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), who develops toys for fictitious tech brand Funki. Gemma values her independence and devotes all of her time to her job, so it’s enough to say that her opening stretch as Cady’s legal guardian doesn’t get off to the finest start. Desperate to bridge the gap, Gemma builds AI-based doll Model 3 Generative Android (or M3GAN, for short) for Cady as the perfect robotic friend and confidant. M3GAN becomes such an effective caretaker that Gemma pitches it to her boss as the next generation of smart toys but in the process, her cyborg creation develops defense mechanisms that turn from troubling to deadly.

The marketing behind M3GAN has hinged on the uncanny feeling that the titular robot, who is played with CG enhancements by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, is intended to provoke. She doesn’t look like a real girl but her motion is so eerily close to a real person that her mere presence is immediately unsettling. As M3GAN grows smarter and her intentions grow more sinister, she blurs the line further as something that’s able to so thoroughly communicate as if it were human but is able to fight well above its size. As M3GAN reminds us during a lullaby to Cady, she’s a metal-based being and her physical strength is thanks to the alloy frame that Gemma gave her during development. While the physical powers make sense, M3GAN eventually develops technological capabilities — turning off all the alarms in a building instantaneously, for instance — that don’t seem credible within her programmed limitations.

The script from Akela Cooper, who penned the even more over-the-top horror movie Malignant a couple years ago, too often takes shortcuts like this to make the plot run more smoothly. From the outset, it doesn’t really make sense that Gemma’s sister would grant Gemma temporary custody over Cady in the event of her death and it makes less sense that Gemma would follow through with it. It’s credible that Gemma would develop M3GAN to help with Cady, since it’s part of a design she had already been working on, but it’s unrealistic that her co-workers would have time to help her with it when they’re all under a deadline for a completely different project. There’s a boss character played by Ronny Chieng who is woefully underserved by cliché writing that should have been much sharper, given the film’s cheeky touches in other areas.

Director Gerard Johnstone delights in the moments where he can push some of the ridiculous features of these “cutting edge” toys even further into the absurd. M3GAN opens with a cheery ad for PurrPetual Petz, a Funki-branded toy seemingly inspired by Tamagotchi and Furby that actually produces its own waste pellets, for some reason. During a tech demo, M3GAN consoles Cady with a song so saccharine that the musical score actually joins in with her. This is the kind of humor that should have been applied to the corporate subplots but instead, we get a boss grousing about kombucha due to pre-launch nerves and a tangent about his assistant stealing M3GAN prototype files that goes nowhere. M3GAN could benefit from some sharper writing to make it a more satisfying package but as is, it’s a solid addition to the killer doll horror subgenre with some striking social commentary as well.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks and Mariana Treviño, is a dramedy remake of a 2015 Swedish film about a depressed widow who finds meaning in life anew when a young family moves in across the street from him.
House Party, starring Tosin Cole and Jacob Latimore, is a comedy reboot of the 1990 hit about a high school student who decides to host a house party with his best friend while his parents are away.
Plane, starring Gerard Butler and Mike Colter, is an action thriller about a pilot who finds himself caught in a war zone after he’s forced to land his commercial aircraft during a terrible storm.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

When news of Chadwick Boseman’s passing shook the world in August of 2020, Black Panther director and co-writer Ryan Coogler was already deep into development on the sequel for his massive superhero hit. Somehow, Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole were not only able to completely rewrite their screenplay around the absence of their franchise’s lead protagonist but were able to turn it in the following spring for filming. Between Chadwick and covid, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was beset with so many creative and logistical challenges that it’s something of a miracle that a finished product actually emerged from the murky waters of uncertainty. It’s neither the cultural phenomenon nor the MCU high point that its predecessor was but it’s a noble effort to pick up the pieces after an unexpected tragedy.

Our story opens with tech wizard Shuri (Letitia Wright) frantically trying to synthesize cures for her ailing brother T’Challa (Boseman, in archival footage) before hearing that he succumbed to his illness. After mourning the loss of their king, Wakanda sends Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) to the United Nations on their behalf to discuss how the trade of vibranium, their most valued resource, can continue. Among parties interested in said resource is Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the powerful leader of an underwater kingdom who threatens Ramonda and Shuri with war if they don’t find the scientist responsible for creating a vibranium-detecting machine. Shuri and fearless General Okoye (Danai Gurira) tap CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) for help in seeking out the one Namor demands in order to stave off conflict with his humanoid soldiers.

Movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t known for their brevity as is and at 161 minutes, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is second only to the 3-hour Avengers: Endgame in terms of runtime length within the now 30-film series. At points, it undoubtedly feels its length but for a movie that’s so overstuffed, it cultivates a handful moments that are nonetheless stunning and stand toe-to-toe with the best material in the first Black Panther. Every scene dealing with the passing of Boseman, from the modified Marvel Studios card that honors his legacy to the divine end credits featuring Rihanna’s stirring single “Lift Me Up”, is handled with intelligence and utmost respect to the late actor’s memory. MCU fans have been trained to stay through and after the credits for what is typically a pair of extra scenes; audiences should note that there is only one such scene this time around but it’s absolutely unmissable.

Thematically, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever struggles to pack the formidable punch of its predecessor, which seamlessly incorporated the quandary of isolationism vs. globalism within its narrative. Black Panther was also a landmark film for Afrofuturism but now that we’ve already seen Wakanda in multiple MCU entries, this world doesn’t feel quite as magical as when we first laid eyes upon it. While the undersea nation of Talokan hasn’t been seen on screen up to this point, the conception and aesthetic of it simply isn’t on par with how immaculately Wakanda was conceived for the first film. It also doesn’t help that trailers for next month’s highly anticipated Avatar: The Way of Water, a film that also features submerged CG blue people, have been running in front of this movie and upstaging it with visual effects that are quite literally second-to-none.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the final film in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which also includes 8 TV series and 2 one-off holiday specials. Even for a moderate Marvel movie fan as myself, it’s getting to be quite a bit and I’m beginning to question how much creative satisfaction can be gleaned from a media franchise that has inevitably repeated its own concepts. It could also be that the current “Multiverse Saga” era of storytelling feels more disjointed than the previous “Infinity Saga”, which set up the Infinity Stones as interstellar MacGuffins for our heroes to snatch from big baddie Thanos. After this film, I don’t see how it or movies like Black Widow or Eternals will fit into this overarching storyline but I suppose we’ll all have to keep watching to find out. Regardless of how Black Panther: Wakanda Forever works into the master plan, it’s another reliably exciting and occasionally moving heroes and villains tale.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is The Menu, a horror comedy starring Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy following a young couple as they travel to a remote island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the celebrity chef has prepared a lavish menu with some shocking surprises.
Also coming to theaters is She Said, a based-on-a-true-story drama starring Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan depicting the pair of New York Times reporters who broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct allegations.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Spirited, a musical comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell retelling Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol about a miserly misanthrope who is taken on a magical journey of self-reflection the night before Christmas.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Orphan: First Kill

On a list of films unlikely to generate a prequel for release in 2022, the 2009 horror film Orphan would have to rank somewhere close to the top. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has since worked his way up the Hollywood ladder, culminating with a directing gig for the upcoming superhero flick Black Adam, while star Isabelle Fuhrman is now twice the age she was when playing nine-year-old Esther in the first film. Those who haven’t seen Orphan and would like to do so unspoiled may not want to read past this sentence, since it’s difficult to discuss Orphan: First Kill without revealing its predecessor’s shocking twist. Knowing that “Esther” is actually a murderous woman in her early 30s with proportional dwarfism presents yet another stumbling block for a potential follow-up: what’s left to tell now that we already know the big reveal? Despite these challenges, First Kill nevertheless registers as a mild success.

We open in an Estonian psychiatric institute, where we see the brutally devious Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) stage an unlikely escape, as was revealed towards the end of the first film. While scouring the internet for missing persons reports, Leena discovers she resembles Esther Albright, a young girl from Connecticut who hasn’t been seen in the past four years. Upon hearing the news, Esther’s mother Tricia (Julia Stiles) flies to an embassy in Moscow to reunite with who she thinks is her missing daughter. Leena further infiltrates the Albrights, traveling back to the States to con Esther’s father Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) in the’s family expansive New England estate. But how long will Leena be able to pass for Esther and what will the Albrights do if they uncover the deception?

At the outset, Orphan: First Kill has the difficult task of giving the now 25-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman the appearance of a pre-teen, ironic given that Leena is 33 years old in Orphan but convinces a family that she’s 9. Digital de-aging has gotten very popular on big-budget fare over the past several years but with more limited resources, director William Brent Bell and his crew instead implement more low-tech solutions like body doubles and forced perspective shots to maintain the illusion. Cinematographer Karim Hussain also does some heavy lifting on his part, casting the frame with a warm glow that aggressively softens facial features, even if it becomes detrimental to tasteful camerawork. Some of the scenes are so overlit or overexposed or both, it can be downright garish aesthetically but Hussain eases up some as the film progresses.

But the most important aspect of reviving “Esther” for Orphan: First Kill is the performance by Fuhrman, who returns to the role following a 13 year hiatus. Not only is she able to once again tap into the signature creepiness that made the first film as memorable as it was but she brings out Leena’s loneliness and longing to a degree that we somehow begin to sympathize with her evil character. Vera Farmiga was terrific in Orphan and in the role of a fellow traumatized mother adjusting to the presence of a new daughter, Julia Stiles delivers similarly excellent work. As good as Fuhrman and Stiles are, no one else in the cast is able to make nearly as much of an impact. Filling out the well-to-do Albright family, Rossif Sutherland and Matthew Finlan just don’t add much depth to their already shallow characters.

Both of the Orphan films exist in a subgenre of horror that I would describe as “elevated trash”. The premises are, frankly, a bit silly and hard to take seriously and yet, there is an art and craft to pulling them effectively. The performers and those behind the scenes all seem to be on the same page that they’re making some high camp and serious shlock. Even along those lines, this entry really strains some credulity down the stretch on behalf of its characters and that’s even given its already outlandish narrative. But I respect the pure panache that went into willing this most unlikely prequel into being, which is currently available to watch in theaters, rent digitally or stream on Paramount+. However one chooses to re-enter the Orphan universe, First Kill should surprise and delight those who go in with low expectations.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Three Thousand Years of Longing, a fantasy film starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, follows a scholar in Istanbul who encounters a Djinn that offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom.
Breaking, a thriller starring John Boyega and Michael K. Williams, tells the true story of a former Marine Corps veteran in financial trouble who robs a bank by way of a bomb threat.
The Invitation, a supernatural horror movie starring Nathalie Emmanuel and Thomas Doherty, finds a young woman discovering dark secrets about her family during the lavish wedding of her long-lost cousin.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Thor: Love and Thunder

When it comes to the conception of Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the jump in quality from where he started to where he is now could be described as super-heroic. His inaugural entry was a misguided attempt at Shakespearean tragedy that still ranks as my least favorite in the franchise, while the follow-up The Dark World was received so poorly that Kevin Feige and his team were forced to go back to the drawing board. Thor‘s second sequel Ragnarok brought on comedy director Taika Waititi to essentially reboot the superhero’s standalone movies, resulting in a god of thunder who was now much less stoic and much more jovial. Now we have Thor: Love and Thunder, another adventure that is mercifully in the same spirit of Ragnarok as opposed to the dreadfully self-serious first two films.

We’re re-introduced to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he travels across space with the Guardians of the Galaxy seeking to help those in need, who Thor finds in fellow Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander) on a ravaged planet. She tells Thor the one responsible for the carnage is Gorr (Christian Bale), a vengeful alien possessing a powerful god-killing weapon who seeks to put an end to all higher beings. Back on Earth, Thor’s old flame Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is battling cancer but after traveling to New Asgard, she’s drawn to the remnants of Thor’s shattered hammer, which she is apparently now worthy to wield. With the now super-powered Foster, along with heroes Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (Taika Waititi), Thor must rescue a group of kidnapped New Asgardians while sidestepping Gorr’s pernicious traps along the way.

If Ragnarok swung the pendulum of the Thor movies firmly towards comedy from the stark drama of the first two, Love and Thunder finds Waititi trying and ultimately failing to find more of a balance in the middle. In past films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Jojo Rabbit, he’s proven his ability to mix laughs and pathos together but the tonal shifts here are much more wild and mismanaged by comparison. A tragic prelude introducing Gorr’s character opens with a shot that wouldn’t be out of place in a Terrence Malick project but five minutes later, an obese Thor is doing battle ropes with a trucker hat on. The pace of this film is similarly untamed; huge swaths of narrative process and character development seem to have been left on the cutting room floor in what seems to be an effort to get this latest entry under the two-hour mark.

Hats off, then, to Love and Thunder‘s cast, for not only being the glue that holds the story together in its haste but for also filling in the gaps that Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson should have already firmed up. It’s been 5 years since Ragnarok‘s release and almost 10 years since Portman starred in an MCU film but her charisma and chemistry with Hemsworth immediately makes up for lost time. Foster was a passive character with very little agency in her prior appearances but Portman has more room here to expand the role, even before she picks up the reforged Mjolnir to become Mighty Thor. On the villain side of things, Bale delivers a sturdy performance as a worthy antagonist who’s deliciously evil one moment and indubitably pitiable the next.

When it comes to laughs, Love and Thunder is eager to please, which might explain why this is filled with some of the broadest humor in the entire franchise. What will make or break this newest adventure for audiences is whether the jokes land or not. If you don’t think gags based on those screaming goat videos from years ago are funny, you’ll likely roll your eyes at a pair of new characters who join the gang this time around. Others may sigh at the inclusion of several very obvious Guns N’ Roses needle drops and savor more unexpected cuts from the likes of ABBA and Mary J. Blige. When in doubt, call on Hemsworth to tap into Thor’s bawdy enthusiasm and you’ll have chuckles more often than not. Thor: Love and Thunder is not an especially well-crafted superhero movie but it gets the job done while keeping Thor on a more promising path than when he started.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Where the Crawdads Sing, a mystery drama starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Taylor John Smith, is an adaptation of the best-selling novel about a woman who becomes a suspect in the murder of a man with whom she was once involved in the marshes of the deep South
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, an animated martial arts comedy starring Michael Cera and Samuel L. Jackson, follows a down-on-his-luck dog who is trained to be a samurai by a cat mentor, all while a villainous cat wants to destroy their village.
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, a historical dramedy starring Lesley Manville and Isabelle Huppert, tells the story of a widowed cleaning lady living in 1950s London who becomes obsessed with a couture Dior dress and embarks on an adventure to Paris to track it down.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


After two long years of having their premieres relegated to direct-to-Disney+ release, Pixar is finally back in theaters. While their latest effort Lightyear doesn’t match the quality of the outstanding trio of films (Soul, Luca, Turning Red) that were launched on the streaming service, it’s a fun and familiar spin-off that will reacquaint theatergoers with the studio’s magic. Fans of Toy Story may be confused as to why Tim Allen, who voiced the toy Buzz Lightyear, hasn’t returned for this entry. The reason is that this new movie is meant to act as the movie that actually inspired the Buzz toy within this universe, a sort of “origin story” for the new action figure Andy got all those years ago. Admittedly, it’s a confusing and strained framing device but once Lightyear takes off, it doesn’t matter much anyway.

Chris Evans voices this version of Buzz Lightyear, a headstrong Star Command Space Ranger whose job it is to explore new planets across the galaxy. After one such expedition goes haywire, Buzz attempts to escape with his crew of 1200 in tow but accidentally damages their ship in the process. Many years pass as Buzz completes trial runs with hyperspace fuel to get his stranded crew off the planet but by the time he’s successful, they’ve developed a livable colony and most don’t want to leave. Buzz recruits a small group of outsiders, including Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules), to help him get the necessary materials to get the ship travel-ready again but Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) and his invading robot army have other plans in mind.

Though Lightyear borrows liberally from sci-fi touchstones like Star Trek and Interstellar, the rhythm of its narrative follows the familiar structure of many animated adventure films where obstacles crop up and our protagonists have to think up a way around them. Buzz wants to be a lone ranger, so to speak, but along the way, he’ll learn the value of companionship and teamwork. Visually, the movie doesn’t always break new ground either; Buzz’s attempts to break into hyperspace will no doubt remind audiences of the Darkstar scene from the recently-released Top Gun: Maverick. But there are some choices with chronology and story that do break the mold, like a montage of the time that flies away from Buzz during his hyperspace runs that echoes the “Married Life” sequence from Up.

There’s also a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ethic to certain creative choices too, like the inclusion of a robot “therapy cat” named Sox to help Buzz during his quest. The animated genre is saturated with animal friends that help human heroes in their journey and while Sox isn’t entirely unique in its conception, the character completely works in this setting and practically scampers away with the whole movie. Voiced by Peter Sohn, who played Emile in Ratatouille and various smaller characters in other Pixar films, Sox has a humble and helpful timbre that seemed to channel Tom Hanks’ most genial and gentle work. Plenty of laughs are derived from the juxtaposition of Sox’s ability to make advanced calculations and hack into computer systems with his proclivities towards feline behavior like wanting belly scratches and chasing laser beams.

Sequels and spin-offs are my least favorite sub-genre of Pixar movies and while Lightyear certainly isn’t as banal as the Cars follow-ups or Monsters University, it’s not up to the level of the three Toy Story sequels either. The screenplay by Jason Headley and director Angus MacLane relies too heavily on action-adventure tropes while having to rope in Toy Story lore and Pixar pathos along the way. Not every Pixar movie has to reach for the profundity of their most meaningful work but their more escapist efforts should at least strive for a sort of cinematic equivalent. Perhaps it didn’t help that the theater in which I saw this film had pretty wimpy sound; the dialogue was audible but the surround sound didn’t kick in for impact during the action scenes. Despite the pedestrian story, I will likely give Lightyear another chance on my home theater system in the future.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Black Phone, a supernatural horror movie starring Ethan Hawke and Mason Thames about a boy who is abducted by a serial killer and locked in a soundproof basement where he starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims.
Also exclusively in theaters is Elvis, a music biopic starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks which chronicles the life and career of legendary singer and actor Elvis Presley.
Streaming on Netflix is The Man From Toronto, an action comedy starring Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson where a case of mistaken identity intertwines a New Yorker and an assassin while the pair are staying at an Airbnb.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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