Tag Archives: 4/5

High Life

Opening at Cinema Center this weekend, the new Claire Denis film High Life stars Robert Pattinson as Monte, an astronaut who lives in an otherwise abandoned spaceship with his newborn daughter. Through flashbacks, we learn that Monte is actually one of several violent criminals serving life sentences on the ship undergoing a dangerous mission to extract energy from a distant black hole. As the story continues, we learn more about a creepy doctor named Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and a heinous experiment that she is secretly performing on the prisoners behind their backs.

In nearly every way, this film is designed to challenge, provoke and even disgust its audience. The aggressively non-linear storytelling that Denis uses to tell this troubling and distressing tale makes it difficult to even form a coherent storyline in one’s head. Piecing the story together during the film is difficult enough but even mentally re-arranging the scenes together after the fact can also prove to be strenuous. Even those who are comfortable with atypical chronology could still be turned off by its perverse and often shocking subject material; I would implore potential viewers to take the MPAA rating very seriously.

Having said all of that, High Life is an exceptionally well-crafted and almost overwhelmingly haunting blend of science-fiction and horror that lingers in the memory far after the end credits roll. Its deliberate pace and ruminative camera recalls the work of Tarkovsky, particularly Solaris, but some of the nightmarish imagery and visceral scares also reminded me of the 90s chiller Event Horizon. Even with those two relatively disparate films as touchstones, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how to characterize this beguiling film but that may well be one of its greatest strengths.

If there’s a central theme to be mined from this enigmatic, puzzle box of a movie, it’s that hope and love can still found amidst the bleakest and desperate of circumstances. Onboard a dingy spaceship with flickering lights and sputtering AC units, the crew on board must fill out a status report to a computer just to continue the 24-hour cycle of functional support systems as they hurtle into the unknown. Even at the brink of oblivion, Denis treats us to quiet scenes of Monte doing his best to lovingly raise his daughter with as much grace and warmth as he can muster.

Driving these fatherly scenes home is Robert Pattinson, probably still best known for his lead role as a hunky vampire in the five incredibly lucrative Twilight films that concluded with Breaking Dawn – Part 2 in 2012. Since then, he has pushed himself with demanding roles in films like The Rover and Good Time which showcase a level of talent that would have been difficult to forecast from those YA adaptations. He may further alienate his fans if he continues to challenge himself with these kinds of roles but if it means we get films like High Life as a result, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Pokémon Detective Pikachu, starring Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith, adapts the popular video game phenomenon to a live-action/animated story about a talking creature who helps a young man search for his missing father.
The Hustle, starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, is a gender-swapped remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels about two scam artists who plan to take revenge on the men who wronged them.
Poms, starring Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver, follows a group of women from a retirement community looking to take one last shot at their dreams by forming a cheerleading squad.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Missing Link

The geniuses at Laika Studios have another winner on their hands with Missing Link, a delightful stop-motion animated feature that’s both fast on its feet and warm in its heart. Other films in Laika’s catalog like excellent Coraline and similarly great Kubo and the Two Strings tend to deal with darker material and heavier themes but their latest effort proves they have a knack for lighter fare too. Despite having a storyline that’s perhaps a bit too familiar, the film has plenty of good-natured laughs and laudable voice performances that make it a family-friendly adventure well worth taking.

Hugh Jackman stars as Sir Lionel Frost, a self-aggrandizing but generally well-meaning explorer who desperately wants to join an elite society of adventurers led by Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry). He receives a letter concerning a Sasquatch sighting in the Pacific Northwest and upon traveling there, he indeed happens upon said creature in the forest and dubs him “Mr. Link” (Zach Galifianakis). We learn that not only does Mr. Link know English but that he is the one who penned the letter to Frost, which he wrote to request help in finding the Yetis, his long lost relatives from the Himalayas.

At a brisk 87 minutes, Missing Link moves breathlessly from one exotic location to the next but it does so with a grandeur and panache that’s worthy of its intrepid main character. It’s the kind of swashbuckling adventure film that diagrams the globetrotting of its main characters by drawing a red line on an old-fashioned map for us to follow along. The action scenes, like a rambunctious bar fight and a stunning boat-bound foot chase that reminded me of the classic hallway sequence in Inception, move with a fluidity that is made more impressive when you remember that each frame of movement was adjusted by hand.

Not only is the film always a visual treat to behold but thanks to a droll script by writer-director Chris Butler, there are plenty of jokes that cleverly juxtapose the haughty and naive natures of its main characters. Turns of phrase and bits of sarcasm from the “refined” English gentleman are lost on the more innocent-minded bigfoot creature, whose literal interpretation of Frost’s words leads to some of the film’s funniest gags. Jackman imbues his character with a brand of pomposity that is somehow endearing but it’s Galifianakis as the earnest and sweet-hearted Mr. Link that gives the most charming performance.

I desperately hope this isn’t the last we see of Laika. Despite all five of their films garnering good to great reviews from critics, their output has not resonated with general audiences and Missing Link’s abysmal $5.8 million debut (finishing ninth in its opening weekend) represents a new financial low point for the studio. In an animated landscape that keeps feeling more homogenized, their visionary work and the painstaking lengths they go through to create it feel more important than ever. Here’s hoping that we have more fresh and fun stop-motion adventures like Missing Link to look forward to for years to come.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Avengers: Endgame, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, finds the surviving members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe working to reverse the damage caused by Thanos in Infinity War.
High Life, starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, tracks an astronaut and his daughter as they struggle to survive in deep space while on a mission to discover an alternate energy source.
Teen Spirit, starring Elle Fanning and Rebecca Hall, follows a shy teenager who enters an international singing competition and dreams of pop stardom as an escape from her shattered family life.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Apollo 11

Though there have been plenty of other movies and TV specials about the first moon mission, we haven’t seen anything quite like the wondrous new documentary Apollo 11. Utilizing previously unseen footage from the 8-day period during which the mission took place in July 1969, director Todd Douglas Miller has crafted a meticulous and often thrilling recreation of mankind’s most daring feat. Unlike last year’s excellent First Man, which tells a more personal story centered around lead astronaut Neil Armstrong, this film is much more straight-forward about the specifics of the spaceflight.

Miller, who is also credited as the sole editor, eschews typical documentary conventions like having the events explained to us by historian talking heads or a narrative voiceover. Instead, he cuts the footage in a way that even people who don’t know the ins and outs of space travel would be able to understand. When the astronauts are discussing upcoming tactical maneuvers with NASA headquarters, we’re shown diagrams that clearly demonstrate what the crew is about to attempt. What’s most impressive about this aspect in particular is that even though these visual depictions mirror what a teacher might draw on a chalkboard, the film never feels like a boring school lecture.

Given that all of the documentary’s footage is taken from 50-year-old film, one may expect that the look of this movie would be quite dated but the images are full of new life with the aid of digital restoration. Thanks to Miller’s direction, the film has a cinematic immediacy to it from the first frame, which begins by highlighting the massive scale of the operation as the camera glides up the 6-million pound rocket ship. There are also gorgeous shots, like one from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet awaiting the trio of astronauts, that feel both incredibly modern and indelibly timeless at the same time.

With the aid of Matt Morton’s majestic musical score, unbroken shots of the crew completing the most challenging portions of the mission are made even more awe-inspiring than they would be otherwise. When the frame is divided into several split-screens that feature various teams working within mission control, the pulsing synth-driven soundtrack gives appropriate urgency to their efforts. The rest of the audio is filled out expertly by sound designer Eric Milano, who poured through thousands of hours of uncatalogued audio recordings to capture the most essential pieces of dialogue from this landmark event.

When we think of the moon landing, typically Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin come to mind first but this documentary is a reminder of the hundreds of talented individuals whose hard work made this dangerous mission a success. One such example is found in an early tracking shot that depicts the seemingly endless rows of computing equipment and scientists dedicated to achieving the impossible. Thanks to the efforts of Miller and everyone behind the production of Apollo 11, their work can now be seen through a new lens of clarity and preserved for future generations looking for inspiration once again.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, is a new horror film from Get Out director Jordan Peele about a family of four whose vacation is upended by a diabolical group of home invaders.
Hotel Mumbai, starring Dev Patel and Armie Hammer, tells the harrowing true story of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks from the perspective of the staff at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Back in theaters for its 20th anniversary is Cruel Intentions, the romantic teen drama starring Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon about a pair of wealthy step-siblings who make a lascivious wager.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

At Eternity’s Gate

Iconic Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh has been the subject of several biopics over the years but none have captured his unique artistry more vividly than the excellent new film At Eternity’s Gate. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly director Julian Schnabel has rendered a portrait of the troubled visionary that is appropriately impressionistic and experimental in ways that Van Gogh himself may well have appreciated. Filled with vibrant landscapes and illuminating dialogue, this is a film that constantly searches for beauty and purity as it investigates the final years of a man who took a similar approach to crafting his own masterworks.

Willem Dafoe lends a committed and impassioned performance as the tormented artist, to whom we’re introduced in 1880s Paris where his impact in the local art community is almost nonexistent. On the suggestion of his pontifical peer Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), Van Gogh relocates to the rural town of Arles in the south of France, thanks to the financial support of his benevolent brother Theo (Rupert Friend). There, Vincent rediscovers the natural landscape and is inspired to create some of his most remarkable paintings but the insurmountable loneliness inevitably takes its toll as his inner demons threaten to get the best of him.

The most bold artistic choices from At Eternity’s Gate come courtesy of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who uses unconventional angles and point-of-view shots to share Van Gogh’s perspective with the audience. This unorthodox style may frustrate those looking for a more standard biopic but for me, the use of subjective camera to get inside the headspace of Van Gogh was both engrossing and enlightening. For example, a trip to an art museum, during which Van Gogh confesses in voiceover his reverence for his contemporaries as he gazes upon their works, is shot exclusively from low angles to illustrate how daunted he feels by his peers.

Schnabel, who is credited as a co-writer for the screenplay, also uses thoughtful dialogue to uncover aspects of Van Gogh’s psyche that seem applicable to artists working in any medium. Vincent conveys his compulsion to create to one of his subjects when he remarks “the faster I paint, the better I feel” and while not everyone who makes art does so with as much fervor as Van Gogh, the impulse nonetheless feels universal. In a conversation with a priest played by Mads Mikkelsen, he laments that he feels like a man out of time by suggesting “maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t here yet.”

Portraying such a towering figure in the art history is an unenviable task and despite the age difference between Dafoe and the real-life subject, he crafts a performance that is effortlessly engaging from start to finish. Even though the actor’s portrayals of rage on-screen would seem compatible for an artist prone to fits of madness, Dafoe does an excellent job of sublimating outward anger into a more nuanced form of melancholy that unquestionably inspires empathy from the audience. At Eternity’s Gate is sensitive and exquisite depiction of a troubled master that is made both by artists and for artists.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
A Madea Family Funeral, starring Tyler Perry and Cassi Davis, is the 11th and reportedly final entry in the popular Madea film series about a Georgia funeral that erupts into chaos as family secrets come to light.
Greta, starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz, tells the story of a young woman who becomes intertwined with an eccentric French piano teacher after a chance encounter.
Opening for a limited IMAX engagement is Apollo 11, the documentary that scored rave reviews at Sundance last month which documents the 1969 space mission that landed man on the moon.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Palace

Screening this weekend only at Cinema Center, the new drama Palace is the remarkable feature debut from Taylor University graduate Andrew Paul Davis about the strength of communal bonds among turbulent times. Shot entirely in Indiana (Grant County, specifically) with a $10,000 budget, the film has a clean and professional look that maintains a grounded aesthetic while also finding the unexpected beauty in its surroundings. With a tapestry of richly realized characters, Davis creates an authentic and vivid portrait of Hoosier life that is rarely seen clearly in either independent or mainstream cinema.

The narrative circulates around numerous locals with whom we spend varying amounts of time but the story predominantly centers around three central figures. We first meet Chris (Todd Bruno), an aimless auto mechanic trying to overcome the hang-ups of everyday life by creating a political movement within his community. Then we spend time with Chuck (Joe Martyn Ricke), a lonely retiree who drowns the sorrow of insurmountable medical bills with nightly beer pitchers at his local bar. We’re also introduced to Alexa (Emily Sweet), a music education major at a local college who has trouble finding an audience for her up-and-coming hip-hop trio.

What I appreciated most about Palace is the way that Davis uses his ensemble cast to place characters in settings where we may only see them once but the possibility of seeing them again is always in play. For instance, we first meet a character who is rude to Chris at his job but when that same character is the only person to attend Chris’ political meeting, their relationship is completely recontextualized. Much like the work of Terrence Malick, Davis lets the trajectory of the story ebb and flow with the feelings and mood of the characters, which can take things into territory that is darker at times and more light-hearted in others.

The screenplay, also written by Davis, investigates the ways that all of these characters with differing backgrounds and circumstances are trying, often desperately, to form connections with one another. Whether it’s Chris posting videos online trying to convey his political affiliations or Chuck sitting down with a table of strangers in a bar to start conversation, there is an inescapable loneliness that permeates most of the film. Amid this heartbreak, however, there are notes of humor that balance the tone, as can be found in the back-and-forth banter between Chris and his co-worker as they shoot a game of HORSE during sunset.

The use of music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, is varied in terms of the genres that it invokes but this mixture allows for different insights into whichever character is in focus at the moment. Though their musical performance styles couldn’t be more different, both Chuck and Alexa have found comfort in expressing themselves through their music and their passion gives the film an extra layer of soulfulness. With plenty of heart and compassion at its core, Palace is a bittersweet love letter to rural Indiana from a promising young filmmaker who will no doubt have a prolific career ahead of him.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Alita: Battle Angel, starring Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz, is the latest special effects spectacle from Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez about a scientist who brings a human cyborg hybrid to life.
Isn’t It Romantic, starring Rebel Wilson and Liam Hemsworth, follows a young woman who is hit in the head and wakes up in a world that mimics the tropes of a PG-13 rated romantic comedy.
Happy Death Day 2U, starring Jessica Rothe and Israel Broussard, revisits the Groundhog Day-esque slasher in which a young girl keeps reliving the same day repeatedly after being killed by a masked assailant.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins brings magic to the screen once again with If Beale Street Could Talk, a spellbinding and sensuous portrait of young love flourishing amid tragic circumstances. With disarming close-ups and a warm, autumnal color palette, Jenkins creates a world that’s both inviting and illuminating while fully acknowledging and exploring the darker corners that reside within it. Every sensation experienced by the characters — from longing to sorrow to jubilation — is poetically rendered by Jenkins to tell an entrancing story that feels deeply human and lastingly resonant.

Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Beale Street is primarily a love story centered around 19-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) and her older boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James), who started as childhood friends but became closer as time progressed. We soon discover that the young and un-wed Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child, much to the delight of her mother Sharon (Regina King) and father Joseph (Colman Domingo) but to the chagrin of Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis). As the narrative continues, we learn that Fonny has been wrongfully incarcerated and we track Tish’s journey to prove his innocence before their child is brought into the world.

Jenkins utilizes his world cinema influences to weave a tale of injustice and intimacy with a loose chronological perspective; he tends to linger around what he finds alluring within a certain time and place. Striking sequences, like one in which Tish outlines the way different customers approach sampling a new perfume scent, give an evocative sense of context and setting without strictly adhering to the main storyline. There are certain characters, such as the ones played by Brian Tyree Henry and Dave Franco, whose time on-screen is short but their emotional impact lingers throughout the film.

Faithfully adapting both prose and tone from Baldwin’s book, Jenkins fills his script with moments in which characters quietly assert their dignity during the peak of their own personal struggles. During an early scene in which a trepidatious Tish is breaking the pregnancy news to her family, her sister Ernestine comes to her support by saying “unbow your head, sister” and every opportunity for empowerment is beautifully realized. The inverse of this are the lines that remind us of the heartbreaking strife at the core of the story, as Tish narrates “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

Collaborating again with Jenkins for the film’s music is Oscar-nominated composer Nicholas Britell, whose achingly beautiful score is so potent that just hearing the first thirty seconds of it had me on the verge of tears. Also returning with Jenkins from Moonlight is Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Laxton, who often uses close-ups of actors looking directly in the lens to engage with the audience and draw us further into the story. The sum of these artistic contributions makes If Beale Street Could Talk an utterly engrossing mood piece that sways to its own rhythm and invites us to join along with it.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Glass, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis, is the latest from M. Night Shyamalan that brings together characters from Unbreakable and Split to tell a new kind of superhero story.
Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman and Sebastian Stan, follow an LAPD detective who revisits an undercover case from years ago to solve a gang-related murder in the present.
Also playing at Cinema Center is Roma, the acclaimed film by Alfonso Cuarón that has already won multiple awards this month (including 2 Golden Globes) and will likely be up for several Oscar nominations next month.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Searching

So much of our modern lives are dictated by how we interact with screens, whether it’s a smart phone or tablet or computer, it only seemed to be a matter of time before the movies would address the staggering cultural change. First it was the 2014 horror film Unfriended, which told its cyberbullying revenge tale entirely from the perspective of computer screens during a group Skype call. Now comes the new techno-thriller Searching, which employs the same general setup of capturing everything from the point-of-view of these ever-present screens but does so in service of a much more human story with real stakes at its core.

The film stars John Cho as David Kim, a single father doing his best to raise his 16-year old daughter Margot (Michelle La) while still struggling to cope with the recent loss of his wife to cancer. After waking up to multiple missed calls from Margot, David becomes worried when he’s unable to reach her back in the morning and does some preliminary research to try to track her down. When parts of Margot’s story don’t add up and she isn’t heard from in over 36 hours, the missing persons case begins and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) begins working with David to track Margot’s digital footprint for information that will lead to her safe return.

It may not initially seem enticing to watch a mystery like this unfold from the vantage point of the protagonist’s electronic devices but first-time director Aneesh Chaganty knows just how to pace the action on-screen. He manages to wring an uncanny amount of tension from tasks that we’re used to completing every day like web searching and checking e-mail by embedding clues behind each click. Thanks to the skillful editing of Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, there’s a propulsive energy and seemingly unstoppable momentum behind every scene that delivers the story’s twists and turns at a break-neck speed while (hopefully) not losing the audience in the process.

Another important key to this film’s success is just how much technical accuracy and precision goes into every tab and window that’s on display and tech-savvy movie goers will have fun picking out every detail that appears on screen. It also helps that David’s sleuthing tends to be remarkably clever, as he finds quick but credible solutions to obstacles like not knowing the password to an account while also not being able to log in to the e-mail address linked to the same account. The less technologically-inclined among us may not be able to catch every single bread crumb on the trail but it doesn’t take a computer whiz to follow the touching family story that serves as the film’s emotional backbone.

Always at the center of the film’s action is John Cho, an actor who’s probably best known for playing Sulu in the new Star Trek films and was excellent in last year’s Columbus, but has the chance to really shine in a performance that’s often unaccompanied. The anxiety and desperation that his character feels is often on full display from his computer’s camera but Cho also conveys a progression of stress that’s completely believable for any parent who would have to endure a situation like this. Searching is a terrific thrill-ride that utilizes its screen-based gimmick to maximum effect while also telling a poignant story about raising children in the age of the internet.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Nun, starring Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, is the latest in the Conjuring series of horror films that investigates the origins of the ominous Valak character introduced in The Conjuring 2.
Peppermint, starring Jennifer Garner, is a vigilante action thriller from the director of Taken that centers around a woman’s search for justice following the murder of her husband and daughter.
Also opening at Cinema Center is Madeline’s Madeline, which scored rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and stars Helena Howard as a theater student on the verge of an artistic breakthrough.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup