Tag Archives: 4/5

The Way Back

“Little things add up; let’s do all the little things right.” So advises Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high school basketball star who’s been tasked with coaching his alma mater’s failing basketball squad. It’s sound advice for a sports team and incidentally, valid advice for anyone battling through the depths of depression and grief. It just so happens that Jack, who is more deeply depressed than he even knows, isn’t doing either the little or big things right. Separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) for a year, Jack has isolated almost everyone from his life and drowns his loneliness with a constant supply of alcohol. When the opportunity to lead the aforementioned team presents itself, he rehearses his rejection speech intended for the head of the school while downing a 12-pack of his go-to lager before ultimately accepting the job.

As a redemption drama that could ostensibly be described as a “sports movie”, The Way Back is uncommonly insightful when it comes not only to addiction but how much strength it takes to overcome it, even temporarily. Jack thinks he’s hiding his alcoholism better than he really is, though he doesn’t have many people in his life to hide it from anyway. His sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) chides him for being late for Thanksgiving dinner and even confronts him more directly later on, relaying gossip about him visiting the local watering hole Harold’s Place every night. “I’m fine. I appreciate it but it’s– I’m fine,” Jack grunts. As it’s said, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one, even if Jack is still in denial when he accepts the coaching position that could set him on the right path.

I thought I knew what to expect going into The Way Back and you probably will too. As the director of other rousing sports films like Miracle and Warrior, Gavin O’Connor knows this and uses our knowledge of the genre to throw us off of the expected trajectory but not in a way that feels manipulative. Right up to the last frame, this film resonates with the stark authenticity that can only come from firsthand experience with the subject matter. Yes, there are training montages and yes, the team learns to overcome their interpersonal struggles in order to achieve success together as a team. The entire basketball angle, however, is always filtered through Jack’s perspective and O’Connor never loses sight of how much further he has to go to overcome his demons. Yes, coaching has given a reason for Jack to get out of bed in the morning but will that be enough for lasting change?

It feels strange to talk for this long about The Way Back and not discuss Affleck’s gut-wrenching and staggering lead performance, the finest of his 20+ year career. Rewatching 2000’s Boiler Room recently, I had in mind the cool and confident speeches he gave in that film and compared them to the impassioned words he shares with his team during timeouts here. This time, his voice cracks and he desperately shouts every word like it could be his last. Like his younger brother Casey’s Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea, Ben Affleck’s role is one marked by tremendous levels of personal pain which he both internalizes and externalizes brilliantly. It’s hard not to recall Nicolas Cage’s work in Leaving Las Vegas, where his character is either inebriated or hung over in every single scene. Affleck is even more nuanced in his portrayal of an aimless man searching for a way forward, despite the film’s slightly contradictory title.

Even if one goes into The Way Back simply looking for an inspiring sports movie, O’Connor and crew swish on the fundamentals that make for exciting basketball footage. The clear and concise editing from David Rosenbloom paired with the grounded cinematography by Eduard Grau will even have sports novices on the edges of their seats. Rob Simonsen’s music score begins with doleful stabs from dampened piano strings, gradually crescendoing to rousing heights with exultant percussion. Steeped in the messy realities of hard living, The Way Back is the kind of intimate and personal filmmaking that is sorely lacking from the major studio system.

Score – 4/5

Emma

Hot on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s awe-inspiring take on Little Women, we now have another iteration of a female-penned classic novel. Jane Austen’s Emma may be best known as the jumping off point for the mid-90s rom-com Clueless but in her directorial debut, Autumn de Wilde gives us a more traditional version of the tart tale. This is a sumptuous vision, filled with the lavish costume design and set decoration that we’d come to expect from a period piece like this, but also comes with flourishes that distinguish it from the genre. The film’s humor ranges from biting to whimsical and often within the same scene, which perfectly suits the flitting nature of the title character.

This time around, the haughty and posh matchmaker Emma Woodhouse is played by Glass star Anya Taylor-Joy. She cares for her father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) within their massive estate, though he largely stays removed from her affairs. To pass the time, she latches onto subjects around her and becomes interspersed with their romantic prospects, most notably the naive young orphan Harriet (Mia Goth). She has eyes for the plainspoken farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) but Emma maintains that she can do much better for herself and attempts to set her up instead with the obsequious Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Through all of this, Emma pursues a friendship with the fetching Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who sees past her conniving ways and into her true essence.

Emma has always been a bit of a tricky character, as she has to straddle that line of arrogance and amiability, and Taylor-Joy captures this dichotomy even better than Paltrow did in the 1996 film adaptation. From the way she blithely pushes open a carriage window with a flippant tap of her index finger to the way she violently fans herself upon being bested by a friend’s pianoforte performance, she has all the mannerisms that capture the self-assured yet insecure nature of her character. As Knightly, Flynn is a grounded and cunning foil to the more flighty Emma and the two performers have a winning chemistry from their initial scene together. After a heartbreaking scene in which Emma makes an impudent remark towards Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), Knightley properly reproaches Emma and we’re reminded that this heroine is far from fault herself.

Set across a full year in the charming village of Highbury, with each season getting its own title card, we feel the passage of time ebb and flow as alliances are forged and broken. This movement is aided greatly by the enchanting and vivacious musical score by Isabel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, which is so spirited that you’d be forgiven for thinking the characters could break out in song at any moment. Adding to the opulent table setting is the diverse and vibrant costume design by Alexandra Byrne, which outfits the women with exquisite dresses that practically tell their own story and the men with pompous collars so high and stiff that it’s a wonder they can muster any breath at all.

As costume dramas go, Emma isn’t quite as subversive and biting as The Favourite or Love and Friendship but it’s certainly no stuffy affair either. There are plenty of laughs to be had at the periphery, especially from Bill Nighy’s Woodhouse character, who doesn’t speak often but effortlessly lands some of the film’s funniest quips. Whether he’s sniping at Mr. Elton’s pronunciation of “innocence” or hiding behind a fort of fire screens in his ornate parlor, his pouty patriarch is a welcome presence at every turn. Emma is yet another example of timeless literature finding its match with a promising young talent on the rise.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Hunt, starring Betty Gilpin and Emma Roberts, is a politically-charged thriller about a group of strangers who discover that they are being hunted for sport by wealthy members of a secret organization.
Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel and Eiza González, follows a slain marine as he is brought back to life with nanotechnology and turned into an impervious super soldier.
Opening at Cinema Center is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, about a a female painter commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman in 18th century France.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler disappears into another dominant dramatic role in Uncut Gems, a frenetic and fraught character study of a hopelessly degenerate gambler with his back perpetually against the wall. Benny and Josh Safdie, who also helmed 2017’s similarly frenzied Good Time, have perfected a brand of controlled chaos that’s designed to maintain an almost unbearable level of tension throughout. Playing out like a two-hour panic attack, the film captures a seedy subsection of New York where nothing ever seems to slow down and everyone is constantly grinding for the next big score. It’s unquestionably a stressful world to inhabit, so much so that audiences will likely have to catch their breath after they leave the theater.

We first meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) mid-colonoscopy, a rare moment when he’s not in motion. To say that Howard has problems would be a massive understatement. He owes money to bookies all over the city, whose enforcers seem to lurk behind every corner. We see Howard make bets with money that he shouldn’t have in the first place and pawn merchandise from his jewelry store to cover his losses. His only saving grace comes in the form of an uncut Ethiopian opal that he smuggles into the country, which he intends to put to auction but makes the mistake of showing it to NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) first. This throws Howard’s plan completely out of orbit and sets off a chain of events that make his situation even more desperate than it already was.

Uncut Gems finds a totem that encapsulates its protagonist perfectly in an early scene when Howard shows off a blinged-out Furby necklace to Garnett and his entourage. With its creepy smile and manic shifty eyeballs, it perfectly symbolizes who Howard is and what gambling addiction has done to his life. And it’s not as if he’s unaware either; “I’m so stressed out,” he laments to his mistress as she offers a consolation cuddle. That he can’t see a way to rise above his problems is obviously tragic but the more we get to know Howard, the more we come to understand that he is likely the source of almost all of his misfortune. After all, he’s morally reprehensible, brazenly tactless and about as egomaniacal as one could be.

Despite this, we somehow still root for Howard in his escalating endeavors and almost all of that credit goes to Sandler in a role that may have been fully intolerable had another actor been involved instead. We’ve gotten tastes of his dramatic chops in Punch-Drunk Love and more recently in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) but here, he raises his game even higher than he has in the past. As we all know, Sandler has done loads of terrible comedies in the past and he will almost certainly commit to more in the future. My feeling is that if that’s what he needs to do for us to get a performance as revelatory as the one in this film, then it might all just be worth it.

The Safdies have proven yet again that no one makes films that are quite as propulsive and unnerving as their own. They push our expectations for just how stressful a situation can become and how much worse things can get for our protagonist. While there are brief moments of respite and release, anxiety permeates nearly every fiber of the film. Uncut Gems is like a domino set if the dominos were replaced with sticks of dynamite, where every interaction and obstacle is calibrated for maximum impact.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, starring Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, brings the nine-part “Skywalker saga” to a close as Rey and Kylo Ren battle for the fate of the universe.
Cats, starring James Corden and Taylor Swift, is a big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical from Tom Hooper, the director of 2012’s Les Misérables.
Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, centers around the true story of three female Fox News reporters and their allegations against its founder Roger Ailes.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Knives Out

Writer/director Rian Johnson follows up his divisive Star Wars entry The Last Jedi with Knives Out, a venomous and vivacious modern update on the classic whodunnit genre. Indebted equally to the work of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, this throwback murder-mystery is packed with just the right amount of twists and turns to keep audiences guessing while still keeping things relatively plausible. Not only does the film wield the most qualified cast of any movie this year but it provides each actor and actress a role suited perfectly to their capabilities and strengths as a performer. Add in bits of scathing humor and (mostly) incisive social commentary and you have one of the year’s most purely enjoyable spectacles.

The day after his 85th birthday party, the lifeless body of prolific mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found in his labyrinthine mansion. While it initially appears to be a suicide, renown detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects there’s more to the story and calls back the guests from the previous evening for interrogation. That includes an eccentric ensemble of family members: Harlan’s sardonic eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), his meek youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) and free-spirited daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), among others. Also called for questioning is Harlan’s faithful caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas), whose perspective outside of the family may hold the key to solving the case.

The Thrombey clan, which also includes Harlan’s haughty grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) and his shifty son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson), is filled with the fiendish motives and shaky alibis that we’ve come to expect from this type of story. Kicking off with a superbly edited sequence that introduces us to each of the players, Johnson uses subjective narration and conflicting claims to keep us on our toes as we try to keep track of the constantly moving pieces. His script, which crackles with sharp-tongued dialogue that suits each character perfectly, also includes enough red herrings to throw even the most astute viewers for a loop.

The performances from the excellent ensemble cast are consistently stellar, mainly because each performer seems to be have so much darn fun with their respective roles. Coming across as Hercule Poirot by way of Colonel Sanders, Craig’s peculiar PI postulates with a ridiculous Southern drawl that recalls his madcap character in 2017’s Logan Lucky. Now in the post-Captain America phase of his career, Evans is freed up to channel a devious energy that gives the film most of its biggest laughs. Even in a more straight-laced heroine role, Ana de Armas gives her protagonist the grace and soulfulness to make her sympathetic from the start.

If there’s disappointment in Knives Out, it’s that we don’t get to spend quite enough time with each of the sharply-drawn characters, especially in the third act as the web of lies and deceit becomes untangled. The stacked cast tends to shine brightest as they’re shuffled between questioning at the outset but their presence becomes more sparse as the clues start to narrow on just a few suspects. Still, each of the actors get their licks in as they vie for screen time; even Frank Oz shows up as Harlan’s beleaguered lawyer who heads up a spirited reading of the mogul’s will. Knives Out is yet another successful attempt of genre experimentation from one of our most earnestly passionate filmmakers.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Queen & Slim, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, is a modern-day Bonnie & Clyde story about a couple who go on the run after a minor traffic violation leads to the shooting of a police officer.
Playing at Cinema Center this weekend only is the cult classic Dial Code Santa Claus, a French thriller that came out a year before Home Alone but shares a similar plot about a child staving off a burglar on Christmas Eve.
Coming to Netflix is the long-awaited Martin Scorsese epic The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, about an aging mob hitman who recalls his possible involvement with the murder of Jimmy Hoffa.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Tom Hanks dons the famous hand-knit sweaters of Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, a tender-hearted and touching tribute to the television icon and the countless people that he inspired. Rather than go the traditional biopic route of covering the subject’s entire life and career, director Marielle Heller details the profound impact that Fred Rogers had on one person’s life to symbolize his larger cultural influence. As a companion to last year’s stellar documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, this narrative feature further explores the philosophy and worldview of a man who did everything he could to heal the world and make humanity just a little bit kinder.

The film’s true story centers around Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a hard-hearted Esquire journalist who seems to have met his match when he’s tasked with profiling the altruistic TV star Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). Lloyd’s wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) is at first shocked by the news, then leaves him with one request as he jets off to Rogers’ hometown of Pittsburgh: “please don’t ruin my childhood.” From the moment he sets foot on the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood set, Vogel seems committed to staying emotionally unattached while interviewing his subject but as he spends more time with the soft-spoken Rogers, his cynical exterior slowly begins to erode.

When it was announced early last year that Tom Hanks would be portraying the legendary television star, the news almost seemed too good to be true. The pitch-perfect casting pays off early and often; as soon as Hanks steps onto the TV set singing the spritely theme song, there is no doubt that he is Fred Rogers. Hanks continually threads the needle between impression and caricature, channeling Rogers’ calm and soothing cadence without overplaying things. Rhys is also terrific as the peevish counterpoint to the benevolent Rogers, unveiling years of pain and personal turmoil within each conversation.

If Hanks as Rogers is the film’s headline, then the comparatively underrated aspect of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is the imaginative and unconventional direction by Heller. Amid the film’s emotionally poignant tale, she adds playful touches like implementing miniature sets in the style of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to draw us closer to the fantastical world created by the film’s main character. Heller also works with editor Anne McCabe to recreate the patient and thoughtful pacing of Rogers’ landmark show. A quiet scene late in the film, a meditative and magical moment that I won’t dare spoil here, is one of the most captivating of the year.

With such a divine and seemingly infallible central figure at its core, there is a concern going into the film that it may try to uncover negative aspects of Rogers’ life. Those fears are allayed quickly as Heller certainly doesn’t seem interested in throwing mud on his legacy and instead, she humanizes him while bolstering his gracious persona at the same time. Above all, the movie seems utterly sincere in its depiction of both a hurting soul and the opposing force determined to heal it. Full of warmth and wisdom, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood showcases the simple power of human connection amid increasingly turbulent times.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Frozen II, starring Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, continues the journey of Elsa and Anna as they set out across an enchanted land to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom.
21 Bridges, starring Chadwick Boseman and Sienna Miller, is a police drama about an NYPD detective who puts all of New York City on lockdown in order for him and the authorities to defeat a pair of cop killers.
Playing this weekend at Cinema Center is a documentary double feature of Pollinators, which follows migratory beekeepers and their truckloads of honey bees and Fantastic Fungi, which explores the burgeoning market of fungi-based products.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ad Astra

Brad Pitt gives a career-best performance as an unflappable astronaut pushing the boundaries of outer space in Ad Astra, a ruminative and rich examination of a seemingly impenetrable man. Those expecting a science-fiction adventure like Apollo 13 or Armageddon may want to recalibrate their expectations; this film’s philosophical and psychological streak puts it more in the company of films like Solaris and last year’s First Man. It asks us to consider the mindset of a person who willingly risks their life to push forward into dark void of space and also to consider how that unimaginable journey would inevitably change them.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, who, in a similar fashion to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, tells the audience in opening voiceover narration “I always wanted to be an astronaut.” He admits the biggest reason for this is his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), also a highly revered astronaut before he disappeared on his final mission called The Lima Project. After a harrowing early scene that showcases Roy’s expertise and resiliency, he’s brought in for a new mission to investigate cosmic pulses near Neptune that are causing worldwide electronics malfunctions on Earth in a catastrophe nicknamed “The Surge.”

As McBride travels from the Moon to Mars and ultimately to Neptune, we’re reminded each step of the way just how harsh and unforgiving the environment around him is. Once we leave the comparatively bright setting of Earth, McBride’s surroundings seem to only get more bleak and dangerous from there on out. At one point, he has to wade through pitch-black waters in order to catch a shuttle with only a precarious rope as his guide. In case he needed a reminder that space is not designed around comfort, the stewardess on his trip to the Moon nonchalantly relays that the cost for an in-flight blanket would be $125.

Director James Gray, who also examined the psyche of a fearless pioneer with his last film The Lost City Of Z, fashions his brand of stoic storytelling onto a fittingly stoic protagonist. As a profoundly withdrawn man whose cool exterior slows chips away, Pitt is excellent at conveying the subtle emotional changes within his character. With the film’s themes concerning fatherhood and parental neglect along with Pitt’s pensive voiceover throughout, I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, where Pitt played the father figure instead of the son as he does here. While I would argue Gray doesn’t quite have the writing chops to mirror the hushed narration of Malick’s best work, the technique works more often than it doesn’t.

With cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who also shot Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar, Gray paints a portrait of outer space marked by its stark isolation with touches of beauty along the way. His film is an anxious one, where stress and worry permeate through both the most battle-tested veterans and the most air-tight capsules alike. It can be a dispiriting and depressing ride at times, though not as much as High Life from earlier this year, but Gray leaves the door open for hope and reconciliation to carry his audience to the end. Ad Astra reminds us that regardless of the traveler, the journey is often more important than the destination.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Abominable, starring Chloe Bennet and Sarah Paulson, is an animated adventure tale about a magical Yeti who looks like reconnect with its family on the top of Mount Everest.
Judy, starring Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock, is an Oscar-aspiring biopic centered around the life and career of American icon Judy Garland, focusing specifically on a run of sell-out concerts she put on in 1969 London.
Opening at Cinema Center is Ay Mariposa, a documentary set along the US-Mexico border wall that follows a protester, a migrant worker and a symbolic butterfly as they adjust to the changing political climate.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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

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