Tag Archives: 4/5

The Fabelmans

On a 1999 episode of his revered series Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton once asked Steven Spielberg about a connection that he saw between Spielberg’s parents and a moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Recalling that Spielberg’s mother was a musician and his father was an engineer, Lipton remarks that the aliens’ attempt to communicate with humans through a computer generating musical tones could be a metaphor for how Spielberg tried to reach his parents through their divorce. Spielberg is surprised not only that Lipton put this together but that he himself hadn’t either until that very moment. All great filmmakers put pieces of themselves within their stories but with his 34th movie The Fabelmans, Spielberg finally tells his most personal story yet: his own.

The film revolves around young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a stand-in for Spielberg, who we first meet as he heads into a movie theater with his mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and his dad Burt (Paul Dano) to see 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is frightened but entranced by a train crash setpiece towards the film’s conclusion, which he attempts to recreate with a model train set and 8mm camera at home. So begins Sammy’s fascination with filmmaking, which continues into his teenage years as he makes silent pictures with his fellow Boy Scouts and archives his high school class’ beach-set Senior Ditch Day. But while shooting footage of his family on a camping trip, Sammy uncovers evidence of an affair that has seemingly eluded others in real life but can’t escape his watchful camera.

The Fabelmans doesn’t quite have enough conflict to justify its stout 151-minute runtime but it has a handful of knockout scenes where Spielberg and his co-writer Tony Kushner make the most of their decades-long collaboration. One such moment occurs early on, with young Sammy projecting his first movie onto his hands as a way of seeing it but also as a visual metaphor for his desire to control his initial fear of the sequence. Another juxtaposes a shared line of dialogue between Sammy and his father during two different conversations, spliced together with a playful cut which underlines that the subject of the latter conversation is a film editing machine. Elsewhere, Judd Hirsch and David Lynch pop up in small but unforgettable roles that pepper the film with gruff wisdom that Sammy is able to apply to his life and work.

Spielberg also uses The Fabelmans as a way to explore the alienation he felt as part of a Jewish family who moved around routinely and sometimes ended up in places where they weren’t well-received due to their faith. This presents itself in more subtle ways when Sammy is younger, as when he notices that their house is one of the few darkened ones among a sea of Christmas-lit homes in their neighborhood. But more blatant antisemitism reveals itself during his high school years and while it’s difficult to watch Sammy be the target of bigoted bullying, the ways that he thwarts his cruel classmates’ efforts are unexpected and empowering. There is some respite with a love interest played by Chloe East, who is a devout Christian but finds something ineffably inviting about Sammy.

In terms of performances, Michelle Williams certainly has the most room to play as idiosyncratic matriarch Mitzi, whose antics suggest mental health issues that are touched upon but not thoroughly explored. However, Williams is a tremendously talented actress and even if this role calls for her to act a bit more broadly than she typically does, it’s a bit of a joy to watch her cut loose some. On the other end of the spectrum, Paul Dano is much more restrained here than he was as his raving Riddler character from The Batman earlier this year, though he’s more unmemorable as a result. This is obviously a breakout role for the young Gabriel LaBelle and he makes the most of the opportunity without pushing things too hard. He channels a young Spielberg effortlessly, further cementing The Fabelmans as a master moviemaker’s most personalized statement yet.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Violent Night, a holiday action comedy starring David Harbour and John Leguizamo depicting Santa Claus’ attempt to thwart a group of mercenaries as they attack the estate of a wealthy family on Christmas Eve.
Also coming only to theaters is I Heard The Bells, a Christmas movie starring Stephen Atherholt and Rachel Day Hughes which tells the inspiring story behind the writing of the titular beloved Christmas carol and its author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Streaming on Netflix is Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a romantic drama starring Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell adapting D. H. Lawrence’s firebrand novel about an unhappily married aristocrat who begins a torrid affair with the gamekeeper on her husband’s country estate.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Emily The Criminal

Playing at Cinema Center this weekend, Emily the Criminal is both a stunning debut for writer/director John Patton Ford and another outstanding showing for Aubrey Plaza in a more serious role. She’s still likely best known as the sardonic April Ludgate from the comedy series Parks and Recreation but with impressive dramatic turns in Ingrid Goes West and Black Bear, Plaza continues to make a name for herself as an acting force with which to be reckoned. As April, her deadpan delivery of droll downers served as a counterpoint to the altruistic nature of indefatigable series lead Leslie Knope. Here in the title role, her straightforward language is much more cutting and chilling within the context of a crime thriller.

Our introduction to Emily sets up her desperate situation, as she winces her way through a job interview where the employer ambushes her with a background check revealing DUI and assault charges from her past. She’s $70,000 in art school debt, which she’s hardly making a dent in with a food service job, so she takes a tip from her co-worker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) to join a service where one can make $200 an hour. She meets Youcef (Theo Rossi), one of the heads of the operation that uses fake credit cards given to “dummy shoppers” to make fraudulent in-store purchases. After Emily successfully rips a flatscreen TV, Youcef offers her a bigger job with a more lucrative payout but with a higher risk involved as well, forcing Emily to consider how far down the criminal rabbit hole she’s willing to go.

A subplot involving Emily’s friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) trying to secure her an interview at the ad agency where she works underscores one of Emily the Criminal‘s most potent themes about the decline of upward mobility. When Emily meets with Liz’s boss Alice (Gina Gershon) for a sit-down, she’s ambushed once again by finding out that the potential graphic design position is, in fact, an unpaid internship. Emily understandably replies that she can’t afford to work for free, causing Alice to refer to her as “spoiled” (stopping just short at “entitled”, a descriptor many a millennial abhor) for turning her nose up at the opportunity. The film doesn’t excuse a criminal lifestyle but it helps us understand why struggling individuals would turn to such measures in order to survive when more moral means don’t pay the bills.

This subtext enriches what is already a stellar crime tale and character study set up by Ford’s incisive script and instinctual direction. His insight into the mechanics of LA’s underbelly recalls the work of Michael Mann and Dan Gilroy, where situations can escalate beyond our protagonists’ expectations in no time flat. A cross-coast import from New Jersey, Emily is street smart and certainly knows how to hold her own but she still has tough lessons to learn along the way as she navigates this treacherous world. We’re proud of Emily for learning how to defend herself and not let others take advantage of her, even if the sometimes savage methods that she employs are lifted directly from dangerous people for whom we have little sympathy.

Ultimately, Emily the Criminal is not only a story of self-discovery but also how finding one’s true purpose can happen later in life than one may expect. In a scene when Emily waits for Youcef in his cramped office with flickering lights, he makes a self-deprecating comment about his surroundings and Emily non-rhetorically says “it’s only temporary, right?” The film’s title is deceptively straight-forward but a conversation between Emily and Youcef’s mother brings forth a meaning that fully reveals itself by the time the end credits roll. Yet another read on “Emily the criminal” is how interviewers and society choose to too easily write her off and compartmentalize her identity. Laced with potent social commentary that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, Emily the Criminal is an enthralling crime drama with a live wire performance by Plaza.

Score – 4/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Woman King, a historical epic starring Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu centering around an all-female group of warriors during the 19th century in the West African kingdom of Dahomey.
Also coming to theaters is Pearl, a slasher prequel starring Mia Goth and David Corenswet that rewinds back to the first World War to fill in the origin story of the titular villain who was introduced in 2022’s X.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Goodnight Mommy, a horror remake starring Naomi Watts and Cameron Crovetti about twin brothers who arrive at their mother’s house and begin to suspect that something isn’t right.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Official Competition

After the would-be comedy The Bubble burst on Netflix this past spring, we now have another comedy released this year that skewers the film industry but goes about it in a much smarter and more sophisticated way. Where Judd Apatow’s film went after low-hanging fruit like big-budget sequels and green-screen fiascos, the targets of Official Competition are prestige dramas and the artistic egos that drive them in front of and behind the camera. It turns out that there’s still plenty of fodder outside the Hollywood soft targets and the writing/directing duo of Gastón Duprat & Mariano Cohn finds ways to poke at the pretensions of artists while still respecting what they bring to the craft. Most importantly, it’s a film with jokes that consistently land, some of which are the laugh-out-loud variety and others which aim for sly snickers instead.

The film opens on the 80th birthday of millionaire Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), who pensively looks out of his skyscraper window and relates to his assistants that he longs to add to his legacy. He already has charity foundations set up and building bridges is boring, so he decides he wants to produce a feature film that bears all the marks of greatness. In this spirit of perceived excellence, he meets with Palme d’Or-winning director Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) with intentions of adapting a best-selling novel he hasn’t read about two feuding brothers. After being hired, Cuevas gets to work on the script and helps cast revered stage thespian Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) and certified movie star Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) in the two lead roles. The trio then comes together for rehearsals, revealing disparities in their personalities and artistic processes.

Since the movie is primarily centered around this threesome as they work on the project together, the interplay between the three actors is a large source of the humor and each performance radiates wildly with wit. Sporting a coiffure of red curls that seem to shoot in every direction, Cruz conjures the eccentricities of various arthouse directors while begrudgingly accepting the role of surrogate mother to her two competing actors. Martínez channels the likes of Olivier and Kingsley in his portrayal of a classically-trained stiff who takes the lead in a feature film because teaching theater classes doesn’t inspire him like it used to. Banderas has lots of options for inspiration (including, perhaps, from his own real-life career) in crafting a slick heartthrob character trying his hand at “serious films” for the first time.

Beyond evoking the classic comedy conceit of clashing opposites, Official Competition scores tons of laughs from the arbitrary nature of artistic collaboration and, specifically, the frustrations of filmmaking. During their very first script reading, Cuevas requests that Torres repeat the simple line “good evening” about a dozen times, pontificating about how much meaning can be conveyed in just those two words while Rivero looks on nervously. Prop designers and casting agents come to Cuevas when decisions need to be made, prompting her to test out far too many single-scene handbags or left-swipe the faces of background actors on a tablet for seemingly arbitrary reasons. As many real-life actors have done recently, Rivero takes to TikTok for gaudy social awareness spots that make Cuevas laugh with pity. There are dozens of other gags that I could outline but they’re best left for audiences to enjoy together.

For a film that lampoons the behind-the-scenes minutiae that can go into these projects, Official Competition‘s production design and set decoration is somewhat surprisingly first-rate. I’m not sure that directors and actors often rehearse in spaces as lavish and pristine as the ones seen in this movie but cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer certainly has a ball capturing their reserved beauty. The background for title card and opening credits is later revealed to be the green marble plaque for one of Rivero’s numerous acting awards, connecting the authentic beauty still linked to these artificial popularity contests. With the proliferation of entertainment news and constant access to celebrities, it’s easy to get cynical about the state of moviemaking and Official Competition certainly has some fun at its expense. But by its end, we’re reminded how the very best movies still make the process worthwhile.

Score – 4/5

More new movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Bodies, Bodies Bodies, a comedy slasher starring Amandla Stenberg and Maria Bakalova, follows a group of rich twenty-somethings whose party at a remote family mansion turns deadly when they begin a Mafia-style party game.
Fall, a psychological thriller starring Grace Fulton and Virginia Gardner, finds two best friends struggling to survive while trapped at the top of a 2,000-foot radio tower.
Summering, a coming-of-age drama starring Lia Barnett and Madalen Mills, tells the story of four girls who embark on a mysterious adventure during their last days of summer and childhood.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On

Based on a series of charming mockumentary YouTube shorts from the 2010s, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a super-sized film adaptation about a tiny creature with appropriately diminutive origins. Developed by comedian Jenny Slate and director Dean Fleischer Camp while attending a wedding in 2010, the anthropomorphic seashell that gives the series its name made some serious waves on the internet, leading to a series of tie-in storybooks that quickly became bestsellers. The challenge when adapting any short film (or series of shorts, in this case) into a full-blown feature is expanding on the source material without stretching things too thin. Despite having an ending that feels a little too pat, the movie finds wonderful ways to elaborate on the endearing mollusk at its center with incisive dialogue and imaginative stop-motion animation.

Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) is a one-inch talking shell living with his sweet grandmother Nanna Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) in the house of documentary filmmaker Dean (Dean Fleischer Camp), who discovers the pair of them one day. He starts filming interviews with Marcel and finds out that his shell community was inadvertently taken when the previous homeowners hastily packed up their sock drawer during their move out. After Dean posts videos of Marcel online that receive millions of views, they use the opportunity to crowdsource help from the new fanbase to help find Marcel’s parents and extended family. With a pair of tiny shoes and the gumption of a creature many times his size, Marcel ventures out into the world to reunite with the seashell collective from whom he was separated two years prior.

The test that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On sets up for itself immediately is whether or not it will be crushed by the potential weight of overly-cutesy affectations but it doesn’t take long for the film to prove that it’s more than adorable. Slate’s voice work is a key component to making this film soar, carrying over the tender timbre crafted from the original short films but adding in wit and wisdom that sensibly fills out the character. Marcel playfully spars with Dean as he questions the process behind Marcel’s daily activities and his recollection of a Wayne Gretzky quote that he misattributes to “Whale Jetski”. Rossellini is a perfect addition to this lovable protagonist, her nurturing tone and delightful disposition pushing Marcel along in his overwhelming but worthy mission.

Like Ratatouille or the Toy Story series, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On marvels in the ways that miniature characters adapt in a human-sized world and reappropriate human-sized objects. Traveling around the house is quite a task when you’re only one inch tall, so Marcel procures a tennis ball he dubs “The Rover” and rolls around at speeds much faster than his undersized Converse shoes would be able to go. He’s even found a way to climb up walls, thanks to an ample supply of honey that Marcel is able to stick his feet in and amply adhere to a given wall as he walks up it. In remembrance of his displaced family members, he even makes a shrine out of small flowers and blades of grass, fashioning a shofar out of a cavatappi noodle to honor them with a rendition of “Taps”.

I also recognized some Spongebob Squarepants influence in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, though Marcel has a bit more of a rambunctious edge than the titular square of the Nickelodeon series. But unfailing optimism in the face of life’s challenges is a key component to what makes both characters so indelible. “Guess why I smile a lot?” Marcel asks Dean, following it up with “’cause it’s worth it!” before he can opine. Marcel’s interactions with the off-camera Dean bring home why he wanted to start filming this small creature in the first place, aside from the fact that it’s a talking object that is typically inanimate. Whether they’re trading parts singing the scout song “Linger” or getting ambient background tone for Dean’s documentary, it’s clear that Marcel makes Dean’s life better just by being around. There’s no reason to think he can’t do the same for us.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Bullet Train, an action comedy starring Brad Pitt and Joey King about an unlucky assassin tasked with recovering a briefcase aboard a high-speed train filled with rival killers traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto.
Streaming on Hulu is Prey, a sci-fi action film in the Predator franchise starring Amber Midthunder and Dakota Beavers about members of the Comanche Nation fending off an advanced alien hunter during the early 18th century.
Premiering on Peacock is They/Them, a slasher movie starring Kevin Bacon and Carrie Preston about a group of LGBTQ teens who must fend for themselves against a mysterious killer while attending a gay conversion camp.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Top Gun: Maverick

Just because Hollywood’s propensity for producing legacy sequels seems to currently be flying at an all-time high doesn’t mean the subgenre is limited to this century. Take 1986’s The Color Of Money. Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to 1961’s The Hustler saw veteran Paul Newman handing the reins to hotshot Tom Cruise across the billiards table. 36 years after Top Gun, another Cruise vehicle released 1986, it’s now the hotshot’s turn to pass the torch to another generation once more. While Top Gun: Maverick follows maneuvers popularized by lucrative “legacyquels” like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed, it carves out its own airspace with jaw-dropping stunt work and a world-wise story that enriches the characters set up by its predecessor.

Cruise returns as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, to whom we’re reintroduced as he suits up to push a hypersonic jet further than anyone ever has before. It turns out the test run wasn’t exactly “authorized” by Maverick’s commanding officer and as a result, he’s transferred to the Naval TOPGUN program once again, now as an instructor instead of a student. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to train a dozen new recruits with precision flying skills that will allow them to covertly take out a developing uranium plant before it becomes operational. Among the new class is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s deceased flying partner “Goose” and Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), a cocksure flyboy whose prickly demeanor is as cold as ice.

Five minutes into Top Gun: Maverick, I was worried we were in danger. The Harold Faltermeyer music score, the intertitle setting up the backstory of the Fighter Weapons School and the shot choices in the opening credits are identical to those from the original Top Gun. But Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski assure us soon after that this is merely a taking off point for a follow-up that actually has its own story to tell and its own unique moments to etch into action movie history. The Darkstar scene, which finds Maverick going Mach 10 in a Lockheed Martin SR-72, is a thrilling sequence that reintroduces the character brilliantly while visually recalling the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” segment from Cruise favorite 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But Top Gun: Maverick has dramatic moments that may pin you to the back of your seat just as much as the full-throttle setpieces. Ed Harris appears early as the superior responsible for chewing Maverick out after he carries out impressive but insubordinate acts, citing drones as writing on the wall for old-timers like them. “The end is inevitable,” he laments to Maverick, who retorts “maybe so, but not today.” The screenplay, co-written by Cruise’s Mission Impossible wingman Christopher McQuarrie, finds opportunities to flesh out these characters and their motivations amid the technical aircraft jargon and mission detailing. Cruise is also better equipped at volleying his cheeky one-liners and stern exchanges this time around too. Re-watching Top Gun recently, it needs to be noted how far he’s come as an actor since his earlier roles; he always had the star power but now he has the dramatic chops to back it up.

With due respect to the original, the aerial photography and commitment to realism is also on an entirely different level in this sequel. Not only are the actors actually flying those planes but they’re actually helping to run the cameras while in the cockpits too, giving close-up access that takes the intensity into the next stratosphere. Obviously special effects are helping with the illusion that these pilots are truly completing these runs in the air but the execution and editing makes the movie magic pop like never before. If the predecessor does retain a clear advantage, it’s in the soundtrack; the new Lady Gaga song featured throughout the film simply can’t reach the heights of classics like “Danger Zone” or “Take My Breath Away”. Other than that, Top Gun: Maverick is a high-flying success and a crash course on how to do a legacy sequel right.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Watcher, a thriller starring Maika Monroe and Karl Glusman which follows a young couple as they move from America to Bucharest and are seemingly stalked by a sinister neighbor near their new apartment.
Streaming on Hulu is Fire Island, a romantic comedy starring Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang centering around two best friends as they embark on a week-long vacation to the titular hot spot off the southern shore of Long Island.
Premiering on Disney+ is Hollywood Stargirl, a follow-up to 2020’s Stargirl starring Grace VanderWaal and Elijah Richardson about a teenage girl and her mother, the latter of whom is hired as the costume designer on a movie, as they relocate to Los Angeles and meet new friends.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Men

She’s startled by the sound of acoustic guitar strings on the soundtrack. Bathed in orange-tinted light through the curtains of her flat, the bloody-nosed Harper (Jessie Buckley) moves towards the windows as her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) fatally falls in slow motion outside. While the circumstances of his death aren’t entirely clear, what is clear is that Harper needs time away to recover from the loss, so she rents a seemingly lovely house in the English countryside for two weeks. Upon her arrival, she exchanges exceedingly British pleasantries with the homeowner Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and checks in via FaceTime with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin). While enjoying a nature walk one day, Harper gets the feeling that she’s being followed by a mysterious presence and soon learns that all is not right in this quaint village.

Men is the third directorial effort from writer/director Alex Garland, who has gone full horror this time around after flirting with the genre in the mind-bending Annihilation. His latest effort may be the simplest in terms of pure story but also his most provocative in terms of how the film is being marketed and how it tries to make good on those promises. Those triggered by the trailer (which gives away a casting choice I wish I hadn’t known beforehand) may be relieved to know that the mischievous distributor A24 is playing up the gender politics more than the film actually does. Sure, concepts of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity are brought forth in the subtext but like many other horror films before it, Men comes back to the fascinating and unique ways we process grief and trauma.

Another staple of the horror genre is the inclusion of religious allusions and even if you’re not looking too closely for Biblical references, Garland sets up an easy one for us at the outset. When Harper first arrives at the rental home, she observes a large apple tree on the grounds and without thinking, grabs one of the abundant fruits and takes a bite as Geoffrey looks on from the window. “Mustn’t do that,” he jokingly chides minutes later when they meet, claiming the apple is “forbidden fruit” before rushing to say he’s kidding after a quick beat. Outside of the more obvious Genesis nods to the Garden of Eden and the fall of man, there are mythical and literary quotes from Agamemnon odes and Yeats poems as well but when it comes to the larger allegory at play, religion seems to be on Men‘s mind more than anything else.

Visually, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy earmark the three chronological acts with their own distinguishable hue. Everything prior to Harper’s stay in the rural village is overlaid with a soft orange, while the the chapters involving the early parts of her sabbatical are punctuated by the lush natural greenery that surrounds her. It isn’t until the trip really starts to unravel that the color red starts to permeate the frame, not unlike Vertigo or Suspiria. Garland lingers on certain shots, like a many-branched tree or a long echoey tunnel, for so long, it becomes difficult not to look for symbolism and a greater meaning in the images. Some movies invite and reward analysis and interpretation over multiple views; this one demands one.

But crucially, the experience of watching Men is as viscerally exciting in the moment as it is intellectually engaging afterwards. Garland doesn’t forget he’s making a horror movie and he knows how to play with our expectations and emotions. Aiding the effort is the brilliantly effective score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, which centers around a four-note melody that Harper chirps down a tunnel and forms a leitmotif that grows uglier as time goes on, like an apple rotting after its skin is exposed. In intensely demanding roles, Buckley and Kinnear offer some of the very best work of their respective careers and contribute perfectly to the film’s persistently unnerving tone. Fearless and fervent, Men is Garland’s most accomplished brain-bender yet.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Top Gun: Maverick, a belated follow-up to the 1986 classic starring Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly which follows one of the Navy’s top aviators as he trains a new class of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is The Bob’s Burgers Movie, an animated musical comedy starring H. Jon Benjamin and Dan Mintz involving the beleaguered Belcher family as they try to save their restaurant from closing as a sinkhole forms in front of it.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Emergency, a satirical thriller starring RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins about a trio of college students who must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unexpected situation en route to a party.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Master

The powerful new horror movie Master opens with a pair of not-so warm welcomes. During orientation day at the prestigious Ancaster College, the bright Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is paired with the blasé Amelia (Talia Ryder) as roommates in a purportedly haunted dorm room. Across campus, professor and recently-appointed master of the storied Belleville House Gail (Regina Hall) struggles to open the front door to her new quarters. More generally, the specter of witchcraft-accused Margaret Millett from centuries ago looms over the school as students make up scary stories surrounding her myth. Amidst a student body and faculty with very few women of color, both Jasmine and Gail experience both subtle and overt forms of racism while the ghosts of Ancaster’s past grow into something even more tangibly terrifying.

Marrying the chilly campus creeps of The Blackcoat’s Daughter with the socially-conscious themes of Candyman, Master is utterly engrossing as goosebump-inducing horror and salient social commentary. In her first feature, writer/director Mariama Diallo captures the desperate sense of isolation felt by women who have a deep sense of unbelonging in their present setting. Amelia and other dormmates sardonically guess that Jasmine is either Beyoncé or Lizzo, while Gail is “complimented” by a fellow tenured professor through a comparison to Barack Obama. But these aren’t simply uncouth remarks by white folks who aren’t comfortable around their black counterparts. They’re products of a campus culture that has marginalized women and minorities decade after decade, where only the strongest survive.

Unfolding across six chapters, Master tragically details the hopelessness felt by its female characters as they fight back against systemic racism and oppression organized by the founders of the school centuries ago. The solution would seem to lie in communal unity and while Jasmine and Gail attempt to support one another in a symbiotic student-teacher relationship, Diallo introduces English professor Liv (Amber Gray) to show where things can get complicated. Straight-A student Jasmine is shocked when her first writing prompt from Liv’s class is met with a dreaded F grade, one that she plans to dispute with the university. Knowing such a move would derail Liv’s upcoming bid for tenure, Gail presses Jasmine to reconsider such a plan of action. Diallo plants these seeds of mistrust and division and expertly depicts how the tangled trees choke the potential for progress.

The messaging may come across as heavy-handed by those who are simply looking for a spooky movie to get under one’s skin but Master delivers on the horror front with some exceedingly well-edited sequences. It’s never a good sign for the main character of this sort of film to admit that they’re a sleepwalker but that’s exactly what Jasmine does in an early scene during a game of Never Have I Ever. Such a confession naturally yields some chilling nightmare sequences that incorporate sleep paralysis, a noose-carrying hooded figure and larger-than-life shadows that linger just a bit too long. Gail also contends with personifications of the rot within the Ancaster history that force her out of her new home to make way for pest control fumigation.

Master is often a very somber effort but there are a few satirical jabs in the vein of Dear White People that add a bit of levity while staying on point. The most notable of these is a fake ad for Ancaster, where Gail and Liv preach the ideals towards diversity for which the university strives, while the dean proclaims “the one thing that is not Ancaster is discrimination!” Such savvy comedic moments made Get Out a touchstone of black horror several years ago and could have potentially allowed this film to reach a wider audience but Diallo is intentional about her vision. This is a fittingly serious film about serious social subjects that require their time in the cultural conversation. It’s not always an easy watch but Master represents both the powerful storytelling potential of horror and the emergence of an exciting new voice within the genre.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Lost City, an adventure comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum about a romance novelist on a book tour with her cover model as they get swept up in a kidnapping attempt that lands them both in a cutthroat jungle adventure.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is Infinite Storm, a survival thriller starring Naomi Watts and Billy Howle about a climber who encounters a stranded stranger during a blizzard as they journey to make it down the mountain before nightfall.
Screening at Cinema Center this Friday and Saturday is Mogul Mowgli, a music drama starring Riz Ahmed and Aiysha Hart about a British-Pakistani rapper who is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease before his first world tour.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Kimi

With virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri politely invading our pockets and homes at an alarming rate, a movie that taps into their ubiquity for paranoia was about as inevitable as the fact that one of their corresponding devices is probably listening in on you right now. Enter Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi: a smart and enthralling thrill ride that takes its title from the chirpy AI built into smart speakers that pop up everywhere in this film’s version of pandemic-era Seattle. Like last year’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, it branches off from a knee-jerk “technology bad” tack and creates a conversation between analog and digital that sees the merits of both. The fact that Kimi is optimized from the input of human programmers who fix bugs stemming from user-device miscommunication is just one example of this film’s vision of how man and machine can co-exist.

One such data analyst is Angela (Zoë Kravitz), an agoraphobic voice stream interpreter who listens to recorded interactions between people and their Kimi-equipped devices and codes corrections from the “comfort” of her apartment. She becomes alarmed listening to an audio clip plagued by loud industrial music, not because the song itself is jarring but due to the screams of a woman that she faintly hears over it. Naturally, there’s protocol for this but given that Amygdala (the corporation behind Kimi) is days away from an IPO, Angela gets the runaround from her boss (Andy Daly) and boss’ boss (Rita Wilson) in trying to do the right thing. Circumstances dictate that she face her biggest fear of leaving her loft to get to the bottom of that chilling recording that she overhears.

As tech-focused as it is, the basis of Kimi‘s tense conceit stems from 1970s thrillers like The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor; Soderbergh even sneaks in an homage to Marathon Man for good measure. Computers may have taken up the space of entire rooms back then but the notion that “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” is just as relevant here as it was in those movies. Kravitz does an excellent job absorbing this anxiety along with her fears of the outside world and creates a protagonist that is easy to root for even in her most unpredictable moments. Most of this movie’s first half, she’s interacting with actors through Skype and FaceTime because of her character’s condition but bridges the gap with a palpable physicality around her conspicuously large apartment.

In trying to get to the truth, it’s all about having the right tool for the job. When Angela first hears the suspicious stream, she extracts the audio file and puts it through noise reduction software. It helps but doesn’t get it all the way there. That’s when she runs to the closet to find an analog chassis of equalizers that notch out the necessary frequencies and reveal the disturbing detail of the recording. This push-pull of analog and digital working in tandem is at the heart of what makes Kimi such a fun ride but also a subtle commentary on how much power technology can give and take. The system that allows a potential violent assault to be uncovered is the same system that prohibits a keycard from opening the right door at the right time during a foot chase.

As cerebral as all of this may sound, the biggest joys of Kimi are ephemeral, courtesy of a top-notch director who knows how to pack a lot into 90 minutes. With over 30 feature films to his name, Soderbergh is simply one of the most impressive filmmakers around, also handling editing and cinematography here under pseudonyms as he’s done in past projects. He knows just how much information to give us in the moment so that we can recall prior details just in time for a rich payoff. Not all of his movies are home runs but when Soderbergh connects, there’s nothing sweeter than the sound of that bat cracking. Kimi is a first-rate thriller that people everywhere should be shouting at their devices to play right away.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is Uncharted, an video game-adapted action-adventure starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg about a pair of rebellious treasure hunters out to recover a lost fortune amassed by Ferdinand Magellan.
Also playing only in theaters is Dog, a road trip comedy starring Channing Tatum and Jane Adams about a U.S. Army Ranger tasked with bringing a military working dog to attend her handler’s funeral.
Streaming on Netflix is Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a reboot of the iconic 1974 horror film starring Sarah Yarkin and Elsie Fisher which finds Leatherface returning to terrorize a group of idealistic young friends who accidentally disrupt his carefully shielded world in a remote Texas town.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Few names in modern cinema are more revered than the Coen Brothers. Over the course of 18 films, including Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men and, most recently, Netflix’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the brotherly duo have conjured up one transcendent masterstroke after another for almost 35 years now. The Tragedy of Macbeth, a linguistically faithful but stylistically ambitious retelling of Shakespeare’s perennial play, finds Joel Coen writing and directing independently from brother Ethan Coen for the first time in their careers. Fortunately, Joel demonstrates that he has plenty to offer on his own in this dire and nightmarish interpretation on The Scottish Play, stripping the story down to its barest elements while adding layers of visual grandeur at the same time.

In early 1600s Scotland, brothers in arms Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return from battle when they are met by a trio of witches (all three portrayed by Kathryn Hunter) with a prophecy. They proclaim the former will soon be king while the latter will raise a son who will come to be king sometime in the future, an ominous prediction that sets the men on divergent paths. When Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) hears tell of the witches’ omen, she talks her husband into killing the fair King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) in his sleep. Assuming the throne after the king’s murder, Macbeth seems to have the world at his fingertips but his obsession with the prediction about Banquo’s offspring begins to consume himself and his wife.

A coven of whispering witches open The Tragedy of Macbeth in eerie voiceover, setting an otherworldly and ominous pall over this adaptation that recalls the hushed unease of 2016’s The Witch. The rugged 17th century setting, period-accurate dialogue, and presence of that film’s star Ralph Ineson in the next scene further cements the connection between the two movies, though the stories obviously diverge from there. Coen adapts directly from Shakespeare’s original prose; those intimately familiar with the play’s text should have fun mouthing the words of their favorite passages along with the actors. Though the occasional line reading can come across as awkward, the cast is uniformly prepared and deeply entrenched in their respective performances.

Stylistically, Coen and his production designer Stefan Dechant draw most notably from the German Expressionism movement and more specifically, the works of Fritz Lang like Metropolis and M. The stark black-and-white cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel makes the contrast between light and shadow greater than that of a color counterpart. In some scenes, this makes separation more evident and in others, the visual lines are blurrier. Fog and sand spill over into one another during the early prophecy scene but by the time Macbeth is crowned king, the angular castle with its high archways and narrow passages make for more sharply defined settings. It’s a clever visual metaphor to articulate how Macbeth’s world becomes more governed by absolutes, no matter how unfounded they are, as the narrative progresses.

Washington has always excelled at playing characters with a chip on their shoulder and he pitches Macbeth’s haughtiness perfectly while also generating sympathy at just the right moments. McDormand is a fine counterpoint, wielding quiet ambition for a greater purpose but tragically succumbing to madness along the way. These two leads, along with fine supporting players like Corey Hawkins and Harry Melling, have turned in plenty of outstanding work on-screen through the years but the real find here is Kathryn Hunter. Playing the part of all three of The Witches, she contorts and confounds in a role that is captivating in its physicality and unforgettable in its solemnity. The Tragedy of Macbeth takes the Bard’s play into more haunting territory than it’s been before, in ways that only great filmmakers can manifest.

Score – 4/5

More new movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, an animated family comedy starring Andy Samberg and Selena Gomez about a Van Helsing invention that turns monsters into humans and turns humans into monsters.
Coming to theaters is Scream, a slasher sequel starring Melissa Barrera and Mason Gooding which picks up 25 years after the landmark horror entry and follows a new masked killer that terrorizes the quiet town of Woodsboro once again.
Also playing only in theaters is Belle, a sci-fi anime starring Kaho Nakamura and Ryō Narita about a shy high school student who loses herself in the persona of a globally-beloved singer that she adapts within a massive virtual world.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

West Side Story

It’s been 60 years since Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise brought their vision of the stage musical West Side Story to the big screen and few films of the genre have captured the hearts and minds of audiences more since its release. It would take an audacious filmmaker to adapt the renowned 1957 Broadway show once again but when it comes to moviemaking, Steven Spielberg has rarely backed down from a challenge during his 50 years in the industry. He’s taken on nearly every category of film — even an ill-advised foray into war comedy — but this is his first dance with a genre that’s seen its fair share of duds in recent years. It turns out to be an expert calculation, resulting not just the most electric musical event of the year but the most vital work of Spielberg’s career since Lincoln almost 10 years ago.

Taking place in the Upper West Side of the mid-1950s, the Romeo And Juliet-influenced story finds young love in the crossfire between two rival gangs of teenagers. The all-white Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), lock horns with the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), over control of their changing neighborhood. Riff looks to recruit the fresh-out-of-jail Tony (Ansel Elgort) for the next “rumble” between the two groups, while Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) wishes to leave the street violence of their city behind her. When Tony and Maria lock eyes for the first time at a school dance, they have an immediate connection and instantly plan to run away together, if the ties to their neighborhood don’t weigh them down first.

Opening with a dazzling continuous crane shot, which glides over rubble and behind wrecking balls before landing on an underground door, West Side Story reminds us early and often that we’re in the hands of one of the medium’s most gifted visual storytellers. With longtime collaborator Janusz Kamiński, whose work here should win him his third Oscar for Best Cinematography, Spielberg lends fresh eyes to a world that was already vibrant to begin with. Too often, movie musicals have a glossy sheen to them that comes across as phony; this summer’s disappointing In the Heights and the much, much worse Dear Evan Hansen are two examples from this year alone. There’s not an uninspired shot in all of West Side Story and there are quite a few, like the bird’s-eye view of the long-cast shadows from the Sharks and Jets converging in a salt warehouse, that will take your breath away.

The iconic musical numbers, re-arranged this time by composer David Newman, are handled with the level of care and reverence that the genius team of Sondheim and Bernstein deserve. Spielberg certainly knows not to mess with a good thing, sticking with all of the classics from the original and not adding any new songs. Viewers who may be more reticent to musical fare may be surprised just how smooth the transitions from dialogue to musical numbers are. This isn’t a musical where the action stops so a character or two can belt one out; this is a world in which story and song move in tandem with one another. The choreography is just as fluid and propulsive, pairing the rhythm of the music with body movements in jaw-dropping synchrony.

If there’s a letdown, it’s not in the performances but in the lack of a spark between some of the actors. Elgort and Zegler obviously have the heavy lifting here, as much of the emotional drive in the story hinges on the spontaneous romance between their characters. They both have the vocal chops and the steps but when it comes to their chemistry, it falls short of the on-screen connection between Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood from the 1961 original. Still, they’re sensible picks for the roles and other members of the cast, like Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, are doing excellent work outside of the central relationship. West Side Story is a rich and magnificent achievement, a movie musical that will delight hardcore fans and newcomers one and the same.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming over the next couple weeks:
Swinging to theaters on December 16th is Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latest Marvel epic starring Tom Holland and Zendaya which finds the titular webslinger and mentor Doctor Strange tinkering with alternate realities within the multiverse.
Also playing only in theaters this weekend is Nightmare Alley, a neo-noir thriller starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett about an ambitious carny/con man who meets his match in a psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.
Coming to theaters and also to HBO Max on December 22 is The Matrix Resurrections, the belated sci-fi sequel starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss which finds the characters of the original trilogy seemingly plugged back into The Matrix to fight a new enemy.
Playing only in theaters starting on December 22 is Sing 2, an animated family comedy starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon about a theater owner who tries to persuade a reclusive rock star to join his new singing-based show.
Streaming on Netflix beginning December 24 is Don’t Look Up, a satirical political comedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence about a pair of astronomers who set off on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup