Tag Archives: 4.5/5

The Lighthouse

Writer/director Robert Eggers follows up his striking debut The Witch with The Lighthouse, a different kind of horror movie that channels psychological distress over supernatural haunts. While both films use period-correct dialogue with authentic dialects to establish an undeniable sense of time and place, Eggers’ latest effort is even more engrossing and oddly enchanting by comparison. Shot in gorgeously haunting black-and-white and presented in a constrained 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film is an unrelenting symphony of dread and dismay fueled by impeccable sound design and two top-caliber performances.

We meet our two main characters, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), in hazy silhouette as their boat charges ahead to a remote island off the coast of New England. It is there that the two men plan on spending the next four weeks together, with the cantankerous Wake serving as the lead of the lighthouse while the virile Winslow takes up the physically taxing jobs. Over their stay, the pair bond over nightly dinners and overnight liquor sessions but eventually, isolation and paranoia begin to take hold of them as the natural elements around grow harsher every day.

Shaped by the work of German Expressionist masters like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, The Lighthouse is a hellish and hypnotic vision from a filmmaker who continues to push himself formally and stylistically. Together with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers beautifully paints his frame with the perfect balance of light and shadow to convey the rotting psyche of the central duo. Also lending itself to the slow decline into insanity is the music score by Mark Korven and the accompanying cacophonous sound design, which blends the constant cawing of seagulls with the growl of a bellowing furnace to overwhelming effect.

Thanks to the fiercely committed acting from the leads, this is as good a two-hander as you’re likely to see in theaters this year. Sporting a picturesque seaman’s beard, Dafoe brings a cackling menace to his role as he tosses off dinner toasts and curse-laden monologues with equal panache. Pattinson, who was also excellent in another challenging A24 entry High Life earlier this year, is even better as the downtrodden wickie who becomes consumed with guilt and obsession. I hope this film gets nominated for plenty of Academy Awards when the nominations are announced but at the very least, these two actors deserve to be recognized for their superb work.

Bringing everything together is the salty screenplay by Robert Eggers and his brother Max Eggers, which ratchets up the tension between the beleaguered men with pointed dialogue that’s at times harrowing and hilarious. Whether they’re sparring about the quality of one’s cooking or how lazy the other is, their bickering is intentionally reminiscent of an old married couple. In the midst of a more amiable conversation, Thomas utters the film’s thesis: “boredom makes men to villains.” Immaculately crafted from top to bottom, The Lighthouse is a maelstrom of mischief that should pull in all who dare to enter its path.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Charlie’s Angels, starring Kristen Stewart and Naomi Scott, reboots the popular female-centric action franchise about a trio of highly trained spies who travel internationally to take on a new threat.
Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, tells the true story of an American car designer and professional driver who set out build a brand new vehicle to challenge Ferrari at 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Good Liar, starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, is a spy thriller about a seasoned con man who finds himself falling for the woman he orchestrated his latest scheme against after meeting her online.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Farewell

The immensely moving and thoroughly amusing new film The Farewell stars Nora Lum (who goes by the moniker Awkwafina in her music career) as Billi, a struggling writer toiling away New York City. While making a laundry run at the home of her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), she learns that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer with only three remaining months. The decision is made by the family, in accordance with Chinese culture, not to reveal the news to Nai Nai but a hasty marriage proposal by Billi’s cousin Hao (Chen Hanwei) to his new girlfriend ensures that the family can travel to Beijing to say their veiled goodbyes to their spritely matriarch.

The premise would suggest a rather somber affair but thanks to some intuitive and empathetic direction by Lulu Wang, who based this film on her own real-life story, the tone is mostly light-hearted with notes of bittersweet reflection along the way. She finds humor where others might only find sadness and lends a perspective that may indeed help others get through their own hard times. In this way, it reminded me often of the similarly excellent dramedy The Big Sick, which also intelligently balanced the heavy story at its center with plenty of tasteful laughs.

From an early phone conversation between Billi and Nai Nai, in which both trade fibs about where they are and what they’re doing, the film is predicated upon the polite lies that we tell our family to guard them from unpleasant truths. When it comes to the well-intentioned deception behind the big secret at the center of the story, there’s a sense of dramatic tension that any character could blurt out the news to sweet Nai Nai at any moment. More importantly, there is a poignant subtext about how we can do the wrong thing for the right reasons on behalf of the people that are closest to us. Some may view this movie and object to how the characters handle this situation but few would question the sentiment behind their decisions.

The performances from the ensemble cast are stellar across the board but it’s Lum, who popped up last year in both Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, that stands out as a true revelation. In her first leading role, Lum is remarkably assured and quietly commanding (despite her slumped posture) in an audience surrogate role that could have been potentially been flat or one-note. Shuzhen is also terrific as the blissfully unaware Nai Nai, whose firecracker spirit and quippy banter give the movie a richly humane energy. That she consistently reminded me of my own late grandmother would likely explained why I was moved to tears on two separate occasions during the film.

There are some playful touches from behind the camera that bolster the comedic and dramatic foundation of each scene. The editing work by Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman does a fantastic job of giving us enough time to take in each characters’ role in the family while also aiding in some briskly-paced scenes of situational comedy. Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano gives us some gorgeous foundational shots of the Chinese city Changchun but also treats us to some sumptuous low angles of busy dinner tables that make every meal look like a delectable feast. The Farewell is one of the year’s best films, a heartfelt tribute to grandparents everywhere and the families that support them.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, starring Zoe Colletti and Michael Garza, adapts the series of children’s horror tales into a story about a young girl who conjures terrifying creatures within her mansion.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold, starring Isabela Moner and Eva Longoria, bring the cartoon explorer into live-action for a new adventure in which Dora must save her parents and solve an ancient Inca mystery.
The Kitchen, starring Melissa McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss, is a comedy crime film about three housewives out to settle the score with the Irish mafia after their mobster husbands are sent to prison.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Booksmart

Actress Olivia Wilde makes her feature directorial debut with Booksmart, a joyfully vulgar and endlessly witty teen comedy that is destined to go down as an all-time classic. Taking cues from genre pillars like The Breakfast Club and Clueless, Wilde paints a hilarious portrait of high school life that feels specific to this generation while still remaining timeless on a thematic level. Even though we’ve been recently spoiled with an abundance of excellent coming-of-age movies like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, we have yet another winner on our hands.

We meet best friends and academic overachievers Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on their final day of high school as they prepare to graduate with top honors. Upon discovering that most of her rambunctious peers were also accepted to prestigious universities, Molly grows envious of their party-hard mentality and vows to make their last night of senior year one to remember. The pair set out on a conquest to find an ever-elusive house party (“We are A+ people going to an A+ party,” Molly asserts) while naturally running into increasingly absurd obstacles along the way.

Penned by an all-female quartet of writers, the masterful script for Booksmart is filled with humor that can be shockingly explicit one minute and then unexpectedly high-minded (indicative of the film’s title) the next. This means that copious amounts of four-letter words and jokes about the human anatomy are tempered with relatively obscure references to famed documentarian Ken Burns and Queen Noor of Jordan. In her first time out as a director, Wilde deftly juggles an impressive array of comedic styles with unfailingly hilarious results.

Atop a talented ensemble of both first-time actors and veteran comedy performers, Dever and Feldstein sport an undeniable chemistry full of charm and warmth that trickles down to the rest of the cast. A chief complaint I had with Superbad, another very funny high school romp to which Booksmart will inevitably be compared, is that the friendship between its two central characters seemed to be rooted more in malice than in mirth. Even at their snarkiest, Amy and Molly always find small but significant ways to empower one another and, in one notable instance, reprimand each other when they occasionally succumb to negative self-talk.

While SNL alums like Will Forte and Wilde’s fiancé Jason Sudeikis turn up in amusing adult roles, the cast of the film is mainly made up of fresh faces who make the most of their time on screen. Billie Lourd, the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher, is a scene-stealing highlight as a relentless party girl who continues to pop up mysteriously throughout the night. Molly Gordon is similarly terrific as a character who seems to fit the “mean girl” mold early on until a pivotal monologue reveals greater depths to her character. As a high school comedy that both invigorates the genre and reminds us why it’s such an enduring one in the first place, Booksmart succeeds with flying colors.

Score – 4.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Aladdin, starring Mena Massoud and Will Smith, is another live-action Disney remake of a animated classic about an affable thief who hopes to win the heart of a princess with the help of a magical genie.
Brightburn, starring Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, inverts the traditional superhero origin story and depicts a child from another planet who comes to use his powers for evil instead of good.
Opening at Cinema Center is Hail Satan?, a documentary that traces the recent rise of The Satanic Temple, which is regarded as one of the most controversial religious movements in American history.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Two major questions loom large over the latest from Sony Pictures Animation: does the world really need another superhero movie and more importantly, does it really need another Spider-Man movie? Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse answers both of these questions early and often with an emphatic “yes”; this is not only the most electrifying superhero film of the year but it’s also the best on-screen version of the web-slinger that I’ve ever seen. Packed to the brim with vivid and vibrant animated flourishes that call back to the rich comic book heritage of this series, this is a film that honors the mythology of its central character while expanding on it beautifully.

At the center of this Spider-Man story is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a bright teenager who develops unusual abilities after being bitten by a genetically modified spider. While this part of the story is certainly familiar, the new twist this time around is the introduction of a particle accelerator that allows for access of parallel universes. This leaves the gateway open for other inter-dimensional iterations of Spider-Man, including Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), among others. Together, they all have to come together to stop Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), along with two other major foes, as they try to destroy New York City.

The design of this film is unlike any other that I’ve seen from another animated picture before, weaving together the aesthetics of various genres from anime to Looney Tunes-era cartoons in a spectacularly clever manner. It also incorporates the use of purposefully misaligned colors to out-of-focus objects in the background, which replicates the look and feel of comic books from the 1960s where Spider-Man was born. On top of these homages to other mediums, the film is also astonishing in its implementation of cutting-edge computer animation, especially during the climactic showdown that shuffles objects from one dimension to another.

It would be enough if this was simply the best-looking Spider-Man movie but thanks to co-writer Phil Lord (also behind last year’s similarly hilarious The LEGO Batman Movie), it’s also the funniest. The movie respectfully pokes fun at the different interpretations of Spider-Man that have appeared in comics through the years, from 1930s detective styled Spider-Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage) to Spider-Ham (voiced by John Mulaney), who has the power to “float in the air at the smell of a delicious pie”. It also has some fun with superhero tropes like the down-to-the-wire heroics; at one point, Parker quips “there’s always a little time before people die and that’s where I do my best work.”

What I appreciated most is that these jokes and the accompanying kinetic animation style don’t detract from the fact that this has an excellent origin story at its core that, spider-bite aside, is very different from what we’ve seen in a film up to this point. The self-referential humor can be cheeky but not in a way that tries to tear down the myth behind the superhero; the trio of directors behind this movie clearly have a great reverence for the character and his lineage. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most invigorating superhero film I’ve seen since The Avengers in 2012 and proves that even in an over-saturated market, fresh ideas can still be found.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a direct sequel to the classic 1964 musical which finds the merry and mystical nanny reuniting with two of the children from the original.
Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, is the latest installment in the DC Extended Universe which follows the titular superhero as he leads the people of Atlantis against the evil sea creature Orm.
Bumblebee, starring Hailee Steinfeld and John Cena, is a spin-off of the Transformers franchise (technically a prequel to the first film in the series) that focuses on the origin of the titular yellow robot.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Widows

Most modern heist films, like Ocean’s 8 from earlier this year or last year’s Logan Lucky, seem to aim for a certain kind of escapism as we get an inside peek into all the details that go into pulling off a big score. Widows, the latest from 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen, is comparatively much more grounded in reality but the results are no less electrifying than some of the best in the genre. Based on a British series from the 1980s, the film uses its setting of modern-day Chicago to examine a bevy of issues that plague our society but it does so without letting its weighty themes bog down the thrilling narrative.

Viola Davis leads a stellar ensemble cast as Veronica Rawlings, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed in the opening minutes of the film as he and his crew of four find themselves in the middle of a heist gone wrong. Still reeling from the loss of her husband, she is confronted by local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who demands that she settle the debt left unresolved by Harry’s botched robbery. After she discovers her late husband’s notebook full of plans for a potential job, Veronica teams up with the widows of the other thieves to pull off a $5 million robbery that will make her even with Manning, who is also running against incumbent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) as alderman of a South Side precinct.

The cast, which also includes talented performers like Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya, is loaded with powerhouse talent and each actor puts everything they have into the pockets of time that they’re on-screen. Davis reaffirms her status as one of the most compelling actresses working today, channeling layers of grief and anger into a performance that works beautifully as an emotional backbone for the entire film. Debicki, who was also excellent in The Tale earlier this year, brings so much strength and resiliency to her portrayal of a wounded soul and Kaluuya brings pitch-perfect menace to his role as a mob enforcer.

While there is no shortage of brilliance in front of the camera, there is also an abundance of skill behind the camera, which starts with McQueen in the director’s chair. His previous films like Hunger and Shame have typically been character studies that focus more on mood than plot but his transition here into a densely packed narrative with many moving parts feels seamless. He has also re-teamed with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker to craft a movie that is visually engaging from the very first frame. Additionally, Hans Zimmer contributes a kinetic musical score that’s not nearly as showy as some of his work in the past.

Among all this excellent work, it’s the first-rate script, penned by McQueen along with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, that stands out as possibly the most impressive aspect of a film that does so much right. The screenplay features all the clever plotting necessary for a film like this to work effectively but is also packed with hard-hitting dialogue that feels true to every character who speaks it. Widows feels like a blend of the crime caper thrills of Heat mixed with the sociological incisiveness of The Wire and is a perfect example of how just how exhilarating genre fare executed to the highest level can be.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Creed II, starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, pits the son of boxer Apollo Creed against the son of Ivan Drago, the Russian heavyweight who was responsible for killing Apollo in the ring.
Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, tells the true story of Jamaican-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his driver Tony Lip as they find friendship amid racism in the 1960s Deep South.
Ralph Breaks the Internet, starring John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, is the belated follow-up to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph that follows the titular video game character as he breaks out of his arcade machine and finds himself online.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

First Man

Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle reunites with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling in First Man, an emotionally enthralling and sensorily spectacular account of Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the Moon landing. Not only is this a fitting biopic for an American hero, it’s also an ode to the men and women who dared to do the impossible and made incredible sacrifices so that we could extend our reach in the universe. What’s distinctive about Chazelle’s vision of space travel is how he tethers the hopes and dreams of NASA’s brightest to the overwhelmingly dangerous operations necessary for Apollo 11’s success.

Opening in 1961 with a thrilling sequence in which Armstrong (Gosling) heads up an atmosphere-piercing flight test gone awry, we’re introduced to his wife Jan (Claire Foy) as the two are coping with the loss of their young daughter. Upon moving to Houston for a fresh start, Armstrong moves up the ranks at NASA and is soon involved in the Gemini program, during which critical tasks are mastered for use in the Apollo missions. With pressure mounting from the Space Race, Apollo 11 is carried out in the summer of 1969 with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) becoming the first two men to walk on the Moon.

As much as this is a film about the space program and the incredible amount of work that it took to get America to the Moon, it’s also an engaging personal story about the toll those efforts took on the people involved. Screenwriter Josh Singer balances the no-nonsense mechanics of the missions with intimate sequences of home life between Armstrong and his increasingly alienated family. Foy is particularly good portraying a wife wracked with anxiety over the new perils that face her husband with each new development in his profession. Gosling also turns out to be an excellent fit to play the titular character, stripping away his typical levels of charm to play an engineer whose head is always in his work.

In addition to casting Gosling again, Chazelle has also re-teamed with the technical leads from La La Land and achieves a similar level of success with them in this film. The musical score by Justin Hurwitz is tempered with a beautiful combination of worry and wonder, led by a mournful and spellbinding theremin that recalls sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s. It took a little time for me to get on board with the look of the film, but cinematographer Linus Sandgren does find a rhythm after a few initial missteps to produce plenty of indelible images. But the MVP from a technical standpoint is editor Tom Cross, who won Best Editing for Chazelle’s Whiplash and does a stunning job of piecing together some extremely tense setpieces.

Of course it all comes back to the vision laid out by Chazelle; in keeping the action focused on the point-of-view of the astronauts as they’re crammed into their spacecrafts, he has created an experience that’s as claustrophobic and intense as any of its kind since Apollo 13. IMAX is becoming more of a gimmick than a necessity for most movies released these days, but seeing this film in IMAX is necessary not only for the enhanced picture but for the dynamic sound design that accompanies it. First Man is a first-rate docudrama about the spirit of innovation that led to triumphs in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer, is a direct sequel to the 1978 horror classic that finds serial killer Michael Myers escaping prison once again to wreak havoc during the titular holiday.
The Hate U Give, starring Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall, is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas about a teenager whose life is shattered after her childhood friend is murdered by a police officer.
The Sisters Brothers, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, is a Western dark comedy that follows a pair of assassins as they track down a notorious gold prospector (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) during the California Gold Rush.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Eighth Grade

15-year-old Elsie Fisher gives one of the year’s best performances in Eighth Grade, the simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming new film written and directed by 27-year-old stand-up comedian Bo Burnham. Fisher stars as Kayla Day, a kind and reserved teenaged girl (she’s awarded the “Most Quiet” superlative by her classmates) trying her best to make it through the final week of her painful middle school experience. Doing their best to help her through the transition are Kayla’s single father Mark, played by Josh Hamilton, and her high school friend Olivia, played by Emily Robinson, who are sometimes no match for the seemingly insurmountable anxieties and insecurities that Kayla faces on a day-to-day basis.

Burnham has crafted an often cringe-inducing but wholly empathetic portrait of teenage life that at once feels specific to the current generation of youngsters but also touches on universal themes that every adult can relate to as well. This is a film of quiet wisdom about how easy it is to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, especially during the hormone-charged teenage years, but also reflects on how time can change how we view ourselves. Most films about kids of this age tend to come from the perspective of the adults around them; not only does Eighth Grade feel like it’s told entirely through the lens of Kayla’s world but it also tends to loosen its focus around all of the other adults in the story with the exception of her father.

One aspect of teenage life that this film tackles better than any coming-of-age story that I’ve ever seen is the role that social media plays into how kids of this generation view themselves and the world around them. Filmmakers often skirt around social media, perhaps with the fear that including it in their work will date the material too much. However, Burnham not only embraces these platforms but incorporates them into the narrative in a way that feels completely organic to this character and her experience. A prime example is the way that Kayla uses YouTube to create short self-help videos on topics like How To Be Yourself and How To Put Yourself Out There, even though these videos only tend to average a handful of Views.

There’s a meta bit of irony to that detail, as director Bo Burnham made his career from the millions of YouTube Views he received on videos of funny songs that he started to record at the age of 15. From this almost instant popularity, he transitioned to stand-up comedy and brought his cutting, clever sense of humor to the stage (his two most recent specials what. and Make Happy are both currently on Netflix and highly recommended). What’s remarkable about Eighth Grade is how Burnham avoids what I’m sure was a temptation to over-write this script, which favors sharply-realized scenarios over sharp-tongued dialogue that fits much better inside this sensitive portrayal of early adolescence.

At the center of everything is Elsie Fisher’s work as Kayla Day, which is the type of performance that often gets overlooked by those who claim an actor is just “playing themselves.” Sporting chin acne and often unflattering apparel, Fisher lays everything bare here but also brings loads of charm and sweetness to the role that makes it effortless for us to get caught up in her story and her struggles. Together with Burnham, she has crafted a film with radiates with compassion and honesty during a time when both seem to be in depressingly short supply.

Note: the MPAA slapped this film with an “R” rating over a few instances of the F-word and some relatively mild sexual content. Parents: please don’t let this deter you from taking your kids to see this film. It’s more than worthy of your time and attention.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding, is a romantic comedy based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan.
Alpha, starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, follows a young man and his wolf companion as they fight the brutal elements during the stone age.
Mile 22, starring Mark Wahlberg and John Malkovich, pits a CIA task force against a terrorist group seeking to extract a highly-prized asset.
Also, Cinema Center will be screening The Death of Stalin, the hilarious political satire starring Steve Buscemi and Arrested Development‘s Jeffrey Tambor, which is still my favorite film of the year so far.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup