Tag Archives: Reel Views

Missing

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

When You Finish Saving The World

Playing at Cinema Center starting this weekend, the indie dramedy When You Finish Saving The World stars Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard as Ziggy Katz, a high school student desperately trying to discover himself. Using a live streaming platform called Hi-Hat, he routinely performs original music for his 20,000 Followers all over the world, which doesn’t quite register with his parents Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and Roger (Jay O. Sanders). Also underwhelmed by his online success is Lila (Alisha Boe), a fellow student that Ziggy has developed a crush on due to her impassioned lunchtime political exchanges. The film also follows Evelyn and her work at a domestic abuse shelter, where she attempts to make a connection with Kyle (Billy Bryk), the teenage son of a woman seeking refuge at the Spruce Haven shelter.

Though the film’s title is never actually uttered by any of the characters, the phrase that gives When You Finish Saving The World its name is fitting for a movie whose two primary protagonists are both unknowingly narcissistic and self-righteous. The central irony of the story is that despite this common ground, Ziggy and Evelyn have a stilted relationship where they just can’t seem to see themselves in one another. It’s obvious that the pair will reach some kind of reconciliation by the end of the brisk 87-minute runtime but thanks to a pithy script by writer-director Jesse Eisenberg, the journey getting there is piquant and piercing. Adapting from his Audible audio drama of the same name, Eisenberg restructures his story around the mother-son dysfunction that has the most narrative potency.

Along the way, When You Finish Saving The World pokes fun at the wince-inducing paths that young people often take in trying to figure out who they want to be. Ziggy and Lila meet up multiple times at a “Revolutionary Arts” gathering, a sort of open mic where over-earnest teens trade spoken-word and song-based offerings in an effort to one-up each other. “This is about the patriarchy, of which I’m a reluctant member,” a young boy dramatically laments before sharing a poem. When it’s Ziggy’s turn to perform an original tune, his lyrics about graduating and loneliness fall flat for an audience preening for something more sociopolitically enlightened. Still, he remains undeterred and his braggadocious passes at Lila contribute to the film’s finest moments of cringe comedy.

In juxtaposing his day-to-day with Evelyn’s, Eisenberg suggests that she isn’t any less guilty than her son of trying too hard when it comes to social interactions. She often comes off so severe to most that when she attempts to make small talk with a Spruce Haven secretary while waiting for an elevator, the receptionist feels the need to clarify that she’s not about to be terminated. Moore adds all sorts of touches to her performance that help us understand how someone so stern in their usual disposition could still come across as empathetic in specific contexts. She exudes the expected patience and understanding during intake with abuse survivors but when Ziggy says he needs “five seconds” to get ready, Evelyn looks down at her watch and counts to five in her head before walking out the door.

Though the film takes place in Indiana (Bloomington, specifically) and there are allusions to IU and the Pacers, When You Finish Saving The World was shot in both New Mexico and Canada, likely due to their respective tax incentives for the film industry. Eisenberg reportedly moved to Bloomington with his wife Anna during the pandemic lockdown of 2020 and his newfound affection for the area and its people comes through in his directorial debut. It’s unfortunate that Indiana is 1 of 16 States that doesn’t currently extend tax incentive programs for film productions, even for smaller-budget projects like this one. Until that changes, Hoosiers will likely have to settle for the occasional movie like When You Finish Saving The World that is set here, even if it’s not actually shot in-state.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Missing, a screenlife thriller starring Storm Reid and Ken Leung about a teenager who begins using various technologies to find her missing mother after she disappears on vacation in Colombia with her then-new boyfriend.
Also playing in theaters is That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime: Scarlet Bond, an anime film starring Ricco Fajardo and Kristen McGuire which adapts the TV series about a super-powered being and his companions who get involved in a long-running conspiracy that swirls around a woman with a mysterious power.
Streaming on Netflix is JUNG_E, a science fiction movie starring Kang Soo-yeon and Kim Hyun-joo where the outcome of a civil war hinges on cloning the brain of an elite soldier to create a robot mercenary.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

M3GAN

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My Top 10 Films of 2022

2022 saw audiences slowly but surely venturing back out to theaters worldwide, giving the movie industry a much needed bounce back after the covid pandemic shut things down the prior two years. Q4 titles like Avatar: The Way of Water and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever continue to score at the box office into the new year but it was Top Gun: Maverick that soared above all others in terms of ticket sales. I watched 200 new releases last year; these are my 10 favorites:

  1. Everything Everywhere All At Once (streaming on Showtime and available to buy)
    This bizarre and brilliant tale of a mother and daughter struggling to reconnect through parallel universes evokes Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness by way of Kung Fu Hustle. Director duo The Daniels expand on the manic style they showcased previously with Swiss Army Man and deliver something comparatively more ambitious and emotionally rewarding. Michelle Yeoh is outstanding but it’s Ke Huy Quan, returning to the acting spotlight after an extended absence, who steals the show.
  2. Fire Of Love (streaming on Disney+)
    A documentary about two French scientists researching volcanoes may not spark initial interest but this is much more than just your average NatGeo doc. Volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft spent their lives getting up close and personal with volcanic activity and acquired awe-inspiring footage in the process. Miranda July’s alluring voiceover narration and Nicolas Godin’s accompanying music score make this a sublime ode to humankind’s ceaseless curiosity.
  3. After Yang (streaming on Showtime and available to rent/buy)
    Kogonada’s follow-up to his Indiana-set debut Columbus is another meditative and restorative story about how to move on when a family member suffers a life-threatening setback. Colin Farrell stars as a father seeking to repair his daughter’s robotic companion and grappling with existential quandaries along the way. This is small-scale science fiction brewed with notes of pensive understanding; think A.I. Artificial Intelligence by way of Tokyo Story.
  4. Turning Red (streaming on Disney+ and available to buy)
    Pixar concludes their unintentional trilogy of direct-to-Disney+ films with another inspired and charming coming-of-age fable. Rosalie Chiang voices a thirteen-year-old girl who, one day, begins to suddenly transform into a red panda when she gets overwhelmed. Inspired by the magical masterworks of Hayao Miyazaki, director Domee Shi explores the pangs of puberty with whip-smart humor and visual verve.
  5. Flux Gourmet (streaming on Shudder and available to rent/buy)
    Writer/director Peter Strickland continues his streak of singular and strange films that blend absurdist comedy with giallo fascinations. Following an art collective that derives psychedelic soundscapes from food preparation, this is a razor-sharp satire about when keeping it avant-garde goes wrong. A running joke from Game Of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie about how to properly use flanger effects pedals made me feel seen more than any other movie moment last year.
  6. Glass Onion (streaming on Netflix)
    It’s no enviable task to follow up a whodunnit as cunning and clever as Knives Out but writer/director Rian Johnson not only delivered a sequel at the level of its predecessor but perhaps even higher. Daniel Craig returns as cajun-seasoned detective Benoit Blanc, whose new case involves a murder during a private island party thrown by a tech billionaire. Trying to stay ahead of the film’s myriad twists and turns turned out to be one of the film year’s biggest delights.
  7. Hit The Road (streaming on Showtime and available to rent/buy)
    Iranian writer/director Panah Panahi’s first feature has the assuredness and wisdom of a seasoned storyteller. Telling the seemingly simple story of a mother and father transporting their oldest son across country lines with their youngest in tow, this is a road trip movie that beautifully depicts unshakable familial bonds. Impeccable camerawork and stunning location work make this a journey well worth taking.
  8. Ambulance (streaming on Amazon Prime and available to rent/buy)
    Michael Bay fires up his fleet of drone cameras and unexpectedly dispatches the year’s most exhilarating action spectacle. Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II star as step brothers-turned-bank robbers who hijack an ambulance and hold two first responders hostage in process. 15 movies into his career, Bay channels genre greats like Michael Mann and Tony Sony to rustle up his high-octane masterpiece.
  9. The Banshees Of Inisherin (streaming on HBO Max and available to rent/buy)
    After Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, writer/director Martin McDonagh delivers another sharply-penned tragicomedy about a small community shaken by two people seemingly past the point of reconciliation. In Bruges stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson reunite as a pair of longtime friends whose relationship is abruptly threatened. McDonagh has written brilliant scripts before but thanks to lush cinematography off the coast of Ireland, this is also his most visually captivating film so far as well.
  10. Tár (streaming on Peacock and available to rent/buy)
    Todd Field’s psychological drama about a revered conductor attempting to overcome a personal scandal was the most complete and engrossing cinematic experience I had last year. Cate Blanchett has given plenty of excellent performances in the past but her work here is the finest of her laudable career. Like the titular force in Citizen Kane, Lydia Tár is a towering figure whose tale of unraveling is filled with such vivid detail that we can’t help but be drawn in upon first watch and inevitable rewatches.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Glass Onion

After delivering a modern whodunnit classic with Knives Out a few years ago, writer/director Rian Johnson captures lightning in a bottle again with Glass Onion, a murder-mystery whose delights somehow surpass its predecessor. Retaining only the steely detective from the first entry, this superior sequel sheds the blustery autumn setting of the original and acclimates to a tropical locale for even bigger twists and laughs this time around. Though Johnson is clearly modeling the style of these films from Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, he’s much more successful in creating his own tantalizing stories than Kenneth Branagh has been at adapting Christie’s books like Death on the Nile from earlier this year. Johnson showcases his love for the classics in the genre while including modern elements that make it feel essential to our current place in history. This is one of 2022’s finest entertainments.

Two months into the covid pandemic, world-class detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is already feeling pent-up and is itching to solve his next great case when one conveniently presents itself in the form of a mystery box that is delivered to his door. The sender is Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the billionaire owner of the Google-like company Alpha, who is hosting a murder-mystery party on his private island near Greece. Other recipients of the invitation package include Alpha head scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Miles’s ex-business partner Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), along with famous figures like fashionista Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and vlogger Duke Cody (Dave Bautista). Though the game is obviously not supposed to involve an actual murder, it doesn’t take long after the guests arrive on the island for the game to turn into a search for an actual killer.

Many cinematic whodunnits revolve around the strength of their respective ensemble casts and as with Knives Out, Johnson and his team have brought forth a formidable company for Glass Onion. Aside from some cheeky cameos and name drops, the central cast, which also includes up-and-comers like Jessica Henwick and Madelyn Cline, plays beautifully off one another, even when they’re not in the same room. When each of the characters receives their mystery box, they hop on a communal phone call with each other to solve each of the puzzles together to get to the invitation stored inside. As we learn, these people have a long collective history, which provides them each with potential motive to be a murderer but also a potential alibi for wanting the victim to stay alive.

Johnson has penned some terrific scripts in the past but his screenplay for Glass Onion just may be his best so far. Beyond providing a whodunnit that is both rich with structural complexity and yet elegant in its rhetorical simplicity, this film speaks to pressing cultural themes that will resonate with audiences more than any other movie this year. The social separation created by the pandemic, the rise in trickle-up entitlement and façade of celebrity superiority are just a few trends that Johnson weaves within his tale of deceit and betrayal. As one may expect, this is a movie that doubles back on itself multiple times in order to show us different angles from myriad perspectives and give us enough pieces to complete the puzzle. There’s a running joke about Blanc’s resentment for the popular board game Clue but there’s something in all of us that yearns to be a sleuth and Glass Onion satisfies this urge.

Though this film isn’t a straight-ahead comedy, it has some of the best laugh lines of any movie so far this year, regardless of genre. A slow-building revelation between Birdie and her assistant and a pair of outfit choices in a flashback montage are just a couple examples of the film’s funniest moments. Miles’ guests do have aspects in common and areas of similarity but the ways in which they differ create plenty of opportunity to playfully bounce off of one another. The majority of the characters are smart but may have blindspots that limit their intellect, while others are more dim by comparison but have instances of clarity and insight that give them the upper hand when they typically wouldn’t. No matter how smart someone in the movie may or may not be, there’s no denying that Johnson is a mastermind when it comes to telling this sort of constantly-shifting whodunnit that has layers of brilliance ready to peel.

Score – 4.5/5

Movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Babylon, starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, is a period dramedy which chronicles the rise and fall of multiple characters during Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films in the late 1920s.
Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, is an animated adventure continuing the story of the titular swashbuckling feline fugitive as he sets out on an epic journey to restore all nine of his lives.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody, starring Naomi Ackie and Stanley Tucci, is a musical biopic that takes a look at the life and career of singer and cultural icon Whitney Houston.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Bardo, False Chronicle Of A Handful Of Truths

After winning Academy Awards for Best Director back-to-back years for Birdman and The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu had many doors open to him in terms of what project to pursue next. That he walked through the one labeled “creative control with Netflix” is not surprising, given the kind of story he had in mind, but no less disappointing upon the final result. Bardo, False Chronicle Of A Handful Of Truths is very obviously the most personal film Iñárritu has made thus far but it’s also the most stubbornly formless and painfully pretentious one as well. It’s a remarkably self-involved effort from a director who isn’t known for modesty to begin with and while it’s a project that may mean a great deal to him, there’s simply no room left in the audience for us to take this story in.

Bardo loosely chronicles the day-to-day affairs of Mexican filmmaker/journalist Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who lives in Los Angeles with his wife Lucía (Griselda Siciliani) and teenage son Lorenzo (Iker Sanchez Solano). He’s in line to receive a coveted journalism award in the States, about which he has mixed feelings because he senses that it’s due to geopolitical glad-handing more than his merit. His insecurity about his work is exacerbated by Luis (Francisco Rubio), a talk show host who was once friends with Silverio but jettisoned their relationship during the respective rises to fame. Along the way, he also tries to patch things up with his estranged daughter Camila (Ximena Lamadrid), who is living in America as well, before receiving the commendation for his life’s work.

But Bardo isn’t driven by plot as much as it’s jerked in different directions by the protagonist’s indulgent reveries, which take up the majority of the 160-minute runtime. These tangents naturally cause the audience to speculate whether these scenes are happening in reality or just in Silverio’s head but after a while, it’s unlikely they’ll care much either way. The surrealist sequences implement imagery from a host of origins, including figures from the Mexican–American War and conquistadors from centuries earlier who come to life before Silverio’s eyes. Sometimes the scenes are more along the lines of heightened reality, as when Silverio imagines a worst-case scenario talk show interview after he cancels at the last minute. There’s a darkly comedic running gag about a baby that Silverio and Lucía lost shortly after labor that weaves in gallows humor quite deftly.

There’s a running subtext in Bardo about Silverio’s (and, presumably, Iñárritu’s) internal conflict between living in the United States and yet still feeling like his home is still south of the border. When Silverio returns to Mexico and attends a party for his upcoming award, members of his extended family repeatedly rib him about sucking up to the “gringos” in Hollywood. There’s a lengthy sequence in which he recalls his emigration process to the US and then another in airport security where his citizenship is called into question by a couple TSA agents. Iñárritu obviously has a unique perspective on being torn between two countries that don’t fully accept him and him trying to work out these feelings through this film are by far its most illuminating aspects.

If he had made a movie that was more focused on this subject — or just more focused overall — it could have worked but there’s just too much filler that adds up to nothing. Iñárritu has showcased influence from cinematic luminaries like Fellini and Buñuel in the past but in trying to emulate the masters, he flies too close to the sun this time around. Luis gives an excoriating speech to Silverio about halfway through the film, concerning what he thinks about his new documentary, and it’s clear Iñárritu wrote in an attempt to inoculate himself from potentially similar criticisms about Bardo. The attempt at self-deprecation whiffs more of defensiveness than the worthwhile self-awareness that the filmmaker was able to mine more successfully in Birdman. When Netflix distributed Roma with Alfonso Cuarón in 2018, it was a love letter to his upbringing in Mexico City but by comparison, Bardo, False Chronicle Of A Handful Of Truths feels like a love letter Iñárritu wrote to himself.

Score – 2/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Avatar: The Way of Water, the highly-anticipated sci-fi epic starring Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña continuing the story of the Na’vi alien race and the fight to protect their planet Pandora against a familiar threat.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Nanny, a horror movie starring Anna Diop and Michelle Monaghan about an immigrant caretaker based in New York City who is forced to confront a concealed truth that threatens to shatter her precarious American Dream.
Screening at Cinema Center is Triangle of Sadness, a dark comedy starring Woody Harrelson and Charlbi Dean centering around a fashion model celebrity couple who join a cruise for the super-rich that doesn’t go according to plan.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Pinocchio

There have been numerous cinematic adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s children’s book The Adventures of Pinocchio over the years, so perhaps it was inevitable that two would arrive in the same year. 3 months after Disney released a live-action “reimagining” of their own 1940 classic, Netflix responds with their own version of Pinocchio, a stop-motion effort co-directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro. I could compare and contrast these two movies for the rest of this review but the important takeaway is that Disney’s film is another cynical re-do that drains the life from its predecessor and while Netflix’s film isn’t a masterpiece, it’s leagues more inspired by comparison. As one would expect, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a darker and more complex tale but still carries out the original novel’s timeless themes.

This version of the story takes place in 1930s Italy, where woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) bitterly grieves over the loss of his only son due to an errant bomb dropping from a wartime plane. After a battle with the bottle one evening, Geppetto crafts a wooden puppet resembling his lost boy in a traumatized frenzy. In the middle of the night, a wood sprite (Tilda Swinton) gives life to the pine creation and when Geppetto wakes up, he meets Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), who sounds and behaves like his late son. In his effort to become a real boy, Pinocchio encounters the proverbial angel and devil on his wooden shoulders, in the form of Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) and Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), respectively.

Most of Pinocchio plays out in the way that you would expect from horror/dark fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro putting his own twist on the classic fable. Reminiscent of his finest film Pan’s Labyrinth, the specters of war and ultra-nationalism loom large over this story about the good and evil of the world seen through the eyes of a young soul. Volpe’s carny huckster wouldn’t be out of place in last year’s Nightmare Alley and the sea-set finale with The Dogfish (named Monstro in the 1940 Disney version) recalls the marine creature work from Best Picture winner The Shape of Water. There’s inevitable Henry Selick influence in a recurring purgatorial gag and the associated appearances of Death (also voiced by Tilda Swinton) reminded me of the endlessly creepy Mysterious Stranger sequence from 1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain.

Aside from being the umpteenth cinematic variation of this fairy tale, Pinocchio does commit some unforced errors that aren’t necessarily tied to its companion pieces. While the musical score by Alexandre Desplat is transportive, the songs sung by the characters feel like an afterthought and whiff of forced whimsy to counteract the film’s darker nature. Waltz is perfectly menacing as always in his villainous role but the overly-peppy voicework from Gregory Mann as the protagonist becomes grating and one-note after a while. There are also some inspired tertiary voice casting choices, like Cate Blanchett as a mostly non-verbal monkey and Tom Kenny (known as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants) as Benito Mussolini The stop-motion figures and set designs are immaculate and filled with rich detail but some of the CG, especially the animation of children’s faces, pales in comparison to the traditionally rendered effects

Now that we’re towards the end of the year, it’s worth reflecting on how strong a year this has been for stop-motion animated features, even without a new film from Laika Studios. This is a strong foray into the genre by Guillermo del Toro and in addition to Pinocchio, Netflix alone has released two other stop-motion movies — The House way back in January and Wendell & Wild, more recently — that are excellent exemplifiers for the genre. When you include Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and Mad God, two films that couldn’t be more different in terms of subject matter and tone, you get a sense of just how varied of films this style of animation can produce. Stop motion is obviously a labor-intensive and meticulous breed of filmmaking but banner years like this one prove how vital the work can be to the world of cinema.

Score – 3.5/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Coming back to theaters is Father Stu: Reborn, a PG-13 cut of the titular drama released earlier this year starring Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson about a boxer-turned-Catholic priest who lives with a progressive muscle disorder.
Also playing only in theaters is The Mean One, a Christmas horror movie starring David Howard Thornton and Krystle Martin about a woman who witnesses her parents’ murder at the hands of a green monster as a child and seeks to avenge their deaths 20 years later.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Emancipation, a historical action film starring Will Smith and Ben Foster about a runaway slave who forges through the swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey to escape plantation owners that nearly killed him.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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

The Menu

Comedian Patton Oswalt has a hilarious bit titled “Great Food Is Cooked By Psychos”, in which he equates his past love for out-there authors and musicians to his recent adoration with worryingly eccentric chefs. It’s a notion that HBO’s Succession director Mark Mylod and The Onion alums Seth Reiss and Will Tracy must have had in mind when crafting the razor-sharp black comedy The Menu. As one would hope, the jokes in the film cut a bit deeper than “hey, isn’t it funny how tiny the portions are at fancy restaurants?” and get into why this kind of snobby subculture continues to thrive. When the movie starts to infuse more thriller and horror elements, it can sometimes get a bit out of its depth but overall, this is a devilishly fun dish.

We meet Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) as they board a boat with 10 others who are also traveling to Hawthorne, a luxury restaurant situated on a private island. Each couple is paying $2500 to savor a meal made by idiosyncratic celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and his slavishly devoted kitchen staff. When the group arrives, they’re given a tour of the grounds by austere maître d’ Elsa (Hong Chau) before heading inside the lavishly designed restaurant. Chef Slowik’s introduction and the amuse-bouche seem normal enough but with each subsequent course, his preambles get stranger and the mood in the dining room gets more tense. Even though fanboy Tyler is still enraptured by the experience, Margot’s unwillingness to eat any of the prepared food draws Slowik’s ire and curiosity.

Pretentious foodies and the ultra-rich may make for soft targets in a satire but The Menu serves them their just desserts just the same. When the guests first arrive, the mood is not dissimilar from an Agatha Christie whodunnit but as the night goes on, the film turns into more of a playful dark comedy about the kinds of people who would pay this much for food. There’s the Anton Ego-esque food critic and her obsequious editor, a trio of techbros, a washed up actor with his assistant and a businessman and his wife, who converse as if they’re enjoying soup and breadsticks at Olive Garden. Even before Slowik sardonically dispenses with moral judgements about who these people are and why he suspects they’ve come, it’s clear none of them actually care about Slowik’s cooking in the first place.

But Margot wasn’t Tyler’s originally intended guest, which seems to concern Elsa right away and is brought to Slowik’s attention shortly after, so she is immediately seen as being outside of this typically sealed system. Fiennes and Taylor-Joy are outstanding scene partners as the chef calls Margot back to the kitchen for a series of terse conversations where they poke and prod at one another to gain understanding of their respective mindsets. Editor Christopher Tellefsen cuts these jagged-edge exchanges with a serrated knife but when the night gets more twisted, he moves to a butcher’s knife — punctuated by Slowik’s loud claps to introduce courses — to savor the intensity of the moment. Obviously, there are tantalizing (and occasionally ludicrous) plot developments you’ll want to avoid knowing specifics about going into the movie but suffice it to say, there are some delectable turns peppered throughout the film.

As much as this is a cheeky parable about the 1% and the people who serve them, The Menu is obviously a movie about the art of preparing food and all the emotions that come along with it. There is a scene of catharsis in this movie that recalls last year’s transcendent Pig, a film which is also set in the high-end restaurant scene but uses it as a way to gain understanding into how the characters live their lives once the meal is over. For most of its runtime, The Menu isn’t nearly that earnest and its primary aim is to skewer its band of obscenely rich patrons. As such, it’s a more superficial effort and not as satisfying as a movie that has more interest in its characters. But like a plate of burger and fries from your favorite fast food spot, The Menu will fill you up and put a smile on your face.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
The Fabelmans, starring Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, is a coming-of-age drama from Steven Spielberg about a teenager growing up in post-World War II era Arizona who aspires to become a filmmaker soon after discovering a shattering family secret.
Strange World, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid, is an animated sci-fi adventure following a family of explorers whose differences threaten to topple their latest and most crucial mission in the uncharted and treacherous land of Avalonia.
Devotion, starring Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell, is a biographical war drama which tells the true story of a pair of elite fighter pilots who became the U.S. Navy’s most celebrated wingmen during the Korean War.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup