Tag Archives: Reel Views

Smile

Capping off an uncommonly strong month for cinematic horror, the frightfest Smile stars Sosie Bacon as Dr. Rose Cotter, a psychologist who’s been putting too many hours into her job at a New Jersey-based psychiatric ward. Right before ending her shift one day, she meets with disturbed PhD student Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who says she is being stalked by an evil grinning figure that takes the appearance of other people she knows. The appointment turns even more tragic and leaves Rose irrevocably shaken, to the growing concern of her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) and her boss Dr. Desai (Kal Penn). Rose begins seeing the malevolent entity that Laura described, prompting her to go to her policeman ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner) to find a chain connecting these “smiling” sightings that are now plaguing her.

Smile effectively combines two horror reliable subgenres: transmissible curse films like It Follows or The Ring — going further back, it most resembles the supernatural cop thriller Fallen — and personified trauma movies like Hereditary and The Night House. It also leans on a rich history of creepy cinematic smiles for chills, the most haunting of which still belongs to Conrad Veidt’s character from the silent picture The Man Who Laughs. Adapting from his short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, writer/director Parker Finn takes the material seriously but does have some fun playing with the audience’s expectations. This is a movie that shamelessly includes jump scares but, naturally, Finn’s hope is that their placement may still surprise you. When the camera stays on Cotter as she opens her refrigerator, will there be someone behind the door when she closes it?

As an overworked doctor already at her wit’s end before the film’s inciting event, Bacon is terrific at putting us in the mindset of someone whose grip on reality is slowly becoming more tenuous. Her screen presence and nervy resolve while being terrorized by a distorted-faced bogeyman remind me of Neve Campbell, who returned to the Scream franchise again earlier this year in the series’s fifth installment. As compared to the Scream films, the terror in Smile is more psychological in nature, since the characters around Cotter can’t see the horrifying creature that impersonates her friends and family. She reaches out to people she thinks she can trust, like her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser) and her therapist Dr. Northcott (Robin Weigert), but there’s no telling when the shapeshifting smirker could rear its smiling head.

Mental health is a subject that horror films have addressed responsibly and not-so-responsibly over the years — more recently, I would put 2022’s Abandoned in the latter category — but Smile builds it into the narrative sensitively and intelligently. As a child, Cotter witnessed her wayward mother overdose on unnamed prescription pills, leaving an indelible mark on her even as she treats patients going through the same sort of mental illnesses that afflicted her mom. The way that the film personifies the cyclical nature of traumatic events is disturbing and shocking at times but doesn’t feel exploitative of these characters or their issues. The people around Rose who know about her relationship with her mother assume that she’s succumbing to genetically-passed psychosis and Finn leaves the door open enough to suspect that they could be right.

Shot by DP Charlie Sarroff largely in shallow focus and with colors that look like they’ve had the life drained out of them, Smile is a admirably bleak affair that nevertheless finds purpose in its protagonist’s quest for vindication. Finn also sprinkles in typically innocuous smiles, like those found on families from vintage print ads or found on the lower end of the Wong-Baker pain scale, to perpetually unnerving effect. Being Finn’s full-length feature debut, the film could have benefitted from more judicious editing but in general, the pacing felt just right for a movie with a sadistically patient antagonist that waits for the right moment to strike. Beaming with a strong central performance and a potent concept, Smile is an elemental chiller that sinks its teeth in and never lets go.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters is Amsterdam, a mystery comedy starring Christian Bale and Margot Robbie involving three friends—a doctor, a nurse, and a lawyer—who become the prime suspects in the murder of a US Senator in the 1930s.
Also playing in theaters is Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, a musical comedy starring Shawn Mendes and Javier Bardem adapted from the popular children’s book about a family moving into a new home, where they find a singing saltwater crocodile living in the attic.
Premiering on Hulu is Hellraiser, a supernatural horror remake starring Odessa A’zion and Jamie Clayton about a young woman struggling with addiction who comes into possession of an ancient puzzle box, unaware that its purpose is to summon evil extradimensional beings.

Don’t Worry Darling

Hot off its Venice International Film Festival premiere earlier this month, Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort Don’t Worry Darling lands in theaters with a whole mess of PR in tow. Reports of casting shake-ups and alleged on-set conflicts painted the picture of a troubled production before a disjointed press circuit further exacerbated the optics surrounding the film. It’s to the movie’s credit that all of this baggage begins to evaporate quite quickly, like a dream upon waking, after the lights dim and the projector begins to flicker. Unfortunately, the end result still isn’t good enough to overcome all the expectations most audiences will have going into the theater, nor is it bad enough for the hate-watching crowds to get their kicks either.

Set in an idyllic community deeply steeped in mid-century architecture and fashion, Don’t Worry Darling is told through the eyes of Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh), a stay-at-home wife who dutifully sees her engineer husband Jack (Harry Styles) off every morning. She spends her days rigorously cleaning the house and sharing a mid-day martini with next-door neighbor Bunny (Olivia Wilde) before preparing a lavish dinner just in time for Jack’s arrival back home. Alice’s utopian life in the town of Victory starts to fall apart when her friend Margaret (KiKi Layne) begins to press Frank (Chris Pine), the founder of the all-encompassing Victory Project, for details around the enigmatic operation. After seeing a plane crash in the desert one day, Alice makes a trip to investigate the wreckage but instead finds the Victory Headquarters, causing her to ask questions similar to the ones Margaret asked before suffering an alleged “accident”.

Anyone who has seen the trailer for Don’t Worry Darling, which played ad nauseam in theaters this summer, won’t be surprised that some of the film’s stronger points are its surface-level delights. The set design, location work and production design are absolutely first-rate, meticulously evoking a 1950s postcard-prepped Palm Springs paradise that is exquisitely rendered at every turn. The masterful cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whose work on Black Swan underscores the ballet classes that Alice takes in this film, beautifully renders these picturesque settings while implying a darkness under the surface. Juxtaposing the carefree doo-wop and jazz hits on the soundtrack, John Powell’s haunting music score blends chopped-up breaths and grimy synths to perpetually chilling effect.

It’s all fantastic window-dressing but the script for Don’t Worry Darling dooms itself by putting all its eggs in the basket dedicated to the central mystery concerning what is really happening at Victory. Wilde occasionally drops paltry breadcrumbs leading to the late third-act development but spends too much time spinning her wheels with one psychological horror trope after another. Without getting into details that would constitute spoilers, the reveal feels cobbled together from other movies and TV series that have explored its implications and ramifications more thoroughly and intelligently. Wilde adds some layers of gender politics and social commentary that feel fresh and germane to the story but not enough to triumph over the nagging questions that theatergoers will have when the credits roll.

The stacked ensemble cast, which also includes Gemma Chan and Nick Kroll, does everything they can to bring this wonderland to life. Translating the terrors of her Midsommar character into a somewhat similar scenario, Pugh is reliably outstanding at bringing us into the shattered psyche of a woman at odds with the perfidious paradise around her. Pine is also excellent as a confident and charismatic authority figure who conjures platitudes about progress and positivity so seductively that they start to sound profound in no time. Styles is fine conveying what is admittedly a pretty bland character but based on the strength of his latest album, I hope he makes music a bigger priority than acting from here on. Don’t Worry Darling has plenty going for it but ultimately comes undone by a backloaded screenplay that favors surprises over subtlety.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters is Bros, a romantic comedy starring Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane about a New York museum curator with commitment issues and insecurities about his homosexuality who attempts a relationship with a workaholic lawyer.
Streaming on Disney+ is Hocus Pocus 2, a supernatural comedy starring Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker bringing back the Sanderson sisters 29 years after the events of the first film as they face off against a new trio of high school students.
Premiering on Netflix is Blonde, a historical drama starring Ana de Armas and Adrien Brody which tells a fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe from her tragic childhood to her meteoric rise to fame and her untimely death at the age of 36.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Pearl

When writer/director Ti West debuted his slasher film X at South By Southwest this past March, he announced that he secretly shot a prequel back-to-back with it that would fill in the backstory for X‘s elderly killer. Nine months later, we have Pearl, a horror movie as indebted to Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s as X was inspired by independently-produced slashers of the 1970s. Though this chapter takes place in 1918, when talkies hadn’t even been invented yet, West also taps into a golden age of Hollywood aesthetic with allusions to The Wizard of Oz and early Disney features. It’s in service of a villain origin story that generates a laudable amount of sympathy for its subject, mainly due to another outstanding performance from Mia Goth.

60 years before the events of X, the young Pearl (Goth) lives and works on a farm with her stern German immigrant mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) while waiting for her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) to return from the Great War. Unsatisfied with the squalor of her circumstances, Pearl goes to the theater in town to watch the Palace Follies dancers and aspire to a more glamorous life. She meets a handsome projectionist (David Corenswet), who immediately takes a liking to her and encourages Pearl to pursue her dancing dreams. Pearl’s sister-in-law Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) informs her that a nearby church is holding auditions for a new chorus line member, which Pearl naturally sees as her ticket off the farm.

Even those who haven’t seen the companion piece X should be able to surmise that Pearl’s dreams of stardom don’t exactly pan out as she’d like but the film’s merits allow it to stand alone and make this a story worth delving into. While some of the early stylistic touches can come across as self-indulgent, which isn’t terribly out of character for West as a director, Pearl gradually begins to settle into itself as a sort of twisted fairy tale with themes similar to those in X about fame and fortune. There are other shared details with its sequel, from the screening of a stag film to the appearance of a certain hungry alligator, that should delight those who saw West’s previous effort. There are also numerous parallels drawn between the Spanish flu outbreak of the era to the COVID-19 pandemic, the latter of which actually helped West to pursue production for this unlikely prequel.

Goth, who co-wrote the Pearl script along with West, donned layers of makeup to play the older version of her character in X but is able to be much more expressive here as the ingénue-turned-murderer. As she performs tasks like feeding the farm animals or bathing her father, it almost seems like Goth could break out into an “I Want” Disney song at any moment, even though she also exhibits disturbing tendencies from the get-go. Her wide-eyed innocence giving way to madness reminded me of Shelley Duvall, particularly in her tormented performance from The Shining; one imagines Goth had an infinitely more enjoyable time making this movie. She does an excellent job getting us inside Pearl’s headspace, especially in a flawlessly-performed barn-burner of a third-act monologue which is presented in an unbroken take.

As he did during SXSW, West announced during Pearl‘s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month that X would get yet another entry in this series called MaXXXine, following the title character into the 1980s. Interestingly enough, Maxine was also played by Goth, meaning that her dual role in X will now have a prequel for one of the characters and a sequel for the other. It’s been quite a treat watching this peculiar trilogy emerge piece by piece as West and Goth find new ways to flesh out the flawed characters from this slasher series. Both films so far have leaned more heavily towards style than substance but then there are moments, like the aforementioned confessional monologue from Pearl or the “Landslide” sequence from X, that achieve unreserved beauty and wisdom. Horror often depicts humans at their worst but Pearl makes room for the hopes and desires that drive us to be better.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Don’t Worry Darling, a psychological thriller starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles about a 1950s housewife living with her husband in a utopian experimental community who begins to worry that his glamorous company could be hiding disturbing secrets.
Streaming on Peacock is Meet Cute, a romantic comedy starring Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson about a young woman who discovers a time machine in a nail salon and uses it to continually fix elements of a date she had the previous night.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is Sidney, a documentary honoring the legendary Sidney Poitier and his legacy as an iconic actor, filmmaker and activist at the center of Hollywood and the Civil Rights Movement.

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

Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.

Last September, The Eyes of Tammy Faye took the straight-laced biopic approach to telling the story of a pastor’s wife standing alongside her husband amidst a turbulent time of scandal and mistrust. Its spiritual companion, so to speak, now arrives a year later in Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., which works off of a similar premise but takes a markedly different approach to the story. Half of the film plays like a mockumentary version of The Righteous Gemstones, while the other half resembles Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, if its target was organized religion instead of the entertainment industry. While it has some strong laughs early on and a pair of terrific lead performances, the film is stylistically incongruous and narratively superfluous.

The movie centers around fictional Atlanta megachurch Wander To Greater Paths Baptist, led by perfervid pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and congenial “first lady” Trinitie (Regina Hall). Together, the pair have cultivated a congregation of 25,000+ members but their status in the community is at risk when accusations come out against Lee-Curtis that force the Childs’ to temporarily close the church’s doors. In the interim, the nearby Heaven’s House, led by Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie, respectively), has seen a steady uptick in congregants that the Sumpters would like to retain even after Greater Paths reopens. With their backs against the wall, the Childs’ plan a comeback of biblical proportions that will restore their reputation and return their sheep to the fold.

Opening with Trinitie fumbling over a rat-based parable to an unseen camera crew, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. gets off on the right foot early with a faux-documentary style to which fans of The Office or Modern Family will feel acclimated right away. The more image-conscious the subjects are in this genre, the more fun their characters are to observe and the Childs’ fit this billing to a T. Whether they’re flaunting “divine additions” courtesy of Prada or making sure that the indoor fountain in frame behind them is spitting all sorts of unnecessary water, there’s plenty of comedy to be had with their conceited diversions. We’re also treated to domestic moments of Trinitie and Lee-Curtis trading verses on “Knuck If You Buck” and arguing about the en vogue pronunciation of “amen” that give these characters depth and personality.

But around the halfway point, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. turns from a lighter comedy about commodified Christianity to a more serious and pointed satire about hypocrisy at the highest levels of power. It’s certainly a worthy subject but compared to the tone of what came before it, the more biting commentary feels deflating and out of place. Ostentatious preachers and histrionic churchgoers are low-hanging fruit but it’s when the film tries to climb up the tree that it not only loses its sense of humor but also its sense of purpose. The Childs’ start as caricatures and become more sharply defined as the story progresses but I lost what writer/director Adamma Ebo is ultimately trying to say about them as people.

Fortunately, we never want to take our eyes off of Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, due to the sheer magnetism of the performances by Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall. The pair has an outstanding chemistry with one another and plays off each other beautifully, interplaying guile and grace all while trying to look good for the ever-present cameras. Conphidance and Nicole Beharie are quite good also but the movie seems to lose track of the Sumpters as it narrows in on the nature of Lee-Curtis’ indiscretions. If this had been a matter of the Childs’ vs. the Sumpters in a holy royal rumble for church members, it could have been played more broadly but I wouldn’t have complained as long as the jokes still landed. As is, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. is a mixed bag of blessings and woes whose script could have benefited from some divine intervention.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Barbarian, a horror film starring Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgård about a woman who arrives at an Airbnb to find that it’s apparently been double-booked as a man is also staying there the same time as her.
Premiering on Disney+ is Pinocchio, a live-action remake starring Tom Hanks and Joseph Gordon-Levitt about an Italian woodcarver whose puppet is brought to life after he wishes upon a star one evening.
Streaming on Netflix is End of the Road, a thriller starring Queen Latifah and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges about a cross-country road trip through the New Mexico desert that becomes treacherous for a woman and her family when they become the targets of a mysterious killer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Breaking

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year with the name 892, the now-retitled thriller Breaking introduces us to beleaguered Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley (played by John Boyega) as he’s being escorted by policemen in handcuffs. His appointment at the veteran’s affairs office one morning does not go as planned, ending with a physical outburst after being shorted desperately-needed funds due to unresolved school debt. Now facing the potential of homelessness for his family, Brown-Easley finds himself out of options and walks into a Wells Fargo bank carrying a backpack he says has an explosive device inside. Fast thinking by the bank’s manager Estel (Nicole Beharie) allows her to evacuate all the customers before his threat becomes known, leaving just her and teller Rosa (Selenis Leyva) on the premises with him.

But Brown-Easley makes it clear early on that he’s not out for some 6 or 7-figure score from the bank and that this isn’t a traditional robbery. He doesn’t want some bank’s money; he wants his money, the money that he’s owed, and he also wants the platform to tell his story to the media. When conversations with the negotiator outside (played by Jeffrey Donovan) stall out, he phones news reporter Lisa Larson (Connie Britton) as a lifeline to tap into what happened to him and why he’s doing this. Police outside finally get Brown-Easley in touch with Detective Bernard (the late Michael Kenneth Williams, in his final film role), a fellow Marine who starts to sympathize with his predicament and aims to get him out of the situation unharmed.

Along with his Red, White and Blue entry in 2020’s Small Axe anthology series, Breaking is a cogent argument for Boyega as an acting powerhouse following his three-film stint in the Star Wars universe. His Brown-Easley is understandably indignant about his circumstances and not above getting heated from time to time but for most of the film, Boyega makes a point of portraying him as polite and penitent during the bomb threat. I’m not sure I’ve seen another bank robbery movie where the robber says “sir” and “ma’am” this much and I’ve certainly never seen one where the robber takes a phone message from a customer for one of the tellers. Director and co-writer Abi Damaris Corbin leans a little too hard on the pathos (and pop culture references) involved in Brown-Easley talking on the phone with his young daughter but Boyega makes the moments in which they pray over the phone feel authentic and tragic.

Sadly, Breaking is based on a true story that occurred in August of 2017 and even if you don’t know before going into this movie how the actual events concluded in real life, a happy ending seems unlikely. Too often, Hollywood is late to the punch when addressing social issues that matter to people at the times that they matter most but the themes about racial inequality and the treatment of US veterans remain depressingly relevant. In fact, the inciting event of Brown-Easley’s actions being an unpaid student loan from a for-profit college suddenly became even more front-of-mind in the national conversation. This film is a reminder of what the best kinds of movies like this can do: take complicated and systemic issues around us and channel them through a few souls with whom we can empathize.

Corbin’s intentions are no doubt noble when telling this story and her message certainly gets across by the film’s conclusion but she does get swept up in some of the sensationalism inherent in this genre. The film is fittingly tense and generally well-rendered but some of the editing was a bit showy given the timbre of the story Corbin wants to tell. As with any movie based on a true story, dramatic license was likely used during certain moments of heightened emotion and a few scenes do feel like they’re straying a bit too far from realism. But the ensemble, which includes excellent performances from Beharie and Williams in addition to Boyega, carries the day and does this tragic tale justice. It may not be the easiest trip to the movies this summer but Breaking is a sobering reminder of how those who serve overseas are too often underserved when they come back home.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters and streaming on Peacock is Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., a satirical comedy starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown about the first lady of a prominent megachurch who attempts to help her pastor-husband rebuild their congregation in the aftermath of a huge scandal.
Swinging back in theaters is Spider-Man: No Way Home – The More Fun Stuff Version, an extended cut of last year’s box office champion which features 11 minutes of additional and deleted scenes to the superhero flick.
Premiering on Netflix is Ivy + Bean, a children’s comedy starring Keslee Blalock and Madison Skye Validum about an adventure that kindles a friendship between two very different girls: the scrappy and fearless Bean, and the thoughtful and quiet Ivy.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Orphan: First Kill

On a list of films unlikely to generate a prequel for release in 2022, the 2009 horror film Orphan would have to rank somewhere close to the top. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has since worked his way up the Hollywood ladder, culminating with a directing gig for the upcoming superhero flick Black Adam, while star Isabelle Fuhrman is now twice the age she was when playing nine-year-old Esther in the first film. Those who haven’t seen Orphan and would like to do so unspoiled may not want to read past this sentence, since it’s difficult to discuss Orphan: First Kill without revealing its predecessor’s shocking twist. Knowing that “Esther” is actually a murderous woman in her early 30s with proportional dwarfism presents yet another stumbling block for a potential follow-up: what’s left to tell now that we already know the big reveal? Despite these challenges, First Kill nevertheless registers as a mild success.

We open in an Estonian psychiatric institute, where we see the brutally devious Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) stage an unlikely escape, as was revealed towards the end of the first film. While scouring the internet for missing persons reports, Leena discovers she resembles Esther Albright, a young girl from Connecticut who hasn’t been seen in the past four years. Upon hearing the news, Esther’s mother Tricia (Julia Stiles) flies to an embassy in Moscow to reunite with who she thinks is her missing daughter. Leena further infiltrates the Albrights, traveling back to the States to con Esther’s father Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) in the’s family expansive New England estate. But how long will Leena be able to pass for Esther and what will the Albrights do if they uncover the deception?

At the outset, Orphan: First Kill has the difficult task of giving the now 25-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman the appearance of a pre-teen, ironic given that Leena is 33 years old in Orphan but convinces a family that she’s 9. Digital de-aging has gotten very popular on big-budget fare over the past several years but with more limited resources, director William Brent Bell and his crew instead implement more low-tech solutions like body doubles and forced perspective shots to maintain the illusion. Cinematographer Karim Hussain also does some heavy lifting on his part, casting the frame with a warm glow that aggressively softens facial features, even if it becomes detrimental to tasteful camerawork. Some of the scenes are so overlit or overexposed or both, it can be downright garish aesthetically but Hussain eases up some as the film progresses.

But the most important aspect of reviving “Esther” for Orphan: First Kill is the performance by Fuhrman, who returns to the role following a 13 year hiatus. Not only is she able to once again tap into the signature creepiness that made the first film as memorable as it was but she brings out Leena’s loneliness and longing to a degree that we somehow begin to sympathize with her evil character. Vera Farmiga was terrific in Orphan and in the role of a fellow traumatized mother adjusting to the presence of a new daughter, Julia Stiles delivers similarly excellent work. As good as Fuhrman and Stiles are, no one else in the cast is able to make nearly as much of an impact. Filling out the well-to-do Albright family, Rossif Sutherland and Matthew Finlan just don’t add much depth to their already shallow characters.

Both of the Orphan films exist in a subgenre of horror that I would describe as “elevated trash”. The premises are, frankly, a bit silly and hard to take seriously and yet, there is an art and craft to pulling them effectively. The performers and those behind the scenes all seem to be on the same page that they’re making some high camp and serious shlock. Even along those lines, this entry really strains some credulity down the stretch on behalf of its characters and that’s even given its already outlandish narrative. But I respect the pure panache that went into willing this most unlikely prequel into being, which is currently available to watch in theaters, rent digitally or stream on Paramount+. However one chooses to re-enter the Orphan universe, First Kill should surprise and delight those who go in with low expectations.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Three Thousand Years of Longing, a fantasy film starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, follows a scholar in Istanbul who encounters a Djinn that offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom.
Breaking, a thriller starring John Boyega and Michael K. Williams, tells the true story of a former Marine Corps veteran in financial trouble who robs a bank by way of a bomb threat.
The Invitation, a supernatural horror movie starring Nathalie Emmanuel and Thomas Doherty, finds a young woman discovering dark secrets about her family during the lavish wedding of her long-lost cousin.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Bodies Bodies Bodies

Bodies Bodies Bodies is a movie that tries so hard to be several different things that it doesn’t amount to much of anything in the end. It wants to be a satire of Generation Z and zoomer culture but it doesn’t push hard enough on those elements to succeed; the worst crime a satire can commit is to not be recognizable as one. Maybe it’s an in-on-the-joke slasher like Scream (2022, since designation is now necessary) but if that’s the case, why aren’t any of the characters making fun of the tropes that surround them? Murder mysteries like the superior Werewolves Inside and the Apple TV+ series The Afterparty have been popular recently but this film doesn’t exactly fit that categorization either. Though I can’t say I laughed much, perhaps it fits best as a dark comedy about interchangeable caricatures without a clue.

We open on young lovers Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) and Bee (Maria Bakalova) as they head to a “hurricane party” hosted by Sophie’s friend David (Pete Davidson) inside his dad’s mansion. Upon their arrival, they’re greeted warmly by some like Alice (Rachel Sennott) and her older boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace) but much less so by others like Jordan (Myha’la Herrold) and David’s girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders). To break the tension, Sophie suggests a game of Bodies Bodies Bodies, the rules of which are never clearly explained other than the fact that it resembles a variation of Mafia with flashlights. Once an actual dead body pops up within their game of fake murder, each of the partygoers becomes a suspect for one another as the tropical storm rages on outside.

The talented young cast does a nice job filling in the gaps of the screenplay where the development behind their characters should be, doing their level best to distinguish these otherwise indistinguishable characters from one another. In her English directorial debut, Halina Reijn often shifts the narrative focus between each of the houseguests, both keeping the audience on their toes and allowing us to spend split time with all of them. Amandla Stenberg was perhaps the only good aspect of last year’s otherwise atrocious Dear Evan Hansen and she gives another compelling performance here as an addict struggling to reconnect with her friends. Though characters pester her about not keeping up in the group chat, it’s made clear in time that this group of friends really only functions in a virtual sense as opposed to a face-to-face setting.

But Bodies Bodies Bodies doesn’t seem to have much of an attitude or perspective on the culture behind these young (except Greg) faces. A scene of confrontation later in the film is one of the only sequences that feels like it was conceived as a series of Tweets, with characters volleying jabs about “feelings are facts” platitudes and “ableist” accusations. If this film is supposed to be mocking how these characters interact, it needs to either keep up this cadence throughout or drop it entirely but as a thesis, it’s undercut by a movie that elsewhere doesn’t have enough else to say about Gen Z. I’d be happy to see a movie that either stands up for this crowd or takes them down but the film resides within a safe space where it wants to offend without offending.

Rhetoric aside, Bodies Bodies Bodies falls flat in the visual realm, which is especially troubling at a time when movie theaters finally seem to be coming back in fashion and only films “meant to be seen on the big screen” are selling tickets. The hurricane outside the mansion causes an obligatory power outage, which leads to most of the film being lit by either characters’ cell phone flashlights or glow sticks. This should be a unique challenge for any cinematographer to take on but director of photography Jasper Wolf shoots too much over-the-shoulder with very few wide shots to give us a sense of the space. Strong performances and some amusing dialogue aside, Bodies Bodies Bodies is boring, bland and basic.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Beast, a survival thriller starring Idris Elba and Sharlto Copley about a father and his two teenage daughters who find themselves hunted by a massive rogue lion intent on proving that the Savanna can only have one apex predator.
Streaming on Paramount+ is Orphan: First Kill, a psychological horror film starring Isabelle Fuhrman and Julia Stiles following Esther as she breaks out of an Estonian psychiatric facility and travels to America by impersonating the missing daughter of a wealthy family.
Available to rent or stream on AMC+ is Spin Me Round, a romantic comedy starring Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza about a woman who wins an all-expenses trip to Florence through the company where she works but finds a different adventure than the one she imagined.

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