Dune: Part Two

Denis Villeneuve’s DunePart One, for retroactive clarity — was originally due to come out November of 2020 but got pushed out almost a year, debuting October 2021 in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. Now premiering exclusively in theaters, Part Two was originally slated to come out last October but was delayed several months due to the Hollywood labor disputes of 2023. Pandemics and picket lines may have affected the release schedules for these two sci-fi epics but fortunately, they certainly haven’t affected their quality one bit. If Part One was Villeneuve’s way to introduce us to the world of Dune and its densely layered mythology, then Part Two gives us a chance to luxuriate in its singular splendor and sophisticated storytelling.

Picking up where Dune left off, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) continue to live among and learn from the desert-dwelling Fremen tribes. The evil Harkonnens, led by the corpulent Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård), attempt to capitalize on their coup of the House Atreides but their campaign to extract spice from the sands of Arrakis is thwarted by Fremen attacks. Desperate to regain control on the planet, the Baron recruits his bloodthirsty nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to clamp down on the frequent ambushes of their spice production equipment. Though Paul is initially treated as an outsider by the Fremen, their leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) begins to see signs of an ancient prophecy in Paul’s rapid assimilation to their ways.

We’ve seen the hero’s journey in other large-scale cinematic adventures like Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings but where Dune: Part Two deviates from the traditional narrative is in its moral complexity. Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins are humble exemplars who resist temptation from dark forces and remain good in their quest to achieve their respective goals. With respect to those trilogies and their protagonists, Paul Atreides goes through a much more complex character arc specifically in this section of the story that I found consistently fascinating. In the finest performance of his young career, Chalamet builds upon his work from the previous chapter and reveals the thornier sides of being a monomyth’s “chosen one”. With his character’s zealot-like devotion to Paul’s ascent, Bardem scores some unexpected laughs with how effusive he becomes in his convictions.

About as tactfully as any blockbuster I’ve ever seen, Dune: Part Two taps into how fear and faith are tools that are used to maintain control of the masses by ruling parties. Through gladiatorial combat shot in stupefying infrared cinematography by Greig Fraser, Baron Harkonnen asserts psychological dominance over his House with a display of brutality by his heir apparent. But through fundamentalist teachings carried out by Stilgar and his followers, we also see how the Fremen’s actions are restricted by the dogma of divinations that may or may not be true. The film doesn’t necessarily ask us to decide which of these is the “better” or morally upstanding method but rather to consider how the two may not differ as much as it would seem on the surface. Zendaya plays Paul’s Fremen love interest who grows more wary of his deification and finally declares “this prophecy is how they enslave us!” at a pseudo-religious gathering.

Chalamet and Zendaya are excellent in their central roles but like Part One, this chapter sports uniformly terrific performances from a deep roster of some of the most talented performers out there. Florence Pugh lends an ominous aristocracy to her Princess Irulan and Léa Seydoux is seductive perfection as one of the Bene Gesserit sent to proposition Feyd-Rautha. Austin Butler is another new face here and despite his much-discussed work in Elvis, he sheds the rock star affectation and hip-swinging in a performance that’s perfectly-measured menace. If there’s a weak link, Christopher Walken doesn’t register much in the important role of Emperor Shaddam. I think there were a number of actors who could’ve brought more to the character and sadly, I kept thinking how great the late Tom Wilkinson would’ve been for it. Small quibbles aside, Dune: Part Two is another home run from the strongest voice working in cinematic science fiction today.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Kung Fu Panda 4, an animated comedy starring Jack Black and Awkwafina continuing the adventures of the titular martial arts master as he searches for his successor as the new Dragon Warrior while fighting a new foe.
Also playing only in theaters is Imaginary, a supernatural horror movie starring DeWanda Wise and Tom Payne about a woman who returns to her childhood home to discover that the imaginary friend she left behind is very real and unhappy that she abandoned him.
Streaming on Netflix is Damsel, a fantasy film starring Millie Bobby Brown and Ray Winstone involving a sheltered young noblewoman who agrees to marry a handsome prince, only to discover that his family intends to sacrifice her to repay an ancient debt.

Drive-Away Dolls

When the Coen Brothers decided to amicably part ways in 2018 after their co-directed Western anthology The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Joel chose to veer the Shakespearean route with 2021’s terrific The Tragedy of Macbeth. After heading up an uncompelling Jerry Lee Lewis documentary, Ethan now has his first solo narrative feature under his belt with Drive-Away Dolls, which is just about as diametrically opposed tonally from his brother’s solo debut as possible. Clocking in at 85 minutes, the film harkens back to sleazy B movies and exploitation camp of the 60s and 70s but retains the Coen crime components to which we’ve become accustomed over the years. There’s blackmail, kidnapping, misunderstandings, and eccentric characters; there’s even a pair of thugs similar to the ones in Fargo who give chase to the pair of lead ladies.

The film stars Margaret Qualley as Jamie, a frisky and free-wheeling fun-lover with a Southern accent so daffy that it calls to mind Nicolas Cage’s work in Raising Arizona. She’s just been kicked out of her girlfriend Sukie’s (Beanie Feldstein) apartment for sleeping around, so she crashes with her chaste friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) until things cool off. Short on cash, the girls opt for a drive-away plan, which will allow them to take a much-needed road trip down to Tallahassee without having to pay a rental fee for the car. Due to a mix-up, they’re given a car with sensitive payload in the back that was meant for a different duo driving south to Florida. A mob boss, played by Colman Domingo, slowly susses out the situation and tasks a couple henchmen with tracking down the car before Jamie and Marian find out what’s in the trunk.

The secret sauce in Drive-Away Dolls is the dialogue, particularly between the comedic foils of the gregarious, lascivious Jamie and buttoned-up, proper Marian. They begin the trip just as friends but along the journey, Jamie works tirelessly to pry Marian out of her shell and an intimacy between the two eventually arises. As they bounce around lesbian bars with names like The She Shed and The Butter Churn, their humorous exchanges are peppered with colorful language that also reveals something a bit deeper about who they are and what they mean to each other. Elsewhere, the criminal characters similarly get their share of quippy lines from the screenplay by Ethan Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke; at one point, Domingo’s kingpin character barks “stop saying words!” at his hapless subordinates over the phone.

At times, Drive-Away Dolls is more madcap than is advisable and there’s a zany, cartoony aspect to the movie that overplays its hand at some points. It’s most noticeable in the intentionally kitschy scene transitions, where the frame flips around or a new shot screeches on top of another like we’re watching an episode of Home Improvement. The tips of the hat towards cult road comedies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Thelma & Louise work better because they more ably imply the spirit that Coen seems to be aiming for. Obviously this is a film that naturally evokes female empowerment and is so matter-of-fact in its optimism and devil-may-care attitude that the energy is infectious. Qualley and Viswanathan seem to be on the same page as well, crafting comic characters with forgivable foibles who charm us as the miles roll along.

Beginning with the ominous opening scene, a few familiar faces (I won’t spoil who) turn up during Drive-Away Dolls in small but memorable roles. One such performer appears in a few psychedelic flashbacks that seem narratively unrelated when they occur but their relevance is tied back as the movie’s conclusion draws closer. Though the movie takes place at the end of the 90s with Y2K bearing down, most of the soundtrack reflects the unbridled spirit of the 70s with cuts from Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou”. Qualley is still likely best known for her supporting role in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as a hitchhiking hippie and here, as Jamie, she’s able to reprise some of those same notes with some extra licks thrown in. Drive-Away Dolls is a sapphic sex comedy that may not carry the significance of the Coens’ joint works but is a fun ride in its own right.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Coming only to theaters is Dune: Part Two, a sci-fi epic starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya continuing the journey of an exiled duke who becomes closer with a group of desert-dwelling nomads and joins them in their fight against the conspirators who destroyed his family.
Premiering on Netflix is Spaceman, a sci-fi drama starring Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan depicting an astronaut who is sent to the edge of the solar system to collect mysterious ancient dust while trying to keep his psyche intact during the process.
Streaming on Peacock is Megamind vs. the Doom Syndicate, an animated superhero comedy starring Keith Ferguson and Laura Post about a reformed supervillain who assembles a new team to stop his former evil teammates’ nefarious plans.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Notes on the 2024 Oscars

Best Picture

Another very strong batch of films this year; I enjoyed all of them to varying degrees and don’t recognize a dud in the bunch. Each of my top 3 personal picks for best movie of the year are here, along with a couple more from my top 15. At this point in the race, it seems Oppenheimer is the clear frontrunner with Killers Of The Flower Moon as a distant dark horse. Its presence here with Barbie calls to mind the Barbenheimer craze that came to define 2023 in cinema. Awarding a box office juggernaut like Oppenheimer with Best Picture will give the Academy an opportunity to appeal to a broader audience, as they have been trying to do for years.

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: All Of Us Strangers

Best Director

A strong batch of candidates here, with a similar narrative to Best Picture as Nolan is assuredly the one to beat with Scorsese — still one of our finest living filmmakers — firmly in second place. Nolan has been putting out such consistently high quality work for 25 years now that I’m personally very excited for him to be taking home his first Academy Award. That it’s for one of his most accomplished works in Oppenheimer is a nice cherry on top. It would have been nice to see Greta Gerwig or Sean Durkin here, who each have a trio of features under their belts that demonstrate a high watermark for quality.

My Prediction: Christopher Nolan
My Vote: Christopher Nolan
Overlooked: Sean Durkin – The Iron Claw

Best Actor

This category looks to be a two horse race between Murphy for Oppenheimer and Giamatti for The Holdovers. Two respected actors who have done excellent work for years but have yet to take home Oscar gold — though Giamatti was nominated as Best Supporting Actor in Cinderella Man. At this point, I think Murphy has the wind at his back and will be heading up to the stage for the Best Actor trophy. His haunted performance in Oppenheimer gives that movie so much of its undeniable power and while Giamatti is certainly affecting in The Holdovers, it doesn’t have the same level of impact.

My Prediction: Cillian Murphy
My Vote: Cillian Murphy
Overlooked: Nicolas Cage – Dream Scenario

Best Actress

Best Actress also seems to be coming down to two performers — Lily Gladstone and Emma Stone — who have been trading off awards this season. Regardless of who wins, Gladstone’s nomination marks the first time an Indigenous American actress has been nominated for an Academy Award. I’m sure she’ll give a heck of a speech if she ends up winning but I feel like Stone has the lead at this point. Her performance in Poor Things is likely my favorite acting in all of 2023 and I imagine the voting pool for Actress will also find it similarly irresistible.

My Prediction: Emma Stone
My Vote: Emma Stone
Overlooked: Phoebe Dynevor – Fair Play

Best Supporting Actor

My Prediction: Robert Downey Jr.
My Vote: Robert Downey Jr.
Overlooked: Charles Melton – May December

Best Supporting Actress

My Prediction: Da’Vine Joy Randolph
My Vote: Da’Vine Joy Randolph
Overlooked: Ayo Edebiri – Bottoms

Some fun choices here; I’m delighted the Academy felt Ryan Gosling was good Kenough to be nominated for Barbie. Supporting Actor is especially strong, with Ruffalo putting in career-best work for Poor Things and De Niro reminding us through a monstrous character why he’s still one of the greats. But Downey Jr. seems difficult to overcome in this category, shining brilliantly in a villainous role after playing the heroic Iron Man for numerous MCU entries. Sadly, Supporting Actress is more underwhelming this year and Randolph has virtually gone undefeated in this category during awards season, so her win seems like one of the strongest locks of the night.

Best Original Screenplay

My Prediction: The Holdovers
My Vote: The Holdovers
Overlooked: Afire

Best Adapted Screenplay

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse

Best Animated Feature Film

My Prediction: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
My Vote: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
Overlooked: Suzume

Best International Feature Film

My Prediction: The Zone Of Interest
My Vote: The Zone Of Interest
Overlooked: Fallen Leaves

Best Documentary – Feature

  • Bobi Wine: The People’s President
  • The Eternal Memory
  • Four Daughters
  • To Kill A Tiger
  • 20 Days In Mariupol

My Prediction: 20 Days In Mariupol
My Vote: 20 Days In Mariupol
Overlooked: Lakota Nation vs. United States

Best Documentary – Short Subject

  • The ABCs Of Book Banning
  • The Barber Of Little Rock
  • Island In Between
  • The Last Repair Shop
  • Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó

My Prediction: The ABCs Of Book Banning
My Vote: The Last Repair Shop
Overlooked: —

Best Live Action Short Film

  • The After
  • Invincible
  • Knight Of Fortune
  • Red, White And Blue
  • The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar

My Prediction: The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar
My Vote: The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar
Overlooked: —

Best Animated Short Film

  • Letter To A Pig
  • Ninety-Five Senses
  • Our Uniform
  • Pachyderme
  • War Is Over! Inspired By The Music Of John And Yoko

My Prediction: Letter To A Pig
My Vote: Pachyderme
Overlooked: —

Best Production Design

My Prediction: Barbie
My Vote: Barbie
Overlooked: Asteroid City

Best Cinematography

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: Saltburn

Best Costume Design

My Prediction: Barbie
My Vote: Poor Things
Overlooked: A Haunting In Venice

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

My Prediction: Maestro
My Vote: Poor Things
Overlooked: Barbie

Best Original Score

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: The Boy And The Heron

Best Original Song

  • “The Fire Inside” from Flamin’ Hot
  • “I’m Just Ken” from Barbie
  • “It Never Went Away” from American Symphony
  • “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)” from Killers Of The Flower Moon
  • “What Was I Made For?” from Barbie

My Prediction: “What Was I Made For?”
My Vote: “What Was I Made For?”
Overlooked: “Camp Isn’t Home” from Theater Camp

Best Sound

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: The Zone Of Interest
Overlooked: The Killer

Best Film Editing

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: How To Blow Up A Pipeline

Best Visual Effects

My Prediction: Godzilla Minus One
My Vote: Godzilla Minus One
Overlooked: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Enjoy the show!

Madame Web

Sony’s Spider-Man Universe — the one that, confusingly, doesn’t actually have Spider-Man in it — crawls forward with Madame Web, another ode to a tertiary comic book character that didn’t need the silver screen treatment. So poorly put together that it made me yearn for the comparative structural soundness and formal rigor of Morbius, the latest SSU entry doesn’t even seem interested in being a superhero movie in the first place. The lead character barely has superpowers and the character’s clairvoyance only seems to annoy everyone around her, including us in the audience since it’s confusingly rendered on screen. Throw in a ridiculously hokey villain and dialogue that sounds like it was translated to English from a dead language and you have one of the biggest afterthoughts in the modern superhero era.

After an Peruvian prologue set in 1973, we flash forward 30 years later to meet Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson), a New York-based paramedic who works alongside her longtime friend Ben Parker (Adam Scott). While rescuing an injured driver from their car, Cassie falls into a river below and, when under the water, has strange visions of the future before Ben revives her. After several instances of memory overlap and visceral déjà vu, she discovers she can now see into the future, which is consistently being haunted by a violent man in a web-patterned costume. Cassie uses her power to save three teenagers — Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Anya (Isabela Merced) and Mattie (Celeste O’Connor) — before the figure can attack them on the subway and vows to keep the trio safe under her watch.

We’ve seen the reluctant superhero arc before, where an average person who doesn’t want the responsibility of heroism eventually accepts their position, but Madame Web is such an awkward contortion of that familiar storyline. Whether it’s in Johnson’s performance or how Cassie is written in the script, she barely seems interested in helping these girls and when the moment of transformation is supposed to come, it feels completely inauthentic and unearned. Because the three girls who are targeted by the shadowy figure don’t know Cassie or understand her ability, they spend most of the movie trying to get away from her and even try to get her arrested for kidnapping. Director S.J. Clarkson desperately tries to spin the narrative into one where Cassie takes on a maternal role for these three pupils but the effort feels hopelessly contrived.

It’s been said many times that superhero movies are only as interesting as their villains and the baddie this time around — Ezekiel Sims, as played by Tahar Rahim — is simply a terrible antagonist. He feels the need to dispose of these three kids because he says he has visions that they will one day team up in spider suits and kill him. Using technology that barely existed in 2023, much less 2003, he’s able to effortlessly track the teenagers down but gets thwarted in the most comically perfunctory ways. This character is supposed to have super speed and strength, in addition to the same kind of foresight that Cassie has, and yet he demonstrates a perpetual inability to evade moving cars. Of course it doesn’t help that he’s saddled with laborious lines like “each day that goes by, my appointment with death gets closer!”

Madame Web is also another Sony superhero slog that feels like it was ripped to ribbons in the editing room. The way that Clarkson depicts Cassie’s power is similar to the way it’s portrayed in Edge Of Tomorrow, although using the awful Nic Cage sci-fi actioner Next as an analog is more apt. But both of those movies were able to visually delineate what was really happening and what was in the protagonist’s head, where this film sadly doesn’t give us the luxury. That means it doesn’t really matter when something bad happens to the characters, because then we can assume the filmmaker will just roll it back like Funny Games and get a re-do. Perplexing psychic ability aside, there are basic composition issues throughout the movie, where the camerawork and cutting conspire to collapse whatever visual coherence the film barely has in the first place. Though it may look tempting from a “so bad it’s good” perspective, it’s not worth getting wrapped up in the tangle of Madame Web.

Score – 1/5

New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Ordinary Angels, a drama starring Hilary Swank and Alan Ritchson telling the true story of a hairdresser who single-handedly rallies an entire community to help a widowed father save the life of his critically ill young daughter.
Also playing only in theaters is Drive-Away Dolls, a comedy road movie starring Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan about two young women in search of a fresh start who embark on an unexpected road trip to Tallahassee but things quickly go awry when they cross paths with a group of inept criminals.
Streaming on Netflix is Mea Culpa, a legal thriller starring Kelly Rowland and Trevante Rhodes which follows an ambitious criminal defense attorney that, in his aspiration to be named partner, takes on a murder case of an artist.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Lisa Frankenstein

The story of Frankenstein has been reanimated so many times before that it was perhaps inevitable that we would eventually get a 1980s-tinged variation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Fittingly, Lisa Frankenstein is a movie that feels mashed together not just from other monster tales but also from specific macabre 80s classics like Beetlejuice and Heathers. Screenwriter Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for her sharp-tongued script for Juno, renders the sardonic patois from the misunderstood teen protagonists in those late-80s films and gives this update a spark of moody verbosity. While the story itself seems to lose its way the longer it lumbers along, it has enough period flourishes and well-earned eccentricities to make it worth recommending to those who gravitate towards horror comedies.

In Lisa Frankenstein, Kathryn Newton plays Lisa Swallows, a lonesome teenager who is finding it difficult to adjust to life after her mother is murdered in their home. Her dad Dale (Joe Chrest) is doing his best to move on, marrying yuppy nurse Janet (Carla Gugino) and acquiring step-daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano) in the process. Janet and Taffy do what they can to welcome the Swallows into their home but Lisa feels more comfortable spending time at the local cemetery, swooning over the grave of a young man (Cole Sprouse) who died long ago. Her pining is soon reciprocated when a bolt of otherworldly lightning strikes the headstone and brings the Victorian fellow back to life as a zombie who only has eyeballs for Lisa. Things take a dark turn when the pair realize they’ll need to steal body parts from the living to fill out the missing pieces of the reanimated corpse.

Lisa Frankenstein is the feature-length directorial debut of Zelda Williams — the daughter of late comic genius Robin Williams — and it can’t be said that she simply made the movie the studio wanted her to make. The film has loads of little touches, from its penchant for silent classics like A Trip To The Moon to its pitch-perfect goth rock needle drops, that allow Williams’ personality to shine through. She’s certainly taking a page or two from early Tim Burton projects — Edward Scissorhands in particular — carrying over the arc of a picture-perfect neighborhood getting flipped upside-down by the presence of a ghoulish creature. In the spirit of Beetlejuice and Scissorhands, Williams has a ball adorning her sets with props and textures that brilliantly evoke the artificial sheen of 1980s suburbia.

The aesthetic carries through in the costume design as well, which starts Lisa off in frumpy mismatched outfits and gradually transitions her to the goth chic look that Winona Ryder pioneered in her youth. Newton has good fun tailoring her performance around the wardrobe upgrades, allowing Lisa to become more confident as her adoration for her undead suitor grows. Sprouse has a more thankless role as the mute monster who finds himself drawn to Lisa; his body language and choreography are the main tools he has to tell her character’s story and he does an admirable job. Elsewhere, Gugino and Soberano are squandered in roles that the movie treats like it can’t wait to cut away from. While that’s more understandable for Janet being the “evil stepmother”, Taffy is kind to Lisa even past the point where it makes sense for her character to be.

If Williams and Cody don’t know what they want to do with these characters, it’s evident in how the storyline peters out as it staggers towards the neon-lit finish line. This is one of those horror comedies that doesn’t know how seriously it wants to take itself when it comes to doling out the consequences for its protagonist’s actions. Without giving away too much, it’s enough to say that the lovestruck couple get off way too easy when it comes to the moral and legal ramifications for what they get up to in this cheekily morbid tale. I’m not expecting the movie to turn into a just-the-facts crime drama in the third act but even a small helping of realism would have helped tie things up much better. As is, Lisa Frankenstein should still act as a lovesick siren song for weirdos past, present, and future.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Madame Web, a superhero movie starring Dakota Johnson and Sydney Sweeney about a paramedic in Manhattan who develops superpowers along with three other young women and creates a deadly adversary in the process.
Also playing only in theaters is Bob Marley: One Love, a music biopic starring Kingsley Ben-Adir and Lashana Lynch which follows the life and career of Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley as he overcomes adversity to become the most famous reggae musician in the world.
Streaming on Netflix is Players, a romantic comedy starring Gina Rodriguez and Damon Wayans Jr. about a sportswriter who spends her time creating hook up schemes but unexpectedly falls for one of her targets.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Argylle

With a couple exceptions, Matthew Vaughn is a director whose appeal largely eludes me. 20 years ago, his Guy Ritchie-aping Layer Cake was a sort of test run for Daniel Craig before his superb breakout as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale. Vaughn’s films since then, from Kick-Ass to the Kingsman franchise, have always struck me as productions that try way too hard to push buttons and not hard enough to create a compelling story. His newest, the spy comedy Argylle, is his first PG-13 movie since X-Men: First Class, which presents a challenge to a storyteller who often leans on over-the-top gore and a slurry of salty language to punctuate his tales. If his latest feels neutered, it may not be because it feels like the R-rated content was cut out but rather that the entire movie was cut from the fabric of projects that pulled off this sort of caper more convincingly.

Argylle opens with the titular secret agent (Henry Cavill) on his latest mission in Greece, attempting to seduce a sultry asset named LaGrange (Dua Lipa), with members of his team Keira (Ariana DeBose) and Wyatt (John Cena) ready to provide backup. After a car chase that seems especially cartoonish, we realize we’re actually inside a story being created by Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), a successful author in the process of writing her fifth novel in the Argylle series. But while taking a train to visit her folks in Chicago, she’s intercepted by bonafide spy Aidan (Sam Rockwell), who claims her books are not only remunerative but seemingly prophetic. In fact, they’re so accurate to the real goings-on in international espionage that she’s being recruited to predict the next steps that will be taken by The Division, a nefarious organization that Aidan and his team aim to topple.

With its story-in-a-story structure and seemingly endless twists, Argylle feels like what screenwriter Shane Black would come up with if he were given 72 hours to do furious rewrites for 2022’s The Lost City. Instead of that Romancing The Stone riff, Vaughn goes the glossed-out route of recent globetrotting duds like Red Notice and Ghosted, with comparatively better, but still not very good, results. The cast, led terrifically by Howard as a charmingly flustered protagonist, certainly does their best to sell the material. Bryan Cranston and Samuel L. Jackson turn up as the heads of the rivaling spy organizations, while Catherine O’Hara is reliably excellent as Elly’s supportive mom. There’s no shortage of superlative talent on the screen but the nagging feeling persists that it would be better had all of these talented folks showed up for a project more deserving of their gifts.

It’s Vaughn and his writer Jason Fuchs who don’t bring their A-game to Argylle as their attempt to collision course several genres ends up in a multi-car pileup. As a send-up of the spy genre, it’s not particularly observant or witty in its rote execution of espionage pap. As an action movie, it falls back on the same chaotic formula of hastily-staged combat and cheeky disco tunes that Vaughn can’t seem to let go of. The comedy works in bits and pieces, thanks to the occasional inspired line read from members of the overqualified cast, but it’s not a consistently funny movie. There are moments that are meant to carry dramatic weight, one of which involves the overuse of a Beatles song that hadn’t even been released when this movie was presumably set, that don’t land because they feel like they’re from an entirely different film.

But worst of all, Argylle seems to be stuck in the same mid-aughts time loop that Vaughn finds himself in, where crime films like Lucky Number Slevin and Smokin’ Aces tried to outsmart audiences at every turn with one plot development more ludicrous than the last. To put it bluntly, there’s a reason those types of movies went away in the first place but Vaughn treats each of the reveals in his newest project like we’ve never seen this sort of thing before. It would also be palatable if it were breezily paced but at 139 minutes, the scenes of exposition and explanation don’t take long to bog things down. Argylle is being distributed by Apple Original Films, which means it will likely be on Apple TV+ later this year. With a flurry of familiar faces, it may play just fine on that streaming service but as a big screen affair, it isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Lisa Frankenstein, a horror comedy starring Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse about a misunderstood teenager who reanimates a corpse from the Victorian era during a lightning storm and starts to rebuild him into the man of her dreams.
Also coming to theaters is Out Of Darkness, a horror thriller starring Safia Oakley-Green and Chuku Modu following a disparate gang of early humans who band together in search of a new land and suspect a malevolent, mystical being is hunting them down.
Premiering on Hulu is Suncoast, a coming-of-age drama starring Laura Linney and Woody Harrelson about a teenager who, while caring for her ill brother, strikes up an unlikely friendship with an eccentric activist who is protesting one of the most landmark medical cases of all time.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Orion And The Dark

The latest DreamWorks animated movie Orion And The Dark, debuting on Netflix starting this Friday, doesn’t seem to stand out much at first glance from the legion of kid’s movies on streaming. It has amiable animation, fun fantastical characters and a brisk pace to follow the hero’s journey from beginning to end. The trailer makes it seem like a mashup of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid and Inside Out, with visual crossover from Pixar short film Day & Night for good measure. Such comparisons are colored by the film’s most surprising creative aspect: the screenplay was adapted by Charlie Kaufman, arguably the defining screenwriter of his generation. Putting aside the common thread of all his previous work is notable for being especially cerebral and generally moribund, this also marks the first time he’s penned a script that was aimed at younger audiences.

It’s likely that Kaufman sees a good bit of himself in Orion (Jacob Tremblay), a beleaguered elementary school boy who is petrified by nearly all that life throws his way. But at the top of the heap of his irrational fears is the dark, which he staves off with an array of nightlights at his disposal. A brief power outage brings him face to face with the personification of Dark (Paul Walter Hauser), who is less of a scary monster and more a genial, grinning giant. It turns out that Dark has been observing Orion and wants to help him triumph over his fears, a task that requires help from other Night Entities like Dreams (Angela Bassett) and Sleep (Natasia Demetriou) that Dark works alongside. Unfortunately, the time that it takes for the gang to help Orion pulls them away from their nightly duties and threatens to upend the natural order of things.

Interspersed within the narrative is a framing device in which adult Orion, voiced by Colin Hanks, is reading the events of the movie as a story to his young daughter Hypatia. Their relationship is one of the sweetest aspects of Orion And The Dark, filled with love and mutual admiration for how their minds blossom in the presence of one another. Hypatia is a bright kid and instead of chiding her for getting ahead of herself, the adult version of Orion often pauses briefly to take in what she’s said and really consider it. He seems like a good dad outside of this aspect but I appreciated that the movie allowed for such a thoughtful depiction of fatherhood. I’m not a father but this subplot helped me understand the wonderment that parents feel when they can see their children creating themselves, and their place in the world, in real time.

Back in the main storyline, the central theme is a relatively common one both in kid’s movies and American cinema as a whole: overcoming fear. Where Orion And The Dark excels is in how it depicts Orion’s various anxieties and how they may have gotten there in the first place. When he’s describing all the little things that get to him, director Sean Charmatz and his animators weave the hypothetical scary scenarios together into one another. The overlapping incidents often have a snowball effect in their propulsive pace, the same way that unchecked anxiety can avalanche in our brains. There’s a mindfulness and playfulness to the way that Dark allows Orion to take in the beauty of the world that he’s too often been stultified by.

Paul Walter Hauser is a hoot as the voice of Dark, a creation who reminded me of a cross between The Ghost Of Christmas Present from A Christmas Carol and Beetlejuice. The latter has more to do with the voice work, as Hauser cannily evokes the same kind of grizzled charm that Keaton used for his “bio-exorcist” in the 1988 classic. Ike Barinholtz also pops up as Light, the natural nemesis to Dark who is brimming with confidence and arrogance as he haughtily oversees the dawning of each new day. Infamous German filmmaker Werner Herzog even turns up a couple times, once as a narrator for an introductory film that Dark makes and again as a planetarium guide. Orion And The Dark isn’t a revolutionary animated movie but it’s a balanced meal of cordial humor and keen insight.

Score – 3.5/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Argylle, an action comedy starring Henry Cavill and Bryce Dallas Howard, involving an introverted spy novelist who is drawn into the real world of espionage when the plots of her books get a little too close to the activities of a sinister underground syndicate.
Streaming on Peacock is Bosco, a biopic starring Aubrey Joseph and Nikki Blonsky, which tells the true story of a man who was sentenced to 35 years for attempted possession of marijuana and escaped prison with the help of a woman he met through a lonely-hearts ad.
Premiering on Paramount+ is The Tiger’s Apprentice, an animated fantasy starring Henry Golding and Lucy Liu, is an adaptation of the titular action-adventure novel about a Chinese-American boy who must learn ancient magic to become the new guardian of an ancient phoenix.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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