Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood

The 2019 documentary Apollo 11 was a just-the-facts recreation of the titular historic spaceflight but thanks to the magic of rotoscoped animation, we now have a fantastical prequel of sorts. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, the latest from writer/director Richard Linklater, is likely his most personal film yet and a fine return to form after a couple recent misfires. Utilizing the rotoscoping technique he helped launch in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Linklater overlays live-action footage with bursts of animated color in a way that resembles a home movie that’s been strategically painted over. The effect is perfect for this wistful tale of remembering what was and daydreaming about what could have been during an era when anything seemed possible.

It’s 1969 in Texas and ten-year-old Stanley (Milo Coy) is at recess playing kickball when he’s called into a classroom to meet with two NASA officials (Glen Powell and Zachary Levi) about something top secret. As with his friends and family, Stanley is enraptured with the ongoing Apollo missions as they watch the shuttles launch on their televisions but these gentlemen have a proposal that will get him closer to his dreams than he ever imagined. Though NASA scientists are the best and brightest, they accidentally made a lunar module too small for an adult astronaut, much less three of them. So as to not waste resources, NASA offers to train Stanley in their program so that he can make the trip to the moon that Kennedy promised earlier in the decade.

Okay, so Linklater is playing a bit fast and loose with the historical facts of what actually landed man on the moon for the first time but the boyhood fantasy of Apollo 10½ is accompanied by very accurate details of time and place otherwise. About twenty minutes into the story, the film freeze frames on an unflattering moment during high-g training and goes on a lengthy detour that paints an evocative portrait of what life was like in this specific Houston suburb. As Daniel Stern did in The Wonder Years, Jack Black plays the adult version of Stanley looking back on his childhood via voiceover narration. It’s easy to see this as a younger brother to Linklater’s similarly nostalgic Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, as fascinated with 1960s culture as those were with the 1970s.

There’s quite a bit of archival footage used in Apollo 10½ but Linklater and his head of animation Tommy Pallotta incorporate plenty of deep cuts along with the expected cultural touchstones. Sure, most people who grew up during this time can relate to watching The Wonderful World Of Color on Sunday nights or hearing “Sugar, Sugar” played way too often. But the film is more specific about the subculture of Texas suburbanites who were smitten by NASA and their tireless endeavors throughout the decade at the nearby Johnson Space Center. As he does multiple times in the movie to rattle off lists of period-relevant board games or TV shows, Linklater fills up the frame at one point with revered astronauts as they appear on collectible trading cards.

Narratively, the film is split between the fictional account of Stanley’s trip to the moon and his life on the ground with his family of 8 but it doesn’t exactly split the time evenly. Obviously Linklater is using the outer space story as a way to show us a scrapbook of his early years, so it shouldn’t be surprising when the movie meanders for long stretches of time. Though it’s intentional, it does give things an uneven feel and the pacing can be a bit all over the place when the waxing nostalgic goes full throttle but the visual pizazz and the heartfelt nature carry the day. In one scene, Stanley describes one of his grandmothers as “a very sweet lady you couldn’t find much fault in” and the same could be said of Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Morbius, the latest entry in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe starring Jared Leto and Matt Smith about a scientist suffering from a rare blood disease whose attempts to cure himself afflict him with a form of vampirism.
Streaming on Netflix is The Bubble, a meta comedy starring Karen Gillan and Fred Armisen about a group of actors struggling to film the newest sequel of a dinosaur-based blockbuster franchise during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premiering on Disney+ is Better Nate Than Ever, a family-friendly musical starring Rueby Wood and Joshua Bassett about an unpopular 13-year-old who has a goal of becoming a Broadway musical star, even though he can’t land the lead in his school’s play.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Bats on the Brain: The Lego Batman Movie

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

“I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey.”

– Batman, The Lego Movie

When Phil Lord and Christopher Miller unveiled their “Legoized” version of Batman in their surprise smash The Lego Movie, it was two years after Christopher Nolan’s trilogy capper The Dark Knight Rises and two years before the Caped Crusader debuted in the DCEU with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Voiced by Will Arnett with his signature brand of haughtiness in full effect, their iteration is a send-up of the moody mythology that’s inextricably linked with the iconic superhero. His theme song is just him shouting things like “darkness!” and “no parents!” over a crushing industrial beat. He’s a lush, a braggart and terrible at concealing his secret identity of Bruce Wayne. His character was such a hit, the spin-off The Lego Batman Movie arrived two years prior to the proper sequel for The Lego Movie itself.

Batman doesn’t even wait until after the production logos finish before starting his voiceover. Hell, he doesn’t even wait until the first of the “really long and dramatic logos” comes up to hype up his own movie. “Black. All important movies start with a black screen,” he declares as the urgent music starts to bubble up. After describing DC as “the house that Batman built” and stealing lyric credit from Michael Jackson, the film commences with a riff on the opening plane heist from The Dark Knight Rises. Lego henchmen traverse and hijack the Macguffin Airlines aircraft, led by Joker (Zach Galifianakis) this time around instead of Bane. The pilot is more bemused than intimidated by the Clown Prince of Gotham’s presence in the cockpit, since Batman has batted 1000 when it comes to foiling Joker’s plans in the past. Another Dark Knight trilogy reference drops when Joker hotly defends his new plan: “this is better than the two boats!”

We soon find out why the pilot was right to be unconcerned. After unleashing an impressively deep roster of supervillains, including hilariously obscure DC Comics foes from Gentleman Ghost to Condiment King, Joker watches them all go down one by one once Batman hits the scene. But Batman saves his most devastating violence for last, when he refutes Joker’s claim that he’s Batman’s “greatest enemy” and says there’s “nothing special” about their relationship. While the broken-hearted Joker goes back to the drawing board yet again, Batman switches into Bruce Wayne mode for a ritzy gala where he meets cherubic orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and incoming police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) as she announces new policies for the police force. As a graduate of Harvard For Police, she’s clearly qualified to make such decisions.

The Lego Batman Movie came at a time when the character desperately needed laughter and levity to be attached to his name, one way or another. The Dark Knight trilogy was a sorely needed realization of a comic book character that the movies hadn’t quite gotten quite right up to that point but like most of Nolan’s films, the jokes were dry and brief. Even more humorless was the DCEU version, portrayed by dead-serious conviction and no Bat nipples by Ben Affleck. 1997’s Batman & Robin was so poorly received for trying to add camp and humor to the mix that it would take a filmmaker 20 years to even attempt it again. The director ultimately brave enough to do so was Robot Chicken alum Chris McKay, the perfect choice for a rapid-pace, reference-heavy parody of a pop culture icon using facsimiles of plastic toys. He and his five screenwriters pack an overwhelming amount of clever in-jokes and laugh-out-loud lines into their script but also pack some pathos that hits deeper than some of Batman’s live-action counterparts.

This isn’t the first film to bring attention to Batman and Joker’s symbiotic nature — The Dark Knight still evokes this concept the best of any Bat Tale to date — but in pushing their relationship into the realm of romance, McKay and crew illuminate new depths of meaning within these characters. Instead of making jokes, this Joker is constantly the butt of jokes due to everyone’s complete lack of fear and respect for him. It’s actually pretty easy to empathize with him and his plan, while still diabolical, points to a void in Joker’s heart that will likely never be filled. Batman’s arc from selfishness to selflessness may be a bit more obvious from the outset, given how arrogant he is from minute one, but his transformation from unwitting adoptive parent to devoted father is powerful and sweet. Robin has appeared in live-action Batman films before but the connection between the two characters as orphans trying to find their path has never been made more clear in the cinematic realm.

But let’s not bury the lede: this movie is very, very, very funny. I laughed so hard when Gotham’s cavalcade of villains were introduced. Doug Benson spoofs Tom Hardy’s portrayal of coat-donning Bane with dopey deliveries of lines like “Bane is feeling warm and fuzzy!” Zoë Kravitz will be appearing as Catwoman in The Batman but she actually played the character here first, bookending all of her lines with a spirited “meow meow!” Lord Voldemort shows up later but since Ralph Fiennes, who voiced the Harry Potter foe in the film series, was busy elsewhere in the film voicing loyal butler Alfred, Eddie Izzard takes over the vocal duties of the noseless You-Know-Who. When Joker lists a new brood of supervillains and ends on the more obscure Daleks of Doctor Who, he appeals to the uninitiated in the audience: “ask your nerd friends.”

The Lego version of Batman appeared again in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part but that may be the last time we see him for a while, since the franchise is now in the hands of Universal instead of Warner Bros. Perhaps it’s for the best. As outstanding as The Lego Batman Movie is, maybe this sort of send-up is a lighting in a bottle effort that would have been tougher to generate laughs from in future chapters. It’s comforting to know that no matter how dark (thematically or visually) future Batman films may go, we’ll always have this goofy gem as a beacon of light piercing through the night sky.


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

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

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

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

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

Score – 4/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Deep Water

Returning to film after a 20-year absence following 2002’s steamy Unfaithful, Adrian Lyne once again finds himself in the erotic thriller genre he bolstered with classics like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. Adapted from the 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel, Deep Water would seem to be an easy swim for Lyne’s first pool laps in quite some time but the lane markers of compelling cinema trip him up repeatedly. With its pulpy story involving murder and mystery surrounding a loveless marriage, the film frequently basks in the reflected glory of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, while not exactly earning the comparisons on its own merits. Beyond other similarities like muted color palettes and ellipsoidal-shaped narratives, both films also share Ben Affleck in lead roles that admirably push his range as a performer.

Affleck stars as Vic Van Allen, a middle-aged computer engineer who retired early after a big payday from developing a chip crucial for drone technology. His extra free time allows him to develop apps, spend plenty of time with his daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins) and try to ignore the affairs that his wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) flaunts openly in front of him. Their open marriage is a tenuous agreement between Vic and Melinda, who are no longer in love with one another but also don’t want to put Trixie through the pain of a separation. When one of Melinda’s ex-lovers turns up dead, rumors spread that Vic murdered him, which catches the attention of local crime writer Lionel (Tracy Letts). As Melinda’s trysts pile up, Vic’s jealousy grows along with his violent reputation around town.

The mystery surrounding Affleck’s character and the layered yet natural performance that he gives are enough to allow Deep Water float along for a time. The snippy script by Sam Levinson and Zach Helm finds Vic and Melinda sniping at each other with barbed exchanges that create a tragic portrait of their miserable marriage. “He lets me be myself and that turns me on,” Melinda blithely remarks to Vic about one of her lovers. While Vic’s jealousy and bitterness are understandable and give his character dimension by extension, Melinda comes across as more of a soulless nymphomaniac rather than a duplicitous femme fatale. Since her breakout role in Knives Out, de Armas has been a welcome presence in Hollywood but the role she’s chosen here is almost sexist in how plainly her character is written.

In regards to storytelling, there are more than a few signs that Lyne is rusty when it comes to crafting a tale for the screen. There’s something awkward about the staging of these scenes; the claustrophobic parties and stilted dinners almost seem as if they’re from the perspective of a bored six-year-old who’s put off by their stuffiness and just wants to go home. The central mystery surrounding the tangibles of Vic and Melinda’s arrangement are teased but never satisfyingly revealed. There are also odd details that are given too much screen time like Vic’s hobby of collecting slugs, though that could serve as a metaphor for the snail’s pace that plagues the 115-minute runtime. By the time the outlandish finale rolled around, the movie did the impossible: convinced me that Tracy Letts could give a bad performance.

Originally slated for a November 2020 theatrical release, Deep Water is yet another cast-off from a major studio that now heads direct-to-streaming after the market has proven lukewarm to dramas like this from a box office perspective. With a tantalizing teaser trailer and backed by the tabloid-fueled off-screen relationship between Affleck and de Armas, a film like this would’ve likely made its budget in two weeks under different circumstances. If Lyne is to continue in a similar vein of psychological thrillers going forward, he’ll need to be more stringent about the screenplays that he chooses to bring to life. Coming from a director who is such a master of this genre, Deep Water is a suspiciously shallow experience.

Score – 2/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is X, a slasher movie starring Mia Goth and Jenna Ortega about a group of young filmmakers who travel to rural Texas to make an adult film but find themselves fighting for their lives when their hosts aren’t who they expect.
Also playing only in theaters is Umma, a supernatural horror film starring Sandra Oh and Dermot Mulroney about a mother peacefully raising her daughter on an American farm until the remains of her estranged mother arrive from Korea and haunt the two of them.
Premiering on Netflix is Windfall, a thriller starring Jason Segel and Lily Collins about a wealthy couple who comes to their vacation home, only to discover someone is in the middle of robbing it.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Batman

While DC’s Extended Universe will continue to move forward with or without Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader, another version of the Dark Knight now emerges from the shadows. Like Joker in 2019, The Batman aims to free the iconic comic book character from the tangle of shared universes and push the genre in new directions. This is less of a superhero movie and more of a hard-boiled detective story that happens to center around a vigilante dressed up like a bat. Behind the cowl this time around is Robert Pattinson, who has built up a distinctive resume in the 10 years since the Twilight franchise came to a close. His casting allows director and co-writer Matt Reeves to depict a younger version of both Bruce Wayne and Batman, one who’s more hot-blooded and eager to prove himself to a crime-addled Gotham.

When the city’s mayor is murdered in his home on Halloween night, Batman and lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) head up the crime scene as bizarre clues begin to emerge. A card addressed to The Batman contains a cryptic message inside and suggests that a new serial killer, soon dubbed The Riddler, is likely on the rise. More evidence at the scene draws Batman to a notorious nightclub in town run by Oz Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) and frequented by crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). While infiltrating the club, Batman crosses paths with waitress Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), whose search for her missing girlfriend finds her plunging deep into Gotham’s criminal depths. As Riddler’s connected murder count rises, Batman works with his allies to take down the new supervillain.

Just as Joker leaned on specific entries from Martin Scorsese’s filmography, The Batman draws its influences from the psychological thrillers that David Fincher mastered in the 1990s. The partnership of Batman and Gordon often resembles the pairing of detectives Mills and Somerset in Seven, accentuated by the torrents of rain that permeate both films. The labyrinthine design of The Riddler’s plan echoes the paranoid plotting of The Game, while unexpected visual allusions to Fight Club pop up like pretty punches to the face. In comic book lore, Batman is referred to as the World’s Greatest Detective and while he doesn’t exactly live up to that title in this latest cinematic entry, this film attempts to evoke that side of his character more successfully than any other previous Batman movie.

While he doesn’t bring much to Bruce Wayne besides mascara and moodiness, Pattinson packs a formidable presence and menace to a type of Batman of which we’ve only seen glimpses in movies like The Dark Knight Rises and Batman v Superman. He and Kravitz also ooze a sensual “Bat and Cat” chemistry that gives this entry a tangible romantic spark missing from the franchise since Batman Forever. On the villain side of things, Colin Farrell is truly unrecognizable in a deliciously over-the-top take on Penguin that rivals what Danny DeVito did with the role in Batman Returns. Andy Serkis also brings a more rough-and-tumble and adversarial demeanor to an Alfred the butler character who is traditionally depicted as more kindly and obsequious.

Where issues like overstuffed plotting and sluggish editing threaten to put The Batman on ice, the stellar technical aspects underscore the project’s level of aptitude and ambition. Composer Michael Giacchino contributes another instantly memorable musical score, driven by a new theme that is overpowering and operatic, especially in IMAX. DP Greig Fraser, who brought Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Dune to the screen last year, shoots the fight scenes with clear precision but cleverly uses shallow depth of field in moments that could otherwise compromise the precious PG-13 rating. Matt Reeves’ The Batman takes a character that we’ve seen on-screen in myriad contexts and somehow adds a new perspective that feels raw and essential.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering on Disney+ is Turning Red, the latest Pixar offering starring Rosalie Chiang and Sandra Oh about the hormonal struggles of a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
Playing on Netflix is The Adam Project, a sci-fi adventure starring Ryan Reynolds and Mark Ruffalo that follows a time-traveling pilot as he teams up with his younger self and his late father to come to terms with his past while saving the future.
Streaming on Showtime and continuing in select theaters is After Yang, a sci-fi drama starring Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith that takes place in a world where robotic children are purchased as live-in babysitters and depicts one father’s journey to repair their family robot.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup