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