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


The sci-fi nail-biter I.S.S. opens, fittingly, with text about how the International Space Station serves as a symbol of alliance between the United States and Russia post-Cold War. In the opening minutes, we see a depiction of what this unity and collaboration looks like, as two American astronauts are transported to the station and are greeted happily by three Russian cosmonauts. No matter what their cultural differences may be, everyone there has a job to perform and they all work together as one. “The important thing is that we stick together,” Weronika (Maria Mashkova) teaches Kira (Ariana DeBose) in Russian soon after the latter arrives at the station. Despite the sentiment, it doesn’t take long before a situation arises that will make that an especially challenging task.

While looking out of an observatory module, Kira sees massive explosions erupting on Earth and calls the rest of the crew’s attention to the bedlam below. U.S. lead Gordon (Chris Messina) and Russian counterpart Nicholai (Costa Ronin) reach out to their respective teams on the ground to get insight into what in the world is happening. We see classified messages from NASA to Gordon stating war has broken out between the two nations and the Americans onboard are to secure the I.S.S. by any means necessary. Paranoia soon sets in after Gordon passes the intel along to Kira and fellow astronaut Christian (John Gallagher Jr.), with the implication that Nicholai may have gotten similar instructions from Russian forces.

The rest of I.S.S. plays out like a personified chess game in outer space, like a re-do of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match if both competitors were wearing spacesuits. The perspective from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite tends to side with the three American characters, although we do spend more time with Kira’s scientist comrade Alexey (Pilou Asbæk) as their research becomes more plot-relevant. Cowperthwaite and her editor Colin Patton make a meal out of cutting together nervous looks and subtle gestures as both crews attempt to silently communicate with their respective teams. The film’s entire conflict could likely be avoided if the US and Russian crew members were honest about the messages they received from below but in that case, there wouldn’t be a movie.

Screenwriter Nick Shafir peppers I.S.S. with clichés that we’ve come to accept from films about people traveling through the cosmos. Kira has an ex-fiancé who broke her heart and Christian has two daughters back on Earth that he can’t stop mentioning every five minutes. It turns out Gordon and Weronika have a not-so-secret relationship that has cultivated during their time in close proximity on the station. Though it’s not the most original source of pathos around, the emotional groundwork pays off enough when the tensions inevitably rises between the two factions onboard. These are six people with divided allegiances who are trying to think their way through an unprecedented scenario and it’s easy to empathize with their plight.

The ensemble of performers all provide solid work, although some aren’t necessarily playing to their strengths. DeBose certainly doesn’t have to pigeonhole herself by appearing only in musicals after winning an Oscar for West Side Story a couple years ago but a role like this does feel more comparatively limited. Messina certainly works as the stoic captain here but his wheelhouse tends to be the more brash and cocksure supporting character as in last year’s Air. On the other hand, Mashkova, who also appeared in Apple TV+ space series For All Mankind, gives the film’s most dynamic and fully-realized performance. But a film like this mainly comes down to direction more than acting and Cowperthwaite finds the right rhythm of tension and release to make the story sizzle. I.S.S. could have used more touches of personality and uniqueness to make it stand out in a sky of similar intergalactic tales but it plays well enough as suspenseful small-scale science fiction.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Miller’s Girl, a psychological thriller starring Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman, where a creative writing assignment yields complex results between a teacher and his talented student.
Premiering on Netflix is Badland Hunters, a dystopian action film starring Ma Dong-seok and Lee Hee-joon, which finds Seoul, South Korea transformed into an apocalyptic wasteland after an earthquake, where everything from civilization to law and order has collapsed.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is The Underdoggs, a sports comedy starring Snoop Dogg and Tika Sumpter, in which a former NFL player agrees to coach a youth football team in order to avoid going to prison as he tries to relaunch his career.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Mean Girls

An adaptation of a Broadway musical which was based on a movie that was adapted from a book, the 2024 version of Mean Girls can’t help but feel intrinsically derivative. When Rosalind Wiseman penned the parent’s guide Queen Bees and Wannabes (the basis for the 2004 comedy classic) in the early 2000s, I doubt she suspected the cultural cache that her work would eventually generate. But several reworkings later, we now have what could’ve been a worthwhile Gen Z remake of the original film but is instead something more frustratingly myopic. It’s both a beat-for-beat redo of the story from 2004’s Mean Girls and a full-fledged musical, the former of which is bound to generate disappointed déjà vu and the latter of which has been side-stepped in the marketing as it was for Wonka last month.

Once again, our way into the cutthroat high school setting of Mean Girls is through Cady Heron (Angourie Rice), a bright teen who has been homeschooled her whole life until she moves to the States from Africa. She is befriended right away by social outcasts Janis (Auliʻi Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey), who give her the skinny on the cliques and hierarchies that rule their school. Cady inadvertently catches the attention of fiercely popular Regina (Reneé Rapp) and is taken into her group of similarly materialistic girls known as The Plastics. But things get complicated when Cady falls for the handsome Aaron (Christopher Briney), who recently ended a relationship with Regina. When Cady decides to pursue Aaron, even though fellow Plastics Gretchen (Bebe Wood) and Karen (Avantika) advise against it, a rift occurs in the coveted clique.

Whether the movie likes it or not, Mean Girls will lead to inevitable comparisons to its predecessor, likely beginning with the fresh lineup of new actors. The 2004 comedy is impeccably cast, with a career-best performance by Lindsay Lohan and breakout roles for now-bonafide movie stars Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried. As Cady, Angourie Rice invokes a similar naiveté as Lohan and while she doesn’t quite nail the transformation into loathsome sociopath, she nonetheless renders an immensely likable protagonist at the outset. On the flip side, Reneé Rapp is mostly a bore as the villainous “queen bee”, which is ironic since she played the role in the stage musical for 2 years. When it comes to the singing and dancing, the talent is there but her performance lacks the alluring deviousness that McAdams used to make Regina George an iconic character.

While directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. do what they can to make the musical numbers pop visually, the songs in Mean Girls don’t add much depth to the plot and don’t musically stand out much from one another either. Penned by Tina Fey, the 2004 film is bolstered by an endless string of memorable quips but the lyrics in these musical interludes just aren’t up to the level of that original screenplay. Auliʻi Cravalho, still probably most famous for playing the title character in Moana, leads the movie’s best number “I’d Rather Be Me” and comes closest to justifying why this movie should have song breaks embedded in it. Her soaring vocals do call to mind an interesting paradox: how can a character like Regina, who obviously sees herself as superior to the theater kids, belt out Broadway-ready numbers?

If you try to ignore the show tune elements — which audience members who go into this movie not knowing it’s a musical will no doubt be doing — there are some lateral moves from the first film that are hit-and-miss. Fey returns not only as the screenwriter but as math teacher Ms. Norbury, who gets some additional zingers this time around; when she finds out Cady is homeschooled, she sarcastically remarks “that’s a fun way to take jobs from my union.” Bebe Wood is uncanny at capturing the timbre and cadence of Lacey Chabert’s work as Gretchen in the 2004 movie but at the end of the day, it’s merely imitation. Avantika brings more unique obliviousness to her Karen but it still feels like it’s leaning on the work Seyfried initially created. Mean Girls is a so-so update on an excellent comedy that never really needed a makeover in the first place.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is I.S.S., a sci-fi thriller starring Ariana DeBose and Chris Messina involving US and Russian crews of astronauts aboard the International Space Station who begin to turn on one another when conflict breaks out on Earth.
Also coming to theaters is Freud’s Last Session, a psychological drama starring Anthony Hopkins and Matthew Goode which depicts the fictional meeting of the minds between psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and literary scholar C. S. Lewis as they debate the existence of God.
Streaming on Netflix is The Kitchen, a science fiction drama starring Kane Robinson and Jedaiah Bannerman set in a dystopian future London in which all social housing has been eliminated but a community known as The Kitchen refuses to abandon their home.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Beekeeper

Jason Statham starred in 4 action projects just last year alone (most recently in last September’s bomb Expend4bles) and he doesn’t show any signs of stopping this year either. Everyone’s favorite gravelly-voiced Brit kicks off 2024 with The Beekeeper, another preposterous actioner that at least seems to have a decent sense of how ridiculous it is. Not only is it a one-man army movie, where one guy can take on a dozen, highly-trained individuals with nary a scratch on him, but it’s also a shameless rip-off of John Wick too. Where the inciting event in that film was a group of thugs killing the titular assassin’s puppy, the kick to the proverbial hornet’s nest this time around is the death of a kindly elderly woman. In either case, men with a “particular set of skills” (to borrow a phrase from Taken, another blueprint for these types of movies) are drawn out of retirement to settle the score.

After an opening credit sequence that promises it’s taking the bee theme very seriously, we’re introduced to tight-lipped apiarist Adam Clay (Statham) as he assists his neighbor Eloise (Phylicia Rashad) with a troubling nest in her barn. While he’s handling that, poor Eloise gets suckered into a phishing scam that costs her millions in just a matter of minutes and the ensuing guilt prompts her to take her own life. Her daughter, FBI agent Verona (Emmy Raver-Lampman), is both devastated by the news and desperate to take down the scumbags responsible. Clay also seeks justice for Eloise but isn’t interested in doing things in the most strictly legal sense, his path of vengeance beginning with blowing up a scammer call center and eventually brings him to the head of the operation Derek Danforth (Josh Hutcherson).

Because, you see, Adam Clay isn’t just a beekeeper. He’s a Beekeeper, a member of a top-secret government program buzzing with deadly assassins who are to “protect the hive” at all costs. If you think The Beekeeper keeps its bee-related parallels there, then you may be shocked how many references to bee behavior the movie goofily strains to include in its narrative. Jeremy Irons pops up later on as a former CIA executive and even pulls up a PowerPoint presentation about bees to a group of ex-Navy SEALS while prepping them on how to take Clay down. Verona has to school a high-level FBI boss about the process of “queen slaying” that honeybees will carry out on defective hive leaders, as it should metaphorically track with Clay’s next target. Director David Ayer pours the apiary allusions on as thick as honey.

But it’s not like the world of The Beekeeper is much more grounded in anything resembling reality either. Scam call centers absolutely do exist in real life and, of course, they’re a scourge on society but as detestable as they are, I doubt they’re carried out with the Wolf Of Wall Street theatrics on display here. Here, the fraud victims are presented on huge display screens with Vegas style “cha-ching!” sound effects and monetary values presented like scores on a football jumbotron. When the Beekeeper program is peeled back, the John Wick borrowing becomes even more apparent, as that film’s High Table and Continental lore isn’t quite replicated but the Accountants are directly ripped off. The switchboard operators behind the Beekeeper operation are dressed exactly like the contract workers from the Administration in Wick and put out bounty information to their team in an extremely similar manner.

As much as the window-dressing and plot mechanics call back to the current top dog of the action scene, the action of The Beekeeper isn’t always up to the high standard set by the John Wick franchise. Ayer and his editor Geoffrey O’Brien too often favor quick cuts that likely sub out Statham in favor of stuntmen and don’t give us a sense of how the combat is actually playing out. A third act fight set in a hall of mirrors with a hard-to-kill South African brawler literally named Lazarus is easily the best fight scene in the whole movie because it actually shows struggle and holds on a shot for more than a few seconds. Compare this to a shoddily-shot scene earlier when Clay takes out a SWAT crew in broad daylight and the quality difference is night and day. The Beekeeper may not be state-of-the-art action cinema but it has enough over-the-top machismo and silly mythology to carve out its own nest in the swarm of post-Wick imitators.

Score – 3/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Mean Girls, a musical comedy starring Angourie Rice and Reneé Rapp adapted from the classic 2004 teen comedy about a new girl who inadvertently breaks into an exclusive clique and makes a play for an off-limits crush at her high school.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is The Book Of Clarence, a biblical satire starring LaKeith Stanfield and Omar Sy about a down-on-his-luck man living in Jerusalem A.D. 33 who looks to turn things around by claiming to be a new Messiah sent by God.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Role Play, an action comedy starring Kaley Cuoco and David Oyelowo about a couple who looks to spice up their wedding anniversary with a night of role-play that unintentionally reveals one of the pair’s secret life as an international assassin.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My Top 10 Films of 2023

Undoubtedly, the year in film was defined by Barbenheimer, the simultaneous release of Barbie and Oppenheimer in the middle of the summer that generated almost a billion dollars at the box office in the US alone. Conversely, the months-long concurrent labor disputes between the writers and actors unions against the studios put Hollywood on standstill and delayed numerous productions. But a resolution was reached in early November and, through it all, the movies marched on. I watched just under 200 new releases in 2023; these are my 10 favorites:

  1. The Holdovers (streaming on Peacock and available to rent/buy)
    Alexander Payne’s acerbic yet tender tale of a trio holed up at a New England boarding school for Christmas break is a new holiday classic. David Hemingson’s first feature script is filled with innumerable quotable lines and Payne’s directorial touches beautifully evoke the film’s early 1970s aesthetic. It wouldn’t surprise me if Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa all score Oscar nominations later this month for their performances here.
  2. Fair Play (streaming on Netflix)
    The most striking film debut of the year, this workplace thriller is almost unbearably tense at times but well worth the ride. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich are magnificent as a newly engaged couple whose relationship implodes after one receives a promotion over the other at a ruthless hedge fund firm. Writer-director Chloe Domont paces her tale of ambition and passion breathlessly and announces herself as one of the best new filmmakers to watch in the coming years.
  3. Afire (streaming on The Criterion Channel and available to rent/buy)
    Part of German director Christian Petzold’s series of movies loosely inspired by the classical elements, the follow-up to 2020’s Undine is a smoldering evocation of the insulated worlds writers create for themselves. What starts as a story of a pair of artists looking for inspiration during holiday at a house by the Baltic Sea turns into a bizarre love triangle. Thomas Schubert is brilliant as an author whose best work may be behind him but who may still have a spark of inspiration left somewhere inside him.
  4. The Iron Claw (now playing in theaters)
    The tragic true story of the Von Erich family of wrestlers is told with strapping compassion and wrenching heartbreak by writer-director Sean Durkin. The fraternal bonds are deeply felt throughout, particularly in the electrifying performances by Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White. I don’t typically have much of a soft spot for sports biopics but I was barely holding back tears by the time this film reached its cogent conclusion.
  5. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (streaming on Netflix and available to rent/buy)
    Despite ending on a cliffhanger that won’t be concluded until next year at the earliest, this sequel to the Best Animated Feature Academy Award winner is somehow an improvement on its already stellar predecessor. Where Into introduced a new style of frenetic animated action, Across developed its palette even more with emotive watercolor sequences that are stunning in their expressivity. Who knows when Beyond will be released but Sony Animation has captured lightning in a bottle again with another web-slinging dynamo.
  6. All Of Us Strangers (now playing in theaters)
    English filmmaker Andrew Haigh delivers another stunner with a powerful cathartic energy all its own. Andrew Scott is outstanding as a wayward screenwriter desperate for connection and finding it in imagined relationships that no less feel real to him. The soundtrack is filled with top-tier needle drops and the variegated cinematography by Jamie D. Ramsay bolsters the story’s warmth and intimacy.
  7. Dream Scenario (available to rent/buy)
    Nicolas Cage finds another indie winner after 2021’s sublime Pig in this dark comedy that feels like a direct descendant of Spike Jonze classics Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s clever take on viral fame and its inevitable backlash is both sneakily incisive and and caustically hilarious. Once again, Cage is the key to making this weird world — in which people around the world start inexplicably seeing his milquetoast character in their dreams — work.
  8. Poor Things (now playing in theaters)
    Emma Stone turns in first-rate work in this cattywampus journey of sexual exploration and self-discovery that is bound to push buttons. Director Yorgos Lanthimos continues to let his freak flag fly with a steampunk Victorian rendering that’s both lavish and lascivious. The Favourite and The Great scribe Tony McNamara pens another witty winner with pithy exchanges and indelible insight into human nature.
  9. The Zone Of Interest (now playing in theaters)
    Holocaust movies are never an easy watch but writer-director Jonathan Glazer finds a wholly new way to thoughtfully interrogate the atrocities of the period and those who committed them. Set in an idyllic family home of a Nazi commandant within earshot of Auschwitz, their everyday lives are faintly scored by the implied violence occurring outside of their fortified gardens. The banality of evil has never been so exquisitely examined on film before.
  10. Oppenheimer (available to rent/buy)
    It may have been half of the Barbenheimer phenomenon but Christopher Nolan’s 3-hour biopic about the creator of the first atomic bomb was an unmissable event all its own. The finest ensemble cast of the year sported career-best turns from the likes of Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr., with loads of other welcome faces along the way. Ludwig Göransson’s musical score is his most stirring work yet and the tireless efforts of editor Jennifer Lame tie this masterpiece about duty and betrayal together like no one else could.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup