Tag Archives: 2.5/5

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

Next Goal Wins

There’s no mistaking the goofy sports biopic Next Goal Wins for anything other than the latest brainchild of filmmaker Taika Waititi. Ten years ago, few outside of the New Zealand film community knew his name but two Thor movies and multiple Oscar nominations later, Waititi has built up his own brand of idiosyncratic comedy that has seemed to resonate with audiences. He’s the first face that graces the screen in his newest film, doing double duty as both a hippie priest character and the occasional narrator for the story we’re about to see. With silly facial hair in unison with a silly accent, Waititi lays out the plight of the underdogs that we’ll be expected to cheer on for the next hour and a half. Though Waititi the actor sets up the groundwork, Waititi the director and co-writer doesn’t follow through with committed and focused storytelling.

Based on a 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins centers around struggling soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who hasn’t been the same since the divorce from his ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss). At the risk of being fired by his boss Alex (Will Arnett), he reluctantly accepts a position head coaching the woeful American Samoa soccer team, notable for being on the losing end of a brutal 31–0 defeat during a World Cup qualifier. Upon landing in the island territory, Rongen is greeted by the ever-jaunty club manager Tavita (Oscar Kightley) and introduced to the flailing players that make up their national team. The goal for the season, which is to score a single goal during a game, is sent down from the Football Federation American Samoa and Rongen sets about getting the squad up to snuff.

Throughout Next Goal Wins, Waititi demonstrates that he wants to have it both ways; he wants to lampoon underdog sports comedy tropes but embrace them when the story calls for it. Perhaps that’s why some of the humor fitfully works during the story but by the film’s conclusion, it doesn’t feel all that significant. Waititi fills his film with a colorful cast of characters that he doesn’t feel the inclination to develop much, outside of transgender player Jaiyah Saelua. Played by newcomer Kaimana, Saelua has bonding scenes with Rongen that predictably break down his prejudices around gender identity while building up his ardor for coaching the pitiable group. I understand why Waititi chose to focus solely on Saelua but unfortunately, it’s at the expense of almost all of the supporting cast.

Fassbender, who also stars in recently-released Netflix thriller The Killer, is simply better suited to play a stoic assassin in that movie as opposed to playing the hot-headed soccer coach that he portrays in Next Goal Wins. He’s an immensely talented actor and I appreciate him trying to stretch his acting chops into more comedic terrain but he’s just not a good fit for this role. In addition to his scenes with Saelua, there are sparks in the brief moments between Fassbender and Moss but they don’t get nearly enough screen time to develop their relationship. There’s also a teased-out bit about Rongen’s past that is supposed to play like a big character revelation towards the ending but it all feels too obvious. Kightley fares much better as the perpetually optimistic manager, who also has to wear different hats around the sparsely-populated island as the cameraman for a show and waiter for a beachside restaurant.

It probably helps that Kightley is channeling the same kind of goofball energy that Waititi infuses in his films both as a performer and a director. Fans of the filmmaker’s earlier work like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople will no doubt find bits that work within Next Goal Wins. The movie’s finest occurs early on when Rongen is in the process of being fired; in an attempt to console him, an ex-colleague played by Rhys Darby tries to guide him through the 5 stages of grief with the help of an overhead projector and transparency slides. Rongen also demonstrates a streak of unintentionally parroting big speeches from movies like Any Given Sunday and Taken. There’s plenty of Waititi’s signature quirk in Next Goal Wins but not enough genuine pathos to balance out the field.

Score – 2.5/5

More movies coming to theaters this weekend:
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, starring Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler, is a prequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games which focuses on future Panem president Coriolanus Snow as he mentors a tribute for the 10th annual Hunger Games.
Trolls Band Together, starring Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake, is the third installment in the Trolls franchise centering around Poppy and Branch as they work to rescue one of Branch’s brothers after he is kidnapped by a band of pop star siblings.
Thanksgiving, starring Patrick Dempsey and Addison Rae, is a seasonal slasher following a mysterious serial killer, known only as “John Carver”, who comes to Plymouth, MA with the intention of creating a carving board out of the town’s inhabitants.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Equalizer 3

When it comes to Hollywood math, only one sequel doesn’t quite square the equation and so, nine years after vigilante actioner The Equalizer, we have a trilogy capper in the form of The Equalizer 3. Only somewhat less unnecessary than the 2018 follow-up that preceded it, this final chapter is the shortest of the three films, even though it doesn’t always feel like it due to the uneven pacing from returning director Antoine Fuqua. Though this does have some of the brutal violence that’s come to define this series, The Equalizer 3 is also the least action-heavy in the trilogy but at least it’s in favor of a more contemplative character study about a hitman coming to terms with his life of murder. The movie luxuriates in its coastal Italian setting with gorgeous cinematography from Robert Richardson and tries to capture the nuances of Italian culture when it’s not indulging in farcical stereotypes.

We open in Sicily, where one-man wrecking machine Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is waiting for a mafia boss at his winery with a dozen of his bodyguards dead throughout the compound. McCall finishes his business there after the kingpin arrives there but sustains a bullet wound in the back during the action that ensues, leaving him scrambling near the Amalfi Coast. He’s taken in by a friendly doctor named Enzo (Remo Girone) back to his quaint home town of Altamonte, where McCall takes time to recover from his injury and, in the process, finds a soft spot for the kind people who have welcomed him there. Despite the peaceful locale, trouble brews under the surface as mob enforcer Marco (Andrea Dodero) shakes up local restaurant owners for money and crosses McCall in the midst of his misdeeds.

When McCall inevitably dispatches Marco and his accompanying thugs, the aftermath triggers involvement from a young CIA agent played by Dakota Fanning, who travels to Italy to sniff McCall out. Washington and Fanning previously worked together for Tony Scott’s Man On Fire when Fanning was just 9 years old and aside from the novelty of the reunion, the two have a fun cat-and-mouse energy that gives The Equalizer 3 a boost from time to time. Unfortunately, her character’s presence also comes with strings attached in the form of a superfluous subplot steeped in the Syrian drug trade that makes the story more complicated than it needs to be. There’s a stretch in the middle of the film where Denzel disappears from the movie entirely and alternating scenes of interrogation and tough guy intimidation temporarily render the narrative indecipherable.

Naturally, this movie needs Denzel and apart from the scant scenes of savage score-settling, The Equalizer 3 finds a bit of a groove in McCall reckoning with the violent life that he’s led. The first two films find his character trying to pass the time and distract himself by working at a hardware store or as a Lyft driver but this entry feels like a proper “retirement” installment. Though action movies from earlier this year like Fast X and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One had detours in Italy, this movie actually finds purpose in the location and goes a bit deeper than the picturesque scenery. McCall strikes up a kinship with a waitress played by Gaia Scodellaro, who serves as his guide around the village as he gets to know the shopkeepers and street merchants in the area. He feels as though he could live the rest of his life there and Fuqua adds some elegant touches that make us believe it.

Conversely, the antagonistic forces in The Equalizer 3 couldn’t be implemented much more inelegantly than they are. Marco is really the only villain with even a trace of a personality to him and when he’s offed, it’s up to his big brother and his attaché of goons to pick up the slack. This series isn’t known for its richly-rendered baddies but at least Fuqua and recurring scribe Richard Wenk had the good sense to give the over-the-top villain of the inaugural entry a fittingly ridiculous name of Teddy Rensen. None of the faceless thugs here come close to the menace that Marton Csokas creates in his performance as Rensen in The Equalizer or that Pedro Pascal does for The Equalizer 2, which is problematic for a concluding chapter. If you’re not going to have a strong villain, at the very least don’t have a scene of henchmen chewing on pasta and gulping wine as they stand around a table trying to figure out how to deal with the protagonist like they do here. Fans of Denzel Washington can at least celebrate the fact that The Equalizer 3 means the equation is complete and the venerable actor can lend his considerable talents elsewhere.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is The Nun II, a supernatural horror film starring Taissa Farmiga and Jonas Bloquet about a strong evil that haunts a town in 1950s France as word gets out that a priest has been violently murdered there.
Also coming to theaters is My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3, a romcom sequel starring Nia Vardalos and John Corbett which finds the Portokalos family on a trip to Greece for a family reunion after the death of one of their beloved family members.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Sitting In Bars With Cake, a dramedy starring Yara Shahidi and Odessa A’zion which follows two best friends in their 20s navigating life in L.A when one of the pair receives a life-altering diagnosis.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Talk To Me

Back in April, Evil Dead Rise brought its respective franchise back from a lengthy hiatus for more gruesome thrills at the hands of demonic entities and possessed persons alike. At 97 minutes, it doesn’t give the audience much to hold onto when it comes to empathetic characters but its lean-and-mean delivery makes up for the gaps in pathos. Now we have Talk To Me, another tightly-paced and properly brutal supernatural horror outing with some strong instincts for tension that doesn’t quite add up to much. Comparatively, the Evil Dead movies have their own mythology that is either called back to or explained in each entry but the internal logic of Talk To Me starts to get muddled halfway through. It’s certainly a film that sticks the landing in its final moments but its willingness to play fast-and-loose with the rules of this world takes too much away from the final product.

Our heroine of Talk to Me is Mia (Sophie Wilde), a temerarious teenager whose mother’s suicide years prior puts her at a distance with her father Max (Marcus Johnson) and drives her to cheap thrills in her South Australian suburb. Mia’s best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) takes her to a party one night, where a pair of brash blokes bring out the preserved hand of a medium that they say can conjure otherworldly spirits. If an individual grabs hold of the hand and utters the titular phrase, the ghost appears and if they follow up with “I let you in,” the participant allegedly becomes possessed by the apparition. When Mia experiences the “game” for herself, she becomes consumed with the prospect of communing with his deceased mother but invites other evil inside of her in the process.

With a plot that combines dangerous séances with a cursed totem passed among teens, Talk To Me seems to take numerous cues from contemporary horror hits It Follows and Hereditary. Aside from having more meat on the bone thematically, those two movies also had more clearly defined boundaries in place for their supernatural story elements. Talk To Me starts out with a firm grip on how its spirit world works but starts to loosen up as it goes along, even though the mood and atmosphere itself is always appropriately tense. There’s a plot detail involving the lighting and extinguishing of a candle near the embalmed hand that renders the plot too messy in regards to how and why spirits are able to appear.

In their feature directorial debut, co-directors and twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou strike up individual moments of otherworldly terror borne from meddling with the wrong forces. In particular, Jade’s younger brother Riley (played by Joe Bird) has a couple scenes of facial and cranial trauma that would make Hereditary and Midsommar director Ari Aster grin creepily with delight. Like those two films, Talk To Me is also distributed by the tastemakers at A24, who have made a habit of producing grabby, and sometimes misleading, trailers for their horror selections. Those who walked away disappointed from artsy fare like It Comes At Night or Lamb needn’t have those concerns with Talk To Me, arguably one of the most immediate and least esoteric horror movies under the A24 banner.

The Philippou brothers began their collective creative career under the moniker RackaRacka, piloting a YouTube channel awarded for its mercurial brand of horror comedy videos. Aside from a very occasional moment of levity, as when a carful of teens belts out Sia’s “Chandelier” in unison, Talk To Me doesn’t delight in the same kind of comedic flourishes present in recent horror entries like M3GAN or last year’s Barbarian. While certainly not every horror film needs to have comedy in it, the Philippou twins at least have demonstrated the skill set to potentially include some laughs in future films, should they continue down the path of horror. Despite some eerie effects work and an engaging central performance by Wilde, Talk To Me never quite gets a handle on what it wants to say.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters beginning Wednesday is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, an animated superhero film starring Micah Abbey and Shamon Brown Jr. continuing the saga of the titular Turtles as they go on a hunt for a mysterious crime syndicate.
Coming to theaters starting Friday is Meg 2: The Trench, a sci-fi actioner starring Jason Statham and Wu Jing about a research team who, once again, encounters colossal prehistoric sharks on an exploratory dive into the deepest depths of the ocean.
Screening at Cinema Center is Earth Mama, a drama starring Tia Nomore and Erika Alexander involving a pregnant single mother, with two children in foster care, who embraces her Bay Area community as she fights to reclaim her family.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Flash

Arriving with not-so-lightning speed towards the end of the DC Extended Universe’s cinematic run, The Flash is a project that’s technically been in the works since the 1980s and is finally bolting into theaters. Based around the lauded Flashpoint comic book storyline, the movie’s narrative integrates time travel and multiverses in ways that should be inspired but ultimately end up just creating a confusing mess. Even if one goes into the film with knowledge of the myriad storylines from this Universe, along with general knowledge from other superhero lore, there’s a good chance audience members will have issues keeping up with the leaps in continuity and logic that this film makes. Despite some winning performances and some of the most consistent humor in a DCEU entry so far, The Flash is too little too late.

The Flash opens with Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), now a full-time member of the Justice League as The Flash, in the midst of handling a speedy clean-up for Batman (Ben Affleck) during a particularly messy car chase. After that bout of crime fighting, Barry works to clean up grocery store footage that will exonerate his father Henry (Ron Livingston) after the wrongful conviction of his wife’s murder. In frustration one night, The Flash discovers that he is able to run so fast that he can travel faster than the speed of light and, in doing so, effectively travel through time. Hurt over his mother’s murder years prior, he jets back in time with the intent of preventing her death but his actions create an alternate reality where Barry runs into his former self. Along with an altered version of Batman (Michael Keaton), the two Barrys work to set the timeline right.

Yes, The Flash sees the return of Keaton donning the cape and cowl for the first time in over 30 years and despite the time that’s passed, he settles back into the role very nicely. His Bruce Wayne was always the most eccentric and cerebral of the bunch, traits that Keaton has refined even further in his career since Batman Returns. While director Andy Muschietti can’t help but bolster the performance with CG-enhanced virility that has Keaton moving like an impossibly spry sexagenarian, the best Keaton moments in this film call back to the ingenuity of those earlier Burton Batmans. Staging an escape in an elevator shaft, he quickly calculates the collective weight of the escapees, along with a handy tape measure, and sets an explosive charge with proportional propulsion to shoot them up to the roof.

Though Muschietti and his screenwriter Christina Hodson do their best to hold our hand through the time travel paradoxes and multiverse snafus, it’s enough to say that the concept of the “butterfly effect” is used very liberally throughout The Flash. After Barry makes his first interjection within the past, the ramifications are predictably severe and the storyline gets messier than an Ashton Kutcher nose bleed. But if going back in time and zipping back to the future is enough to completely alter the appearance of someone (Bruce Wayne, for instance, since he’s played by two actors), shouldn’t nearly everything else be drastically changed too? The way that these universes unravel relies heavily either on plot contrivance or comedic effect, as with the running joke that Eric Stoltz starred in an alternate version of Back To The Future instead of Michael J. Fox.

I’m not someone who tends to pick on CGI in these superhero epics; there’s often so much money on the screen that the majority of these blockbusters are arranged at least competently enough for me to ignore some choppy rendering or unconvincing shading here and there. Having said that, this movie has scenes containing some of the most jaw-droppingly outdated effects I’ve seen in the modern superhero era. When The Flash is speeding through time, he generates a large orb of energy around him that projects flashes of events as they were and could have been. It’s not clear to me if these images are meant to look as if real actors were present in creating these vignettes but as presented, they would barely pass muster as cutscenes from a Playstation 2 game. The Flash has flashes of brilliance when it tackles themes of regret and acceptance but stumbles in delivering a coherent standalone feature.

Score – 2.5/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Elemental, a Pixar animated movie starring Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie set in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic elements of nature where a fire creature and water creature strike up a romantic relationship.
Also playing only in theaters is The Blackening, a horror comedy starring Grace Byers and Jermaine Fowler about a group of Black friends who go away for the weekend, only to find themselves trapped in a cabin with a killer who has a vendetta.
Streaming on Netflix is Extraction 2, an action thriller starring Chris Hemsworth and Idris Elba continuing the story of a black-ops mercenary whose new mission involves the rescue of a ruthless Georgian gangster’s family from the prison where they are being held.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Beau Is Afraid

With only three features under his belt, writer/director Ari Aster has already made quite a name for himself with back-to-back nervy horror hits Hereditary and Midsommar. He returns after a four-year break with Beau Is Afraid, a three-hour Oedipal odyssey that is certainly anxious enough to argue that it incorporates elements of horror but mainly plays like a pitch-dark comedy. Massively expanding on his eleven-minute short Beau made twelve years prior, Aster seems to throw everything he has into his latest venture but in its attempt to exorcise personal demons, the film loses the plot along the way. There are scenes of demented comedy and well-directed chaos that almost make the journey worthwhile but the experience in retrospect is more exhausting than awe-inspiring.

As can be expected at this point, Joaquin Phoenix gives another fully committed and involving performance as Beau, a middle-aged man struggling with neuroses and arrested development. On the anniversary of his father’s death, he plans to visit his mother Mona (Patti LuPone) but several obstacles near his threatening apartment dwellings preclude him from making the flight. As he crosses the street to a convenience store, he is struck by a food truck driven by Grace (Amy Ryan) and her husband Roger (Nathan Lane). Feeling guilty about the accident, the couple take Beau into their care until he heals enough to make the trip but their initial benevolence is not as altruistic and nurturing as it seems to be. After a misunderstanding with their daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers), Beau flees to the woods nearby and his long strange trip only gets weirder from there.

The structure of Beau Is Afraid isn’t exactly a traditional three-act structure but the movie can be thought of in three distinct sections that roughly correspond with about an hour of runtime each. There are portions from each of these chapters that work and could be rearranged to make a more cohesive story but all three also have too much extraneous material that should’ve never made it to final cut. That first hour is both the most structurally approachable and comedically accessible, setting up Beau’s paranoid perspective on his urban environment with crime-addled surroundings so hyperbolic that we don’t have a choice but to laugh. As someone who gets nervous by the overactive nature of big cities, I got a kick out of Aster pushing the heightened reality of street-level activity to ridiculous proportions.

If the first act is mother! meets Misery, then the ensuing act set in a forest is Aster’s attempt at an esoteric and verbose Charlie Kaufman affair, specifically Synecdoche, New York. It’s here that cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski really gets to shine, balancing the ornate set design and inventive effects work with aplomb and splendor. But Aster completely loses his way from a storytelling perspective in this section, weaving a lengthy post-modern yarn that doesn’t lend nearly enough significance to the central plot. While the wheel-spinning is often pretty to look at, it stops any narrative momentum that the first section built up dead in its tracks. There’s an explosive end to this act that carries over the comical levels of violence from the movie’s first hour and at least tries to get things moving forward once more.

By the time the third act rolls around, it becomes more obvious what Aster is attempting to say and accomplish with Beau Is Afraid but it takes a long while to get to that final punchline at the finish line. Like the previous two sections, there are individual segments that work terrifically here; if nothing else, you’ll never listen to a particular Mariah Carey track the same way again. In stretches, it evokes the parental spiritualism of Eraserhead and The Truman Show but without the former’s cogent symbolism or the latter’s sense of childlike wonder. It’s a film destined to spawn a thousand “Explained!” video essays on YouTube, even though it’s simply not worth all the effort. The self-indulgent Beau Is Afraid finds Aster at the crossroads of what kind of filmmaker he’s going to be moving forward and I hope whatever path he picks leads to more fruitful results.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., a coming-of-age dramedy starring Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams, which adapts the groundbreaking Judy Blume novel about a middle schooler who navigates friends, family and religion in 1970s New Jersey.
Also playing only in theaters is Polite Society, an action comedy starring Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya about a younger sister who goes to great lengths to stop her older sister’s wedding from occurring to preserve their independence and sisterhood.
Premiering on Disney+ is Peter Pan & Wendy, a fantasy adventure starring Jude Law and Alexander Molony that retells the classic tale of a boy who wouldn’t grow up as he recruits three young siblings in London to join him on a magical journey to the enchanted Neverland island.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Sharper

Streaming on Apple TV+ starting this Friday, the new psychological thriller Sharper is a movie about con artists that cons itself into thinking it’s sharper than it really is. Inspired by genre greats like The Grifters and House Of Games, the film has a titillating structure with character-focused chapters that reveal narrative context slowly but it falls apart when all the cards are on the table. These kinds of movies are often only as good as their final twist and the third act here, which tries to tie all these characters together for one last bit of backstabbing, simply doesn’t hold up against scrutiny. Even if the characters they play aren’t likable, the qualified cast is certainly engaging enough on-screen and does what they can to keep us invested through the myriad plot developments.

We first meet Tom (Justice Smith), a young man running a rare and used bookstore in Manhattan who helps Sandra (Briana Middleton) find a hardback copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God one day and a romance develops soon-after. Then we learn more about Sandra’s past as it relates to Max (Sebastian Stan), a seedy con artist — “I don’t watch movies, they’re a waste of time,” he snarls at Sandra — looking to settle a score with his family. That includes his overbearing mother Madeline (Julianne Moore) and her billionaire boyfriend Richard (John Lithgow), who let Max crash with them during an especially fraught time in his life. As more is revealed about Madeline and Sandra in the ensuing chapters of the narrative, allegiances shift and the lives of the five principal characters converge in unpredictable ways.

During a literary pop quiz of sorts, Max quotes the “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” line from Anna Karenina and while the way in which the family at the center of Sharper is unhappy isn’t exactly unique, the circumstances behind their unhappiness are intentionally labyrinthine. That’s due to the thorny screenplay from writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, which piles on layers of complicating factors to the ever-revolving story but doesn’t add much nuance or empathy to their characters in the process. The inhabitants of this tale are mostly miserable, money-flush Manhattanites, blithely resentful of how much wealth they’ve acquired while still bitterly dependent on it to destroy others when they so choose. There are times when it’s possible to care about these people but they certainly don’t make it easy.

While the players in con movies can’t all be as effortlessly charming as the swindling stars of Ocean’s 11, it’s not too much to ask that the structure of the duplicitous storyline adds up to something in the end. Sharper certainly sports surprises and twists along the way that keep the audience on their toes like this sort of film should but once you’ve lived inside a movie like this for an hour and a half, it’s not difficult to be able to guess how the final rug-pull will play out. Director Benjamin Caron does his best to distract us with a timeline that moves back and forth but can’t stick the landing when it counts. Fortunately, no matter where we are in the story, the film is always visually tantalizing, thanks to Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. One thing it’s difficult to say about most Apple Original Films is that they look bad; like the products they design, Apple clearly understands that a glossy appearance is imperative.

Apple TV+ releases are typically bolstered by casts of instantly recognizable stars and Sharper is no exception. While Moore and Stan are the actors whose stock is likely the highest right now, both of their characters are incredibly difficult to root for at any point in this story. The prickly performances are in line with the steely vibe that Caron is going for but it doesn’t give them a chance to show off their star power much either. Smith and Middleton fare much better in roles that give them the opportunities to show warmth and passion in a film that typically seems too cool for that sort of thing. Sharper is slick and smart in spurts but watching it, one can’t help but be reminded of the puzzlebox mysteries that pulled it off better.

Score – 2.5/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the latest Marvel installment starring Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly which finds Scott Lang and his family going on a new adventure within the Quantum Realm and pits them against a mysterious new foe.
Also playing in theaters is Marlowe, a neo-noir crime thriller starring Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger about a private detective who is hired to find the ex-lover of a glamorous heiress in 1930s Los Angeles.
Screening at Cinema Center is Paris Is Burning, a 1990 documentary which chronicles the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in the drag scene of New York during the 1980s.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Halloween Ends

The leaves are changing to golden hues, the brisk air smells of Pumpkin Spice Latte, and that can only mean one thing: a new Halloween sequel is on Peacock. Whether Halloween Ends, the thirteenth installment in the Halloween franchise, will truly be the series’s last is still a bit of an open question, given how lucrative these films continue to be. But at the very least, it does seem to be the definitive end for the trio of films that writer/director David Gordon Green started in 2018 with legacy sequel Halloween and its 2021 follow-up Halloween Kills. As a trilogy capper, it wraps things up about as well as it could have and the quality level is consistent with the other two recent entries. If you were a fan of those two, then Ends is unlikely to disappoint. If, like me, you’ve been underwhelmed with this slasher series, then you may do better to select from the plethora of other recent quality horror titles for spooky season this year.

Halloween Ends picks up 4 years after the events of Kills, with the town of Haddonfield still traumatized from Michael Myers’s latest slaying spree and subsequent disappearance. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has since bought a house in town with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) and is writing a memoir about her encounters with evil incarnate. Deputy Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) is doing his best to learn Japanese and got himself a new guitar to pluck around with. Everyone is just trying to move on. That includes Corey (Rohan Campbell), still tormented from a babysitting gig years ago that unexpectedly turned deadly during his watch. But as this series has proven over and over, evil never dies and Myers does eventually come out of hiding to wreak havoc on Halloween night once more and to finish his face-off with Laurie.

As much as Universal is touting Halloween Ends as a feature-length showdown between Michael and Laurie, most of the film’s narrative revolves around the relationship that develops between Corey and Allyson. Outside of their individual hangups — Corey has a dead-end job at a salvage yard, while Allyson gets overlooked for a charge nurse promotion because she won’t sleep with her boss — they both share pain related to how residents of Haddonfield see them. They’re local legends for the wrong reasons and diner-goers and bar patrons don’t miss an opportunity to remind them about every chance they get. Of course, their struggle mirrors the conflict Laurie has had with Michael all these years but Corey and Allyson being young and eager to leave town makes their cause easy to root for as well.

Thematically, Halloween Ends ponders the nature of evil, most notably in a monologue Laurie gives about external evil borne of negative circumstances and internal evil borne of one’s reaction to them. The idea that bullies, who show up in this film even more than its two direct predecessors, act negatively against others to poorly cope with their own struggles is not a new one. While the movie does shed new light on what becomes of the bullied when they decide to fight back, it doesn’t exactly tie in with how the rest of the franchise functions. In the very first Halloween, Michael Myers is a disturbed child who murders his babysitter for reasons we and he don’t fully understand. He comes back later as an adult and goes on a killing spree without an explanation of how he got that way. To quote Scream, “it’s scarier when there’s no motive.”

I have nothing against the slasher genre; I’ve enjoyed both X and Pearl from this year alone and recent reboots of Candyman and Hellraiser have worked for me, in addition to the subversive Happy Death Day entries. But I think it’s time to retire Michael Myers at this point. He’s had quite the run over the past six decades, with some great movies and not-as-great movies under his belt. Even as an embodiment of pure evil, to paraphrase series protagonist Dr. Loomis, he just isn’t much of an interesting character anymore. He’s a mute antagonist whose levels of physical strength and vulnerability have varied greatly over the years — and even sometimes within the same movie. If Halloween Ends inspires the beginning of a brand-new slasher series, or different kind of horror subgenre entirely, then this new trilogy will have served its purpose.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is Black Adam, a DCEU superhero movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Aldis Hodge chronicling a super-powered being who is hungry for justice after being awoken from his Egyptian tomb after nearly five thousand years of imprisonment.
Also coming only to theaters is Ticket to Paradise, a romantic comedy starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts about two divorced parents who travel to Bali after learning that their daughter is planning to marry a man whom she has just met.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Raymond & Ray, a family dramedy starring Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke about two half-brothers who reunite at the funeral of their father, with whom both had a poor relationship.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Don’t Worry Darling

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 2.5/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 2.5/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup