Tag Archives: 2024

Dune: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 4.5/5

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

Drive-Away Dolls

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3.5/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Madame Web

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 1/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Lisa Frankenstein

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Argylle

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 2/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Orion And The Dark

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3.5/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

I.S.S.

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