Tag Archives: 3.5/5

Killers Of The Flower Moon

Now 80 years old, landmark filmmaker Martin Scorsese has spent the last 10 years of his career specifically making films and telling stories that he’s been itching to tell for quite some time. The development of 2016’s Silence dates back to the early 1990s, shortly after Scorsese read the book upon which the film is based, and he reportedly began discussions with frequent collaborator Robert De Niro about 2019’s The Irishman back in the 1980s. Now comes Killers of the Flower Moon, another American crime epic based on true events that also stars De Niro but also includes fellow Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio. Both of the seminal actors give fiercely accomplished performances in a film that frustratingly and frequently feels that it’s taking the most pedestrian angle on this gripping and tragic true tale.

At the conclusion of World War I, veteran Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) returns to rural Oklahoma, where his thriving but conniving uncle Bill King Hale (De Niro) helps him secure a job as a driver for the well-off Osage locals. After giving several rides around town to oil benefactor Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), Ernest finds himself falling for her and the two are soon married in a ceremony that reflects both of their respective Osage and Catholic backgrounds. But the honeymoon period is short-lived, as numerous Osage members of the community, including Mollie’s sisters Anna (Cara Jade Myers) and Minnie (Jillian Dion), turn up dead under mysterious circumstances. Despite her health problems, Mollie eventually gathers the strength to make the trip to Washington D.C. and bring the suspicious string of deaths to the attention of the Bureau Of Investigation.

Reportedly, the script, co-written by Scorsese along with veteran scribe Eric Roth, was originally centered around the BOI agent who is summoned from Washington and doggedly solves the Osage Indian murder case. DiCaprio, who was initially in talks to play Agent Tom White, pressed the screenwriters to revise the script to have Burkhart be the center of this story. So instead, Jesse Plemons shows up right around the 2-hour mark as the heroic agent and is framed as an antagonistic force to the murderous Burkhart, who is supposedly torn between the love of his wife Mollie and allegiance to his deceitful uncle Bill. Put simply, this is a mistake. DiCaprio does everything he can to make his Burkhart compelling main character but he’s just not nearly the most interesting facet of this fascinating crime saga. DiCaprio’s performance particularly stalls out in the final act, where less and less can be gleaned from the lugubrious grimace plastered on his face.

Fortunately, DiCaprio’s star power is still enough to win the day and he’s surrounded by actors — seasoned, untested and everything in between –who turn in incredible performances left and right. Obviously De Niro is a singular talent but after the string of forgettable work he’s had since The Irishman, it’s heartening to watch him really sink his teeth into the kind of role that made him a legend in the first place. Since making a splash in 2016’s Certain Women, Gladstone had so much trouble finding acting work that she was considering switching careers before getting an email about meeting with Scorsese to discuss this project. She is the quiet grace and stoic resiliency that serves as a poignant counterpoint to the greed and malice that surrounds her. It’s a powerfully rendered performance, one that I hope cements her as an actress we’ll be seeing pop up in many films for years to come.

Of course Scorsese has told stories of crime and corruption plenty of times in the past but with Killers of the Flower Moon, he still finds notes of wisdom and complexity anew within this sordid and blood-stained chronicle. At the outset, the movie has parallels to The Master, another tale of a clench-faced soldier returning from wartime to be taken under the wing of an untrustworthy father figure. But where that film fixates on man’s relationship to religious figures, Scorsese’s story ultimately comes down to the something men too often turn into a religion: money. Late into his career, Scorsese is telling the stories that matter to him the most and even if the results don’t quite match the level of brilliance found in his most defining work, they’re still better than what most other filmmakers are putting out at their peak.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Peacock and playing in theaters is Five Nights At Freddy’s, a supernatural horror film starring Josh Hutcherson and Elizabeth Lail following a troubled security guard as he accepts a night-time job at a once-successful but now abandoned family entertainment center.
Premiering on Netflix is Pain Hustlers, a crime drama starring Emily Blunt and Chris Evans about a high school dropout who lands a job with a failing pharmaceutical start-up but soon finds herself at the center of a criminal conspiracy with deadly consequences.
Streaming on Shudder and AMC+ is When Evil Lurks, a horror movie starring Ezequiel Rodriguez and Demián Salomon about two brothers living in a rural small town who take arms against a resident who is about to give birth to a demon.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Royal Hotel

Following up her exceptional narrative feature debut The Assistant from 2020, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green is back with what could be described as another workplace thriller. Trading the frigid interiors of New York for the sweltering expanse of the Outback, The Royal Hotel is obviously rougher around the edges by comparison but still playing with the same themes of gender politics and power dynamics. Holding the center of both films is Julia Garner, a terrific actress familiar to many for her award-winning work as Ruth Langmore in the Netflix series Ozark. There’s never any guessing what’s on Ruth’s mind; she’s an emotionally explosive character and eminently watchable as such. But seeing Garner in this pair of films, it’s fascinating seeing how much she can drive the trajectory of a story even in more restrained performances.

In The Royal Hotel, Hanna (Garner) and her best friend Liv (Jessica Henwick) are a duo of young Americans who find themselves low on funds during their work travel program. Desperate for cash, they agree to a bartending gig in a remote Australian town populated mainly by unrefined miners;”you’re gonna have to be okay with a little male attention,” an employment officer cautions them ahead of their assignment. They’re driven to their new workplace/living quarters The Royal Hotel, a run-down pub run by the perpetually drunk or hungover Billy (Hugo Weaving) and his much more reliable cook Carol (Ursula Yovich). Hanna and Liv try to make the best of the unsavory situation, keeping their heads down while cracking open longnecks for roughnecks, but the advances of the male patrons push the undesirable circumstances into even more hostile territory.

One of the challenges in watching The Royal Hotel is in restraining oneself from asking the question “why don’t they just get out of there?” every five minutes. In that way, it may play more like a slasher movie than a traditional psychological thriller but along with co-writer Oscar Redding, Green comes with just enough justifications to sustain the film’s taut 91-minute runtime. Most of these are spoken by Liv, the more adventurous of the two travelers and the most seemingly oblivious with the squalor of their surroundings; “that’ll be us in a few weeks,” Liv jokes as an over-served female flasher is being pulled down from dancing atop the bar. Just because Hanna is the more level-headed of the two and more of an audience surrogate doesn’t mean that she isn’t given just as many chances to hightail it out of the dilapidated bar.

If The Royal Hotel is somewhat disappointing in comparison to The Assistant, it’s the fact that the subjects and threats here are a bit more shallow and less intellectually engaging. The toxic masculinity and permissible behavior on display at the film production company where The Assistant takes place lead to chilling conversations with startling subtext. Yes, it’s more believable that the surly men in The Royal Hotel would hurl salty language across the pub as opposed to sneaking veiled threats but there isn’t quite as much nuance in their menace. The most overtly intimidating of the patrons, an ironically named Dolly (played by Daniel Henshall), is highlighted in one of the movie’s best scenes where he spoils the wedding anniversary of a couple who mistakenly visits the bar. The sequence best demonstrates how quickly a sour situation can escalate and the film could have used a few more tactfully-deployed examples to match it.

Nevertheless, Green’s direction again displays her aptitude for simmering thrillers that get under our skin and slowly set up a final act with explosive outcomes. Garner proves key to the formula once again, her Hanna ever so slightly revealing degrees of separation between herself and the more free-spirited Liv. Knowing the kind of powder keg performances that she’s given in the past, it’s exciting to see how much pent-up rage Garner will let come through in her character. Henwick’s performance is the more laid-back of the two and when she’s not volleying sexist jabs from bawdy bar dwellers, she has some fun bits of levity; I was tickled by the moment where she treats a box of white wine like manna from heaven. It’s no tourist ad for the land down under but The Royal Hotel is worth checking into for a tense and thrilling trip.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering only in theaters is Killers Of The Flower Moon, a Western epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro about a 1920s FBI investigation involving members of the Osage tribe in northeastern Oklahoma being murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Coming to Netflix is Old Dads, a comedy starring Bill Burr and Bobby Cannavale about three best friends who become fathers later in life and find themselves out-of-step with the millennial-invested modern world.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Silver Dollar Road, a documentary covering a hotly-contested waterfront property in North Carolina owned by a Black family who have been harassed for decades by land developers looking to claim it for themselves.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Flora And Son

Few people have translated to film the unique and powerful way that music brings people together better than writer/director John Carney. His films Once, Begin Again and Sing Street aren’t exactly musicals, in the traditional sense, but they all involve characters who are transformed by their musical experiences with one another. As one may imagine, they all also feature terrific original songs too, with Once‘s “Falling Slowly” even picking up an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2008. In these ways, his new film Flora And Son fits in very nicely with the rest of his filmography, retaining the traits of Carney’s other work while breaking the mold some with characters that have a bit more of an edge to them. The movie is ultimately as earnest and sweet as the other entries in what could be considered his “Music Cinematic Universe” but I appreciated that he made the main players here a bit more messy.

The titular character in Flora And Son, played by Eve Hewson, is a single mother in Dublin trying her best to keep her troubled teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan) out of trouble. Money’s tight and jobs are scarce but after leaving her babysitting gig one day, Flora finds a beat-up acoustic guitar that she fixes up at a local guitar shop to give to Max for his birthday. It turns out he doesn’t care to learn guitar, favoring hip hop and electronic music instead, so Flora decides to take initiative herself and start guitar lessons online with California-based teacher Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It’s a development that comes to the surprise of her ex Ian (Jack Reynor), whose rock and roll days as bassist in a band seemed to be behind him but could return if it means getting closer to his son Max.

One of the ways Flora And Son expands on the music-centric inclinations of Carney’s previous output is the way that he depicts how technology can shorten the distance between people trying to make a connection. In a funny montage, Flora scrolls through various YouTube guitar tutors and is turned off by their ostentatious openers and tiresome theatrics. She admits to Jeff that the reason she chose him as a virtual guitar teacher is because he seems more authentic than the rest of the “posers” out there on the Internet. Remote learning certainly existed before the pandemic and certainly still has its obstacles but Carney reminds us how miraculous it is that we can communicate with others across the planet in real time. When you bring music into the equation, the connections can become that much more inspiring and soul-strengthening.

Carney’s films are often hopelessly romantic and Flora And Son is no exception. Though Hewson and Gordon-Levitt initially communicate through their respective laptops, it doesn’t take long for movie magic to depict them in the same setting, even though they’re not actually physically present with one another. It’s a smart directorial choice, allowing the two actors to break out of the limitations of a computer screen and occupy the same shared space. The duo have an easy chemistry with one another and relay their fears and dreams with heart-on-one’s-sleeve abandon. Gordon-Levitt has a bit of a softie persona as is and while it’s undoubtedly a welcome sight to see him singing his heart out with an acoustic guitar, it’s also exciting to see Hewson’s character soften her edges some as the movie progresses.

I’m also encouraged by how Flora And Son drives home how relatively easy it is for anybody to engage with music creation in one way or another. Though Max turns down the guitar, Flora finds out later on that he’s been making beats and crafting verses in GarageBand, a music program that comes pre-installed on all Apple computers. When he unplugs his headphones and plays a track of his through a set of Genelec speakers, Flora sees her son in a new light and even starts improv singing a hook over the music bed. It opens up a new world for them and also opens the door for some reconciliation with Flora’s ex-husband Ian too, who has been adrift in life after giving up his music. Flora And Son knows that life as a professional musician isn’t for everyone but even a little bit of musical expression in one’s life can be massively rewarding.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Creator, starring John David Washington and Gemma Chan, is a sci-fi action thriller set in a future where humans are at war with artificial intelligence, in which a former soldier finds a robot in the form of a young child who holds the key to a world-ending weapon.
Saw X, starring Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith, is a horror sequel that takes place weeks after the events of the original Saw, where the Jigsaw Killer travels to Mexico after learning of a potential “miracle” cure for his terminal cancer.
PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie, starring Mckenna Grace and Taraji P. Henson, is an animated sequel in which a magical meteor crash lands in Adventure City and gives the PAW Patrol pups superpowers, transforming them into The Mighty Pups.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Shiva Baby writer and director Emma Seligman teams back up with its star Rachel Sennott for Bottoms, another sex comedy that’s paradoxically weirder and somehow more mainstream than Seligman’s 2020 debut. As co-writers this time, Seligman and Sennott have created a vision of modern high school life so farcical that it occasionally makes John Hughes High from Not Another Teen Movie seem authentic by comparison. The football players are effeminate wimps who dance to “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” during chore time, while the cheerleaders forgo choreographed routines in favor of wet T-shirt displays. A prominently-displayed poster in the hallway implores “You’re prettier when you SMILE! He could be looking at you right now!” My advice for those going into this movie is don’t take it too seriously because it certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Bottoms stars Sennott as PJ, a brash but awkward high schooler who spends almost all of her time with the comparatively more reserved Josie (Ayo Edebiri) as they pine for a pair of cheerleaders. PJ fancies Brittany (Kaia Gerber), while Josie has a thing for Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), though neither of the girls have the social currency to make the relationships happen. A so-called violent altercation with star quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine) causes Josie to lie to their principal about a self-defense class that she runs with PJ, one that they subsequently start when they get the sense it could draw Brittany and Isabel in. Loosely supervised by their teacher Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch), the program quickly devolves into a “fight club” where classmates like Hazel (Ruby Cruz) use the opportunity to vent their frustrations through fisticuffs.

The central conceit of Bottoms plays with Gen Z’s concepts of masculinity vs. femininity and spectrum sexuality but its treatment of the material harkens back to pervy throwback comedies from Animal House to Revenge Of The Nerds. Anyone going into this film expecting something more buttoned-up because it depicts a generation some perceive as “perpetually offended” might be surprised how far the humor goes in places. There were a couple jokes involving sexual assault and suicide that I thought tested the boundaries of good taste and even though my laughter was laced with nervousness, I laughed nonetheless. Some of the seemingly one-off bits also set up running jokes, as when Josie uses shorthand with the school janitor to ask him to paint over presumably often-written homophobic slurs on her and PJ’s lockers.

Though it’s not as strong a film as Booksmart, Bottoms feels like even more of a spiritual successor to Superbad than Booksmart does in hindsight. Sennott channels the loudmouth desperation of Jonah Hill’s Seth, while Edebiri echoes a placid sweetness similar to that of Michael Cera’s Evan. Like Hill in Superbad, Sennott occasionally pushes her character into places of unpleasantness that can make her difficult to root for at times but her comedic sensibilities remain strong regardless. Edebiri continues her superb streak of summer successes with a winning combination of brains and charm that flourishes most during the movie’s myriad scenes of improvisation. But the biggest surprise is Lynch, the former NFL running back whose comedy career may have begun the day he repeated the phrase “I’m here so I won’t get get fined” to the media leading up to Super Bowl XLIX. He has a great knack for delivery and I hope directors continue to find ways to use “Beast Mode” in comedies down the road.

Like her 78-minute feature debut Shiva Baby, Seligman paces Bottoms breathlessly, barely allowing for any character development and sometimes stepping over jokes that could use a little more screen time. There’s a subplot involving a conniving footballer played by Miles Fowler that is such a cliché that the excuse Sennott and Seligman would likely come up with about how it’s making fun of said cliché doesn’t quite cut it. The film works best when it briefly subverts teen comedy beats rather than relying on them for the narrative, as when a female classmate proclaims “I’m going to reverse-stalk my stalker!” after Josie delivers an impassioned speech. At the end of the day, the most important aspect of a comedy is the strength of its jokes and more often than not, the laughs in Bottoms are tops.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is A Haunting In Venice, a new Hercule Poirot mystery starring Kenneth Branagh and Kyle Allen, in which the famed detective has another case to solve after a séance he reluctantly attends produces a murder.
Streaming on Netflix is Love At First Sight, a romantic comedy starring Haley Lu Richardson and Ben Hardy about a couple passengers who spontaneously begin to fall for each other on their international flight from New York to London.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is A Million Miles Away, a true story starring Michael Peña and Rosa Salazar which tells the tale of the first migrant farmworker to ever travel to space.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

When Mission: Impossible – Fallout was released in 2018, many immediately heralded it as a new apex for the long-running action spy franchise and one that would be difficult to supersede. 5 years and 1 global pandemic later, we have half of a sequel that is already 163 minutes on its own, with a concluding chapter coming next summer. That Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One doesn’t top its predecessor could be seen as a disappointment, but given that it’s a stronger action outing than just about anything else in the genre that’s been released in theaters this year, there’s still plenty to celebrate. Even more than usual, Tom Cruise seems to have put everything he has into this particular entry and his mind-boggling work ethic comes through every second he’s in frame.

This time around, superspy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is on the hunt for two halves of an interlocking key that seems to be crucial for controlling The Entity, an all-powerful AI that has outgrown its intended use and is headed towards sentience. After retrieving the first portion of the key from returning Mission agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Hunt bumps into professional pickpocket Grace (Hayley Atwell) while attempting to recover the other half-key. She forms an uneasy alliance with Hunt, along with IMF cohorts Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), when he promises her protection from Gabriel (Esai Morales), a menacing mastermind who has a history with Hunt and appears to be working on behalf of The Entity.

After beginning with a tensionless and series-worst cold open, Dead Reckoning Part One finds its footing once Cruise steps out from the shadows and even more so when he pairs back up with Rebecca Ferguson, with whom he has effortless chemistry on-screen. Since appearing first in 2015’s Rogue Nation, she’s done other franchise films like Dune and series like Apple TV+’s Silo but she’s always a most welcome presence in these movies as a fearless foil for Cruise’s Hunt. Along with Atwell and Morales (both quite good in their respective roles), other newcomers include Pom Klementieff, playing against type as a ruthless assassin, and Shea Whigham, playing to his strengths as a gruff enforcer on Hunt’s tail. Henry Czerny returns from a long series hiatus, having last appeared in the first Mission: Impossible film, and he does what he can to rekindle the seething intensity he brought all those years ago.

Like Ferguson, director and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie is also returning to this franchise for the third time but he still hasn’t been able to top the high water mark that is Rogue Nation. Dead Reckoning Part One has the well-designed car chases and death-defying stunts that you’d hope for but they don’t flow together as organically as they did in McQuarrie’s previous two efforts. More importantly, the story just isn’t there this time around; I’m more dubious of Fallout‘s convoluted plotline than most but at least the narrative itself is engaging on a fundamental level. Hunt vs. artificial intelligence may seem like a relevant pitch, given how prevalent generative AI seems to be in our current cultural conversation, but its permutation here feels underdeveloped and, at times, a bit silly.

Along with other recent blockbusters like Fast X and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Dead Reckoning Part One continues the recent trend of big summer movies concluding with substantial cliffhangers, though at least the Mission: Impossible series has the courtesy of denoting that with “part one” in the title. While this chapter certainly moves along more briskly than its hefty runtime would suggest, I find it hard to believe that McQuarrie and his co-writer Erik Jendresen couldn’t have written a more concise story upon which to hang these action sequences and cast of characters. In addition to what I would expect would be even more thrilling scenes of gravity defiance, Part Two should also shed more light on the shared past between Hunt and Gabriel, along with more clues about how The Entity came to be. If McQuarrie can tap back into the elegant storytelling he’s demonstrated before, it could make for a strong stopping point for this superlative series.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is Barbie, a fantasy comedy starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling following a pair of less-than-perfect dolls as they are expelled from the utopian Barbie Land and go on a journey of self-discovery to the real world.
Also coming only to theaters is Oppenheimer, an epic biopic starring Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt telling the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who helped develop the first nuclear weapons on the Manhattan Project.
Streaming on Netflix is They Cloned Tyrone, a sci-fi comedy starring John Boyega and Jamie Foxx about a series of eerie events that thrusts an unlikely trio onto the trail of a nefarious government conspiracy.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny

When George Lucas first developed the Indiana Jones character, his quests were meant to mimic the rousing movie serials from Lucas’s childhood in the 1940s. Now that Raiders of the Lost Ark is over 40 years old, perhaps it’s inevitable that Indy’s fifth and final adventure Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is imbued with a type of 1980s nostalgia for the original Indy trilogy. Those films were intentionally throwbacks even in their day, meaning that this latest chapter is necessarily even more old-fashioned, but that’s always been the cornerstone of what makes these modified swashbucklers work. Stepping in for Steven Spielberg, director and co-writer James Mangold brings some of the master’s signature touches to the film but brings his own instinct for kinetic storytelling to the table as well.

After a thrilling prologue set in the final days of World War II, Dial of Destiny flashes forward to 1969, where history is being made in front of the eyes of professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as man first walks on the moon. However, Jones has his eye on more ancient history; specifically, the Siege of Syracuse in 213 BC. It was there that mathematician Archimedes created a device known as the Antikythera, a dial that can point its possessor to cracks in time through which they can travel. Half the mechanism has been lost through the centuries but Jones has the other half in his collection, prompting his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) to help him reassemble the artifact before German physicist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) can get to it first.

If there’s such a thing as an “Indiana Jones formula”, then Mangold follows it closely for Dial of Destiny. There are MacGuffins, there are Nazis, there are chases, all set to the musical score of the best film composer to ever do it. Were Disney to treat this like their other George Lucas acquisitions, there’d be a new Indiana Jones movie every two years but since it’s been 15 years since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, these adventures feel more momentous by comparison. The development for the new faces around Indy isn’t as strong as it could have been but the performances make up the difference. Waller-Bridge is a snappy foil for our aging protagonist and while Mikkelsen is basically playing a cardboard cutout of a villain, he’s certainly having a fun time doing it.

Much has been made of the de-aging that’s been performed on the 80-year-old Ford for Dial of Destiny, both the facial variety for flashback scenes and the physical kind for action sequences where Indy appears particularly agile. With a few exceptions, I think the process generally works quite well and helps to hide the seams. Sure, Indy’s artificially younger face isn’t as naturally expressive as it could be and there are some clunky shots, particularly a scene of Indy jumping atop a moving train, that look undeniably inauthentic. Nevertheless, the majority of the terrific chase sequences feel especially tactile and impactful, thanks to top-tier stunt work and outstanding editing. The movie has the character beats and the archeological sleuthing that you want from an Indiana Jones outing but Mangold knows we’re also in the theater for exhilarating action and he delivers.

Mangold also understands the star power of Harrison Ford and wields it intelligently here. I have no doubt that several stunt doubles were used in lieu of Ford in some of the trickier shots but Mangold does a laudable job maintaining the illusion that it’s really him the whole time. Dial of Destiny may also mark the end of a trilogy, of sorts, in Ford’s career. Over the past ten years, he’s brought back iconic characters Han Solo and Rick Deckard for legacy sequels that were not only stellar films in their own right but also implemented Ford wisely within their respective narratives. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny may not be as strong as Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Blade Runner 2049 but it’s a properly entertaining sendoff to everyone’s favorite archeologist-adventurer.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Insidious: The Red Door, a supernatural horror film starring Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne set ten years after the events of the first two Insidious films, which finds Dalton grown up and ready to go to college but still plagued by demons from the Further.
Also playing in theaters is Joy Ride, a comedy starring Ashley Park and Stephanie Hsu about four Asian-American childhood best friends as they bond even closer while they travel through Asia in search of one of their birth mothers.
Streaming on Netflix is The Out-Laws, a crime comedy starring Adam DeVine and Pierce Brosnan which follows a bank manager on his wedding week whose bank is robbed by criminals that he very strongly suspects might be his future in-laws.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig follows up her dynamite directorial debut The Edge of Seventeen with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., another coming-of-age tale that beautifully conveys the painful process of trying to find one’s place in the world. The contemporary setting of The Edge of Seventeen allowed more colorful language and lustful inclinations for its characters but Are You There God?, adapted from Judy Blume’s landmark novel, is comparatively much more wholesome. The stakes are small, the conflict is minimal and the dramatic highs and lows are not as dynamic as they are in better films of the same genre. But a winning cast and a tender story that connotes empathy and understanding make this family dramedy easy to recommend.

We meet young Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) as she comes home to New York City from summer camp before she begins the sixth grade. Her mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams) picks her up in a new car but that’s not all that Margaret has missed during her time away. A promotion at work for her dad Herb (Benny Safdie) means they’ll be moving across the Hudson to New Jersey, much to the consternation of Herb’s mother Sylvia (Kathy Bates). Thanks to assertive new neighbor Nancy (Elle Graham), Margaret starts to make friends soon after relocating and also develops a crush on lawn-mowing eighth-grader Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong). But as the transitions associated with early adolescence begin to crop up, Margaret leans on faith and family for guidance.

Amari Price and Katherine Kupferer play Janie and Gretchen, respectively, who are members of a secret club that Nancy heads up and invites Margaret to be a part of when she moves into the neighborhood. The scenes revolving around their meetings generate some of the biggest laughs in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., as when the girls steal one of Margaret’s dad’s Playboy magazines and gawk at the models whose bodies they envy. Conversely, there are dispirited reactions to the male section of an anatomy book that one of the girls lifts from the school library. The film retains the early 1970s setting of the novel upon which it’s based and while the forthright discussions of puberty in the book were taboo upon its release, the girls’ mischievous inclinations are quaint by today’s standards.

The movie doesn’t quite have any knockout scenes of poignancy but the moments that come closest are those where McAdams is able to carve out more emotional space for Barbara in the narrative. Taking a break from her job teaching art, she’s at something of a crossroads herself as she tries to fit in with the PTA moms and hone her skills as a homemaker. While cutting out fabric stars for the school gym’s ceiling, Barbara spots a chirping robin outside that sticks around long enough for her to start a canvas painting, only for it to get scared off by the sound of a doorbell. McAdams is terrific as a loving mother trying to power through her insecurities in hopes of harnessing her passions, all while being burdened with estranged parents and an overbearing mother-in-law. “It gets tiring trying so hard all the time, doesn’t it?”, Barbara laments to Margaret as they lean on each other in a wonderful moment of mutual appreciation.

While Craig’s approach to this material is generally quite safe, I appreciate the way that she depicts Margaret’s religious journey and her earnest search for something greater. I wouldn’t describe this as a “faith-based” movie, which increasingly means preaching to the choir as opposed to trying to actually reach the unconverted, but it is a movie that values faith and takes it seriously. Margaret goes to temple, church services and mass — she even goes to confession on her 12th birthday — but she can’t seem to exactly find her place in any of it. The pressure that Margaret feels from different members of her family to make a choice about what religion she is ultimately causes her to reject all of it, a sentiment to which I’m sure those in interfaith families can relate. Whether someone is listening to us or not, films like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. remind us that caring earthly voices deserve to be nurtured and amplified.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Debuting in theaters is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a superhero sequel starring Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldaña continuing the adventures of the titular gang of outlaws as they pursue a dangerous mission that could lead to the team dissolving if they fail.
Also coming to theaters is Love Again, a romantic drama starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Sam Heughan about a young woman who tries to ease the pain of her fiancé’s death by sending romantic texts to his old cell phone number and forms a connection with the man to whom the number has been reassigned.
Playing at Cinema Center is Showing Up, an art dramedy starring Michelle Williams and Hong Chau which tells the story of a struggling sculptor preparing to open a new show as she tries to work amidst the daily dramas of family and friends.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Super Mario Bros. Movie

30 years after the nightmare vision of a live-action adaptation, the world’s most popular video game franchise finds new cinematic life through Illumination with The Super Mario Bros. Movie. As bright and cheery as 1993’s Super Mario Bros. was dank and enigmatic, this franchise kick-starter is designed to appeal to both those who have logged hundreds of hours playing Mario games and those who are discovering this world for the first time. With a simple story and cursory characterizations, it’s also a film that’s meant to be extremely palatable to all age groups, much like other Illumination series from Despicable Me to The Secret Life of Pets. But there’s so much care and craft that’s gone into the visual design and musical score alone that it’s difficult not to get swept up into the magic emanating from this charming crowd-pleaser.

Living in modern-day Brooklyn, brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are doing what they can to get their fledgling plumbing business off the ground before it goes down the tubes. After seeing a massive mid-city manhole leak on the news, Mario convinces Luigi that they’re the ones who can fix it but as they make their way underground towards the deluge, the brothers get sucked into a large pipe. They get split up to two different areas of a magical world, brave Mario in the vibrant Mushroom Kingdom and timid Luigi in the ominous Dark Lands. Luigi is summarily captured by King Bowser (Jack Black) and his army of turtle-like Koopa soldiers, while Mario calls upon Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) for help in getting he and his brother back home to Brooklyn. Along the way, Mario and Peach recruit the mighty ape Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) from the Jungle Kingdom in their quest to defeat Bowser.

The most striking aspect of The Super Mario Bros. Movie is not only the bright and stunning animation but how it’s used to create these distinctive areas of this enchanting world. Obviously there are numerous sprawling Mario games from which to draw upon when designing these settings but co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic focus these influences for one all-encompassing narrative. In a couple key sequences, they cleverly recreate the 2D side-scrolling nature of the early Mario games and repurpose the light-up blocks and obstacles as part of a Mushroom Kingdom training course. Naturally, there are innumerable references to platform game mainstays like the Fire Flower and Piranha Plants that even those who have never played the games will likely still recognize.

The music of Mario by Koji Kondo is another cultural touchstone that one doesn’t need to be a gamer to recognize and composer Brian Tyler beautifully weaves in leitmotifs from various Mario games throughout the years. In a moment of scheming, Bowser and his adviser Kamek sit together at the piano to duet the “Underworld Theme”, followed by Bowser crooning a hilariously overwrought new song “Peaches”. Aside from the Kondo music and the original tunes, The Super Mario Bros. Movie also includes some needle drops that aren’t unexpected from an Illumination entertainment but not really necessary either. Between this, the comparatively duller video game-related Tetris and the Shazam sequel, this is the third new release I’ve seen in the past few weeks that interpolates Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero.” I can only be grateful it wasn’t in Air as well.

The voice cast isn’t filled with the most inspired choices for every role but the performers do what they need to in order to make the characters feel like they’re sharing this world together. Jack Black brings some heavy metal gusto to his put-upon Bowser that makes him alternately menacing and pathetic, depending on the scene. Charlie Day hits his high register for the perpetually nervous Luigi and Chris Pratt brings an easy confidence to his aplomb older brother. There’s a joke early on about the stereotypical Italian dialects that Pratt and Day chose not to lean on while voicing their characters and where the duo ended up tonally suits the movie just fine. Hopefully the inevitable sequels will get more ambitious with casting and plot but as a visually and sonic spectacle, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is an accomplished first level that will no doubt have audiences pining for the next one.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Renfield, starring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage, is a horror comedy about Dracula’s beleaguered servant and sidekick, who yearns to get out from under the thumb of his vampiric boss and the bloodshed that his lifestyle seems to accrue.
The Pope’s Exorcist, starring Russell Crowe and Daniel Zovatto, is a supernatural horror film following the chief exorcist of the Vatican as he investigates a young boy’s terrifying possession and ends up uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy in the process.
Sweetwater, starring Everett Osborne and Cary Elwes, is a sports biopic covering the life and career of Hall of Fame basketball player Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who made history as the first African American to sign an NBA contract.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Boston Strangler

1968 saw the release of The Boston Strangler, a crime film loosely based on the real-life serial killer at the center of 13 still-unresolved slayings earlier that same decade. The notion of producing a movie so close to real events that were still under investigation divided audiences and critics alike; Roger Ebert opined, “This film, which was made so well, should not have been made at all.” Decades after the events, we now have Boston Strangler, a much more level-headed procedural about the pair of intrepid reporters who initially connected the murders. But just because this is more responsible in how it depicts the case doesn’t mean it’s not engrossing on its own terms. Like Zodiac, another quietly terrifying film about an unsolved murder spree in the 1960s, this movie gets us thoroughly involved with the characters first before the mystery takes hold.

Keira Knightley stars as Loretta McLaughlin, a columnist for the Boston Record American who is limited to covering “lifestyle topics” that her snippy editor Jack MacLaine (Chris Cooper) thinks would interest bored housewives. Eager to move beyond reviewing the latest toaster from Sunbeam, she bends the ear of fellow reporter Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) to figure out how she is able to tackle more meaningful subjects. Spotting a similarity between two murders within the same month, McLaughlin senses a pattern emerging and uses her newspaper credentials to lean on the police for information. After more elderly women in the area are strangled, McLaughlin recruits Cole to develop coverage around the elusive figure they dub the “Boston Phantom”, even while doing so puts their lives at risk.

Writer/director Matt Ruskin has a few projects under his belt, most recently before this with 2017 crime drama Crown Heights, but Boston Strangler seems to be the biggest productions he’s led so far. His latest effort has the sort of formal rigor that you’d want from a film about people working hard to put an end to a killing spree. It’s handsomely shot, it’s tightly edited and it packs plenty of subtext into the serial killer tale we’ve seen quite often in the past. The sexism of the era factors heavily into how McLaughlin and Cole were able to pursue the assignment in the first place and also informs the dismissive treatment they often received from law enforcement. Last year’s She Said, which also featured two reporters investigating a major story, deals with modern-day sexual politics much more bluntly but serves as a fitting companion piece about rising above implicit and explicit gender discrimination.

Through voiceover narration, Boston Strangler wisely includes excerpts from articles that McLaughlin actually wrote to convey the progression of the breaking news. Not only was she a groundbreaking journalist but she was also a compelling storyteller, crafting prose that was true to the facts while also being effortlessly absorbing at the same time. Ruskin goes for a similar approach, responsibly relaying an impressive amount of detail around the murders while including flavor about the toll that chasing this killer had on those doing the chasing. A pair of nicely juxtaposed scenes set outside of different residences suggest that as McLaughlin gazes into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into her.

Though Knightley is a fine lead, it’s a bit curious that she goes with a more “standard” American dialect as opposed to the Boston accent that Woburn native McLaughlin likely had. While I wasn’t expecting a full-on The Departed level of “r-dropping”, other ensemble players like Alessandro Nivola and Bill Camp at least try to evoke the region’s dialect in their performances. Regardless, Ruskin gets fine work out of his cast overall and does everything he can to make this true story register with his audience. As Boston-set journalism movies go, Boston Strangler isn’t quite on the level of Spotlight but it gets much closer than you may expect from a direct-to-streaming thriller.

Score – 3.5/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Shazam! Fury of the Gods, a superhero sequel starring Zachary Levi and Helen Mirren which continues the story of a teenager and his foster siblings who must transform into their superpowered adult alter egos to fight the Daughters of Atlas.
Streaming on Netflix is The Magician’s Elephant, an animated family film starring Noah Jupe and Mandy Patinkin following a boy on the search for his long-lost sister with the help of a mysterious elephant and the magician who will conjure it.
Streaming on MGM+ is There’s Something Wrong With The Children, a horror movie starring Alisha Wainwright and Zach Gilford about a couple who takes a weekend trip with longtime friends and their two young kids, the latter of whom begin to behave strangely after disappearing into the woods overnight.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania

Phase Five of the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets off to a fun start with Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, the third and likely final standalone movie for the other Avenger named after an insect who’s not Spider-Man. The first two entries seemed to be self-aware of the fact that Ant-Man is not the most impactful Marvel hero out there and as such, the stakes were appropriately low compared to the galaxy-level consequences of the Avengers movies. These days, I tend to tire from the humongous scale of the larger superhero epics and prefer the “smaller” stories but the first two Ant-Man films always felt too insignificant to leave an impression. Quantumania is unquestionably on a much bigger stage, tasked with building a world we’ve only seen glimpses of in previous MCU fare while also setting up the new big bad for the next batch of Marvel projects. It turns out that the little guy is up to the task.

We’re reintroduced to Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) as he adjusts to life as a celebrity after his substantial contribution to reversing the Blip in Avengers: Endgame. His now-teenage daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) is also trying to find her way, dabbling with activism and quantum physics on top of her regular school life. The latter hobby leads her to create a sort of GPS for the Quantum Realm, allowing her to explore the area without actually going there. When Scott’s girlfriend Hope/Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and her parents Hank (Michael Douglas) and Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) observe Cassie’s new invention, all five members of the family are sucked into a portal from the satellite and are transported to the Quantum Realm. Separated during their trip, Scott and Cassie must reunite with Hope and her parents to get back home while avoiding an all-powerful adversary in the process.

One area where Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the most recent MCU movie before Quantumania, struggled was in building a compelling new setting by way of the murky underwater city of Talokan. The Quantum Realm has been seen briefly in the first Ant-Man as something of a cosmic purgatory where Scott lingered for a moment of peril but in this sequel, we get to see much more of the universe. That gives way for some vivid new locations to be unveiled and plenty of neat creature design to fill the always-busy frame. We meet all sorts of strange characters, like a telepath whose head glows when he gets inbound thought messages from others and a Kirby-like slime being whose ooze can be ingested to allow outsiders to understand Quantum Realm languages. There’s even a talking broccoli, though he’s sadly not voiced by Dana Carvey.

The antagonist of Quantumania was first introduced in the finale of Loki, a TV series that I would consider a prerequisite going into this latest MCU movie, as the variant He Who Remains. For the first hour of Quantumania, he could be called He Who Remains Nameless, as the movie always seems to cut away from any character right before they say his name. Eventually we find out: it’s Kang The Conqueror, a Multiverse-hopping tyrant played with prestige and menace by Jonathan Majors. Unlike Thanos, whose appearances leading up to Avengers: Infinity War were relegated to brief scenes and post-credit teasers, Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel Studios are showing us more of this supervillain up front before his inevitable clash with the Avengers. This is an auspicious start for Majors in these MCU films and I’m looking forward to seeing how his character develops over time, so to speak.

My Quantumania quibbles aren’t much different than the ones I tend to have with the rest of these movies. The lighting, especially in close-up, is inconsistent, the editing is incoherent at times and unlike the MCU output from last year, the third act is back to generally being a blur of clunky CGI action. But fans of the series likely won’t mind much of this because it’s potentially irrelevant to their experience and they aren’t new issues anyway. For me, this is the best of the three Ant-Man standalones because it finds new ways to flesh out this character — there’s a visual motif during a “probability storm” sequence that brought this home for me — in unpredictable ways. As a trilogy capper, Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania sends the underdog hero out on a high note and sets up as many future adventures as the box office can justify.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Cocaine Bear, an action comedy starring Keri Russell and O’Shea Jackson Jr. based on the true story of a bear who goes on a killing rampage in a small Georgia town after ingesting a duffel bag full of cocaine.
Also coming only to theaters is Jesus Revolution, a faith-based drama starring Joel Courtney and Jonathan Roumie covering the true story of a national spiritual awakening in the early 1970s and its origins within a community of teenage hippies in Southern California.
Streaming on Netflix is We Have A Ghost, a family horror comedy starring David Harbour and Anthony Mackie about a family who finds a ghost named Ernest haunting their new home and turns him into an overnight social media sensation.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup