Tag Archives: 3.5/5

The Fall Guy

Last summer, Ryan Gosling manifested Kenergy for the blockbuster phenomenon Barbie and this year, he’s doing his part to kick off the summer movie season with the similarly hilarious The Fall Guy. Loosely adapted from the 80s TV series about stunt performers who also dabble in bounty hunting, the film is a big-hearted action comedy that also functions as a valentine to the art of stuntwork. It comes courtesy of David Leitch, who cut his teeth as a stuntman on dozens of projects since the late 90s and has since risen the ranks as director of non-stop actioners like Atomic Blonde and Bullet Train. While he still struggles with storytelling skills like pacing and prioritization, Leitch taps into the weapons-grade charm of his lead actors and puts forth his most accomplished work from the director’s chair so far.

Gosling shines as stunt performer Colt Seavers, who doubles for hotshot action star Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) until an on-set injury leaves Colt with a broken back and a broken spirit. 18 months later, the now-reclusive Colt gets a call from big-time producer Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham), who wants him to get back in the stuntman saddle once again for a new sci-fi epic called Metalstorm. Seavers balks at the opportunity, until Gail tells him it’s being directed by Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), with whom Colt shared a brief romance when she worked as a camera operator on previous Hollywood projects. He makes the trek down to the set in Australia, only to find out that Ryder has gone missing and could be involved in shady dealings down under.

From there, The Fall Guy‘s overly-convoluted plot is mainly an excuse to get Gosling into as many stunt-reliant scenes — be they car chases, shootouts, brawls, or any combinations therein — as possible. Though they wear out their welcome a bit in the extended third act, these sequences are cleverly conceived and as skillfully executed as one would expect from a movie dedicated to stuntwork. The most memorable of these involves Gosling and a personal assistant (played by Stephanie Hsu) in peril, who pop in and out of a seemingly indestructible garbage truck as it tears through the streets of Sydney. Another fun setpiece finds Colt and his stunt coordinator (played by Winston Duke) as they use prop weapons to fend off a gaggle of henchmen. Duke is a hoot as he calls out action stars like Jason Bourne, the way a kid would while playing pretend mid-skirmish, as he puts the hurt on the bandits.

From the romance side of things, The Fall Guy doesn’t care much about creating believable tension that Gosling and Blunt’s characters won’t get together in the end but their chemistry is dynamite regardless. Much in the way that his Ken pined for Barbie last summer, Gosling plays persistent puppy dog in his affections for Blunt’s reticent moviemaker. As terrific as their banter is, my favorite scene between the two is a dialogue-free one set to The Darkness’ “I Believe In A Thing Called Love”, in which they choreograph and shoot an action montage in front of the Sydney Opera House. Their characters have a shorthand and playfulness in their interaction that is absolutely infectious and underscores the unique joy in shooting a film on this scale with people who are on the same wavelength.

On top of the character work, the film has plenty of showbiz in-jokes (be sure to stay through the credits) and meta commentary that occasionally hit harder than it needs to in an otherwise frivolous blockbuster. There’s a throughline about deepfake technology that not only feels relevant, given how often the technique is being used in videos we see all the time, but also makes one wonder how long Hollywood has used it to make stunt doubles look like their corresponding stars. Leitch also sneaks in an acute observation about how female directors can be unfairly pushed around by producers and actors on-set, based on the inference that they’re not as willing to stand their ground. But at the end of the day, this isn’t a treatise on gender inequality or the perils of AI; it’s a popcorn movie whose main duty is laughs and stunts, of which it has both in spades. You won’t see a movie all summer that works harder to entertain you than The Fall Guy.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Out in theaters is Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes, a sci-fi action movie starring Owen Teague and Freya Allan involving a young ape who goes on a journey that will lead him to question everything he’s been taught and make choices that will define a future for apes and humans alike.
Streaming on Disney+ is Let It Be, a recently restored documentary covering The Beatles’ attempt to recapture their old group spirit by making a back- to-basics album, which instead drove them further apart.
Premiering on Netflix is Mother Of The Bride, a romantic comedy starring Brooke Shields and Miranda Cosgrove about a mother who is surprised by her daughter’s spontaneous wedding and is even more surprised to find out that the groom is the son of the man who broke her heart years ago.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Abigail

Abigail is a movie that will play very differently for those who know nothing about it going in versus those who enter the theater having seen a trailer or ad for it ahead of time. The marketing for the film sensibly lets potential ticket buyers in on a twist that occurs around the halfway mark that changes the trajectory and tone from there on out. These days, I doubt anyone goes into a movie without vetting things a bit first but just in case, I’ll refrain from spoiling what happens then and focus on what occurs in the opening half. Regardless, even those who are in-the-know about Abigail will still have plenty of twists and fun developments await them as the story progresses past its pivot. There are logic jumps and plot holes that crop up along the way but none egregious enough to permanently throw this chiller off its balance.

In the opening moments of Abigail, we’re introduced to several criminals who are convening for an overnight job that should lead to a big score. After kidnapping young ballerina Abigail (Alisha Weir), whose well-connected father is likely to pay millions for her return, the crew meet the architect of the plan Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito) at a secluded mansion. He tells them they only need to keep the young girl safe for 24 hours to get their $50 million ransom and gives them Rat Pack-based aliases to conceal their identities. The smartest of the group seems to be Joey (Melissa Barrera), who is responsible for checking in on Abigail through the evening. Things go just fine for a time, until the crew realizes they’re actually locked inside the mansion and their abductee isn’t as innocent as she seems.

The first half of Abigail meets at the intersection of Reservoir Dogs and Don’t Breathe, where half the fun is getting to know the bandits in play and the other half is the anticipation that the rug will inevitably be pulled out from under them. Following up his fun turn in Godzilla x Kong last month, Dan Stevens is similarly terrific here as Frank, who is more sinister and cunning than the goofball he played in the aforementioned monster movie. In her second horror film this year after Lisa Frankenstein, Kathryn Newton reprises her winsome combination of charm and snark for the hacker character Sammy. Elsewhere, Kevin Durand and Angus Cloud, the latter of whom tragically passed away last year at just 25 years old, put their own unique spins on their dim-witted bandits.

Abigail comes courtesy of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, the filmmaking duo from Radio Silence Productions whose earlier feature Ready Or Not also took place almost exclusively inside a decked-out mansion. The two also helmed the most recent entries in the Scream franchise and with this new film now under their belts, it’s clear they’ve worked out a brand of campy horror that just works. This time, they evoke the rhythm of a heist movie like Panic Room at the outset, until the creepy mood of a haunted house film like Crimson Peak begins to set in. There’s also some vulgar zingers along the way that don’t push the comedy too hard; Frank has a hilarious reaction to Sammy bringing an incorrect item in from the kitchen and later, a seemingly climactic moment from Frank defuses with a humorous thud.

As can be the case with other horror offerings, Abigail occasionally falls prey to typical pitfalls of the genre. Some of the supernatural elements aren’t as clearly defined as they could be and sometimes, characters make irredeemably poor decisions that point more towards contrived screenwriting than intellectual shortcomings of the criminals. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett know how to move the story along and keep the plot elements spinning quickly enough to distract from deficiencies. Abigail is another hit from the Radio Silence crew, who continue their string of strong output in a genre where genuine surprises can be hard to come by.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Challengers, starring Zendaya and Josh O’Connor, is a romantic sports movie involving a former tennis prodigy turned coach, her tennis champion husband who’s on a losing streak, and his former best friend who used to date his wife.
Unsung Hero, starring Joel Smallbone and Daisy Betts, is a true story of how members from the Christian pop duo For King & Country moved from Australia to Nashville in the early 1990s.
Boy Kills World, starring Bill Skarsgård and Jessica Rothe, is an action thriller centering around a deaf man who escapes to the jungle after his family is killed and is trained by a mysterious mentor to enact vengeance on the murderers.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Love Lies Bleeding

Last month, Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls had a very brief theatrical run as a light-hearted queer romance that was zany and even cartoony at points. This month, we have Love Lies Bleeding, another movie about two young women falling in love but whose story is much darker and more intense by comparison. Incidentally, it also mirrors the Coen Brothers’ debut film Blood Simple, another country-fried neo-noir in which one criminal act seems to beget an escalating series of retributions. It comes courtesy of up-and-coming English filmmaker Rose Glass, whose feature debut Saint Maud mined religious iconography for nervy moments of creepy transcendence. For the most part, her follow-up is more grounded and more violent but, most importantly, it’s more confident and kinetic filmmaking.

It’s 1989 and Lou (Kristen Stewart) is managing Crater Gym when she spots the brawny Jackie (Katy O’Brian) putting up some serious weight on the machines. They talk, hit it off, and soon, a serious relationship begins. The two confide in one another their hopes and dreams, with Jackie aiming to win an upcoming bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas and Lou looking to get out from under her corrupt father Lou Sr. (Ed Harris). Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone) is also under the thumb of another man, her abusive and controlling husband J.J. (Dave Franco), who doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he beats her. When Beth ends up in the hospital due to J.J.’s violence, Lou is understandably furious and out of devotion to her, Jackie takes brutal action to make things right. As well-intentioned as her recourse may have been, it sets off a chain reaction that puts the two lovers in the crosshairs.

The opening shots of Love Lies Bleeding brilliantly foreshadow the thematic conflict at the center of the film. The piercing red of car tail lights barely make a dent in the vastness of an endlessly black ravine that the camera slowly travels down. Then, an image of bright stars playing off one another illuminates a serene summer sky that promises possibility. The movie always feels like a sweaty tug-of-war between the implications of these visuals, whether one’s reach for the stars is stronger than forces chaining them to the ground. In that sense, it’s a film that chances hope and optimism but also one that accepts the ruthless realities that the characters find themselves in. The seedy setting further drives home the mired circumstances that Lou and Jackie will need to fight through to get to their version of happily ever after.

Love Lies Bleeding features strong acting from top to bottom but sports a pair of central performances that are perfect roles for the actors that inhabit them. After terrific work in Spencer and Crimes Of The Future, Kristen Stewart continues her hot streak with another deeply felt rendering of a woman looking to move beyond the demons of her past. As good as she is, IU grad and Indiana-born Katy O’Brian is even more of a standout after a secondary role in last year’s Ant-Man sequel. Obviously her muscular frame is part of what sells her character and her moments of rage are genuinely intimidating but she shares such a vulnerability with Stewart in their quiet scenes together. O’Brian will also appear in the upcoming Twisters this summer and I’m hoping we’ll continue to see more of her in the future.

While Rose Glass and her co-writer Weronika Tofilska beef Lou and Jackie up with strong dialogue and character development, I wish they had spent a bit more time fleshing out some of the secondary female characters. Jena Malone does what she can with her role as a battered wife but there isn’t quite enough on the page to tie together Beth’s relationship with Lou. Anna Baryshnikov factors into the narrative as an unexpected point on a burgeoning love triangle but her character seems to be shoehorned into the plot as a source of tension rather than someone who would enter this story naturally. Though the character dynamics don’t always cohere, Love Lies Bleeding is a robust potboiler bolstered by two prodigious lead performances.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, a supernatural comedy sequel starring Paul Rudd and Carrie Coon continuing the adventures of the Spengler family as they move from Oklahoma to New York City to stop a powerful death-chilling adversary.
Also playing only in theaters is Immaculate, a psychological horror film starring Sydney Sweeney and Álvaro Morte about a young woman of devout faith who is welcomed into an seemingly illustrious convent that harbors dark and horrifying secrets.
Streaming on Netflix is Shirley, a biopic starring Regina King and Lance Reddick following the life of Shirley Chisholm as she makes a trailblazing run for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination after becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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 weekend:
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

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

Eileen

Early on in the new thriller Eileen, we’re tipped off to the fact that something about the title character may be a little off. Played with tremulous longing by Thomasin McKenzie, Eileen creeps on a couple making out in a cliffside car and does little to resist sexual urges for guards at the corrections facility where she works. Anything to get away from the cruddy reality of her Massachusetts life in winter, bogged down by the obligations to look after her alcoholic father Jim (Shea Whigham) and to put up with the hectoring of her co-workers. Then comes Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the new prison psychologist whose platinum blonde hair shines like a beacon in Eileen’s bleak existence. The two share cigarettes and conversation at work and soon become friends outside work as well but something darker lurks below their burgeoning relationship.

Based on the acclaimed 2015 novel of the same name, Eileen is an intoxicating film noir that oozes with both sumptuous style and pernicious undercurrents. Though the film takes place in the 1960s, it more closely resembles Technicolor white-knucklers of the 1950s like Niagara and Dial M For Murder in terms of narrative inertia and intent. The title card sets the mood brilliantly: a static shot of Eileen’s dashboard as her crummy car slowly fills with exhaust, with Richard Reed Parry’s music score emulating urgent Bernard Herrmann-style strings underneath. Director William Oldroyd lays out the plight of Eileen’s daily life so thoroughly in the opening scenes that when Rebecca shows up that one fateful day at Moorehead prison, we’re as lured in by her beguiling opulence as Eileen is.

Though she’s performed variations on the femme fatale role in The Dark Knight Rises and Serenity, Hathaway in Eileen is playing a more archetypical seductress like that ones that screen legends Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner perfected in the 1940s. Marked by worldly candor and breathy beauty, her Rebecca has an agenda that isn’t much more obvious to us in the audience than it is for Eileen on-screen but it’s alluring either way. While Hathaway plays all the right notes of mystery and eroticism in her performance, her Massachusetts accent too often falls prey to Transatlantic and British dialectical detours. It’s an aspect of the film that’s a bit hard to shake off, since her character is meant to be casting a spell and the wrong-sounding word or phrase can quickly shatter the illusion.

McKenzie, on the other hand, gives the more accomplished performance overall and, specifically, weaves together a linguistic timbre that is absolutely authentic from start to finish. Whether her character is murmuring words under her breath or shouting obscenities, her articulations and non-rhoticity remain consistent. You would never know that McKenzie’s native accent is New Zealand, given that she pulls off various dialects so convincingly; she’s done Cornish in The King, “standard American” in Leave No Trace and German in Jojo Rabbit. She also does a British variation in Last Night In Soho, another film about a mousy introvert who gets taken in by a blonde beauty. She’s only 23 but given what McKenzie has shown us so far, her acting talents will continue to astonish for years to come.

If Eileen falters for some, it’ll be with its audacious third act, which pushes the storyline into even psychologically darker territory than the film noir genre tends to go. It’s not the most tactful of shifts from Oldroyd but the husband and wife screenwriting duo of Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, the latter of whom wrote the book upon which the movie is based, keep things from veering too off track. DP Ari Wegner also tinges the frame with an inviting warmth that’s a well-conceived foil to the grimy and cold street-level settings. Though there are narrative and performance elements that keep it from greatness, Eileen is a frosty-paned noir throwback that titillates at every turn.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Wonka, a fantasy musical starring Timothée Chalamet and Calah Lane detailing the origin story of chocolatier Willy Wonka as he dreams of opening a shop in a city renowned for its sweet confections.
Streaming on Paramount+ is Finestkind, a crime thriller starring Ben Foster and Jenna Ortega following two estranged brothers as they hatch a deal with a Boston crime syndicate, with unexpected consequences for the pair as well as their father.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is The Family Plan, an action comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Monaghan about a former top assassin living incognito as a suburban dad who must take his unsuspecting family on the run when his past catches up to him.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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

Bottoms

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