Tag Archives: 3/5

I Saw The TV Glow

A couple months ago, Justice Smith starred in The American Society Of Magical Negroes, a story of a meek young man dealing with identity issues in a world he feels is indifferent to his existence. He now leads the new A24 experimental horror film I Saw The TV Glow, which also tackles the thorny but evergreen theme of trying to find one’s place in their surroundings. While the former movie does so with a combination of racial satire and romantic fantasy, the latter is much more atmospheric and esoteric in its exploration by comparison. It comes courtesy of trans filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun, whose 2021 effort We’re All Going To The World’s Fair garnered them widespread praise for its transportive aesthetic and wholly unique take on a coming-of-age tale. While TV Glow casts something of a similar spell, its unconventional storytelling makes it trickier to grasp, at least on first viewing.

Smith plays the withdrawn and soft-spoken Owen, whom we meet as a seventh grader in the mid-90s. While waiting for his mom to vote at his school that’s serving as a polling place, Owen meets ninth grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) as she studiously reads an episode guide for a show called The Pink Opaque. Upon watching the show for the first time, Owen is transfixed by it and a friendship develops between himself and Maddy, who hosts him for sleepovers so they can watch the show together. Their ritual continues for years until Maddy mysteriously disappears one day, leaving him without his only friend and what quickly becomes evident is one of his only tethers to the real world. In her absence, Owen ruminates on the connection and begins to believe that events from The Pink Opaque may not have been contained to the realm of the fictional.

As the lines between reality and fantasy blur for Owen, the passage of time in I Saw The TV Glow mirrors that of mind-benders Synecdoche, New York and last year’s Beau Is Afraid. Similarly, what is actually happening versus what is happening in the head of the protagonist gets more difficult to sort out, which can make the story frustrating at points. Outside of 90s shows like Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and Buffy The Vamprie Slayer, which are clear influences for the in-movie young adult series The Pink Opaque, Schoenbrun seems to be most inspired by David Lynch’s work in Twin Peaks. There’s a transcendent musical performance in a dive bar called Double Lunch with cameos from Haley Dahl and Phoebe Bridgers which calls to mind scenes from Lynch’s series that take place in the Roadhouse bar.

While an otherworldly mood permeates every moment of I Saw The TV Glow, Schoenbrun renders an half-remembered atmosphere that should resonate even more with those of us who were coming of age in the 90s. The first encounter between Owen and Maddy is partially lit by the beacon of a Fruitopia vending machine that’s wallflowering with the couple in a multi-purpose room. The hypnagogic vibe recalls a generation hypnotized by the flickering lights emitted by the cathode-ray tubes of now-massive television sets. If we fall asleep in front of our TVs, how can we be fully convinced of what’s been broadcast when our eyes are closed? Last year’s similarly challenging Skinamarink evoked this lucid-lit state even more directly but was marred by a stubbornly opaque storyline. Schoenbrun does have a narrative in mind with TV Glow, although it’s difficult to suss out what exactly is allegory and what is literal most of the time.

The film is co-produced by married couple Emma Stone and Dave McCary, the latter of whom directed Brigsby Bear in 2017 before moving on to produce several other A24 projects. His lone film has quite a bit of overlap with TV Glow, in that it’s also about an obsession over a children’s television program that spills into the protagonist’s life. The Sun-Stealer character from that movie closely resembles the Pink Opaque villain Mr. Melancholy, although both are clearly influenced from early silent classic A Trip To The Moon. But McCary has an infectious way of channeling his characters’ exuberance of their fandom that Schoenbrun forgoes for anxiety and dread. It makes I Saw The TV Glow a moody but maddening affair that succeeds on the strength of its world-building above all else.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, an action epic starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth which serves as a prequel to 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road centering around the titular mechanical-armed heroine.
Also coming to theaters is The Garfield Movie, an animated comedy starring Chris Pratt and Samuel L. Jackson in which the lasagna-loving comic-based canine is reunited with his long-lost street cat father and is forced into joining him on a high-stakes adventure.
Streaming on Netflix is Atlas, a sci-fi thriller starring Jennifer Lopez and Simu Liu that finds a data analyst with a deep distrust of artificial intelligence as she joins a mission to capture a renegade robot with whom she shares a mysterious past.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Monkey Man

After an outstanding turn in 2021’s The Green Knight, Dev Patel makes his directorial debut with the visceral action vehicle Monkey Man, in which he also stars and co-write the screenplay. Though his level of involvement suggests that this seems to be a personal story for Patel, he seems stretched too thin through most of the film and could’ve benefited from limiting his role in the production somehow. If directing this story was the most important aspect to him, perhaps he could have focused on that and cast someone else in the grueling lead part. Having said that, Patel clearly got in great shape for this role and plays an action star convincingly, so he could’ve instead handed the directing reins over to a like-minded collaborator to focus solely on the acting. As is, it’s a compromised but competently-made actioner with a handful of moments that really pop.

Patel plays an unnamed protagonist, who goes by the alias “Bobby”, as we’re introduced to him competing in Mumbai’s brutal bareknuckle boxing circuit. As Bobby makes scratch from fight promoter Tiger (Sharlto Copley), we’re shown flashbacks that imply Bobby has more on his mind than simply taking blows in the ring for a “bleed bonus” incentive from Tiger. We learn that Bobby aims to take out the ruthless chief of police Rana (Sikandar Kher), who murdered his mother years ago, and the leader Baba (Makarand Deshpande), who gave Rana the order. To carry out his vengeance, Bobby works his way up the criminal underworld, starting as a dishwasher for mob boss and restaurant owner Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar) and eventually getting help from political refugee Alpha (Vipin Sharma).

In early scenes of Bobby’s childhood, his mother reads from the Hindu text Ramayana and gives special attention to the half-monkey god character Hanuman, which seems to be the inspiration behind Bobby’s Monkey Man boxing persona. The cultural touches in Monkey Man are what set it apart from similar action fare like Nobody and John Wick — the latter of which is name-checked specifically as the 800-pound gorilla in the action film world — that it’s aping. One of the best sequences finds Bobby later in his odyssey, at Alpha’s compound training with a heavy bag as a virtuosic tabla player riffs off his fierce movements. Another terrific scene finds Queenie’s stolen purse trading hands through the busy city streets, recalling the kinetic verve of City Of God or some of Danny Boyle’s early work.

Where Monkey Man gets bogged down is in trying to tie these inspired scenes together but instead coming up short with lugubrious storytelling that doesn’t adequately sell the hero’s journey. The movie’s runtime is just over two hours, not especially long for an action epic, but too much of the actual narrative feels like padding as opposed to worthwhile development. It doesn’t help that the cinematography and editing in some of the more lively sections, particularly the car chases, come across as shoddy and haphazard. There were a couple scenes with several moving parts that were borderline visually incomprehensible, which is disappointing for a film that has clearly been marketed as an in-your-face action experience.

Fortunately, when Bobby gets to the “final boss” portion of his quest, Patel and his crew put everything they have into making the combat stand alongside its peers. Clearly he was studying the Indonesian martial art filmographies of Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto when researching the fight choreography and the homework paid off. The ferocious last 20 minutes of Monkey Man alone will likely be worth the price of admission for those hoping for stellar, bone-crunching brawling. Along the way, there is a confused political message that reportedly scared Netflix off releasing it internationally on its streaming platform. While it could’ve played well alongside The Night Comes For Us and the Extraction movies on the streamer, Monkey Man playing in theaters will hopefully give Patel the resources that he needs to make his next feature even better.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Civil War, a dystopian action movie starring Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny which follows a team of military-embedded journalists as they race against time to reach DC before rebel factions descend upon the White House.
Also playing in theaters is Sting, a horror film starring Alyla Browne and Penelope Mitchell involving a 12-year-old girl’s pet spider that rapidly transforms into a giant flesh-eating monster and forces its family to fight for their lives as a result.
Streaming on Hulu is The Greatest Hits, a romantic fantasy starring Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet about a young woman who is grieving the loss of her boyfriend when she discovers that listening to certain songs can literally transport her back in time.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Lisa Frankenstein

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

I.S.S.

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Beekeeper

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

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

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

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

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

Score – 3/5

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

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Saltburn

Academy Award-winning writer-director Emerald Fennell follows up her provocative breakout Promising Young Woman with another button-pusher in the new stately and seductive psychological dramedy Saltburn. Where Fennell’s previous effort targeted rape culture and male entitlement in the States, her latest takes place across the pond and focuses on class disparities and resentments in England. It’s an ever-shifting mirrorball of a movie, resembling a ritzier redo of The Talented Mr. Ripley one moment and then an especially twisted version of a Jane Austen tale the next. Though it can undoubtedly spin out of control at times, the performances and mise-en-scène ultimately sell its brash vision of sociopathic caste warfare.

Miles from his sweet and sensitive turn in The Banshees Of Inisherin last year, Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver Quick, a prickly undergrad struggling to make friends during his first year at Oxford University. After a serendipitous favor, he’s taken under the wing of the fantastically well-off Felix (Jacob Elordi) and invited to Saltburn, his family’s opulent estate, for school break. Braving the sweltering summer sun with them are Felix’s posh parents Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James (Richard E. Grant), along with his licentious sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and his contumelious cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). They spend the days donning tuxedos for pick-up tennis and the nights singing Pet Shop Boys karaoke, all with a full martini glass in hand for every moment. But underneath the hazy-minded fun, a more deviant game is afoot.

Holding over from Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan pops up in a brief role as an oblivious hanger-on of Elspeth’s who portends Oliver’s fate should he remain at Saltburn past his welcome. The stoic Paul Rhys rounds out the exceptional ensemble as the head butler, who seems to be holding back so much that he wishes he could say at every moment. But it’s ultimately Keoghan’s show and, indeed, he puts on quite the perverse spectacle; he’s played creepy before in The Green Knight and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer but this is his most unnerving performance to date. Though his frame is noticeably more diminutive than 6′ 5″ co-stars Elordi and Madekwe, Keoghan gives Oliver an imposing disposition that implies his threat is more psychological than physical.

Shooting with lurid colors in a more constrained aspect ratio, cinematographer Linus Sandgren contributes to the lecherous and voyeuristic vibe that Fennell aims to impart with Saltburn. Oliver is frequently framed as an outsider, peering through doorways and windows into a privileged life that he desperately desires for himself. The question is who will he become once he’s granted access inside such a life and the answer may turn off those who most enjoy movies where you can guiltlessly root for the protagonist. At the very least, Keoghan does everything to sell his character’s trajectory as the summer trudges on.

But like in Promising Young Woman, Fennell can’t help but hit us over the head with the messaging and plotting in the final act. In a way, it’s more disappointing in Saltburn, since there’s so much subtlety in the performances — by Keoghan and Elordi, in particular — that gets wiped out by Fennell’s garish storytelling instincts. I was gobstruck when she opted for a “what you didn’t see” montage in the final stretch; my hope is that Fennell starts to trust her audience a bit more her next time out. She does, at least, score a barnburner of a closing scene that doesn’t necessarily add much to the narrative but is irresistibly conceived and choreographed. Those who are in a naughty mood this holiday season may feel right at home within the confines of Saltburn.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Silent Night, an action thriller starring Joel Kinnaman and Scott Mescudi following a grieving father as he wordlessly enacts his long-awaited revenge against a ruthless gang on Christmas Eve.
Streaming on Netflix is May December, a drama starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore about a married couple with a large age gap who buckles under the pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Candy Cane Lane, a Christmas comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Tracee Ellis Ross about a man who makes a pact with an elf to help him win the neighborhood’s annual Christmas decorating contest.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dumb Money

The always whip-fast and sometimes whip-smart finance comedy Dumb Money opens with a definition of its title: a term for what Wall Street investors call amateur day traders looking to get a piece of the action. It functions as a cheeky biopic of very recent history, when individual “retail investors” took arms against the hedge funders who claimed to know the market better than everyday people. Based on The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich, the author whose The Accidental Billionaires served as the basis for David Fincher’s The Social Network, this alt-finance David and Goliath story cuts corners to maintain its nimble pace at the expense of its characters. But in their tightly-allotted screen time, every member of the impressive ensemble cast cashes in with moments of wit and humanity that pay dividends.

It’s the summer of 2020 and YouTuber Keith Gill (Paul Dano) has a bit of a wild idea. As his social media persona Roaring Kitty, he tells his fanbase he’s invested over $50,000 of his personal savings in video game retailer GameStop, which was trading for about $3 a share at the time. Thanks to the hive mind of the subreddit r/WallStreetBets, users from all walks of life, like college students Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold) to nurse Jennifer (America Ferrera) and store clerk Marcus (Anthony Ramos), begin to invest. Soon enough, the phenomenon of the “meme stock” is born, to the chagrin of hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), who have effectively bet against GameStop. The short squeeze triggers a congressional hearing that also implicates Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan), the mind behind the brokerage app that made the tsunami of trading possible.

The reasonable question to ask going into Dumb Money is “how much do I need to know about investing to keep up with this movie?” While director Craig Gillespie won’t expect you to know the intricacies of the stock market or the purview of the House Banking Committee, it would help going in to know how apps like Reddit and Robinhood generally work. Thankfully, Gillespie doesn’t resort to the glib fourth-wall breaks that plagued The Big Short and his previous biopic I, Tonya. He trusts scribes Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo to lay out what we need to know on the financial side and have the interpersonal conflicts fill in the gaps. The script also throws out fun tidbits like the fact that GameStop was able to be deemed an “essential business” during the covid pandemic simply because they sell computer mice.

Understandably, the easiest way into this story is through Gill and Dano continues a strong streak of lived-in and accessible performances that shed the self-conscious insularity of his earlier work. While the movie seems to sell Gill short in terms of his real-life sound financial analysis, instead portraying him as more of a cat-crazy goofball, Dano imbues the character with a spirited underdog quality that makes him difficult to root against. Pete Davidson also serves as a fun comic foil to Keith as his slacker brother Kevin, who teases him both in real life and behind an internet cipher, all while borrowing his car without asking. When Keith sets Kevin straight on the difference between Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett, Kevin retorts, “see, you’re neither of the Buffetts!”

In addition to the The Accidental Billionaires connection, Dumb Money aims to be the rabble-rousing younger brother to The Social Network in several other ways. Its brisk pace across numerous players and locations is assured by editor Kirk Baxter, who won an Oscar with Angus Wall for assembling David Fincher’s 2010 masterpiece. The misguided music score by Will Bates tries desperately to mimic the nervy propulsion behind Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s brilliant music for that same movie. But of course, both films are telling true stories based around technology that were turned around into the cinematic realm quite quickly; The Antisocial Network is just barely two years old and we already have a movie based on it. Dumb Money may be short-sighted in its summation of the real-life events but it’s a flashy and fun way into the rapidly-changing world of DIY investing.

Score – 3/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Expend4bles, an action sequel starring Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone continuing the adventures of a band of mercenaries who have been tasked with a mission to stop a terrorist organization that aims to ignite a conflict between Russia and the U.S.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is It Lives Inside, a supernatural horror movie starring Megan Suri and Neeru Bajwa about a teenager who has a falling out with her former best friend and, in the process, unwittingly releases a demonic entity that grows stronger by feeding on her loneliness.
Streaming on Hulu is No One Will Save You, a sci-fi thriller starring Kaitlyn Dever and Dari Lynn Griffin following an exiled anxiety-ridden homebody as she battles an alien who’s found its way into her home.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

No Hard Feelings

The predictable but reliably funny sex comedy No Hard Feelings stars Jennifer Lawrence as Maddie, a thirtysomething Uber driver who’s in a bit of a pickle after her car is repossessed. While working her second job, Maddie’s co-worker friend Sarah (Natalie Morales) finds an ad offering a used Buick to anyone who will date their 19-year-old son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman). Desperate to dig her way out of bankruptcy, Maddie meets with Percy’s parents to accept the job and attempt to drag the awkward Percy out of his cocoon of video games and online interactions. Maddie’s early seductive passes at Percy evolve into dates that grow more meaningful and suggest that the two may have a genuine connection beyond the covert agreement between Maddie and Percy’s parents.

If the premise of No Hard Feelings feels refreshing, it speaks not to its inherent originality and more to how out of fashion raunchy romantic comedies have become in recent years. What makes this film slightly more progressive than past compeers like The Girl Next Door or She’s Out Of My League is that here, the female lead is the one calling the shots and it’s the male co-star who plays the ingenue. It’s also a tricky needle to thread to be crude but not offensive, shocking but not problematic. While the movie tends to be more on the safe side, save a few scenes that intended to provoke a reaction, director and co-writer Gene Stupnitsky finds a nice rhythm and balance between laughs and pathos. Like his similarly foul-mouthed Good Boys, the runtime here is also under 100 minutes, a brisk respite from the scourge of overstuffed outings.

After moving on from the Hunger Games and X-Men franchises, Lawrence took a short hiatus from the limelight but her return in last year’s Causeway and now No Hard Feelings remind us why she became so popular in the first place. Maddie is certainly rough around the edges and could be seen as objectionable for taking up the unsavory offer to “educate” a young man before he heads off to Princeton. But Lawrence hits the right notes with her licentious heroine, obviously able to pull off sexpot allure with aplomb but also unafraid to lean into the physical comedy, even when it gets ugly. The trailers have highlighted a moment where Maddie crawls on all fours crying after getting maced by a terrified Percy but a beach-set scene shortly after takes the cake in terms of no holds barred slapstick performance. You’ll know it when you see it.

Similar to his character, Feldman is more reserved earlier on in his performance and comes out of his shell as No Hard Feelings progresses. He pushes things a bit too far in the third act, in terms of how much his character changes, but the film’s mid-section allows for a burgeoning vulnerability to bring Percy to a sweet spot in terms of characterization. Feldman is also able to lend his musical theater bonafides to the role — he also played the title role in the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway — during a restaurant scene that adds some nice dimension to his loner character. Feldman also has some well-handled scenes with his parents, played by Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick, with the presence of the latter inspiring an inevitable Ferris Bueller’s Day Off riff towards the film’s conclusion.

As is often the case for rom-coms, the weak spot for No Hard Feelings comes with its plotting and the necessary contrivances that keep the narrative moving but simply don’t reflect real life. If you’ve ever seen a movie like this before, where characters make a secret plan that keeps one of the central protagonists in the dark, then nearly nothing about the second half of this film will be surprising to you. For as many hard-earned laughs as Stupnitsky and co-writer John Phillips work into the screenplay, I wish they could have come up with something in terms of story that wasn’t so well-worn. This is a comedy that relies mainly on the timing and chemistry of its two stars and that’s where the majority of its successes lie. No Hard Feelings is hardly a revelatory raunch-com but in its attempt to revive a stagnant genre, it rises to the occasion.

Score – 3/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Asteroid City, a sci-fi dramedy starring Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johansson following a writer as he stages his world famous fictional play about a grieving father, while traveling with his tech-obsessed family to small rural city to compete in a stargazing event.
Also playing in theaters is God Is A Bullet, an action thriller starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Maika Monroe about a detective who takes matters into his own hands when he finds his ex-wife murdered and his daughter kidnapped by an insidious cult.
Streaming on Netflix is The Perfect Find, a romantic comedy starring Gabrielle Union and Keith Powers involving a career woman who transitions from the fashion industry to beauty journalism and subsequently falls for her boss’s son.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Fast X

Cars and characters continue to collide in Fast X, the tenth entry in the ever-expanding and the ever-ludicrous Fast & Furious film franchise. The first part in either a two or three part finale (depending on whether you ask Vin Diesel or the bean-counters at Universal), this latest installment ends abruptly after multiple cliffhangers and that’s before an inevitable mid-credit stinger that teases yet another add for the sequel. In case it wasn’t obvious already, this action franchise has become Universal’s response to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hoping to emulate the feverish fandom and box office success of Disney’s juggernaut. As that’s the case, it’s not difficult to view Fast X as the Infinity War of this series, an overstuffed and overwhelming culmination of plot threads and accrued players which sets up a gambit waiting to be resolved.

The basic narrative of Fast X is a revenge plot, borne from the death of a drug lord from a Fast Five bank vault heist that retroactively serves as a supervillain origin story for his son Dante Reyes (Jason Momoa). Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew of heisters and hackers are called to Rome to steal a computer chip but the mission is revealed to be an ambush set up by Reyes to frame the team as terrorists. The Rome job fractures the group, with Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Han (Sung Kang) scrambling for supplies in London, while Dom tries to track Reyes down in Rio. All the while, henchmen are sent after Dom’s son Little B (Leo Abelo Perry) in Los Angeles but are headed off by Dom’s brother Jakob (John Cena), who works to get him to safety.

If that wasn’t enough, Fast X also introduces two new characters from the Agency: new lead Aimes (Alan Ritchson) and Tess (Brie Larson), the daughter of former Agency head Mr. Nobody. For anybody who needs help remembering the gist of this series, the pair’s first scene together is a helpful recap of this franchise’s myriad through lines and characters both major and minor. Taking place in what looks like the Cerebro room from the X-Men series, Aimes fills Tess in on all the highlights from Dom and his “family”, which he describes as a “cult with cars”. The knowing commentary continues when Tess asks “so we’re all just a beer and barbecue away from corruption?” after Aimes says the team has turned on the Agency. This kind of humor is a good reminder that this is a series that has no problem poking fun at aspects of its kooky lore.

These movies have had their share of villains in the past, some of whom even pop up again in this entry, but Fast X introduces a Thanos-level supervillain by way of the larger-than-life Dante. Played with perpetual panache by Momoa, this big bad has the knack for mastermind planning and impossible forethought à la The Dark Knight‘s Joker, with what seems to be the limitless resources of Bruce Wayne. Somehow, Dante may be even crazier than either of them; after licking knives of fresh blood in his first big scene, his level of psycho either stays at that level or escalates from that point forward. Whether he’s crooning opera over walkie-talkies or having nail-painting tea parties with corpses, Dante is always extra 100% of the time. In a film defined by excess, Momoa is somehow even more and delivers his most pleasurable performance to date.

I should mention that this is the first Fast film that I’ve seen since The Fast and the Furious, the sleeper hit that kicked everything off 22 years ago. Frankly, I figured the wheels had fallen off after the third entry Tokyo Drift jettisoned all of the previous characters for what is ostensibly a standalone entry. But over the years, the movies have kept coming and, as I quickly learned watching this chapter, expanded vastly on the humble street-racing roots of that inaugural installment. Naturally, I couldn’t keep up with every line of dialogue or cursory character that popped up for a cameo; even those who have seen all of these, including Hobbs & Shaw, may have to glance Wikipedia for a refresher now and then. But it’s a credit to Louis Leterrier and his crew that I was able to embrace the absurdity and enjoy the ride.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is The Little Mermaid, yet another live-action Disney remake starring Halle Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King retelling the tale of a young mermaid who makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her beautiful voice for human legs so she can discover the world above water and impress a prince.
Streaming on Max is Reality, a biopic starring Sydney Sweeney and Marchánt Davis about a former American intelligence specialist who was given the longest sentence for the unauthorized release of government information to the media about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.
Premiering on Netflix is Blood & Gold, an action dramedy starring Robert Maaser and Marie Hacke set at the end of World War II where a German soldier is looking for his daughter while an SS troop is looking for a hidden treasure.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Air

Michael Jordan is such an enduring cultural figure that even the finer details of his unparalleled legacy can be the focus point for a sports biopic. Enter Air, which recounts the true tale of the bidding war between Nike, Adidas, and Converse for an exclusive shoe deal with then-rookie Michael Jordan. If Netflix had a miniseries about Jordan’s rise to basketball superstardom, the events of this movie would likely be condensed into one episode but at the hands of director Ben Affleck, the business deal is unpacked breezily over 112 minutes. Thanks to a deep roster of talented familiar faces and a quippy script from Alex Convery, the film takes what could be considered an unremarkable story of corporate jostling and makes it go down as easy as a swish from the baseline.

Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, an executive at Nike desperate to surpass Adidas and Converse in market share for shoes worn by superstar NBA players. His efforts take him to the top, where he asks CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) for more funds to bankroll new recruits but is told that he has to make it work with their current allocation. Sonny’s desk is across the hall from the tape archive room, in which he seems to spend more time than his actual desk chair. While watching footage of Jordan making a championship-winning shot at UNC, Vaccaro becomes convinced that he’s their guy and convinces Nike Basketball VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) that they should spend the budget for 3 players on just one instead. Even though Jordan is rumored to have a deal with Adidas, Vaccaro doesn’t give up and visits Jordan’s parents Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon) to plead for a meeting.

Air is the most concerted effort so far from Amazon Studios to make one of their films a theatrical event, as opposed to releasing it on Prime Video with little to no fanfare. Opening with Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” over the production logos into the credits, there’s a sense that this is almost certainly the most expensive project that they’ve distributed and is their attempt to make ripples at the box office. Certainly no expense was spared when it comes to the music licensing, as the film is packed with 1980s hits from “Born In The USA” to “Can’t Fight This Feelings”; there’s even room for not one but two Violent Femmes cuts. Even though the needle drops aren’t cheap, the majority of the budget assuredly went to the all-star talent in front of the camera.

Much of Air‘s affability comes from the deep bench of household names in the ensemble cast, which also includes Marlon Wayans and Chris Messina. The long limelight-absent Chris Tucker even steals a few scenes as Howard White, who became the VP of the Air Jordan brand and is a close friend of Jordan’s in real life. Thankfully, there aren’t any scenes of contrived drama where actors strain a muscle trying to compete for their own Oscar Moment. Like the businesspeople at Nike in 1984, everyone here is doing their part to make this deal work. Damon and Davis are especially good in their scenes together, where their characters slowly develop each others’ trust, even though there are financially-related motives underneath their seemingly innocuous discourse.

Air is working from the same playbook drawn up by sports business movies like Jerry Maguire and Moneyball but it simply doesn’t have the dramatic inertia to put it in their company. Even with suspension of disbelief intact, the outcome of this story feels arbitrary and inevitable from the get-go. We get very little first-hand insight into how Adidas or Converse fought for Jordan and the film lacks an antagonistic pressure that would make this story feel like it had to be seen to be believed. It’s also difficult to get around the fact that despite the historical significance of the Air Jordan line, the movie is ultimately a commercial for the Nike brand. Corporate interests aside, Air is an accessorial but amicable bit of sports fluff from another streamer trying to get their piece of the Hollywood pie.

Score – 3/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is The Super Mario Bros. Movie, an animated adventure starring Chris Pratt and Anya Taylor-Joy which brings the video game characters to the big screen as Mario and Peach must rescue Luigi from the clutches of King Koopa.
Also playing only in theaters is Paint, a comedy starring Owen Wilson and Michaela Watkins about a soft-spoken public television painter who feels the heat of competition when the station hires a younger and more talented painter for a new program.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is On A Wing And A Prayer, a faith-based survival film starring Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham which tells the true story of a pharmacist who must fly his family to safety after their pilot dies unexpectedly mid-flight.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup