Tag Archives: 3/5


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.

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


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

Creed III

When Ryan Coogler rebooted the Rocky series in 2015 with Creed, it brought a much-needed level of excitement to the stalled franchise and introduced a formidable new pugilist protagonist to allow future films to flourish. After a serviceable sequel in 2018, Creed returns 5 years later with Creed III, a moderate step up from the second chapter that still can’t quite recapture the magic of the first movie in the trilogy. Nevertheless, this boxing series has had all sorts of highs and lows over time and these three Creed films have an admirable amount of consistency when it comes to the fundamentals of what makes these kinds of movies work. With stronger dialogue and more detailed characterization, this entry could have hit even harder than it does but as is, it’s still plenty rousing and a properly engrossing addition to the boxing genre.

Our story begins in Los Angeles 2002, where teenaged Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) works as a corner man for his amateur boxer friend Damian “Dame” Anderson (Jonathan Majors). After we see glimpses of an incident in which Donnie and Dame become entangled, we jump forward to 2020, where Creed caps off his professional boxing career at 27-1. Stepping out of the ring will give him time to focus on training the next up-and-coming brawlers in his gym and, more importantly, give him more time to spend with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and their hearing-impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). But the reemergence of Dame following an 18-year stint in prison brings back former feelings and old scores to settle that can only be remedied by an inevitable bout in the ring.

Incorporating numerous reliable tropes from the Rocky franchise, Creed III follows the formula dutifully and even lifts specific plot points from some of the 1980s films in the series. Plot contrivances are hardly anything new in these movies and the events and motivations that get Creed and Anderson to the final showdown are fittingly questionable. For the storyline to work, Creed has to spend most of it painfully naïve of both Dame’s intentions as an old friend and his abilities as a boxer. It also requires us to believe that along the way, a bonafide heavyweight like Dame would actually duke it out with a dude who looks like he’s 150 soaking wet for a shot at the title. Florian Munteanu also returns from Creed II and even though he’s only sparring with Creed this time instead of going into full-on battle once again, his hulking figure is a reminder that these movies do not care about weight classes.

Stepping into the role of director for the first time, Michael B. Jordan makes occasional missteps with overly obvious visual cues but on the whole, he adds an impressive visual flair to scenes in and out of the ring. Jordan has talked about the immense influence that anime had on his approach to telling this story and in one specific instance during the climactic feud, the inspiration is apparent and the results are jaw-dropping. Elsewhere, he finds a clever way to showcase the way that Amara deals with a bully at school with an unexpected POV perspective. A masterful shot towards the middle of the film shows Donnie and Dame parting after a pre-fight pep talk, in which a wall separates the two and finds the former shorthanded in a more confined space compared to the eminent domain of the latter.

Having been in three of these films now, Jordan knows what makes them work best and summarily plays the hits. That means we’ll get family tragedy played up with full-force pathos, supposedly shocking upsets and, of course, training montages that show off the incredible physicality of the principal performers. I’m not sure how many more Creed movies Jordan will sign on for but given how long Stallone — who, somewhat curiously, doesn’t appear in this movie — held onto his role, I have to imagine he has one or two more in him. During one of the aforementioned montages, Creed’s trainer remarks that the titular heavyweight is “old and broken”, which would count as the funniest punchline I’ve heard in a movie so far this year if it had been intended as a joke. Jordan is obviously still in phenomenal shape and if Creed III is any indication, he’ll have plenty more opportunities in front of and behind the camera for many years to come.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Scream VI, starring Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega, is a slasher sequel which finds the survivors of the latest Ghostface killings now residing in New York City but still being plagued by a series of murders from a new Ghostface killer.
65, starring Adam Driver and Ariana Greenblatt, is a sci-fi action thriller which follows an astronaut as he crash lands on Earth 65 million years in the past and has to defend himself against dangerous prehistoric creatures.
Champions, starring Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson, is a sports comedy about a temperamental minor-league basketball coach who finds himself in legal trouble and, in order to satisfy a community service requirement, must coach a team of players with intellectual disabilities.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


A spiritual sequel, of sorts, to 2018’s Searching, the new thriller Missing stars Storm Reid as June Allen, a bright but troubled teen who has butted heads with her mom Grace (Nia Long) since her dad passed years prior. Naturally, she doesn’t take to Grace’s new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung) either, although the pair of them going on a trip to Columbia frees her up to throw parties all week before picking them up from LAX upon their return. But when June goes to the airport, her mom and boyfriend are nowhere to be found after their returning flight arrives. After several unsuccessful phone and Facetime calls, she heads home and begins an investigation of her own after filing a missing persons report gets stalled by international red tape.

Like Searching, Missing is a part of the burgeoning screenlife genre, a category of films in which all the events take place on some sort of screen, including those belonging to a computer, smartphone or tablet. June has her MacBook’s camera on during the majority of her digital sleuthing, so we’re able to see her reactions in real time as new clues and bits of information are revealed. Where its predecessor’s protagonist was a somewhat tech-literate dad looking for his daughter, Missing‘s main character is a Gen-Z whiz kid who has just barely been around longer than the invention of the iPhone. That means the pace of her virtual snooping is much more brisk, with apps and windows opening and closing fast enough to make one’s head spin. But like any good mystery, the thrill is in trying to keep up with the hero’s thought process as they piece everything together.

Though Missing‘s story comes from Searching‘s writer-director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian, it’s that film’s editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick who are the credited co-writers and co-directors this time out. That would help explain the swiftness of the narrative but also the dynamic progressions that the duo use when tying certain effects elements together. A montage of June’s week home alone incorporates some clever visual transitions, like the transport bar on a Spotify stream morphing into a guidance arrow on a set of Google Maps directions, that help bring home how ubiquitous these apps are to our daily functioning. Those of us who aren’t as reliant on screens may get lost in the shuffle here but to their credit, Johnson and Merrick do their best to try to keep the technophobes in the audience apprised of the story’s developments.

While Missing has all the fun twists and turns that one would expect from a Searching successor, the actual mystery isn’t quite as tight and the family drama isn’t quite as compelling this time around. Since this is an international affair, the scope of search is much bigger from the outset and means that certain contrivances have to be conceived to whittle down the possibilities for our main character. For instance, there’s a loophole involving the security footage at the Colombian hotel where June’s mom was staying that makes absolutely no sense and only exists so that June has to find another way around. When the (sometimes far-fetched) answers begin to fall into place during the third act, it’s probably best not to scrutinize plot points from the previous two acts.

But putting aside the detective elements of the plot, the familial aspects of Missing just aren’t as potent as they were in Searching. While it’s easy to be engaged in a daughter looking for her lost mother, this movie doesn’t pack the same punch of pathos that you get with a story of a father looking for his missing daughter. Reid is a talented young actress but John Cho as the first film’s beleaguered protagonist was extraordinary in what was pretty much a one person show. Reid has more scene partners by comparison, like a trusty friend played by Megan Suri and a Columbian freelancer played by Joaquim de Almeida, but even with their help, there just isn’t as potent an emotional throughline this time. Missing is missing some of the novelty and innovation that made Searching such a resounding success but it’s still a worthwhile entry in a film genre that will likely only get more popular as technology continues to weave its way into our lives.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Fear, a horror film starring Joseph Sikora and Andrew Bachelor about a weekend vacation that turns sinister when a contagious airborne threat forces a group of friends to each confront their worst fears.
Also playing only in theaters is Infinity Pool, a sci-fi horror movie starring Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth following a couple who are enjoying an all-inclusive beach vacation until a fatal accident exposes a perverse subculture lurking within the resort.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Shotgun Wedding, a romantic action comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel depicting a couple’s extravagant destination wedding as it unexpectedly becomes hijacked by criminals.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Dolls are creepy. Between the lifeless porcelain-eyed gaze and the unnatural permanent smile, it’s no surprise that filmmakers have gotten plenty of mileage from including them in horror movies for decades. The new campy chiller M3GAN combines humankind’s understandable fear of these human-resembling creations with a staple of the sci-fi genre: the distrust of rapidly evolving artificial intelligence. There are family drama elements that don’t pay off quite as well but do underline the cautionary theme of parents allowing technology to raise their kids in their absence. Throw in some satirical jabs at the corporate tech landscape and the ravenous toy market and you have a better-than-average start to the new movie year.

M3GAN follows a recently-orphaned young girl named Cady (Violet McGraw) as she is sent up to Seattle to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), who develops toys for fictitious tech brand Funki. Gemma values her independence and devotes all of her time to her job, so it’s enough to say that her opening stretch as Cady’s legal guardian doesn’t get off to the finest start. Desperate to bridge the gap, Gemma builds AI-based doll Model 3 Generative Android (or M3GAN, for short) for Cady as the perfect robotic friend and confidant. M3GAN becomes such an effective caretaker that Gemma pitches it to her boss as the next generation of smart toys but in the process, her cyborg creation develops defense mechanisms that turn from troubling to deadly.

The marketing behind M3GAN has hinged on the uncanny feeling that the titular robot, who is played with CG enhancements by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, is intended to provoke. She doesn’t look like a real girl but her motion is so eerily close to a real person that her mere presence is immediately unsettling. As M3GAN grows smarter and her intentions grow more sinister, she blurs the line further as something that’s able to so thoroughly communicate as if it were human but is able to fight well above its size. As M3GAN reminds us during a lullaby to Cady, she’s a metal-based being and her physical strength is thanks to the alloy frame that Gemma gave her during development. While the physical powers make sense, M3GAN eventually develops technological capabilities — turning off all the alarms in a building instantaneously, for instance — that don’t seem credible within her programmed limitations.

The script from Akela Cooper, who penned the even more over-the-top horror movie Malignant a couple years ago, too often takes shortcuts like this to make the plot run more smoothly. From the outset, it doesn’t really make sense that Gemma’s sister would grant Gemma temporary custody over Cady in the event of her death and it makes less sense that Gemma would follow through with it. It’s credible that Gemma would develop M3GAN to help with Cady, since it’s part of a design she had already been working on, but it’s unrealistic that her co-workers would have time to help her with it when they’re all under a deadline for a completely different project. There’s a boss character played by Ronny Chieng who is woefully underserved by cliché writing that should have been much sharper, given the film’s cheeky touches in other areas.

Director Gerard Johnstone delights in the moments where he can push some of the ridiculous features of these “cutting edge” toys even further into the absurd. M3GAN opens with a cheery ad for PurrPetual Petz, a Funki-branded toy seemingly inspired by Tamagotchi and Furby that actually produces its own waste pellets, for some reason. During a tech demo, M3GAN consoles Cady with a song so saccharine that the musical score actually joins in with her. This is the kind of humor that should have been applied to the corporate subplots but instead, we get a boss grousing about kombucha due to pre-launch nerves and a tangent about his assistant stealing M3GAN prototype files that goes nowhere. M3GAN could benefit from some sharper writing to make it a more satisfying package but as is, it’s a solid addition to the killer doll horror subgenre with some striking social commentary as well.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks and Mariana Treviño, is a dramedy remake of a 2015 Swedish film about a depressed widow who finds meaning in life anew when a young family moves in across the street from him.
House Party, starring Tosin Cole and Jacob Latimore, is a comedy reboot of the 1990 hit about a high school student who decides to host a house party with his best friend while his parents are away.
Plane, starring Gerard Butler and Mike Colter, is an action thriller about a pilot who finds himself caught in a war zone after he’s forced to land his commercial aircraft during a terrible storm.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

When news of Chadwick Boseman’s passing shook the world in August of 2020, Black Panther director and co-writer Ryan Coogler was already deep into development on the sequel for his massive superhero hit. Somehow, Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole were not only able to completely rewrite their screenplay around the absence of their franchise’s lead protagonist but were able to turn it in the following spring for filming. Between Chadwick and covid, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was beset with so many creative and logistical challenges that it’s something of a miracle that a finished product actually emerged from the murky waters of uncertainty. It’s neither the cultural phenomenon nor the MCU high point that its predecessor was but it’s a noble effort to pick up the pieces after an unexpected tragedy.

Our story opens with tech wizard Shuri (Letitia Wright) frantically trying to synthesize cures for her ailing brother T’Challa (Boseman, in archival footage) before hearing that he succumbed to his illness. After mourning the loss of their king, Wakanda sends Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) to the United Nations on their behalf to discuss how the trade of vibranium, their most valued resource, can continue. Among parties interested in said resource is Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the powerful leader of an underwater kingdom who threatens Ramonda and Shuri with war if they don’t find the scientist responsible for creating a vibranium-detecting machine. Shuri and fearless General Okoye (Danai Gurira) tap CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) for help in seeking out the one Namor demands in order to stave off conflict with his humanoid soldiers.

Movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t known for their brevity as is and at 161 minutes, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is second only to the 3-hour Avengers: Endgame in terms of runtime length within the now 30-film series. At points, it undoubtedly feels its length but for a movie that’s so overstuffed, it cultivates a handful moments that are nonetheless stunning and stand toe-to-toe with the best material in the first Black Panther. Every scene dealing with the passing of Boseman, from the modified Marvel Studios card that honors his legacy to the divine end credits featuring Rihanna’s stirring single “Lift Me Up”, is handled with intelligence and utmost respect to the late actor’s memory. MCU fans have been trained to stay through and after the credits for what is typically a pair of extra scenes; audiences should note that there is only one such scene this time around but it’s absolutely unmissable.

Thematically, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever struggles to pack the formidable punch of its predecessor, which seamlessly incorporated the quandary of isolationism vs. globalism within its narrative. Black Panther was also a landmark film for Afrofuturism but now that we’ve already seen Wakanda in multiple MCU entries, this world doesn’t feel quite as magical as when we first laid eyes upon it. While the undersea nation of Talokan hasn’t been seen on screen up to this point, the conception and aesthetic of it simply isn’t on par with how immaculately Wakanda was conceived for the first film. It also doesn’t help that trailers for next month’s highly anticipated Avatar: The Way of Water, a film that also features submerged CG blue people, have been running in front of this movie and upstaging it with visual effects that are quite literally second-to-none.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the final film in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which also includes 8 TV series and 2 one-off holiday specials. Even for a moderate Marvel movie fan as myself, it’s getting to be quite a bit and I’m beginning to question how much creative satisfaction can be gleaned from a media franchise that has inevitably repeated its own concepts. It could also be that the current “Multiverse Saga” era of storytelling feels more disjointed than the previous “Infinity Saga”, which set up the Infinity Stones as interstellar MacGuffins for our heroes to snatch from big baddie Thanos. After this film, I don’t see how it or movies like Black Widow or Eternals will fit into this overarching storyline but I suppose we’ll all have to keep watching to find out. Regardless of how Black Panther: Wakanda Forever works into the master plan, it’s another reliably exciting and occasionally moving heroes and villains tale.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is The Menu, a horror comedy starring Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy following a young couple as they travel to a remote island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the celebrity chef has prepared a lavish menu with some shocking surprises.
Also coming to theaters is She Said, a based-on-a-true-story drama starring Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan depicting the pair of New York Times reporters who broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct allegations.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Spirited, a musical comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell retelling Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol about a miserly misanthrope who is taken on a magical journey of self-reflection the night before Christmas.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Orphan: First Kill

On a list of films unlikely to generate a prequel for release in 2022, the 2009 horror film Orphan would have to rank somewhere close to the top. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has since worked his way up the Hollywood ladder, culminating with a directing gig for the upcoming superhero flick Black Adam, while star Isabelle Fuhrman is now twice the age she was when playing nine-year-old Esther in the first film. Those who haven’t seen Orphan and would like to do so unspoiled may not want to read past this sentence, since it’s difficult to discuss Orphan: First Kill without revealing its predecessor’s shocking twist. Knowing that “Esther” is actually a murderous woman in her early 30s with proportional dwarfism presents yet another stumbling block for a potential follow-up: what’s left to tell now that we already know the big reveal? Despite these challenges, First Kill nevertheless registers as a mild success.

We open in an Estonian psychiatric institute, where we see the brutally devious Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman) stage an unlikely escape, as was revealed towards the end of the first film. While scouring the internet for missing persons reports, Leena discovers she resembles Esther Albright, a young girl from Connecticut who hasn’t been seen in the past four years. Upon hearing the news, Esther’s mother Tricia (Julia Stiles) flies to an embassy in Moscow to reunite with who she thinks is her missing daughter. Leena further infiltrates the Albrights, traveling back to the States to con Esther’s father Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) in the’s family expansive New England estate. But how long will Leena be able to pass for Esther and what will the Albrights do if they uncover the deception?

At the outset, Orphan: First Kill has the difficult task of giving the now 25-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman the appearance of a pre-teen, ironic given that Leena is 33 years old in Orphan but convinces a family that she’s 9. Digital de-aging has gotten very popular on big-budget fare over the past several years but with more limited resources, director William Brent Bell and his crew instead implement more low-tech solutions like body doubles and forced perspective shots to maintain the illusion. Cinematographer Karim Hussain also does some heavy lifting on his part, casting the frame with a warm glow that aggressively softens facial features, even if it becomes detrimental to tasteful camerawork. Some of the scenes are so overlit or overexposed or both, it can be downright garish aesthetically but Hussain eases up some as the film progresses.

But the most important aspect of reviving “Esther” for Orphan: First Kill is the performance by Fuhrman, who returns to the role following a 13 year hiatus. Not only is she able to once again tap into the signature creepiness that made the first film as memorable as it was but she brings out Leena’s loneliness and longing to a degree that we somehow begin to sympathize with her evil character. Vera Farmiga was terrific in Orphan and in the role of a fellow traumatized mother adjusting to the presence of a new daughter, Julia Stiles delivers similarly excellent work. As good as Fuhrman and Stiles are, no one else in the cast is able to make nearly as much of an impact. Filling out the well-to-do Albright family, Rossif Sutherland and Matthew Finlan just don’t add much depth to their already shallow characters.

Both of the Orphan films exist in a subgenre of horror that I would describe as “elevated trash”. The premises are, frankly, a bit silly and hard to take seriously and yet, there is an art and craft to pulling them effectively. The performers and those behind the scenes all seem to be on the same page that they’re making some high camp and serious shlock. Even along those lines, this entry really strains some credulity down the stretch on behalf of its characters and that’s even given its already outlandish narrative. But I respect the pure panache that went into willing this most unlikely prequel into being, which is currently available to watch in theaters, rent digitally or stream on Paramount+. However one chooses to re-enter the Orphan universe, First Kill should surprise and delight those who go in with low expectations.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Three Thousand Years of Longing, a fantasy film starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, follows a scholar in Istanbul who encounters a Djinn that offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom.
Breaking, a thriller starring John Boyega and Michael K. Williams, tells the true story of a former Marine Corps veteran in financial trouble who robs a bank by way of a bomb threat.
The Invitation, a supernatural horror movie starring Nathalie Emmanuel and Thomas Doherty, finds a young woman discovering dark secrets about her family during the lavish wedding of her long-lost cousin.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup