Tag Archives: 4/5

Civil War

To describe what Civil War is, it may be more helpful to first describe what it isn’t. It’s not a movie that’s interested in moralizing about how the United States could hypothetically end up in a 21st century civil war. It doesn’t get caught up in polemics of which side is right and which side is wrong in the conflict, nor does it try to directly tie the factions to current political allegiances. The film will almost certainly be a Rorschach test for viewers, who could come away with wildly differing experiences depending on how they’re inclined to receive the story. For me, it’s a movie about the importance of journalism and the power of images more than a political statement of some kind. Of course it’s political, in the sense that it involves how a government could fall, but it’d be difficult to view it as partisan.

In one of her finest performances to date, Kirsten Dunst stars as Lee Smith, a harried war photographer whose captivating images have made her legendary in her field. Unfortunately, the Colorado native doesn’t have to travel far for her latest assignment, which is to cover the conflict between the US government and secessionist forces originating from California and Texas. At a protest in New York, Lee’s quick thinking saves aspiring photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) from a suicide bombing, which understandably makes her want to stick by Lee in the future. Along with reporter Joel (Wagner Moura) and veteran newspaperman Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Lee and Jessie travel to Washington DC in an attempt to get an interview with the President before the potential governmental collapse.

It’s obviously fair to call Civil War a war movie but for most of its runtime, it registers more as something between a dystopian thriller and a road movie, though it’s not a conventional version of either. The four main characters are cut from separate archetypes meant to highlight the differences in each other but characteristics gradually overlap in surprising and nuanced ways. Aside from other actors who pop up along the journey, we spend the most time with the four journalists in the car and each of the performers do a stellar job fleshing out their characters. I was particularly taken with Dunst, who brings a completely believable world-weariness to her work here. The young photographer Jessie is a fantastic foil for Lee, whose altruism has been beaten down from the horrors she’s witnessed over the years. While developing film during a pit stop at a football stadium, Lee conjures up all the optimism she can muster to authentically compliment Jessie for a photo she’s taken.

Writer/director Alex Garland is so careful in choosing what to include and what to omit in his sobering tale of an empire in ruin. There are crumbs of exposition — we learn that the President is serving a third term and that the FBI has been disbanded, for instance — and we get flashbacks of atrocities that Lee has witnessed. But Garland doesn’t want to lecture us on “how we got here” or even necessarily treat this as a cautionary tale for a country that isn’t as divided as it’s depicted here. More than politics, he seems to be more interested in themes like desensitization to violence and the survivalist roles that one subscribes to when the chips are down. The quartet encounter horrors along their journey that test their moral and ethical compasses but above all, their journalistic instinct tells them it’s best to document rather than intervene.

What I found most valuable about Civil War is the conversation around what it means to be a journalist in the most dire scenarios. The chief conflict these characters face — itself its own civil war — is in being pragmatic in situations that necessarily call for an emotional response. If you see someone bleeding from a gunshot wound, how can you not act to save them? These photojournalists have to deny these instincts and we can see the toll it takes on them. The concept of centrists or pacifists or conscientious objectors is brought up several times in the movie; Lee and Jessie sound envious when they confide in each other that their parents are living on their farms waiting the war out. By capturing images of the war while not technically fighting it, are they actually taking a side? Civil War is a movie bound to stir up many such questions with no easy answers.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Abigail, a horror movie starring Melissa Barrera and Dan Stevens centering on a group of criminals who kidnap the ballerina daughter of a powerful underworld figure but come to discover that she’s a vampire.
Also playing only in theaters is The Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare, an action comedy starring Henry Cavill and Eiza González telling the story of a small group of highly skilled soldiers who strike against German forces behind enemy lines during World War II.
Streaming on Netflix is Rebel Moon – Part Two: The Scargiver, a sci-fi epic starring Sofia Boutella and Djimon Hounsou concluding the story of a band of surviving warriors who defend their new home world against the armies of a tyrannical ruling force.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Thanksgiving is a superb slasher, one that does all the things that it’s supposed to do very well, in addition to doing other things that it wouldn’t necessarily need to do well but does anyway. Adapted from the best of the fictitious movie trailers that appear throughout 2007’s Grindhouse, the long-gestating feature is comparatively more straight-faced than its farcical predecessor but is still stuffed with just the right amount of camp. Given that this is directed by Eli Roth, who debatably hasn’t made a good movie since the original Thanksgiving short, and that it’s a Sony horror movie released after Halloween that was barely screened for critics, I did not go into this film with high hopes. Sometimes, lowered expectations can be a beautiful thing.

The outset of Thanksgiving covers a scenario that is sadly becoming more familiar: a crazed crowd forming outside a retail store (RightMart, a stand-in for WalMart) on Thanksgiving evening ahead of Black Friday. When a few shoppers get in early, the incensed mob pushes their way through the doors and carnage ensues. A year later, RightMart owner Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman) waffles on whether or not to have a Black Friday sale, given the previous year’s riot. His daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque) saw the violence firsthand with her friends Gabby (Addison Rae) and Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), the latter of whom has been missing ever since. When members of the community who were also present that night start getting picked off in brutal fashion, it’s up to Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) to track down the killer.

While the original 2-minute Thanksgiving trailer is aiming for laughs with its corny line readings and increasingly improbable decapitations, the feature-length adaptation isn’t as much as send-up of slashers as it is a genuine student of their craft. Roth is obviously versed in horror filmmaking but this is his most exquisitely-enacted entertainment yet. The movie’s killer, who dresses in pilgrim garb and goes by the moniker “John Carver”, is a dynamic dispatcher who favors an ax but isn’t above a flashbang grenade or silenced pistol when the situation calls for it. Appropriately, Carver makes creative use of holiday meal props like pop-up turkey timers and corn cob forks as well. There aren’t a ton of Thanksgiving-set slasher movies out there but those kinds of festive touches immediately shoot this entry to the top of the list.

Even more than your average horror flick, Thanksgiving sports a sometimes overwhelming amount of primary and secondary players but the actors make the most of their screen time regardless. Verlaque is outstanding as final girl Jessica, smart and sensitive while no doubt tough enough to fight off Carver’s numerous ambushes. Joe Delfin is a hoot as McCarty, a Black Sabbath-loving hooligan whose impressive gun stash is concealed so ingeniously that it would make the arms hustler from Taxi Driver jealous. Dempsey is seemingly the only one in the cast who decided to be deliberate with their New England accent but I’m happy that he did nonetheless.

As both director and co-writer, Roth does an excellent job evoking the tropes embedded in the slasher subgenre while he reminds us how effective they still are. There’s the rival high school with their loudmouth football captain, the weird loner who wants to fit in, and the jock with a heart of gold. All potential victims and all potential suspects. It’s a tricky balance, getting the audience to care about characters who could either be killed one minute or revealed to be unspeakably evil the next. Masters of horror like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven manage this expertly and while Roth doesn’t have the track record of those two, he does a pretty darn good job running at their pace with this one. Thanksgiving is a massively satisfying meal that will have horror buffs coming back to the table each year for seconds.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Napoleon, a historical epic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby depicting Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in France through the lens of his volatile relationship with Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais.
Also coming only to theaters is Wish, an animated musical starring Ariana DeBose and Chris Pine following a young girl who wishes on a star and gets a more direct answer than she bargained for when a trouble-making star comes down from the sky to join her.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is The Velveteen Rabbit, a holiday special starring Phoenix Laroche and Helena Bonham Carter adapting the classic children’s book about a boy who unlocks a world of magic after receiving a new favorite toy for Christmas.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Holdovers

When winter creeps in and the days grow shorter, we gather close together for light and warmth. Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is a movie that honors this primal instinct and helps clarify the importance of human connection during our darkest days. Like most of Payne’s other films, this one starts with characters who are sarcastic and snipe at one another but slowly reach a better understanding of each other through hard-fought vulnerability. Few in the business are better at this sort of character transition than Paul Giamatti, reuniting with Payne from 2004’s Sideways. In one of his best performances in years, Giamatti plays a stern instructor who’s so easy to hate that you have to imagine he has a heck of a redemption arc in him. Yes, this is a film that plays in some familiar narrative territory but it does so wonderfully.

It’s 1970 at the New England prep school Barton Academy and almost all of the kids are getting ready to head home for Christmas break. The few that remain — the “holdovers” — are those whose parents are planning to be out of town for holiday or have some other reason they can’t host their children over break. One such student is Angus (Dominic Sessa, in his first film role), a troubled teen who recently lost his father and gets the news that his stepparents have stepped away from the holidays, leaving him out in the cold. Similarly sideswiped is Paul (Giamatti), a history teacher who gets roped into supervising the holdovers after another professor comes up with a bogus excuse at the last minute. He’ll at least have some help with the school cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) present but besides that, he’s stuck with a group of kids who take exception to his strict demeanor.

The movie’s first act is its weakest, spending a little too much time with a group of ill-defined students who soon flee the picture, but The Holdovers really hits its stride when it’s down to Paul, Angus, and Mary. This is a terrific trio of performances, filled with empathy and humanity, upon which the entire film can cast its foundation. As good as Giamatti is, Sessa and Randolph play up to his level and similarly put in outstanding work. Sessa takes a character we’ve seen before — a snot-nosed punk who can’t stay out of trouble — and somehow makes him easy to love and care about as the story progresses. Randolph plays the most easy-going of the three main characters but also the one who has endured a terrible tragedy — the death of her son in Vietnam — that she’s trying to overcome. Even if the script was crummy, these performances would still shine.

Thankfully, the adroit screenplay from David Hemingson is far from crummy and serves up a cornucopia of both pithy one-liners and jewels of character insight. Paul is one of those obnoxious academics who is always trying to educate people who aren’t in the mood or mindset for a lesson, as when he (fittingly) lectures the kids about the origin of the word “punitive” over lunch. He repeats an adage equating life to a henhouse ladder that speaks to his worldview and the phrase “entre nous” is spoken several times between Paul and Angus, first played as a laugh line but gaining a momentum of meaning upon each repetition. Being the most good-natured of the three, Mary has little ways of cutting through the cynicism of her two male boarders. An episode of The Newlywed Game inspires conversation and when Paul shuts down his own hypothetical scenario of happiness, she laments, “you can’t even dream a whole dream, can you?”

Payne goes all-in on the early 70s aesthetic, filling the frame with a thousand shades of brown and beige while adding the occasional pop and click — replicating a spinning record — to the sound design. The excellent soundtrack includes usual suspects from Badfinger to Cat Stevens but also sports anachronistic selections from modern acts Damien Jurado and Khruangbin atop a menagerie of Christmas hits. Around the holidays, people look for movies like The Holdovers that not only take place around Christmas but capture what it feels like to spend more time indoors with people we aren’t near the rest of the year. Without being cloyingly sentimental, it’s a film that gives us hope that we can relate with each other not just during the cold months but the whole year through.

Score – 4/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Marvels, the latest MCU movie starring Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris continuing the story of Captain Marvel as she gets her powers with those of two other superwomen, forcing them to work together to save the universe.
Also coming to theaters is Journey To Bethlehem, a Christmas musical starring Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim that weaves classic Christmas melodies with humor, faith, and new pop songs in a retelling of the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus.
Streaming on Netflix is The Killer, an action thriller starring Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton following an assassin who battles his employers, and himself, on an international manhunt he insists isn’t personal.

Review reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Fair Play

One of the very best film debuts of the year, Chloe Domont’s Fair Play is a bracingly taut psychosexual thriller that leaves an impact. Acquired by Netflix for a hefty $20 million sum after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it’s the kind of serious-minded adult drama that could gain gobs of traction if it doesn’t get lost in the algorithm after its release. Increasingly, Netflix’s content machine is more focused on producing disposable entertainment that checks off demographic or genre boxes rather than rewarding exceptional filmmakers with attentive audiences. It’s a common practice now for people watching TV at home to also have their smartphone out in front of their face at the same time, effectively creating a “two-screen” experience. Fair Play is a movie that demands your single-screen attention.

We meet Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) at the wedding of the latter’s brother, where the couple sneak off for an unexpectedly messy bathroom tryst. An engagement ring falls out of Luke’s pocket, a hasty proposal is carried out and the happy couple covertly leaves the wedding in lovedrunk bliss. But the 4:30 AM alarm comes all too soon and the two go about getting ready for their workdays, which we soon learn take place at the highly competitive firm Crest Capital. They’re keeping their relationship a secret from everyone at the office, desperate not to break company policy in front of their boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan). After the calamitous firing of a portfolio manager, analysts like Emily and Luke wait with baited breath to see who will fill the new opening but after Emily gets the promotion, Luke’s jealousies and insecurities bubble up and threaten their relationship.

Though there have been plenty of tense movies set in the world of high finance, what makes Fair Play especially fraught is the personal stakes atop the high pressure setting of the hedge fund world. Emily first hears a rumor that Luke is next in line for the coveted PM position and when she tells him, they’re both excited at the proposition. There’s implicit gender bias at play when Emily is expected to be happy for Luke and report to him with no issue but when the roles are reversed, he is clearly uncomfortable with her being the boss. He fakes excitement upon hearing the news but after just the first day of working under her, he’s clearly bitter and pouts at a bar when the work day is over. From there, the passive aggressive missives get less “passive” as the story steams ahead. Even though their relationship gets more toxic and twisted over time, I somehow still wanted things to be reconciled between the two of these characters.

The pair of performances at the center of Fair Play are nothing short of electric. Dynevor has a more complex role, given that she has the biggest shifts between how she represents herself in her personal life with Luke versus how she runs her professional life in the office. Emily puts a tremendous amount of pressure on herself not only to excel in her new position but to salvage a relationship that used to be filled with passion and understanding but is becoming more doomed by the day. Dynevor is incredible in so many scenes but the one in which she begs with Luke to try to refer him to another firm so that he can save his career and their engagement was particularly heart-wrenching. Ehrenreich has the less empathetic role as the rampantly petulant Luke but his unnerving level of ambition certainly makes him a compelling antagonist. Between this and his rewarding work in Oppenheimer back in July, Ehrenreich is continuing to carve quite a career out for himself.

As with many thrillers, the pace is critical to keeping the audience hooked and Domont along with editor Franklin Peterson assert a sprinter’s clip through the almost two-hour runtime. There are moments that mirror one another, as when a phone alarm first goes off early in the morning but each subsequent instance of it appearing finds one or both of the protagonists already wide awake, drearily looking at the phone in anticipation. I particularly loved a timbre match cut late in the film, where a character yelling an expletive merges seamlessly into a train brake screeching outside. Speaking of sound, there are also soulful doo-wop tunes embedded throughout the film which call to mind that this should be this couple’s honeymoon period instead of their unraveling. It may not be the easiest watch but in its ruthless examination of sexual politics and cataclysmic competition, Fair Play is riveting and unmissable.

Score – 4/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Exorcist: Believer, a supernatural horror sequel starring Leslie Odom Jr. and Ellen Burstyn, in which the parents of demonically possessed girls search for help by way of Regan MacNeil’s mother from the first The Exorcist.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Totally Killer, a horror comedy starring Kiernan Shipka and Olivia Holt about a teenager who accidentally travels back in time to 1987 determined to stop an infamous local serial killer before he can start his spree.
Premiering on Paramount+ is Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, a horror prequel starring Jackson White and Forrest Goodluck taking place 50 years before the original Pet Sematary, where a young boy first discovers a local cemetery where the dead can live again.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Theater Camp

Adapted from a 2020 short film of the same name, the laugh-out-loud hilarious Theater Camp considers what Waiting For Guffman would look like if it attended Tairy Greene’s Acting Seminar For Children. This is the kind of intelligently-rendered comedy that has loads of jokes for general audiences but is also filled with references to musicals and performance subculture that will make theater kids swoon. True to the nature of the narrative, the film was conceived as a collective among a tight-knit group of stage players who have since made the leap to film and television. Co-directors and co-writers Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman both have close ties to star and co-writer Ben Platt, the former an acting collaborator from a young age and the latter a frequent director of Platt’s music videos. Their camaraderie pays off big time here.

Theater Camp is largely set in the confines of AdirondACTS, a summer refuge in upstate New York for young thespians looking to hone their craft. The crew is preparing for a new season when their intrepid leader Joan (Amy Sedaris) suddenly falls into a coma after a strobe light during a rendition of Bye Bye Birdie triggers a seizure. Regrettably, the duties of running the camp fall to her hopelessly half-witted son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), a would-be finance vlogger who wouldn’t know a foreclosure from a forearm. It turns out actual fiduciary knowledge would come in handy, as the camp is buried with back payments and capitalist firm representative Caroline (Patti Harrison) is waiting in the wings to buy the facility for pennies on the dollar. It’s up to veteran counselors Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Platt) to salvage the summer program and produce an original musical that will make the parents of the resident theater kids proud.

The almost overwhelmingly talented ensemble of Theater Camp also includes quickly-rising stars Noah Galvin and Ayo Edebiri, the latter of whom appears in 3 films that are currently in theaters right now, with one more (Bottoms) due later this month. Edebiri plays a hastily-acquired replacement instructor who embellishes mask work and other esoteric theater techniques to disguise the fact that she doesn’t know what stage combat is, much less how to actually teach it. Her character Janet, along with Troy and first-time camp attendee Devon (Donovan Colan), underscore an intriguing subtext of the movie. All three being novices to the theater world makes them outcasts in this environment, even though they could be seen as the most “normal” characters in the film.

But, of course, Theater Camp isn’t a searing psychological investigation of in-group/out-group bias; it’s a comedy, and one of the funniest of the year at that. Shot and edited in a mockumentary style, the film captures just the right moments from each character to let us in on their entire worldview with just a couple lines of dialogue. The actual storyline, which involves tropes like lopsided friendships and a scrappy underdog defying the odds to come out on top, isn’t anything new but doesn’t end up bogging down the end result. From the auditions to rehearsals to the final stage performances, there are small yet hysterical moments that immerse us in this weird world that musical geeks call home. Just the way that show tunes “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” and “Give My Regards To Broadway” were quoted through PA pronouncements had me in stitches.

Gordon and Lieberman also nail the tone in their direction, affectionately skewering this off-beat community with just the right amount of snark and wit. This warmth for the material also comes through effortlessly in the performances, particularly Platt as the head of drama (in more sense than one) at AdirondACTS. Given how much of a disaster the cinematic adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen was, it’s nice to see Platt in a role that is perfect for him to inhabit. The movie is also a terrific showcase for Tatro, a standout from Netflix’s true-crime mockumentary American Vandal who plays an endearing moron about as well as any actor I can think of at the moment. Whether you’ve never belted out a tune on stage before or you came into the world singing Sondheim, Theater Camp is certain to delight.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is The Last Voyage of the Demeter, a supernatural horror movie starring Corey Hawkins and Aisling Franciosi depicting strange and horrifying events that befall a doomed crew as they attempt to survive an ocean voyage from Transylvania to London.
Streaming on Netflix is Heart of Stone, an action thriller starring Gal Gadot and Jamie Dornan about an intelligence operative for a shadowy global peacekeeping agency who races to stop a hacker from stealing its most valuable and dangerous weapon.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Red, White & Royal Blue, a romcom starring Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine about an altercation at a royal wedding between the son of the US president and a British prince that gives way to a blossoming romance between the two.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Asteroid City

Wes Anderson is the type of director whose work is so firmly situated in the cultural consciousness that even those who have only seen one or two of his films can immediately recognize his style. Over the years, parodies of Anderson doing X-Men or a horror movie have popped up on YouTube and SNL and more recently, AI has been used to create fake trailers for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings in Anderson’s emblematic style. The question around Asteroid City, the latest from the oft-caricatured auteur, is whether Anderson would drastically change things up to keep audiences guessing or continue with the muted and mannered methodology to which viewers have become accustomed. For the most part, Anderson plays to his strengths in terms of aesthetic and tone but the difference here is in the richness of emotions from the film’s panoply of characters.

Set within a play of the same name, Asteroid City takes place in a fictional desert settlement named after a meteorite that landed thousands of years ago and created a crater where a science fair is now held annually. Rolling into town for the 1955 Junior Stargazer Convention are five teenaged honorees, there to show off their impressive retrofuturistic inventions, along with their respective families. Fittingly, one of the teenagers, Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan), is nicknamed “Brainiac” and brings with him his photographer father Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and three sisters. He strikes up a fast friendship with fellow Stargazer Dinah Campbell (Grace Edwards), whose actress mother Midge (Scarlett Johansson) similarly begins a relationship with the recently-widowed Augie.

Being a Wes Anderson movie, Asteroid City additionally boasts dozens of other eccentric players and ornate vignettes to detail this world-within-a-world. He’s assembled impressive casts before but this may be Anderson’s most stacked ensemble to date; when superstars like Tom Hanks and Steve Carell pop up only for a few scenes each, seemingly because the film is already bursting at the seams with talent, it becomes even more apparent the embarrassment of riches this project has become. The sheer amount of familiar faces, which also includes Anderson stalwarts like Jeffrey Wright and Tilda Swinton, may connote that these characters are disposable or replaceable but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of their stories are funny and some of them are sad but they’re all interesting and would be worth diving into on their own terms.

The writing in Anderson’s work is often droll and direct, ripe for satire but also whip smart and difficult to emulate authentically. Asteroid City has several trademark pithy exchanges, the first conversation over phone between Augie and his father-in-law being a clear example, but over time, the dialogue becomes more reflective and introspective. The play can be seen both as a Cold War parable and a pandemic allegory, where isolation and fear underscore human’s desperate need for connection. Augie and Midge’s tryst is fueled by conversations between open windows in adjacent motel rooms, their framing resembling the video chat confines of computer screens. When juxtaposed with an alley-set chat between the actor playing Augie and the actress that was to portray Augie’s wife, Anderson’s comment seems to be that people will cross any barriers to carry out meaningful conversation.

If things in Asteroid City weren’t metatextual enough, there is another layer of artifice by way of a TV show narrated with Rod Serling-like candor by Bryan Cranston about how the play was performed. Though these scenes are in black-and-white and in a markedly different aspect ratio than the Panavision widescreen used for the play itself, it can be tricky keeping track of what world we’re in when. Cranston’s character even pops up briefly in one of the full-color scenes by accident, only to slyly slink away back to his own universe. Despite these veneers of unreality, Anderson is careful never to lose the thread of why each of these characters matter and why we should care about them. That’s a breakthrough worth celebrating for a filmmaker who has, from time to time in his stellar career, favored cerebral flourish over genuine sentiment.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, an action-adventure sequel starring Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge which concludes the 5-film arc of the titular archaeologist as he teams up with his goddaughter to retrieve a legendary artifact that can change the course of history.
Also coming to the multiplex is Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, an animated fantasy comedy starring Lana Condor and Toni Collette about a shy teenager who learns that she comes from a fabled royal family of legendary sea krakens and that her destiny lies in the depths of the waters.
Streaming on Netflix is Run Rabbit Run, a psychological horror film starring Sarah Snook and Lily LaTorre following a fertility doctor who must challenge her own values and confront a ghost from her past after noticing the strange behavior of her young daughter.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Opening at Cinema Center this weekend, the riveting new docudrama BlackBerry stars Jay Baruchel as Mike Lazaridis, the founder of tech startup Research In Motion. We meet Mike and his cohort Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson) in 1996, as they shuffle their PocketLink presentation posters and easel across a parking lot to pitch to executive Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), who initially seems intensely disinterested in their product. After getting fired from his position, Jim pays a visit to RIM and accepts their offer to take over as co-CEO to help right the company following poor business acumen. Together, they made BlackBerry, a once-ubiquitous line of smartphones that forever changed how we receive information and communicate with one another. But as impressively as the company rose, it’s not nearly as impressive as how quickly it fell.

It’s easy to look at a film like BlackBerry and compare it to something like The Social Network, another movie about personalities clashing at the forefront of a technological revolution. There are, of course, similarities to be found in the Zuckerberg-Saverin-Parker dynamic between the three main characters here and both films sport scripts that marry zippy dialogue with technical information. But BlackBerry has a very different look and feel to it, similar to in-the-room urgency of The Big Short but without the incessant winks to the camera. It feels like cinematographer Jared Raab is actually capturing these events as they’re unfolding and he’s just doing his best to get as much footage as he can. Audiences are more accustomed to this faux-documentary aesthetic thanks to shows like The Office and Modern Family but the tone here is obviously much more tense and business-minded.

That’s not to say that BlackBerry doesn’t have its share of laughs. After all, Howerton is best known for his work on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Baruchel has been in plenty of comedies over the years. Howerton carries over elements of that Dennis Reynolds fire and hubris, letting loose scorched-earth f-bombs and unearned confidence across office bullpens and board rooms. Playing a nerdy developer isn’t outside of Baruchel’s wheelhouse but there’s growth beyond that in this performance and he finds the humor in the character’s sometimes awkward transition to tech mogul. Director and co-writer Matt Johnson also generates hilarious moments in what don’t typically seem like scenes of comedy. During a tirade from a fierce COO played by Michael Ironside, Johnson holds on a shot of a confused developer just long enough for the punchline to land.

If we’ve seen some of the dramatic beats from BlackBerry‘s first hour before in films about tech companies taking off, it only emphasizes how much of the second hour is quite different from these other stories. It’s not just fascinating how quickly RIM and the BlackBerry line fell but just how inevitable their demise was given how spectacularly the company was mismanaged. It’s a wonder that Lazaridis and Balsillie ever saw eye-to-eye at any point in their collaboration but the chasm that develops between their business ethics and professional intentions is truly staggering. Since we already know that the BlackBerry is totally defunct, we know that we’re watching a catastrophic car crash just waiting to happen, in this case due to someone texting on their QWERTY keyboard while driving.

The screenplay that Johnson has co-written with Matthew Miller peppers in insight about the seeds of innovation and the earnest desire to make the world better through technology. As cynical as Balsillie is about marketing their product, Lazaridis and Fregin seemed to have created PocketLink after seeing futuristic communication from sci-fi staples like Star Trek and Blade Runner. RIM took their company movie nights seriously, not just to kick back and have fun but take mental notes on what could actually be possible when tinkering around with their components. Without Balsillie, it’s likely their designs would’ve never seen the light of day but it’s doubtful their company would have imploded so fantastically either. As a guide for how not to run a tech startup and a constantly engaging Icarus tale with outstanding performances, BlackBerry bears the fruit of its labor.

Score – 4/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Book Club: The Next Chapter, starring Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda, is a romcom reuniting four elderly best friends as they take their book club to Italy for a fun girls’ trip that turns into a once-in-a-lifetime cross-country adventure.
Hypnotic, starring Ben Affleck and Alice Braga, is a sci-fi action thriller which follows a detective as he investigates a mystery involving his missing daughter and a secret government program surrounding a group of powerful hypnotists.
Knights Of The Zodiac, starring Mackenyu and Famke Janssen, is a fantasy action movie about a street orphan who discovers that he is destined to protect a goddess of war who is reincarnated in the body of a young girl.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Despite being based on a role-playing game that’s been around for almost 50 years and is more popular now than ever, Dungeons & Dragons hasn’t been especially well-served in the realm of film adaptations. Its first theatrical foray was pummeled by critics when it was released in the holiday season of 2000, with subsequent made-for-TV and direct-to-video installments making for a particularly obscure trilogy. Ripe for a reboot, the franchise finally gets an entry that should make fans proud with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a rollicking action comedy that cleverly integrates key tenets of the game. The film understands the power behind dynamic storytelling and often feels as if it’s creating itself in real time, honoring the spirit of the source material in addition to the myriad direct references to lore and characters.

Taking place in a fantasy world where magic intermingles with everyday life, Honor Among Thieves stars Chris Pine as Edgin, a thief serving time with barbarian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) after they were caught during their last heist. In his absence, Edgin entrusts his daughter to Forge (Hugh Grant), a member of his crew who got away and since ascended to the status of lord of Neverwinter with the help of shadowy Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head). Edgin and Holga escape prison in hopes of reuniting with Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) but are double-crossed and nearly executed by the duplicitous Forge. Recruiting druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) and sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), Edgin crafts a plan to get back at Forge using the unique set of skills among the newly-banded team.

At the helm of Honor Among Thieves are co-directors — Dungeon Masters, in the game’s parlance — Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who teamed up previously for the hilarious Game Night. Just as that film integrated the mechanics of various party games into its narrative, the duo’s latest collaboration gives the audience the feeling that they’re watching a game unfold in real time. Edgin is a schemer, always coming up with plans and workarounds when obstacles present themselves, as they often do during a D&D adventure. Sometimes, the contingencies that arise highlight the comically unpredictable nature of this universe; during the film’s funniest sequence, Doric remarks “that seems arbitrary” when Simon relays the rules behind a temporary reanimation spell.

Along with co-writer Michael Gilio, Goldstein and Daley are very clever in the way that they weave in moments of humor that are germane to this world as opposed to having the characters wink at the camera. The performers don’t feel like they’re playing up the material too hard and the script doesn’t read like it’s stopping every few minutes for punch-up levity. This is a funny movie but not at the expense of the action and the stakes of the story. While the action isn’t always shot and edited with the same care that was taken with the screenplay, Rodriguez once again proves herself as a top talent for tactile fight scenes. Regé-Jean Page is also excellent as a paladin named Xenk, who gets a handful of cool combat setpieces and noble one-liners as a foil to Edgin’s scoundrel propensities. “Just because that sentence is symmetrical doesn’t make it not nonsense,” Edgin quips after one of Xenk’s nuggets of wisdom.

I should mention that I’ve never actually played Dungeons & Dragons before; I had my time with Magic: The Gathering ages ago, but that’s a story for another day. The important point is that whether you’ve played dozens of D&D campaigns or you’ve never picked up a twenty-sided die in your life, Honor Among Thieves will entertain one and the same. Like any good fantasy movie, it keeps us clued into the terminology within this world and what each of these characters brings to the table without getting bogged down in exposition. When Daley was playing Dungeons & Dragons on Freaks and Geeks around the time the first film was released, he probably didn’t think he’d one day be co-directing his own cinematic version of it. Even in the realm of the fantastical, the magic of movies is a power all its own.

Score – 4/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Murder Mystery 2, an action comedy starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston as a pair of full-time detectives who find themselves at the center of an international abduction plot when their friend is kidnapped at his own lavish wedding.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is Tetris, a biopic starring Taron Egerton and Toby Jones which tells the true story of the high-stakes legal battle to secure the intellectual property rights to the titular tetromino-filled video game.
Coming to Hulu is Rye Lane, a romantic dramedy starring David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah centering around a pair of young South Londoners reeling from bad break-ups who connect over the course of an eventful day and help each other deal with their nightmare exes.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Fabelmans

On a 1999 episode of his revered series Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton once asked Steven Spielberg about a connection that he saw between Spielberg’s parents and a moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Recalling that Spielberg’s mother was a musician and his father was an engineer, Lipton remarks that the aliens’ attempt to communicate with humans through a computer generating musical tones could be a metaphor for how Spielberg tried to reach his parents through their divorce. Spielberg is surprised not only that Lipton put this together but that he himself hadn’t either until that very moment. All great filmmakers put pieces of themselves within their stories but with his 34th movie The Fabelmans, Spielberg finally tells his most personal story yet: his own.

The film revolves around young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a stand-in for Spielberg, who we first meet as he heads into a movie theater with his mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and his dad Burt (Paul Dano) to see 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is frightened but entranced by a train crash setpiece towards the film’s conclusion, which he attempts to recreate with a model train set and 8mm camera at home. So begins Sammy’s fascination with filmmaking, which continues into his teenage years as he makes silent pictures with his fellow Boy Scouts and archives his high school class’ beach-set Senior Ditch Day. But while shooting footage of his family on a camping trip, Sammy uncovers evidence of an affair that has seemingly eluded others in real life but can’t escape his watchful camera.

The Fabelmans doesn’t quite have enough conflict to justify its stout 151-minute runtime but it has a handful of knockout scenes where Spielberg and his co-writer Tony Kushner make the most of their decades-long collaboration. One such moment occurs early on, with young Sammy projecting his first movie onto his hands as a way of seeing it but also as a visual metaphor for his desire to control his initial fear of the sequence. Another juxtaposes a shared line of dialogue between Sammy and his father during two different conversations, spliced together with a playful cut which underlines that the subject of the latter conversation is a film editing machine. Elsewhere, Judd Hirsch and David Lynch pop up in small but unforgettable roles that pepper the film with gruff wisdom that Sammy is able to apply to his life and work.

Spielberg also uses The Fabelmans as a way to explore the alienation he felt as part of a Jewish family who moved around routinely and sometimes ended up in places where they weren’t well-received due to their faith. This presents itself in more subtle ways when Sammy is younger, as when he notices that their house is one of the few darkened ones among a sea of Christmas-lit homes in their neighborhood. But more blatant antisemitism reveals itself during his high school years and while it’s difficult to watch Sammy be the target of bigoted bullying, the ways that he thwarts his cruel classmates’ efforts are unexpected and empowering. There is some respite with a love interest played by Chloe East, who is a devout Christian but finds something ineffably inviting about Sammy.

In terms of performances, Michelle Williams certainly has the most room to play as idiosyncratic matriarch Mitzi, whose antics suggest mental health issues that are touched upon but not thoroughly explored. However, Williams is a tremendously talented actress and even if this role calls for her to act a bit more broadly than she typically does, it’s a bit of a joy to watch her cut loose some. On the other end of the spectrum, Paul Dano is much more restrained here than he was as his raving Riddler character from The Batman earlier this year, though he’s more unmemorable as a result. This is obviously a breakout role for the young Gabriel LaBelle and he makes the most of the opportunity without pushing things too hard. He channels a young Spielberg effortlessly, further cementing The Fabelmans as a master moviemaker’s most personalized statement yet.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Violent Night, a holiday action comedy starring David Harbour and John Leguizamo depicting Santa Claus’ attempt to thwart a group of mercenaries as they attack the estate of a wealthy family on Christmas Eve.
Also coming only to theaters is I Heard The Bells, a Christmas movie starring Stephen Atherholt and Rachel Day Hughes which tells the inspiring story behind the writing of the titular beloved Christmas carol and its author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Streaming on Netflix is Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a romantic drama starring Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell adapting D. H. Lawrence’s firebrand novel about an unhappily married aristocrat who begins a torrid affair with the gamekeeper on her husband’s country estate.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Emily The Criminal

Playing at Cinema Center this weekend, Emily the Criminal is both a stunning debut for writer/director John Patton Ford and another outstanding showing for Aubrey Plaza in a more serious role. She’s still likely best known as the sardonic April Ludgate from the comedy series Parks and Recreation but with impressive dramatic turns in Ingrid Goes West and Black Bear, Plaza continues to make a name for herself as an acting force with which to be reckoned. As April, her deadpan delivery of droll downers served as a counterpoint to the altruistic nature of indefatigable series lead Leslie Knope. Here in the title role, her straightforward language is much more cutting and chilling within the context of a crime thriller.

Our introduction to Emily sets up her desperate situation, as she winces her way through a job interview where the employer ambushes her with a background check revealing DUI and assault charges from her past. She’s $70,000 in art school debt, which she’s hardly making a dent in with a food service job, so she takes a tip from her co-worker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) to join a service where one can make $200 an hour. She meets Youcef (Theo Rossi), one of the heads of the operation that uses fake credit cards given to “dummy shoppers” to make fraudulent in-store purchases. After Emily successfully rips a flatscreen TV, Youcef offers her a bigger job with a more lucrative payout but with a higher risk involved as well, forcing Emily to consider how far down the criminal rabbit hole she’s willing to go.

A subplot involving Emily’s friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) trying to secure her an interview at the ad agency where she works underscores one of Emily the Criminal‘s most potent themes about the decline of upward mobility. When Emily meets with Liz’s boss Alice (Gina Gershon) for a sit-down, she’s ambushed once again by finding out that the potential graphic design position is, in fact, an unpaid internship. Emily understandably replies that she can’t afford to work for free, causing Alice to refer to her as “spoiled” (stopping just short at “entitled”, a descriptor many a millennial abhor) for turning her nose up at the opportunity. The film doesn’t excuse a criminal lifestyle but it helps us understand why struggling individuals would turn to such measures in order to survive when more moral means don’t pay the bills.

This subtext enriches what is already a stellar crime tale and character study set up by Ford’s incisive script and instinctual direction. His insight into the mechanics of LA’s underbelly recalls the work of Michael Mann and Dan Gilroy, where situations can escalate beyond our protagonists’ expectations in no time flat. A cross-coast import from New Jersey, Emily is street smart and certainly knows how to hold her own but she still has tough lessons to learn along the way as she navigates this treacherous world. We’re proud of Emily for learning how to defend herself and not let others take advantage of her, even if the sometimes savage methods that she employs are lifted directly from dangerous people for whom we have little sympathy.

Ultimately, Emily the Criminal is not only a story of self-discovery but also how finding one’s true purpose can happen later in life than one may expect. In a scene when Emily waits for Youcef in his cramped office with flickering lights, he makes a self-deprecating comment about his surroundings and Emily non-rhetorically says “it’s only temporary, right?” The film’s title is deceptively straight-forward but a conversation between Emily and Youcef’s mother brings forth a meaning that fully reveals itself by the time the end credits roll. Yet another read on “Emily the criminal” is how interviewers and society choose to too easily write her off and compartmentalize her identity. Laced with potent social commentary that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, Emily the Criminal is an enthralling crime drama with a live wire performance by Plaza.

Score – 4/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Woman King, a historical epic starring Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu centering around an all-female group of warriors during the 19th century in the West African kingdom of Dahomey.
Also coming to theaters is Pearl, a slasher prequel starring Mia Goth and David Corenswet that rewinds back to the first World War to fill in the origin story of the titular villain who was introduced in 2022’s X.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Goodnight Mommy, a horror remake starring Naomi Watts and Cameron Crovetti about twin brothers who arrive at their mother’s house and begin to suspect that something isn’t right.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup