Tag Archives: 4/5

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

Official Competition

After the would-be comedy The Bubble burst on Netflix this past spring, we now have another comedy released this year that skewers the film industry but goes about it in a much smarter and more sophisticated way. Where Judd Apatow’s film went after low-hanging fruit like big-budget sequels and green-screen fiascos, the targets of Official Competition are prestige dramas and the artistic egos that drive them in front of and behind the camera. It turns out that there’s still plenty of fodder outside the Hollywood soft targets and the writing/directing duo of Gastón Duprat & Mariano Cohn finds ways to poke at the pretensions of artists while still respecting what they bring to the craft. Most importantly, it’s a film with jokes that consistently land, some of which are the laugh-out-loud variety and others which aim for sly snickers instead.

The film opens on the 80th birthday of millionaire Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), who pensively looks out of his skyscraper window and relates to his assistants that he longs to add to his legacy. He already has charity foundations set up and building bridges is boring, so he decides he wants to produce a feature film that bears all the marks of greatness. In this spirit of perceived excellence, he meets with Palme d’Or-winning director Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) with intentions of adapting a best-selling novel he hasn’t read about two feuding brothers. After being hired, Cuevas gets to work on the script and helps cast revered stage thespian Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) and certified movie star Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) in the two lead roles. The trio then comes together for rehearsals, revealing disparities in their personalities and artistic processes.

Since the movie is primarily centered around this threesome as they work on the project together, the interplay between the three actors is a large source of the humor and each performance radiates wildly with wit. Sporting a coiffure of red curls that seem to shoot in every direction, Cruz conjures the eccentricities of various arthouse directors while begrudgingly accepting the role of surrogate mother to her two competing actors. Martínez channels the likes of Olivier and Kingsley in his portrayal of a classically-trained stiff who takes the lead in a feature film because teaching theater classes doesn’t inspire him like it used to. Banderas has lots of options for inspiration (including, perhaps, from his own real-life career) in crafting a slick heartthrob character trying his hand at “serious films” for the first time.

Beyond evoking the classic comedy conceit of clashing opposites, Official Competition scores tons of laughs from the arbitrary nature of artistic collaboration and, specifically, the frustrations of filmmaking. During their very first script reading, Cuevas requests that Torres repeat the simple line “good evening” about a dozen times, pontificating about how much meaning can be conveyed in just those two words while Rivero looks on nervously. Prop designers and casting agents come to Cuevas when decisions need to be made, prompting her to test out far too many single-scene handbags or left-swipe the faces of background actors on a tablet for seemingly arbitrary reasons. As many real-life actors have done recently, Rivero takes to TikTok for gaudy social awareness spots that make Cuevas laugh with pity. There are dozens of other gags that I could outline but they’re best left for audiences to enjoy together.

For a film that lampoons the behind-the-scenes minutiae that can go into these projects, Official Competition‘s production design and set decoration is somewhat surprisingly first-rate. I’m not sure that directors and actors often rehearse in spaces as lavish and pristine as the ones seen in this movie but cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer certainly has a ball capturing their reserved beauty. The background for title card and opening credits is later revealed to be the green marble plaque for one of Rivero’s numerous acting awards, connecting the authentic beauty still linked to these artificial popularity contests. With the proliferation of entertainment news and constant access to celebrities, it’s easy to get cynical about the state of moviemaking and Official Competition certainly has some fun at its expense. But by its end, we’re reminded how the very best movies still make the process worthwhile.

Score – 4/5

More new movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Bodies, Bodies Bodies, a comedy slasher starring Amandla Stenberg and Maria Bakalova, follows a group of rich twenty-somethings whose party at a remote family mansion turns deadly when they begin a Mafia-style party game.
Fall, a psychological thriller starring Grace Fulton and Virginia Gardner, finds two best friends struggling to survive while trapped at the top of a 2,000-foot radio tower.
Summering, a coming-of-age drama starring Lia Barnett and Madalen Mills, tells the story of four girls who embark on a mysterious adventure during their last days of summer and childhood.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On

Based on a series of charming mockumentary YouTube shorts from the 2010s, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a super-sized film adaptation about a tiny creature with appropriately diminutive origins. Developed by comedian Jenny Slate and director Dean Fleischer Camp while attending a wedding in 2010, the anthropomorphic seashell that gives the series its name made some serious waves on the internet, leading to a series of tie-in storybooks that quickly became bestsellers. The challenge when adapting any short film (or series of shorts, in this case) into a full-blown feature is expanding on the source material without stretching things too thin. Despite having an ending that feels a little too pat, the movie finds wonderful ways to elaborate on the endearing mollusk at its center with incisive dialogue and imaginative stop-motion animation.

Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) is a one-inch talking shell living with his sweet grandmother Nanna Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) in the house of documentary filmmaker Dean (Dean Fleischer Camp), who discovers the pair of them one day. He starts filming interviews with Marcel and finds out that his shell community was inadvertently taken when the previous homeowners hastily packed up their sock drawer during their move out. After Dean posts videos of Marcel online that receive millions of views, they use the opportunity to crowdsource help from the new fanbase to help find Marcel’s parents and extended family. With a pair of tiny shoes and the gumption of a creature many times his size, Marcel ventures out into the world to reunite with the seashell collective from whom he was separated two years prior.

The test that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On sets up for itself immediately is whether or not it will be crushed by the potential weight of overly-cutesy affectations but it doesn’t take long for the film to prove that it’s more than adorable. Slate’s voice work is a key component to making this film soar, carrying over the tender timbre crafted from the original short films but adding in wit and wisdom that sensibly fills out the character. Marcel playfully spars with Dean as he questions the process behind Marcel’s daily activities and his recollection of a Wayne Gretzky quote that he misattributes to “Whale Jetski”. Rossellini is a perfect addition to this lovable protagonist, her nurturing tone and delightful disposition pushing Marcel along in his overwhelming but worthy mission.

Like Ratatouille or the Toy Story series, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On marvels in the ways that miniature characters adapt in a human-sized world and reappropriate human-sized objects. Traveling around the house is quite a task when you’re only one inch tall, so Marcel procures a tennis ball he dubs “The Rover” and rolls around at speeds much faster than his undersized Converse shoes would be able to go. He’s even found a way to climb up walls, thanks to an ample supply of honey that Marcel is able to stick his feet in and amply adhere to a given wall as he walks up it. In remembrance of his displaced family members, he even makes a shrine out of small flowers and blades of grass, fashioning a shofar out of a cavatappi noodle to honor them with a rendition of “Taps”.

I also recognized some Spongebob Squarepants influence in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, though Marcel has a bit more of a rambunctious edge than the titular square of the Nickelodeon series. But unfailing optimism in the face of life’s challenges is a key component to what makes both characters so indelible. “Guess why I smile a lot?” Marcel asks Dean, following it up with “’cause it’s worth it!” before he can opine. Marcel’s interactions with the off-camera Dean bring home why he wanted to start filming this small creature in the first place, aside from the fact that it’s a talking object that is typically inanimate. Whether they’re trading parts singing the scout song “Linger” or getting ambient background tone for Dean’s documentary, it’s clear that Marcel makes Dean’s life better just by being around. There’s no reason to think he can’t do the same for us.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Bullet Train, an action comedy starring Brad Pitt and Joey King about an unlucky assassin tasked with recovering a briefcase aboard a high-speed train filled with rival killers traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto.
Streaming on Hulu is Prey, a sci-fi action film in the Predator franchise starring Amber Midthunder and Dakota Beavers about members of the Comanche Nation fending off an advanced alien hunter during the early 18th century.
Premiering on Peacock is They/Them, a slasher movie starring Kevin Bacon and Carrie Preston about a group of LGBTQ teens who must fend for themselves against a mysterious killer while attending a gay conversion camp.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Top Gun: Maverick

Just because Hollywood’s propensity for producing legacy sequels seems to currently be flying at an all-time high doesn’t mean the subgenre is limited to this century. Take 1986’s The Color Of Money. Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to 1961’s The Hustler saw veteran Paul Newman handing the reins to hotshot Tom Cruise across the billiards table. 36 years after Top Gun, another Cruise vehicle released 1986, it’s now the hotshot’s turn to pass the torch to another generation once more. While Top Gun: Maverick follows maneuvers popularized by lucrative “legacyquels” like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed, it carves out its own airspace with jaw-dropping stunt work and a world-wise story that enriches the characters set up by its predecessor.

Cruise returns as Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, to whom we’re reintroduced as he suits up to push a hypersonic jet further than anyone ever has before. It turns out the test run wasn’t exactly “authorized” by Maverick’s commanding officer and as a result, he’s transferred to the Naval TOPGUN program once again, now as an instructor instead of a student. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to train a dozen new recruits with precision flying skills that will allow them to covertly take out a developing uranium plant before it becomes operational. Among the new class is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s deceased flying partner “Goose” and Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), a cocksure flyboy whose prickly demeanor is as cold as ice.

Five minutes into Top Gun: Maverick, I was worried we were in danger. The Harold Faltermeyer music score, the intertitle setting up the backstory of the Fighter Weapons School and the shot choices in the opening credits are identical to those from the original Top Gun. But Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski assure us soon after that this is merely a taking off point for a follow-up that actually has its own story to tell and its own unique moments to etch into action movie history. The Darkstar scene, which finds Maverick going Mach 10 in a Lockheed Martin SR-72, is a thrilling sequence that reintroduces the character brilliantly while visually recalling the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” segment from Cruise favorite 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But Top Gun: Maverick has dramatic moments that may pin you to the back of your seat just as much as the full-throttle setpieces. Ed Harris appears early as the superior responsible for chewing Maverick out after he carries out impressive but insubordinate acts, citing drones as writing on the wall for old-timers like them. “The end is inevitable,” he laments to Maverick, who retorts “maybe so, but not today.” The screenplay, co-written by Cruise’s Mission Impossible wingman Christopher McQuarrie, finds opportunities to flesh out these characters and their motivations amid the technical aircraft jargon and mission detailing. Cruise is also better equipped at volleying his cheeky one-liners and stern exchanges this time around too. Re-watching Top Gun recently, it needs to be noted how far he’s come as an actor since his earlier roles; he always had the star power but now he has the dramatic chops to back it up.

With due respect to the original, the aerial photography and commitment to realism is also on an entirely different level in this sequel. Not only are the actors actually flying those planes but they’re actually helping to run the cameras while in the cockpits too, giving close-up access that takes the intensity into the next stratosphere. Obviously special effects are helping with the illusion that these pilots are truly completing these runs in the air but the execution and editing makes the movie magic pop like never before. If the predecessor does retain a clear advantage, it’s in the soundtrack; the new Lady Gaga song featured throughout the film simply can’t reach the heights of classics like “Danger Zone” or “Take My Breath Away”. Other than that, Top Gun: Maverick is a high-flying success and a crash course on how to do a legacy sequel right.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Watcher, a thriller starring Maika Monroe and Karl Glusman which follows a young couple as they move from America to Bucharest and are seemingly stalked by a sinister neighbor near their new apartment.
Streaming on Hulu is Fire Island, a romantic comedy starring Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang centering around two best friends as they embark on a week-long vacation to the titular hot spot off the southern shore of Long Island.
Premiering on Disney+ is Hollywood Stargirl, a follow-up to 2020’s Stargirl starring Grace VanderWaal and Elijah Richardson about a teenage girl and her mother, the latter of whom is hired as the costume designer on a movie, as they relocate to Los Angeles and meet new friends.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


She’s startled by the sound of acoustic guitar strings on the soundtrack. Bathed in orange-tinted light through the curtains of her flat, the bloody-nosed Harper (Jessie Buckley) moves towards the windows as her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) fatally falls in slow motion outside. While the circumstances of his death aren’t entirely clear, what is clear is that Harper needs time away to recover from the loss, so she rents a seemingly lovely house in the English countryside for two weeks. Upon her arrival, she exchanges exceedingly British pleasantries with the homeowner Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and checks in via FaceTime with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin). While enjoying a nature walk one day, Harper gets the feeling that she’s being followed by a mysterious presence and soon learns that all is not right in this quaint village.

Men is the third directorial effort from writer/director Alex Garland, who has gone full horror this time around after flirting with the genre in the mind-bending Annihilation. His latest effort may be the simplest in terms of pure story but also his most provocative in terms of how the film is being marketed and how it tries to make good on those promises. Those triggered by the trailer (which gives away a casting choice I wish I hadn’t known beforehand) may be relieved to know that the mischievous distributor A24 is playing up the gender politics more than the film actually does. Sure, concepts of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity are brought forth in the subtext but like many other horror films before it, Men comes back to the fascinating and unique ways we process grief and trauma.

Another staple of the horror genre is the inclusion of religious allusions and even if you’re not looking too closely for Biblical references, Garland sets up an easy one for us at the outset. When Harper first arrives at the rental home, she observes a large apple tree on the grounds and without thinking, grabs one of the abundant fruits and takes a bite as Geoffrey looks on from the window. “Mustn’t do that,” he jokingly chides minutes later when they meet, claiming the apple is “forbidden fruit” before rushing to say he’s kidding after a quick beat. Outside of the more obvious Genesis nods to the Garden of Eden and the fall of man, there are mythical and literary quotes from Agamemnon odes and Yeats poems as well but when it comes to the larger allegory at play, religion seems to be on Men‘s mind more than anything else.

Visually, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy earmark the three chronological acts with their own distinguishable hue. Everything prior to Harper’s stay in the rural village is overlaid with a soft orange, while the the chapters involving the early parts of her sabbatical are punctuated by the lush natural greenery that surrounds her. It isn’t until the trip really starts to unravel that the color red starts to permeate the frame, not unlike Vertigo or Suspiria. Garland lingers on certain shots, like a many-branched tree or a long echoey tunnel, for so long, it becomes difficult not to look for symbolism and a greater meaning in the images. Some movies invite and reward analysis and interpretation over multiple views; this one demands one.

But crucially, the experience of watching Men is as viscerally exciting in the moment as it is intellectually engaging afterwards. Garland doesn’t forget he’s making a horror movie and he knows how to play with our expectations and emotions. Aiding the effort is the brilliantly effective score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, which centers around a four-note melody that Harper chirps down a tunnel and forms a leitmotif that grows uglier as time goes on, like an apple rotting after its skin is exposed. In intensely demanding roles, Buckley and Kinnear offer some of the very best work of their respective careers and contribute perfectly to the film’s persistently unnerving tone. Fearless and fervent, Men is Garland’s most accomplished brain-bender yet.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Top Gun: Maverick, a belated follow-up to the 1986 classic starring Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly which follows one of the Navy’s top aviators as he trains a new class of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is The Bob’s Burgers Movie, an animated musical comedy starring H. Jon Benjamin and Dan Mintz involving the beleaguered Belcher family as they try to save their restaurant from closing as a sinkhole forms in front of it.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Emergency, a satirical thriller starring RJ Cyler and Donald Elise Watkins about a trio of college students who must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unexpected situation en route to a party.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup