Tag Archives: 4/5

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


The powerful new horror movie Master opens with a pair of not-so warm welcomes. During orientation day at the prestigious Ancaster College, the bright Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is paired with the blasé Amelia (Talia Ryder) as roommates in a purportedly haunted dorm room. Across campus, professor and recently-appointed master of the storied Belleville House Gail (Regina Hall) struggles to open the front door to her new quarters. More generally, the specter of witchcraft-accused Margaret Millett from centuries ago looms over the school as students make up scary stories surrounding her myth. Amidst a student body and faculty with very few women of color, both Jasmine and Gail experience both subtle and overt forms of racism while the ghosts of Ancaster’s past grow into something even more tangibly terrifying.

Marrying the chilly campus creeps of The Blackcoat’s Daughter with the socially-conscious themes of Candyman, Master is utterly engrossing as goosebump-inducing horror and salient social commentary. In her first feature, writer/director Mariama Diallo captures the desperate sense of isolation felt by women who have a deep sense of unbelonging in their present setting. Amelia and other dormmates sardonically guess that Jasmine is either Beyoncé or Lizzo, while Gail is “complimented” by a fellow tenured professor through a comparison to Barack Obama. But these aren’t simply uncouth remarks by white folks who aren’t comfortable around their black counterparts. They’re products of a campus culture that has marginalized women and minorities decade after decade, where only the strongest survive.

Unfolding across six chapters, Master tragically details the hopelessness felt by its female characters as they fight back against systemic racism and oppression organized by the founders of the school centuries ago. The solution would seem to lie in communal unity and while Jasmine and Gail attempt to support one another in a symbiotic student-teacher relationship, Diallo introduces English professor Liv (Amber Gray) to show where things can get complicated. Straight-A student Jasmine is shocked when her first writing prompt from Liv’s class is met with a dreaded F grade, one that she plans to dispute with the university. Knowing such a move would derail Liv’s upcoming bid for tenure, Gail presses Jasmine to reconsider such a plan of action. Diallo plants these seeds of mistrust and division and expertly depicts how the tangled trees choke the potential for progress.

The messaging may come across as heavy-handed by those who are simply looking for a spooky movie to get under one’s skin but Master delivers on the horror front with some exceedingly well-edited sequences. It’s never a good sign for the main character of this sort of film to admit that they’re a sleepwalker but that’s exactly what Jasmine does in an early scene during a game of Never Have I Ever. Such a confession naturally yields some chilling nightmare sequences that incorporate sleep paralysis, a noose-carrying hooded figure and larger-than-life shadows that linger just a bit too long. Gail also contends with personifications of the rot within the Ancaster history that force her out of her new home to make way for pest control fumigation.

Master is often a very somber effort but there are a few satirical jabs in the vein of Dear White People that add a bit of levity while staying on point. The most notable of these is a fake ad for Ancaster, where Gail and Liv preach the ideals towards diversity for which the university strives, while the dean proclaims “the one thing that is not Ancaster is discrimination!” Such savvy comedic moments made Get Out a touchstone of black horror several years ago and could have potentially allowed this film to reach a wider audience but Diallo is intentional about her vision. This is a fittingly serious film about serious social subjects that require their time in the cultural conversation. It’s not always an easy watch but Master represents both the powerful storytelling potential of horror and the emergence of an exciting new voice within the genre.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Lost City, an adventure comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum about a romance novelist on a book tour with her cover model as they get swept up in a kidnapping attempt that lands them both in a cutthroat jungle adventure.
Also playing exclusively in theaters is Infinite Storm, a survival thriller starring Naomi Watts and Billy Howle about a climber who encounters a stranded stranger during a blizzard as they journey to make it down the mountain before nightfall.
Screening at Cinema Center this Friday and Saturday is Mogul Mowgli, a music drama starring Riz Ahmed and Aiysha Hart about a British-Pakistani rapper who is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease before his first world tour.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


With virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri politely invading our pockets and homes at an alarming rate, a movie that taps into their ubiquity for paranoia was about as inevitable as the fact that one of their corresponding devices is probably listening in on you right now. Enter Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi: a smart and enthralling thrill ride that takes its title from the chirpy AI built into smart speakers that pop up everywhere in this film’s version of pandemic-era Seattle. Like last year’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, it branches off from a knee-jerk “technology bad” tack and creates a conversation between analog and digital that sees the merits of both. The fact that Kimi is optimized from the input of human programmers who fix bugs stemming from user-device miscommunication is just one example of this film’s vision of how man and machine can co-exist.

One such data analyst is Angela (Zoë Kravitz), an agoraphobic voice stream interpreter who listens to recorded interactions between people and their Kimi-equipped devices and codes corrections from the “comfort” of her apartment. She becomes alarmed listening to an audio clip plagued by loud industrial music, not because the song itself is jarring but due to the screams of a woman that she faintly hears over it. Naturally, there’s protocol for this but given that Amygdala (the corporation behind Kimi) is days away from an IPO, Angela gets the runaround from her boss (Andy Daly) and boss’ boss (Rita Wilson) in trying to do the right thing. Circumstances dictate that she face her biggest fear of leaving her loft to get to the bottom of that chilling recording that she overhears.

As tech-focused as it is, the basis of Kimi‘s tense conceit stems from 1970s thrillers like The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor; Soderbergh even sneaks in an homage to Marathon Man for good measure. Computers may have taken up the space of entire rooms back then but the notion that “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” is just as relevant here as it was in those movies. Kravitz does an excellent job absorbing this anxiety along with her fears of the outside world and creates a protagonist that is easy to root for even in her most unpredictable moments. Most of this movie’s first half, she’s interacting with actors through Skype and FaceTime because of her character’s condition but bridges the gap with a palpable physicality around her conspicuously large apartment.

In trying to get to the truth, it’s all about having the right tool for the job. When Angela first hears the suspicious stream, she extracts the audio file and puts it through noise reduction software. It helps but doesn’t get it all the way there. That’s when she runs to the closet to find an analog chassis of equalizers that notch out the necessary frequencies and reveal the disturbing detail of the recording. This push-pull of analog and digital working in tandem is at the heart of what makes Kimi such a fun ride but also a subtle commentary on how much power technology can give and take. The system that allows a potential violent assault to be uncovered is the same system that prohibits a keycard from opening the right door at the right time during a foot chase.

As cerebral as all of this may sound, the biggest joys of Kimi are ephemeral, courtesy of a top-notch director who knows how to pack a lot into 90 minutes. With over 30 feature films to his name, Soderbergh is simply one of the most impressive filmmakers around, also handling editing and cinematography here under pseudonyms as he’s done in past projects. He knows just how much information to give us in the moment so that we can recall prior details just in time for a rich payoff. Not all of his movies are home runs but when Soderbergh connects, there’s nothing sweeter than the sound of that bat cracking. Kimi is a first-rate thriller that people everywhere should be shouting at their devices to play right away.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is Uncharted, an video game-adapted action-adventure starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg about a pair of rebellious treasure hunters out to recover a lost fortune amassed by Ferdinand Magellan.
Also playing only in theaters is Dog, a road trip comedy starring Channing Tatum and Jane Adams about a U.S. Army Ranger tasked with bringing a military working dog to attend her handler’s funeral.
Streaming on Netflix is Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a reboot of the iconic 1974 horror film starring Sarah Yarkin and Elsie Fisher which finds Leatherface returning to terrorize a group of idealistic young friends who accidentally disrupt his carefully shielded world in a remote Texas town.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Few names in modern cinema are more revered than the Coen Brothers. Over the course of 18 films, including Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men and, most recently, Netflix’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the brotherly duo have conjured up one transcendent masterstroke after another for almost 35 years now. The Tragedy of Macbeth, a linguistically faithful but stylistically ambitious retelling of Shakespeare’s perennial play, finds Joel Coen writing and directing independently from brother Ethan Coen for the first time in their careers. Fortunately, Joel demonstrates that he has plenty to offer on his own in this dire and nightmarish interpretation on The Scottish Play, stripping the story down to its barest elements while adding layers of visual grandeur at the same time.

In early 1600s Scotland, brothers in arms Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return from battle when they are met by a trio of witches (all three portrayed by Kathryn Hunter) with a prophecy. They proclaim the former will soon be king while the latter will raise a son who will come to be king sometime in the future, an ominous prediction that sets the men on divergent paths. When Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) hears tell of the witches’ omen, she talks her husband into killing the fair King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) in his sleep. Assuming the throne after the king’s murder, Macbeth seems to have the world at his fingertips but his obsession with the prediction about Banquo’s offspring begins to consume himself and his wife.

A coven of whispering witches open The Tragedy of Macbeth in eerie voiceover, setting an otherworldly and ominous pall over this adaptation that recalls the hushed unease of 2016’s The Witch. The rugged 17th century setting, period-accurate dialogue, and presence of that film’s star Ralph Ineson in the next scene further cements the connection between the two movies, though the stories obviously diverge from there. Coen adapts directly from Shakespeare’s original prose; those intimately familiar with the play’s text should have fun mouthing the words of their favorite passages along with the actors. Though the occasional line reading can come across as awkward, the cast is uniformly prepared and deeply entrenched in their respective performances.

Stylistically, Coen and his production designer Stefan Dechant draw most notably from the German Expressionism movement and more specifically, the works of Fritz Lang like Metropolis and M. The stark black-and-white cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel makes the contrast between light and shadow greater than that of a color counterpart. In some scenes, this makes separation more evident and in others, the visual lines are blurrier. Fog and sand spill over into one another during the early prophecy scene but by the time Macbeth is crowned king, the angular castle with its high archways and narrow passages make for more sharply defined settings. It’s a clever visual metaphor to articulate how Macbeth’s world becomes more governed by absolutes, no matter how unfounded they are, as the narrative progresses.

Washington has always excelled at playing characters with a chip on their shoulder and he pitches Macbeth’s haughtiness perfectly while also generating sympathy at just the right moments. McDormand is a fine counterpoint, wielding quiet ambition for a greater purpose but tragically succumbing to madness along the way. These two leads, along with fine supporting players like Corey Hawkins and Harry Melling, have turned in plenty of outstanding work on-screen through the years but the real find here is Kathryn Hunter. Playing the part of all three of The Witches, she contorts and confounds in a role that is captivating in its physicality and unforgettable in its solemnity. The Tragedy of Macbeth takes the Bard’s play into more haunting territory than it’s been before, in ways that only great filmmakers can manifest.

Score – 4/5

More new movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, an animated family comedy starring Andy Samberg and Selena Gomez about a Van Helsing invention that turns monsters into humans and turns humans into monsters.
Coming to theaters is Scream, a slasher sequel starring Melissa Barrera and Mason Gooding which picks up 25 years after the landmark horror entry and follows a new masked killer that terrorizes the quiet town of Woodsboro once again.
Also playing only in theaters is Belle, a sci-fi anime starring Kaho Nakamura and Ryō Narita about a shy high school student who loses herself in the persona of a globally-beloved singer that she adapts within a massive virtual world.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

West Side Story

It’s been 60 years since Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise brought their vision of the stage musical West Side Story to the big screen and few films of the genre have captured the hearts and minds of audiences more since its release. It would take an audacious filmmaker to adapt the renowned 1957 Broadway show once again but when it comes to moviemaking, Steven Spielberg has rarely backed down from a challenge during his 50 years in the industry. He’s taken on nearly every category of film — even an ill-advised foray into war comedy — but this is his first dance with a genre that’s seen its fair share of duds in recent years. It turns out to be an expert calculation, resulting not just the most electric musical event of the year but the most vital work of Spielberg’s career since Lincoln almost 10 years ago.

Taking place in the Upper West Side of the mid-1950s, the Romeo And Juliet-influenced story finds young love in the crossfire between two rival gangs of teenagers. The all-white Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), lock horns with the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), over control of their changing neighborhood. Riff looks to recruit the fresh-out-of-jail Tony (Ansel Elgort) for the next “rumble” between the two groups, while Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) wishes to leave the street violence of their city behind her. When Tony and Maria lock eyes for the first time at a school dance, they have an immediate connection and instantly plan to run away together, if the ties to their neighborhood don’t weigh them down first.

Opening with a dazzling continuous crane shot, which glides over rubble and behind wrecking balls before landing on an underground door, West Side Story reminds us early and often that we’re in the hands of one of the medium’s most gifted visual storytellers. With longtime collaborator Janusz Kamiński, whose work here should win him his third Oscar for Best Cinematography, Spielberg lends fresh eyes to a world that was already vibrant to begin with. Too often, movie musicals have a glossy sheen to them that comes across as phony; this summer’s disappointing In the Heights and the much, much worse Dear Evan Hansen are two examples from this year alone. There’s not an uninspired shot in all of West Side Story and there are quite a few, like the bird’s-eye view of the long-cast shadows from the Sharks and Jets converging in a salt warehouse, that will take your breath away.

The iconic musical numbers, re-arranged this time by composer David Newman, are handled with the level of care and reverence that the genius team of Sondheim and Bernstein deserve. Spielberg certainly knows not to mess with a good thing, sticking with all of the classics from the original and not adding any new songs. Viewers who may be more reticent to musical fare may be surprised just how smooth the transitions from dialogue to musical numbers are. This isn’t a musical where the action stops so a character or two can belt one out; this is a world in which story and song move in tandem with one another. The choreography is just as fluid and propulsive, pairing the rhythm of the music with body movements in jaw-dropping synchrony.

If there’s a letdown, it’s not in the performances but in the lack of a spark between some of the actors. Elgort and Zegler obviously have the heavy lifting here, as much of the emotional drive in the story hinges on the spontaneous romance between their characters. They both have the vocal chops and the steps but when it comes to their chemistry, it falls short of the on-screen connection between Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood from the 1961 original. Still, they’re sensible picks for the roles and other members of the cast, like Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, are doing excellent work outside of the central relationship. West Side Story is a rich and magnificent achievement, a movie musical that will delight hardcore fans and newcomers one and the same.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming over the next couple weeks:
Swinging to theaters on December 16th is Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latest Marvel epic starring Tom Holland and Zendaya which finds the titular webslinger and mentor Doctor Strange tinkering with alternate realities within the multiverse.
Also playing only in theaters this weekend is Nightmare Alley, a neo-noir thriller starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett about an ambitious carny/con man who meets his match in a psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.
Coming to theaters and also to HBO Max on December 22 is The Matrix Resurrections, the belated sci-fi sequel starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss which finds the characters of the original trilogy seemingly plugged back into The Matrix to fight a new enemy.
Playing only in theaters starting on December 22 is Sing 2, an animated family comedy starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon about a theater owner who tries to persuade a reclusive rock star to join his new singing-based show.
Streaming on Netflix beginning December 24 is Don’t Look Up, a satirical political comedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence about a pair of astronomers who set off on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Green Knight

Texas-based filmmaker David Lowery has always had Camelot on his mind. In a recent press release, he shared a photo of himself at 8-years-old donning a tunic and shiny helmet, crediting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for his obsession around Grail mythology and Arthurian lore. Now 40, Lowery has realized his childhood dream with The Green Knight, a beautiful and bold medieval fantasy that doesn’t play by any of the “rules” laid out by previous Round Table movies. While the film follows the narrative laid out by the 14th-century poem, the ethereal epic explores the text’s themes of courage and loyalty in an evocative and challenging manner that immerses all of one’s senses in the theatrical experience.

The focus of the tale is Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), who joins his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris) in the royal court for a Christmas feast among a group of legendary knights. Gawain laments that he has no notable stories to share with his esteemed brethren when a mystical treelike creature calling himself the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) proffers a festive challenge to the group. He offers his axe to whomever can land a clean strike against him but warns that an equal blow will be returned in a year’s time, prompting Gawain to heedlessly behead the Green Knight. When the otherworldly being retrieves his head and rides away laughing, Gawain must decide whether to accept his fate by traveling to the Knight’s home of Green Chapel the year following or to cower in Camelot until Christmas comes again.

Leading up an exemplary ensemble cast, Patel has never been better as a temerarious but trustworthy young journeyman trying to find his place in the world between myth and mediocrity. A24 regulars like Barry Keoghan and Kate Dickie (the latter of whom also appeared with Ineson in the studio’s 2016 breakout The Witch) make the most of their screen time as a creepy scavenger and Queen Guinevere, respectively. The always welcome Joel Edgerton also turns up as a chuffed lord eager to help Gawain on his quest, with some caveats. Alicia Vikander is also terrific in a dual role whose characters bleed into one another in a seductive and mysterious way. In the third act, one of her characters gives a colorful monologue about the unstoppable forces of nature that made me temporarily scared of the color green.

Many modern medieval movies (2018’s Robin Hood springs to mind) tend to focus on the battle and swordplay associated with these tales, bringing in loads of computer-generated effects and legions of stunt people to give things an “epic” feel. Though he does use some CGI for the Green Knight creature and a friendly fox that aids and, on one occasion, scolds Gawain, Lowery often utilizes the immaculate production design and practical effects to convey his pensive and impressionistic tale. This isn’t an action movie; the violence in the film takes place quickly but the consequences reverberate throughout. There are more than a handful of Arthurian allusions in the picture and those not familiar with the material may be frustrated at the movie’s lack of explanation and exposition. One would do well to brush up on the source material before going into the theater.

In addition to writing and directing The Green Knight, Lowery serves as the editor and applies the unique rhythm and texture he established in 2017’s A Ghost Story. He’s often unpredictable in his movement, using startling jump cuts to pass over long stretches of time but holding and lingering on shots that we may expect other directors to cut away from sooner. With cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, he composes shots that are haunting and suggest depths of emotion that may not be felt otherwise from the story. Lowery revealed in an interview last week that in the long lead-up to the film’s release, he had doubts about continuing to make future films in the face of an increasingly uncertain world but decided to press on with projects he deemed worthwhile. If The Green Knight is evidence of what else he has in store, he has chosen wisely.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and on HBO Max is The Suicide Squad, a DCEU superhero sequel starring Margot Robbie and Idris Elba about super-powered penitentiary inmates who are sent to a South American island to destroy a Nazi-era laboratory.
Available to rent on demand is John and the Hole, a psychological thriller starring Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle about a disturbed young boy who holds his family captive in a hole in the ground.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Val, a documentary that depicts the life and career of actor Val Kilmer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


When it was announced back in March that Luca, the terrific new offering from Pixar, was going to stream exclusively on Disney+ with no upcharge, reports came out that those who worked hard on the project were upset with the decision. Sure, Soul debuted for “free” on the streaming platform last holiday season when the pandemic still had movie theaters closed nationwide but that seemed to be a one-time Christmas present from Bob Iger to the world. Starting with Mulan last fall, three movies have carried the Premier Access tag so far with two coming next month and while I’m sure Pixar creatives don’t want to shake down families for an extra $30 on top of a monthly subscription, making their films “free” inherently devalues their worth by comparison. Ironically, the quality of Pixar’s latest works has dwarfed that of the Premier Access titles thus far.

The story centers around teenaged Luca (Jacob Tremblay), an inquisitive sea monster living underwater below the Italian town of Portorosso with his overprotective mom (Maya Rudolph) and dad (Jim Gaffigan). Growing tired of his simple life herding bug-eyed goatfish, he follows the adventurous Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) to land one day as they magically transform into human teenagers once they remove themselves from the water. The two become fast friends, gathering “human stuff” like the Magic Singing Lady Machine (their name for a phonograph) while pining for the pinnacle of adolescent freedom: a Vespa scooter. Along the way, Luca and Alberto meet booksmart Giulia (Emma Berman) and her intimidating father Massimo (Marco Barricelli), a fisherman who has tangled with mythical sea monsters during his career.

On the surface, Luca has obvious Disney touchstones from The Little Mermaid to Finding Nemo but I was impressed by how much Studio Ghibli inspiration could be found, especially from works like Spirited Away and Ponyo. Like those two Miyazaki features, this Pixar outing considers the beauty of friendship and the innocence of childhood against the backdrop of cultural and familial constraints. As excellent as last year’s Soul was, it was a philosophically dense meal that was aimed more at adults as opposed to younger audiences. Though Luca is far from an immature or trivial movie, it may be the most “kid-friendly” non-sequel Pixar has made since The Good Dinosaur, though the execution and story in this film is structurally more sound and sophisticated.

As is the common but still necessary refrain for Pixar films, the animation here is not just breathtaking but somehow even life-affirming in its impeccable beauty. Using the idyllic Italian Riviera as a canvas, director Enrico Casarosa and his animation team recall every inch of the coastal towns and the sparkling sea that surrounds them in vivacious detail. Somewhere in between Finding Nemo‘s vibrancy and The Good Dinosaur‘s photorealism, the style here resembles a postcard from a family member or friend discovering a new part of the world for the first time. Ratatouille‘s Remy the rat would also drool at the delectable dishes prepared by Massimo, primarily pesto pasta concoctions so tasty that the trio of teenagers literally eat them by the handful.

The voice cast has quite a few first-time actors and actresses but is anchored by young but established talents like Tremblay and Grazer, the latter of whom does some outstanding voice work here. His voice has dropped an octave or two since his role in 2019’s Shazam! and it’s a perfect fit for a big brother type whose experience and zest for life are infectious and winning. Sacha Baron Cohen also steals an early scene as Uncle Ugo, a cantankerous anglerfish whose presence threatens Luca with his potential banishment to the deep sea if he keeps up his curiosity for “land monsters” and their dwellings. Even though travel is becoming more popular as the threat of COVID-19 subsides, Luca is a summer vacation in which you can partake without even leaving your couch.

Score – 4/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, an action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson continuing the story of a bodyguard and his hitman associate whose wife has recently been kidnapped.
Also playing in theaters exclusively is 12 Mighty Orphans, a sports drama starring Luke Wilson and Martin Sheen telling the true story of a high school football coach leading a scrappy team of underdogs to the state championship during the Great Depression.
Debuting on Netflix is Fatherhood, a family dramedy starring Kevin Hart and Alfre Woodard about a recently widowed father who struggles to raise his daughter after the unexpected death of his wife.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


For those unfamiliar with German director Christian Petzold, the main thing to know is that he doesn’t mind keeping his stories — and, by extension, his audiences — under an alluring shroud of mystery. His World War II-set masterwork Phoenix tells a tense tale of mistaken identity that doesn’t fully reveal its depths until its breathtaking final minutes. His follow-up Transit depicts a refugee fleeing occupied France who impersonates a dead writer, though it takes about halfway through the runtime to even put that together. However, his latest film Undine may be his most straightforward work yet: a fantasy romance adapted from European mythology in which the fate of two lovers undulates amid a sea of uncertainty.

We meet Undine (Paula Beer) as she’s in the middle of a tense and even menacing breakup conversation with her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), who said that he’s met another woman. Despite the awful news, she pulls herself together and returns to her job of lecturing tourists on the history of Berlin’s urban development. Her poised speeches capture the attention of industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski), whose meet-cute with Undine after his tour involves a shattered fish tank and the newly-acquainted pair lying on the ground under it. It doesn’t take long for the two to become smitten and fall deeply in love with one another, until a pair of well-hidden secrets threatens to throw cold water on their fresh relationship.

Reuniting from Transit, Beer and Rogowski once again sport a world-class chemistry that’s both classically romantic and also endearing in a more modern sense. When they look into each other’s eyes, it’s nearly impossible for one not to want them to be with each other forever. Fans of The Office will rejoice in a reference to a CPR trick synced to the tempo of Bee Gees’ classic “Stayin’ Alive”, whose inclusion in the film could seem corny but Beer really sells her character’s connection with the song through her new beau. Rogowski, whose resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix still remains uncanny to me, steadily augments the longing in his face with each departing train ride that Undine takes to the other side of the city.

Like any made-for-movie romance, there is a titanic tragedy at the foundation of their blossoming affair but in this case, the nature of the “iceberg” is perhaps best left for audiences to discover on their own. Petzold carefully arranges clues and hints to the circumstances of the pair’s divide starting from the opening scene as he weaves folklore and history into this modern dark fairytale. Even Undine’s orations on architectural concepts of post-GDR Berlin threaten boredom upon first exposure but gradually transform into a poignant metaphor about the ability to rebuild oneself after a painful past. The irresistible connection between the two leads should be enough to keep viewers glued to the screen but there’s also plenty under the surface that’s worth diving into.

Using a sparse but effective list of musical selections, Petzold most notably employs a lovely piano-based Bach concerto as a recurring theme for Undine and Christoph. He also insinuates a creeping sense of unreality while exploring some of the story’s more fantastical elements, as when the camera on Christoph’s diving suit picks up images that differ from what we see earlier from his perspective. Elegant and enchanting, Undine makes it easy for one to get swept up in the tidal waves of adoration and yearning between its conspicuously charming couple.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering both on HBO Max and in theaters is In The Heights, a musical starring Anthony Ramos and Leslie Grace telling the story of a New York City bodega owner who saves his money in hopes of a better life.
Playing only in theaters is Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, a live-action/CGI comedy starring James Corden and Margot Robbie continuing the story of the titular hare as he makes a trip into the big city.
Streaming on Paramount+ is Infinite, a sci-fi actioner starring Mark Wahlberg and Chiwetel Ejiofor about a man who discovers that his hallucinations are actually visions from past lives.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup