Tag Archives: 4.5/5

Dune: Part Two

Denis Villeneuve’s DunePart One, for retroactive clarity — was originally due to come out November of 2020 but got pushed out almost a year, debuting October 2021 in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. Now premiering exclusively in theaters, Part Two was originally slated to come out last October but was delayed several months due to the Hollywood labor disputes of 2023. Pandemics and picket lines may have affected the release schedules for these two sci-fi epics but fortunately, they certainly haven’t affected their quality one bit. If Part One was Villeneuve’s way to introduce us to the world of Dune and its densely layered mythology, then Part Two gives us a chance to luxuriate in its singular splendor and sophisticated storytelling.

Picking up where Dune left off, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) continue to live among and learn from the desert-dwelling Fremen tribes. The evil Harkonnens, led by the corpulent Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård), attempt to capitalize on their coup of the House Atreides but their campaign to extract spice from the sands of Arrakis is thwarted by Fremen attacks. Desperate to regain control on the planet, the Baron recruits his bloodthirsty nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to clamp down on the frequent ambushes of their spice production equipment. Though Paul is initially treated as an outsider by the Fremen, their leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) begins to see signs of an ancient prophecy in Paul’s rapid assimilation to their ways.

We’ve seen the hero’s journey in other large-scale cinematic adventures like Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings but where Dune: Part Two deviates from the traditional narrative is in its moral complexity. Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins are humble exemplars who resist temptation from dark forces and remain good in their quest to achieve their respective goals. With respect to those trilogies and their protagonists, Paul Atreides goes through a much more complex character arc specifically in this section of the story that I found consistently fascinating. In the finest performance of his young career, Chalamet builds upon his work from the previous chapter and reveals the thornier sides of being a monomyth’s “chosen one”. With his character’s zealot-like devotion to Paul’s ascent, Bardem scores some unexpected laughs with how effusive he becomes in his convictions.

About as tactfully as any blockbuster I’ve ever seen, Dune: Part Two taps into how fear and faith are tools that are used to maintain control of the masses by ruling parties. Through gladiatorial combat shot in stupefying infrared cinematography by Greig Fraser, Baron Harkonnen asserts psychological dominance over his House with a display of brutality by his heir apparent. But through fundamentalist teachings carried out by Stilgar and his followers, we also see how the Fremen’s actions are restricted by the dogma of divinations that may or may not be true. The film doesn’t necessarily ask us to decide which of these is the “better” or morally upstanding method but rather to consider how the two may not differ as much as it would seem on the surface. Zendaya plays Paul’s Fremen love interest who grows more wary of his deification and finally declares “this prophecy is how they enslave us!” at a pseudo-religious gathering.

Chalamet and Zendaya are excellent in their central roles but like Part One, this chapter sports uniformly terrific performances from a deep roster of some of the most talented performers out there. Florence Pugh lends an ominous aristocracy to her Princess Irulan and Léa Seydoux is seductive perfection as one of the Bene Gesserit sent to proposition Feyd-Rautha. Austin Butler is another new face here and despite his much-discussed work in Elvis, he sheds the rock star affectation and hip-swinging in a performance that’s perfectly-measured menace. If there’s a weak link, Christopher Walken doesn’t register much in the important role of Emperor Shaddam. I think there were a number of actors who could’ve brought more to the character and sadly, I kept thinking how great the late Tom Wilkinson would’ve been for it. Small quibbles aside, Dune: Part Two is another home run from the strongest voice working in cinematic science fiction today.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Kung Fu Panda 4, an animated comedy starring Jack Black and Awkwafina continuing the adventures of the titular martial arts master as he searches for his successor as the new Dragon Warrior while fighting a new foe.
Also playing only in theaters is Imaginary, a supernatural horror movie starring DeWanda Wise and Tom Payne about a woman who returns to her childhood home to discover that the imaginary friend she left behind is very real and unhappy that she abandoned him.
Streaming on Netflix is Damsel, a fantasy film starring Millie Bobby Brown and Ray Winstone involving a sheltered young noblewoman who agrees to marry a handsome prince, only to discover that his family intends to sacrifice her to repay an ancient debt.

Poor Things

Poor Things, the recent recipient of a record-setting 7 awards from the Indiana Film Journalists Association, is a lot. Then again, it never pretends it isn’t. The opening shot is awash with what seems like a thousand hues of blue, cerulean bleeding into cobalt as a woman with her back to the camera prepares to jump off a bridge. This is the latest grandiose vision from director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous film The Favourite was a provocative take on the costume drama and his newest is certain to widen some eyes in the audience as well. But unlike the recent Saltburn, Lanthimos’ provocations are borne organically from the story that he’s telling and convey a deeper subtext than simply being shocking for the sake of being shocking.

Emma Stone gives a career-best turn as Bella Baxter, a young woman living under the care of deformed surgeon Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). We learn that Godwin found Bella moments after she attempted suicide and tapped into his mad scientist side to reanimate her while she still had a bit of brain activity left. The experiment saved Bella’s life but left her with the mental capacity of an infant, able to form rudimentary sentences and discover the world around her anew. Helping her along is one of Godwin’s students Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who quickly develops feelings for Bella while assisting her. But when Godwin’s brash lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) stops by the house one day, he sets out to free Bella from her bondage and travel across the world.

The world of Poor Things is entirely its own but it begins in a version of Victorian London with steam engines and resurrection machines and incorporates even more anachronisms and impossibilities as the setting expands further. The production design is a swirling canvas of Terry Gilliam-esque futurism with German Expressionist monumentalism, a surreal palette upon which to tell this exceedingly peculiar journey. With his music score, composer Jerskin Fendrix finds appropriately wonky motifs to weave into the music. For instance, Bella’s theme sounds like a harp that is being played in a giant sink filled with dirty dishwater, its undulating timbres matching the uneven steps of Bella’s toddler-like gait.

If this all sounds oppressively weird, Emma Stone’s transcendent performance alone makes Poor Things well worth seeing. It’s a tremendously physical role, requiring her to mimic the movements of a newborn at the outset and then slowly recalibrating motor skills as her character finds her footing. But it’s also language-centric work, and exceptionally funny to boot, as Bella starts with choppy phonetics and soon forms more complex sentences with abandon for tact or social grace. The notion of “polite society” is examined through numerous lenses and through her character, Stone navigates the contradictions and quandaries that the so-called cultured class throws her way. Tony McNamara, who also wrote the biting screenplay for The Favourite, gives her devilishly humorous lines to play with all the way along.

Poor Things is getting all sorts of critical acclaim, and rightfully so, but I must confess a tiny gripe with the movie and that’s with some of the cinematography by Lanthimos regular Robbie Ryan. He’s a terrific DP, responsible not only for The Favourite but other exquisitely-shot films like C’mon C’mon and long take fantasia Medusa Deluxe from earlier this year. Here, he uses a myriad of film lenses to contribute to the movie’s otherworldly field but overdoes it in a few places. At several points, he uses a lens so narrow that it looks like a porthole on a cruise ship and it comes across as a bit too forced for my tastes. During a rollicking dance scene like the one from The Favourite, he even moves to handheld with this constrained focus and the results are fussy and overindulgent. Having said that, it’s a minor nitpick and certainly doesn’t keep Poor Things from remaining a major artistic achievement from one of the most fascinating filmmakers around at the moment.

Score – 4.5/5

More movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom, starring Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson, is a superhero sequel in which Aquaman is forced to protect Atlantis and his loved ones from devastation after an ancient power is unleashed by Manta obtaining the cursed Black Trident.
Anyone But You, starring Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell, is a romantic comedy about a pair of young attractive people who pretend to be a couple during a destination wedding in Australia, even though they secretly hate each other.
Migration, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Elizabeth Banks, is an animated adventure comedy about a family of ducks who try to convince their overprotective father to go on the vacation of a lifetime.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dream Scenario

Nicolas Cage must know that he’s on our minds. Between GIFs, memes and the 100+ films in which he’s starred over the past 40 years, it can be a challenge getting through the week without seeing his face pop up at least once somewhere. His latest, the outstanding absurdist comedy Dream Scenario, seems to play with the idea of his unavoidable persona and the specific space he inhabits in our collective cultural subconscious. Like the shadow version of last year’s reflexive The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, in which Cage played multiple versions of himself, this film deals with the consequences of a meteoric rise to fame. Sure, other movies have tackled the rise and fall arc of immediate notoriety under various circumstances but Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli brings a unique sense of fatalism and irony to the familiar narrative.

Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a biology professor so milquetoast that he perfectly encapsulates the Thoreau quote of “men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation.” In between his college lectures and his time at home with his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) along with their daughters, he plots a book about ant intelligence that he can’t seem to actually start. But then a strange incident keeps occurring to Paul: strangers recognize him. When he presses them, it turns out that he’s been popping up in their dreams, not even as the focal point but commonly as a bystander observing the main events. So many people begin to see him in their dreams that it becomes a worldwide phenomenon and so, this mild-mannered nobody is thrust into the spotlight, even if it’s not the manner in which he expected. But when everyone’s dreams turn into violent nightmares, the backlash is even more intense than the wave of appreciation that preceded it.

Dream Scenario is simultaneously a Kafkaesque and Charlie Kaufman-esque parable about men who say they value their anonymity but get visibly excited when a Like count on their Facebook post hits double digits. Of course, what distinguishes this movie from others about a swift rise to ubiquitousness is that Paul doesn’t have any control over what’s making him so popular. No one, least of whom Paul, can explain why he’s visiting random people during their sleep cycles and, of course, he has no say in what he’s doing in them. Borgli takes this high-concept premise to explore the ideas of identity and intention in the internet age, where captured moments and floating faces can go viral in a heartbeat. He calls to mind the notion that no matter the size and scale of our interactions, we can never completely manage how people perceive us.

Recalling his dual role in Adaptation, in which he plays struggling screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious brother Donald, Cage is pitch-perfect as a man so meek and mired that it’s hard not to feel bad for him. We learn early on that, sadly, the more Paul attempts to take hold of the bizarre situation, the harder he will likely fail. He returns the call from a PR firm, headed by a hilarious Michael Cera, who doesn’t understand the origin of Paul’s fame but wants to capitalize on it all the same. He tries to parlay the prompt popularity for an invite to a colleague’s dinner party that he previously wasn’t cool enough to attend but the evening goes wildly astray. Those who lament in watching protagonists engage in Sisyphean efforts to overcome their circumstances may be driven mad by Dream Scenario but, as a huge fan of Cage’s virtuosic pathos, I was delighted.

Of course, the film also calls back to another Spike Jonze project in Being John Malkovich, but almost in reverse; where that movie was about everyone trying to get into one celebrity’s head, Dream Scenario is about a reluctant celebrity trying to get out of everyone else’s. Like Malkovich, it also evokes how we strive to spice up the mundane nature of everyday life with pop culture fixations. Paul’s increasingly threatening pervasiveness in people’s dreams naturally points to Freddy Krueger from the A Nightmare On Elm Street series, which Borgli cleverly integrates in the third act. An iconic costume from an iconic concert film is also implemented as a lynchpin for a tender memory between Paul and Janet, similar to one that would appear in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Despite its modern sensibilities, Dream Scenario‘s central theme of how we perceive one another is timeless and endlessly resonant.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is The Boy And The Heron, an animated fantasy film starring Robert Pattinson and Christian Bale about a boy who discovers an abandoned tower in his new town after his mother’s death and enters a fantastical world with a talking grey heron.
Streaming on Netflix is Leave The World Behind, a psychological thriller starring Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali about a family’s getaway to a luxurious rental home that takes an ominous turn when a cyberattack knocks out their devices and two strangers appear at their door.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Merry Little Batman, an animated action comedy starring Luke Wilson and Yonas Kibreab about Bruce Wayne’s son Damian safeguarding his home and the rest of Gotham City from supervillains during the holiday season.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan has often spoken of the influence that fellow British director David Lean has had on his films before but the careers of the filmmaking giants are continuing to mirror one another in intriguing ways. Like Lean, Nolan started small with low-budget mysteries like Memento and Insomnia, graduating to genre-defining classics Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, similar to the way Lean delivered a pair of all-timer Dickens adaptations with Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. If Dunkirk was Nolan’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, then it stands to reason that Oppenheimer would be his Lawrence of Arabia, an epic biopic sprung from a similarly complicated and tortured soul. Like that film, Nolan’s latest is both a state-of-the-art technical marvel as well as a propulsive and poetic character study of the highest order.

In the finest performance of his already consummate career, Cillian Murphy portrays titular theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer throughout an almost 40 year span of his life. He studies at Harvard and the University of Göttingen in Germany before teaching quantum physics at Berkeley. It’s there he meets fellow professor Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) and young member of the Communist Party Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), the latter with whom he engages in a hot-cold tryst. After becoming aware of his brilliant contributions to the field, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) visits Oppenheimer to confer about the Manhattan Project. Recruiting scientists Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) and Robert Serber (Michael Angarano), among many others, Oppenheimer sets up shop in Los Alamos to develop a weapon that could either light the sky on fire or secure lasting world peace.

Anyone who has seen one of Nolan’s movies before knows that the chronology naturally cannot be that simple and the director casts these bespoke biopic beats on a timeline that whips back and forth like a clotheslined sheet during a storm. Nolan frames the main narrative against two hearings at different points in history that would affect Oppenheimer’s legacy: one involving the continuation of Oppenheimer’s government security clearance and another involving the Senate confirmation hearing of Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr. The latter storyline is shot in black-and-white, which helps to delineate it from the rest of the action visually but also dramatically, as it’s removed from Oppenheimer’s subjective perspective. It’s also notable as Oppenheimer is the first feature to implement black-and-white photography within an IMAX presentation.

Collaborating again with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Jennifer Lame, Nolan crafts another densely-packed epic that bears every signature touch that he’s showcased thus far in his oeuvre. He throws his audience in the deep end right away but trusts that they’ll catch up with the fast-paced dialogue, which is organically comprised of both heady scientific concepts and well-placed historical markers. The breakthrough here is the sound design, which has received well-deserved criticism over his past few features. Nolan’s penchant for keeping Tom Hardy’s mouth covered rendered much of his dialogue in both The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk to be either difficult to understand or downright unintelligible, where Tenet suffered from both issues despite Hardy’s absence. There are several key moments of sound mixing and editing in Oppenheimer that are downright brilliant and will have you on the edge of your seat.

Nolan is no stranger to qualified ensemble casts but this may just be the most impressive assembly he’s gathered for any of his projects to date. The frame is packed with familiar faces, including Nolan favorites Kenneth Branagh and Gary Oldman, who consistently make the most of their screen time and imbue their characters with distinct qualities that make them unforgettable. I was particularly struck by Benny Safdie, who made a name for himself as co-director of anxious thrillers like Good Time and Uncut Gems, but continues to make a case for himself as a unique screen presence. Even characters that are underserved, like Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer, are given scenes that allow them to grab hold of the film and not let go until they’re ready. As someone who saw and very much enjoyed Barbie, I would encourage all to engage in the Barbenheimer double feature but if you only have time to see one, give it to Oppenheimer.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Haunted Mansion, a horror comedy starring LaKeith Stanfield and Tiffany Haddish about a single mother and her son who hire a former paranormal investigator turned tour guide after they move into a mansion that they discover is haunted.
Also playing in theaters is Talk To Me, a supernatural horror film starring Sophie Wilde and Alexandra Jensen about a group of friends who learn how to conjure spirits using an embalmed hand but unleash terrifying supernatural forces in the process.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is The Beanie Bubble, a comedy biopic starring Zach Galifianakis and Elizabeth Banks about a frustrated toy salesman who collaborates with three women on what would become the biggest toy craze in history.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse

Four and a half years after the landmark Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a follow-up has finally arrived but it was worth the wait and then some. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse does all of the things that great sequels need to do: it follows the continuity and ethos of its predecessor, boldly expands on the world that it set up and leaves us wanting even more. At 140 minutes, it’s the longest animated film ever produced by an American studio but it never feels bloated or dragged down by its densely layered storytelling. Assembled by a trio of directors entirely different from the three that worked on Into the Spider-Verse, this follow-up is another testament to the power of collaboration among storytellers with divergent creative backgrounds.

The previous film ended with Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) communing with Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) through a portal in his bedroom ceiling, her final line of “got a minute?” setting up further adventures across dimensions. The beginning of Across the Spider-Verse catches us up on her backstory and what she’s been up to since the events of the first movie, most notably her admission into the Spider-Society. This is a team of other Spider-Man variants, led by Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac), who aim to keep peace in the multiverse by disposing of dimensional anomalies and preserving “canon events”, crucial moments of growth similar amongst the Spider-People. Rejoined by mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) along with new Spider faces Pavitr Prabhakar (Karan Soni) and Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), Miles and Gwen must stop a new villain wreaking havoc across the multiverse.

Across the Spider-Verse joins recent films like Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once and MCU entry Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness whose storylines go deep into parallel universes. There are essays and thinkpieces to be written about why audiences are seeming to respond so strongly to movies with this theme but it’s enough to say that the “what if?” aspect of the plot device remains effortlessly effective here. Where Into the Spider-Verse introduced us to a few twists on the Spider-Man character we typically know from movies and TV shows, this latest film gives us glimpses of dozens of new Spider people, creatures, and machines that exist in other dimensions. There are tangents and cameos of the LEGO and live-action variety that constantly remind us of the boundless creative energy that goes into making these movies.

Into the Spider-Verse introduced a bold new animation style that visualized the comic book experience like never before and Across the Spider-Verse goes even further with its artistic ambitions. While Miles’ timeline on Earth-1610 retains the Ben Day dots and chromatic distortion of the first movie, we spend more time in other dimensions like Gwen’s home on Earth-65. Her world is rendered with draw-dropping impressionist vigor, where every frame is a painting that emotes with the scene it’s canvassing. The film’s most moving moments are between Gwen and her police captain father, reeling with the news that his daughter is a vigilante crime fighter. The frame is awash with watercolor paint whose hues bleed into one another; watching paint dry has never been this exhilarating. This is a new cinematic language of animation being created before our eyes and it’s simply a wonder to behold.

Reuniting frequent screenwriting partners Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Across the Spider-Verse adds veteran scribe David Callaham for a script that is somehow just as clever as the screenplay for its predecessor. It keeps up with all of the manic mythology surrounding the Spider-Man character but packs in gobs of pathos and wit too. There’s a clever bit about redundant initialisms that is set up in a New York bodega and then called back during Pavitr’s introduction in Mumbattan, which I take to be a portmanteau of Mumbai and Manhattan. It’s no secret that the superhero genre is a packed clubhouse when it comes to modern movies but if you’re sleeping on these Spider-Verse chapters, you’re missing out on the finest films this pocket of cinema has ever produced.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, an action sequel starring Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback which takes the franchise back to 1994, where the machine creatures Maximals, Predacons and Terrorcons aid Optimus Prime against the Unicrons.
Streaming on both Disney+ and Hulu is Flamin’ Hot, a biopic starring Jesse Garcia and Annie Gonzalez about a Frito Lay janitor who disrupted the food industry by channeling his Mexican heritage to turn Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from a snack into an iconic global pop culture phenomenon.
Premiering on Netflix is The Wonder Weeks, a comedy starring Sallie Harmsen and Soy Kroon which follows three modern couples as they juggle relationships and demanding careers while navigating the unpredictable terrain of new parenthood.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Glass Onion

After delivering a modern whodunnit classic with Knives Out a few years ago, writer/director Rian Johnson captures lightning in a bottle again with Glass Onion, a murder-mystery whose delights somehow surpass its predecessor. Retaining only the steely detective from the first entry, this superior sequel sheds the blustery autumn setting of the original and acclimates to a tropical locale for even bigger twists and laughs this time around. Though Johnson is clearly modeling the style of these films from Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, he’s much more successful in creating his own tantalizing stories than Kenneth Branagh has been at adapting Christie’s books like Death on the Nile from earlier this year. Johnson showcases his love for the classics in the genre while including modern elements that make it feel essential to our current place in history. This is one of 2022’s finest entertainments.

Two months into the covid pandemic, world-class detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is already feeling pent-up and is itching to solve his next great case when one conveniently presents itself in the form of a mystery box that is delivered to his door. The sender is Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the billionaire owner of the Google-like company Alpha, who is hosting a murder-mystery party on his private island near Greece. Other recipients of the invitation package include Alpha head scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Miles’s ex-business partner Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), along with famous figures like fashionista Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) and vlogger Duke Cody (Dave Bautista). Though the game is obviously not supposed to involve an actual murder, it doesn’t take long after the guests arrive on the island for the game to turn into a search for an actual killer.

Many cinematic whodunnits revolve around the strength of their respective ensemble casts and as with Knives Out, Johnson and his team have brought forth a formidable company for Glass Onion. Aside from some cheeky cameos and name drops, the central cast, which also includes up-and-comers like Jessica Henwick and Madelyn Cline, plays beautifully off one another, even when they’re not in the same room. When each of the characters receives their mystery box, they hop on a communal phone call with each other to solve each of the puzzles together to get to the invitation stored inside. As we learn, these people have a long collective history, which provides them each with potential motive to be a murderer but also a potential alibi for wanting the victim to stay alive.

Johnson has penned some terrific scripts in the past but his screenplay for Glass Onion just may be his best so far. Beyond providing a whodunnit that is both rich with structural complexity and yet elegant in its rhetorical simplicity, this film speaks to pressing cultural themes that will resonate with audiences more than any other movie this year. The social separation created by the pandemic, the rise in trickle-up entitlement and façade of celebrity superiority are just a few trends that Johnson weaves within his tale of deceit and betrayal. As one may expect, this is a movie that doubles back on itself multiple times in order to show us different angles from myriad perspectives and give us enough pieces to complete the puzzle. There’s a running joke about Blanc’s resentment for the popular board game Clue but there’s something in all of us that yearns to be a sleuth and Glass Onion satisfies this urge.

Though this film isn’t a straight-ahead comedy, it has some of the best laugh lines of any movie so far this year, regardless of genre. A slow-building revelation between Birdie and her assistant and a pair of outfit choices in a flashback montage are just a couple examples of the film’s funniest moments. Miles’ guests do have aspects in common and areas of similarity but the ways in which they differ create plenty of opportunity to playfully bounce off of one another. The majority of the characters are smart but may have blindspots that limit their intellect, while others are more dim by comparison but have instances of clarity and insight that give them the upper hand when they typically wouldn’t. No matter how smart someone in the movie may or may not be, there’s no denying that Johnson is a mastermind when it comes to telling this sort of constantly-shifting whodunnit that has layers of brilliance ready to peel.

Score – 4.5/5

Movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Babylon, starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, is a period dramedy which chronicles the rise and fall of multiple characters during Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films in the late 1920s.
Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, is an animated adventure continuing the story of the titular swashbuckling feline fugitive as he sets out on an epic journey to restore all nine of his lives.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody, starring Naomi Ackie and Stanley Tucci, is a musical biopic that takes a look at the life and career of singer and cultural icon Whitney Houston.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ambulance

Michael Bay. Just the mention of the director’s name has stirred up preconceived notions in the minds of cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike since he hit the scene in the mid-90s. The one-two punch of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor solidified the tropes that are now inextricably linked with the filmmaker, codified in a style popularly called “Bayhem”. Bay’s frequent uses of melodramatic dialogue and epic, saturated landscapes, along with his fetishization of the military and of women, are just a few trademarks of his often-replicated technique. His latest film Ambulance is as action-packed as his other work and maintains signature trademarks of his approach — intense close-ups, circular camera movement, excessive lampposts — but includes breakthroughs for the director that allow it to instantly rank among his finest work.

The film centers around two adoptive brothers who have gone their separate ways since their father’s passing years ago. Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a former Marine fighting to care for his cancer-stricken wife and newborn son as the medical bills become more than his one-off jobs can pay. His brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) has taken after their father’s life of crime, knocking off banks while fronting a car detailing shop in Los Angeles. While in the middle of asking Danny for money, Will makes a snap decision to assist with a lucrative heist, which goes swimmingly until young LAPD officer Zach (Jackson White) unknowingly interrupts their plan. The unraveling of said plan involves Zach sustaining a bullet injury and the Sharp brothers hijacking an ambulance with EMT Cam (Eiza González) and the injured Zach onboard as hostages.

From the outset, Ambulance sets up its characters and their motivations with more breadth and depth than your typical action thriller. Screenwriter Chris Fedak taps into the frustrations with medical bureaucracy to which many people can relate, especially the past couple years, and Abdul-Mateen does an excellent job selling it. Gyllenhaal presents his character as the sort of cool operator who is paradoxically the most anxious person in the room at any moment, while González portrays her paramedic as a consummate professional who is enviably heroic under pressure. The scenario that puts the rookie cop in that bank at the wrong time is loaded with layers of dramatic irony and social pressure that makes the situation tense and enthralling before the rubber even meets the road.

Don’t worry: the action does come and when it does, it rarely takes any breaks. Not since Mad Max: Fury Road has there been a sustained vehicular battle this utterly engrossing and casually inventive in the way that it interjects escalating variables into the predicament. With DP Roberto De Angelis, Bay ups his aerial camerawork game by use of roving drones that dive-bomb and zig-zag across LA with both speed and precision. Put bluntly: these are exhilarating shots that wouldn’t have been possible in an action movie ten, or perhaps even five, years ago. But the cinematic fundamentals of sound action moviemaking are also present throughout, underscored by editor Pietro Scalia’s adept sense of visual timing and storytelling priority.

Bay has been charged with having a stunted and sophomoric sense of humor that accompanies his seeming lack of self-awareness but there are signs in Ambulance that he may have at least temporarily overcome these obstacles. Two police officers reference two other Michael Bay movies in a five-minute span, the second joke coinciding with the low-angle hero shot so overdone that I’ll chalk up to knowing parody rather than self-own. Gyllenhaal also rips off some diabolically sarcastic one-liners with sadistic glee, while a police captain played by Garret Dillahunt does some excellent age-juxtaposed verbal sparring with other officers. It may not be the most sophisticated humor in the world but it’s a marked step-up from Bumblebee peeing gasoline on John Turturro 15 years ago. Prior to Ambulance, Transformers was the last Bay film I had seen in a theater but his latest is clear evidence that I shouldn’t wait another 15 for my next appointment.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, starring Jude Law and Eddie Redmayne, is the latest entry in the Wizarding World franchise that finds members of the British Ministry of Magic battling dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s army.
Father Stu, starring Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson, is a based-on-a-true-story drama which follows the life story of Father Stuart Long, a boxer who turns to Catholic priesthood after suffering from an inflammatory muscle disease.
Everything Everywhere All at Once, starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, is a sci-fi comedy about an aging Chinese immigrant who is swept up in an cosmic adventure where she alone can save the world by exploring other universes connecting with the lives she could have led.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Licorice Pizza

Let’s get this out of the way right at the top: Licorice Pizza is not about a pernicious pizzeria that tops their pies with the twisty black or red confection. Instead, the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterwork refers to a defunct chain of record shops that circulated around southern California in the early 1970s. Though the film’s original title, Soggy Bottom, is referenced more explicitly in the film, Licorice Pizza is the kind of west coast callback that falls in line with the “if you know, you know” vibe that Anderson evokes through this expertly-made hangout movie. Sprinkled with facsimiles of Hollywood titans from William Holden to Lucille Ball, this is a trip through San Fernando Valley that feels too real to be entirely fictitious but magical enough to convince us that something ineffable really existed in that time and place.

Based loosely on the teenage exploits of film producer Gary Goetzman, Licorice Pizza stars Cooper Hoffman as Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old actor who always has his eyes on the next project before the current one is completed. He meets Alana (Alana Haim) while waiting in line to have his school picture taken and feels an immediate connection. It isn’t exactly love at first sight for Alana, who’s older and seemingly wiser than the cherubic but indefatigable Gary, but the two remain friends as they see what life has in store for them. Set across rolling hills of endless opportunity, Gary and Alana navigate entrepreneurship and emotional insecurity while well-known figures like the imprudent producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and up-and-coming politician Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) pop in along the way.

Recalling both the off-kilter romanticism of Punch-Drunk Love and madcap episodic nature of the inscrutable but atmospheric Inherent Vice, Anderson once again casts a spell of winsome unpredictability more successfully than any other director working today. Refining the cinematography chops he established brilliantly in his previous Phantom Thread, he works this time with Michael Bauman to establish a lovely but lived-in look that mirrors the dust one might brush off their favorite LP before taking it for a spin. The camera often chases breathlessly after these young hopefuls as they search for their place in the Valley and in the world, like pinballs bouncing gleefully off the colorful bumpers that manifest before them.

Though the cast is filled out by veterans and familiar faces, the lead duo enters Licorice Pizza with no prior feature acting credits to their names. Hoffman, son of the late Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, gives Valentine a devious charm that works on nearly everyone but seems to stop short when Alana is at her most prickly. Haim, supported in the film by her real-life sisters and parents, presents the cynicism of a twentysomething unsatisfied with how her dreams fell short but still determined to seek out her watershed moment. Together, the two are absolutely electric, sporting a playful energy and seesaw repartee that makes the most of Anderson’s already lively screenplay. We don’t know how or when they’ll end up together but we know we’ll want to be there the moment it happens.

As it turns out, there are quite a number of vignettes that play out before that moment and I was completely taken with nearly all of them. Most of the asides and non-sequiturs follow Anderson’s idiosyncratic and indelible sense of humor. For instance, Gary and Alana meet with a casting director who interrupts Alana’s wayward interview by picking up a ringing phone and proceeds with a minute-long conversation in which she merely utters “no” three times with varying inflections before hanging up the receiver. There’s a hushed sequence with an out-of-gas moving truck floating down the Hollywood Hills that was more exhilarating than any car chase I’ve seen this year. Exuberant and eccentric, Licorice Pizza is a slice of life tale of two young souls who spin their wheels in every direction until they finally move in sync.

Score – 4.5/5

More movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is The Lost Daughter, a psychological drama starring Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson about A woman who finds herself becoming obsessed with another woman and her daughter while on a summer holiday.
Continuing its run in theaters is A Journal for Jordan, a Denzel Washington-directed drama starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams about a fallen US Army Sergeant and the journal he left behind for his wife and son as a way of moving on without him.
Also still playing in theaters is American Underdog, a sports biopic starring Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin about the life and career of Super Bowl MVP and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dune

As well-regarded as Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel Dune is, it’s had quite the journey making it to the big screen. First, there was a failed attempt in the mid-1970s by avant-garde auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose efforts were documented in 2013’s Jodorowsky’s Dune. Then came the 1984 adaptation by then up-and-comer David Lynch, who has since disowned the film despite its small but fervent cult following. Now Denis Villeneuve, who earned his sci-fi credentials with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is up to translate Herbert’s expansive work to cinema and he proves that the third time’s a charm. Simply put, this is large scale science fiction done to perfection: wholly immersive, richly detailed and bursting with imagination. If you’ve been waiting to go back to the theaters, it’s difficult to imagine a better movie for which to return.

The year is 10191 and humans have populated throughout the universe. The ocean planet Caladan is governed by House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his partner Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) with their heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet). By decree of the imperial emperor, Atreides is called to take over control of the desert planet Arrakis from House Harkonnen, led by the corpulent Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). During their reign, Leto aims to make peace with the Fremen, a nomadic group of natives who vigorously protect the planet’s prized natural resource known as “spice”. After an ambush on Arrakis splits Paul and Jessica up from the rest of House Atreides, the two must navigate the treacherous deserts with the few resources they have at their disposal.

While Dune weaves in dense futuristic concepts, myriad new terminology and lots of different languages into its narrative, its primary tale is modeled after the hero’s journey popularized by Joseph Campbell. If you’ve seen The Matrix or the original Star Wars trilogy, this story template will feel familiar, even though Herbert’s novel pre-dated all of those movies. Villeneuve spices up this formula with a world that is overwhelming in its scope and exemplary in its specificity, a treat especially for those unfamiliar with Herbert’s work as I was before watching the film. There are times I allowed myself to tune out of the plot for a moment and surrender to the meticulously rendered images. For that reason, among others, this film should richly reward rewatches.

Villeneuve has assembled some talented casts in his previous films but he’s really outdone himself this time. The ensemble, which finds Villeneuve teaming up again with actors like Josh Brolin and Dave Bautista, features each actor and actress in a role that’s perfectly tailored to their skillset. For example, Charlotte Rampling is only in one scene but her chilling presence gives her limited time a memorable stamp. I can’t say I’ve entirely warmed up to Jason Momoa just yet but as a cocksure pilot named Duncan Idaho, he’s playing perfectly in his wheelhouse and makes the most of his swashbuckling screen time. As the leads, Chalamet and Ferguson get the most time to shine and both give lived-in performances that register on a deeply empathetic level.

Inexplicably, Warner Bros. has yet to officially greenlight a sequel, even though the movie is titled on-screen as Dune: Part One and it ends on a cliffhanger that explicitly sets up a larger battle to come. This is the same studio that waited to announce It Chapter Two only after It made beaucoup bucks at the box office, even though the first movie only told half of the story from the book that inspired both films. WB’s reticence in allowing Villeneuve to shoot both chapters at one time likely comes from the financial disappointment of Blade Runner 2049 but if that’s the case, why give him Dune in the first place? Even if Part Two takes longer to arrive than it would if things had been planned better, it’ll be more than worth the wait if the follow-up is as stellar as this opening salvo.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Last Night in Soho, starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, is a psychological horror movie about a present-day fashion designer who is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s, where she encounters a dazzling aspiring singer.
Antlers, starring Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons, is a supernatural horror film about a middle-school teacher whose enigmatic student hides dark secrets that lead to terrifying encounters with a legendary ancestral creature who came before them.
My Hero Academia: World Heroes’ Mission, starring Daiki Yamashita and Nobuhiko Okamoto, is a superhero anime which follows a group of heroes as they try to stop a group of terrorists who are out to eliminate superpowers around the world.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

CODA

The opening film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which brought audiences to their feet when it screened on-site and virtually back in January, is now here to warm hearts the world over. Apple acquired distribution rights to CODA for $25 million, a record-setting price tag for a Sundance selection, two days after it premiered and I’m happy to report that the movie is worth every penny spent. Apple TV+ is a streaming service that has gotten off to a slow start since programming began in November of 2019 but crowd-pleasing content like Ted Lasso, the ongoing Schmigadoon! and this new entry could be a formidable way forward. Theoretically, the demand for feel-good streaming entertainment should be higher than ever and this indie gem has all the hallmarks of an endearing and enduring classic.

The film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, a demure high school senior whose designation as a Child Of Deaf Adults gives the film its acronymous title. As the only hearing member of her Massachusetts-based family, she plays a crucial role in aiding the fishing business her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) started with little more than a schooner to his name. Ruby splits her time at school going out to sea with her father and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), singing along to oldies while helping them bring in their fishing nets. Her burgeoning passion for music is recognized and emboldened by Ruby’s choir teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez), whose proposition that Ruby consider music school puts her personal dreams at odds with her desire to keep her tight-knit, working-class family together.

Adapting from the French dramedy La Famille Bélier, writer/director Sian Heder has crafted an irresistible and utterly charming coming-of-age story packed with both achingly authentic and warmly funny moments. It’s a fair criticism to point out that the shape of CODA‘s narrative is not novel to the genre but for every story beat that may seem familiar, Heder adds a character detail or extra moment that gives her film its own unique signature. She isn’t interested in making saints out of her deaf characters; Leo playfully exchanges vulgarities with her sister in American Sign Language (ASL), while Ruby has to translate for her not-so-discreetly amorous parents during an uncomfortable doctor’s visit. These are full-featured and soulful characters who inspire empathy and affection from minute one.

Much of that is credit to the immensely talented cast, headed up by the phenomenal 19-year-old British actress Emilia Jones. As Ruby, she is CODA‘s magnetic center, carrying the weight of her family’s struggles and expectations of her while trying to find herself and realize her dreams in the process. It’s a breakout performance, affecting and pure with heaps of compassion baked in. Along with Marlee Matlin in addition to Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, the film features an exceptional trio of deaf actors who effortlessly flesh out characters usually relegated to the periphery with fantastically lived-in performances. Kudos to casting director Deborah Aquila for not just finding actors that “fit the bill” but matching each performer flawlessly with their respective roles.

Since a significant portion of the film is in ASL, CODA is to be the first film with “open” subtitles being displayed throughout for every member of the audience during its theatrical run. Whatever taboo may exist around American audiences being shown subtitles during an English-language film may be dissolving thanks to other movies like A Quiet Place and its recent sequel, which also feature extensive use of ASL. Personally, I prefer to watch as many films with subtitles as possible (regardless of language) and I hope the experience of viewing one in theaters will open audiences up to the possibilities it provides. As Parasite director Bong Joon Ho pointed in one of his Oscar speeches from last year, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I’m happy to cite CODA as a prime example.

Score – 4.5/5

More new movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Free Guy, an action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, follows a non-player character in an open world video game who becomes self-aware and decides to save the day.
Don’t Breathe 2, a horror thriller starring Stephen Lang and Madelyn Grace, fast forwards 11 years after the home invasion of the original film to find The Blind Man fending off more bandits.
Respect, a music biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, details Aretha Franklin’s rise from choir singer in Detroit to the Queen of Soul while depicting her personal struggles along the way.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup