2 (out of 4)
If Steven Soderbergh never took the Ocean's trilogy past the point of breezy diversion, why should Gary Ross’s imitation of the brand improve this all-female spinoff?
Not nearly as convoluted as Twelve but not anywhere near as fun as Eleven and Thirteen, Ocean's Eight boasts an excellent cast but the cogs of the film's script never mesh. The characters are underwritten, the plot is contrived even as the story remains painfully simple and, most disappointingly, the film fails as a serving of summer escapism. A knockoff of David Holmes' silk smooth score and a few split screens doesn't compensate.
Sandra Bullock does a fine job as Sister Ocean, who just like Clooney's Danny before her is after a big score following extended incarceration. Some parts of her heist squad are cool cats – Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter play roughly believable accomplices, but the likes of Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, and Awkwafina are resorted to their respective stereotypes like the hacker, the pickpocket, etc.
At least this film's final act that differs from previous entries – the central heist is wrapped up in a bow by two-thirds the way in. Did I mention there’s virtually no tension the entire film? Every turn for originality or a clever twist is squandered immediately and every hiccup in the plan is resolved far too quickly.
Though Ocean's is as good a franchise as any to revamp with a female cast, I wish there was something more stylistically satiating to savor in 8 than watching attractive actresses hang out and do nifty things.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Though stocked with generic elements spanning many spectrums of horror – family tragedy, creepy kids, occultism and the threat of the supernatural – Hereditary's pulse-blended pastiche is deeply unnerving, particularly in key moments harrowing drama and existential dread that stick with you.
That said, for as bleak and freaky as the film gets, there’s no denying the movie's generous running time, overambitious mixture of styles and unreasonably divisive ending keep this A24 horror joint closer to the disappointments of It Comes at Night and The Blackcoat's Daughter than something as exceptionally beautiful as The Witch. There’s undeniable artistry and intelligent filmmaking choices throughout, Hereditary's slow-burning deliberation feels calculated rather than necessary. The film's final destination is so removed from its origin point simply by cheating its way to demons and ghouls with the bait and switch of its title.
Still, Toni Collette is remarkable as ever and the film, especially in its first two thirds, is relentlessly creepy and littered with fine details. But these assets never play out to proper fruition, and for as bonkers as the ending is, in actuality what's behind the curtain is a pretty familiar trope. The finale bewilders in a false sense by trying too hard to synthesize reality with the supernatural. By far the best scenes of Hereditary are the tense familial situations – the spooky shit isn't as consistently provocative.
As a proficiently executed horror hodgepodge, Hereditary is a work of middling masterly. But this dynamic film is a sure cut above the mainstream, jump-scare-laden treacle – Ari Aster shows unmatched promise here but his burgeoning gifts get the better of him.
3 (out of 4)
After starting off like an 80s B-movie with 21st century gloss, Upgrade, as its title implies, becomes increasingly interesting and engaging as it progresses. Warping body horror, action thriller and dystopian sci-fi elements into its own cocktail of low-budget cool, Upgrade is quaint but sophisticated. It's worthy of standing toe-to-toe with many six-figure summer blockbusters.
Logan Marshall-Green shows off extraordinary range as everyman Grey, whose a loving wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is killed in the same assault that leaves him a quadriplegic. The future generation's hipster Tesla (Harrison Gilbertson as Eron Keen) offers Grey a chance in an exclusive breakthrough experiment with STEM, an all-improving AI counterpart chip. As a refined revision of tropes laid down in Robocop and several similar cyborg and AI premises, Upgrade cleverly imagines a symbiosis of 2001's Hal 9000 and Dave, for example, where the precision of AI enhances everything connected to your nervous system. Autonomy and morality come into question in the film’s most thought-provoking moments and the brutal and superbly shot action sequences are just as good as bloody good ass-kicking.
Directed and written by Leigh Whannell (the man responsible for penning the Saw and Insidious franchises), Upgrade is reminiscent of many films of its kind, yet feels utterly inspired once it gets all its pieces in place and gears in motion. The fact that the ending leaves the tantalizing possibility of an equally interesting sequel is just the cherry on top of a movie that is at least a few degrees more adept than it initially appears. Upgrade is a welcome and unexpected lo-fi diamond in the rough.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
After the joylessness and drudgery of Disney's first Star Wars anthology film Rogue One, Solo, despite its enormous shortcomings, is the best kind of spin-off you could hope for, especially for an idea as ill-advised as making a Han Solo prequel film. This is a movie that should never have existed, but Solo jubilantly revels in its own limitations, expands the Star Wars universe where it can and most importantly delivers on the promise of these flicks in the first place – the pleasing escapism of a space fantasy.
It could have been comic gold to watch Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s original borderline parody of the very idea of this move, which got them excised from production mid-shoot. Ron Howard’s final film is too serious for its own good, but it’s such a far cry from the tonal catastrophes of The Last Jedi and Rogue One that the orderly simplicity is traditionally satisfying and refreshingly uncomplicated. Even Howard's murkier sense of levity leaves Solo feeling like a Star Wars film proper.
The script keeps the fan service on a leash for the most part and has plenty of time to showcase new elements of the galaxy and opportunities for experimental production design. Vertical yachts, space marauders, black hole maelstroms are newer ideas and comfortably exist in this universe. Of course you know what else is awaiting you in this movie – Han meets Chewie, gambles with Lando, gets that blaster, shoots first, blah blah Kessel Run yada yada. It doesn’t really matter when you write a movie around snippets of dialogue that took up a maximum five minutes in the original two Star Wars films.
The plotting is fairly cliché and the discourse dances between dry and decent. The swashbuckling, backstabbings, femme fatale love interests, western stylization and heist movie structure, however, amalgamate into its own familiar blend of space adventure trappings that the Star Wars brand is synonymous with. Rogue One in particular could have used a little more Ocean’s Eleven and a little less Saving Private Ryan in laying out the groundwork for these anthology films – just like J. J. Abrams will attempt to salvage Star Wars in Episode IX after the clusterfuck that was The Last Jedi, Solo is appropriate course correction for this portion of Disney's fledging franchise. The box office numbers may not reflect that fact, but that's all Kathleen Kennedy's fault.
Even with two visions in direction and costly reshoots, this is no mash-up of Justice League or Fantastic Four-sized proportions. Everything plays out smoothly because the safe screenwriting makes the homage and references (whatever you want to call it) part of the story. The last five minutes reek of studio hackery like the last "Star Wars Story," as an unwarranted cameo by Darth Maul is shoehorned in just to tease the possibility of future installments in the Solo series, and perhaps an Obi-Wan film down the line. With no Jabba the Hut, Boba Fett or Greedo this time around, Solo doesn't blow its load and has space for Alden Ehrenreich's performance to improve over multiple films.
Not to say Ehrenreich is a weak link like many predicted. From beginning to end the acting evolves from scrappy mimicry to the young actor inhabiting his own epitome of a classic character with arrogant swagger to spare. Bewilderingly, Ehrenreich carries the film singlehandly at a certain point – the mild charm exuded by this otherwise mostly predictable film can be traced back to his surprisingly proficient performance.
3 (out of 4)
The original Deadpool is the highest grossing X-Men film ever and no one saw it coming. Apart from three Bryan Singer films (the two originals and Days of Future Past) and last year’s Logan, 20th Century Fox’s portion of Marvel rights hasn’t made an enormous imprint on modern cultural phenomenon of superhero films, especially with Disney further monopolizing the box office calendar every year.
Yet somehow Ryan Reynolds’ spewing sarcasm in red spandex tapped right into the domestic zeitgeist – the result was middling, with humor ranging from sharp wit to the lowliest, most smug self-awareness you’d see from any given Seth MacFarlane joint. But we got a decent origin story, some time for smaller X-Men characters and an enjoyable if overrated reflection of our popular interests. The new sequel improves upon just about everything that came before. With a director of considerable style at the command (David Leitch, long-time second unit director for various blockbusters and the auteur behind the baddassery of John Wick and Atomic Blonde), a fatter budget, smart casting, a good villain and an alright story just for kicks, Deadpool 2 surpasses its predecessor with ease.
Stakes get set pretty fast when Wade Wilson's fiancee Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) bites it in the opening scene. Embracing emotional underpinning similar to the first Deadpool, the sequel trades a love story for family film tropes. Wade seeks redemption by attempting to set fire-handed Russell Collins (Hunt for the Wilderpeople's New Zealand treasure Julian Dennison) down a better path in which Cable (Josh Brolin), a time-traveling super soldier, won't have to murder the young boy in order to save his family that end up killed by his future firey fists. Brolin's turn here marks the distinguished actor's second Marvel villain in a month as he brings to life another sympathetic bad guy just as interesting as the universe-toppling Thanos in Infinity War.
New faces like the super-fortunate Domino (Zazie Beetz) are welcome additions to X-universe, but regardless of the increased budget, extended cast and thicker runtime, Deadpool 2 still feels quaint, hand-made and audacious. The jokes are mercifully less abrasive – even with a handful too many outdated references the metatextual elements are more subtle and satiating than round one of the R-rated anti-hero antics. Leitch's hand in the fight sequences is unswerving and up to his own standards – the major second act set piece is both chaotically hilarious and inventively thrilling.
Like 22 Jump Street, as a meta-sequel Deadpool 2 is as inspired as you can get in terms of modifying and renovating all the elements that worked in the original while telling a very different story. The opening credits sequence parodying Bond and the Marvel-esque post-credit stabs are some of the film's funniest segments. The film in between has plenty to guffaw at, but Deadpool 2 makes room for actual character development before poking fun at DC and the MCU – it's nice to know Reynolds and Leitch have their priorities straight.
1 1/2 (out of 4)
Sebastián Lelio is currently reimagining his critically acclaimed 2013 film Gloria with Julianne Moore, but Disobedience is the young Chilean director's first real foray into English language features following his very recent Oscar-winning film A Fantastic Woman. However, none of the Lelio's capacity for communicating visual poetry or graciously depicting femininity and empathy as he showcased in last year's Best Foreign Language Film carries over to his latest work.
Covering the reunion between two curious females who have been parted since they were teenagers decades earlier, the film's focus is to contrast a secretive lesbian affair between Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) with the austere Jewish Orthodoxy of which the latter of the two women is bound by marriage. Weisz (who doesn't need to change accents with the London setting) acts circles around her much less capable co-star. McAdams fakes it all the way, turning in a performance that would fit better in a well-funded porno. Respectable actors in the supporting cast like Alessandro Nivola are stifled by the overwrought triteness of Disobedience's subject.
I admire each Rachel in their respective element, but there's not really room to breath let alone emote properly when boxed in by atypical LGBT movie trappings. Hardly worth even comparing to vastly superior recent films like Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Carol, Lelio's sensibilities in screenwriting rival that of the average paperback novel. Unless you've got a fetish for good-looking actresses dribbling into each other's mouths (not sure I could blame you), Disobedience will leave you with very little.
Speckles of good direction and finely framed cinematography don't overcome the film's perfectly drab composition. Instead of being beautiful or brave, Disobedience is ultimately bland and banal. The film barely goes beyond the basics of its erotic love story amidst oppressive, unfeeling institutions – I can't think of any audiences coming away pleased other than horny old grandmas.
3 (out of 4)
Ten years ago Jason Reitman was one of the few Academy darling directors actually worth his salt, but his relevance to the filmmaking world has all but disappeared recently. The decidedly more dramatic sidesteps of his last two features Labor Day and Men, Women & Children floundered both critically and financially – it seemed we lost whatever was left of the guy who brought us the likes Thank You for Smoking and a masterwork in Up in the Air.
Writer Diablo Cody – who won Best Original Screenplay for her debut Juno and penned Reitman’s last decent film Young Adult – has returned with Tully, a thematic counterweight to her own brand of maternity-centered comedy as well as another well-conceived platform for Charlize Theron’s considerable acting abilities. For Reitman, this third collaboration with Cody is a pleasure, a relief and a decisive return to form.
Removed from the adolescent mindset in any shape or form, Cody’s dialogue is the most observational and naturally funny of her pairings with Reitman. Even with generous helpings of surgically arranged banter, all the film’s hilarity comes from her knack for piercing, unflattering social commentary and an intuition for revelatory character interactions. The tale of Tully finds Ron Livingston's Drew and Theron's Marlo as husband and wife expecting their third child. Mark Duplass plays Marlo’s well-to-do brother Craig who suggests a night nanny during the early stages of infancy, and so Mackenzie Davis' titular Tully helps Marlo get some sleep and get her shit together.
You can hardly believe Theron was the Atomic Blonde herself less than a year ago, as the Oscar winner's substantial range takes her back to an inelegance similar to both her teen novelist character in Young Adult and her legendary performance in Monster. Davis is also worth treasuring, nailing her character's cocktail of alarming sincerity and millennial youthfulness. Through their character's oddly intimate relationship, the script scales the most human aspects of motherhood. From the nightmares in and out of sleep to the serenity of casually conversing with your kids and asserting your parental instincts, Tully is full of interesting takes on well-explored ideas.
Cody may not have supplied much of a convincing ending, but the quality of her writing beforehand is dense enough that you might even be playing catch up with the film’s subtleties. In direction, Reitman retains his knack for selective soundtrack choices, elevating every moment of montage and informing tone better than traditional scoring ever could. His ear is what makes him so good at oscillating between seriousness and levity so delicately, and the equilibrium he strikes here is on par with some of his best films.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
If you thought We Need to Talk About Kevin was a psychological marathon mindfuck, writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s violent, beautifully enigmatic neo-noir You Were Never Really Here somehow manages to be even more disorienting and fascinating whilst navigating a fairly straightforward thriller plot.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is an ex-military gun for hire, doing jobs on the sly while he takes care of his elderly mother. A sucker for asphyxiating himself and prone to PTSD flashbacks and haunted memories of childhood trauma and past hits, Ramsay and Phoenix’s combined effort places us right in the shoes of a brutish outsider, whose next assignment is to rescue a Senator’s daughter sold into prostitution.
Even if you wanted to accuse You Were Never Really Here of being a work of style over substance, you’d be overlooking a lean, winding narrative, not to mention the film's perfection on so many technical levels. The film's entire sound design is a marvel of meticulously crafted ambiance. Jonny Greenwood’s lucid electronic soundtrack (reminiscent of Trent Reznor's effect on David Fincher’s recent output) is a welcome extension of original scoring beyond every Paul Thomas Anderson film since There Will Be Blood. In fact, Phoenix’s raw method acting is nearly as impressive as his work in The Master, and supported by Greenwood’s ethereal vibrations, YWNRH feels as close as we’ll get to a PTA horror film.
The sound editing and mixing become a symphony of Lynchian atmospherics when the score takes a break, and choice diegetic pop songs (Rosie & The Originals' "Angel Baby" specifically) paint purposeful swatches of irony and black humor on a film that largely radiates unsettling and chilling darkness. The cinematography, as well as the film’s perplexing structuring, obscures even the most easily explainable moments. This constant unease has you leaning into every stylistic change, soaking in all of Ramsay's unpredictable movements in conception.
Disquieting, densely puzzling and callously exhilarating, You Were Never Really Here made waves at last year's Cannes and the film's effect lives up to its reputation. Furthermore, as it is only her fourth feature in two decades, YWNRH cements Ramsay as a director worthy of close scrutiny.
3 (out of 4)
Is it the blockbuster event of the age or a sure sign of the degeneration of popular culture? Surely your investment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe prior to Avengers: Infinity War will play a part in the enjoyment of the 19th installment in the mega-franchise. But even if the lesser characters, internal references and extraneous fan service play no part in processing this third Avengers film, the massive culmination of Disney’s powerhouse property is more than worth its weight in absurd and unapologetic entertainment value.
With the "final" Avengers movie awaiting us in one year's time, it's a little dubious to praise slightly bolder choices for a film series that could put anything onscreen, turn a profit and still have audiences clamoring for more. Yet credit must be given to the Russo Brothers' ability to ease realism and brutality into the steady stream of colorful fun bit by bit with the Captain America sequels Winter Soldier and Civil War. The pair of directors tested out the multi-hero mayhem of Infinity War with the latter and so far have only improved Marvel's output in regards to kinetic action and tonal smoothness. The Russos Two are now leagues away from the days of Community's paintball episodes, but even with budgets upwards of 250 million and too many characters to count, their ability to balance heightened drama and mischievous cheek is as deft as ever.
Like trying to keep two dozen or so plates spinning from your various appendages, Infinity War is not just a work of filmmaking acrobatics – it's a feat that makes the highly anticipated team up of the original Avengers feel simple, streamlined and safe. Without Whedon’s touch in making every character interaction pop – Age of Ultron, campy and perfunctory as it may be, is still one of the stronger MCU films for being the worst of the three – Infinity War delivers the crossover goods nonetheless. The film doesn’t just ration out screen time, but mix and matches its characters like the world’s most inspired ten-year-old rearranging his action figures into action sequences. For as much as the scale of these films has only furthered with each expensive installment, this is the first Marvel film that feels resoundingly spectacular in scope. There's enough planet hopping to call it a space opera and every scene transition is a 'back on the farm' refresher – like the best team-up movies, every hero gets a moment in the sun even as they're spread out in various corners of the threatened universe.
The primary Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor [sorry Hulk]) are all separated. Tony Stark becomes entangled with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange on an alien craft, Thor's people are destroyed before he is intercepted by the Guardians of the Galaxy – largely Rocket Raccoon and Groot – and Steve Rogers regroups many a minor Avenger to Wakanda where the battlefront on earth takes place. Without getting into the Infinity Stones (which have been integrated by several McGuffins throughout the MCU), if the big bad Thanos gets his hands on all six of them, he then wields the godlike ability to wipe out half of all life at random, his recipe for bringing stability to the cosmos. Josh Brolin's purple spaceman villain is treated to maximum screentime in order to understand his character and feel his threat, which services the finally formidable stakes, meaning that in showcasing our countless heroes (who've already gone through their necessary development), there's not a moment to spare or a second of boredom. After a first act of expositing and reintroductions, there’s nothing but grandiose capekino as the film manages to both satisfy numerous nerd fantasies while perfectly whetting the appetite for what should be a massive finale.
But even with certain departures from Marvel worst habits (underdeveloped villains, hit-and-miss quipping) in Thanos and humor arguably better than Whedon's films, these factors of Disney's formula are what hold back Infinity War from true pop culture greatness. The pivotal emotional relationship between Thanos and adopted daughter Gamora is the film's weakest element, and the jokes, while frequently gleeful, are injected with such frequency that the obvious appeal to casual moviegoers is stifling. That said, this preposterously enjoyable superhero epic is a cornucopia of blockbuster thrills – it's like the biggest season finale of all time with a gut punch of a cliffhanger to boot. The movie’s huge bummer of an ending is obviously just fodder to fuel the hype of diehards and ever pique the interest of normies, but I respect the absence of any hope for our heroes as we leave the theater – Kevin Feige knows we’ll be back all the same.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
Andrew Haigh hasn't lost a step this decade. After two distinctly different meditations on relationships and time in the homosexual hookup of Weekend to the long-delayed crisis in marriage of 45 Years, Haigh – seemingly wise beyond his years at age 45 – returns with his finest film of the decade in Lean on Pete.
On the surface, it's a classic tale of a horse and his boy. Charley, played by the young and utterly promising Charlie Plummer, lives alone with his sleazy yet loving alcoholic father (Travis Fimmel). Charley locates his passions in helping gruff Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi) take care of a half dozen racehorses. Earning money while traveling with jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) for local races, Charley can’t help growing attached to an older quarterbred named Pete.
Working as scenic Midwestern odyssey as well as a harrowing and hushed tragedy, Lean on Pete pulls no punches. Yet the blistering emotions that arise from its story aren’t at all tainted with sentiment or schmaltz. On paper, the film's more devastating moments might appear manipulative – onscreen, every pivotal moment is punctuated and improved by intuitively beautiful direction.
Utilizing selective long takes in key scenes in addition to stunning wide shots and superimpositions – particularly in the film's substantially spacious second half – Pete is visually transporting yet understated. Especially in low lighting and even in its bleakest passages, Haigh’s film radiates uncommon warmth.
Propped up by superb acting and gentle yet potent cinematic power, Lean on Pete rises far above its innate simplicity – it's as terse and true as a classic folk song.
3 (out of 4)
As star, co-writer and director of A Quiet Place, it’d be too easy to praise John Krasinski as a rising talent. First off, the story was written by his fellow screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, and there just ain’t enough dialogue that wouldn’t have been part of the rough draft. And as consistently suspenseful as the film is, Krasinski excels more in convincing us he’s a real dramatic actor than a blossoming filmmaker. In short, this movie would have been hard to fuck up.
With a monster movie premise this elemental and a screenplay so trim, not much can or does go wrong in terms of rewarding the target audience of A Quiet Place with exactly what they’re looking for. The drama of a family surviving a post-apocalyptic hellscape plagued with sound-sensitive creatures writes itself. Krasinski and his real wife Emily Blunt star as parents of three who lose their youngest son in the film's brutal opening scene. Years after, the couple decides the best way to protect themselves and their remaining children from gruesome deaths is to bring a screaming newborn into a world where noise gets you killed.
As entertainment, the tension is frequent and visceral once the story takes hold. Even though it goes in the expected directions, it's gratifying to see a film sustain a prolonged and effective climax for a good 40 minutes. A Quiet Place work best the faster it moves, as Krasinksi's film can then momentarily prevent the urge to stick your finger through the script's numerous plot holes.
In a genre as diluted as horror, it’s hard not to get excited when something remotely superior to garbage comes along (Truth or Dare anyone?), yet the critical masses couldn't help but overpraise A Quiet Place despite its qualities. The relative absence of sound legitimizes jump scares for more respectable intentions, but there is not enough emphasis on silence or interesting scoring and sound design. As new parents themselves, Krasinski and Blunt lend their characters some identifiable gravitas – and the child actors perform well also – but the characterization and emotional beats of A Quiet Place are flimsy and unsubstantial. There’s the obvious underlying allegory for parenting at the film's center, but these family themes are old hat with character traits this simple.
Still, an ingeniously succinct ending – even though it leaves room for potential sequels – left me pleased with what was left to the imagination. With no clear backstory or rules of acceptable noise, it's best think as little as possible about A Quiet Place in order to enjoy the fullness of its copious excitement.
3 (out of 4)
Writer-director Aaron Katz returns to the realm of murder, mystery and movie-isms – not unlike his nifty 2010 neo-noir Cold Weather – under the florescence of LA in Gemini. After premiering at South by Southwest in March of 2017, Neon distributes this elegantly glib thriller over a year later.
Katz can do plenty with next to nothing as shown by his inventive, prodigy-film-student intuition and adept screenwriting, but with Gemini he really shows his sharp eye for atmospherics and his attuned ear for show-stopping soundtracks. Composer Keegan DeWitt's hyper-modern score is primed with chopped vocals and trap beats, coalescing in a vaporwave vibe that heightens the film's neon-drenched ambiance and keeps Katz' slight but ever so intriguing plot unfolding nicely.
Lola Kirke – who had recently enough shown unlimited potential as Tracy in Mistress America – is a wonder to watch as Jill, assistant to the popular actress Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). In what seems like a supporting role at first, Kirke becomes our lead when Heather appears to be murdered and Jill is the primary suspect – John Cho also stars as the detective on the case.
With its well-devised gotcha twist, Gemini's slender narrative is more than worthy of the film's lush aesthetics, serene locales and respectable acting repertoire. Still, Katz' directorial arc seems to be on the brink of more significant, ambitious works to come. Working through clichés in order to revive them, Gemini furthers Katz as a natural and studied filmmaker with a knack for well-timed humor, sparingly conjured suspense and plausible yet engrossing mystery elements.
2 (out of 4)
Even with the writer behind the Pitch Perfect trilogy at the helm, little of Kay Cannon's feminine voice makes it through Blockers' uninspired screenwriting by the inexperienced Kehoe brothers.
Formerly titled The Pact, a story about three high school senior girls coordinating the loss of their virginity on prom night is overshadowed by the angle of suspicious and overprotective parents attempting to cockblock their decisions. This latest Goldberg/Rogen produced fare – which uncharacteristically doesn't star the lovable stoner and face of the pair – got a pass from critics for its supposed maturity, but Blockers falters in its sex comedy aims and in resonating emotionally or thematically.
All of the film's star power belongs to John Cena and Leslie Mann, while Ike Barinholtz single-handedly holds the film together as the odd duckling of the three parents. Playing an estranged father trying to reconnect with his shy, secretly lesbian daughter (Gideon Adlon), Barinholtz has solid timing and respectable dramatic range, making him the only stand out against his one-trick pony co-stars. Cena's hulk with a soft heart routine and Leslie Mann's typically shrill, blissfully unaware maternal role she's done so many times before amount to minimal laughs and ideological confusion for the sake of "comedy." Barinholtz' character is the voice of reason in the story and his elevation of the material is constantly undone by Mann and Cena's one-note performances and one-dimensional characters.
The biggest lack in Blockers is the amount of attention paid to the sexually curious trio of teens at the film's center. There may be candor in the way the movie depicts each young lady's carnal goals, from the desire to get trashed in order to get it over with in the case of the crass athlete (Geraldine Viswanathan) to the naïve blond ringleader (Kathryn Newton) just trying to make it the perfect evening with her long-time boyfriend. Adlon's blooming lesbian is stuck with a fat fedora-toting loser but she actually longs for a quirky Asian girl – this subplot is pathetically simplified for being the most SJW factor of the film. Nevertheless, the teenage side of things is obviously the most fascinating facet of Blockers.
With no tact in drawing satire or insight from the film's generational gap, the parent's overblown attempts to curtail their kid's prom night makes for easy marketing and a repetitive film. The gags get stale quick but the humor resists the low brow and becomes more digestible as the film wears on – but the third act's emotional beats are also so predictable you can feel them forming before they actually occur. The general entertainment value and a grade school lesson on feminism raise Blockers to the ranks of watchable even though the whole project is so hit-and-miss that I cringed as often as I laughed.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Though in the moment the combination of Steven Spielberg’s propulsive, intuitive directorial skills and a 175 million dollar budget equates to relatively unmatched entertainment value, Ready Player One cannot exercise many cinematic thrills without reverting to a narrative built more on referencing and borrowing from pop culture than genuine emotion or actual science fiction.
What little human elements are present – most of our time is spent in an overwhelming 3D-animated universe, the in-film virtual reality world OASIS – are pedestrian at best. Milquetoast Tye Sheridan stars as Wade Watts, who, as his avatar Parzival, simply wants to beat the Oasis's late creator's challenges leading to control of the game and romance his online fantasy, Art3mis, or Samantha Cook in person (the gifted up-and-comer Olivia Cooke). Going into a Spielberg film I didn’t really expect much other than bright-eyed sentiment and crowd pleasing, but our lead characters aren’t barely more interesting than Ben Mendelsohn’s generic corporate villain Nolan Sorrento, a ruthless CEO seeking to exploit the OASIS for profit.
As much as I question how much involvement Spielberg and DoP Janusz Kaminski had in the digital animation process, the result is as seamless as Spielberg’s first attempt at this technology in The Adventures of Tintin. Though inferior to that film and at least half of Spielberg's filmography, it's good to know the classic director can create his worst sci-fi film by a mile and still end up with something more inspired than Avatar.
Speaking of similar movies, the film somehow emulates both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, and even with its dystopian future setting Ready Player One is in the same class of maturity as those aforementioned flicks. Despite an intriguing premise that could easily bring up bigger philosophical, social or even cinematic questions, the film's story settles for the most rudimentary of thematic content. Even the rules of the OASIS' virtual universe are never properly explained, and what is spelled out for us is a crude and unfulfilled vision of the future.
At about 30 minutes too long, Spielberg shows no restraint and is especially too keen to bait his audience with nostalgia. The worst sequence of the film is an extended homage (if you can call it that) to The Shining would make Stanley Kubrick's head throb. Just a decade or so ago Spielberg was making the likes of A.I. and Minority Report, films which would have made Kubrick proud. I can't imagine what Spielberg thinks he's doing for one of his favorite films by one of his major influences – regardless of his comfort with nine-figure-budgeted blockbusters, fun can't save the largely hollow reality at work in Ready Player One.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
With auteurist trademarks so mathematical, recognizable and unswerving, does that leave any room for Wes Anderson to grow as a filmmaker? Isle of Dogs has everything you could expect and/or enjoy from the idiosyncratic director – relentless symmetry and one point perspective, affected humor, an array of quirky and appropriately named characters and so forth – but none of the unassuming maturity that often elevates his best work above a typical smorgasbord of kitsch.
In returning to stop-motion anthropomorphic animals, reminiscent of his lovely adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, this feature is sorely missing the razor-edged wit of Noah Baumbach's writing or a story that doesn’t simply please dog-lovers and hipsters. Mr. Fox was for everyone but especially kids – every other Anderson movie has a dark edge from brief moments of harsh violence and a handful of unsavory characters, but all the adult elements can't quite gel in the thoroughly twee diversion of Isle of Dogs.
But of all the criticisms of Anderson's latest, the one thing that can't be overlooked – and won't be especially in the age of SJW-commanded social media outlets – is the film's rather Americanized view of Japan. Sure, perhaps the easy cultural staples and cheap lost-in-translation humor might be intentionally small-minded, but a plot involving the Japanese government's utmost hatred of dogs feels just a few hairs shy of pretty racist. With a filmography of innocence chased with a splash or two of graphic language, violence or sexual maturity, I would assume his appropriation for the sake of an interesting setting was purely affectionate. But who knows how testy millennials and the real Japanese audiences think about this one.
So regardless of racial subtext, Isle of Dogs tries to contrast its cute band of talking dogs with the backdrop of disease, corruption and conspiracy theories. While I understand he's not adapting a children's book this time around, the effort is about half as sophisticated in its plotting, character or dialogue as Anderson's best, even if his filmmaking craft is still commanding. The film is as visually delightful as any of his past work, and the superlative voice cast comes standard, full of talented new recruits (Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig) and familiar timbres to Wes's catalogue (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, many others).
Whereas his last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a calling card to the director's abilities and is furthermore quintessential Wes Anderson despite not being quite his best, Isle of Dogs is firmly amusing but does nothing as the director's ninth feature film other than to dilute the breadth of his creations altogether.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
If women didn’t turn out in droves to support the practically all-female Annihilation, I doubt that even a film that has its foot firmly in the ideological territory of the #metoo and #timesup movements will get the attention it deserves. Regardless of box office numbers I'm sure Steven Soderbergh – who has nearly 30 films under his belt – kept his budget exceptionally low this time around by shooting his latest film Unsane on an iPhone 7 Plus.
But apart from the filmmaking gimmick like 2014's Tangerine, the film features one early Apple plug before completely adjusting its story to the granular texture, reduced motion blur of serviceable, pocket-size digital quality, and its a general format he's committed to for the better part of the millennia. As an experiment in lo-fi, Unsane is ultimately aided by the peculiarity of its visual grain – the aesthetic is both appropriately claustrophobic and unrestrained simultaneously given the portability of the camera source.
Apart from his digital inclinations, Soderbergh's chilling new psychological horror-thriller is also much more than its feminist themes. Unsane vigorously attempts to scrub clean the idea that men, with enough effort, can get exactly what they want from female of their interest. Hollywood has a long history of often teaching men that no doesn't always mean no; in handling a paranoia/stalker premise, Unsane looks at the pain of not being believed both in terms of sanity and safety from sexual abuse and assault. All that while also serving up strong words for the health insurance sector.
Just within the current decade Soderbergh's output has been some of the strongest of his career – Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, Side Effects, and most recently Logan Lucky are all superb gems, and Unsane is no exception to the collection of taut mini-masterworks. Though another departure always seems in the midst, like we were all saying six months ago, please don't retire Steven.
2 (out of 4)
Trying to do for its own franchise what worked a decade ago in rebooting Bond and Batman, Tomb Raider attempts to give us a rousing origin story for the British-speaking, ass-kicking digital sex symbol as she's known to celluloid.
Back in the early 2000's, there was no room to grow for Angelina Jolie, whose own goddess-like stature served her personification of the practically faultless pixelated heroine well. The cartoonish antics of her portrayal in the two Tomb Raider films fell in line with the schlocky production across the board. With this revamp, injecting so much all-consuming seriousness, hamstrung emotion and a measured manner of realism doesn't take this very straightforward Tomb Raider to much further artistic reaches than its laughably entertaining predecessors. There's no punching the shark, but the writing and characterization of this by-the-books 'gritty reboot' is so one-dimensional it makes you wish the film was much, much worse.
I’ll admit Norwegian director Roar Uthaug extracts a couple moments of tension in backtracking the usually plot-armored Croft to her vulnerable and unlearned roots. The film’s second half commits to nearly constant action, and some of it actually pretty exciting, particularly in an extensive waterfall sequence.
And while the supporting cast is all but pointless to mention, recent Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander does what she can with her lack of material, doing her best to humanize and sentimentalize Croft's character. However, while Jon Voight’s role as Papa Croft was reduced to flashbacks in the original film, this version puts Dominic West's Lord Croft in a major third act role, desperately straining to make something real out of the weak father-daughter relationship. After wasting enormous effort and screen time, the film still can’t spare us flashbacks or pointless, repetitive voice-over.
Most embarrassingly of all, the film’s last moments and vague plotting serve to set up a fresh franchise only to trip over itself right out the gate at the box office. Her legend will likely begin and end here, and no one will be too forlorn at that fact.
3 (out of 4)
Cory Finley excels cautiously in first film Thoroughbreds, which debuted at last year's Sundance Film Festival and now finally is seeing a theatrical release through Focus Features. In his directorial debut Finley stirs up a rich genre mixture without ever getting overambitious. The film updates the satire of teenage nihilism that made Heathers an '80s cult touchstone while also succeeding as a sly, incredibly minimalist horror film wrapped in black comedy.
Anya Taylor-Joy, as she did for up-and-comer Robert Eggers in The Witch, proves she can sustain a fresh writer-director’s new age thrills and even elevate the results with her composed acting talents. Like Eggers' film Thoroughbreds unfortunately includes a jarring score that serves to remind you too often that you’re watching something spooky – The Witch can live with the ambiance given its obviously grim atmosphere but Finley's film could have done with a little more irony or tonal ambiguity. The film's many narrative sidesteps shouldn't be anticipated with creepy cues, but rather the music should have embraced the film's core cavalier rebelliousness more fully.
After reforming their childhood friendship Amanda (Olivia Cooke aka the dying girl in Me and Earl [a Sundance 2015 darling]) and Lily (Joy) form a pair of opposite yet similarly disassociated teens, the first brutally honest, emotionless and the other more uptight and proper. However, desperately seeking to oust her wicked stepfather via a convoluted murder scheme, Joy hopes to exploit drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin in his final, brief but excellent performance) to keep her and Amanda's hands clean in their scheme.
Giving rise to cinematic moments of sardonic humor, coy editing and clever (but never knowingly, annoyingly clever) back and forth, Thoroughbreds keeps you on your toes and entertains with ease as it plays only so loose with reality. The writing has some manner of wit, insight and thematic depth throughout all navigated by well-developed characters.
It almost feels too short, but it's not an insult to say I wish Thoroughbreds went on for another twenty minutes at least. For as much as it may lean on recognizable tropes, Finley's first is wisely sparing and fairly unconventional.
3 1/2 (out of 4)
After penning poignant efforts in 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go and directing one of the best science fiction films of the decade in 2015's Ex Machina, novelist, screenwriter and now writer-director Alex Garland has returned with an even more ambitious, disturbing and thought-provoking picture in the psychedelic, lovecraftian sci-fi thriller Annihilation.
Leading a cast of several strong female characters and Oscar Isaac, Natalie Portman does her best as cellular biologist Lena, the only one of five women to survive an expedition into the Shimmer (including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny), an ever expanding area as the result of a mysterious meteor crash, from which nothing returns yet will engulf the earth if nothing is done.
The framing device, in which the story is recollected through Lena's questioning after the fact, lends a Willy Wonka-like plot progression as each of the five main characters is picked off one by one. This leaves Annihilation with a dark yet deflated structure, an otherwise great film’s only true flaw, apart from moment or two of uninspired dialogue.
The screenplay's delicately layered themes touch on duality, cancer and the unknown, and the intelligent scripting usually forgives any flat acting or excessive exposition. The digital photography is also sublimely sickly to behold, especially in its wordless, visually ambitious and subconsciously surreal climax. The final act of Annihilation is a beautiful payoff to superb mounted anticipation as the film officially enters a constant state of mind-bending strangeness and shocks as the movie barrels toward its conclusion.
Fearlessly weird and fiercely creative, Annihilation is confident and original enough to remain on the lips of critics until the end of 2018 even if doesn't presently connect with audiences.
3 (out of 4)
As the streamlined sameness of Marvel movies becomes more repetitive with each successive film, these slightly more daring solo stories – 2016's Doctor Strange was radical by the studio's standards – break up the humdrum even if they still strictly follow the checklist for Disney-approved capeshit. So is Black Panther the greatest movie ever or just a competent blockbuster? Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a box office performance set to outpace the original Avengers for the highest grossing MCU film, seem to place that obvious rhetorical question into a serious light for some people.
Black Panther gets several things right, putting it more than a cut above your usual Marvel flick. The performances have dramatic weight, and the humor is kept to a minimum; the world-building, while flaky and not fleshed out, is interesting when it is in focus; and most importantly, there are no pointless connections to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe until the after the credits. The action is sparse, leaving room for an array of new heroes and conflicts – the fight sequences, though nothing more than filler, are better in general for how much the film commits to characters above all else.
Should Black Panther earn bonus points for diversity though? On some level of course, but no matter how many POCs are included, that alone cannot elevate Black Panther as filmmaking. As much of a cultural moment this film is for its inclusivity on the Hollywood blockbuster stage, it'll never resonate through the years as a watershed superhero film like The Dark Knight or the first Spider-Man by just being pretty good otherwise.
Black Panther is assuredly one of the best Marvel film's to date, and yet it's forgettable, predigested and predictable – impressive in its own context but overall nothing worth carrying on about so much.
2 1/2 (out of 4)
Adept and engaging enough to please youngins all around, Early Man sadly does not possess the universality or subtle humor that can entertain all ages equally like the best of Aardman's claymation films.
That isn’t to say that the handcrafted visual delights and predictable yet speedy script won’t elicit many a chuckle from any viewer. The typically ugly, wide-mouthed characters and particular details of this prehistoric comedy are frequently amusing. But the satire of primitive man that makes up the movie’s highlight moments and funniest jokes are undone by an underdog sports movie structure that plays out free of any surprises.
Though the effort behind these projects is always easy to appreciate, the simple structure and basic emotions of Early Man make it hard to recommend when the likes of Laika are putting out little masterpieces with every attempt. The talented voice cast completely disappears behind our bug-eyed characters despite the big names like Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Timothy Spall making up our main character. Only Richard Ayoade voicing a husky caveman character continually embarrassed by his mother stood out to my ears.
Effortlessly diverting but less than stimulating, Early Man is still the best children's film you will see for some time when the likes of Peter Rabbit are the alternative.
To keep it brief...
briefings on Incredibles 2, Tag
the first installment of a monthly series:
The Absolute State of /tv/