3 ½ (out of 4)
Paul Dano offers 2018 its supreme actor-turned-director display – the eccentric performer's cinematic savvy exceeds ambitious A-listers like Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill, or John Krasinski in front of or behind the camera. While no gobsmacking masterpiece, Wildlife is a dexterous, contemplative period drama ripe with accomplished filmmaking facets across the spectrum. The decor, lighting and editing, not to mention the stellar stagecraft, are all superlative – this doesn’t feel like Dano’s first rodeo.
Written by both Dano and his longtime romantic partner Zoe Kazan, Wildlife is adapted from the 1990 novel of the same name by Richard Ford. Refining the material to his liking, Dano has no trouble composing a solemn meditation on the disintegration of nuclear-era domesticity. The applicability of the 1960-set film lies largely in the erosion of the era's idealism and the atrophy of martial love. Universally, Wildlife looks straight into the blemished and resentful face of divorce and precisely paints all the unspoken pain it yields.
It's unfair to Dano but Wildlife is an actor's film if ever there was one. Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould are each extraordinary individually and terrific together. The experienced parental performers exhibit themselves to the foremost of their abilities and the authenticity of the sprouting protagonist in all his frustrated powerlessness is too close for comfort. Gyllenhaal – still as superb as we've come to expect – might have outshone Mulligan's motherly role if he wasn't so absent from the story. As a lonely wife losing grasp of her fidelity and maternal instincts, Mulligan adds to a repertoire already stocked with impressive achievements with a career-best performance.
This subdued stroke of genius is no contender for much awards consideration. Yet even narrowly examined as an acting showcase, Wildlife is more unnecessary evidence that Paul Dano is a Hollywood outsider capable of classic-tier creative contributions. And yes, Mulligan and Gyllenhaal will have their Oscar speeches planned for some career-encapsulating project down the road, but it's Ed Oxenbould bearing the soul of the film. While he's a discouragingly passive protagonist, his acting reflects the reserved, modest dissatisfaction that Dano himself has come to exhibit so well himself.
Bolstered by indispensable themes and masterly performances, Dano's manner in arranging these elements is so good that Wildlife is a delicacy even at its most dispiriting.
1 ½ (out of 4)
With Tchaikovsky’s rapturously iconic ballet and a story as simple and surreal as E.T.A. Hoffmann's enduring 1816 fable at your disposal – not to mention 120 million dollars – how did Disney's spin on a Christmas classic turn out as pitifully deficient as The Nutcracker and the Four Realms?
Since, as a rule, invented sequels to popular lore are always inferior to their inspirations (how I hate to recall Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland), the abundantly affluent studio has warped dreamlike source material into a dull and diluted fantasy adventure. Disney is extremely practiced at shaping digestible and predictable family-friendly fare but the proclivity for pressing their stamp on established fiction could use some restraint in general, and especially here. You don't need to see the names of two directors in the credits – Lasse Hallström primarily and Joe Johnston for reshoots – to realize this Nutcracker was produced not by creative impetus but rather to cash in on the ballet's lasting onstage popularity.
Every character is an indistinct caricature. Morgan Freeman as Drosselmeyer, Kiera Knightly as the Sugar Plum Fairy nor Mackensie Foy as the central figure Clara can redeem celestially callous filmmaking. Actors were less the principal reason I entered a tyke-teeming theater than for Tchaikovsky's orchestral music. The movements alone are dazzlingly, resplendently expressive as Disney themselves proved in one of their greatest achievements Fantasia. At first some of the most famous sonic passages are present before getting misplaced within plot-heavy rubbish, when dancing could have told the story far better than neophyte Ashleigh Powell's script. James Newton Howard's accompanying score is forced to make up for the multiple movie moments Disney felt couldn't be harmonically sustained by the Russian composer's work – skilled as Howard is, his adjacent symphonic measures are meager next to Tchaikovsky’s innumerable timeless melodies.
In discounting unrestricted access to a wellspring of beautiful music and storytelling, Disney moreover squanders the opportunity to produce a potentially definitive screen version of The Nutcracker. The 1986 Maurice Sendak-assisted attempt did the ballet best and the Japanese 1979 stop motion feature exercised real narrative invention – neither are exactly exemplary but reality's Mouse King had boundless resources for the 2018 version and wasted most of them. Although this Nutcracker's sheer production value is exorbitant, the fantastical factors are implemented without awe or splendor. Disney's substantial monetary exertion only accentuates the degree of wasted effort spent on a most prosaic adaptation.
2 (out of 4)
After eight tumultuous years in production, the arrival of Bohemian Rhapsody is hardly the momentous occasion for the music biopic genre one might expect from transcribing the extravagant life of Freddie Mercury to the screen. Succeeding only in staging the influential British rock band's most recognizable tracks with lifelike stand-ins and lively camerawork, the film is little more than a shot of nostalgia for baby boomers and Queen 101 for young punters.
Bohemian Rhapsody is manufactured to pander to those with scarcely an iota of familiarity with pop culture, which is to say anyone. But for music savants craving some scrutiny regarding Mercury's distinctive genius (as the film isn't really concerned with Queen at large), the pang of paucity will be poignant due to the paltry, bullet-pointed and undeveloped scripting. Writer Anthony McCarten's screenplay is dominantly comprised of obvious references and historical simplifications – Queen's speedy rise to international domination from 1970 to 1985 is awkwardly crammed into a three-act script simulator. McCarten is contented to appeal to plebeian emotions and convert facts to fantasy, not unlike his other feathery and shamelessly sentimental English biopics The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour.
However, the sloppy editing and shoestring narrative impetus can be chiefly blamed on Bryan Singer, who was fired as director late last year after rumors of showing up late to work and clashing with the film crew, especially lead Rami Malek. Singer's name has already been clouded by multiple accusations of child sexual abuse but he deserves derision for taking full credit for two-thirds the filmmaking labor and exhibiting less than half the stylistic commitment of even his worst X-Men film. Replacement director Dexter Fletcher has not been awarded recognition as per the rules of the Directors Guild of America.
Malek on the other hand is so much better than anyone dearly wishing for the Sacha Baron Cohen version could have hoped for. His prosthetic British chompers are downright distracting in the first act but by the time the clean cut and mustache are in play, Malek operates smoothly as a convincing imitator of Mercury’s signature theatrical flamboyance. His acting alone, while exaggerated even for Mercury, salvages the film altogether. The supporting cast is also admirable – Gwilym Lee as lead guitarist Brian May, Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor and Joseph Modello as bassist John Deacon are all just as plausible aside Malek's extraordinary performance. The real life Taylor and May were consulted during production and were the most outspoken against Cohen's casting. Their input seems negligible though, as Bohemian Rhapsody's narrative abbreviates the band's history and the muffled PG-13 rating eschews the reality of rock and roll – sex, drugs and foul mouths.
Failing to live up to the traditional standards of Straight Outta Compton, Get On Up and Walk the Line or even make an attempt at the experimental, poetic contemplation of I'm Not There or Love & Mercy, Bohemian Rhapsody is a safe and featureless portrait of a fearless and unforgettable performer. Still, the swimmingly climactic rendition of Queen's celebrated Live Aid concert and Malek's soulful caricature save the film from total tedium – easy come, easy go.
3 (out of 4)
In a year when several earnest movie actors readily acquired financing to inscribe their directorial mark – John Krasinski (A Quiet Place), Paul Dano (Wildlife) and of course Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) – Jonah Hill was not the one I was betting on as an artist in waiting.
Endorsed by the mainstream art house distribution cred of A24, Mid90s is a succinct if slight debut principally for its consideration of an unfettered and guileless realism. Hill's explicit millennial backdrop screams brazen nostalgia but the near-contemporary scenery is an incidental template for character development and cultural observations. The film bears surface similarities to Boyhood in this regard even if Mid90s lacks the timeless immediacy of a coming-of-age classic.
Hill's film rests on his confidence in an assortment of young performers, all of whom do not fail him – the slim story is boosted beyond mumblecore pretensions by the lifelike acting. Hill’s conception prudently resists a wistful lens and the naturalism is imperative to Mid90s as a way which to view the impressionable stages of adolescence – peer pressure, social acclamation, nasty habits – in addition to the best and worst of formative experiences. Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is astonishing as our pubescent protagonist and his bliss and frustration quickly become our own.
I was a good little boy at age 13 but the ensemble of teenage characters Hill has gathered are a wildly authentic bunch. The family of our young lead Steven is on the sidelines because that’s how every fresh teen wants to keep it; Katherine Waterston is mom and Lucas Hedges plays the older brother. Seriously injuring yourself, misunderstandings turned to jealousy, succumbing to your friends' most damaging traits are the grotesque pangs of the experience Mid90s has to offer – the general ambiguity in tone is a further positive, provoking nurture vs. nature arguments and speaking to the confused perspective of early teenhood. Mid90s forgoes proper narrative scope but its concerns are relatable and its performances are plausible.
The widescreen-averse 4:3 frame evokes home movies but the stark compositions scrub all sentimentality. All that keeps the reminiscence relevant is the needle-dropping soundtrack – a fun collection of choice hip hop singles from the genre's finest era intermingled with generation-appropriate alt-rock tracks. It's a pleasing time capsule on its own but even the grooviest of playlists shouldn't supplant original material from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross invoking their wizardry a la The Social Network. In all there are '90s references aplenty but the miniature story remains soundly universal even removed from its titular framework.
3 (out of 4)
Drew Goddard's praiseworthy pastiche The Cabin in the Woods was a cunning, subversive debut – his follow-up similarly revels in straying off expected paths, this time with respect to comic thrillers and neo-noirs. The writer-director saunters down more mature avenues past his meta mayhem, selling us a second feature on a bigger promise of rejuvenating originality. Bad Times at the El Royale is damn near an equally absurd blast of untamed postmodern genre fireworks but it doesn't manage to exceed the limitations of imitation. Goddard has merely swapped out slashers for Tarantino flicks.
Rather than skillfully cater to middlebrow, Reddit-tier self-awareness and smug parody, instead this film is populated by original, complex and memorable characterization without sarcastically making light of archetypes. The plot is a bit flimsy given the formidable length but the runtime's easy passin' even when the story warrants it least. The Hitchcockian obsession with voyeurism – Goddard sure has a thing for two-way mirrors – is the one dominant shared trait between Cabin and Bad Times, and both films are embellished by a level of thematic scopophilia.
But my oh my does Goddard have Quentin’s intentions firmly at heart: there are chapter titles, overlapping and fragmented nonlinear storylines, satiric needle drops, bombastic monologues amidst smoothly detached discourse and occasions of criminal violence. It's far from Pulp Fiction but nearly all of Bad Times' pivoted motivations and twists of fate have their own purpose. Caught at the border of greatness between Nevada and California, Goddard's sophomore song and dance is an ambitious yarn – a full and overdone fable fashioned for acute escapism by its systematic unpredictability and the commitment of performers known (Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson and Christ Hemsworth) and unknown (Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman). Hamm's sleuthing spy posing as a vacuum cleaner salesman and Erivo's struggling songstress are enthralling in their portions of the story. On the other hand Hemsworth's third act arrival as pedophile cult leader isn't as narratively invigorating as you might think.
Goddard principally invokes scintillating situations and novel conflicts whilst expanding his capabilities as a visually instinctive talent. In the 1970s setting, the ironically fitted pop songs provide whimsical undertones in the eccentric atmosphere, but select soul samples only sometimes yield the precise ambiance. With his influences so bare it's not quite enough to confirm the value of Goddard's own attributes despite how handsomely orchestrated and persistently intriguing Bad Times is in its most bewitching passages. The multifaceted vantages across simultaneous events, capricious plotting and optic fastidiousness nevertheless deem El Royale well worth a visit.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Damien Chazelle hasn’t set forth one false step as a burgeoning filmmaker. Following critical and popular breakthroughs as sublimely exhibitionist as Whiplash and La La Land, the youngest Best Director Oscar winner in history finally forgoes involvement in writing to offer his first film not to originate directly from his own inspiration. First Man is not just a customary biopic, however; Chazelle’s fervor regarding everything cinematic, in addition to his admiration for Neil Armstrong's attributes, emits the auteurist fumes of his proven prolific qualifications.
Returning to the cinema vérité camerawork of his unassuming debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench – the lo-fi musical romance prototype for his most visually and emotionally accomplished film to date La La Land – Chazelle exhibits First Man with many fewer degrees of obsessive directorial control than his recent films. Linus Sandgren's cinematography is vibrating and voluptuous, employing documentary-style footage to implement handheld intimacy and authenticate 60s-era textures. But a lessening of sheer scrupulousness in favor of palpable realism is precisely why this take on history is so dynamic and Chazelle's sensibility towards the spectacle of space travel is so idiosyncratic. He outdoes Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Dunkirk) at not only the sentimental challenges of impactful interstellar epics but also in aerial photography, sound design and properly presented IMAX 70mm photography. The 33-year-old director comes away from his most Hollywood-trimmed, awards-oiled film yet looking like the next Spielberg (predictably one of the producers) rather than another haughty brewer of above-average blockbusters.
Ryan Gosling’s borderline autistic impassivity couldn’t be any better suited for someone as painstakingly insular and disciplined – Gosling's still too much of the Goose we all love instead of the first man himself, but the film still confirms he and Chazelle are a godly cinematic pairing. Claire Foy continues to make 2018 her year – following phenomenal work in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane and with her incarnation of the Dragon Tattoo Girl around the corner – as Armstrong’s resilient wife. Foy and Gosling are an onscreen couple of rare verisimilitude and the drama they are able to impart from Josh Singer's script supersedes his other historical awards fare like Spotlight and The Post. Singer sensibly portions personal sacrifice over jingoist history.
First Man's model of the extravagance and magnitude of the space race is crystalline, with every relevant curiosity and danger from the bygone era of scientific exploration included. Fifty years later the skepticism towards NASA’s value at taxpayer expense is practically the same. In relation to the revival of space movies, Ridley Scott (The Martian), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) and Nolan were unable to grasp at anything remotely sympathetic or human in their depictions of "real science." Whether it's bland humor, simplified and shoehorned exposition or emotional ploys, they all floundered artistically despite technical prowess. Chazelle's strategies in First Man are so subdued, straightforward and realistic the clichés of the typical historic Oscar-bait can't weasel their way in and spoil things. Tinfoil hat-wearers might protest but even though Chazelle's so polished at fiction his vision of the real world and the moon landing (the one that Kubrick didn't direct) is credible and unmistakable.
With America’s feat as a forgone conclusion, Chazelle’s focus on the absurd and terrifying risks of Armstrong’s position aligns First Man with the unifying themes of his filmography – the honor of exceptionalism at the expense of personal and familial tranquility. Like Armstrong himself, Chazelle is a considerate and prudent risk-taker, even when exercising his highest budget on his safest and weakest mainstream film thus far. First Man is a great film regardless because Chazelle's universal attitudes transcend biography and domestic triumphs. His rapid assimilation as master of multiple genres and his expert assemblage of music (the wonderful long-time partner Justin Hurwitz), editing and performance is a surplus of evidence to Chazelle's own comfortable cinematic dexterity.
2 ½ (out of 4)
I’ve alluded before that the Marvel Mouse has critics under its gloved thumb, but maybe Venom really is a case of a broad schism between audiences and reviewers. Venom is decent across all spectrums and a Tomatometer as low as modern DC trash and less than half of the MCU's worst is puzzling once you see the movie for yourself.
Of course Sony's output of capeshit isn't what you'd call a respectable track record, let alone the features they produce otherwise. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was a blessing for the early days of contemporary super-cinema but Ghost Rider, Spirit of Vengeance and the pair of amazingly inept Spider-Man rehashes do not indicate competence on behalf of the studio. Venom's 100 million dollar budget is stingy given the clear necessity for elaborate visual effects. And the PG-13 rating is a little lenient considering heads are chomped on scene by scene – this film isn't exactly designed to be fun for all ages, although vulgarity and gore for the sake of it a la Deadpool or Logan admittedly wouldn’t have improved anything. Those details plus Tom Hardy's confession that 40 minutes of his favorite bits were pruned from the film portended that Venom was set up to suck.
That said, while it breaks no mold in superhero structure (third act clashes between CGI monsters, Bible-referencing villains, quips aplenty), Venom is not painfully self-aware, tastelessly violent or cringingly unfunny. With a classic origin story at its disposal, actors as adept as Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams at the forefront enhance the weakest lines of dialogue and the conventional genre clichés. The synergetic relationship between Hardy’s Eddie Brock and the gooey alien symbiote Venom becomes an antihero duo just distinctive enough to extol. The action is alright, the pacing is swift and, most advantageously, Hardy's caliber of dramatic acting and equal ability for brusque charm is weirdly well-suited for a disgraced reported dealing with a parasitic host that fits his body like a glove, merges into his conscious mind and transforms him into a voracious villain with or without consent. Nobody will be missing Topher Grace's role in Spider-Man 3 and you won't be thinking of Hardy's other brush with the superhuman as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
An unusual tonal confluence, some rough editing, a climax that makes the titular virulent invader out to be the good guy and a pointless post credits stinger ultimately leaves Venom in the realm of merely satisfactory superhero movies. But the memorable blend of supernatural horror and B-movie sci-fi molds Venom into something more gratifying than it was foreordained to be.
2 (out of 4)
Gregory Plotkin's initial directorial effort was the final Paranormal Activity film subtitled The Ghost Dimension and he served as editor for every sequel in the series. Apart from stitching together found footage flicks to diminishing returns he's also lent his scissored hands to more impressive Blumhouse treats like Happy Death Day and Get Out. Plotkin’s debut proper is Hell Fest, which, while far from torturous, doesn't instigate much in the way of diabolical jubilation.
The premise of a murderer walking amongst the make-up, stilts, strobe lights, fog machines and tricked out mazes of a haunted theme park is so obvious you wonder how it possibly couldn't have been conceived before. The idea is promising and the visual realization is respectable, but Hell Fest is so deficient in character and imagination that there's only a moment here and there that doesn't smack of a timeworn formula. Plotkin has a knack for keeping things spruce and practical – his direction is not without instances that impress. It's just that Hell Fest is so damn conventional that it's only tolerable based on the most paltry of pleasures i.e. watching inebriated, lascivious teenagers get what's coming to them from a patient, predatory stalker.
There’s never been many classics spawned from the basic slasher setup outside of the original Halloween, and a knockoff masked madman with no backstory or identity whatsoever is no evidence to the contrary. Maybe this film's psychopath gets upset if young girls don't think he’s scary? The motives are superfluous despite an ending that probably sounded slick on paper. Plotkin apparently hoped to transmute a very doctored story and script – devised by no less than six writers – into a reincarnation of splatter movies' old-fashioned customs. With an ominous and ornate carnival setting and believably stupid 20-somethings, Hell Fest nonetheless comes off as stock, stale and routine rather than a deftly straightforward preservation of a horror tradition.
Though I'm keen to laud realistically vapid dialogue from college-aged kids, there's not a distinctive individual in the bunch. With no one worth following into the infernal revelry and barbarity, Hell Fest isn’t eerie, horrific or even cheesy – the only amusement comes from the secondhand thrills of our leads navigating the grandiose Halloween festival, which is more fun before they become the prey of a serial killer.
If actual haunted hay rides or a similar night out is your cup of tea in October, it's bound to be scarier if you experience the real fakery. Hell Fest is only good for killing time before you start watching good horror – classic or cult films I hope, as Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake is the only encouraging sight on the horizon.
2 ½ (out of 4)
Paul Feig has next to nothing to live up to. The creation of Freaks and Geeks and a few episodes of The Office notwithstanding his output has been primarily characterized by nauseating Judd Apatow-tier improvisational farces. In offering women in Hollywood and ladies in the audience mainstream alternatives in film, the Ghostbusters remake, The Heat and even the overprized Bridesmaids hardly count as reasonable substitutes for exemplary comedies.
A diversion from the rubbish defining his career of late, A Simple Favor is a nimbly scripted respite, a gaily relaxing guessing game that succeeds almost entirely by virtue of Anna Kendrick’s instinctively emphatic talents. The story itself, quickly adapted from Darcey Bell's 2017 debut novel of the same name, is the sort of paperback fluff sure to rest on an upper class mother's coffee table – that is, loaded with sex, murder and overreaching intrigue. But before it tries to get cutesy clever in the predictable climax the film is actually pleasantly intriguing.
However, A Simple Favor operates better as a digestible mystery than as a black comedy, feminine thriller or as social commentary – if there wasn’t so much soap opera machination, Favor would be a real chore or just wouldn't have demanded to be made in the first place. Feig's film thrives mostly on account of the casting but at least the dialogue is decently droll and the plotting is expeditious.
While the roles of both Kendrick and Blake Lively are perfectly suited for their strengths, Lively can’t help but play a subsidiary part next to Kendrick’s alluring acting acumen. No part of her character's transformation from bashful, mommy-blogging widower to chic crime-solver feels as far-fetched as everything surrounding her. Kendrick's dainty docility is adroitly exercised while the script also grants the Oscar-nominated actress an excuse to flaunt her ample range.
A Simple Favor brings a brand new definition to the word convoluted in a sinuous story still comfortable enough to get wrapped in, even aside from Kendrick's distinct magnetism. The real solid that Feig did for all of us was any movie without Melissa McCarthy.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Panos Cosmatos first film Beyond the Black Rainbow was a distinguished failure – a visually consummate and narratively superficial sci-fi exercise born of relentless ambition regardless. Eight years later he returns to augment everything he experimented with in his debut. Mandy is a midnight movie masterstroke, undeniably and efficaciously psychedelic and superbly exhilarating.
Beginning with Cosmatos' familiar deliberation and obsessive ponderousness, Mandy unfurls into one of the most balls-crazy revenge flicks ever sincerely committed to celluloid. And despite verging into pure schlock and awe by midway, the direction never falters from painstaking craftsmanship. The most ludicrous moments of frivolous gore or an unCaged Nicolas doing his thing handily harmonize with a world of bad acid, mutated bikers, psycho cults and extra large chainsaws.
Riding right between cogent dignity and his illustrious insanity primed for compilation videos, Cage is cruising in top form. He hasn’t been put to use this appropriately since Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and his remarkable work as Red Miller stands with his most indelible turns. Ripped from his idyllic, isolated home in the woods with his titular girlfriend – an excellent Andrea Riseborough as a sympathetic, artistic metalhead – by strung out hippie freaks christened the Children of the New Dawn led by megalomaniac Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache as a vainglorious deceiver), Red takes up a blood-drenched crusade following Mandy's cruel death.
In the realm of visual filmmaking, Cosmatos' exploits are sensational, meticulous, resplendent – in short grainy, burnished perfection. Fueled by LSD and cocaine, the film's spiritual journey of vindication develops with an erratic, sublime beauty – Mandy is trippy as all hell. Although not exceedingly substantial in thematic or emotional composition, its outrageous pleasures in atmosphere alone aren’t exercised as ostentatiously as in BtBR.
This is an uncompromising cult film that basks in the pastiche and precedence of B-movie slashers and action flicks. As storytelling its the furthest thing from high art yet as audiovisual design (one of the late Johann Jóhannsson's final scores is an ideally ethereal counterpart) Mandy is transcendent. A meditative first act juxtaposes Mandy and Red's pastoral life with the New Dawn's delusional misgivings before the real title card finally appears an hour in. From there the kaleidoscopic medley shifts to deeply gratifying absurdity.
As with Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos style comes long before substance. Yet his restless fastidiousness would make Nicolas Winding Refn seethe with jealousy and the gonzo, perversely surreal results speak for themselves. Offering moments that provoke, mystify, hypnotize and take your brain cells down a path few filmmakers dare to even glance at, Mandy is a mad modern milestone and the best film of the year so far.
3 (out of 4)
John Cho's dramatic flexibility has been interesting to watch unfold – White Castle days far behind him, he becomes the first ever Asian-American to headline a Hollywood feature in Searching. Cho spearheads the digitally-inclined drama Searching from first-time director Aneesh Chaganty in a noble debut following a slew of short films.
Unlike the offshoot of found footage features capitalizing on the omnipresence of technology in the 2010s – Paranormal Activity 4, the Unfriended films – this movie far exceeds the cheap gimmicks of cyber-minded horror. The facets of its visual storytelling format are not only effective but integral to the exceptional energy of this brisk, pulpy thriller.
The story of Searching affords considerably more than you could bargain for. Chaganty's work might have easily have settled for exploiting Gen Z's ability to exist separate from their actual selves through the instant connectivity of social media and electronic devices. But this is not a simple tale of a dad coming to grips with the taciturn mischief of his missing teenage daughter – Searching is a devilishly twisty, classically constructed mystery chock full of red herrings, rejuvenating revelations and plot turns of escalating intrigue. It won’t quite blow your mind but this cybernated paperback novel of sorts is persistently and appropriately captivating.
With Apple accessories abound, the blatant product placement is sure to be annoying if not distracting if the powerhouse brand isn't your technological go-to. Still, Searching's optic content isn't just logos and internet browsing – the taut editing interlinks desktop displays with FaceTime, security camera footage and television broadcasts to avoid any meandering one might expect from so modest a premise and framework. The scoring by Torin Borrowdale is also an understated asset, humming with morose piano melodies and propulsive electronic clicks – the slinking compositions are able to turn something as mundane as password verification into an absorbing process.
The film has a little too much to explain by its conclusion but Searching barely falters on its path to eagerly entertain – and Chaganty has little trouble in quietly hitting every emotional mark along the way.
2 (out of 4)
Lenny Abrahamson’s last film Room was the highlight of film in 2015 – perfectly performed, emotionally harrowing and cathartic as both a profound drama and a breathtaking thriller. Reuniting with Domhnall Gleeson four years following Frank, Abramson's latest The Little Stranger is afflicted with quite the identity crisis.
Though not an outright tonal blunder, The Little Stranger has no gauge on its genre. Originating with Sarah Waters' celebrated 2009 novel and continuing to the adapted screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, the eventual materialization cycles precariously between frights and melodrama. The dissonant film is a middling, staid and stodgy comedown following Abrahamson's brush with Oscar prestige three years prior, largely owed to Brie Larson's revered lead performance.
From the vantage of direction, The Little Stranger is esthetic and elegant – the cinematography switches up many times in a given scene – wide angle, soft focus, handheld and everything in between keeps the film clear of lethargy on the visual frontier. Where The Little Stranger suffers is in its severe shortage of narrative momentum – I’m all for well-developed central figures at the expense of structure or action, but there’s scarcely any plot outside of the stale romance of Gleeson's Dr. Faraday and Ruth Wilson’s Caroline Ayres justifying the inflated runtime.
The cloak of horror the film bestows upon itself is the primary detriment. The sour courtship of our main characters is prudently presented but the jolts of gothic dread in ghostly jump scares – needlessly provided after every thirty minutes of dreary drama – aren't remotely warranted even with a centuries-old British mansion as the major locale. Either commit to angry spirits of dead relatives or tell a forlorn tale of a forced, wearied love affair; the textured gloom of The Little Stranger could aid either choice. Perhaps this storytelling divide works appropriately in the source material but the discordant elements are incongruous when translated into film.
The supporting cast (chiefly Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter) settles into the weathered period ambiance and well-tuned dialects. But whereas Wilson's blunt charisma endears as it should, Gleeson's distant, impersonal nature as the subdued leading man is as underdeveloped here as the typically typecast roles of his past. The characters themselves still bewitch us far more than the story, which ends with an unforgivable shrug. Just as it flopped at the box office, The Little Stranger will suitably remain unknown.
1 ½ (out of 4)
Without trying to answer the admittedly unbeatable standard set by Jaws, The Meg struggles to separate itself from the corn of recent revivals in selachophobia such as Open Water and Deep Blue Sea. A gnarly concept courtesy of its bestselling source material and a 130 million dollar budget at its idiotic disposal, the film hardly even stands in line with lesser efforts of late like The Shallows and 47 Meters Down.
Jason Statham may thrive when scrambling to keep himself alive in Crank or playing an impassive badass in the Transporter series, but his void of charisma could never have saved The Meg even if his life really depended on it. Unable to shepherd a paltry platter of shark fodder stock characters down a creature feature checklist, Statham fades into the same obscurity belonging to the film's decidedly weak cast.
Inverting the structure of Spielberg's breakout blockbuster classic with a discount James Cameron opening act, Jon Turtletaub's film manages to fall short of the C-tier director's own agreeably dumb output along the lines of National Treasure and its sequel Book of Secrets. The Meg botches just about every angle for maritime, flesh-eating thrills with recklessly impetuous pacing, stale camerawork and a softened, bloodless MPAA rating. The Meg's vacuum of excitement is populated with a collection of stereotypes, including a listless love interest (Li Bingbing), and padded out with prosaic attempts at scares and comic relief. Turtletaub ultimately leaves you with one of the most underwhelmingly moronic movies of the summer, straddling very little of the insanity and B-movie pleasures that its premise promises.
You're honestly better off watching Sharknado or any of its insipid sequels. The only thing monstrous about The Meg is its mediocrity.
1 (out of 4)
Even as the most famous of creepypastas, generating a wealth of internet-generated lore and mythology, it's difficult to claim that Slender Man was worth a movie. Nevertheless, arriving several years too late, this feature resembles nothing even close to a serious effort to spawn a new horror icon.
With a real life incident wherein two Wisconsin teens endeavored to sacrifice their peer to Slender Man in 2014, an online culture responsible for turning the faceless suited stalker into a online legend and an adequate if rudimentary woods-wandering PC game, there was at least something worth incorporating into a film adaptation of the ambiguous, haunting figure. Perhaps its the ambivalence in origin and character that eventually equated to 90 minutes of wholly superfluous detritus.
To call Slender Man cliché is a slight to the tradition of tropes. There isn’t a solitary instant that hasn’t been done and reworked countless time before. The film's only hint of value as horror is in brief, mildly diverting hallucination sequences. Slender Man is also shot on shit-o-vision or some similar lens, where even daytime shots are so incomprehensibly murky that you’ll have to regularly squint at the screen just to distinguish what's happening. Our band of teenage girls are blank slates led by Joey King of The Conjuring (an overrated horror film that deserves nearly as much criticism for securing the viability of The Nun 2, Lord save us) and the uniformly derided Wish Upon.
The actual attempts at eeriness or spooks – though they do not lean as hard on jump scares as the very worst of this strain of flick – are weak bordering on entirely absent. Unresolved storylines, a sparse, illegible plot and a pathetic establishment of rules and background folklore serve only to secure Slender Man as instantly forgettable and torturously trite. The neutered original cut offers an aggressively safe PG-13 rating just to make sure this needless film's existence is even more irrelevant and insulting.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Bo Burnham ascended from bedroom-dwelling YouTube jokester to the most original voice in modern stand-up in what seems like no time at all. His triptych of comedy specials (Words Words Words, what. and Make Happy) is a tremendous trilogy of shrewd intellectual comedy and his old teenage raps still hold up pretty well to this day.
That prodigious level of clout behind Burnham's name is what makes Eighth Grade, his first cinematic effort, so perplexing. A fairly straightforward coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old girl in 2017 seems just a smidge beyond his capacity to communicate honestly. But while there is little authorship that screams Burnham’s idiosyncratic brand of dense wordplay and cynical, postmodern edge, as a fresh-faced director he has engineered one of the most uncomfortable and strangely thrilling debuts of the decade.
Lead Elsie Fisher is, like most of the cast, a non actor and you can’t help but appreciate the candor in which the performances play out as Burnham’s script is recited. Very few directors or writers would opt for as much blemished naturalism in the delivery of dialogue, especially when it comes to teenagers. Every hiccup, stutter, stammer, faltering and vocal imperfection is maintained, just like in real life. This is an acne and all portrayal of the inconvenient cusp of young adulthood, and Eighth Grade manifests truths that are as universally profound as they are blisteringly awkward and at times piercingly painful.
The idea that other movies have explored themes on identity and similar examinations of individuality (that overarching "human condition") seems like stilted bunk next to the way Burnham – a stalwart critic of social media – has commented on self-image in the digital age. I can see most audience members over thirty finding the post-millennial references and petty middle school problems difficult to relate to, but Eighth Grade is fundamentally about the suffocating effect of untamable social anxiety and how our own inability to truly know ourselves – let alone express what that uncanny nebulas – keeps our ultimate potential just out of reach. In the era of Snapchat, Instagram and vloggers, the space between our projected personality and our actual likeness has become unrecognizably obscured.
Burnham unrelentingly picks away at the life or death stakes of girls making their way through grade-school adolescence as they part from their innocence piece by piece, willingly or not. There's no indie gloss here like in The Edge of Seventeen or The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Eighth Grade's unflinching veracity already puts it in the leagues of the genre's cult classics like Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Anna Meredith's dramatically overcharged electronic score enhances Burnham's nimble accuracy on the subject of social unease. Featuring moment after moment of cringe-inducing realness, the film is like a suspended panic attack punctuated by unexpected and primitive examples of embarrassment and elation. Not since Synecdoche, New York have I seen comedy and drama so thoroughly interwoven or the trivial pangs of life illuminated with such authenticity. However Bo's goals are the inverse of Kaufman's seismic ambition – Eighth Grade is instead brimming with introspective, infinitesimal truths.
2 ½ (out of 4)
The Hundred Acre Wood has never before been witnessed in live action but its true splendor may belong solely to animated incarnations of A. A. Milne's creations. In regards to Pooh and company, the augmented realism and pathos that Christopher Robin longs to exhibit is undone by its staunch adherence to the limitations of family fare.
Director Marc Forster – a man capable of spinning compulsively watchable action movies out of big-budget disasters in waiting (Quantum of Solace, World War Z) – attempts to recapture the Oscar-lite poignancy of his analogous and superior 2004 film Finding Neverland in Disney's latest Winnie-the-Pooh feature since 2011. Christopher Robin positions itself to comment both on the importance of domesticity (shocker) as well as how we ultimately suppress our childhood impulses in the wake of the professional concerns of adulthood. But the inherent modesty of the film's themes, which sidesteps sincere maturity at nearly every turn, can’t rise above simply criticizing work-obsession and championing basic family values.
Hayley Atwell and Ewan McGregor are lovely individually and as husband and wife here, but their charms only carry the film's insufficient sentiments so far. The Up-like gravity of the Christopher Robin's opening credits montage – chronicling Robin's tragic childhood through his major romance and service in WWII – is more emotionally impactful than the sum of the remainder of the film. Thankfully Atwell's character didn’t fall in love with Steve Rogers in waiting for her husband to return from overseas.
The slapstick is a few degrees too silly set against handsome period aspects, though it will offer kiddies more beneficial entertainment than any Illumination or Dreamworks dreck. There’s no denying how short Christopher Robin is on worthwhile morals and wisdom – I wholeheartedly agree that nothing often leads to the very best of something, it's just not the case here.
2 ½ (out of 4)
The relentless zaniness of Teen Titans Go! is its greatest ally and biggest detriment. As such I didn’t expect much less than frenzied, moderately clever mayhem from a theatrical iteration of Cartoon Network’s popular reworking of their former bread and butter.
The original Teen Titans program happily married serial comic book storytelling with anime-inspired animation in the most delightful show a tween could ask for. Despite the fact that the newer, more crudely drawn Titans – although the upcoming live action version should be at least twice as offensive – are aimed at a decidedly younger audience, these infantile renderings retain some level of their individual charm, albeit with minimal sincerity.
My gripes with Teen Titans Go! To the Movies aren’t any different than the problems I have with the show itself. Robin is an insecure egomaniac, Raven is uncharacteristically chummy and Beast Boy’s new voicing is its own special breed of irritating. But even with very cost efficient animation, the film provides waves of amusement across a sizable spectrum from Dreamworks-tier fart jokes to pleasantly wily exercises of its openly meta premise. The sequence in which the Titans time travel to disrupt famous superhero origin stories is a genuinely funny detour. In the film's wisest move, there's room to finally give Nicolas Cage an excuse to play Superman in some manner by allowing him to contribute to the voice cast.
Both the show and the film are capable of erratic creativity and outlandish stupidity. If Teen Titans Go! To the Movies didn't reverently poke fun at the current superhero climate more often than the equally meta Deadpool 2 did earlier this summer, then this slight kids flick definitely should have debuted on the idiot box.
3 ½ (out of 4)
How is Cruise still grasping at blockbuster greatness 22 years after he began producing his own movies? How much of his determination to deliver authentic spectacle is driven by the eagerness to give an audience a rush and how much is dictated by his ego needing a good scratch?
Regardless of any explanation, I defy you to point out a major movie star more willing to lay his body on the line for your moviegoing satisfaction. The Mission: Impossible series has legitimized itself many times over as the action spy brand of the current decade, especially after Brad Bird scraped the genre's highest highs in 2011 with Ghost Protocol. 2015's Rogue Nation proved an admirable follow-up and director Christopher McQuarrie, the first filmmaker to return as commander of another Mission, amplifies all of his respectable accomplishments in that fifth film.
The first act of Fallout is literally everything you could want from Cruise, action movies and mainstream entertainment. First, the opening sting is a helluva twist, deliberately teasing the darkest film yet before neatly pulling the rug out as if to say, "Had ya fooled, didn't we? You know we got your summer escapism covered." The stunt work in the halo jump is gripping. The following segment outdoes Bourne at hand-to-hand combat with a series-best fight sequence just before officially outclassing Bond in an atmospheric speakeasy set-piece featuring Vanessa Kirby as the White Widow, the lovely offspring of arms dealer Max from the original 1996 film.
The second act is all plot, chases and twists. There may be one gotcha moment too many but the tension in the extensive midsection becomes delectably palpable at multiple moments, oddly earned by the tasteful use of dream sequences. And while Mission: Impossible flicks usually peter out by act three, the helicopter-based climax condenses the usual convoluted plot down to a basic ticking clock scenario, coalescing in the most impressive finale the franchise has known. In terms of pure action pageantry, Fallout is copiously stuffed with brand-defining highlight moments. Even though it's the truest sequel to date, this movie could easily be enjoyed without any previous M:I knowledge despite bearing connections to each of its five predecessors in story and homage.
McQuarrie shakes things up as much as possible for those expecting the customary shift in auteurs – which has included Brian De Palma, John Woo and J. J. Abrams – while embellishing classic tropes of both the franchise and spy fare by pushing them to their extremes. Lorne Balfe, right hand man to Hans Zimmer, would make his mentor blush with his stormy, thunderous score and Rob Hardy's muted, supple cinematography is a sensible tonal deviation from Robert Elswit's clean precision. It's all a tireless effort to keep the series aging like the finest wine or like Cruise himself, who at 56 still sells Ethan Hunt's unequivocal gravity. McQuarrie implements serious stakes and an epic runtime and still is able to savor the fun, thrills and gadgetry Mission is known for.
Cruise might have two more movies in him if he's up to it but his supporting cast will likely never be stronger. Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin and Sean Harris all develop the parts they played so well in Rogue Nation while newbies Kirby, Henry Cavill and Angela Bassett keep things energized whenever present. The schtick of Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames is wearing thin – you don't need two computer guys – but the former's comic relief is always integral while the latter should have been permanently seated on the sidelines two installments ago.
As a fan of Cruise and the Mission: Impossible films in general, I could sing the praises of Fallout all day. Every one of these films is very stupid when you break them down by logic but that joyless exercise is left to sheltered YouTube snobs. These films (even II in its own parodic way) are lavishly, emphatically entertaining. Maybe it's just my male adolescence talking, but what summer crowds crave from this genre is practical exhibitionism through substantial, awe-inspiring action, all based in espionage, mystery and a relatively plausible reality. Fallout is that and the whole damn kitchen.
Such overwhelming grandiosity may leave you nostalgic for the noir-soaked prudence of the original film but Fallout at the very least rivals, if not surpasses, the best of this set-piece laden spy franchise.
3 (out of 4)
Boots Riley's auspicious debut has been stirring up conversation since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year and no doubt Sorry to Bother You merits its spot on the lips of indie filmmaking acolytes for numerous reasons.
Much to the credit of Riley – communist and former rapper/hip hop producer of his music collective The Coup – the messages entrenched in his first film function as an exhaustive rant on the current orientation of cultural consumption, the pressing problems of capitalism, the façade of corporate America and the mechanics of racial adaptation. But it's almost as if, knowing his scathing lampoon would need the comic beats of mainstream flicks in order to appeal to a wider audience, Boots sacrificed substantiating his many theses in order to awkwardly pause for a few laughs.
It's disappointing because appealing to the whims of commercial interest is the exact slippery slope the film goes to great lengths to illustrate. Riley's own carefully constructed themes and ingenious satire throughout Sorry to Bother You is unnecessarily hampered for the sake of satisfying the most feeble-minded moviegoers. Despite these frustrating blemishes, the film is faultlessly entertaining and fortified with inspired cinematic showmanship. Sorry to Bother You is so audacious and unapologetic – Riley's abundance of ambition is absolutely admirable.
The idea of our African-American main characters accessing their white voice to excel at telemarketing – a gimmick that utilizes the timbres of Patton Oswalt and David Cross extremely well – leads down a narrative path recalling the subversive racial and social critiques of Get Out. Except in this case the horror elements which crop up in Sorry to Bother You confine the film into a stubborn quirkiness, weakening the otherwise potent wokeness. But then again there's nothing too subtle about the film's strange cautionary tale – it really wouldn't make sense to underplay the film's near-future dystopian sci-fi sociopolitical commentary. The Dirty Projectors' sonic contributions assist in elevating and complimenting the film's bizarre premise and jocular tone.
Lakeith Stanfield made excellent supporting turns in Short Term 12 and the aforementioned Jordan Peele debut, and he remains an extraordinarily likable performer now as the unlikely protagonist Cash Green. Tessa Thompson is unfortunately typecast as the artistic girlfriend just as she was in Creed. Armie Hammer’s caricature of cocaine-snorting CEO scumbag Steve Lift, however, is something to behold and the sequence involving Cash's experience at Lift's surreal Eyes Wide Shut-inspired house party is loaded with delightfully absurd moments. I may have been hearing crickets during the most painfully obvious jokes but Riley had me dying at the smartest satirical stabs.
1 ½ (out of 4)
Unlike the everyman thrills of Die Hard or the classic disaster movie elements of The Towering Inferno, Skyscraper seems convinced it isn't a dumb action movie at heart. For this fact alone, and particularly as an obvious rip-off of better dumb movies, it's even more disposable.
In a rush to compress its three acts into as little time as possible, the latest vehicle to honor Dwayne Johnson's still-scorching moment in the sun assumes mere brevity will forgive the triteness of every component of the dialogue and plotting. The sheer schlock of Skyscraper comes without any wink or nods; each piece of stupid is played straight. If you know exactly what you’re getting into and don’t think for even a minute, I can imagine giving in to the film's ever so modest diversions. For most rational people though, I'd wager they would jump off this crazy train before the final act even begins.
For the moment or two actually providing a suspenseful jolt, Skyscraper is teeming many times over with scenes made for snickering to yourself. The film’s inherent goofiness – rather jarring against the semi-sincere tone of the whole enterprise – only escalates as Skyscraper’s boilerplate story ratchets up. And yet the film is beyond predictable with every cliché in the action movie template making a cameo. Still, this movie exists because of The Rock and he proves to be as intimidating as he's ever been even with a prosthetic leg, and just as lovable too.
Robert Elswit’s Oscar-winning touch in cinematography was vital in furthering the recent Mission: Impossible resurgence of Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, both of which highlighted tangible action in deep, vivid colors. The lucidity of his hand is lost in Skyscraper as all the half-assed visual effects surrounding our generic set of characters tarnish some creditable visual direction. When you have me fondly reminiscing over the much more palatable mediocrity of 2015's San Andreas, something's gone terribly awry.
2 ½ (out of 4)
When you churn out 20 interrelated superhero movies in 10 years ranging from mildly successful to insanely popular, you steadily earn a reputation. Marvel is synonymous with reliably distracting entertainment and they're just as famous for minimizing risks and straddling the status quo. 2015’s Ant-Man was the MCU's biggest box office gamble in which they conservatively shelled out the smallest budget. Following the film's success, and especially with the series reaching a baffling crescendo in profits thanks to this year’s Black Panther and Avenger: Infinity War, I expected something a little more substantial from Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Not that this newest recess in the MCU doesn’t serve up its own fun-size wallop of minor superhero amusement. Just like the first Ant-flick was a welcome comedown after Age of Ultron, this sequel serves as easygoing levity on the heels of heaviness in the third Avengers. Ant-Man and the Wasp is mathematically fast-paced and buoyant at its best – Paul Rudd, Michael Peña and newcomer Jimmy Woo carry the film through even the most pandering instances with their instinctive comic chops. Abby Ryder Fortson as little Cassie also always puts an adorable face on the humanity of Scott Lang's character.
The biggest disappointment is the film's marketing which spoils just about each and every one of the film's memorable moments for the sake of a good trailer – only some of the best bits of banter are theater exclusives. Save for Spider-Man: Homecoming and maybe the Guardians films, this is the most straightforward comedy we've seen from the series and for laughs alone Ant-Man and the Wasp is a good time even as hit and miss as it can be.
But with so much potential for inventive diversion from typical capeshit, the film is only so clever in finding cinematic uses for Pym's technology – there are so many cool sci-fi concepts at play but unfortunately nothing ever gets too weird or heady. How strange that Marvel's real risk-taking came from April's Avengers: Infinity War when there were two-dozen or so heroes to make room for. The individual, consequence-free additions to the MCU, like the superior one-offs Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok, are often better for subscribing less to formula.
While Evangeline Lilly's Wasp is everything Ant-Man isn’t (she can fly without a bug nearby and is actually trained for combat) she envelopes the action single-handedly, upstaging our lead at every turn. Lang's regulator malfunctions throughout the entire film, leaving little room for many superheroics from our title character. Lilly is an excellent foil for Rudd, romantic or otherwise, but she spends so much time suited up; the sentimental side of her quest to rescue mama Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm is superficial, convoluted and emotionally muffled, even though it was a key aspect of the last film.
Besides a relatively strong villain for the series – Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) is not only a neat character to watch but also well-motivated – Ant-Man and the Wasp is a decidedly mid-shelf Marvel flick.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
so many briefings