Film Review: “Slapface”

Starring: August Maturo, Mike Manning and Libe Barer
Directed by: Jeremiah Kipp
Rated: NR
Running Time: 85 minutes
Shudder

When we first meet Lucas (Maturo), he and his brother Tom (Manning) are mourning the loss of their mother. To deal with this trauma, and his brother’s trauma as well, Tom forces Lucas to mourn with him via a game called ‘slapface’, which might be exactly what you think it is. The two brothers sit across from each other and slap one another repeatedly, hitting harder as the game goes on.

When the two aren’t physically beating each other in grief, Tom is finding the bottom of a bottle of liquor and Lucas is practicing witchcraft. One of these is not like the other. “Slapface,” a film that took me a while to grasp the concept of, is about Lucas more than it is about Tom. Lucas is not only enduring physical violence at home, but is enduring mental and emotional torture from classmates who bully him as well as the Virago Witch, which he summons into existence.

I say “Slapface” took me a while to grasp the concept because I really wasn’t sure what I was getting from this film. The opening felt silly and I wasn’t quite sure why a prepubescent boy was suddenly dabbling in witchcraft, but this is the kind of film that really hits you over the head before the credits. The Witch itself isn’t scary, but it’s not there to frighten us with cheap jump scares, nor is it there to harm Lucas. The Witch, after being summoned, appears to randomly pop-up when the story calls for it, a hint at what the film is actually trying to say. Like any good dramatic horror movie, the point isn’t to simply scare us and have us move on with our lives, “Slapface” shows us the unfortunate outcome of an extreme situation that can be applied to the real world.

Maturo does an incredible job in the role, showing the wildly high strung emotions that a child his age would go through, sometimes appearing carefree about the events around him while flipping on a dime in a fit of rage or sadness. It’s clear that Lucas isn’t confronting his feelings, instead opting to bottle them up. Even during the game ‘slapface’ he withholds, possibly fearing the aggression and sadness that’s building up inside him. As an actor, Maturo channels that same kind of fear, sadness and frustration we once saw in Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” As for everyone else, the acting is fine, but doesn’t stand out as much as Maturo.

While the Virago Witch in “Slapface” is far from unique or creative, what the monster represents is entirely fresh. For those interested in a late night creature feature packed with scares and gore, look elsewhere. For those who want psychological horror, you’ve come to the right place, but prepare yourself for your own slap in the face.

Film Review: “A Shot Through the Wall”

Starring: Kenny Leu, Ciara Renee and Clifton Davis
Directed by: Aimee Long
Rated: NR
Running Time: 89 minutes
Vertical Entertainment

There are plenty of days where I feel like nuance is missing. I say that because we have so much content at our fingertips now, it’s hard to really dive into the meat of something. We need to get to the next piece of content to devour, so we look at the headline or photo and move on. Without diving too deep into the realm of politics “A Shot Through the Wall” still manages to do a very impressive job of reminding us that not everything is black and white.

Mike Tan (Leu), the son of two Chinese immigrants, is a fresh-faced street cop in New York City. Unfortunately for him, his white and also fresh-faced partner looks for trouble where it isn’t, spotting a few young African-American teens who “should be in school.” One of those teens flees, for reasons we don’t know and soon won’t care about. Tan, just a dozen steps behind the teen, ends up in an apartment complex, unholsters his gun, but accidentally fires off a shot under pressure. That one accidental gunshot enters an apartment, killing an African-American man and setting off a chain of events.

“A Shot Through the Wall” plays with a lot of unfortunate things that happen during officer-involved shootings. We see the immediate outrage from the public, even when all the facts aren’t in yet. We also see the cellphone footage that’s released of Officer Tan attempting to revive the man he accidentally shot. What the cellphone doesn’t capture, is everything that led up to that shooting, as well as everything after. Nonetheless, the cellphone footage captures only one part of the incident which still paints Officer Tan in a negative light. We also see accusations of racism and conspiratorial thinking along the lines of police cover-ups, as well as the threat of vigilantes looking for their own brand of justice. On the flip side, we do see how police attempt to smooth things over, through potential plea deals and PR campaigns. While all of this is interesting, that’s not what makes “A Shot Through the Wall” unique, because we’ve seen this before in other movies.

“A Shot Through the Wall” takes us through the emotional toll this takes on Tan, his family, his African-American fiancée and others. The movie does make a critical mistake in not showing us the emotional pain the actual victims family and friends are going through, but that may also be a creative choice on the end of Aimee Long in her first written and directed film. She’s not shy about showing some unmentionable truths, like the fact that Tan isn’t racist at all, but his parents are. Or the fact that Tan goes back and forth on whether or not to put his relationship on the line by publicly proclaiming, “I have a black girlfriend, so I can’t be a racist who shot an unarmed black man.”

In the end though, and throughout the movie, the audience has to wonder: Is Officer Tan innocent? It’s a tough call and the movie, to it’s credits, opts to let Officer Tan say if he is or isn’t himself before the credits roll. “A Shot Through the Wall” isn’t about red vs. blue, Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter, or any of the usual nonsense that’s associated with officer-involved shootings nowadays. It’s about the pain of it all. For that, I’m grateful I watched “A Shot Through the Wall” because we sometimes need a reminder that we’re all humans on this random spinning globe and the only way to confront pain is head-on.

Film Review: “The Harder They Fall”

 

THE HARDER THEY FALL
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz
Directed by: Jeymes Samuel
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hrs 19 mins
Netflix
Add one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Sergio Leone, and one part Sam Peckinpah and you have the recipe for “The Harder They Fall,” or at least that’s what it initially promises it could be. This violent western, which goes over the top during its crescendo, is a breath of fresh air at first with a great aura of originality, modern hip hop music, and a pair of stellar supporting performances. However, its lead actor in the form of Jonathan Majors (introduced as the next main Marvel super villain in the mini-series “Loki”) does not deliver a commanding performance nor one that contains meaningful depth. Moreover, the story itself devolves from its promising beginnings into a myriad of boring western cliches.
The origin of Nat Love (Majors) as a vengeful, bad-good guy is rooted deep in his past. At the age of 11, Nat watches his father and mother shot to death at the dinner table by an unflinching Rufus Buck (Idris Elba, “The Suicide Squad”) who leaves his mark by carving a cross into the young boy’s forehead. Years later, Nat, who has turned to a life of crime himself, gets revenge on one of Rufus’s associates.
When Nat reunites with his on again, off again lover and saloon owner Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz, “Deadpool 2”), he learns that members of his gang inadvertently stole money intended for Rufus, who has been sitting in prison for several years. About this time, Rufus’s gang, led by the remorseless Trudy Smith (Regina King), free their leader after getting paid to kill the corrupt soldiers who are guarding him on a transport train.
The two men and their respective gangs, which are filled with largely unimaginative characters, are destined to collided, especially after an aging U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves (Delory Lindo) decides to help Nat get his revenge. This results in a long stretch of gunplay that becomes downright silly after a while.
The pluses to “The Harder They Fall” include a diabolical performance by Elba who commands the silver screen in every shot he is in. He exudes a tangible sense of authority that makes it easy to understand why his cohorts follow him without question. Unfortunately, Elba is vastly underused. Kudos also go to King as she skillfully displays a ferocious brutality while maintaining a look of cold steel, something the rest of the cast, besides Elba, fail to do.
The infusion of modern music in a western setting is akin to what was also done in “A Knight’s Tale” as it heightens the overall entertainment value of the film. Director Jeymes Samuel (“They Die by Dawn”) does a fantastic job with grabbing our attention, yet it slips through his fingers as the story becomes painful to endure. Every aspect of “The Harder They Fall” becomes a caricature of everything that’s ever been done in the Western genre. Majors’s performance is lackluster as he comes off completely unbelievable as a man that’s supposed to be filled with traumatic pain and vengeance. He plays it too, happy go lucky and soft.

Film Review: “Being the Ricardos

 

BEING THE RICARDOS
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem
Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hrs 11 mins
Amazon Studios
Director/writer Aaron Sorkin again demonstrates why he is one of the greatest screenplay writers alive today with the wonderfully entertaining “Being the Ricardos.” A quasi biopic told over the span of five days in 1953, “Being the Ricardos” contains rich, rapid-fire dialogue spoken with expert craftmanship by its exemplary cast, most particularly between Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. Although Sorkin missteps a couple of times, it doesn’t mean this newest creation of his should not be considered for a few Oscar nominations.
When we are first introduced to Lucille and Desi, it’s clear that they have a tumultuous relationship, one in which she always lives in fear that her husband is cheating on her. This proves to be just part of the issues they have over a five-day span that begins with influential syndicated radio news commentator Walter Winchell announcing to the world that Lucille is a communist. It was the age of McCarthyism and if you were accused of being a “Red” then it meant your career was over. In the case of Lucille and Desi, it is presented as a looming specter that could end their show.
As the saying goes, the show must go on and so, they forge ahead with getting the next show ready to be performed in front of a live TV audience. The process makes for an interesting, backstage glimpse into how a television comedy was made in the 1950s, but more importantly, Sorkin lets us into the inner workings of America’s favorite couple for a sliver of time. Of course, like with any TV family, reality is not the fantasy everyone sees on the screen. Their relationship is a roller coaster and spills over to involve everyone around them.
Sorkin, a four-time Oscar nominee for screenplay writing, including one win in 2011 for “The Social Network,” throws the fast-paced rhythm of the story out of whack when he intersperses documentary-style interviews in “modern day” with two writers and an executive producer who were there. These scenes are more of a distraction than anything else. He also plays with the historical timeline a bit by having Lucille and Desi announce their pregnancy even though in real life it occurred a year before the events of “Being the Ricardos” occurred. While it’s a bit misleading, it does help add another layer of tension to the story since saying the word “pregnant” was taboo on television then. (One of Sorkin’s greatest moves is when he puts us into Lucille’s mind as we watch in black and white how she devises corrections to scenes in the script.)
Kidman delivers one of the best performances of her career, never mind that the makeup department for “Being the Ricardos” made her face look plastic. She channels Lucille’s strength and determination in a blatantly sexist world where men always had the last word. Her Lucille comes off as someone who was not only a genuine trailblazer, but someone who can be looked upon with enhanced respect and admiration. However, she brings out her frailties as well, including an unwillingness to bend at times.
Bardem may not resemble Desi, who was 36 in 1953 and his portrayer was 51 when the film was shot, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things as he brings out the soul of the Cuban born singer/actor in spectacular fashion. Like Kidman with Lucille, he portrays a myriad of complexities in his character that no one could see by watching “I Love Lucy.”
Additionally, Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”) and Tony-award winner Nina Arianda deliver brilliant supporting performances as cantankerous William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, and Vivian Vance, who played Ethel Mertz. They nailed their portrayals of two people who may have shared great on-screen chemistry yet could hardly get along with each other off screen.
Overall, “Being the Ricardos” is a delightful drama, especially if you love fantastic, fast-paced dialogue with a focus on character development.

Film Review: “See for Me”

Starring: Skyler Davenport, Jessica Parker Kennedy and Kim Coates
Directed by: Randall Okita
Rated: R
Running Time: 92 minutes
IFC Midnight

Sophie (Davenport) is a former alpine skier who had her young career derailed by an accident that left her blind. Sympathy doesn’t extend too far for Sophie because it’s hard to tell if she’s bitter about the accident or is ignorantly irresponsible. I say this because our introduction to Sophie is brief, but it highlights how talented she is, despite being rough around the edges. We see how crafty she is when it comes to getting around after aggressively turning down her mom’s advice and help before heading off to a mansion in the middle of the woods to cat-sit. If you have any remaining sympathy for Sophie, the movie throws that out the window for you quickly after. That’s because when she arrives at the home, meets the cat and says goodbye to the homeowner as they head out the door, Sophie quickly begins scouting the location for something to steal because as she puts it later in the film, “No one suspects the blind girl.”

“See for Me” enjoys playing with the viewer’s sympathy, as much as it enjoys having Sophie play with horror clichés; for when the sun sets and Sophie heads off to bed is when some safe cracking burglars show up thinking the house is empty. With the help of a phone app, Sophie has to make several decisions over the course of the film: fight, flee or team up with the burglars who weren’t expecting a blind girl to crash their party. That last one will throw you for a loop as the movie continues to work itself into improbable scenarios with equally improbable characters.

For a movie that doesn’t quite have an original concept, it has quite the original execution. Unfortunately, the originality is very entrenched in spoilers so I can’t discuss them, but I will tell you that the movie is not without its flaws. Despite a decent cast, creepy setting and entertaining set-up, the film struggles with shaking off thriller tropes, like the bad guy reveal that’s supposed to shock us (it doesn’t) or the cat-and-mouse games played by the characters in the sprawling mansion. The action is lackluster, but the character study of Sophie is the most fascinating part. Davenport, who’s blind in real-life, is most likely channeling a lot of real-life moments into Sophie’s character, bringing a lot of authenticity to a character that’s usually portrayed by someone with vision in Hollywood. Without that authenticity, “See for Me” runs the risk of becoming cruel and unrealistic.

While “See for Me” isn’t like 2016’s “Don’t Breathe,” probably because “See for Me” is way more low budget, but it still will upend expectations for those who flip it on. A film like “Don’t Breathe” is in a complex and sometimes silly setting, while a film like “The Village” uses a handicap like a cliché. “See for Me” finds the middle ground, simplicity in its setting and treating Sophie like a person, not a trope.  

Film Review “The Matrix Resurrections”

Directed by: Lana Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 148 minutes

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

In terms of films that revolutionized not only the genre that they belong in but the industry as a whole, The Matrix is a shining example of one that changed our culture and our perception of how “good” action films can really be. The sequels, while having their fans (myself included), didn’t quite receive the same amount of praise – but the influence the franchise and the Wachowski’s have had over cinema is undeniable. And with the world getting more and more tech-heavy and blatantly leaning into A.I., what better time to get a Matrix reboot/sequel than right now?

I don’t want to spoil the plot of this one, because the trailers have been pretty vague with the mystery of how certain characters return and how the Matrix universe has evolved since 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions. I can honestly say, warts and all, this film did something that not a lot of blockbusters do nowadays – it genuinely surprise me. While hardcore fans of The Matrix might have a certain idea of where the story could go, I was still shocked to find that this is the most “meta” of the entire franchise thus far.

Sometimes when franchises get to the point of repetition and they try to incorporate more meta elements to acknowledge fans’ frustrations or anxieties of the franchise, it can be truly forced and poorly done. But The Matrix Resurrections feels like an extremely personal movie for Lana Wachowski, almost like she’s expressing to us how she feels about the state of the industry and her role in revolutionizing the action genre/industry as an artist herself; and that’s what makes this stand-out amongst all the yearly reboots we get. It’s not only genuinely clever and funny, but feels like it has narrative and thematic purpose as it comes directly from the creator of the original films.

Undeniably, The Matrix Resurrections is a bit of a mess and falls into a lot of the same issues the other two sequels do with exposition and storytelling. But it’s also a truly audacious and fascinating piece of work that I think pays off greatly by the end, with wonderful action, truly gorgeous cinematography, and a surprising amount of heart to tie it all in. It doesn’t work on every level, but the film is unlike any other blockbuster playing right now and is all the better for it.

Film Review “Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Jacob Batalon
Distributed by Sony Pictures
Running time: 148 minutes

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The ending of 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, where our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’s identity was revealed to the world by Mysterio, busted the doors open for an abundance of possibilities for what could happen to Peter Parker in his next outing. Spider-Man: No Way Home picks up quite literally right where Far From Home left off, with Peter scrambling through New York while its citizens are shouting either in support of him or straight-up attacking him. This leads Peter to the Sanctum Sanctorum, where he asks Doctor Strange for help to get the world to forget he’s Spider-Man. Things don’t go quite as planned, and from there, multiversal shenanigans ensue.

Like most people, I was incredibly excited for this film. It feels like the first true event film we’ve gotten as a collective since Avengers: Endgame. As more was revealed about who would be returning and how much the film would lean into the multiverse, it both got me more excited but a tiny bit more cautious – I hoped that the film wouldn’t lose sight on our central, MCU Peter Parker in the midst of all of these returning villains or sacrifice character and story for nostalgia. And while the film will certainly be nostalgic for anyone who grew up with Spider-Man like I did, it isn’t a film that is reliant on it for anything but telling a personal and truly ambitious Spider-Man story.

I won’t name specific names in case you’ve gone this far without knowing which villains are returning exactly – but the film does a great balancing act of making them exciting foils for Peter as well as narratively important to the themes. In fact, this might just have the most personal and interesting story for Peter Parker in the MCU so far. The crux of the film is him having the crushing realization of not being able to have everything he wants and still be Spider-Man despite how hard he tries to balance both of his lives. This is a common theme throughout the entire history of the character throughout various forms of mediums – but No Way Home does a fantastic job at making both an epic yet simultaneously personal story for Peter that truly advances and grows the character in dark, powerful, and important ways.

Tom Holland delivers his absolute best outing as Peter Parker/Spider-Man yet here, working with a seriously impressive script full of nuance and moments of real weight and consequences for Peter to grapple with. His chemistry with Zendaya has truly never been better, and the way he interacts with all the villains is as equally charming as it is poetic at times. This is sure to be a massive success, and I’m happy to say that I think it’ll deliver for all the people who have already bought tickets. The action is absolutely incredible from start to finish (see it in IMAX if you can!), the humor is on point, the characters and cast that play them are the best they’ve ever been, and it is far and away the best MCU Spider-Man movie, as well as the most ambitious live-action Spider-Man film thus far. A true love-letter to the character full of heart, ambition, darkness and a whole lot of fun.

Film Review – “Spider-man: No Way Home”

  • SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
  • Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya and Bennedict Cumberbatch.
  • Directed by:  Jon Watts
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  2 hrs 28 mins
  • Columbia Pictures

 

Let me say right here at the outset of this review that I am not going to give any spoilers away.  Thank you for your attention.

 When we last saw our friendly, neighborhood web-slinger in “Spider-man: Far From Home,”  he, and the rest of the world, were shocked when Mysterio announced to the world that young Peter Parker was Spider-man.  Those of us in the audience knew it but now EVERYONE knows it.

So now, along with the pressures of starting his senior year of high school, worrying about what college will accept him – he has his heart set on M.I.T. – he has to deal with hundreds of people taking photos of him or hovering in a helicopter above his apartment building.  As things progress Peter discovers that his two best friends, M.J. (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Babalon) are having their lives disrupted simply because they are close to Peter.  Hoping to make things better for his friends, Peter pays a visit to Doctor Strange (Cumberbatch) and asks him for a spell to make everyone forget he’s Spidey.  Well, not everyone.  The spell goes horribly wrong and the adventure begins.

 What you’ve read so far can easily be gleaned from the film’s coming attraction, so I haven’t given away any secrets.  And I won’t.  But DAMN, what a great film!

 

Though I enjoyed the earlier depictions of Spider-man by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, they always seemed a little too mature for the Peter Parker I grew up reading in Marvel Comics.  Tom Holland hit the nail on the head.  He gives both Peter and Spidey a certain innocent bravado, showing their best faces even when the doubt inside is eating away at them.

 As the film progresses, Peter/Spider-man not only have to deal with the police, the press and the public, but also with some villains quite familiar to fans but unknown to him.  Welcome to the Multiverse. 

As in the case of most films in the MCU, the cast is outstanding.  As I’ve already mentioned, I love Holland in the roles of Peter/Spider-man and he is equally matched by Zendaya and  Babalon.  I will admit here that Ned is one of my favorite characters in the series, his love and loyalty for Peter know no boundaries.  The rest of the cast is strong as well, from Cumberbatch to Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May to a variety of familiar faces from the Spider-verse. 

 The script is the perfect combination of humor and action, with a few emotional moments thrown in to remind us why we care for these characters.  The film is well paced by director Watts, and the 2 ½ hours of action seem to fly by.

 The MCU has had more gems than rocks over the years, with pretty much each hero (“Iron Man, Thor) hitting an occasional bump in the road.  Not Spider-man.  To me his series of films is head and shoulders the best of the stand-alone films.

 

Film Review – “West Side Story”

  • WEST SIDE STORY
  • Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler and Rita Moreno
  • Directed by:  Steven Spielberg
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  2 hrs 36 mins
  • Warner Bros

 

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I worship Steven Spielberg.  He made, in my opinion, the greatest film ever  – JAWS – and has produced so many favorites of mine that if I tried to make a list it would stretch longer than this review.  That beings said, when I learned he was putting his spin on “West Side Story,” a film that won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, SIXTY YEARS AGO.  A film that was based on a show that was nominated for 6 Tony Awards, winning two (surprisingly, “The Music Man” was named Best Musical that year), I was a little confused.  Why, I wondered?  If he wanted to do a musical, why not give “Hamilton” a try?  When the first trailers for the new film were released, I saw nothing in them that made me think “this is going to be amazing.”  Mr. Spielberg, my sincere apologies sir.  This film IS amazing!

 

Inspired in part by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the film tells the story of New York City in the late 1950s.  Immigrants are flocking to America in one particular neighborhood the local residents are not fond of their new Puerto Rican neighbors.  Two gangs – the Jets (white) and the Sharks (non-white) constantly battle for control of their “turf.”  Their’s is not a pretty neighborhood, with the ancient brownstone apartment buildings scheduled to be demolished to make way for new high-rises. 

 

When tensions get too high, Riff (Mike Faist) tells the gang that he will challenge Bernardo (David Alvarez) to a rumble at the school dance being held that evening.  Also attending the dance that night are Tony (Elgort), co-founder of the Jets and Riff’s best friend and Maria (Zegler), Bernardo’s sister attending her first dance.  Sounds pretty innocent to me…what could possibly go wrong?

 

Faithful to the original film while also bringing the story to a new generation, ‘West Side Story” is a masterpiece of film making.  From an outstanding cast to the memorable music to the production design, this is a film to be seen on the biggest screen possible and taken in frame by frame.

 

Fans of the 1961 film will find the story a little darker than they remember.  Here Tony is on parole, having served a year in prison for almost beating a boy to death in a rumble.  The city is grimy and dusty and, with the exception of at the dance, the gang members wear threadbare and dirty clothes, a far cry from the pressed and pleated pants there wore previously.  Also, as expected, the Sharks and their associates speak a lot of Spanish, sans subtitles, though I found it easy to follow along with the conversations. 

The cast, led by Elgort and Zegler, is out of this world.  Both are fine in the dramatic scenes and have a true chemistry when they get close.  And they both have excellent singing voices.  This can be said about the rest of the cast, with special mention of Mr. Faist, Ariana DuBose, who plays Anita, Bernardo’s girl and the immortal Rita Moreno.  Ms. Moreno won the Supporting Actress Oscar for “West Side Story” sixty-years ago and very well may do it again with her performance here.  The rest of the supporting cast is equally good and I want to put a spotlight on Iris Menas, who plays Anybody’s.  She doesn’t have a lot of screen time but she is the emotional heart of the film when she is on-screen.    

 

The music is timeless, and even if you’ve never seen the original film you are certainly aware of the many songs the show and film made famous.  Sadly, lyricist Stephen Sondheim passed away a couple of weeks ago but his words will live on forever.  The choreography is well crafted, with the original ideas of Jerome Robbins being folded into a new, more frenetic style.

 

With a few weeks left in 2021, “West Side Story” is looking to be the best film of the year.

Film Review “House of Gucci”

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, Al Pacino
Distributed by: United Artists Releasing
Running time: 157 minutes

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

At the ripe age of 83, Ridley Scott has delivered us with *two* star-studded dramas this fall alone. For every The Counselor the man has made, he is undeniably the gift that keeps on giving with big budget, adult dramas. And House of Gucci is no exception to that pitch – from Lady Gaga to Jeremy Irons to Adam Driver to Al Pacino and even Jared Leto, the film has an absolutely stacked cast. The film follows Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) as she marries Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and into the Gucci family name. From the get-go, the marriage is full of drama, resentment, and disapproval from all corners of the Gucci family and business. This ultimately leads to a lot of betrayal and revenge as the family and dynasty collapses upon itself.

I went into House of Gucci with pretty high expectations. Despite Scott cranking out some duds over the last few years, The Martian and The Last Duel both gave me some hope for his work moving forward as they were immensely solid dramas. However, despite the film featuring an absolutely incredible cast and a lot of potential for meaty, hard-hitting drama – it mostly results to lightly entertaining, campy story-telling. It’s not to say that House of Gucci is necessarily a bad film, because it isn’t. It just feels like it has so many opportunities to be better than it is at nearly every turn, and it succumbs to being “decent and entertaining enough” for a majority of its running time.

One thing that I can’t fault the film for are the performances. Despite the story and script not coming together as much as I feel like it should have, the entire cast really comes to play here. Just like she did in 2018’s A Star is Born, Lady Gaga absolutely steals the show here with a harrowing and viciously entertaining performance that rides the line of just being sympathetic enough before it excuses what her character does. Adam Driver, Al Pacino, and Jeremy Irons also all do really solid work here as well, and work even better when they’re acting alongside one another. The only performance I’m a bit mixed on is Jared Leto, who is under some HEAVY makeup and prosthetics. There were points where I laughed at his performance and found it to be effectively amusing in a way that feels intentional. However, I feel like the film too often tries to make you feel for the character while at the same time it makes him out to be an absolute imbecile to say the least. I’m curious if a rewatch changes this for me.

Another complaint I have is that the film runs on a hefty 158 minute running time. Running times usually aren’t an issue for me if the film justifies the length with proper storytelling, but House of Gucci feels ridiculously overlong even by the halfway point. Even with that being said, the film gets by on having a superb cast that elevate the material and Ridley Scott does a decent job at making it entertaining. The story just feels a bit unfocused and there is really no urgency to the plot progression. It’s fine in the moment, but I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed in how it feels like it could’ve been better. 

Film Review “Licorice Pizza”

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
Distributed by
United Artists Releasing
Running time: 133 minutes

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Set in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film Licorice Pizza is so evidently a love letter to the Hollywood time period that Anderson grew up in. The film follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who is a charismatic child actor… except he’s now 15, and is slowly losing his childlike edge and looks that got him cast in the first place. Then during picture day at his high school he meets Alana (Alana Haim), an older girl who seems to be a bit aimless in life, by bouncing from job to job and desperately trying to get out of the town she grew up in. Gary quickly falls head over heels in love with Alana, before she quickly humbles him into realizing the age difference between the two. The rest of the film delicately explores a “will they, won’t they, should they?” dynamic that is coded in angst, heartache, and wildly entertaining misadventures.

Just to put my cards on the table right off the bat, Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite working director today and maybe even of all-time. The man has simply never made anything that hasn’t been an absolute masterpiece in my eyes. So with all of that being said, I was immediately fascinated to hear that his newest film was going to be a coming of age movie.. especially considering his last film was about an egocentric fashion designer in London. And now that I’ve seen it, I can honestly say it’s the type of movie that reminds you why you love movies. Every single second of this film is so infectiously charming and entertaining, all the while being matched with the absolutely insane talent and craft that Paul Thomas Anderson always brings to the table as a director. From amazing tracking shots to lush cinematography and an expertly used soundtrack, this is a film that’s as equally entertaining as it is technically perfected. 

Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim both give extraordinary performances here, especially considering it’s both of their feature-film debuts. But it’s when they share the screen together and the chemistry simply oozes off the screen. Every moment they spend together, whether it’s getting into trouble together or sharing an intimate conversation with each other, is absolute cinematic magic and reminds you how infectious it is to watch two amazing performers simply work off of one another. There is a whole star-studded supporting cast featured here as well, from Tom Waitts to Sean Penn to Benny Safdie – but Bradley Cooper also nearly steals the whole show with his brief appearance that had me laughing so hard that I cried. 

The film pulls off an incredibly impressive balancing act that works as both a love letter to this certain point in time for Hollywood as well as an extremely tender and emotional coming of age story. I usually think being “accessible” to modern audiences is a bit of an overrated idea, but I think Paul Thomas Anderson truly found a sweet spot with Licorice Pizza, a film that plays so well with an audience but will be an absolute critical and awards darling this time next year. Far and away one of, if not my absolute favorite film of the year so far. 

Film Review: “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”

 

GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE

Starring: Carrie Coon, McKenna Grace and Paul Rudd

Directed by: Jason Reitman

Rated: PG 13

Running time: 2 hrs 5 mins

SONY Pictures

 

 In the summer of 1984 I began my career as a movie theatre manager in Baltimore. One of the first films shown in my theatre – “Ghostbusters.” The film has a special place in my heart for this reason and I went into “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” hoping it would not disappoint. It sure didn’t!

 

A man runs horridly through a corn field, careening this way and that, trying to outrun a seemingly invisible enemy. He makes it to his front porch, throws a large switch and relaxes. He’s safe. Right?

 

A great throwback to the 1980s, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” picks up decades after the events in “Ghostbusters II.” Like “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” “Jaws 3-D” and 2016’s all-female film – which I enjoyed – the series seems to be ignoring the third films in their respective series. You’ll get no argument from me.

 

Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two childrent, Trevor (the always fun to watch Finn Wolfhard) and his younger sister Phoebe (Grace) have come to a small town in Oklahoma to settle the estate of Callie’s estranged father. While Trevor is mischievous and looking for excitement – in a town that is pretty much befeft of it – Phoebe is very serious and scientific. While Trevor tries to hang with the cool kids, Phoebe investiages the house and finds some odd looking scientific equipment. When she takes it to school her teacher, Mr. Gooberson (Rudd) comments on what a great “replica” she has brought in. Confused by the comment, she asks Mr. G to explain and he fills her in on the massive ghost activity that took place in New York City in the early 1980s. Intrigued by the story, and what she has found, Phoebe begins a search to learn who her grandfather was and why he had all of these amazing toys.

Co-written and directed by Jason Reitman, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is just fine as a stand alone story but if you are a fan of the earlier films, you will be overwhelmed by the various “Easter Eggs” Reitman has hidden for you to find. Reitman’s father, Ivan, directed the first two films in the series and services as a producer on this one and it’s obvious he has shared his love for the project with his son.

 

But this is not your father’s “Ghostbusters.” It is a lot darker than the earlier films, and people hoping to introduce their kids to the series should be aware of that. Reitman keeps the pace moving and the visual effects – which I thought were the weak part of the film in  1984 – are spectacular. Or, if you will permit me, “Spooktacular!”

Film Review “Eternals”

Directed by: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios
Running time: 156 minutes

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

There is nothing saying “Eternals” that it is nothing short of epic. The film spans from 5,000 B.C. to Present Day and everything in between…it just doesn’t deliver throughout its already over long 157-minute running time. Chloé Zhao tries to shoot the film as an indie drama but ends up over playing the action scenes, which end up far and few between. I also wanted a bit more of a connection to the MCU. I get it they mention Thanos in the commercials but they really don’t bring everything together fast enough.

There is a lot going on in the “Eternals”. There are no less than 10 main characters, a handful of villains and even Marvel’s first love scenes between two superheroes, hence the PG-13 rating, so parents beware for sure. Even though there is so much packed into this film, there still feels like something is missing. We get to learn a little bit about each of our team of Superheroes but it just doesn’t seem like enough. I wanted more.

Official Premise: Marvel Studios’ Eternals features an exciting new team of Super Heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ancient aliens who have been living on Earth in secret for thousands of years. Following the events of Avengers: Endgame, an unexpected tragedy forces them out of the shadows to reunite against mankind’s most ancient enemy, the Deviants.

The ensemble cast includes Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) as Sersi, Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) as Kingo, Lia McHugh (The Lodge) as Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry (Godzilla vs. Kong) as Phastos, Lauren Ridloff (The Walking Dead) as Makkari, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) as Druig, Don Lee (Train to Busan) as Gilgamesh, with Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) as Dane Whitman, with Salma Hayek (The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard) as Ajak, and Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) as Thena. 

Personally, I have not been aware of actress, Gemma Chan. She was definitely a highlight for the film. I didn’t enjoy her chemistry with Richard Madden though. Kumail Nanjiani is one of my favorite human beings ever and steals every scene he’s in. Brian Tyree Henry gets to break some Marvel ground with the first gay on-screen kiss for a superhero. Love this dude for sure. He is funny as hell. Don Lee kicks some major ass. Where are my Train to Busan fans at?! Salma Hayek is in the movie for a few minutes, which is a shame cause she rules also. Lastly Angelina Jolie tries to fit in as much as she can but she feels like a mom hanging out with her kids friends instead. She doesn’t fit in this movie at all.

The visual effects are impressive, I feel like Marvel out does themselves everything they release a new movie. I had the privilege of watching this film in IMAX and yes it was impressive seeing 26% more of the film on the big screen. If you can see the film on IMAX, I would definitely recommend that for sure. I can’t see this film really wowing anyone on a small phone screen or something like that. I feel like the bigger the better for sure. Be sure to stay through the credits because there are two scenes mid credits and then post credits. I won’t spoil anything but they are fun for Marvel fans but I still was left wanting more from the movie itself.

Film Review – “The Eternals” (SPOILER FREE)

  • ETERNALS
  • Starring:  Gemma Chan, Richard Madden and Selma Hayek
  • Directed by:  Chloe Zhao
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  2 hrs 37 mins
  • Walt Disney Pictures

 

In the beginning…..

 

This is how “Eternals,” the latest adventure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, opens.  Actually it opens in 5,000 B.C. when a group of highly talented costumed individuals show up to protect the local Mesopotamians against a horde of creatures known as Deviants.  That is their mission, and it continues still today.

 

Very busy, but quite entertaining, “Eternals” lets you know it is a part of the MCU  when, after a global earthquake rocks Earth, reporters speculate if it may have been caused by “the blip.”

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are about three phases and twenty-three films behind. 

 

The “Eternals” – the group of people, not the film, spend their days protecting the Earth and, as time goes on, attempt to put mankind on the right path.  Some are more zealous than others, trying to gift mankind with a steam engine but being convinced to settle for a common plow.  They all have their own personal lives, with their own personal issues.  But, as we have come to expect from these films, soon they will be called upon to…..sorry, no spoilers!

 Let me say right here that whoever decided to hire the director of “Nomadland” to helm this film was a genius!  This film is over 2 ½ hours long and,  while it is a little “busy,” it is never boring.  The running time is necessary to introduce each character and their little peccadillos.  My personal favorite was Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) who, because an Eternal never ages, has been able to work as a Bollywood star for decades.

 The rest of the cast is equally impressive, giving life to what could easily be one-dimensional characters.  The script has plenty of great one-liners and the special effects are, as one would expect, breathtaking.  Is there anything that CAN’T be done on screen these days?

 To sum it up, “The Eternals” – the third film in the Fourth Phase of the MCU –is another fine addition to the series that may itself be eternal.

 

 

Film Review: “The Rescue”

Directed by: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Rated: PG
Running Time: 107 minutes
National Geographic Documentary Films

A little over three years ago, a junior association football team, made up of 12 boys and one adult, went into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand before monsoon season. But Mother Nature arrived early, trapping the 13 in the cave. I’m sure you remember this because it was all over the news and around the globe, even as a lot of eyes were glued to FIFA’s crown jewel, the World Cup. Suffice to say, something about humans being trapped underground or lost underground has always fascinated people (the Chilean miners or the boy in the well for example). But what makes this story more impactful, and particularly “The Rescue,” is a reminder that when we come together, miraculous things happen.

Having worked in news during that time period, I remember this story very well. I say that because even “The Rescue” was able to teach me a few things and keep me on the edge of my seat as it peeled back layers to the true story. The tension is palpable for several reasons, first the footage of divers in underwater caves, constantly painting a picture of the bleak scenario they found themselves in; water dark and thick like mud and cave spaces where it was nearly impossible for just one person to squeeze through. The complimentary piece to these visuals is the interviews. The divers discuss some of the bleak thoughts crossing their minds, like how after several days they began to suspect that this would become a body recovery operation instead of a rescue operation or how they emotionally prepared for the possibility of seeing a corpse in the thick unforgiving waters.

It may also be how the documentary paints the operation because there were not a lot of reasons why anyone should have been optimistic about this operation. I even remember thinking no one would have survived when the news crews descended on Thailand. That’s because not only were divers combating blackout rushing water conditions in the cave, but outside thousands of volunteers were attempting to stop more water from pouring into the tiny cave, and sometimes failing. Even the Thai Navy SEALS, who were the first professional organization on the scene, conceded that they were in over their heads, handing the reins to several divers. But one of the more fascinating, humanistic angles of the film is how even the heroes had their flaws, whether it was cultural or emotional.

I knew how the story ended because it wasn’t that long ago. I knew, just like I’m sure you reading this do, that the 12 boys and their coach survived. Unfortunately, a Thai Navy SEAL died, but in a lot of ways, the operation was still a success that millions would have never guessed. I had to see this through even though I knew the twists and turns. Unlike the divers, I wasn’t in the dark about what laid before me. I wasn’t sure if it was the emotional toll of the film or not, but I began to feel like I was watching something that seems so alien now. A movie where people were being people, showing equal amounts of vigor, intelligence, and, but most importantly, compassion. We see how people from around the globe helped in their own way, whether it was flying in to help with the effort or lending advice over the phone, dozens of countries and thousands of people thought about the best way to rescue the lives of 12 children and a man whom they’ve never met. “The Rescue” gives us something we crave, simply because we are human, a little hope and a rescue, against all odds.

 

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