Film Review: “Villains”

VILLAINS
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan & Kyra Sedgwick
Directed By: Dan Berk & Robert Olsen
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
ALTER

A pair of thieves with dreams of living it up in Florida make a couple of big mistakes during a gas station holdup sending them down a wildly different road in Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Villains. First, they swear this is their “last job!”—always a no no where movie characters are concerned—and second, they forget to,  you know,  pump their escape car with any of the station’s gas. Thus they find themselves stalled out on the road and scouring the nearest secluded home for anything to help them in their journey. The home they find just so happens to have a small girl shackled in the basement. Suddenly the mission isn’t just for gas for the car but an all out battle with the unsuspecting homeowners. As I said, it’s a much different path than Florida.

Villains grabs you quickly and easily thanks to the charisma of its two leads, Jules and Mickey (Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgård, respectively). They’re goofy as all get out—we’re introduced to them fumbling through their robbery in rubber animal masks—but it’s so obvious they’re head over heels in love with each other that you just want to root for them. Of course Monroe (It Follows) and Skarsgard (It & It Chapter Two) are no strangers to the suspenseful or violent elements Villains throws at them eventually, but as these two crazy kids they both show off a genuine knack for comedy. I can’t imagine a better time to see Villains than if you’re in need for some comedic relief after a dose of Pennywise.

Now let’s get back to that girl chained up in the basement. Turns out she belongs to the equally tight couple of Gloria and George (Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan), the homeowners who combat Jules and Mickey’s manic energy with nothing but civil hospitality. The thieves are ready to fight their way out of the house with the chained little girl, but George and Gloria disarm them long enough to chat about what’s going on. Donovan in particular revels in George’s southern salesman draaaaaaaaawl to calm everyone down. The unlikely clash of these couples is strongly supported by candy colored production design and a nifty musical score that keeps the proceedings tonally in sync until very near the end of the film. The resolution of the wildcard chained child isn’t quite as much fun as how we got there, but with a runtime just shy of 90 minutes, it’s hardly an issue.

The fun of this Villains is all down to the perfect casting. The couples are equally unhinged but operating by their own internal logic while being totally devoted to their partners. Mickey and Jules are like excitable puppies in their eagerness to please each other while George keeps up a veneer of civility even though it’s clear that Gloria is way out of touch with reality. Sedgwick too puts in a delightfully bonkers turn as Gloria that includes a striptease for Mickey. Everyone is chewing so much scenery it’s a wonder anyone has room for Gloria’s shepherd’s pie.

Film Review: “Official Secrets”

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Ralph Fiennes
Directed By: Gavin Hood
Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
IFC Films

At just 29 years old, British translator Katharine Gun became the center of UK headlines when she leaked a memo from her job at the Government Communications Headquarters to UK publication, The Observer. The memo detailed a plot between the US and UK to illegally strong arm smaller UN member countries into signing off on the ill-fated war in Iraq. When she admitted to as much, Gun spent nearly a year before being formally charged under the Official Secrets Act of 1989. Meanwhile the US and UK invaded Iraq despite lacking the support of the nations in the memo. The film adaptation of this case as directed by Gavin Hood is a well crafted political thriller driven by a top notch performance from Keira Knightley.

I had concerns going into this film that it would play out like so many Newspaper Movies (as brilliantly parodied by Seth Meyers and Co, in case you missed it) and I wasn’t entirely wrong. The hallmarks of that trope are all still here –Phone Acting, clandestine meetings on benches, the obstinate paper editor–fortunately they’re performed by a charismatic ensemble led by Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and a very shouty Rhys Ifans. As the film goes on it adds additional strong players to the field with the likes of Tamsin Grieg and Ralph Fiennes when the legal drama starts to ramp up.

More importantly though is that all those subplots and their cliches take a back seat to Keira Knightley’s tightly wound performance. As Gun, she is resolute but not without fear. Some of the most thrilling sequences of Hood’s film come as the enormity of Gun’s act bears down on the wide-eyed Knightley and she realizes how much she has at risk by forging ahead. Having an immigrant husband in Gun’s situation as she does, for example, truly raises the stakes when contending with the government. Often Hood makes some smart choices to elevate Gun’s bravery by highlighting that relationship. How easy it would have been for Katherine, as her barista husband suggests repeatedly, to just do her job and leave the consequences to her higher ups.

Gun had so much to lose but recognized an opportunity to avert a disastrous war and chose to act for her people rather than a lying government. Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of her story comes at a time when relations between the press and politics are arguably even more fraught than 2003, making her story well worth hearing. 

Film Review: “Angel of Mine”

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Yvonne Strahovski, Luke Evans, Richard Roxburgh
Directed by: Kim Farrant
Rated: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Lionsgate

Angel of Mine, based on the French 2008 film, L’Empreinte de L’ange, sees Noomi Rapace as a woman convinced that her neighbor’s daughter is actually her own long-dead child. It’s a thriller that drew me in with its strong cast but passes too far over into melodrama before the credits roll to warrant much interest. 

Rapace stars as Lizzie who drums up a tenuous relationship with the parents of one of her son’s friends (played by Yvonne Strahovski and Richard Roxburgh) for her own ulterior motives. Turns out the friend’s little sister Lola looks so much like her dead baby daughter to Lizzie that she is desperate to spend as much time around the child as possible. Lizzie’s obsession extends so far as her ingratiating herself with Lola’s parents by pretending to be interested in buying their newly listed house. This connection is already awkward but the film does not help itself by withholding the circumstances around Lizzie’s grief for so long in the film. Revelations over the loss of Lizzie’s daughter earlier in the film to the couple may have won some understandable sympathy points for allowing Lizzie around but as it is, it strains credulity as to why these parents would allow this random woman to have so many one-on-one interactions with their young child. Lizzie’s obsession with Lola is intriguing at first due to Rapace’s haunted intensity but without knowing much about her past, I found myself spinning off many different possibilities for where this could go and the ultimate resolution had me bored. Perhaps that’s on me for wanting something more outlandish or exciting while the film so wants to be grounded. It felt as though since director Kim Farrant wanted so much for Lizzie to be our sympathetic protagonist that they could not inject her obsession with a child with any sort of genuine menace. 

Still more irritating is that so much of the film’s run time is spent with husbands choosing to downplay their wives’ legitimate concerns. This goes for both Luke Evan’s Mike as Lizzie’s ex, shunning her where she clearly needs mental help in her grief, and infuriatingly Richard Roxburgh’s Bernard who is for some reason A-OK with a woman wanting to spend time with his seven year old while his own wife sees red flags all over. Why would he take Lizzie’s word over hers? How their story lines end up in relation to Lizzie and Lola after all this drama rings hollow–and also doesn’t seem legally feasible. 

I had been drawn in by the big name cast Farrant had assembled, particularly Yvonne Strahovski fresh off of her fantastic “Handmaid’s Tale” work (is there such a thing as ‘maternity battle’ typecasting?) but they’re working in service of a basic script that doesn’t throw anything more exciting at them than a Lifetime TV movie. 

Angel of Mine opens in limited release on August 30th

Film Review: “Angel Has Fallen”

Starring: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman and Jada Pinkett Smith
Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh
Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Lionsgate

You ever have that moment where you’re surprised that something is popular enough to still be hanging around? You know what I’m talking about. Like when you hear about how “The Simpsons” has been renewed for another season or when Woody Allen released another movie. Much to my surprise, 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen” has warranted not one, but two sequels. I don’t have to wonder too long about why that’s possible because the third of this franchise, “Angel Has Fallen,” answers that question quickly with mind numbing action.

In the reportedly final installment of this franchise, terrorists are making yet another assassination attempt. This time they’re not only targeting a worldwide figurehead, U.S. President Trumbull (Freeman), but they’re using U.S. Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler) as the fall guy for the whole affair. So not only does Agent Banning have to find out who the real perpetrators are, while fighting them, but he also has to deal with various federal government agencies chasing him down. That’s about as simple as I can whittle down the absolute mess that this story is.

While the film’s story is fairly cut and dry, the foundation of the plot crumbles underneath any sight of logic, but this isn’t a franchise or movie that lends itself to being intelligent. Everything about these movies, as well as the newest one, is loud and dumb, like a caveman shouting at the top of his lungs while swinging a big club. The use of graphic blood and violence keeps these films from being too cartoonish, on a level like the “Fast and Furious” franchise. There are several moments of self-awareness, though, that make it seem like the creators are sometimes in on the joke that these movies are silly trash.

That’s why it’s so odd to see so many dramatic elements being wedged in, especially with Banning’s character. The filmmakers start the movie off with breadcrumbs that Banning is dealing with some form of PTSD and work fatigue, even though that plot thread only pays off in one predictable way by the end. We’re also introduced to Banning’s estranged father (Nick Nolte), who’s living in the middle of the West Virginia forests, so that we can add a layer of family drama to the whole shebang. By the end, these components really feel meaningless because of how poorly they’re handled, unless you’ve somehow managed to grow attached to this character over the years.

“Angel Has Fallen” fails only because it strives to be something it’s not, a competent action flick like “Die Hard” or any “Mad Max” film. It earns gold stars for filling numerous scenes with vacuous shootouts, lunkhead fist fighting and earth-rattling explosions. It somehow manages to screw up some of that though, with poorly lit sequences or chase scenes at night that fail to illuminate what’s happening. Fans of these films will get their money’s worth; everyone else will feel too indifferent by the end to ask for their money back.

 

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Film Review: “Ready or Not”

Starring: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody and Mark O’Brien
Directed By: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Rated: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Fox Searchlight

I guess a film like “The Hunt” was a little bit too on the nose. There were several disappointed horror junkies, back on August 7th, when it was announced the latest Blumhouse film would be shelved after several mass shootings in America, along with some rumored outrage by President Trump. Maybe those disappointed filmgoers, who are going this year without another “Purge” movie as well, can get a cathartic release from “Ready or Not.”

It’s Grace (Weaving) and Daniel Le Lomas’ (Brody) wedding day. The young couple is getting married at the Le Lomas’ mansion, which was built on a card and board game empire. Daniel’s family, which he begrudgingly introduces to Grace, is an eclectic bunch. Which is a nice way of saying they’re a bunch of snobby 1%’s who believe Grace is a gold digger. Whether or not they warm up to Daniel’s love seems to come down to strange family ritual, a game. Grace must draw a playing card from the film’s McGuffin, and play the game that’s printed on that card. She’s told by several other people who’ve married into the family that they simply played a game Chess or a round of Old Maid. She draws Hide and Seek.

You’ll be disappointed if you go into “Ready or Not” expecting a rich satire about politics and class, but if you’re expecting a gory good time you’ll be stuffed. The goal of Hide and Seek, for the Le Lomas’ family, is to hunt down and kill Grace. This isn’t supposed to be for sport, but to maintain an otherworldly pact, which is certainly a dig at the corrupting power of wealth. If you start thinking about some of the film’s inherent flaws, the set-up quickly falls apart and you’ll begin to wonder about things like logic. So don’t think too hard during this one.

The film isn’t short on violent deaths, blood and visually graphic tomfoolery. It’s all played for comedic effect and eye-wincing shock. Some of the more comedic moments are when one of the drugged out members of the Le Lomas family continuously manages to find accidental ways to kill mansion staff, while some of the most visually disturbing scenes include one where a character makes unfortunate use of a gaping wound in their hand. The scenes unfortunately smack audiences at a blistering pace. There’s a lot of downtime for the characters to wordlessly linger from scene-to-scene and discuss inconsequential plot points.

“Ready or Not” promises a fun cat-and-mouse game, but ends up repeating the formula of Grace being captured, but only to escape. This happens about half a dozen times, if not more, including three times in the climax. At least the movie wrings out a strong performance from Weaving, who has the makings of a scream queen. She has a cold icy stare when her character is in vengeance mode, as well as a perfect high-pitched scream during moments of physical agony and mental anguish. Everyone else is casually fine. The problem is that the actors portraying the Le Lomas clan can’t decide whether or not to be cognizant of the absurdity of it all.

“Ready or Not” sits in between the two extremes of horror content in 2019. It’s not a complete misfire like “Ma,” but it isn’t as intricately put together as “Midsommar” or “Us.” It’s a film that’ll satisfy the late night sweet tooth for people wanting to gnaw on a dark comedy and have guilty belly laughs. It’s the kind of genre mash-up that would have developed a cult following in the 80’s.

Film Review: “Good Boys”

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon
Directed By: Gene Stupnitsky
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
Universal Pictures

More than lately, it feels like we’ve been inundated with coming-of-age movies. Just off the top of my head, we’ve had “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade,” “Booksmart,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Love, Simon,” “Blockers,” “Mid90s,” and to some extent, “IT.” Most of those movies are natural extensions of the genre which now include women, the LGBT community, Millennials and Generation Z. So “Good Boys” just feels like a casual dose of more of the same before the arrival of the 2010s.

To say that “Good Boys” has a story, feels a bit disingenuous to the film’s true narrative which feels more like several sketch ideas strung loosely together. To cut straight to the core of what’s happening; Max (Tremblay), Lucas (Williams) and Thor (Noon) have skipped school to fix several spin-off problems caused by Max’s invitation to a party where he and his pals will finally be able to kiss a girl. The problems this invitation have caused involve the destruction of a pricey drone, the theft of drugs, the need to buy drugs, and being chased all around their neighborhood by some angsty high schoolers. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before and several shenanigans feel reminiscent of “Superbad.”

This plot doesn’t really take shape from the get-go. “Good Boys” actually looks and feels amateurish for the first dozen or so minutes, coming off like a string of riffs on preteens being clueless preteens as they navigate a tricky minefield of sex talk, sex toys and dirty jokes. At least the movie is smart enough to recognize that most 12-year-olds talk a big game, but are as clueless as any kid entering a sex education class for the first time when it comes to the actual act of doing it. The inherent comedy of young kids saying four-letter words quickly loses its luster, but it’s the personalities of our three boys that the film actually finds some real comedy in.

Lucas is like Lincoln, he cannot tell a lie. His inability to fib further dooms the trio during their perilous journey or confuses adults because of how blunt he’s being. Thor is a theater geek who’s burying his own passion so he can try and impress other tweens. Unfortunately he’s not privy to the fact that they’ll never like him, no matter how many sips of a beer he’ll take. Max is the only one invested in this adventure, since he was the only one to actually be invited to the kissing party. He actually had to coerce the cool kids into allowing him to bring Lucas and Thor. It sets up the film’s final act fairly well. For a movie that’s as foul-mouthed as “American Pie,” it’s good to see that there’s an actual attempt at teaching a lesson in maturity and growth.

“Good Boys” is a passable entry into the coming-of-age films, but it isn’t unique or funny enough to stand tall with classics in the genre. It also suffers from some of its best jokes being in the trailer and a somewhat scatterbrained story flow that hiccups when it comes time to deliver a wise crack or sight gag. The three child actors manage to elevate a so-so script and they’ll certainly win over the adult crowd that sees this, as well as those young ones that sneak in to see what all the fuss is about.

Film Review: “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham and Idris Elba
Directed by: David Leitch
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes
Universal Pictures

At this point, all that’s missing from the “Fast and the Furious” franchise is a TV show, Saturday morning cartoon, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and breakfast cereal. The unexpected Universal Pictures franchise has its first spin-off, giving the two men who helped rejuvenate the series their own side adventure. Luke Hobbs’ (Johnson) affable character pairs naturally with the rough around the edges Deckard Shaw (Statham). The two have spent the last two movies at each other’s throats in a jokingly, sometimes serious, manner. So it’s a little disappointing to see them relatively toothless and hollowed out in “Hobbs & Shaw”.

Their characters remain the same, but we spend a little too much time with them, making these godlike characters a bit more human. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but having them play into the long steady “family” trope of this franchise feels disingenuous. The two feel more like ancillary characters that were created to offset the eye-rolling “we’re all family” dynamic that Vin Diesel’s character has yammered on about for years. Seeing Hobbs and Shaw degraded to that level may play to the franchise’s hardcore fanbase, but not for the casual fan like me who enjoys these movies as mindless eye candy. Also, there’s only so many times we can hear Hobbs and Shaw verbally get out the measuring sticks for their manhood.

As for the story, it’s somewhat interesting, building off of “The Fate of the Furious.” The bad guy of this film, Brixton Lore (Elba), works for a secret dark web syndicate known as Etheon. Lore is part man, part android, to the point where I’m glad Hobbs name drops “The Terminator.” Lore is on the hunt for a virus that could be weaponized to eliminate the “weak” parts of the human population, i.e. mass extinction for the betterment of humanity. But before Lore can get his superhuman mitts on it, an MI6 agent injects herself with it so that Etheon can’t obtain it. Of course, who that MI6 agent is, is a twist. I won’t spoil it, but you should be able to figure out who it is before it’s revealed, if you’re operating your brain at a primitive level.

Putting aside my opening salvo, I think this movie is still enjoyable because of how absurd it is, like when Hobbs tackles assailants scaling down the side of skyscraper and landing without a scratch on top of an SUV several stories below. My qualm is that the action pieces never really reach the highs that we’ve seen before in this franchise, specifically when Justin Lin and James Wan were behind the camera. Director David Leitch gives the duo plenty of fun settings to blow-up and chase sequences for audiences to ogle at, but none of them quite have that spectacular oomph that we’ve come to know and love. Even some of the lesser movies of this franchise have that memorable moment of Herculean feats or car acrobatics, but this one didn’t quite land one. Luckily the film stops short of dragging to the two and a half hour mark, so you don’t begin to get sore in your seat from its CGI fireworks. 

“Hobbs & Shaw” delivers enough mindless fun, ludicrous fight and action sequences, and wink-at-the-camera cameos to put a smile on even the curmudgeonliest of viewers. While it sometimes lacks in those aforementioned categories, it never feels unnecessary, especially since it’s a franchise stuffed with preposterous reasoning and farcical realism; Common sense be damned. Just like the rest of the franchise, “Hobbs & Shaw” doesn’t benefit from the viewer attempting to apply any kind of logic. Once you flip that switch on, you can’t unflip it. So setting your brain to cruise control is the optimum way of enjoying “Hobbs and Shaw.” Enjoy it for what it is, big, dumb action porn.

Film Review: “Midsommar”

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and William Jackson Harper
Directed by: Ari Aster
Rated: R
Running Time: 140 minutes
A24

I don’t use superlatives a lot in my reviews, but I think it’s fitting this time because “Midsommar” has one of the most unsettling and gripping openings to a horror film I’ve ever seen. The movie begins on a snowy night in the states with Dani (Pugh), frantically trying to get a hold of her parents after a trouble set of texts from her bipolar sister stating that the darkness is too much, along with remarks about their parents. Compounding the issue is Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (Reynor), who seems disinterested in her concern about her sister, and why her parents aren’t picking up their phone. In fact, we find out, he’s at the bar getting drunk with friends, mulling over a potential break-up with Dani, instead of showing a single shred of worry. Christian is about to pull the trigger on their nearly four year long relationship when he gets a phone call from Dani. As soon as he answers, we hear the most horrifying cries of agony. Dani learns that her sister has taken her own life, and the lives of their parents, via carbon monoxide poisoning.

Cutting ahead to the summer, their relationship is still strained, Christian is still distant, and Dani is still dealing with grief. Escapism, for both, comes in the form of Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), one of Christian’s Swedish friends. Pelle is inviting Christian and their mutual friends, Josh (Harper) and Mark (William Poulter) to Pelle’s small village of Halsingland. They’ll be privy to a true once in a lifetime event, a festival that’s only held once every 90 years. Despite this village’s knowledge of the outside world and how advanced we’ve become, the people of Halsingland hold on to some incredibly archaic, brutal and terrifying beliefs that’ll slowly unfold over the course of a few days.

Unlike Director Ari Aster’s last film, “Hereditary,” nearly all of “Midsommar” is in the bright light of day, as the rural village sits nearly at the top of Scandinavia, so the sun, if ever this of year, doesn’t ever set below the horizon for the time that our characters are there. So much of the film’s horror doesn’t even happen in the cloak of darkness. The terror of the unknown, the secrets that this village holds, what their plans are, and what’s behind every closed door, happens in the optimistic shine of daylight. If anything, the moments in the dark are a part of a dream-like sequence or in the midst of a heavy dusk when the characters are lurking about the village, when they shouldn’t be.

The Americans in this movie should know better since the village is one constant red flag after another, but the slow boil of the plot plays into Aster’s hands as he’s given enough time to establish why each character remains there despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that says, “Run.” Josh is an anthropology student, looking to do his dissertation on the little researched village of Halsingland, shrugging off morbid rituals as cultural differences. Mark is a stereotypical horndog, thinking a lot more with his second, believing that a European excursion will get him high and laid. He’s half right. Dani seems aimless and lost in the world after the death of her entire family at the beginning, still pondering how she could ever move forward. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, Christian, whose seemingly non-commital to everything, is genuinely indifferent to danger. In fact, having any sense of self-preservation in these kinds of movies gets you killed first. Two ancillary characters, who were also invited to the village by Swedish friend from England, are the first to sound the alarm, but they soon disappear.

Maybe it’s because I watched “Hereditary” and knew that Aster loved sprinkling his movie with copious amounts of breadcrumbs, but I didn’t find myself completely shocked about the things that eventually transpired, nor was I shocked by the various, gruesome revelations that stacked on top of one another. That being said, I’m sure there are dozens of breadcrumbs that I missed because Aster is meticulous. Nothing seen in this film is incidental or by accident, it all serves a purpose towards the film’s numerous themes and subject matter. As to what this movie is about, that’s a lot to unpack. I’m certain that a movie as thematically open-ended as this is sure to leave a different, long lasting impact on viewers. That might mean that there is inherently no wrong way to interpret this, but only Aster is privy to how to correctly take it all in.

Since Aster had made this film deeply personal, “Midsommar” is most certainly a contemplation of death, literally and figuratively. One could muse that Dani seems unable to let her relationship with Christian die. Even though she mentions to a friend at the beginning of the movie that she suspects Christian is ready to dump her. She seems indecisive about confronting him, while sub-consciously knowing that it should come to an end. Even as they both walk like zombies through their relationship, Dani shows another layer to this toxicity, a fear. Despite taking a leap by going to a strange country, strange village and take part in their strange customs, she holds on to this belief that letting go of what’s she become accustomed to is the end, when it’s not. It’s odd finding that nugget of commonality in humanity amongst the gore and paganism. As for Christian, the movie does a fantastic job making the audience care less and less about what happens to him, showing over and over again that he’s emotionally detached from his friends and the world because he’s inherently selfish. Dani pines for a sense of unity, while Christian views people as a means to an end. In that regard, their individual fates are fitting.

It’s hard not to compare “Midsommar” and “Hereditary,” even though they’re drastically different in several categories. For example, “Hereditary” was a horror grounded in Satanism and the paranormal, whereas “Midsommar” is horror grounded in heathen ideology and violent ceremonies, without the use of supernatural forces. However both require a great deal of effort by its cast to read and act out these bizarro scenes with the utmost, straightest of faces. It’s hard to spot a flaw in any of the performances, with Pugh being the standout here as her character deals with so much emotional turmoil. One standout bit of acting by her is the opening scene where she mourns. In my line of work, I’ve had to edit clips of mothers at the scene of a homicide, sobbing loudly through the most tragic of griefs as they find out that their child is dead. Pugh captures that bone chilling wail flawlessly and it should cut into anyone.

“Midsommar” is an unsettling nightmare, showing unflinching carnage, all while smiling back at you. Aster’s sophomore effort will certainly be criticized by the mainstream audiences for being heartlessly malicious, crass, and boring, as evidenced by the handful of people that walked out of my screening at the first sign of violence in the film. I, like others, will be endlessly picking it apart in my mind, discussing it with others who’ve watched it and reading the insurmountable online articles by cinephiles attempting to do the same. I have yet to say a negative thing about this movie, which would usually necessitate a higher rating than the one I’m giving it, but this is an instance, much like “Climax” from earlier this year, where a second viewing would help me solidify my opinion on this film, and whether or not I’d rank it higher. My only hesitancy with “Midsommar” is its rewatchability, mainly because I didn’t find “Hereditary” as enjoyable the second time, nor would I ever want to watch it again. Like some high-concept films, enough time has to pass for a viewer to rewatch, analyze and appreciate during a second time, as opposed to a Hollywood blockbuster. I’m also fully aware that’s a critical cop out my end. However, “Midsommar” may be that, once every few years, trip to the museum, where you need a healthy amount of time to mull over and appreciate the art for what it is.

Film Review: “Spider-Man: Far From Home”

Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson and Zendaya
Directed by: Jon Watts
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 129 minutes
Sony Pictures Releasing

If you haven’t yet watched “Avengers: Endgame,” then there’s a couple of things I’d like to say. 1. How have you not? 2. Why are you reading this if you haven’t? 3. You know there will be spoilers abound in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” for “Endgame,” if you haven’t watched it yet, right? Now, while my review will not have any spoilers, because Marvel fans are becoming incredibly irate about the slightest drip of a reveal and I generally find it to be disingenuous to do so in a review, I think it’s important for those who haven’t seen “Endgame” to know that they’ve been warned.

Seemingly weeks, maybe even days, after the events of “Endgame,” “Far From Home” wastes no time getting us up-to-date on what’s going on in the world of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland). As comically explained in a high school TV news update, the Thanos snap threw a curveball and some students are now towering over the other students because of the five-year gap. Meanwhile, there are fresh reminders that the world continues to mourn the loss of Tony Stark/Iron Man, and immortalize him in whatever way they can. However, the movie isn’t too clear on where we’re at chronologically within this world or Peter’s world, but who cares? He’s going on a European trip, hitting the proverbial FU button on his phone when Nick Fury (Jackson) calls, and trying to get in good with MJ (Zendaya).

“Far From Home” may have actually worked infinitely better as a high school comedy, as opposed to a superhero movie. That’s because the villain(s) of this movie aren’t that interesting, nor is there a lot of peril when Peter has to quickly throw on the Spider-Man suit and save the day. The movie works a lot better when Peter and his classmates are goofing around in Italy, Austria, or whatever European country they find themselves in. The movie makes this odd choice of trying to convince us, as well as S.H.I.E.L.D., that Peter is the savior of Earth, and to some extent, the next figurehead for hope like Iron Man was. That’s hammered home a lot, even though the film repeatedly shows us that Peter is too young or inept at being a hero, sometimes to cataclysmic effect.

I did have some fun here and there, warming up to the characters like a fire in a snowstorm, but there’s too many boneheaded decisions, and pivots in tone and direction. I’m also not entirely sold on the relationship between Peter and MJ, mainly because the movie seems to just assume that we already know why they like one another and why they should be together. It’s almost like “Far From Home” suffers from being sandwiched between the most climactic finish to a series of films and the beginning of a new cinematic phase. That really puts the teenager superhero, and the filmmakers, in precarious situation. It’s also quite possible that superhero fatigue is setting in after the “Endgame” sugar rush.

“Far From Home” is a fun epilogue to “Endgame,” but it isn’t strong enough to stand on its own merits. Thankfully this movie doesn’t hit the lows of other Marvel sequels, like “Iron Man 2” or “Thor 2,” thanks to the charm of its lead, Holland, and his pairing with Jake Gyllenhaal who, as per usual, gives it his all. I didn’t love it as much as “Homecoming” and I probably won’t rewatch it as much as “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Infinity War,” but it’s passable enough that you’ll leave with a smile, although it’ll fade by the time Marvel churns out another one of these.

Film Review: “Toy Story 4”

Starring the Voices of: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Annie Potts
Directed by: Josh Cooley
Rated: G
Running Time: 100 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Since 1999, audiences have asked three times, “Do we really need another one of these?” And every time, Pixar responds with, “Yes,” and audiences have overwhelmingly agreed. It’s astonishing that that same animation studio has struggled to justify other sequels, yet has had no problem continuing the adventures of Woody (Hanks), Buzz (Allen) and the other toys we’ve come to love over the past 24 years. So I almost have to wonder, is it really time to say goodbye?

If you haven’t been keeping up-to-date with these movies, the toys are no longer with their kid, Andy. They were left in the care of Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) and she’s now off to Kindergarten. Woody, wanting to ensure that his new kid is happy despite the scary change, tags along for her first trip to school, only to watch Bonnie struggle with making friends. So with some unforeseen help from Woody, Bonnie creates a new companion/toy, called Forky (Tony Hale). The fork, with crudely created feet and arms, creates a lot of existential questions for the toys, and audience. Forky doesn’t see his purpose as a toy, actually knowing that his purpose is to be a utensil and to be tossed in the trash. He believes in that mantra so much, that he abandons Bonnie during a family trip, leaving Woody to have to go after him.

In a lot of ways, “Toy Story 4” is a road trip movie where Woody and Buzz inherently grow up. Along the way, Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (Potts), one of the secondary characters from the first two films, but unexplainably missing from the previous film. In this one, we’re shown why Bo Peep is absent from that third film and just how important she is to Woody. So much so, that when she reunites with Woody, that’s when things come-to-a-head for Woody, who just isn’t quite as happy in his new life with Bonnie as he was with Andy.

Thankfully it isn’t just Woody who’s having an identity crisis. A lot of the toys in the movie seem to be pondering their own place in this world they don’t quite understand. Woody’s knows all the rules, but may be tired of following them. Buzz may be realizing that the world isn’t as black and white, and that tough decisions come from reflection and listening to that little voice inside your head. It’s astounding that after giving our toys in the previous film, a fresh restart on bliss, that they find themselves still wondering if there’s more to this world. It’s something that kids can surely latch on to as they grow into the world around them, and for their parents who still ponder a lot of “What ifs?” in their own life and own personal quest for happiness. It’s astonishing that the fourth of any franchise, animated or not, could be this profound.

Another thing that seems to impeccably be a part of Pixar’s storytelling arsenal, is their seemingly effortless nature to establish loveable characters. Like the first three, “Toy Story 4” introduces us to a lot more toys, maybe some of the most memorable ancillary ones of the series. Although this one has the benefit of having a lot more star power, with guest stars like Key and Peele, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, and some brief cameos by the likes of Mel Brooks and Betty White. Those kinds of cameos may give credence to the belief that Pixar is officially done with the franchise.

I would have never guessed back in 1995, as a seven-year-old in theaters, that these plastic toys come to life would make me cry twice later in my life. While a lot of that is because I’ve actually grown up and matured alongside these characters, Pixar’s writers and creators bare their soul and tap into a lot of elements of the human condition in this series. The franchise has managed to create a litany of unique and impactful messages that feel simple enough for kids to understand, but complex enough to resonate throughout one’s adulthood. As much as I was OK with saying goodbye in “Toy Story 3,” especially with where our toys were left, part of me doesn’t want to say goodbye this time because of how Pixar has always given these characters something new and heartfelt to say every time.

Film Review: “Dark Phoenix”

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
Directed by: Simon Kinberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
20th Century Fox

As we all know by now, it only took Disney a measly 11 years to crank out 22 Marvel movies which culminated in the Infinity Stones saga. Fox hasn’t been so quick when it comes to the X-Men franchise, which began back in 2000. If you count the “Deadpool” movies, “Dark Phoenix” is the 12th entry and it feels like the end after a lot of outside and inside factor. The internal factors is that it comes after the R-rated ending to the Wolverine storyline, the jumbling of time in “Days of Future Past” and the peculiar decline in quality since “Days of Future Past.” The key outside factor is the Fox buyout. “Dark Phoenix” isn’t as bad as the attempt by “Last Stand” to tell the Dark Phoenix story, but it doesn’t quite live up to the highs of this beloved franchise.

“Dark Phoenix” begins in uncharted territories, with the X-Men actually being loved by the general public and the U.S. government. That’s because they’re on the President’s speed dial in case a national crisis arises. The latest event that requires the X-Men is NASA losing contact with a spaceship and its crew. The X-Men are called upon to save the astronauts, but it’s while in space that something bizarre happens to Jean Grey (Turner). Jean absorbs a mysterious, electric cosmic cloud during the rescue mission and comes back to Earth volatile, quick to anger and conflicted. The reason lies within Jean’s past, as well as what Professor X (McAvoy) has buried within her mind.

“Dark Phoenix” takes place nearly a decade after “Apocalypse” and makes the assumption that all of the relationships between the characters, established in the original “X-Men” movie and “X-2” will ring true, like Jean Grey’s relationship with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). We’re also supposed to know what’s happened in the newer films with the fresh, young cast, like how Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Professor Xavier are friends and how Magneto (Fassbender) isn’t necessarily the prevailing bad guy anymore. If you’re only acquainted with one branch of the franchise, you’re likely to be confused. Of course if any of the above read like stereo instructions then just go ahead and skip this one.

The villains in this movie are a race of aliens that are so obscure; the comic book fans in attendance at the preview screening didn’t even know who they were. After a little bit of digging, I found that the aliens are called the Shi’ar. Their leader in this movie is played by Jessica Chastain, and the intergalactic race of no names frequently proves to be unreliable narrators, which hurts the overall story whenever they’re given exposition to deliver. Their goal is to channel the cloud energy thing that Jean Grey has absorbed and transfer it into one of their own, or manipulate Jean Grey’s emotions so that she can do their bidding. Their reasoning? You’d probably have a better guess than me, even if you haven’t seen the movie.

For a franchise that’s always had good villains, it’s odd that a powerful race of space aliens looking to destroy the Earth is so uninteresting and toothless. At least Jean Grey, when she’s Dark Phoenix, proves to be an interesting firecracker, made up of equal parts sympathetic and volatile. It’s great watching her shrug off the powers of the most iconic characters in this franchise, like Professor X and Magneto. Speaking of which, Professor X and Magneto continue to be the best superhero duo, whether opposed or working together, on the screen, no matter the pair of actors portraying the two. I actually enjoy what these newer X-Men movies have done with Magneto. Instead of being the fallback for villainy, he seems a lot more focused on a secluded life, away from the noise surrounding him, If anything, Professor X seems more or less to be the instigator of problems as of late.

“Dark Phoenix” suffers a lot from what plagued “Apocalypse,” a weak villain, character motivations that are beneath the actors and their strong performances, and a story that falls within the shadows of the franchise’s superior films. But unlike some of the weakest X-Men films, this one has a lot of great action sequences and sometimes the characters manage to elevate a flimsy scene just with their quips and actions. Quiksilver (Evan Peters) once again steals the scenes he’s in, but is used so sparingly, it makes you wonder why they ever introduced him. “Dark Phoenix” is a middle of the road entry that certainly could have been worse, but definitely deserves to be better, given the pieces that are in place.

Nearly 18 years after the first film, it appears that one of the first superhero franchises is about to disappear or be rebooted. Granted, no one has officially said anything and “Dark Phoenix,” by no means, hints that this is indeed the finale, but some writing is on the wall. Ever since the government gave the thumbs up to Disney absorbing Fox for billions, with Hugh Jackman hanging up the adamantium claws, and the box office receipts coming back smaller and smaller, it appears that the X-Men franchise is starting to run on fumes, creatively and financially. I’m hoping “Dark Phoenix” isn’t the last of these films or the last time we’ll see the dynamic duo of McAvoy and Fassbender, but if this is the last time, they deserved a hell of a lot better.

Film Review: “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry and Laurence Fishburne
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Summit Entertainment

Lionsgate probably began 2019 with the hopes of their own superhero franchise. Well, at this point in the year, we know that “Hellboy” was a massive flop, critically and financially. At least they can hang their hats on the future of another franchise, one that was unexpected back in 2014, John Wick (Reeves).

Just like the prior film, “John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum” rapidly continues the saga of the assassin known as “The Boogeyman,” although no one refers to him by his nickname this time around. If you haven’t seen the previous films, then this film review is going to read like gobbledygook. When we last left Wick, he had just got done putting a bullet between the eyes of a powerful crime lord, he had been declared excommunicado from the Continental for those actions and the High Table had slapped a $14 million bounty on his head. With every assassin hungry to become a multi-millionaire, “Parabellum” wastes no time as the game is quickly afoot.

At this current time, if I was to rank the Wick films, I would put “Parabellum” last. That’s not to say this is a bad movie because it’s still a solid entry, but it doesn’t quite match the highs of the two previous films. Thankfully, my knocks against the film aren’t in the action department. This movie is tight, quick and exciting when the guns are drawn. The humor from the prior films remains intact as characters treat every scene seriously, despite the absurd circumstances and weapons at their disposal. When he has a gun in his hand, Wick remains a dead shot, but it’s during fist fights and other hand-to-hand combat moments that the movie shines as a violent tour de force. Not only does Wick get to utilize knives and swords a lot more this time around, but he manages to use various inanimate objects as instruments of death. It’s like a watching a symphony play to most stylized and brutal balet. This might actually be the goriest Wick film so far as Wick disposes of people in several gruesome ways. I could ramble on a bit more about the film’s glorious savagery, but it’s once the action subsides that the movie begins to falter.

The movie pumps the brakes towards the middle. While the first two films built upon the world during the lulls, this one seems to sputter. The filmmakers seem hesitant about building upon the rich tapestry because it seems unsure of how to proceed or grow. We get dashes of Wick’s past, but there’s not enough for audiences to grasp and understand Wick or the world around him. We get the feeling that the Continental and High Table have their tentacles around the globe yet the film doesn’t necessarily follow those tentacles down any fascinating wormholes. Instead we’re left with a throwaway character, played by Halle Berry, some trash bin villains and a mysterious figurehead that seems to be the “God” of this criminal underbelly.

It’s safe to say that because these film sequels are “chapters,” more Wick films are down the pipeline. So those lingering questions and thirst for more information will hopefully be fulfilled in later films. For now though, this may be viewed as a minor hiccup in an otherwise impressive film franchise. “Parabellum” reminds us why Wick is such a likable killer while offering up another glorious knockdown, beat down, visual smorgasbord of unblinking gun porn and fist throwing viciousness that remains unmatched by other contemporary action blockbusters. Compelling storytelling problems aside, Wick is still just as strong as trigger finger.

Film Review: “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu”

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton
Directed By: Rob Letterman
Rated: PG
Running Time: 104 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

“Are you Pokémon savvy?” That’s a question I was asked after the screening of “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu,” since I’m one of a handful of Millennials who shows up to screenings to review a film in the Kansas City area. I told them, “Yes. And the movie still bad.”

The film begins with a lot of heavy-handed fan service that’ll put a smile on fans faces. I know this because during the Pokémon craze of the late 90s, I watched the animated show, collected the battle cards, and played the various Gameboy games that were increasingly cranked out during its peak in America. But I’m not a die-hard. My interest waned and I inevitably moved on to the next pop-culture video game fad, although I did download Pokémon Go when that was a thing. So for those who aren’t “Pokémon savvy” or have any kind of knowledge, you’ll want to avoid this movie at all costs or else you’ll be demanding your money back at the ticket counter after five minutes. So as a casual fan and critic, where do I think it all go wrong as a movie?

I give credit, “Detective Pikachu” sets up an interesting world where humans and Pokémon live together and interact in various ways. It’s not quite on the intricate levels of a movie like “Zootopia” where every scene is littered with clever sight gags and visuals, in the foreground and background, of how this world, while like ours, is incredibly different. The scenes of underground Pokémon battles and the hustling, bustling marketplace are an interesting mix of futuristic noir and cutesy animals. But the filmmakers seemed to be more focused on making the sidekick, Detective Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, the focus of nearly every scene after his introduction. His dialogue is either expositional or quips that are more miss than hit.

The main character, and human counterpart to Pikachu, is Tim Goodman (Smith). He encounters Pikachu while rummaging through his father’s apartment in Ryme City, the epicenter of this world. Goodman believes his father to be dead, but Pikachu believes that Goodman’s father is missing, since they were partners on the Ryme City Police Force. But Pikachu doesn’t quite remember the circumstances behind what caused Goodman’s father to go missing and can’t quite fully confirm that he’s even still alive. The one element to all this, which is heavily shown in the film’s trailers, is that Goodman can understand Pikachu. For those who don’t know, a Pokémon’s language is their name. So while everyone else hears Pikachu saying “Pika Pika Pikachu,” Goodman hears Pikachu’s bad “Deadpool” jokes.

For the majority of its runtime, “Detective Pikachu” bumbles and stumbles around looking for any kind of meaning or purpose. The special effects artists have built this visual feast, but the film never seems to stop and take it all in, nor does it seem interested in the nuances of this universe, instead opting for big, loud, obnoxious action sequences that have no reason to exist. In fact, when the movie does decide to expand upon the story, it over explains, over shows, and does a bad job at disguising the bad guy of the film who clearly shows up 10 minutes into the film.

Not to be a dead horse, or in this case, a dead Ponyta, I can understand how none of this film makes any sense to anyone outside the fanbase because of how poorly the ideas are conveyed. It takes it another step further though, by dumbing down everything so much; it forgets to actually explain what’s happening to our characters while over explaining minor details that spoils the twists of the final act of the film. The four screenplay writers tangled up an otherwise simple buddy-cop film that might have been enjoyable to the fanbase, and those idling on the outside of it. Because even if you remove the Pokémon and replace them with any kind of bizarre creatures or popular franchise, the movie is still an utter mess.

The film moves at such a frenetic pace, it’s sometimes easy to lose yourself in it and forget that you’re bored. But that’s just it. It’s boring. After the movie you realize what transpired could have been told in a singular episode of television and that you have no exciting set pieces or gags to take home with you. Reynolds is charming, but it’s hard to stretch that smug, likeable voice over what is inherently a lengthy advertisement for the Pokémon brand. When you scrape off the gunk that builds up over time in this film, there’s something genuinely interesting. The animated “Pokémon” show is set in an era before phones, social media and the 21st century. Bringing Pokémon into the future could have been a novel idea, where Pokémon actually help humans solve crimes. Instead, the film tosses in the laziest villain and the most nonsensical sinister plot he could concoct, and slaps it on the big screen for the fans that will devour it.

Film Review: “Long Shot”

Starring: Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron and O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Lionsgate

I’ll give a smidgen of credit to Hollywood for attempting to change up the tired trope of the average guy getting a woman who is way out of his league. The “Long Shot” follows in line with other movies before it, like “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” etc. So it’s no surprise that Seth Rogen, the go-to as of late for the down on his luck schmuck, gets paired with Charlize Theron for “Long Shot,” a movie that’s better than it’s supposed to be, but not as good as it thinks it is.

Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is a journalist, who has decided to quit instead of being let-go or continuing to work after his small time paper is bought by a media conglomerate. Through the most bizarre and unlikely of circumstances, Fred becomes reacquainted with Charlotte Field (Theron, his first crush, when she used to babysit him. Charlotte is now one of the most powerful people on the planet, the U.S. Secretary of State. But she has higher aspirations, especially after the President, played briefly, yet incredibly well by Bob Odenkirk, relays to her that he has no plans of seeking re-election. Sparks and complications arise when Charlotte hires Fred on to punch up her speeches as she gets ready to hit the campaign trail.

Whether you like “Long Shot” or not is based solely on the chemistry between Rogen and Theron. The odd couple matching work surprisingly well because Rogen tones down his frat boy antics and Theron demonstrates the comedic timing she’s shown flashes of previously on “Arrested Development” and in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” Outside of the pull and tug of their contrasting personalities, they manage to have their characters do a bit of soul searching and learning along the way, which elevates the humdrum plot. The comedy is hit or miss, with the hits being crude and the misses being the stereotypical “fat man fall down go boom.”

There’s an underlying smugness to “Long Shot,” but luckily it stops itself from reveling in liberalism for too long in the film’s third act. Granted, I agree with a lot of the film’s political and social insights, but I and others don’t need it being delivered to us in such a ham-fisted fashion. It’s about as politically ferocious as a middle school class president election debate. Although I’d gladly watch a TV show of Rogen and Theron on the campaign trail, munching on the political landscape because it once again plays into the character’s complimentary personas.

“Long Shot” is an average rom-com, where the performances elevate the mundane story. A handful of riotous moments keep the film from dragging during its two-hour runtime, although those with an easily upsettable nature may find the film too crass. It’s hard to ignore the charm of the on-screen duo, even if you find yourself rolling your eyes when the film falls back on rom-com clichés.  

TFF Film Review: “Ask Dr. Ruth”

ASK DR. RUTH
Starring: Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer
Directed by: Ryan White
Running time: 100 mins.
Hulu/Magnolia Pictures

Dr. Ruth Westheimer–or as the world knows her simply “Dr.Ruth”–is an icon of modern pop culture both for broadening the discussion of sexuality in the mainstream as well as her larger than life personality. At just 4’7″, the diminutive German radiates a warmth and sense of humor that easily draws people to share their deepest personal concerns with her. Dr. Ruth has been on the world’s radar since her debut radio show “Sexually Speaking” in 1980 but at ninety years old, there is so much more of her story to be told. Fortunately for film goers, director Ryan White has chosen to take a thorough look into this extraordinary woman’s history. This internationally loved figure survived the Holocaust and time as a sniper in war-torn Jerusalem all before she reached Ellis Island to begin life in America as a single mother at a time when that was far from the norm. And then she took the media by storm. The documentary itself is as accessible and often light-hearted as its titular sex therapist while not shying away from her tragic beginnings.

Dr. Ruth was born in 1928 as Karola Ruth Siegel to Orthodox Jewish parents in Germany. As WWII was brewing, Karola saw her father arrested and she was sent away by her grandmother as part of the Kindertransport to an orphanage in Switzerland. The small Karola did not know she would not see her parents again but she kept up writing letters with them as long as they could in addition to her detailed journals. Dr. Ruth’s own records are a boon to this doc and her diligence in conserving them is rewarded with some lovely animation work that White introduces to bridge the time before she came to the public eye (though White’s choice of an unaccented young American woman reading her diaries is at times jarring). The film also has a nice blend of her home movies chronicling her life as she finally reached America.

There’s no doubt that the strength of this documentary is owed to its magnetic subject. Watching Dr. Ruth query an Amazon Alexa in her uber-thick accent (and it takes a few tries for the electronic helper!) is a pure delight. Fortunately for White, Dr. Ruth also surrounds herself with equally well-spoken company. Her two grown children, her quartet of grandkids and even her first “boyfriend”, a fellow Holocaust survivor, are welcome additions to rounding out her life off-camera. Finally and naturally, White doesn’t skimp on emphasizing her media impact. There’s highlights from the times she embraced a certain kitsch take on her pop persona–I am guilty of first being aware of her as a kid due to that cheesy ‘sex-noises’ Herbal Essences ad from the 90s–as well as the more critical role she played in the conversation during the AIDs crisis. There is so much of the human experience packed into Dr. Ruth’s tiny frame that this documentary is an embarrassment of riches.

Ask Dr. Ruth has its New York premiere tonight as part of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Fest screenings will be followed by a limited theatrical release on May 3rd and will debut on Hulu on June 1st.