Film Review: “Climax”

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile and Roman Guillermic
Directed by: Gaspar Noe
Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
A24

Usually for arthouse films, you hear the phrase, “This may not be for everyone.” When it comes to Gaspar Noe films, they may not be for anyone. Having only seen “Enter the Void,” out of curiosity on Netflix one night, my second trip into Noe’s twisted mind comes in the form of a dance troupe’s celebration before heading out on an international tour. They got the jams, they got the drinks, and they got the food. However, an uninvited guest is about to crash their party.

The jubilation slowly turns into a horrifying mystery as members of the young French dance team suspect someone has spiked their sangria with drugs. Things decline quickly as the LSD takes hold, leading to arguments, more dancing, graphic violence, more dancing, deaths, more dancing, graphic sex and more dancing. Luckily for audience members that might not have the stomach for Noe’s twisted vision, he never comes off as an edgelord looking to exploit his characters for ghoulish fun. Instead he’s more transfixed on how an eclectic group of young 20-somethings in the mid-90’s quickly turn on each other or flock into unsuspecting arms when their perceptions deteriorate.

“Climax” doesn’t abide by any cinematic rules, as it begins with the film’s end credits, then fixates on an old box TV that plays VHS interview tapes of all the dancers we’re about to meet. After every character’s brief introduction, the film switches to the old abandoned school where the madness goes down, beginning with a lengthy dance sequence, all within a single take. There’s actually quite a few single takes in the film, some that would make Alejandro Inarritu scratch his head in curiosity as to how it was pulled off.

A movie like this in anyone else’s hands would be boring, but Noe keeps you transfixed to the screen as he flies seamless and methodically around the school, like a curious specter watching the pure bedlam unfold. There’s genuine dread as several scenarios are left to playout as the LSD amplifies character’s primal instincts. It’s in these moments that you realize that despite our best attempts to do good for the benefit of society, self-preservation will kick in or we’ll resort to our most basic animal instincts. Of course it’s entirely possible that you’ll take away a different experience or viewpoint.

Much of the film is made even more impressive by the tidbit that the cast is made up of professional dancers, not professional actors. We never see the hallucinations from their point of view, but the pain or pleasure is etched all over their faces. The only person of note in this film is Sofia Boutella, and even she gets lost in the group theatrics. In several interviews, Noe has discussed his love of dance. Not as a participant, but more as an observer. “Climax” is almost like his theatrical version of people watching. “Climax” takes that club dancing expressionism that he fondly enjoys and cranks it to 11 by throwing in drugs, blood and sex. It’s a trial by fire where the people become marionettes, with the bass puppeteering their every movement. For those who break free from the trance, they meet an untimely fate or wind up naked with an unlikely lover. It’s a true Heaven/Hell on Earth.

I felt really unsure about “Climax” as I left the theater, but I couldn’t quite narrow down much in terms of technical or storytelling complaints. The cinematography is on another level, matching the constant dance beats in the background. The soundtrack ranges from foreign EDM to more recognizable artists like Daft Punk and the Rolling Stones. I only withhold unflinching adoration for a film like this because I may believe I’m consuming something of substance while blinded by its deliciously fresh style. It’s a brisk, but bewitching film that I’m sure I’ll watch again. It’s in that second watch I’ll either find distaste or amplified admiration for Noe’s vision. Love it or hate, viewers won’t be able to shake “Climax,” much like a bad acid trip.

Film Review: “Captain Marvel”

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn
Directed By: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It only took 21 movies for Marvel and Disney to finally release a female-led superhero film, and it’s not about Black Widow. It’s the kind of some comic book fans have been clamoring for, for about a decade now. For those fans, I have to warn you up front, this isn’t the monumental moment you’ve been hoping for.

“Captain Marvel” is an origin story in reverse. When we first meet Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Larson), she goes by Vers and is having her skills crafted under the observant eye of the Kree military. She’s in a unit that serves as an important cog in the intergalactic war between the Kree and Skrull. Honestly, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you have a lot of movie binging to do. The film really doesn’t pick up pace until “Vers” is stranded on Earth after being ambushed by some Skrull. It’s on Earth that she not only chases down the Skrull, but begins chasing down fleeting memories of a life she’s forgotten.

The first 30 minutes or so are pretty rough, even if you understand and know all of the necessary backstory that’s been glossed over in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor” films. It attempts to juggle exposition, mystery, and introductions, while handling them all poorly. The exposition isn’t interesting, we already know who “Vers” is, and Marvel is generally terrible about disguising their surprise villains. The movie actually gains momentum and gets a lot more fun when Danvers crashes through the roof of a Blockbuster Video, one of the dozens of reminders that this takes place in the mid-90’s.

As a child of the 90’s, all the winks, nods and nudges are welcome, but they ultimately come off as pandering. The movie feels like it needs to tickle some nostalgia bones, in lieu of character building or plot development. That being said, I don’t mind a little Nirvana or No Doubt in my soundtrack or jokes about how painfully slow computers and the Internet used to be. Millennial inside jokes aside, it’s on Earth that Danvers runs into a young Nick Fury (Jackson), which helps serve as a bit of an origin story for the Avengers initiative.

The 70-year-old Jackson and the 29-year-old Larson are actually a dynamic duo. Their green screen scenery chewing brightens up some otherwise dull moments. It’s regrettable that Marvel missed out on giving them some 90’s buddy cop tropes to gnaw on. “Captain Marvel” may have actually worked better as a parody or homage of films like “The Last Boy Scout” or “Bad Boys.” Luckily these two stars share a lot of screen time and seem to feed off each other’s energy.

“Captain Marvel” is what we’ve come to expect from these yearly Marvel traditions, a lot of CGI, fun set pieces and eye candy for the masses. I actually had quite a bit of fun when I wasn’t analyzing its flaws. So if you want a mindless superhero film, then that’s what you get. That being said, it’s still above the mindless action of Snyder’s DC films because it doesn’t bog the fun down with a bleak atmosphere and outlandish character interactions. For others who are expecting a little more or something a lot more audacious, you’re out of luck. Disney probably over thought this one a bit; and it shows.

If it weren’t for Larson and Jackson, the film may have been a forgettable dud in the same vein as “Thor: The Dark World” or “Iron Man 2.” Those two wring out so much from a minimal script. The writers seemed to be more interested in padding time and setting up a payoff, which never pays off. The film has about half a dozen writers and doesn’t do anything remarkably different with tone or style, like “Thor: Ragnarok” or “Black Panther” managed to do in recent years. “Captain Marvel” is the kind of film you could nitpick to death if you don’t turn your brain off. Everything from visual effects to casting choices is suspect and up for ridicule.

I actually didn’t have high hopes for “Captain Marvel,” so I may not find it as underwhelming or disappointing as some people. Whereas a film like “Wonder Woman” felt like it was breaking new ground, “Captain Marvel” seems to tread water. A lot of that may be due to Disney’s weariness of trying something outlandishly new or daring with its multi-billion dollar baby. Disney could merely be testing the waters. You should be frustrated if the next female superhero film from the studio powerhouse is another cookie cutter film. A progressive step requires a fresh idea, not a copy-and-paste formula that’s slowly becoming stale.

Film Review: “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part”

Starring the Voices of: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Arnett
Directed By: Mike Mitchell
Rated: PG
Running Time: 106 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

“The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” was never going to live up to the first. Well. I take that back. It could have. The first film’s core creators, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, are no longer at the directorial helm, but have their names plastered throughout the credits as producers and writers. Personally, I don’t think the oddball duo have yet to fail when they’re behind the camera. But as writers and producers, their names are surprisingly all over the place in Hollywood, from movies like “Smallfoot” to “Brigsby Bear.” They generally hop on board projects with promise, and while the follow-up to “The LEGO Movie” had promise, it partially delivers.

The sequel, just like in real life, takes place five years after the first film. The first one ended on the ominous announcement that real world child, Finn (Jadon Sand), has a baby sister. That baby sister has intruded on Finn’s imagination, therein intruding on the imaginary LEGO world on-screen. Emmett (Pratt) and Lucy’s (Bank) brick world has gone from a thriving metropolis to a “Mad Max” hellscape where other worldly LEGO creations stop off in their world to abduct and torment Emmett and Lucy’s pals. It’s only later that the duo find out that Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), of the Systar System, is abducting their friends for a specific purpose and are now targeting them. Trying to explain this almost feels more confusing than it should be. So if you haven’t seen the first, just skip this one.

The manic whimsy of the first is still intact, as jokes sometimes come flying fast and furious with a kinetic energy that’s reminiscent of other Lord and Miller productions. Unfortunately the film takes a while to find out what new stories and themes it would like to tell the audience. The first handful of minutes are spent catching viewers up on events in the fictionalized worlds, as well as retelling jokes, beat by beat, down to the punchline. Older viewers might feel like they’re being duped, much like fans in the 80s felt when seeing “Airplane II: The Sequel.” Luckily that feeling dissipates after a while.

You may have forgotten, as you should, but there was a silly controversy back in 2014 when the first “LEGO Movie” came out. Some found that the movie was bad for kids because of its “anti-corporate” message. I can feel your eyes rolling as you read that. But for those who felt like that was a legitimate gripe, you’ll be pleased to know that this film feels a lot more like a cash grab and doesn’t have an anti-capitalist leaning. That being said, there are still a lot of moments of subversive brilliance possibly directed at the studio.

A good chunk of those clever jokes seem to be digs at Warner Bros., who may have demanded a sequel after money came rolling in. I won’t give the playful comedic jabs away since they’re in the film’s third act. In a handful of instances before that, the film appears to be taking part in other kid’s movie tropes, like musical numbers or sequel/world building, as a chance to not only make-fun of the constructs, but point out how they’re generously shoehorned in to most narratives in kid’s movies. If Lord and Miller merely served as producers, and not writers, I might actually feel like some of these creative choices were studio notes. It’s also possible I’m looking far too into it.

Even while scraping away some of the layered intellect this film has, this sequel is non-stop eye candy accompanied by rapid-fire jokes that’ll put smiles on the faces of kids and adults alike. While there’s no doubt that this’ll please the young ones, it might have some parents who watched the first one feeling fatigued. That’s because it doesn’t quite match the persistent irreverent wit of the first, or the revelations that reward viewers who watch the film a second time. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time comparing this one to the original, this sequel still manages to squeeze out some heart from its human and brick characters. “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” is beautifully animated, uproariously funny and mischievously inventive, but not as much as as its predecessor.

Film Review: “Glass”

Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 129 minutes
Universal Pictures

What are some of the best non-DC/Marvel superhero films? That’s when folks would throw out movies like “The Crow” or “The Rocketeer.” But what about truly original superhero films, ones not based on comics? That’s when you really get down to the nitty gritty of films that hold their own against CGI-filled blockbusters. Before “Unbreakable,” there was “Darkman” and “The Toxic Avenger.” But unlike the latter, “Unbreakable” has spurred some worthy sequels.

It’s been discussed online for nearly two decades that director M. Night Shyamalan had always intended for “Unbreakable” to inevitably be a trilogy. The question remained even after the release of “Split,” a trilogy about what or who? So does “Glass” fulfill what fans were told, a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy? Or does it pull a Disney and create the possibility of more sequels? Luckily Samuel L. Jackson’s character doesn’t reveal himself to be Nick Fury all along.

Much to the surprise of fans, the throwdown between David Dunn (Willis) and Kevin Crumb as the Beast (McAvoy) happens fairly early on as Dunn is tracking down some kidnapped cheerleaders, the latest in a string other kidnappings and vicious murders in Philadelphia. Police are hot on both their trails though and arrest both before they can spar for too long. Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), is at the scene along with authorities because she wants to study the two for their delusions of grandeur, believing that comic book culture is behind their perceived abilities. Also in custody, and sitting down with Dunn and Crumb for some bizarre group therapy, is Mr. Glass (Jackson). Dr. Staple’s hope is to convince the trio that their super strength and super intelligence isn’t what it seems.

While sometimes clunky, everything that feels out of place or misguided eventually comes together in the third act. When everything is said and done, David Dunn (probably because of the salary Bruce Willis commands), seems to be more of a side character in this film. But it’s also not necessarily about the origins of Mr. Glass. We already got that in “Unbreakable.” The movie does have him play a key role, revealing why the film is inevitably named after him. But a good chunk of story outside the trio’s therapy sessions is Mr. Glass and Crumb’s multiple personalities scheming, talking and acting. It’s in these scenes that audiences are treated to every individual inhabiting David’s head. Acting wise, nothing’s quite as impressive or entertaining as McAvoy’s scenery chewing, but other side characters from the previous films provide some emotional weight as they make their way in throughout the film, building towards the climax.

It feels a little long, and is as the longest film in the trilogy, mainly because Shyamalan unfortunately falls back onto some poor storytelling mechanics that we’ve seen before with some of his weaker films. He tends to over explain plot points by showing and telling the audience what’s happening. It can feel a little condescending since the film is built around the idea that you’ve seen the previous two films and that you should be smarter than the average moviegoer. I would usually chalk it up to a talking head at the studio, but this is something Shyamalan has done in films like “The Happening” or “The Village.” Luckily he doesn’t do it ad nauseam.

“Glass” doesn’t subvert superhero tropes or makes any kind of new critiques of the genre, but it manages to manipulate viewer’s emotions and expectations enough to where everything genuinely feels original. The action is filmed in a way where our imagination, instead of computers, fills the void. Even the simplest things that Dunn or Crumb do, feel grand because of the lives they’re saving and taking. Because they’re not throwing each other into buildings like Superman and General Zod, but instead slowly bending steel or taking their time to punch down metal doors, the story feels more grounded in reality. It helps that every character is morally flawed. The good and evil on display blend together to elicit sympathy and disgust.

“Glass” ends up being the weakest of the three films, but it’s still an entertaining finale. Some might be turned off by how it all ends, but I applaud the bowtie. While most directors would have left the door open, just in case the box office receipts warranted a sequel, Shyamalan promptly wrote “Glass” as a final chapter to this superhero story. It feels complete, without the need to tell us anymore or asking us to sit through another chapter, something most superhero movies these days don’t know how to do.

Film Review: “Welcome to Marwen”

Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann and Merritt Wever
Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Universal Pictures

Back in 2015, director Robert Zemeckis brought the story of Philippe Petit to life in “The Walk.” It was a visually stunning film with a gripping story that was accompanied by a sore reminder at the core of its story, the Twin Towers in New York City. It was an awe inspiring flick that was equally joyful and tragic. That kind of nuance has been lost from Zemeckis’ touch in 2018 with his latest film, “Welcome to Marwen.”

I mention “The Walk” because it came seven years after the gripping documentary, “Man on Wire,” which many would agree is the better story of Petit. This time around, Zemeckis is crafting another story in the shadow of a documentary. Back in 2010, “Marwencol” brought the world the story of Mark Hogancamp, a man who finds solace and comfort in dolls and a miniature city he built outside his residence after a vicious attack that robbed him of thousands of precious memories from his previous life. It’s a humbling and breathtaking story that has been robbed of its magic in “Welcome to Marwen.”

Steve Carell does bring that humble nature and PTSD terror to Hogancamp’s story, but it comes up short once Zemeckis’ starts monkeying with the mechanics. About a third of the film is told through the eyes of the dolls that Hogancamp craft’s, as well as their surroundings. These scenes are a little jarring, as they come to life to fill in a plot point, or in Hogancamp’s mind, during a restless night of sleep. These scenes feel out of sorts with the film because they pop-up like a jump scare or are inadequately shoehorned in alongside real-life events.

While it’s a creative concept, with the dolls literally coming to life and talking to Hogancamp or playing out parallels in his life, they muddy the storytelling waters. Zemeckis’ attempt to be clever, end up diluting the various themes of Hogancamp’s story, one that is about recovery, acceptance and the mental struggles that victims of vicious attacks go through. Also undercutting these serious subjects is misplaced humor that disjoints the overall narrative.

Moments that should move you emotionally fall short because of how tonally misshaped “Welcome to Marwen” is. The doll sequences become overbearing, stretching out the story, with several aimless subplots and awkward moments that come off unintentionally funny as opposed to sympathetic. I can’t complete dislike something that comes from a good place, but it’s understandable if someone walks out of this movie confused or bothered by its half-hearted attempts at compassion.

Film Review: “Ben is Back”

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts and Kathryn Newton
Directed By: Peter Hedges
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
LD Entertainment

“Ben is Back” starts out well-intentioned enough, but by the end it comes off as a hyper-exploitive freak out. The movie, a day in the life of the Burns’ family, tackles the dire issue of opioids from several different angles. Sometimes it tackles it in very realistic terms, specifically the pain and awkwardness it can create for families in its wake. However, it predominantly tackles it like a daytime soap opera, with the gauche touch of those 80’s drug PSAs.

Ben (Hedges) has unexpectedly returned home on Christmas Eve. His younger siblings, who have no memory of the terrifying nights he put his family through, are happy to see him; His sister and mother not so much. Holly (Roberts), Ben’s mom, immediately goes to work hiding drugs that could trigger her son’s addiction, as well as jewelry and other sellable knick knacks, just in case he’s already relapsed. It’s in these opening moments that the film is emotionally riveting by not holding back on any of its emotional gut punches. Then it starts going off the rails when Holly confronts Ben’s old doctor at the mall and tells him that she hopes he rots in Hell. Merry Christmas from the Burns family!

To dive into the specifics of why “Ben is Back” continues to fall off the wagon, and hard, would be to ruin the film’s second act, which feels more like another movie with the same actors was flipped on in the projector booth. What should have been a harrowing story about addiction, becomes an even more over-the-top “August: Osage County,” involving drugs and crime. There are also several moments where I can just hear Nancy Reagan bemoaning the horrors of addiction and paralyzing viewers with fear that we too can suffer every feasible scenario from just one night of drug use.

It’s not that the things that happen to and around Ben, haven’t happened before or could happen to an addict and their families, but it’s the frequency, severity, and occurrence of which it happens in “Ben is Back” that’s laughable. I half expected Walter White of “Breaking Bad” to pop-up and tell Ben to stay out of his territory. That’s how comically bad it gets. Because of the dire subject matter though, it takes a veteran actor or two to wring out any semblance of seriousness in the script.

No matter how bad the dialogue gets, Roberts and Hedges tow a fine line to keep their characters within the realm of “maybe this could happen.” It’s actually quite impressive seeing Hedges go toe-to-toe with Roberts when they argue or clash. I couldn’t imagine anyone else, in either role, pulling off the same acting acrobatics and making it remotely watchable. In that regard, “Ben is Back” is admirable in its dramatic attempts. Like I said, it’s well intentioned and the first 30 to 40 minutes are good, but sometimes the best of intentions can hurt the cause you’re reportedly fighting for.

Film Review: “Roma”

Starring: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira and Fernando Grediaga
Directed By: Alfonso Cuaron
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Netflix

You know the phrase, “a slice of Americana,” or at the least the variations of it? In pop-culture it’s used to describe pop-culture that capture a moment in time, with the values and ideas reflected in the American characters on screen. Classics like “The Best Years of Our Lives” or “A Christmas Story” come to mind, while its contemporary cohorts are films like “Mudbound” or “Friday Night Lights.” Alfonso Cuaron’s latest movie, “Roma,” could be called a slice of Mexicana.

Cuaron returns to his roots in “Roma,” a film about Sofia’s (Tavira) strained household in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Living under the roof is Sofia’s four children, her mother, her “husband,” and two maids. The drama involving Sofia and her husband, who are separating, is placed on the backburner to stew to its natural boiling point towards the end of the movie. But one of her maids, Cleo (Aparicio), is surprisingly the core drama for most of the film. That’s because Cleo believes she’s pregnant and once she shares this news with her boyfriend, he quickly abandons her in the worst possible way. Unfortunately things don’t get any better for Cleo.

So much transpires in such little time, and sometimes in such few words, that “Roma” feels like the most poignant chapter of an autobiography. At face value, there’s nothing extraordinary about the people in the Sofia household, but because Cuaron captures the seesawing family dynamics so perfectly, it’s hard to look away during some of the film’s simplest scenes. It also makes some of the most emotionally devastating scenes, and there are several, much more impactful and riveting.

The actors in “Roma,” who’ve never starred in anything before or aren’t household names in the U.S., but are in Mexico, are outstanding here. Kudos to Cuaron for finding Aparico, who effortlessly handles the hefty amount of emotion, her character demands. This is her first role and certainly won’t be her last. The multi-layered maternal roles that Aparico and Tavira tackle are difficult, but their performances are nuanced and subtle, but speak volumes about gender roles, whether it be in society as a whole or in the Sofia household.

While Cuaron broke visual ground in “Gravity,” he proves to be an equally captivating director with the classic panoramic format, capturing rarely before seen beauty in the black and white picture. Even in monochromatic, the city streets pop, the seaside is picturesque, and the surrounding mountains have never looked more beautiful. Nearly every facet of “Roma” has been meticulously groomed by Cuaron, whose letting us watch him blow a kiss to his native land as tears fall from his eyes.

Film Review: “The Favourite”

Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz
Directed By: Yorgos Lanthimos
Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

I’ve mentioned every time that I’ve had to review a period piece film, that I’m not the right person to critique it. Generally as a film critic, it’s a good rule of thumb to appreciate cinema in all its forms, genres and approaches. But that’s a little too idealistic. We all have that genre, actor, director, etc. that just don’t click with us and never will. That’s why I have to say that “The Favourite” has broken me of period piece films. It’s not that I’ve finally found one I like; it’s just that the film does such a good job of subverting what’s expected of the genre in a wildly amusing way. This is good news for those, like me, who don’t like the genre, but also those who eat it up and are looking for something fresh.

“The Favourite” takes place during a time where Britain is at war with France (when haven’t they been? amirite?) where a frail Queen Anne (Colman) appears more concerned about her gout flare ups than young British men dying on foreign soil. Sarah Churchill (Weisz) is her right hand woman, and secret lover, who generally handles all the matters of the Kingdom through whispers in Queen Anne’s ear. Trouble arrives in the form of Sarah’s younger cousin, Abigail Hill (Stone). While eager to work and toil in the belly of the castle, Abigail shows cunning and treachery that could spoil Sarah’s seat at Queen Anne’s side.

“The Favourite” is the kind of film that understands the tropes of the genre so much, that it employs them in a mocking fashion that also moves the story along. There’s certain elegance to the film’s crass humor. Maybe it’s because men in whigs and women in dresses are the one’s slinging four letter words along with the mud. They curtsy through insults and stab each other in the back with such kindness; you can’t help but laugh at their acts of sheer folly. The humor, while prevalent throughout, quickly grows dark as the stakes get increasingly dramatic.

There is a lot of high intrigue between the triad of woman. None of them seem to know what the other is up to, but in moments of vain anger and sheer depravity, they seem to understand what each other are up to. It’s almost like Queen Anne understands the sheer depravity of what the two women underneath her are doing because she’s getting off on it. Meanwhile, the women underneath Queen Anne understand what’s at stake if they don’t put their claws away and know that whoever blinks first will ultimately lose a seat at the Royal table.

There’s some adjacent storylines, but they’re just not as enthralling as the cat fight unfolding on screen. That’s thanks to some rich performances by the three leading ladies involved, who manage to create characters that can be easily hated and loved, all in the same scene. It’s almost like each one is attempting to steal an acting award, just as their character is looking to steal the throne away. The acting and witty script combine for highly amusing put downs and treachery. “The Favourite” is savage, nasty and cleverly funny.

Film Review: “Widows”

Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki
Directed By: Steve McQueen
Rated: R
Running Time: 129 minutes
20th Century Fox

“Widows” begins with Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his partners in crime meeting a quick, fiery end, before we even really get to know any of them. But we quickly learn that the ripples from their deaths have major implications on a bitter election campaign in one of Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods, along with millions in dirty money that needs to be repaid. Unfortunately caught up in all this, is three grieving widows. Veronica (Davis), Rawlings’ widow, decides to use a notebook left behind by her late husband, detailing his next planned heist, to prevent herself from being another victim.

“Widows” is the kind of movie we’ve seen before. Any number of political thrillers, revenge, or crime and heist movies come to mind. But what makes “Widows” unique is how much it subverts tropes or incorporates them into themes that touch upon racism, police brutality, class warfare, gender politics, and more. Sometimes the themes are heavy, layered on thick so that a general audience can understand. Other times they’re casually sprinkled in, only coming through the film’s visual aesthetics or the director’s incorporated camera techniques.

The blueprint for “Widows” could have easily been used to craft a well-made summertime popcorn flick that would have delighted the masses. “Widows” will still delight those masses, but it’s nourishing because of the sustenance it finds in the script and it’s performances. When the film could have easily told the audience what’s happening, it shows it. And when the actors could have easily read through plot points and pertinent topics, they etch everything we need to know on their faces and through their actions.

Davis, who should seriously be on everyone’s radar in Hollywood by now, channels a primal feminine rage about the destruction left behind by the men in her life, whether it be personal or circumstantial. Rodriguez and Debicki, playing the other two widows brought in for the all-female heist, feed off of Davis’ energy. Even in scenes where Davis’ is paired alongside any of her male cohorts, she seems to tower above them in terms of dramatic acting chops.

There is no small role in “Widows” as the likes of Colin Farrell, Jacki Weaver, Matt Walsh, and others provide another layer for viewers to peel back. The nuances of every role in this film beef up the main players, but also supply much life to an already bleak backdrop. Steve McQueen has entered the mainstream with a stellar ensemble crime heist film that interjects weighty thematic material that’s easily digestible and relevant. “Widows” is one of the must-see films of the years, for general audiences and cinephiles.

Film Review: “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”

Starring the Voice of: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones and Kenan Thompson
Directed By: Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
Rated: PG
Running Time: 90 minutes
Universal Pictures

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” is a moderately safe viewing experience for children. I say this because the past several films churned out by Illumination have been less than stellar with questionable ethics, and they were more about selling toys than they were about telling a genuine story. Illumination has managed to create a crowd pleaser for kids new to the story. But while its super sugary goodness may satisfy kids, it’ll certainly give their parents a toothache.

“The Grinch” is fairly similar to the book and the television special that followed, give or take a few creative liberties that are equally distracting or amusing. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the furry green creature that loathes Christmas, and honestly does a spectacular job. He’s likeable, yet cruel, as well as casually dorky, yet firm with his voice. The rest of the voice talent, Kenan Thompson, Rashida Jones, and others, feel like they were only given a few hours to rehearse and read their lines.

When taking into account, the films based on Dr. Seuss’ work, “The Grinch” stands firmly near at the top by default. It’s not gross and obnoxious like the live-action “Cat in the Hat” or a complete misfire like “The Lorax,” another Illumination film. It’s possible the studio learned from those mistakes, catering towards fans of the original work while making sure they didn’t make it to obnoxiously modern with pop-culture references.

The criticisms of commercialism aren’t lost on the 2018 update on Dr. Seuss’ classic tale. “The Grinch” spends several moments touching upon how the title character is transfixed on the buying, receiving and gluttony of the holidays. It’s the viewpoint of a curmudgeon who’s spent his life loathing a holiday that’s beloved by all. You probably know the story by now about how the cynic softens and how his heart grows multiple sizes by the tales end. It’s hard to take that message at face value when Illumination’s only reason for retelling this tale is for financial reasons.

There are several attempts by the creative team to inject some original, unique ideas into the timeless tale, but only one seems to actually stick. The idea that the Grinch is an orphan, whose deep-seated dislike for Christmas stems from his parentless childhood and the PTSD that follows helps bring everything around in a more complete circle. Other subplots brought in to help the movie don’t resonate at all, like a group of kids in town plan on capturing Santa or Cindy Lou Who’s mom who’s in desperate need of some R&R.

Just like Ron Howard’s film in 2000, this film doesn’t hold a candle to the 1966 television classic. But with television sliding to the wayside with the rising of streaming services, “The Grinch” actually has a legitimate shot at replacing that hand drawn classic. “The Grinch” is bright, flashy and silly; a perfect combination for young children who’ve had their parents read them the Dr. Seuss’ book throughout their young life during the holidays. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of comment that could get a critic crucified in the domain of public opinion, but anytime Dr. Seuss’ works are adapted for TV or screen, it’s a cash grab regardless of how good and wholesome the final product is.

Film Review: “Mid90s”

Starring: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston
Directed By: Jonah Hill
Rated: R
Running Time: 84 minutes
A24

I’m not sure who this movie is for. Sometimes coming-of-age films ring true for everyone because it speaks specifically to those who lived the generation it represents and still manages to slip in some universal truths. “Mid90s” seems specifically niche: stoner skateboarders who grew up on “Ren and Stimpy” cartoons and played NES video games. It’s not necessarily a bad thing because the film manages to stretch outside those confines, painting a broad picture of children who’ve come from single parent homes or troubled living conditions. You just have to squint a little hard to see it.

The film focuses on 13-year-old Stevie (Suljic), who actually looks a lot more like he’s 10. He seems to take daily beatings from his older brother, Ian (Hedges), who’s just turned 18. Their single mother, Dabney (Waterston), loves them unconditionally, but seems to have taken a hands-off approach during their pubescent years. Ian and Dabney become background noise in Stevie’s life when he’s accepted into a group of rebellious young boys hanging out at a skateboard shop. This misanthropic brotherhood doesn’t seem to have much in common, but the glue that binds them is their status as outcasts at home, school and in life. The alpha dog of the group, Ray (Na-Kel Smith), also manages to keep them all in line, even when they’re at each other’s throats.

“Mid90s” is the kind of movie “Lords of Dogtown” wishes it was, even though the target audience might fight me on that unpopular opinion. “Mid90s” prevents itself from being overly dramatic and unrealistic thanks to Hill’s raw script which highlights the politically incorrect vernacular of the time while unflinching capturing troubled youth in Los Angeles. However, there are a lot of gaping flaws in how everything is presented. The comedy sprinkled throughout sometimes works, but also undercuts the seriousness of several situations. It also may not be funny for those uncomfortable with how carefree some slurs were used by teens in the 90s. There’s also one scene in particular that quickly goes from uncomfortable to borderline exploitive.

There are flashes of creativity with Hill’s directorial debut, but too often he limits his characters and the stories they have to tell. There’s an inventive subtleness to what Hill reveals about Stevie and his crew, but too often we’re left with more questions than answers. The scope is so narrow that the average moviegoer may find “Mid90s” to be too brash and at times, a bit derivative. But underneath its crass nature, are good-intentions and a unique perspective on growing up that we’ve rarely seen.

Film Review: “Night School”

Starring: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish and Rob Riggle
Directed By: Malcolm D. Lee
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Universal Pictures

It’s difficult to digest a new Kevin Hart movie without first re-evaluating where one currently stands on the stand-up comedian turned actor. My opinion on him was actually quite positive after last year. His trademark high-pitch scream and short stature served the “Jumanji” sequel/reboot well and my prior frustrations with him melted away in “Captain Underpants.” But Hart is back to his old uninteresting shenanigans in “Night School.”

Teddy (Hart) believes he needs one thing to keep his life on track, a GED. The recently engaged man has lost his BBQ grill sales job and is hard-pressed to get an ideal replacement gig because he never completed high school. His fiancée, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke), is oblivious to the fact that Teddy is a high school drop out because he’s a decent liar. Despite their years of dating, he’s managed to convince her that he’s successful, and not drowning in debt or uneducated. However she did always know he sold grills for a living.

So to keep up this charade, he gets a minimum wage job, takes the bus daily after wrecking his car, and begins to attend night school. These are all things he doesn’t tell Lisa, despite their recent engagement and step forward in their relationship. Even when she does begin to suspect something is amiss; Teddy unflinchingly goes along with her suspicion that he’s getting cold feet about their marriage. If it seems like I’m focusing too much on Teddy, that’s because this movie focuses way too much on him and his night school cohorts.

It’s a really unfortunate fact, especially consider that the other star of this film is Tiffany Haddish, who plays Teddy’s night school teacher, Carrie. Haddish, who burst into the mainstream last year with “Girl’s Trip,” has some solid quips and one liners, but is relatively declawed in this film. Carrie also represents a strong female personality that fits well into the film’s mold about overcoming adversity, but there are a lot of scenes where Carrie’s persona and approach leaves a lot to be desired.

I actually wanted to like “Night School.” It began on a solid promise that Hart, Haddish, and the surrounding cast could unearth some unexpected comedy gold. There are chuckles to be had, but not enough, mainly due to the fact that “Night School” is stretched thin by its runtime and lack of comedic imagination. Even with two comedians that have more than proven to be a comedic force behind the mic and on-screen, “Night School” gets a failing grade.

Film Review: “The House with a Clock in its Walls”

Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro
Directed By: Eli Roth
Rated: PG
Running Time: 104 minutes
Universal Pictures

Did Eli Roth finally direct a decent movie? I kid. But I do wonder how much of his childhood is on screen. I begrudgingly wonder if what makes “The House with a Clock in its Walls” work has a little something to do with the crass director of “Cabin Fever” and “Green Inferno.” However, I’m more likely to praise Black’s infectious energy, Blanchett’s subdued charisma, and the writer of the hit TV show “Supernatural,” Eric Kripke. S

The movie does a fine job establishing Lewis (Vaccaro) and the crummy situation he’s been put in. The 10-year-old boy has uprooted his life after the death of both of his parents. He moves into his uncle’s otherworldly home in New Zebedee, Michigan. Uncle Jonathan (Black) hasn’t connected or talked to his nephew in years, if at all. The unlikely duo are often visited by Jonathan’s lifelong friend and neighbor, Florence (Blanchett). Lewis is an astute lad, and quickly picks up on the fact that Jonathan and Florence aren’t all they seem; Jonathan is a warlock and Florence is a witch (a good one).

I walked into “The House with a Clock in its Walls” having the most basic understanding of what I was in for. I read the book it’s based on in elementary school. The memory of it is so hazy, I can’t quite remember what grade it was or even the nuts and bolts of the book. I do remember our teacher used it as an excuse to bake the cookies that are frequently seen throughout the story. Even with just the faintest of knowledge of what Jonathan and Florence were all about, I still found myself caught up in the film’s gothic tapestry and wizarding hijinks.

Jonathan’s home is a character in and of itself. The stain glass windows change frequently to drop messages or hints to characters in the home, the furniture and lawn decorations act like household pets, eerie clocks and sinister dolls are spread across the home like jump-scare landmines, and there’s an ominous noise at night that sounds like a doomsday clocking chiming to an unfortunate inevitability. The humans inside the house are delightfully quirky as well.

The film builds a lot of momentum, but constantly shoots itself in the foot with juvenile humor, that I can only hope wasn’t in the book it’s based on. Urine, vomit, and poop are not off limits for this film, which is unfortunate because the film itself displays a bit of intelligence that’s sure to put a smile on the faces of adults and kids alike. It really doesn’t need to cheapen itself by undermining its own wit. The film also mishandles the tone of the final act, which involves blood magic, demons and the apocalypse.

The film stays afloat thanks to its delightfully creepy scenery, that’s constantly being chewed on by Black and Blanchett. This is the kind of film that could be cherished by younger audiences for generations, and honestly if it sends a few kids to a library in search of the book, that’s always a bonus. The calendar says September, but “The House with a Clock in its Walls” brings Halloween early for those with a spooky bone in their body.

Film Review: Alpha

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Johannes Haukur Johanneson and Leonor Varela
Directed By: Albert Hughes
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Sony Pictures Releasing

Back in elementary school, my school would take classes on field trips to the Kansas City Zoo at least twice a year. On one of the occasions, instead of checking out the various animals dotting the grounds, we’d instead seek air conditioned or heated shelter to watch movies at the Sprint IMAX Theater. The film fare would usually be a nature documentary or some good-intentioned PG movie. If the Sprint IMAX Theater was still around, I could see “Alpha” being used as an excuse for a field trip.

Set 20,000 years ago in Europe, “Alpha” follows Keda (Smit-McPhee), who’s been left for dead by his tribesmen and father, after a bison hunting expedition. Accompany Keda on his journey back home is an unlikely ally, an injured wolf-dog that he nurses back to health. Pitched as the origins of man’s best friend, this movie is only mildly entertaining because of the elements the human and his four-legged friend encounter. Otherwise it’s a humdrum trip back in time.

According to various news outlets, “Alpha” has apparently been sitting on Sony’s film shelf for about a year, with the release date constantly being pushed back or up for various and unknown reasons. I suspect it has something to do with the film aiming for a vibe like that acclaimed “Quest for Fire” vibe, but instead coming off more like Roland Emmerich’s lazy “10,000 B.C.”

It makes noble attempts at visual storytelling, by having very little dialogue, and when primitive man does open its mouth, it’s gibberish that’s translated through on-screen captioning. It may have actually played better without, forcing audiences to immerse themselves further into the Ice Age experience. Instead the movie dumbs itself down a lot, and even throws in some coming-of-age storytelling tropes in for good measure.

“Alpha” could serve as a starting point for young ones interested in human history, but their parents may find themselves rolling their eyes or checking their phones. Director and writer Albert Hughes has a spotty history, but with “Alpha” has shown a little growth visually and narratively. I can’t help but think that ALPHA may have been a much better and nuanced film in someone else’s hands. There’s a lot of potential, but the finished product, while being polished and dazzling, feels like a mix of unnecessary studio meddling and dog-lover peddling.

Film Review: “The Darkest Minds”

Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore and Gwendoline Christie
Directed By: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 105 minutes
20th Century Fox

I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s another attempt by Hollywood to build another young adult dystopian franchise. Just seven months ago in January, “Maze Runner” was wrapping up a successful franchise that nearly hit the $1 billion mark worldwide. Enter “The Darkest Minds.”

Based on Alexandra Bracken’s books, “The Darkest Minds” is about a pandemic, called IAAN, which has wiped out 98% of people under 20-years-old, leaving behind a mutated 2%. This 2% is divided up by a color system, designating their mutated powers, with green being the safest and red being the most dangerous. Green means they’re highly intelligent, blue means they’re telekinetic, yellow means they can control electricity, orange means they can control the minds of those around them and red means they control fire. Someone should really flip orange and red in terms of danger.

Red and orange children are immediately murdered by the government once the scientists figure out their color code. Ruby (Stenberg) is an orange, but before they can off her, she uses her powers to convince the lab coat scientists she’s a green. So she’s shuffled in with the rest of what’s left of America’s youth to work camps, while our country figures out the cause and origins of IAAN. I haven’t even touched on Ruby’s parents, the time jumps, or President’s son who is also an orange. By the way, this all is thrown at the audience in the first few minutes so fast that you’d suffer whiplash trying to digest it all.

“The Darkest Minds” is a mix of “X-Men” and “Divergent.” I begrudgingly mention “X-Men” and this film in the same sentence. It’s a very by-the-books film that is only mildly amusing because of its main young actor. Stenberg, who’s actually better than her IMDB suggests, provides an emotional weight to Ruby, even when we’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on with the plot. I give points for the movie making Ruby sympathetic, brave and an endearing female lead, but also subtract points for the cliché beats her character goes through.

There are moments where I thought the film would distinguish itself amongst the pack by tying its dystopian themes to contemporary problems, something most studios seem to be afraid of doing because of today’s political climate. I can easily think of several things that could have been said when scared adults are attempting to control kids because of the power they’re about to wield. Or even the decaying world that older generations are leaving behind for future generations. But instead the writers rely on the tired tropes of being yourself and the generalization of “fight the good fight.”

I don’t want to pile on anymore to a movie that has somewhat good intentions and I’m sure is based on a decent book (I say decent because it has warranted five sequels). “The Darkest Minds” may have been better with love and care, or maybe if it came out during the “Harry Potter” films. It might please a younger audience that’s new to the genre, but for those of us who’ve seen these films come out every year since “The Hunger Games,” the air around these young adult films continues to stagnate.